For a brief moment Aragorn seemed not to react to the elf's warning, and Legolas tightened his grip on his friend's arm in confusion, wondering if the sudden statement had stunned the ranger into immobility. Then Aragorn tore free of his grasp and scrambled across the bed to the window. Legolas leapt to join him, dropping to his knees on the rumpled blankets. "The storm held them back for only a short time, but it serves us no longer," he whispered. "Now it has aided them. Their movements in the snow were but pale whispers of sound to me. I did not detect them soon enough." Legolas paused, reluctant to say what he must, but after a moment's uncomfortable hesitation he spoke again. "Aragorn, I do not have my bow. I lost it the night you were injured."
Aragorn swore softly but said no more. Legolas knew he was searching every inch of the clearing with his keen eyes, and the elf spun away and raced back to the storage room to make his own assessment of the far side of the cabin. Pressing his body against the wall, he slid soundlessly toward the window and crouched beneath it. Raising his hand, he brushed it lightly across the woven blanket that draped the window and pressed carefully against the fastened shutters to assure himself that it was well covered. The enemy would not have seen him, and the shutters were sturdily built to lock out both weather and intruders. Swallowing hard against the fear that had swelled in the wake of his initial shock, he focused his attention on what lay beyond the window, his fists clenched tightly on the handles of his knives.
At first there was nothing. All was silent but for the rapid beating of his heart, and he wondered for a moment if he had been mistaken. Then something came to his ears - the quiet shifting of weight from one leg to the other, a slowly release of breath, and his nape prickled as he backed quietly away and returned to the ranger. Aragorn had not moved, but the elf noticed that his breathing had quickened, and when he reached for his friend's arm he found it to be tensed and trembling. "At least one man is at the back window. He waits silently. If there are others I cannot tell. What do you see, Aragorn?"
"Shadows, and furtive movement among the trees. They have not yet entered the clearing. They believe we sleep."
"Fifteen. Perhaps twenty."
"Can we gain the barn? If we can get you to Rhosgernroch, I could hold the ground for you - "
"Without your bow?" Aragorn snapped, and the elf recoiled at the anger in the harshly spoken words. It put them at a serious disadvantage to be without his weapon, a grim fact they both fully understood, and though the forgetting of his bow was perhaps understandable given the terror of that dark night when he had thrown it down and rushed to the side of his injured friend, the loss might very well have just cost them their lives.
Legolas winced, burning with self-recrimination at his mistake, and turned away as he absorbed Aragorn's anger.
"No, we cannot gain the barn," the ranger continued in a calmer voice. "They would be on top of us ere we made it half the distance. And do not think for one minute that I will flee and leave you to face this alone."
The bed suddenly began to shake, and the ranger cursed again as Legolas heard the sound of cloth tearing. Aragorn spat something from his mouth. "What are you doing?" the elf demanded, though he was quite certain he knew what the answer would be.
"Taking these bandages off. Help me."
"Aragorn – "
Legolas grasped the ranger's hands and tore at the strips of cloth binding each finger, doing as his friend commanded. "You cannot fight," he whispered heatedly as he fumbled with a difficult knot.
"I have no choice. I must fight."
"No. I can kill the men at the back of the cottage. Then we can slip away and hide ourselves in the forest. If they have horses, perhaps we can get to them."
Aragorn yanked his hands free, and Legolas heard him pull back the window drape again. "It is too late! They have started across the clearing, and if I am any judge of men, they do not appear to be interested in negotiations. Give me one of your knives Legolas, for I cannot use the sword."
Legolas grasped Aragorn by the arm, helping him from the bed, and the ranger grabbed the proffered blade as they started toward the back room. He groaned as he stumbled alongside the elf, and Legolas shifted his body to take more of his friend's weight upon himself. Before they had gone more than a few faltering steps, however, a terrible thudding came from the storage room, and shouts rang out over the sound of wood being smashed and splintered. With a shocked gasp Legolas recoiled, dragging Aragorn with him, and together they hastened to the front door. Jerking it open, the elf struggled to pull the injured man outside as his thoughts raced. His greatest concern was that they must not be caught within the cabin. There was too little room to maneuver in a fight.
But no sooner had he opened the door than Aragorn flung his body against him and knocked him back against the threshold. "Arrow!" the ranger cried, and Legolas reacted instantly, wrapping his arms around Aragorn and dropping to the floor. The ranger landed on top of him with a pained gasp, and not a second later the elf heard the familiar thwack as a bolt struck the door and stuck there, quivering. Shouts from the direction of the clearing filled his ears as they scrambled back into the cabin and leaped to slam and bolt the door. Men continued to pound on the far window – they had yet to break through – and Legolas stood in shock and horror in the center of the room, tightly gripping Aragorn's arm. In just a matter of seconds their enemies would be upon them, and the elf had no idea how he would fight. For several moments the input of sounds was overwhelming – the shouts and the hammering mingled with Aragorn's panting breaths and the low growls of Tithlam crouched in some corner – until it seemed that he was facing all the black perils of the world in this one instant, and he knew not which way to turn. Bowing his head, he inhaled deeply, seeking to detach himself from the fear and confusion and find the discipline he knew he possessed when moments of danger were upon him.
Heavy blows against the door echoed everywhere as the attack began at the front of the cottage as well, and Tithlam yowled and hissed in fear. Legolas spared a moment to worry for her welfare as he readied himself, blade held firm, and he prayed she would find some way to escape.
He collided with the table, but scarcely felt the sharp pain as he turned, thinking to shove it against the portal to slow the men. Grasping the edges, his hands encountered the bucket, still nearly full from his filling it at the river earlier in the evening. He dipped his fingers into the cool water as his whirling thoughts latched on to the tenuous thread of an idea. Tightening his grip on the bucket, he spun toward the fireplace and dashed its contents onto the cracking flames. He flung the container aside as he dropped to his knees before the hearth and groped frantically for the iron. A loud sizzling and hissing filled his ears. "Help me to put it out!" he called to Aragorn over his shoulder.
"What-?" Aragorn stumbled forward and crouched beside him. "Why?"
"Take away the light," the elf stated as he handed the poker to the ranger and rushed to upend the table and shove it against the door. He braced against it for a moment, feeling the vibrating shock of the blows from outside. "Make them fight us in the dark."
"I will be fighting in the dark too, Legolas," Aragorn growled, but the elf heard him stir the sputtering coals, and a moment later he spoke again. "But I know the layout of the cabin. They do not."
"Exactly," Legolas stated. "And what does the dark matter to me?" Pulling his cloak from the chair, Legolas quickly donned it and yanked the hood over his head. He reached down and helped the ranger to his feet, and they hastened to the back room once more, where it seemed to them that fewer men were striving to break in. That Aragorn was limping badly and in pain was obvious to the elf, and Legolas quickly pressed him against the wall. "You must let me know where you are at all times," he whispered. "And stay clear of my blade. I will strike at anything that comes near me."
"I will try," Aragorn muttered tensely. Legolas reached and pulled him close. He felt a hand rest lightly on his shoulder – the only way the ranger could return the gesture – and they pressed their foreheads together. As the shouts and hammering grew louder they remained locked in the embrace, drawing strength and comfort from each other in the final seconds before their quiet world was shattered.
"Are you afraid, Legolas?" Aragorn asked quietly.
There was no time for false bravado or impressive stoicism, nor had there ever been need for such trivialities in their relationship. Legolas drew in a long steadying breath as another blow shook the cabin to its foundations. "Yes."
"No less than I, mellon-nin. I cannot defend you," the ranger said, and his voice was heavy with sorrow.
"Then we will defend each other until they strike us down," Legolas murmured. As he pulled away and took up his position beside the window, he flashed an anxious smile at his longtime companion. "If you produce your usual amount of shouts and grunts, Aragorn, I will have no trouble keeping track of your whereabouts. You are the noisiest fighter I have ever known."
* * * * *
They came in a rush from both sides of the cabin, and Aragorn scarcely had time to jump forward and bring his knife down upon a shadowy figure that had leapt through the splintered shutters before another attacker plunged against him from behind and swept at him with a club. He evaded the blow, but for a glancing strike that skipped along his ribcage, and scrambled back against the wall. He gripped the elven blade tightly in his burning hand as a wavering light bobbed eerily from the front room, casting massive writhing shadows over the darkened walls of the smaller room where he struggled against his foes. Someone had carried a torch into the cabin, and a desperate glance at the numbers arrayed against him and the elf froze his heart. It was not a terribly great crowd of men, perhaps fifteen in all, but in the confined space of the old healer's workplace he found himself pressed against the shelves, warding off blows from fists coming at him from all directions.
In the first wave of the attack he had glimpsed the hooded figure of Legolas near the window, the glint of his knife flashing as he laid about him with furious strokes, and the surprised cries of injured men had filled the small room. One or two had fallen at the elf's feet, but more had come in through the window, and in the press and confusion he had been driven from Aragorn's side and into the other room. Struggling to rejoin his friend, Aragorn plunged against the men surrounding him, hacking at the warriors with the silver blade, driving for their throats and their eyes. He could see no swords in the hands of his assailants, which surprised him, but of fists there were many, and he found himself slowly folding under the onslaught, so weakened was he by his recent illness and injuries.
A man with light-colored hair pinned him against the corner and made to seize him by the throat. As Aragorn locked eyes with him the fellow grinned, his face in the wavering shadows twisted with anger and hatred. "Give it up," he hissed as Aragorn writhed free of his grasp and struck his hand away. Shoving hard, the ranger knocked his attacker back, and the man tripped over the body of one of his fallen comrades and tumbled to the floor with a shout. An opening was created as the warriors jumped aside, and Aragorn bolted through it, striking right and left with his weapon as he leaped past them and fought to reach the other room. He came down hard on his bad foot and could not withhold a howl of pain as his ankle buckled and he nearly fell. Arms flailing, he twisted and grasped at the shelves that held the healing herbs and dragged himself up, but his tenuous grasp on Legolas' knife failed, and he gasped in dismay as the flashing blade spiraled through the air and landed in the middle of the room, far beyond his reach. Already the men were coming at him, and his eyes darted frantically over the shelves in hope of finding something he could use to hold them back. The shelves shuddered as he pulled against them, tilting away from the wall, and Aragorn renewed his grip, braced himself, and heaved. The structure swayed briefly like a tree caught in a gale, and toppled. Flinging himself across the threshold as the many jars and pots rained down upon his enemies, Aragorn heard their curses change to cries of alarm as the containers were followed by the heavy shelves themselves.
The structure smashed against the doorway and broke apart into large jagged fragments. The threshold was effectively blocked, for a time at least, and Aragorn spun away and pressed himself into the darkness of the corner as he searched for the embattled elf, lost somewhere in the leap of shadow and flaring torchlight. A group of men was engaged in a struggle before the hearth, and so engrossed were they that the commotion made by the falling of the shelves had not caused any of them to turn. In the midst of the flailing arms and legs Aragorn caught sight of a pale blur of motion, and a long-fingered hand shot out. The elegant elven blade flashed, and a soldier screamed and stumbled back, his hands pressed together in a futile effort to contain a belly laid wide open. Legolas came fully into view through a gap then, teeth bared, fighting wildly with blade and fist and foot alike.
Eyes blazing, he lashed out against his attackers, and if his usual accuracy was wanting, the elf more than made up for it with his astonishing speed as he struck three or four blows in the time it took his enemies to deliver one. The black-clad warriors moved against him warily, their faces set and determined, but their eyes were wide as they watched the elf hold his ground against numbers that would have long since driven an ordinary man to his knees. His assailants had not drawn their swords, but instead seemed intent on subduing him with their fists, and they pressed about him so closely that the elf had little opportunity to move his arm freely and make use of his weapon. Several men held ropes, and they grabbed and clutched at Legolas as he struggled against them. Cries of "bring him down!" mingled with "he fights like a demon!" echoed round the small room, and Aragorn saw that in the frenzy of fighting and the confusion of flickering flame, none of Legolas' attackers had appeared to realize that he was blind.
As the elf lunged forward, seeking to break his way past the men enveloping him, a roar of anger rose from the throats of his attackers. They grabbed at him, their fingers closing on his arms and hair and dragging him into their midst once more, and Aragorn heard him cry out.
"He bleeds! That should tell you something!" someone shouted.
Clinging to the dark corner, Aragorn quickly wrapped his throbbing hands around the pommel of the orc blade he kept there. Before him one man stood alone, keeping well away from the fray as he held the torch high to aid his companions. The ranger detached himself from the shadows and struck, the sword slicing deeply into the throat of the torch-bearer. The flame was a small thing clinging to nothing more than a knotted rag at the end of a stick, and as the man slumped to the floor with a wordless gurgle Aragorn caught it up and doused it in the water bowl Legolas kept for his cat.
The room instantly went dark, but for a lighter shade of grey that fell across the broken threshold from the moonlit sky, and the black bulk of the fighting men broke apart into individual shapes as cries of confusion went up. "What happened?"
"Where is the light?"
"Catch hold of him - he slips free!"
Wasting no time in taking advantage of the disorder, the elf tore loose and made for the door. Aragorn, hobbling as quickly as he could and keeping to the wall, despaired of overtaking him, but when Legolas reached the threshold he halted abruptly, clinging to the broken frame with an expression of anguish twisting his fair features. As Aragorn stumbled closer the elf dropped into a defensive crouch, but the ranger whispered to him, and Legolas sagged against the door with soft cry of relief. He was breathing hard, and blood had trickled down his face from a cut on his temple to spread in a thin red ribbon over the curve of his jaw. A rope was knotted around his left wrist, and he angrily yanked it off and threw it aside.
"Thank the Valar," he gasped. "I did not know how to find you. I feared you were slain." Tightly gripping the ranger by the arm Legolas pulled him outside, stumbling over the wreckage and kicking it aside in his haste. "Come, Aragorn! Let us try to lose ourselves in the forest."
Ere he and the elf had taken ten painful steps through the snow, Aragorn knew that their fight had ended. Shouts sounded behind them as the men sorted themselves out and poured from the cabin in angry pursuit, and as he stumbled and staggered through the deep snow, gasping as hot spikes of pain shot through his foot, Aragorn saw more shadowy figures detach themselves from the woods and the darkness of the barn – fresh soldiers who had not yet exerted themselves in the fight. He halted abruptly, cursing under his breath, and Legolas stopped with him, his blue eyes wide. The elf instantly pivoted to place himself against the ranger's back. "How many?" he asked over his shoulder, his voice low and breathless.
"More than enough to finish what they came for," Aragorn murmured, his heart sinking at the sight of so many. "I have the orc-blade, but my hands cannot grip it much longer."
Swords were withdrawn, and he felt the elf stiffen as the cold rasp of metal tore the still night air. The men had grown silent, and they moved slowly now from the cabin and from the woods to encircle the two companions. Aragorn faced them squarely, and anger glittered in his eyes as he moved his gaze from one man to the next. They were black-clad, with the air of seasoned fighters, and in their faces he saw nothing that gave him hope that he and the elf would meet with any sympathy or understanding. But he saw no other option now, and so he thought he would try. Fixing his eyes on the man standing directly before him, he drew a deep breath. "Why have you come here?" he demanded.
* * * * *
Words were being exchanged, but the elf paid them little heed, for their meaning would only distract him. He focused on the brief conversation only enough to discern that the intent of the attackers remained hostile, and that Aragorn, speaking in a voice angry but controlled, was not succeeding in his attempts to communicate with them. Thus Legolas maintained his fighting stance at Aragorn's back, his fine blade held lightly in his hand, and he kept his head lowered as he brought all of his attention to bear on the men who had encircled them.
He realized instantly that there were too many. Those who ringed him and the ranger were backed by more behind. Even were he sighted and Aragorn uninjured, they would have been hard pressed to stand against such numbers. As it was, he felt Aragorn's balance shift slightly against his back as he struggled to stand on his bad foot, and he felt an almost imperceptible tremble run through his friend's tall frame. This would not be the result of fear, but of sheer fatigue and stress brought on by the pain of his injuries and the lingering weakness of fever. Legolas knew that Aragorn had come near the end of his ability to fight. But he himself had not, though his bitten shoulder had begun to ache and his own hands stung with a sharper pain, and he would not willingly give the men their victory. He felt a quick flash of fear for Aragorn's well-being but quickly controlled it, pulling free of his emotions as he emptied his thoughts, allowing only his senses and his instincts to fill him.
Through the soft sighing of the southern breeze he blocked out the conversation and listened to the sounds that rode on the air around him, concentrating on separating them into individual men. To his right was a soldier who took sharp quick breaths, and his steps were light as he shifted back and forth as if unable to keep still. He is small and fast, the elf thought, but he is afraid. The next man, poised directly in front of Legolas, was also shifting and moving restlessly, but he exuded no fear. Legolas raised his head and flicked his knife toward him, and the soldier reacted, cutting the air with his own weapon in a downward whoosh. The elf offered a flourish of his own, mockingly, and he heard the man utter a vulgar exclamation, crowning it with a snarled remark about elves. Tall, left-handed, likes to slice. He cannot control his temper. A third soldier, to the elf's left, was quiet and contained, and more difficult to assess. The elf twitched the tip of his blade at him, and the fellow took one step to the side, growled low in his throat, and settled again. A solid fighter, not easily spooked, but he is heavy. He will not move well, and the snow will hinder him.
Legolas did not continue his assessment beyond these three. More men completed the circle on Aragorn's side, and others had held back. They would rush in once the fighting began, and the elf would simply have to deal with them as they came. He turned on the nervous man again and turned his blade in his direction. The fellow took a hasty step back, and the elf smiled. He continued to face this one, bringing his balance to the balls of his feet and pointing his weapon, but he kept his focus on the high-tempered soldier as the brief exchange between Aragorn and their attackers came to an end. He heard a curt demand – a final ultimatum – followed by a cold refusal from the ranger. The press of Aragorn's back against his own suddenly vanished as he shouted and lunged at the men. Legolas leaped forward at the same moment, directly toward the frightened soldier, and as the fellow retreated, floundering through the snow with a surprised yell, the elf veered abruptly to his left and charged at the man he knew he must take down first. As Legolas rushed toward the hate-filled soldier, his fleet steps scarcely brushing the snow, he heard a sharp startled intake of breath, and the man's steps faltered. Ducking as the sword whistled somewhere near his head, the elf lashed out with his blade as he sped past. Rewarded with a solid strike - probably to the man's leg - and a howl of pain and anger, Legolas spun round. Dropping into a crouch, he readied himself for the next clash.
"Sheath your blade, fool! The elf is not to be harmed, yet you nearly took his head off!" a furious voice snarled.
Legolas frowned. The heavy man… but what does he say?
The man he had injured was staggering about and cursing loudly, but he held himself back. He would walk only with difficulty now.
"Best stop now, Elf. You cannot defeat all of us," the big soldier said in a silky whisper as he closed the distance between them.
Legolas straightened and stood quietly, his head lowered, listening as soft footsteps surrounded him once more. Several yards off he heard the embattled ranger, and each clash of metal wrung a pained gasp from Aragorn's lips. Body tensed but held absolutely still, the elf pointed his knife downward and spread his hands apart.
"Good. Perhaps your kind has some sense after all. Drop your weapon."
Legolas stooped slightly and allowed the elven blade to slip from his fingers. The handle landed on his right boot and slid into the snow.
"Move away from it."
Two steps back and the elf halted. He did not raise his head, but he did his hands when the command was given. Taking another step away from his knife he sighed deeply and audibly, as one who has been forced to admit defeat, and allowed his proud shoulders to slump. He heard their breathing relax, and they moved closer to him. One of them laughed, and Legolas smiled grimly under the curtain of hair that hid his features and began counting.
A sword slid into its sheath, and the heavy man stepped behind him to clamp a hard grip upon his shoulder. His other hand fastened around the elf's right arm.
The small man, moving in his quick way, still fearful, stepped toward the dropped knife.
The injured man, breathing hard and limping, approached him from the left. Legolas concentrated on his footsteps, and the position he took beside him as he whispered something offensive into his ear. He began to tighten a rope around Legolas' wrist.
Wrenching himself free of the big fellow's grip, the elf drove his shoulder into him and sent him sprawling to the ground. A hard jerk on the wrist tether dragged Legolas back, but instead of resisting he propelled himself toward the one holding the rope, grappled with him, and slammed his fist into his injured leg. As the man stumbled to the side with a loud cry Legolas spun and flung himself toward his knife. Landing on his belly in the snow he threw his hand out, his fingers stretching and groping until they closed upon the hilt, cold and familiar in his grip. Springing to his feet, he slashed at the smallest of his assailants, who had – as Legolas had hoped - begun retreating the instant the elf had attacked the first man. The sharp blade ripped through leather, fabric and flesh, and an ear-spitting wail pierced the still night air. Behind him the harsh rasp of a blade being yanked free of its sheath was audible through the screams. The elf turned and readied himself as with a shout of rage the one with the wounded leg - he knew their voices now - rushed forward, his erratic steps churning the snow. Left-handed Legolas reminded himself, and as the sharp whistle of a blade sliced the air from high to low the elf dodged and struck out with all the strength of his arm. The elven knife sank deeply into the soldier's side through the ribs. With a gasp the man's knees buckled. Legolas twisted the blade, felt the death-shudder run through the body, and pulled away.
He rounded on his third attacker and started for him at a dead run. The heavy soldier had clambered to his feet again, breathing hard and cursing as he struggled to put distance between himself and the elf. His hands fumbled and clawed at his sword as he backpedaled, but Legolas slammed directly into him, giving him no chance to free his blade, and together they fell in a whirling mass of fists and legs and churning snow.
The elf managed to get the man onto his back and jumped on him, driving his knee into his chest to hold him, but a huge fist plowed into his ribs with all the force of a hammer and he was nearly flung aside. The enraged soldier fought hard, heaving and punching, and Legolas grappled with him, fighting furiously to remain on top. He struck out with his own clenched fist and connected strongly with the man's face. Grasping a fistful of hair and setting his blood-soaked blade against his enemy's throat, he flung his head back as rushing footsteps drew near. "Stay back or I will end his life!" he shouted.
The soldiers halted, skidding and floundering in the snow, cursing in low voices. Nearby, the man Legolas had stabbed was whimpering, his cries half-strangled and gurgling as the blood welled in his throat. Further away, almost to the cottage it seemed, Aragorn fought on. Legolas tightened his grip and pressed the sharp edge of his knife firmly into the thick neck. "The elf is not to be harmed?" he hissed through clenched teeth. "Tell me why you have come here and attacked us with no reason."
The man spat in his face. "Devil spawn," he snarled. "Cast your glowing eyes upon me, I shall not flinch! You do not frighten me. What purpose had you in murdering the old man and settling so close to our city?"
The words startled Legolas. The circle of men around him muttered and shifted, and he felt gazes of hatred burning into his back. What had these men been told, and who had done the telling? Unbidden, the memory of a voice he had known came to him, low and firm and friendly, though he had not heard it for many weeks. The elf's eyes shuttered closed. Please, do not let me learn that Alun has betrayed us.
As he drew breath to make some sort of response a loud cry pierced his ears, agonized and breathless, and a body thudded to the floor of the porch. A cold rush of fear broke over the elf at the sound, and he leaped to his feet. "Aragorn!" he cried.
Struggling to force his way past the knot of men closed about him, he swept the blade in a wide arc and lunged forward, but as he broke past them his right arm was seized and he was jerked around. Snarling in rage, Legolas struggled to free himself when a tremendous blow across his shoulders sent him stumbling forward with a cry. His arm jerked out numbly, the knife flying from his fingers. Fighting to keep his footing on the slippery ground, another violent impact across his back drove the breath from his body. His dark world exploded in pain. Reeling, he fell into the arms of the men, and they had him on the ground in an instant. Hands fisted into his hair as his arms were yanked behind his back. The rope was drawn tight over his wrists and his head was pushed down. Desperate for air, the elf writhed and kicked, fighting to lift his face or turn it somehow as the snow filled his mouth and nostrils. As more hands came to pin him down he tried to cry out that he could not breathe, but his voice was strangled in his throat. The blood pounded painfully in his head, and awareness slowly slid from him he went limp in the arms of his enemies.
* * * * *
With a low groan Aragorn drew himself up to a sitting position and rested his head on his knees. His hands were bound tightly behind his back and his ankles were secured as well, but whatever feelings of rage and humiliation this might have caused were he uninjured made little impression upon him now. He bit his lip and squeezed his eyes shut, begging time to take the burning of his hands and the throbbing of his foot from him. Let these next moments pass swiftly, let him simply endure until the agony eased a little, and then he would make an attempt to assess his new situation and find out what had happened to Legolas.
After dragging him from the porch and dumping him before the garden gate, his captors had left him with two guards. The rest of the men had moved off and gathered before the cottage, speaking in low voices, and a few had entered the dwelling. The injured soldiers were helped outside, but three had to be carried, and when they had been laid in the snow they did not move.
In the heat of the fighting Aragorn had surprised himself, swinging the unwieldy blade furiously and holding his ground well enough for a time against the men who had pressed him. Legolas had been occupied with three assailants of his own, and the ranger had caught brief glimpses of the elf as he had attacked the one whom Aragorn had judged would be the most trouble, and again as he had subdued a big man and thrust his blade against his jugular, his blind eyes glittering with rage in the flare of bobbing torchlight. Another man lay on the ground near the elf, his weak cries dying in his throat. For an instant Aragorn rejoiced, amazed at the self-possession and skill his friend had demonstrated as he had triumphed over his attackers, but he knew the victory was only a small one that ultimately must give way to defeat. The men of the city were too many. Aragorn could see them, circling around Legolas like wolves, and he knew the elf was as aware of their numbers as he.
The skin of his hands had broken open as he fought, weeping droplets of blood onto the trampled snow. This the soldiers noticed, and the force of their sword strikes had increased until the ranger had nearly howled with each parry and attack. That he was hobbled by his injured ankle had also become obvious to the men as they fought him; their eyes strayed often to his bruised and swollen foot, and they worked together to make him step upon it more often as they changed their tactics and began coming at him from different directions. Finally someone had broken through the flashing ring of defense he had established with the orc sword and lashed a hard kick directly against his ankle, and Aragorn had been unable to hold back a scream of agony. He had stumbled onto the steps of the porch and gone to his knees, sickened by the pain, and the men had fallen upon him.
The elf had called out his name, and Aragorn had managed to turn his head as his foes had thrown him down and begun to bind him. Legolas was on his feet and fighting to reach him, his face a frightened oval in the darkness. Cursing himself for crying out and distracting his friend, Aragorn made ready to shout to the elf to flee. Legolas was fleet of foot and knew the nearby woods; there was still a chance that he could escape. But the words died on his lips an instant later as the big man whom Legolas had taken down loomed up behind the struggling elf, brandished a great club gripped in both hands, and swung. The blow struck Legolas full across the shoulders, and Aragorn had cried out in horror as the force of the impact sounded in his own ears.
He renewed his attempts to free himself as a second violent strike sent the elf stumbling into the arms of his attackers, but a fist had slammed into his face and effectively stopped his struggles. As another savage kick was directed at his foot concern for his friend was swept from him. Blinded by pain, Aragorn had clung to consciousness by the narrowest of threads as they had secured him and dragged him from the porch, and it had been some moments before he gradually became aware of his surroundings once more and had been able to sit up, spitting blood from his mouth.
Footsteps plodded closer, heavy and shuffling through the drifts, dragging something near. He raised his head, straining to clear the mist from his eyes as the limp figure of the elf, bound hand and foot, was thrown down beside him. Squinting in the darkness, the ranger gasped in relief as he saw Legolas wince. He was alive, and conscious.
With a glance at the guards, who leaned comfortably against the garden fence and stared back at him with impassive faces, Aragorn dragged himself to the elf. "Legolas, can you hear me?" he whispered in the Sindarin tongue, but his friend did not respond. "Legolas, answer!"
A shudder ran through the elf's lean body as he turned his face toward Aragorn. Coughing as he struggled to raise his head, his lids fluttered open. "Aragorn… I am sorry…" he murmured at length, responding in his own language as well. Setting his cheek against the snow again, he closed his eyes.
Aragorn stared at his friend in alarm. Legolas' face was terribly pale, and his normally clear eyes had appeared clouded. Had he suffered a blow to the head? "Your words make no sense. For what do you apologise?"
The elf's dark brows knotted. "My bow. If I had not lost it…"
Looking sorrowfully at his friend, Aragorn saw that Legolas had opened his eyes again, and they were dark and filled with anguish. The ranger sighed and bowed his head. "No, Legolas. It is I who should beg forgiveness from you," he said. "It was wrong of me to react as I did to your words. You fought well enough without it. You fought well enough."
"Only as well as I could," Legolas responded in a hoarse whisper. "It was not enough." Gritting his teeth, he attempted to twist his wrists in their bindings, and his long fingers began picking over the ropes, searching. But their captors knew what they had been about when they had tied their hands, and the knots had been placed in spots that could not be reached and undone, even by one with such dexterous fingers as Legolas. After a few minutes the elf ceased his efforts. He rested a moment, pressing his brow into the snow and breathing deeply, and then he began squirming. A moment later he had struggled half onto his side, but even that small battle seemed to drain his energy from him, and he slumped to the ground again and lay quietly.
Looking him over anxiously, Aragorn noted his labored breaths and the trembling of his shoulders. "Legolas, how badly have they hurt you? I saw that big fellow come down on you with his great cudgel."
"Is that what it was?" the elf asked with a flicker of a smile. "I thought it was a tree."
"It was about as big as one," Aragorn stated. "And I expect it felt like one as well. I feared he had killed you."
"He might have, had he struck my head. As it was, he hit my upper back. But it is all connected," the elf added in a tense voice as he raised his head slightly and lowered it again. "Head and neck and back. I think… I think it probably was not a good thing to be struck so. I feel… odd. Dizzy. But they came close to suffocating me as well for a few moments back there, so perhaps that is adding to it. I expect it will pass in time."
"Bring your eyes to mine, if you can," the ranger commanded. He struggled closer and peered into the elf's dazed orbs. They reflected his shock and pain, but the night and their situation made a proper assessment difficult. Aragorn shook his head in frustration. "The moon has lowered. It is dark and I cannot see well. You might be concussed."
"If I am so," the elf sighed, "I am certain my attacker did not intend it. He said something during the struggle; that I was to be taken, not killed. He knew about me, Aragorn. And he accused us of killing the old man."
Alarmed by Legolas' words, the ranger glanced quickly at their guards. Though they had watched their captives closely, the two men had made no move to stop them conversing, and indeed had been chatting quietly between themselves for the past few moments. And of course they would not understand Sindarin. Turning his head, Aragorn looked at the cabin and the men milling about before it. He noted that a fair number of them had gone, and that they had taken the dead and injured with them. Including his guards, just eight soldiers remained, plus one tall man the ranger had not noticed before, black-haired and dressed in a sweeping cloak of some dark material. He was speaking with the heavy-set man, and glanced several times in the direction of the captives with eyes sharp and glittering in the wavering glare of the torches. His gaze suddenly locked onto Aragorn, and they stared at each other for a long moment. As he shifted his eyes to the elf a glimmer of a smile swept over the man's face, and he began striding toward the captives.
"I believe their leader approaches," Aragorn whispered. "What he intends I do not know, but we must tell him of your blindness."
"No!" Legolas gasped, fighting to raise his head. He looked frightened. "They must not know!"
"But if it will move them to mercy…"
"It will not." The elf twisted his body and struggled to a sitting position. "They will have none. Say nothing of my blindness. Swear it to me now that you will not tell them."
Aragorn stared at Legolas in bewilderment. "You cannot hope to deceive them for long," he hissed. "Why do you do this?"
"I do not know!" Legolas gasped, turning his head briefly toward their captor as he drew near. "I… I cannot tell you why, only that the thought of them knowing fills me with fear. Aragorn, please…"
"I will do as you ask," the ranger quickly responded, not understanding but anxious to calm the frantic elf. With a sigh, Legolas lowered his head as the man came to stand before them, his rich cloak tumbling black against the deep snow. Despite the humiliation of his position Aragorn raised his chin defiantly, but his captor did not spare a glance in his direction. His eyes were fixed on Legolas, his expression one of triumph, and he nodded in satisfaction as he turned to call for more light.
A soldier swiftly obeyed, bearing the torch at a run, and in the light Aragorn was better able to see. The coldness of the man's countenance and the haughty gleam in his heavily-lidded eyes did nothing to assuage the ranger's fear. Aragorn watched apprehensively as their captor grasped the elf by the chin and attempted to force his head up. Legolas reacted violently to the unexpected touch, wrenching free of the brutal grip and kicking out with his bound legs.
The man quickly retreated and gestured to the two guards. "Hold him."
The soldiers moved behind Legolas. The ensuing struggle was short but furiously fought, the elf twisting and kicking as Aragorn shouted at their captors in a desperate attempt to help his friend, but in the end Legolas was held fast and breathing hard, his face brought up to meet the searching gaze of the dark man who crouched before him once more. As the flaring torch was brought close the elf flinched and squeezed his eyes shut. Aragorn watched as the man's expression became keenly arrested, and as he stared at Legolas a look almost of wonder fleeted over his features. "What grace brings this gift to me?" he whispered as he rose to his feet. "This is a far richer prize than I had expected." He nodded to the men. "Leave us," he said, and they released Legolas and moved away.
The elf slumped to the ground with a soft moan, his eyes clouded and wandering as he rolled onto his side and lay still. The man stepped forward and peered closely at him, frowning, and bent to gaze into Legolas' face.
"Your men hurt him," Aragorn said quickly, seeking to divert his attention. "He is dazed. They struck him with a club."
"So it would seem," their captor said. "Though it did not quench the fire in him. He will mend."
Aragorn frowned as he listened to the man's voice. There was something he thought he recognized in his way of speaking, something in the accent that he could not quite place, but as he began to search his memory Legolas raised his head. "You are from the land of Dale," he murmured.
As he gazed down at the elf the man smiled, though it did not touch the coldness of his eyes. The torchlight gleamed on his black hair as he bent closer and regarded his captive. "Am I that easy to place, even after all these years?" he asked with a laugh. "I am indeed from Dale. I am far from home, and so too, my unfortunate elf, are you."First > Previous > Next