Aragorn watched the black-cloaked man warily as he continued to stare intently at Legolas. He still had not turned his attention to the ranger, and Aragorn’s breath caught in fear as the gleam of possession burned even more brightly in their captor’s dark eyes as he stood tall over the elf lying bound at his feet, his cloak swirling round his shoulders as the wind increased.
"Have you been to Dale, little elf?" the man asked in a low voice as he bent closer. A cold smile drifted over his lips as Legolas clenched his jaw and turned his head away, making no answer. His captor took in his breath sharply, seeming about to say more, but at that moment a soldier began approaching from the direction of the cottage. Halting some distance away, the fellow saluted and stood quietly. With visible irritation, the man tore his attention from Legolas and turned. "Well?"
"Forgive me, Lord Ramhar," the soldier said hastily as he drew near. "We have found something we thought might interest you. If you would step this way for a moment…"
"Very well. Make ready to depart. We must return to the city before the sun rises." He crouched and took the dazed elf by the chin once more and angled his face toward him. Aragorn tensed, expecting another violent struggle to begin, but Legolas lay still. His eyes were tightly sealed. Furrows of pain radiated across his brow, and some of the haughty confidence faded from the man’s face as he regarded his elven captive.
"This will not do," he hissed. "How much hurt did he take?" He rounded on the two guards standing at stiff attention in their spot beside the garden gate and gestured to them. "I made it clear that the elf was not to be harmed, yet here he lies injured. The man who struck him - bring him to me in the cabin."
He rose, a quick flash of red and black glittering at his hip from what must have been the jeweled hilt of his sword, and went with long strides toward the small group of men waiting before the house. Aragorn watched him go, and turned to find Legolas struggling back to a sitting position. The elf’s face was filled with bewilderment. "A man from Dale?" he gasped. "Why is he here?"
"I cannot say, but did you note his name?" Aragorn whispered.
The elf bit his lip as he pondered Aragorn’s words, and then his face cleared. He nodded slowly. "I remember… Alun told us of him, and he was mentioned in the old healer’s journal. 'Lord' seems a rather lofty title for an army captain," he added with a sarcastic edge to his voice. "Ramhar is arrogant."
Aragorn glanced toward the cabin. The leader and his men had vanished inside, but for two who leaned against the porch and watched the captives closely. "You were often in Dale. Do you know him? Does his voice sound familiar?" the ranger asked urgently, but Legolas shook his head.
"I am certain I would remember his voice had I ever spoken with him at length," the elf said. "I do not know him. Unfortunately, I fear that is about to change." He pulled uselessly against his restraints with a grimace and then lowered his head. Resting his brow against his knees, he said no more.
Aragorn’s own discomfort, which had eased for a time - or perhaps had only been pushed aside in his concern for his friend – was growing again. His injured foot was aching and pulsing with a ferocity he could no longer ignore as the tight thongs bit into his ankles, and his hands felt as if they were on fire. He used the silence to try to gather what energy remained to him for the long trek to the city. It would not be easy. He hoped only that they would not force him to walk on the steeply winding path, and that Legolas would somehow find the strength to endure the journey without losing consciousness. Though perhaps it would be better if he did, the ranger thought as he looked at the bowed form of his friend and watched as his long white fingers continued their investigation of the ropes. He feared what trials lay ahead for the elf if he were taken into the city.
Gritting his teeth against his pain, Aragorn turned his eyes toward the cottage as the door banged open and the men emerged. Ramhar came first, bounding off the porch and striding directly toward the captives, and this time his eyes were not riveted on Legolas. In his hand he held the orc blade that Aragorn had wielded in the fight, and he stopped before the ranger, pinning him with his sharp gaze. "Where did you get this sword?" he hissed, holding the weapon up as one of his followers moved forward with a torch.
Aragorn fixed his eyes on his captor and concentrated all the rage he could gather into the cold stare. He said nothing, seeing no reason to give information of any kind to this man, but an instant later his jaw dropped as Ramhar dropped the sword to the ground and pulled his own weapon from its sheath with a swift movement. He held it aloft for a moment, then twisted it to the side and unwrapped his fingers from the hilt to display it. The red and black stones glittered like the eyes of a serpent in the wavering light.
Aragorn gasped aloud, for the weapon was identical to the one he had used.
His eyes flew immediately to Legolas. The elf had not moved, remaining as before with head bowed over his knees, torn away from the present as he fought an inner battle with his pain. Aragorn’s eyes raced back to the captain and settled on the blade. Though more finely wrought and more ornamented than the crude, heavy instrument he had taken from the orcs, there was no doubt at all in the ranger’s mind that the blade possessed by Ramhar was of the same design. He stared up at the man’s face as the color drained from his own.
"You ask me where I got my blade?" he hissed. "What of yours?"
The man smiled thinly. Only the sharp edges of his teeth showed. "A dear friend made it for me."
"Then perhaps it was from your friend that I took mine," Aragorn flung back. "Do you run with orcs, then?"
Ramhar laughed. "Hardly. But I wonder… has your companion ever seen such a blade?" and he swung the shimmering weapon down to level it at Legolas, his eyes gleaming with cold intensity as the elf slowly lifted his head.
Legolas turned toward Aragorn, his face gone even whiter than the snow beneath his body. He trembled, and his voice came in a whisper. "What does he say?"
Aragorn’s heart sank as he saw a shock of understanding race across the elf’s features. "It is nothing, mellon-nin," he murmured quietly in Sindarin, anxious to keep his injured friend from further upset. "Do not trouble yourself about it now."
"No," the elf gasped, shaking his head. He tried to struggle closer. His eyes were very dark. "Why do you speak of his sword?"
"It is nothing," Aragorn repeated quickly as several men moved behind Legolas at a gesture from the captain. "Go easy, Legolas. Now is not the time."
"What sword? What-?" As the soldiers forced him to the ground Legolas kicked out and fought to right himself, and he cried out as the men began to drag him away.
"Leave him alone!" Aragorn shouted. "Your men have hurt him enough," he said, turning angrily to Ramhar. "We know you take us to the city. Give me a minute to talk to him. I can calm him."
The blade flashed as it was brought up and rammed home into its sheath. The dark-haired man looked a long moment at Aragorn, and then he glanced at his injured foot. "You were not so easy to get rid of the first time," he remarked in a soft whisper as Aragorn stared into his eyes, and a sudden horrible realization shivered over the ranger. Ramhar leaned closer, his voice brought low for Aragorn’s ears alone, though several yards off the elf’s struggles ended abruptly as if he had heard the words as well. "Were I not pressed for time, I would ask you how you managed to survive that night. But it is of little importance. I have what I came for."
He turned and called to the soldiers not occupied with Legolas. The elf had ceased fighting and waited tensely in the grip of his captors, head high and nostrils flaring, his frightened face turned toward his friend.
Ramhar waved his hand toward Aragorn. "I have no need of this man. Take him to the cottage and bind him within. We will burn it."
"No!" Legolas screamed.
Aragorn’s eyes were wrenched away from the black gaze of Ramhar as he was grasped by many hands and forced toward the house. He fought with all the strength left in his bound and battered body, bringing his feet round and driving them into the ground to slow his progress, flinging himself from side to side to throw off the stride of the soldiers, but in the end they simply hauled him from the ground entirely and carried him, writhing and thrashing, across the broken threshold. The men threw him to the floor beside the bed and wrapped rope around him to secure him to the heavy frame. Through his struggles he heard Legolas’ protests, alternately pleading and shouting in a voice filled with panicked rage, and suddenly the noise of a great commotion began just outside the doorway. Aragorn only had a moment to wonder how the elf had managed to get so close to the house when Legolas’ voice was cut off mid-cry, and silence fell. For a time the only sounds were the ranger’s own gasps as he fought to pull air into his hammering ribcage, his wide eyes scanning the darkness of the destroyed room. The men had left him and he was alone, fighting helplessly against the restraints as he waited.
Ramhar came at last, torch in hand, and stood silently over him. Aragorn fixed his gaze straight ahead, setting his jaw tightly to keep himself from begging for his life, from breaking down utterly before this man, though he knew he could not hide the horrified shaking of his body from Ramhar's eyes. As he focused on a spot beyond his legs he saw something odd, and he tilted his head to better see it. His eyes widened in astonishment. Lying on the floor in a pool of blood was the large man whom Legolas had fought, his eyes fixed and empty, his mouth opened in a silent scream. His throat had been cut. Shaken, Aragorn fell back against the bed frame and stared silently up at the captain, who regarded him with cold contemplation.
"I do not tolerate mistakes," Ramhar said in answer to the unspoken question in Aragorn’s eyes.
"Why do you take my friend?"
"I saw an opportunity I could not let slip away."
Aragorn pulled desperately at his bonds. "We have done nothing to deserve this! The elf is no threat to you. Please, do not harm him. If it is riches you seek, something can be arranged-"
"I seek another kind of wealth through your friend. He could not have arrived at a better time for implementing my plans."
"And what are they? Did they include murdering the old man who lived here?" Aragorn demanded, but Ramhar raised the torch higher and gestured for silence.
"Enough. No doubt you and I could find many interesting topics to discuss, but the hour grows late. There is no more time for you."
Aragorn’s heart pounded in fear and despair, but he faced his murderer without faltering. "And little is left to you, Ramhar," he whispered hoarsely. "Do you kill simply for the joy of it? You yourself are marked for death. Your greed and hatred will destroy you as surely as they destroy us."
Something flickered briefly in the captain’s black orbs then, but in an instant he had controlled the reaction. Cold rage flared up to replace the uncertainty, and his lip lifted in disdain. Stepping forward without a word, he struck the ranger a powerful blow across the face.
Laying the torch on the straw pallet, Ramhar nodded to Aragorn and strode from the cabin.
* * * * *
It was a considerable distance to the city down a steep and twisting path choked with snow and broken branches, and the elf fought against his captors every miserable step of the way. As they dragged him across the river and into the forest he had kicked and twisted so violently that the men could scarcely keep hold of him, and it was only after they had come to their horses - left in a sheltered spot some distance down the hill - that Legolas was finally brought under some degree of control. He had been flung on his belly across the back of one of the animals, his ribs impacting painfully with the saddle, but even then he continued to fight, flinging his body free of the horse again and again as the small party made its way down the slippery hill. Tumbling to the ground, heedless of the stabbing branches and the blows of the men, the elf felt no pain. There was nothing within him but a crashing torrent of grief and rage that drowned all caution and robbed him of rational thought, and he struggled with the hopeless frenzy of a trapped animal as he was dragged up and put on the horse again.
How long he fought them he could not tell. He would not stop, and after he had nearly come off the horse for what might have been the sixth time Ramhar’s exasperated voice barked out a command, and the animal was brought to a halt. A rope was twined around the elf's neck, brought under the belly of the horse, fed through the one binding his ankles, and drawn fast. Bent painfully over the animal, his head dangling, Legolas was scarcely able to draw breath. He groaned as a hand rested briefly against the side of his face and slid up to tighten into his hair.
"I would not see you come to further harm, Elf, but you have brought this pain upon yourself," Ramhar told him. "Stop fighting and I will ease your restraints."
In answer, Legolas jerked his head away. I will not stop fighting until you are dead, he vowed silently. Or I am.
They had killed Aragorn. He had heard it all; the command to burn the cabin, his friend’s desperate struggles as he was carried away, and Legolas had fought against his captors with a renewed power born of absolute terror. Somehow he had managed to break the bindings at his ankles and regain his feet, and he had raced frantically toward the cottage, his hands still lashed behind his back. But the soldiers who had been securing Aragorn had come out, and upon reaching the porch he had plunged directly into them. The other men had been hard on his heels, and against them all there had been no chance. His shouts and pleas had been ignored, and he had been thrown down and tied again. A cloth had been bound over his eyes and a gag forced into his mouth, and they had begun dragging him across the clearing again when the proof of what had been done to the ranger made itself known to him.
The crackling of fire crept into his ears, and the faint smell of smoke assailed his nostrils. The men paused in their rush across the clearing, no doubt turning to look, and Legolas strained against them, fighting to return to the burning house. And then the scream had come - a wail of fear and pain such as he had never before heard from the lips of Aragorn - and Legolas screamed with him, his mind flooded with terrified disbelief at what his friend was enduring.
One of the men swore quietly under his breath, and then the running footsteps of Ramhar caught up with them. He shouted angrily to his soldiers to make haste as a second cry drifted clearly through the night air.
Despairing, the elf redoubled his efforts to break free, weeping in anguish as his captors turned away and carried him into the forest.
Why did they not slay him first? Oh, let death come swiftly! Sweet Elbereth, help him… help him…
* * * * *
The horse lurched, slipping as it struggled to find footing on the slick slope, and it took all of Legolas' self-control to hold back a cry of pain. The descent had seemed to take forever, and the tension forced upon his body from his position on the horse had quickly grown to agony. The tight bonds bit into his flesh. His heart pounded, the rhythm of his blood beat in his temples, hurting him, though at times his shock and fatigue were able to blunt the sharper of his perceptions and carry him away from complete awareness of his pain. As his mount struggled along the path he fell often into a feverish stupor, his thoughts whirling and nightmarish, until another jolting misstep would force full consciousness upon him again and bring him back to the present.
Through the haze of pain and dizziness he had been aware of a hand constantly at his neck throughout the long trek, loosening the rope when his breathing became difficult, but then it would tighten his restraints again and come to rest possessively on his hair or curl around his throat as if to drive home the fact of his vulnerability, and helpless fury would boil in the elf’s heart. He would make an effort to throw Ramhar’s hand off, growling dire promises through his gag, and he would hear the soft laugh of his tormentor as the gloved fingers shifted again to knot into his hair, pulling his head back painfully and stilling his struggles.
At last the ground grew level, and the stride of the horse lengthened and became easier. Legolas felt the crowded closeness of the forest give way, and a fresh breeze passed across his face. He turned his head as much as he was able, inhaling.
"Do you wish to know where we are?" inquired Ramhar. "We have nearly reached our destination. In less than an hour the sun will rise."
They turned to the right, and the trek continued for some time along smoother terrain, skirting the edge of the forest. At length they halted, and Ramhar pulled his hand away from the elf’s neck.
"Hold him," he said, and another man came to stand beside Legolas, gripping the elf’s hair and yanking his head down when he tried to raise it. But then, as Ramhar’s steps faded, the soldier suddenly moved his hands to the rope lashed around his neck and eased it, releasing some of the terrible strain. Surprised, Legolas attempted to pull away, and a questioning trill rose in his throat.
"I see your distress," the man whispered. "Rest a moment, if you can."
Perplexed but grateful for the small act of kindness, the elf allowed his head to fall back against the man's hands with a sigh. His body hurt fiercely; every muscle ached and burned, and he clenched his eyes tightly behind the blindfold as if to erect a barrier between himself and his anguish. Voices drifted through the darkness surrounding him. His captors were murmuring quietly together. He judged them to be fewer, no more than three or four now, and a new man had joined them.
"I have brought the cart myself," he said, and his voice was soft, yet menacing. The malice of it swept along the elf's skin like the brush of a blade in the night. "I wanted to be certain all went smoothly."
"Our plans went well," said Ramhar. "You were not seen?"
"Only by the guards at the gate, but I merely looked like any other man heading out early for supplies from the outlying farms."
"Your disguise suits you badly," the captain said with a laugh. "But you return with cargo no one could imagine."
Legolas tensed as footsteps drew near, and the soldier holding his head instantly renewed the crueler grip. The elf heard him hiss slightly, as if in fear, or loathing.
"So, you have got the elf," the new man said. He crouched, and his breath, hot and stinking, washed over the captive. Legolas flinched, repulsed by the cold fingers that pressed briefly against his face. "But not after a fight, it seems."
"We had some difficulty with him," said Ramhar. "But I know how to handle his kind. We will speak more of him once he is settled."
"And his friend?"
"Dead. Quickly now, you men get him into the cart," Ramhar commanded.
The rope around Legolas’ neck was cut at last. He could not hold back a sharp exclamation of pain as he was dragged from the horse and carried a short distance. He felt himself being lifted. His knees were pushed against his chest and he was flung down, landing on his side with a startled gasp. He tried to straighten his legs, and the closeness of his prison enfolded him. A box, he realized. Horror rushed over him and he struggled to rise, but they held him down, and firm hands tugged at his gag, checking it. It was tightened, and then Ramhar was speaking again.
"You are my most trusted men, and you will remember your oaths. The work of this night was to protect our city. Have I not told you before of the danger the elves pose to us? This one's presence so nearby is proof that they were beginning to implement their plan. Do not speak of him to anyone, and should any man fail in this he will be dealt with severely. Now we ride to the city, returning from our night patrol. The cart will follow. You there - stay beside the elf, and do not permit one sound to escape him."
Something heavy slammed down – the lid - and Legolas heard the rattle of locks being fastened at each end. His hands knotted helplessly behind his back as he struggled against the choking closeness of his prison. He fought to extend his legs or turn himself, to move in any way possible, but his body demanded freedom that he could not give it. A cold sweat broke over him, and he groaned in misery and despair.
A quiet sound came to him - someone had settled himself beside the crate in which he had been pressed. A voice whispered low. "Hold on, elf. This last part of the journey will not be long."
And then the cart was moving, creaking its way along the rutted road toward the city.First > Previous > Next