Awareness was slow in returning to the elf. He hovered, dreamlike, for some time, floating in the watery warmth of unconsciousness as if submerged in a hot bath, but at last, pushed by random perceptions – a cold breeze that drifted over him, an assortment of strange odors, and a pervasive pain that stole his breath - his innate curiosity gradually overcame the tethering effects of the drug, and he surfaced groggily from the dark depths to learn what had been done.
He did not attempt to move at first, but lay quietly. The draught had weakened him. He felt dull-witted, scarcely capable of coherent thought. His tongue was still swollen and numbed, and swallowing was difficult. And they had hurt him; this was easy enough to determine simply by his efforts to draw breath. His right side burned fiercely, the pain stabbed him with each shallow inhalation, and, not surprisingly, his skull throbbed with a horrible cadence that increased tenfold when he cautiously lifted his head. Swallowing miserably, Legolas pressed his brow against the floor and struggled with all his strength not to be sick.
He was lying on his belly, right arm stretched over his head and left arm tucked under his body, his hand pressed against the area of hurt at his ribs. His fingers were sticky. He shifted his legs, and immediately realized that he was no longer held by restraints. This alarmed him more than if he had woken to find his limbs still fettered. Deeply suspicious, Legolas ceased moving and attempted to push past the pain and project his drugged senses outward.
There was a slight wind blowing over him, coming from two directions he thought, cold and carrying with it the smell of the outdoors. It was not of the forest, however. The breeze brought with it different odours; that of wood-smoke freshly kindled, and bread, horses, and, vaguely, the smell of human waste. He was still in the city. And over it all, frighteningly close, was the stench of blood freshly spilled. He inhaled silently, trying to pinpoint its source, but it was all around him, it was on him, and for a moment he had to fight the urge to leap to his feet in alarm. He remained as he was, quivering with tension, and tried to make out what it all meant.
He was not outside. He lay on what felt like a thick rug, intricately woven and slightly perfumed, and the breeze blew quietly over him from what he decided were two open windows set some distance apart. The soft rustling of light curtains shifted on the air, and somewhere beyond it he heard the steady ringing of hammer against metal as a blacksmith labored in his shop. A slight smell of smoke lingered on the air – the acrid smell of a torch gone out. And some few feet from him he heard the dying sighs of a hearth fire. He had been brought to a room then, and been freed of his bonds, but for what purpose he could not fathom.
He lay still and listened carefully, trying to determine whether he was alone. He heard nothing to indicate any other person was in the room with him - no breath, no creak of leather or rustle of fabric – but he waited long, not daring to move lest someone indeed lurked in the shadows, waiting for him to wake.
Finally he twisted his right hand, intending to set it against the floor and push himself to a seated position. As he did so, he realized for the first time that his fingers were folded around an object that felt completely familiar in his grip. Scarcely able to contain a cry of shock, he recognized it as his own fighting blade; the long white knife given him by his father when he had reached adulthood and taken his vows as a defender of Mirkwood. How has it come to be placed in his hand?
Slowly he drew it close, and as he did so he noticed that his fingers were covered in a tacky substance, half-dried and smelling of meat. With a grimace of revulsion, he investigated his weapon. It was bathed to the hilt in blood.
Heart pounding, the elf forced himself to his knees, but as he did so a sickening pain tore through his right side. Dropping the blade with a gasp, he pressed both hands against his ribs, feeling the warm seep of his own blood soaking through his shirt. Dizzy with hurt and the stupefying effects of the drug, he bowed his head over his knees and struggled to steady himself.
What game do they play with me?
Finally, clutching his injury with his left hand, he gritted his teeth and sat up. He swept his right hand outward, reaching into the darkness. Here was a wall, and the edge of the rug. The legs of a table…
Turning without thought toward the window nearest him, searching for fresher air to clear his head, he encountered a cascade of fabric that had fallen to the floor. Tracing it upward, he recognized the feel of linen sheets and blankets of silk overlaid with a coverlet of finely woven wool. Grasping at the mattress, the elf pulled himself to his knees and investigated the bed.
The bed-clothes were snarled, as if a struggle had taken place; the smell of blood was strong here. Filled with foreboding, his heart hammering, Legolas reached – and met skin. Startled, he pulled away, and then reached again. His fingers closed round an arm.
He knew instantly that the man was dead. Though the skin still radiated some warmth, it was colder than it should have been were the body living. Legolas' fingers scurried over the twisted corpse, seeking the face. The eyes were open, the mouth as well, but the elf could detect no breath. Silently, he pressed his fingertips over the lids to close the man's eyes, and then he closed his own. The plot of his captors was clear to him now.
He turned again toward the window, thinking to crawl to it and assess how much of a drop it might be to the ground. Perhaps he would not be seen, and could somehow make his way to a hiding place. There he would think on what to do next.
But escape was not to be. No sooner had he started for the source of the fresh winter air when he felt an almost imperceptible tug on his right ankle. Something scraped across the floor and toppled behind him with a terrific crash. Crockery splintered around him, and the elf felt himself suddenly splashed with water. He had upset the bedside washbasin.
Legolas grasped at the thin string binding his ankle and broke it. The other end of it had been tied to the leg of the tall spindly table, thus ensuring that the instant he truly moved, he would alert everyone within earshot of his presence in this strange room. Cursing his foul luck, the elf crawled rapidly to the window nearest him and pressed his hands against the sill. It was barred.
Muffled footsteps rang out behind him, and there came a quick rapping on a heavy door. "Lord Cadean? Sir, is all well with you?" a voice called in alarm.
Frantic, Legolas yanked on the bars, but they would not give. He raised his head, seeking the location of the other window. The noise at the door continued as he crept across the floor, moving as rapidly and as quietly around the bed as his injured body would permit. Other men had joined the guard at the door, their voices merging into a confused babbling, and a heavy pounding began as they started efforts to force their way in.
And then they were upon him. Legolas struggled to his feet as the door banged open and footsteps rushed into the room. Shouts broke round him. Hands clamped upon his body, forcing him back against the wall. He fought them, struggling to pull free as the cry was given and taken up by others that carried the alarm beyond the room and on down the passage.
"Lord Cadean is slain!"
The rest was a nightmare of confusion and pain. He was struck, and struck again as he resisted their efforts to take hold of him, the blows landing on his head and on his injured side. Unable to hold back a cry of agony, the elf collapsed and was unable to rise again. They held him firmly, but he fought for nothing but air now, and consciousness, and he did not resist as they yanked him to his knees and slammed him against the wall. The voices swirled around him, stunned and horror-filled, and he retreated deep within himself as they hit him again, bound his hands, and twined a rope around his neck. The shouts and cries gradually waned, leaving in their wake an eerie metallic ringing in his ears and the thundering of his own pulse in his skull. He shook his head with a moan that he was certain he had uttered, but could not hear.
Then someone had hold of his chin and forced his head up. The touch was cold, as penetrating as the bitterest winter night, and Legolas shuddered in sudden horror. The touch of this person was familiar, and hated. His head cleared and his gorge rose. With a hiss of revulsion, he strove to pull away.
"What have we here?" the old man whispered.
More people rushed in, and above the din rang the arrogant shouts of Ramhar. "Make way, fools! What the devil are you all yammering about?"
"My lord Ramhar, Lord Cadean is slain!" someone cried.
The room became quiet. The captain strode forward, his boots thumping on the floor until they were suddenly muffled by the thick carpets. Legolas pulled his head free of the old man's grip and lowered it, closing his eyes as he heard Ramhar take in his breath sharply.
"Murdered in his bed," the captain said in a low voice. "But not in his sleep. He struggled against his attacker. Did you not hear that?"
Legolas heard the guard swallow. "No sir. I regret that I did not."
"And who do you hold here?"
Another of the guards, his hand knotted into the elf's hair, answered. "We found this man in the room, sir. There was a crash, as if something had fallen, and we came to investigate. Lord Cadean did not respond to our calls, so we forced the door. And here he was. Making for the window, which is likely how he got in. It appears he forced the grate, sir. See how it has been twisted, so that he could slip through. Though how he managed that I cannot say."
"You cannot say? Have you not looked at what you hold?" Ramhar barked. "You there, bring that torch closer. Let us see him in the light."
Legolas was dragged forward and held on his knees. His breath came fast and frantic, and he yearned to shout to these people that it was impossible for him to have committed this crime. But a moment later he bit his lip and swallowed the words. He did not understand it, but the unexpected knell of warning that had driven him to hide his blindness from Ramhar earlier had grown even stronger within him. He had always trusted his inner voice in sudden situations of peril, following his natural instincts even when they seemed to make no sense, and more often than not his choice to go with his immediate impulses had been the right action. Like any creature of the forest, his instincts guided him now. He kept his eyes and his mouth tightly closed, struggling to keep his wits about him as Ramhar grasped him by the hair and wrenched his head up.
"You imbeciles," the captain hissed. "This is no man. Behold." His free hand swept Legolas' hair back, revealing his ears.
The voices broke out again; cries of astonishment and fear, and murmurs of amazement. "Then it is as you told us, my lord!" a man called out. "The elves come!"
"We must prepare!"
"Hold, hold," Ramhar said. "I have long expected this, but we do not yet know this elf's origin. Is he simply a rogue acting on his own, or if he is part of a small band of outlaws? The greater threat may not yet be upon us. But wherever this one came from, it is to our great advantage that Lord Cadean was not slain outright." Legolas gasped, bending his body in pain as the captain suddenly pressed his fingers against the wound in his side. "Our dear lord fought bravely for his life, and managed to sink his blade into this elf. It hindered his escape. Take him to the prison and secure him well. We must convene the council with all haste to discuss our security. We are confused and vulnerable now, with no ruler to guide us. Our enemies will attempt to take advantage of that."
"We need not be without a ruler, Lord Ramhar," the soft voice of the old man crooned. "This is a dangerous time. We need a firm man, a warrior, to guide us now. I know where I cast my vote, and I do it now."
"No, my lord Malcovan. We will call a council. All must be in agreement, and I will abide by the wishes of the people in choosing a new ruler. Come now, there is much to be done. Take the elf and guard him well. I will deal with him later."
As Legolas was hauled to his feet and pulled forward, a man called out to Ramhar. "Here is his weapon, sir. I found the blade on the floor beside the bed."
"I will take it," the captain said. "But wait! What is this design on the handle? By all the gods! I recognize it. Stop! Turn the elf toward me."
Legolas was pulled round and shoved against the wall. He continued to hold his eyes closed as Ramhar grasped his chin, forcing his head up. "You are from Mirkwood. Your weapon tells me so. I know those elves… I know them well. And you…"
Legolas' head was shoved to the side and back again, as if Ramhar was taking in every aspect of his face. He heard the man take in his breath. "So it is. I never expected he would send one so dear."
Ramhar grasped the elf by the hair and stepped to the side. "Look well upon this face! Our worst nightmare is upon us. This is no rogue elf, but Prince Legolas, the youngest son of the elven-king himself!"
The room exploded with cries of alarm. Legolas' blood went cold. He began struggling against the men holding him, trying to fight his way free of this horror. He opened his mouth to scream the truth aloud, to put a stop to this farce, and found that he could not utter a word. His throat seemed locked, his tongue thick and unresponsive. The drug had done its work well. Frantically he fought to find his voice, to free himself of the hands that held him, but they twisted the rope tied round his neck until he doubled over, choking for air. Through it all he heard Ramhar's shouts.
"The elven-king sent his own son to murder our lord in the dark of night! We need no further proof of his treachery. He seeks to throw us into a state of panic, and then he will make his move to destroy us! Have I not told you of the menace the elves pose to us? Some of you doubted me, but there can be no clearer proof than this! We must convene the council immediately and appoint a regent, to govern the city until the boy is grown."
"I think, under the circumstances," said the old man smoothly, "we have no need of a vote now. Most of our council members are already present in this room. All will follow your command, Ramhar. You are the only one who can save our city now. You are from the lands over the mountains, and you know the elves for what they are."
"Yes!" the men shouted. "Tell us what to do, Lord Ramhar! No one else can guide us through this peril!"
Ramhar drew in his breath. "Is this truly what you wish?" he asked in a low voice. "That I should be regent?"
"So be it," the old man stated quickly. "The papers will be drawn today, for we dare not have division among us. We must act quickly, and decisively."
As the elf finally managed to find his breath and straighten his body, Ramhar began to speak. "You honor me with your confidence. I shall accept the position and rule the city of Carbryddin until the boy Tarnan is grown. Lord Malcovan will advise me in all things, for he is wise in the ways of the world and one of your own people. And I shall retain command over the army. You know that I have been training the men in tactics of war. You will find them ready to meet this challenge. I will keep your city safe from the evil that threatens your loved ones. The elven-king and his kind will be destroyed."
Legolas painfully raised his head. "You lie…" The words were terribly difficult to get out. "Forced… forced me…"
"Take him away," Ramhar hissed. "But do not harm him further."
"Kill him, my lord!" someone shouted. "Send his severed head back to his father!"
"No. We need him. We will treat his wound," the hideous voice of the old man whispered, and the cold hands again brushed along the elf's cheek. Legolas flinched, unable to tolerate the contact. "He will regain his voice, and then we will make him sing."
"What Lord Malcovan says is true. We have the opportunity to get information from him," Ramhar stated. "I will be paying Prince Legolas a visit very soon, and I will learn all there is to know of his people and of his treacherous father's plans."
Legolas lunged for him. The guards hauled him back. The chorus of voices had begun again; shouts for revenge, Ramhar barking out orders, the quiet murmurs of those beginning to attend the body. Footsteps hurried about the room, and in and out the door. Thinking of nothing but reaching Ramhar and somehow taking his life, the desperate elf did not at first hear the light, rushed footsteps that signaled the arrival of someone new.
"Stop him!" the frantic voice of a woman called from beyond the doorway. "Someone stop him!"
"Do not let him in here!" Ramhar shouted.
But it was too late. Legolas froze in horror as he at last realized who had fought his way into the room. He pulled back, struggling with his captors to turn his body, trying somehow to shield his face from his friend.
"Father!" the child's voice cried out. "What is happening here? Father!"
"Get him out!"
The sounds of a struggle began. "No! Let me go! Father!"
Ramhar's voice was heavy. "Release him. Let him see what he must."
Swift footsteps ran to the bed, and Tarnan screamed. Legolas bowed his head, tears spilling from his eyes as he listened to the strangled sobs of the devastated boy. He stood quietly in the arms of his captors, no longer fighting, and the room had grown quiet as a tomb but for the sound of the child's weeping.
A woman's skirts rustled past, her low voice murmuring comforts as she tended to her young charge. The people had fallen silent, and some of them began to move slowly from the room.
"Take him away," Ramhar snarled, and Legolas was pulled forward. He tried to keep his face turned, praying that he would go unnoticed. He kept pace with his keepers now as they lead him out, desperate to be quit of the room.
Just as he felt himself crossing the threshold, there came a terrible cry from the boy. "Legolas?!"
The elf was dragged to a halt. The room was filled with horrified gasps as Ramhar grabbed Legolas and wrenched him around. His voice rang out harshly. "Tarnan, do you know this elf?"
The boy hiccupped, his sobs catching in his throat. "I… I…"
"Answer me, boy! Do you know him?!"
Legolas shook his head desperately, fighting again to utter words clearly, but the child was already speaking. His voice was filled with confusion and fear. "I… Alun and I met them one day. He and his friend were staying in… a place up in the hills."
"Alun took you to see him? How many times?"
Tarnan's voice had become wary. "I… do not remember."
"But it was more than once."
The boy sniffled. "Yes," he whispered. "We visited several times. I liked him. He was so nice…"
"He is your father's murderer," Ramhar hissed, and the child cried out in dismay.
"He cannot be! We talked, and we…" Tarnan broke into sobs. "We were friends!"
"No friend is he to you. He has taken advantage of your innocence, and has betrayed you."
The boy wept. Someone stirred beside Legolas, and again he felt the cold touch upon his face. A fingernail sliced across his cheek like a chilled blade, tracing the tracks of his tears. The elf flinched and turned his face upward, his empty eyes seeking the heavens as if beseeching them to open up and take him in. The old man breathed his rotted stench quietly into his ear, and only Legolas heard the words that he uttered. "You weep for the boy? Yes. Hearts will be broken, and bodies too, to meet the requirements of my Master. Children and elves will not be spared. No one will be spared."
Legolas felt his heart convulse. He swallowed in horror, shuddering under the hideous caress of Malcovan's fingers, but he did not move. "Your master?" he whispered hoarsely.
"You are an elf of Mirkwood. You recognized what I was when you met me earlier. You recognize me now. You feel it in the very depths of your soul." Cold terror swept over Legolas, and he bowed his head. The old man chuckled. "I see there is no misunderstanding between us. You know whom I serve, and you are alone in your knowledge. These foolish Men realize nothing."
The calculated malice of the old sorcerer was overwhelming, a thin yet powerful extension of what lurked, coiled and watchful, in the darkness of the eastern reaches of Middle-earth. Filled with helpless dread, Legolas struggled anew to break the touch of those hands.
He was dragged from the room. Behind him the sorcerer laughed, the boy wailed, and the men shouted. Above the tumult rang the voice of Ramhar. "Ready the army! We will march as soon at is possible. Secure the elf in the lowest dungeon. And then find Alun and bring him to me. He has much to answer for."
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