The time had passed heavily. The busy hum of activity in the main infirmary continued, though it seemed to Aragorn that gradually the frantic pace had lessened. He longed to know what was happening outside, but dared not open the door. People occasionally passed by, and once someone had tried to gain entry into the room but was turned away by the sturdy lock. Aragorn feared their enemies might still be seeking Legolas, and had stood quietly beside the door with dagger in hand until the intruder had given up the attempt and retreated back down the corridor.
After he and the elf had been left alone, Aragorn had felt no more need for rest. After seeing that Legolas had eaten his fill and settled down to sleep again, he had taken what was left of the food. Battling the discomfort in his throat, he had eaten slowly and carefully, and then settled himself to await Alun's return. The soldier would advise them on what to do next. Whether to pursue the sorcerer or simply to escape their surroundings, Aragorn was anxious to be released from this small room so that he could take Legolas far away from all he had been forced to endure since being brought as a prisoner to the city of Carbryddin.
The elf had been asleep since Brina left them hours ago. His dark mood had troubled Aragorn, but they had spoken no more of it as Legolas wrapped himself in the blankets and said that he would rest again. It was the kind of sleep he needed. The old healer’s medicine appeared to have helped, for he slept quietly, with no pain in his face and without nightmare, though he kept a hand clamped tightly over the painful gash in his arm.
Legolas' recurring dream of the black sword that had wounded him troubled Aragorn more than he had chosen to reveal to the elf. While it was true that Legolas did not possess the gift of foresight, Aragorn knew that all elven dreams possessed some measure of knowledge and power. It would be unwise to disregard this, for often those dreams came as a warning. There must be a reason why such a vivid image continued to invade the elf’s mind and penetrate the darkness before his eyes. Legolas was blind, and he had told Aragorn that he was no longer able to clearly recall the images of things he had seen over his long lifetime. He could not summon beloved faces, or recall the beauty of trees. Even the wide, brilliant spectrum of colors was becoming lost to him. Only the blade remained in the elf’s mind, a violent and terrifying vision. And this dream of horror was linked to the sorcerer Malcovan. Despite the warmth from the small fire, Aragorn shuddered anew as he recalled the terror of the old man’s fearsome spell, and his own helplessness in the face of such darkness.
Brushing away the bits of bark that clung to his bandaged hands, he rose restlessly and went to the outstretched form of his friend, gazing down at him. Legolas stirred with a soft murmur, turning himself, and his hand knocked against the ranger's leg. He opened his eyes. "Hello, Aragorn. Why are you standing over me?"
Aragorn smiled. "Forgive me. Did I wake you?"
"Yes," Legolas said. He sat up and shrugged the blankets off. "But it is fine. I think I have slept enough."
"You slept well."
The elf nodded, and stretched his good arm over his head with a sigh. His eyes gleamed brightly in the dimly lit room. "Thanks to Brina and her concoction, my head is better. I feel myself again."
Aragorn glanced at the little vial resting on the table. "I cannot make out exactly what is in that brew. Certainly there is valerian, and willow. If Brina will list the ingredients and proportions for me, I will try to duplicate it. Whatever it is, this medicine has helped you far more than I was able with the herbs we had in the cottage."
"I should take some of it now," Legolas said. "Brina told me it works best in small doses swallowed regularly."
Aragorn handed the elf the vial, and Legolas removed the stopper and raised it to his lips. Then he grimaced suddenly and halted. "I will need a bit of bread, Aragorn. You would not believe how terrible this tastes."
Aragorn went to the pail and found the small end of the loaf they had been given. "It is not much," he said as he placed it into Legolas' hand.
Legolas sighed and squeezed his eyes shut. Quickly he tilted his head back and swallowed some of the liquid. Instantly he coughed and his face darkened. He hastily shoved the bread into his mouth, chewing quickly. "When you do take over, can you make it better tasting?" he groaned. "It is like swallowing melted iron. It burns my belly."
Aragorn shoved the wine flask into the elf's hands and retreated, leaving his friend to his lonely battle with nausea. He busied himself folding the blankets and straightening their small chamber. When he had finished, he seated himself next to the fire. Legolas still stood in the center of the room; white-faced and eyes closed, he inhaled deeply.
"Is it truly that bad?" Aragorn asked, feeling real concern for the first time.
"Did you think I was joking, mellon-nin?" the elf murmured. He shook himself and smiled weakly. "Ah, better now. I think I have won."
"What is worse, the pain in your head or the remedy?"
Legolas crossed to Aragorn and sat beside him. He pressed the vial into the ranger's hands. "Keep it safe for me. Brina said this is the last of it." His hand strayed to the gash in his arm, absently fingering the linen bandage. "To answer your question, the pain is much worse. This brew simply causes me to nearly lose my stomach. But my head - when the pain takes me - I lose myself."
"And how is your arm now?"
Legolas left off worrying the wrapping. "It continues to trouble me," he said without evasion. "But it is better than it was, now that it is stitched and bandaged."
"Brina is talented," Aragorn said. "I saw the poultice she laid over the wound after the stitching. I hope, when all this is over, that I might study with her for a time. She possesses skills that I do not."
"No healer is more skilled than you, Aragorn. Only Lord Elrond stands above you."
"As he should, since he was my master. But Brina has learned different techniques, and she knows of plants and medicines that I have little familiarity with. We can learn from each other, as all good healers should strive to do."
Legolas raised his hand suddenly, turning his head toward the door. "Someone approaches," he whispered. "It is a man. The footfalls are too heavy for Brina."
Aragorn gripped his dagger and crept forward, then relaxed as a familiar voice spoke. "Aragorn?" Alun rumbled. "Let me in, will you? This corridor is bloody freezing."
"Alun!" Aragorn said with relief. He pulled the door open. "We have been waiting. It is good to see you, my friend."
The soldier limped past him and made for the chair. He carried a pack slung over his shoulder, which he tossed to the floor. "You're both looking rested. I see Brina came to patch you up."
"She did indeed," said Aragorn. "And she gave us a piece of her mind while she was at it."
Alun chuckled. "Of course she did."
"How is Brina?" Legolas asked quietly.
"Resting at last," Alun said. "I told her she needed to pay attention to herself. She was utterly worn out with all the tending and mending. Not to mention everything else she's had to deal with. The family is… ah, well. Miriel marched her off to bed a few hours ago." He began rummaging through the pack and extracted a small bottle, carefully sealed. "This is from Brina, for Legolas to use when his head pains him. She said to tell you that it is not the same medicine as what you were given before. She hasn’t the correct ingredients to make it again, nor the time. But she said this would help somewhat."
"I am very grateful," Legolas murmured. "She is a kind woman."
"I told her of my plan to track the sorcerer," Alun continued. "She was keenly interested in hearing about that. And then she went off and came back with this." He reached into his pack again and produced a small wrapping of finely woven dark cloth, and placed it into Legolas' hand. "Brina wanted me to give this to you. I don’t know what to make of it, myself. Seems not so kind, if you ask me, but she insisted."
Frowning, the elf laid the parcel on the table and opened it. Aragorn inhaled sharply as he glanced at the contents. "What is it?" Legolas asked.
The ranger was silent for a moment. Glancing at Alun, he shook his head in bewilderment.
"Aragorn?" Legolas pressed.
"There is a small clipping of red hair, and a tiny piece of parchment. On it is written these words: 'take good care of him on your journey' ".
Alun grunted. "And I was to tell you that the fabric is cut from one of Koryon's own shirts - the section over his heart."
For a moment Legolas stood silently with eyes closed, and then, taking great care, he folded the cloth and slid it into his jacket. He smiled gently. "I understand. She has entrusted him to me. Koryon will now be with us as we seek the sorcerer. His bravery will lend strength to our own." He turned toward Alun. "Brina was not being cruel. She has given me a gift - the gift of forgiveness."
Aragorn noted the relief on Legolas' face and squeezed the elf’s shoulder. "I am glad, mellon-nin," he murmured. He looked closely at his friend. "You have changed your mind? You will come with us when we pursue Malcovan?"
"Yes," Legolas nodded.
Alun looked startled. Glancing at the elf, he raised his eyebrows at Aragorn. "Is that what Brina meant by his 'journey'? Aragorn, with all due respect, this cannot be. How can –"
Aragorn met his gaze and indicated the soldier's injured leg. "I trust you've had that wound looked at."
Alun cleared his throat. "Aye, it's sewed up and bandaged and wretchedly painful. The cut is on the inside of my thigh - Valar knows how I'll sit a horse. Ah well, I have taken worse. But now that we've all slept and thrown off the fatigue of battle, it is time to move on. Are you ready to get out of here?"
"Where will we go?" Aragorn asked.
"Out of the city straight away," Alun said. "Things are quiet, but not yet settled. Once the fighting ended, the council members crawled out from under their beds and started up their usual blather. Among other pointless orders, they demanded that the search continue for the wild elf that murdered our lord. I am no longer a fugitive, but Legolas is. We need to get him out of here and fight to clear his name later, if that is something he even cares about. Arath and his men, along with some of my friends, are camped in the forest a mile off. You'll recall Arath’s cave, Aragorn. We will remain with them while we discuss what we want to do about starting after that sorcerer. And start after him we must. Our reclaiming of the city was a grievous loss to him, but I fear he is not done with us. We must stop him ere he gathers his remaining warriors to him, and concocts another plan. There are still some men in the city who desire to follow him. They seem bloody frantic about it, actually, staggering about like raving fools. We are holding them at present and they will go nowhere, but I fear some may have escaped the city before we could stop them."
He sighed, pausing to pluck at his beard. "And the boy has not been found," he added heavily. "We've looked everywhere. I fear the old man has taken him away. But why would he do this? Does he seek revenge?"
Aragorn shrugged. "Revenge, leverage, hostage… or perhaps to control Tarnan for his future desires. Have you any idea where Malcovan might have gone?"
"I've an idea or two, but we'll need more definite information before we can begin following him. I understand he has several lairs," Alun said as he bent over his pack and began digging through it once more.
"Who would have knowledge of these places?" asked the elf.
"Here, these are for you." Alun produced two well-made thick winter cloaks and tossed them to Aragorn. He grinned suddenly, the lean smile of a wolf about to begin a hunt. "Did I forget to tell you? We have a special guest in our camp. Ramhar is staying with us, though I must admit he doesn't seem to be entirely enjoying our hospitality."
"Ramhar?" Aragorn turned from handing Legolas one of the cloaks to gape at the soldier. "You have him?"
"We do indeed. We spotted him trying to ride out of the city, no doubt attempting to follow the old man. We knocked him off his horse and attached him to a tree. He's plenty put out, and a bit the worse for wear too. I’m not sure what happened to him, but he looked a bit sick. I won't permit anyone to abuse him. Not yet, at any rate. Arath is keeping watch over him until I get back." Alun rose to his feet with a grimace and bent to press a hand to his injured leg.
"Let us be on our way, before the night is over," he said. Glancing up, his eyes fell on the elf and widened in concern. "Legolas, what is wrong?"
Legolas stood rooted to the floor, clutching the forgotten cloak to his breast. His body quivered, his eyes shone with a terrible light. Aragorn moved quietly to his side and took him by the arm. "There is unfinished business between Legolas and Ramhar. Come, Alun. Let us go."
The soldier hastened to the door and peered out. "All is quiet. Quickly, follow me. To the left is a small stair that will lead us outside and behind the infirmary. I have my horse tethered within the shelter of some nearby trees, and I’ve a good steed for you that will share two riders."
With all haste, Aragorn guided the elf with a firm hand on his elbow as Alun led them swiftly down a dark passage and up the coldness of the stairway. Outside, a chill wind whistled through the chinks in the earthen wall. Aragorn pressed himself against it and glanced about him. It was deepest night, and the battered city slept the silent sleep of exhaustion, though dotted about here and there in the distance were the low flames of watch-fires. Alun gestured toward a small grove of trees just beyond the stable. "Come quickly. The wind and dark will help to hide us as we make our way out."
As they passed the black shadow of an adjacent stable however, Legolas halted abruptly. "Wait…" he gasped. His fingers dug into Aragorn's arm, and he pulled strongly toward the darkened building.
"What are you doing?" Aragorn demanded, trying to turn him. "Mellon nin, we must get you out of the city without delay."
"No, he is here! I must see him, Aragorn. Firestar is here!" As if in answer, a high whinny sounded briefly on the air before the wind snatched it away. It was immediately followed by an urgent pounding.
Alun blew out his breath. "He is indeed in there. Found wandering the forest after the boy was taken, and with some wounds to tell of his own battle. The horse has been unmanageable since, I hear. It took several men to catch him and get him back to the stable. Nothing for it now, he has sensed Legolas is near and will probably break his stall down if we don’t get in there to quiet him. But Legolas, this cannot take long. We must be on our way. We need to be at the encampment by dawn."
They crossed quickly to the stable door. Alun rapped sharply as Legolas pulled up his hood to shield his features. Someone stirred on the other side of the door, but it did not open.
"Ben, let me in!" Alun hissed sharply.
"What? Alun?" The door’s heavy bolt was withdrawn, and a gloved hand reached out, snatching at the soldier. "What are you doing out here at this time of night? I thought you had gone."
"Had to take care of a few things," Alun told him. "We're on out way up to the encampment right now."
Aragorn and Legolas crowded after him as the door was slammed and fastened shut against the night. The stableman, raising a sputtering lantern, stared at them. "Who are they?" he demanded.
"Friends," Alun told him. "They want to see young Lord Tarnan's horse."
The man arched his brows. "Well, they're the only ones who do. That stallion has gone wild. He won't let me near him to bathe his wounds or anything else. He won't eat either. Whatever happened to him out there…"
He stopped abruptly as the elf broke free of Aragorn’s grip and set out at a run down the lengthy corridor between the stalls. Shrugging, the stableman pointed after him and handed Aragorn the lantern. "The big box at the end," he muttered. "Have a care!"
Legolas was already in the stall, his hands cradling the gleaming stallion's head, murmuring quietly. "Easy, easy now," he whispered as Aragorn and Alun approached and Firestar jerked his head up, his eyes rolling in fear. The elf lifted a silent hand to halt his companions. "They will not harm you, mellon-nin. You are among friends. Easy…"
In the dim light thrown out by the lantern in his hand, Aragorn could see what appeared to be the marks of a whip along the horse's flanks. And worse, both of his forelegs were cut, scabbed and crusted with dried blood.
Beside him, Alun gazed searchingly at Firestar, his face dark with anger. "Tarnan must have attempted to flee his captors on horseback," he rasped. "They had to throw Firestar to get at the boy. No other way to stop this horse."
Legolas, frowning at Alun's words, immediately stooped and ran his hands carefully over the stallion's legs, never stopping the soothing patter of elven words. Firestar nickered nervously but did not move away. Pushing slowly against him with a gentle clicking sound, Legolas was able to pick up all four feet, carefully inspecting the hooves and the motion of the legs.
He turned to Aragorn, speaking quietly. "I will walk him out, Aragorn. As I do, please watch his gait. We will see if he is sound."
Aragorn glanced quickly at the stableman, who was peering over his shoulder into the stall with a bewildered expression. The man grinned at him and stepped back. "You have no argument with me. Your friend has a rare gift with horses. If he can help him, I'll not stand in his way."
In another moment, Legolas had gently pulled himself onto Firestar’s back. Aragorn swung the stall door fully open and stepped aside as elf and horse, the latter moving with remarkable calm, walked down the length of the stable corridor.
All three men closely observed the stallion’s stride, looking for any sign of real damage to his legs. Legolas turned Firestar and walked him back. "He feels sturdy. I do not detect a limp."
"I see nothing of great concern," Aragorn said. "He just needs a bit of care. The wounds are not too serious."
"Aye," the stableman agreed. "He moves along all right. Must have fallen on the soft floor of the forest, and a lucky thing for him that he did. If he had come down on his knees onto any sort of rocky outcropping… well, that would have been that. I'd have hated to put down such a fine animal."
Legolas turned toward the man. "Would you please bring me a bucket of warm water, healing salve, and some wrap for his forelegs? Let us see what we can do to make him more comfortable."
Once back in the stall, Legolas quickly began bathing the stallion’s lacerations. Alun drew Aragorn aside. "We must move on," he whispered. "Any delay could be dangerous, especially for Legolas if he is recognized. I know he is fond of Firestar, but we haven't time for treating him, bandaging him…"
"I must care for him," Legolas said over his shoulder. "He is coming with us."
Their journey to the encampment was swift and unhindered. Legolas had asked for no saddle for Firestar, but a halter only, and elf and horse had done well together as they made their way up the winding path. The stallion was subdued, but moved without pain, and carried his rider easily over the rugged ground as they followed Alun's grey gelding through the brush. Aragorn, pleased with the steed Alun had selected for him, a tall bay mare sure-footed and spirited, brought up the rear as they forded a shallow stream and trotted into the small clearing before the cave.
Several men, small in stature, kept watch around the perimeter. Long used to eking out a life in the wild, they sank into the forest and could barely be seen. One of them turned away and called out "Riders, coming in!"
A small number of the taller men of the city were gathered around a fire. Several lifted their hands in greeting as they recognized Alun, then their eyes fell upon Legolas, and a low murmur of surprise swept over the group. Legolas had deliberately pulled his hood back to reveal his bright hair and elven features. Having shown himself openly during the courtyard battle, he apparently saw no reason to continue to hide once free of the city. Aragorn raised his head and quickly ran his eyes over the gathered men, judging how each one looked at his friend.
Alun lead them to the line of tethered horses and dismounted. Aragorn helped Legolas secure Firestar a short distance from the others, and both ranger and elf were pleased to see the stallion begin to nose with interest at the fodder one of the hill men had brought for their mounts. Further down the line Legolas was delighted to be reunited with the old mare Rosgernroch, and embraced her happily. In another moment the cat Tithlam appeared, purring and rubbing against the elf's legs. With a happy exclamation he scooped her into his arms. "How is this?" he cried. "They are both safe, Aragorn."
Aragorn smiled at the elf's joy. "When Arath and his men pulled me from that burning and carried me to their cave, they brought our animals along too. And I am grateful they did. I am fond of them."
Legolas nodded. "Truly, the four of us were like a family, when we wintered together in the cottage."
Alun gestured for them to join him at the fire. He seated himself beside a young man and clapped him on the back. Aragorn recognized him as Celyn, the fellow who had met them at the hidden entrance to the city.
The young man grinned. "Hullo, Alun. You've got your friends with you, I see, including the famous archer. They are welcome here. Did you have any trouble getting out of the city?"
"None, except for the fact that I cannot ride," Alun said. He stretched his injured leg out stiffly and pressed his hand against the wound. "There was hardly anyone about, and our comrades still hold the old man's supporters in the barracks. I think everyone else in the city has collapsed from exhaustion. Tomorrow the folk will begin working to repair the damage."
"Why is that elf riding our young lord's horse?" a large, red-faced man holding a battered cup in his hands asked. He was eyeing Legolas warily, then caught Aragorn’s stern gaze. He flinched, turned aside and spat on the ground. Aragorn remembered him from the armory.
Alun glanced at the man and narrowed his eyes dangerously. "What are you doing here, Coll?" he demanded. "That elf's name is Legolas. He rides Firestar because he can, and because I permit it. Have you any other foolish questions?"
"What is the final count from the courtyard?"
Alun snorted. "I don't recall seeing you there during the battle. Do you ask about the dead? It looks to be about seventeen men lost, though the number may rise. A couple of fellows in the infirmary are badly wounded. It could go either way with them."
"And there were thirty-four dead orcs in the courtyard as well," Celyn said, flashing a bright smile at Legolas. "Most of them were killed by this fellow's arrows." He rose and thrust a large tankard into Legolas' hands, clouting the elf on the shoulder as he made his way into the trees.
"I think you have an admirer," Aragorn whispered to Legolas, who had managed to do no more than inhale sharply at the unexpected contact.
"Is it normal for men to pummel each other when they wish to become friends?" the elf asked under his breath. "It is a wonder you all are not constantly bruised."
"We usually are," Aragorn said with a soft laugh.
Legolas sniffed at the tankard and made a face. "This is some of that repulsive ale you like to drink. Do you want it?"
Aragorn happily took it and swallowed with care, mindful still of his injured throat. "This is not a bad brew. Nice and dark, the way I like it. They must have brought it up from the city. And it is far better than the drink I was given earlier for my cough."
As Alun talked with his men, Legolas leaned toward Aragorn. "Where is Ramhar?" he whispered.
"Not enjoying the warmth of this fire," Aragorn noted. "They must have him nearby, perhaps in the cave. We will meet with him soon enough, I warrant, and have our say. He has much to answer for."
"I will kill him," Legolas said flatly.
"I fear you may have to get in line, my friend. He will have to face justice from the people of the city first, ere Mirkwood has its turn. But before any of that, Alun needs to get him to talk. If Ramhar knows where the old man has gone with the boy, we must get it out of him."
The elf's eyes burned darkly in the glare of the firelight. "Fear not, I will get it out of him."