Legolas had not been permitted near Ramhar. He had been told that the captain of the army was fevered and ill, unable to speak, and remained in the cave under guard. Aragorn had gone several times with Alun to look upon him, and to offer guidance about treating the man's sickness. He confirmed that Ramhar was, for the present, unable to be interrogated. This fact did little to ease the elf's frustration.
"Is he not getting any better?" Legolas demanded as Aragorn sat beside him at their campfire on the second evening, after again returning from the cave. "Does he say anything about the sorcerer?"
"He says a great deal about the sorcerer, but nothing of use. It is just babbling," Aragorn told him. "He is not yet able to respond to our questions, or give us any sort of idea as to his location."
Legolas shook his head, unwilling to accept this. "Time is passing Aragorn," he said urgently. "Malcovan could have the boy in some unreachable place by now."
"I know," Aragorn sighed. "And Alun is half mad with worry. But there is nothing we can do except wait until Ramhar improves. In the meanwhile, you must sleep, mellon-nin, and eat more, so that you will be ready to travel when the time comes. Here, I have brought our supper. The hill-man Arath made some stew. I have tasted it, and promise you that it is quite pleasant. Much better the drinks he makes."
Legolas felt a warm bowl being pressed into his hands and accepted it gratefully. Sniffing at the stew with interest he took a bite, savoring the richness of beef and carrot in a well-seasoned broth. "Arath has some skill with food," he commented.
The ranger laughed. "He told me that he made this just for you. He was excited to meet you, after watching over us at the cabin for those many weeks. He wanted to tempt your appetite. Did you know that he made the cheese that he used to leave for us? And the bread as well. It is his hope, when all is settled in the city, that he can open a tavern on the edge of town, welcoming travelers with his cooking."
"I predict success," said Legolas. "But he should leave the wine-making to someone else. That cup he gave me last night curled my toes. It was horrifying, and yet he claimed it to be his best effort."
"He should make no drinks of any kind," Aragorn chuckled. "His patrons will run right back out the door."
They spoke no more, but rested comfortably as they finished their meal. Though the delay in hunting down the sorcerer dismayed them both, their forced idleness was not wasted time, for the inaction afforded both elf and ranger an opportunity to regain strength and continue the healing they both so badly needed. Arath had pressed upon Aragorn another flask of the dreadful throat tonic, and though Legolas had teased his friend about the horrors of that particular brew, it was undoubtedly beneficial. Aragorn's voice had nearly returned to its normal rasp, and his cough had subsided almost completely. The ranger had also told Legolas that his hands and foot were healing well.
As for the elf, he felt that his own recovery, though perhaps somewhat slower than when he was at full health, progressed at a satisfactory pace. The worst of his hurts – the knife wound in his side – now created little more than an uncomfortable twinge when he moved suddenly, and he knew that soon it would be entirely resolved. The many cuts and bruises resulting from his abduction and captivity had dwindled to insignificance. As for the pains in his head and neck, they had dulled and were tolerable for the present. He used Brina's tonics sparingly, so as to save them for when his need was greatest, and had turned toward something that Arath had pressed on him - another terrible medicinal drink, though not as unpalatable as the one Aragorn had been given.
The hill-man had sounded immensely proud of this particular concoction as he explained it to Legolas. "Ah! Now this one, laddie, is one of my old grand-mama's specialties. It is good for pain in the head. And, if needed, it gives a man a right powerful boost when he is between the sheets with a woman. And who wouldn't want that, eh?" With that, Arath had elbowed the elf nearly off his feet, shoved a cracked flask into his hands and stalked away humming to himself. Legolas had turned to the ranger in bewilderment, but all Aragorn had done was laugh, leaving the elf on his own to fearfully swallow a bit of the foul mixture and hope that he would get only the result he wanted for his headaches, and not the other.
The only part of his body that did not feel as it should was his arm, where the old man had struck him with the black blade. Aragorn had twice checked the wound, declaring it to be healing, and he had treated it with a poultice and wrapped it well. But for all of the ranger's assurances, and although he could move his arm and fingers freely with no weakness or increase in pain, Legolas could not entirely turn his attention away from the injury. At times he could still feel the pulsing heat within his arm, whispering like a submerged heartbeat, and the blade flamed again in his mind when he tried to sleep.
"Leave off picking at that bandage, Legolas," Aragorn said sharply. "Here, take the cat. She'll keep your hands busy."
Tithlam suddenly landed in his lap. Legolas smiled, stroking her gently as she arched against him. She helped to calm him, when he was feeling uncomfortable. Lately, she seemed to be in his arms more than not.
"What is on your mind, Legolas?" the ranger's question cut through his thoughts. "In addition to that wound?"
"You said that Ramhar talks – babbles – about the old man. What does he say?"
"Ah," Aragorn murmured. His spoon clattered against the bowl, as if he had set it down. "I was rather hoping you would not ask me that."
"I have sensed your unease when you speak of Ramhar. Tell me what is wrong."
The elf heard his friend chewing. "I pity him," Aragorn said after a pause to swallow his food.
Legolas felt the blood rise in his face. "I must have misheard you," he said in astonishment. "Repeat your words."
"I pity him," the ranger said. "And I will tell you what I think has happened to him, to bring me to this."
Setting the cat aside, Legolas was on his feet before he realized it. "You pity a torturer, a murderer? How -?" Biting back his words, Legolas swung away from his friend, fists clenched. He took two steps and collided painfully with a log that bordered their campfire. He felt the heat of the flames on his face. Swearing, he backed up a pace and shook his head savagely. "No, this cannot be."
Aragorn spoke gently. "You asked, mellon-nin, and so you must hear me now. You know that I am not an impulsive man, easily blown about by emotion. And neither are you. We reach our conclusions only after careful thought. Legolas, sit down."
Furious, but knowing the truth in Aragorn's words, Legolas silently resumed his seat. The men camped nearby began bawling out one of their many nightly songs, something about drinking. A sudden flare of pain streaked across his eyes, and he raised a hand to press his fingers against them.
"Legolas?" the ranger's voice seemed to come from far away.
With an impatient hiss, the elf jerked his hand away from his face. He had no time for the familiar pain, no interest in it. "It is nothing. Speak," he said coldly.
"I do not betray you, Legolas. I have not forgotten what Ramhar did to you in the darkness of his dungeons, and what he did to your mother the queen. Nor have I forgotten that Ramhar is the man who set that trap for me in the forest, and left me to burn alive in the cottage. Do not think that my pity, or even my understanding, is the same thing as forgiveness. It is not."
Legolas felt shame stealing over him, and his anger evaporated. He nodded slowly. "I am sorry, Aragorn. I was not thinking of the hurt he has caused you, but only of my own. Please, go on."
"I have been to the cave three times to see Ramhar," Aragorn continued. "I have examined his body, trying to find the reason for his sickness. There is no wound – he was not injured in the battle for the city, nor was he hurt after, when Alun's men took him. He suffered no blow to the head either, that I can determine. His symptoms are different than one would expect to see with an injury or common illness, and his manner is as well. I no longer see the arrogance and cruelty of the man. Now I see confusion, and grief. He cries out for his murdered family."
Legolas frowned and drew one leg up, lacing his fingers around the knee. "In that, he and I are not so different. And what does he say about the sorcerer?"
"He is desperate to get back to him. We have Ramhar restrained, and not only because he is our enemy. He is delirious, he thrashes at times, and his body shakes. His mouth is dry. He calls out constantly for water, and for the old man."
The elf felt his skin prickle, a cold touch of fear in the dark. He shuddered, drawing his cloak more closely around his body, and turned to his friend in horror. He was barely able to utter the words. "Aragorn," he whispered in a low voice. "Can it be - ?"
"That Ramhar was held captive by the sorcerer's enchantment?" Aragorn asked, finishing the elf's thoughts. "Yes, mellon-nin, that is exactly what I think."
The small stand of trees held little comfort for the elf that night. Pressing his back against the wide trunk of the biggest pine, he huddled under a thick blanket, feeding twigs to the small fire that Aragorn had helped him build before retiring to his bedroll. Legolas was trying to make sense of it all, and getting nowhere.
Restlessness had consumed him during these few days encamped, driven by anger at being so close to Ramhar and yet unable to confront him, worry at the delay of their pursuit of the sorcerer, and discomfort at the bawdy celebrations of the men after their victory in the battle for the city. There were too many voices, noises, rustlings, footsteps and thumps hemming him. The men had been friendly, particularly the young fellow Celyn, who, puppy-like, trotted after the elf at every opportunity. Their evenings were filled with songs and ale and claps on the back and off-colour jokes. Once, Legolas would have joined them, keeping himself somewhat detached, as was his way, but still able to find amusement and pleasure in their company. He had done so before, when in Dale, and with Aragorn, but now it all set his teeth on edge. Surrounded by clamor and activity, Legolas was unable to move, to think. Only apart, when he was nestled in the stand of trees with Aragorn nearby, had he had been able to find some measure of quiet. Alone in the whispering pines he felt calmed, perceptive, and able to hear the Song. But even then he felt his naturally vibrant response to the world muted, curiously out of place, and often he lost track of himself and wandered into dark brooding thought. He silently wondered if his blindness and recent experiences had altered him too much, making him a permanent outsider in the world of elves, no longer fully connected.
He ran his hand over the bandage on his arm. The wound did not hurt so much now, dressed again with a healing poultice by the ranger, but the muted throbbing went on, sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker, but never entirely gone. During the day, busy with horses and men and plans, it was easier to turn his attention away from thoughts of the sword. But at night, when Aragorn slept, the vision stalked him, clearer than any dream. The blade seemed to rise up and start after him in pursuit. Fanciful imaginings of the weapon, alive and burning with streaks of fire, plagued him when he should have been sleeping, causing the sweat to bead on his body and his mouth to go dry.
It was as if dream and reality were merging. He did not know what it meant, except that death waited, cold and implacable, for someone.
And what of Ramhar? Aragorn's words had troubled him deeply. Legolas' thoughts had been focused on avenging the death of his mother, once Ramhar had told them what they needed to know about the location of the sorcerer. But how could Legolas dispense justice to a man who perhaps could not be held responsible for what he had done?
"Can't sleep, laddie?" a gruff voice asked.
Alarmed, Legolas leapt to his feet. The hill-man Arath had walked directly up to him without his knowledge.
"Sorry for giving you a turn," the man said hastily. "I can go. I spotted your fire, saw you sitting here alone and thought you might want… ah, well. I'll be on my way."
Legolas shook his head to gather himself and stepped forward. "Forgive me, Arath. I startle easily."
"Well, I suppose that's easy enough to understand, never knowing what's around you. I'd be running around like a panicked idiot myself. Well, I'll leave you to your thoughts. Sorry again for intruding."
Arath's footsteps, surprisingly light for a man, started away toward the camp. Before he realized what he was doing, Legolas called out to him to stop. "Please, you are not intruding. I would welcome your company."
The footsteps crunched back toward him. "I have a bottle of wine," Arath said with a hint of invitation in his voice.
"Have you?" Legolas said, brightening. Then he grimaced, hesitating. He heard the hill-man chuckle.
"Ah, you needn't fear that it's mine. Perhaps someday I will have the proper facilities, and we will see what I can do then. No laddie, this wine came from the city, from the lord's own house. Malcovan and Ramhar hadn't gotten round to drinking all of it yet, and someone brought a few bottles up tonight."
A bottle of wine shared around a campfire with a rough, uneducated man of the wilderness? It was better than one more moment spent alone with his dark thoughts. And the elf perceived that there was more to the hill-man than what his coarse exterior revealed - that underneath was a kindly heart, guided by sturdy good sense. "Please, join me," Legolas said, sweeping his hand toward the log he had placed near his tree as a seat for the ranger. "How does my fire look?"
"It's ready for some bigger pieces," the hill-man said, moving past him. He smelled like sweat and horses. "I'll just toss a few on, eh?"
"Yes, if you will. I'm never quite sure of myself around fire, though my confidence has improved over time." The elf settled back into his spot beneath the tree, listening as Arath built up the fire. It hissed briefly – Arath must have added a piece with a touch of damp on it – and then he heard the clinking sound of glass.
"The good crystal from the house, we might as well do this right", Arath stated, and a goblet was pressed into his hands. Legolas sniffed, sipped, and then took a proper swallow. New warmth flooded over him, making his toes tingle, and he sighed without knowing it. Though he knew it was not the wine of the Dorwinion gardens, which brought happy dreams and no ill effects to those who drank it, he thought this vintage came close, and he felt a sudden keening ache for his father's table and the good times he had known at it.
"Tasty, eh?" the man said with a chuckle.
Legolas nodded. "It is marvelous," he said. "I know a little of wine-making, but only a little. I know more about the drinking of it. At home, we do not make our own. Our kin in the south send it up to my elven city."
"You mean your elven kingdom," Arath said.
"And you are a prince there."
"Yes," Legolas said again, reluctantly. He preferred to keep his royal status concealed when he was among folk he did not know, though he supposed it was inevitable at this point that the news had reached all, within the city and without.
"I could see it, even in those early days of watching you and your friend in Gildwas' cabin. Even with you staggering about and crashing into trees, I could see it. You've got the bearing, if you know what I mean. He does too – Aragorn - for all his wild ways."
Legolas turned the goblet slowly in his hands, feeling the coldness of it, and the delicately etched pattern. "I have not had an opportunity to properly thank you for all that you did for us, Arath. For the food you gave us, and for saving Aragorn from the cottage when they set fire to it."
"Think nothing of it," the man said gruffly.
"No. You saved our lives. We are indebted to you, and will repay you somehow for your kindness."
"You already have. The city is safe, and we have Ramhar in hand now, in no small measure thanks to you and Aragorn. If he and Alun can find the sorcerer next, that'll be payment enough for me," Arath said. The normally playful cadence of his voice had become ice-edged.
"They have harmed you," Legolas said quietly. It was not a question.
"Aye," Arath said. He gulped his wine noisily. "Ramhar and his men, they came for us some time back, over a year ago now, at the start of the winter. They wanted our men to fill the ranks of the army. It wasn't an option to say no, though we weren't citizens of Carbryddin. So we left, those of us who could, and hid in the depths of the forest, and in the caves. Our community was forced to disband, and we scattered to the fours winds. Harder to find us that way. Ramhar took what belongings we left behind in our haste to be gone. We set up new homes as best we could. We are a wandering folk naturally, used to moving about, but we had our winter and summer camps. They were destroyed. Some folk came to our aid, Alun and some of the other people of the city, and Gildwas at the cabin. If not for them -"
The hill-man fell silent. Legolas waited patiently, and after a short time Arath spoke again in a low voice. "My wife – her time was near, you see. It was too much for her, being forced to flee our winter camp. She never complained, my Ellyn. She bore up as best she could, but she sickened and died, and our unborn child died with her."
"I'm sorry, Arath."
"She was a lovely lass. I never thought one such as her would ever glance my way. But she did. Aye, she did. At our hunting feasts – ah now, laddie! You'd never find better entertainment - such fiddling and dancing as to bring the dead out of their barrows for a reel. And no other could match my Ellyn for singing. Sounded like a lark, she did, on the first warm day of spring. But I had two other bairns with her," the hill-man added brightly. "Both are likely lads, and doing well under the care of my sister."
"You can return to them now, can you not? The threat to your people is over."
"Aye, and I will away soon, but not just yet."
"The sorcerer, and Ramhar too. We all want our chance, don't we?"
Legolas nodded. "We do indeed. If we can get Ramhar to talk and tell us where the old man is, we will find him. He will harm no one else."
"And you plan to go with the hunting party? Begging your pardon, but I don't understand it. You're blind. What good can you do?"
Legolas simply shrugged. "I had a dream. I must follow it."
"Ah," Arath said. "And it drives you before it like a wind." To the folk who dwell in the hills and forests of the Northern lands, such things are seen as reasonable. At length he spoke again.
"I knew that change was coming. I felt it on my skin. When you and Aragorn first appeared at the cabin, and you looking as wild and strange as any imaginings of elves could have been, well, it gave me hope. For the first time in ages, it gave me hope. And I feel it still."
A log in the fire snapped, and a spark lit on Legolas' hand, smarting. He brushed it away. "Arath, I am merely an elf. Not a herald of miracles."
"Aye, I know that," Arath snorted impatiently. "But you're not the only one who has dreams, lad."
Legolas cocked an eyebrow, wondering what the hill-man meant. But the familiar tread of another man's footsteps coming from the direction of the camp drew his attention. "Aragorn? I hope we did not wake you."
"No, mellon-nin," the ranger said. "Alun woke me. Arath, how are you?"
"Well enough. Your friend and I have been having a good chat. Join us for some wine?"
"No, but I thank you." Aragorn crouched beside Legolas, resting a
hand on his shoulder and speaking quietly. "I came to tell you that
Ramhar has wakened. He is able to speak with us."