A pale light had dawned, growing steadily in the eastern sky as Aragorn wound strips of cloth through his horse's harness to mute the jingle. It was a morning of frost; the dried grasses glittered as the slow rays of the sun settled upon them. A blackbird winged swiftly overhead, its calling voice thin on the winter air.
The hill-man Arath had been true to his word, and had provided food for the journey – preserved meat and fruit, bread, and wine, well-watered in leather flasks. The hunting party would not bring a pack animal with them, so as to travel as quickly as possible, and the supplies had been evenly distributed and tucked away in the saddlebags.
Legolas stood nearby, his back to the ranger. He was adjusting the straps of a quiver across his chest. A bow – the one he had used during the battle of the courtyard - was slung over his shoulder. The knife Koryon had given him was secured at his waist. Whatever his earlier doubts and fears may have been, Legolas appeared to have dealt with them, and he had moved about their camp this morning with calm assurance as he prepared for the journey, his fair face set with grim purpose.
At dawn, the elf had sat apart from Aragorn in silence. And then, for the first time since the loss of his eyesight, he had braided his hair as he had once worn it, showing that he again considered himself a warrior elf of Mirkwood. Aragorn had felt his heart swell at the sight. Though he continued to harbor his own concerns, he was determined to no longer voice them to Legolas. For this task, the blind elf would need all of the confidence he could muster, and it was essential that he not feel diminished by the doubts of others.
Aragorn stirred uneasily in the chill as he gazed over the lifeless trees. Should any harm befall his friend, he knew that he would never forgive himself. He had discussed further with Alun whether there would be better safety with more men to accomplish the task, and in the end they agreed that the risk would be greater with a large force. The party would remain small, and, they hoped, undetected as they neared the sorcerer's lair. What they would do once they arrived there Aragorn could not yet think on. First they would have to see what lay before them, and then plan their attack.
He caught sight of Alun, already mounted on his sturdy grey gelding, moving toward them through the men's camp. Legolas turned immediately and picked his way closer to Aragorn. "Is it time?" he called out.
"It is," Aragorn told him. "Alun is coming to fetch us."
In another moment the soldier reined up beside Aragorn and looked down at him with a scowl. "Coll has vanished from the camp," he muttered.
"Who is Coll?" Aragorn asked. He groped briefly through his memory. "Ah yes, that surly fellow?"
"The same," Alun said. "He hasn't gone back to the city either, or at least he hasn't been seen there. I sent young Celyn down first thing this morning to check. I don't like it."
"He is a hostile character, sure enough," Legolas remarked as he drew near. "But does that make him an enemy? Could he be under the influence of the sorcerer?"
Aragorn turned quickly to Alun. "Did you ask Ramhar about him?"
Alun grimaced. "I did. All he did was laugh, if you can call that miserable sound he makes laughing."
"Hardy reassuring," the elf muttered.
"No, it is not," Alun agreed. "But Coll is an idiot. I doubt he'd have wit enough to be an accomplice of the sorcerer. Most likely his intentions are nothing more than to steal a few trinkets from the lord's house while everyone else down there in the city is occupied with restoring order."
But as Alun spoke the words, a new sense of foreboding settled on Aragorn's shoulders. Legolas too looked uneasy, but he spoke firmly. "Well, as our friend Arath would say, 'there's nowt for it'. Whatever lies ahead, we cannot turn from our path now." He clapped Aragorn on the shoulder and went to fetch his horse.
In the camp, Ramhar waited for them. His mount was a magnificent black stallion, which pranced impatiently and snorted dual streams of vapor into the cold morning air. Ramhar sat his steed well, his dark winter cloak streaming over his horse's flanks, his gold arm-band flashing. He stared with ill-disguised scorn at Alun's horse and the tall bay mare that Aragorn rode. "Think you these nags can keep up with my Blackthorn?"
Alun fixed him with a baleful glare. "You needn't concern yourself with their mettle. They will hold the pace and more. This isn't a race, Ramhar. You'd best make sure your own horse keeps to the shadows and doesn’t give us away with all that capering about. You both look more suited to a festival parade than a hard ride."
"It could become a race in the end. One never knows about these things," Ramhar said with a thin smile. "As for Blackthorn –" he choked suddenly on his words; his eyes widened and fixed on something just past Aragorn's shoulder. The ranger turned to see what had silenced the arrogant man.
Legolas, astride a gleaming Firestar, had trotted into the clearing. The horse's coat burned like autumn flame in the morning sunlight. The elf rode without saddle or bridle. He was armed for battle, golden hair braided, head held high and eyes bright as gems. Though clad in the ordinary garb of a hunter and displaying no finery, Legolas looked every inch a warrior prince of the Elves. And there was more than mere beauty in his look. There was a glow of power about him, as a fire banked and cooled to ash, but with the heat yet contained within. A murmur went through the encamped men, who regarded him with awe.
Alun stared at Legolas for a moment, then at Ramhar's sour expression. Catching Aragorn's amused glance, he nodded in satisfaction. "And on that note, we'll be off," he said.
By nightfall they were miles away. Though traveling over the plain would have been faster and easier, they made the decision to keep to the shelter of the wood instead. Under cover of the trees, dark corridors of beech and oak, they had followed a deer path, and it had provided sure footing for their horses through the snow. Ramhar had gone first, leading the way as he preferred to phrase it, though it was understood by them all that it also served to keep him within view of the others. He was permitted no arms, and Alun made it clear to him that should he try to give them the slip, Legolas would use his archery skills, however reluctantly, to bring down Ramhar's horse.
Alun had followed Ramhar, for he had appointed himself their captive's main guardian. Legolas had ridden behind Alun, and Aragorn had brought up the rear, grim and watchful, and wanting, in truth, to observe Legolas and be certain of the elf's abilities on the trail. As he had hoped, he need not have worried. Legolas had ridden Firestar easily and confidently throughout the long day, over rough terrain and even the fording of the river. Horse and rider had indeed moved together as one.
They had pressed on steadily throughout the day, drawing rein only for brief periods of rest. Dusk had come down quickly, and they camped in a protected hollow, ringed by trees, which helped to block the searching winter wind. Alun had speared a rabbit for their supper, and though the meat was little enough for four men, it was fresh and would be a welcome addition to their provisions. Aragorn sat beside the soldier as he cooked their meal over a small fire. Opposite them Ramhar crouched silently, staring without expression into the flames. Though he had given them no trouble and had remained silent, Aragorn knew not to relax his guard, and he watched their captive continuously for any hint of treachery.
"This is nearly done," Alun said. "Want to fetch Legolas?"
The elf was with the horses, ensuring that each was properly fitted with a feedbag and comfortably blanketed against the cold. Ramhar had insisted that his own horse be tended only by him however, and had tethered Blackthorn some distance from the other three. Indeed no one cared to approach the great black stallion after had he flattened his ears and kicked out when Alun had come too close. "That beast is as ill-tempered as its master," the solider had muttered in Aragorn's ear.
At the sound of Aragorn's footsteps, Legolas straightened from running his hands over Firestar's legs and turned toward him. "How did he handle the ride? Is all well with him?" Aragorn asked.
The elf smiled happily. "I am pleased to report that he is fine. He felt perfectly sound today and I detected nothing amiss. He has healed well."
Aragorn nodded. "That is a relief. I was concerned lest he come up lame during our journey."
"He will not falter, I'm certain of it." Legolas sniffed the air. "Is that our rabbit? I confess to being famished."
"As am I. It was a long day on horseback, and we are both unaccustomed to it."
Legolas chuckled. "You will be sore tomorrow."
"And you will not be, I know. It takes longer than a day's hard ride to tax your muscles. How is your arm?"
The elf slowly raised it above his head and lowered it again. "It is moveable, but still somewhat uncomfortable. I will take some of your herbs with my meal."
"And your head? I was concerned lest the day bring more pain for you."
Legolas shrugged. "I feared it too, but at the moment it is not bad. I am happy to be amongst trees again – they help to cheer me after Ramhar's dungeon. Come, take me to our supper."
As Aragorn guided Legolas to the fire and helped him get settled, Ramhar's head suddenly came up, and he stared at them. He watched in rigid silence as the ranger handed Legolas a plate and explained what was on it. Then he turned incredulously to Alun. "I cannot be seeing this," he muttered. "Do you play a trick on me?"
"What trick would that be?" the soldier asked between bites of meat.
"That elf cannot see?"
Alun snorted. "'That elf' is sitting right there. Why don't you ask him?"
"No," Ramhar stated flatly. "I will not speak to him. Elves are devious creatures."
"I expect he feels the same about you," Alun retorted. "And with much better reason."
Legolas' expression did not change at the insult. Like Aragorn himself, when he guarded his face, his thoughts were unreadable. He spoke evenly. "I am blind, Ramhar. I have been since the autumn."
The man was startled to his feet, his peculiar depthless eyes flashing with emotion for the first time. "How can this be? I do not believe it! It is impossible."
"I care not whether you believe it," Legolas said. "I am unable to see with my eyes, but you are unable to see truth. Which of us is really blind?"
Ramhar flicked a charged glance at Aragorn. "And this is who you choose to bring along in pursuit of the old man? You must be mad." He grabbed up his food and his bedroll, laughing harshly. "I take my leave of you for the night. Sleep well, and dream deep. Dream of what Malcovan will do to you and your sightless elf."
"Not too far," Alun barked at him. "Settle yourself under that big oak there. I want you close by, where we can watch you. And keep your place. You know what will happen if you try to leave camp. We'll be eating Blackthorn for our dinner."
Ramhar stalked away, and with a grunt placed himself on the other side of the massive tree, away from them. Alun rolled his eyes and continued eating.
"For all his pride, he will be back," Aragorn said. "He'll want to be nearer the fire for sleeping."
"Just five minutes with him out of my sight will do me a world of good," Alun retorted. "Hand me that wine."
After they had finished their meal, Aragorn dressed the wound on Legolas' arm while the soldier silently fed twigs to the fire. The moon was waning, offering a dim silver-edged light to illuminate the forest. The naked arms of the trees stretched upward, splaying thin and jagged fingers against the shreds of dark cloud. Aragorn welcomed the winter quiet of the land, for he was weary, more so than he cared to let on to Legolas and Alun. He felt the full burden of concern for his companions and what they would soon encounter. How would they be able to defeat the sorcerer and recover his young captive? Was it folly to attempt this?
Indeed it was folly. That he understood completely, but what other choice was there? Unthinkingly he released a long breath, and the elf instantly noticed. "You have been silent all day, Aragorn. That in itself is not unusual, but I have felt heaviness in your silence. What is bothering you, mellon-nin?"
"Everything is bothering me," the ranger stated. "We are going in blind, if you don't mind my using the expression. We have no plan."
Legolas smiled gently. "And you like to have a plan. I know that well enough. It is why I call you 'The Thinker' behind your back."
"Indeed. And I have had other names for you too."
"I'm sure of it," the ranger said, eyeing his friend thoughtfully.
"I also wish we had some idea of what we will be walking into," said the elf.
Alun stirred and bent to loosen the clasp on his belt. Then he glanced up. "I watched you during the fight for my city. You both have the ability to think on your feet, and you work well together as a team. That is a valuable asset, when there is no plan."
Aragorn nodded grimly. "Aye, Legolas and I have been in tight spots before. We have faced many foes together. But I fear that none were as terrible as this."
"If we had a plan, which I know we don't, what would it be?" Alun asked as he pulled his pipe out and began stuffing it with tobacco.
"We distract the old man somehow, perhaps try to draw him out," Aragorn said. "Or attempt to infiltrate his lair while he sleeps. One thing is certain – we cannot approach him directly."
Legolas stretched his legs toward the fire. "For myself, I thought if you could get the child to me, I could spirit him away from the danger. Firestar is the fastest horse, and he would willingly carry us both. We can only take the time on trust," the elf added quietly. "All may be well."
"Believe that if you want to," Ramhar called from behind his tree. "Malcovan will unleash untold wrath upon you. You all will be destroyed."
"You'll be first through the door then," Alun barked. "I'll be using you as a shield."
"He will not harm me," said Ramhar. "He will understand that I am your captive, and will not mind that I brought you to him. He will relish your unhappy end, and so will I."
"Enough talk," Aragorn commanded. "It is time for us to sleep. Come back to the fire, Ramhar. I will take the first watch, and Alun the second."
"And the blind member of our party?" Ramhar said in a contemptuous tone as he drew closer to the flames. "He takes third watch?"
Legolas stood up. "I have little need of sleep, Ramhar. I will watch over us through the entire night. The wolves are eyeing your horse, by the way. You might want to bring him closer to our camp. "
The man jumped to his feet and stared at Legolas in shock as the elf leapt past him and swung himself up into the branches of the great oak. Then he ran to untie Blackthorn and lead him to safety.