Between Darkness and Dawn

Chapter 14: Desperate Bargains

by Cassia and Siobhan

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“What?  Where?  What about Ahnna?!” Yrin demanded brusquely, shaking his friend. 

“They...” Tinald swallowed a half sob.  “She... Oh stars, Yrin, come quickly!” 

Yrinvan did not need to be told twice.  Pushing Tinald ahead of him to lead the way, he raced after the shorter man. 

Tinald collected himself a little as they ran and related his story somewhat more coherently.  “The Kessling twins are down with the fever.  They haven’t been doing well since the antidote shortage put them on half rations.  Ahnna was smuggling food to them and... the orcs caught her.” 

Yrin’s stomach knotted in fear.  The rule was that if you did not work, you did not eat.  The sick were not favored in this regard and as a result, they often died.  Stealing more than your allotted portion of food was a considered a crime in Angmar. 

Yrinvan swore silently to himself as he pounded down a flight of stairs, trailing Tinald.  His wife had always refused caution.  Yrin only took calculated risks when the odds were in his favor.  Why did Ahnna always have to take on the lost causes?  Merciful stars, what price had she paid?  His heart took another dip as he realized they were descending to the orcs’ level. It pounded hard in his chest, and then froze into a lump of ice as they rounded a corner and he realized with certainty where they were heading.  Death Hall. 

The Nazgûl often let the orcs take care of disciplinary action among the servants, especially when he himself was busy with other things.  Right now his attention was focused on his prisoners and he could not be bothered with slaves.  The orcs were only too happy to oblige. 

Yrin and Tinald entered the long, dim room that the slaves referred to as Death Hall.  The walls of the passage were dotted with manacles.  The slowly corroding metal leached dark rust stains down the stone walls, mingling the oxidation with dried bloodstains.  Bones in various states of decay littered the passage.  Yrin had to step over them or kick them aside in order to walk across the filthy floor. This was the orcs’ domain and it both looked and smelled the part.  Disobedient slaves were taken here to die, ultimately tormented to death by the orcs.  The two servants covered their mouths and noses to keep from gagging on the foul air, but otherwise reacted very little to their surroundings.  They had both been down here before on official business.  Their jaded response to the horror of the hall spoke volumes about what life in Angmar prepared you to accept. 

Yrinvan saw a single form against the wall in the gloom.  Pushing past Tinald, he hurried ahead.  Ahnna dangled from a low set of chains, half sitting on the ground.  Her head rested forward upon her breast.  Her clothing was torn and disheveled.  Dark bruises were already showing on her exposed arms. 

Sinking to his knees by his wife’s side, Yrin took her face gently in his hands, tipping it up.  He wiped blood from the corner of her sweet, pretty lips with his thumb.  His hands trembled.  Ahnna’s face was badly cut and bruised.  For a moment he feared she was already dead, until her deep green eyes fluttered open. 

The woman mouthed her husband’s name, trying to smile.  She coughed and grimaced, turning her head away. 

“Oh, Ahnna...” Yrin’s whisper was agonized.  He wanted to ask her how she could do this, but he did not.  Sadly, he knew she would not have been the woman he loved if she hadn’t taken the risk that brought her here. 

“I know, you told me so,” Ahnna whispered hoarsely.  “Yrin... I love you.  Kiss the children.”  Her voice held no self-pity.  Slaves in Angmar knew how, and when, to say goodbye. 

Tears spilled down Yrin’s face.  This was one goodbye he could not make.  He could not live without this woman; too much of his heart lay in her keeping.  His fingers desperately sought the chains binding her, but they were fastened securely.  It was cruel irony.  These were some of the only locks in this whole mountain for which he did not have the keys.  Only the Witch-king had the key to these locks. 

“I won’t let you die here!” Yrin promised, giving the vile chains a yank. 

“Hey, you don’t belong down here, grubs!” a rough voice growled out of the darkness.  Retzhrak’s lumbering form came into view.  Behind him, the eyes of other orcs winked evilly in the darkness.  “Get away from our dinner,” he said cruelly.  “Only we get to play with the food.”  Laughter rippled behind him. 

Yrin straightened up, staring the head orc down.  “I will kill you if you lay another finger on her,” he hissed, livid with rage. 

Retzhrak did not advance, but he did not back away either.  Unfettered hatred gleamed in his eyes.  The fact that this was a supreme chance to hurt the human with control over him was not lost on his small, malicious mind. 

“The Master gave her to us,” he snarled.  “She’s ours unless you want to trade.” 

“Trade?” Yrin spat the word in contempt and confusion. 

“Sure,” Retzhrak sneered.  “You give us the Master’s elf, and we’ll call it an even trade, right boys?” 

A mocking cheer of assent came from behind him.  Having an elf in the castle rankled the dark creatures and they all would enjoy a piece of him if they were allowed. 

Yrinvan gave a disgusted expression.  Legolas was not his to barter with even if he would.  He belonged to the Nazgûl.  Of course, the orcs knew that.  They did not really expect him to trade; they were merely toying with him in their sick way.  They asked him an impossible request simply to mock him.  Besides, in the end, the Nazgûl was still the only one with the keys for these fetters. 

A small skirmish resounded behind Retzhrak and a short form darted around him.  Rhzaq skittered behind Yrin and Tinald.  He looked as if he had seen some fighting himself.  One of his ears was torn and bleeding.  Yrin knew he had probably tried to stop what happened had to Ahnna.  The little orc liked her. 

“I am going to speak to the Master,” Yrin’s rage did not allow room for fear at the moment.  “And you had better not have done anything by the time I come back or, so help me Retzhrak, I will make sure you are boiled in your own blood.  And you know I can make it happen!” he threatened viciously.  Sometimes he had to rely very heavily on the weight he carried as the Nazgûl’s chief underling and Yrin feared that one of these days it was not going to be enough to support him.  He just hoped that today was not that day. 

“Tinald, Rhzaq, stay with Ahnna.  Protect her,” he instructed. 

“They’ll have to kill me to touch her,” Tinald said quietly and Rhzaq nodded.  The orcs would of course enjoy doing just that, but they could only hope that fear of their Master’s possible displeasure would hold them off for a little while. 

“Yrin...” Ahnna’s weak voice made him look down.  “Yrin, don’t do anything stupid,” she requested softly.  Going to the Master was dangerous.  The Nazgûl did not often change his mind about a slave’s punishment and attempting to get him to do so could be deadly. 

Yrin caressed her face one more time.  “I’ll be back,” he promised, hoping that that was true.  Straightening up, his eyes caught Tinald’s.  “I know you will make me proud,” he whispered.  The implied meaning behind his words was clear.  If Yrinvan lost this gamble, Tinald would be the new headservant. 

Yrin hurried back the way he had come.  To say he was not afraid would have been a lie.  He was terrified of going to the Wraith, but he was more terrified of losing Ahnna.  Love was still stronger than fear, even in this despicable place. 

The Ringwraith was in his study when Yrin found him.  He was seated behind a massive desk, contemplating a large, steel chest perforated with small holes.  He did not look up from whatever he was doing when the slave entered.  Small, skittering sounds emanated from inside the chest. 

The servant bowed on the floor, touching his forehead to the cold stones.  “Master?” 

It seemed an age before the Nazgûl acknowledged his presence. 

“You have come about your wife,” the Wraith said coldly.  It was not a question.  He knew very well why his head servant was here, and in such obvious distress. 

Yrin flinched.  He had hoped the Nazgûl didn’t know of his relationship with Ahnna.  That could make this more difficult.  “Yes, Master.” 

“She was caught stealing.  You of all my slaves should know the punishment for that... or do you condone such behavior?”  The Wraith’s voice took on a harder tone.  “I entrust much into your hands, Slave.  I should not like to see my trust rewarded with frank disobedience.” 

“No, Master, of course not,” Yrinvan’s voice was small and miserable.  “You know my every thought is but to serve you.  This won’t happen again, I swear to you on my life!  Please, Master...” he swallowed hard.  He wanted to beg the Wraith to have mercy, but he knew the Nazgûl had none. 

“I have already given her to the orcs, find yourself another woman,” the Witch-king said coldly.  His tone indicated he wanted this conversation to end. 

Yrinvan forced himself not to explode at those words.  Panic tugged at his heart.  “She is not guilty!” he protested.  “I am.  If someone must be punished let it be me.”  

“You?” the Wraith’s tone darkened and the temperature of the room dropped. 

Yrin licked his suddenly dry lips and pressed his forehead a little harder against the floor.  The time for calculated risks was over.  He would not back down.  He would die before he lost his wife. 

“Yes, Master.  Forgive me.  She was not stealing; she was acting on my command.  I ordered extra rations for some of the slaves because of the antidote shortage.  It’s claiming too many, too fast, my Lord.  The work force is suffering great losses in productivity.  I feared their poor performance would be a hindrance to you.” 

The whole thing was a boldfaced lie, but since there was no one to contradict him, Yrinvan could only hope that it would work.  One thing was true at least; the antidote shortage was beginning to cause problems. 

The Nazgûl rose from his chair.  He did not look pleased.  He walked around the desk to where Yrinvan still knelt.  “You did this without consulting me?” he hissed dangerously. 

“Forgive me, Lord.”  Yrinvan could not keep the slight tremble out of his voice.  “You were with the human prisoner; you said you were not to be disturbed.  Some of the workers were near death.  I had to act.” 

The Nazgûl gave a low hiss.  “I was not aware this situation was affecting productivity so gravely.”  He was very displeased with the state of affairs.  This so-called antidote shortage was the result of his idiot orcs not being able to gather enough of the lichen he needed from the bowels of the mountain.  They gave him a million excuses and he was getting sick of them.  He was going to start losing slaves if he was unable to make larger doses of antidote, especially considering how much was currently being used up keeping the ranger alive.  It was an unforeseen wrinkle in his plans.  

He considered Yrinvan carefully.  The Wraith was not a respecter of persons, but he was not stupid either.  The man was a valuable slave.  It had taken years to groom Yrinvan to the point where he could anticipate the Wraith’s every whim and run the castle as smoothly as if the Nazgûl saw to everything himself.  The servants were loyal to him and the orcs obeyed him for the most part, yet he had always proved ultimately faithful to his Master.  That was not an easy mix to recreate. 

“You had better not be lying to me,” the Wraith threatened. 

“No, Master,” Yrinvan reassured.  “I was trying only to solve the problem without bothering you.  I know the orcs have been remiss in their collection duties.  I did not wish to mirror their incompetence to your Lordship.  Unfortunately, the orcs disregarded my instruction and took matters into their own hands.  If I have erred, forgive me.  If I must be punished, then punish me.  But please, let Ahnna go.  She has done nothing,” he begged earnestly. 

Bringing up the orcs’ failures was a wise move.  The Nazgûl was very displeased with them right now for their ineptitude.  The more the Wraith considered it, the less he wanted to grant them any special entertainment until they had served his purposes better. 

“I am going to do this for you this once, Slave.  This ONCE, do you understand?” The Witch-king said after a few, excruciating moments of silence.  “But you will consult me before any such changes in the future and if your wife is ever caught taking unauthorized actions again, I will personally feed her and your two brats to the orcs.  Do you understand?” 

“Yes, Master.  Thank you, Master,” Yrin said gratefully, respectfully tapping his head against the floor several times.  At the moment he was too relieved to feel anything but joy. 

“I am not going to let this go unpunished, Slave,” the Nazgûl warned.  “When I deem the time right, you will spend two nights in the ice cell for all this trouble.  Do not forget that.”  The Wraith postponed punishment for a later date.  Right now he wanted Yrin fully alive and functioning to handle the antidote shortage and assist him with his prisoners.  When he was done with them, he could afford to spend a little more time ensuring that Yrinvan had not forgotten any of the lessons he had been taught over the years. 

“Of course, Master, as you please,” the servant accepted his fate with the unflinching ease that made him so useful. 

“Very well then, you are dismissed.”  The Wraith dropped a small, iron key on the floor by Yrinvan’s face.  “Get out.” 

Yrinvan did as he was told.  Snatching up the key, he quickly scuttled backward out of the room on his hands and knees, bowing all the way until he was out of sight.  Jumping to his feet again he sprinted away as soon as he turned the corner. He reached the lower levels not a moment too soon.  Tinald and Rhzaq were standing their ground, but the other orcs were looking extremely restless. 

Unlocking Ahnna’s cuffs, he scooped the woman tenderly into his arms. 

“The Master changed his mind,” Yrin said sternly, glaring daggers at the orcs.  “He suggests you focus your energies on another mission to the lower levels.” 

Retzhrak snarled darkly, but allowed the small group of slaves to walk away.  The dark creatures would not cross the Nazgûl but silently the orc swore that one of these days, Yrinvan was going to pay. 

Yrin carried Ahnna.  Tinald and Rhzaq followed him up to the slaves’ levels. 

Laying his wife down in their small sleeping quarters, Yrin began tending to her injuries.  They were alone.  Too young yet to work, Mahdi was away with the other children and Larnis was out about doing his chores.  For this, Yrin was grateful.  He did not want them to see their mother like this. 

Painfully, Yrin washed Ahnna’s cuts and bruises.  She smiled at him faintly.  Reaching up, she caressed his cheek. 

“Yrin...” Worry flickered through her eyes. “You put it on yourself, didn’t you?”  She knew him far too well. 

Yrin nodded absently, cleaning a deep cut across her collarbone.  “Shh, don’t try to speak.” 

“What and when?” she whispered sadly. 

“The ice cell, but not for a while,” Yrin assured.  “The Master needs me too much right now.” 

“I’m sorry.” Ahnna closed her eyes against the pain.  “I never wanted to get you in trouble...” 

Yrin hushed her gently.  “Don’t worry about me, Ahnna.  Just rest.  Everything will be all right.” 

Unfortunately, everything was not all right.  After an hour, Ahnna was delirious and burning with fever.  Yrin bathed her face, struggling to keep her temperature down, but it just kept climbing.  She didn’t recognize him anymore and cried out softly in her distress. 

The work day was ending.  The children would be back soon.  Yrin looked up from his heart-breaking struggle. 

“Tinald, please... find Larnis and Mahdi.  Keep them with you tonight.”  Tinald was a close friend and the young ones would not be alarmed.  Yrin did not want them here.  If Ahnna died, it was better that their last memories of their mother were not of her tossing and turning in this delirious fit.  She wouldn’t recognize them, and that would only frighten them. 

Everything in Yrin screamed that he could not lose her now, after trying so hard to save her, but he knew the realities of this place.  When someone was fading as fast as Ahnna was, it was only a matter of time.  All he had bought her was the ability to die in his arms rather than at the hands of the orcs.  Even calluses as deep as the ones around his heart could not soften the blow of that knowledge. 

“Of course,” Tinald agreed.  He laid a gentle hand on his friend’s shoulder.  He knew Yrin would need tonight to himself... to say goodbye to his wife.  He carried even fewer illusions than Yrinvan.  He had seen too many people die this way. 

Rhzaq hunkered quietly in the corner.  He didn’t want to go back to his own kind.  In the state they were in tonight they would probably have him for dinner.  He preferred to stay close to Yrinvan when the slave permitted him.  He scuttled unobtrusively back and forth between this room and the kitchen, keeping the human supplied with cold water. 

“Will Green Eyes die?” the orc asked Yrin, cocking his head curiously to the side.  He set yet another basin of melted snow beside the headservant and pulled back into a half-sitting crouch that was distinctly orcish.  Grief was not really an emotion he understood, but he could tell that Green Eyes was ill. 

“Maybe,” Yrin confessed that which he did not want to admit.  He could not bring Ahnna’s fever down.  He did not understand why.  Her wounds were not that serious, but her body burned and weakened with every passing moment.  He was the best healer in Angmar, a necessity forced upon him from tending to so many dying and wounded under him.  Yet his knowledge was mainly limited to treating torture victims, antidote withdrawal, frostbite and food deprivation.  He had never been able to save anyone this ill.  Usually, he simply tried to make them comfortable, knowing it was better that they died. 

“Will you end her?” Rhzaq was not trying to be cruel; he simply wanted to know what would happen.  Orcs killed and ate their own wounded.  He knew the slaves did not follow that practice, but he had seen Yrin ease the more gravely wounded into death before.  Ahnna had always been kind to the defective little orc and Rhzaq found that he had a funny feeling in the pit of his stomach at the thought of her going away.  He had never experienced that before.  It was queer and not very comfortable. 

Yrin’s eyes filled with tears.  He was not angry, but he wished that the question had not been asked.  It was one he did not want to face.  He had the ability to end Ahnna’s life painlessly, and he would do it if he could do nothing else for her... but he could not bring himself to that conclusion yet.  He felt she could yet be saved if only he know how! 

“She needs a real healer, Rhzaq... not just someone who knows how to make death easier,” Yrin said bitterly around the choking lump in his throat.  Suddenly the man’s head came up.  A healer... 

Yrinvan rose quickly to his feet.  “Rhzaq, stay with Ahnna.  Keep her head cool, like this.”  The human demonstrated what he meant.  Taking Rhzaq’s gnarled hand in his, he showed him how to carefully mop the cold rag across Ahnna’s flushed brow, down the sides of her face and across her neck.  The orc nodded that he understood, continuing the task on his own with a gentleness that was entirely atypical for his race. 

“Where do you go?” Rhzaq asked as Yrin left the room. 

The servant paused in the doorway.  He took a deep breath.  “Probably to dig my own grave,” he muttered cryptically before hurrying away. 


Aragorn dozed lightly in Legolas’ loose embrace.  When the door to their cell scraped roughly open, he jolted awake.  He cringed instinctively. 

Yrin was in the doorway.  He looked unusually disturbed and haggard.  He crossed the room swiftly.  Grabbing Aragorn’s arm he tried to pull the human to his feet.  “You must come with me.” 

Aragorn moaned softly.  He felt weary panic clutching at him.  He could not go back to that darkness so soon.  He could not face it again; he could not.  He laid a pleading look upon Legolas as Yrin pulled him to his knees. 

Legolas hugged the human fearfully to his chest, pulling him away from the servant.  Aragorn was too weak.  It was too soon.  If they took him again now, he would die. 

“No!  Yrin, please, he’s too weak!” the elf protested desperately.  “You only just barely brought him back.  The Nazgûl will kill him!” 

A desperation that matched the elf’s swirled in Yrinvan’s eyes as he met and held Legolas’ gaze.  It made the elf freeze in surprise. 

“He’s not going to the Master; he’s coming with me.  If he can help me, he’ll come to no harm.  You said he was a healer.”  Yrin turned his attention on Aragorn.  “Ranger, your friend told me you are a healer, is that true?” 

Aragorn nodded.  “Yes, it is,” he said quietly.  The pain and fear behind Yrinvan’s usually closed and guarded eyes made him consider the servant carefully.  He pushed himself upright.  “Is someone hurt?” 

“My wife,” Yrin answered.  “Please come, we must hurry.” 

Aragorn struggled to rise.  Legolas got to his feet first and then helped the ranger to his. 

Yrin checked the elf’s move towards the door with an apologetic plea for forgiveness and understanding. 

“Forgive me, Legolas, but you must stay here.  I cannot risk removing you both.  If... if I lose you two, I and everyone I care about will be killed.”  His eyes begged them to help him, to understand his precarious situation. 

“Strider...” Legolas asked with concern as Aragorn wavered unsteadily.  His hand tightened on the ranger’s shoulder, hesitating to release him.  He was not at all sure Aragorn was strong enough to be helping Yrin or Ahnna and he did not like letting him go alone. 

Yrin was obviously as tense as a bowstring; he backed warily towards the door when it looked like the prisoners might resist him.  He had only to shout and help would come quickly.  He did not want to involve the orcs, but he would if it looked like the ranger and elf were going to try to escape.  He had had to take such actions in the past and would not hesitate to do so again if needed.  It would be easy enough to pretend he had been in the cell on legitimate business.  That would however, condemn Ahnna.  He knew he had no reason to believe these people would help him after what they had been through, but he had to try. 

“Please,” the slave pleaded stiffly.  He gauged the ranger’s condition with a trained eye.  “Look, I can help you if you can help me.  I know you’ve had no antidote for several days.  I... I still have my dose, untaken.  If you can help Ahnna, you can have it.” 

“I’d help you anyway, Yrin,” Aragorn said softly.  “Legolas, I’ll be all right.”  He laid his hand over Legolas’, bidding his friend to release him to do what he needed to do. 

Legolas backed away reluctantly.  Yrin had the look of a desperate man.  With Aragorn so weak, attempting to fight was not a good idea.  The headservant was asking for their help, even though he had the power to simply command it.  The elf respected him for that at least. 

Yrin left with Aragorn and locked the door behind them.  Quickly, he slipped a long grey smock over the ranger’s head, dressing him like one of the slaves.  His fingers trembled as he knotted a grey cord around the ranger’s waist, completing the illusion. 

It was then that Aragorn realized the risk the slave was apparently taking by removing him from his cell without authorization. 

“No one else knows you’re here,” the ranger commented as Yrin hurried him down the hallway.  He knew he was right. 

Yrin looked at him sharply, his gaze guarded and wary.  “Do not give me any trouble.  Ranger, you must believe that I have been as good to you and your friend as I am able.  Betray me now, and your fates here will only worsen.” 

The slave did not know what kind of response he expected, but whatever it was it was not the large, amused grin the ranger bestowed upon him. 

“Yrinvan, not everyone in this world will betray you.  You do not need to be so suspicious of me.  Relax.  I will help your wife if I can.  Take me to her.” 

The headservant was obliged to partially support the ranger as they made their way carefully and quietly to the servants’ living quarters.  Aragorn was still very weak from his ordeal earlier in the day. 

In the doorway to Yrinvan’s small room, Aragorn pulled up short when he saw an orc crouching over the restless body of a woman. 

Yrin prodded him into the room, not understanding the hesitation.  The slave crouched down next to Rhzaq, taking the wet cloth away from the orc.  He smoothed Ahnna’s dark hair away from her forehead gently.  She was still burning to the touch. 

Aragorn knelt next to them after a moment, taking his cue from Yrin on whether or not to be disturbed at the orc’s presence.  This was probably one of the strangest situations he had ever been in, but the ranger was not easily flustered.  He turned his attention to Ahnna.  The Dúnadan’s hands trembled as he checked her vital signs, although he attempted to keep them steady.  He laid his palm on her head.  “What happened to her?” he asked, looking up and catching Yrin’s gaze.  This woman was very ill. 

“Orcs,” Yrin spat the word with distaste that was contradictory to his familiarity with the creature by his side.  “Her wounds are not very severe... I do not understand what is wrong.” 

Aragorn rubbed his head, trying to still his raging headache.  “She’s battling infection and orc poison,” he said.  He was very familiar with this particular malady and it was relatively easy to treat.  For that, Aragorn was grateful.  He feared he might not have been up to dealing with anything more complex. 

“They cut her with their knives.”  The ranger pointed at the red, swollen area growing around several of the nastier cuts.  “I think that is the source of the problem.  I can help her, but I will need herbs to make a poultice and to bring her fever down.  I’m going to need some sallow bark and yellow root to start; do you have anything like that?”  Aragorn hoped they did not expect him to be able to help her without any kind of supplies. 

Yrin nodded quickly.  “We keep all kinds of supplies stored in the kitchen.  Rhzaq, go tell Tinald what the ranger needs, and ask him to send one of the women with it to help us.” 

The orc nodded and hurried away.  Aragorn watched him go with a bemused look. 

“Is something wrong?” Yrin caught his expression, but did not understand its source.  He had long ago stopped considering Rhzaq an orc and forgot it was the elf, and not the ranger, to whom he had explained the situation. 

Aragorn shook his head as he gently pulled Ahnna’s clothing away from the worst of the inflamed cuts. 

“No, but this is certainly the most interesting house call I have ever made.”  The ranger laughed softly, but it gave way to coughing and he was obliged to sink sideways, leaning heavily against the floor. 

Yrin knelt behind him, holding his shoulders gently as he coughed.  The ranger was hot under his hands, nearly as hot as Ahnna.  The man’s hand came away from his mouth spotted with his own blood. 

When Aragorn was able to straighten up again Yrin pressed one of the familiar glass vials into his hand.  “You had better take this now.” 

Aragorn considered the dark liquid in the glass.  He knew this was what his body needed, what it craved.  The dependency was hard to deal with, but it wasn’t something you could question.  He looked at Yrin.  The servant needed it to survive just as much as he did, even if Yrin’s addiction was more temperate and less desperate than the ranger’s. 

“How often are the slaves treated?” he asked. 

“Every two weeks,” Yrin answered.  He saw the ranger’s horrified look and shook his head quickly.  “No, no, that is not unreasonable.  Our bodies are conditioned; we do not need it as much as you do anymore.  It is violent in the beginning, but it does get better.  You should be receiving a small dose at least every other day at your stage.  I fear however, that the Master is not interested in conditioning you,” he whispered the truth softly.

Aragorn snorted softly.  “He is only interested in breaking me.” 

There was semi-uncomfortable silence between them for a few moments before Aragorn uncorked the vial.  He drank half and then passed it back to Yrinvan. 

“No, I just told you, you need it more than I do,” Yrinvan tried to refuse. 

Aragorn would not take the vial back, as much as he wanted to do so.  “Two weeks is a long time, Yrin.  She’s going to need you to be strong tomorrow, and the days after that.  I can save her life, but she will need your continued care for a time.”  The ranger smiled somewhat wryly.  “To be honest, Legolas and I would like to keep you around as well.” 

Yrin actually smiled at that.  It was the first time the ranger could remember seeing the other man smile with real amusement. 

Aragorn turned back to Ahnna.  “Legolas tells me she speaks Elvish,” he said softly by way of conversation as he gently bathed and inspected the woman’s injuries.  Ahnna’s fevered tossing stilled a little under his experienced touch.  The effect was not lost on Yrin, who watched everything that happened very closely.  

The slave chuckled softly.  “So she does, whether accurately or not, I could not say however, knowing nothing of it myself.  To be honest, until I met your friend I thought she had invented most of it herself.  She was born far from here, in a town on a lake.  There were elves in the woods there she said, and they would visit sometimes.  When she was a girl she would often sneak away to watch them.  Several of them caught her at it, but they were good to her.  She was so enamored of them that they let her visit them every time they were in the area and taught her some of their speech.”  The man’s voice was distant, as if trying to imagine something so far removed from all his experience.

“She has been obsessed with them ever since.  I think... I think it is her way of trying to hold onto some memory of beauty in a place where only death dwells,” he admitted sadly. 

Aragorn nodded.  He could understand that very well.  “How did she come to be here, Yrin?  How did any of you get here?” 

The slave shrugged, rubbing his wife’s fingers between his own.  “Everyone has their own story.  I was born a slave and came here as a child.  There is not much to tell.  Ahnna was part of a caravan taken in a raid.  She was the only survivor from her family.  I still remember the day she was brought in.  I was only in training then, but already in charge of the new slaves.  I saw her walking in with the others through the gate.  They were all frightened, crying, pleading.  She was but fifteen, yet she was the only one there who did not look completely terrified.”  His voice choked.  “I remember, she walked right up to me and said, ‘Well, what am I supposed to do?’  I think I loved her from that moment.” 

Aragorn smiled softly.  His throat was strangely tight.  The love he saw in Yrin’s eyes made him think of Arwen.  It was not often he allowed thoughts of her to come to the front of his mind.  Sometimes it simply hurt too much.  She was never far from his heart however and he could understand exactly what the other man meant.  He did not think he would ever see Arwen again, nor Elrond, nor his brothers.  The longer they stayed in Angmar, the more certain he became that he would die here.  Every hope of escape had been blocked so far and he had to wonder what they were thinking when they came.  Surely it would have been better to die in the wilds than suffer like this. 

Aragorn pushed those defeating thoughts aside.  At least he was not completely alone.  He was both glad and sorry that Legolas was here with him.  He knew he would not have made it as long as he had without the elf, and yet a small part of him knew that his worst fears were coming true.  Like Finrod for Beren, Legolas was giving himself up to keep the human alive. 

Rhzaq returned with another slave woman who laid the requested supplies down on the floor next to them.  Steadying himself, Aragorn sorted through the herbs, trying his best to keep his mind on the task at hand and banish thoughts of all else. 

“Hold on, Ahnna,” he whispered quietly.  “Hold on, and believe that someday you will see beauty again.” 


“Strider?  Strider, wake,” the soft voice drew Aragorn back to consciousness.  He yawned and stretched. 

“Legolas?” he asked groggily as he tried to blink the sleep out of his eyes. 

“No,” Yrin’s voice was quiet, but held a small smile.  It was the second time the human had mistaken him for his elven friend. 

“Yrin,” Aragorn yawned again, trying to remember where he was.  He realized he was sitting in the corner of Yrinvan’s tiny home, one hand resting gently upon Ahnna’s steadily rising and falling diaphragm.  Automatically, he slid his hand up to her neck and checked her pulse.  It was steady.  “Her fever’s broken.  She’s just sleeping now,” he murmured. 

Yrin nodded.  “I know.  Strider... thank you,” the words were hesitant, but heartfelt. 

Aragorn nodded, rising to his knees.  “I am glad I could help.  I did not realize I had fallen asleep.  What time is it?” 

“Dawn is already upon us,” Yrin said seriously.  “Strider, I’m sorry, but I have to take you back to your cell.”  He looked extremely uncomfortable.  The man had just saved his wife’s life, and he knew he could offer him almost nothing in return.  Fortunately for Yrin, Aragorn did not expect much. 

The ranger rose slowly to his feet.  “It is well.  Legolas will be worried.” 

“You are very close to him,” Yrin remarked in subdued tones as he led Aragorn cautiously back towards the cells.  The working areas were beginning to come alive with slaves going about their morning duties, but few gave Yrin and his companion a second look.  If they did, they quickly pretended they had not.  No one was about to question the overseer. 

Aragorn nodded.  “He is a brother to me.” 

“I told him once that you were his weakness, and he was yours.  I see now that he is also your strength, and you his.” 

“That’s the funny thing, Yrin,” Aragorn conceded softly.  “When you give your heart to someone, they are both weakness and strength at the same time.  Like you and Ahnna.” 

Yrin nodded.  It was true. 

They reached the cell.  Yrinvan took the keys from the wall and opened the door, ushering Aragorn inside and quickly re-claiming the robe he had lent the ranger to help him blend with the servants. 

Aragorn let Yrin relieve him of the garment, but his heart suddenly started thudding rapidly as he realized that all was not as it should be. 

Yrin was slower to notice as he tucked the bundle under his arm, but Aragorn’s worried question quickly called the problem to his attention as well. 

Aragorn turned in a small circle, looking around the cell.  “Yrin, where’s Legolas?” 

The elf was gone and the cell was empty.