Black Breath


by Cassia and Siobhan

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I’m not afraid of tomorrow,
I’m only scared of myself,
feels like my insides are on fire,
and I’m looking through the eyes of someone else...

(“Tomorrow” -- SR-71)


    Aragorn woke to find that dusk was fading and he was being carried over someone’s shoulder.  Were it not for the pain in his head and the fiery numbness of his bound hands he would have thought what had happened back there in the clearing was all an incredibly bad dream, but he knew it wasn’t. 
    Presently he was dropped to the ground and left there.  They still thought him unconscious, so Aragorn lay unmoving, not anxious to let them know otherwise, and still unsure of what exactly they wanted with him.  Darkness had fallen not long ago and the orcs who had captured him moved about their camp, for that was obviously where he had been taken.  From under partially lidded eyes, the young ranger watched them, but his gaze was more or less centered on the tall, slender figure who stood out in sharp contrast to the hideousness of the orcs around him. 
    Legolas moved like one in a trance, doing what he was told, but initiating very little action on his own. 
    Aragorn still ached where his friend had hit him and he longed to know what was going on.  What had these people done to the prince to change him so much?  To make him totally forget who and what he was?  And more importantly, what could he do to get back the Legolas that he knew and whose friendship he treasured? 
    The young ranger remembered the absolutely dead look in the elf’s eyes when he struck him down and resisted a shudder.  What if there was no way to bring him back?  Aragorn clenched his jaw.  No.  He refused to think of that.  He refused to let that be an option.
    The young human realized that something was going on and risked opening his eyes a smidgen further to see what it was.  Several of the orcs had taken Legolas’ arms and were leading him somewhere.  The Nazgûl stood nearby, watching calmly with folded arms.  Aragorn knew what he was without being told.  There was no mistaking the aura of sheer horror and evil that the Witch King carried with him like a mantle of darkness.
    Legolas did not fight them, but there was a stiffness in his movements that suggested he would have liked to resist if he could.
    The orcs guided the prince to lie on his back on the ground and to Aragorn’s surprise they bound his wrists and ankles, staking the elf down firmly until he could not move on his own.
    His tunic was pushed off his left shoulder and a bandage that Aragorn had not realized was there was removed to reveal a healing wound.  Exactly how old it was was hard to tell because elven bodies healed more swiftly than those of men. 
    As Aragorn watched, the Nazgûl knelt over Legolas and the night seemed to darken around them like a cloud.  The elf prince’s body trembled slightly and Aragorn felt his ire rising swiftly.  He didn’t know what they were doing to his friend, but whatever it was, it was evil.

    The Witch King roughly re-opened the wound as he had every night since Legolas had come under his power.  The elf stiffened and choked back a cry at the pain as a new trickle of red blood welled up from the injury.  He twisted weakly in his bonds, gritting his teeth against the agony of the Nazgûl’s un-gentle ministrations, for the flesh around the wound had become highly inflamed and incredibly tender from the repeated treatments. 

    Calmly, the wraith pressed something into the wound.  Aragorn could not see what it was, but from the way Legolas’ body reacted it must have been evil indeed. 

    The elf’s body spasmed and jerked, trying to pull away, but was not allowed to do so.  He moaned softly in pain as the wraith rubbed whatever dark herb or poultice his evil had devised into the wound, strengthening his hold over the elf, renewing his control.  The struggle to hold Legolas was far more intense than it would have been for a mere mortal.  A human would have completely succumbed to the wraith’s power a long time ago, but elves were strong and their spirits hard to harness, so this was still necessary if the Nazgûl wished to retain his control over the prince. 
    “You are mine...” the evil being whispered softly over the elf.  “You hear only my voice, you think only my thoughts, you feel only the black breath of Mordor in your body... you are mine.”
    Legolas thrashed weakly, but could not fight for long.  Numbness followed the pain and spread slowly through his being, perhaps even more frightening than the pain had been.  When the elf stopped fighting him, the Witch King knew that the foul medicine had done its job.  Wrapping Legolas’ shoulder up once more he moved away, leaving the elf lying as still as death in his bonds. 

    Aragorn’s heart burned.  If he had thought it would do any good he would have liked to jump to his feet, bound or no, and aid his friend.  But now was the time for cool heads, not impulsiveness and he knew better than to act before he could hope that it would do more than bring down more trouble on both their heads.
    At least he was able to glean some small amount of comfort from the horrible thing he had just witnessed.  Aragorn glanced sadly at Legolas’ still form as several of the orcs knelt to cut the elf free.  Whatever they were doing to him, Legolas was still resisting, it must not be permanent yet, or there would be no need for what he had just witnessed.  However, Aragorn feared that something was going to have to happen soon, or it would be too late, perhaps for both of them.
    Sleep eluded the ranger throughout the remainder of the night.  He had kept a close watch on Legolas.  The elf had lain on the forest floor without moving for the better part of the night.  As the sun barely brushed the tops of the canopy of trees Legolas had stirred, his eyes seeking out the dark lord.
    Aragorn had no idea where the wraith had secluded itself during the nocturnal hours. He was alerted to the evil being's approach by Legolas' intense gaze.  The elf's eyes followed the dark creature as it paced slowly through the camp towards the ranger.
    Aragorn lay very still, hoping the Nazgûl would think him still unconscious, but his bluff was called.  The wraith sniffed the air above the man and laughed softly.
    "You are awake.  Good."  He turned his back on the ranger and motioned to the orcs near the campfire.  The foul creatures made their way quickly to the wraith’s side, awaiting his commands. 

    Across the camp, Legolas watched with apparent disinterest, but inside the fear for his friend drove the captive elf into a frenzy.

    The ring wraith approached the bound human once more, eyeing him curiously as two orcs jerked him roughly to his knees.  They were motioned away by a flick of their master’s hand.
    There was something about the man that was different, the wraith knew it, felt it, sensed it.  Could he be the one who carried the Ring, the one long thought lost?  The wraith raised his hand palm outward towards Aragorn and concentrated. 

    Waves of darkness swept around the ranger, numbing his thoughts, stealing his consciousness.  Bands of evil like steel bonds wrapped invisibly about his chest seeming to search his being for something, something he knew not of.  He began to pant as the pressure and pain increased and he couldn’t fight off the terrible darkness that swirled out of control around him.  Somewhere inside him, he felt a spark of resistance welling up, ready to fight, ready to match the evil one’s will with his own, but at the same moment something inside told him to wait, told him now was not the time... he didn’t understand.  Unable to endure the wraith’s painful searching any longer he cried out under the onslaught and collapsed to the forest floor.

    Satisfied that the human did not carry his liege’s Ring, or anything else he sought, the Witch King took a different tactic with the man.  With a long slender finger he pointed at one of the orcs.  The foul creature stepped forward and bowed slightly.
    “Yes, my lord.”
    “I may have need of your services.  Get the human up,” the wraith instructed calmly.
    The orc pulled the man back up to his knees with one hand. With the other he shook out a cruel looking whip, allowing the leather strips to fall in front of the ranger’s face as the kinks were worked out of them.
    “Who are you?” the Nazgûl demanded, the hood of his dark, seemingly empty robes glaring straight at the young human.

    Aragorn's jaw tightened but he did not flinch under the wraith's gaze.  “Strider, Ranger of the North.”
    The Witch King hissed shrilly and the orc standing behind Aragorn brought the lash in his hand down sharply across the young man's shoulders.  The many-tongued instrument raked fire across the Dùnadan’s skin and Aragorn couldn't help jerking slightly.
    “Who are you?” the question was repeated, the dark, empty voice holding a tone somewhere between perilous impatience and deadliness. 
    The young ranger schooled his features to blankness.  “Strider, Ranger of the North,” he repeated tonelessly, knowing what kind of response he would get for that.
    Predictably, his words earned him another burning cut with the lash.  Aragorn gasped slightly through his teeth and rocked forward a little, but gave no other sign.  He knew that it was not for naught that his true identity had been hidden from even himself for the first twenty years of his life.  Elrond had fully impressed upon him the seriousness of his situation, and the importance that the enemy never find out his true heritage, not yet.  Not until the time was right.  Aragorn was unsure that time would ever come, or if indeed he wanted it to, but for now, it was enough for him to know that a truthful answer to the Witch King’s question would bring about a fate a hundred times worse than death. 

    The Nazgûl lord looked down at the kneeling human with a wary gaze.  Perhaps he was just another man, although being a ranger was cause enough for the wraith to plan a gruesome demise for him... yet... there was something about this one.  Something that smacked of Nùmenor, something that smelled too much like elves and a power behind the dark, determined eyes that the Witch King doubted the young man himself even understood yet.  It was... curious. 
    “Tell me the truth, Dùnadan, or you’ll wish you were never spawned,” the wraith threatened darkly, moving forward until his shadow fell over the helpless human.

    Aragorn felt an involuntary shudder run up his spine.  The mere presence of the Nazgûl was terror, and far harder to endure than any torture the wraith could devise.
    Aragorn jerked when the whip struck him again, and a second and third time in rapid secession.  The last two strokes drew blood and the Witch King dropped one gloved hand down, running the sharp tips of his fingers along the bleeding welts on his prisoner’s back.
    Aragorn was not prepared for the sharp, biting agony that the Nazgûl’s simple touch wrought and only half-stifled his cry of surprise and pain at the icy needles of dread and torment that stabbed through his already wounded flesh.
    The wraith laughed softly and moved his hand away, letting Aragorn slump forward as if released from an electrical charge.  The Witch King’s head turned towards Legolas who stood motionless several yards away.  Glancing down at the human, the dark lord walked over to the elf. 

    The Nazgûl placed his bloodied hand on Legolas’ cheek, but the elf prince did not move or flinch, he simply stared ahead with empty eyes.  His will was not his own and he could do nothing to stop what was happening.
    “You know this man?” the wraith asked.
    “Yes,” Legolas’ voice was toneless.  Inside him his heart twisted violently and Aragorn’s blood burned against his cheek, but the wraith’s hold over him was too strong and he could not battle himself out of the corner he had been shut into.  Some part of him remembered who he was and he had momentary flashes of lucidity, but not of control, and always again the black shadow would overpower him and he would forget once more, lost in the illusion he could not escape. 

    Aragorn gazed up at his one-time friend, fear creeping into his heart.  Legolas knew full well who he was, something that was true of very few people outside his father and brothers.  At one time, he was sure that that secret was safe with the elf prince, but now the young ranger was sure of nothing.  When Legolas looked at him, the elf’s beautiful silver-blue eyes were dead and completely empty.  Aragorn’s heart sank. 

    “Then tell me my faithful servant... who is he?” the wraith hissed, and if you could have seen the shadow world in which he dwelt, the Witch King was grinning evilly. 
    Legolas’ body stiffed slightly, as if there were a war going on inside, but none of this showed on his face.  For a moment the elf opened his mouth, then closed it again, his jaw trembling. 
    The Nazgûl leaned closer, his grip on Legolas’ cheek tightening painfully.  His shadow engulfed the captive elf and although his expression did not change, inside, the prince screamed in pain at the darkness that was overrunning his will.
    “He is Strider, Ranger of the North,” Legolas’ tone was flat and dead, but his voice trembled ever so slightly.  “He is Estel, an orphan raised in Rivendell...” the elf closed his eyes for a moment.  “He is nothing more.” 

    Aragorn resisted the urge to let his breath out in relief.  Desperately, he searched for some trace of his friend in Legolas’ dead eyes.  He found none, yet he had a measure of hope now, however slim, because for whatever reason Legolas had protected him.  He knew the Prince knew he was Aragorn, son of Arathorn, descended of Isildur and Elendil and heir to the empty throne of Gondor but, even though Legolas was obviously under the Witch King’s control, he had not betrayed his friend.
    The Nazgûl backhanded Legolas with enough force to send the elf sprawling, his studded gloves cutting the prince’s lower lip.   Legolas re-gathered himself and rose quietly back to his feet. 

    The wraith had no reason to doubt the prince’s answer, thinking as he did that Legolas was completely under his power, but there had been a moment of hesitation in the elf’s reply and it was for that that the Nazgûl punished him. 
    Having been raised in Rivendell explained the elveness he felt about the ranger at least, and the evil one supposed that was all that he sensed.  After all, all Dunèdain held some of the blood of Nùmenor in their veins, curse them.
    “Then we have no more use for him,” the Witch King said coldly.  Pulling the long, black-handled dagger from his belt he pressed it into Legolas’ hand, closing the elf’s fingers around the hilt.  “Kill him.”
    The elf turned and walked towards the bound human. The orcs stepped back, smiling wickedly and laughing amongst themselves.  

    Legolas stepped in front of Aragorn and stopped, his eyes slowly lowering to fix on the man kneeling bound in front of him. 
    Aragorn noted the way that the elf’s fingers tightened around the hilt of the dagger until his knuckles were white and trembling.  There was a war going on unseen behind those dead blue eyes but the body in front of him betrayed none of the torment of the soul deep inside.  Slowly Legolas raised the knife into a defensive position.  He grabbed the ranger by the hair and tipped the man’s head back, exposing his throat.
    “Legolas,” Aragorn spoke softly in the grey tongue knowing the elven ears could hear him, “Legolas, you are my friend, I know you are in there.  Fight it - don’t listen to that creature.  You are light, you are not this darkness.  Legolas...” 
    The blade drew closer to Aragorn’s exposed throat and he flinched involuntarily, closing his eyes against the sight of his friend.  If Legolas were going to kill him, he did not want the dead eyes of his friend to be the last thing he saw.

    “Please my friend, wake up.”  The soft begging tone of the human broke the elven heart and something inside Legolas wrenched free. 

    “No.” The softly spoken word surprised Aragorn and he opened his eyes to stare at his friend.
    The elf was trembling; his loyalty to the ranger fighting the hold of the dark lord and his entire being was in conflict.  Shakily his fingers released their death grip on the morgul blade and the knife fell to the forest floor, his hand falling limply to his side.
    “Legolas?”  The ranger tried to stand to his feet but the orcs had noticed the change too and had rushed in to press the human back down.  Pinned under the weight of the foul creatures he couldn’t help the elf when the Nazgûl descended on the helpless prince.
    “Slave!” The hissing shriek made the hair on Aragorn’s neck stand on end.

    Unable to disobey, the elf turned around only to be backhanded once again by his master.  The blow caused Legolas to stumble.  He caught himself against the trunk of a large tree and the wraith pursued him, pressing the prince against the tree’s trunk.  The Witch King wrapped his hand around Legolas’ neck and pulled the elf off his feet.
    The prince’s eyes widened in fear as his airway was cut off.  The wraith’s hard glove cut deeply into the soft skin under the elf’s chin as he was held there, suspended above the ground.
    “Did you think I would tolerate disobedience?” the wraith hissed in anger. He turned his dark hooded face towards the orcs and called them to him as he ripped Legolas' tunic from his shoulder, exposing his bandaged wound.
    Dropping him back to the floor he glared at the orcs, “Bind him.”
    Immediately they pulled the elf’s arms behind him, wrapping them back around the girth of the tree and bound him in place.
    “You will obey me or you will die.”  He closed the small space between the elf and himself, the darkness encompassed Legolas’ consciousness, compressing his will with its foul evilness. In utter torment and darkness Legolas cried out within himself, but his body would not respond as he struggled against the Nazgûl’s rule.  The bandage was torn from his shoulder and the Witch King pressed the palm of his hand down against the healing scar, breaking it mercilessly open once more. 

    The cry of terror and pain that was forced from the elf’s lips ripped through the ranger and he struggled against his bonds.  Having been momentarily forgotten by the orcs, Aragorn rolled over onto his side, bringing his knees up to his chest and eased his bound hands from around his back shifting his arms until his hands were in front of him.  He grasped the knife from the ground where Legolas had dropped it and quickly severed his bonds.  Jumping to his feet he threw the blade into the back of the nearest orc that was holding Legolas still as the ringwraith practiced his evil art on the helpless elf, enslaving the prince to the darkness even further.
    The orc fell with a shriek and his companions turned quickly, eyeing the freed human.
    Aragorn glanced around him wildly for a weapon. There was nothing close at hand.  He looked at the fallen orc and rushed towards the dead body, grabbing the hilt and pulling the blade from the carcass. The ranger rolled over onto his back, using the dead orc as a brace and fought off the first of the orcs that had reversed its course and followed him back to their fallen comrade.  The human ducked a sweeping arc of the orc sword and thrust the blackened dagger at the advancing creature, slicing through the monster and stopping his attack.  He kicked the dying orc away and threw the blade down exchanging it for the creature’s own sword.  With fierceness brought on by survival instincts alone he charged his assailants, taking them by surprise. 

    The ringwraith took the moment of inattention and finished his work on Legolas.  The elf arched against his bonds, writhing with the pain of the forced poison.
    “Strider!”  The word was ripped from Legolas' throat as he suffered through the mind-altering effects of the darkness. 

    Aragorn caught a parrying blow on the edge of his sword, blocking his attacker's advance.  He spun beneath the press of the blade coming up on the right side of the orc and drove his sword through the creature's throat, decapitating it.  The cry of his friend broke through his battle frenzy and the ranger whipped around to see Legolas sag against the trunk of the tree, drugged senseless once more.
    He kicked an orc to his left out of his path and ran towards the Witch King, intent on destroying the evil being.
    The Nazgûl sensed his approach and spun with an unearthly howl, viciously backhanding the human.  The blow sent the man stumbling back and he lost his footing, falling just inches from the still burning campfire.  The sword, pried from his fingers by the force of wraith’s strike, flew into the midst of the fire, scattering the wood and sending sparks flying into the air.  Trying to regain his bearings, Aragorn pressed himself up unsteadily on his hands.  His fingers brushed a heated log jutting out from the fire pit.  Recoiling from the intensity of the flames, a thought struck his subconscious and he reacted without thinking.  Snatching the burning timber from the fire he leapt to his feet as Legolas cried out again.  

    When the dark creature had swept the human out of its path it had redirected its anger and hatred at the elf.  His orcs could deal with the human.  It would not tolerate disobedience or treachery from its minions.  Bent on the fair being's destruction, it did not see the ranger approaching unimpeded by the scattered orcs, until it was too late.
    The witch king cut Legolas’ bonds and grabbed the elf by his wounded shoulder digging his long nailed fingers into the soft, newly torn flesh.  The prince cried out and his knees buckled beneath him as the pain of the evil darkness swept in agonizing waves through his body.  He only wished it would kill him and ease his suffering. 
    With his free hand the ringwraith grabbed a handful of the elf’s long blonde hair and jerked the fair being’s head back so that Legolas was forced to stare into the faceless mask of darkness.
    “I told you to kill that whelp of a human.  You belong to me, elf, body mind and soul, you are mine and you will obey me.  Do it now.”
    Fear shot through every fiber in Legolas’ mind and the dark poisons in his systems screamed at him to obey.  The force of the conflict within him was a like a whirlwind and it tore at his mind, shredding his thoughts and setting the very threads of his consciousness on fire.  His body shook with the effort to maintain control.  Deep within him, his loyalty flared briefly and in his last act of defiance he fixed his eyes on the evil blank hood and replied through gritted teeth, “Never.”  The one word was a mere whisper, but the strength in his eyes belied his body’s weakness.
    The wraith drew him closer, “Then for that slave, you will die,” it hissed at him.  The creature threw the elf hard to the ground and pressed his pointed metal boot against the prince’s chest.  He pulled his sword from its sheath, the weapon screaming as the blade slipped from its metal casing and held the sword above Legolas, prepared to plunge the weapon into the elf and kill him.

    “NO!”  Aragorn ran towards the dark apparition; he wouldn’t allow the wraith to murder his friend.
    The Nazgûl whipped around and glared at the human.


    “Why don’t you kill me yourself,” the ranger growled at the wraith.   Taking the attention away from his wounded friend, he circled the Witch King until he stood between the Nazgûl and the elf.  Aragorn pulled the flaming torch in front of him and held it out towards the wraith, warding off the advancing attack.  The Witch King shrieked and retreated from the flame, seeming to shrink in on himself.  The effect of the fire on the evil being was not lost on the ranger and he danced forward weaving the firebrand in front of him.  The wraith brought his sword up in a tight arc, trying to get underneath the fire and cut the torch from the human’s hand.  The flat of the blade snapped sharply against Aragorn’s fingers and with a cry he released the burning piece of wood.  But the wraith was too close and as it fell the torch brushed the edges of the creatures black robes, setting the cloth on fire.
    Screaming in anger and fear the Wraith attempted to put the flames out but to no avail and within moments the fire had consumed his outer cloak.  In panic the foul beast ran off into the woods shrieking.  When the orcs saw their master so easily routed they quickly took to the forest, abandoning the wounded human and the dying elf.
    Aragorn dropped down next to the still elf prince.  Gently brushing the hair away from the elven face he bent close, talking to him softly in the grey tongue.
    “Legolas?”  When the prince didn’t respond, the ranger carefully inspected the wound to his shoulder.  It was hot and ragged.  The edges of the skin were dark from the foul poison that the wraith had injected into his body.  Tendrils of black ran under the skin, spreading away from the cut.  Legolas moaned as Aragorn pressed his hand against the elf’s shoulder feeling the heat of infection beneath the skin.  “Legolas, can you hear me?”
    The elf’s eyes flicked open and he gazed unseeingly at the human.
    “I have to get you out of here.”  Aragorn glanced around them into the forest. There was no telling how soon the wraith and his orcs would return and the sky looked like it would open up and pour on them at any moment.
    “Can you stand?”
    Legolas didn’t respond, he simply stared straight ahead with the same dull dead gaze that Aragorn had first seen on him.
    Large drops of rain began to fall gently around them, increasing in frequency as the seconds ticked by.  Nothing the human did provoked any type of a response from the elf and in frustration the man finally pulled the prince to his feet.  The fire sputtered and died out as the rain turned into a downpour.
    “We have to get to shelter!”  Aragorn spoke to the elf even though nothing he said seemed to get through to him.  “Come on, Legolas.”  He grabbed the elf’s arm and drug the prince after him, collecting his pack and his weapons on the way out of the camp.
    They crested a small hill on the far side of the glade where the wraith had set up camp and followed the spine of the knoll as far as they could before Legolas collapsed.  Aragorn knelt over him, shielding him from the rain.  He watched in horror as the elf’s eyes rolled back into his head and his eyelids closed.
    The ranger scrambled down the opposite side of the hill and frantically searched the surrounding area.  In moments he found what he was looking for and ran back to his fallen friend.  Lifting the elf onto his shoulders, Aragorn stood carefully to his feet and descended the hill once more heading straight for the partially hidden opening of a small cave.  Once inside he set the unconscious elf down on the dry dirt floor and quickly stripped Legolas of his wet tunic. 
    Grabbing his pack he untied his bedroll and used the soft fabric to dry his friend, redressing the elf in a spare shirt to stave off the chill.   Shaking out the contents of his pack he sifted through the assortment of things that he carried with him. He had what he needed but did he have time?  Gathering what dry branches and leaves he could find, Aragorn started a small fire and filled the tiny pot he carried with him with water.