Change of Heart, Change of Mind

Chapter 3

by Siobhan and Cassia

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    The air was fresh after a light rain fall and the weather excellent for hunting. When Legolas asked Aragorn if he wanted to go, the young ranger immediately accepted. However, when he realized that the Prince’s party was intended to include Sarcaulien and some of his friends, he began to wonder if it was a good idea after all.
    Squaring his shoulders and deciding that it did not matter who else was going to be there, Aragorn joined the party in the courtyard before the great gate that guarded the royal grounds.
    Some of the hunters were mounted and some preferred to walk. Aragorn fell among the latter. Already the elves were chatting, or singing, or joking merrily and Aragorn began to feel more at ease and able to enjoy the prospect of the hunt.
    At a command from Legolas, the huge gates swung open on their own to allow the party to exit. Aragorn had witnessed enough elf ‘magic’ in Rivendell to not be overly amazed by the unusual gateway, and followed the others out without another glance. The gates fell to behind them and the party moved off into the woods beyond.
    The first part of the day went uneventfully. Perhaps too uneventfully for the hunting party. They found precious little game and, after a time, that began to put all of them in a less than cheerful mood. Legolas and Sarcaulien actually did manage to bring down a hart at about midday and the party stopped to make camp so they would have some place to leave the deer until they were ready to return home. Several of the elves stayed behind to begin preparing the game, and the others took the opportunity to discard their packs and extra gear in favor of being able to travel lighter and swifter.
    The mounted hunters left their horses behind at the camp as well and from that point on everyone continued on foot.
    There was some disagreement about which way should be taken. They were now very near the end of the closely protected areas of the forest, as was obvious by the growing frequency of spiderwebs and the darker cast that the trees were taking on.
    Half of the party was of the opinion that they should stay in this area and venture either east or west, while the other half was restless from the long and mostly fruitless search and felt that the hunting would be better if they ventured further south, deeper into the dark lands. In the end, the more adventurous ones won out and the party delved into the darker, more dangerous parts of the woods.
    Here the trees were not so beautiful and the air became somewhat oppressive. Sometimes one could see a giant spider scurry somewhere in the high branches above them, but the hideous creatures were always sure to keep their distance, for they knew there was no future in hunting elves and the Wood-elves despised the foul creatures above all else. If any came even remotely near, they would have shot it on sight.
    Legolas and the other elves were by now well used to the fleeting presence of the spiders and paid them no mind, but it was still one of Aragorn’s first encounters with them and he could not help the crawling feeling that he was given by the luminous shadow of their bulbous eyes, peering down here and there from the branches high above.
    Moving with sudden swiftness, Legolas paused, strung an arrow and shot it upward in one swift move. An ugly, thick-bodied spider fell to the earth with a sickening thud, its thread severed and the prince’s arrow through its body.
    Legolas curled his lip in disdain and kicked the creature off the path. These spiders were the only living things upon which the Wood-elves had no compassion, for they were wholly evil.
    Aragorn skirted the ugly black body with revulsion. He had never seen creatures like that before. He was still looking at its large body and disgustingly twitching legs when he felt something soft brush his neck and shoulder. He jumped slightly in surprise and pulled away, only to find Sarcaulien grinning condescendingly at him. The young ranger realized with an embarrassed flush that the elf had been teasing him and he had fallen for it.
    Several of the elves laughed. "Frightened, young one? You’d better watch your back or the spiders will carry you away to their lairs!"
    Aragorn tried to laugh with them and pretend that they weren’t laughing at him, but his cheeks still felt hot. "I think I’d be a little big for them to manage."
    "Oh no, they’re unnaturally strong these beasts..." Sarcaulien shook his head with a wicked grin. "And they hunt in packs. They can sneak up on you from above and you never even know they’re there..."
    "Hanging in the treetops above, waiting to pounce!" one of the other elves put in helpfully.
    "Why whole hunting parties have disappeared that way," Sarcaulien nodded. "Mummified bodies hanging from the trees... that’s all they find..."
    Aragorn knew exactly what they were trying to do, but he couldn’t help shivering slightly at the thought.
    "Sar," Legolas rolled his eyes, having backtracked when he saw that not all of the others were with him still. "What on earth are you telling him now?"
    "Just warning him about the woods and the spiders," Sarcaulien shrugged carelessly.
    The elves laughed at the unintentionally wide-eyed look that Aragorn did not even realize was on his face and Legolas gently touched his friend’s shoulder, trying not to smile too large himself. "They’re just playing with you, Strider. We’re in no danger here."
    "Wouldn’t be too sure about that," Sarcaulien countered, his smile turning hard. "The spiders might like tender young flesh like his."
    Legolas’ stern gaze told the other warrior to back off. "But you exaggerate, my friend. Entire hunting parties?" he shook his head dryly. "I think not. Not unless they were some bumble-footed dwarves or orcs. They far prefer culling out one or two loners, or individual prey." Unintentionally, Legolas was not exactly helping Aragorn’s feeling of comfort.
    "But come, we do not hunt spiders, and there’s got to be some game worth catching somewhere in these woods," the prince said lightly to get the party moving once more.
    Presently they came upon the bank of a swift, dark river and halted at the edge.
    Aragorn knelt as if to take a drink, but Legolas quickly grabbed him and pulled him back. "Do not drink nor touch the water of this stream, Strider," the elf warned seriously. "Enchantment flows through it and all who do so fall into a deep sleep."
    Aragorn backed off quickly, realizing how close he had come to making a grave blunder. He was beginning to realize that much of Mirkwood was not a very safe, or even a very pleasant place, although he supposed it had not always been so.
    A little ways upstream, a long, slender tree had been cut so that it fell across the river, with an end resting on either bank. The elves lightly jumped up and crossed the slender beam without hesitation.
    Aragorn hung back, not liking to admit that he did not look forward to the thought of trying to cross the dark, forbidding water on the thin, slippery trunk of the beech tree.
    Legolas would presently have thought to remember his human friend, but at that moment a whole herd of snow-white deer bounded into view ahead of them on the opposite shore and the elves gave a delighted cry, finishing their crossing quickly and taking off in pursuit of the highly prized game. For white deer were rare and hard to catch, even for an elf. They made magnificent trophies indeed and each of the elves was eager to bag one.
    This left Aragorn alone on the opposite bank with only the option of trying to cross and follow the elves, or having to go back to the camp alone. Not about to suffer the humiliation of not being able to keep up with his companions, Aragorn made up his mind and stepped hesitantly out onto the tree trunk. The moist wood was slippery and the round surface hard to balance upon, but the young ranger’s balance was good and Aragorn was surprised to find the crossing not nearly as difficult as he thought it would be, although it did take him nearly twice as long as it had his elven companions.
    He gained the opposite bank with a feeling of triumph. But that feeling was short-lived because he now realized that he had been left behind by the rest of the party and was not entirely sure which direction they had taken.
    Taking off in the direction that he thought they had gone, he tried to follow their tracks, but it did not seem as if all the elves had gone the same way and their tracks crossed and confused one another. Presently, Aragorn realized he wasn’t even sure he was following any tracks anymore, or if he was simply seeing things where he wished to see them.
    He stopped dead in his tracks, listening for any helpful sounds, but heard nothing. Nothing but the eerie patter of soft, sticky feet in the endless canopy above his head.
    "Perfect", Aragorn muttered to himself as he turned around in a circle trying to get his bearings and locate the hunting party, "leave it to the human to get lost."
    Glowing eyes looked down at him from above and he remembered Legolas’ words with a small chill.
    "They far prefer culling out one or two loners, or individual prey..."
    Just like he was now. The young man swallowed hard and started moving again. He still didn’t know where he was going, but anywhere was better than standing still.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Legolas and the other elves pursued their quarry until suddenly the bobbing white tails of the deer disappeared from view around a bend.
    Still following, the hunting party entered a partially open glade and stopped just under the shelter of the trees.
    "It smells wrong here," Sarcaulien whispered his concern, watching the shaded meadow through slitted eyes.
    "Where is Strider?" Legolas turned suddenly towards the back of the group as the tension in the elves raised a notch. He wanted the young ranger where he could keep an eye on him if there were to be trouble and he suddenly realized that he had forgotten about him entirely in the heat of the chase.
    "Someone has been here before us. Not long ago." Raniean approached the elf prince, glancing hard into the wooded area that surrounded them.
    "Raniean, have you seen the ranger?" Legolas searched the small meadow for a glimpse of his friend. Worry coursed through the prince as he realized that the last time he had seen Aragorn was right before they had crossed the river. He could have kicked himself for being so carried away that he had not thought to stay and make sure that his friend had made it across safely. He knew that Men were less agile than Elves when it came to crossings such as that... what if Aragorn had fallen into the enchanted river and drowned because it put him to sleep? His worry spiked and he stepped quickly backward to get a better look over the heads of his fellow hunters.
    The light touch of his boot depressed a hidden mechanism buried under the forest debris and leaves. He heard the metallic click seconds before the fangs of a steel trap sprung up around his leg and locked into place. There had been no time to move. With a cry, the elf prince fell to the forest floor. He grabbed the edges of the metal jaw and tried to pry them apart but it was no use. The metal teeth were buried in the soft flesh of his calf and he could not force them open. A painful sob broke from his lips and he submitted to the contraption and the fact that he could not escape it on his own.
    "No! Wait!" Raniean called out as the hunting party rushed forward into the glade in an attempt to free the prince.
    The combined weight of the elves triggered a secondary trap meant for larger prey that had perhaps chanced upon whatever had been unlucky enough to step into the steel trap. With a sound like arrows cutting the wind, a huge net lifted its corners from the edges of the glade capturing the elves inside its cavity and rocketing towards the trees, suspending the small group many feet above the forest floor.

    Aragorn was still cursing his bad luck at getting lost when he heard Legolas cry out. His sharp ears picked up the direction that the sound had come from and, turning left, he ran headlong through the forest, concerned only for the well-being of his friend.

    Raniean tried to reach the elven blade sheathed in his quiver, but the net had the elves bound too tightly to even free themselves. He spoke to the elf crushed against his side to see if the warrior could reach his knife; they needed to get free before the ones who had set the trap returned. He could hear the elf prince, still caught in the trap and tangled somewhere in the press of bodies, moan with the effort of keeping the pain at bay and it only served to heighten his panic at being caught.
    A shuffle below them silenced the warriors and they watched as six dwarves crept into the meadow.
    "By the stone!" A large, burly, dark-haired dwarf glared up at the captive hunting party, "It’s a pack of elves."
    "Well what do we do with the lot of them?" A red-bearded dwarf walked up closer and poked one of the elves with the tip of his axe, "We can’t eat them. And we’re still empty-handed." He eyed the ropes closer, warranting him a glare from the trapped elves, "From the looks of it, they’ve ruined this net!"
    "Balrain! What would we want with elves? They’ve no meat on their bones." The lead dwarf teased, laughing a deep throaty laugh that rang through the glen. "Come on men, let’s leave them there. I’m sure there’s something in these woods that would love the free meal!"

    Aragorn, hearing the conversation and the coarse laughter, had slowed his headlong rush. Gaining the edge of the meadow he crept stealthily around the perimeter keeping to the wooded areas and taking in the situation. He couldn’t see Legolas but had a good idea of where the prince was, suspended over the glade.
    "Release us!" Sarcaulien spit the words fiercely at the dwarves below them, "Now!"
    The demands of the elf amused the dwarves and they taunted their captives, prodding the elves with the blunt ends of their weapons.
    Aragorn had seen enough and his anger flared. True, not all the elves deserved his compassion, but Legolas was bound up in that net somewhere. The fact that he had not heard the prince’s voice worried him.
    He moved into position behind the dwarf that appeared to him to be the leader of the band of small men and leapt at the stout figure. Grabbing the short creature round the throat Aragorn snapped the dwarf’s head back hard. The human's broadsword flashed in the sunlight and he brought the blade up underneath the dwarf’s long beard, scraping the hairy, thick neck with its razor-sharp edge; the element of surprise was on his side as the other dwarves scattered quickly. Silence fell in the meadow.
    "Looks to me like you’re having fun here," Aragorn whispered the words coldly into the dwarf’s ear. "Too much fun." He jerked the small figure back and bit the edge of his blade harder against the dwarf’s throat for emphasis. "Let them down now."
    Undaunted, the lead dwarf twisted slightly in his captor's grip and glanced over his shoulder. Surprise was etched on every line of his face as he took in the sight of Aragorn. The human frowned back at him, his eyes darkened with anger.
    "A human!" The dwarf laughed at the irony of a man defending the elf warriors. "And a boy at that. Let me go, young human, and we’ll have a round of ale on me when we get back to the camp. You don’t want to be with these elves. They’re an evil bunch. You can’t trust an elf!"
    The other dwarves had recovered from the shock of Aragorn’s attack and slowly approached the two, laughing heartily at this new twist in events.
    "I say we learn the boy a lesson, Rorin!" An exceptionally rounded dwarf to Aragorn’s right laughed addressing the captive. "Seems he musta learned a thing or two from these creatures, he sure caught you good! Imagine a boy catching a Coppercryer!"
    Rorin bellowed a laugh despite the metal edging his throat. "Say, what business has a Man with Elves anyway?"
    "My own." Aragorn growled, tired of the friendly banter between the dwarves. "Release them." His arm tightened around the dwarf’s chin, raising the leader’s head a few inches higher.
    "These elves hate your kind. They have no love for anything but their own lives. Do you really think they will thank you?" Rorin glanced out of the corner of his eye at the man behind him.
    "Times are changing. You never know." Aragorn chanced a look up towards the net and saw the elves quietly watching him. "Now do as I say or I will take your bearded head off for you."
    "Kill me and my men will kill you." Rorin sobered immediately. He too had had enough of the whole situation and was more than ready to end it.
    "They may kill me, but by that time my friends will have escaped and they will kill your companions, every one of them."
    "Either way you die, young human." The stout dwarf shrugged as though uncaring.
    "That may be. But it seems a fair trade to me. I may die but my friends will live. You and your whole company, however, will die. Either way you lose, Master Dwarf."
    The seriousness of the situation settled on the dwarves; they had been caught poaching, had trapped some of the king’s own warriors and now were in danger of losing their lives at the hands of a human. Rorin eyed his men. Each one returned the steady gaze and Aragorn could feel the tension rise as axes were hefted and swords were drawn from their scabbards.
    The man tightened his grip on the dwarf and pulled the small being up onto its toes. "Release them now." Aragorn’s voice was soft and lethal and his eyes flashed as he regarded the odds of escaping the confrontation alive. Whether or not he lived, he would not allow his friends to be tormented by these dwarves or left to die suspended over the forest floor like some hunter's unwanted catch. "Do it! I grow tired of asking you." As he pressed his broadsword deeper against the dwarf’s throat, he could feel a trickle of warm blood run down his fingers.
    Rorin felt it too. "Release them." He ground the words out, glaring at the elves trapped in the net. When his men failed to obey him fast enough, he shouted out his order at them, "Do it NOW!"
    One of the dwarves rushed to a nearby tree and brought his axe head down against the rope that held the net suspended, releasing the tension and allowing the elves to fall free from the net.
    Aragorn shoved Rorin away from him and crouched into a defensive posture, his sword held out before him as the dwarf turned on him. "Don’t." He spit the word at the small man and slowly backed towards the elves, placing himself between them and the dwarves.
    A pain-filled cry caught his ears as the elves tumbled to the forest floor and he chanced a glance over his shoulder to see Legolas dangling from the net. The steel trap, still closed about his leg, had snagged on the net and had jerked him to stop a few feet above the ground. The sight of the offensive metal and the wounded prince enraged the human and he advanced on the small company of dwarves now huddled together and backing slowly out of the meadow.

    "You had better pray that he comes to no ill end or so help me, Rorin Coppercryer, I will hunt you down and you will wish we had never met." There was no taunting response from the threat as the master dwarf stared at the human. The protective fire in the man’s eyes surprised Rorin more than anything. Perhaps the human was right and times were changing. He would have a lot to think over when they were well away from here.
    As the elves lowered Legolas to the forest floor, the prince cried out and curled over his injured leg, drawing in on himself in an attempt to still the sharp spikes of pain that radiated through him. A deep, ominous, crimson stain had already spread across Legolas’ torn pants leg and now dripped down onto the ground, staining the verdant foliage beneath him.
    Aragorn heard the steel trap click as Raniean triggered the release and opened its jaws. He turned and saw the deathly pale face of the elf prince as he winced in pain with the return of feeling to his leg. Raniean glanced up and was surprised by the dangerous look in the human’s eyes.
    The ranger stepped back around the offensive piece of metal and kicked the trap towards the dwarves. The steel jaws clanged shut dropping inches from where Rorin stood. It took all the dwarf’s nerve not to flinch as the trap settled against his boot toe.
    "And take that with you," Aragorn spat the words at the poachers. "You have no business in these woods. See to it you don’t return."
    "And if you do," Sarcaulien stepped forward, his courage regained, "pray you don’t meet up with us."
    "Or what?" the one called Balrain challenged.
    "You will find out what, if you return, rockdweller," the elf replied with disdain.
    The slur was not lost on the dwarf who hefted his axe and threw the heavy bladed weapon toward the elf. Sarcaulien had no time to move and his own weapons were no match for the dwarf blade. Aragorn had watched the exchange and without thinking he threw himself in the path of the axe, bringing his sword up and, catching the weapon mid-flight, he severed the head from the shaft. The handle fell to the forest floor and the axe head spun wildly off into the woods missing the elves altogether.
    Adrenaline surged through the man and he spun towards Rorin pointing at the dwarf with the tip of his sword, "Go! NOW!" Something in the man’s eyes, in their depth and the loyalty the boy held to the elves he protected, convinced the dwarf to hurry his companions out of the glen.
    "Real smart." Aragorn growled as he turned and glanced up at Sarcualien, frowning at the elf. He was breathing hard trying to get his body to relax when his attention was drawn back to Legolas.
    Sarcaulien brushed past Aragorn and knelt with Raniean on either side of their liege, deeply concerned by the amount of blood the injured elf was loosing.
    Hot agony shot up Legolas’ injured leg as Raniean unwrapped his soft leather boot from around the injury. The elf was trying to be gentle, but when he pulled the boot off Legolas’ foot, the prince had to stifle another outcry. Gripping his thigh above his knee, Legolas squeezed the injured leg tightly, trying to give his body some other input to process other than the flaming hurt of his injury.
    Aragorn shouldered his way through the small knot of elves enough to see what was going on. Worry creased his young brow. Raniean and Sarcaulien were trying to staunch the worst of the bleeding, but the stain beneath Legolas’ leg was still growing at an alarming rate.
    The two elves working on Legolas exchanged glances. The prince should not have been bleeding this badly. It should have already begun to slow at least a little. But it was not.

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