The Stars of Harad

Chapter 14

by Cassia and Siobhan

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Morning light was just beginning to streak the sky as the slaves made their out of their tents for morning round up. Aragorn was silent as he followed Cabed out of the tent. Talking to the other slaves last night had not gone well. It was as Sircyn had said, they were afraid. Some of them had never been free and although all of them wanted it, it seemed to them a dream either too dangerous, or too impossible to achieve.

To Aragorn’s distress, even Cabed had been hesitant. Not that he didn’t want to do whatever he could to help Aragorn, but he had his family and his people to think about. If something went wrong... there would be bloodshed and many, many of the slaves would pay with their lives. Not everyone was sure it was worth the risk.

The guards worked their way up the line of slaves, barking orders. Talft and Lur usually gave no more than a cursory glance to see that everyone was there before letting them go about their work, but this morning when they reached the Simbani huts they looked around in disgust.

"Where’s the other one?" Talft demanded.

"Sircyn was injured yesterday sir, he’ll be able to work again by tomorrow, I’ll pull his load ‘til then," Cabed explained quietly. This sort of thing was not usually a problem, for Rhuddryn wanted his slaves kept in good health and good condition. Cabed and his people were hard workers and did not shirk their jobs, so most times when they said someone was too ill to work, they were taken at their word. Technically Sircyn should probably have rested even longer than they said, but his family knew to take it one day at a time and see how he was in the evening.

Lur shook his head impatiently. "I know that!" he snapped. "I don’t mean him, I mean the other northerner."

"He’s not well enough yet," Aragorn spoke up, but tried to keep his voice and his eyes down. "He’s still very weak, Master said..."

"The Master is tired of playing nursemaid to worthless slaves." Bypassing Aragorn, Cabed and Mambre, Lur entered the tent behind them, even as Talft spoke.

"He says no more rest for this one, either he pulls his weight or we let the taergs have ‘em," Lur did not give the elf a chance to comply willingly, but half dragged, half jerked Legolas out of the tent by his arm and threw him forward, sending the prince sprawling on the ground near Talft’s feet.

Legolas sucked his breath in sharply as his injured back hit the ground and curled protectively around his broken ribs. He was better, but he could tell his body was far from fully healed of the very vicious abuse that the two guards had inflicted upon him at Rhuddryn’s bidding not so long ago.

"On your feet, lazy scum," Talft kicked Legolas none-too-gently in the stomach and the elf gasped softly as the pain exploded across his battered ribcage.

Aragorn tensed, his hand curling into fists at his side and he started to move forward, but Cabed’s warning hand shot out to hold him back. "Adrar!" he whispered firmly when Aragorn almost attempted to push past him. Aragorn getting into trouble would not help Legolas.

Silently Cabed willed the guards to hurt the elf no further, both for Legolas’ sake and Aragorn’s, because he knew that the young man they called Adrar would not long stand by and see this happen. Aragorn had been visibly changing since his memory returned. He was bolder, no longer so afraid and no longer content to play the part of the subservient slave. While Cabed was glad for Adrar’s healed mind, he was gravely worried it was going to get the young northerner into serious trouble.

Legolas pulled himself quickly, if unsteadily, to his feet and for the moment at least the guards left him alone, yelling at the slaves to stop gawking and get on with their jobs.

Aragorn quickly made his way to Legolas’ side, steadying his friend and offering the elf his shoulder to lean on if he needed it. Legolas gripped the young ranger’s arm tightly for a moment as he gathered his strength, but then eased up and let go, trying to show Aragorn that he was all right and could walk on his own.

"I’ll be all right," Legolas still had one arm pressed tightly against his throbbing ribs, but smiled at his friend. "But you’ll have to show me what to do."

Aragorn nodded, not entirely convinced, but allowing the elf do as he wished. The ranger tried to keep close to Legolas as they went out to the fields, but had to run ahead when one of the fidgety, wild oliphaunts that had been brought into the tame herd a few days ago nearly broke free of its fencing again, narrowly missing goring Cabed as it had Sircyn the day before.

Aragorn quickly helped the older slave calm the huge creature and shore up the fence. That done he looked around for Legolas, who should have caught up with them by now, even moving as slow as he was.

However, when his searching gaze finally found his friend, a violent red haze obscured the ranger’s vision.

"Adrar! No!" Cabed called after him, but the young northerner was already running for the edge of the clearing and the elder Haradrim could not stop him this time.

When Aragorn ran on ahead to help with the oliphaunt, Legolas had increased his speed to catch up, but something shoved between his feet from behind nearly tripped him. Even weakened, his elven reflexes kept him from falling, but he stumbled and wobbled somewhat unsteadily. He heard the guards behind him laugh.

"What’s the matter Tyndel?" Talft mocked. "Not so quick on your feet anymore? I wonder why..." the disagreeable man smirked because he knew exactly why and all that had been done to the elf.

"Not used to being on this side of things, are you? Not so tough now that you can’t boss us around like we’re beneath you, huh? I’ll bet one of the oliphaunts steps on him right away," Lur chuckled unpleasantly.

Legolas ignored them, straightening his shoulders and continuing on.

"Hey!" Lur grabbed the elf’s arm from behind and spun him around roughly. "Don’t you walk away when we’re talking to you *slave*! You’re as bad at listening as the half-wit! Do none of you northerners have any sense under those bleached hides of yours?"

Legolas tensed, anger and fear chasing themselves around inside him. His memories of the feel of these men’s hands on his arms the last time, as they held him on his knees and beat him unconscious, not once, not even just twice... filled his senses and a queasy shiver of dread ran up his spine. Fear was a feeling that Legolas hated, but one he could not deny.

"You know, he hasn’t been properly initiated yet Lur. Why, he doesn’t have any understanding of what it means to be a slave yet, do you?" Talft taunted as Lur twisted the elf’s arm behind his back and dragged him into the shadows of the trees edging the field.

Legolas remembered what Aragorn had said, about how the guards would only abuse the slaves out of sight, where they couldn’t be caught at their sport, and started to struggle; but a swift, cruel blow to his already hurting ribs quickly put an end to that.

"No?" Lur smiled evilly. "Well, mister better-than-everyone-else, here’s your first lesson, fast and hard." He cuffed the elf upside the head hard and pressed him face-first against the bole of the huge tree, rubbing Legolas’ twisted arm roughly into the still healing welts between the prince’s bare shoulders.

Legolas gasped and squirmed in pain, his injured body protesting loudly. A swift blow dropped him to his knees. Strong hands held him there. The elf’s body panicked and he thrashed against his captors no matter how useless it was. Not again. Not again. He couldn’t do this again. He couldn’t... fear chased all reason from his mind.

"No!" Aragorn, surprising the guards by his sudden appearance, dropped to his knees protectively behind Legolas, putting himself between his friend and the guards. Aragorn felt the prince’s back tremble against his chest, but the elf shook his head. "N-no, Arag-Adrar, go back to work, please." Legolas’ voice was ragged and unsteady and Aragorn could hear the raw fear hiding behind the brave words. It made his heart burn. He may not have been able to do anything about what these people had done to Legolas before, but he’d be damned if he was going to let them hurt him again!

Talft jerked Aragorn away from Legolas, growling angrily. "You get in our way ever again and you’re food for the taergs, no matter what the boss says, got it Adrar?"

Aragorn could not hide the defiant glimmer in his glance and the guard’s eyes narrowed. "I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but maybe if you have to watch what we do to this one, you’ll remember your place a little better!"

Lur shook out his whip, standing behind Legolas to illustrate his partner’s words. "You heal quick," he observed the closing cuts and welts they had given the elf last time. "Maybe you need to be freshened up a little."

Legolas tensed and pressed his forehead against the smooth bark of the tree, his hands trembling no matter how hard he tried to be calm. Running was useless, in the shape he was in he would never make it far anyway, but his heart was in his throat and his body was screaming at him that it could not take another beating like this, not again, not so soon.

Aragorn saw the way Legolas was shaking and visibly drawing in on himself and something inside the ranger snapped. His friend hadn’t reacted this badly to men since Taradin had mistaken the elf for Hebrilith and he couldn’t stand seeing the prince in such fear and pain. Lashing out with unexpected violence for one they considered too dim-witted to put up any planned resistance, Aragorn wrenched free of Talft and yanked the whip out of Lur’s hand. The startled guard tried to grab the young ranger, and Aragorn dodged, swinging out automatically and punching Lur in the jaw.

The man stumbled and fell backward, unconscious.

Talft’s eyes were huge and quickly filled with rage as they bored into the ranger.

Aragorn stood very still for a moment, looking down at Lur and realizing what he had done. He had committed the worst transgression any slave could ever commit, he had struck an overseer. The part of him that had been trained to think like a slave felt a hot slick of panic pass through his insides, but the other half of him felt stubbornly glad, no matter what was going to happen to him because of this.

Legolas rose unsteadily, touching Aragorn’s shoulder lightly as he too looked down at Lur’s unconscious form.

For all his bluster, Talft truly was a coward underneath and did not want to have to stand up to the two slaves by himself. Backing up, he glared at them, most of his ire directed at Aragorn. "You’re in *so* much trouble boy, you have no idea! I’ll be back, and you had better be here or I’ll let Cabed or Sircyn take whatever you’ve got coming!" Turning, he ran off to get some of the other overseers.

Aragorn let his breath out slowly, his knees suddenly feeling like they didn’t want to hold him anymore as the initial adrenaline drained out of his body. He eased down onto the grass and knelt with his hands leaning on his thighs. He had really done it this time. It was barely morning and he had already gotten himself into trouble so deep he wasn’t sure where it was going to leave him. He knew how Seobryn had dealt with it when he’d struck out at someone over him... but if Talft were just going to beat him, he would have done that already.

Legolas knelt by his friend’s side. He wanted to tell the young human that he should not have done it, but he knew he would have done no different if their positions had been reversed. "I’m sorry," his blue eyes sought the grey ones next to him. "I’m so sorry." He felt this was all his fault.

"It’s not your fault Legolas, and I don’t regret it, you hear? I *don’t*!" the ranger’s soft voice was fierce as he squeezed his friend’s hand where it rested against his shoulder.

Cabed and Mambre, with Kidrin tagging close behind as always, reached the spot a few moments later, taking in the scene, and the still unconscious Lur, understanding what must have happened. Cabed’s eyes searched between Legolas and Aragorn. It was Aragorn who sighed and looked away.

"Oh Adrar..." Mambre murmured, pain filling her deep, dark eyes. Cabed knelt opposite Legolas on the other side of the young man that he had taken into his home as part of his family.

"You do this Adrar?" he nodded dispassionately towards Lur.

Aragorn nodded. "They were beating Legolas again, they wanted to make me watch... I’m sorry Cabed. I just couldn’t do it. Talft told me to wait here," he said softly. Aragorn knew that if he did not obey, either his little family, or some other hapless slave would pay for this, and he wouldn’t see that happen.

Mambre and Cabed exchanged anguished looks. Neither of them knew exactly what would be done, because nothing like this had ever happened to them before, but they knew it would not be good, or easy.

"What? What’s going on? Is he dead? I hope he’s dead. I don’t like him. He’s mean. Is something bad gonna happen to Adrar?" Kidrin’s eyes were large as he poked at Lur’s still body and tried to understand his parent’s concern.

"Shh, hush child. He’s not dead, unfortunately," Mambre muttered the last part under her breath. "Go on back, help your sister now, all right? There’s a good boy." She sent the child away, turning back to Aragorn once the little boy had reluctantly taken his leave.

She checked Lur, and found that he was indeed fine, although he would doubtless have a killer headache, which she hoped he would feel for a very long time.

Cabed was talking quietly to Aragorn.

Loud, angry voices reached them and they looked up to see Talft and several of the other guards approaching quickly.

Aragorn rose to his feet. Cabed and Mambre both gave him an encouraging hug. "Be brave Adrar," Mambre whispered, not wanting to release him. The two Haradrim backed off a little, but Legolas did not move, staying by Aragorn’s side, his hand resting on the young human’s shoulder.

"Him," Talft nodded his head towards Aragorn and several of the other guards quickly took the young slave by the arms. At his side, Legolas tensed. "See, there he is, poor Lur! I told you boss, that half-wit attacked us!"

Rhuddryn himself was there and frowned deeply. The master rarely came out to the fields in person, so this was obviously a serious occasion.

"I doubt very much that his actions were completely unprovoked," Rhuddryn’s voice was dry as he leveled his underling with an even stare. "HOWEVER, there is nothing that justifies striking one of your betters, even you should understand that Adrar," the slave owner turned his gaze on Aragorn, and the young man dropped his eyes, knowing he could not let Rhuddryn see the change that had been working in him.

Rhuddryn turned his gaze on the elf next to Adrar, his eyes narrowed. "You, I think are going to be more trouble than you’re worth. I blame you for this Tyndel, the boy’s not all there upstairs and you’re the one that got him into trouble. Not that that excuses him, but it implicates you. So you can both share the penalty. Talft," he turned back to the guard. "You and some of the others take these two out to the salt flats. Give them no water and make sure they put in a full day’s work. Understood? All right then-"

Cabed and Mambre had both stiffened. "If it please you sir," Cabed spoke up quietly, something he would never have dreamed of doing if he weren’t so distressed. "Adrar’s never been conditioned to working out there... he could die. I’ve done it before. Let me go in his place."

Mambre gripped his arm tightly, but Cabed let his offer stand. The salt flats were a harsh, unforgiving desert. Temperatures there routinely soared far above what the human body could safely handle and slaves had to be gradually exposed and worked up to it to be able to work in those conditions. Throwing two people in there cold, with no conditioning at all, was a nearly certain death sentence.

Rhuddryn glared at the slave. "If they die then they are an even better example for the rest of you. Don’t you start giving me trouble too Cabed. I am in no mood to be trifled with any further." The master’s eyes were dangerous. "What is everyone standing around for? Back to work unless you all want to be mining salt today! Talft, get those two troublemakers moving, *now*!"

Everyone obeyed and Aragorn and Legolas were tied up, hands strung in front of them on lead-lines, and moved out. Mambre buried her face on her husband’s shoulder and Cabed wrapped his arm around her as they moved numbly back to work. Whatever would they tell Sircyn?

In their hearts they feared that they had learned to love only to lose again. Adrar was strong... but could he and his friend possibly survive the harsh and deadly heat of the flats? They didn’t know. All they could do was hope.

Aragorn and Legolas were hitched up behind a flatbed wagon which Talft and another guard drove. A snap of the reins started the mule team moving and so began the first leg of their arduous journey and they had a feeling things were only going to get worse.

Aragorn looked across at Legolas and sighed. "Well, this is just like old times, isn’t it?"

Legolas almost smiled. "At least you have old times to remember again," he said quietly, talking too soft for the guards in the front of the wagon to hear him.

The young human nodded, twisting his wrists slightly in their bonds in an effort to ease the tension a little. "Yes, I do... and do you want to tell me why it is that most of them I have with you in them involve situations like this?"

Despite everything, Legolas was glad to see that old familiar glint in Aragorn’s eyes once more. He had missed his friend’s spark and odd sense of humor more than he could say.

"That, Strider, may remain a mystery forever," he smiled gently. "Let’s just try to survive this one, all right?" 


The trip out to the salt flats was not a short one and it was already mid-morning by the time they reached them. Dry, cracked earth, a blindingly shimmering white, stretched out for miles in each direction. There were no trees here, no cover whatsoever, just acre upon acre of flat, salt-crusted earth. Once upon a time there must have been a large body of water here, but it had long ago dried up, leaving behind only its sediments and a dry, scorching desert.

The signs of previous mining were evident in the lines, furrows and ridges carved into the flat earth here and there, however there were no other slaves out here right now. Salt mining was usually done in the early morning or late evenings, or during the cooler months of the year. Only as punishment were slaves ever forced to work in midday heat.

Heat rose in shimmering waves off of the baked earth; the bleached, white salt flats intensifying the sun’s rays as it reflected them, so that the extreme warmth was not only coming from above, but below as well. The bright glare hurt their eyes and both Aragorn and Legolas had to squint, and put their hands in front of their faces before they could become adjusted to it.

Talft and Nalb, the other overseer, cut the slaves’ hands free and prodded them further out into the flats. Flat-ended hoes and shovels were given them, along with a wheeled barrow and they were instructed to remove the top layer of earth and salt crystals into the barrow, which was then emptied into many large wooden crates that formed a line some distance away. Later the crates would be carted off and the salty earth processed and distilled by some means that Legolas and Aragorn were unfamiliar with as their captors had not seen fit to speak to them unless absolutely necessary. Some of the finished product was used in the feed given the Oliphaunts, Aragorn knew, having mixed the stuff often enough. It was also essential for the livelihood of cattle, and although Rhuddryn raised none himself, he sold his excess salt product to those who did.

After delivering their instructions in a short and terse manner, the two overseers retreated to the shade of a small sheltered canopy, erected for just such a purpose, on the far northern edge of the field. The two Haradrim could not take the heat of the flats and had no intention of frying with the slaves they guarded. From the shade under the canopy, they could watch the slaves well enough, and see that they did not attempt to escape; although such a notion would have been sheer foolishness, for making a break out here would only mean certain death in the desert.

Left with the strict warning that slacking on the job would result in harsh punishment, Legolas and Aragorn had nothing to do but take the tools given them and go to work.

The sun crawled slowly and torturously across the sky. By the time it was near the waning hours of the most intense midday heat the two slaves’ situation had become unbearable.

Aragorn felt as if the heat were an actual, physical enemy that was trying to overcome him. Unfortunately, it was winning. The hot air and scorching sun made them perspire heavily, and with no water to replace what was lost, both friends were feeling the effects of the dehydration.

As an elf, the extreme heat in and of itself did not affect Legolas as severely as Aragorn, but the prince’s still healing injuries made him weaker than usual, and on top of that, his fair, un-weathered skin did not take well to the harsh glare. Over the past several months Aragorn’s skin had bronzed and built up a protection to the sun, but Legolas’ had not had that opportunity, and his exposed face, arms, chest and back began to let him know it. It took him far longer to burn than it would have for a human, but by this point in the day his healing back had begun to throb mercilessly once again, and his own perspiration stung his arms and chest.

Legolas watched Aragorn with concern. The young human’s face was flushed and he had become increasingly sluggish in his movements and disoriented in his actions. Covering his dark hair with his hands for a moment, Aragorn tried to ease the intensity of the sun for a brief respite. His head was swimming and he felt ill.

"Aragorn!" Legolas said his name in alarm when the ranger fell suddenly to his knees.

Becoming ill in a reaction to the intolerable conditions, Aragorn’s insides heaved and his stomach emptied without his consent.

Legolas stood behind his friend, letting his shadow fall across the human and holding Aragorn’s shoulders gently as the young man retched miserably. Legolas knew his friend couldn’t help his body’s actions, but he was alarmed, because he knew that the Dùnadan could ill afford to lose anymore moisture.

Aragorn leaned weakly back against Legolas’ legs. "I don’t feel so good," he murmured. It was a massive understatement.

"I know," Legolas held Aragorn lightly against him, his shadow providing the only shade there was as he attempted to shield his friend from the sun’s merciless rays. He wished there was something more he could do. "I know you don’t."

"I wish I was an elf..." the ranger whispered somewhat hoarsely. He tried to smile, but his parched lips did not fully cooperate with him. "This is always happening to me... sun, snow, burning, freezing... and you’re always stuck trying to deal with my weaknesses... I’m sorry Legolas, I’m always such a burden to you, I wish..." he wasn’t making a lot of sense, even to himself, but Legolas squeezed his shoulders tightly.

"I wouldn’t have you be anything other than what you are my friend. Your strengths and your weaknesses alike are dear to me Aragorn, by now you must know that. You have never been a burden to me and you never will be, anymore than you consider me to have been to you. We’ll make it through this like we have everything else. Evening will come, this can’t last forever Aragorn, it will be all right," the elf soothed gently.

Aragorn nodded with difficulty, but his body was telling him otherwise. "I-I can’t breathe Legolas... the air is so thick..." he held his chest, leaning forward. Suddenly Legolas felt his friend’s body go slack against him and caught the young man before he toppled limply sideways.

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