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Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them. This story was written for entertainment only and no monetary profit is being made.
Author's notes: I thank each of you for the wonderful reviews I received for the last chapter. You guys really keep me going!
To See A World by Nightwing
Chapter 35: In Other Hands
Aragorn stared helplessly as the torch's flame flickered and then dimmed. The waving shadows loomed menacingly and then shrank against the darks walls, and a soft hissing sound rose from the straw pallet. The ranger's breath caught in his throat as the flame sputtered, and a desperate hope rose in him as he strained forward against his bonds, not daring to tear his eyes away lest the intensity of his gaze was the only thing preventing the feeble fire from surging into a conflagration.
The straw was wet. What else would cause the hissing, the curling tendrils of smoke, the lack of growth? When Legolas had hurled the water onto the fireplace, some of it must have splashed onto the pallet. The straw was wet!
The ranger worked frantically against the ties holding him to the bed as he kept his eyes fastened on the reluctant flame, praying to whatever god might be listening: let it die, let it die, let it die!
He could gain no easing of his bonds. With a growl of frustration he twisted his head in an effort to visualize how he was held. Ropes lashed around his middle held him fast to the bedpost. Could he find a knot within reach of his trembling fingers? Could he rub the bindings around his wrists vigorously enough against the bedpost to fray them? Or could he somehow break the stout bed-frame at a weak spot? Gritting his teeth, he pulled forward as strongly as he could, seeking to work some slack into the bindings securing him so he could move more freely.
A sudden whoosh brought Aragorn up with a gasp. Golden light burst forth, and he found himself staring in mute horror at a bright wall of leaping flame not twenty feet from where he sat. In seconds the straw bed was entirely engulfed and long fingers of fire began shooting up the wall at the head, reaching for whatever they could grasp.
Terror surged. The flames were moving too fast. Aragorn flinched away from the sudden wave of heat that struck him, pressing himself back and averting his face, and he fought with all his might against the unyielding restraints. Too soon his breath came in shorts panting gasps; already the air had grown painful to his throat, searing his chest, and his eyes stung. A sudden crackling overhead wrenched his gaze upward, and he cried aloud as he saw tendrils of flame licking along the thatched ceiling. With terrifying speed the fire rushed across. He watched it for a moment, uncertain if the roof would burn with its burden of snow on top. The inner section undoubtedly would, but would the snow then fall through and help him?
Wisps of smoke had begun to curl from the clothing of the dead man lying before him, and Aragorn struggled to back up and somehow put distance between himself and the corpse. He heaved at the bed in an effort to shift it to the side so that he could drag himself closer to the door, but it was heavy, set firmly against the wall, and there was no budging it from the position he was in.
Small embers began pattering down, dancing past his blurred gaze like fireflies. He kicked with his bound feet at the ones that fell to the floor near him and shook his head violently to dislodge the tiny sparks that drifted into his hair, but as the searing air made him choke on his breath he knew there was no fighting this. Whether the snow on the roof could douse the fire was of no import. The flames on the straw bed were raging, the heat had already grown agonizing, and he was sitting on a wooden floor that smoldered and sprouted small flames of its own as the sparks rained down from the ceiling. He would burn. He would burn, and when the roof fell in it would crush him.
A burning fragment broke from the ceiling and struck his left shoulder. As he shook it off, the searing pain tore an agonized scream from him. Trembling, he dropped his head and crushed his eyes shut, no longer able to tolerate the sight of the whirling wall of scarlet and orange advancing upon him. Tiny flames floated down and bit into his hunched shoulders. He could not draw another breath. His lungs shuddered and heaved in agony, but he held what air he could inside him, unwilling to let it go, for he knew the next breath would be unbearable. The noise of the flames grew to a roar. As he sought to press himself under the bed, a sudden strange thumping sound came from the doorway. Aragorn jerked his head up and looked wildly around as he heard a shout.
"Here, Arath! He is here!"
Fighting to see through the haze, Aragorn saw dark shapes appear at his side. He felt an insistent tugging at the ropes wrapped tightly around his chest, and a moment later they parted. Toppling forward with a cry, he was caught up in the strong grip of a man, who yelled "Get out! The roof is about to come down!"
"What about this other fellow?"
"Already dead. Take his feet – go!"
Hands grasped Aragorn at the shoulders and the ankles. He felt himself being lifted, jostled roughly as the panting men stumbled at the threshold, nearly dropping him, and then a blast of freezing air struck him. The cold tore through his lungs with the searing agony of a lightning strike, and his mouth opened in a scream that caught, choking, in his throat. He thrashed helplessly as the men turned abruptly once through the doorway and rushed toward the back of the cabin.
"Quickly, get behind the house where they cannot see us," the man at his head hissed. "Make for the trees."
A quick, jolting run ensued, and then they halted. Aragorn, writhing, broke free of their grip and tumbled to the ground. He was grabbed roughly and flipped over.
"What's wrong with him? He can't breathe!"
"He can. He's just forgotten how to do it." A hand slapped him smartly across the face, and then again. Startled, Aragorn drew a wheezing breath, and as his lungs filled again the cold air pierced him with blades sharper than any weapon. He forced it out with a scream of agony, but the hand quickly clamped over his mouth and nose, stifling his outcry.
"Hold on there, mate. Sorry, but we can't risk all that yelling bringing your friends round again. They're not that far off that they wouldn't come back to see they'd finished the job right."
A cloth was shoved brutally against Aragorn's face. Frightened, he tried to fight it off, but the men held him firmly. His breath labored harshly in his chest as he gulped frantically, his body demanding air no matter the pain it caused him to inhale it. A spasm seized his throat. Coughing violently, he thrashed in misery as he struggled to fill his tortured lungs. Curling onto his side, he sobbed as pain flared through him.
Through the agony he heard the continued roar of flames some distance off, and then a great crashing sound echoed through the trees.
"There goes the roof," someone muttered. "We got this poor fellow out just in time."
Aragorn groaned. His breath gradually began to come with more ease, and he realized that the cloth pressed against his face had not been to smother him, but to warm the air as he pulled it into his injured lungs. He stopped fighting, and as he did the hands holding him eased. The cloth was pulled away.
"Feeling better now?"
The cold touch of a knife pressed against his wrists, and the bonds securing his hands and feet were cut. Aragorn blinked furiously, his eyes streaming with tears, but a burst of red and orange, the terrible afterimage of the fire, was all he could see as he struggled to make out the faces of his rescuers. His body began to quake uncontrollably.
"Here, wrap him in the blanket. The cold is too great a shock."
"Look at his hands! And his foot…"
"Aye. He had been hurt before what was done to him tonight."
Aragorn squeezed his eyes shut, fighting a sudden surge of nausea as he was unceremoniously hauled up to a sitting position. A thick blanket that felt like his own and smelled rather singed was settled around his shoulders. His head lolled helplessly against someone's chest as the world wavered, and he slumped, suddenly bled of all strength. The men laid him back on the ground.
"See if the horse is in the barn. We must get him to shelter."
Footsteps shuffled away as Aragorn struggled to rise. Squinting through his burning eyes, he glimpsed as if through a thick film of fog a small figure with a broad weathered face, framed by a mop of brown hair and a beard flecked with grey. Sharp blue eyes looked back at Aragorn, and the man suddenly grinned, flashing a mouthful of crooked and missing teeth. He reached out and pushed the ranger down.
"Easy there! Lie back and don't make a fuss," he barked. "Where do you think you're going? I say nowhere, the shape you're in."
Aragorn gasped as pain flared over him again, but he fixed his gaze on the man pleadingly. "My friend?" he whispered.
"You mean the elf? Aye, they took him."
"They will kill him," Aragorn croaked, wincing at the burning sensation in his throat. He started coughing again. "Please, help…"
The man's expression became sober, and he turned his eyes away. "Well now, one rescue at a time. We've got our hands full with you at the moment. And I am not one to go to the city."
"No. Please-" Aragorn pressed his elbows into the ground and tried to lift himself, but agony jolted through him like a spear thrust. With a soft cry of anguish he fell back, and his vision darkened. He curled his throbbing hands into fists and dug the nails into his palms, trying to anchor himself to awareness as he felt himself slipping, but he could not hold back the sickness and pain. They engulfed him, but as the world faded he heard the voice of his rescuer one last time, speaking to himself in a savage whisper:
"Ramhar is one cold-hearted bastard. And the mere tread of that cursed enchanter Malcovan blights the land! If there is justice in this world, their time will come. The people will rise. Oh yes, their time will come…"
The final part of the journey to the city, though the shortest, proved also to be the most torturous for Legolas. Trapped in the horrific closeness of the crate, tormented by pain and the absolute confinement of his body, the elf fought to control his panic and rage. He struggled to break free of the box, maddened by the press of walls around him, but without room to move there was no power behind his efforts. He could only squirm helplessly, unable even to turn himself from his left side. Though he was aware of voices outside they were muffled, as if coming to his ears from a great distance, and where he lay there was no free air.
Stunned by all that had happened and his mind awash in desperate disbelief, the elf barely clung to some semblance of composure. He tried to hold to the small hope offered by the soldier's whispered assurance that his confinement would not last long. Ramhar would eventually free him of the box, if only for worse torments, but as the jolting ride continued Legolas' misery increased. He was certain that his neck had taken some hurt from the blows of the club as he had fought against his abductors. He could move his head, but it throbbed horribly, and occasional sharp spikes of pain made him catch his breath. An uncomfortable fogginess had descended over him as well, making concentration difficult, and he realized how easily he could fall into unconsciousness. His body felt strangely weakened, as if he had been drugged, and yet his legs continued to push and kick against the unyielding crate, and his bound hands knotted fretfully behind his back and punched as best they could against the wall behind him. It was as if the anguish of his heart drove his body to violence and caused it to fight against its confinement, regardless of the pain.
His physical struggles served to keep him awake and aware, preventing him from slipping into the darkness that he feared would bring him to more harm. Though a part of his mind yearned for just that - to let oblivion claim him and spirit him away from this nightmare, he feared what might come to him were he to succumb to unconsciousness. Much as he dreaded being helpless in the hands of his captors, he dreaded more the thought of what they might do were he insensible, and so he fought with all his strength against the alluring pull of the darkness.
In an effort to calm his terror and keep his mind from the comforting promises of the dark, Legolas focused his attention on his breath. It was difficult, with the air so oppressive and the moisture wicked from his mouth by the gag, but he forced himself to draw air into his lungs in a slow and steady rhythm, knowing if he were to succumb to his rising panic he would only bring himself greater discomfort. But the tension would not ease. His limbs trembled violently as his body strained for freedom, and as he fought to calm himself he dug his fingernails into the part of the box that pressed against his back and found it to be padded. He wondered at this, as he traced long gouges and tears in the thick layers of fabric, and came to the conclusion that its purpose was to muffle the sound of his struggles from outside ears. He doubted it had been installed for his comfort.
As the cart rumbled along, Legolas became aware of a foul smell that began permeating the smothering air around him. He shuddered miserably. Faint it was, as if efforts had been made in the past to wash it away, but it was clear enough to his nose, and he recognized it as the blood of men, mingled with other odors even less pleasant. He was not the first prisoner to be held thus. Others had been confined in this small and terrible space, and they too had clawed in desperation at the padded walls. The elf wondered how long they had been held, if it had been hours, or even days. And he remembered the words of Alun, uttered what now seemed a lifetime ago on a comfortable night round the dinner table: "All who do not obey risk the punishments Ramhar devises..."
The elf's blood ran cold as he realized that he was in the hands of a torturer. But even as his heart convulsed fearfully he negated the thought, forcing back the frightened imaginings of torture. Why Ramhar had taken him he did not know, but it was not simply to inflict torment upon an elf. Legolas sensed his abduction was a part of something far more complicated. That he was in mortal peril he had no doubt, but he did not believe death would come to him this night. It would not come to him as swiftly and as shockingly as it had come to Aragorn.
Legolas' breath caught on a moan of anguish. The wild events of the night had melded into a chaotic blur that he could scarcely parse, let alone comprehend, but the sudden death of his friend stood alone, horrifying in its clarity. He heard anew the ranger's struggles, his cries of pain, and he felt the terror Aragorn had endured as if it was his own. Fresh misery broke over the elf like a great wave, and the pain was crushing. His chest heaved in as a torrent of grief rushed in and swept away the remnants of his courage along with his breath. Sorrow dragged muffled sounds from his gagged mouth. The loss was unfathomable. Legolas' life had been bound to Aragorn's, first in the oath of brotherhood they had made long ago, and later in the dependency of illness and blindness. Even through their final difficult months together, as Aragorn had cared for Legolas, the vow of friendship between elf and man remained as it ever had. Unbreakable. Inviolate. And so the Prince of Mirkwood had thought it would always be, until many more years had passed. He had firmly believed that his friend's death was safely held by the future, to be faced on some far off day that would come later, much later, after Aragorn had grown old. Never had the bewildered elf imagined that it would come so soon.
A heavy weight of fear pressed down upon him. How could he face what was to come now that he was utterly alone? From what source could he draw strength now that his own was so depleted? Perhaps it would be better stop fighting and let the heartbreak and injury take him. Perhaps it would be better to simply let go and seek death at the first opportunity.
The cart suddenly lurched to a stop. Legolas' body shifted abruptly, his head impacting painfully against the front panel of the crate, and he then heard the step of a horse drawing near. He strained his ears as he recognized the voice of Ramhar.
"How is the elf?"
The soldier sitting beside the box answered him. "He has been fighting, sir, almost the entire way. He only ceased his struggles a few moments ago."
"No doubt he is plotting in silence now," Ramhar said. "He is a dangerous creature. Be on your guard against him. Until we have him secured, we must not trust that we are safe."
"Excuse me, my lord." The soldier sounded hesitant. "I… I do not think he plots. I have heard him. He weeps."
"Untrue," Ramhar hissed. "Do not forget that he killed the old man in order to take his house. If he weeps, it is only a deception rendered to confuse you and cause you to err. I know elves, and I have seen what they are capable of. They do not feel as we do. They cannot weep, for they do not love. They do not grieve."
Legolas listened in stunned disbelief. The words, so coldly uttered, were terribly untrue. Elves felt the pain of their losses profoundly, and the extent of their mourning surely reached the same depths as that of Men. Why did Ramhar say this, and with such anger and conviction? Relations between the folk in Mirkwood and the men of Dale were friendly. The two races engaged in trade and met regularly to discuss matters of territory and government. And at times, though they were uncommon, they even gathered for social events. Legolas could recall no recent incidents or conflicts that would cause a man of Dale to feel such hatred for elves.
He knew that there had been a brief exchange of words between Aragorn and Ramhar regarding a sword. Legolas had barely been aware of it, for he had pulled deeply within himself as he had struggled with his pain, but the very end of the string of words had reached out and struck him like the flashing tail of a whip, and his blood had run cold at the memories that had swept over him. What sword did Ramhar carry? Why had he asked if it was familiar to Legolas?
The soldier seated beside the elf's small prison shifted slightly as he settled himself, and Legolas heard him sigh quietly. Though he had taken part in the abduction, the man had made several attempts to ease his captive's suffering. It seemed to Legolas that not all of the citizens of the city felt the same burning level of hatred for elves that apparently consumed Ramhar. Perhaps not all of the people were his enemy.
As the cart began moving once more, Legolas pulled in a long breath to steady himself. Despite his despair and the uneasy feeling of injury, he knew he was not yet ready to relinquish himself fully to Ramhar's control. He wanted answers. He would steel himself to face whatever was to come and stay alive long enough to understand what was happening here. If it was within his power to thwart or at least turn Ramhar's plans, whatever they might be, he would. In this way he would strive to honor Aragorn's memory.
There would be time later, he hoped, to grieve.
To be continued…
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