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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, and am making no monetary profit from this story. It is written for entertainment purposes only.
Author's notes: many thanks to Lisette for her fine beta efforts. It was she who first suggested an interesting twist to the story of Gildwas that Brina tells in this chapter, when a small act of kindness done long ago comes back to affect the present.
To See A World by Nightwing
Chapter 41: Revelations
"Why do Ramhar and Malcovan hate your people so, and how is it you have lost your eyesight?"
The old healer's words filled Legolas with dismay. He had wanted no one to know of his blindness, though in truth he did not know why he felt so strongly about hiding his affliction. He only knew that a warning came from deep within, in the part of him that had learned to listen to the voices carried on the wind, to the sighing of the trees, and to the cries of birds as they winged toward home at day's end. It was the thing that kept him safe, and when he did not heed it, he often came to regret it later.
The elf's hands clenched tightly to the blanket's folds. He did not want Ramhar and Malcovan to know that he could not see, but did it really matter if the woman, Brina, had realized it? It was unlikely she would tell them; she obviously was no friend to his captors. But if she had seen his blindness so easily, perhaps they had seen it too. That thought filled him with fear, and it must have shown in his face, for a gentle hand suddenly came out of the darkness and lit on his face. He flinched momentarily, for a sudden touch out of the darkness was always startling, but then he found himself sighing and closing his eyes as she began to stroke his hair, and he settled his head deeper into the pillow. He was weary, in pain, and the desire to find comfort overrode any lingering fears he had regarding the old woman.
"You hide your blindness well," Brina told him quietly. "I do not think they have seen it, and I will not speak of it."
"How did you know?" he asked.
"It is my work to closely observe those who are in my care. Oft times my patients do not give me enough information with their words. I gather more by watching." She paused, chuckling. "And just now a ridiculous great spider strolled right past your nose. You never shifted your gaze to look upon him, let alone retreat so that he would not begin to explore your face."
The elf smiled. "I hope you have sent him on his way?"
"Wherever it is spiders go once they have been squashed," Brina chortled. "Ordinarily I'd have taken the little fellow outside and set him in my garden, but as it is winter, I thought a quick end would be best. I could not leave him to wander about down here once I am gone and bite my patient."
"You do not think Ramhar has noted my blindness? Has the old man?"
"Of Malcovan I cannot be sure, for I have not seen him with you. I can tell you that my grandson does not detect it, for he turns his eyes from you." She sighed heavily. "He has wronged you, and he knows it. In his guilt and fear, he averts his gaze from your face. I have not wronged you, nor do I fear you, and so I look directly. I find your face beautiful to gaze upon, but in your eyes, for all their light and clarity, there is something amiss. You cannot see, but there is pain in their depths, more than these wounds should have caused. And deeper yet in your eyes lies grief."
Legolas disregarded the comment. "And Ramhar?" he pressed anxiously.
"He does look directly at you, and closely, but his eyes are so clouded by hate that he sees nothing. Whatever vision fills his mind when he looks upon you, it is as far from the truth as we are from the heavens."
"Tell me, what does Ramhar's sword look like?"
"His sword? Well now, let me think. It is an evil-looking thing, black handle with red and black stones and a red thread running through it. The blade itself is etched with faces that are twisted in pain. Why do you ask?"
"It is the only thing I can still see," Legolas replied, and closed his eyes.
The woman drew in her breath as if she would speak, but remained silent. She merely rested her hand along the elf's cheek once more in a gesture of comfort. For a time she busied herself, plying cloths to Legolas' brow and encouraging him to drink again. The elf sank into a state of what might almost have been bliss, so great had his need been for a friendly voice and a gentle touch. He lay on his back, pressing his hands still against the tightly bandaged wound in his side, and allowed the tension in his body to ease. "Will you tell me the story of Gildwas and the elves?" he asked.
"I wish to hear your tale first, if you will oblige me."
Legolas shook his head slightly. "I am unable to answer the question you have asked about my captors. Why Ramhar bears such hatred for my people I cannot fathom. I do not know him. I can only tell you than he comes from a country over the Grey Mountains called Dale, which borders my own. He has apparently encountered my father before, and now holds a terrible desire for revenge for some perceived transgression, but he has not told me what that transgression is." The elf did not mention his suspicions of Ramhar's connection to the death of his mother.
"Again I can tell you nothing, except that I suspect him to be the source of the malice that Ramhar holds in his heart. I sense great corruption in the old man. He is tainted with the influence of Mordor."
Legolas heard Brina inhale slowly, and she shifted where she sat beside him. "I have suspected it," she said at length, "though it is a hard thought, and has been long in coming. Such vanity, such weakness…" She trailed off. "When I tell you of Gildwas, I will also tell you something of Malcovan. Gildwas was my mentor. He taught me the art of healing, and I studied long under his tutelage. But first, I wish to know what pains you. Koryon told me that you collapsed twice this morning, once before Ramhar. If I am any judge of your mettle, that was not a deliberate act on your part."
"It was not, but now I am grateful that it happened as it did. This reprieve has been most welcome."
"And now tell me how you have lost your eyesight, and why you are so ill. Do the two go hand in hand?"
"They do," the elf said. "But have we the time? I do not think Ramhar will grant us many more minutes."
"Let me handle him," the old woman stated brusquely. "I want to know what has happened to you."
Brina listened attentively as Legolas told her of the autumn night he and Aragorn had been attacked by the orcs. How long ago it now seemed to the elf. So much had changed since that terrible moment the dart had pierced his neck – the long struggle to adapt to his blindness, the work he and Aragorn had done in preparing for winter, Alun and Tarnan's visits, his capture, and Aragorn's death. He did not speak of these things, though they filled his mind as he spoke, but kept his words focused on what the old healer wanted to know. The poisoning and subsequent illness that had robbed him of his eyesight, and the lingering pain in his head and neck were what Brina focused on. The old woman interrupted him several times to ask quick questions and demand more details. He was asked again to describe the symptoms of the poisoning, and tell her the herbs and medicines Aragorn had used.
Brina said nothing for some time after the elf fell silent, but for "Orc poison… hmmm… hmmm…" muttered under her breath. Legolas knew she was thinking, and let her be. He was tired, and speaking of the pain in his head seemed to have given it strength once more. He raised his hands to massage his temples.
"Let me see where the dart struck," Brina suddenly commanded.
Legolas rolled onto his side, turning away from her. "The back of my neck," he said.
She swept his hair aside. Something was pulled closer, and he felt heat against his skin. "I'm just bringing my lamp closer, I shan't burn you. It is terribly dark in here. Typical dungeon atmosphere, I suppose. Too bad the full effect is lost on you. I give you my word they've put you into the most depressing one we've got." She grasped hold of the heavy collar locked round the elf's neck and pulled it up, then down. "Bend your neck, try to put your chin to your chest as best you can. This wretched iron collar doesn't help much does it? But at least we've got a bit of slack to play with. Ah, there it is. I see the mark."
Fingers began probing his neck. At first her investigation was gentle, and then she rested a fingertip on one spot and pressed firmly. The resulting sensation elicited a startled gasp from the elf, and Brina pulled away.
"The dart was made of wood?" she asked as she helped him to roll onto his back once more.
Legolas furrowed his brow. "I… cannot be certain," he murmured. "My memory of how things looked has grown faulty. But my friend voiced concern that it might have left splinters behind."
"And the poison, how quickly did it work?"
"Almost immediately," the elf responded. "I remember that well enough. It burned, like ice burns, if you understand my meaning."
"I do. And then?"
"The cold spread from my neck, rushing through my blood like a torrent of ice. I broke a sweat, though the night was cold. And my eyesight began to fade, even as my friend and I were forced to flee the orcs. After, I was sick, my stomach roiled… and then there was pain, as if all my muscles were twisted and bound. I was in agony. I remember crying out, and my friend weeping. It faded, and I recall little else. When I woke two weeks later I was blind."
"And since then your head has pained you? And your neck?"
"Yes. The discomfort has never left me, though my friend was able to ease it greatly. He too was a healer."
The woman bent lower, adjusting the blankets more snugly around him. "Tell me, young prince, have you ever been bitten by a spider? Not a little one, but one of the big spiders from your own lands?"
The question startled Legolas. "Yes," he said. "Long ago, when I was on patrol in my forest."
"And were you sickened?"
"Very. My recovery was long. It was weeks before I regained my full strength."
"And did that poison feel anything like the orc poison?"
The elf nodded slowly, his eyes widening. "Yes."
"I have something that might help you – more medicines. I will fetch them and be back as quickly as I can. If anyone comes while I am gone, feign sleep, or unconsciousness."
Legolas listened as her firm step receded. Age was in her voice, but he felt that if he were to see her, he would find that she still stood as straight and tall as a girl. The door closed quietly and he waited, pondering on spiders, but the wait was not terribly long. She soon returned and seated herself beside him once more.
"I think," she said softly, "that Malcovan has dealings with the orcs that roam nearby. There are rumours. I have seen nothing, but Gildwas suspected him – of many things."
"If Malcovan is leagued with Sauron, it stands to reason he would be on terms with the orcs," Legolas said. "Would you go so far as to say he commands them?"
"It may be so," the old woman said as she slipped her arms under the elf and helped him to sit. "Take this."
Legolas raised his hands and she settled a small glass vial into his grasp. It was knobby and he gripped it easily. "Do you think the poison the orcs used on me contained spider venom?" he asked.
"Yes I do. But more than that, I think the orcs used poison made by Malcovan, and he has added his own ingredients to the concoction. Perhaps the spider bite you suffered earlier enabled your body to survive, for I feel certain that you should have died. Malcovan dabbles in potions and poisons, and they are potent. I think not even your people could withstand it. And he has used his poisons against one of the highest in our city."
Legolas paused, the tip of the bottle pressed against his lips. He lowered it with a frown. "I have heard a story of your city," he said slowly. "The Lady, dying a terrible death with no one tending her but Malcovan."
"She said it felt as if burning ice was coursing through her blood."
If he could have, Legolas would have stared at her. The vial nearly dropped from his numbed fingers; the old woman wrapped her own hands over his to hold it steady. "She died of the same poison?" he whispered, stunned.
"I believe it a good possibility," Brina answered. "I strongly suspected Malcovan in her illness and death, and spoke of it with my friend Gildwas. And there is more. I ventured into her room after she had died. There I found the remnants of her drinks, and of Malcovan's 'remedies'. I took some of them, and have worked since to make an antidote to the poison. You hold it now in your hands."
"You give it to me?" the elf asked in astonishment.
"Do not thank me yet. This is something of an experiment, young prince. I want to see if it will ease your pain. It will not reverse the blindness, but it may help you to feel better. Or it may have no effect at all. It tastes foul, but that is of no matter. Drink now, but only a few sips."
Legolas bowed his head in gratitude, and raised the vial to his mouth. He swallowed a small amount of the liquid. It was unpleasant, with a taste that reminded him of metal and blood, and he grimaced as it burned its way down his throat and set a fire in his stomach. Brina took the bottle from him and thrust something else into his hands. It was bread.
"Quickly, eat this. It will ease the pain in your belly. And don't leave any crumbs about, or they'll know I've fed you. Now we must hide the medicine… let me see if there is one in here. I think there is…" she muttered, and Legolas heard her move to the wall beside him and begin running her hands over it, making little slapping sounds. "Ah, here it is!" she exclaimed. "I'll need your help. It's a bit stuck. Turn round, feel the wall."
The elf did as she bade him, and she guided his hands over the stones to a spot directly above where his neck chain was anchored. He was forced to rise to his knees and reach slightly overhead. "Feel this stone with the jagged corner. Jiggle it a bit. Can you get your fingers round it? Now pull."
With a grating sound, the stone came free. Debris pattered to the floor. Legolas lowered the stone, and Brina pulled his hands back up. She thrust them into an opening – a hidden space where small items could be secreted. "Someone hollowed these into a few of the dungeons long ago," the old woman told the elf as he explored the gritty space with his fingertips. "He must have thought they'd come in handy someday, and he was right. Now, in with the vial, and a bit more bread, and we'll pop the stone back into place. I want you to drink a bit from the vial every so often, if you can. The point is to take in small amounts of the medicine regularly over time."
Having replaced the rock, Legolas was made to lie down once more. The bread had helped – he felt only a dull nausea now. "Will you tell me of Gildwas and the elves now?" he asked as he burrowed more deeply into the blankets. He had begun to feel immensely tired, but he still wanted to hear the tale, and truth be told, he did not want to be left alone. The old woman's friendliness and compassion had succored him, but he was not yet willing to lose her company.
"I shall tell you the tale," Brina replied. "I checked on Ramhar's whereabouts when I fetched the medicine; he will be occupied with meetings for the greater part of the day. Now, where to begin? At the beginning, I suppose, though I shall make it brief, as my lone listener looks as if he will soon be falling asleep. Gildwas and Malcovan are – were - about the same age. They were both born here in Carbryddin, and had been friends in their youth. Both possessed skill in the healing arts, and both chose it as their profession. But, over time, Gildwas noticed a change come over Malcovan, or perhaps Gildwas simply became less tolerant of the undesirable traits he saw in his friend. Gildwas had always been a humble man, never interested in wealth and recognition. He preferred to live simply, and in time even took himself off to the little cottage and made that his home, where he could live quietly and study in peace. But Malcovan was full of pride, and his desire for power grew. He began to put on airs, promoting himself as a healer possessed of great powers, but he could not win the hearts of the common folk. Gildwas was much loved, and they turned their backs on Malcovan, who hated him for it. He began to slip away for months on end, and none knew where he went. It was whispered that he was in search of greater powers, that he was learning sorcery." Brina's voice dropped. "It was then that the first rumours of Mordor began, but none had the courage to look into them. As Malcovan's power grew, he began to insinuate himself with the powerful men of the city. He gained influence, and the people feared him. None had the courage to stand up to him, except his old friend Gildwas.
"Gildwas suggested to Malcovan that he accompany his old friend the next time he went on one of his journeys. Malcovan was reluctant, but could hardly forbid Gildwas from traveling with him. And so the two of them set out together, and Gildwas went with Malcovan over the mountains into a land none of us had ventured into before. And it was there he met some of your people."
Brina paused as voices grew loud in the corridor. Legolas drew in his breath sharply, expecting that they had come for him at last, but the shuffling footsteps passed beyond his cell and faded. In another moment a door slammed. There was a single despairing cry – a woman's – and then silence. Brina sighed. "They are rounding up any who might pose a threat to their plans. And if they cannot find the man, they will take his wife."
"To ensure his cooperation?"
"Are there none who will stand against them?"
"There are, but I will not speak of them to you. I think it would be best if you do not have information."
Legolas nodded. "I understand. I cannot speak of what I do not know."
For a time the elf and the woman were silent, each lost in thought. In another part of the prison a child was crying. Legolas curled his hands into fists, pulling angrily against the chains that bound him. "Sweet Elbereth," he hissed. "Have they no mercy?"
"They are the worst of the worst," Brina stated flatly.
The door to Legolas' cell creaked slightly. "Grandmama?" Koryon's voice, breathless with dismay.
"Go to the child," Brina said. "Offer what comfort you can. I will be there directly." She turned back to the elf. "I will be brief with the ending of the story. Gildwas and Malcovan set up camp several days march beyond the southern edge of the mountains. Gildwas tried to keep an eye on Malcovan, but he was constantly slipping away. Gildwas became determined to trail him one day and see where he went. One morning, when Malcovan rose before dawn and left camp, Gildwas followed. Malcovan moved quickly, but furtively, blending with the shadows. Gildwas was hard pressed to keep up, but finally Malcovan halted in a small grove and settled himself against a tree. He began speaking, chanting was more like it, and the language was one Gildwas did not recognize. It hurt him to hear it though, as if the words themselves contained venom that dripped with every utterance. Gildwas swore the very trees shook with pain."
"The language of Mordor," Legolas whispered.
"Another man came, black-cloaked and hooded. He and Malcovan conferred, but what they discussed Gildwas could not make out. He made an attempt to draw closer, but then he set his foot upon a twig and the noise betrayed him. They saw him. The black-cloaked man fled, but Malcovan gave chase. Gildwas ran, but he could hear the voice of his old friend cursing him in that dreadful tongue, and a web of enchantment encircled him and tumbled him to the ground.
"Gildwas stared up at the face of his friend, but Malcovan had become unrecognizable; his features contorted with rage. He began waving his hands, weaving a pattern it seemed, and Gildwas' mind was flooded with terrible images. He saw people he loved in anguish, his city in flames, blood and destruction. He fought, knowing in his heart that the visions could not be real, but the horror was too much and he lost consciousness.
"He woke some time later, alone and badly hurt. Malcovan had abandoned him, and Gildwas surely would have died then and there, but as he lay on the ground in terrible pain, staring up at the crescent moon, someone came to his aid. An elf, golden and beautiful, knelt beside him and murmured comforts. He bore Gildwas to an encampment of his people, and they cared for him until he was healed.
"And then Gildwas returned home, making his way alone over the mountains. Malcovan had put it about that he had died in an accident, and as you can well imagine, he was rather shocked to see Gildwas again. Thereafter the two men were enemies, and Gildwas, in his quiet way, strove against Malcovan. But the power of the evil man grew, and Gildwas found himself shut off from the city. And, after many more years had passed, Malcovan finally succeeded in putting Gildwas out of his way."
A distant memory nudged the elf's mind. "How long ago did this happen – their journey over the mountains?"
"They were young men when they made the journey. Probably some seventy years back." Brina sighed and rose to her feet. "And now, Prince Legolas, I must go. There are others who are in need of comfort this day. Continue to take the medicine as often as you can. If I can come back to check on you later, I will."
"Thank you," Legolas said simply, and he raised his chained hands to grasp her own for a moment.
After she had gone he lay quietly. His fatigue had fled, and thoughts chased each other round and round in his mind. An image had come to him, something other than the sword for once. A young man, grievously battered and frightened, lying alone on a darkened path. He was unable to speak, so great was his distress. The memory was clear and sharp to Legolas, and he realized in astonishment that the golden-haired elf who had discovered the injured man had been himself.
Voices, low and hushed, flitted past where he lay. For a long time he had tried to grasp at them, to hold them still so that he could truly hear them and understand, for he felt they were of importance, but always they slithered beyond his feeble efforts. Sickness had thwarted him. Coughing and retching overtook him every time he floated near enough to consciousness to try to take stock of his surroundings, and he would fall back with a cry of agony and retreat back into the dark.
This time it was better, though his throat still felt as charred as a roast left forgotten on a fire, and he inhaled with great care, desperate to not succumb to yet another horrid fit of coughing. They had been agonizing, making him feel as if his ribs were shattering and his lungs were coming out in bloody chunks. He raised his hands, looking blurrily at misshapen white-wrapped stumps, and in another moment a slight weight landed squarely on his chest, and he shifted his swollen eyes to see what had jumped on him.
Aragorn found himself staring into eyes of such brilliant green that he gazed without blinking into their liquid depths, startled and mesmerized, and then he remembered her. And for just a moment he forgot that having someone, however small, sitting on his chest did not help his ability to draw breath. He tried to embrace her.
"Here now, this won't do, little lady," a voice muttered. "He can't breathe as it is. Can't have cats sitting on him." Hands large and calloused loomed into view, encircled the small creature, and lifted her away. Aragorn turned his head, his lips moving in soundless protest, and a moment later a startled face appeared from the blackness and hovered inches from his own. "Bones of my mother, he's awake. Arath, he's awake!" Setting Tithlam back on the ranger's chest, the fellow ran off.
Suddenly the small space where he lay was filled with faces and the clamor of many voices. Blinking as a candle was thrust into his face, Aragorn struggled to see past its yellow glare. More faces appeared, mere shadows in the dark, and the voices increased until they melded into a confusing babble.
"All right, you lot, be off! Let the poor fellow have some room," someone yelled from the back. A small bearded man forced his way through the throng, waving wildly to shoo the men away, and gazed down at Aragorn. He was grinning widely, his mouth a mass of crooked and broken teeth, and a moment later the ranger nodded in recognition and attempted a smile in return.
"Aye, you remember me then? Good, your head still works. But I doubt we can say the same for your voice just yet."
Aragorn opened his mouth to respond, thought for a brief instance about how his throat felt, and closed it again. He shook his head with a grimace and raised his hands to gaze at the bandages engulfing them. His eyes flickered to the man with a desperate question in them.
"You were a right disaster when we dragged you out of that fire, mate," Arath told him. "But you look to be in one piece. Your hands are whole, your foot too. You've a nasty burn on your shoulder as well, but it'll mend. Judging by what you've been coughing up, your lungs look to be a good deal better than they ought. You must have held your breath in that burning house longer than I would have thought possible for a man."
Arath suddenly slapped his palm to his forehead. "Ai, I must tell him you're awake! He's been waiting in a right anxious state. Stay there," he commanded, and dashed off. Aragorn looked after him in confusion. Who was waiting for him? Legolas?
He began to clamber free of the blankets. This was not to be however, for the instant he forced himself upright he was obliged to gasp for air, and the dreaded cough started. It bent him double, shuddering him with deep racking spasms. He wrapped his arms around his ribs as if to hold his body together and sank back, miserably pressing his face into the pillow.
"Aragorn? Valar's breath, but you're a mess."
The ranger froze and turned his head. This was not Legolas. Aragorn peered through tear-filled eyes as a man dragged a chair near and sat beside him. It was Alun, holding a mug in his hands.
"Here, Arath wants you to try to drink this," Alun said. "Smells like warg's piss," he added with a grimace. "Can you hold it?"
Aragorn nodded, and carefully cradled the cup between his bandaged hands. He raised the drink to his lips fearfully, unsure that he was capable of swallowing. But he was, albeit with great concentration. In a few minutes the cup was empty, and it had helped. He looked at Alun and whispered one word. "Legolas?"
"He lives," Alun told him. "At least he was alive last midnight, when I saw him. But he is in grave danger, and the situation is desperate. All in my city are in peril."
Aragorn listened in mounting horror as the soldier told him of the plotting of Ramhar and Malcovan, the assassination of Lord Cadean, and the role Legolas had been forced to play. And he was aghast to learn how much time had passed since he and the elf had been attacked - nearly three days.
"What time is it?" he rasped, his eyes taking in his surroundings for the first time. Alun had set a lamp beside him, and by its light the ranger could make out dirt walls and a low ceiling. He was in a cave, the blankets upon which he lay piled on the floor against the back wall. The corridor twisted out of sight; he could not see the entrance to determine if it was day or night.
"Late morning," Alun told him.
Aragorn forced himself upright. "Tell me how I can find him."
"You'll never make it on your own," the soldier stated with a shake of his head. "The city is heavily guarded at the main gate, and I've no doubt Ramhar has planted men everywhere."
"I've got to try." Aragorn had not ceased looking around him, and finally he spotted his shirt and leggings in a dark corner. He heaved himself to his feet and hobbled toward them. Alun caught his arm.
"Wait, Aragorn. We are heading down to the city tonight, Arath and his men and I. We will be meeting others. You can come with us then, and gain entry in the dark. You cannot possibly go alone, injured and in broad daylight. And you do not know where to find him."
"And if they kill Legolas today?" the ranger demanded, struggling to stifle the urge to cough.
"Then he dies, and you will be unable to stop it," Alun conceded. "But it would be folly to go down there now. You know it. Stay here, rest a bit longer and take some nourishment. Tonight I can try to take you to him before I must get on with my own business."
"Will you begin a rebellion?"
Alun's eyes flashed. "Valar willing," he said. "As for you, get back into bed. I'll fetch some stew."
Aragorn nodded wearily and allowed Alun to steer him back to the blankets. He knew the soldier was right. He could not simply walk into the city and demand to see the prisoner, and he did not know his way around Carbryddin to attempt to infiltrate it secretly and locate his friend. And he was still weak, disturbingly so. He needed food and drink, and time to examine his injuries.
"He thinks I'm dead," Aragorn whispered.
Alun looked at him strangely. "Aye, he does, and he said something that I have not been able to make any sense of. Something about your life being worth more than all of ours combined. I did not understand it. I thought perhaps it was just the fever talking."
Aragorn closed his eyes in misery. "I do understand what he meant, and the pain it is causing him. I cannot speak of it now, Alun, but perhaps someday I can."
"Very well. It got my curiosity up, no doubt about that, but I'm not one to pry. I'll get you that stew."
"Thank you. And Alun, when you return, please help me take these bandages off my hands. I want to see if I can hold a sword."
To be continued…
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