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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 is written for entertainment purposes only, and no monetary profit is being made.
Author's note: Happy New Year! I'm sorry about the long wait time for this new update. I moved, and other real life issues kept my attention elsewhere. Thank you for your patience. A few of you have asked about my first story, The Healer. I believe that it is long gone. The site it was posted on is no more, and I'm not finding it anywhere else on the web. Nor did I save a copy that I could send out to folks. Perhaps it's for the best.
To See a World by Nightwing
Chapter 51: Where You Lead
As he guided the elf into the darkness of the cave, Aragorn's eyes met Ramhar's. The man was seated with his back propped against the far wall, surrounded by a mound of blankets. In the flicker of the firelight that lay between them his eyes glinted dully, though they immediately narrowed at the sight of Legolas.
"Keep him back," Ramhar snarled.
Legolas' face was an expressionless mask, and he moved without resistance as Aragorn guided him to take a place just beside the hill-man Arath, who had followed them and stood silently to the side.
Alun sat at a small table, chin on fist, watching his prisoner with unblinking eyes. "You said you were ready to talk, Ramhar. We are ready to listen."
The man's fingers, covered in rings of copper and gold, picked at the blankets as his eyes roamed over his interrogators. They suddenly fixed on Arath. "That wine belongs to me!" he barked out. "How does this low-born wretch possess it? Looting my house? Give it to me now."
Aragorn quickly looked at the hill-man, who gazed back at him in bewilderment before glancing down at what he held. When he had followed them to the cave, Arath had unthinkingly carried along the bottle that he and Legolas had been sharing around the fire.
"You do not issue orders to any man here, Ramhar," Alun growled. "I thought I made your position clear to you."
"I tell you I must have it!" Ramhar shouted. "Serve me now!" He reached for the horn cup beside him. Flinging the water to the floor, he raised it, gesturing commandingly at Arath.
Aragorn stared at him in puzzlement, noting the man's agitation. Ramhar had half-risen, and Alun came out of his chair and shoved him back. "Sit still and give us no trouble, or you'll find yourself wrapped up in ropes again."
Ramhar's face settled into something more controlled. His eyes slid toward Aragorn, and his voice took on a mocking, wheedling tone. "I will give you no trouble, my lords. Give me drink, and I will speak with you. I will tell you all that you want to know, and some that you do not."
Aragorn nodded to the hill-man to fill Ramhar's cup. Arath hesitated fractionally, eyeing Ramhar with disgust, and then stepped forward to pour the wine. The prisoner immediately took a great gulp of it, and his face flushed with anger. He threw the cup down, and the wine splashed over the packed earth floor.
"This is not my wine!" he shouted angrily. "It does not taste as it should."
Aragorn raised an eyebrow in sudden understanding. "Yes, I expect that it does not."
Ramhar rounded on him. "You altered it! In appearance it is the same as my other bottles, but it is not what I am accustomed to drinking."
"It is not altered, not by me or any man here. I believe that what you drank before in the city was altered. When you drank of this wine, was it always handed to you by the old man?"
The prisoner shook his head and withdrew. "You make no sense. My head aches… I want to sleep."
Aragorn stepped closer to Ramhar, fixing him with a hard gaze. "I have spoken of this before. The old man used you, and now he has abandoned you."
Ramhar stared at him silently, his eyes gone blank and his face colourless. He settled back against the wall. Alun dragged his chair closer and leaned over him. "Tell us where he is, and how to get the boy away from him. Do this, and you will find some degree of mercy from us. Do it not, and I will have no reluctance in handing you over to the citizens of Carbryddin, to answer for your crimes."
Their prisoner shrugged, and his voice again grew mocking. "The old man could be anywhere. He has many places."
"The most likely spot then," Alun snapped. "Do not toy with us. I have no patience for it. Help us to bring young Tarnan home to his people, and we will spare your life."
"I care not about the boy," Ramhar said bleakly. "I care not if you kill me. I would welcome it."
Aragorn frowned, pondering on how they could reach the man and convince him to help them, when Legolas was suddenly at his side. "You burned for vengeance before. Do you no longer feel that desire?" the elf asked in a low voice.
Ramhar recoiled, his eyes narrowed. "I said keep him back!"
Aragorn put his arm out to block his friend, but Legolas brushed past him and took two quick strides forward to stand over Ramhar. His eyes glittered like cold crystals in the flickering firelight. "What of your family?" he asked in a voice as controlled as before. "I am no longer in your power, and thus have no need to speak anything but the truth. As I told you before, it was not my father who murdered your loved ones. Tell us where Malcovan is, and when we bring him here you will find the answers you seek. You shall have what you live for. You shall have your vengeance."
A cloud passed over Ramhar's face as he stared up at Legolas. The elf squatted and leaned close, canting his head toward the man. In the firelight his shadow sprang up and climbed the wall, looming over their prisoner. The man shrank back. "You remember, don't you?" Legolas whispered. "The old man's enchantment no longer holds you. You remember it all."
"No," Ramhar hissed. "You lie."
"The image of my father standing over your family fades. Who is really standing there?" Legolas pressed.
Ramhar crushed his eyes shut. For many long moments he sat still and quiet, but for the deep breaths he drew. Aragorn and Alun waited in silence. Arath had drawn near, staring at Ramhar as if he would drag the answer from him with the strength of his gaze.
At last Ramhar spoke. "I thought it was nightmare… when the images of him would break through. And he would bring his control back down on me, and steer the focus back to the elven king. But now, I see… other things." He thrust a hand out, as if fending off some image that he could not tolerate, and his eyes hardened. "But no, this cannot be. You are casting the enchantment, elf."
Legolas shrugged and rose to his full height. "Perhaps I am. But only when the old man is captured and the boy returned in safety will you discover the real truth."
"Tell us where to find him," Aragorn urged.
Ramhar raised his head and looked at him silently for a moment, and then spoke. "He will have gone to his cave, deep within the forest of the eastern hills. It is a three-day ride from here."
Alun turned quickly to Aragorn. "I know the area. We can cross the plain in two days, and the forest will take the final day. It may need a bit longer if the snows hinder us. There are a number of caves in the hills, but they are relatively close together. It should not take long to flush him out of his hole. Let us leave in the morning. We'll plan our route, and who will accompany us. Should we take a small group, or approach him with many?"
He was interrupted by a mocking laugh from Ramhar. "You're a fool, Alun. Do you truly believe you can find him hidden in the fastness of his cave? It will be surrounded by a veil of enchantment. Malcovan will have the lot of you stumbling round in circles, and then make you line up and march right off a cliff if that is his desire. And he will not be intimidated by a show of force. With a party of few you can move faster, and you might have a chance of taking him unawares." He fixed Alun with his black eyes. "No one can find that cave but me. I will lead you there."
Alun glowered at him. "Not a chance," he snapped. "You'll either run off to your master to warn him, or kill us as we sleep. I'm not that much of a fool."
Ramhar grinned, but no mirth lit his eyes. "Then you condemn the child to a living death. You will never find him without me."
Aragorn regarded the man uneasily, seeing his ability to manipulate. Ramhar had already managed to wrest some control back from his captors. "What is happening to the boy?" he asked at length.
Ramhar's unreadable eyes flicked toward him. "I know not, though I expect that he is being – convinced – of certain things. Malcovan can be very persuasive."
Alun's face was dark with rage. "Do you find this amusing?"
Ramhar looked at him without expression. "Take me with you, or do not. The choice is yours."
Turning on his heel, Alun stalked out of the cave. Aragorn and Legolas followed as he paused just beyond the entrance. The wind had picked up, blowing their hair back. The soldier breathed deeply of the cold air and stared silently up at the night sky for a time. Then he turned to his companions. "I like it not," he stated flatly.
"Nor do I," Aragorn said. "I cannot read his true intentions."
"His true intentions are to avenge his family," Legolas said. "That has always been foremost in his mind. It is what drives him, and it is what we must keep his attention on. Convince him of the truth, and he will aid us."
Aragorn turned to him. "You are right, mellon-nin. And you did well in speaking to him as you did. You were the one who realized what needed to be said, so as to get him to talk to us."
"But a man who has spent years controlling others by fear and deceit cannot change, however he was himself controlled," Alun said forcefully. "Malice still burns inside Ramhar. His heart remains with Malcovan, to be partnered again with the old man and regain power. We cannot trust him."
"No, but we can strive to manage him," Aragorn said. "For as long as it is necessary."
Alun blew out his breath. "I'd rather be in bed with a serpent," he muttered. "But I see no other choice."
The hill-man Arath emerged from the cave and joined them. Hunching his back against the wind, he lit his pipe, pulling at it vigorously. He glanced up at Alun. "Well, it's been quite a night. He's in there staring up at the ceiling and drinking the last of that wine. I can almost see the wheels in his head turning. I wouldn't turn my back on him for a moment, my lords. You'll leave in the morning? Then I'll see to it that you're well-provisioned before you set off. It'll just be the three of you? And him?"
Alun, scowling unhappily, met Aragorn's eye. Aragorn nodded, and turned to Arath. "Yes, only the four of us will ride out. We would be grateful for any provisions you can spare."
"You spoke to him of mercy," Arath said, looking inquiringly at Alun. He paused, letting the words linger between them.
Alun rested a hand on the hill-man's shoulder. "But not of pardon. I would spare his life if he helps us. We must find the boy, and put an end to the sorcerer. But I will not forget that Ramhar has much to answer for, to your folk as well as to the people of my city. Trust me for it, Arath. He will face justice, and every man wronged by him will be heard."
"Then I am content, and leave it to you," Arath said. "I'll see to the supplies." With a quick wave, he trotted off and vanished into the trees.
"And for all of us, I think some sleep would be in order," Aragorn said. "Morning will be here soon enough."
"Is Ramhar fit to travel?" Alun asked.
"I believe so," Aragorn answered. "If he gets some sleep tonight, and a belly full of food in the morning, he'll be ready to ride."
"Do we give him his horse?"
The ranger nodded. "Yes, but no weapons, and we must keep an eye on him at all times."
Alun grimaced. "We will not permit him to stand watch during the night, of course. It shall have to be the three of us taking turns. Guarding him and guarding ourselves, will we be enough?" As he said the words, his eyes turned doubtfully toward Legolas.
The elf raised his head suddenly, and both men followed his movement. Far above them, a lone owl glided through the darkened trees, and to their mortal ears it moved utterly without sound. Aragorn looked at Alun and grinned. "Fear not. We will be enough."
Having built up the fire, Aragorn slid quickly into his bedroll. Settled close to the warmth of the flames, he and the elf were comfortable and well-protected for the night. Nearby, the men had ended their carousing and fallen silent. They slept, but the ranger knew that the perimeter of their camp was guarded by the hill-men, who were as much a part of the shadowed wild as any forest creature.
Propping himself on an elbow, Aragorn regarded his friend. Legolas lay on his back, his hands folded on his breast and his eyes open and alert in the darkness. "Will you be able to ride with him?" Aragorn asked softly.
"You held yourself admirably in the cave, mellon-nin. It could not have been easy."
"It was not," Legolas said. "But I know that without Ramhar, we cannot succeed. He does not matter. We must strike at the body of the evil, not at one of the arms. We must destroy the old man, for if we do not, he will regain his power here and once again have this land and its folk by the throat."
Aragorn rolled onto his back and sighed. "I confess that I worry about how to deal with him. Would that we had Gandalf with us."
"Aye," Legolas agreed. "I have tried to think as he might in this situation. But we have not his power. I know only that we must somehow avoid the sorcerer's spells, his voice. We must come upon him without his knowledge."
"Malcovan must sleep sometimes. Even Gandalf sleeps."
The elf smiled. "And he snores too."
"That has always stuck me as unseemly for a wizard," Aragorn said with a laugh.
"Legolas, are you certain that you are ready for this?"
"I believe so. I have checked Firestar – he is completely sound and ready for riding. I have packed everything I need. I have an extra cloak, and I will prepare my bedroll in the morning …"
"That is not what I meant."
"Ah. I see," the elf said. "I have also packed the medicines for my headaches. And you have packed dressings and bandages for my arm. I will be fine, Aragorn. I will not hinder the pursuit."
Aragorn looked closely at him. "No, I believe that you will not. But our pace will be swift, and the going difficult. I know you, Legolas. You will push yourself hard, and you will say nothing if you are hurting."
Legolas nodded in understanding. "I promise you that I will tell you if I should find myself in difficulty. I know that I must reach our destination with my full strength, to face whatever awaits us there. In this journey, Firestar will help me. He responds well to everything I ask of him, and I feel completely confident when I am riding him. I will expend none of my energy worrying about guiding him, and I will not be thrown. And if…" he hesitated briefly. "If the worst should happen, and I should lose my companions, Firestar will carry me to safety. I know it."
"Then I must be satisfied with that," Aragorn said.
"I know that you fear for me, mellon-nin," the elf said softly. "Bringing me along is not what we would call a sound decision."
"No, it is not," the ranger agreed. "We are following intuition rather than cold reason, and I am not easy about this. I can only hope that I have made the right choice."
In the glimmering firelight, Legolas' face was determined. "The decision is mine, Aragorn. And if it goes ill for me, you must not blame yourself."
Despite his concerns, Aragorn smiled fondly at his friend. "You do have a reputation as the most headstrong elf in Mirkwood. There is no stopping you when you have the bit between your teeth."
"And so we ride out tomorrow."
"Yes, Valar help us. We ride out tomorrow."
To be continued…
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