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Roots: 13. The Road Goes Ever On
"He has done naught but whimper since midnight."
Gandalf gave a soft grunt of acknowledgment, but did not take his eyes from the cringing, moaning Gollum. Beside him, Aragorn tapped a forefinger irritably on the pommel of his dagger, which at least had the merit of seeming somewhat threatening as the two of them stood in a corner of the cell in hurried conference. Gandalf had his arms folded across his chest, staff snugged in the crook of an elbow as he glared balefully at their prisoner. Two days this had continued, and this was but the latest shift for Gandalf. Aragorn had had the one just prior, and the Ranger 's demeanor had that edge to it that told of his frustration, as he briefly told of the past few hours. All through the night, they had harried the wretch by turns, hoping weariness at least would cause him to stumble, but although Gollum's defenses were slowly wearing away under repeated bouts of questioning, threats, and the silent contests of will, even a wizard could not guess when he might crack. It could be tomorrow, or it could be years from now, he thought, stone-faced, though inwardly, he grimaced. "This takes too long!" he murmured, and Aragorn lifted a dark brow at that.
"So, he has outlasted even your patience, has he, my friend?" the Ranger asked.
"'Tis more than my patience, we no longer have the time to spare in this game. I need his tale—all of it—and I need it ere the sun sets today. If he has been to Sauron's"—a gurgling snarl at the mere mention of that name made both of them wince—"domain, as we both guess from his words and howls, then I cannot risk taking longer than today to drag this from him. Already, he has been here a fortnight. And you, Aragorn, grow nearly as restless as he," the wizard added, as the Ranger shifted positions for the third time since they had begun their conversation.
"Whether or not he has been to see the Nameless One, I have been long away from the North, and it is past time that I returned."
"True! But not empty-handed. For your people needs must know of this as well, if they are to protect themselves and others," Gandalf replied.
"It might be helpful to know more, but it is not necessary. Whatever he tells us, I shall strengthen the guard near the Brandywine Bridge, and in other places, and alert the Rangers of Khamûl's new activity. That should be warning enough, and should any of my people fall captive, 'tis best they cannot answer questions," Aragorn replied grimly.
"True enough, but it is of no use to withhold that the time approaches at last, when you and all your people must face the folly of Isildur," Gandalf answered, and then switched back to the Common Tongue as he gripped his staff in his left hand and turned to face Gollum fully. "Go, Aragorn. I think the time has passed for such help as you can give. And see that the door is locked when you leave." The Ranger gave him a considering look at that, but after a moment, he simply nodded, seeming not too unhappy with his dismissal. And why not? He has had enough, and it would have been kinder to release him earlier, but... there was always the possibility that we might between us force an answer from Gollum, Gandalf thought, watching as Aragorn slipped outside. The murmur of his voice, as he gave the wizard's instructions to the guard captain, could be briefly heard. The captain made some reply, got a terse acknowledgment, and then there came the sound of keys in the lock, tumblers aligning to hold that door shut. It was, perhaps, a superfluous precaution, for there were other ways to insure that others would not disturb them, but there was no point in taking any chances.
There was a strange silence in the cell, and when Gandalf turned towards his prisoner, he found Gollum staring at him. The wretch was huddled still in his corner, but clearly, he sensed that things had changed, and for once, he was silent, his great, gleaming eyes intent upon the bent figure of his opponent. "And now let us have an end to this, Sméagol," the wizard said firmly, in a low voice, striding forward as the tip of his staff began to glow brightly white....
The screams soon echoed in the hallways without.
Aragorn had intended to remain just outside the cell. After having fought himself to help Gandalf question Gollum, and that after fifty interminable days in the wretch's company, he wanted to see this affair finished, even if it was not his task to finish it. However, when he had given the guard captain Gandalf's instructions, the Elf had touched his arm, commanding his attention a moment. "You are wanted above, Dúnadan. My lord prince waits for you," he had said, and then turned his attention to the lock.
"My thanks," Aragorn replied. Reluctantly, he left the captain to his duties, and went back along the hallway, climbing quickly up the spiraling stairs until he emerged into the guard-room that began the dungeons. There, gazing intently at a wall hanging, stood Nindarth. Aragorn hesitated, caught off his guard slightly, for he had expected to find Legolas. But then, the captain had said only that a prince awaited, not which one, and so the Ranger hastily covered his surprise. As he shut the door behind him, Nindarth turned from his study of the weaving, and raised a brow at him.
"Success?" he asked.
"You must ask Gandalf for the tale, when next you see him," Aragorn replied, neatly avoiding an answer. But Nindarth needed none, naturally, to recognize the truth, and his mouth twisted briefly in a slight, sympathetic grimace. "What brings you to the dungeons, your highness?"
"You, naturally. Or Legolas, if you ask after the one who sent me. We are great messengers, we sons of Thranduil," Nindarth replied, smiling a bit, grey eyes gleaming. But then he continued swiftly on, "Nothing has changed for Aradhil. And I fear for Legolas, and his companions who watch with him. If he does not wake, the pain will be slow to fade for them."
"Dorothil, I imagine, would stay with Legolas, since he is injured, but which of the others?" Aragorn asked.
"Hithras has come a few times, but mostly Nuilandar, for he, too, has much time on his hands, and will not be denied, even by the healers. Something there is between him and Aradhil, I deem, but I know not what," Nindarth sighed, though his eyes rested for a heavy moment upon Aragorn. The Ranger gazed back, but said nothing, though the irony was well nigh sickening. "Well," Nindarth said, a touch more briskly, abandoning that line of inquiry, "in any case, between the three of them—Legolas, Dorothil, and Nuilandar—Aradhil is never alone. Which may be more than can be said of him over the past several centuries. A pity that it comes too late."
"Why say you that?" Aragorn asked, tone sharpening with interest and a touch of surprise.
"I grow to believe that he is lost to us, whether he will it or no. He cannot respond, it seems. If there is hope for him, I know naught of it, for I am no healer. But you are," Nindarth said, coming at last to the point. Aragorn frowned, skeptical, but ere he could protest, the prince continued, "I know, you have been hurt yourself, and you are not an Elf. And Legolas has told me how it is with you and Aradhil."
"My prince," Aragorn began, then paused, and reconsidered his words. After a moment's silence, he asked, "What is it that you wish to say, my prince? That I should try to heal Aradhil?"
"Then what, if I may ask bluntly?"
"I suppose we are not such great messengers in the end," Nindarth said, with a soft laugh, but then he sobered and waved away the jest. "I apologize. My brother wishes to hear your views in this matter, and I doubt not that Legolas would ask you to try to reach Aradhil. For my part, I think any such attempt futile. I mean you no slight, but if Mirkwood's healers have failed, then that you shall fail seems a foregone conclusion. Even were you hale yourself, I would still believe so. For myself, I would ask that you speak plainly of this with Legolas, for perhaps you may make it clear to him where I and all others have failed, assuming others have made the attempt. For he sits in silence, and will not answer."
"I see," Aragorn replied, already turning the implications of this request over. "If he asks, then I shall speak with him, though I cannot promise to succeed." He gave Nindarth a close stare, then, for he was still rather surprised that an Elf should come to him with such a request. As Gandalf had intimated, Elves were reluctant to consign one of their own to death so long as life remained in the body. "May I ask why you believe Aradhil beyond cure, your highness?"
"Perhaps it is that I know somewhat more than Legolas of wounds that do not heal," the prince replied, with a sad smile. "And surely a Man knows more than an Elf of such matters, since such wounds as I bear are accounted by many the way to bliss." Nindarth searched his face with eyes that told of anything but bliss, and the Ranger felt a twinge, as if that look had touched on wounds just barely healed. The Elf gave a slow nod, as if he had seen Aragorn flinch inwardly, and said, "Even so. But go and speak with Legolas, please. If he will not hear me, then perhaps he will listen to you, and so be convinced that indeed, Aradhil will die in time and come no more."
"What of yourself, my prince?" Aragorn asked, still chilled by that look and the echo of its pain within him.
"I shall go out onto the walkways, I think. For today it rains," Nindarth replied, with that gentle, bittersweet smile. "Good day to you, Dúnadan." With that, the prince turned gracefully and left Aragorn to stare after him ere he, too, quit the dungeons.
Legolas glanced up sharply when someone rapped on the doorframe of Aradhil's sickroom. He had not been paying attention—had, in fact, been wandering through his dreams, resting after having remained awake all the night before. If, that is, one could call 'rest' a walk through nearly four hundred years of memories of Aradhil, and in between memories he would plead in silence: Open your eyes! Or stir a little, only. Do not leave yet, not with anger between us still! A selfish wish, perhaps, but he could not help but implore, however futilely. But then had come the sharp sound of another's presence, and now he blinked as Aragorn let fall the curtains and ducked inside. From the look of him, Legolas guessed that the Ranger had not slept the night before either, for when he paused and let his gaze stray over Aradhil, it was with a certain mute detachment that he had come to think of as a sign of weariness in the other. That, or else something particularly troubling to Aragorn brewed just below the surface, and the Ranger did not wish to speak of it. Does he remember the Nazgûl, I wonder? he thought, uneasily. Confronted with the sight of Aradhil, it was quite likely, and Legolas felt a touch of fear stir within him. Though he sensed that Aragorn was in no particular danger now from the injuries done him by the wraith, the scars were still starkly evident to his eyes, and might never fade entirely. "Nindarth said naught had changed," Aragorn said suddenly, without preamble.
"Alas, that is so," Legolas replied, eyeing the Man with concern now. "How do you fare today?"
"Gandalf has released me from the dungeons, at least, which is a relief."
"And your shoulders?"
"Sore," came the laconic response.
"I am well enough, Legolas, I assure you," the Ranger replied then, but did not smile or take his eyes from Aradhil. "How long have you sat here today?" he asked after a moment.
"Too long, doubtless, and yet even were this to last an eternity, it might not be long enough," Legolas admitted, rising to go to the windows, which were open still. The rain beat steadily upon the sill and shivered the leaves of the trees. All the forest seemed to sigh in relief and let droop branches that hung heavy with that weight of water. "He always loved the rain."
"Aradhil. Whenever his moods were black, all who knew him would pray for rain. If he is aware of it today, though...." the prince raised a hand to indicate his ignorance.
"Legolas," the Ranger's voice behind him was very level, and it paused a moment, as if Aragorn were seeking just the right words. "Have you considere—"
"Yes, I have," he answered ere the other could finish. Turning from the window, he gazed steadily back at the Man, and continued, "I have listened to Nindarth on the subject of Aradhil all this past night. I would I could believe otherwise, but Aradhil has not stirred once since that evening in the valley of Dol Guldur." There came another silence, and this time, it was Legolas who frowned, puzzled, sensing that he had misunderstood, and answered a question never asked or intended. But unlike the Ranger a few days ago, it needed but a few moments of searching ere he realized what the other had wanted to say, and his breath hissed between his teeth as he inhaled. "He is still alive," he murmured.
"His body lives. As to whether Aradhil does, you have admitted that it seems too much to hope that he shall ever return to us," Aragorn replied. "If that is not death, I know not what is. Is it not held among Elves, that it is only the body and soul together that constitute life?"
"So it is said, and since he lives still, then the ties that bind the two remain intact."
"Aradhil could linger long in this state—weeks, even, for Elves are hardier than Men, even unconscious. Given what his last memory was, I would not wish this peculiar slumber on any, not even my enemy. What dreams may come to one caught between earth and air, after all?"
"None, so far as we can determine," Legolas replied, troubled by this turn of affairs.
"Then he is fortunate in that, but still, he is caught—he cannot come to Mandos yet, but neither can he return home. 'Tis needless uncertainty, to my mind."
"Aragorn, I know that you were not close to Aradhil," the prince began, and then halted, arrested by the expression on the other's face.
"I do not tell you this because I wish to be rid of one I little like," the Ranger said flatly. "Were he one of my people, I would still advise you so. For we call it 'mercy' among ourselves—after four days, the chance of recovery is so slight that it is not worth considering any more. Perhaps a longer period for an Elf, but even so, I have never heard of an Elf waking after more than nine days of unconsciousness, and that was considered a wonder and unusual."
"I am sorry, then, for my words to you, for they were foolish. Nevertheless, though we may release one whose body is shattered beyond healing, we do not slay those who live still as Aradhil does, for there is a right time for all things," Legolas replied firmly. "And what are a few days, after all, to us?"
"Very well then. Nindarth was concerned only that you should not hold false hope for Aradhil, and I admit, I had not intended to speak of this. It is not that I am ignorant of this particular custom, but there are some things that Elrond failed to instill in me, or which did not take root after having seen too many of my own fade away like Aradhil. Better a swift death than this," the Ranger shook his head, and for a moment, his eyes held a distant look, and Legolas shuddered slightly, shifting his gaze to Aradhil's pale, still face. For a long moment, there was silence between the two, as the thoughts of Elf and Man spun out behind the masks that each wore to hide his fears. At length, however, Aragorn seemed to shake himself, and he said softly, "Never mind, Legolas. I doubt not that Aradhil would hold the same, were it he who waited by you, and so would wish for nothing different for himself. But if aught should change, I should like to hear of it, and how it came about that Aradhil was healed."
"Should that occur, then I shall send word to Imladris, since Lord Elrond knows how to reach you. Shall you leave soon, then?"
"Tomorrow morning," Aragorn replied, and his mouth twitched in a half smile as he shook his head. "A fortnight at most, I said, when first I arrived, and did not expect to stay so long, nor to find 'rest' so arduous!"
"I fear we have been poor hosts in that, and in other things," Legolas admitted with a rueful laugh. "But come again, if you can. I know that Rangers will escort Dwarves and other merchants less testy over the mountains, so perhaps we shall see each other on the road, in passing. Once my year is finished, that is," he added.
"Perhaps, though I fear that it may be long ere I take another caravan west or east. I have now other tasks. Certainly, though, there shall be many Rangers crossing the mountains this season, seeking the latest tidings. And if Khamûl stirs, then our clients may be grateful for our help. Should you see one of my people, you may always use him as a mail courier—our rates are lower than those of the Dwarves!"
Legolas grinned at that, and replied, "'Short of stature, high of price,' we say. Very well then, I shall look for the Rangers." Reaching out, he clasped Aragorn's forearms, and the Ranger returned the gesture. "Until tomorrow, my friend."
"Good day to you," Aragorn replied. And with that, he departed, leaving a very thoughtful Legolas to his vigil.
The rain had subsided by the time the sky grew rosy with dawn. It was a small favor, for which wizard and Ranger both were grateful, for neither had looked forward to the prospect of beginning the journey drenched and shivering. The Elves had also kindly lent the pair one of the ponies that they occasionally used to move goods down the river to Dale and Laketown, so the beast bore their packs, much to Aragorn's relief. He and Gandalf had spoken long the night before, as the wizard had had much of alarming import to tell of Gollum, whose tale he had finally managed to wring from the wretch. "And wring I did! No creature should fear fire so, yet there was no choice in the end. I shall carry the news to the Shire, and any orders you might have concerning your men," Gandalf had said heavily. "You will doubtless have business in the Angle, and I think a stop in Imladris would be wise, to see what Elrond can do to mend you more swiftly, and perhaps more... expertly." Aragorn had had to agree to that, for having heard Gandalf's report, he knew he could not afford to spend more time than was necessary recovering from injuries, no matter of what kind. The pair had decided to leave early and quietly, and so had been rather surprised to find a small gathering of Elves waiting to see them off this morning. Even more surprising in Aragorn's eyes, was that Thranduil was among them, and Nindarth as well, and Legolas, who stood with remarkable solemnity.
"Herdîr Ithron," the King of Mirkwood said, and bowed politely, "may the stars shine upon your path, and keep evil ever from you."
"My thanks for your hospitality and help, your majesty, and may your kingdom remain a bulwark against the shadow," Gandalf replied, and raised a bushy brow. "I had not anticipated such a crowd."
"'Tis not every day that we have such guests," Thranduil replied, tossing a rather wry look at Aragorn. "Your arrivals were precipitous, and your stays might not have been all that you could have wished for—this is our last opportunity to amend our failings, and to thank you for your service. You in particular, son of Arathorn."
"Sire?" Aragorn asked, wary before the elven king's tone, which assumed a certain note of reproof, even as Legolas and Nindarth moved forward.
"Have a care in your wanderings, Dúnadan, for brashness may yet be your downfall, for youth is ever impatient. However," the king continued, cutting short any protest that Aragorn might have made ere ever he could open his mouth, "I am reminded that not all have the benefit of many centuries of learning, and must make the most of their time here. So: that you may continue your instruction in the ways of patience and prudence, and that I might not be harried by my conscience over the death of so young a creature, you will accept this." And Legolas stood forth then, a slight smile on his face as he extended his hands, in which lay a sword. A very familiar sword, as Aragorn reached out to grasp the scabbard. "This way you may at least protect yourself, should trouble arise, and Legolas assures me Tharinsal would find nothing to complain of in the swordsman. Pray, take care not to drop it in any of the rivers this time, since you have not a troublesome captive to deal with," the king finished, shaking his head as if to say, "Children!" But as Aragorn met Thranduil's gaze, the gleam in the king's eyes belied the tone. True, the Ranger might never wholly overcome the elven king's reservations, but it seemed that the other at least bore him no ill will.
"Many thanks, King of Mirkwood. I am honored by the gift, and I shall be careful," he replied, bowing and gritting his teeth to make it a full bow, despite aching shoulders. Thranduil gave him the barest of grins and nodded when he straightened.
"And you have my thanks also," Legolas said then, addressing Aragorn. "May the journey prove swift! Fare you well!"
And so, to the farewells of the Elves and the sounds of the forest stirring, they departed, wizard and Ranger, westward bound at last. And as the Elves dispersed behind them, Legolas went swiftly along the path and found at length a tree that suited him. Quickly, he climbed it, 'til he came to the topmost branches, and could look out over the forest to the Misty Mountains. Tall they loomed, but today, as far as his keen eyes could see, no shadow of threat lay upon them. A good omen, it seemed, for the travelers below, and he smiled. Fare well, my friend! Many thanks, for many lessons, and much to think upon that may grow roots. That has already grown roots, he thought, sending his thought out, and wondering if perhaps the Dúnadan might perceive it. For a time, he remained there in the treetops, 'til the sun had risen indeed, and then he left that airy field and returned slowly to his father's halls.
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