My Aragon Stories
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Land of Light and Shadows: 38. Dregs
By the time the sun dipped close to the western horizon, Legolas had learned an important lesson: one did not search Harad's lava fields during the day.
He had expected his task to be difficult, but having been fairly active in Haradhur during the late afternoon, he did not think that leaving the cave an hour before sunset would be too great an ordeal. It was a mark of the growing strain on both his mind and his body that he failed to consider the differences between Haradhur's shaded alleys and the black volcanic rock that now burned beneath his feet. But by the time Legolas had realized his folly, he had pressed too far and endured too much to abandon the search. Beyond that, there was no alternative. Time was a luxury that neither he nor Gimli could afford, and so Legolas pressed on despite the heat, doggedly stumbling from one shadow to the next shadow in a vain attempt to elude the sun.
But despite appearances, fate seemed to be turning a more favorable eye upon the elf, and as the shadows grew long, Legolas found the object of his search. He nearly missed it, but a whisper of cool air caught his attention before he passed it by completely. Thanks to the morning's adventure, he recognized this faint breeze for what it was, and quickly following it, he discovered a small split in the face of a cliff, barely wide enough to crawl through. Easing himself down, Legolas peered into the darkness, careful to watch for other creatures that might have taken refuge from the sun. Not long ago, he had discovered that serpents could be found in some of these caves.
Thankfully this cave proved to be free of snakes, though Legolas decided that to call it a cave was to be generous. It widened slightly after the entryway and the roof arched high enough that a man would be able to sit upright, but it extended no more than six feet into the side of the cliff. Still, it could hide someone from unfriendly eyes and there was no evidence that it had seen recent use. Those were all good signs. Moreover, it contained no water and was thus unlikely to be known to Khurintu. It was this final qualification that persuaded the elf.
Pulling back, he wiped away the perspiration that streamed down his face like a river and rose to his feet. Sweat had pooled in the arrow wound on his shoulder and stung sharply, but he had long ago pushed this pain to one side. Dizziness was the greater concern, for it now accompanied any sudden movement and had assailed him the moment he stood. Legolas suspected it to be an ailment brought on by the heat, but he was not sure. In any case, there was little he could do about it save to fight it off, so he closed his eyes and leaned against the rocky cliff until he felt that he could stand on his own without falling.
Momentarily free of vertigo, Legolas opened his eyes and turned his attention toward the sinking sun, calculating how much daylight remained to him. The answer made him curse, and his jaw tightened as he fought back a torrent of frustration. Evening was nearly upon him. He had hoped that he would be able to find a small hiding place for Gimli and then return to spend a bit of time with the dwarf ere he had to leave, but the search had taken too long. At this rate, he would be fortunate if left for Haradhur before sunset.
With a sigh that spoke of more than just physical exhaustion, Legolas brought to bear the patience that had enabled him to survive Mirkwood's darkest nights. He ruthlessly disciplined his thoughts until the frustration ebbed away, and once he regained control, he started back to the cavern where Gimli lay. His mind became a curious blank, conscious of nothing but the slow descent of the sun. He did not feel the scorching ground, and he did not think of the endless sand that he would soon be forced to cross. He would do what was needed when it was required of him, but until that time, his mind would be silent and still.
Then he reached the cave, and his enforced calm shattered.
Gimli could be heard long before he could be seen. Legolas was forced to pause in the cave's opening so that his eyes could adjust, but it was not an easy wait. The dwarf's breathing was slow and shallow, punctuated by an occasional moan, and with each sound of discomfort, Legolas felt his own chest constrict. By the time his eyes adjusted enough to see the shimmer of light that was the pool in the back, Legolas had trouble breathing himself.
The moment he could see clearly enough to navigate the cave's rocky floor, he hastened to Gimli's side, kneeling down and pressing the back of his hand to the dwarf's brow. The fever had dropped substantially, but Gimli's skin was still hot to the touch. Frowning, Legolas moved his hand to Gimli's injured thigh. The swelling seemed less, but when Legolas touched the other thigh for comparison, he winced at how much swelling yet remained. Lancing Gimli's wound had only bought them time. The dwarf was weakening. He needed the care of a true healer.
Sitting back, Legolas made use of a rather inventive Rohirric curse and mulled over his decision to leave. He hated the idea and he cursed the fates that had forced them into this situation, but for all his misgivings, it was painfully clear what had to be done. Gimli would die without help, and Aragorn and Eomer needed to be appraised of Khurintu's plans. In fact, Aragorn and Eomer were probably in need of help themselves. Khurintu seemed to be one step ahead of all of them, and Legolas dared not guess at what had happened in Haradhur since he and Gimli had been abducted.
But to leave Gimli behind…
And yet what choice did they have? Legolas lacked the strength to carry Gimli across the desert; his arms shook at the very thought. And they could not stay here in the hopes of being found, for if any were to find them, it would be Asbad and Dashnir. But Legolas was not confident of his ability to reach Haradhur. He was weary as he had seldom been before, and he was not entirely certain of Haradhur's location. He knew it lay somewhere to the west, but he was not sure of how far to the north or the south he would need to travel. If he set out in the wrong direction, he could be caught in the open desert when the sun rose, and he would die without accomplishing any of the things that demanded he go in the first place.
Additionally, he would be leaving Gimli unprotected. The dwarf was too weak to defend himself, and Asbad would surely kill Gimli as punishment for escaping. And even if Khurintu did not find Gimli, the dwarf was still dangerously ill. His fever had dropped, but it seemed a temporary reprieve at best. What if he needed water to cool his brow? What if he wished for company to calm his mind? What if he found himself alone when the end—
Legolas shuddered, unable to complete that thought. In the back of his mind, he knew that Gimli was mortal and that a day would come when they would both have to say final words, but he had always assumed that such a time was far removed and that they would find away around it. They would find a way for the dwarf to cheat death. But there would be no cheating here, and faced with the horrifying reality that Gimli might not live to see another day, Legolas realized just how unprepared he was for this moment. But then, could he have ever prepared for something like this?
Legolas jumped, taken completely by surprise. Berating himself for missing the dwarf's return to consciousness, he moved forward and seized a fevered hand. "Here, my friend," he said quietly. "I am with you."
The elf frowned. "Why?" he echoed, wondering if Gimli had become delirious during the afternoon. The fever had not risen, but perhaps the loss of fluids—
"Why are you here?" Gimli clarified, his voice weak. "You…you should go."
Legolas closed his eyes. "Soon," he murmured. "I will leave soon. But there are things I must see to ere I depart." He opened his eyes and turned his full attention on the dwarf, pinning him beneath a hard elven stare. "Will you promise me that you will endure for as long as I am away? On your honor as a son of Durin?"
"On my honor as a son of Durin, I can…promise to try," Gimli whispered. "On your honor as a prince of Greenwood, will you promise to succeed?"
"I swear by my father's sword that I will bring you help no matter the cost," Legolas vowed.
"No," Gimli hissed. "Not what I meant. Will you get yourself away? Will you find safety for yourself?"
"Gimli, the moment I find any aid whatsoever, I will return no matter the danger. You cannot persuade me otherwise."
"No!" Gimli growled, moving slightly as though he wished to sit up. "No good if we both die. Find safety. Get away from Khurintu. Arm yourself. Warn Eomer and Aragorn. Then you can return if…if there is still a need to."
"I fear the fever has overcome you," Legolas said, adjusting the moist rag that lay upon Gimli's brow. "Hush now. Time is passing, and you must conserve your strength."
"I told you to hush," Legolas chided, leaving the dwarf's side to retrieve the tunic piece he'd used earlier to give Gimli water. After submerging the cloth in the pool, he returned and slipped his arm beneath the dwarf's head and shoulders, raising him slowly. "Drink as much as you can," he said. "It may be the last you have for a time."
Gimli obediently began draining the saturated cloth, but he soon released it and turned away. "Sorry," he panted, releasing the material. "That is all I can take."
"You are certain? After I am gone—"
"I know," the dwarf sighed. "But I cannot drink more."
Legolas nodded, disappointed but not surprised. "Your stomach troubles you?"
"A bit," Gimli said, his voice reluctant. "I have no wish to test its limits."
The elf grimaced. "I went forth earlier and found a small cave further back in the rocks. In truth, it is little more than a split in the stone, but if you are able, I wish to move you there. It is likely that the Khurintu tribe knows these rocks and will search first those caves that have water. It will not be safe anywhere, but you have a better chance of eluding them in this smaller cave. Think you that your stomach can withstand one short journey?"
There was a long pause, and then Gimli nodded, a motion so slight that Legolas only felt it because the dwarf's head was leaning against his chest. "Let us go," Gimli whispered.
No more words were spoken. Gathering the strength that remained to him, Legolas slipped his free arm beneath Gimli's legs and lifted. His injured shoulder screamed and his back protested loudly, but Legolas paid them no heed. With every muscle straining, he staggered to his feet, clutching Gimli tightly to his chest and flinching at the dwarf's gasp of pain. The world dimmed and spun wildly around him, but Legolas gritted his teeth and clung to consciousness, somehow knowing that if he fell now, he would not have the strength to rise again. Slow seconds crept by as he leaned against a wall of the cave, praying that the dizziness would pass, and eventually the pounding in his ears faded. Darkness lifted from his vision, and his balance returned. Breathing a sigh of relief, Legolas waited a moment longer to be sure of himself, and then he moved out of the cave, using Gimli's weight to hasten his faltering feet.
It was perhaps the most difficult walk Legolas had ever made. Even the morning's rush toward the lava fields did not compare. His search beneath the afternoon sun had cost him dearly, and what energy he had gained back during the day was spent. His arms shuddered constantly, and it was by Sindar stubbornness alone that he did not collapse. One more step, he told himself. One more step. And now another. And another. It became a litany, repeated over and over as he ducked his head against the glare of the sun and fought to maintain his grip on the dwarf. A small part of his mind he left free to watch the surrounding world, but all else dwindled until the burden in his arms became all that Legolas was. He did not know how long he walked or even if he walked in the correct direction. He could not afford to care about such things, for all his concentration was devoted to holding Gimli.
And then, after what seemed like the passage of Ages, that small part not focused upon Gimli sounded a warning.
Dazed and slightly confused, Legolas lifted his head and found himself staring at the opening to the cave he had discovered earlier. With a choking sob, the elf stumbled over the last few steps and fell to his knees, heedless of the sharp rocks beneath him. Waves of dizziness assailed him, and he hissed sharply, willing the vertigo to pass. His arms shook so grievously that he was certain he would drop Gimli at any moment. It would not work. He could not wait for his balance to correct itself. Hoping that he was at least partially upright, Legolas tucked his chin against his chest, and crawled into the narrow crack with as much speed as he could muster.
Gimli cried out once when his legs were pressed hard against the elf's side, but he silenced himself quickly. Even so, Legolas could feel him stiffening with every movement, and he realized with frightening certainty that neither one of them could endure much longer. His arms practically convulsing, Legolas summoned a final burst of strength and surged forward, practically falling into the deeper cavity where the rock widened. Heaving for air, Legolas lowered Gimli's legs to the ground, bowing over his friend as he struggled to control his shaking muscles.
"Should not have done that," Gimli hissed, tensing as the elf slipped his left arm out from under his knees.
Still trying to catch his breath, Legolas gathered himself enough to swallow and shake his head. "I could not leave you where Khurintu would find you."
"But the cost to yourself—"
"I will recover."
The dwarf did not seem to agree, but he did not debate the point. "I am sorry," he murmured. "I would have helped. I wished to help. But…I am so tired."
"Then rest," Legolas said, his voice barely audible. He continued to hold his friend, reluctant to let go but painfully aware of the fading light beyond the cave's entrance. "I am also sorry," he said at length. "This is not the way I would leave you, but it seems that I have little choice in the matter. If only…" Legolas trailed off, unsure of what to say or what could have been done differently.
"You did all that you could, Legolas."
Legolas pressed his lips into a thin line. "Perhaps, but I would that I could have done more." The elf shifted, reaching for a pocket sewn into the inner lining of his tunic. "Here," he said as his hand closed on the two objects held safely within. "Your flint and steel. I recovered them ere I left to seek this hiding place. A dwarf should never be without such tools."
"So my father says," Gimli whispered, and there was a hint of a smile in his voice. He took them from the elf with trembling hands and slid them into the lining of his own tunic. That act seemed to exhaust the last of his strength, and with a sigh, Gimli closed his eyes and allowed his head to fall back onto Legolas's shoulder, a gesture of trust and weakness that both touched the elf and further unnerved him. "It will be all right," the dwarf said breathlessly.
"I know. Rest now, and I will return as soon as I am able."
"No. You, Legolas. You will be all right. No matter what happens here."
"It was worth it," Gimli interrupted, opening his eyes and becoming strangely insistent. "I have been honored to be your friend."
"I do not think that—"
"If I die, do not grieve too much. All mortals die."
"Gimli!" Suddenly angry, Legolas had to fight the temptation to shake the dwarf. "Gimli, you promised to endure until my return, and I hold you to that oath."
"No, I promised that I would try," the dwarf corrected. "There is a difference."
"To me it is the same," Legolas snapped, knowing it was unfair to lay such a burden on his friend but unable to stop himself. "If you cease to live it will be because you cease to try. I expect to find you well and aware upon my return."
"As you say, Legolas," Gimli sighed with an air of resignation. "But whatever may happen, you will be all right in time. Remember that."
"Then remember your promise," Legolas said, easing the dwarf's back to the ground. Steeling himself, Legolas took a deep breath and then eased back out of the cave. "Safe rest, elvellon," he murmured, pausing for one last glance into the darkness that now protected the dwarf.
And ever so faintly, like a whisper borne on a dying wind, he heard Gimli call after him. "Mahal guide you, Legolas. Farewell."
* * * *
The sun had just disappeared beneath the horizon when Dashnir and his party discovered the dead mare.
There had been very little wind during the day, which meant that the trail left by the fleeing horse had been easy to follow. But as he reined his own horse to a halt a good twenty yards away, Dashnir decided that they would have found the carcass even had the tracks been completely swept away. The stench rising from its cooked corpse was soiling the air for nearly half a mile in every direction, and it was powerful enough that Khurintu's horses refused to approach the body. So Dashnir and the others dismounted and proceeded on foot, drawing their scarves tightly around their faces in an attempt to keep out the worst of the smell.
"It appears that her neck is broken, honored one," came a muffled report from one man. "She also has several arrow wounds. I think it likely that they forced a fall." The man bent down to touch the mare's head but pulled back quickly when a flurry of insects skittered out from beneath the animal.
"Here is an arrow, honored one," another man called, kneeling several feet away. "It is bloodied. Perhaps it was pulled from the horse."
"Nay," the first man answered. "The arrows that struck the horse are yet within the wounds."
"Then perhaps this arrow comes from one of the riders," Dashnir said quietly. "We have hurt them." The thought gave him a bit of satisfaction.
"Honored one!" cried a third man. "There is a trail here! Leading south away from the horse."
"How many prints?"
"I believe only one set, but it is difficult to say with certainty. The tracks are faint."
"So one of our captives at least continued. But what of the other?" Dashnir narrowed his eyes, flicking his hand absently at the flies that hovered above the mare. "Did they have access to water skins? Rations?"
"If they did, they took those supplies with them, honored one. The water skins here have burst open."
"Then even if some of the skins survived, there would not have been much," Dashnir mused quietly. He looked around at the men, all of whom had spent the previous night as guards for captives. "What do you remember of the dwarf's condition? Was he able to walk at the time of his escape?"
"Nay, it all seemed to be the elf's work, honored one. The dwarf did very little. I doubt he could support his own weight."
"And what of the elf?" Dashnir continued. "Was he strong enough to continue carrying the dwarf?"
"He carried him for much of the night without complaint, honored one, but toward the end, he seemed weary. I do not believe he would be able to carry the dwarf much further once the sun rose."
Dashnir folded his arms across his chest and considered the single trail, the bloodied arrow in the sand, and the dead horse. Together, with one carrying the other, there was little chance of survival for either elf or dwarf. A tribesman would have abandoned his stricken companion in order to reach safety, but Dashnir was well aware that he did not track tribesmen. He tracked two creatures that seemed to go beyond the understanding of men. Two creatures that, with one impossible act, had managed to endanger years of careful planning. Two creatures that were responsible for the murder of Dashnir's kinsmen.
The anger that had filled him during the day surged through him once again, but Dashnir shoved it aside. Much as he might enjoy it, he could not allow thoughts of vengeance to consume him. He needed to keep his mind clear or he would risk losing the captives even as Asbad had lost them. Shaking his head, he firmly turned his mind back to the puzzle of the single trail. The elf and dwarf might be greatly enigmatic in many ways, but Dashnir felt he did grasp one thing about them: their allegiance. The elf and dwarf were encumbered with an unhealthy loyalty for one another, and given what he'd seen on the road to Haradhur, there would be snow in the desert before one forsook the other. Wherever they were, they were together. And as only one trail led away from the horse, the elf had been forced to carry the dwarf. This probably meant that the dwarf had been the one to take the arrow. If the men were right and the elf had been weakening, then further injuries would have rendered him unable to carry his friend.
Raising his eyes, Dashnir followed the line of the horizon until he made out a black silhouette rising against the evening sky. Knowing his time was short, the elf would have made for nearest potential shelter, and that meant the Wahd lava fields. They were a formidable distance away—virtually unreachable for one burdened with a crippled companion—but they held the only sure promise of shade and water in this area.
"Return to the horses," Dashnir commanded. "We ride for the Wahd. Given what we know of their condition, it is my hope that we will find the bodies of both the elf and the dwarf ere we reach the rocks. And if the Iluh are generous, we will find them in time to join the honored Asbad in his attack on Haradhur. Come!"
The mood of the men brightened significantly at the thought that they might yet take part in the battle, and they quickly mounted. On Dashnir's signal, the group struck out at a swift gallop, following the trail for as long as it could be seen. When the night grew darker and the trail faded from view, they simply hastened toward the rocks, spreading apart so that they would have a better chance of finding the bodies they sought.
But fifteen minutes later, they were still riding, and Dashnir felt his anger flare once more.
The rocks were very close now, and as yet, they had neither seen nor smelled the captives. While escorting Gondor and Rohan into Harad, Dashnir had observed that both the elf and the dwarf possessed remarkable endurance, but if they had both managed to reach the Wahd, then their abilities far surpassed anything Dashnir had ever seen. It was another impossible act, and a shiver of uncertainty crept into Dashnir's heart. The Wahd was a twisting labyrinth of volcanic rocks and cliffs, housing both many caves and large aquifer that ran the length of the lava fields. Their hunt was about to become very difficult. It could take hours, possibly even days, of tedious searching to find the elf and dwarf, and that assumed that they were still within the lava fields. If their health had allowed for it, the pair might have left the Wahd at sunset in an attempt to return to Haradhur. That was a possibility Dashnir could no longer discount.
Once again, I find we know too little of these creatures, he thought, tightening his hold on his temper. Would that we had denied them entry to the desert!
The horses began to pass the first of the Wahd's rock outcroppings, and with something of an ill grace, Dashnir resigned himself to the fact that he would not be joining Asbad in the battle against Gondor and Rohan. His men seemed to feel likewise, and by unspoken consent, the speed of the entire group slowed. They drew together as the shadow of the Wahd rose up to block the stars, and at the point where the sand ceased and the jagged cliffs began, Dashnir reined to a halt. Following his lead, the men also stopped, waiting silently for instruction.
"Withdraw," Dashnir ordered after a moment's consideration. "We shall retreat back into the desert and ride south along the Wahd's western edge. Keep a careful watch for any trails leading out of the lava fields. We must be certain that our quarry is here before we go further."
There was a low murmur of acknowledgement as Dashnir wheeled his horse about, and then the night was once again filled by the sound of pounding hooves. The group quickly moved back onto the sand and then turned south, reducing their pace to a brisk trot. The stars and moon cast a pale glow over the sand, and Dashnir hoped it would be enough to illuminate any tracks left by those leaving the rocks.
Traveling single file so that all had a clear view of the desert to the west and the lava fields to the east, the men bent low over their horses' necks. Those in the rear kept their eyes trained upon the ground, trusting those in the front to guide their journey. Periodically, Dashnir would choose a man to break away and remain behind as a sentry of sorts. If the elf and dwarf were able to travel, then it was likely that they had already left, but Dashnir was reluctant to put his full trust behind that assumption. If any were still within the Wahd, he intended to make certain that they could not flee.
The night wore on, and the last remnants of sunset faded into black. The riders slowed even more to compensate for the darkness, and the search continued. Long minutes dragged by while the black rocks of the Wahd crawled past, but though the men made a thorough examination of the sand, not once did the see anything resembling a mark or a track.
At length, Dashnir held up his hand and signaled for a halt. Insofar as he could determine, the sand before them was clear, and further riding would be fruitless. Upon reaching the Wahd, the elf and dwarf would have sought immediate shelter, but though they might have gone south later in the day to avoid pursuit, they would not have traveled far. They would have chosen to conserve their strength for the night. If there was a trail to find, then Dashnir felt that they would have found it by now.
"It seems that we must search the rocks themselves," Dashnir announced as the men gathered around him. "We shall do so by dividing into two groups. One shall return north and resume the search where we believe the elf and dwarf entered the Wahd. The rest of us shall begin our search here."
"What of those who separated to keep watch, honored one?"
"They shall remain at their posts. I will take no chance that the elf and dwarf might flee whilst we are searching for them," Dashnir answered. "When you enter the rocks themselves, leave the horses in the desert as they will be more hindrance than help. Be swift and be silent. Our objective is to take our prey unawares. Concentrate the hunt on caves, particularly those known to hold water, but do not overlook other possibilities. If you find the elf and dwarf together, the elf is to be killed and the dwarf taken alive. If you find only one, keep him alive so that he might tell us the location of the other." Dashnir paused, looking about to see if there were any who did not understand, but all remained silent. With a tight smile that did not reach his eyes, he nodded and then divided the men in half, appointing one of the lower captains to lead the second group. Within moments, all those chosen to ride north turned and hastened away, leaving naught but a cloud of sand in their wake.
Shielding his face against the flying sand, Dashnir turned toward the desert and fought to check his anger. If he was fortunate, he would be able to bring Asbad a dwarven head the following night, but such a prospect brought him no joy. Dashnir should be at his leader's side now. This bid for power was as much his making as Asbad's, and he felt it was his right to see the fruits of their gamble come to fullness. But instead, he was searching the labyrinth of the Wahd for two abominations who, by all accounts, should have been killed the previous night.
His fury hot and fierce, Dashnir took a deep breath and cleared his mind. The winds had blown whither they would, and the dust was settling, in more ways than one. Nothing could be done about that now. After another deep breath, Dashnir felt his feelings settle into grudging acceptance and decided that it was the best he could hope for. Loosing a quiet sigh, Dashnir turned his horse toward the rocks and prepared to lead the remaining men into the lava fields.
At which point something flickered on the edge of his vision.
Dashnir froze, hardly daring to breathe. Out of the corner of his eye, far away in the open desert, something had…moved. He could not tell what had moved, and the movement itself had been faint enough that it might easily have been a trick of the starlight. But Dashnir's instincts said otherwise, and he rarely ignored his instincts.
Ignoring the questioning glances among his men, Dashnir turned back to the desert and kicked his horse forward. He set his eyes upon the spot that had caught his attention, and he willed the darkness to part, waiting for the movement to come again.
But now that he looked directly at it, there seemed to be nothing there.
Doubt crept into his mind. Had he truly seen something? There was no trail leading from the Wahd, after all. Perhaps the night was being deceitful. Or perhaps his wish to join his leader was causing him to see things that did not exist. Dashnir frowned and toyed with his horse's reins, wondering if his senses could be trusted. Perhaps Asbad's warnings about the lingering shadow of ma'awnwa should be given even greater credence.
And then he saw it again.
There could be no mistaking it this time, and judging from the scattered murmurs behind him, others saw it as well. Starlight flashed against something in the desert. Something that seemed to be hurrying away from the Wahd. His grudging acceptance transforming sharp anticipation, Dashnir urged his horse into a run, and the rest of the company fell in behind him. A renewed sense of purpose lent speed to their mounts, and the rocks quickly faded into darkness as the group flew across the sand.
The flicker of movement now became clear for all to see, and as they continued, it resolved into the shape of a running figure. It was soon apparent that this figure had seen them as well, for he began running earnest. But he was no match for the horses, and they continued to gain.
"Archers!" Dashnir ordered.
Several of the men separated from the main group and drew ahead, releasing their horses' reins and notching arrows. They were too far yet to shoot, but they were closing rapidly. A flash of golden hair gave Dashnir all the confirmation he needed, and with a cry, he drew his sword.
Arrows screamed through the night, shrill and deadly. They pelted the sand just behind their prey, and the runner jerked to one side as though startled. But still he fled, and Dashnir ordered another volley, his legs tightening around his horse's sides as the bolts raced toward the target, this time striking the area around him.
And the runner fell.
A wall of sand flew up as the figure slammed into the ground, rolling hard. He was lost from view for a moment in a cloud of dust, and then he rose, stumbling wildly and clearly favoring one side. The archers prepared to fire again, but Dashnir waved them back. He sent spearmen to either side of the main group, and he checked his horse's speed as they spread apart. They thundered over the remaining distance, and the men on the outside swept out and around, leading the others into a wide circle around their quarry. Caught in the center, the runner—who could now be identified as their missing elf—staggered to a halt and whipped about as the net tightened. One hand was clutched around an arrow that protruded from his left shoulder, and with a muffled cry, he drew it forth. The resulting pain seemed to steal whatever strength had kept him upright, and he collapsed to his knees as the men stopped altogether.
A sharp ring of steel accompanied the appearance of drawn swords, and Dashnir moved his horse inside the circle and dismounted, studying the captive. The elf made no attempt to rise, though he did treat each man to a baleful glare that seemed to unnerve the horses. Cautiously, Dashnir began to advance, careful to keep his blade raised and his weight upon the balls of his feet. The elf's sharp glance immediately settled upon him, hateful and piercing, but then he looked down and shuddered, putting one hand on the ground as though to brace himself.
He is either incapable of standing or conserving his strength for a final battle, Dashnir decided, stopping when he was but a few feet from the elf. He considered the idea of killing the creature outright, but though that would rid them of one problem, there was still the dwarf to consider. Dashnir was surprised that the two were not together, and he did not wish to destroy the elf until he uncovered why. Moving one step closer, Dashnir steeled his mind against the possibility of ma'awnwa and began to speak.
"You have led us on quite a chase, Lord Legolas," he said quietly, keeping the tip of his sword in line with his enemy's chest.
The elf looked up with a smoldering glare, but his eyes were forced away yet again by a series of convulsive coughs. Wrapping one arm tightly around his chest, he began to shake as the harsh coughs continued. Seemingly unable to control himself, he sank forward until he collapsed completely, drawing his knees up to his chest and squeezing his eyes shut. This seemed to help as the coughs died away, but the shaking did not. And as his trembling increased, the elf began to moan.
"It may ease your mind to know that you will soon be at peace," Dashnir said, drawing a bit closer but tightening his grip on his sword. "Yet first it is my duty to ask after your companion. Where is Lord Gimli? Speak and we will not prolong your misery."
The elf hissed and moved as though he wished to rise, but he only managed to get one arm beneath him before he collapsed on top of it. Studying the prone figure, Dashnir marveled that he had made it even this far. He was shivering violently, his breathing was shallow and rapid, and a long tear along the back of his now sleeveless tunic revealed an arrow wound smeared with blood.
"Come, my friend, you have done enough," Dashnir coaxed, lowering his voice. "Given the trials you faced, there is no shame in defeat. Indeed, your efforts were quite impressive. But they are at an end now, and neither you nor the dwarf need suffer any longer. Choose the path of mercy. Tell us of Lord Gimli."
The elf's breath hitched, his hands clenched, and he suddenly loosed a keening cry that seemed to hang over the desert, eerie and haunting. Dashnir leaped back, startled by the outburst, and some of the horses reared, fighting their riders before they were forced into submission.
"Dead," the elf ground out when the cry faded. He lifted his head and captured Dashnir's eyes with a look that sent shivers down his back. "Gimli is dead."
There was something unnatural about the elf's gaze. Something that had no place in the desert. At first there was only darkness, but then came a…change. A shift. Something in the elf's eyes flashed, and for a brief moment, Dashnir was suddenly beset by image of endless waters, stretching forth in a swirl of wind and spray. Cresting waves rose and fell against one another, dark beneath a clouded sky, and wheeling low over the roaring surf, a white bird suddenly cried out, its call latching on to something deep within Dashnir's heart that had slumbered for years beyond count—
And then the elf closed his eyes.
The waters vanished with jarring abruptness, and Dashnir nearly fell over as the arid desert snapped back into view. But a taste of salt lingered in his mouth, and he had to glance at the sky just to confirm that it was indeed free of clouds. Ruthlessly disciplining his thoughts, Dashnir struggled to push away the memory of the white bird's call. The men were restless and he could hear them murmuring, but he blocked them out. Whatever the elf was doing, he could not let it distract him from his purpose!
"Dead, you say?" he demanded, pushing away a strange feeling of loss that suddenly overwhelmed him. "I am surprised you did not stay with the body."
"Gimli is gone," the elf whispered, dropping his head and shuddering. "What good would my presence do him?"
The rumbles of waves still echoed in Dashnir's mind, and he shook his head sharply, fighting for concentration. The elf was lying. He was reasonably certain of that. The dwarf still lived, and it was imperative to learn his location and his condition. "My men say you carried Lord Gimli for many hours last night," Dashnir said, choosing his words carefully. "I find it difficult to believe that you would abandon him now, even in death."
Muttering something too low to make out, the elf curled in on himself, hands digging into the sand.
"And what of his body?" Dashnir pressed, moving closer as the elf continued to withdraw. "Are there rites or customs that must be performed? Surely you have not left him unattended!"
With a slight groan, the elf opened his eyes and lifted his head. Once again, Dashnir had a fleeting impression of wind and water, but it was weaker now, and as the elf's groan died away, the image vanished. His mind was his own again, and filled with a sudden confidence, Dashnir moved even closer, smiling grimly when the elf tensed.
"Tell us where he lies," Dashnir urged. "Tell us, and we will see to his remains. We may even reach him before the carrion eaters begin their work. They are swift and have been known to set upon even those who are not yet dead. I would not wish such a fate to befall Lord Gimli's body."
To the elf's credit, his face betrayed nothing, but in his eyes, Dashnir caught a hint of doubt coupled with fear.
"Your silence harms more than helps," Dashnir said, his voice dropping to a whisper. "You have been an honorable foe. Let us repay that honor. Let us see to the dwarf." He reached out and placed a hand on the elf's shoulder just above where the arrow had struck, squeezing slightly. "Gimli deserves better than a forsaken cave, does he not? And you, my friend…you deserve better than torturous pain when we could grant you the mercy of a quick death." Dashnir's hand moved closer to the arrow wound, stopping just short of the growing red stain to emphasize the threat behind his words.
And then Dashnir noticed something.
There was dried blood around the wound.
Dried blood that was, at the very least, several hours old.
It was as though a veil of smoke suddenly lifted. In one brief moment, Dashnir realized how close he was to the elf. He realized that at some point in the conversation, he had lowered his sword. He realized that the wound he saw was not a new wound but one that had just reopened. And he realized that the elf beneath his hand was not tense with pain or grief but rather with anticipation.
In one brief moment, he realized that he had yet again underestimated his opponent.
In the next moment, the elf moved, and the arrow that had supposedly brought him down—an arrow that all seemed to have forgotten about—suddenly buried itself in Dashnir's side.
Iluh—Harad equivalent of the Valar
Ma'awnwa—Haradric for ú-glîr
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