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Roots: 6. Pawns and Princes
Late afternoon in the kingdom of Thranduil was usually a pleasant time of day, for the breezes that blew in from the west came down off of the mountains. Cool and brisk, they swept through the forest, clearing the air of its centuries of must and, especially in the summer, bringing relief from the heat. Alas, they were not in the kingdom of Thranduil, but on the very edge of the valley of Dol Guldur, and it seemed that the wind bent to avoid that dark vale. Dorothil sighed softly as he sat in the mid-branches of their chosen tree, and he frowned as he ran his fingers over the curve of his bow, feeling for imperfections in the wood. Not that he had shot anything of late, but he had bent his bow more than once after shadows. Everyone had, even Aradhil, and that was worrisome. Two days of waiting, he thought moodily. Two days, almost three, and yet nothing have we seen! Since the discovery of the corpse the day after the orcs' attack, the conviction that their enemies watched them from just out of range had waxed along with their anxiety. They now roved the slopes that led down into the very heart of Dol Guldur's power, and but that that invisible will threatened to suffocate them with fear, they might have thought the tower deserted. It has not even changed its visage in the time that we have watched it! Dorothil had long hunted and fought the agents of the Dark Lord, and he had played this game before. Yet he could not shake the feeling that there was something more to this than the cruel amusement of a cat stalking a mouse. For the hate-filled cunning of the tower's master pulsed through his dreams, threatening to snatch them from his control--he could taste it on the still air, and indeed, he remembered it. Three thousand years has not changed the face and feel of evil, the Elf thought grimly.
That was why Hithras and Faladhros ranged now in a short circuit, patrolling a circular perimeter in the hopes of catching a glimpse of their foes; that was why--beyond any desire of his elvish soul--he remained perched with his back to the trunk of the tree; and that was why all of them kept bows or knives to hand even here, where usually an Elf had little to fear. We are being hunted watched . At times, Dorothil could swear that he heard whispers on the air, though naught stirred, save the squirrels or themselves. When questioned, others confessed to similar imaginings. If imaginings they are! Aragorn was the only one who heard nothing, but clearly he, too, suffered under the oppressive fear. It showed in his wariness, in the way that he watched his elven companions, as if measuring them. Though against what, and for what purpose, Dorothil knew not. For some reason, the other's regard made him uneasy; Aragorn might not be an Elf, but his was not a look that one casually invited. Many long years it had been since Dorothil could remember a time when a human had made such an impression on him, and though he supposed one ought to expect such from the line of Isildur, at the moment he rather resented the distraction of Aragorn's gaze. We have already enough to unsettle us! Dorothil thought, with no little frustration.
For others found in Aragorn more than mere distraction or uneasy companionship: some found a threat. Some, indeed, found an enemy. Dorothil darted a quick look upwards to where Aradhil stood, gazing intently out into Mirkwood. With each passing day, the tension within the patrol mounted, as they faced not only the darkness of the forest but each other, and the warden's mood was black as sunless Moria. And whenever he is near Aragorn, his mood grows worse, if that is possible. Anyone who knew Aradhil would have expected the warden to feel a certain amount of distrust and hostility towards the Ranger. Indeed, there were many among Thranduil's people who could sympathize with him. Dorothil knew quite well that he himself was not particularly given to trusting Men. Not after the Dagorlad! No one who had fought before Orodruin, who had seen the Dark Lord's armies rise up to greet them in seemingly endless numbers, and who had had victory snatched from his fingers by a hair, could possibly view Men with equanimity. Even Faladhros was leery, though he had been a member of Oropher's company, and, due to injuries, had never seen the fires of Mount Doom. That all their suffering and loss had been betrayed in an instant, and by the high king of the Dúnedain at that . Dorothil shook his head, halting that train of thought ere it could infect him with its despairing rage. One Man's fault it had been, but one Man was not all Men, even though he stood now among Elves as the measure of his race. Dorothil knew that in his heart, for though he had never met Isildur, he remembered the many valiant Men who had fought beside him at the end of the Second Age--fought and fallen, all too often. And if today he thought not overmuch of their descendants, he was not convinced that nobility was beyond them, even in these late days. The strength of Númenor might wane, but it was not spent altogether. Aragorn was proof of that, but somehow that made the situation worse, which irony was the more cutting to an Elf, raised to respect a finely-wrought soul.
A lesser Man might by now have proved himself to be beneath Aradhil's concern or even his conscious contempt. The which being the case, the warden's mood would have been lighter, and the rest of them could safely have ignored him, insofar as the bounds of courtesy permitted. Had that been the case, no one would have questioned Aradhil's decision to isolate the mortal, particularly when all knew what had happened to the warden's family in Eregion. But Aragorn would not rise to the goad of Aradhil's behavior, and if he had taken the warden to task over the arrow incident, he had made no further comment--even when Aradhil ignored him with such deliberate thoroughness that the warden had twice spoken through the Ranger, as if he had not existed. Dorothil had winced inwardly each time, expecting the Dúnadan to call the other out for the insult, but though it was clear to all that Aragorn was hardly pleased with his treatment at Aradhil's hands, he had said naught and continued to hold his peace. Unless someone spoke to him directly, or he had some warning to give or suggestion to make that concerned the patrol's safety, the Ranger spoke not and kept his distance. That was a difficult and narrow path to walk, and it took one with a steel backbone to dare it, particularly among Elves. Thus far, the Ranger had not faltered, and none mistook his silence for cowardice, nor his anger for a sullen nature. Not even Aradhil, and that is the problem! Dorothil thought.
For Aradhil knew quite well what the other intended. More importantly, the warden knew that Legolas understood as well--that he understood, and that he was disappointed in his friend and guide of so many years. And thus, however bitter the silent resentment between Ranger and Warden, it was as nothing compared to the break between the prince and his protector. Legolas and Aradhil had argued before, and over many things besides decisions affecting the company--naturally they had, for so long a friendship could not but have its troubles ever and anon. But never like this! Dorothil thought with grim certainty. Having overheard Aragorn's rebuke of Aradhi, he had rather shamedly eavesdropped on the painful conversation between the warden and the prince. What he had heard was telling, both in what was said and what was carefully left unsaid, particularly by the warden. Dorothil could not be certain whether the prince had realized it at the time, but it had been clear to him that Aradhil had fled that encounter. And Aradhil never flees! The horror of discovering the corpse the next day had eased the tension between the two for a bit, but only because the warden's terrible memories had momentarily cut deeper than his sense of grievance over Legolas' words and actions. But when they had begun to move again, and Aradhil had simply stood there in the clearing, gazing after his prince, Dorothil had recognized that the tear in the relationship had widened... perhaps irreparably so. The warden's staunch support of Legolas was as well-known as it was remarkable, for Aradhil was not one to give his heart easily, particularly after Eregion. Thus, when first the two had grown close, the rest of the patrol--and indeed, all those who knew Aradhil--had quietly rejoiced to see it.
But now that the prince had chosen a mortal for a friend, that once-warm relationship with Aradhil had quickly degenerated into something else. They still spoke to each other in matters of command, and were unfailingly polite when they did so before the others. But all heard the strain in their voices, and yesterday the pair had returned from a round of sentry duty in so icy a silence that Dorothil had felt a chill run through him. Neither had spoken a word to each other the rest of the evening, and they had parted company almost immediately after their return. What had passed between them where no others could hear it, Dorothil dared not guess, but he had his suspicions anyway. The effects of that latest argument were still painfully apparent as the Elf gazed up at the warden. For whereas once Legolas would have been close at hand, the prince was no where to be seen, having ascended into the highest branches almost as soon as they had called a halt. He had seen the company settled, set the watches, and then disappeared above. And for all that it was heartbreaking, no one had dared to follow him.
That was what frightened and shamed Dorothil--that none of them dared to approach the young prince, let alone Aradhil. The years had proven that the warden was a man of deep emotion, and when his mood grew dark, it was best not to speak of it. As a rule, Aradhil would carry out his duties without interruption, and eventually his brooding would cease of its own accord. But can we afford him that courtesy now? He may be the warden, but he swore an oath to the king to serve Legolas first. Bad enough that Aradhil refused to speak to the prince outside of matters pertaining to their present task, but the warden's behavior threatened to undermine that oath. Faladhros and he had spoken in whispers over this matter. Hithras, even, had been troubled enough to let an unsolicited opinion pass his lips, which was occasion enough, for Hithras was known to be close-mouthed. Nuilandar was on edge as well, and had actually shot a squirrel that had tried his patience once too often. Granted that no one had grieved to add the creature to their supper, and that the scrawny, red-eyed little beasts took entirely too much pleasure in startling them all, the incident was a measure of how tense they all were.
And all because of a Man! That was the thought that lay beneath all the whispered words of the company and behind all the lancing regards thrown in Aragorn's direction. But there was also a collective sense of embarrassment of guilt, truly. For it was not Aragorn's doing: in and of himself, the Ranger was more elvish than any Elf had a right to ask of a Man, and even Aradhil had to know that, or he would not be so furious. And so fearful! I see what he fears: that Legolas may not understand yet the range of difference, that Aragorn stands alone and high even among his own people. If we cannot judge all Men by Isildur, then we must also avoid judging them by Isildur's current heir! In different circumstances, Dorothil decided that he might grow rather fond of the Dúnadan, in addition to admiring him in the distant way of Elves. But put him between a hurt and jealous warden and one very torn elven prince, and it became difficult to say who stood truly at the fulcrum of their internecine troubles: Legolas, Aradhil or Aragorn. And while Dorothil could not help but feel for the three of them, his concern was primarily given to Legolas. The prince was still very young, though he had learned well and swiftly the lessons that Mirkwood had to teach a forester. But no captain should have to face a feud between his two closest advisors, and Dorothil feared the effects. For Legolas refused to ask for help from the others, and none of the rest of the party had temerity or seniority enough to intervene where clearly they were not wanted. Dorothil had done his best, but what advice he could offer was limited to the warning that they faced not werewolves alone. The prince's dismissal after that initial attempt, while gentle, had nevertheless been quite clear and final: Legolas would not turn to others for help in the matter of Warden and Ranger. As a result, he was becoming dangerously isolated for one so young in the ways of command.
In the midst of his brooding reflections, Aradhil moved suddenly, attracting Dorothil's instant attention. The warden signaled to Nuilandar, who climbed swiftly up to stand level with him, and after a few moments more, Faladhros and Hithras appeared. The warden nodded to the two of them, and then he and Nuilandar headed out, taking their turn on rounds. It was the opportunity for which Dorothil had waited, and with rather more impatience than an immortal usually evinced. Replacing his bow in his quiver, the Elf stood and cast a final glance upwards to where Legolas sat hidden by the leaves. No stirrings, no sign that the prince felt a need to come and see the other two off, and so Dorothil turned his eyes groundwards, to a now familiar figure. The Ranger, as was his wont, stood alone and silent in the lower branches, and, like many, he used the time to insure that his weapons were in good condition. Carefully inspecting a dagger, the Dúnadan frowned slightly as he found a notch in the blade. Reaching into his belt-pouch, the Man withdrew a small whetting stone and began to sharpen the weapon, working away the rough edge. To all appearances, he was quite absorbed in the task, but something about his manner warned Dorothil that his attention was decidedly elsewhere. His was not the most approachable demeanor, but no Man could possibly match the Warden's temper. And so, with such stealth as only an Elf could manage, Dorothil slipped easily down to where the Dúnadan perched.
Just ere the Elf reached him, Aragorn glanced up sharply, warned of his approach, perhaps, by instincts developed during childhood. Almost, the Elf hesitated, but before his body could even respond to his moment of doubt, he was standing before the Man. After an initial moment of mutual scrutiny, Aragorn looked deliberately away and sheathed the dagger, slipping the whetting stone back into his pouch ere he turned his attention once more to the other. That seemed a good sign, for he could have chosen to continue with his task and thereby signal his unwillingness to converse at any great length. But still, the Ranger's silver gaze was as a mirror: opaque and reflective of nothing but what a visitor might choose to see there. "Dorothil," he said simply, by way of polite but wary greeting, and Dorothil read in that that the other wondered at his intentions. Certainly, such a greeting could not possibly be read as offensive in any way, which was perhaps why the Ranger had chosen it. Like deserves like, the Elf thought, and so murmured in response:
"Aragorn." And that was all for a moment, as Dorothil and he stared at each other in silence, attempting to gauge each other's mood and purpose.
"May I serve in some way?" the other asked at length, passing quickly to the heart of the matter.
Being preempted by a mortal was somewhat embarrassing, and as Dorothil gazed at the other, he realized that he had not made any definite plans beyond this point. Pursing his lips, he lowered his eyes to stare thoughtfully at the ground, considering in silence what ought to come next. I would speak with him alone . "Come with me a ways, if you will," he said after a moment, and flicked a glance upwards for the other's benefit. The Ranger did not follow that gaze, and likely it was that he knew as well as Dorothil the positions of the other members of the patrol. Rather, he simply nodded and gestured minutely for the Elf to lead on. Without a word, Dorothil acceded to the request, and he made his way to the next tree with great care, choosing a path that a mortal ought to be able to follow, mindful of the other's limitations.
When they stood out of sight of the other three, Dorothil turned and reached back to give Aragorn a hand over the last gap. The Ranger murmured a quick word of thanks, glancing around to fix their new location in his mind. That done, the Man looked Dorothil up and down and said, "And now that we are come here, what would you say, Master Elf?"
"I would speak of the prince," Dorothil responded, and then paused, watching Aragorn for any sign of his feelings. The line of the other's mouth thinned as the Dúnadan pressed his lips tightly together, and then he gave a slow nod.
"Speak then, but know that there are some suggestions concerning our relationship that I will not entertain," Aragorn warned, which took Dorothil somewhat aback. There was a certain edge to the other's voice, and the Elf wondered who might have broached the subject first with the Ranger. None in the common company, unless it were Aradhil, which seemed quite unlikely. Leave that aside for the moment! Dorothil commanded himself. I can guess what must have been said, but that is not my concern now.
"I am not Legolas' father, Aragorn, nor his brother, nor even accounted of high lineage among my people," Dorothil replied, pinning the other with a severe gaze in an effort to impress upon the Ranger that he came not with remonstrances. "I am his to command, in whatever place and way he desires. More than four hundred years have I served thus, and without regrets, but I am not his friend, either. In that, you have surpassed me," he admitted, with just a twinge of wishful envy. "And so I turn to you, rather than to another."
"What would you have me do?" the Ranger asked warily, folding his arms across his chest.
"Speak to him!" Dorothil implored quietly, and shook his head, "It is not good that he has no one to consult, and though I have offered what I could, he rejected the better part ere ever he heard it!" There was a rather stunned silence, if Dorothil read aught aright of the Dúnadan, and some of that opacity seemed to fade from the other's eyes as Aragorn realized the purpose of his speech. Nevertheless, the Elf sensed no acceptance of his plea, but rather a sort of resigned worry.
"I cannot," the Ranger replied softly.
"If not you, then who? I cannot trust Aradhil after this to speak soft with him, and I would not see him cut himself off from all others while this lasts. What stalks us now is no mere orc, nor even a werewolf, but something else, and my lord prince has never encountered its like before."
"Then you, or perhaps Hithras, would be of more assistance than I, for I, too, have little experience with this fell thing, whatever it be."
"But he will have none of us, whereas you he trusts with such confidences as a captain must keep from his subordinates," Dorothil argued. And when Aragorn only shook his head slowly, in refusal as well as regret, the Elf demanded, "Why not, then? For a time, you did help him, but in the past two days you have scarcely said a word to any."
The Ranger gave a soft sigh and stared off into the forest for awhile, seeming to mull over his answer. After a good minute or two, the Dúnadan raised his eyes once more and there was that measuring look once more. Dorothil cocked his head slightly, puzzled, but ere he could say aught, Aragorn said quietly, "I have already spoken my piece to him, and if he has not acted on it, then I can do naught more but keep my distance."
"I do not understand."
"Nor did he, at first. And perhaps he still does not," Aragorn replied, a touch of his own frustration edging its way into his voice. "But advice is dangerous, as Elves know well. And though Legolas may be young, he is still the captain of this company, and Aradhil remains his lieutenant. If he likes not the other's treatment of him, then it is his place to put an end to it, by whatever means are required. It is not my place to provide him with a counterpoint to Aradhil, particularly not when Aradhil is present to listen, and knows what Legolas does."
"Dorothil," the Ranger cut him off, which no mortal had dared to do for many a century. "You say that you are not his brother. Well and good, for I am not his nursemaid either. You have served the prince for nearly four centuries, and for that he may be grateful. But you have not been a captain--yet! I have, and so I know that to do as you ask would do Legolas no good and perhaps much harm. The timing may be poor, but it is ever poor for such circumstances as these; that changes not the fact that the prince commands here, with or without Aradhil's support. If they have not yet come to an understanding as to their obligations in this matter, then I will not put myself forward to fill Aradhil's place, even for a short time. That does them both a disservice."
"But you have helped him in the past."
"When I thought to do otherwise would run counter to my duty to this group and to the King of Mirkwood. I will not be used as a lever against others, for it breeds more ill-feeling than my advice is worth."
"So instead, you will watch this play out, and let others despise you?" Dorothil asked, eyes narrowing as he studied the other's face for any sign of wavering.
"Better that others despise me than that they resent Aradhil or Legolas overmuch. For what am I to them or to this company?" The Dúnadan shrugged. "Soon enough I shall leave it, but you and the others must still remain with each other, and your ranks must not be riven by contention. Things shall grow worse in Mirkwood rather than better, after all, and if you fear to face this threat divided, you should fear for the future as well," Aragorn replied, with a quick grimace.
"I thought you would not be the lever against any," the Elf said skeptically.
"I should perhaps have said that I shall not be one unless I control the heft as well! I can keep my distance from warden and prince, and that is all that I can do, until they reach some workable arrangement. If you would truly help your prince, I suggest that you speak to him yourself rather than seek to manipulate him through me." The Ranger arched a brow at him, awaiting his response, and Dorothil bit his tongue gently against a sharp retort.
"I see," he said at length, staring at the Man, who refused to look away this time, despite the weight of the Elf's gaze. Doubtless, he had grown used to worse since joining this company, and Dorothil sighed inwardly. Put thus, he could not deny that Aragorn had a very good point: it would not strengthen Legolas as a commander to seek ever ways around the problem of Aradhil. Perhaps he is right, and this is something that the prince must face in the end. That did not mean that Dorothil liked the solution, but he could find no way to argue against the other. He turned to leave, but then hesitated, curiosity hanging on the Ranger's initial warning. Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw that Aragorn looked down now, and had a hand pressed against his eyes, as if against a headache. "Tell me something, if you would: who else has spoken to you of the prince?"
Something that might have been a very low, very short, laugh came back, and the Ranger shot him a quick, sideways look. "His father," came the somewhat rueful admission. Dorothil blinked, and then he wondered that he had not thought of that before. The king .
"Then I hope for your sake that naught goes ill here! Your people would miss you, otherwise," the Elf replied, and then sprang away back to the other tree. Aragorn gazed after him for a few moments, then sighed to himself, and began a much more careful return. Truthfully, he would rather have enjoyed his solitude here than return to isolation within the midst of the patrol. But he knew that it was not safe to be alone for long in these woods, and so he girded himself to face the silent, questioning stares of the others. Assuming that they noticed my absence at all! I hope that Legolas realizes soon where his duty lies, for something must be done to calm the patrol's fears and frustrations, he thought. He had seen such arguments before--had had them himself once or twice--and he knew the deleterious effects that divisions among leaders could have on those who followed them. He was certain that Legolas knew well that his men suffered, but the prince could not seem to bring himself to confront Aradhil on a more than personal level. He shall have to realize soon enough that he is a prince, and that the warden must bow to that authority in the end. For even an elvish company can lose its edge if distracted by such a feud, and that we cannot afford!
A squirrel chittered angrily from above, and Aragorn twitched violently, reaching quickly for his dagger ere he could stop himself. Glaring at the creature, he made himself relax slightly and then continue on his way. As he approached a break in the leafy veil, he paused and looked south-east over the slanting canopy of the forest as it plunged down into the valley. At the lowest point stood a dark spike, and the Ranger felt revulsion run swift through his veins, suffusing him. Dol Guldur. Even as we watch, it watches us as well, and who knows but that it exacerbates the tension in this group? I wonder, does Legolas watch it now? Likely he did, and Aragorn wished he knew with certainty. Look not to the tower, Prince of Mirkwood, look to your people! For they need you now! Dorothil was no where to be seen by the time he returned, which might mean little, since the other was an Elf and perfectly capable of escaping a mortal's sight if he wished. But Aragorn hoped that it meant the other Elf had decided to approach Legolas himself. Dorothil seemed genuinely concerned, and if Legolas would only see that, that might push him to take Aradhil to task. Privately, Aragorn rather wished he could do it himself, since Aradhil's grievance with the prince had its roots in Legolas' friendship with him. But that would take the matter out of Legolas' hands again . Well, he thought finally, mayhap if the opportunity presents itself. I doubt that it shall.
Returning to his chosen branch, the Ranger slouched down, letting his posture slip for once, and returned to his interrupted task. Almost three days of nothing. How many more such days shall we endure?
As the sun sank behind the mountains, Aradhil and Nuilandar made their wary way through the forest, heading back towards the camp. The warden was grimly silent, sensing that his enemy mocked his efforts from near at hand. And yet we cannot find them! Something there is here that confuses the senses the will of the master of the tower, I doubt it not! Often, Elves who ventured south of the road reported such dimming of their senses as the power of Dol Guldur waxed. Those who remembered Mordor also were not unfamiliar with the phenomenon, and knew what it cost to fight against the darkness. The whispered laughter that nibbled at the edges of his awareness, seemingly everywhere and nowhere at once, only stirred his bitter hatred of the enemy, and he silently cursed the dim shapes of the trees that concealed his foes. Even an Elf might fear to make a misstep in such darkness as this, where the branches of the trees faded to naught but a depthless pattern of shade and midnight, tricking the eyes, while the trees themselves seemed silent, as if they sought to deny their guidance to those who went upon them. And though the air was still, strange rustlings and creakings would sound at intervals, threatening them with fatal distraction.
But the two Elves were too well experienced to allow themselves to fall prey to the forest's deceptions, and they continued on at a good pace. Where are they? Aradhil wondered bitterly. 'Tis not like a werewolf to wait so long, especially newly birthed. Surely hunger would drive it to seek us out, to find more satisfying prey than the squirrels or deer if there are deer here. Why do they wait? Over all such questions brooded Dol Guldur's invisible heights, and Aradhil felt his lips peel back from his teeth in a silent snarl. He had dealt with werewolves before, and not simply from the safe distance that a bow granted one. He had stood before them, and seen shapes, once familiar, distort and change into wolf-form. But the eyes remain the same, always! He had looked into their eyes and seen the emptiness, the hunger the remnants of sanity that begged for release. And so he had released them, and he prayed that someone had done the same for others for others whose fate he had never been able to discover.
Something flitted in the corner of his eye, and he stopped quite suddenly, so that Nuilandar had to leap past him and catch himself on a branch just above him. The other Elf spoke not, only turned questioning eyes on him, following the warden's gaze. The forest seemed empty below, and Aradhil was almost willing to believe that he had imagined it, or that the shifting shadows had fooled him. A hiss sounded above as Nuilandar caught his breath, and Aradhil reached slowly for his bow, nocking an arrow as soon as he had cleared it. There, below them, lurked a hunched shape, partially obscured by the bushes, and as the two Elves gazed at it, the head lifted, and eerily bright yellow eyes stared unerringly back. Scarcely able to believe such daring, Aradhil lifted his bow, taking aim quickly, but ere even he could release the arrow, the wolf-form bounded away, escaping into the cover of the bushes. Still, Aradhil waited, wondering if the creature would return. But after almost two minutes of waiting while not so much as a an insect stirred upon the forest's floor, he sighed inwardly. We cannot wait here. Likely, the werewolf knows its peril and shall not show itself again until it attacks. But just as the warden lowered his arm, two more such shapes darted quickly across the range and disappeared into the night in swift succession.
"That was deliberate," Nuilandar muttered, disgust and worry coloring his tone.
"Aye, it was," Aradhil agreed grimly. "They do not lack for audacity. But come! If they dare so much now, then I think perhaps the game draws to a close. We must warn the others and decide upon a course of action. If we can flush them tonight, or at least draw them out, then we may yet have a chance to end this and find their maker!"
"But how shall we accomplish that?" the other Elf asked. "Thus far they have escaped us."
"They escape because they have no reason to risk themselves," Aradhil replied in a thoughtful tone, and an odd glitter shone in his eyes. Nuilandar frowned at that, wondering what plan unfolded in the other's mind. Of a sudden, the warden glanced sharply up at him, seeming to consider him closely. At length, he said slowly, "If we could present them with a reason to show themselves, we might well catch at least a few of them in the open long enough to shoot."
"And what reason might we give them?"
"Listen well, and if you would see an end to this, then do as I bid!"
Aragorn happened to be on watch when the warden and Nuilandar returned suddenly, and by the expressions on their faces he guessed that their rounds had not been without profit. Faladhros, who shared the burden of guard duty with him, dropped down from the branches above to meet them in a hurried conference, and the Ranger's eyes narrowed as he watched the other's face grow intent as he digested the news. After a few moments, Aradhil left the trio and climbed swiftly up into the higher branches, clearly gone in search of Legolas. Nuilandar and Faladhros spoke a few moments longer, and then the latter nodded sharply and began to make his way down to where the Ranger stood, while Nuilandar hurried to speak with Hithras and Dorothil. "They caught sight of the werewolves," Faladhros announced without preamble as he joined his mortal comrade.
"Have they now?" Aragorn replied. And at Faladhros' murmured affirmation, he continued, "Was there aught else?"
"Aradhil would try to draw them out, for it is not clear that aught was meant by this sighting other than to taunt us. But if they are willing to be seen, then it may be their undoing," the Elf responded, then added with a slight smile, "If we are successful, you may soon sleep easy upon the ground!"
"Valar willing," Aragorn said, feeling his lips twitch in a wry smile of his own. But his eyes were sharp and held no mirth as they gazed down at the forest floor. "But we have still their maker to discover."
"True. And I would that we knew what had pricked Dol Guldur's wrath," Faladhros replied.
"Mmm." The Ranger's noncommittal response went unheeded, and he was glad of that. For I think me that I know why the master of the tower seethes in this night! Even through the ruin of a cast-off leaving, the Dark Lord calls to others. He suppressed a shudder, feeling suddenly as if his own association with Gollum over the interminably long journey had somehow tainted him as well. At that moment, Legolas and Aradhil appeared, and the prince beckoned his men to gather round.
"You have all heard the news," the prince said quietly. "It remains only to decide how to act upon it. For three days we have hunted these werewolves, and for all that they have eluded us, it is clear that they hunt us in their own turn. More, their maker remains with them, or so we feel. I would be rid of them as swiftly as we may, so that we may turn to the maker, but such a sighting as this provides us with few clues as to the whereabouts of our enemies." Legolas paused, and it seemed to Aragorn that he strove with some distasteful pronouncement. "Our choices remain limited, and little changed: we may continue on as we have, and hope that our enemies choose to attack us sooner rather than later, or we may dare the valley." That elicited a certain unease, but no one spoke. Aragorn caught Aradhil staring at him oddly, as if awaiting some response, but the Ranger saw no point in reiterating his own position. Dol Guldur was vastly more powerful than any of them, and even now they dared much to remain at the very edge of its shadow. To approach it was, in Aragorn's mind, madness or else the worst sort of bravado. The kind that loses lives to no purpose!
"If I may speak," Dorothil said suddenly, and all eyes turned to him. "What choice have we but to remain here, skirting the edges of the vale? The werewolves cannot remain hidden forever, and a few more days or even weeks would make little difference. But to enter the valley we have no cause to do so, my prince, when by patience we may achieve our ends just as completely."
"But if we wait, we know not how many more werewolves may be made," Nuilandar pointed out. "Three we saw, and they a scouting party, I doubt not. Shall we risk an increase in their numbers? For patience may bring us face to face with too many enemies for seven to overcome."
"Then we should send for help," Dorothil replied. "We can afford a messenger." And though no one looked at him, Aragorn knew who would be sent in that eventuality.
"Can we?" Nuilandar challenged again, much to Aragorn's surprise. Usually, Nuilandar and Hithras were the two least likely to speak on any matter, short of a direct question. "Three days ago, our lord prince refused to leave another alone. We should have to send two men for the sake of safety, and that would leave us even more understrength. Nay, whatever must be done, it should be done quickly, if possible." There was a murmur of agreement from others, and the Ranger bit his lip gently, staring at Legolas. Speak up, Legolas! Well and good that others offer opinions, but speak your own so others know where you stand!
"I cannot countenance any suggestion that we move further into the valley," the prince said, darting a quick look at the warden, as if to invite comment. But Aradhil said naught, only listened in silence. "But it is true that we need to move quickly ere the threat multiplies. Somehow, we must try to force the werewolves to break cover."
"Then perhaps we ought to bait a trap, my lord prince," Aradhil spoke for the first time, and attention shifted to him.
"Using what, warden?" Faladhros asked, frowning. "Or shall we turn north for a time and seek an unwary deer?"
"A werewolf prefers live prey," Dorothil shook his head. "A slain deer might tempt a Warg, but not a werewolf."
"To lure a pack of them would take some doing," Nuilandar agreed.
"To lure them is but part of the task," Legolas cautioned. "We must still be able to kill what comes within bowshot. I think we may not have the means to effectively trap a group of them, for we have nothing to pique their interest."
"I should not say so, my prince," Aradhil replied.
"What mean you?" Dorothil asked, and there was a note of sudden, sharp suspicion in his voice.
"Werewolves have no loyalty to their progenitors' races: they attack and kill wolves and hounds if ever they find them. But even a wolf is of less interest than an Elf... or in this case, a Man." A dead silence fell, and a number of amazed stares fell upon the warden ere the members of the patrol turned to gaze at Aragorn. "They are a race not without cunning, werewolves, and they enjoy sport," the warden continued after a moment. "Surely a Ranger ought to prove lure enough for the lot of them."
"That is a jest in poor taste, Aradhil!" Dorothil snapped.
"I do not jest," the other replied steadily.
"You cannot ask that of him!" Legolas glared at the other. "If this is a part of your quarrel--"
"It is only logical, my prince, and you have said yourself that we cannot brook any further delay."
"This is madness! I refuse to consider anything of the sort!"
"May I remind your highness that we have an obligation to uncover what it is that haunts the forest? And that the Ranger has an obligation to serve? 'In any way at all,' were the words," Aradhil said, suddenly addressing Aragorn. "Is that not so?"
From the blank and puzzled looks that flitted round the circle of onlookers, it was clear that no one, even Legolas, had the faintest inkling what Aradhil referred to with his pointed question. But the Ranger's eyes narrowed, and a dangerous glimmer flickered in them as his gaze sharpened markedly.
"So I said indeed," he responded after a moment. "So I said, and thought my words spoken in confidence. Apparently, I was mistaken!"
"Then do you renounce your word?" Aradhil demanded.
"Aradhil!" Legolas hissed.
"No, I do not. But neither do I risk myself at your order, warden, for it was not to you that I made such an offer," Aragorn replied. "If, however, his highness decides that I am best used in this manner, then I shall do as he commands." The Ranger turned his attention to Legolas, whose eyes glittered greenly with anger in the dimness. "Consider it well, my prince, but not for too long, and tell me when you have decided." With a final frosty look for the warden, and a rather suspicious one for Nuilandar, who sat silent and refused to meet his gaze, Isildur's Heir caught hold of a branch overhead and climbed swiftly away from the group, leaving the Elves to what discussion they might muster. But it seemed that no one had anything further to say, and shame hung thick on the air.
"The two of you planned this," Legolas said in a low, angry undertone when he and Aradhil stood alone together a short while later. With Aragorn's departure, the group had swiftly broken up: Faladhros, Dorothil, and Hithras had left together and settled among the higher branches, for the latter two had guard duty. Nuilandar had gone off alone, for no one else was willing now to speak with him. That left Legolas alone with the warden, and the prince was uncertain whether wrath or shock still predominated in him. "How did you convince Nuilandar to support you in this?"
"He knew not for what I aimed. His part was simply to argue against further delay. But even had he known, he would have been obligated to support the idea," Aradhil said coolly. "This matter must end, my prince! You know this as well as any. Even the Ranger knows it. You cannot simply dismiss this idea."
"Can I not? Remember, warden, that yours is not the final word in this forest," Legolas replied tautly.
"Nay, necessity's is! To that even a prince must bow, and as I said, you know what necessity demands: a swift resolution, so that we may turn to the matter that brought us hither in the first place! The shadow of threat lies heavy on Mirkwood, and we still know not what brews at Dol Guldur."
"That may be so, but do not deny that your hatred of Aragorn played a large part in this! Would you have suggested any such plan were he not present to offer as a sacrifice?" the prince demanded.
"I would play the part myself if I thought it necessary," Aradhil shot back. "For you, I would do it! And if you wish, I shall keep the human company upon the ground, for doubtless he shall need a minder."
"And could I trust you not to shoot him in the back?" Legolas retorted, folding his arms across his chest. "I know not what oath Aragorn spoke, nor to whom, but it seems to me clear that you have conspired against him ere ever we set out. Your behavior disgusts me! I know not what has possessed you of late, but it ends tonight: henceforth, you will treat him with more courtesy than you used with Nuilandar this evening. And if Nuilandar calls you out, I shall witness that he had cause! And that if Aragorn does not claim his due first!"
Aradhil lifted his chin slightly, and his eyes glittered, but after a moment, he nodded. "As you command, my prince. May I take my leave, so that you may consider your course?"
"Do so," Legolas replied curtly, and turned away, unwilling to watch the other leave. For however wroth he was, still, Aradhil had long been a friend and a guide, and the prince could not understand the change that had come over the warden. I would not have thought him capable of stabbing a friend in the back like he did Nuilandar. Or me! It was painfully obvious in hindsight that Aradhil had let Nuilandar convince them all of the need to act swiftly so that his plan would not be rejected out of hand. And however tempting it might be to dismiss the scheme, Legolas could not deny that the warden was correct to say that they could not justify too lengthy a delay. And so now I must decide whether the chance of success is worth risking Aragorn's life! For that, Legolas could happily have called Aradhil out himself, but that that would solve nothing. The decision would remain before him, however he twisted to avoid it. I would not put Aragorn in such an untenable position, but can I truly afford to wait until our enemies decide the time is ripe? To do so would surrender the initiative to them, and if we are to succeed, we cannot allow them to dictate the terms of this battle. So the argument ran in circles in his head, and tripped constantly over the fact of Aradhil's hostility towards Aragorn, and the risk to the Ranger on whom any such trap would depend. For though he had made difficult decisions before, never had he had to make one amid the charged atmosphere that came of many conflicted loyalties.
But werewolves care not for such divisions, save that they can profit by them. And there is still the maker and the master of the tower. Closing his eyes, Legolas let that ill-will wash over him, and he shivered though the night was warm enough for March. Tendrils of malice groped and clawed at him, seeking a way forward into his father's kingdom. What does he seek there, the master of the tower? What could inspire such fearful interest? Whatever it was, it was clear that he could not permit the enemy to uncover such a secret. And so I must clear the forest of this threat and draw his attention away from the north! Reopening his eyes, he scanned the branches and spotted the Ranger easily enough. I do not want to do this !
But there was no real choice, and so Legolas began to climb up to tell the other of his decision.
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