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Roots: 7. In the Valley of the Shadow of Fear
The moon was sinking below the level of the canopy and Aragorn sat in silence, eyes closed, listening to the forest. Hours had passed since Aradhil's rather divisive plan had been broached, but as it had been clear that no better idea would save them from it, Legolas had adopted it with merciful swiftness. That in itself did little to calm the nerves of a Ranger about to offer himself up as werewolf fodder, but long years of practice and discipline fortunately took up the challenge. And if Legolas' speedy decision did not calm him, it at least allowed him to be rid of any unwarranted hopes of salvation. Werewolves, Isildur's Heir thought moodily. Eru above, why? Is there not enough cruelty in the world? Which question he knew he ought to know better than to ask, yet he could not quite refrain from doing so tonight. Perhaps had he had more faith in his partner, he would have faced the prospect of leaving the security of the heights with more equanimity, but given that it was Aradhil who would be watching his back, he found himself rubbing at his shoulder surreptitiously as he waited for the moon to set. The warden doubtless was no better pleased than he with the arrangement, but since Aradhil had brought the assignment on himself as the author of this plan, Aragorn could not muster much sympathy. More than that, he still seethed at the revelation that Aradhil had eavesdropped on his conversation with Thranduil, for such blatant disrespect was highly irregular among Elves. If only because his sovereign was involved, I would have thought he would obey common courtesy! the Ranger thought. But clearly where he was concerned, Aradhil had early on abandoned his manners so he supposed he ought not to be terribly shocked by anything the other did.
But such an attitude shall not help me to trust him tonight, when I shall most need to rely upon him! Aragorn thought, sternly taking himself to task for his oppressively black mood. In the end, Aradhil is not my enemy; the werewolves and their maker are. I should learn to follow my own advice!
"Even were I to lend you a bow, you would not remain above, would you?" a voice in the darkness sounded softly, and Aragorn tried unsuccessfully not to startle. Glancing upwards, he arched a severe brow at the prince, who stood silhouetted just above him in the branches. And though it was impossible to see the other's face, the Ranger could detect the worry in the other's tone.
"Do you ask me now to do so?" he demanded rather more sharply than was his wont. Do not change your mind now, after I have spent the past hours accepting your decision .
"No," Legolas replied without a trace of hesitation, much to Aragorn's relief. "But I would hear it from you."
That much reassurance Aragorn could grant him, in spite of his intention to avoid shielding the Elf from the burdens of command. And so he replied, "Then the answer is, as you guessed, no. I have not the skill of an Elf, to fight effectively from a tree's shelter. If I am to be of any use to you at all, I must be on the ground." The Ranger paused a moment, eyeing the prince. "Since we ask now questions whose answers we most likely know already, tell me: why will you remain above, my prince?"
The young Elf sighed softly. "I would I could join you, but though it pains me to admit it, my place is not upon the earth tonight. Aradhil is the better companion for one who shall face a werewolf on its own terms. He has hunted them before in Eregion and elsewhere, and he knows their ways far better than do I. 'Twould be an unwarranted risk to you to put myself in his place, and I could not justify risking myself in any case." A pause, and then, "I do not like this, though."
"Nor do I, but the warden is correct that we cannot afford a longer delay," Aragorn replied, pleased by the other's response. Thank the Valar he seems to have realized that he is a prince indeed, and that he must decide for himself whether to accept or reject Aradhil's advice! And I know well how hard it is to learn that others must go first at times, that one cannot always spare others. It was perhaps a lesson that came even harder to an Elf than to a Man. Among the Dúnedain, by the time a Ranger earned his star he had already learned its price, often many times over, so that when it came time to formally swear his oath of service, he could say truthfully, repeating the words that had sent many a Ranger to an untimely death: "Against the Darkness I pledge my life, and shall not grudge to spend it, nor to spend another's at need: for I am a Man, and death is my destiny." To which many a new-sworn Ranger would add, in fine northern tradition, "But by Eru, I am also free!" thereby signaling his defiance as well. Elves, on the other hand, being immortal and having little to do with death, were less willing to risk another's life if there were any way to avoid it. For no Elf had ever learned to understand the world-weariness that drove Men at last to accept the Gift of Ilúvatar. They might flee Middle-earth, but it was not life that they grew weary of but the burden of their own memories of Arda unstained. Or in this case, less stained! Aragorn thought as the prince came to settle before him. Even Elrohir and Elladan tended to shake their heads over such customs as a Ranger's oath-taking, and Aragorn knew few other Elves whose experience with Men could rival the twins'. Legolas' taut and worried tone thus came as no surprise to Aragorn, who needed not to see the prince's face to know that the Elf looked at him now with eyes that saw too clearly Aragorn's own mortality.
"Nuilandar offered to stand with you, you know," Legolas said just then, and was slightly too cavalier in his tone to fool the Ranger.
"And what said you?" I hope you told him 'no!'
"That a guilty conscience favors the enemy in battle," the prince replied. "And there is tension enough between you and Aradhil. I think we need not invite more ill-feeling by putting Nuilandar and the warden together with only a Ranger between them!"
Aragorn gave a soft snort at that. "True enough. I suppose, though, that a pair of quarreling Elves and one beleaguered Man would make attractive prey for a pack of werewolves."
"Doubtless that is so. Perhaps I ought to reconsider the idea," the prince acknowledged wryly, and then fell silent for a time. When he spoke again, though, his voice was somber as a winter's day. "You would not lack for partners, should you desire another. Even Aradhil accompanies you by his own offer." That was certainly unexpected, and Aragorn could not but feel a certain gratification at the revelation, though he found it all too likely that guilt lay behind most such offers. Still, the fact that Aradhil had put himself forward caught his attention, and the Ranger frowned.
"May I ask after the warden's motives, my prince?"
"I cannot say that I know them with certainty. He said that for me, he would take this risk on himself, and I doubt not that even were you not present, he would say so and mean it," Legolas replied heavily, and Aragorn winced slightly under cover of darkness. "But all know that he hates werewolves, and so his willingness to join you may have more to do with Eregion than with either of us."
"Mmm hmm," Aragorn considered this information in light of other bits and pieces that he had picked up from a week's worth of silent observation. After several moments, he asked, "Has Aradhil any family left?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Because of his roots in Eregion, and because, as I said, his hatred of Men and even of werewolves feels too personal," the Dúnadan replied. And there is something about him that makes me doubt even that he is Sindarin by birth.* But that is less important than other things. When Legolas hesitated, he added quickly, "You need not tell me if that would violate his trust, but since we are to be the bait for this trap, I would rather know now whether he shall be able to control himself."
"He shall control himself," Legolas replied grimly. "There shall be no stray arrows tonight!" Aragorn gave a soft grunt at that and let drop his questions. Legolas knew perfectly well that his question had naught to do with the score between himself and Aradhil, and if he were still unwilling to answer, then a wise Man would let well enough alone. But silence, too, is a response, Aragorn thought, and wondered whether his present suppositions as to the fate of Aradhil's kin were closer to the mark than he liked to think.
Just then, a whistle sounded, cunningly wrought to seem as a nightingale, and Aragorn firmly quelled the sharp spike of anxiety that made itself felt at the noise. That would be Hithras and Dorothil returning, and that meant that it was time he and Aradhil took a walk together. Legolas rose with him, and the prince laid a hand upon his shoulder. "Fortune favor you, son of Arathorn."
"I hope that she shall. Should she choose to withhold her favor, however, send word north to Rivendell, to my brothers and father, if you will. They will see that the news spreads," Aragorn replied, and sensed the other's uneasiness at his request. In truth, it was not strictly necessary that he make such a request, for a Ranger in the lonely Wild had other ways of insuring that news of his demise reached others. It was a standing arrangement between himself and Halbarad that if either went for a year without at least sending word, that the other could assume the worst and notify friends and family. But in times like these, he would not leave his people in doubt for so long, for they would need to choose another to lead them. And although Elrond had long had in his keeping his farewell to his mother until Gilraen's death some years ago, it was the twins who had in their possession the other letters. The one to Arwen, Valar forbid she need ever open it! And the one for Halbarad. Werewolves out of Dol Guldur . Damn Sauron to his own foul abysses! Aragorn took a moment to indulge in a silent stream of vituperative epithets that would have done an Elf proud in its creative variation ere he silenced the voice of protest with oppressive finality.
"Should it prove necessary, then," Legolas responded into the silence that had fallen, blissfully unaware of the trend of his companion's thoughts. At that moment a second silhouette appeared from on high, and the prince continued, "We shall be ready should the werewolves take an interest in you. Take no unnecessary chances, either of you!"
"As you wish, my prince," Aradhil replied in a low voice.
"Go carefully," Aragorn said, and received a nod ere Legolas quickly climbed away, leaving Ranger and warden together.
"After you," Aradhil invited coolly, indicating that Aragorn should descend first. And since he could say nothing that could not be misconstrued as pointless bickering, the Ranger simply drew an unobtrusively deep breath and climbed slowly into the shadow beneath the trees.
Although a Sylvan Elf is most at home in the trees, it is as simple a matter to pass unseen upon the ground as it is in the heights. Aradhil had been a forester for lo these many centuries, but he had cut his teeth tracking earthbound enemies on the fields of Eriador, mastering the art in Eregion. Millennia of experience informed him that the werewolves were near, keeping pace with them, but as yet unwilling to show themselves. Perhaps they suspected a trap, but Aradhil would have bet his bow that whatever their suspicions, it was the entertainment of the chase that kept them still within the shadows. To his right and slightly behind him, his partner in this endeavor paused suddenly, and Aradhil suppressed his irritation as he turned quickly to gaze back at him and so caught sight of a fleeting shade against the shadowed eaves. A shadow itself, it might well have passed unnoticed but that the quick gleam of yellow eyes betrayed its true nature ere it disappeared once more. The Elf let a hiss escape, since their purpose was to attract attention without being too obvious about that fact, and stepped down hard on a surge of annoyance with the human's perception. Aragorn shook his head slightly, as if with disgusted certainty, and whispered, "They toy with us!"
"Let them! 'Twill be their undoing in the end," Aradhil replied tautly. The Ranger did not contest that, only stared at him a moment ere he gestured for the warden to continue onward and Aradhil permitted himself a silent curse. Of course it only made sense for an Elf to take the lead in such darkness as this: elvish senses were better, more likely to perceive hidden threats and to read the treacherous landscape. Aragorn knew this quite well, but his pointed insistence upon following Aradhil smacked of none too subtle distrust. Not that the warden was particularly eager to have a mere mortal guarding his back either, which did not help the situation in the least. Nevertheless, he was willing to accept his unhappiness if only the Ranger suffered his share of it as well. And a werewolf will sense the tension between us, which should make us nearly irresistible I hope! It was difficult to predict a werewolf, for they were cunning, having a man's intelligence and a wolf's sharp and wary senses. Far more dangerous than a Warg, even, the terror the fell beasts could project would wax the greater as the night wore on. And contrary to popular rumor, the full moon had naught to do with transformative abilities. But whenever a werewolf was beneath its birth moon, then was its power at its height. Unfortunately, they could be certain of but one moon and werewolf on that account, and Aradhil could not hazard a guess as to whether any of the others might have been made on the fourth night of the waning gibbous.
The reason for that uncertainty on the warden's part was perhaps even more disturbing than the effect itself: for Aradhil's senses were clouded not only by the tower's proximity, but also by the interference of the maker who hunted tonight with the pack. Many times more dangerous than a mere werewolf, the sorcerer's presence was unusually strong tonight and tended to obscure even the collective presence of his creatures. Thus the warden found himself unable to judge the relative strengths of the pack-members tonight, which was both frustrating and frightening. It had been quite long since Aradhil had been so vulnerable, and he wondered whether that might not account for his failure to notice the scout a few moments ago. But surely, then, Aragorn ought also to suffer some diminishment of his senses, yet he caught sight of that werewolf before I did . For the first time, Aradhil regretted that he did not know the other's habits and aptitudes better, for then he might know whether the Ranger, too, groped in the darkness after their foes. It should have been a foregone conclusion that he did, for in Aradhil's experience, Men tended to wilt before too strong a menace unless they had numbers on their side. Easily swayed and overborne by the malice of the Enemy, it was not safe to rely upon them overmuch. But Aragorn had yet to wither beneath the psychic onslaught, and perhaps because his senses were less acute in the first place, the tower and the maker affected him less noticeably. Perhaps to him this is nearly normal, Aradhil thought, and shuddered slightly at the very idea.
They came now to a slight break in the line of trees, to a point where the land began to slope sharply downwards, and there the two of them paused. The plan, as conceived by Legolas, was to let the two of them go on a perimeter patrol, just as others had done in the past several days. This would likely help to allay any suspicions the werewolves might entertain as to the purpose of a Man and an Elf leaving the safety of the group. But they were not to tread the slopes. "'Twould be folly," the prince had stated firmly, pinning both Aradhil and Aragorn under his green stare. "The risk is great enough as it is. We can do this again if we must, much though we would all prefer to see an end to this tonight." Man and Elf had bowed to the prince's wishes and gone their separate ways to wait out the moon and the return of the scouts. Now, though, as Aragorn drifted forward to stand even with him and gaze down into the midnight gloom, Aradhil sensed that for once their thoughts ran in parallel. Well and good that they could do this again tomorrow evening, and the next, and the next, until at last the werewolves showed themselves. But such waiting would only give their foes a chance to breed more of the foul beasts, and that would defeat the purpose of their plan. The warden glanced at the Ranger, and Isildur's Heir returned the look, both of them considering each other, though a Man's eyes could not have seen much more than a barely defined silhouette. Nevertheless, by some instinct it seemed, the Ranger looked him full in the face, and his eyes glittered briefly silver as the stars reflected in them through a gap in the canopy. A ready if wary acceptance greeted the warden's unspoken query, and after a few moments, Aradhil nodded sharply and lightly touched the other's shoulder. Come! Follow me! that touch said, and Aragorn obeyed.
"What are they doing?" Dorothil demanded in a tone of hushed alarm from his position in the mid-branches of the canopy. Beside him, Mirkwood's youngest prince spat a soft curse into the darkness.
"It seems that they grow weary of this already," Legolas managed after a moment, and his tone was acid. But Dorothil heard also the fear that laced his words, and knew that the prince wanted nothing so much as to drag the pair back onto level ground. But if this trap were to work, it must seem that the two walked alone. And although the role of the rest of the patrol was to follow the lead of their earthbound companions, Legolas had not expected that the pair of them would take matters this far into their own hands. But perhaps I ought to have! he thought grimly. For whatever his own authority, both Aragorn and Aradhil had been captains for many years, and if Aragorn were incomparably younger than either of them, in important ways, his experience was no less extensive than Aradhil's. Legolas' brothers and father, not to mention the warden himself, had all waxed eloquent about a good commander's creative instincts and willingness to take calculated risks as they presented themselves. Clearly, this was one such instance, and if Ranger and Warden judged it best to risk the slopes, even Legolas might have hesitated to gainsay that instinct had he had the opportunity. But I have not the chance, and can but follow! And so, swallowing another round of curses, he pursed his lips and signaled the others to follow, and further, to change formations to better accommodate the sloping terrain.
I hope only that you know what you do now! he thought with grim anxiety. For if I should lose either of you . He did not finish that thought even to himself, instead hurrying forward into the vale of shadows.
Once, when Aragorn had been much younger, he and Denethor of Minas Tirith had managed to become separated from the rest of the company in the forests of Ithilien. This despite the fact that the two of them were the ranking officers and ought to have known better than to stay away too long. Denethor likely still denied to this day that their absence had been in any way due to his own actions in following Aragorn, but the Ranger cared not what the lord steward might say of the incident. At the time, however, it had been quite dark as they had made their way back towards the camp, and since the two of them had never learned to like each other much, there had been a certain added tension to creeping back home together through the orc-infested woods. Denethor had not liked him any better for being the more experienced forester, either, and the feel of the other's hand on his back as he had guided Ecthelion's son through the brush had been uncomfortable. And now I know the other side of that coin! the Ranger thought, for it was Aradhil who guided him now, and he who followed, drawn on by feel alone. An elvish upbringing helped immensely, but still, he was essentially blind. Although he could probably have managed to navigate this path alone, by touch and kinesthetic intuition, he could not have done so with an Elf's speed, and he knew he would have been noisier. Still, it was very odd to feel Aradhil's back tense beneath his palm, to have so visceral a confirmation of the other's fear, and he wondered whether his own fear distracted the warden.
Valar keep us both focused, he prayed, and glanced slowly about. Not in the hopes of seeing anything, but in order to listen and keep track of any sounds that might move with them. Every so often, he would hear something, and he was certain that it was no accident that the noise stopped almost immediately. The warden, too, was not unaware of such signs, but they were never close enough or continuous enough to do more than remind them of their enemies' presence. As if we need the reminder! Perhaps because robbed of his vision in this murk, Aragorn had begun to be aware of something akin to sound that whispered and nibbled in the depths of his mind, seeming to prod at the sensitive point just at the base of his skull, and he gritted his teeth against it. Is this the whispering that the others speak of? he wondered. If there were words in that incessant distraction, he could not distinguish them, though his mind continued to try to find a language to fit the whispers despite his efforts to ignore the phenomenon. Usually, he could choose what he would heed and what he would not without overmuch difficulty, but this was not a physical sound so far as he could tell. The closest comparison that he had was bearing up to Galadriel's eyes and the pressure of the mind behind them.
Of a sudden, Aradhil paused, and Aragorn tightened his grip on the hilt of his sword. Darker than pitch it remained, but the Ranger felt a thrill of dread run through him as he sensed the stillness, and he felt his hackles rise in response to many unseen but watching eyes. By the feel of the air, they had come to a more open space, and beyond them and before them came a strong impression of evil. Aradhil had chosen to halt while still close by a couple of trees and some rocks, or so Aragorn's questing fingers told him. The feel of the tree nearest him made it a nargaladh, and at least he knew now the reason for that name. The warden glided right, and his left hand brushed against Aragorn's chest, pushing him slightly to the left, and signaling also for him to stand ready. The Ranger reached quietly into his belt pouch and he drew a deep breath, knowing that the moment was come. The werewolves had at last grown tired of hunting, and meant now to enjoy the kill if they could. Still, Man and Elf made no move yet, awaiting some further proof, concentration honed to a fine point as they sought a sign .
Something moved in the darkness. Aragorn could not see it, but he felt it nonetheless, and quick as lightning he struck the pad of a tinderbox and lunged at the tree. Immediately, light flared painfully bright as the resin-soaked wood caught and flame spread over the trunk. There came a chorus of protesting snarls and howls, and the Ranger and the warden stared across the short distance at several bristling wolf shapes. More lingered just out of sight in the shadows, invisible save for their eyes, and Aragorn felt that eerie, pre-battle calm descend upon him as all other considerations faded before the task at hand. Beside him, Aradhil had his blades out and a look of unearthly fury on his face that ought to have warned away any sane creature. But werewolves were not sane, strictly speaking, and with a barked command, the foremost rank sprang at the pair. Far stronger than Wargs, it was a nearly impossible task to engage more than one at a time, but necessity mothered many other things besides invention. Aragorn spared no energy on conscious evaluations, trusting trained instinct and sheer ferocity to carry the day, for outnumbered and overmatched as he was, he had no other choice.
He caught one wolf-form on the point of his sword and the scream that came back was half-human. Even in its death-throes, though, the werewolf sought him, and its claws raked across the Ranger's chest painfully even as he twisted and let momentum help rid him of the carcass. A well-placed kick momentarily turned another of the beasts aside long enough for him to slash at it on the follow-up strike, and the shiver that ran through his arms spoke of a fairly clean hit. Something whistled through the air, and before he could blink another werewolf fell, sprawling as its momentum carried it towards him with an elvish arrow in its side. The Ranger had to dodge the beast's paroxysms, but fortunately, another elvish arrow felled the wounded werewolf before it could turn to attack him again. A flash of movement in the trees marked an elven archer's path, and the storm of howling warned that the werewolves were well aware now of the trap. Though still hard-pressed, Aragorn had time to watch in horror as some of the wolf-forms shifted to mostly human, though outsized claws gleamed where hands ought to be and the werewolves began to climb after the Elves with astonishing speed.
"Aradhil!" Aragorn snapped at the warden, and the Elf shot him a fierce glare.
"I see them!" the warden replied, and as if to underscore that comment, one of his blades whistled overhead and a half-changed werewolf screamed as the dagger embedded itself in its back. But the creature did not die immediately, and it launched itself from the tree at Aradhil. Aragorn managed an overhand slash that opened the creature's gut, but had no further time to spare from his own defense. The arrows from on high grew a bit more sparse as the Elves were forced to divert some of their attention to the wolves that had followed them into the trees, which left the remainder of the pack more freedom to maneuver. Two of them barreled into the Ranger, who impaled one but had then to deal with the other with naught but his hands. Aragorn cursed sharply as the werewolf's clawed and fanged weight landed atop him, and he quickly swung his legs up to circle the creature's body, trying to prevent those vicious hind-claws from finding his stomach. The fore-claws, though, sank into his back and shoulders, for he had to use both hands to hold the snapping teeth back away from his throat and face. Desperate, the Ranger writhed and managed to roll the pair of them so that he had the werewolf on its back. That let him use one hand to hold the head down, and he swiftly reached for a dagger. Just at that moment, however, the werewolf shifted forms, and Aragorn found himself staring down at a woman. Young she seemed, and who knew how she had been caught, but despite the danger, he hesitated a moment, brought up short by the habits of a lifetime.
With a ghastly grin, she caught his wrist and the fingers that encircled his forearm had claws that dug into his flesh. The other hand blocked his strike, and of a sudden he was once again on his back, one arm trapped across his body by the other's weight, and gazing up into glowing yellow eyes. A low, throaty growl blew fetid breath in his face, and the werewolf bent close, letting him feel her strength as she scented his blood, and Aragorn shivered, seeking desperately purchase enough to turn them again. His assailant, however, seemed more amused than alarmed, and with a suddenness that caught him completely by surprise, she leaned down and kissed him! The taste of carrion in his mouth made him want to gag, but shock held him immobile for precisely three heartbeats. And then revulsion set in with gut-wrenching vengeance. Snarling himself now, he arched his back and at the same time bit down hard on the other's lips. The werewolf jerked, and that let him shift his weight just enough to topple the other. Spitting blood, the Ranger turned over and grabbed his sword, yanking it free of the other body and continuing to roll in that direction, away from his attacker. Almost as one, the two of them came to a crouch: Aragorn on one knee with his sword angled before him to ward off attack, and the werewolf in an oddly wolfish pose for a human being, her long hair hanging round a face contorted now with unholy glee. Yellow eyes glowed fiercely with that particular madness that ought properly to reduce a sane man to tears; blood smeared her lips, and she lunged at him.
But she never reached him as a second lithe form dropped down precisely on her back. A horrible shriek rose above the din, and Legolas jerked his blade from between the werewolf's vertebrae with admirable composure. The prince shot the Ranger a hard-eyed glance, then snapped, "Up! This is not over!" Aragorn obeyed, still feeling rather queasy, but with Legolas now on the ground, priorities shifted. Between himself and the warden, they had to keep the prince safe. And where is Aradhil ?
"Legolas!" The warden's call caught their attention, and prince and Ranger turned to see Aradhil clamber out from under a drooping wolf form, swearing as a claw nicked him. The warden darted a glance round the battlefield, and in the red light of the burning nargaladh Aragorn saw that both Dorothil and Nuilandar had also come down from the trees. From the look of them, the two Elves had fought their own battles while Aragorn and Aradhil had been too busy to notice. As Dorothil fell back a few paces, glancing warily all about, mistrusting the sudden stillness, the Ranger could see the claw marks on his face, and the Elf walked with a slight limp. Aradhil looked about as battered as Aragorn felt, but the warden's eyes blazed with some unidentifiable emotion that held him yet at the ready, as if the pain were but a goad. For his part, the Ranger had his pride, and beyond that, he knew very well that the werewolves were not vanquished yet. They have drawn off, gone back to their maker and who knows where he waits? Eru above, this pack is not the work of a handful of nights! They could kill us all if they wished to use the lot of them, so why do they wait? Or is that the reason? Who baited what trap? For now that the Elves had been obliged to show themselves and to fight on the ground, Aragorn doubted they would be able to return to the trees for at least a night or two while they recovered. And so we are more vulnerable than ever before easy prey indeed!
"Has anyone a head count?" the Ranger asked wearily, pressing down hard just above the bone-deep cuts on his left wrist to slow the flow of blood. Legolas grimaced as his eyes roved over the carnage.
"Twelve so far. But several escaped. At least as many as seven perhaps ten or twelve more, even," the prince replied unhappily. Glaring suddenly at the Ranger and warden, he added sharply, "You two could have been killed!"
"That we knew already, my prince," Aradhil replied, cocking a blood-smeared dark brow at the other. "'Twas a worthwhile risk, under the circumstances."
"I thought we had agreed not to dare the slopes!"
"This is not the time for such arguments," Aragorn interjected, and received matching glares from both prince and warden. "No one has perished yet, and Valar willing none shall. But we have learned more than we might have otherwise: some of those werewolves awaited us here, and might have circled behind us had we not walked into their line. And there are far more of them than we had guessed. Although I cannot help but feel used doubly, I will count twelve dead werewolves a worthy exchange for what we have learned. And if we are fortunate, it may be that the maker shall be weakened by their loss, for he must have spent much power to make them."
"True enough," Dorothil said, coming to his support as he shot a dark look at the surrounding forest, "though I fear I sense no abatement of the maker's evil. He may be more powerful than we suspected. But we must leave off pursuit for the night: some are injured here, and we cannot afford to lose anyone," the Elf said, casting significant glances at Aradhil and Aragorn who bore evidence of more prolonged contact with the werewolves.
"You speak rightly. Come, you two! And Dorothil, be certain that Nuilandar is well. Faladhros, Hithras and I shall take the watches for the rest of the night and tomorrow," Legolas ordered, and Dorothil managed a bow ere he limped off to speak to Nuilandar.
Legolas stood with his back to a large and knobby tree, frowning pensively. Above him in the trees stood Faladhros, and Hithras was on the point, circling ever about them in an effort to watch the most probable lines of approach. Fear still hung heavy in the air, and the scent of blood, human, elvish and otherwise, was pervasive and disturbing. Indeed, however much he might have liked to rest, Legolas was glad that his eyes were needed to watch the forest, for he was not entirely certain he would have been able to control his dreams tonight. With a sigh, he glanced down and gazed wearily at the huddled, sleeping forms of the four who had fought hardest on the ground, and no one grudged them their dreamless repose. Dorothil and Nuilandar were not badly hurt, but they would feel the scrapes in the morning in spite of elvish resilience. Aradhil and Aragorn were another story entirely: clawed and cuffed, the pair of them were all over bruises and some of the claw marks were deep. Indeed, the warden had taken a bite high on the calf that had come perilously close to finding a hamstring, and he had a set of puncture wounds along his neck, where claws had dug in and caught on the clavicle. Aragorn's shoulders would be sore for weeks, and he was lucky to have the use of his left hand still, for the werewolf's claws had scraped against the tendons and even nicked an artery. The marks on his chest were superficial by comparison, and he had suffered no broken ribs, fortunately. But although both Ranger and warden swore that they would be able to fight if the need arose, Legolas did not want to rely upon them so soon after this costly engagement.
Aradhil was more right than he knew when he argued that we could not afford to wait. We may already have waited too long, who knows? the prince brooded. I wonder whether I ought to risk sending Aragorn back to my father to tell this tale, for it is clear to any fool that these werewolves would have been used against us sooner or later. One does not breed a company of them lightly, after all! Ilúvatar preserve us, how many more are there? But another glance down at the sleeping human decided him against it. Even if he slept the night, Aragorn would not be able to move with his customary efficiency or grace, and would be an easy mark alone. Despite the fact that keeping him here would guarantee that he would face the werewolves again, he would still have a better chance of surviving the encounter with another to stand at his back. Even if that other is Aradhil! Legolas thought, his gaze roving over the four to settle on the warden. They did not do too badly together, all things considered. Perhaps it needed but the proper ah 'inspiration' to make them forget their quarrel for a time. At least to make Aradhil forget, for his grievance with the werewolves runs far deeper than any he might have with a mortal. Even in sleep, the warden's dark eyes betrayed the shades of days past, and Legolas wondered what dreams he wrought. Dreams of vengeance, most likely. Thank the Valar it was not he whom that she-wolf attacked!
In his mind's eye, the prince saw once more the werewolf that had nearly brought down Aragorn, and even at a remove, the Elf felt nauseated. Five hundred years on the hunt had failed to touch the prince so closely as the sight of that obscene embrace, and he shuddered to think what the Ranger had felt. Aragorn had staggered up with a look of absolute disgust on his face, and Legolas had been taken aback by the hatred that had blazed in his grey eyes. Fortunately, that fire had died swiftly enough as the confrontation had ended, and the Dúnadan had quickly regained control of himself. Had it been Aradhil, there might well have been no restraining him at all, and Legolas shivered once more for an old friend's pain. Glancing across the clearing, he could still see the body--lithe, pale, and lifeless, with eyes too gold even in the glow of the slow-burning nargaladh. He had heard that werewolves were voracious, and that they loved sport, but he had never thought to see that malicious playful streak so graphically demonstrated. I wonder who she was before she was made? We shall never know, I suppose. Someone's wife or daughter taken in a day raid from the edges of Dale, or perhaps even from the south, from the furthest tip of Rohan. 'Tis impossible to say with certainty, but assuming we live through this night and the next, and return safely home, we shall have to inquire of the Bardings at least.
Someone stirred beside him, and he glanced down to see Dorothil blink to clear his mind of dreams and sit up carefully. "What matter, Dorothil?" the prince asked, watching as the other climbed to his feet, favoring his right leg.
"I can dream no more, my prince," the other replied, carefully stepping past the bodies of sleeping comrades. "Sleep is nearly as exhausting as waking life this close to the watcher's shadow, but it is the maker who eclipses my dreams."
"I wonder, then, that the others do not wake," Legolas said softly.
"Who can say? I have always been more wayward by night than by day," Dorothil said, proffering a slight smile. "'Tis the starlight on the river of my soul, or so I have been told."
"By your mother, I take it."
"My aunt," Dorothil admitted, then paused, seeming to seek the best way to speak his piece. "The maker breeds more than werewolves, my prince, he breeds questions in my mind and I would find answers to them if I could. May I ask you somewhat?"
"Of course," Legolas answered, curious.
"Has Aradhil said aught of late, my prince, of this maker? Or of the master of Dol Guldur?"
"He warns that he remembers a similar presence at the Dagorlad," Legolas replied. "But he will say no more--for fear, I think, of misleading me."
"Mmm yes, that I understand. For I, too, have my doubts, and a mistake might be costly. Or rather more costly, I suppose," the other amended, glancing down at his three injured companions. "But it comes to me, my prince, that the two--maker and master--grow less distinct as time passes. And I wonder whether they might not be the same being, wearing two different faces, even as Dol Guldur has many different aspects."
"You believe so?" the prince asked, interest sharpening.
"I grow to believe it. Either the same being, or two beings of the same kind, but the maker is in the ascendant, whether he be mask or his own entity. 'Tis somewhat like the feel of twins, I fancy or at least so I thought in my dreams tonight," Dorothil sighed.
"You may be right, and I wonder that no one else has thought of this. But if they are the same being, then why should the master of the tower come to hunt us himself? What have we with us that would peak his interest enough to employ at least one freshly made werewolf? Or was it happenstance?"
"I know not, my prince. Stranger coincidences have occurred in the past. But I can think of one thing that we have that he has not." And this time, Dorothil turned to consider grimly the sleeping Ranger. Legolas sucked in a breath, grimacing, and the other Elf arched a dark brow at him. "'Tis possible, my prince. The memory of our enemy is no less long than ours. Longer, even, and perhaps all that saves us is that Aragorn is not his forefathers, whereas there is a good chance that we deal with some of the self-same enemies who were present when the Dark Lord was cast down."
"I had not thought of that," Thranduil's son murmured.
"'Tis perhaps not surprising, for you are young, my prince," Dorothil replied graciously. "You have not the memory of Númenor to compare to the present."
"So I am told, and so I am," Legolas replied with a flash of a smile. "Well, young or old, we shall soon discover the truth." And Valar willing, we shall even live to tell of it!
*"Unfinished Tales," p. 246. In the "History of Galadriel and Celeborn" one notes that Eregion was a primarily (but not exclusively) Noldorin settlement, with Sindarin and Silvan Elves providing diversity.
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