6. Cave Air
"I cannot-" Belethar began to say, but the Ranger thrust a staff into his palm. He gripped it then from habit, and the chieftain pushed him forward. "-Mi'lord," he finished bitterly. The brown skin of his neck prickled from the cold and the fist bunched with cloth at his back. He still shrank from that troubling touch of callused knuckle.
"It is dark," Thorongil entreated, leaning forward to speak into the other's ear. A swath of bandage covered his companion's eyes. "You have a better chance than I." He would not risk a torch in here and they had not the time besides. Belethar took a step forward, sweeping the twisted cane across the scattered stones. They clattered noisily inside the void, an unwelcome accomplice to his tentative swipe. "Quietly!" the younger hissed, though such a warning was a waste.
Remembering his Ranger self, Belethar inhaled slowly, composing all his nerves. He had lost confidence; he was not the teacher he had once been. He touched a hand to the dry wall, yearning for assurance. He heard nothing: no soft squeak of bats, no faint drip of water. The only sound was the rushing air around the entrance.
Onwards they pressed, faster now.
They stumbled often, Belethar falling to his knees at the foot of unexpected piles only to be pulled to standing by the captain's stronger arm. Thorongil never relinquished his grip on the rough weave of tunic. Hot blood trickled down the blind man's shin, blotted in rivers against the deerhide breeches.
"Faster," the chieftain urged. "The air is bad." Indeed they could both feel it, hot and stifling. Belethar panted now, his movements slowing in his lethargy. The air here had not stirred in years. It was filling with foul gases, creations of the ages and the fires below the earth.
"I see light," Thorongil murmured, touching his companion's head so he could face the distant opening. The wind was not towards them, but they could feel the stronger air. The former Ranger forged new spirit, noting now the cooling wall and soldiering onwards. His strides were forceful and renewed.
The chilling cold was a welcome relief that burned their lungs as they collapsed upon the rocky hillside. Belethar sunk against a bleached stone cranny, head tilted back towards the angled sky.
"Are you still living?" the chieftain asked, resting a hand against his chest when he did not start to move. His guide looked up, gazing where his ear should be.
"Why are you doing this?" he asked tiredly, his voice expressionless.
"Doing what?" Thorongil pulled his hand away on instinct.
"This. It's not like you. You were never like this."
"Enough," he said, casting his eyes downward regretfully. He could not bring himself to look at him.
"Things change, Belethar." The name now sounded strange upon his tongue. "Maybe you just need me now. Did you ever think of that?"
The elder rose sharply to his feet, anger clenched within his tightened shoulders.
"I don't need you," he snapped, looking past him. Grabbing the hickory cane, he started down the treacherous course. It was a miracle he did not fall. His Captain looked on in saddened awe. "I never did," he shouted back.
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