Chapter 16: Aragorn
Still a few more hours before dawn, Elladan noted, throwing more sticks onto the low burning fire. His eye hurt where Legolas had punched him, he rubbed it gently, thinking that there might well be a bruise tomorrow. He felt a moment's relief that they had subdued Legolas so quickly and that he did not have his long white knives close to hand, or his bow. Elladan was not the only one with minor injuries; at the edge of the camp Glorfindel was dabbing a cloth to his split lip, and Aragorn was touching his side gingerly and flexing his arm as if checking for broken ribs.
Elladan sighed and squinted, wondering if he had a black eye or if it merely felt like one. He glanced across to where Elrohir still sat, drawing a whetting stone along Aícanaro's dark blade and Elladan had the strangest sensation that the sword seemed to uncoil and stretch languidly. He had felt such things before but the sword's sentience still made the hair on his scalp prickle. Elrohir alone seemed to have escaped injury, but now and again his steel-grey eyes flicked up and fastened upon the fevered Woodelf. The flames reflected eerily in Elrohir's eyes and Elladan could not read the strange expression on his face. There had been that moment of tenderness between Legolas and Elrohir but how quickly that had turned into something other, something that horrified Elrohir and he had pushed away from Legolas as if afraid.
There was movement beside him and broke into his musings. Looking up, he saw that Aragorn had come to join him. He watched the Man settle and wince slightly, wrapping his cloak around himself for the night air was cold and the sky clear. Rummaging for a moment, Aragorn pulled his long thin pipe from somewhere between the folds of his cloak and tunic and drew out his pipeweed pouch.
Elladan lifted an eyebrow disapprovingly. 'Adar would not like to see you with that,' he cautioned. And then with a slight smile, 'Nor Arwen.' For he and Elrohir had long known the secrets of the Man they owned even now as brother
'She likes the smell of it,' Aragorn grinned irrepressibly and Elladan was glad for too often of late had Aragorn looked pensive and drawn when Arwen was mentioned. Now the Man struck his tinderbox. A flame flared and then died back, leaving a smaller flame which he brought to the bowl of the pipe and pressed his lips together to make that funny put-put noise, drawing in air to light the pipe, and that Elladan had grown to associate entirely with Aragorn. Aragorn settled himself comfortably, leaning on one elbow and stretched out his long legs and the bitter-fragrant smoke teased Elladan's nose.
Gimli snored suddenly and rolled over to his side, cradling his head more comfortably on his strong arm. In the firelight his glossy chestnut hair caught the light strangely, like fireflies had alit in his hair. He wore his chain mail beneath his tunic and cloak even as he slept and Elladan wondered at the hardiness and strength in that sturdy form.
Prodding the low fire, he stared for a moment into the flames. Gimli had kindled the fire and Elladan wondered if that was why it burned hotter though its flames were low and seemed to burn less brightly, as if they sensed somehow the need for secrecy and warmth.
'You still intend to leave at dawn then?' Aragorn asked, though he knew Elladan and Elrohir had already delayed longer than they had intended. Their errand was too important, and already they were later than their father and Mithrandir would want. Galadriel had to be warned and her wisdom sought before the year waned.
'Winter is deep upon Caradhras,' Elrohir said pointedly from the fireside.
Elladan agreed; any later and Winter might stop them from crossing by the Redhorn Gate, and they dared not go through the Gap of Rohan. Not with Gandalf's news of Saruman's betrayal. And they would not risk Moria, nor even speak of it. Elladan stared into the flames, remembering. Only once had the brothers passed through the Pit, Aragorn with them and the memory of it weighed upon them all. He glanced across at Aragorn who shivered slightly as if his thoughts followed the same path and pulled his cloak more closely about himself.
'You know our errand,' Elladan said to him. 'So you know too that we have already delayed too long. You will have charge of Legolas then.' He looked up questioningly. 'Will you be all right?'
Aragorn lifted an eyebrow and looked faintly exasperated.
Elladan gave a short laugh and held up his hands. 'Very well. Yes, I know. But it still feels like you are my little brother. It is hard to see you like this.' He took in the tall lean frame, the beginning of grey in the Man's hair and a pang of loss hit him and he almost gasped with it. It was too little time, too short the span of a Man's life.
Elladan felt Elrohir's impatient watchfulness shift to concern but neither spoke. They had lived with it for too long, seen too many Men fall. They had both loved Arathorn.
Unaware, Aragorn merely smiled in slight exasperation. 'Little brother?' he asked wryly and then drew on his pipe and then a moment later, reached for his pack and shoved it behind himself, shifted it about one handed until it was comfortable. Then he leaned back again, resting against it.
'How is Legolas?' he asked, with a nod towards the unconscious Elf and Elladan was pulled back into the present.
'If the Cristôl has taken hold, it will begin fighting the poison and then he will begin vomiting, trying to purge himself of it,' he said with a sigh. Then he remembered the Dwarf's strange protectiveness and simple ingenuity and it heartened him. 'Gimli braided Legolas' hair to keep it out of the way,' he said with a smile. 'And he scraped a shallow pit here. Look how he left the soil loose so we can quickly cover anything he brings up.'
Aragorn raised his eyebrows. 'I wonder if this will be a friendship such as Narvi and Celebrimbor.'
Elladan smiled. 'I cannot imagine Legolas in a forge or making anything more difficult than an arrow,' he said lightly. 'But a friendship between these two might bind their two peoples in the dreadful times ahead. For War is coming, no doubt.'
'An alliance between Elves and Dwarves in the North?' mused Aragorn. 'Well worth the experiment.'
'Who would have thought the old conjurer could be so right,' Elladan said drily.
Aragorn gave him an answering smile. Silently he smoked his pipe and Elladan followed his gaze to where Legolas lay in a feverish, sweaty daze. No doubt locked by the drug, Cristôl into a dream of Phellanthir and the Nazgûl, convinced that he had abandoned Rhawion to a terrible doom where he was forever trapped in the Dark, Nazgûl's prey....
Elladan shuddered and looked with compassion upon Legolas. Blood spotted the white linen strips they had used to dress the self-inflicted wound on Legolas' chest. Aragorn had been the one to stitch the cut for he had a neat hand. Elladan noted too that the edges of the dressing were already wet with sweat, and the Woodelf's hair was damp; the one thick braid that Gimli had tied it into was pulled to the side but tendrils had escaped and were plastered across his face. Beneath his eyelids, his eyes moved rapidly as if he were watching something distressing in his heavy, drugged sleep.
Aragorn shifted slightly and took his pipe from between his lips and looked at it. Then he said, as though casually, 'I know Cristôl is the antidote to Lhach-Rhaw ... But you are sure that this is the right course for him?'
Elladan glanced up and found the Man's eyes upon him, concerned, questioning, uncertain.
'I know that Elrond created it, but he counsels careful use of it,' Aragorn went on and his eyes glanced briefly at Elrohir and then back to Elladan. 'He says that you should give only a small amount, and sometimes we should not use it at all but let the poisons purge naturally.'
And Elrohir had often argued with Elrond that they should use it more frequently despite the after-effect, Elladan thought. It was yet another way for father and son to fight. But Elrohir was by far the best healer for poisons and venoms; he fought them like he fought Orcs. But even Elladan thought Elrohir had been brutal with Legolas, had forced it into him with more violence than healing.
'Would you prefer the poison ran rampant through his body, destroying his organs, poisoning his blood? ' A voice cut through the quiet. Elrohir. 'It will kill him.' He had ceased whetting Aícanaro and was looking towards them. 'This is the only way.'
Aragorn looked away but he fiddled with the ring on his finger and turned and turned it and Elladan knew he was distressed for it put him once again in the position of choosing between the man whom he saw as his father and the man he saw as his brother. Elladan's heart swelled with a tender pang for them all, and wished, not for the first time or the last, that somehow his brother and father could see how much they hurt not only each other, but those around them whom they both loved.
'You will not give him a second dose though?' Aragorn asked hesitantly, and Elladan saw what it cost him to challenge Elrohir.
'Why not?' Elrohir went back to Aícanaro, sliding a silk cloth along it now and did not see the look on Aragorn's face, the hurt at being so easily disregarded.
'You know the risks,' Aragorn persisted. Elrohir did not pause but continued to stroke Aícanaro with silk, like it soothed him. 'Do you not think we should give him a chance to throw it off now? Increasing the dose will plunge him further into those...nightmares...Could it not cause greater risk?'
'Increasing the dose of the anti-venom will hasten the climax.' Elrohir did look up now. 'Do you think it better to extend the fever, allow the poison more leverage in his body?' He was the healer now, the teacher. 'You know its effects, Aragorn. It will flood his bloodstream and attack every organ, every part of him. What he experiences now is an illusion. The sere-vanda makes it a dream, nothing more. If you leave the poison with nothing to fight it, it will kill him'
Aragorn paused, then took a breath and continued, 'And what of the after-effect? What of the damage it might do to his nerves, his sight?'
'That is unlikely,' Elrohir said. 'He said himself he has thrown off venoms before with no ill effect. He is Woodelf anyway. He will be used to drug-induced dreams.'
Elladan looked up in distress, feeling the swirl of anger beginning in his brother's breast, the choking guilt and failure. He began to protest, to stop them from going further.
'It is a harsh dream to have out here in the Wild.' Aragorn's eyes locked with Elrohir's.
'More dangerous, less wise, as Mithrandir himself says,' Elrohir said coldly and looked back down to Aícanaro resting on his lap. 'One more or less will make little difference. They cannot even protect their own.' It was so dismissive and contemptuous that Aragorn gasped and Elladan cringed.
'Elrohir, when did you become so quick to judge another's failure?' It was gently given but a reproof nonetheless, and from Glorfindel who stood at the edge of the camp. He had overheard all.
Elrohir turned slowly, his eyes hardened and filled with barely suppressed fury. 'The day Elven warriors allowed my mother to be captured, the day Orcs tortured her and all the joy went out of our lives,' he said and rose to his feet. Aícanaro was clenched in his fist, and seemed to uncoil, to lick the air, tasting it, the tension and fury. Elrohir stood glaring at Glorfindel but the Elf lord did not back down. So finally it had been said. Had he always blamed Glorfindel, thought Elladan, surprised.
'You are not alone in your loss. And there have been other losses,' he reminded Elrohir gently.
'Do you mean Gondolin?' Elrohir sneered. Elladan reached out and put his hand upon his brother's shoulder but he merely shook him off. 'Elves who cowered in their city of stone while others gave their lives to stand against Morgoth.'
Elladan had never seen Glorfindel truly angry apart from in battle but suddenly he seemed incandescent, like a flaming torch, his hair seemed alight and his blue eyes like cold fire. Lightning could not be more charged than the look he gave Elrohir. Even Elrohir took a step back. 'Erestor has been filling your heads with Feänorian propaganda,' Glorfindel said tightly, with bitter anger. 'Get yourself up there on watch and out of my sight so I can forgive you your stupidity.'
Elrohir gave a short laugh and sheathed Aícanaro. 'You fight with me over this Woodelf! I hope you enjoy him then. Everyone else has.'
Elladan shook his head and stepped away from his twin. When he was in this temper there was no reasoning with him, no sense, only fury. Elrohir stalked out of the clearing up to the ridge. Glorfindel stared after him, his arms by his sides and fists clenched as if he had to control himself, though he said nothing.
Elladan could see Glorfindel had been deeply shocked by what Elrohir had said and troubled. Indeed, he had himself and though he felt he should defend Erestor in this, he said nothing; it was not the time and then Glorfindel threw his cloak about himself and strode away down towards the river.
Elladan sighed and glanced at Aragorn. The Man was sitting by the fire, an orange glow reflecting on his skin and his eyes thoughtful and concerned. They exchanged a look. Elladan looked up at the ridge where Elrohir had gone.
'Go after him if you think it will do any good,' Aragorn said, but both knew it was useless so Elladan dropped to the ground beside Aragorn. Aragorn pulled out his pipe, looked at it irritably as though it had gone out on purpose and then lit it once again.
Elladan breathed through his nose and shifted. He glanced at Legolas' still, pale face shining with sweat but corpse-pale and cold. Elladan found his fingers stroking the hilt of his knife, the metal smoothed by hands before it was his, long, long ago. It comforted him strangely though perhaps it should not. It reminded him too of the complexity of his relationship with his brother, the absolute love, loyalty, and the absolute bewilderment sometimes that he felt at Elrohir's actions.
'He went too far this time, Elladan,' Aragorn said after a while. 'I have not seen him like this before. He seems so furious. I thought it might have been the effect of the Ring at first but he has been even worse since we left Imladris,' he observed and Elladan thought that was true. Elrohir had not been ready to come home, had not slaked his hurt and guilt and hunger sufficiently and they would not have returned at all had they not heard that the Nazgûl had attacked Imladris. And then it had seemed to get so much worse once they began this journey. Legolas had made it so much worse with killing the Orc, thought Elladan, but Elrohir had already expressed unreasonable hatred of the Mirkwood Elf even before that, he mused and frowned.
It seemed Aragorn's thoughts were similar. 'You saw the way he forced Legolas to drink the Cristôl,' he said baffled. 'He did not control the amount. You saw how brutal he was. It could seriously affect him.'
Elladan agreed but he said nothing. It was Aragorn's distress that made him speak, for he never, ever criticized his brothers and Elladan would never speak ill of Elrohir, not even to Aragorn.
'What if it was too much? If he awakens, he might think he has to return to Phellanthir,' Aragorn said, anxiety edging his voice. 'Is it not true that he could awaken and be trapped in his illusion? He could think it real?'
Elladan could see that Aragorn was considering, remembering the night and Legolas' terrible hallucination. He felt his own skin crawl at the memory; in Legolas' mind the Nazgûl had transformed into some great serpent that had wrapped its coils around Legolas, and opened its horrible jaws to swallow him into the Dark, the Void that all Elves feared. Was that what had happened in Phellanthir, Elladan wondered, and knew it had. Was it worse that Legolas was convinced that Rhawion's feä was somehow trapped in Phellanthir, somehow a prisoner of the Nazgûl? He shuddered and felt the hairs on his scalp stand stiffly, on one side of his body, like something had brushed against him in the darkness.
Aragorn too, looked around him suddenly as if he too felt it. He saw how Aragorn's eyes sought his sword, leaning against a nearby tree and found his knife in his own hand and clutched it tightly. The hilt warmed his palm, and the warmth spread up his arm like a reassurance. It did not burn blue and he felt the hairs on his body slowly flatten and smooth. He suddenly met Aragorn's grey eyes and both gave a rueful smile. Elladan took his hand from the hilt of his knife and shook his head at himself, but the power of those images stayed with him.
At that moment, Legolas turned his head and cried out something too confused for Elladan to understand and he leaned forwards again and placed his hand gently on Legolas' forehead, then felt for his pulse. The vein in his neck throbbed alarmingly, his heart was racing and skin was clammy, drenched in sweat. This was the Cristôl taking effect, forcing the fever, fighting the ensorcelled poison with its own properties enhanced by Vilya.
Legolas lurched suddenly sideways and retched.
Elladan scrambled to Legolas' side and held him as he convulsed, moved him gently so he retched into the hole in the earth that Gimli had dug out for him. Black bile forced its way out of his mouth, trickled down his chin. Aragorn crouched beside him, pulled back the long thick plait of Legolas' hair and wiped the Elf's mouth with a cloth.
'Hold him while I give him more sere-vanda,' Elladan said, glancing at Aragorn. Neither spoke of Cristôl again and Elladan hoped that by drugging him into oblivion at least, as Elrohir had said, the terrible hallucinations would be no more than a dream.
Elladan realised his hurt eye throbbed a little and he rubbed it. He blinked and then looked down to pour a measure of sere-vanda into a flask. He cupped the back of Legolas' head and raised him up a little and held the flask to Legolas' lips.
Legolas' eyes were a mere seam of dark green beneath a fringe of lashes, the lovely face closed in pain ... for it was a lovely face. Elladan tipped the flask up so the amber liquid trickled into Legolas' mouth. A generous mouth, thought Elladan realising he had thought so before, ready to laugh and love. There was a fine chain around his neck and a small oak leaf, gold, mithril, and Elladan thought perhaps it was a gift, from a lover. It had the look of a love-keepsake, he thought. Perhaps then, Legolas had a lover back in Mirkwood.
Legolas lurched forwards again and retched violently. There was a vomit of black liquid that shot from his mouth and he cried out, eyes scrunched up. Elladan saw how Aragorn held Legolas steady and when he had finished, wiped his mouth gently with a cloth. Then he moved Legolas' head back to rest against his own shoulder. For a moment Aragorn rested his free hand lightly on the Elf's shoulder. Beneath his hand the painted swirls seemed to eddy and undulate. Elladan knew it was a trick of the light, but Aragorn suddenly pulled back his hand as if he had been bitten.
He gasped and shook his head at himself, then looked down again at the strange patterns etched onto the Mirkwood Elf's skin. 'I thought for a moment...' he began.
Elladan smiled and nodded. 'Yes, it looks like there's something watching you. I thought so too at first.' He and Aragorn carefully lowered Legolas to the blankets again and pulled the blanket up over his chest. With the compassionate quiet of the healer, he let his blue peace and calm spread from his hands, his fingers, and wrap itself gently around Legolas, let it suffuse the air around him. He remained for a moment, quiet and still until Legolas too grew quieter, more peaceful
At last he settled back and threw another stick on the fire, watched it catch light and burn slowly orange.
'I have faith in you, Aragorn,' he said gently. 'You are one of the most gifted Healers I have ever known. More even than your father.'
He saw how Aragorn's face subtly shifted, and then the Man dropped his head and Elladan saw how his fingers twisted the Ring of Barahir as he always did when his father was mentioned. And then he looked up, meeting Elladan's eyes, full of hope, of vulnerability, wanting to hear more of his father.
'He would have been proud of you,' Elladan said quietly, wishing Arathorn could have lived to see the Man his son had become.
Elladan felt his own pang of loss and sorrow, for he had loved Arathorn too, had loved them all- the Heirs of Isildur, each one hoping to be the One who would restore his House. Now here was one who outshone them all. And like his forefathers, one day he too would be mere ashes and dust.
Elladan blinked hard and glanced up at the sky. How quickly the stars seemed to move across the night, like the tides of time in a mortal life. He blinked and through the blur he caught slight movement at the edges of the firelight. Elrohir shifted slightly as if he sensed Elladan's distress. And of course he did.
Instead he clasped Aragorn's arm, wanting to feel anchored himself, to feel warm and living flesh and blood.
Elladan smiled wryly and nodded and when Aragorn had turned his back and rolled himself tightly in his cloak upon the ground, Elladan closed his eyes tightly for a moment for the hurt and loss that he knew was ahead of him, sometime.
It seemed but a moment ago that he had left Elladan's side when Aragorn awoke to a hand pressed lightly on his shoulder. Elrohir stood above him, dressed and ready for the journey that would take him and Elladan to Lothlorien. Aragorn pushed himself to sit up, brushing his hair out of his eyes.
It was very early, the thin morning light cold and the horses still half asleep. Roheryn was resting one hoof and his head was low, eyes half shut. Around Aragorn his companions slept, huddled grey shapes on the cold ground. He could hear Gimli's snores. Glorfindel and Elladan stood at the edge of the camp, talking in low voices.
'We take our leave of you now, Estel,' Elrohir said softly.
Aragorn's belly felt chilled with the cold morning, but he struggled awake and remembering their argument, clasped Elrohir's hand. 'You are leaving already?' he said.
Elrohir paused, looking down for a moment. His face softened.
'Ai, Estel,' he relented finally and sighed. His hand clasped Aragorn's and he gave a half-smile that seemed so rare these days that Aragorn felt his chest swell with love for his brother, and knew he was forgiven. As Elrohir had been the first to forgive him Arwen. Suddenly he wished he had his brothers' company for longer; the Quest ran ahead of him, and beyond that...he could not see. He wished that he might have their company on the Quest, that Elrond would agree to send them too...
Elrohir had walked over to his black horse, Barakhir, who bent his head and nosed his rider trustingly, chewed the silver bit in his mouth. Elrohir threw his saddle over the horse's back and reached below to the girth, and fastened the buckles, pulled down the stirrups. Glorfindel turned his head to look but Elrohir did not return his gaze. He glanced away towards the feverish Mirkwood Elf, and then to the still and silent body that had been Rhawion.
Aragorn grunted and pushed himself to his feet, feeling his joints crack slightly and click from a night on the hard ground. He stepped carefully around Amron and Gimli's sleeping forms towards Elladan. Amron stirred slightly as he passed.
'I bid you good morning only to bid you farewell I see,' Aragorn said softly to Elladan, who must have noticed the note of disappointment, forlornness too for he smiled kindly and Aragorn was struck anew how like Arwen was to her brothers, for in all their lineaments one could see Luthien's heritage.
'We will return to Imladris in a couple of weeks, all being well,' Elladan said. 'Have we not always spent Yule together?' He laughed softly so he would not awaken their companions.
'I hope there will be more than a skinny rabbit and half empty flask of miruvor,' Aragorn replied, thrown back to a memory of the bleakest Yule he had ever spent, with Elrohir and Elladan camped out upon a cold mountain-side in the Hithaeglir huddled beneath an overhang with a meager fire, enough only to cook the rabbit though Aragorn was famished enough to have eaten it raw.
They shared a rueful smile and Elladan ruffled his hair irritatingly. Elrohir glanced up to watch them over the back of his black horse while he fastened his saddlebags and strapped Aícanaro to the saddle sheath. He did not smile.
Elrohir ducked under Barakhir's neck and slid his hand along the glossy black neck, gathering the reins. He put his foot in the stirrup and swung easily astride. Only then did he look down briefly at Aragorn. For a moment the steel-grey gaze softened into something else, something that was haunted, lost. Suddenly concerned, Aragorn reached out but at that moment, Barakhir shook his head and side-stepped impatiently and Aragorn let his hand fall back to his side. Then Elrohir was busy checking stirrups and girth and that Aícanaro was sheathed safely at his hip, and did not see Aragorn's gesture of concern.
'May Elbereth go with you both.' Glorfindel turned towards Elrohir and included him in his blessing. But Elrohir glared down at the Elf-lord, fury banked and barely held in check. Barakhir snorted and stamped impatiently and Glorfindel lay his hand upon the horse's neck and stilled him. 'Your anger is not with Legolas but yourself,' he said so softly that Aragorn could barely hear for it was meant only for Elrohir. 'And if you must blame someone, let it be me that I have let you descend into this.' Glorfindel's blue eyes were intense and clear when he looked up into Elrohir's cold steel eyes. Neither flinched nor looked away. 'Even so, do not let your anger blind you to danger, Elrohir. For I forgive you and love you whatever you do, wherever your bruised heart has taken you.'
Elrohir did not look away and his mouth was a hard, thin line. And he did not answer or beg Glorfindel's forgiveness either and Glorfindel sighed and stepped back then. He stood watching as Elrohir gathered up the reins and pulled Barakhir's head round and slowly headed towards the steep little rise that led out of the hollow.
Aragorn felt the tension simmering in the air but he had learned to keep his own counsel and wait until Elrohir's dark rage had burned away. Instead he held Baragur's stirrup and Elladan smiled at him over the top of the saddle and swung easily up. 'Be careful out here in the Wild, little brother,' he said, looking down at Aragorn and suddenly serious. 'I know,' he laughed. 'You are a Ranger and face the Wild every day, but let me say this. Be safe.' He leaned down and clasped Aragorn's shoulder.
'Come Elladan. We can delay no longer with this,' Elrohir interrupted, his voice tetchy and impatient.
Elladan looked over his shoulder at his brother and his face was concerned and tender. Then he leaned down towards Aragorn again. 'You know we would not leave Legolas if he were in real danger.' He glanced over towards the Woodelf and concern crossed his face. 'He is still feverish though. It has not broken even now, the poison will make him see things in the air. But he is very strong...Use the sere-vanda to keep him calm. Just little sips now so he gradually comes back to wakefulness. You will be back in Imladris within days, but do not tarry.' He smiled ruefully. 'I have faith in you, Aragorn. You are as good a healer as any in Imladris, save Ada.' Then he paused and leaned down to press something into Aragorn's hand. 'Take it just in case.' Aragorn looked down. It was a small flask. 'In here is the rest of the Cristôl.' Elladan held Aragorn's gaze carefully.
Aragorn's eyes widened slightly and he began to shake his head and give it back.
Elladan clasped his hand and closed his fingers over the small flask. 'I know. But listen. You may have no choice. Only if you are in urgent need or if his pain becomes unbearable. It will speed up the fever and help him to throw off the poison more quickly that way.'
Reluctantly, Aragorn took the flask and tucked it away in his tunic, telling himself he would not use it. Elladan nodded and smiled reassuringly, then put his foot in the stirrup and swung himself astride Baraghur. He looked down at Aragorn for a moment and when Elrohir called to him again, impatient and irritated, Elladan wheeled his black horse around and with a clatter of hooves against the stony trail, he cantered after his brother. The two black horses surged up the narrow trail that led up to the ridge above the camp and disappeared between the tall, thin trees.
Aragorn watched until they broke upon the ridge above and turned to look down into the valley. They raised their hands to him, the thin morning light catching upon the steel bits and stirrups, and then wheeled their black steeds and were gone. The thunder of hooves echoed for a moment and then that too faded.
Aragorn turned back to the camp and to his shame, felt a small sense of relief that Elrohir at least had gone. Glorfindel was striding up the steep slope along the narrow path to the ridge. His bow was slung over his shoulder and Aragorn knew he would be relieving Amron from his watch. He pushed aside the confused feelings and knelt beside Legolas. His skin was flushed still and sweat dampened the loose strands of hair around his face. His eyes were closed, but Aragorn could see them moving beneath his lids as if he dreamed wildly.
A robin sang in the woods over the river and was answered by another and the pale morning sunlight crept over the Mountains.
Slowly Amron walked down from the ridge, bow slung over his shoulder and his head slightly bowed as if deep in thought. He nodded at Aragorn and looked anxiously at Legolas' pale face. 'How is Legolas?'
'I do not know,' Aragorn said honestly. 'The fever still rages and Elladan says it will get worse before it breaks.'
Amron looked down at Aragorn doubtfully. 'What is it that is so important that they leave when Legolas is still so fevered?'
Aragorn squashed the irritation that Amron did not feel he was good enough a healer for Legolas and said mildly, 'They have an errand for my Lord Elrond.' He let the formality speak for him, and Amron lifted his gaze briefly but knew better than to ask. 'Already they have lingered too long. Winter has already set in over Caradhras.'
Amron merely grunted and turned away but Aragorn said softly, knowing he would hear, 'I will not fail him, Amron. I have seen this before. He will survive.'
Amron dropped his head and closed his eyes in apology. 'I know,' he said. 'But I have seen the agony and suffering too and it can break the strongest. You are an exceptional healer, Aragorn. I know this. But the Brethren fight it from here,' He pressed his hand over his heart. 'They fight for the soul, and it makes you strong, not weak. And I have become fond of our friend.'
Aragorn did not miss the slight glance towards Rhawion's still body and cursed himself inwardly. Of course Amron was going to feel concern; he had already lost one of his comrades and now looked to lose another. He knew they had drawn together, the Elvish warriors, for Glorfindel was apart from them and Gimli, no matter how doughty, still a Dwarf and he and the Brethren had been in the Angle for the most part.
'Amron...' he began but Amron shook his head and looked away.
The day passed slowly for them all. Aragorn kept watch over Legolas whilst Glorfindel stood guard upon the ridge, Amron cooked, and Gimli tended the fire. There was a peaceful domesticity and but for Legolas' cries and murmurs of distress, all would have seemed to be a mere hunting trip.
They swapped occasionally and Gimli took over from Aragorn to give him some rest, but he found his eyes always straying back to where Legolas lay. Now and again he twitched or tossed his head in distress. He had retched and brought up black bile frequently but Elladan had told him more than once that this is what they needed. Twice more Aragorn dosed him with sips of sere-vanda. He did not touch the flask of Cristôl and left it tucked away in his saddlebag.
The long shadows of the late afternoon drew over the small camp and they had all settled into their routines.
A birdcall sounded from above and instantly every head turned to stare upwards towards the ridge. Amron rose slowly to his feet and it came again.
Aragorn glanced at Amron and instantly they were kicking over the fire, raking the hot ashes so all trace disappeared, stopping the scatter the stones that surrounded the fire pit. Gimli was already on his feet when Glorfindel hurried down from the ridge above.
'A large band of Orcs is on the move,' he hissed and they quickly gathered round him. 'A small band is scouting and edging closer to us but a larger band is behind them. We need to go.' He looked at Aragorn first. 'We have some hours ahead of them and must take advantage of that. Aragorn, take Legolas on Roheryn. Head for Luin-Aglar.' Aragorn nodded once and Glorfindel turned to Amron. 'Take the narrow trail up top. Lay a false trail that will lead them west, away from here.' Amron turned to go but Glorfindel caught his arm and held his gaze. 'Do not take any risks. Do not get caught.'
Amron nodded, shouldering his bow and then he glanced across at Rhawion's body, covered now by Elrohir's blanket for he had taken his cloak.
'We will have to leave him.' Glorfindel reached out and grasped Amron's shoulder. 'I will hide him well and return for him.'
It was painful to see the anguish in Amron's eyes.
'I will see to Rhawion.' A deep voice like the river over gravel came from behind Aragorn and he did not turn. It was Gimli. 'I will find him a place to rest and be safe. They will not have him.'
Sorrow flickered over Amron's fair face for a moment and then he bowed slightly. It seemed that grief struck him too deeply then for he did not speak but briefly clasped Gimli's arm and then turned and ran lightly up the path to the top of the ridge. They saw his figure weave between the trees and bushes and then he was gone.
Aragorn turned and grasped Roheryn's saddle, lugged it over to where the horse stood, his strong head turned inquiringly towards Aragorn. He threw the saddle over Roheryn's wide back and reached below his belly for the girth, buckling it. The horse grunted as he pulled it tight.
'If we are not there at Luin-Aglar within two days,' said Glorfindel, 'leave a sign that you have been there. Then head for Imladris and warn Elrond what comes his way. We will do the same if you do not arrive.'
'Will you come over the hills?' Aragorn asked. 'Or along the river?' He held the bridle out and Roheryn dipped his head and took the bit in his mouth gently as he always did and Aragorn felt a rush of affection for the patient, kindly horse that never failed him, never let him fall, never took a false step.
'We will travel along the river, we can hide our tracks that way.' Glorfindel stooped and scattered the stones that made the fire-pit.
'Elladan?' he asked suddenly, realising his brothers were riding straight at the Orc band.
Glorfindel shook his head. 'They have already crossed the river. Elrohir will have known somehow Orcs were ahead. You know how he does. And Elladan has that dagger,' he said with a slight curl of distaste for he knew to whom it had belonged once. 'They head for the Gap of Rohan, not high Caradhras.' He cast a baleful look at the high mountain already thick with snow and raising its cruel head to look coldly over Eregion.
Quickly, Aragorn tied his pack onto the cantle of the saddle now and pulled the stirrups down. He glanced behind him towards Legolas to see that Glorfindel bent over the feverish Elf now and clasped his uninjured shoulder lightly.
There was a moment when Aragorn thought the clearing was flooded with a golden light, sweeter than sunlight, older, more pure. And then Glorfindel spoke, 'Legolas. Awake now.' His voice had great power, thrummed through the blood and Aragorn felt himself turn and his heart slowly flipped in his breast as if Arwen stood there. Legolas stirred and his eyes flickered open, a thin seam of deep green and then he turned away, groaning.
'Legolas.' Glorfindel's voice became deeper, more resonant and Aragorn felt a song thrum through him like harp strings, it called to his very being. Legolas turned back towards Glorfindel, lips parted and slowly opened his eyes as though he had been asleep for a long, long time and was now coming back to awareness. He fastened his gaze upon Glorfindel as though there was nothing else in the world but the Elf lord.
Glorfindel smiled. 'Well done, child,' he said. His hand was still on Legolas' shoulder and now he leaned closer and slid his arm beneath Legolas' shoulder to draw him forwards. 'We have to move. There are Orcs on our trail. Can you ride?'
'If you bid it, my lord.' His voice was so weak that Aragorn had to bend forwards to hear.
'Aragorn will take you on his horse, on to Luin Aglar, where we rested before.'
Legolas frowned and lifted his hand weakly to his mouth, touched his lips, ran his fingers over his nose and eyes as if unsure he was himself. He licked dry lips and Aragorn reached for his water skin, unstoppered it and held it gently to the Elf's lips. He jerked his head away at first.
'It is only water,' said Aragorn and then he looked up at Aragorn. His eyes were cloudy, but he knew Aragorn, there was recognition, and he drank.
Aragorn felt a warmth on his arm and looked down to see the Dwarf looking on with delight and astonishment. Gimli leaned on Glorfindel to peer down at Legolas. 'He is awake!'
Legolas' eyes moved to the Dwarf's strong, resolute face and to Aragorn's astonishment, he smiled weakly. 'Elvellon,' he said. Gimli nodded and patted Legolas' good shoulder kindly and the Elf's eyes slipped shut once more and he leaned his head back against the rolled up blanket that had served as a pillow.
Aragorn and Glorfindel shared an astonished glance and Glorfindel smiled once more and slipped his arm beneath Legolas' shoulder and lifted him to a sitting position. Legolas' eyes flickered open. Aragorn thought he looked dazed but that was no surprise and his lips were parted and his eyes widened, looking up at Glorfindel.
Glorfindel glanced down at Legolas and raised an eyebrow, sighing. 'We need to get you dressed,' he said in a business-like tone that brooked no nonsense. 'You must ride with Aragorn,' he repeated carefully. 'I am getting you dressed and up.'
Legolas gave a slight groan but nodded his understanding. Aragorn felt suddenly hopeful that perhaps this was the fever breaking rather than merely a moment of lucidity, for there was no protest. And he had thought there would be.
It was a painful process but Glorfindel was swift and merciless and Aragorn helped him. Glorfindel pulled Legolas up against him and Aragorn dragged his shirt over his head. He pursed his lips at the sight of the red scorch marks on the Elf's skin from the cupping but there was nothing to be done and he carried on regardless when Legolas groaned suddenly and slumped sideways so his head rested upon Glorfindel's shoulder. Pulling Legolas' moss-suede tunic over his head, Aragorn was as gentle as he could be given the haste but again Legolas cried out softly. Aragorn winced in sympathy.
Glorfindel took a small flask from the folds of his tunic and unscrewed the lid. 'Drink,' he commanded and Legolas lifted his long green eyes heavily to the Elf-lord's and Glorfindel cradled his gaze for a moment and smiled. 'Drink,' he said again, more gently and Legolas dipped his head to drink. After only a few sips, Glorfindel stopped him. 'That is enough for the moment.' He smiled and pushed a tendril of pale gold hair away from Legolas' face. 'I am giving this to Aragorn. He will give you more if you need it.' Glorfindel glanced up at Aragorn. 'Miruvor,' he said, screwing the lid back on the flask. 'Use it if you need him to revive. I know Elladan gave you sere-vanda to make him sleep. If he can sleep while you ride he may be heavier but easier to manage. And it will lessen the pain for him. But we need him to be aware of what passes here now so he will not be panicked when he awakens fully. And there may be times you need his eyes and ears.' He did not speak of the Orcs steadily moving North. 'How are your own supplies?'
'I have already checked,' Aragorn replied, mentally cataloguing the medical supplies he already had and being glad of the miruvor.
He gave a low whistle and Roheryn clopped slowly towards them and stood patiently while Aragorn strapped Legolas' bow and long knives onto the saddle. Aragorn put his foot in the stirrup and reached for the cantle of the saddle, hauled himself up and tried not to thump down on Roheryn's broad, comfortable back. The saddle was low at the front and he had easily sat Arwen there before. It felt odd to think he would have Legolas there but he did not think they had a choice.
'I will pass him up to you,' Glorfindel said, his hand rested upon Legolas' smooth head, slumped against Glorfindel, eyes half-closed and dreaming. 'I suppose you will hold him before you?'
Aragorn nodded. 'Yes. I can hold onto him then, talk to him as we ride. If I cross the river at the ford and then back again it may fool anyone that follows. I will leave you signs.'
Glorfindel hefted Legolas against himself and gently eased Legolas to his feet. 'Are you ready for him?' he asked. Then he leaned down and pulled Legolas towards him, lifted him easily and the Woodelf's head lolled back against Glorfindel's chest. For a moment, Glorfindel stood looking down at Legolas, and there was a tender concern on his face that would have had Legolas' heart jumping had he known. He stroked the damp hair back from the lovely, flushed face and then looked up at Aragorn.
Aragorn leaned down and slid his arm beneath the Elf's shoulders and heaved Legolas up. He was heavier than Aragorn expected for Glorfindel had lifted him easily as a child.
Glorfindel frowned. 'Careful Aragorn. He is not a sack of grain!'
Aragorn quashed his irritation. 'Perhaps you should ride Roheryn?' he said coolly.
Glorfindel paused for a moment. 'Perhaps I should.'
But he did not for at that moment, Legolas' eyes flickered open and he struggled weakly until Glorfindel put a hand on his thigh and said gently, 'Peace now, Legolas. You are safe and with Aragorn. He will take you back to Imladris where the poison that is in your veins and the darkness of the Nazgûl will be purged. You know you can trust Aragorn. He will keep you safe from the darkness.'
Legolas looked down at Glorfindel for a long moment and then let his hand fall to Glorfindel's and bowed his head slightly. The braid was coming undone and long strands lifted on the breeze for a moment and whisked back, tickling Aragorn's nose, smelled of summer, meadow grass... He twitched his head back suddenly as if he had been hit.
'Avoid the shores of the river,' Glorfindel was saying. 'Seek the hills and downs where there is shelter. There are caves there too.' He shook his head at himself and smiled. 'You know this areas as well as I. But it is not what I would wish for you.'
'Nor I. But I will ride swiftly. They will not catch us.'
Legolas made a strange noise, strangled almost, and had Aragorn not known better, he would have said it was fear. Glorfindel looked up again at the Woodelf and his face was full of compassion.
'Amron, Gimli and I will follow,' he said reassuringly. 'We will be more secret and your trail will lead them away from us I hope. Now, go swiftly and in haste.'
Aragorn hoisted Legolas more securely against himself and Glorfindel pushed his legs so he was astride Roheryn.
Legolas groaned quietly. And the Woodelf was too weak, or disinclined to protest and Aragorn hoisted him closer so that Legolas moaned quietly and Aragorn remembered the poison was still turgidly pushing through his veins. Gimli had not yet returned from his task of finding a safe hiding place for Rhawion, and Aragorn regretted not being able to bid Gimli farewell for he had come to like the Dwarf. Glorfindel gave Aragorn one last glance and patted Roheryn's neck. 'Cross the river and ride fast, then cross back. Perhaps go to the Angle if you think you need to. Make haste.'
'Farewell then Glorfindel. Imladris.'
He did not wait any longer and Roheryn was impatient now, sensing his own nervousness but Roheryn was always a strength, could gallop for hours, not as fast as some but with stamina and endurance, and he was surprisingly agile and crafty, able to pick a trail along stones so he did not leave more than the faintest trail, careful not to bend twigs or push through bushes where his long tail hairs could be caught. A ranger's horse.
The skies had cleared now and there was a frost silvering the grass, stiffening it, and a stinging cold wind once he reached the top of the ridge. Aragorn saw that Amron stood on the ridge on watch and the Elf turned and waved. The sunlight caught on the steel of his sword for a moment and Aragorn gazed at him, too far away to warn him how that could be seen. But as if somehow he knew the Man's concern, he pulled his cloak over it and it was hidden from view.
Roheryn weaved his way through the gorse bushes, brushed through the ferns and bracken, away from the camp and then when they had put some distance between themselves and the camp, Aragorn urged the horse into a canter.
Next: Aragorn and Legolas alone in the Wild. Elrohir and Elladan in Lothlorien, with Haldir.