Every Man for Himself

Disclaimer: I is not owning LOTR.

Chapter 16: "And you shall see what you have done…"

Part 1

7 May 3019 – Early Afternoon

He may have grown up amongst the Elves, but no matter how much time he spent among those ethereal folk, Aragorn son of Arathorn would never acquire their unrivalled sense of patience and serenity. Despite the Númenorean blood that flowed strongly through his veins, when it really came down to it, he was still only human. And humans were infamous for their lack of patience, at the best of times. And in this time, Aragorn could not help but feel impatient, and idle.

He suffered the symptoms now; the gnawing sense within the lowest pit of his stomach, festering with the knowledge that he was wasting time that could be better spent, the restlessness of mind and body, a gaze that could not remain fixed on one object for longer than a heartbeat…

Having been brought up in Imladris by Elves, Aragorn had come to appreciate all the more consciously how short life really was for himself. As he had matured, he had made it an unvoiced law that he would not waste a single moment of his precious time. Every breath he took, he would spend it doing something worthwhile. For almost all of his time, this personal vow had gone unbroken – except for now.

Now, at this moment, he sat on a chair in a room feeling more useless than he had ever felt before in what felt to be a very long time. He had sorted through and sent for herbs enough times to make himself and the messengers blue in the face. He had checked Frodo's physical injuries and done what he could to ease them, though at this point in time, there was not much more he could do beyond what had already been done. He had given his friend some tea and a little broth, so that he would at least have something in his stomach to throw up when the time next came. He had asked for documents to be sent to him from the Houses of Healing concerning the identified toxins and the presumed animal venom. He had read through all of these files several times over so that he had almost committed every word to memory…

In this time, though he hated to admit it, he had done just about everything he could for now. All that he really had left to do was to await the return of Legolas so that they could go to the jailhouse and question the Haradrim convict and the recaptured fugitives. But even with this thought around to keep him from losing his mind, he simply could not ignore the amount of time that had passed since he had last done something productive. This waiting was driving him perilously close to the very brink of sanity. There had to be something that he could do. He thought of using the opportunity to take a quick sleep, but quickly discarded the idea. With Frodo's condition so unstable and the times of his lurching reactions to the poison so unpredictable, Aragorn dared not to detach his attention from the situation so completely before it was absolutely necessary. His mind then strayed up to his private study, where lay a rather alarming stack of files, orders, decrees, laws, legal cases and agreements that were waiting for his approval and signature. He only briefly considered sending for them before he abandoned the idea. He was far too distracted right now to give politics the concentration it demanded.

So it was that he was left to his own thoughts of ever increasing frustration. He did not know how much longer he could stand to wait like this. If he had to continue in such a vein for much longer, he really would go mad. He simply could not stand waiting.

Although… as his thoughts continued to amble, the more he dwelled on it, the more he had to admit that there were some things worth waiting for. Even as he sat ever vigilant by Frodo's bedside, images of his beloved filled his mind like a much welcomed breeze that whispers through the trees on a warm summer's day; the kind that refreshes one whom is newly awakened and still dazed with sleep. He saw his lady's fair face – altogether lovely and perfect – smiling with a rare joy that she saved especially for him. Her bright eyes sparkled with all the radiance of the stars, and her skin glowed softly as though the moon reserved its shimmer for her alone. Her raven hair was unbound – just how she knew he liked it, and the silken locks shifted gently as she laughed, the sound like the delicate bells of a tinkling stream.

Even just thinking about his betrothed brought the King some small peace of mind. Saving a small smile for himself, he focused his gaze back on Frodo. Aragorn's smile melted almost instantly into an expression of worry. If only the ailing hobbit before him could be healed just as simply by the mental images of fair things… It had only been a matter of hours since he had been dosed with the poison, and already he seemed to be approaching the point of no return. His fever raged, his stomach continued to bring up foul fluids, and he was plagued with horrendous nightmares that prevented him from getting any true sleep.

And there was nothing that Aragorn could do about it. He could not recall ever being in such a deeply maddening situation. This was perhaps worse than the precarious time spent during his first few days back in Rivendell, when it was unknown whether Frodo would survive from his fatal wounding by the Witch-king. At least during that time Lord Elrond had been in charge, and he had had a good idea on what he was doing. Aragorn's role had been mostly to observe, follow instructions, and ensure that nothing else was wrong with the hobbit.

He knew that he was fortunate to have had little dealings with cases of poisoning in his life thus far. But now… he really wished that he had more experience. It was all very good to memorise methods from a textbook, but to actually put those methods into practise was another thing entirely. And here in the City of Kings, there was no Lord Elrond to instruct and correct him. He was on his own.

And it was torture – pure torture – being forced to sit and watch as his dear friend – his hero – plunged ever deeper into pain and fear and darkness. He hated that there was so little he could do at this point in time. He hated the feeling of helplessness that plagued his mind, body and soul. But even more, he hated the knowledge that lurked in the back of his mind, the small spiteful voice that whispered to him his guilt. He should have done what the kidnappers had asked from the beginning. If he had just followed their instructions, none of this would have happened.

A dull fury throbbed through his veins. How could he have ever been so worried about how much gold the city was losing? Frodo's life was so much more important! Aragorn had spent so many hours already fighting to keep him alive, in Ithilien, in the Wild, in Rivendell… All during the Quest and after it, nothing had been more important than Frodo's health and safety. Yet at the prospect of losing a bit of gold, he had acted no better than the criminals with whom he was dealing.

Aragorn gave not so much a sigh as an exhale of frustration and anger. He ran his hands through his hair, rubbing furiously at his eyes. This would not do. Not for the first time in the last few months did he think he was unready to rule a realm.

"Don't you think you are being a bit hard on yourself?"

Aragorn did not look around at the wizard. "How long have you been eavesdropping on my thoughts?" he wanted to know.

"Long enough. And you're avoiding the question."

"I can't help but feel responsible, Gandalf," sighed Aragorn, knowing it was fruitless to ignore the Istar. "All of this could have been avoided if I had done what those men told me to."

"You know that for certain, do you? No matter what, those men would have poisoned Frodo before handing him over?"

"I feel certain they would have done something to him," answered Aragorn grimly.

"Feeling is very different to knowing, my friend," said Gandalf neutrally. "None can know for certain what the future will bring, not even Elrond or Galadriel herself. The future is governed by choices, which are ruled by the hearts and minds of those who make them. There is no certainty in what paths will be chosen."

"I know all of this," said Aragorn, hinting at impatience.

"I know," agreed Gandalf, moving to Aragorn's side. His piercing gaze rested on the hobbit occupying the bed before them. He shook his head slightly and rested a hand on Aragorn's shoulder. "You could do with a little reminding, though, I think. You could not have known what those men would do."

"I still could have acted differently." Aragorn's anger at himself flared as he rose to his feet and began pacing. "If I had followed their instructions, they would not have had such reason to do what they did. I did not need to bring the others with me. Sam knows where the men were hiding out. Guards could have been sent to the house after the exchange had taken place."

"There is no guarantee that they would have returned there."

"Where else would they have gone then?" said Aragorn shortly

"Who knows? That is my point. Aragorn, we could debate about this for a month and still resolve nothing."

"Then why did you bring this up in the first place?"

"Because your feelings of guilt are affecting you. You are getting caught in the trap of hindsight, of what if. You are getting too caught up in thoughts and memories and you are not acting on anything like you should or would. Wondering what might have been will bring you nothing that you want or need. It will only plague your mind which would be better served thinking how to help Frodo now."

"That doesn't make me feel any better about what happened," said Aragorn grimly.

"No," said Gandalf. "I didn't say it should. But knowledge of the past can sometimes be just as perilous as knowledge of the future, you know. It can cause just as much emotion, whether it be in the form of despair, anger or even joy. But all the same, a man must learn to work with the tools he is given, lest all be wasted."

Aragorn did not reply, but stopped pacing as his gaze caught on the other three hobbits in the room. They had one by one given into exhaustion and fallen asleep, Merry giving an occasional mutter, Pippin giving an occasional twitch, and Sam giving an occasional snore.

It was the gardener that captivated Aragorn's eye. Ever since their first meeting, Aragorn had not stopped admiring the pure dedication and strength of spirit that Samwise possessed. With only hope, loyalty and love as his motives, he had managed to accomplish some truly astounding feats in even the most abominable of conditions. Aragorn had encountered many people in his life who could do with taking a leaf or two from Sam's book – himself included…

Looking back to Frodo, Aragorn felt resolve harden again in his heart. He glanced at Gandalf, whose beard twitched as he gave an encouraging smile. He would not give in to despair. Not while hope still remained on the road ahead.

Time continued to pass. Aragorn was beginning to get impatient again. Though Frodo's condition had not really changed much since the bath, they could not count on the situation remaining thus for much longer. They needed answers – and soon.

Putting down the parchment he had been reading (again), Aragorn looked about his surroundings distractedly, hoping against hope to find something he could do that had been overlooked before. All he found were three hobbits lying fast asleep on the second bed.

Aragorn shook his head. Before falling asleep, Merry had managed to request that he not be allowed to sleep for too long. Aragorn and Gandalf had both agreed to this, though neither had made any move to follow through. The hobbits had only really been able to snatch naps here and there for a couple of hours at a time over the past few days. Couple that with the emotional worries they had suffered for what had happened to Frodo, and the wizard and king found that they simply did not have the heart to rouse them unnecessarily from a well-earned sleep. After all that they had been through on the Quest, with still accustoming themselves to the fact that Frodo had been returned to them alive, if recovering, to have him now almost ripped from their grasp again would surely be breaking their hearts. With every hour that passed, Aragorn could see the dwindling hope in their eyes. Even Sam was starting to lose faith. The least that could be done for them is to let them have a half-decent sleep while they still could.

Aragorn, on the other hand, could not yet afford such a luxury. He stifled a groan of frustration as he got to his feet and began pacing. Surely Legolas would be returning soon? They needed to go to the jailhouse and interrogate the prisoners as soon and quickly as possible. When they had obtained the information they needed, they would no doubt have only a small window of opportunity in which they could prepare. Then it would be time to begin treating the Ringbearer.

When Legolas had entered Frodo and Sam's room to report back to Aragorn, he had not been expecting to be immediately dragged back out again. Though it took a lot to surprise him, he found (to his slight annoyance) that it took several moments for him to regain his wits enough to understand, at least partially, what was happening. A heavily cloaked Aragorn dressed in his Ranger gear had grasped his arm and was leading him at a tremendous pace back out of the citadel.

"Aragorn," said Legolas, his approach direct. "What are you doing?"

"Merry and Pippin have brought news of some… informants that are being held in the jailhouse. You and I are going to interrogate them. One is a southron with information on the poison administered to Frodo. Two are of the escaped prisoners who may have knowledge of the whereabouts of the men who began this whole despicable affair."

"My friend," said Legolas, manoeuvring himself out of the King's grasp and matching his stride in one fluid motion. "You are worked up enough to thoroughly interrogate an entire army and still gain good results. Might I ask why you feel it necessary for me to accompany you?"

"It doesn't matter how 'worked up' I am," said Aragorn testily. "It is still going to be a hard trial getting any useful information from these men. They are not going to break easily. In my experience, I have found that Elves gain answers of greater quality more efficiently than anyone – save perhaps certain Tooks and Bagginses. But considering the circumstances, I deem that you are a more suitable candidate than any of the hobbits to help me."

"Fair enough," said Legolas. "But tell me, exactly what information do we want?"

"I want to know all of the ingredients in that poison," said Aragorn, his expression hardening. "And I want to know exactly what time frame we have in which to work. I want to be able to predict what is going to happen and when… And I want information on where those low-life brigands are hiding out." He glanced over to his friend, their eyes meeting. The Elf was once more startled as he saw the cold, hard fire smouldering in those stormy depths. "I want to get to the bottom of this, Legolas."

Captain Tharlon had been having a pretty average day. He had reported for duty after the midday meal, as usual. He had inspected the various cells containing prisoners, as usual, and had found that matters were to his satisfaction. He had sat himself down behind the desk in the front room of the jailhouse and had begun working on the ever increasing pile of paperwork that the previous captain on duty had conveniently overlooked, as usual. Every half hour or so he would get up to check on the prisoners, though they barely made a peep. Perhaps that was what worried him. But though he checked on them regularly and with great care, he did not find any evidence to suggest that they were up to something. Perhaps they were finally beginning to see the error in their ways, and that they deserved what they got…

Who was he fooling?

Those men locked away in there were among the lowest of the low. They were nothing but mere scumbags who took advantage of their own city being in doubt and confusion as the shock of the war began to ever so slowly fade. These men had been breaking near every law there was just to see if they could do it – to see how far they could push the boundaries. Needless to say, they were getting further and further every time. And the numbers were still increasing. Every day at least three more criminals would be brought in, though some would also be let back out. It was almost sickening. Nearly the entire lower half of the city was running amok, it seemed, and when these louts were brought in and questioned, they would merely shrug casually and say that the opportunity had presented itself. They had needed some fast gold, or a fast drink or job or woman or anything, really. Tharlon could barely believe that this was the same city of people whom had rallied together with her allies to help overthrow the forces of the Dark Lord.

Were these not supposed to be the blessed days of the King? But where was His Majesty? Where was the Lord Elfstone with his mighty Sword of Legend – the Hero of the Pelennor, the Hero of the Black Gates? Sitting up in his palace, Tharlon did not doubt, having a marvellous time feasting and drinking with his lordly friends. Celebrating the great victory, no doubt. While in the meantime, Tharlon was stuck in the third level watching over this supposed victory. For victories, particularly in war, were not about the statistics. It was not about how many orcs and other foul creatures had been slain, nor was it about their own numbers that had been lost. It was about how well they pulled through as a people, after all of the numbers had been counted up, after swords had been sheathed and men had returned to their homes. It was about how well they could return to their normal lives, not forgetting the horror of the war entirely, but not living forever fearful and grieving in its shadow either. But as things stood now… Tharlon sighed wearily as he signed another paper and transferred it to the pile of completed documents. The true victory was still to be won. If Minas Tirith was to recover and become whole again, then this King was going to have to start being more active – so Tharlon thought.

Of course, his Lordship did go to the Houses of Healing and help there how he could when he had 'moments to spare', and Tharlon thought no less of him for it. Indeed, the Lord Aragorn had called his own brother and nephew back from death's door. But if the King spent even half the time helping to restore the lower levels to order as he spent restoring people's health, then surely the victory would be that little bit closer to fulfilment?

Tharlon shook his head in silent disappointment. He supposed that the city would settle down… eventually. But until then, he could only continue doing his job. And speaking of his job…

Tharlon looked up distractedly from the paperwork at the sound of the door to the jailhouse opening and closing again softly. Expecting to see a guard bringing in yet another offender, he was most surprised to see two cloaked and hooded men approaching his desk.

"Can I help you, sirs?" he said, summoning his best commanding voice that brooked no argument. He knew that this particular tone of voice, when coupled with the icy stare of his steel eyes, had been known to make many men quail. But these two did not flinch in the slightest.

"Yes," spoke the taller of the two. "I have been informed that you have two of the escaped prisoners returned to your custody."

"You were correctly informed," said Tharlon warily, now eyeing these visitors with suspicion. He was certain that he had heard that voice somewhere before. And surely he recognised the matching cloaks these two men wore?

"I have also been told that you have a number of Haradrim locked up in here, some of whom were only quite recently brought in within the last few days."

"Your informant was correct again," said Tharlon. "Might I ask why you seek this confirmation?"

"My friend and I were hoping to question the two fugitives and one of the Haradrim – one whom has already been questioned concerning a sale he made to one of the city's men a few days ago."

"You mean the Lieutenant?"

There was a pause.


"That's the only thing we've been able to get out of him. The owner of the inn he was hiding in confirmed that he was the one who had made a sale over the past few days, and other deals besides. But when we questioned him, the only thing we've been able to get is that he was one of the leaders of the Haradrim forces."

"If this lieutenant is the one who made the sale, then he is one whom we wish to question. Him and the two recaptured prisoners."

"And what authority do you have to question these prisoners?"

Tharlon glanced between the two figures as they exchanged a silent look between them, though how either of them could see beyond the dark shadows of the other's hood, he could not imagine. But then slowly the more slender, slightly shorter one nodded, and as if such had been planned and rehearsed days before, the two men lowered their hoods.

"Call it a personal dispute if you will," said the taller, and Tharlon felt himself unconsciously stiffen to attention. "But these men you have in your holding have information that I need at once, if the Ringbearer, Frodo Baggins, is to live. He has taken gravely ill and has been sorely treated at the hands of three other men of this city. I would have these three judged for not only this crime, but the many others they have committed against Minas Tirith. They will be made an example of to all others who think they can get away with criminal activity in this realm."

For one long moment, Tharlon looked into the eyes of this man, and he understood. He did not know why or how, but he did know that this was simply one man trying to do his best by both himself and others. King of Gondor and Arnor he may be, and though he was only very recently crowned, Tharlon saw the love he had of his lands and his people. Without fully realising it, he found himself bowing low to his liege.

"You will wish to interrogate these men privately, I assume?" he said upon rising, throwing a quick glance to the King's companion.

"Yes," said Aragorn. "Bring us to them."

Within Minas Tirith's chief jailhouse, there were two identical rooms that remained empty and locked at all times, save for the odd occasion. As it so happened, the afternoon of the seventh day of May was one of these rare occasions, and Valmir found himself suddenly listed as one of the exclusive few for whom the doors would unlock. He was to be questioned, said the guards. Privately, said the captain.

He cared not. Truthfully, he could not see the point of bringing him to this 'interrogation cell', as he had heard it so named. He felt no desperate need to divulge his secrets. He could not see what his questioners would gain from speaking with him. They would receive nothing of importance… unless helping them would be to his advantage, of course. For that was the one rule in which he abided by without fail – do nothing unless there was a profit to be made.

But as it was, he had already been questioned, and he had said nothing. He had been assured that he would not be gaining anything from speaking, either. So it was with an admittedly smug smile that he watched the door to the cell open, and his interrogators entered.

They were both tall – much taller than he himself, and they both carried themselves with a grace foreign to his knowledge. They were hooded with the same type of cloak, their features melting in the shadows to a black pool of nothing. Immediately Valmir's curiosity piqued. These were no guards of the citadel. Indeed – he did not know who they were. His caution rising, he sat back and watched as the two seated themselves at their ease. Neither one lowered their hood.

For a long moment, all was silent in the cell. Then with a slightly ominous thud, the door was closed and locked from the outside. Valmir's gaze darted between his two new companions. Neither one seemed to be in any hurry to move or speak. They both simply sat and watched him; for although he could not see their features, he had no doubt that the small pricks of reflected light buried deep in the hoods were directed straight at him.

His impatience grew. Why did these men not begin their questioning and get it over with? After all – the sooner they started, the sooner they would realise that they would learn nothing from him. Then he could go back to his own cell and return to the slumber he had been interrupted from… Half unconsciously, his knee began to jog up and down in time to his bristling frustration.

Both Aragorn and Legolas noted the movement and smiled to themselves. Though this man had been convicted for several heinous crimes and had been living his chosen lifestyle for some time, both Man and Elf knew that they had dealt with worse. This criminal before them was not young, but he was still young enough to make mistakes of the inexperienced.

They did not have to wait as long as they had originally thought. It took perhaps another minute before finally, the man spoke. "What do you want?"

His tone was harsh and biting – but forced. Deep beneath the bravado, Legolas sensed that there was a genuine seed of worry that was beginning to blossom. He focused his gaze on the man's eyes, and observed sharply. He remained silent.

Aragorn too decided to hold his silence for a little longer. Though he was painfully aware that they had a limited amount of time before they must move on, the countless years of experience and training he had endured told him to hold out for a bit more. Soon it would pay off… Soon…

"Are you going to question me or are you going to waste your time looking at my pretty face?" snarled the man. In the depths of his hood, Aragorn allowed a small smile.

"Which would you prefer?" he said softly. Valmir's gaze turned sharply to him, trying to see beyond the shadows.

"Lower your hood," he said, his stomach jolting to hear the words slip from his mouth. He mentally cursed himself. How had he come to pieces so quickly? He did not take his eyes from the one who had spoken, and though he could not discern the features, he knew that somewhere in there, a mouth was smiling.

"Why should I?" said the speaker.

"I want to see your pretty face," answered Valmir, almost mockingly.

"And I want some answers," Aragorn shot back. Two sets of eyebrows rose. Legolas momentarily tore his gaze from Valmir and silently regarded his companion. "Though I have been informed that you are less than obliging when it comes to giving information."

"Why should I answer your questions?" said Valmir, somehow beginning to feel more like himself again as he climbed back to the top of his game. "There's nothing in it for me."

"Is that what you think?" murmured Legolas. Valmir's eyes shot back to his second 'interrogator'. Unease began to overpower frustration.

"Why should I do anything if there's nothing in it for me?" he defended. "I know I'm going to be stuck in this dump for a long time. There's no point saying otherwise. There's nothing you can do for me in here."

"Wrong," said Legolas. Now it was Aragorn's turn to consider his friend. "We can give you assurances."

Valmir snorted in disdain and Aragorn frowned. Where was this going? Aragorn looked between the two other occupants of the cell. Legolas was making a connection. He knew something… but what?

"Assurances, eh?" said Valmir, stretching out in his chair. He leaned back and put his hands behind his head. "Go on then."

"We can assure that your wife will remain safe, for starters."

Valmir went rigid. His stony gaze bored straight into the eyes of the Elf, if he knew it. A look of anger crossed his features. For a moment it looked like he was ready to get up and hurl his chair straight at Legolas. However, some force stayed him, and he spoke. His words carried the faintest trace of a tremble. Fresh anger was beginning to boil. A sharp edge of light entered his eyes. Aragorn and Legolas began to appreciate why this man was considered so dangerous.

"What have you done to my wife?"

Valmir could feel his game slipping again, but he did not care. She had been through too much already on his account…

"We have done nothing," said Aragorn, realising at last where Legolas had been leading. "However, I'm sure you will agree that her current position is not a particularly favourable one right now. No doubt you still have enemies that run free in the streets that would love nothing more than to harm you through her. We can offer her a much safer place to stay – perhaps even a secure job as well."

"All so I can give you information that would put her in even more danger anyway," said Valmir after a long pause. "How noble – how convenient. Saving the innocent you condemned."

"You are the one who broke the laws of this city," reminded Legolas softly. "Her life has been in your hands since the two of you met. You can either take this opportunity to tell us what information you have and save her for good, or you can leave her to fend for herself… leave her to clean up the mess you left behind for her."

There was a long moment of silence. Valmir lowered his gaze to the table, pondering his options. Truth be told, he had been concerned about the wellbeing of his wife for a long time… for her and…

"Alright," he said at last. There was finality in his tone and when he looked up, his gaze was steady. "I'll answer your questions if you help my wife… and my girl. She's old enough to start learning a trade, you know."

Aragorn and Legolas did not need to look at each other to know the thoughts of the other. "Very well then," said Aragorn, leaning forward in his seat. "Let us begin."

Gandalf shifted in his seat by Frodo's bed. With a glance out the window, he reckoned that Aragorn and Legolas should have arrived at the jailhouse by now. He hoped they would return quickly. The afternoon was quickly fading into dusk, and no doubt the coming of night would herald an onslaught of new trials. Gandalf could only hope that they would be ready to face whatever came, and that they would be prepared enough to help their friend in whatever way was necessary. He prayed that Frodo would have the strength to pull through the night.

Gandalf suppressed a weary sigh as he returned his full vigilance to his charge. The hobbit was still restless in his sleep. His eyes continued to dart beneath closed lids. Though now it was different. The wizard frowned, leaning forward in his seat. Almost imperceptibly, the eyelids themselves were beginning to move. Ever so slightly fluttering up…

"Frodo?" said Gandalf softly. "Frodo, my lad? Can you hear me?"

"Where is Seregon son of Sergil?"

"Seregon? Couldn't tell you for sure. He did mention checking in to his old house in the first circle soon as he got out. Not that he would stay there for long. Far too obvious for a man on the run."

"Is there anywhere else he could have gone? Does he own any other property?"

"No, not Seregon. A few of the others did. I know he wanted to get a place in Belfalas though, where his mother was born. If he was staying in the city he might have broken into a deserted house, or stayed with a few associates he has who aren't locked up."

"What about Desmond son of Desril? Have you heard of him?"

"Des? Of course I know him. Seregon taught him everything he knows. Their families were friends – that's how they met. Seregon might've bunked at Des's place."

"Where does he live?"

"In the fourth circle, if you'll believe it. Right next to the inn there, too, I've heard."

"The inn where you were found hiding," said Aragorn. "Some Haradrim soldiers were hiding there as well, were they not?"

"There were a few."

"Did you witness them make any sales or trades?"

"No. But I know a couple had made one or two."

"Do you know anything of these exchanges?"

"I do know that one of them was made with Desmond. Old Mavril who owns the inn told me that one of Seregon's old mates had come in not long before I had. I'd been asking after the others who got out of this place. Mavril thought he heard Des say something about staying at Seregon's for a bit."

"Do you know anything about what Desmond bought?"

"A bit. The one that sold the stuff to him was right proud of it. Said he'd made it himself. A little jar with a whole lot of different poisons in it, all mixed together."

"Did he say anymore about it?"

"Not really. I asked him what stuff was in it, but he wouldn't say."

"Can you tell us anything more about it?"

There was a pause. Valmir fell back in his chair, his eyes closed as he tried to remember. He could hardly believe he was divulging so much information so easily. If he ever got out of this prison he would never be able to stay in the city again. He just hoped that wife and daughter of his were grateful.

"There was one more thing," he said at last, opening his eyes. He looked straight at Aragorn, searching the shadows of the hood. "I asked him how effective it was. I thought something like that must take a few hours at most to kill someone, considering how much raw poison was in it. But he said it wasn't like that at all. It takes about five days to kill a full-grown man. Long, drawn-out torturous death it is too. One of the ways they punish criminals in the south."

"Five days? Surely it would take less."

"You'd think, wouldn't you? But no – apparently, as there are so many different poisons in there, they're all kind of fighting with each other to dominate – to have their effects on the body, to be in control. Of course, that doesn't lessen the pain of it none. Apparently after two days even the strongest of men are begging for the end to come."

"Is there anything else you can tell us about this poison?"

"Only that I feel mighty sorry for the one who gets on the wrong side of Desmond."

"That went rather well," commented Legolas when Valmir had been led out of the interrogation cell.

"It went very well," agreed Aragorn somewhat heavily. "Much better than I thought it would – thanks mostly to you. We could still be trying to break him if you hadn't brought up the wellbeing of his wife."

"Every man has a weakness," said Legolas with a slightly forced smile. "You should know that well enough by now."

Aragorn chuckled, though it too was forced. "You are right," he admitted, refusing to be baited. "Though I am curious to know how you knew this one's weakness."

"There was something in his eyes that was different to most other top security prisoners. He seemed far too anxious."

"And from that you discerned he had a wife?" Aragorn's tone was incredulous.

"It was elementary," said Legolas with a shake of his head. "He still wore his wedding band. No man that thought little or nothing of his wife would continue to wear his wedding band."

Aragorn shook his head with a smile. "Trust an Elf," he said. Legolas cocked an amused eyebrow in response, though he quickly sobered as he contemplated the information they had been given.

"He almost seemed too willing to give us information," he said softly.

"You don't trust what he said?"

"I do. That's what worries me. I sensed no lies in his words. Did you?"

"No." Aragorn sighed, bringing a hand up to rub his eyes. "He was very helpful. I doubt I will meet another such criminal with a conscience."

"Men don't only steal gold and jewels, you know."

"I doubt that stealing someone's daughter was how he began his life of crime."

"You never know."

"I suppose not. All the same… I almost wish he had been lying, for what he told us."

The silence seemed abrupt and very unwelcome – like it had come to make a mockery of the knowledge the two suffered to have. Five days. And that was for a healthy, strong, full grown Man too. Not a weakened, recuperating hobbit.

Legolas thought back to some of his earliest memories of the Ringbearer, before the Quest had officially begun. To a time when Frodo had still had warmth, comfort, plentiful meals, and the very best of company. To a time when he had still been able to smile, laugh and joke with such grace and ease. Legolas had always known Frodo to be very polite and well spoken – as well as incredibly intelligent. In fact, Legolas had encountered very few mortals who he could truthfully call more decent and caring than Frodo Baggins. After all, how many people could honestly say that they would go to the very end of the world for the slight chance that it might be saved? How many people would truly be full willing to sacrifice everything they owned in the blink of an eye, including their own mind, body and soul, for the slim possibility that they might be able to stop such a dark and deadly threat as the Lord of the Rings?

Frodo Baggins was one who should – at the very least – be respected for what he had done. Legolas knew he was only one of many who agreed that this small hobbit should be treated like a prince. It was absolutely inexcusable that any harm should befall him – especially intentional harm. The Elf could feel his very blood boiling at the thought of what his friend had been put through, just for the sake of a few men getting some easy gold.

However, anger soon melted into unease as he considered again what Valmir had said. "Five days…" he murmured. "How long do you think it would take to… before Frodo…" He could not finish his sentence. He glanced across at Aragorn. The King lowered his head, heaving a sigh that seemed to contain all the weight of the world.

"These sorts of things tend to work twice as fast on children as they do on adults," he said heavily. "Their bodies are so small and unprepared for such an assault as poison. And considering that Frodo is ill as well, not to mention that he was not in top health before any of this even began, I'd say… three days at most, if we're lucky. More likely it'll be two. I'm not sure if we can even hope for that much time."

"How much time do you need?"

"Three days would be preferable," said Aragorn, feeling like a traitor to be speaking of such thins in such a way. "Though I hate that it means another day of suffering on Frodo's part."

"I think there are going to be many more days of suffering on his part yet to come, my friend, regardless."

"I don't doubt that you're right, my friend."

That was all they had time for as the door to the cell opened again. Tharlon entered once more, directing another prisoner. But this was no man of the West. This was one of the Southrons – one of the Haradrim. The Lieutenant. His dark skin allowed little of his features to be shown in the dim lighting of the room, but Legolas saw that he carried himself almost regally, and that he stared down the length of his nose at them. This was a proud man. The Elf suppressed a sigh as he readied himself for the greater effort that he knew was to come…

The captain and prisoner came further into the room, the latter wrenching his arm from Tharlon's grip, shooting the captain a vicious glare. The captain remained rigid, not taking his eyes from the prisoner. His hand strayed to the hilt of his sword. The Southron spat out a hiss through his mouth – an undoubted warning. His upper lip was lifted into a feral sneer. White teeth glared threateningly at the captain, before the moment passed, and the prisoner sat himself down in the same regal manner that he walked. His expression returned to one of bored indifference. If Legolas hadn't known better, he would have thought he was now in the presence of two kings. For a moment longer, the captain lingered, his eyes darting between the cloaked figures and the prisoner. Then with a stiff bow of his head, he excused himself, locking the door firmly behind him.

Almost at once, Aragorn realised that they would not be able to use the same tactics on this man as they had on Valmir. Looking into the Southron's eyes, he saw that this was a man who would not succumb easily at all.

"You know why you are here," he said after another moment's deliberation. He looked the Southron straight in the eye. "Tell us about the sale you made three days ago in this city to a Gondorian man – the sale of a poison."

As the words left Aragorn's mouth, both he and Legolas watched tensely as the Southron's mouth curled up into a smile. The Lieutenant of the Haradrim forces paused for only a moment as if in consideration, before staring deep into Aragorn's hood.


Gandalf had hardly finished speaking before there was a sudden, somewhat muffled thud. An instant later Sam had sprung to his feet, bleary eyed and disoriented. Less than a heartbeat later, Merry and Pippin were also awake and looking about in confusion. Gandalf shook his head, sparing the moment for amusement. If he ever wanted to gain the attention of the three before him, at least he had another word he could officially use besides 'food'.

Leaning forward even more to the precarious point between falling off his chair and remaining in a stable position, he stared intently at Frodo, waiting with baited breath. All traces of humour had drained instantaneously from his features as he gave all attention to the Ringbearer. There was no longer any doubt that the hobbit was waking up. Though whether or not this was a good thing had yet to be seen…

"Mr Frodo?" said Sam, quickly getting a grasp on the situation, despite being slightly dazed and groggy from his rest. He pulled himself up on the bed and peered anxiously into his master's face. Pippin had half hauled himself up when Gandalf laid a halting hand on his shoulder.

"Steady there, lad," he said gently. "I think it best if you and Meriadoc stay on the ground for the moment. It will do your cousin no good to be crowded around right now." Pippin looked as if he were about to protest. Gandalf more than expected him to. But instead, he gave a pained look at his cousin's form on the bed before turning around and marching over to one of the tables. Seconds later he was depositing the basin in Gandalf's lap.

"Just in case," he said, his tone almost defiant. Gandalf regarded him for a moment before nodding slowly. He glanced across at Merry, who slung an arm around the tween's shoulders, his own expression intense.

"Good thinking, Pip," he managed to say. Pippin nodded, his gaze never leaving the bed. A moment later, he rested his head on Merry's shoulder, seeking the comfort of the extra contact.

But even as this exchange was given, Frodo's eyes slowly fluttered open, the small movement achieving the appearance of a truly painful task. They closed again almost at once. The smallest of groans escaped his cracked lips. "Merry, Pippin," said Gandalf. "If you could shut the curtains and bring over a cup of water–" He did not get time to finish his sentence before he received compliance. Suddenly the room was dulled, the walls turning to a muted grey as the afternoon sun was hidden from view.

As if in direct response to the reduction of light, Frodo's eyes dragged fully open. The over-bright blue orbs darted about, though Gandalf was almost certain that they were seeing very little, if anything at all. The pupils were pinpoint pricks where they had been dilated before. The wizard frowned in worry to note the switch in extremes.

"Frodo?" he said again. If he could get a reaction – any definite answer…

"Mr Frodo, sir?" said Sam. "Can you hear us?"

It could barely be considered a response, but a response it was. Sam and Gandalf both leaned in further as Frodo's head moved slightly towards Sam. His brows contorted into a familiar frown of concentration, though both wizard and gardener could see that the concentration was mingled with acute pain.

"Mr Frodo?" tried Sam again, his voice trembling with hesitance as he wondered whether they should really be trying to wake his master up further when he was so clearly suffering. But this time Frodo's face turned closer towards Sam, and his glazed eyes continued to move about, searching for the source of the much trusted and loved voice.

"What's happening?" asked Pippin, anxiety warring with impatience. He stood on his tiptoes, one hand grasping Merry's shoulder for balance as he tried to see better. Both Sam and Gandalf ignored him, much to his vexation.

"Try again, Sam," said Gandalf softly, his tone reassuring. The young hobbit took a deep breath, not daring to raise his hopes. When he spoke, his voice was soft and controlled, almost as if it was just another morning at Bag End.

"Mr Frodo? Won't you talk to us? We've been ever so worried about you, sir. Why – even Mr Gandalf's sitting right next to you, watching over you while Mr Strider pops out for a bit. They've been looking after you as best they can, don't you know? And that's saying something. But we need you to help us. We need you to tell us what's wrong with you, sir. Do you think you could do that for your Sam?"

Frodo's eyes did a rapid succession of blinks, his lids finally stopping closed. The frown deepened, and his pale lips pressed firmly together to make a thin line. Sam had seen that expression several times before. It was the look Frodo always got when in the company of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. It was the look he had gotten during the earlier stages of the Quest, when Legolas and Gimli had insisted on bickering over every diminutive thing under the Sun. It was the look he had gotten at the times when he had realised his hand was unconsciously creeping up to his neck to grasp the Ring. It was a look conveying a feeling of the deepest, utmost, paramount frustration. Under different circumstances, those who knew Frodo well enough would be backing away in the hopes of avoiding the explosion when it came. But with things as they were, Sam was at a loss to know what to do. Was his master irritated at his gardener's nonsensical prattle? Or was he perhaps delirious and fractious about something that he alone could see and hear? Or was he even angry with himself that he had been thrown into a situation where he could do nothing but rely on others?

Sam did not know, but looking up at Gandalf's face, he knew the wizard noted the expression as well… and was looking quite worried about it too. "Frodo," he said. "I need you to try and relax. I'm going to give you a bit of water, lad. You need to keep your fluids up. Are you able to swallow, do you think?"

Stunning blue irises were once more revealed as Frodo forced open his eyes. Slowly, thoughtfully, he gave a definite, jerk of his head – consent. Gandalf moved himself closer to the bed, and carefully helped Frodo to sit up. Almost at once the hobbit clenched his eyes shut as he fought a fierce wave of nausea. The blanket covering him slipped down to his lap, and at once he felt the extreme cold of the room. He felt his torso give a deep shudder, not at all helping the unbalance of his delicate stomach. He was going to throw up.

He wanted desperately to tell someone, but he could not bully his mouth, tongue or voice into co-operation. But not for nothing was Gandalf head of the Istari order. Sensing the change, he quickly pushed the basin to Frodo just in time. The hobbit retched, bringing up all the tea, water and broth he had been carefully given in the last few hours. It was not a pretty sight. Even when his stomach was empty, he continued to heave, bringing up bile. At the very sound of his cousin's misery, Merry impulsively tugged Pippin closer to him, hugging the sobbing tweenager as he himself felt tears streaming down his face.

Was this never going to end?


A/N: Please, please, please, please, please, please forgive me! I'm soooooooooooo sorry that this took so increadibly long. But I've finally finished exams and yr 11, so I'll FINALLY have more time to dedicate to writing! D But yeah, I'm really sorry about taking so long, and for giving you all such a boring chapter too. Hopefully part 2 of this one will be a bit better. Yes, that's right. This was only the first part of chapter 16, even though it's already one of the longest updates I've posted. Aaah well. Anyway, on a more personal level:

Astron-Meares - lol, yep. this is drama central right here. And it's only going to get more tense in the next few chapters, so i suggest you have a good cuddly soft toy or arm you can latch onto. ;-) Hope you continue to not get too bored with this story, though after the tremendous wait I put you all through, I wouldn't be surprised. I wouldn't have too many expectations for this chapter,either shakes head. Not much action, really. Aaah well.I can assure you that more will be coming. )

Breon Briarwood - I'm tremendously glad to hear your fingies have grown back:D But don't strain them or anything now, or I'll have to send for Sam, and we can't have him being distracted from worrying about poor Frodo now, can we? And indeed he will be worrying a lot now that he's awake. I hope this chapter explained why the poison's taking so long. )

FrodoBaggins87 - You're making me blush! Thank you so much for the lovely compliment! lol. )

Kaewi - Lol. You've been waiting for THIS chapter even longer if you haven't given up on it already. I can only offer my sincerest apologies and hope you can forgive me. Hopefully you at least got some more answers from this update. I can tell you now that more still are on the way, too. ;-) Glad you enjoyed the detail. It's hard work making a story like this believable. Thank you for your support. )

Kellie - Glad you enjoyed it. I'll admit I was quite proud of that opening bit to the chapter. ) Sorry about taking so long to update, though. Hopefully things will be quicker now that school's (finally) over.

lindahoyland - lol. I think I mean haemphilia too. Silly me. Biology revision confirms it. Lol. Thanks for pointing that out! And you're right about Frodo's friends. They really do care about him a lot. Hopefully that will help to pull him through all of this.

Obi wan Skywalker - Frodo certainly is in some need for saving, lol. I feel really bad for all I've put him through. Glad you've been enjoying the story so far. )

Tallis Keeton - glad you're finding the story entertaining. I only hope that you're still interested after the long interval between updates and the considerably more boring storyline for this chapter. And don't worry, there'll be some Aragorn/Legolas/Gimli action later on. ;-)