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Chapter 6: Slaves of Darkness
The forest had grown so dark that it was impossible to tell night from day, and every tree, every path, looked exactly the same. The Orcs paid little heed to their prisoners. After all, by being appointed to the Dol Guldur path, they had been robbed of the chance to gain importance by presenting their master with a prize. They did not know that they held the one Sauron truly sought. Aragorn, however, seemed to be of little importance, and they did not draw much pleasure from taunting him.
The prisoners were not allowed to communicate. Aragorn and the twins could only exchange glances, and Aragorn could see despair in Elladan and Elrohir's eyes. No doubt the two brothers had heard many more tales of horror about Dol Guldur and knew the fate that would befall them. Aragorn wished he could say he was sorry—sorry that they would now be tortured and, most likely, killed because of him. Most of all, he wished that he could see Legolas again. He wished he could speak with Legolas again, just one last time; laugh with him just one last time.
Aragorn knew dark paths lay ahead of them both. He also knew that Sauron was searching for him; always he was seeking out the Heir of Isildur. His secret was more than safe with the three noble Elves. It was the torture that he feared they might be put through in search of him or his name: Aragorn…
Unconsciously rubbing his finger where his ring normally was, he wondered, not for the first time, whether Gandalf had found the Ring of Barahir. It had been a major risk he had taken, leaving the ring. The idea had come to him as he saw Thranduil wearing Legolas' chain. He remembered Legolas carefully placing the golden leaf so that it faced Rhovanion with its tip. Aragorn had tried to do the same with his ring.
Such monotony accompanied by tormented thought dragged on for two more long days, which would, in the future, run in jumbled fragments through the minds of the captives. Their eyes were growing accustomed to the unwelcome absence of daylight. Upon coming to this realization, the image of Gollum came to Aragorn's mind, and he remembered eyes pale and lamplike, grown so from long hours of shying from the sun.
Lost in his thoughts, Aragorn did not realize his pace had been slowing until the sharp crack of a whip sounded and a searing pain shot through his back. The young ranger stumbled—more from the shock of the whip than the pain. Elladan looked for a moment as though he might say something, but Aragorn shook his head sharply. The raven-haired elf hung his head again, subdued by the fact that he could not help either of his younger brothers.
"Keep up!" snapped the Orc who had whipped Aragorn. He waved a club threateningly at the prisoners as if to say "or else!" Aragorn almost smiled, thinking "been there, done that". Then he really did smile, remembering the first time the same Orc had done that to he, Aragorn, and Legolas. The prince had "tripped" on the way out of his cell, knocking over an Orc and then blithely saying that the Orcs really should consider new flooring or reconsider his feet shackles.
At the time, Aragorn had not found it amusing; he had been deathly scared for Legolas' life. Yet now, he felt that these creatures deserved nothing more than mockery, and that even in these forsaken hours, laughter could replace a little bit of the pain and fear. Aragorn needed that right now. He had grown used to hearing yet not listening, to touching yet not feeling…he had become detached from reality to such an extent that laughter seemed but a distant dream, to be clung to lest he should never smile again.
Somehow, the pain was less severe now when the whip came down on his back. Aragorn supposed that he could credit this to the fact that so much torment had already numbed him, and that any more served only as a reminder of it. At least this loss of sensation allowed some of his rational thought to return. He wondered if Legolas was feeling the same thing…but the elf had been through so much more that it seemed inconceivable to know what he might be thinking.
Though, he would have been surprised to find that even in the most dire of situations, the hearts and mindsets of two who are so bound by friendship will remain true, and at that moment Legolas was thinking of him as well, while walking with downcast eyes on an endless, forsaken road onto which no starlight shone.
Aragorn was still in his own realm of thought when the chains about him went taut and he was jerked to a halt. He blinked, focusing on his surroundings as he went from the seclusion of his mind to reality. Elladan was looking at him, concern in his eyes, while Elrohir's gaze was locked on the sight before them. When Aragorn looked ahead as well, a fearful awe overtook him.
From the decaying forest floor there rose a dark fortress. It protruded through the cover of scraggly trees, built with stone blacker than shadow. It was massive; the expanse covered by its width was dwarfed only by its magnificent height. The very aura marked this structure as a place of evil.
How strange it seemed to him that he would be in awe of the very same place that would show him his death. The monstrous structure loomed up before him as his unwilling feet drew him nearer. He wondered briefly if he would ever gaze upon the sky again or upon his friends, family…Arwen…Strange thoughts for an exiled ranger yet, perhaps not so strange for a man condemned to death.
Elrohir's eyes remained somewhat dull and had a dazed look about them. Elladan's sharp grey eyes, however, were not dazed but distant and the elf had the distinct air of one not all there. Elladan had lived many millennia and had, no doubt, seen too much strife. Aragorn realized that the elf had distanced himself from reality quite skillfully and on purpose. Elrohir was most likely doing the same. What seemed like an eternity to men was a mere second to the eldar; Aragorn knew this. Yet in the darkness that torture drowned one in, Aragorn had seem the light leave from legolas' eyes…he had seen how each passing moment of darkness weighed heavier on the immortal's soul.
Would the same fate now befall his elven brothers? Had he, Aragorn, condemned so many immortal souls to a mortal fate? Did the blame lie with him at all?
A yank on the chain started them forward again, and Aragorn felt a sense of impending doom.
Once inside, the weight of their bonds was removed. Around them, the structure's black walls rose, cast with the familiar, wavering reflection of torchlight. How he had come to loath torches. They now brought illumination to the interior of the grand but terrible stronghold, yet it seemed to Aragorn that even dead darkness was less devoid of light. Orcs and other servants of Sauron were about; in fact, the place was full of them, and they seemed to blend into a single mass, becoming one with the fortress. Glowing, piercing eyes directed their gazes at these new prisoners—many vicious grins accompanied those stares as well. to Aragorn, it seemed that their eyes would pass right over him, lingering with awoken vengeance on the twins. Aragorn hung his head wearily, wincing as he gazed upon his chafed wrists. His pale skin was raw and bloody. An unyielding grip clamped down on his upper arm, and Aragorn could hot, reeking breath on his neck as he was steered forward through the crowds. He kept glancing back at Elladan and Elrohir. Fear rose within him; he could not bear to see anyone else he cared for cast into pointless torment.
They were led through many pathways, all of which differed little in their fallen existence, yet dungeons still did not come into view. What were they playing at? If not for amusement, what purpose did innocent prisoners serve?
He came to the realization abruptly.
They would be forced to work in these halls, adding to the prosperity of those who had spelled out their fate. By compliance, they would be aiding the enemy. What worse mockery was there of beauty?
With this knowledge now in hand, the barrier that Aragorn had been struggling to hold up crashed, leaving him powerless against such ruthless cruelty. Aragorn turned to Elladan, but the elf remained steadfast—his eyes looking to a place Aragorn could not see.
An unwelcome urge to shout at this unfairness struck him. How could his brother's just allow this to happen? Aragorn understood the resignation in their eyes. They had known what was going to happen long ago. Why had they done nothing?
The sound of a lock being shut abruptly broke through his angry thoughts. The sound had become familiar to him—too familiar. An Orc touched his arm and Aragorn jerked back at the repulsive touch. The Orc called Shlûgdush backhanded the young ranger across his face and gripped his arm. He then placed two metal armbands on him, one on each chafed wrist.
The cold metal brought with it unwelcome memories of the torture of Legolas. The young ranger resisted the urge to vomit, detesting the idea of the helplessness he would feel.
The metal was not heavy, but rubbed mercilessly against his raw wrists. As he looked up, he saw metal bands being placed on the brothers' arms as well. in a moment, they, too, were done. A man now walked in. His face had black markings, emphasized greatly by cold, black eyes. His skin was tanned extremely dark and his mouth looked to be fixed in a permanent cruel sneer. The jaggedly cut, dark brown hair ended at his shoulders. The man was dressed in a bloodied brown tunic, hanging over black britches. In his hand he carried what looked to be a long black pole. He was called Thaur, and was the slavemaster of Dol Guldur.
The presence of the man seemed to make the air fouler and a fetid smell filled his nostrils. The twins' masks had at last been dropped; both of the young lords of Imladris now seemed sick. Aragorn had no doubt that he was the only person in Middle-earth who hadn't heard of this man.
Thaur opened his mouth to speak, revealed ugly, strangely pointed teeth, but his voice was surprisingly normal, even somewhat lilting. Aragorn found himself unable to turn away, repulsed even as he was forced to watch the man. Thaur broke eye contact and, beside him, Aragorn heard the sound of knees hitting the hard stone floor. The sound of detached laughter then pounded in his ears.
Horrified, Aragorn turned to look, afraid of what he would see, but found he had no control over his own body. Thaur now walked to him, holding a large metal ring in his hands. Aragorn was not so naïve in the cruelties of the world that he did not know what was to come. Thaur opened the ring at the sides and stepped a few inches away from Aragorn's face. The stench of his breath made the young man dizzy as Thaur reached around his neck and shut the ring…the collar.
Aragorn had been marked as a slave. He was now worth less than the blood on the slavemaster's shirt.
A cold laugh reached Aragorn's ears.
How long had they been walking?
Time had passed so easily before, now bow Legolas found that even with the sky above them he could not differentiate between night and day. One of his lifetimes was passing before him and would soon be lost. There were no longer extremes, tones of black and white—everything existed perpetually in a drifting midland of hazy gray. It was always the same. It always hurt. The spectrums of the world had faded and were on the brink of perishing.
They had, some time ago, passed the border of Mirkwood so that they were no longer shrouded by its dark cover. Now an endless world opened up around and made even the group of Orcs, defiled and wrought with evil as they were, seem small and insignificant. Mountains rose in the distance. Legolas could not distinguish them, nor recall to which they belonged but he knew they were there because memory said that they should be. He supposed they were beautiful. They would be capped with snow, if it was the season that permitted such, and touched with swirling mists. At the dawning of day they would be cast in hues of radiant gold and red from the early sun.
How he missed the glory of the sun.
I prefer the stars to the sun. With glaring brilliance, the sun can burn and blind, and its moments of true beauty are only at its coming and going. But stars… they twinkle ever so softly, breaking night's shadow as though in quiet mockery, so that we never forget that there is always light—even in darkness. It may be that I'll not see eternity. If it should come to that, look to the stars, and I will be there.
Those words, spoken so long ago in days of mirth and blossoming lands, returned to him then, as he walked in despondence surrounded and yet alone. He turned his head up to the sky. No stars shone now to show the way… and perhaps they would never shine again. He tried to think of Gildur, but could not concentrate. Even that harbor of pleasant memories was taken from him.
Where the strength to walk came from Legolas could only guess. He was vaguely aware of the presence of Elrond and his father. Seeing two Elven lords reduced to a level of compliance and helplessness pained him, and knowing that weakness caused scars deeper than wounds for Thranduil, he refused to meet the Elvenking's eyes.
Me and my foolish need to prove myself.
"We're going too slow, Ugluk!" The Orc speaking savagely yanked the cahin. "Make 'em walk, or teach 'em to crawl! Maybe we can leave the useless one—he ain't no good to anyone."
Legoals distantly felt a small tingle of emotion He resented being called useless.
Ugluk seemed to contemplate this for a moment. He halted the group's movement, and when they stopped, Legolas had to use every ounce of his willpower to keep his legs from giving way. Keeping his eyes on the ground, the elf waited. A dark form soon loomed before him. He was tainted by his shadow, by its fetid breath, and scarred by its appraising laughter. Ugluk's hand grabbed him roughly by the shoulder. Legolas shuddered involuntarily at the touch, but showed no resistance as he was judged. As eyes swept over him, he felt exposed, and tried to let his mind wander to a place far away, where there was laughter and singing—innocent merriment beneath light of stars and sun.
"Get 'im some draught, and 'e'll make it. These wretches don't die so easy."
Does that surprise you, creature of darkness? Does it surprise you, father? Does not being dead yet at least somewhat prove that I am not all weakness?
Still burdened, he wondered fleetingly why Ugluk even bothered dragging him along. He was of much less worth as a prisoner than Elrond or Thranduil, and was becoming a hindrance to their progress, so why keep him? To what purpose would it serve?
Maybe he would rather be left in ignorance.
A grim smile touched his lips. Ignorance of what? What ignorance—what innocence—he had had of the world's cruelties were lost. His naivety of the goodness of the world had been torn from him…tortured out of him. Had they broken him? Had Legolas been so weak as to succumb to their torture? He had read of the worst torture inflicted upon his ancestors. Every elf knew of Feanor, of his brother, of Morgoth. And yet, Legolas knew worse torture exists. There were yet ways to strip Legolas further of what innocence he had left.
"Pick up the pace," growled the Orc beside him. He cracked his whip, but his eyes betrayed his action—he could not afford to disobey Ugluk's direct orders and punish Legolas; not when the wounded prince was already on death's door.
Were not the levity of the situation so somber, Legolas would have laughed as the irony of the entire situation hit him. The Orcs were every bit as captive as the elves to Ugluk. Yet what worth Legolas was to the repulsive Orc continued to bemuse him. Perhaps he had no wroth and now existed solely for the purpose of being a trophy—and what a lovely trophy he made!
What is worth? Thought Legolas. To the Orc I am worth nothing, to my father I am worth Mirkwood, and to myself…?
Legolas found that at long last he had become numb; he no longer cared. What tears should have come were nonexistent in dry, dull, blood-shot eyes. What terror should have been slowly filling his heart, dread the slow poison flowing through his veins—they were not there. Hate, fear, affection, these were all lost somewhere in his struggle to survive. Yet what was life that had no heart, nor soul, nor emotions? What good was a life that dreamt not, hoped not, cared not—an empty shell; a mockery of what true life had once existed in the body.
Once these were lost in what allowed the slow decay of time, once passion was lost, what is left? He was his own intrinsic values, his own love, his own hate. How had he lost himself in his struggle to survive without realizing it?
Legolas felt his head abruptly jerked back and the Orc beside him laughed. Legolas slowly raised his eyes to the Orc, wary of what he would now see. Clutched in the grotesque hands of the Orc shone a single golden braid, his golden braid. His warrior braid. Legolas leaned his head forward in resignation. Jaggedly cut hair fell across his face for the first time in centuries.
The Orc laughed again, pleased with himself for finding a way to punish Legolas for his slow pace.
"Walk faster, worthless scum, else you find your other two…missing," said the Orc. He had apparently forgotten what braids were called.
Ugluk stopped and glared at the Orc beside Legolas, annoyance glittering in his dead eyes. "You, imbecile; thought I told you to give 'im draught! Now quit taunting 'im and do what I say!"
The Orc bowed his head submissively, but Legolas could see in his expression an undying lust for vengeance and power. It was reminiscent of both Ognak and Ugluk, who had both challenged and eventually defeated their superiors. Was this some absurd system of hierarchy, based on strength and bloodshed? The followers seemed to each be lying in wait for their own chance at supremacy. But, then again, they were all just slaves in the end, slaves who cowered in fear before the Dark Lord as he reigned from his tower of eternal fire and death, slaves who begged to be spared even though their lives were not living.
How ironic, then, that these slaves have become my masters…and if Sauron treats his minions with such brutality, how does he treat his prisoners?
Legolas braced himself as a rough hand gripped his chin and held a dark vial, encrusted with filth, to his lips. Obediently, he opened them. The contents that spilled down his throat re-awakened the sensation of taste with a jolt. His eyes went wide with the shock of how strong it was; how disgusting it was (an aspect in which it had surpassed all of his expectations). The process of forcing it down an aching, dry, unwilling throat was painful, and nearly impossible. But the Orc's grip was unyielding.
Legolas swallowed it and welcomed release from his enemy's fierce hold.
The draught was mean tot help heal him. It was meant to send a rush of warm energy coursing through him, so that he might continue on, even in this broken state of being. But Legolas felt no such thing. As he began to move forward again, he felt its unsettling presence within him, and he was sickened by it. Keeping it down was a battle in itself.
The Orcs, however, apparently did believe that their concoction had served its purpose, and did not relent as they pressed onward.
Thranduil's quiet voice was pleading, but the prince did not look his way.
Some hours passed…how many passed, only Eru knew. At that time, the slow progress that they were making came to a halt as some shade was once again available in the form a small, scarcely wooded area. The Orcs stepped in among those scraggly trees gladly—not even they could go on tirelessly, no matter how they longed to reach their destination and present Sauron with his prize.
They began their demolition of the vegetation nearest to them. Even young trees, innocent and non-assuming, were broken and ignited with a fatal blaze before ever having a chance at life. As Legolas looked at those fires, it was as though he could see his own life unfurling within their depths: he was that creature just beginning to know the world, cut down as he fought to prove himself and cast into the searing abyss of pain and destruction.
The prisoners were just now being brought into the area, after the hose of Orcs, so that Legolas' view of the life-fed flames was from afar. Yet even as his stare remained fixed upon them, his thoughts drifted to a sentiment he had not felt in far too long: relief. Valar… how long had it been since they last rested? For so many days he had been walking, walking semi-consciously down and ill-trodden path, walking endlessly towards his doom.
They were so close now. The chains seemed leaden, desiring nothing more than to drag Legolas down. His legs were trembling now… begging to collapse.
Just a bit further. I've come too far to fall…
But the will of darkness opposed Legolas' determination. Worse, it felt like unspoken mockery. His wounds began to ache worse than ever, and he struggled to keep his legs from buckling… until, this close to reprieve, they gave way.
In answer to some nonexistent, humiliating demand that called for resignation, he fell.
He had thought himself past them, but still they came. Tears of humiliation fell, burning his previously extremely dry eyes. As if to make the fall the epitome of his failure, the Orc beside him saw the tears.
"Look 'ere! The scum is crying!" exclaimed the Orc, cackling. He kicked Legolas' side, pushing him to his back so that all present could see the evidence of humiliation upon the prince's face. Loud laughter of mockery coursed through Legolas' ears. An unnoticed tear slid down Thranduil's face as he gazed upon the broken body of his son.
Ugluk snapped around to face the cause of the laughter, glaring at the other Orcs.
"Keep up to pace, fools! The Dark Lord expects the prisoners and His wrath shall be on your heads! Get the prisoner moving—the Great Eye wants him the most and in health enough to take what He needs from the scum!"
Though the laughter ceased, the Orcs glared resentfully at their "leader". They had been traveling non-stop; they deserved a little fun at the expense of the prisoner! They roughly attempted to make Legolas stand up, yet it seemed the same Legolas had built around his emotions had broken around where he had partitioned himself from pain. Their crude handling sent waves of nausea through his frail and abused body. As soon as he made it to his feet, he promptly fell to his knees, and the draught he had been forced to drink, poison to an elf, came back up. Yet where the Orcs thought it would heal him, it had actualloy reopened his wounds. Legolas fell to the ground as spasms of coughing racked his body, producing yet more blood.
Thranduil fell to the ground beside Legolas, taking and holding his son's body close as he whispered soothing words.
"If you want him to survive at all, he needs water," said Thranduil coldly, shaking with fury.
Surprisingly, Ugluk obliged giving Thranduil a skin of water. Though Thranduil knew it was only because Sauron wanted Legolas healthy and strong enough to be "persuaded" to talk, he thanked the Valar all the same. He poured the liquid into his son's mouth, trying to ignore the whimpers that issued from his mouth as it fell past cracked, bloody lips, and his dry, aching throat. Legolas had at last succumbed to the infection of his wounds and the mental and psychological strain. His eyes rolled up in his head as he fell unconscious.
Ugluk growled, gnashing his teeth furiously.
"We rest here tonight," he snapped. "Get to work! You!" He turned to the Elves. "Make yourselves useful! Wake him up!"
After much quarreling, the camp was at last set up. Then, argument renewed as the subject of what to do with the prince came up.
"The Magi," said one, licking his lips. He was referring to an evil sorcerer in Sauron's employ.
"It will take too long!" said another. "He is weak! He won't last long with his scratches!" he cackled.
Another grinned at this, a smile that clearly showed evil intentions behind it. It was the Orc that had mocked Legolas earlier. "'is wounds are open, so why don't we close 'em?" He laughed again and the Elves cringed at the grating noise. He grabbed his sword and put it in the fire, taking it out after a few moments of tense silence where some of the dimmer Orcs made sense of this logic and the brighter contemplated how much of a threat he was. Elrond and Thranduil understood immediately and watched in intense fear as the Orc took his sword out of the fire.
It was now glowing white hot.
He grinned again and maneuvered it so that it hovered over Legolas' body.
The darkness had engulfed them as the door slammed shut. Elrohir desperately tried to see through the darkness but found his Elven sight failed him here in this wretched place. He panicked for the first time since they had been brought here. The last time he and his brother had been tossed into such evil darkness was when they had been trying to avenge their mother's brutal torture at the hands of the Orcs. However, they had been young and easily fell into a trap which had almost lost them their lives. It most certainly destroyed what innocence they had had. Elladan brought his twin back to the present as he found his hand, whispering softly to him. As he calmed, Elrohir began to call for Aragorn, using his ranger name.
"Strider? Strider?" He kept his voice low, for there was no telling who might be listening.
The voice that answered was pained and weak, and seemed to be laden with countless sorrows. "I'm here, 'Ro."
Elrohir sighed, both out of relief and frustration. The stroke of a whip lash was far less daunting than these moments of uncertain waiting. He crept forward in the dark, reaching for his little brother with one hand and keeping hold of Elladan with the other. The elder twin followed Elrohir's movements complacently. Finally, they stumbled upon Aragorn, who was lying against one of the walls for support.
"Estel," Elrohir said under his breath. His mortal brother's hand was cold as he took it in his own.
"'Ro, 'Dan…it's all my fault. All of this is because of my incompetence…because I can't be trusted to carry out a simply mission."
Elrohir was at a loss for words. What comfort was there to offer? Estel had always been quick to blame himself for every misfortune, and he constantly put the weight of the world on his shoulders. Elrohir did not think that he would be able to sway the young man's opinion. How could he give hope and encouragement in such a situation?
Luckily, he wouldn't have to.
Their eyes were beginning to accommodate to the shadow, and Elrohir watched the form of Elladan sidle up to their mortal brother. The oldest son of Elrond had always borne a protective, fatherly quality, which was what Aragorn needed at the moment.
"Estel?" whispered Elladan.
The ranger's tone was dejected as he responded. "What?"
"Would I ever lie to you about an important truth?"
"Nay, of course not."
"Then I will not lie to you now. Listen to my words, and do not doubt their honesty:
"None of this is your fault. We all question why people must suffer as they do, but ultimately, no individual is to blame. Naturally, I am blaming myself as well right now—but there is a part of me that speaks otherwise, and that is what keeps me sane. Deep inside, you know that this is not a consequence of your actions. The only way to change the future is to not dwell on the past.
"Right now, the three of us have to concentrate on our future. We may be captives, slaves in the darkness, but I would rather be in chains with my brothers than in a paradise full of strangers. We have each other. Isn't that what matters? I know that together, we can overcome this, but even if things do go ill, we will stand by one another 'til the end, for none of us is alone in this war."
There was a pause, as both Aragorn and Elrohir processed Elladan's words. Finally, the human spoke in a barely-audible whisper.
"But, Legolas and Father…they're alone."
Elladan thought for a moment before replying. "Do you think about them, Estel?"
"We do as well. So, in a way, they're not really alone."
After that, none of them said anything. The three brothers drew together in an embrace that made them all feel like children again. There, in the utter darkness, they clung to one another, and in doing so, they held on to the only thing they had left: their fraternal love.
Far away, the sky was layered in hues of blue, white, and gray. A minimal amount of sunlight shone down on trees whose leaves had dulled to a dusty brown. An elvenking watched as his son screamed and cried, and remembered days when he had been able to comfort his son's tears—right now, he could only be a helpless bystander. A wizard rode through the night and prayed that he would not be too late. Wind passed over everything, causing even sleeping creatures to stir. All the world moved. Every single heartbeat was important to the future.
So much was happening, but it was so far away… and none of it reached Elladan, Elrohir, and Estel, because for few blessed moments, they were in secluded world.