His grip on the gritty bars that held them captive was desperate. Face pressed up against the cold metal his breath rasping shakily through his lips he asked.
"What are they doing? What do they do to him?" his voice was barely above an tortured whisper. He strained to see past the bulk of orcs that were struggling to hold Legolas down. The elf's frantic shouts were drowned in a swell of orcan guffaws and bellows.
"It's a worm, they's put a worm in his 'ead captain." A tall prisoner answered him. He could just barely see.
Aragorn twisted as much as he could in the tight space.
"What? What are you saying man, they do not slay him?"
"No sir they's put a rout worm in his ear."
"A rout worm?" Aragorn repeated stupidly.
"Aye sir, lives 'neath the skin it does."
A sudden agonized scream rent the air.
There was sudden silence as the prisoners strained forward, yearning to see yet terrified to know. Aragorn was pinioned flat against the rusty bars but he could see well enough now that the orcs stepped back to admire their handiwork. Legolas' heels drummed against the ground as his body jerked spasmodically. White froth gathered at the corners of his mouth. The orcs laughed as the elf made unconscious sounds of pain.
In horror Aragorn could not speak. Tears gathered in his bloodshot eyes.
"It's only the worm sir, It's burrowing in 'is 'ead. He'll stop beatin' up like that once it settles."
"It's killing him." Aragorn sobbed.
"No sir, it dasn't kill yer."
Aragorn felt a momentary surge of hope but then the soldier continued.
"It drives you mad though the deeper it goes, then soon you're not good for naught. T'was better they'd killed 'im right off.
Aragorn did not have the time to answer for the orcs, already tiring of the elf turned to the holding pen for a new victim.
They held him down, neck bared for the cruellest of cuts. But Aragorn was past caring. Captured during battle he, his men and Legolas had been forced into small, bare, rusty cages and left to starve. Now and then the orcs would drag out a weakened victim and torture him to death. At times they would toss scraps of bread and meat at them. Hungered, the men would scramble for the dry crusts like animals. The orcs would always laugh heartily.
Of the twenty odd soldiers captured only twelve were left.
It was Legolas who had stopped Aragorn from giving in, Legolas who fought for extra scraps to keep him alive, Legolas who had held him quietly as he sobbed when hunger and tiredness became too much to bear.
And now he lay discarded on the ground, eyes slightly open, body trembling minutely, dirt and blood ground into his face.
"Goodbye mellon nin." Aragorn whispered between dry cracked lips.
He felt a rush of air as the orc swung, then a sharp pain, then nothing as darkness descended.
The first drops of rain washed over the bodies that were strewn across the trampled earth. Then it began to pour in earnest. It soaked into the matted grass and washed the black blood of the slain orcs into the ground. The water ran in rivulets down Aragorn's face as he lay unconscious under the bodies of the very orcs who had tried to behead him. The water ran into his open mouth and nostrils and it was this intrusion that brought him back to himself. He spluttered as he came awake and tried to move but there was something heavy on his back. He shifted and it slid off with a sodden thump.
There was a burning pain on the side of his neck. When he put a shaking hand there it came away sticky with blood. Dazed he stared at his reddened hand.
"How?" his mind asked.
Then his bleary eyes saw the open empty cages and the dead orcs. In disbelief he pulled at a broken spear that was buried in the back of an orc close to him. The metal horse shaped tip gleamed dully.
"Rohirrim riders," he said to himself.
Then his eyes sought the empty cages again. They had freed his men. Had they thought him dead and left him there?
"Did they even see me? he questioned the air.
Then he stiffened in sudden remembrance. "Legolas!"
He scrambled to his feet searching the sodden ground. No sign of the elf did he find though he overturned many a dead carcass.
"They would have taken him to safety." he reassured himself. Yet he was driven to search for signs of his friend until dizziness overcame him.
He found the tracks of the raiding party and began to follow them west. The hoof prints of the horses were deep and fresh in spite of the rain, so he had no trouble trailing them. They had a lead of at least four hours he guessed. If they stopped to camp he would catch up to them by nightfall. If not he would simply follow their trail to their village. At least he would if he could keep to his feet. The debilitating effect of his enforced incarceration had weakened him terribly.
As a weapon he carried with him the broken spear, for he had lost his sword to the orcs weeks ago.
By the time evening had come he realized that he could not hope to catch up without food and rest. He had run out his reserves. Seeking out a partially secluded spot, he crawled between two boulders and instantly fell asleep. His fingers were curled around the haft of his makeshift sword.
The rain fell softly down.
A serpent seeking out a drier spot wound its way up and over the ranger's legs but he felt it not. He slept the sleep of exhaustion.
'Water', it was his first thought on awakening. His head felt tender and dull. Moving cautiously he crawled from between his temporary shelter and stood on shaky legs. The rain had stopped. Night was upon him yet not total darkness, for the moon was nigh full and the stars shone brightly in the rain washed sky. It was no small wonder that the horsemen guarded these plains so viciously. Such beauty was precious.
He found a small pond fed by an underground stream. Falling upon it he drank greedily. Then he washed his face and neck gingerly rubbing away the caked blood and grit. His skin felt warm to his own hands and he knew the wound needed stitching and medicine.
"And I need nourishment," he whispered.
There was not just one but a series of ponds dotting the area. Aragorn held the spear across his chest and settled down to wait in the shadows. Some sort of creature must visit these ponds. He just hoped that it was small enough to kill and good enough to eat.
He must have drifted off for an unexpected sound jerked him to attention. Holding his breath he listened intently for he could see nothing.
There was no sound for a while, then came a strange scraping and a soft low whine. He let out a sigh of disappointment. A dog of some sort. It was approaching from the left, an area of rock and shadow. He could hear it clearly; it was dragging itself over rock and brush. It would stop now and then and let out a pitiful whine. Aragorn did not move. A wounded animal was more than he could deal with just then.
But the creature kept coming. It finally dragged itself into partial view and stopped. It lifted its head and seemed to shiver. It was still mostly in shadow but the moon shone on its bright golden head.
"Legolas!" The shout burst from Aragorn horrified lips.
Legolas was trembling. His ears were bloody from his repeated clawing at them to relieve the pain. Aragorn cradled him, he cupped handfuls of water and washed away the dried blood from his swollen ears. But Legolas only tossed his head wearily and made that pitiful sound deep down in his throat.
"I have you Legolas, I have you." Aragorn soothed, but his tears belied his words for he did not know how to begin to cure this ill. But Legolas could not hear him, he could hear nothing but the high pitched squeal of the worm as it burrowed into him.
Aragorn rocked him and talked to him as the night slowly passed but Legolas did not sleep. He could not. But the rumble of Aragorn's voice vibrated through him and he found that it lessened the pain.
Aragorn slept fitfully coming awake every time Legolas shifted. He felt feverish as well and knew that if aid did not find them soon, theirs would be a lingering death.
"What shall we do mellon nin."
The morning light was bright and Aragorn woke to find Legolas gone. He leapt to his feet forgetting his hunger and thirst. A quick search showed him erratic tracks heading north. Aragorn ran for he knew how fast the elf could move, especially when alone.
Legolas was walking in a straight line across the plains, one hand clasped over his right ear, head down. His long hair was loose and bedraggled, blowing fitfully in the wind. Aragorn ran after him calling out many times, but Legolas neither slowed nor turned around. At last the ranger overtook him halting his forward motion by simply standing in his way. Grasping him by the shoulder Aragorn shook him. Red rimmed eyes looked into his.
"Where are you going?" Aragorn gasped. "Do you not know me?"
"I must get home." Legolas replied tonelessly.
"Home! You are hundreds of leagues from your father's realm. How do you hope to get there?" Aragorn asked a little despairingly.
Legolas looked off into the distance for a few moments and then back at Aragorn. It was enough time for Aragorn to see the line of blood that had leaked from inside his ear to darken the collar of his tunic.
"Come with me mellon nin. Nothing lies out there but death."
It was easy to turn Legolas away. He walked woodenly without complaining one hand cupped over his ear, following where Aragorn lead. But every now and then Legolas would stop and stare back at the way they had come.
"Come," Aragorn would say and then Legolas would look at him and begin walking again. Aragorn walked until he felt light headed and black dots floated before his eyes. Only a little more, he coaxed himself for not too far ahead was a tree dotted stretch of plain that was rich in tubers, berries and small game.
Cherries he found by the handful among the short shrubby bushes that bore them. These he gathered in the skirt of his tunic along with a few tubers that could be eaten without cooking. He stopped to rest when they came to a grove of trees and dividing up the spoils began to eat steadily. Legolas looked down at his lapful of fruit. He seemed unsure what to do. But hearing Aragorn munching wetly he put a red one to his mouth and tasting the sweetness put another. Soon he was eating just as hungrily.
The Rout worm, so named by farmers from Rohan to Gondor was not a worm at all but a parasite. Its saliva could dissolve any type of flesh and in this way it would eat its way deep into its victim to lay its eggs. It was very thin and short and hard to get rid of. It also emitted an unbearably high pitched squeal with every vibration of its body as it burrowed. It was a sound human ears could not hear and elves and animals could not bear. This worm was having a most difficult time with its present endeavours however for it had to work twice as hard to penetrate this elven flesh. And so by the close of that day the worm rested from its labours.
The sudden silence was like a deluge of cold water. Legolas gasped, his shoulders and head drooping with the abrupt absence of pain. Aragorn was suddenly there holding him by the arms in a vicelike grip, his face a mask of concern.
"Aragorn," Legolas whispered in wonder and touching the ranger's face found that Aragorn was burning up with fever.