8

Days passed, many days in which Aragorn had all but convinced himself that he had imagined the sound. Yet still, Legolas lay there uncorrupted, silent, peaceful, not breathing yet alive. The ranger held his head in his hands. What punishment was this, to save him from one cursed fatejust to grant him another. At the end of the very first day Aragorn had gone in dread to the room, there to examine the jars with a faint hope of finding something, anything to help. He took a taste here a sniff there, trying to identify the contents of each one. But there were so many of them, too many of them and as the days passed he realized he could not hope to stumble upon the right one by chance in another rash attempt at saving Legolas' life. Try as he might Aragorn could not recall any remedy of worth to counteract the effects of the 'cure'; it was as though all his years of herb lore had vanished in the wind.

His was a pitiful state. Worry had put dark circles under his eyes. His nails were worn ragged by interminable vigils in the room where he had laid his friend to sleep and long forays in that darkened place that held the key to their release. Did he eat, maybe now and then, he could not recall. He slept only when his eyes became too heavy tokeep open. No longer did he think of life beyond the walls of the farm, Gondor seemed a world away. It seemed that Hiram's will was done regardless. He moved now to open up the small wooden window for the day had begun and the night ended. The light fell into the room and lit up the cot on which Legolas lay sleeping, maybe dreaming, maybe dying. Aragorn watched him as he did every day waiting for some sign, some sound. But there was nothing.

As he sat there listlessly on the straight backed chair on one day out of the many that had gone, the rain began to fall as it did off and on. It was of some comfort to him for it broke the monotony of near silence that he had had to endure of late. He got up, his body protesting for a fleeting moment and shuffled to the window. Grey clouds hung over the place and the rain fell in silver streams from the sky. He put a hand out to touch the cold fat drops. They stung his flesh yet he did not move, he did not move for hours. He did not move until the false grey sky turned to the true darkness of night.

The wind that blew over the plains grew cold, it made him shiver. Running a tired hand through his brown hair Aragorn pulled the window shut. The room was in darkness but he knew the way. He found the lantern and lit it, the glow cast shadows on the walls. He moved to the kitchen there to light another lamp. He was hungry he found and he rooted around for something to ease the emptiness in his belly. There was not much, for no one had harvested from the fields and what remained was fast perishing. In a few minutes he sat at the wood table a cold unappetizing meal before him. It was not long before he fell asleep.

How long he slept he did not know but the cold had seeped into his skin, his bones, his very heart. Shivering he sat up, his exhaled breaths forming puffs of mist. He lurched to his feet and he looked around wondering at the cold, but there was nothing amiss. He rubbed his arms for warmth and thought that he should see to his companion, he had left him alone for far too long. The corridor was dark and seemed longer than it should be. The door to the bedroom was shut though he knew he had left it open. He reached for the old iron handle but its freezing touch made him pull back sharply.

"Legolas," he gasped and he pushed against the door boldly. It slammed against the wall making an oddly hollow echo. The shadows in the room seemed to dance as the flames flickered in the lantern, but they were nothing compared to the vision in the corner.

A young man stood at the side of the bed, though stood was not the correct word for Aragorn could see through him.

"Get away," the ranger cried, uncaring of the nature of the spirit hovering there. But the young man who had been looking down at the elf, now turned his golden eyes on Aragorn. Aragorn's breath stilled in his throat as the force of those eyes held him, pierced him. The young man seemed to shiver and was suddenly directly before him. Aragorn took a sudden deep breath in mortal fear. The cold emanating from the ghost's form paralysed him. But abruptly the thing was gone, passing him and slipping into the corridor, though not completely for one of its cold hands grasped Aragorn's by the wrist.

A frightened sound left the ranger's throat but the ghost was not deterred. It chilly insistence was plain. It pulled the reluctant ranger down the darkened corridor. Into the room laden with jars it took him and then released it awful hold. Aragorn caught his wrist up to his chest and leaned against the wall for support for his strength was leaking away with each second that passed. Only wheezing breaths came from his open mouth. The young man paid no further attention to him, it drifted down the length of the room a sigh wafting from it as it went past the shelves of liquid suffering. It seemed to be looking for something.

When it stopped Aragorn shuddered for the level of coldness in the room increased ten fold. The young man turned to face him then and the thing's eyes seemed to burn with golden light. Aragorn felt himself drawn to that light. He was on his feet and walking before he knew it.

The jar was on the bottom shelf at the very back hidden behind bigger bottles. Aragorn pulled it forward and held it in his hands. He turned to the young man his fear forgotten.

"What is this?" he asked.

The young man of handsome face, golden brown hair and gold eyes opened his mouth but no words came forth, instead he lifted a pointed finger to his mouth.
"I do not understand," Aragorn said plaintively.

Again the young man pointed to his mouth. As Aragorn yet again began to ask another question the young man's head went up as though hearing something. Abruptly he began to move away.

"No, wait, wait." Aragorn begged, but the young man was already gone.

The sun was streaming in the open window of the kitchen, its rays bathing Aragorn's head as he remained slumped at the old wooden table dreaming.

He woke much later soaked with sweat and tired. He rose from his place at the table unsteadily, his neck and back hurting from his hard bed. He realised that almost half of the new day had passed. Appalled by his lack of vigilance he ran to Legolas' room half expecting to see the spectre of his nightmare dancing there. But the room was empty save for his friend and there was no change in his condition at all. Aragorn stiffly crossed the room to open the narrow window. Refreshing air and light flowed in and Aragorn sat at the very edge of the cot fingers twined in his lap. A strange sort of hope fluttered in his chest for he remembered the dream very clearly. But what if there was no jar there, what if...

He paused as the door; the room was dark and musty as usual for there were no windows here. Reluctantly he crossed the threshold. Slowly he crept along the row of shelves his heart pounding in his ears. At the corner where the shelves met the wall he knelt. Feeling his way in the dimness he pushed two large bottles out of his way. His hands brushed nothing but air. A hitched breath of disappointment escaped him. But then anger took over and lying on the floor he pushed all the jars within reach out of the way. He stretched himself out full length and felt blindly along the roughly hewn wood. There was nothing, nothing at all. Despair filled him then, despair at his own foolishness and hope. He began to weep, great heaving sobs that wracked his body and soul. Hiding his face in the crook of his arm he wailed. His outstretched fingers clawed at the hard wood beneath it.

He was drained, yet he gathered himself together and stood. He wiped the last traces of tears from his hot swollen face. He returned to the room where Legolas lay and held him upright to arrange the stuffed cushion beneath his head. He arranged his friend's limbs in a more comfortable position and began to remove the bedding from beneath him. He had not changed them in a few days and thought that it was due. Legolas was unclothe, for since the first day he had fallen ill Aragorn had removed his torn and bloodied garments and swaddled him in a rough but clean blanket. But this too he now removed and bathed Legolas with the tepid water from the well at the back of the house. His hair he combed through with his fingers and kissed the elf's cool forehead before laying him back down on clean sheets. Aragorn stared at his friend's face for a long time before he forced himself to move.

Out in the garden he reaped heaps of cabbage and carrots. Venturing further he found a bed of mushrooms and added some to his basket. The work was repetitive but not tiring and it helped him keep his thoughts at bay. Soon though the little basket was full and he returned to the kitchen. He washed and cut up the vegetables. He refilled the water barrel, washed the iron pot and soon had a hot fire going. He waited until the stew began to boil before he went around to the back of the house, stripped off his clothing and began to bathe. He poured the warm water over his head and let out a sound of pure pleasure as it streamed down the length of him. He washed and washed as though he could wash away his mistakes and pain.

The food was ready and its delicious smell made his mouth water. He scooped out a bowl for himself, but instead of sitting at the table he sat in the open doorway, looking out at the vast stretches of land that marked the boundaries of his home, for he had at last accepted that they would never leave this place. He stayed there a while watching the clouds as they floated by, his mind lost in reverie. But at last it was time to go in for evening had come and the winds from the south had begun to blow cold. Aragorn rose and turned and the spoon fell from the bowl to thump on the floor. Aragorn bent to retrieve it from beneath the chair. But before he could pick it up his hands began to tremble as he caught sight of the jar lying on its side beneath the table where it had rolled when it had fallen out of his hands the night before.

The room filled with the scent of something so pungent that it caused Aragorn's eyes to water, but he continued rubbing the unguent into Legolas' limbs. In deference to the ghost he had already coated the elf's tongue with the heady ointment. At last he was forced to seek refuge outside for the overpowering scent made him swoon. Clutching an old blanket to himself Aragorn prepared to wait.

Morning came at last and with it bright sunlight. The light dazzled his eyes when he awoke for he had been asleep awhile. Clutching his blanket to his shoulders he made his way to the front door. It was wide open as it had been left during the night. Frowning he paused for a moment wondering what he would find beyond. But then he stepped through the doorway. His frown turned to a smile as he saw Aragorn curled up on the cold ground fast asleep.

"You must be the laziest soldier I've ever met," said Legolas in a voice that was barely above a hoarse rasp, but that sound was enough to awaken the sleeping man.

Aragorn rubbed his eyes as though he could not give credence to the image before him.

"Legolas," was all he said before the elf found himself smothered in the ranger's arms.

00

Two weeks passed before Legolas was back to some semblance of his normal self and in that time Aragorn came to know the resting place of the ghost that had haunted him. They burned his body hoping that his spirit would find peace. As they watched the flames die Legolas said,

"He spoke to me while I slept and told me of the horrors inflicted upon him and the others."

"Others," Aragorn's startled eyes sought his out his friend's.

"There were nine of them in all, buried out here in the fields, all murdered by Hiram each time they sought to leave or grieved for their homes."

Aragorn did not know what to say, he recalled his ongoing weakness in Hiram's presence. Who knew what evil he had wielded?

"We should destroy this place; evil abides here and will not be moved." Legolas said softly.

Aragorn did not argue.

The flames consumed the old farm with a hungriness that startled the two. They watched until there was nothing left and then turned south to begin their journey. Aragorn looked back as they reached the top of the rise. He seemed reluctant to turn away, almost hypnotised by the blackened ruins, but Legolas touched his arm and the ranger turned to his friend startled.

"Come, we have a long road before us," said Legolas and putting his arm around Aragorn's shoulders they began the long journey to Gondor.

……………………………………..

THE END