Title: Friends for life
Summary: When a mysterious beast haunts the villages and farms the rangers seek to protect, a small group of brave rangers, lead by Aragorn and joined by Legolas, starts to hunt the creature. But, are they the hunters…or rather the hunted?
Warning: Blood, violence, some mystery…
Disclaimer: I own nothing in conjunction with The Lord of the Rings. I make no money with this story.
A/N: This was written for the Teitho Contest "Friendship" (2nd).I think I watched too many episodes of the X-Files…
Ilya na mae, mellon nin. Estel anim: All is well, my friend. Trust me.
Pedo mellon, saes: Speak friend, please.
His breath came in short gasps, but so far Aragorn had no intention of slowing his pace. Trying to make his legs carry him faster, he glanced to his right, trying to catch a glimpse of Legolas, but the trees stood too close together to let him see his friend. And truly, Aragorn doubted that Legolas was running on the ground; surely the elf had taken to the trees and was by now many yards in front of him.
Swallowing and suppressing the coughing fit that itched his dry throat, Aragorn sped through the forest, gripping the hilt of his sword tightly in his right hand and hoping that today, finally, he would find what he was looking for.
Circling around trees, jumping over boulders and ducking under low hanging branches that snatched at his cloak and scratched his hands and face, Aragorn went on and on, his feet never missing a step and his senses alert to the danger that surrounded him.
He could hear no other sound than his own heavy breathing and his feet that pounded the forest ground, but he knew that the other hunters must be close. They had set out together on this hunt, nine experienced rangers with years of hunting the servants of darkness under their belts and with skill beyond that of most men, joined by Legolas, who had heard of the rumours himself while visiting Imladris, and who had come to their aid upon hearing that the rangers had set out to kill this new menace.
The beast that they were hunting was nothing that they had ever encountered before, indeed, they did not even know what it was that they were hunting. Rumours had reached the rangers; stolen cattle, slain sheep, destroyed farms and killed families. No, not killed, slaughtered by an unknown beast.
More and more tales of the beast had reached the rangers' ears, and after seeing with his own eyes what the beast was capable of, Aragorn had decided that it was time the rangers found out more about the animal. So, they had waited and started to hunt the beast. At first they had thought it to be a wolf, but after seeing the split skull of a stag, the brain having been eaten, they had decided that no wolf would only eat the brain and leave the rest of the animal untouched. Now, they presumed it to be a warg, or perhaps even a werewolf. Although, it had not been full moon when the animals and farmers had been killed.
All this raced through Aragorn's mind as he sped through the dark forest. He had only caught a glimpse at the beast when this hunt had started, but what he had seen he had not recognized. Yellow eyes, grey fur, long clawed paws. It was fast and agile, strong and able to blend with its surroundings. But it was not invincible, as Legolas's well aimed shot had proven this very night. Perhaps they would be able to kill it tonight and succeed in what they had set out to do almost three weeks ago.
Panting, Aragorn jumped over a fallen log, landed securely on his feet and hastened on. He did not like the idea that Legolas was ahead of them all, without any protection. The other rangers that took part in the hunt had to be to either side of him, but he knew that none of the other rangers would have been able to keep up with Legolas. Valar, not even he was able to do that.
Grimacing and pushing the thought to the back of his mind, Aragorn's instincts suddenly screamed at him in warning. Without thinking and totally trusting his senses, Aragorn threw his body to the right, crashing hard to the ground and rolling around and getting to his feet in one fluid motion.
His action had not come one moment too soon. The moment he flung himself to the side, a shadow flew past him, missing him only by inches and churning the ground were he had stood only seconds prior.
The stench of rotten meat filled his nostrils as Aragorn brought his sword up in a defensive gesture, trying to see what had attacked him. A growl reached his ears, and before he knew what happened, something furry and heavy collided with his chest, knocking his arm to the side and the breath out of his lungs. Pain radiated through his back as his spine cracked ominously, and for a moment Aragorn could neither breathe nor move.
The weight on his chest shifted and then a sharp pain shot through both his shoulders as the beast on top of him drove its claws into his flesh. Panting from strain and pain, Aragorn brought his sword up, but the moment the blade would have pierced the beast, the weight on his chest vanished and his sword stroke only met thin air.
Breathing heavily, Aragorn sat up quickly, ignoring the agony in his back and got to his feet. He needed not to search for his attacker; the beast stood only a few feet away, drool trickling down its yellow fangs, its eyes trained on Aragorn and its paws pounding the ground. For the first time, Aragorn saw the beast clearly and he was shocked at what he saw.
The animal was bigger than a warg, larger and more muscled. Its head was huge, the fangs large, its limbs strong. The tail of the animal was not sleek as he had thought it would be, but furry like that of a dog, and the whole body of the beast was covered with long grey fur. This was no wolf, and neither was it a warg. It looked like a mixture of both, but before Aragorn had time to further contemplate the origin of the beast, it growled deep in its throat…and leaped.
Aragorn ducked and brought his sword up, and he felt the blade cut the side of the beast, but at the same moment one of the paws hit Aragorn's shoulder, making him tumble and crash to the ground once more. Pain shot through his already heavily bleeding shoulder, but Aragorn grit his teeth and rolled to his feet.
Once more, the beast stood a few feet away, tail swishing from side to side, its eyes never leaving his form. It growled and then began to dance around him clockwise, opening its snout and barring its deadly teeth.
Sweat stood on Aragorn's brow as he gripped the hilt of his sword tighter. His back was screaming in pain and he knew that his earlier fall must have dislocated a joint or something, for never before had he experienced such an intense pain in his back. Blood soaked though his tunic and cloak where the beast's claws had cut his skin, but there was nothing he could do to stop the blood flow.
Keeping his eyes on the animal, he slowly stepped away from some of the trees, trying to manoeuvre himself into a position in which he could safely swing his long sword. But the beast never gave him that chance. Without warning, it stemmed its paws into the forest earth, pushed itself from the ground and attacked.
The impact was enough to knock the sword from Aragorn's grasp, and when his body crashed against one of the trees he had tried to avoid only seconds before, Aragorn felt his breath leave him in a rush and his back send such a fiery pain through his whole body that his knees buckled under him and he tumbled to the ground in a heap.
Dazed, he shook his head to clear it. He had to get up, he had to get to his sword! This beast would kill him, it would tear him apart until nothing was left of him other than bloody pieces. Aragorn presses his hands into the soft soil of the ground, trying to push his body into a kneeling position, but the pain in his back made him cry out in pain and he slumped to the ground, grimacing.
A growl reached his ears, evil and menacing, and when he turned his head, he saw the beast advance slowly. The arrow that Legolas had shot at the beast stuck out of its hind leg and dark blood had run down the leg, but Aragorn knew that this injury had only infuriated the beast even more. It would kill him, if he could not get to his feet. Now!
Holding his breath and gritting his teeth, Aragorn once more tried to push his body upwards, and this time the pain in his back could not stop him. He had to move, if he wanted to survive. Sweating, he got to his knees, then to his feet, but when he looked around, he saw that his sword was too far away. He would never reach it in time.
The beast growled deeply, moving from left to right, never leaving him out of its sight. Slowly, so as not to startle the animal, Aragorn reached behind and drew his long and sharp dagger. It was not a very useful weapon against a beast such as this, but it was a weapon nevertheless.
For a long moment, man and beast locked eyes, and then the beast growled once more, barred its fangs and leapt. Having anticipated this, Aragorn jumped to the side, bringing up the dagger and feeling grim satisfaction when he felt the weapon bury itself in the beast's side, before the animal rushed past him.
Having kept his balance, Aragorn lunged for his sword, hoping that he would be fast enough. He was not. The moment his hand wrapped around the hilt, a heavy weight slammed into his back, slamming him face first into the ground and pinning him down. The beast growled and Aragorn felt its hot breath at his neck.
Saliva dripped down onto his neck and cheek, and Aragorn knew in that moment that the beast would kill him now. Fear gripped him. If this was the end, he hoped that it would come quick, and that his friends would at least find enough of his body to bury him properly.
The weight on his back shifted, sharp claws dug into his back and shoulders, and then he felt the animal's rough tongue lick over his exposed skin, just before sharp teeth clamped over his neck and the beast bit down in what had to be a deadly bite.
But…the beast bit down and drew blood, but not deep enough to kill him, to cut his jugular. Neither did the jaws crush his windpipe nor snap his neck. Instead the beast stayed immobile for a moment, growling deeply in its throat, before it released its hold, licked at the blood, growled once more and then…jumped off of Aragorn's back.
Aragorn could hear the beast leap away into the forest, could hear the twigs snap under its paws and the rustling of the bushes it tore through. But even louder was the pounding of his own heart in his chest and the rush of his blood in his ears.
He swallowed thickly, unable to move as the shock of what had just happened raced through him. His own warm blood trickled down his neck and onto the forest ground, his back was on fire, shooting pain through his hole body, right down to his toes, but the unbelievable thing was that he was still alive. Why was he still alive? Why had the beast not killed him?
Panting, Aragorn felt the world around him shift. The ground twisted and bucked like the deck of a ship and even though his eyes were closed, he felt as if he were drunk. A shiver raced down his spine and slowly he began to tremble. At first it was barely noticeable, but within moments he began to tremble all over and he was unable to stop it. Coldness settled over his limbs, his heart raced, and his mind reeled.
Suddenly, the trembling ceased as soon as it had come, leaving him utterly drained, but the coldness stayed, and his heart did not slow its frantic race. Aragorn knew that he was slipping into shock, but he did not really care. Aye, he knew that he should take care of his wounds, that he should stop the bleeding in his neck, should warn the other hunters, should…do something. But he could not even summon enough energy to come to the conclusion that his apathy was another indicator that he slipped into shock.
His hearing faded slowly, as did his awareness. And then, he faintly heard someone call his name.
His eyes fluttered open but he did not move, and his vision was blurry and foggy. Aragorn recognized the voice, but he could not answer. No sound left his lips, but he could hear Legolas call his name once more, more urgently this time.
A figure with light hair appeared in his line of vision, and Aragorn knew that Legolas had finally found him. He could do nothing to call out to his friend, as his body was by now in so much pain from his injuries that it made his breath shallow, and the shock that had gripped his senses was overpowering his will.
When Legolas saw him, he stopped dead in his tracks, his bow lowered to the ground, his face paling.
The next moment, Legolas flung his bow over his shoulder, sped towards his prone figure and kneeled down beside him. "Aragorn! What…Valar, Aragorn…"
Tentatively, Legolas reached out a hand to touch him, but he stopped his hand inches above Aragorn, letting it hover in the air as if he was not sure what to do. "Valar, Aragorn…"
Aragorn tried to move, but his body would not obey his commands; he locked his eyes with Legolas's through the fog and the haze that filled his vision, and what he saw in his friend's gaze tore at his heart. There was fear and confusion and…guilt. Legolas felt guilty that he had not come sooner, been faster or had killed the beast instead of only injuring it.
Aragorn could see all that in his friend's eyes, but he could do nothing to assure Legolas that it was not his fault, for his body had finally decided to have suffered enough, and the fog turned into a sea of darkness, swallowing his conscious thought and letting him fall into the blackness of unconsciousness.
All that Legolas could see was blood. Red blood that was practically everywhere. Well, not everywhere, but Aragorn's whole neck was covered his blood, as where his shoulders and even the forest ground was splattered it blood. Upon closer inspection, Legolas could see black puncture wounds in the pattern of a jaw around Aragorn's neck and he shuddered at the implication.
His friend was so pale that for a moment Legolas feared that the man was already on his way to Mandos's Halls, but then Aragorn locked his grey eyes with his own. There was pain in those impressive eyes, along with something else that Legolas had never seen before, but before he could do or say anything, Aragorn's eyes fluttered shut and his body became limp.
His initial fear to touch his wounded friend forgotten, Legolas reached out and pressed two fingers at Aragorn's neck, feeling for a pulse. The blood on the man's neck made Legolas's fingers slip, but then he detected a rapid pulse.
Sighing in relief, Legolas reached behind him and grabbed his small pack, taking out spare cloths to stop the bleeding. As he knew the other rangers were close and that he could not tend to the wounds and protect them both from the beast, Legolas lifted his head and yelled loudly for the other hunters, telling them to come to his aid. His call echoed eerily in the otherwise silent forest, and Legolas flinched at the note of agitation that had swung in his voice.
Trying to keep his mind clear and focused on the task before him, he ripped one of the larger pieces of cloth in two, using the one to pad the deepest wound on Aragorn's neck and the other to wipe away some of the blood that still flew freely down the man's throat. He needed to see what he was doing if he wanted to help Aragorn, and Legolas knew that although the wounds were probably not deep enough to immediately kill Aragorn, he needed to stop the blood flow soon if Aragorn was to survive.
Just as Legolas was to replace the cloth he had used to press on the deepest wound, his hands already covered in blood and the sleeves of his tunic red and sticky, he heard hasty footsteps come his way. The step was light, but heavier than an elf, and Legolas knew that it was one of Aragorn's rangers approaching. No other human would have been able to run through a forest with making so little noise.
Therefore, he did not stop in his task and neither did he look up when he heard the bushes to his left part for the arriving ranger. The footsteps stopped dead a few feet away from them, and Legolas heard a silent curse, before the ranger made his way over to them and then kneeled on Aragorn's other side.
Looking up briefly, Legolas recognized the man to be one of Aragorn's patrol Captains, a man named Hanwa. Without prompting, the ranger reached for his own pack, tacking out bandages and a torch, which he quickly lit and then rammed into the soft ground a bit away from Aragorn, but near enough to illuminate the scene.
Legolas almost wished the ranger had not lit the torch. In the flickering light, the blood that covered Aragorn's neck glimmered like rubies, and Legolas could make out the paleness of his friend's face; the dark hair and eyelashes were contrasting starkly against the white skin.
In the torchlight, Legolas could see that the blood that had soaked through Aragorn's cloak was the result of claw marks that not only marred his shoulder blades, but spread around his collar bones as well, and for a fleeting moment the picture of the beast, how it stood on Aragorn's chest and then his back floated before Legolas's eyes, before he shook his head angrily. This was not the time to think of this, his friend needed his help; there was enough time to think about this later, once Aragorn was safe.
The forest around them became suddenly alive with the rest of the hunting party, as one after the other the rest of the rangers appeared, every single one of them shocked to see their Chieftain covered in blood and unconscious. But none of them said anything; instead, they lit more torches, set watches around their fallen leader and helped Legolas to tend to Aragorn's wounds.
They wrapped Aragorn in their cloaks, and when they had bound his wounds, they constructed a stretcher consisting of two cloaks spread between two sturdy branches, and in the light of the torches and with their weapons at the ready, they made their way slowly back to their camp, carrying Aragorn in their middle.
"I need more light here, hold the lamp a bit lower, please."
The sound of the voice was the first thing that penetrated Aragorn's unconscious state, and for a moment he did not know who had spoken, where he was or what was happening around him. But then, a fierce pain shot through his neck, travelling down his back, waking him instantly. With a pained gasped, he tried to get up, get away from the pain, from whoever it was that was hurting him. The haze around his senses had not yet cleared enough for him to recognize the shapes surrounding him, and when strong hands reached for his arms and legs and tried to hold him down, he fought even harder to escape them, ignoring the pain in his whole body.
"No, Aragorn, stay still, we mean you no harm." The voice again, but Aragorn did not heed its words, but continued to struggle against the hands holding his body down on his stomach. The pain his movement caused in his lower back and neck, not to mention his shoulders was enormous, but the shock of what Aragorn remembered of his last waking moments was enough to give him the strength to fight.
And then, a face appeared in his line of vision, a face he knew well, although Aragorn could not say who its was at the moment. Gentle fingers cupped his face, and then the same voice that had spoken before said softly, "Ilya na mae, mellon nin. Estel anim." Strangely, these few words calmed him instantly, and with a soft nod, Aragorn ceased his struggles and let his head sink down onto the rolled up blanket that used as a pillow.
The voice that had addressed him spoke more, and slowly Aragorn's memories came back to him and the fog around his thoughts lifted.
"Aye, mellon nin, I am here. You are safe, but do not move, for we need to tend to your wounds first."
Aragorn nodded once more, but his eyes never left the tall form of his friend as he knelt beside him, a cloth in one hand and a few pouches filled with herbs beside him. With the return of his alertness, Aragorn could tell that he was in one of their tents, back at camp, that his cloak, tunic and shirt had been removed, and that at least two of his rangers were also in the tent, helping Legolas to tend to his wounds.
"Legolas, what happened?" He asked softly, frowning when his usually so strong voice would not cooperate.
"Sh, you should not speak, Aragorn. I do not know how severe your injuries are." Legolas advised him gently, but he answered him nevertheless, "I heard you fight the beast and ran back to you, but when I arrived I only caught a glimpse of the beast fleeing, and then I saw you lying on the ground and …" Legolas stopped his tale, but Aragorn needed not to hear the words to know what his friend must have felt in that moment.
Swallowing and grimacing slightly at the pain this caused, Aragorn asked, "What of the others? Are they well?" True concern and a bit of dread swung in that question, and Legolas was quick to reassure him, "They are all well, Aragorn, do not worry. We returned to camp so that we could tend to your wounds."
There was movement at the tent entrance, and a moment later Aragorn could see one of his rangers enter, a bowl of steaming water in hand. Upon seeing his Chieftain awake, the man sighed in relief and nodded in greeting, before he placed the bowl beside Legolas and left quietly.
Wetting the cloth he still held in hand, Legolas said softly, "This will hurt, Aragorn, but I need to clean the wounds on you neck and shoulders."
And Aragorn nodded, but he turned his face away from Legolas, so that his friend would not see him cringe in pain. Aragorn heard Legolas give the two other rangers some instructions to hold him down, just in case he should move, and when the rangers had a firm hold on Aragorn, Legolas began to clean away the blood and tend to the wounds.
Cleaning the wounds took longer than they all would have wished for, but finally Legolas put away the now red cloth and then spread some salve over the wounds before he wrapped them with clean linen.
"There, I am finished, Aragorn. Do you want to turn around, so that you may lay on your back?" Legolas asked, knowing that his friend would prefer to rest on his back; in that position, he would not feel so vulnerable and be able to get up quickly should it be necessary. Meanwhile the two other rangers left the tent, their hearts lighter now that they knew their Chieftain was not mortally wounded.
Nodding, Aragorn tried to turn around on his own, but the moment he moved his arms and lifted his body, a hot pain shot through his lower back, and with a surprised moan he sank back onto the cot.
"Aragorn? What is it?" Legolas asked anxiously, fearing that his friend had another injury that he had not detected when he had examined him.
"My back…I must have…dislocated a vertebra." Aragorn ground out through the pain that slowly devoured his back.
Fear and uncertainty swung in Legolas's voice when he answered. He was no healer and knew not what he should do. He had heard tales of spine injuries that resulted in paralysis.
"Hold still, Aragorn, don't move."
Closing his eyes, Aragorn took a deep breath, "Legolas, you have to set it, please."
"Me? No, Aragorn, there has to be someone else. I am no healer, what if I cause more harm than good?"
Smiling slightly, Aragorn gazed at his clearly distraught friend, "But you are an elf, my friend, and therefore your touch is better than those of us humans. You can feel the place the vertebra has been dislodged and set it." And when he saw the dubious look on Legolas's face, he added softly, "I trust you, mellon nin."
Taking a deep breath on his own, Legolas nodded, and then placed his hands on Aragorn's back, right between the shoulder blades, and then slowly moved his hands downwards, with his thumbs and forefingers pressed against the spine.
Legolas could feel his friend tense under his touch and he knew that Aragorn was in pain, but there was nothing he could do to change that, and so he moved his hands further downwards, inwardly dreading the moment he would find the place of the dislocated vertebra.
His hands reached Aragorn's lower back, shy of the beginning of his trousers, when Aragorn suddenly arched his back and hissed in pain. Aragorn's whole body tensed, and Legolas could see some blood soak through the bandages around his friend's shoulders, when the tense muscles reopened some of the claw marks.
"I am sorry, Aragorn, I am sorry." Legolas removed his hands quickly, but Aragorn shook his head.
"No, do not apologize, I asked you to do this. Now…you have felt the dislodged vertebra?"
Legolas nodded, "Aye, I felt it."
"Good, then you can set it." Aragorn said, still fighting against the bolts of pain that shot up and down his back. "Just press one of your hands on the good side of my spine, and the other against the vertebra. Do as you would do with a dislocated shoulder. One strong push. You must not hesitate once you move it, Legolas, no matter what."
Swallowing, Legolas nodded once more, and then did as his friend had told him. But the moment he moved the vertebra, Aragorn cried out in pain, his scream muffled by the rolled up blanket. Legolas was sure that the rangers outside the tent had not heard it, but to his keen ears it was as loud as the roar of a mumak.
When Legolas removed his hands from Aragorn's back, he could see that Aragorn was breathing heavily; he trembled slightly, sweat pooled on his brow, and he gripped the blanket so tightly that his knuckles shown with under the skin.
"Oh Aragorn, I am so sorry." Legolas murmured, but he did not know whether his friend heard his words, for suddenly the trembling ceased, as Aragorn fell unconscious again, the pain too much for his already hurting body to bear.
"We need to find and kill it. This cannot continue and with every night that passes this beast destroys more lives." Aragorn gazed at the rangers who stood in a circle around him. The near fatal attack of the beast had only been three nights ago, but he was determined to continue the hunt.
"What are we to do, Aragorn? Chase it like we did the last time and hope that we kill it before it kills us?" One of the rangers, Nifred, asked. None of the rangers had forgotten the shock to see their beloved Chieftain wounded so badly, and they were not at all eager to resume the hunt so quickly after the incident. If they had their way, they would continue the hunt alone, without Aragorn, so as not to endanger him further.
"No." Aragorn shook his head and in the last moment suppressed the grimace when his wounds protested the movement. "That tactic has not proven effective. We shall try something else instead."
"And what?" An older ranger with grey hair asked. "We could wait near one of the farms and attack the beast when it comes feasting on the sheep."
"That would be a possibility, yes, but I had something else in mind." Aragorn said, but he knew that his idea would not be met with much enthusiasm. And indeed, he himself thought that his plan was rather desperate…if not outright insane."
Taking a breath and gazing briefly at Legolas, Aragorn said, "We will lure it into a trap."
"A trap? And what do we use as bait?" Hanwa, the ranger who had first arrived at Aragorn's side the night he had been wounded, asked.
Without flinching, Aragorn answered, "One of us."
Silence settled over the group, before Legolas said softly, "What makes you think that this beast will take the bait?" Suspicion shown clearly in the elf's eyes, but his voice did not betray his feelings.
"For weeks we are now hunting it, and always it escapes us by a hair's breadth. This beast is fast, strong and more intelligent than normal predators. Why does it not leave this area now that it knows it is hunted? Why does it not search for easier prey than the farms and villages that we protect?"
Aragorn paused to let his words sink in before he continued. Since he had woken up in the tent, he had thought about the reason he was still alive, and when the realization had finally come, the thought had made him shudder, but he could not ignore its logic.
"This beast likes to play with its prey. It loves to play with us. It will take the bait."
One of the Captains shifted his weight and then asked, "We have yet to see this beast properly, we do not even know what it is we hunt, for it never shows itself. Why do you think that it plays with us?"
Locking eyes with the man, Aragorn said without hesitation, "Were it otherwise, I would be dead right now. This beast could have killed me with but one move, but it did not."
"Perhaps Master Legolas startled it before it could kill you."
Aragorn shook his head, "No, there was enough time between bringing me down and Legolas's arrival. And even before that, the beast could have killed me numerous times during the fight. I tell you, it loves to play with us. It feels superior, and we will use that fact for our own purposes."
It was Legolas's soft but clear voice that asked, "And who shall be the bait for the beast, Aragorn?"
"This is folly, Aragorn, and you know it well." Legolas hissed though clenched teeth, as he and Aragorn made their through the silent forest. The other rangers had fanned out behind and beside them, but none of them was so close as to startle the beast, should it be near.
The woods were so dark that Aragorn had problems making out Legolas's face, but from the tone of the voice, he knew that his friend was not only worried, but angry as well. Ducking under a low hanging branch and holding his breath as a bolt of pain shot through his still tender back, Aragorn said softly,
"Maybe folly is what we need to catch this beast. Stealth and strength have brought us nowhere."
A very un-elvish snort came from Legolas, before he said heatedly, albeit softly "Why you, Aragorn? Why not one of the other rangers? Or me?"
Sighing inwardly, Aragorn stepped over a fallen log before he answered; this was not the first time that they had this argument, but Aragorn could not resent Legolas for his worry. Were the positions reversed, Aragorn knew that he would try to talk Legolas's out of this as well.
"Because it has attacked me before. It thinks me a threat, Legolas. Every predator will single out the leader from the group and then kill him. Divide and rule. It would not attack you were you the bait, for it seems to know that you are too strong and swift for it."
"If what you say is true, that it kills the strongest first, then why not me? I am an elf, I am stronger than any of you humans!" Legolas argued, and Aragorn knew that Legolas meant no offence. He was worried sick, and so Aragorn said calmly,
"That is exactly why, Legolas. The last time we hunted it you were far ahead of us, but it did not attack you. It seems to know that you are out of its reach." And with a small smile, he added, "And I am glad for that, because that means you can rescue my hide if things turn ugly."
"They already are, Aragorn." And Legolas said no more, knowing that he could not sway his friend once he had set his mind on something. Aragorn was determined to see this through, and not even an intervention from the Valar itself would be able to change his mind. Gandalf or Elrond, maybe, but they were not with them now and so Legolas could do nothing but follow Aragorn as he made his way to the heart of the forest, where the trap would be set up.
The forest was so dark and silent that Legolas feared the Valar had forsook this place and left it for Sauron to rule, but then he spied a small twinkling star shine through the branches of the tree was hiding in, and knew that perhaps the Valar had not given up on them after all.
'This is folly.' He thought for what could be the hundreds time, as he gripped his bow tighter while he parted the branches before him to be able to follow Aragorn with his eyes. While Legolas hid in the trees, Aragorn moved slowly on the ground. They hoped that the beast would show itself before it attacked, therewith giving Legolas enough time to kill it.
So far, nothing had stirred in the woods, and with every minute that passed without the slightest sound, Legolas began to feel more uneasy. There should be sounds in the forest; birds, mice, owls, rabbits…anything. But the forest was as silent as a grave, and the only sounds the Legolas could hear were Aragorn's soft footsteps and his own breathing. He could not even hear the other rangers, and he hoped that they were still safe and not too far behind.
Moving lightly across the branch he stood on, Legolas jumped into the next tree, landing securely without even disturbing the leaves. For a moment, he lost Aragorn from his sight as he made his way through the treetop, but when he reached the next tree, he could see his friend scramble over a few rocks some yards ahead of him.
Even in the darkness, Legolas could tell that Aragorn was in pain. Maybe Aragorn was able to hide his pain from his rangers, but Legolas knew him long enough to see the subtle signs of pain on his face and in his stance. No, Aragorn could not fool his friend.
'Stubborn Dunadan. One day your that thick head of yours will get you in real trouble.' He thought darkly, but then he quickly jumped into the branches of the next tree, so as not to lose Aragorn out of his sight.
So they travelled for another hour, when Legolas suddenly felt an icy shower crawl down his back. Stopping in his tracks, he quickly scanned his surroundings, but he could see nothing. Nothing stirred on the ground or in the treetops, and not even with his keen senses could Legolas make out what had alerted him that something was amiss.
For long minutes he stood in complete silence, letting his instincts guide him, and when the feeling of being watched did not abate, he nocked an arrow and moved towards a thicker branch that would support his weight better, should he need to fight.
But nothing happened; the woods stayed silent and after a few more minutes, the feeling of being watched left him as quickly as it had come. Frowning, Legolas waited a bit longer still, to be sure that the threat was really gone, and then he put the arrow back in his quiver. Whatever had been there, it was gone now.
As were Aragorn's footsteps…
'No!' Legolas thought with fear constricting his heart. 'Now who is the fool? The beast has once more singled Aragorn out. Divide and rule…' As fast as he could, Legolas raced across the branch and jumped into the next tree, and then the next, hoping to hear where Aragorn had gone and to catch up with his friend ere the beast did.
Sweet Eru, never had Aragorn thought that a badly bruised back could hurt more than a poisoned orc wound. 'Well, bruised back with an ex-dislocated vertebra', he thought bitterly, but his thoughts were interrupted when he had to find the best way around, under or above a fallen tree trunk. Deciding that his back would not welcome crawling under the tree, Aragorn pulled himself up and then slid down the other side, landing –not gracefully, but firmly-on the forest ground.
Standing in complete silence for a moment, Aragorn tried to make out any sound. There were no nocturnal animals, no mice scurrying along, no owls…nothing. 'And I would not hear Legolas even should he stand a yard away from me', he thought. Scanning the surrounding scrub, Aragorn took a deep breath, and then resumed his steps once more. If the beast was around, it would find him, not vice versa.
Silently, but not too silent, Aragorn hushed from tree to tree, form bush to bush, his keen eyes taking in every movement, every flickering of the shadows. He hoped that the beast would show itself, so that they had a chance of killing it, but at the same time he wished it would not be so. The beast was incredible fast and strong…what if Legolas was not quick enough? What if his plan backfired and he was running head first into a disaster?
'Would not be the first time', a dry voice commented, and Aragorn shook his head. His thoughts must not stray. Gripping the hilt of his sword tighter, he circled around a huge mammoth tree. A moth flapped around the white flowers of a night bush, and Aragorn noticed that this small creature was the first living thing that he had seen since beginning this hunt tonight. He hoped it was not the last thing beside the beast he would see.
He walked a few more yards, keeping to the shadows and at the same moment making more noise than he would usually produce to attract the beast to his presence. And then suddenly, he stopped in his tracks, his heart pounding. A cold shower raced down his spine and his hackles rose.
From one moment to the other he had the feeling as if someone was watching him. Actually, he felt as if eyes were boring into his back. A shudder caught his body, but he suppressed it. Aragorn gripped his sword tighter, but he did not turn. If the beast was there, he needed to give Legolas some time to catch sight of it and aim his arrow.
Silently, Aragorn counted to ten in his head. The feeling of being watched grew stronger and stronger, and when he had reached 'eight', he blew all caution to the wind, drew his sword and swung around, all in once quick motion.
It was not quick enough.
With an angry hiss the beast advanced and with one great leap the creature was atop him, slamming his body to the ground and driving the air out of his lungs. His old injuries flared to new life, but this time Aragorn was prepared and the sight of the great beast no longer scared him.
With a grunt of pain he lifted his sword and tried to pierce the side of the beast, but before his blade found its mark, the beast sprung to the side, avoiding the blade. With a guttural growl it paced, and when Aragorn got to his feet, swaying slightly, it leapt once more.
But this time, Aragorn was quicker than the beast. In the last moment he twisted to the side, placing his sword right across his chest, blade outwards, and when the beast charged by him, it cut its shoulder on the blade.
A vicious roar escaped the beast's throat, and when it turned, tail swishing angrily, and pierced Aragorn with its yellow eyes, Aragorn knew that the time to play was over. This night, only one of them would leave the forest alive.
Swallowing dryly, Aragorn ignored the pain that shot up and down his back and lifted his sword in a salute gesture. A moment of complete stillness, and then the fight began in earnest. The beast jumped at him, fangs bared and claws glittering in the moonlight, and while Aragorn parried, twisted and fought for his life, he wondered where Legolas was. What had happened to his friend that he would abandon him? Had the beast attacked Legolas first, and he had not even heard it? What if…what if Legolas was already dead? Fear coursed through his body at that thought, and for a mere moment his attention was diverted. And he paid dearly.
Seeing the ranger's lapse in concentration, the beast attacked, and before Aragorn could bring his sword in a position to defend himself, the beast had thrown him to the ground, a huge paw with sharp claws slicing through his tunic and shirt, slashing open skin and flesh. A pain filled scream left Aragorn's lips and with strength born out of survival instinct, he kicked the beast into its belly, flinging it off of him.
Somewhere in that last attack he had lost his sword. Pressing his arm tightly against the wound in his chest, from which blood was spurting forth, Aragorn more crawled than moved backwards, away from the beast, away from the danger.
Alas, the beast had no intention of letting him escape. With a snarl it came closer, slowly this time, relishing in the fear and pain that radiated off of its victim. Its snout sniffed the air and then it licked its lips, as if it could already taste Aragorn's flesh.
'Where are you, Legolas? I need you.'
A growl came from the beast; it was only a yard away from Aragorn now, its eyes gleaming victoriously. It knew it had won. And Aragorn knew it, too. If this was his end, it was indeed not the end he had envisioned for himself.
The beast snarled, its claws extended, its tail swished, its legs bend, ready to leap and then it pushed itself from the ground to kill him. Aragorn closed his eyes, hoping that it would be over soon.
Suddenly, a cry resounded throughout the battle scene, and then Aragorn heard the pained howl of the beast. Snapping his eyes open, he blinked at what he saw. A tall figure was rolling across the forest ground, wrestling with the beast.
Aragorn watched with mounting horror, how his friend was fighting the beast. His arms and legs seemed to be everywhere, but soon the green tunic and trousers were cut and bloody, and the blond hair was suddenly matted with red blood.
The beast howled and raged, trying to bite Legolas and rip his throat out. Again and again its huge head came down on Legolas's unprotected neck, but every time the elf lifted his arm to protect his throat and every time the beast was forced to retreat and attack anew.
Painfully, Aragorn lifted himself onto his elbows. He had to help Legolas, he had to rescue his friend! The moment he had seen Legolas fight the creature, he had known what had happened; his friend had flung himself at the creature before it had reached Aragorn, therewith saving his life, but endangering his own.
Looking around frantically and trying to ignore the blood that made his tunic cling to his chest, Aragorn suddenly spotted his sword a few yards away. Standing up, he moved over to it, lifted it, and turned towards the combatants.
His breath caught in his throat. Legolas was pressed down onto the earth, the beast on top of his chest and its fangs only inches from Legolas throat. With a war cry, Aragorn charged. He had to kill the beast!
He never even came close enough to touch the creature.
Sensing and hearing the new opponent, the beast leapt from the downed Legolas and flung itself head first at Aragorn, barely missing his sword arm with its razor sharp claws. With a surprised yell, Aragorn tried to twist his body to the side, but the beast crashed into him with such a force that he flew a few feet away, slamming into a tree.
Fire shot through his back and the pain was so intense that it stole his breath. Aragorn sank to the ground, unable to move, to breathe, to do anything. He could smell the beast stand over him, could feel the hot breath of the animal against his cheek, and with sudden clarity he knew that he would die, right there, right then.
Time for idle games were over.
But Aragorn's battle will had not yet given up, and with a groan of pain he drew his dagger, ready to fling it at the beast and try to take the beast with him. The moment he lifted his arm, the beast turned its head to the side, as if it had heard a sound, and a moment later, it had forgotten Aragorn and was gone.
Flabbergasted, Aragorn almost realized too late what that meant. Legolas must have managed to get the creatures attention. Legolas! Stemming his body off the ground and clenching his teeth at the pain, Aragorn looked around. Where was Legolas?
In that moment, a roar echoed across the battle side, then a howl so full of pain that it send shivers down Aragorn's spine. And then he heard the worst that he had ever heard in his life. Absolute silence. Nothing stirred, nothing made a sound.
"Legolas? Legolas!" Aragorn called worriedly, but no one answered. Where was Legolas? Was he alive. Aragorn's grey eyes scanned the place and then his eyes lighted on the unmoving form of the beast, crumbled behind a bush to the right of him.
Wincing at the pain in his body but pushing it to the back of his mind, Aragorn hasted to the beast. He needed not look twice to the see that it was dead. Blood was gurgling out of its neck, where an elvish dagger had cut through an artery. It had probably been dead before it had hit the ground. But, where was Legolas?
A groan. A soft groan that was barely audible, but Aragorn heard it nevertheless. It came from under the beast, and when Aragorn knelt down in the blood, he spotted a part of a green sleeve stick out from under the body.
"Legolas? Can you hear me, Legolas?" Aragorn began to shift the dead weight of the beast, and after a few tries, the body moved enough to reveal the form of the elf. Legolas moaned, but his eyes were closed and his whole body bloody. In the weak moonlight, Aragorn could not tell whether it was all Legolas's blood, but he hoped that it was not so.
"Legolas, can you hear me? Pedo, mellon, seas." Aragorn pleaded, and when he pulled the elf out from under the carcass, he was rewarded with another groan, louder this time. Pulling Legolas's head in his lap and wiping the blood soaked strands of hair out of the too place face, Aragorn began to speak soothingly to the elf.
After a few moments, the eyelids fluttered, and then Legolas opened his eyes. Upon seeing his friend, Legolas smiled, a genuine smile, and Aragorn felt his heart lift in relief.
"Legolas, you scared me."
"I think I scared myself there for a moment." Then Legolas's eyes strayed to the dead form of the beast, and he sighed in relief. "It is over."
"Aye, Legolas, it is." Aragorn said, and then turned serious, "How bad are you injured?"
"Not that bad, I think. Just winded." Legolas lied, but he knew that Aragorn would know it, and so he added with a sheepish grin, "I will live, Dunadan, do not worry. Elves are hardy."
Not able to suppress his foolish grin, Aragorn commented, "Make sure you live, elf, for there are some things we really need to talk about."
"Oh, and what about?" Legolas asked, while he helped Aragorn to peel away his tunic to tend to the most serious wounds.
"Well, timing, for example. What happened?" Aragorn asked, wrapping a part of his cloak around Legolas's upper arm, where the beast had bit him.
"I was diverted, Aragorn, I am sorry."
Aragorn snorted and then hissed when Legolas pressed a piece of cloth against the claw marks in his chest. "Diverted? By what? The stars?"
Legolas gave him an indignant look, as if he would not be diverted by something as insignificant as the stars. Shaking his head and applying a bit more pressure on the chest wound to stop the blood flow, he said "Of course not the stars, Aragorn. The trees, of course. Their song tonight is marvellous."
A snicker came from Aragorn, and a moment later both of them were giggling in after battle relief, needing to get the tension out of their bodies. When they had calmed down, Legolas tilted his head to the side, listening. "Your rangers are coming."
"Really? I think I need to talk with them about timing too." Aragorn said, and then rested his back against a tree, wincing.
"Legolas?" he suddenly said seriously.
"Aye?" A quick look told Legolas that Aragorn was not joking any longer.
"Legolas, why did you do that?"
"Do what, Aragorn?"
"Jump at the beast. It could have killed you."
Seriously, Legolas answered, "It was the only thing I could do to save your life. And I would do it again."
Confusion shone in Aragorn's eyes, "Yes, but, …why?"
A small smile played around Legolas's lips and he looked Aragorn deep into the eyes when he answered, "Stupid human. Because you are my friend, Aragorn. I would give my life for you, mellon nin."
"And I for you, Legolas. I would do the same for you mellon. Lets just hope it never comes to that."
They smiled and then sat in silence, knowing that all that needed to be said had been said, contend. A few minutes later, the rest of the hunting party arrived, eyes growing wide upon seeing the dead beast, that turned out to be half warg and half werewolf. As it seemed, the werewolves even attacked wargs when hungry.
Never in their lives did Aragorn and Legolas forget the night that had nearly cost them their lives, but that had shown them once more that friendship could prevail over darkness and evil and always would. Friends fought for each other, bled for each other, and when worst came to pass, died for each other. Darkness knew nothing of the power of friendship, and that is the reason evil would not rule Middle-earth. Not as long as Aragorn and Legolas lived.