He tried not to whimper as the elf pulled experimentally at the rope that bound his swollen hands. Satisfied the dark elf drew his outer cloak about him, leaned back and very soon was fast asleep. Aragorn bowed his aching head over his hands and began to cry softly; never before had he felt such misery. Hurting, afraid and hungry the battered young man tried to comfort himself as best as he could. Five short days and yet it was long enough for him to begin to feel the edge of despair. Cruel was his captor, he made no attempt to hide his scorn and contempt for the young dunadan. Even as Aragorn cried he could feel the elf's cold eyes upon him. He did not have to look up to see the sneer that would be marring the dark elf's face.
"Hungry?" the question was asked softly with little emotion.
Peering up miserably Aragorn nodded. With a small movement, the elf threw a leaf wrapped square of food at him. Aragorn grabbed for it, ignoring the sharp pain in his bound hands, but his numb fingers only brushed at it before it fell to the ground. Aragorn scrambled for it, his breathing growing erratic with need.
The elf watched him with an emotion akin to pity as the young man unwrapped the soft honey cakes with his teeth and began to eat ravenously. He had not meant to keep him this long. He had not meant to take him at all, but to slay him as he did to any of his kind that he came across. But even as he had drawn his dagger that day those deep grey eyes had arrested his movement. So long had he hesitated that a cry of discovery had rent the air, a thing that had not happened in a millennia. Even now the sons of Elrond half-elven hunted his back trail. He smiled briefly, dangerous as those two were reputed to be they were no match for him, he had prowled these lands long before they were born, before the sun had first risen in the sky. But they did provide him with the opportunity to play a game a very deadly one. How dare they befriend his enemy!
As he watched the human gnaw at the food his thoughts drifted. How many were the long years he had lived alone now he couldn't say. His life before that had become a dim memory. He could no longer recall the faces of his love or his children. Their laughter was no more than a distant sound, a memory on the wind. What he remembered and held onto was that they had been slaughtered mercilessly by men. Men such as this one who groveled in the dirt on his knees eating like beast he was, like the beast they all were. Aranel closed his eyes to stop the surge of hate that suddenly overwhelmed him. It would not do to slay the pitiful creature while it foraged. No he would wait, let the sons of Elrond draw closer.
The earth was saturated with the rains that had fallen and the layer of leaves on the forest floor was soaked and slimy, but Aragorn lay his weary frame upon it as though it were a feathered bed. On his back with eyes closed and mouth wide open, he gasped in lungfuls of air. Slowly he drew one leg up as pain coursed through his wrists, but he made not a sound, he was no longer capable of it. He did not understand why he was being punished like this. In all of his eighteen years no elf had ever laid a hand on him. Even Elrond his father though dour at best had always shown him patience and understanding. Turning his face to one side he opened his eyes. The elf stood not far away looking at him. Aragorn turned away, the elf was always looking at him. In the long days and nights since his capture the only constant had been those cold green eyes upon him. Aragorn felt tears gather, he longed for an end to this unbearable pain, some sort of respite from the cold and hunger and the endless march.
The rain fell steadily soaking them through and through, but the brothers paid no heed to it their mind intent on only one thing. Elladan who was in the lead suddenly stopped, he held up a hand to Elrohir who paused in mid step.
"What is it?" Elrohir asked whispering.
Elladan sighed heavily and shook his head. "They did not come through here. Look he laid a false trail for us, again, the signs end just there, can you see it?"
Elrohir then stepped closer to him and peered up ahead, then he straightened.
"I do not like this brother; he means to delay us for ill reason!"
Elladan's mouth tightened but he did not comment, "Come let us retrace our steps."
The command was quiet and clipped, but Aragorn responded immediately. He knew any tardiness on his part would earn him a painful tug of his hands. The dark elf looked at him contemptuously and with a flick of his outer cloak stepped around him and began the brutal ground eating pace that would push the exhausted human to the limit.
Aragorn could no longer feel …. His legs were as heavy as logs. His throat was parched and his body no longer his. His world had narrowed to the unyielding shoulders of the elf in front of him and the splat, splat, splat of his own boots across the muddy forest floor. Dripping saplings may have hit him in the face, he may have fallen numerous times and been yanked to his feet. There might have been a constant gnawing in his middle, a determined dryness to his throat, but he could not say, he could no longer feel…
A hand seemed to come from nowhere to steady him as he swayed forward.
"Stop human!" the command was barked at him, yet to his ears the words seemed muffled.
He stared glassily at the elf as he came closer.
Having at last reached his destination, Aranel was now ready to end this farce; eleven days had passed since he had begun his little game. The sons of Elrond he had thwarted effortlessly. Through the deep forest had he led them, laying false trails that put them miles out of their way. Once he had even followed closely behind them watching with a fiercely burning heart as they grew desperate in their search. They would never know how close they had come to their precious human, once passing but a mere tree span away. But now it was time to finish. The area in which he stood looked no different to any other part of the dark woods, there were no markers that told of the horrors that had once visited the area, but he knew.
To his left under a softly crooning beech lay the remains of his love, a little to the right of its roots lay the tiny bones of his daughters. As though in sudden pain he fell to his knees, his long fingers digging into the earth, why, why did the grief not lessen with the endless march of years!
How many had he slaughtered to end this wrenching in his heart, this tearing of his soul, these bitter tears. He cried angrily, the dagger that he had drawn to end the human's life loose in his hand. The forest around him grew silent as the elf gave vent to his grief and rage, but finally he grew quiet then stopped. One last tremor ran through him before he got to his feet. With the dagger at his side he approached the supine man.
Aragorn lay in a stupor of near silence. He watched tranquilly as the elf came near, his eyes glittering in the near darkness. How beautiful was his face, how powerful his slim body he thought, as the elf knelt near to him. There was a brief tug at his hands and Aragorn smiled, someone had come to take him home.
Elrohir ran on heedless of Elladan cries for him to stop, they were too late, they were too late!
Grasping the human by the hands Aranel cut his bonds. The man's arms fell uselessly to his side. It was obvious there was no fight left in this one. Aranel drew him up by the hair tilting his neck back for that awful cut, how warm was his skin, almost hot. Aranel glanced at the man's face suspiciously and was sudden taken aback. Upon the human's face was the most gentle of smiles.
"Adar," whispered the young man, his grey eyes bright yet unfocused.
Aranel's breath caught in his throat, how young the man suddenly seemed, how innocent, how helpless.
Aranel recoiled from his own thoughts; again he raised his knife but again could not strike. Against his own will, he laid his hand gently on the young man's forehead. His skin burned with a consuming heat. Sickness, this boy was sick. Aranel blinked as suddenly his rage abated. Often he knew humans died from 'sicknesses'. He had thought it as just punishment of the Valar. But looking down upon the face of one so stricken was a different matter.
Elrohir spun in near frenzy; again the road had closed against them. Elladan steadied him with a sudden shake,
"You are useless to him should you give in to despair," he said roughly, yet in his own heart he felt the same. He could no longer feel the energy of his little brother, he felt that the worse had happened.
Darkness fell and they rested for they were both despondent. Neither spoke yet they did not need to, their hearts were heavy with sorrow.
They walked with heavy tread up the steps and along the long hallway that led to their father's study. Outside the closed door they stopped.
Neither wanted to be the first to tell the news.
"Come," came Lord Elrond's voice through the filigreed wood.
Clenching his hands Elladan abruptly pushed open the door. Stepping through he stopped just short of the massive inlaid desk.
Elrohir could not face his father, he clung to the door hiding his shame.
"You are late." said Elrond not looking up, for indeed he had expected them two weeks earlier. But there was no reply to his statement. Curious he raised his gaze from the parchment in front of him. Open mouthed he stared at his sons. Mud smeared and bedraggled they stood there, faces streaked with spent tears.
"What has happened?" he asked getting to his feet in alarm. They both seemed unhurt.
With a sob Elrohir went to his knees, "Forgive us father, but Aragorn is no more," he cried.
Aragorn lay curled on freshly laundered sheets, one arm was tucked under his head the other along his side breathing deeply, ever so often he would make a soft sound. Elrohir ran his fingers through that unruly hair as though he still could not believe Aragorn was really there. Behind him stood Elladan and Elrond whispering lest their voices awaken the young man.
"How long ago father?" Elladan asked.
"Just about six days, he was found in the arbour in the north garden. It was clear that he has been ill, he is still very weak."
Elladan stared down at Aragorn, shaking his head a little he spoke, "We could not find them father, it was as though they disappeared in the wind."
Nodding Elrond replied, "He cannot be found by one so young as you my son, he was one of the first of us to walk the paths of Arda."
Turning around Elrohir frowned, "Why did he not slay him father, I do not understand" he asked. For Elrond had told them the stories of Aranel the merciless, stories that were told on cold nights in great halls when the warmth of the fire and the comfort of wine kept fear at bay.
"I do not think that we will ever know ion nin." Elrond replied.
In the darkness of the maze of caverns in which he sometimes stayed Aranel walked. There was a strange light in his eyes. His thumb caressed the smooth handle of his knife repeatedly. He was agitated and irritable. But eventually he drew to a halt coming to rest not far from the underground stream that flowed through there. Right there at that very spot he had cared for the human until the young man had recovered enough to be returned to Elrond half-elven. The reasons he would keep to himself, but perhaps it was the way the boy had called out to him, naming him 'father' in the depths of his fever, maybe it was the way the young man had touched his face with delicate care, turning to him for comfort and safety in his delirium.
Aranel knelt and touching the place where Aragorn had lain left his dagger there on the cavern floor.