This story was originally written for the February 2008 Teitho Contest under a different pen name.
The Foothills of Carn Dûm
The world was dark, and cold. This far to the north winter always lingered in the air. Far above the cracked and barren ground the stars hung frozen, their light dimmed and drawn close in, stunted by the chill. Much as Aragorn knew his companions were huddled, hunkered amidst their shared cloaks, pressed shoulder to shoulder for the warmth of it. They dared not start a fire, the light of which could be seen for miles around in these open, desolate lands. That decision, however uncomfortable for his fellow rangers, was more than simple precaution. Rather it was honest fact, as evidenced by the flickering glow that Aragorn was swiftly yet silently tracking back to its source.
One thousand yards. Sloping ever so gently down, large swatches of stone exposed through dusty, peaty ground. Flesh scraped over raw by the harsh, relentless winds. He pulled his cloak in tighter at the neck, drawing the hood closer down over his forehead. Hands fisted on the inside, feet pounding in urgent almost-silence. Stealth was key, but so too was keeping warm. Especially his fingers. He would have great need of them, before the end.
Seven hundred yards. A shallow, yawning valley, withered rock formations jutting out above the spindly thickets of heather and gorse and broom, flickering slightly red in the distant firelight. Bones of the earth protruding through its broken skin. The brambles caught and pulled, scratched and tore as he passed by, traitorously slowing his pace. It had been a great many years since he'd actually wished himself an elf; a child's folly long outgrown. He indulged it again, fleetingly, as the crunch twigs underfoot echoed all too loudly in his ears.
Four hundred yards. The lazily sloping hill a treacherous bed of loose gravel drenched in shadow. He scrambled, swift and agile; prowled right up to the crest of it, hands and knees and boots, small clouds of dust billowing out behind him only to be swallowed by the gloom. He flexed his hands, mindful of the dust caked into the lines of his palms and packed down beneath his fingernails. It would serve him, he decided. His hands needed to be strong and sure, and the chalk would help his grip.
One hundred yards. Down on his belly, slithering forward; elbows and toes and shimmying hips. Cloak abandoned out of necessity, vision half-masked by low shrub grass and sickly yellow flowers. They stank of rot, their vibrant colors bleached like bone, the last evidence of a long-ago decay. It reminded him of the Morgul Vale, of the warped and twisted beauty of that land, and the cloying sweetness that dogged the air and all but hid the stench of death. Aragorn stoked the memory, unearthed it from where it had been buried deep, spit and polished until it shone brightly in his mind's eye. Some things he hated to remember.
Sometimes he didn't have a choice.
The fire was indulgent once he saw it up close. It was as though those who made it didn't care to stay hidden. Or perhaps they thought that none would have been around to see it anyway. Aragorn didn't give the matter much thought beyond measuring the direction of the wind in the drifting smoke, or the three men lounging fat and sated by its supple heat. They couldn't have been keeping watch, he decided. Not with their backs to the world at large, the firelight destroying their night-vision. On the other hand though, it was more likely that they could very well be watching out and were simply, spectacularly, incompetent.
Good. All the better for him.
Three men by the fire, another two outside the door to the primitive stone hut, one walking a silent perimeter. Six in total, and Aragorn frowned. That couldn't be right. It would take more than six men to subdue the Mirkwood Prince, or at least to hold him captive for so long. Though, of course, this little band of outlaws could once have numbered much higher, as the one long Elven dagger that they'd found had been mired in dried blood. Dull, listless, brownish blood. Mannish blood. How many had it taken, then, to finally bring Legolas down? Some distant part of him hoped it had been many.
For two long hours Aragorn stalked the perimeter of their camp, drifting through their watch soft and swift, the shadow of a ghost. He studied them, learned their movements, mapped their routes, timed the rotation of their guard. He sat back, wringing his hands as much to keep them warm as to alleviate his frustration and staunch the need to act. This was not his first rescue mission, nor his second or his tenth, and long had he been witness to the treatment of prisoners at the hands of their captors. What had these men done to Legolas, he with his fiery spirit, his indomitable will? He would not have cowed to them, would not have bent an inch in supplication. Aragorn knew this for truth—knew of it first hand—but those memories provided little comfort now, in the cold and the dark and the insufferable waiting, as his mind saw fit to torment him with visions of what those men had likely done to Legolas, so fair of face and sweet of voice. What could they be doing even now inside that horrid little prison, to a warrior that would never give his enemies the satisfaction of a single sound, while his salvation sat back on its heels, biding its time?
Aragorn could only guess.
And guess he did; a cold, unfeeling litany of horrors roiling through his mind. The sights, the sounds, the memories, the imaginings all pounded at his soul, the hammer in the forge of his will bending his heart into submission. He needed his head for this, and his hands and his feet and his gut. His heart, he knew, would only get in the way.
At last he judged it time to act, for surely there was nothing new for him to learn. Aragorn waited until the perimeter sentry had reached the farthest distance from the fire—amateurish, he thought, to patrol such a wide space all alone—and then he made his move. From whence he hid he darted out, fast and lethal, a viper in his strike. Half a heartbeat was all it took as he wrapped the man up from behind, one hand flying to the sentry's shoulder, the other to his chin. So close he smelled his victim's sweat, caught the startled, strangled gasp, then one strong yank—
—and it was done. A quick and bloodless way to kill a man, not unlike a hanging. The vertebrae snapped quick and clean between his hands. Cervical vertebrae, his mind supplied. There were seven of them, small and delicate, trailing down from the base of the skull, forming the top of the spine. Atlas to Axis to three, four, five, and six that Elrond named in Quenyan numerals—Quenyan for the cervicals, because they're high—and what on earth was the seventh one called? Damned if he could remember, now.
Damned if he should waste time trying.
Aragorn dragged the body back; hid it behind an outcropping of rock after divesting it of a cutthroat dagger, which he slipped between his belt. He flexed his fingers, shook his arms out as though to fling off the taint of death that soiled him like mud. Then he gave it no further thought, not in that moment, not when there was work still to be done.
He slunk through the shadows; crept all the way to the far side of the fire. From there he ducked down, out of site, into a scratchy little thicket. The six men—five now, he amended—had four horses split between them, all tacked up to a rickety hitching post. In one hand Aragorn palmed his borrowed dagger, in the other a fist-sized stone.
It was time for a diversion.
The dagger flew with wicked aim and sliced straight through the hitching rope. The stone followed on its heels and pelted the nearest horse's flank. It reared back with a great cry, only to find it had its head, and it danced in place for just a moment before bolting off into the night. The door wardens cried out in alarm, rousing their companions by the fire, yet when one horse spooks the rest are sure to follow. Three more hasty rocks flung out over grimaced Elven-tongued apologies ensured a small stampede. The three men by the fire tore off after them, barking orders and obscenities in their harsh, guttural speech. It was Westron, if you listened closely, but Aragorn didn't listen at all. He couldn't chance hearing them for what they were, not with Legolas's life hanging in the balance.
Just two men, now. The door wardens who stood between him and the Mirkwood Prince. They fidgeted, twitchy, uncertain in the insufferable dark. It was always blackest when you found yourself alone. Or, perhaps, it was the fear that the opposite was true, and they sensed that danger was all too near. Aragorn was familiar with both extremes and much more so than he would have ever cared to be. It was far too human a thing, to sit a lonely watch and not take any comfort in the stars.
Aragorn withdrew his own dagger from its sheath at his boot. He wouldn't—couldn't—think on such things now. His cards had all been played, and time was running out. He took a moment to gauge his aim because this had to hit just right. It wasn't that he was afraid of missing, no. He knew he wouldn't miss. Rather he was afraid of striking true, but there was nothing for it so he let the dagger fly, and was off and running before it really left his hand.
Sixty paces, give or take, between his foxhole and the door. Old Stick-at-Naught Strider they called him in Bree, derision overwhelming any lingering fear because never had he drawn his sword on any of them and so then how then could he be counted dangerous?
His mark stumbled back into the door from the force of the dagger digging in, the dull thump of flesh impacting wood the only sound. Oh there might have been a whisper, some slight murmur of noise coughed out by the dying man, before his own blood sealed off the vacuum of his lungs. The dagger hit him just above the notch in his throat, below the larynx, severing the top of the trachea. Aragorn watched the blood gush around the blade and out of his mouth, then through his nose as he aspirated it. Finally reduced to choking gasps and gurgles, viscous bubbles popping over the wound. A brutal, ugly death. More asphyxiation than exsanguination.
Sixty paces. Strider crossed them before his victim failed to breathe his last.
Ah, but there was another man. The door warden had his partner. Aragorn ignored his panicked cries, his shouts for his companions. Instead he kept his eyes on how the warden moved, how he dropped to his knees without any grace to bend in desperation over his fallen comrade. He was young; untested, untried, untrained. He didn't even move to staunch the bleeding. Rather he grabbed his friend's shoulders and shook, words tumbling from him in a rush.
Amateurs, Aragorn thought again, the word half-formed on his lips, a hard and vicious snarl. Had he dared, he would have cursed these brigands in every tongue he knew for throwing children into his path—for how easily he could have chosen a different target! Left or right, a mental coin toss, and he'd have buried his knife hilt-deep in a throat that likely hadn't seen its first shave.
But a curse would have given warning.
He had planned to kill the second warden, to take advantage of his inevitable surprise and the horror at seeing his friend cut down. If luck was with him, he could have caught the man completely unaware, and there would have been little trick involved in subduing him. But of all the lines Aragorn had sworn never to cross, this was one he'd managed so far to uphold, and he would not add this boy's bones to the skeletons in his closet.
Aragorn was on him in an instant, pressed up against the warden's back, and then it was ankles and hips and balance and leverage and—"Hold," he ordered low and cold, the sinister tickle in that boy's ear. The body in his arms froze so tense it thrummed, little quivers of fear that Aragorn felt clawing deep into his own skin. His right hand a fist, the tendons of his forearm coiling rock-hard, no give to his flesh as he pulled tight in against that poor boy's throat and barely left him room enough to breathe.
"P-please don't kill me." A raspy sort of squeak. Aragorn had him pinned; he couldn't turn, couldn't move without pressing himself harder into that unforgiving arm. But he could still beg for his life in a voice that hadn't settled yet.
"The key," Aragorn demanded around the unkind flexing of his arm, "or this lock will be the last thing you ever see." There was murder in his voice, he knew, because he knew exactly what it had cost him to put it there. Once, he'd known just how much of that was lies and how much of it was truth, but then he'd also known that he'd never do anything to break Lord Elrond's heart, and that he'd simply wasn't capable of killing in cold blood. Now all he knows is that Legolas could very well be dead or dying behind that door, and that "never" is just a more polite way of saying "until."
The warden believed him—but of course he would. And he's fumbling awkwardly at his belt, not enough fingers and too many thumbs, and Aragorn can hear his choked off little gasps and he knows the boy's likely seeing stars by now, with his vision greying in and starting to warp into that long, twisted tunnel of suffocation. Or panic, it could be, what with how his heart is pounding fierce and urgent beneath Aragorn's arm, the one that's wound down tight across the warden's ribcage, holding him in place. And it's obscene, the way the boy's belt comes undone as he pulls the keyring free—and forget what's on the other side of that door! This right here's enough to haunt Aragorn's nightmares from now into the next forever. And there's so much heat in that boy's skin, gone all red and ruddy from the lack of air, and in the fat, wet tears that splash down to sear the flesh of Aragorn's hand where it's flexed up back against one puffy cheek.
"P-p-please," and it's stuttering and fast, like the pulse he allows himself to feel—external carotid artery, his mind supplies unbidden—and the memories hit him hard, full-on immersive, and the world implodes around him. Suddenly he's back there, wrenched back down deep into that place in his mind he flat out doesn't allow himself to go anymore; suddenly there are arms and feet and hands and heat and he's the one that's begging. And Aragorn stopped, totally, completely; stopped moving, stopped thinking, stopped breathing while the whole world suddenly came up for air. Then he was jumping back, a jerky, flailing motion, reflex for how the weight of that boy in his arms was scalding him from the inside out.
The warden dropped bonelessly. Even if he'd managed to hold his footing when Aragorn shoved off, the sharp and sudden spike of air that hit his lungs as soon as the pressure was released would have knocked his knees out anyway. Down on all fours then rocking down to heels and pressing his face into the dirt, the warden gulped down mouthful after mouthful of precious air. He'd make himself sick, Aragorn knew—and that was his brain, jump-starting. Suddenly words to slow down, to relax, to breathe were leaping to the tip of his tongue of their own accord. Aragorn ruthlessly aborted them, shoved the worst curse that came to mind past his lips instead, the sound harsh and dissonant when it struck the air because it'd sat all wrong in his mouth and found his ears no different.
Just as his hand itched as it dropped, hard and sure and half of its own will down onto that boy's shoulder—the healer in him reaching out, kneading at muscle and tendon and hard clavicle bone. Then drifting upwards, the back of the neck (vertebra prominens, the seventh cervical vertebra, he remembered now), a comfort and an anchor. The hands of a—
Tight grip, and a hard shove up from the balls of his feet. The warden's head bashed into the door, a sharp and hollow crack, and he sprawled unconscious at Aragorn's feet. Aragorn dropped down, his fingers automatically combing through the warden's hair. He found a lovely goose-egg but no broken skin (small mercies) and no give where there shouldn't be. The boy should awaken in a few hours with a ripe concussion (grade three; tisane of red grape juice, add the distilled barks of white willow and cinchona, mix in fine-crushed chamomile and meadowsweet). Aragorn spared him no more thought as he grabbed the discarded keyring and applied it to the lock at last.
The hut was small and square, dirt floor and kindling roof, no windows and one door. He found Legolas, better than he he'd had cause to hope but still worse than he had feared. An inelegant heap chained to the far wall, a tangled mess of awkward angles that spoke to broken bones. Aragorn absorbed the sight while his gut absorbed the stone that hit him hard and sank there, but then Legolas stopped playing possum. He tipped his head up, dark-matted hair falling in ratty curtain that absolutely failed to hide the savage bruising that mottled the left side of his face. Eyes far too wide and fever-bright, he flashed a cracked and bloody grin, but there were no traces of hysteria in the staccato laugh that rattled ominously in his chest.
"Le ab-dollen," Legolas drawled, the words blunted by an obviously broken nose. And he passed back out again.
Aragorn's long legs ate the distance between them almost instantly. Then he was on his knees, one hand landing squarely upon that fevered brow while the other measured the force of each raspy, panting breath before timing the scudding dips and trips of Legolas's pulse. That done, he sat back on his heels.
Legolas, alive and spirit-whole after ten long nights' captivity. Aragorn could have wept.
Legolas, bound by heavy iron in a four-point hold, wallowing in the mire of his own blood. Oh, Aragorn could have wept, indeed.
But tears would be of no use to anyone.
Aragorn took up the key again, and one-two-three-four the manacles fell away with rusty clanks, revealing the raw and blistered flesh beneath. (Poultice of comfrey and mint; add athelas if the infection worsens.) He carded delicate fingers through Legolas's hair, caught them in the rats' nests there, and found a closed laceration behind one pointed ear, though mercifully he found no give where there shouldn't be, and the blood had dried completely.
Legolas moaned, stirring from the pain. Aragorn did not have time to be gentle.
"Come on, back with me now," he urged, needing Legolas to open his eyes even as he busied himself with the Prince's arms, probing for injury.
Legolas blinked, his moan falling to a groan, his eyes barely tracking in the dim light. (Concussion, grade two or three; tisane of—)
"We must hurry," he insisted as his fingers began taking a headcount of Legolas's ribs. "We haven't much time."
"Will be here shortly."
Before Legolas could reply he was forced to stifle a gasp, flinching sharply away (right fourth rib cracked).
"Any difficulties breathing? Be truthful now!"
The glare Legolas fixed on Aragorn was singularly not amused, but Aragorn was in no position to notice it. His own eyes were still firmly fixed on Legolas's chest.
"Well, in case you hadn't noticed—" Legolas broke off suddenly around a throttled cry (left fifth and sixth are broken, thankfully without displacement—), his body arching away from the pain. Aragorn balled his hands to fists, kept himself from reaching out, and forced himself to wait. "I don't breathe so well with someone pressing down on the ruination of my ribcage," Legolas groused at last in a voice far too strong to have come from injured lungs.
Aragorn ignored the sarcasm because it allowed him to ignore everything Legolas was hiding beneath it. Instead he peeled aside the tattered bottom of Legolas's tunic (moderate abdominal bruising—) and slipped his hands over the abused flesh with gentle pressure. Legolas squirmed around a sharp inhale— (no major internal injuries, though mild ones may—)
"Ai! Quit it!" (—yet present themselves.) And he batted those hands away. "Aragorn, we don't have time for this."
Legolas was most likely right, but Aragorn wasn't about to move his friend without being absolutely certain no greater ill could come of it. His seeking fingers continued on, tracing the outline of hip and thigh, praising all the Valar he could name for Legolas's exasperated sigh and for every single intact seam.
"Are you quite through?" he snapped, impatient, and Aragorn knew exactly why, and didn't begrudge him for it. "I should like to make my escape sometime in this age."
"Almost," Aragorn answered, half distracted. (Simple left tib-fib fracture, will need to be set and splinted.)
"We must leave! Help me to stand." (Right ankle definitely sprained, possibly broken. Should be immobilized and elevated.)
"I'll pretend I didn't hear that," Aragorn muttered as he sat back on his heels once more. His eyes roved over Legolas's chest again, factoring in the locations and severity of those three busted ribs and trying to plot a way around them so that he could carry his friend to safety without dealing him more serious harm. The last thing they needed was to jostle a bone shard straight through an already weakened lung (because the wet rasp that Legolas was fervently hoping he hadn't heard signaled the onset of pneumonia, Aragorn was sure; not even elves were immune to the prolonged effects of broken ribs and damp conditions).
"Brace your hands on my shoulders," he directed, scooting forward once more. "I'll haul you up."
He caught Legolas's understanding nod, but then he was turning around, giving the Prince his back as he rocked forward into a crouch, his knees not so enamored of the position he took. He felt what must have been Elven fingertips brushing his hair out of the way—so some of it had fallen from its queue then; no matter, but considerate of Legolas all the same. Then two vices gripped his shoulders with bruising strength, but rather than focus on it he pitched forward, bracing his own hands on the ground before him and then pushing off to shove himself to standing. He heard Legolas gasp behind him—probably from trying to balance his ascent on that injured ankle—and he took advantage of his friend's momentary distraction to reach back and chop the backs of Legolas's knees with both hands. Legolas stumbled at bit, just enough for Aragorn to catch him at the backs of his thighs—and all of a sudden the prince was riding piggyback.
And he did not care for it at all.
"Hey! Hey—no! No, put me down! Aragorn—!" and he writhed and twisted as much as his injuries would allow, upsetting Aragorn's admittedly precarious balance. Aragorn stumbled, and he knew it was bad form, but he also knew that Legolas's pride was threatening to cost them their already narrow window of opportunity, so he let his knees give out, which let Legolas pull them over backwards. There was a sharp cry and a muffled thud and then Aragorn was rolling, pitching his body into the dirt to neatly avoid crushing Legolas beneath him. A heartbeat later he was up and turning, diving forward to where Legolas lay dazed, half-sprawled on his backside.
Aragorn knew it was cruel, but then he also knew that Legolas would have taken that fall on his bony behind, jarred but uninjured, and he pressed his advantage over an elf that was in no position to resist him. One callused hand came up to clamp down over Legolas's mouth, the soft webbing between finger and thumb wedging right up beneath the prince's nostrils, pinching them closed. That last was reflexive, sense-memory, though hardly necessary given the broken nose. Aragorn watched in satisfaction as Legolas's eyes flew wide, one hand flying up to grab hold of the wrist attached to the hand now abjectly suffocating him. Those eyes, bright with fever, clouded with pain, now swimming from lack of air, reflected nothing but confusion. There was not a scrap of fear to be found in their unfathomable depths, and Aragorn's heart gave a painful double thump at the sheer amount of trust Legolas had in him even now. It made his voice rough—with shame, with apology, with humility—but the reasons mattered little towards the affect of the tone.
"Listen! I'll forgive this stupidity because between the fever and that knock to the head you're obviously not thinking clearly, but with your myriad injuries and the Wet Lung you've developed—please, your pretending only insults us both. Now, you seem to be wholly unaware that you don't have a leg to stand on. Therefore you will consent to being carried, and preferably before your thrice-damned Elven pride gets us both killed. Do you understand me?"
There was no forgiveness in his voice, but then Aragorn had been counted a leader of men in three countries. He could give orders to perfect strangers with no question as to whether or not they'd be obeyed. Stunned, Legolas could only nod, and Aragorn was glad of that, because he knew with each fractured beating of his heart just how closely he courted danger here. Of course he would have released his hold before Legolas entered any real danger of passing out, but doing so before receiving confirmation would have shattered his illusion of control. Better all around that Legolas caved first. He gave his friend the briefest of moments to collect himself before insisting that they try again.
This time when Aragorn stood Legolas complied, and he clung like a limpet to Aragorn's back as he staggered out of the hut. There were hoof-beats in the distance and Aragorn picked up his pace from a stagger to a jog. They disappeared into the darkness just as the three mounted guards broke across the threshold into the firelight, their fourth horse in tow. A distraught wail split the night and Aragorn found himself hoping that it was born of grief at the loss of their comrades and not anger at the loss of their prize.
"Divide and conquer," Legolas slurred into his ear. Hardly surprising that he deduced how Aragorn could have bested six men all on his own. "Or at least, divide and outwit." A chuckle dropped into a sleepy sigh. "Brilliant."
Aragorn didn't reply, focusing instead on repeatedly getting one foot in front of the other, and on the hot puffs of air that warmed his neck at increasingly irregular intervals.
Nine hundred yards. Stomping hastily through the underbrush, feeling it claw mercilessly at his ankles. He paid the scratches no mind even though he knew full well that they should be tended later, for this land fell within Angmar's shadow and even the tiniest flower still felt it's evil. To say nothing of the thorns. Aragorn hoped fervently that this was mere coincidence, that those brigands simply chose the most desolate location they could find to hide out in while knowing nothing of its history—which wouldn't exactly be a stretch, considering they knew nothing of neither woodsmanship nor vigilance. Unfortunately, he also knew that Legolas had led Mirkwood's charge against Rhudaur, and that coincidences like that simply didn't exist in Middle-earth.
Six hundred yards. His knees hated him probably as much as Legolas's ribs. He'd lost count of how many times he'd nearly lost his balance, nearly gone tumbling head over heals over unconscious elf down the gravelly little gullies that lay between him and his rangers. But he didn't dare stop to rest, not even to secure his bearings. Pursuit was as unlikely as the erstwhile guards picking up his trail and tracking it through the dark, but then pursuit would be mounted while he was not, and Aragorn didn't manage to survive for as long as he had by taking foolish chances.
Three hundred yards. Every muscle burning from exertion. If Legolas was conscious, if he wasn't concussed to oblivion, he might have been able to spot their base camp, but alas Aragorn was forced to rely on his own instincts and sense memory—not to mention good old-fashioned luck—to backtrack his route. Yet luck was a fickle mistress. Better to rely on skill, and skill Aragorn had in plenty. Too bad he knew that one day, inevitably, it would not be enough. It never was, but such was the fate of all mortals. Idly he wondered if Legolas would be there when that day came for him. Part of him selfishly hoped it would be so.
He felt his rangers before he saw them, swarming out of the darkness to surround his position, to verify that it really was their chieftain returning to them. Legolas didn't stir when he (ever so gently) dropped him to the cold, cold ground. He set one ranger to remove the saddle from his horse, commanded another to bring forth his healer's bag, ordered none of them to bother with a fire. Then Halbarad was at his side, and Aragorn at last reclaimed his sword. He hadn't brought it with him on his little rescue mission; swords were in no way conducive to the stealth-work Aragorn set out to do. You couldn't get the drop on someone with a sword, or rather you could, but with the sword you were committed, your movements held back and restricted to all points behind the blade. No, swords were for the battlefield, for open combat. There had been nothing open about what he'd done tonight. Not much of combat, either.
Aragorn set his sword aside, his hands absently half-sheathing it. It was habit to inspect the blade, especially near where it joined the guard, and habit again to lock the sheath down with the strap over the hilt, declaring the blade at rest. His earliest lessons in swordplay, back when it had been a ritual he hadn't understood, only one step in the long line of learning how to handle the weapon properly. Yet even as his hands set themselves in the familiar motions his mind was firmly fixed on other matters, namely the wreck of Legolas's leg. He needed a full splint; what he had was a straight edge and bandages.
"Hold him," he directed, but Halbarad knew his station all too well. He laid one hand on Legolas's shoulder and then the other cross-ways at his hip, and nodded his readiness back to his chieftain. Aragorn flexed his fingers, a deliberate gesture not born of nerves. Half a heartbeat was all it took as he grabbed hold of Legolas's left shin, one hand just below the knee, the other above the ankle. He wrapped those fingers around the limb, tight enough to feel the grating edges of broken bone, loose enough to not cause further injury with his own hands, then one strong yank—
—and it was done. The bones snapped quick and clean between his hands, and the line of Legolas's leg was whole once more. Aragorn immobilized the limb with his sword bound with strips of cloth. Then he renewed his survey of Legolas's ribcage, found its layout worryingly different than last he'd checked, and cursed that he hadn't the time to bind it before now. This was done with alacrity, but not before he indulged himself in one ear pressed to Legolas's chest, and then again over his back. Pneumonia, sure as sunrise, but thankfully no punctured lung. Pulse was weak, but holding steady.
There was naught else he could do out here, not where a fire could be seen for miles around, and so Aragorn ordered his rangers to break camp. He vaulted up onto his mare's bare back, and Legolas was passed up to him. It took a moment to arrange him properly so that his leg could hang unhindered and Aragorn could hold on without further impeding Legolas's breathing, but then they were away, his rangers riding close on his heels.
It was a long, hard road south to Rivendell.
Aragorn ordered a halt after one full hour of frantic speeds. Now was time for the fire, to set the water to boil, to brew the draughts and the tisanes that he would force Legolas to drink. He never carried enough with him, no. Not nearly enough, but he had the athelas and the willow bark and the chamomile, and there was time to look at Legolas's ankle, and to clean the cuts and scrapes he'd found. They would make do, for a few hours at least, for however long it took for the first treatments to take hold.
Legolas stirred again, after the worst of it had passed. After Aragorn had tended to his hurts, had plied Legolas with as much tea as he could reflexively swallow, had slapped as hard as he dared on Legolas's back to dislodge the fluid built up in his lungs. Legolas moaned, through the fever that despite their efforts was putting down deeper roots, through the confusion that the concussion left, through the pain that his injuries had wrought. Aragorn paused in swabbing the abrasion on Legolas's right wrist (and oh, he shouldn't have felt such satisfaction at what he'd done to the men that dared to bind his friend in a four-point hold), let one unclean hand fall soft and cool upon that fevered brow, and felt Legolas still beneath his touch.
"Knew you..." breathed out on breathless sigh, and that could have been knew you'd come for me, or knew you'd save me, or knew you'd never stop looking, for any and all were true (and "Hush, hush mellonin. Just rest.") and Legolas was asleep once more.
As he looked down at his friend, oddly able to snatch a moment's peace despite his injuries, despite whatever horrors he'd endured during his brief yet eternal captivity, for the simple fact that someone he knew, someone he trusted beyond any sane reckoning was there to keep the watch—well. That was Legolas for you. His faith, his trust, his loyalty were staggering even at the best of times, and the worse things got, the more his spirit burned with them. Aragorn knew that there was nothing Legolas wouldn't do for him, knew enough to read that as fact instead of sentiment. Legolas believed in Aragorn, believed in him even when Aragorn did not believe in himself—especially when Aragorn did not believe in himself. Believed in hope and promise and goodness and integrity and—
That thought well and truly terrified him.
Aragorn flexed his fingers, stared down at his hands, examined the dirt-packed lines of his palms. Remembered the snap of bone, the slick of blood, the weight of a dagger in his grasp. He wondered if Legolas had wondered just why those brigands had taken him alive, and then worried at the thought. And all the while Legolas slumbered on, momentarily at peace. Aragorn allowed himself to attribute this precious gift to the bliss of ignorance, but he knew that that was foolishness. Legolas had walked on Arda Marred for eons longer than Aragorn's people had stalked her wilds. There would be no convenient secrets between them this time, and the bitterness of the truth sat waiting on the fringes of wakefulness.
Aragorn would grant him another hour, before they were on their way.
Le ab-dollen: you are late
Arda: the world
Mellonin: my friend