He shivered, flinching as the oh so cold wind touched him with a icy hand. But he did not move, he merely bent his head, letting it drop heavily atop his bent knee. But before long sleep called him by name, whispered soothingly in his ear, promising him warmth, a respite, an end to his suffering. He raised his head then and breathed in deeply. Cold filled him in an instant, freezing his throat and chest, icy pinpricks of pain raked his insides as he knew it must. But most importantly he was awake once more, the pain dashing away any semblance of sloth. Squeezing his eyes shut he fought against the influx of pain making not a sound on the scooped out ledge at the side of the Arad mountain. After some time he opened his eyes, his breathing shallow and quick, and sought the depths below. He noticed that the snow had blanketed the forest, yet he wished that he was among the trees safe in their strong branches. The rocks upon which he sat made it that much colder. It would take them a whole day's march to make it to the forest, but make it they must for their stolen provisions were all but exhausted. He did not turn but reached behind him, his fingers seeking out Aragorn's face. Fast asleep was the ranger, hunched against bare rock, sleeping the sleep of those who walk the fine line between this world and the next for his sleep was born of deprivation and hurt. But Legolas thought not of this for Aragorn's warm breath on his fingertips made the elf smile, Aragorn lived still. This is why the elf sat exposed to the unforgiving cold, protecting with his body the young man tucked against the face of the mountain behind him.
How many hours the snow fell Legolas could not say for he had fallen into a state of semi sleep at last. Very like a stone carving seemed he covered completely in white, even the blue of his still opened eyes seemed faded. But up came the sun at last, its cold rays touching the mountain face, awakening him with its bright light. He came to with a start and began to shake himself sending the white death flying. He twisted in sudden consternation but behind him Aragorn slept on still. A touch of relief flitted across his face even as he shook the young human awake. Aragorn leaned into him a muffled questing from his lips. But his sudden weight had Legolas fumbling to right himself a gasp of fear escaping before he could stop it.
"Aragorn, awaken, awaken I say."Legolas said sternly tipping the young man back. Aragorn's head dipped and then came upright. His ever bright grey eyes opened and a smile crinkled the corners of his mouth, "Hail thee," he said bringing a smile to the elf's lips. Legolas felt his brow, it was cool, but not overly so.
"Listen to me penneth," Legolas said. "You must hold onto me, very tightly, as tightly as you can. Do you understand? He gave Aragorn a little shake for the ranger's gaze had drifted. Aragorn blinked and smiled at Legolas.
"Hold onto me," said the elf again. With this last command Legolas leaned back a little and pressed Aragorn onto his back, he wrapped the young man's long arms around his neck and pulled his legs around his middle. Aragorn let his head rest on the elf's shoulder.
"Hold on." Legolas whispered to him again.
Legolas needed every bit of purchase he could find to climb down the stark mountain side. The stone was slicked with melting snow and the wind blew incessantly about them. Soon the rocks were brightly speckled with blood from cuts on his fingers, elbows and legs. They were not more than half way down when Aragorn let go. It was fortunate that Legolas was at a relatively steady perch for otherwise they would have both plunged to their deaths. As it was Legolas, with a short and breathless scream grabbed at Aragorn's arms as the ranger's body went slack, threw himself forward and stayed there trembling. He could feel the warmth on his cheek from the bruising his face had taken against the face of the cliff. Because of the dexterity of his people he was able to move the young man around to his front. He jammed him against bare rock face breathing heavily. Aragorn had fallen asleep his breathing erratic. "Do not leave me penneth, not yet."Legolas begged his sleeping friend. He closed his eyes letting the tension leave his knotted muscles. Then he began their descent again. Aragorn did not awaken during their long and tedious descent. He did not awaken when once Legolas cried out long and loud in anger and distress. He did not awaken when they came at long last to the bottom and a trembling elf sought refuge for them.
High above them the orc leader stood together with his second in command at the edge of the cliff face looking down. He could see far into the night but he could not see their quarries. He hoped with all his black heart that they had fallen and lay broken at the foot of the mountain but he would not be satisfied with that, neither would his captain, he would be only happy with proof, the golden scalp of the elf or the brown pelt of the human. Shagog grunted, they would have to find another way down, a faster way. If only he had killed the elf that day. But the human had begged so eloquently, offering his own life, his tears wetting Shagog's roughened skin. So Shagog had relented and had used the human shamelessly for many days. He grinned as he remembered the way the human's skin had parted so easily beneath his blade. He remembered the screams of agony as he peeled the thin strips of flesh from the underside of his arm, his belly. So soft had been his skin, so bruised his lips, so delightful his eyes, spread wide in pain and disbelief, so salty his tears.
"Capten!" came the call from behind startling him out of his reverie. He turned abruptly cursing and cuffing the slag.
"We find a way down!" cried the lesser orc cringing in fear.
"Good," growled Shagog. He nodded to his second in command and the company moved off. "I will find you, my little ones." he growled, a leer on his face. He had not forgotten the taste of the elf's skin either.
"Aragorn," Legolas cajoled him softly, "wake penneth, awake."
He stroked his hair, brushing errant strands away from his forehead. In his other hand he held crushed flowers of the Elder plant. It blossomed only in winter and grew in the forests of Mirkwood in leafless thickets. The roots of the flower they used as an antidote to the venomous bite of the spiders that roamed Mirkwood. The stems they used for emergency provisions on long forays, but the flowers they used as a boon to flagging hearts and minds. The juice of one flower gave an elf strength for many days, in his fists he held two three.
There was nothing to eat of course. Winter meant that there would be no game, nor plant or berries. Though the branches of the trees were evergreen the floor of the forest was a sea of snow that stretched for miles in any given direction. Aragorn licked his lips after sucking on handfuls of snow, he felt a raging thirst, caused no doubt by the juice of the flower. It had given him a heady feeling of strength and power. He felt he could run all the way to the halls of Thranduil without ceasing and said as much to his companion. But Legolas cautioned him.
"I do not know what ills may occur for never has a human used this medicine. It is best to rest when we can." Legolas said to him a frown marring his forehead. If Aragorn had not been close to death he would never had used it.
Aragorn agreed knowing that his friend was right, but what a glorious feeling it gave him. There was no pain no hunger nor tiredness, just an ever present thirst...
Three days and nothing but more snow and for the first time Aragorn had been able to run alongside Legolas matching him pace for pace without tiring, without stopping. But at long last Legolas had halted. Together they climbed to the mid of a large evergreen. The orcs were but a day behind.
"I can smell them," Legolas growled his lips curling in distaste. He stood at the edge of a branch looking along their back trail to the north. His right hand curled into a fist as though wishing to feel the smooth wood of his bow there.
"Then let us be off." Aragorn urged looking up at his friend. In truth he was restless, eager to run again to feel the chill wind rush past his ears.
But Legolas shook his head, "No we will abide here and rest for the night. I need to, even if you do not."
At this Aragorn laughed, he settled against the trunk of the tree legs draped across lesser branches. Soon he was asleep his soft sounds giving comfort to Legolas who kept watch. The orcs he knew would also stop for the night, but not all of them. No they would send forward scouts those who were best at tracking even in snow fall. These he knew would pick up their scent would keep pursuing them. They would have to be on the move ere dawn. How he wished for some sign of his kin in these far fringes of the forest, but he knew that all patrols were pulled in closer to the high gates of his father's kingdom, when the snows fell heavily like this. Sighing he opened his palms, they stung. Though the scrapes and cuts he had received were closed they were still reddened and bruised. They did not usually take this long to heal. But he knew why. They had been taken by the orcs almost three weeks ago. Three weeks during which among many other things he had smelled the scent of his own flesh burning, cooking. He had tasted his own blood as the orcs had sliced his face, his hands, his arms, had gouged out chunks of his flesh and eaten it raw. Abruptly he shook his head, now was not the time. With a great effort he listened to the forest around him, listened to the whispers of the trees.
Aragorn woke with a start as Legolas shook him.
"What is it mellon nin?" he whispered sitting up ready and alert.
"We must go now." Legolas replied quietly.
Aragorn's eyes widened at the urgency evident in Legolas rigid stance. But before Aragorn could move the elf thrust the last of the Elder flowers at him. "Chew it well before you swallow for you get your wish Aragorn. We shall not stop till we see the halls of my father."
Though Legolas' words sent a cold hand chasing along his spine, another part of Aragorn thrilled at the present danger. He ate the blossom chewing the sweetish petals with relish. As he swallowed he could feel his body grow warm pushing back the cold that would normally slow him.
Legolas set the pace, a ground eating pace that saw them cover forty miles by midday. When they stopped for a short break the elf was gasping. He hunched over, hands on his knees as he caught his breath. Aragorn simply dropped into the snow, scooping handfuls of it into his mouth. His heart thudded in his ears loud and demanding, but he ignored the sounds instead taking in great mouthfuls of air.
Worried Legolas soon stood over him, "How do you fare?" he demanded.
"Well enough, though thirsty." Aragorn lied, with a careless grin.
"Then let us be off, we dare not tarry any longer."
Shagog cursed as the ache in his side caused him to call a stop. He went down on all fours in the snow. His orc troop fell to the ground around him in relief. He retched dryly, taking in great gulps of frigid air. He cursed the elves and humans alike calling on Morgoth to spite them all. But all too soon his anger passed, for they had with great effort closed the gap. He could smell the sweat of his human in the air and the dry sweetness of his elf. This time he mused, this time he would kill them quickly. The elf first then the human. Smiling he pushed himself to his feet.
"On your feet!" he roared.
They moved out, feet thrumming the earth in unison.
Miles away Legolas felt the faint tremor run up his legs. Taking a second to gasp a warning at Aragorn he pushed on even faster. Swift were their legs a blurr against the whiteness of the snow beneath their feet. They ran heedlessly yet Legolas' feet seemed to find a path. Aragorn kept pace with him his heart beating fiercely, his breath rushing in and out of his chest. He felt glorious.
All day they ran and then into the night and onto the next morn. But then Aragorn began to stumble, he had begun to feel the cold again and had slowed down perceptively. Eventually they had to stop as the juice of the Elder flower was all used up. Legolas cradled him as his legs grew unsteady and he crumbled.
"I am sorry Legolas," his voice barely above a whisper. He struggled to sit up, but his strength was gone. His head fell back onto the elf's shoulders. Legolas propped him up, "You have done much more than you should," the elf shushed him.
"But the orcs... they come..." Aragorn whispered, his eyes brightening in fear.
"They will not have you Aragorn, neither you nor I." Legolas said grasping his friend hands. For he fully intended to fight to the last, and he would not leave Aragorn to their mercy, no a quick death was preferable.
The ground shook with their coming. Aragorn had slipped into a dreamless sleep by the time the orcs found them.
The beasts came to a surprised halt their hot breath steaming the frigid air.
Legolas had not moved he sat with his back against a deadfall. The young ranger was lying motionless along the length of him.
To the orcs he seemed to be seated quite tranquilly his long fingers resting lightly on the human's neck. Shagog was not fooled. He had seen this same elf, half starved and beaten slaughter seven of his warriors. Yet still he looked much worn.
"E dead?" asked Shagog conversationally.
"Not yet," Legolas replied softly raising his head.
"Give yursef to me an I'll leave 'im alive." Shagog offered.
Legolas laughed his clear voice ringing through the trees. "Yes you will leave him here to slowly freeze in the cold. I cannot accept your offer."
Shagog snarled, "Then I shall kill him after I have done with you."
"We shall see." Legolas responded with more daring than he felt.
Quickly his fingers found the point that would stop the flow of blood to his friend labouring heart. Yet ere he could apply pressure a familiar sighing filled the air. Startled Legolas swiftly covered Aragorn body with his own. The air now sang with the song of deadly missiles. Around him there were screams and gurgles as many arrows found homes in eyes throats and necks. When a gloved hand touched his back Legolas shivered.
"Brother," cried a most welcome voice.
Legolas let himself be turned over still not believing that help had come.
"Calad," he cried in disbelief. "How come you here?"
"I am here seeking you, both of you, though I disobey the orders of our Lord. I knew that if you could you would find your way home. Though today I almost did not come this far, but some feeling urged me on. Then I heard your laughter on the wind."
While Calad had spoken he had signaled for two of the patrol to carry Aragorn to the waiting horses. "Can you walk? We must get you both indoors as fast as possible a storm comes."
Legolas nodded but he leaned heavily on his brother as he stood. He looked around him at the corpses of the orcs. Grief and anger chased across his face as he stared at the body of Shagog.
"Let us leave this place," he said.
And with that the elves mounted their steeds. As one they wheeled around and disappeared into the thickly falling snow.
Soon the bodies of the orcs were buried under a blanket of white.