Beta: Calenlass Greenleaf
Summary: Aragorn and Legolas are on their way to the Halls of Thranduil. Unfortunately, a joke comes true and fun turns into a disaster.
Disclaimer: I do not own LOTR and make no money on this story.
A/N: Written for February 2009 Teitho "Excuses".
Warnings: Angst, torture.
When Aragorn opened his eyes, Legolas was already awake and running around their small camp. The Ranger was surprised to see his companion gathering their belongings, packing whatever was still needed and disposing of useless objects. The fire they had built in the evening died away, leaving only a pile of carbonized wood.
"What are you doing, Legolas?" the man looked at the elf, rubbing his eyes and yawning drowsily. Then, he moved to a sitting position and looked around, not entirely awake.
"What do I look like doing?" the fair-haired being questioned, laughing slightly at the silly look on his friend's face. He knew that Aragorn was not the best companion for a conversation until he was fully aware of what was going on around, but he could not miss the opportunity to tease him a little.
"I would say that you are getting ready to set out towards home, leaving me behind at the mercy of any bloodthirsty creatures that may lurk here in Mirkwood." Strider grinned back, his tone contradicting the seriousness of his words.
"That is close, but not precisely what I intended. Yet it sounds like a good idea. You can expect it to be carried out in near future." Aragorn raised his eyebrow in a very Elrond-like manner, but did not comment. The statement could have put him to unease had the elf not been making similar threats at least thrice a week. The Ranger threw his blanket away and stood up to stretch his muscles, yawning again. Legolas handed him a piece of lembas, and although Aragorn claimed that he was not hungry, he ate it obediently. Soon, the pair mounted their horses and started off.
They rode in silence at a slow trot. The weather was fine, a light wind caressing their hair and bringing them many pleasant scents of early spring. As a man, Aragorn was less sensitive to such things than his elven friend, but even he could not deny the unusual beauty of Mirkwood. It did not match his past experiences with the area at all, but he did not mind the change. The birds were singing their songs, rays of warm sunlight peering into the lower parts of the forest and water in a nearby stream was whispering agreeably. For a moment, the Ranger was under an impression that they had never left the woods around Rivendell. Just when he wanted to share his thoughts with Legolas, the elf rose in his saddle and shouted merrily, "Last one at the palace explains our delay to my father!"
Then, before Strider understood what this challenge meant, the elf rushed his mare into a gallop. As quickly as he could, the Dúnadan followed suit, yet he knew he had no chances of catching up. Elcheneb, Legolas' steed, was much swifter that his own stallion, Sirdal. She was indeed one of the most marvelous horses Aragorn had ever seen. He watched her running in front of him. Her white coat glistened beautifully and her hooves did not seem to be touching the ground at all, as if she flew, not ran. After but a few minutes of the race, she and Legolas disappeared from his sight.
He rushed his horse, trying to force him to run even faster. Having been to the Halls of Thranduil many a time, Estel knew the way by heart. He was now reaching a big bend of the path they usually used to arrive at the royal palace of the Elvenking. With no hesitation, the man turned off the road, choosing a shortcut he and Legolas had discovered only half a year prior.
The forest here was denser and darker, but the Ranger knew where to go. He had travelled through Mirkwood countless times, he would not get lost. Besides, if Legolas had chosen to ride the main path, he could still overtake him. Aragorn would never waste a chance to beat the elf.
Focused on riding the shortest way possible, he did not notice the ill silence that suddenly fell upon the forest. No birds were singing now and the calming whispering of the stream became inaudible. The only sound was now made by Sirdal's hooves, rhythmically hitting the ground in a steady canter.
When Strider realized that something was wrong, it was already too late.
An arrow flew out of the bushes and missed his head by inches. He rushed his horse again and pressed himself to his neck as the animal galloped in a breakneck speed. A rain of arrows followed them immediately. The man did not have to rush the horse anymore. The steed scampered headlong, trying to save both his and the rider's lives. Unfortunately, Sirdal stepped in a small hole in the path and he stumbled, neighing quietly.
It was then that one of the projectiles hit its target, embedding itself in Aragorn's right upper arm. The Ranger let out a cry of pain as the arrowhead tore his flesh and muscle, drastically limiting the mobility of his arm. Fresh blood flowed from the wound, staining the man's clothes and his horse's coat. Yet the Ranger knew better than to submit to the sharp, hot pain.
Wanting to know who attacked him, he risked a look back, twisting his neck, but did not manage to catch a glimpse of anyone nor anything. However, he knew only two creatures which used a bow and could dwell in Mirkwood: Elves and Orcs. Elves would, most likely, stop and interrogate him before taking any more brutal actions. Thus, there was only one option and Estel did not like it. He swallowed hard, different possibilities of his nearest future flashed through his mind. With his right arm injured, he had little chances in close combat. His only hope lay in Sirdal's swiftness and the Orcs' poor aiming. Or was sheer luck all he needed?
He looked back again. This time saw a few Orcs stringing their bows and aiming at him.
However, the arrows were never released. They did not need to be. Not looking ahead, Aragorn could not have noticed a fallen tree lying on his way. Sirdal jumped over the obstacle, but the rider, not ready for such a stunt, did not manage to keep his balance. The swift jump threw him off the saddle and Aragorn loudly hit the ground. Suppressing a moan, he instantly rose to his feet. To his horror, the horse was out of his sight. The frightened animal must have fled, too scared by the Orcs to stop and wait for his master to mount him back, as he would have normally done.
There was no choice. Strider was forced to face the Orcs. He did not even know how many there were, but he was not going to sell himself cheaply. He essayed to unsheathe his sword, yet as soon as he tightened his hold on the hilt, a shot of pain ran through his arm. Hissing at the discomfort, he withdrew his right arm and grabbed the grip with his left hand, drawing it out of the sheath. It was an odd sensation. He had never fought this way before, nor had he predicted a need to do so. His left arm was unaccustomed to holding such a heavy weapon. He had used it with daggers and knives many times, but never with a full-sized sword. Aragorn somehow felt extremely vulnerable and helpless. He had no choice, though. The Orcs were approaching. There was no time to hesitate in this combat, no place for a littlest mistake. The man glanced sideways at his injured arm. It looked pitiful with the arrow shaft protruding from it. His sleeve was now utterly soaked with blood. And it hurt to move the limb or to contract his muscles.
The Orcs advanced, one of them going a few steps in front of the rest, undoubtedly for a reason. He unsheathed his weapon, yelling at his companions in the Black Speech. The sound hurt Estel's ears, who was used to hearing much more graceful tongues. He wanted to block it out, but there was no time. Aragorn clenched the hilt as tightly as he could and traced a beam of light in the air with a quick movement of his sword, inviting the Orc to fight. He was ready.
The leader of the Orcs finally reached him. He immediately attacked, raising his sword and bringing it down, aiming at the center of the man's skull. The Ranger quickly parried, the well-known sound of metal blades meeting in a combat brought him strength and faith. He had fought Orcs many times and never failed to kill them. Why this one should be different?
He tried to copy the usual sequences of his right hand movements with the left one. It was difficult, but somehow he managed to parry another blow from the Orc, stepping back a little. The attacker advanced, there was a clang and Aragorn drew back a little again. Yet the creature was a quick fighter, the man barely managed to parry another attack. He was irritated; his left arm was slower and clumsier than it should be, and he was having trouble controlling his sword. He was successively forced to retreat. He could not let it continue, he would not win by moving away!
Having parried another blow, he quickly moved to a riposte, attacking the left side of his opponent. The Orc, however, blocked him effortlessly.
Aragorn cursed in his mind. The Orc fought in a very simple way and yet he was unable to defeat him. But he was not surprised. The Orc was using his stronger hand, parrying and attacking nearly mechanically, whilst the Ranger had to concentrate on the battle so hard that it almost hurt. He had to do something more tricky or he would lose soon.
Aragorn immediately feinted, extending his arm and aiming at the Orc's ribs and then quickly switching to a higher line, targeting at his neck or – if his arm was to fail him again – at least his shoulder. The creature was fooled and did not manage to deflect this time. The man would have succeeded, but his untrained hand indeed betrayed him, missing the aim. The blade bit into the Orc's side, but the damage was not as serious as Strider had intended. It only enraged his opponent.
Ignoring his own pain, the Orc advanced on the Ranger, raising the sword again and roughly bringing it down towards his head.
Aragorn deflected the counter-attack with great effort, his hand trembling slightly under the pressure of the Orc's blade. The evil being immediately renewed his attempt, but this time desired to reach the Dúnadan's abdomen. He attacked quickly, extending his rear leg and balancing with his body in order to make the blow stronger. The man tried his best, but did not manage to prevent the attack from landing. The Orc's blade effortlessly passed through his unsteady parry, the point of his sword viciously thrust into Estel's flesh.
He cried in pain, involuntarily releasing his hold on the hilt of his sword. The Orc's sword, fortunately, was not buried deep in his body and the creature pulled he out only a moment later. His weapon was hastily kicked away from Aragorn's reach.
The man collapsed to his knees, hugging his stomach with his good arm. The fresh wound hurt immensely. It was not very deep, though it was not a scratch either, and without proper care it could be fatal. The area around it was on fire. Suddenly, the injury of his shoulder did not seem painful at all in comparison with the ordeal he was going through now. Crimson blood was pouring through his fingers, covering his already bloodstained tunic with new shades of red.
The Ranger was quickly pulled up and disarmed. His hunting daggers and additional knives were taken away from him and divided between the Orcs. The creatures also confiscated his sword scabbard. What happened to the sword itself, Aragorn could not see. Hyperventilating, he closed his eyes, stifling a moan of pain. He was now injured, defenseless and in the hands of absolutely merciless creatures. He had been tortured by Orcs before and never wanted to repeat that. Why, oh, why had he chosen the shortcut?
Legolas left the stables, where he had just left Elcheneb, and went towards the courtyard. He decided to wait for Aragorn and expected his friend to arrive at any moment. There, he met his father. Thranduil smiled at the younger elf and gave him a warm hug.
"At last, Legolas! What caused the delay this time?" he asked, eyeing his son suspiciously and was greatly relieved to find no injuries, which would explain his late return. The archer sighed almost inaudibly. Aragorn was supposed to explain this, not him!
"Strider, as usual," he grinned, remembering their time at Imladris and how the Ranger accidentally brought down a little wooden summerhouse and had to help rebuild it. "He should arrive soon."
However, Thranduil's smile faded at this statement. He frowned and Legolas was sure that he would demand a more detailed explanation, but the king seemed rather concerned than curious. He looked into his son's eyes seriously. "Why would you leave him behind, Legolas?"
Legolas became anxious. There was something in the older elf's voice that made him nervous. "I-I challenged him for a race and… Father, what is it? Is there something I should know… or should have known?"
The Elvenking sighed heavily. "Being in Rivendell for so long, you could not have known that there have been some Orcs spotted not far away from here. I do not know how many there are. Several patrols were sent there, but they have found nothing. Thus, I infer that there are not many of the Orcs, though one cannot be certain unless he sees them."
The information left Legolas breathless for a while. He could not believe his own folly. Of course, he should have never left Aragorn anywhere in Mirkwood alone, no matter how close to his home it was. The forest bore this name for a reason. "Ill news, indeed," he murmured to himself, closing his eyes for a second. Then, he looked back at Thranduil. "Father, I am leaving immediately. I would not forgive myself if something wrong befell Aragorn." He wanted to run back to the stables, but the king stopped him, laying a hand on his shoulder.
"Legolas, do not go there alone. I will have a search party go with you. They shall be ready to set out in half an hour."
The Prince nodded. He knew that his father was right. He had little chance of finding and, if the Ranger had been captured, rescuing Strider on his own. Yet waiting here for half an hour and imagining all the horrible things that might be happening to his friend was not what he wanted to do either. "Let it be so. But I will leave in a quarter. If the party wants to go with me, they have to hurry or they will be forced to catch up later," he said, sinking to the floor with a loud sigh.
Aragorn lay on the forest floor, bound and hurting. The Orcs, not wanting to lose him too early for an obvious reason, tied pieces of cloth around the wound on his abdomen. The action brought the Ranger more pain than relief and he was sure that the evil creatures were not saddened by this fact. The provisional dressings stopped the bleeding only a little and the Ranger realized that he needed help soon or he would bleed to death. The Orcs seemed to know it, too.
Their leader, also with a strip of cloth tied around his side, approached the man and brutally kicked him in his own side. Aragorn stifled a cry of pain and writhed, the kick sending a wave of pain through the wound in his stomach. The slowly forming clot was torn and more blood started to flow. The cloth wrapped around his midsection was continuously getting wetter and redder.
"I think our toy is breaking down!" the Orc taunted in common so that their captive could understand him as well. "Let's make use of it before it breaks down completely!" There was an enthusiastic cry and more Orcs rushed towards them. Strider closed his eyes and swallowed. He knew what was to come.
Legolas stared at his toes impatiently. His sharp elven hearing caught sounds of the elves from his accompanying party getting ready to set out. But his ears caught also something else… the rhythmical thuds of hooves hitting the ground. He raised his head and saw a black horse running in front of him.
A saddled horse without a rider.
The animal neighed and changed the direction, going now straight towards the elf. Legolas stood up, hardly able to believe his eyes. It did not take him a lot of time to indentify the steed as Sirdal, Aragorn's stallion.
"Sirdal," the archer mouthed the animal's name, frowning as he tried to understand what had happened. "Where is Estel?" he asked rather himself than Sirdal. The horse was anxious. The elf, sensitive to animal feelings, could clearly see that he was afraid although he made no nervous gestures. Of what? Legolas feared that he knew the answer. It consisted of four letters and started with an o.
He gently caressed the steed's muzzle and inspected him, searching for wounds. The horse appeared unharmed, though his black coat was covered with something brownish. Something that resembled dry blood. The Prince did not doubt that it belonged to Aragorn. His friend was hurt because of him. Because of his childish carelessness and stupidity. He felt awful. He endangered Strider's life far too often. Sometimes they would pass without a scratch, but apparently today was different. A race! He should have never came up with such a reckless idea! If only he could turn back the time!
The Orcs roughly torn his shirt away, knowing that it hurt him. Having been a part of a clot on his arm, the ripped sleeve reopened the wound and caused it to bleed again. One of the creatures cut off the arrow shaft near his skin. A stream of warm, crimson liquid poured down on his arm, tickling unpleasantly. He involuntarily rubbed the limb, but the incautious action brought him only pain as the skin around the lesion was affected. Biting his lower lip, he quickly withdrew his left hand.
Then, Aragorn was forced up to his feet and led away from the place he had been occupying only moments ago. Rising had a terrible effect on his abdominal wound. The "bandage" was now very wet and the Ranger wondered if it still kept his blood loss at least a bit lower than it would be without the dressing. Turning his head away, he looked a bit wistfully behind. There, on the bloodstained ground, was the remains of his blood-soaked shirt. The sight was not encouraging, though the man was positive he would have preferred lying in a puddle of his own blood to whatever the Orcs were planning for him.
When they reached a remote, little clearing, the man was brought down to his knees again, his hands bound tightly in front of him. A rough hand was placed on his neck, forcing him to bend. Strider did not fight it, realizing it was pointless. The Orcs surrounded him, distinctly excited. They spoke loudly in their hideous tongue, impatiently waiting for the fun to begin.
Aragorn heard a snap behind him and suddenly hot pain exploded in his back. He gasped, throwing his head forward and flinching slightly. The audience applauded, though the sounds they made resembled rather the ones produced by a pack of irate wargs, not a praise for the tormentor's actions. When silence fell around them, there was a short pause and the whip slashed across the Ranger's shoulders, cutting deep into his flesh. Aragorn suppressed a moan, but a hiss escaped his lips as another blow lashed through his shoulder blades precisely in the same place, biting ever deeper into his body and, the man was sure, exposing the bone. The whipping Orc must be an experienced torturer.
"Your Highness?" a question from one of the elves from the party appointed by Thranduil brought Legolas back to reality. The elf looked at the Prince with concern, his gaze running from the archer to the horse standing next to him. Legolas sighed.
"This is Sirdal, Strider's horse. He has just arrived… riderless. But can you see this?" He ran his hand through the coat on the animal's shoulder and looked at the elven warrior beside him.
"Blood?" asked the other one, inspecting the place the Prince had indicated.
"Yes. The horse is anxious, but unscathed. This blood must be Strider's." Legolas' stare was now very serious. "He must be bleeding a lot if even Sirdal is covered with blood. The situation is graver than I thought. And hoped…" the last two words were barely audible, but the warrior heard them. He was sorry for the young Prince. Thranduil had roughly explained them the situation and the elf understood the guilt Legolas laid upon himself. He looked at the son of Thranduil sympathetically.
"Then we should hurry," he advised. Legolas nodded, smiling sadly.
He led Sirdal to the stables where other elves took care of him. The stallion slowly calmed down, caressed by their soft hands and reassured by their melodic voices. Meanwhile, the Prince of Mirkwood mounted his own mare Elcheneb. He immediately joined the elves awaiting him and they set out towards the place he had seen Aragorn for the last time.
Legolas rode in silence, deep in thought. The blame consumed his mind and he knew he would not rest until everything was over. He only wished to find and rescue his friend as soon as possible. He knew far too well how cruel Orcs could be. He had suffered at their hand many times and could only imagine how horrible an experience an equal mistreatment would be for Aragorn. He shuddered when he unwillingly imagined the Ranger being tortured by the foul creatures, his heartbeat accelerating when a vision of the man's state after such ordeal appeared before his eyes.
No, he would not let this come true. And if it already had, he would make sure that the captors would pay for it!
When they reached the spot where the shortcut met the main path, Legolas divided them into two groups. One of them chose the regular road, while others, led by the son of Thranduil, chose the shortcut.
They observed their surroundings warily, eager not to overlook any possible indication of Aragorn's whereabouts. They rode on, but found nothing. Just when Legolas was considering turning back and joining the other group, he heard something. The sound made his eyes narrow in fury as he realized what it was: a cry of pain.
The whip stung his back again and again, mercilessly turning it into a shapeless red mash. Aragorn could no longer distinguish single blows; his world was just the pain. The piece of fabric around his abdomen was utterly drenched and blood poured down his midsection. His right arm felt numb. He was certain he was not going to last long now.
Not with these injuries and blood loss.
Not with the Orcs yelling in excitement all the time and punishing him like they were.
And – finally – not without proper care taken of his wounds. His entire body burned, he could not stand this suffering anymore.
He struggled to stay calm and silent, not to reward his tormentors with any signs of weakness. But in his pain, Estel lost hope. He expected no help to come to him in this dark hour and thus he cried, desiring only for relief and unable to do anything else to assuage his suffering.
The Orcs did not stay unaffected by this reaction. The noise they were making grew louder and the whipping stopped for a moment, only to be replaced by a vicious kick. Aragorn fell forward with a stifled moan, every single fiber in his body burning unbearably. His breathing came in laborious gasps. Valar, how long was he supposed to carry on and suffer like this?
His senses failed him—all the Ranger could feel was pain. His eyes were blurry and his ears refused to register any sounds emitted around. If any more blows or kicks were given to him, he was not aware of it. He shut his eyes, tears of pain gathering under his closed eyelids and forcing their way out against his will to keep them unshed. Unstopped, they ran down his cheeks, leaving cleaner trails on his dirty face and eventually dripping off his chin. Ashamed of his weakness, he buried his face in the ground. The soil absorbed his tears, but his eyelashes were still wet and the marks left by the salty liquid stayed visible. He coughed. His throat felt horribly dry and hurting. He tried to lick the tears from his cheeks, yet it brought no comfort to his mouth.
"Oh, just look!" he suddenly heard an amused voice over his head. The Orcs were not done with him yet. "Look, our little toy…"
"… our little toy is already crying!" the statement pounded loudly in Legolas' head, his eyes went wide in horror and hatred. What had the Orcs done that they actually brought his friend to tears?
The elves had arrived only a moment ago and were hidden in the bushes. They wanted to make a reconnaissance first and then decide what to do, but as soon as they heard the words spoken by Aragorn's tormentor, they realized they had no time to spare. Legolas was the first one to bend his bow and shoot. The evil creature he aimed at was not given a chance to raise the whip again; he fell dead before he could know what killed him. The remaining elven warriors followed suit. The Orcs, having left their own bows some distance away and being concentrated on their "sport", stood no chance against the strength of the elves and were all quickly slain, the subtle arrows embedding themselves in their bodies with a dull sound.
Legolas partially regretted not being able to catch the Orc responsible for his friend's pain alive and take his revenge for mistreating his friend. Yet he knew it would not undo what had been done to the man, nor would it make him feel better.
Now all he could do was see to Strider's injuries. He sped through the clearing and came to a sudden halt only a few meters away from the still form of the Ranger, holding his breath. He was shocked to see the actual damage of his body. Strider's back was – literally – in shreds and he was surrounded by a puddle, no, a sea of blood.
The elf bit his lip and shuddered involuntarily, tears filling his own eyes as he kneeled down next to the motionless man. "Aragorn?" he asked tenderly, reaching out to touch his left arm. Strider tensed at the gentle contact, but immediately relaxed, recognizing the soft voice of his friend.
"Legolas?" he murmured in a weak, yet unexpectedly calm voice, trying to raise his head. The archer turned him on his left side, hissing at the new discovery – the shot right arm and the horribly looking wound in his abdomen. All his injuries were bleeding awfully and needed quick tending. Legolas sighed helplessly and motioned for his elven companions to bring clean bandages. Aragorn attempted to smile, but the grimace that appeared on his face was not what he wanted it to be, so he simply whispered, "I didn't really expect this threat to be carried out so soon."
The blond-haired being swallowed, remembering their conversation. He had never wanted this to come true! The weight of the guilt crushed on him again, even though he realized that the man meant his comment as a joke. "Oh, Estel. I am so sorry. There is absolutely no excuse for what I have done. I was so stupid, Aragorn! But I do not ask your forgiveness, for I know do not deserve it."
"Oh, Valar, will you never learn that—" the Ranger interrupted, irritated, but Legolas quickly cut him off.
"Shh, stay calm and save your strength, my friend." He advised, carefully adjusting the man's position so that his wounds could be easily dressed. In his heart, he knew that Aragorn did not resent him, yet he could not helpblaming himself. It was his fault, no matter what the Dúnadan thought.
Strider relaxed against his friend's chest, letting his companions take care of his wounds. He sighed heavily, fear and insecurity being replaced by a feeling of safeness and mutual trust. He closed his eyes, slowly drifting off to sleep, the presence of the blond archer soothing his pain. The elves' gentle hands moved around his wounds delicately, careful not to hurt the man further. Estel nearly smiled in his slumber, the cleaner trails of tears the only sign of the misery he had to endure.