CHAPTER 19. TO DAYLIGHT, FREEDOM AND HOME

Aragorn hastened up the tunnel, cautious to dull his footsteps for fear he would be heard. The babble of chatter grew louder and increasingly comprehensible as he drew nearer, until he could hear every voice distinctly. He slunk carefully by the cave wall, masked by shadow. He cautiously poked his around the corner, just enough so that he could see the happenings in the main chamber.

The cavernous space was entirely filled with men, who bore the cloth and temperament of soldiers. In the center of the crowd a small circle had been left, something alike a stage. Excited conversation bubbled around the room, and Aragorn caught fragments of the curious whispers.

"Do you think the Elf has given him answers?"

"Of course, else why would he summon all of us here?!"

Almost instantaneously the noise stopped, and Aragorn poked his head a little further around the corner, squinting to find the cause of the silence. It took him a moment to see the man that had stepped into the empty center circle, and just a fraction of a second more to recognize him – the leader he had been confronted with earlier.

"What news is there, my lord?" a man called out eagerly, breaking the silence.

"Aye, what plans have we with the Elf?" another man chipped in keenly.

"Plans? With the Elf?" the man repeated, a very slight smile playing at the corners of his mouth. "I plan to leave him for a short while longer – why rush, after all the effort it has taken to bring him here? And after that… well, I plan to kill him."

The malicious comment, so casually made, was like a cold blade in Aragorn's stomach. He barely held back his growl of contempt, and had to force his feet from bounding forwards, force his hands not to seek the neck of one who would do Legolas such harm –

Aragorn took as deep a breath as he could without making a noise. Legolas would not come to harm; there was no need to fret over a fool's remarks. He perked his ears up again: it seemed that the reaction amongst his own men had been equally strong.

"Kill him?!"

"I thought we needed him for information!"

"Our men fell to seize that foul creature – we cannot simply slay him in haste!"

The man held up a hand, and instantly silence fell once more. If he had ever doubted that these men were soldiers, that doubt would now have faded – they were obedient to the very whim of their leader in a manner that could only be learnt on a battlefield. Aragorn was also impressed by the man's ability to control the group – to command a legion of men with a single gesture was no small feat.

Yet it also struck a chord of fear in the pit of his stomach. Men did not follow orders so swiftly without motivation, nor did soldiers such as these fight without cause. What had he done to make enemies of so many, and even of ones he regarded to bear the features and blood of his own lands?

"You are right in saying that our original intention for him was information." he said shortly, adding no theatrics or embellishments to the statement in a way that would have seemed surprisingly genuine and becoming if Aragorn did not already burn with hatred at the very sight of the man. "However, new events have occurred that have changed that. The Elf is no longer needed for that purpose."

A murmur passed around the room, the men stirring in obvious confusion and curiosity.

"We are all equal men here, and for that reason I will withhold from you no information." the leader stated, palms open as he turned, looking his men in the eye with an air of sincerity. "We have managed to acquire the very man we sought – the King of Gondor."

Again the room exploded into chatter, and this time there was no silencing the animated talk amongst the crowd, nor did the man try. A broad smile on his face, the leader waited several long moments for the noise to die down, bathing in the excited chatter of his men.

"Aren't we going to kill him?!" called a voice bluntly, and the men silenced immediately so as to hear his reply.

The leader gave a short, barking laugh. "Kill him? Of course not."

Dissent fell like a thick fog. Aragorn watched the mens' faces as they displayed a spectrum of emotions, from confusion to disappointed to fury.

"You lied to us!" shouted one of the men angrily. "You said we would have our way with the traitor!"

There was a small murmur of agreement from the men.

"I meant that we will not kill him yet." the leader amended, unconcerned by their ire. "Not until we've made him watch the Elf bleed, knowing that it was no one's fault but his own. Not until we have broken down the walls of Minas Tirith and forced our way into the city. Not until he watches everyone he cares for fall, and is unable to do a thing against it."

At last, the man's façade of genuineness and simplicity slipped, and Aragorn could see the cold ruthlessness and rage in his eyes – it made the man seem infinitely more terrifying.

"We will make him suffer." he declared with savage pleasure. "We will make him wish that he had never sought the throne of Gondor, he who was so undeserving of its rule. But above all we will make him wish that he had treated us, the Men of Gondor, with the honor we deserve!"

The reaction was a deafening cheer; swords clanged, feet stamped. It sounded, to Aragorn's ears, like the call of battle - filled with energy and excitement and raw anger. He realized that he needed to move quickly: Legolas would be sure to fret at the roaring acclamations, the sound of which Aragorn was certain would carry down the stone tunnels.

"But now, we must prepare." the man ordered, the din dying down to a quiet hum as their leader spoke. Gather your arrows, sharpen your swords, and take what rest you can. Tomorrow, we march for Minas Tirith!"

Aragorn whipped his head around the corner and out of sight as the room began to move. There was the scrambling noise of many footsteps and the clanking of much armor as the men began to file off into the tunnels leading away from the main chamber. Aragorn held his breath, heart pounding from fear he would soon be joined by soldiers, but it seemed that the tunnel he was hidden in lead not to anything of significance but the chambers for holding prisoners.

"What now, sire?" asked a voice, when the noise had died down and the men left the main cavern. The king peered around the corner to see the space empty but for the leader and another man, who seemed, to Aragorn's eyes, to be the group's second-in-command.

"I will deal with the Elf." he replied with cool disinterest. "Best we be rid of it before we begin our march, eh?"

Aragorn's stomach flared with anger again, but he had to time to react, as the sound of footsteps came his way. He quickly shrunk into a little crook by the entrance to the cavern, hidden from sight, just as the leader strode into view, his tall, muscular figure a silhouette against the light issuing from the main chamber. He walked right past the hidden king without a moment's hesitation, followed closely by the other man.

Aragorn's heart thudded in his chest as he watched them begin to stride away, each step bringing them closer to where Legolas lay hidden. Panic flooded his senses as they began to round the corner - surely Legolas would soon be in sight! - and he leapt forwards, weaponless but fueled by desperation and rage.

Aragorn's clenched fist slammed into the subordinate man's jaw, and he stumbled back with a noise of shock. Their leader turned at the sound, a snarl appearing on his face as his eyes met Aragorn's. Taking advantage of his opponent's distraction, Aragorn darted forwards and swiped for the superior's sword, but the man saw his play and sidestepped quickly, swinging out at his attacker with a precisely-aimed punch.

The blow to his stomach knocked the wind out of him, and Aragorn gasped for breath as he dived forwards, fists meeting empty air as the leader darted expertly out of the way. Suddenly his other opponent appeared out of the corner of his eye, and before he could realize Aragorn had seen him, he sent a sweeping kick for his ankles, knocking his feet out from underneath him.

The second-in-command slammed hard into the rock floor, and moved no more. Aragorn quickly reached down and snatched up the man's sword, pivoting around so that it met the blade of his other opponent. The metal clashed deafeningly from the force of the man's swing, and Aragorn stepped back in surprise.

His would-be captor took advantage of his imbalance, darting forwards and swinging his sword with an air of expertise. Aragorn was surprised by his enemy's skill and agility as his sword cut through the air, the blur of silver blades shining in the darkness. He darted forwards with a speedy swipe at Aragorn's neck, which he ducked narrowly. The man advanced again with a vicious, forceful strike at the king's torso. Aragorn managed to raise his own weapon to block the attack, the blades meeting just inches from his chest. The king retaliated with a speedy jab forwards, aimed at his leg, which was easily parried aside.

"Come now, Elessar, we are not playing to merely wound." the man drawled mockingly, noticing the objective of his thrust. "Rather, give me some sport - I am not overtly opposed to killing you ahead of schedule, if you provoke it. It is merely a shame your Elvish friend couldn't be here to share the occasion!"

Aragorn growled lowly, stepping forward with a fierce upward swing that the man only just managed to deflect from his chest. The king pushed forwards, sending hard, fast stabs at the man, who, caught somewhat off his guard, hurried to block the sudden onslaught. Aragorn swung the blade again, throwing all of his strength into the attack, which his match stopped just short of his neck. Aragorn could feel the heat of his opponent's breath on his skin, so close were their faces.

"I am a soldier - I will not be beaten by some royal puppet!" the man spat in disgust.

"You think yourself a soldier? You have not earned the title of soldier." Aragorn returned forcibly. "You fight for no master, and for no cause but your own selfish whims!"

The man made a noise of contempt, and Aragorn took the opportunity. He took a swift step backwards and then launched at his enemy, bringing his boot to the man's chest and kicking him with such force that he flew backwards and collided heavily with the stone wall. Aragorn did not spare the man a second glance, but took off at a sprint, not slowing until he was certain there was no one in pursuit.

Panting slightly, and with adrenaline pumping through his veins, he began to run through the dark, calling out as loud as he dared.

"Legolas? Legolas!"

"I am here, Aragorn." came the weary reply from the darkness, and he hastened to the Elf's side, chest still heaving slightly.

"I am sorry to hasten you, mellon nin, but I fear we will not have long until we are discovered." Aragorn stated apologetically, a concerned frown flittering about his brow. "Can you walk again?"

"Aye, I am able." Legolas affirmed, but the paleness in his cheeks and the uncertainty in his eyes seemed to tell an opposing story.

With Aragorn's assistance of a steadying arm, he managed to get to his feet, head rushing slightly. The misbalance was more disorientating than it should have been - Legolas was so used to impeccable balance and his natural Elven athleticism that any change in his physicality seemed both severe and utterly shameful. He silently praised the dark of the cavern for hiding the blush that he felt creep onto his cheeks.

"I am alright - I do not need you to help me." Legolas stated firmly, gently brushing away Aragorn's arm. The man eyed him with concern.

"Are you certain, Legolas? It is no inconvenience if you-"

"You need to be able to wield a sword should we happen across anyone, and you certainly cannot do that whilst helping me." he cut across shortly. "I will manage."

Aragorn knew the Elf well enough to see no use in protesting further - his tone made it perfectly clear that the issue was non-negotiable - and he began to walk, his pace slow with his injured comrade in mind. At such a speed, it was a few minutes before they reached the tunnel Aragorn had fought in. As they rounded the corner to where their fallen enemies lay, the king raised his sword in precaution, but as they entered the corridor, Aragorn let out a hiss of frustration.

"What is wrong, Aragorn?" Legolas asked instantly, hurrying his limping steps to catch up to him.

The soldier whose sword he had acquired - the second-in-command, to Aragorn's eyes - still lay unconscious on the stone floor, but the leader was nowhere to be seen.

"He is gone." Aragorn replied shortly, and Legolas needed no more information to make sense of his words - the scathing in his voice was enough to identify who was meant. The king stared at the spot where the man had lain with scorn and bloodlust, his heart thudding angrily at the thought of the villain. The foul threats he had heard issue from the man's tongue would be enough to provoke Aragorn's rage, but a backwards glance at Legolas and the wounds that laced his arms and torso made him seethe with fury. Oh, how he would make that snake rue the day he ever lay hand on the friend of Isildur's heir -

"It is no matter." Legolas said lightly, as though sensing his friend's hostility. "The only thing of importance now is that we take leave of this place."

Aragorn drew a forced breath from between his teeth, nodding his head slowly in agreement, and couldn't help but think how purely improbable the Elf was. The man laughed in spite of himself, earning a confused look.

"Did I miss something?" he inquired, eyes wide in bewilderment. "What is amusing?"

"You are, mellon nin." Aragorn replied, smiling slightly. "After all they have done to you - all the hurts they have inflicted - you still speak of peace, and without hesitation!"

Legolas frowned ever so slightly, and very lightly shrugged his shoulders.

"It is in the nature of my kindred, I suppose." he stated simply.

"Nay, it is not merely an Elvish custom; it is a Legolas custom." Aragorn returned, the corner of his mouth twisting up into a crooked smile. He glanced across at his friend with an irrefutable warmth in his eyes, but the gesture was lost in the near-blackness of the cave.

"Might I add that there is no need to allow me time to rest, Aragorn, however subtly you might try provide it." Legolas scolded tiredly, mistaking the entire conversation for a ploy. "My strength will suffice to get us away from this place – then I will rest."

He took a few steps as though to prove this statement, before stopping to glance at Aragorn with a challenging look, as if to say, shall we?

Aragorn answered the unasked question and began to lead the way back to daylight, freedom, and home.