Disclaimer: Not one Elf.
This chapter is a bit shorter than usual… But I wanted to get it out as an early Christmas present. I hope you'll enjoy it! The Elf and the Ranger are making discoveries. ;-)
Many, many thanks to my wonderful reviewers: ziggy3, The Pearl Maiden, Silivren Tinu, invisigoth3, Lady Ambreanna, Sigrid Sigbjornsdotter, LiQuYu, Caelhir, Lothoren, Tavaril Lasgalen, misscruel, Larner, XienRue and OhShirleyUJest. Thank you all so much for staying with me! I promise I'll get to the end as soon as I can.
And Merry Christmas to everyone who celebrates it!
Chapter 11: Chasing the Morning
Legolas did not bother to keep to the roads. Roads were for Men and Dwarves and idiots who wanted to be seen. He urged his horse through woods, across meadows, over fences, taking care to avoid the towns and villages where he might be seen and recognized as an Elf.
He rode hard. Another horse with another rider might have tired, but she had been bred and trained by Elves and Legolas sat lightly.
All the same, it was close to noon by the time he arrived at his destination.
Now that he had reached it, he did not bother to conceal himself. He had an idea that deception would serve no purpose with the lord of this estate, except possibly to enrage him. If his enterprise was to meet with any success, he would have to go as himself.
Not that Legolas was reluctant: Hawkeye, while amusing for a time, had been a very difficult and infuriating disguise to maintain recently.
Nobody stopped him until he had reached the main gate of the large, sprawling house. There, a stout figure bearing a pike stepped out of the gatehouse and into his path.
"I am Legolas Thranduilion," the Elf announced before the man could ask him anything. "I have urgent business with your master." The man looked doubtful, and Legolas added, "It is of the greatest importance and it is vital that I see him at once."
"Youare an Elf?" the man asked uncertainly. "What business does one of your kind have here?"
Legolas sighed. He had not foreseen this, although he had to admit that he should have done. On the estates around Minas Tirith most people knew him as one of the Nine Walkers, the King's friend and the Lord of Ithilien, if not as the son of the Elven-king. They did not all like him, but they knew him, and had he gone to any of their gates demanding admittance he would at least have been permitted to enter.
"I must speak to him," Legolas said urgently, leaning forward. "Will you tell him I am here?"
The man nodded and disappeared into the gatehouse. A moment later, a young boy – fifteen summers, if Legolas was any judge (as he now was, having watched Eldarion grow up) – slipped out of the other side of it and scampered towards the house.
Legolas waited, resting one hand on his horse's neck to keep her quiet.
Several minutes later, the boy came running back. He entered the gatehouse. Legolas heard soft voices inside. Then the stout man emerged and opened the gate.
"Go straight up," he said. "Someone will be waiting to show you where to go."
Legolas nodded his thanks and gave his horse a light nudge with his knees. That was all the direction she needed: she cantered up the broad avenue leading to the house. The trees lining it were tall and obviously old. Legolas would dearly have liked to stop and talk to them, but he had things to do first. Perhaps on his way out…
A man was waiting for him at the foot of the broad steps leading up to the main door. Legolas dismounted and let him take the horse's reins, warning her with a light pat to her shoulder not to make a fuss or bite or trample anyone if they tried to close her into a stall. She exhaled loudly, Legolas narrowly avoided having his fingers bitten, and then an elderly woman had appeared to lead him into the house.
The young Elf followed her up the stairs and through the door. She was taciturn, responding neither to his bright smile nor to his merry greeting – but perhaps she was simply nervous. Legolas had, after all, been prepared to meet trouble on the road, and to those who were unused to the sight, a fully-armed Elven warrior could be a little intimidating.
She pushed open a heavy door to the left of the main hall and ushered him ahead of her into the room.
As soon as Legolas entered, he heard the door shut behind him. He felt suddenly uneasy – perhaps he should at least have told someone where he was going? But he had not for a moment imagined that there would be any danger here.
Yet something about the room unnerved him. He could not define it, precisely, but there was something wrong with it.
Legolas suppressed a shiver. Today he was his father's son, Prince of Eryn Lasgalen. A friend of Elessar of Gondor might be turned away from this door with his questions unanswered, but the son of the Elven-king of the Woodland Realm would get what he came for.
He straightened his back and faced the occupant of the room.
It was a man, seated in a great armchair before the fireplace. Legolas could tell that he was tall: standing, he would probably be just an inch shy of being able to look Legolas in the eyes. But he seemed weak. Age had wreaked his ravages upon him.
And yet –
Something in the Elf's soul was unaccountably uncomfortable in his presence.
"Legolas Thranduilion," the man said. "I have heard of you… But tell me, how am I to address you today? Lord of Ithilien? Prince of the Woodland Realm? Elven warrior of legend?"
"Just Legolas will do." The Elf stepped forward into the centre of the room.
"And you said you had urgent business with me."
"Yes. But first I have a question to ask you."
"Why are you here?"
Aragorn was King of Gondor and Chieftain of the Dúnedain. He had ridden at the head of armies. He had faced and defeated formidable opponents. He had stood before the Black Gate and issued a challenge to Sauron himself.
Before the Elven-king and his two companions, he felt his knees tremble.
To be fair to him, Thranduil was not trying to make Aragorn nervous. Aragorn could tell: there had been times in the past when Thranduil had gone out of his way to be intimidating.
"My King." Aragorn bowed in the Elven manner, fist over his heart. Despite Thranduil's remonstrance, he had never been able to address his friend's father with less formality than that. It did not matter what titles Aragorn had among Men: Thranduil had been King of the Woodland Realm since the day Oropher had been slain on the Dagorlad – a length of time beyond Aragorn's imagining. "We are honoured by your presence. We had not expected you here so soon."
Thranduil nodded. "I am happy to see you, Estel. Sit." Aragorn sat. "Where is my son?"
Aragorn had been prepared for this question. He had considered how to answer, and finally decided that the absolute and complete truth was best. Even if he did not tell Thranduil everything, the Elven-king was bound to find out.
"This is my house," the man said, raising an eyebrow.
"Do you truly not know –"
"What is happening in Minas Tirith? I know. I know a great deal more than you think, young Elf." Before Legolas could express his outrage at being addressed as 'young Elf' by a man who could not be more than sixty, he went on, "I keep myself informed."
"Lord Beron," Legolas ground out, "your son is in prison – in prison – being held on the charge of a murder to which he confessed but of which your daughter insists he is not guilty. After speaking to him, I have good reason to believe, myself, that your daughter is right and he is innocent. You have one child accused of murder, probably falsely, but refusing to defend himself, another trying everything in her power to have him acquitted of the charge, both less than a day's ride from you – and here you sit drinking ale before the fire!"
The man shoved his chair back with a vicious screech and got to his feet. He clearly meant to overawe Legolas; the Elf stood his ground, unimpressed. He had faced down more terrifying sights than a balding man in a coat that hung too loose upon his thin frame.
"Do not presume to know my business, Elf," Lord Beron snarled. "Or to tell me what my duty is to my children."
"If you knew your duty, nobody would have to remind you of it."
"I find it difficult to believe that you rode all the way here from Minas Tirith just to harangue me about my obligations, Prince Legolas. Why are you here?"
"I want to know what you know." Legolas stepped closer to Lord Beron. The man shrank away fearfully. "The Lady Undómiel – your Queen – is acquainted with you. When we knew that Lady Nórui was your daughter, she told me something of you. Not a great deal, but enough for me to know that something is amiss now." Lord Beron looked hesitant. Legolas pressed his advantage. "My lord, I do not for a minute suppose that you would rather be sitting in your empty halls than with your children to support them in their hour of need. I ask you again: why are you here?"
Lord Beron scowled in silence for several seconds. Then he said, "Come with me."
Thranduil's blue eyes sparkled with amused exasperation, but he did not, Aragorn was pleased to note, seem either worried or angry.
"So you think Legolas has run off in pursuit of a murderer?" he asked.
"He has run off, and there is a murderer."
Thranduil's response was a philosophical smile. "No doubt the boy will be fine. He has faced worse things than Men with the urge to spill blood. Have you no idea where he has gone?"
"I did not think so, but now I begin to believe that I may have missed something. It is unlike him to disappear and leave no word at all."
That, at least, was true: Legolas was an experienced warrior, more experienced than any twenty men from Gondor's army, including Aragorn himself, put together. He might have left without telling Aragorn, but he would not have left without telling somebody or at least leaving a message about his plans.
"He will be fine," Thranduil repeated, face unreadable. "And what of you, Estel? You seem worried. Is this woman's affair troubling you?"
"I hate to think that justice is so poorly served," Aragorn confessed. "In my realm – in my capital – it should not have been necessary for Nórui to go to such lengths to obtain justice for her brother. And yet… I cannot blame the City Guard, my king. They have a duty. They do it well. Minas Tirith is not as safe a place as I would like and they have plenty of curpurses and back-alley quarrels to deal with. Nemir confessed and the only person who believed him innocent was his sister, who must admittedly be biased. I cannot fault the guards' actions in this. But it should not have happened."
"You cannot blame yourself for every problem in Minas Tirith."
"That is precisely what I always tell him," Arwen's voice said from the doorway.
Thranduil smiled at her. "Lady Undómiel."
"My king. I see matters have been resolved satisfactorily. Estel feared that having failed to supply you with information about the whereabouts of your son, he would not leave your presence alive."
The Elven-king inclined his head.
"There is something you should know, meleth," Aragorn said. "Nórui is pregnant."
Legolas padded silently down the dimly-lit corridors after Lord Beron. He still sensed an odd oppressiveness, and it made him reluctant to go deeper into the house alone with its strange owner.
He told himself firmly to stop being a fool. He was too experienced a warrior to be frightened of being alone with an elderly man in a dark house.
Yet Legolas was… not frightened, not quite, but… uncomfortable.
The corridors only grew darker and gloomier as they went deeper into the house. Legolas found himself shivering: there had been bright sunshine outside, but this felt almost like being trapped in a cave.
At last they stopped before a pair of doors: high, oaken, carved with a pattern of leaves and flowers that Legolas' Elven eyes could pick out even in the near-total darkness. As soon as he saw it, he knew that this house had not always been as it was now: unhappy, mourning, sinister. It had been full of warmth and laughter, drapes drawn back and windows thrown open to the world. Light had sparkled on those carvings, polished wood glinting.
Lord Beron knocked softly at the door, but he did not wait for a response before pushing it open.
The room into which they stepped was even darker than the corridor outside. Heavy velvet drapes were drawn across the windows, so thick that not the tiniest sliver of sunlight could pierce them. A single candle flickered on a table in a stand meant for three.
It took Legolas a moment to realize that the room was a bedchamber, and it was occupied.
A woman – Legolas thought it was a woman – lay in a bed entirely too large for her: she was thin and frail and dwarfed alarmingly by it. She looked older than Éowyn was now, older than any woman Legolas had ever seen.
"She is younger than I am," Lord Beron said next to him, and Legolas gave a start of surprise.
He turned to the man, wishing there were enough light to discern his expression. "Who is she?"
"My wife. Lothiad. Nemir and Nórui's mother."
"What is – is she ill?"
"Gravely. I have had the finest healers to look at her, men who have travelled as far as Rhûn and Harad and know the physic practised in distant lands. Nobody has been able to help her."
"How long has she been like this?"
"Some months. She was hale before that, hale and strong and brimming with energy. She went away for a few weeks with some of our kin. They decided to ride north, up through Lothlórien and the southern reaches of Eryn Lasgalen, and then to ride across the High Pass into the lands to the west. I would have gone with them, but the business of the estate kept me here. Lothaid rode alone. You do not know how bitterly I regret that now."
"Something happened there?"
"They returned sooner than expected. They told me she had taken ill. It was a mysterious sickness. They did not know what it was. I… I have my suspicions. I know what you must be thinking. The same thought occurred to me. How could she, who was as strong as a woman can be at her age, be the only one affected by this illness when nobody else suffered so much as a mild fever?"
The man shrugged. "I did what I could. As I said, I have had the finest healers in Gondor brought to look at her. Nobody knew what the problem was."
Legolas had a shrewd idea of what the problem might be: he could not see much of the woman's face by the light of the lone candle, but what he could see of it, her stillness, her lack of reaction to their presence…
"My lord, has she been eating?"
"A little. It takes time; her maid must feed her by hand now, only the softest foods, or broth."
"Not the same food you eat, then?" Lord Beron shook his head. That was all the confirmation the young archer needed, but he still hesitated to ask the question: the man was clearly miserable about his wife's state and Legolas had no wish to offend him or suggest that his care had been negligent. "My lord, if you will permit me…"
"You are a healer?"
"I am not, but my Elven-lord always insisted that all his warriors learn at least the rudiments. It kept us alive on the battlefield more than once."
"It can hardly harm her," Lord Beron said, waving one hand in weary consent.
Legolas approached the bed cautiously. The woman's eyes were open, he saw now, tracking his movements. He had no desire to alarm her.
He stopped a few feet from the bed.
"My lady, if you will allow me closer… I might be able to help you." She looked a little wary. "I promise you, I mean you no harm. I only want to help, if I can."
There was a barely-perceptible movement that might have been a nod.
Legolas drew nearer, picking the candle up as he passed it. Examining Lady Lothiad's face by its light, he knew that his suspicions had been correct: it was no illness that she had. She was pale, sweat beading her brow, lips dry and slightly parted, breathing shallow and too fast.
The Elf felt her wrist, already knowing what he would find. Her pulse was rapid and weak.
But more than anything else, it was her eyes that confirmed it for him. He had seen eyes like that before.
Legolas made a mental note to thank Lord Thorontur for his training. The importance of a warrior being always, always prepared had been drilled into them so thoroughly that even now, even in Gondor, Legolas' pack contained a full stock of healing supplies, most of which he would never need.
Now, though, they might save Lothiad's life.
Legolas stepped back and gestured towards the doorway. Lord Beron followed him out.
"What is it? Do you know what ails her?"
"I am reasonably certain. If I am right, Lord Beron – and I think I am – she is not ill, and she is certainly not dying. She is only… weakened."
"What is it?" Lord Beron asked again.
"Not something any Man would have known, so I am not surprised the healers you summoned could not identify it. In Eryn Lasgalen, Lord Beron, in the days before the fall of the Shadow, we used a… a draught. When we were away from the stronghold – a few days' ride – and we needed to pull out an arrow or stitch up a wound. I do not know exactly what was in it: the King's healers always made it up as a powder for us to carry. It numbs pain – numbs feeling – but without making you drowsy. It was very helpful for us when we needed everyone, injured or not, awake and alert to keep watch. However, we learnt through experience that it only works for Elves; if a mortal should taste it…"
"You think someone poisoned my wife with that?"
"I think someone is still poisoning her with that. It was not a fatal drug, Lord Beron, even for mortals – the healers would hardly have entrusted us with something that might do more harm than good. It usually wears off in a few hours." Legolas had been riffling through his pack as he spoke. He finally found what he was looking for. He extracted a small muslin pouch and held it out to Lord Beron. "A little of that in water. If she is suffering from any ill effects after having been fed the drug for so long, this will help. For the rest, be more careful about who is permitted to handle the food that goes up to her room. If you trust her maid, then have the maid prepare it all herself."
Lord Beron nodded, eyes glimmering. "Thank you." After a moment, he added, "Prince Legolas, my son and daughter know nothing of this. They have enough to worry them. Please…"
"You should tell them," Legolas said simply. "I am sure they will want to know. If something were worrying my father this much, I would want to know of it. But it is your decision, my lord. They will not learn of it from me."
As he left the house, Legolas could not suppress a feeling of apprehension. Something was wrong.
Something was very wrong.
"Nórui is pregnant?" Arwen repeated. "Are you certain?"
"Your father trained me as a healer, Arwen. I am not as good as Lord Elrond, but I know a pregnant woman when I see one. Nórui is expecting a child. She is not very far gone, though."
"I imagine so. She is far enough along for that."
"Who else knows?"
"I was on the verge of getting that information from her when I received a letter summoning me here on pain of death."
"I know. Send Eldarion to do it as soon as he returns. I do not think he will be able to track Legolas down; he might as well do something useful."
Arwen nodded and slipped from the room. Aragorn cast one longing look at her retreating back before he turned to Thranduil with a rueful sigh.
"I must go as well, my king. There has already been one attempt on Nórui's life today. I would rather be there to prevent a second one. I have to speak to her, too, and see what else she has been hiding from us."
What did you think? Good? Bad? Please review!