“These wounds won’t seem to heal
This pain is just too real
There’s just too much that time cannot erase…”
Araviel had never been very big, nor broad. He dwarfed Elian, but Will was near five inches taller than he, and Padric’s shoulders swallowed his own. This came in handy when eluding enemies, running silent through the woods, or riding a horse for a long period of time, and he had never before had cause to fret over his size.
That was, until Moran, the leader of the group dispatched to drag the four unwilling prisoners to Mordor, decided that there was no need to risk Araviel’s running off if he was light enough to be carried. And that was the beginning of Araviel’s acquaintance with the beast of a man, Aron’s shoulder. He had spent the better part of two days slung over the beast’s back, held in place by two strong, claw-like hands that dug deeply into his bruised flesh.
There was no chance of escape, none at all; Saruman had made sure of that. Padric and Will each had three guards surrounding them as they were marched sedately along, Araviel had the same number, and Elian only one less, though the men fought amongst themselves over who got to be her guard. Araviel had bristled with anger to watch them draw lots at night and to hear ecstatic laughter as one of the men shouted, “I get the wench!” Araviel could see Elian’s delicate form trembling violently, but could do nothing to help her; whenever he moved, his guards added to his collection of bruises.
If they lay a hand on her I’ll– but that was as far as he got. What would he do, were they to take advantage of Elian’s vulnerable position, he hadn’t the faintest idea. Whenever the desire to attack one of the men overtook him, a rattle of chains reminded him that the action was impossible, and a swift blow would end his struggles.
When it began to rain, three days into the journey, Araviel decided everything that could possibly have gone wrong had done so. Somewhere between the bonds, the separation from his companions, the blows, the rain, and the overwhelming closeness of the forest, he had lost most of his desire to go on. But he ate the food they tossed him, and tried his hardest to rest at night and keep up his strength, holding out for the day when he and his friends might somehow escape.
His body had grown slightly stronger, and no longer throbbed as painfully as it had those first days back in the cell. The rain washed the blood away, and smoothed out his matted hair and stained clothing. He was wet and miserable, but somewhat cleaner than before, and that was one step closer to regaining his smashed dignity, one tiny baby step closer to his revenge.
Will dreamed of freedom. He watched with an aching longing the outside world around him, looked at the great trees just beckoning to be climbed, and felt the tantalizing breaths of wind weave a dance around him. But a rough push from his guards would shove his mind back to the tiny sphere of existence left to him, a place too small for the wild heart beating beneath his bruised chest, and the sound of rough voices would remind him of his predicament, and send his mind out of the clouds and once more into the oppressive, silent forest that watched him ominously in a waiting, brooding stillness.
He looked at Elian and wanted to see her unafraid, he turned to Padric and wished his eyes to regain the light that used to simmer within them, his head swerved back to see Araviel, and he wished the young elf would smile. He looked down at his hands and wished they were holding a weapon, that the rough rope around them would be severed with a well-wielded blade, that he would look up and see a friendly face smiling at him, asking if he was all right, and wondering how had he gotten himself into this mess in the first place.
And Will would tell his rescuer that Saruman had betrayed them, that the good he used to stand for had disappeared, and then he would turn around, rush back to Isengard tower, lay siege to it, break open the doors, latch hold of the old man’s skinny neck and…
Will’s eyes were alight with a mad, hysteric rage, his hands were around the wizard’s throat, the black eyes were looking at him with surprise as the breath was cut short and the Istari began slowly to die…
Suddenly Saruman was fighting back, Will’s grip around his neck loosened, and a gnarled hand flew up to chuck the elf hard in the face.
Will fell back to reality with a sputtering, gasping breath of surprise; Saruman’s face had been the product of an overactive imagination, but the fist that had hit him was real enough.
“Ow!” he screeched, lifting his hands to rub the spot on his cheek, already purpling into yet another bruise. He looked up and saw that his attacker was staring at him with a confused expression.
“And what, pray tell, do you think you were just doing?” he asked him in a low accusing voice. “Speak up!”
“That one`s touched in the head,” another one of the men, walking past, told his comrade. “One too many hits in the interrogation chamber.”
He was sniggering at Will, who glared back at him, his face hard with embarrassment and anger now. “I’m not touched in the head,” he told the man who had hit him, once his comrade sauntered past, still laughing. “I was just imagining the look on your face when I stick my sword into your gut.”
The man gave a short, halfhearted laugh, and pushed Will to the ground. “There’s nothing you can do to harm me, elf-scum,” he told Will with a hard kick, but he hurriedly turned away, walking back toward his fellows, a worried expression on his face.
Will watched interestedly, a small smile creeping over his lips. His brief encounter with Saruman, while fake enough, had brought some of his spirit back to him, like the first drops of water in a starved mouth. Energized, he swung his legs around and scooted himself to a sitting position, looking around the hastily-erected camp with a vigilant stare.
He turned to look at Padric, and noticed that his foster-father was looking off into the woods, a curious expression on his face, one that seemed almost…hopeful.
Will cocked his head sideways, latching Padric’s gaze. He turned his eyes to the guards, saw they weren’t looking, and mouthed to his foster-father, “What is it?”
Padric grinned slowly, and mouthed back, “I think our ordeal is at an end.”
“What makes you say-“
Padric turned his glance toward Will, a true smile now planted firmly across his face.
Will couldn’t help returning the hopeful grin as another Boom! echoed through the forest.
They had heard that noise before.
Araviel had heard stories, back in the spring of his life, stories of creatures of the forest, creatures his people had awoken. He could feel his mother’s fingers stroking his golden hair as she whispered into his ear, “And they were called the shepherds of the forest, with eyes as deep and wise as the elven lords of old. They roamed the woods when they reached to the ends of the earth, through Fangorn and Greenwood the Great, before the darkness came.”
But he had never truly believed in them until now.
Elian was looking at him, an expression of fear on her face.
“Araviel,” she whispered. “What are they?”
Araviel grinned as another Boom! echoed through the thickset woods. “Ents,” he whispered in a low voice. “Tree herders.”
For a moment she looked at him with an expression of confusion, but then comprehension slowly dawned across her face. “The shepherds of the forest!” she whispered excitedly. “Friends of elves since the dawn of the world!”
“Friends,” Araviel whispered in disbelief. “Tis long since we met any of those.”
But it was clear that these creatures, though Araviel and Elian had never seen them before, were allies. The evil men guarding the three elves and their human companion saw their own death when the two massive, tree-like creatures stormed into the clearing.
Araviel and Elian felt themselves scooped up into the high, tree-ish hand of the nearest Ent, who held them tightly, keeping them safe from the carnage the creature was causing below.
“Hooom hummm booom. Did I not tell your master that his kind are no longer welcome in my forest!” The ent bellowed. Araviel listened to his melodic voice, realizing how old it sounded, and yet young with the vitality and strength of a new sapling, with the wisdom of age and the bravery of a warrior.
The ent’s gnarled foot smashed a man directly below them without a thought. It occurred to Araviel that perhaps he didn’t know that Padric, a man like those screaming and running around below them, was not one of Saruman’s cronies.
“Master Ent!” he yelled up to the old one holding him. The tree herder stopped mid-step, and looked down at the elf in his hand.
“Yes, Araviel?” he said. Araviel didn’t let it phase him that the ent knew his name, but pressed forward with his words. “Our friend, Padric. He is a human like our captors but-“
The ent’s booming laughter echoed through the forest, as if mocking the shouts of the men below. “Be content, young one; I have met your friend before, and he is safe.”
He lifted Araviel up, so that the elf could see, in the other ent’s hands, two figures, one dark headed and the other blond. He smiled slowly, especially after he heard Will’s shout, “Get `em Treebeard! Woooooooo!” Followed by hysterical, joyful laughter.
Araviel realized how long it had been since he had heard that sound.
The ents finished their work a few moments later. It had not been much of a challenge from the start, and Saruman’s guards had proved cowards very quickly.
“Hooom hummmmm, Isengard is no safe place for elflings these days,” one of the Ents exclaimed as he lowered the two elves down to the ground. Araviel immediately stood up, glad to be on his own two feet once more.
“We’ve pretty much learned that lesson,” Will said sarcastically. He was rubbing feeling back into his wrists, and grimacing at the bloom of bruises along his arm.
“How can we thank you, eldest?” Padric asked, looking up at the huge Ent. “Twice now, you have saved us from evil’s clutches.”
The ent’s gnarled face twisted upward, in what Araviel supposed was a smile. “You’d thank me best if you made your way out of Fangorn, and quickly; the trees are not safe these days.”
“It seems nothing is,” Elian said in a low voice.
The ent looked at her sadly. “Towers rise and towers fall, young one. Nothing lasts, not even the darkness coming for us now.”
The elves nodded reverently at the old tree-herder’s wisdom.
“I have much to attend to. Farewell, Will and Elian, children of Paladin, Padric, son of Hadron and Araviel, son of-” the old ent stopped mid-sentence, looking almost mischievously at Araviel, who had suddenly gone rigid in something that looked scarily like fear. The ent’s green eyes looked the young elf up and down, sizing up his worth, and the brown eyes shifted cautiously. “Thranduil.”
And with that, the ent turned on his heel, his body working in long, loping strides, as he and his silent companion made their trek back into the forest.
Will whirled his head around and saw that Araviel was looking down at the ground, his face turning a bright, crimson red.
“Thranduil?” Will gasped, unable to contain the shock within his own head. “King Thranduil?”
Araviel traced the ground with his bare foot, and did not lift his eyes. His secret, if it could be called one, was finally out. He would have to tell them at least part of it, though he might get away without telling the rest, about the tattoo and all…But how long now, before they wanted to know more, and then his time with them would be measured in minutes. No one would want to continue with him, not after…
“I think there is something our young friend has been keeping from us,” Padric said in a calm, composed voice.
“Our young prince, you mean,” Will retorted at his foster-father. He turned his head toward Elian, whose expression was guarded. “Did you know?” her brother asked. She shook her head quietly, but said nothing.
Araviel did not watch the scene take place, but he knew the thoughts running through her head. She was a common elf, and he a prince. Not only that, but he had lied to her. Well, not truly, but he had kept certain facts about his life carefully hidden from her, from all of them…and once they knew…A wanderer was one thing, a cast out noble quite another. What place could he have in any maiden’s life?
He lifted his right hand, and covered his face with it, taking refuge in the darkness. He had thought it hard to keep this from them, but it seemed that telling them the whole truth would prove a more difficult battle by far.
“It’s better that you were out with it, Araviel,” Padric said in a solemn voice. “We make a poor group of wanderers; none of us has any place to judge another. Something happened, something between you and your father. If you’re not an exile, as you so adamantly proclaim, tell us the truth. Tell us what you are.”
“It makes no matter to me, Araviel,” Elian interjected her soft voice into the conversation. “Words change nothing.”
That was enough. Her assurance and steadfast heart gave him the strength to lift his head, and slowly, one by one, meet their eyes. Will was gaping at him, Padric seemed lost in a bad memory of his own, and only love was reflected in Elian’s eyes.
“You’ve been through a lot, young though you are,” Padric said in a low voice. “Perhaps it is time to lighten that burden.”
Araviel nodded slowly, looked around him and lifted his eyes to the heavens. “All right,” he said quietly, “I’ll tell you.”
Heaving a desperate sigh, Araviel motioned toward the ground. “You might as well sit down,” he said despondently. “This could take awhile.”