“I hoped that Mirkwood might find peace from these creatures now that the Dark Lord has been defeated”, said Legolas irritably, pulling an arrow from the chest of a particularly large orc, “But it seems that I was mistaken.” They had left no prisoners when the orc party had come their way, and he had spent many arrows, for they had not fallen easily.
“Do not despair my friend”, replied Aragorn reassuringly, clapping the elf on the shoulder, “Things will clear. You’ll see, Mirkwood will soon be fair again. Now, I suggest that we head back to the campsite and try and rouse that lazy dwarf, or we’ll never get moving.” The elf looked at him appreciatively for the reassurance, and the ranger smiled; he hated to see his old friend so bitter, though with good reason.
“Yes, we need to gather the supplies; if we move quickly we may be able to reach my father’s halls before dawn.” Legolas smiled slightly at the prospect of seeing his father and brothers; the journey back from his visit to Gondor had been tiresome, though he had been gladdened when Aragorn had taken leave to accompany him and visit Mirkwood. The two walked back to the clearing, the elf’s sharp eyes picking out the route in the murky dusk. He stepped though the trees and halted abruptly, holding out an arm as Aragorn reached his side. The ranger looked at him questioningly and the elf lifted his chin towards the fire. A small form lay curled up by the blaze.
“I’m going to get a better look”, Legolas said, hesitantly, “It looks harmless”
“Maybe, but we cannot know for sure”, murmured Aragorn, “Stay quiet and keep your bow in hand, just in case.”
The elf nodded and moved stealthily forward, silently taking an arrow from his quiver and setting it to the string of his bow. The ranger waited tensely, and suddenly heard Legolas give a sharp gasp.
“Aragorn, come here, quickly.”
Aragorn ran over to his friend and saw him bent over the form, his bow lying on the ground forgotten. He knelt by the elf’s side, his eyes widening in shock at the sight.
“By Elbereth”, he breathed in disgust.
The ranger dropped his sword to the ground and stared at the sleeping child, as that was what the figure was, though it was barely recognizable for one. The poor girl was rack thin and her bony little arms and legs were bleeding and bruised, covered in scratches. Her clothes, a shirt and pants, were little more than rags, (they might as well have been made from paper) and were caked in dirt and blood, as was the rest of her skeletal frame. She was barefoot, her feet swollen and bleeding, her face was bruised and beaten, as though it had taken many a blow of great force, and it was plain that her right wrist had either been sprained or broken, judging by the ugly ring of bruises around the hand. She stirred slightly and Aragorn saw that she clutched a ragged piece of material in her hands, close to her, as though it were a blanket or doll.
He brushed a strand of filthy, straggly hair from her forehead, his eyes narrowing in disgust as he saw a patch on her head where the hair had been ripped out mercilessly.
“She looks as though she hasn’t eaten in days”, he said softly, his heart tugging at the sight of her pinched little features. She looked so scared and lost; the two things seemed to make her look even smaller than she was.
Legolas touched the girl’s wrist gently, hissing as he touched her skin. Her heart was beating and she was breathing normally, but she felt icy cold, even though she lay so close to the fire.
“It’s as if she had never seen the sun”, he murmured, his face tight with concern. She shivered and turned over in her sleep, and the two gasped sharply at the great many scars and bloody weals across her back.
“Aiya Valar!” the elf whispered in shock.
“These are whip marks”, said Aragorn, looking at the elf in unease, “What has this girl been through?”
Legolas had no time to answer, for in that moment, their came a loud voice as Gimli awoke and strode over.
“What are you both staring at in such interest? I didn’t hear you come back—what the devil…?”
Before Aragorn and Legolas could hiss at the dwarf to keep quiet, the child awoke and looked up sharply, her eyes wide with alarm; the three were startled slightly at the large, piercing green orbs that stared at them. She let out a cry of terror as she saw them and scrambled away from them desperately. Legolas and Aragorn looked at each other in implication.
“Try and calm her”, said Legolas in the Elvish tongue, looking at the ranger.
“Why don’t you?” Aragorn hissed.
“You are human. She may be less afraid of her own kin than of an elf.”
Aragorn nodded and made an attempt to get near her, moving slightly towards the trembling figure.
“It’s alright”, he said in the common tongue softly, reaching a hand out, “We won’t hurt you; you are safe here.”
The girl cowered away from them against a tree, whimpering as the ranger tried to move closer. Aragorn looked at Legolas for a suggestion, and the elf tossed him a wafer of lembas from one of the packs. The ranger crouched down and held it out to the trembling figure, his eyes showing kindness.
“Here, eat this.”
The girl looked at the cake warily, and Aragorn saw that the rag she was grasping so tightly was indeed a small blanket. She reached out hesitantly for a moment, and then pulled her hand back, hiding her face with her arms. The ranger sighed.
“Do not worry”, he coaxed, “Look, it’s food.” He broke of a small piece of the wafer and ate it to show her, then held it out again. No luck.
“You don’t have to be afraid”, he tried once more, “Please, we are trying to help you.”
As he waited, hoping that she would listen to him, slowly, the child’s animal-like whimpers tapered off. She looked at Aragorn with a cautious gaze, her hollow, fear filled eyes staring at him with intense scrutiny.
Then, to the relief of them all, she uncertainly edged towards the elf and tentatively took the lembas from his hand, lifting it up to her mouth and taking a tiny bite. Finally satisfied, she crammed the rest into her mouth hungrily and looked at them appreciatively. Aragorn held out his hand for her to come towards him, and she threw herself at him, burying her head in his tunic. The ranger stared at her, startled, and then looked at Legolas and Gimli questioningly. Legolas grinned.
“I told you; she obviously thinks you’ll protect her, my friend”, he said calmly, “She trusts you.”
Aragorn looked down at the little child again, smiling, and gently pulled her away, keeping her by the shoulders.
“What is your name, child?” he asked. The youngster looked at him, puzzled at his question, and then thought hard about it, as if trying to remember.
“Can you tell us how old you are? Where you are from?” said Aragorn, frowning.
It seemed that she did not have the answer to that either, she just stared at the ground timidly, all the while clutching her blanket. She looked so young; he doubted she had seen more than seven winters at most. The elf sighed expectantly.
“We should see to her wounds. Bring her here Aragorn.”
The ranger picked her up gently and carried her to where Legolas and Gimli were sitting, Gimli still perplexed at how the child had gotten there. She seemed willing enough to co-operate with the elf at first, but jerked away from Legolas in alarm when he tried to examine her wrist. He smiled kindly.
“It’s alright”, he reassured, “I’m a friend. You need not fear me, or the dwarf.” He motioned towards Gimli, who tried to show a gruff smile through his immense beard. She eyed them carefully for a moment, and then looked at Aragorn for confirmation. The ranger nodded, and she stuck out her arm for the elf to see. He carefully checked her wrist with elvish gentleness, making sure that he didn’t cause any pain, and then bandaged it deftly. After he had cleaned and dressed all of her injuries, the elf took a water flask from his pack and gave it to her, smiling at her grateful glance as she gulped it down greedily.
“Curious little youngster, isn’t she? I mean with that little token of hers”, the dwarf inquired, noticing with interest, as his companions had, the unusually protective grip she kept on that blanket of hers, “What value could that old rag possibly have?” He reached out to touch the tattered cloth inquisitively.
What happened next surprised and bewildered all of them: the girl, seeming docile at first, suddenly flew into a rage at the sight of Gimli’s curiosity; she screamed at him in anger and yanked the material away desperately, swiping suddenly with her other hand and scratching the dwarf on the arm. Tears springing in her fearful, mistrusting eyes, she hugged the blanket and rubbed her face against it, holding it with such care as if a baby were in her arms. The three stared at her in shock, amazed by this sudden outburst of paranoia.
“The child behaves as though she were a beast”, spluttered Gimli rubbing his arm in disbelief. Legolas shot him an irritated glance.
“Does she look as though she has been treated any better than a beast?”
Aragorn glanced at them sternly and then looked back at the child, who now seemed tired from her tantrum. She closed her eyes and snuggled up against the ranger again, who took a blanket that lay by the fire and wrapped it around her gently, laying a hand on her head as she fell asleep. The ranger shook his head, meeting his friend’s glance.
“What could have possibly happened to this girl to make her like…like this?”
“Whatever it was”, replied Legolas quietly, “she had no desire to bring it to mind or say anything about it.”
“She had no desire to say anything at all”, mumbled Gimli, causing his companions to glare at him.
“We should wait till morning to leave”, Aragorn said, “We can get some sleep in the meantime.”
The dwarf settled down instantly at this remark and was snoring in a matter of minutes. Aragorn leaned against a tree and folded his arms, glancing at Legolas, who was singing to himself in his own tongue and looking at the child thoughtfully.
Legolas suddenly frowned, and Aragorn saw his sharp eyes fall on the girl’s hand. The elf moved next to her and grabbed it gently, turning it so that the palm faced upwards. The ranger got up questioningly, wondering what was of such interest, and followed the elf’s gaze. A sign was scarred on the child’s palm, the markings black and twisted, but faded slightly, as if it had been burned or cut onto the skin mercilessly by some vile, dark tool or weapon.
Horrified, Aragorn looked at Legolas, whose eyes were narrowed and seemed to burn in anger.
“These are orcish marks”, he murmured, “At least we now know her captors.”
“Could it perhaps have been the party we encountered?” Aragorn probed.
“Perhaps. Their tracks lead within short distance of this site.”
Legolas rose and went to tend the fire, his head down. Aragorn saw the hatred in his glare, and his lips moving in some elvish curse. In the dead silence of the forest, he translated the words in his head:
“May they burn in eternal torment for their cruelty”
Although he did not speak, the ranger fiercely agreed with his old friend.