4. A Lesson In Kindness
Erthang woke up again slowly, his head feeling heavy and throbbing in pain. He couldn't understand at first why he should feel so bad, but in a few moments he remembered all that came to pass, like that he had hit his head… again. If his comrades ever found out about that one they would never give him a moment's peace with their mocking remarks!
It was then that he remembered the serpent that bit his ankle. He quickly glanced at his bitten limb and, to his immense surprise, he saw that it had been bandaged with his own cloth belt. He willed his hands to examine this strange thing, only to realise that they were tied to the trunk of a tree. He checked himself in disbelief, he tried to force himself free, but it was of no use: even though the bonds weren't tight enough to hurt his wrists, they were still tight enough to hold him in place. He muttered a slight curse, figuring who could have been responsible for this. His eyes searched for any sign of the Elf but there was none to be seen. Just when he thought that he was abandoned, left to the mercy of the wild creatures that could roam about in the wilderness, he heard voices of people, coming closer by the minute.
"Are you sure about this, noble Elf?"
"I am afraid the signs say so only too clearly."
"This is most ill news. Why would the Corsairs take your friend captive?"
"I do not know. Nevertheless he is their prisoner."
It was at that moment that Erthang saw the Elf and a small group of villagers appearing to his right. He rolled his eyes a bit, thinking in indignation that the Elf probably had decided to make his predicament a sight to be gloated at. It wasn't that which made his heart pound hard in his chest however, but rather what was to follow after the gloating. After all, he was among the pirates that had attacked the village only a few hours ago, putting it in flames and slaughtering its defenders. He understood quite well that none would show him any mercy and, after a facsimile of a trial, they would hang him from the tallest pole for the carrion birds to feast on him, warning thus any other Corsair that would pass through there. That's what he would do were he one of them, anyway...
Dírhavel quickly glanced over to the young Corsair with a mixed feeling of disdain and curiosity.
"Do you think he knows? What happened to your friend, I mean," he asked Legolas in a confidential tone.
Legolas shook his head.
"He was quite confused when I first saw him. I fear he was left behind for dead and so did not see or hear anything."
Another man, who happened to hear the conversation, unsheathed his sword.
"Well, let's make sure that their assumption wasn't wrong!" he said and approached the Corsair threateningly. However, Dírhavel quickly grabbed him by his arm and stopped him.
"No, Gelidor! This isn't our way!"
"And what of it? Did they consider that when they murdered my brother?" retorted the man in exasperation. "The only thing they know is to draw a sword and kill!"
"And yet that is what you're about to do now…" noted the wise man softly.
"Because it's the only language they understand!" shouted Gelidor. "They are nothing but crooks and cutthroats, all of them! The world will certainly not miss this one!"
Dírhavel tried to reason with him, but then more people started shouting that the Corsair should die and be an example to anyone else that would set a mind to attack their village. Soon everybody was shouting at everyone, arguing about what should be done with the tied man, when another voice sounded above the uproar.
Legolas's cry was neither loud nor angry, but it had such a commanding quality in it that every Man quieted down and stared at the fair creature in wonder. Even the young Corsair had lifted his head once more to look at the Elf and, strangely enough, he waited patiently to hear what the Firstborn had to say in the matter.
"I understand your anger against the Corsairs," started Legolas. "Their cruelty and malice has scarred your village time and time again, even though you always tried to stop them. How many times did you have to grieve for your loved ones whenever your foes wished to satisfy their hunger for booty? How many times did you have to rebuild your lives, only to see them crumble again by their fires? And how many times did you wish to put an end to this, one way or another? And yet, this time you have won a great victory against them. I bid you to use it wisely; for although there is honour in defeating a powerful enemy, there is no honour in beating an already defeated one. There have been enough deaths for today. What you should be doing now is not to fill your hearts with hate for this man," and at that he motioned his head toward the young Corsair, "but to fill them with love remembering those that died trying to defend the village. Let the victory you gained be enough warning to make any of your enemies hesitant to attack again. For, trust me when I say this, from now on any Corsair will be certain that you will be prepared for him."
Everyone listened to Legolas enthralled, seeing the wisdom in his words. After the Firstborn had stated his argument, Gelidor bowed his head in shame and Dírhavel placed his hand on the man's shoulder, assuring him that he did the right thing.
"So what do you suggest we do with this one, Master Elf?" Dírhavel asked then.
Legolas faced the tied up man. "I will take him with me."
Dírhavel and everyone else's eyes actually widened at this.
"You're sure of this?" asked the grey-haired man. "The ship is heading North, that much is known, since there's no other course it could take without us noticing. What more do you need him for? He'll only slow you down."
"He has vital information for me if I am to help Gimli; like the speed of the ship, the number of men in it, the shifts at night and day and when it is more vulnerable. Information which I do not have the luxury of time to gain by just sitting here, waiting for him to talk."
"But he might not say anything at all."
"That is why I will take him with me. If he speaks on the way, all is well. If not, at least then I will go for Gimli without losing much more time, my task becoming only more difficult."
"I understand what you intend to do," replied Dírhavel. "And I'd have agreed with you if I didn't know that the Corsairs are always too numerous to be able to sneak onto their ships. As for fighting them, that is out of the question."
That had Legolas thinking hard, acknowledging that Dírhavel was right. But his face brightened again when he figured a solution.
"Can you afford to send a fast man to Minas Tirith?" he asked with a tinge of hope in his voice.
"Of course," said the wizened man. "But why?"
"He will carry a message to the king of Gondor: a message saying that Legolas Thranduilion, Prince of the Woodland Realm, asks his help to save Gimli, Glóin's son, who has been taken captive by remnants of the Corsairs that were placed in disarray only two years ago during the War of the Ring. He will know what to do."
"Everything will be done as you ask," Dírhavel assured Legolas, something that made the Elf smile.
At that moment, a happy neigh was heard, followed by a very eager Arod, gladdened to find his master at last. He now happily nuzzled the Elf, who, in turn, patted his proud neck.
"He arrived just in time," noted Dírhavel with a grin, looking admiringly at the loyal creature.
"Arod is a remarkable horse," agreed Legolas and then whispered softly into the steed's ear: "You will help me find our friend Gimli, will you not?"
The horse snorted his understanding and compliance, earning a smile from the Elf.
"Well, then," said the man, "all that is left for me to do is wish you good luck on your quest.""Thank you kindly, Dírhavel," said the Prince with a slight bow of his head. "Cuio mae."*
Dírhavel inclined his head as well, and led the rest of the people back to the village, leaving Legolas, Arod and the tied up Corsair alone. Legolas walked over to the young captive and placed his hands over the latter's bonds.
"I will untie you now," the Firstborn informed the crook, "but do not even think of escaping: you have seen both my bow and my speed."
The Corsair didn't bother himself with an answer. He merely glared at Legolas, showing quite plainly his feelings toward his captor. Nevertheless, he didn't cause any trouble, but remained passively still for the Elf to untie him from the tree and then to have his hands bound behind his back. He didn't even struggle to wrench himself free when Legolas pushed him up on Arod, something that surprised the Firstborn.
Arod's eyes, however, shone momentarily with apprehension as the stranger settled on his back, something that Legolas noticed. Indeed, it didn't take an Elf's natural connection with any living thing to understand that Arod was in distress. The steed's muscles twitched involuntarily for a moment, while his whole body had stiffened. He did nothing more though, except remain frozen.
Noting with fondness how Arod's faith in his judgement kept the horse from going into a tantrum and trying to shake off the Corsair, Legolas leant close to the kind beast and whispered words of assurance, gently stroking his mane. Quickly enough, Arod had relaxed and was now waiting patiently for his master's command, something he didn't have to wait for long.
"Aphado nîn,"** said Legolas softly in the Elven tongue and he started walking ahead of the horse, who obediently started following.
It was then that it happened. Seeing his chance for an escape, the Corsair kicked Arod's sides with his heels in the hopes that he would make the horse bolt. The noble creature raised its head with a jolt in surprise at this. However, he was an intelligent animal and he quickly understood his burden's intent. So he still walked, ignoring the Corsair's kicks and remaining stubbornly close to the Elf, until he had grown so weary of such a mistreatment that he neighed gently in complaint to Legolas.
Legolas stopped with concern and saw what the Corsair was up to. The Elf's brows furrowed a bit in indignation at this and he quickly walked up to Arod's side, grabbing the Corsair's leg and holding it firmly with his hands.
"Do not trouble yourself, he will not obey you," he said, adding with a soft, yet clear tone of warning: "And I suggest you stop kicking him before I forget the politeness of the Elves and break both your legs."
The Corsair stared proudly at Legolas for some moments in defiance. However, whether it was the Elf's warning or the realisation that the horse wouldn't run away no matter what, he didn't try to kick Arod again. Legolas nodded a bit in begrudging approval; then started walking again northwards, always followed loyally by Arod.
Legolas looked up at the setting sun as he and Arod were still walking and sighed. They had been travelling for several hours, and yet the Elf was dismayed that he couldn't see any sign of the ship and, what was worse, he would have to stop now for the night, unable to carry on in the darkness. It was true that Legolas's powerful Elven sight wouldn't have daunted him in the least under different circumstances, while Arod could easily depend on his sense of smell to keep following the Elf. What worried Legolas the most was the Corsair himself. He didn't want his only connection with the ship to jump off the horse and run away, taking advantage of that very same darkness.
Legolas sighed as his thoughts strayed again to his quest, and how he was forced to put it off, if only for a few hours. He had hoped that the Corsair's ship wouldn't have gained so much distance on him, since it had to travel upstream and the wind wasn't in the pirates' favour; but now the prince had to admit that his hopes were proved false. The only thing that kept his heart from despairing was that the people sailing the boat were much fewer now after the damage they had taken from the villagers' counter-attack, which meant that the ship's pace was slowed even more. It was true that the young Corsair he held captive didn't make his own venture to find the ship any easier, but it was better than nothing. For one thing, the young Corsair didn't try to cause any more trouble while he was on Arod, at least for the time being; while the horse itself did his best to keep a good pace despite his burden, understanding his master's need for haste.
The Elf looked into the sky again to see the first stars twinkling, Eärendil glimmering the brightest of all, and decided that they should set camp before it became too dark to go by. Telling Arod to stop, he pulled the Corsair off the steed and, after tying his legs, placed him on the ground. Making certain that the young Man wouldn't be able to move away, Legolas went in search of wood and game while the horse was free of saddle, bridle and packs to treat itself to some tasty grass. Furthermore, Legolas searched the ground for any healing plants, because a quick look at the Corsair as he was tying him up showed the Elf why his captive hadn't made any attempt to escape.
The Corsair's eyes had a feverish gleam to them and a thin film of sweat covered his face. Legolas's sensitive sense of hearing also picked up the captive's laboured breathing. The Firstborn was dismayed to see that, despite his quick reaction, he hadn't managed to draw out all the snake's poison from the ankle and now it made the young man sick. It was certainly too little an amount to kill the Corsair, but he felt that there was no need for him to suffer needlessly either. Not to mention the fact that Legolas felt today's pace was too slow to afford any slackening. So he welcomed the stop, for it was a chance to see to the Corsair's leg again as well as his other mild injuries.
Erthang leant his head against the ground, feeling it heavy, and tried not to think of the throbbing pain in his ankle. He shivered involuntarily, not so much because of the cold air that brushed his form, but mainly because of the cold that he was registering within his body. He was intelligent enough to understand that the poison was to be blamed for his current condition, nevertheless that didn't stop him from thinking ill of the Elf again: and just when he thought he could respect him for his pride and strength of will too. In fact, it would seem in his feverish mind that he had found at last why the Firstborn stopped the villagers from killing him: the creature intended to watch him suffer as he was slowly succumbing to the snake's poison! But then reason would shake him out of such thoughts and make him question why his leg was bandaged then and where the Elf had gone, if indeed he wanted to have such loathsome entertainment.
He shook his head in resignation, something that made him wince inwardly. His headache was only getting worse and such complicated musings didn't help matters much either. If anything else, they left him more confused. So he closed his eyes, hoping that upon waking up he would feel better once more; and, soon enough, all thoughts about his captivity were forgotten in a dreamless slumber.
The night had settled in when Erthang opened his eyes again. As soon as his consciousness returned, he was surprised to feel a pleasant sense of warmth surrounding him and his ankle not hurting anymore. He quickly checked himself and he discovered a most curious sight: he was covered in a blanket and the bandages around his leg felt tighter, a sign that his limb had been tended again. Even though he welcomed the blanket and was relieved that he wasn't in pain, he couldn't help but feel puzzled as well. He tried to will himself to raise his head in the hopes of finding out what had happened, but without success. He only let out a deep sigh of weariness and let his head drop again to the ground.
"So you have awakened," said a by-now-familiar voice, surprisingly quite close to him.
Erthang's eyes instantly darted upwards and found the form of the Elf beside him, sitting close to the flames of a bright fire, roasting some meat, the blue orbs locked on him.
"Are you feeling any better?"
Erthang didn't answer. Although he had to admit that he actually felt a lot better, he wasn't willing to say that to the Elf, for he believed that this 'touching' concern of the Firstborn for his health shouldn't be trusted. He had overheard the Elf talking to that villager how he was planning to make him betray his comrades. And now that his head wasn't running in circles because of the fever, Erthang had everything, as he believed, figured out.
For one thing, he was now certain that the Elf was only taking care of him until he got the information he was looking for. Once he did, then his captor would either kill him or abandon him in the middle of nowhere, letting the beasts make a feast out of him. Judging by the way the Firstborn was able to command the horse to his will, Erthang thought that an Elf commanding any animals of prey against him for sport didn't seem such a far-fetched possibility either. On the other hand, he had to acknowledge the fact that the Elf could have resorted to other, much more blatant, means to gain the information he needed and not treat him in such a courteous manner.
Still, Erthang didn't intend on making things easier for his foe or lead him to his people. "Never say anything to an enemy" was one of the first rules he had to learn under the captain's guidance. In fact, because of this, he planned to not speak to his captor at all. After all, they were supposed to hate each other, not exchange cordial words. So he remained silent.
Legolas didn't seem bothered by the Corsair's silence. However, he needed to see what the Corsair's condition was, so to know if the plants he had picked and used on the sick man as he lay unconscious were indeed working. So he moved his hand to feel the captive's forehead for any unnatural heat. That only made the Corsair's eyes widen in fright and exclaim:
Legolas had learnt enough of the languages of Men in his travels to understand what the Corsair said. In spite of that, he still attempted to place his hand on the Human's forehead. The Corsair actually tried to move himself away from the Elven hand, but Legolas proved more determined, for his other hand grabbed the back of the Corsair's head, thus forcing him to remain still while he examined him. The young Man grew rigid immediately at the touch and he relaxed only when the Elf released him.
"There, now that did not kill you, did it?" asked Legolas once he found that the Man's temperature had dropped to normal and so let him be. It was beyond him why the Corsair reacted like that. If he didn't know any better, he would say that his captive was actually afraid of him.
Little did Legolas know just how right he was in his assumption. For, as a matter of fact, Erthang had feared that the Elf meant to hurt him for not answering his question. Didn't Sador do just that upon not receiving any answer whenever he was training new children as crew? He himself had felt the back of Sador's hand more than a few times when he was a boy and so an instinctive fear of abrupt movements was always there; something that, especially in this case, made him angry with and ashamed of himself. If anything, it proved to him how weak he could be at times, when Corsairs weren't supposed to be. He sighed, feeling that he probably seemed like a poor sight to the Elf now. He was hoping that he could show him the strength of character a Corsair had, only to see that he failed miserably.
Erthang looked again in the Elf's direction, half expecting to see him casting a look full of contempt on him. However, the Elf was merely too busy with the meat and didn't pay attention to his captive watching him. But what surprised Erthang the most was that, when the meal was ready, the Firstborn cut the meat into two equal shares, and then untied his hands and offered him one of them. Erthang just stared at the Elf and then at his plate, expecting some kind of trick.
Legolas noticed the young Man's bafflement when he gave him the meal and raised an eyebrow of curiosity.
"I doubt you do not wish to eat because the meal is not to your liking," he noted.
The Corsair remained silent, his mind in turmoil as to what he should do. The smell of the roast made his mouth water and there was nothing he wanted to do more right now than start eating. On the other hand, it was food offered by his captor and his pride wouldn't let him be fed out of pity like some stray dog.
Legolas's eyes rolled a bit at the captive's indecisiveness. There were times like this that made him consider the race of Men quite hopeless indeed.
"Whether you eat or not is no concern of mine," he pointed out to the Corsair with a distinct tone of firmness, "but it will be yours when you keep swooning from hunger. And I assure you that you will not prove to me a superiority of will, but rather a foolish way of becoming unnecessarily weaker in your already sickened condition. The choice is yours."
The Corsair stared at him for a few moments, clearly contemplating matters; then finally making up his mind, yet still with caution, he sank his teeth into the meat.
Legolas watched on, nodding slightly. At least he listens to reason, he thought and started eating his own share, his mind trying to figure the best way to help Gimli once he found the ship. However, an uncomfortable feeling of being watched made him look towards the Corsair again. Indeed, the young crook's eyes were locked on the him, even though he didn't stop eating for a moment. There was definitely a question forming in his eyes, but Legolas could only guess what kind of question it could be.
"Well?" he said. "The question is already gnawing your mind, so why do you not just ask it and get it off your chest?"
The Corsair stopped eating, but he didn't speak, even though Legolas waited patiently for him to say something. When the Firstborn let out a sigh of resignation and was ready to return to his food, a murmur made him look back at his captive:
Legolas cocked his head.
"Why are you doing this?"
Legolas eyed the captive firmly. "I have done a lot of things in my already long life and I plan to do many more things as well. Could you be more specific as to what you are referring exactly?"
"Helping me. I know you will say that you need me to find the ship, but there's more to it. You took care of the snakebite on my ankle and took me away from the villagers, which I can justify if you wanted me to stay alive and give you the information you wanted. But you made me climb on the horse and so rest my aching leg when you could have tied the end of my bonds to the saddle and dragged me along while you rode on; you obviously took care of me while I was unconscious, so I'm not feeling sick at all now, when you could have let me suffer in my fever; you covered me with a blanket when you could let me freeze; and now you're offering me food! What's your purpose in all this?" finally said the Corsair.
"Should there be a purpose?" asked Legolas.
"There's always a purpose!"
Legolas shook his head. "Then let us just say that a snake bite is a fate that I do not wish for anyone. That is why I took care of you; that is why I placed you in the saddle and offered you the chance to rest; that is why I did not wish you to feel sick or cold; and that is why I am offering you food so your body can strengthen."
"But I'm your enemy!" exclaimed the Corsair incredulously. "My people have your companion and I was ready to kill you!"
"It is not my place to judge those who need my help, whether they are enemies or not," retorted the Elf. He didn't want to tell the Corsair, but there was another reason that he didn't wish for anyone to die like this. His own mother died by snake's poison, when he was still only an Elfling, and her graceful form lying on the grass while her eyes remained closed was a pain-filled memory that still haunted him at times.
"Even if you aren't sure that they'd do the same for you?" came the Corsair's question, cutting him off from his musings.
Legolas actually laughed at this.
"I was sure that you would not do the same for me. That is where we are different."
"Different?" sneered the Corsair. "You can be different all you like, Elf, but this world won't be any better of a place. It's a world full of dangers and for one to survive, he has to look after himself first!"
"Like your 'comrades', who left you for dead?" asked Legolas softly. And with that he left his seat and settled on a nearby rock, his back on the Corsair, and so ending the conversation.
Erthang's eyes widened with realisation. He and the rest of the Corsairs had often left people for dead whenever they boarded their ship after their looting. He had always thought that it was a necessary evil in order for the rest to survive. But now he had to confess that, after seeing things from the perspective of the one left behind, he regarded such a tactic quite cruel. He remained silent, feeling strange as to how these words sounded so correct in his heart.
It was then that his darker side revolted. Now he was actually letting the Elf lecture him? He didn't survive all these years because he was kind to anybody; he survived because he killed before he got killed! Mercy and pity were inventions of the weak, the ones that were just too afraid to draw a sword and so hid themselves behind those words!
He raised his head to address the Elf and say just that, only to notice there was now a quite remarkable chance: his hands were still untied, so all he had to do was untie his legs as well and run away. But then there was the matter of his ankle. He wouldn't have managed to go too far away with his leg in such a condition. So that idea was out of the question.
But there was something else troubling Erthang as well: did he really want to leave? Aboard the ship he faced nothing but threats and punishment, from his own people no less, as well as death and destruction wherever they sailed. And all that for nothing else but a small share of plunder – if Sador didn't keep it all for himself, that is. It was remarkable, but he felt that, despite his bonds now, he was freer than he had ever been among the Corsairs. On the other hand, he was still captive and he was still at the Elf's mercy, a notion that he didn't like at all.
He shook his head in confusion, feeling that he was probably still too weak because of the poison to ponder things any further. He lay down with the intention of making whatever plans tomorrow. After all, he knew that his situation couldn't be any worse by then, and his head would be much clearer.
He sighed a bit and closed his eyes. The last thought that crossed his mind before sleep claimed him was that it was a bit odd that the Elf would be so foolish to give him such a chance of escape, even though he himself never took it.
However, unbeknownst to the Corsair, Legolas was always on the alert even if he didn't have his eyes on his captive.
Hearing the rustling of the Man finally settling to sleep, Legolas finally found the opportunity to be alone with his thoughts for a while. For one thing, there was something about this rogue that made Legolas ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. He could feel that the Man's soul was in turmoil now, which, in a way, was understandable: the Corsair just saw an alternative way of treatment, much better than the one he had known on the ship and, even though it puzzled him, it seemed to draw him as well. After all, if the Corsair had disregarded it at once, he wouldn't have questioned his own captor about it. And he was young, still untouched by the grimness and impassiveness that often came with age in the case of Men. Was there a chance for him to be reformed then? Legolas highly doubted it. But then again, he had seen a lot of things happen in this world and the thought seemed nice anyway.
He cast a glance again at the Corsair, who was by now fast asleep, and then resumed again with his watch, waiting patiently for the sunrise.
*Cuio mae: Live well (Sindarin)
**Aphado nîn: Follow me (Sindarin)
***Bâ kitabdahe!: Don't touch me! (Âdunaic)