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To See A World  by Nightwing

Disclaimer: the familiar characters are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and are owned by people other than myself. No profit was made from this story. It was written solely for entertainment.

Author’s note: I know the area north of the Grey Mountains is supposed to be an arctic wasteland, but we shall play "let’s pretend".

Summary: Pre-LOTR. Injured and alone, Legolas and Aragorn are forced to take refuge in a wintry foreign land. But when darkness encroaches from within and without, they learn that refuge can become a deadly trap.

Many thanks to Lisette, who kindly betaed this chapter, thus ensuring no fights with orcs will occur without sound.

To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.

                              --- William Blake (1757-1827)

TO SEE A WORLD by Nightwing

Chapter One: Forms of Fear

"Legolas, please be so kind as to tell me once again why we decided to take this little trip," Aragorn whispered as he stared down from the cover of dense foliage at the group of orcs noisily plundering their campsite. Quietly he shifted his hand on the branch he was clinging to, twisting slightly to get a better glimpse of the creatures through the darkness of the still autumn night. The elf crouching next to him grinned, his breath frosting in the chilly air. The moonlight glinted on Legolas’ golden hair as he intently watched the invaders tear open their packs and toss the contents about.

The two friends were cradled in the embrace of a great oak tree that they had swarmed up only minutes before, having been startled out of a sound sleep by the approach of tramping feet in surroundings that had previously been peaceful. So peaceful that they had not bothered to set a watch or keep their weapons close at hand.

Legolas turned amused, shining eyes on his companion. "You wanted to explore the lands north of the Grey Mountains, my friend." His musical voice was deliberately muted, but accompanied by a soft laugh. "You wanted to see new places, meet new people…"

"Tonight we meet orcs, as usual," the ranger grumbled. "I thought they were not so plentiful here these days."

"There are not so many, but they do yet remain in the world. We have traveled these lands for four months, Aragorn, and this is our first encounter with them here. That is better than we usually fare when it comes to orcs." The elf stiffened suddenly, his eyes narrowing as he regarded the scene unfolding below him, and he quietly released a long exasperated breath. "Ah, there they go, playing with my longbow. And upending my quiver. I do wish I had kept them closer. As it is, I do not care to sit up here until they spot us and decide to send my arrows in our direction."

"Have you your knives?" Aragorn whispered.

"Aye, they were all I had time to get hold of. What do you propose?"

"They will break up eventually to search for us. Then we must take our chance."

The elf nodded, leaning his back against the trunk of the tree and inclining his head slightly as he stared down at the milling figures below them. "There are ten. That is a number we can attempt to handle, though it may be difficult."

* * * * 

Until this point, their journey had been uneventful. As the snows had begun to slowly retreat before the first warming of early spring, Aragorn’s usual restlessness had propelled him toward Northern Mirkwood in search of the young elf prince. Never before had the ranger ventured beyond the forbidding Grey Mountains that rose in a jagged chain along the northern borders of Legolas’ homeland, and he had invited his friend to join him in a trip to explore the area. The idea had not been worth considering before, as the mountain range guarding the northlands had long been home to a great population of orcs and various fell creatures. Danger had lurked there, but its threat had diminished since the Battle of Five Armies fought south of the mountains years earlier, and Aragorn thought the time as good as any to explore the unknown lands beyond those cold peaks.

Of them, and of its people, he had heard but little. Few traveled beyond the mountains in either direction, but the odd report or story filtered down from the occasional adventurer who had made the trek. The northern lands were said to be beautiful, sparsely populated, and its people fiercely independent. There were no great cities save one or two of modest size, the land being predominantly populated by folk living in scattered villages and hamlets. There was no king, but the larger populations were ruled by their respective noblemen, who were said to not always agree in matters of territory and diplomacy.

Legolas had eagerly accepted the ranger’s invitation. "No elves from Mirkwood have ever journeyed over the northern mountains before," he said. "But my father has long wondered what lies beyond them. He will be pleased to have a report. And I will be pleased to have an occupation that will permit me to escape from this place for a time." The elf paused in the packing of his belongings, turning troubled blue eyes on Aragorn. "I have chafed within the walls of my father’s house this past winter. Our relationship remains strained." He gestured, his hand sweeping out to indicate his ornately decorated bedroom, filled with fine furniture carved by the best craftsmen, and hung with rich tapestries. "All this luxury, all these fine things he loves so dearly press on me like the bars of a cage. I will be glad to break free. Though I will return, of course, with the information he desires." Sighing, he turned away again, shoving a change of clothing into his pack. "I ever try to please him," he added softly.

Aragorn, seated on the edge of the quilted bed, shifted uncomfortably. Long acquainted with the difficult relationship between the stern elven-king and his third son, he found himself at a loss for words. The reasons for the rift were not entirely understood by the man. He knew the king to be intelligent, somewhat vain, and less than fond of the other races in Middle-earth, whom he considered inferior to the First Born, but he was a fair monarch who commanded both respect and love from his subjects. At times he was a remote and disapproving father to his youngest child, who could not have been less like King Thranduil in temperament, having come into the world considerably later than his brothers with a sunny, trusting disposition and a natural curiosity about the people around him. Legolas possessed the typical elven pride, but without the arrogance, and although he was generally perceived as quiet, he was never lacking in confidence. Because he saw all people as equals, including those of other races, he had formed a number of friendships in young adulthood that had displeased his father. His relationship with Aragorn had exacerbated the problem. The king had no great love for the race of men, and reacted with disapproval when Legolas grew increasingly interested in life beyond the borders of the Elven kingdom and began to involve himself in the affairs of beings outside the realm of Mirkwood.

Things had worsened between father and son after the death of the young elf’s mother several years ago. Orcs had attacked her party when she had left the caves of the palace for a short hunting expedition, and the entire group had been brutally slain. King and prince had both retreated, each silently dealing with his grief alone, and they found it difficult to reach out to one another. Legolas had loved his mother deeply, and the loss had hurt him in ways the ranger was still only beginning to understand. The elf said little about her, but Aragorn knew that their relationship had been close, and shortly after her death Legolas began to leave Mirkwood with increasing frequency to travel and explore Middle-earth with the ranger. But always he had returned, quietly resuming his responsibilities and working, Aragorn knew, to build a bridge between himself and his family because she would have wanted it.

"You are a good son to the king, Legolas," Aragorn finally said, distressed by the sadness on his friend’s ageless face as he continued to gather his gear for their trip. "A far better son to him than he has been father to you," he snapped with some heat as his anger rose. "You have done much to ensure friendly relations with the folk of Lake-town. He should appreciate your efforts on behalf of his kingdom."

 "He does, Aragorn. He does, and things are gradually improving between us. He has acknowledged my contributions, and has asked for my assistance in certain matters that press him. I am pleased to be of some use at long last." Legolas grinned at his friend. "He disapproves of my relationships with outsiders, and yet is increasingly relying on my understanding of them to aid him in the ruling of his kingdom. He begins to see the value in what I am doing, and to begrudgingly approve of my efforts. And yet he is too set in his ways now to truly have a change of heart. He has grown weary, as many of the elders do. I see it. It is almost as if he has become blind, and he cannot or will not see why I travel and form the friendships that I do. He will go to Valinor before too many more years pass, and my eldest brother will assume the throne. My family continues to regard the other races with suspicion, and are preoccupied with wealth and power, without ever seeing how such things fade. Ah, they can be so stubborn!"

The straps were buckled, and the elf set his pack beside his longbow and quiver before seating himself beside the ranger. "The elves diminish, Aragorn," he murmured in a quiet voice, gazing down at the folded hands in his lap. "But before I leave these shores I will see this world, and experience all of it. I will live in it long after many of the other elves have gone, and I must be prepared. I feel in my heart that great changes are coming. The Shadow in the East grows." The elf’s blue eyes suddenly shifted, locking onto the man’s grey ones. "It is something we begin to sense. Things will happen that may forever alter the balance of power here, and I will not turn my back on Middle-earth and my friends. I will not turn my back on you, Aragorn."

The man looked into the bright, honest orbs of the elf, and a sudden surge of gratitude for the young prince’s unwavering friendship brought a lump to his throat. "Your words mean more to me that I can say, Legolas. Time begins to press on me. I have spoken often with Gandalf of late, and he feels it as well. You are correct when you say changes are coming. Not yet, but I fear it will not be too much longer. A small handful of years, no more than that, and then it will be upon us. But if you stay with me, you will be directly in the thick of it, my friend. In the midst of a violent storm."

"I know. But there is nowhere else I would rather be. We are friends… nay, we are brothers, Aragorn, and I will face what you will face. We will not be parted." The elf’s voice grew softer. "My father and brothers do not understand my desire to remain here. But I wish to leave something behind that means more than gold or jewels. I want the opportunity to make a difference before I must depart Middle-earth, and help you come into your kingship. You are the future of Middle-earth, Aragorn, and when the elves depart, we will leave this world in your hands. I will strive in any way that I can to bring you safely to what is destined for you. And I cannot do it within the confines of Mirkwood."

"But first a holiday, Legolas," Aragorn said as he smiled at the elf. "Another trip together ere the gathering clouds grow dark."

Legolas laughed and lifted his gaze, his eyes slowly wandering around the room. "I will enjoy it," he said. "I look forward to seeing new faces. Which is not to say I do not have friends here," he added quickly. "And in Rivendell, of course. Lord Elrond and his children have always been more than welcoming when I visit."

"True kinship has little to do with blood-ties," Aragorn told him. "There are many who love you, Legolas."

The elven archer nodded, lowering his head slightly. His golden hair fell over the side of his face, hiding it from the ranger’s searching gaze. "In our travels together, I have made many friends in Middle-earth. They are the treasures I hold dear." He raised his head then, flashing a sudden grin at Aragorn. "Who knows? Perhaps one day I will even form a close friendship with a dwarf."

Aragorn laughed, shaking his head. "Really, Legolas. You go too far. Imagine how absurd that would be!"

* * * *

It had taken the better part of two weeks of hiking to emerge from the mountains into the northern lands. The going had been slow and more than a little difficult, as no real trails had been established and the altitude had affected them both during the times they had been obliged to climb higher than was comfortable. Even Legolas had appeared fatigued, his pale skin grown even whiter, and Aragorn had spent a miserable day or two with a hammering heart and pounding headache as he scrambled and struggled over the rough, snowy terrain. The descent was easier, and most welcome. The crisp scent of the pines was bracing, and lower down the pale green foliage greeted them with the promise of a fine spring, the leaves of the aspens waving in welcome as the breeze sent them dancing on their flattened stems. From there the two explorers had roamed the countryside. Even in May, winter had clung to both the mountain passes and the low valleys, but each day had brought warmer air, and the increasing calls of birds echoed in the skies and woodlands. The land appeared rich and fertile. Many independent farms and cottages dotted the hilly slopes, as did the fleecy white sheep grazing among the clover and bluebells.

The two friends had approached several of the villages, usually to be met at the perimeter by a stout group of defenders who regarded Aragorn with suspicion and Legolas with frank astonishment, and sometimes fear, but once introductions had been made and explanations given, the travelers were usually admitted and lodged comfortably. Usually, but more than once they had been told in no uncertain terms to clear off, narrowed eyes and unfriendly faces turned toward the elf, who would shrug, smiling good-naturedly and bowing with respect before following an irritated Aragorn back into the wild.

"Superstitious, uneducated folk," the ranger had fumed after one such incident. He looked at his companion’s calm face. "You feel no anger? Then I shall feel it for you."

Legolas raised a placating hand. "Peace, Aragorn. It is not such an odd thing that they fear the unfamiliar. It frustrates me, yes, but I shall continue to show them only friendliness and good manners. If I am to be the only elf they ever meet, I want to be remembered thus."

"They probably fear their women will run off with you," Aragorn commented with a grin.

The elf tilted his head, glancing at his companion with a perplexed expression before breaking into a shout of laughter. He had, as always, desired not to draw attention, but as usual his wish to go unnoticed had proved impossible. Legolas’ physical beauty was startling. He stood out even among other elves, and his attraction, combined with a friendly personality and his exceptional skill with a longbow, had ensured that he could never hope to travel anywhere unremarked. But he was as unconcerned with his striking looks as the travel-worn ranger was about his own. Neither gave his appearance any thought until he was reminded of it by the reactions of others.

And so for the most part Aragorn and Legolas had remained on their own, camping together in the great stretches of forest, and in September they had turned south again and begun the trek home, intending to pass over the mountains before the snows returned. They had traveled through a good portion of the northern lands and their curiosity had been satisfied. Despite his cheerful disposition, the elf had eventually tired of the stares and whispers whenever they had encountered people, and he had happily accepted Aragorn’s invitation to spend the winter in Rivendell.

Now it appeared their return journey would be somewhat delayed, if only by an hour or so, on account of the invaders ransacking their campsite. Aragorn watched as Legolas’ beloved longbow was roughly examined and tossed from hand to hand, and he grinned at the expression of dismay on his friend’s face. The elf suffered few to touch his weapons, and the thought of the filthy paws of the orcs gripping the beautifully crafted elven bow must have been vexing indeed for the archer. Eventually some of the creatures began to disperse, nosing around in the deeper shadows of the trees, and Aragorn nodded to Legolas.

Together they jumped, landing directly behind two orcs who had remained standing under their oak tree. The ranger tore the blade away from one of them and he immediately put it to use, shoving the weapon into the beast’s abdomen. With a shout he thrust the lifeless body aside and raced forward, swinging the blade in a sweeping arc to cut down another creature spinning to engage him.

Turning his head quickly to check on his companion, he saw that the elf had already dispatched two of his enemies and was spinning to face several more, his white-handled knives held lightly in his hands as his bright eyes glittered in the moonlight, trading glares with the demons advancing on him. Legolas held his ground, and as the remaining orcs rushed at him with a clamor of yells and threats, the two travelers were hard pressed for a few moments.

Aragorn leaped forward, the sword a flashing blur around his head as his swift blows felled another enemy, and then he started toward a creature that had retreated behind a large tree. It appeared to be watching the fight between the elf and his comrades intently, and Aragorn pursued it, hearing as he ran forward the clash of Legolas’ knives against the weapons of his remaining attackers.

The orc in the trees dodged as Aragorn advanced. The creature made a slight movement, bringing his hand to his mouth briefly, and then he turned and charged at the man, who met his attack with a feint that threw the orc off his intended move. The beast checked uncertainly for a moment only, but it was enough for the ranger, who saw his opportunity to drive his blade into his foe’s unprotected side.

Things had fallen silent on the other side of the camp and Aragorn spun quickly, searching out his friend in the darkness. Legolas stood still, gazing into the forest, his tall form appearing almost otherworldly as the soft luster of the moonlight blended with the natural glow of his body. "The others have run off," the elf said quietly, pivoting on his heel to look at his companion. "We should leave quickly, before they return." He tilted his head and moved then, kneeling beside his quiver and beginning to fill it with the scattered arrows, but after a moment he stopped, lifting his hand and touching the back of his neck. A look of confusion came over his face and he glanced up suddenly, fixing wide eyes on Aragorn.

"Legolas?" Apprehension clutched at the ranger as he started toward his friend. Crossing the distance in two strides, he crouched beside the elf. "Are you injured?"

"Is there something in my neck?" The archer’s slender hands moved to sweep his long hair aside, and he sat cross-legged, turning to offer the site in question to the moonlight.

Aragorn looked, and his answer came with a gasp. "There is. Hold on, let me get a better look at it." He gently probed an area just to the right of the vertebrae, and the elf tensed. The ranger hissed as his fingers brushed against a thin piece of wood, whittled to the size of a writing quill. The sight of it deeply embedded in the elf’s neck made Aragorn’s skin crawl, and a cold shiver raced up his spine. "It is a dart, Legolas. We must remove it quickly."

Sharp was the sound of the elf’s exhalation, and fear rode on the wave of his breath. He dropped his hands to his knees and gripped tightly, lowering his head. His eyes closed. "Do it."

Fighting to control his suddenly trembling hands, Aragorn fastened his fingers around the thin protrusion. Blood slowly welled around the sliver of wood, trickling down the elf's neck, seeping and widening into a bright crimson stain on his shirt collar. The dart had penetrated deeply, and little remained for Aragorn to latch on to. The warm wetness of the blood added to the difficulty, and his fingers slipped as he started to pull, snapping shut on empty air.

Legolas gasped and Aragorn swore. The ranger clenched his teeth and reached again. Firmly closing his strong fingers around the dart he maintained his grip this time, but winced in sympathy for the elf as he was forced to twist it as he struggled.

Finally it came free, and as Legolas turned quickly to stare at the wicked projectile, his shoulders trembling, Aragorn carefully looked it over. Carved of black wood, sharp at the tip, it was crudely worked, as if made by the hands of a child. But it was no child’s game the orc had been playing when his breath had sent it flying toward the embattled and distracted elf. The ranger brought the red-stained point to his nose and inhaled. Under the odor of blood was another. Something vaguely sweet, something Aragorn did not recognize, but his heart convulsed and his pulse began thundering in his ears. His grey eyes snapped up to meet the bright orbs of the elf, wide and anxious in the fading moonlight.

"I feel it, Aragorn," Legolas whispered. "It burns."

Scrambling to his strewn belongings, Aragorn hastily tore through them. Fortunately the orcs had not scattered his things to any great extent and he quickly found his packet of healing herbs. Grabbing an overturned drinking cup, he poured a small amount of water into it from his leather flask and added a mixture of crumbled dried leaves. Among the ingredients of this mix was the healing plant athelas, which had a powerful ability to lessen the strength of many poisons. Stirring quickly with a forefinger, he worked the concoction into a thick paste and pressed it into the now freely bleeding wound.

Legolas sat quietly as the man wrapped a thin strip of cloth around his neck to hold the poultice in place. He still trembled, and Aragorn could discern a soft sheen of perspiration on the elf’s forehead and temples. Legolas' hands shook as he buckled his quiver to his back. "Tell me how it feels," Aragorn commanded.

Legolas drew a breath as if to answer, but suddenly his head came up sharply. "They return!" he cried. "More of them . . . many more!"

"Run, Legolas!" Leaping to his feet, Aragorn hauled the elf up with him. With no time to grab their belongings, they plunged into the forest, Legolas’ hands shooting out to snatch up his bow as he raced after the ranger. Aragorn led the way as they rushed into the deeper shadows of the trees.

They ran and ran, dodging trees and leaping over low shrubs and knots of vines, the howls and shouts of their pursuers ringing in their ears. Legolas turned several times in mid-flight, firing rapid arrows at the menacing black shadows converging behind them. Aragorn’s own bow had been left behind when they were forced to flee, and he was unwilling to meet the orcs in hand to hand combat again, outnumbered as they were now, and with Legolas injured. But both of them were strong runners, and flight seemed the best option this time as he led the elf down a steep slope at breakneck speed, his momentum plunging him directly into a tangle of shrubs.

The net of dead vines sought to ensnare him, and sharp thorns tore at his clothing and skin as he broke through. He glanced to his right as Legolas fought his way clear of the same obstacle and drew alongside. The elf ran as swiftly as ever, but the ranger, looking at his companion with the trained eyes of a healer, could easily see his discomfort. The elf’s breathing was labored, his face pale and strained. It was glaringly apparent that he was in difficulty and losing strength.

Aragorn frantically scanned the terrain before them. They had pulled ahead of the slower moving orcs, and his eyes lit on a likely spot for concealment. He grabbed his friend’s arm and veered right, plunging into the dense underbrush strewn with great boulders and fallen trees that littered the ground at the bottom of the incline. The ranger dove headlong over a huge trunk lying across his path, rolled up and pushed his back against it. Legolas landed with a gasp beside him.

As the orcs crested the hill and began rushing down the slope, the elf spun to face them, crouching low so as to remain hidden. Tilting his weapon, he nocked and let fly one more shaft from his great bow.

And missed.

 For what must have been the first time since his childhood, the Prince of Mirkwood’s arrow went wide. Aragorn turned in shock to the elf, watching in horror as Legolas’ face crumbled in dismay. He knew. He knew, and his powerful hands dropped weakly to his sides. The bow clattered to the ground.

"My vision is blurred, Aragorn," the stunned archer whispered. "I am sorry." He reached for his knives then, readying himself for the impending attack.

Aragorn wrenched his eyes away from the elf’s stricken face and peered out, his gaze sweeping the land before him. With a shock of surprise, he saw that the orcs had abandoned the attack and had begun to make their way back up the hill. "They have turned away, Legolas. Your arrows have convinced them to seek amusement elsewhere." Far in the distance he could hear the harsh voices of the creatures calling for retreat, echoing among the trees, and he let out a shaky breath filled with relief as he listened to the sound of their heavy footsteps fading into the dense forest.

Squinting slightly, Legolas rose to his feet, staring into the trees. "Nay, the sun rises. It has driven them back to the darkness of their caves."

The elf, whose legs had not faltered during their long flight, took a single step backward and sank slowly to his knees. Alarmed, Aragorn crouched beside him, resting a hand on his friend’s shoulder, but Legolas flinched at the contact, drawing away with a gasp. A look of regret came over his features then, and he looked up at the ranger, trying to smile an apology. "Forgive me. I did not mean to recoil." The smile vanished, replaced by an expression of bewilderment. He swallowed uncomfortably. "Your touch hurts, Aragorn. It is working fast." Legolas turned his face away, but not before the man saw the mounting terror in the sapphire eyes. The elf’s right hand moved again to his neck, covering the bandaged wound and pressing hard. Silently he bent double, the other hand rising to massage his temples.

Looking anxiously at his friend’s hunched posture and obvious distress, Aragorn remembered with sinking heart that their belongings, including the healing herbs, had been left behind as they had fled their camp. He had no doubt the orcs had made off with the lot by now, and he did not dare try to retrieve them. What evil poison was working its way into the elf’s strong body he did not know, and fear sank sharp claws into him as he witnessed the rapidity with which the toxin had begun to do its work. Legolas was shuddering now, his brow furrowed with pain, and his wide, bright eyes moved back again to lock onto Aragorn's own.

"Come, Legolas," Aragorn said firmly, striving to instill confidence in his ailing friend with the strength of his voice, and bolster his own as well. His mouth had gone dry, a dark knife of dread piercing his normally calm exterior. He was deeply frightened. What poison can take down an elf this quickly? It is potent indeed to make him so terribly ill in such a short time.  And how do I treat him, with no medicines and no shelter? Angrily he shoved the fear back. There was no time for it.

"Where will we go?" the elf gasped, clutching his friend’s hand and striving to pull himself up.

"We shall follow the stream. It takes us away from the orcs, and if I am not mistaken, the city of Carbryddin lies some distance in this direction. Someone will live along the water, and there we will find aid."

Aragorn wrapped his arms around the elf and helped him to stand, shifting to encircle his waist. He draped Legolas' left arm across his shoulder, grasping his wrist and bracing as his companion staggered against him. He paused for a brief moment, looking around uncertainly as the forest lightened and the first twitters of awakening birds came to his ears. The early morning sun was feeble, enfolded in grey clouds.

Which way to go? He knew not. He only knew, with grim surety, that if he did not find help Legolas would die. Aragorn stood, feeling the terrifying press of shadows, fighting to control his jumbled thoughts and bring them to cold reason. He started forward then, his grip tightening as the elf stumbled beside him.

"Come, mellon nin."

The forest closed behind them.

To be continued . . .

Disclaimer: the familiar characters are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and are owned by people other than myself. No profit was made from this story. It was written solely for entertainment.

Once again, many thanks to my beta reader, Lisette. If not for her, you would be reading little squares. And sentences that stretch on for five leagues or more.

TO SEE A WORLD by Nightwing

Chapter Two: When the Night Shadows Fall

"Please stop, Aragorn. I can go no further."

For most of the day they had struggled along the winding streambed. The injured elf had made no sound as the time passed, but his growing distress was obvious to Aragorn as he supported his friend, helping him to walk and speaking encouraging words in an effort to keep his spirits up. When he moved them from elf, the ranger’s eyes never ceased to sweep their surroundings, looking for anything that might be of aid. But there were no plants he could use to alleviate his friend’s pain, no hut or dwelling to shelter him from the encroaching dark and the chill of night, and Aragorn’s heart contracted in despair when he heard the soft whisper. Legolas had reached the end of his strength.

The ranger's strong arms gently lowered the elf to the soft floor of the forest, helping him to find support against a stout tree. Legolas’ skin was ashen as he leaned forward and silently buried his face in his hands. Aragorn quickly dipped a cloth into the stream’s cold water and moved the elf's shaking fingers aside, pressing it against his brow and gently wiping his face, but when he tried to offer his flask, Legolas turned away.

"You must drink, my friend," Aragorn encouraged softly, then started forward in alarm as the elf shuddered miserably and twisted his body, falling forward onto his hands. The ranger knelt, grasping his friend’s shoulders as Legolas began retching, violently bringing up the contents of his stomach. Helpless, Aragorn could only bear silent witness as the painful convulsions tore the elf apart, his heart clenching at the sight of the strong warrior so utterly devastated.

When it was over, Legolas was sobbing with exhaustion. He weakly pushed himself away from the mess, shifting to the other side of the tree, and slowly lowered himself with shaking arms to the ground, pressing his cheek against the cool earth.

Aragorn’s tension mounted as he hastily examined his companion. The elf's heart was thundering within his chest, his body tense and rigid, the muscles contracted and quivering so violently that the simple act of drawing breath appeared to be increasingly difficult. The ranger pressed the cool cloth again to the furrowed brow and gently tried to turn the elf’s head to wipe the sickness from his trembling lips, but Legolas gasped. His hands lashed out to catch Aragorn's and hold them.

"Do not turn my head," the agonized elf begged. "It hurts. Ai, Aragorn… it hurts."

Helpless misery engulfed the man. He had seen Legolas injured before. He had seen him poisoned by the venomous bites of the terrible spiders that prowled in Mirkwood’s dark forest. But never had he seen him completely incapacitated, and for the Prince of Mirkwood to make such an admission of pain was frightening. Legolas was a proud creature, usually enduring physical discomfort in resolute silence and seldom seeking aid, with the result often being that Aragorn never knew anything was amiss at all.

The ranger raised his gaze toward the skies and closed his eyes briefly, wearily leaning into the soft caress of the woodland breeze on his face as the strangled gasps of the elf echoed in his ears. Help us. This is beyond what he can tolerate.

Peering closely into Legolas' dilated eyes, more black than blue, Aragorn saw that they did not focus on his face, but stared blankly at nothing. Gently he disengaged one of his hands from the crushing grip and extended his fingers toward the wide orbs, moving them so close that they nearly touched the glistening, tear-filled surface. The elf did not blink. Only when Aragorn withdrew did the lids crush closed, and Legolas' hands rose again to massage his temples, the fingers tangling into and pulling at his blond hair.

"We cannot stay here, Legolas," Aragorn told him. "We must move on. Try to ready yourself, and I shall lift you."

"No, Aragorn. No…"

"We must go." Aragorn gently began to slip his hands under the elf’s body, feeling the knots of tension in the muscles along his spine, and Legolas threw his head back with an open-mouthed wail of agony. Terrified, the ranger released his friend with a gasp and snatched his hands away as if he had been burned. Stinging tears seared his eyes as he stared down at his companion, whose hands now clutched convulsively at the roots in the earth as if grasping at life itself. A wild thought came to Aragorn’s frantic mind and he angrily shoved it aside. I cannot do that! What if I cause more harm?  

"Legolas, please…" he begged. "One more try."

He started again to lift his friend, but Legolas twisted violently in his arms. Another piercing scream lacerated the quiet forest, bringing the trees to shuddering awareness. The leaves fluttered, keening softly for the elf’s agony.

Aragorn bowed his head as the unwelcome, desperate idea came to him again. The pain will kill him if I do not put a stop to this. And he is not the only one who can bear no more. Slowly, carefully, he turned the elf onto his back. For a moment he looked with uncertain fear at the tortured form, looking for some assurance that his choice was correct. Legolas inhaled deeply and cried out again, and the decision was made. Aragorn tried to speak, but his mouth had gone so dry the words came in a croaking whisper.

"Forgive me, my friend." Scarcely able to see through eyes blurred with grief and horror at what he was about to do, Aragorn drew his fist back and struck the elf hard across the right temple. Legolas sagged to the ground, his breath escaping in a soft moan. His tormented body relaxed and his beautiful face changed, tranquil at last, eyes closed as if in sleep. The elf wept no more, but his devastated companion, kneeling beside him on the soft bed of pine needles, shed enough tears for them both.

* * * *

"Aragorn, have you ever seen such a magnificent day?"

The elf was enthusiastically admiring the fall foliage. Never before had he seen such brightness of hue, he said, exclaiming over the exquisite beauty of the rich reds, deep golds and vibrant yellows, and he had run ahead, shedding his pack and his quiver as he went, and climbed up several trees to get a closer look while Aragorn remained on the ground, staring up at his friend and laughing. The elf would not come down, and Aragorn finally gave up pleading with him to return to earth so they could continue their trek. Forced to content himself by settling his back against the trunk of the beech tree in which Legolas had taken up temporary residence, he pulled out his pipe and relaxed, listening to the elf sing songs of thankfulness for the beauty around him. The man shook his head, smiling quietly to himself as he pondered the unique personality of the Prince of Mirkwood.

He has lived longer than most of these trees by several centuries, but he plays among them as a child would. And though I have not walked in this world for nearly as long, I fear I am the older one.

Musical laughter reached his ears, and not for the first time the man felt a slight twinge of jealousy at the elf’s ability to take pleasure in so simple a thing as a sunny day. Aragorn was a serious man, and lonely, given to periods of gloomy introspection, and many people shied away from him and his guise as a dangerous man, a mysterious Ranger of the wild. He did not make friends easily, and when the young elf began to accompany him on his adventures, he had been frankly amazed at their compatibility and how easily their friendship had developed. Legolas was also quiet by nature and reserved around those he did not know well, but he was a steadfast companion who shared Aragorn’s sense of adventure, and had proven to be an astonishing fighter when situations turned dangerous.

The elf loved the natural world with a fierce passion that had startled Aragorn. Of the forests and its creatures he had studied deeply, and his knowledge often surpassed that of elves hundreds of years older. With this understanding of the intricacies of life came wisdom, and a heart that accepted love as easily as it was offered. He also possessed an innocent sense of fun that Aragorn lacked at times, and the moments of lightness inspired by the elf's happier disposition had helped the ranger maintain his perspective about himself and the people around him.

As Aragorn sat and smoked his pipe, having resigned himself to losing an afternoon’s travel, Legolas began flinging nuts at him from the relative safety of the tree’s canopy, laughing as he did so and telling Aragorn that he was wearing "that grim face" again.

"What is your hurry, Aragorn?" the elf called, taking precise aim and knocking the pipe out of the ranger’s mouth. "I will never be able to understand your sense of urgency. We have plenty of time to make our way back to the mountains. Men always seem to be in such a rush."

Aragorn retrieved his pipe, knocking the pine needles out of it. "If I did not prod you, Elf, we would never get anywhere. I agree with you. You have no sense of time. I would die under this tree ere you would notice. You would continue to sing your heart out, and I would be a dried up skeleton beneath you."

Legolas suddenly landed beside him, the elf's steady blue eyes meeting his own with a serious glance. "Do not speak of such a thing, Aragorn, even in jest." Legolas turned away, reaching for his pack and slinging it over his shoulder. "Shall we go on? How many miles do you wish to cover before nightfall?" Without waiting for an answer he started down the trail, his long stride graceful and soundless. The man followed without a word. He had not missed his friend’s abrupt change in mood.

They had talked long that night as their campfire dwindled to glowing embers and the soft radiance of the moon bathed them in a silver sheen. Aragorn had questioned his friend, although he was fairly certain he knew the reason for the elf’s troubled expression, and he was touched by the quiet response.

"I sometimes forget that life is very different for you, Aragorn. I do not share your sense of urgency because I will not run out of time. But you will, someday. That understanding must permeate your every thought and action."

The man smiled. "Not always. I think most of us who are destined to die do not dwell overmuch on the subject. If we did, our lives would be filled with fear. And so we push the knowledge that our days will end away from us and fill them with activity and purpose so as to give our time here meaning, but also in order to divert our thoughts." Aragorn noticed the elf was watching him with interest, waiting for more information on this topic, which he did not recall ever discussing with Legolas before. "I fear death less than many of my kind, I believe," he added, "because I know better than to long for and plot for that which we are not permitted. Such desire led to the fall of Numenor long ago." He glanced at the elf. "But it seems you have thought more than once about the fate of men, Legolas, just as I have pondered often on what comes to the elves. On what will come to you."

"And I do fear it, Aragorn. I am drawn to friendships with mortals, it seems, and I will one day lose those friends. Then I will be alone in the world."

"Aye. You are doing little to protect your own heart, Legolas."

The elf's golden head nodded in agreement. "I know it. I could follow the example of many of my people living in isolated Elven communities, but were I to do so, life would be empty for me. I have made my choice, and my heart tells me I could not choose other. I do not have doubts about what I wish to do, but I fully understand that there may be more pain for me in the end."

"There is Valinor," Aragorn reminded him.

"And I will go, but not before I wish. The decision to make that journey will be mine and mine alone," the elf said, somewhat fiercely. "There are things to take care of here ere I depart. Wrongs to right. I would see peace and safety come to these lands again, and help you to gain them ere you come into your kingship."

Aragorn looked quietly at the elf’s beautiful, ageless face. His sapphire eyes were locked onto the glowing coals, and he sensed a great river of sadness running beneath that calm gaze. "You miss your mother," he murmured.

It seemed to Aragorn that Legolas flinched then, and he regretted moving too close to what seemed an open wound. The ranger knitted his brow, trying to find the most fitting words to comfort his friend. "Whatever awaits you, when your time here is ended, your hurt will be eased. The Valar are not without love or mercy, Legolas."

The elf brightened, and he turned to Aragorn with a smile. "No, they are not. They look after us well. It takes very little searching to find that they have provided us with all that we need." Legolas tilted his face back, regarding the twinkling lights far above him with an expression of amazement. "The future is unknown, and the past is gone. We truly have only this moment in time, and right now I am happy, Aragorn. Each breath we draw is cause for celebration."

Aragorn arched an eyebrow. "More elvish wisdom? Since you have come of age you have become a veritable wellspring of sagacity, Legolas."

"Someone must try to point the way for you, young one," the elf retorted, his own eyebrow twitching to match the ranger’s.

"Who is the child? Among my people, I have been considered an adult for many years. You are but a fledgling scarcely out of the nest, little elf."

Legolas laughed and rose easily to his feet. "And this little elf is apparently the only one who has the ability to tolerate your company for any length of time. If my attempts to insert profound insights into that rigid skull of yours have been unsuccessful, I shall now plague you with my singing." He grasped the branches above his head and vanished into the thick foliage of an oak tree.

"Do your worst, Elf."

 Aragorn settled into his bedroll, drawing the blanket over his body with a deep sigh. It was no ordeal to hear his friend sing. Indeed, it usually filled his restless heart with a feeling of harmony that was otherwise elusive, and tonight was no exception. He lay awake for some time, listening with eyes closed to the elf’s quiet voice, allowing it to transport him gently toward sleep. Legolas was singing something he had never heard before and his low voice was filled with longing, welling up quietly, drawing on the wind in the trees. And yet it seemed also a song of deep contentment, and Aragorn’s mind was eased about his friend’s unhappiness.

The ranger had begun to doze when words he could barely hear were whispered in his ear as the elf returned to the ground and stretched out beside him. "Sleep well, mellon nin."

Several hours later, the orcs attacked.

* * * * 

Silently, Aragorn made his way along the small river. He had long since pushed all thought from his mind as he trudged, concentrating on setting one foot in front of the other, the weight of the unconscious elf cradled in his arms. Dusk was falling now, shrouding the tall trees in misty grey, and overhead it looked no better. The moon had abandoned him this night, and the ranger glanced briefly upward through the spikes the forest thrust into the sky, watching the clouds take shape above him.

He could smell it. Rain was coming.

Sighing, he resigned himself to the approaching storm and began to look about him for somewhere to shelter. His eyes lit on an outcropping of rock within a small circle of trees, and he pulled away from the creek and started toward it.

The elf suddenly convulsed in his arms. Aragorn staggered and nearly dropped his burden. Reflexively he hugged Legolas close as a low moan escaped, filtering softly into his ears, and the elf's strong body twisted again. Aragorn stumbled to the rocks and fell to his knees, setting his friend on the earth. He had dreaded this moment. Legolas was awake again, all tension and misery as his fingers gouged the soft soil beneath him before flying to his head and clutching, twining into his blond hair. "Ai, Elbereth, help me, help me, help me…"

Aragorn had been carrying the elf's bow and quiver on his back and now he discarded them, flinging them to the ground and stripping off his cloak, adding it to Legolas' own, draping and wrapping his shivering form. The autumn air had grown chilly, the wind picking up and bringing with it the fresh scent of rain. The first cool droplets began to fall as he moved Legolas closer to the shelter of the rocks.

Leaning his back against them and pulling the Prince of Mirkwood into his embrace, the man held his companion tightly as the cries echoed in his ears, his own body rocking with the motion of the elf’s rapid, painful breaths, feeling the heat burning his hand as he gently touched Legolas' brow.

The rigidity in the elf's body relaxed suddenly as the muscle spasms released him, and he sagged in Aragorn’s arms with a whimper. A moment later he turned his head, tilting his face up toward the rain. Legolas inhaled deeply, his lips moving, and the man bent closely over him as a soft whisper came to his ears. "I am sorry, mellon-nin. I would spare you this…"

"No, Legolas," Aragorn told him. "You have nothing for which to apologise. Think not of me. We will rest here for a time, and you will gather your strength."

Legolas shook his head slightly, lines of pain etched into his brow. The ranger held him in a close embrace, and the elf’s hand reached up to wrap around Aragorn’s arm. Legolas blinked, frowning as his unfocused eyes searched the sky somewhere above his friend’s head, then his lids squeezed tightly shut. His voice came in a broken sob. "I die, Aragorn."

"No," the man whispered, the sudden knot rising in his throat threatening to choke the breath from his body. "Would you break your promise to me, my friend? That we would face the future together?"

The pale lids opened again and a look of anguish passed through the elf’s glazed eyes. "Nay, Aragorn… I would not, but I cannot hold…" His fingers tightened on the man’s arm.

"You do not die, Legolas. Not here. Not like this!"

A slight smile graced the elf’s face before the mask of pain returned to replace it. "There… there are worse places I could be. You are with me." He gasped, bending his head down. The grip of his hand became painful to Aragorn. "I am not alone…"

"No, Legolas. You are not alone," the ranger echoed brokenly, resting his face against the elf’s hair, his shoulders shaking with grief. What would I give to hear him sing again, as he did last night? My own life. Can I not offer it for his?

Aragorn raised angry tear-filled eyes to the clouds, searching for a star, for some beacon of hope and light filtering through the dark curtain that covered both the sky and his heart. Take me. Or if you will not, end this now. He does not deserve such suffering.

Agony tore through the elf again. Legolas stiffened and cried out - and there came an immediate echo scarcely a second later that brought Aragorn's head up like a hound’s to his master’s whistle. Someone had responded, calling out in the darkness. The sharp insistent whinny of a horse came to Aragorn again, and instantly he was on his feet, easing the elf to the ground and racing toward the sound. He followed a narrow foot-trail, and he could not tell which pounded harder: his feet as he ran or his heart as it twisted in frantic hope. This had to be it… the help that he needed. It must be!

He rounded a turn in the faint path, and several hundred yards further on he skidded to an astonished halt. Just ahead, in a large clearing, was a small cottage of stone with a thatched roof. The windows were dark although night had fully come to the forest. Next to the dwelling was a wooden structure surrounded by a fence, and within this enclosure a horse nickered and capered about, looking at him with interest. It whinnied again as Aragorn ran across the green expanse and threw himself against the door. It had not occurred to the frantic ranger to make a polite entrance, and as the door gave way he nearly collided with a round table set in the middle of the shadowy room as his momentum sent him hurtling into the cottage.

 "Hello? I need help! Is anyone here?" Only silence answered, and he gazed about him, perplexed. His scanning eyes could make out little in the darkness, but he could see a great stone hearth and went to it, pulling down a lamp from the chimney shelf and striking a spark from the flint and steel to light it. Quickly he looked about, noting the neat interior, a bed in the corner beside the cold fireplace, deep windows with the ledges cluttered with hanging bundles of leaves. The house appeared entirely empty, but he tried again. "Hello?"

His gaze fell onto an opening into another room at the back of the cottage and he approached it, peering around the corner of the portal. This room was smaller and had the appearance of a study. A small desk was placed in the corner, a candle of sheep’s tallow standing on a brass holder on its edge, and it was stacked high with papers, the handwriting on them a spidery scrawl. Aragorn stepped within, raising the lamp, and froze with a gasp of astonishment. Shelves lined the south wall, framing the lone window. Aragorn leapt forward as a great choking sob of gratitude burst from his throat.

On the shelves were medicines. Bundles of dried herbs, extracts in small bottles, jars of salves, all neatly labeled and carefully arranged. Aragorn closed his eyes briefly, deeply inhaling the sweet pungent smells, and sent up a shaky prayer of thankfulness. Surely there was a merciful being watching over the elf this night. Trembling, his fingers tore through the stocked items, trained eyes quickly scrutinizing the contents of the containers. Valerian. Comfrey. Yarrow. Then his gaze lit on something else. The extract of poppy seedpods! Aragorn nearly wept. This he snatched from the shelf, and he hastened with it to the front room. He flung his drinking flask to the table and set the bundle comprised of neatly wrapped leaves beside it. This will remove him from his pain, if I can manage to get it down his throat.

The ranger clutched at the edge of the table, leaning into it and closing his eyes as he concentrated. He had used this drug before. It was a powerful medicine for inducing sleep and easing pain, particularly when the enduring and treatment of wounds was too great for the patient to bear without aid. In lesser doses it created a not unpleasant state of euphoria, and he knew that for some men the drug became an obsession.

He calculated quickly. Elves required more of the stuff than men, but were not subject to the addiction. He shook the water flask, checking the volume, and deliberately spilled out about half of the liquid before beginning to add the proper amount of the drug, watching carefully as he did so.

The ranger had moved with all possible haste, and was already replacing the stopper in the flask and making for the door when he heard the sound he had been hoping to prevent. The elf's scream ripped through the trees and smote Aragorn's heart with such a tremendous blow that he nearly toppled. It was the shriek of a wounded animal, and it signified the end of Legolas’ ability to endure.

No! I cannot be too late!

With a cry of dismay Aragorn bolted from the cottage, running as he had never run before, back down the trail and into the shadows.

To be continued…

 

Disclaimer: the familiar characters are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and are owned by people other than myself. No profit was made from this story. It was written solely for entertainment.

Again, a big thank you to Lisette for betaing (is this a word?) this chapter and grappling valiantly with italics that do not show and a writer who can't work a computer. Many grateful bows. I've enrolled in a basic computer class that starts in October. I'm sure she is breathing a big sigh of relief.

TO SEE A WORLD by Nightwing

Chapter Three: A Heavy Weight of Hours

He found the elf lying on the path on his abdomen with one arm flung out, some distance from the sheltering rocks where he had been left, and Aragorn realized that his friend had sought to follow him. The rain was beating down in sheets now, and the ranger quickly bent over the prostrate form, shielding Legolas from the worst of it as he carefully took hold of the elf's quivering shoulders and turned him over. As he pulled his suffering friend into a half-sitting position and supported him against his chest, the elf's head rolled limply against Aragorn’s shoulder, a desolate whimper escaping his lips. A rasping cough followed, Legolas' body contracting strongly, and his hands reached out blindly, searching. Aragorn grasped them, immediately noting how cold they felt.

"I am here, Legolas. I have not left you." Aragorn yanked the cork from the flask with his teeth and moved to brush aside the rain-soaked hair plastered against the fair being’s face. "I have found shelter, my friend, and medicines. I have something that will help you now. You must drink this."

The trembling increased and Legolas cried out as the painful muscle spasms assailed him anew. His back arched and his head slammed with remarkable force into Aragorn’s chest, nearly driving the breath from the man’s lungs. Aragorn fought to control the convulsions as the elf thrashed, but the natural power of the Prince of Mirkwood, combined with the involuntary firing of muscle and nerve was almost more than the ranger could handle, strong as he was.

Wrapping his arms around his friend he clung fiercely, struggling as well to maintain his grip on the flask and not spill any of its precious contents. Then the worst of it was over and Legolas fell back again, slumping against Aragorn with a low moan.

Aragorn pressed the flask against Legolas’ mouth and tipped it up slightly, but the elf gagged, choking, and a thin trickle of fluid spilled out and ran down his cheek, mixing with the rivulets of rain running from his hair over his face. He shook his head slightly, and Aragorn understood. The elf could not swallow.

Cautiously the ranger tried again, slowly placing small drops of the drug into Legolas' mouth, and they slipped down his throat without need of the swallowing reflex. It was time consuming, and Aragorn had to fight to keep his fear under control as the pain swept over his friend again, but at last he was able to discern signs of increasing drowsiness come over the stricken elf. Hurt-filled blue eyes that had been wide open and filled with terror slowly slipped shut. Breaths that had been harsh and rapid sank into a slower, deeper rhythm, and the quivering tension throughout the elf's body ebbed. With a final vocalization that was something between a whimper and a wail, Legolas sagged against Aragorn and lost consciousness.

The ranger sighed heavily, suddenly and acutely aware of the overwhelming weariness that had penetrated his own body to its very core. He pulled his friend into his embrace and held him tightly, resting with eyes closed and bowed head as the rain lashed down on them both. For some time he did not move, sitting quietly until the frantic pounding of his own heart eased and the careening terror of his thoughts was once again under his control and no longer steered by panic and desperation. Then, blinking to clear his eyes of both the tears flooding them and the torrent pelting his face, he raised the elf in his arms and staggered to his feet, starting back along the route that would lead him to the cottage.

The forest was completely dark now, and in his exhausted state he might have lost his way but for the insistent demands of the horse ringing among the trees, and he used her voice to guide him along the slippery, nearly invisible path. Soon the glow from the lamp he had left on the table was drawing him across the clearing and he entered the house easily, having left the door wide open when he had raced back to his friend.

A small cat standing beside the table, green-eyed and multi-colored, bristled and spat at him as Aragorn moved past it and laid his burden on the bed. The creature darted out the door and vanished into the night. There was still no sign of the house’s occupant, but only after he had stripped the soaking clothes off the elf and gotten him settled into the bed, drawing the warm blankets closely around him, did the man spare a moment to wonder at this. The small dwelling was neatly kept, the wood floor swept clean, cookware and crockery stacked on a narrow shelf mounted on the wall beyond the hearth. A small vase of brown clay holding a gathering of fall wildflowers was set upon the chimney shelf, but the water was nearly gone, the petals wilted and beginning to fall. Aragorn frowned at this. How long had the place stood empty? Three days? Four?

Reassuring himself that Legolas was comfortable for the moment, the ranger pulled his cloak around his own shoulders again, picked up the lamp and ventured outside. The horse would not cease her indignant demands, and he knew he would have to find a way to get the creature calmed before he could concentrate on his friend. She was waiting for him at the gate of her enclosure, and he caught hold of her soft muzzle as he entered. "All right, my girl," he murmured as she jerked her head up and flattened her ears. A quick investigation of the stall showed she had no available food or water, but he soon located a supply of grain and hay in the small loft above, and he brought up a pail of water from the stream that continued past the cottage, running north of the clearing and disappearing into the trees. Soon the mare was happily satisfying her appetite.

"Where is your master? Why have you been left unattended?" Aragorn asked, glancing around him uneasily. Like the house, the stable was well built and neatly kept, and the horse, while not distinctive in any way, had obviously been groomed and looked after. Until now.

But there was no time to ponder on this mystery. Needing to leave the horse and his questions for another time, Aragorn quickly made his way through the rain back to the cottage. Legolas still lay quietly, but his face was pale and there was a rasping sound when he inhaled that the man did not like. He seemed to be struggling to draw breath. Slight tremors continued to shake the elf’s body, and Aragorn brushed his hand over the furrowed brow, trying to smooth the lines of pain away.

Dry wood and kindling were stacked beside the stone hearth and Aragorn soon had a fire burning that quickly warmed the room and cast soft flickering shadows against the walls. He pulled a chair away from the table and set it beside the bed, draping his sodden cloak over the back of it to dry. Sitting heavily, he rested his fatigued body for a short time, eyes closed, but his thoughts were racing beneath his quiet exterior. The crackling fire and the coziness of the small house, humble at it was, seemed a great luxury after his harrowing journey. The soft sounds and the comforting heat of the blaze lulled him, coaxing him toward sleep, but he forced himself to refuse the invitation. He had much to do ere the sun rose.

The ranger observed his companion, thinking carefully as he leaned forward to run a towel over the elf’s wet hair. The drug had eased the pain, for now, but what of the poison? Aragorn had little doubt that it continued its insidious work within Legolas’ body, and he could find no answers as he tried to gaze ahead at what the coming hours and days would bring. He knew he must be prepared for anything, and after a short time, when the fire had warmed him, he rose and took up the lamp. Retreating to the back room, he gathered what he thought he might need from the shelves and returned to his friend, sitting at the table and beginning the work that was to save Legolas’ life.

Long into the night he toiled, selecting distillations and simples, mixing and preparing what might be of help as the rain lashed the roof over his head and the wind howled outside the lonely cottage, and he forced what he could of his medicines down the elf’s throat.

Dawn came. The gusts had died but the rain continued, falling in a soft grey mist. The scene outside the windows was fogged, cheerless and devoid of color. The drug had begun to wear off, the elf stirring uncomfortably at first, then tossing and struggling on the bed, and from that moment getting anything else down his throat became impossible. The pain had returned, and as it assaulted him without abating Legolas’ body temperature soared to dangerous heights. He could swallow nothing. The elf even choked on his own saliva, and Aragorn kept his friend turned onto his side to allow the fluid to drain out of his mouth.

It seemed mostly to his head that the elf's hands flew, to massage and sometimes strike before Aragorn could stop them, or the long fingers would press against tightly shut lids in mute testimony of pain in his eyes. But Legolas no longer had strength left even to cry out. Low moans were the only sound he made now, and on his face was an expression of agony. Aragorn fought to control the torment, inserting the sedative cautiously into the elf’s mouth, placing it into the pouch he created by inserting a finger and pulling Legolas’ cheek away from his teeth, allowing it to slowly trickle toward his throat in tiny amounts. The delirium caused by the high fever helped in some way, he hoped, to make the elf unaware of the gravity of his condition, though Aragorn strove to lower it by soaking cloths in cool water scented with soothing lavender and placing them on the elf’s brow, and by continuing to attempt to force into him some of the other drugs he had arrayed on the table. 

It was not until later in the morning that the situation became truly terrifying. The elf’s breathing, difficult before, suddenly deteriorated rapidly. His gasps became increasingly shallow and erratic, and with a start of terror the ranger threw back the blankets covering his friend, staring with frightened eyes at the straining efforts of a ribcage that was becoming paralyzed. Legolas could no longer draw enough air into his tortured body, and the man noted the bluish tinge on the archer’s lips and fingernails.

The next span of time became a nightmare. For more hours than he could ever recall afterward Aragorn breathed for his friend, pressing his mouth over the elf’s and forcing his breath into Legolas’ lungs. He had been well-trained by Lord Elrond in the arts of healing, and in times of extreme urgency there were methods the elves had developed that could be employed to prolong life. At the same time he tried to stimulate Legolas, shouting at him, rolling him on the bed and slapping him in an attempt to startle him into inhaling more deeply. Sometimes it worked, and Aragorn would clutch his friend’s tightly fisted hand, desperately willing him to continue breathing on his own. Legolas would manage for a while, but always his strength would gradually wane again and Aragorn would start anew as despair wound a tight web around him and the cruel bite of exhaustion sapped his energy.

The ranger’s existence narrowed into an unending cycle. Breathing. Checking. Screaming into the elf’s ear. Striking his face. Watching. Waiting. Breathing.

Outside, the sun, blotted out by grey clouds, traveled across its arc and dipped into the west. Darkness crept once more into the tiny cottage and the rain continued, pattering softly against the thatched roof. Aragorn turned his head, blinking blurrily, and lurched to his feet from his kneeling position by the side of the bed. A sharp pain pierced his lower back as he straightened, the muscles in his legs aching as he forced them to move for the first time in hours. He nearly fell as he stumbled to the mantle and struck a light within the lamp, clumsy in his trembling haste. Now he could see again, and was immediately on his knees again, reaching for his friend.

Breathe, Legolas! Breathe! Please, my friend…

The tiniest movements became arduous for Aragorn, slow and heavy as if he had been swimming forever upstream, and his stiff efforts blended with the turbid sluggishness of his mind. His dark head drooped, though the man continued to fight against the relentless debilitation of his fatigue.

Breathe, Legolas…  

Startled, he raised his head abruptly. Where am I? Squinting uncomprehendingly around him, he was unable to recognize his surroundings. A fresh breeze wafted over him, lightly brushing back his tangled hair, and the soft scent of pine filtered into his nostrils. Sunlight streamed in through the open window, the morning light dancing over the naked form of the elf sprawled on the bed before him, bathing his skin in gold.

He stared as memory clawed its way back into his foggy brain, and he reached, trembling, toward the pale, unmoving body. Legolas' head rolled as Aragorn shook him, the fair elven face turning up toward the ceiling. The blond hair cascaded like fine silk over the ranger's hands and slipped through his calloused fingers, falling from them even as he saw the light within the blue eyes fading. Life was slipping away, and Aragorn's strong grasp could not hold it.

The man slowly bowed his head. He dies now. I can do no more. Ai, Legolas…

The elf's face rolled again as Aragorn collapsed over the silent shell and drew it close. A terrible cry of anguish shook the stone walls of the little cottage in the forest, and it was silently taken up by the nearby trees that had stood together in mute unmoving vigil during the long hours of Aragorn’s frantic efforts to save the life of his friend. The leaves swayed gently now, and the start of a soft song murmured among the oaks, beeches and evergreens, a song of peace and rest meant for a woodland elf who had finally broken free of a failing body and could hear everything now.

* * * *

He followed the song through the rain. During the worst of his agony he had been aware of it, though it had been terribly faint and difficult to focus on. Now it filled him, beckoning with soft promises of rest. He would blend with it and add his own voice. Drifting, the senses to which he had always been accustomed were altered. True sight, sound and smell no longer came to him, but these things still existed as part of a deeper perception. And all of the emotions of fear, rage, grief, and joy had fallen away.

He did not feel. He did not do. He simply was. There was only the song, washing over him like tiny raindrops that gradually swelled into ocean waves, and all else was stripped away. He would grow and expand his energy out into the shimmering melody, becoming saturated in the beauty and promise of water, forever bathed in luminous notes of love. Completely nourished.

Waves and song… a beautiful blending of possibilities. New forms. Rain smiles, making music as it falls, changing to mist, feeding the world, rising to cloud, turning to white crystals, swelling the seas, adding its powerful song to that of the gulls. Water in all its manifestations. Ever flowing. Without birth and without death. Unending song.

A golden shaft of brilliant sunlight suddenly washed over him.

He rose and extended himself to meet it.

To be continued…

 

A/N: I realize some of you may have a problem with mouth-to-mouth in Middle-earth. Perhaps it seems too modern. I made a genuine attempt to find out just how old the procedure is. I did a search on the Internet and I even trotted around the hallowed halls of the University of Michigan Medical School Library looking for information. I came up empty-handed. Plenty of references on CPR, of course, but nothing on the obscure beginnings of the life-prolonging technique. Oh, but some of those medical articles from the old days made my toes curl. Sheesh. It's a wonder anyone survived.

But Lord Elrond and the elven healers were smart cookies, very advanced thinkers, and I believe there's a good chance that they figured out how to do this. And for those of you who like seeing Aragorn and Legolas lock lips, this is all you are going to get from me! From this point on, it's just hugs pro re na'ta.

I use the Middle Ages as a sort-of guideline for Middle-earth. It is my understanding that Tolkien himself drew quite a bit for his stories from what is known of the Anglo-Saxon period. The herbs I cited were used a great deal in Medieval times, and the extract from the seedpods of the White Poppy (Papaver somniferum), aka opium, was definitely one of the drugs in the pharmacopoeia of the ancient surgeons. (True, it was usually imported from the East, as the British variety was less potent… but hey, we have dwarves drinking coffee in The Hobbit! That's not exactly a plant native to England either. Where did they get it, I wonder?)

So, please forgive me if some things seem inappropriate. I am trying to stay true to Tolkien as I write about what occurred in Middle-earth, and I research the writings of the good Professor as much as I can.  I want very much to please my readers while having fun myself.

Disclaimer: The familiar characters are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and are owned by folks other than myself. This story was written for entertainment only. No profit was made.

Thanks once again to Lisette, beta reader extraordinaire!

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Four: In The Arms of Love

Arms enfolded him, soft and near, warm and comforting. The scent of lavender filled him as he relaxed. Small once more, no longer the fierce warrior he had been a moment ago, he nestled into her sweet embrace, noting with the pleasure he always felt that the colour of her hair exactly matched his own. Soft and shining like the finest strands of silk, it slipped over her shoulders and cascaded over him.

He reached up a small hand, grabbing a fistful of liquid gold and holding it up next to his own, comparing.

"See, Nana? Your hair is just like mine."

"Yes, my little Greenleaf," the warm voice laughed, and her arms tightened their grip around him, squeezing gently. "Just like yours."

"I like that," he stated firmly.

"As do I."

She began humming, and he snuggled closer, closing his eyes as she gently rocked him. It was nice here in the garden, quiet and cozy, but it also was a very busy place, if one paid attention. How many different things could he hear today? He concentrated. The low droning of the big fuzzy bumblebees as they ponderously made their way from blossom to blossom. The soft chatter of the little birds hopping around on their tiny stick legs, investigating the seeds he had scattered for them with his own hands. Would one perch on his finger this time, if he extended his arm and held very still? He cracked an eye open, looking to see if any of the feathered creatures were close enough to notice his gesture, but they were too busy right now.

The sweet notes of a harp drifted to his ears from beyond the garden wall, and his mother hummed the same melody.

"He is angry with me again," he said abruptly, sitting up and bringing her hair to his face, brushing the ends of it across the tip of his nose to tickle it. Sometimes, if he did this just right, he sneezed. He liked sneezing.

"Only impatient," she murmured, gently prying his fingers from her hair and holding them, pressing them between the cool softness of her own hands. "Your father wishes you would concentrate more when he gives you instruction."

He frowned. "It's boring."

"But it is what you must learn. You are a prince of Mirkwood."

He pulled away, scowling, and rolled over, resting on his abdomen, chin cupped in his hands. He watched an ant crawl determinedly up one side of a blade of grass and down the other. How infuriatingly slow! Why, he could cross the whole lawn with the speed of an eagle!

He jumped quickly to his feet and darted away. "Watch me, Nana! I am faster than I was yesterday!"

Three circuits of the vast garden he made, with such incredible speed that the blue of her dress and the gold of her hair was a blur as he flashed past her, and the colors of the flowers streamed like a rainbow! He was that much faster today.

She cheered him on, laughing and clapping her hands, then called him back to her.

"Did you see?" he panted, dropping to the grass beside her.

"You are much faster today," she praised. "The swiftest warrior in Mirkwood."

Yes," he boasted, proud of himself. "I run like the wind."

She reached for him again, and, after glancing quickly right and left, he permitted the embrace. He loved this, secretly, though he thought it most unseemly for a great Warrior Prince to admit it, and there were times he would withdraw and stand apart from her, tall and strong, his golden head held high, and she would bow her head and turn away in deference. That she did so in order to hide her maternal smile of amusement he never realized.

"I have no one to play with," he sighed, studying his fingers as they entwined with hers; small, slender, and none-too-clean compared to the flawless white hands that brushed his hair every morning and brushed his tears away when Father was short with him.

"I know. You are the youngest. You came long after your brothers and the other children of Mirkwood."

"But that makes me special. You said that."

"Yes," she said, smiling down at him, and the love in that gaze overflowed to fill his happy heart. "You are our future, and our joy. The sound of your laughter within the walls of our home brings summer even on the coldest day. You are my greatest gift."

"Why does Ada get angry?"

"You do not share his interests, and when he desires your attention you usually cannot be found, until we find you up a tree somewhere."

"I never go far! I am either here in the garden, or in the grove of beech trees just past there," he pointed, waving his hand around vigorously. "I'm not permitted anywhere else," he added grumpily.

"You will be, in time. But first you must grow a bit more."

"I want to go to Lake-town. I want to see the Men. My brothers go with Father sometimes. I could-"

"I think your father would not permit it. You have already demonstrated more than enough curiosity about the world outside our borders, little one. He desires to keep you here, in safety."

"It's boring," he said again, pressing his hands into the lacy sleeves of her gown, idly tracing the patterns with a broken fingernail.

"You know little of the outside world, Legolas. He wishes to protect you, both from danger and from your own curiosity."

He raised his head, lively ocean-colored eyes locked onto the sky above him. "I will be an explorer, Mama. Over the Grey Mountains I will go."

"It is cold there, and full of Orcs."

"They do not frighten me! I can outrun them all!" he declared boldly. He stopped suddenly to think, a small frown drawing his dark little brows together. "Why should I not go up into the trees? They sing to me. I am an elf, after all. And you go up trees sometimes."

Her soft laugh caressed him. "Yes, sometimes I do."

"He does not."

"Well, now, would that be appropriate behavior for the King of Mirkwood? Do you think his subjects should see him behaving in such a fashion?"

He tilted his head, as he always did when he thought hard about something. "Then I am glad I will never have to be the king. Nana, does he not hear their song any more?"

She shifted slightly, a soft sigh escaping her lips as she pressed them against his furrowed forehead. "He does still hear them. He does. But he is burdened. Sometimes it is hard to be the king. It would be better, perhaps, if he would remember to pause sometimes and listen to the songs. He is so busy that he often forgets to do so." Her blue eyes slid toward his, and they twinkled with mirth. "I will tell you a secret. But you must promise never to tell anyone else."

His orbs widened with excitement and he nodded solemnly. He uttered no word, and he made no oath, but he did not need to. For little Legolas Greenleaf, youngest Prince of Mirkwood, a promise made was a promise kept.

She leaned closer, whispering conspiratorially into his tiny curved ear. "He does go up trees sometimes. I have seen him do it. He even sings back to them."

His bright eyes grew round as the moon at these words, and his mouth formed the same shape. "He does?" he finally managed to stammer once he had recovered from his astonishment.

She nodded, pressing her fingers to his lips as they split into a delighted grin. "Remember, not a word," she laughed as she drew him closer. Her arms were around him, and within their embrace he floated in safety and comfort.

Lavender and warm sunlight filled him as he rested. He burrowed his face into her breast, feeling the humming within her body as she began to sing again. He loved being in her arms. It was his favorite place… when he wasn't sitting in a tree.

"Do not let go, Nana."

"I will never let go, Legolas. That is my promise to you."

                                                         * * * * * *

The waves of song drew him on, and he relaxed into them, moving quietly away from all that he had known before. The tiny voice of each leaf, barely perceptible individually, blended together to form a melody of overwhelming beauty. The song of the trees and the song of his mother had become the same, and to touch it somehow was suddenly his heart's desire.

Mesmerized, he reached out, but then a new sound came to him, discordant, clashing abruptly with the tranquility. Confused, he hesitated, unsure what part of the song this broken fragment belonged to. Pausing, he waited, listening, and in another moment he recognized it. It was not part of the song. It was the sound of weeping.

It was the sound of a strong man brought to his knees by grief.

Aragorn.

As powerful as the pull of the song had been but a moment before, now an onslaught of emotions and memories suddenly burst upon him, and the force of their impact was staggering. Love. Loyalty. Friendship. Plans. Promises.

Promises.

And for Legolas Greenleaf, Prince of Mirkwood, a promise made was a promise kept.

No! I will not leave him!

Without warning, the song changed. The trees quivered and thrummed as if readying themselves for battle, and their tones lowered, diving deeply into the earth, pulling their power now from the great roots rather than the cheerful little leaves.

And, above it all, sweet and clear, her voice: Go, my little explorer.

The soft arms bolstered him, adding their strength to his own. In tears, yet without hesitation, he retreated, turning back and walking into a wall of fire.

                                                             * * * * * *

There was a pause of dead stillness before he was struck down, scarlet whips of flame lashing his eyes and sunbursts erupting in his head. His heart surged painfully, the beat pounding in his temples, throbbing with a savage heat that choked him. He yearned to scream his torment, but there was no breath in his body. No air. Heaving lungs strained, the muscles between his ribs quivering in impotent striving as sharp talons of terror swept down upon him, closing on his faltering resolve and shredding it.

I cannot breathe!

Pinioned between his agony and his desperate desire to reclaim his life, he struggled against the choking closeness of his paralysis. Gathering the tattered remnants of his strength, somehow he moved. Just a twitch of his head, a clenching of his fist, but it was enough. A thunderbolt of pain lanced through him and the first breath came automatically in reaction to it, searing him, a blazing torrent of suffocation rushing into his chest. He felt himself drowning in a churning ocean of thick throbbing blood.

He cried out, his voice smothered and weak. Thrashing over, he lunged forward, gagging as a crimson inferno threatened to spill from him. Arms were suddenly around him again.

 Nana!

The second breath came as their strong grasp enveloped him, and he retched, coughing as he threw himself backward. He spat something disgusting from his mouth, crying out more strongly this time. The blazing whip scorched his eyes again, leaving in its wake a terrifying firebrand that arced across his brain.

 Ai, the pain!

The third breath tore into him almost immediately, and he fell into the arms again, arms that felt hard and powerful, smelling decidedly more like sweat than lavender, arms that held him as fiercely as hers ever had, silently promising never to let go.

                                                            * * * * * *

On the floor of the little cottage, Aragorn sat silently beside the bed, knees drawn up and arms wrapped around them. His eyes, already wide, had grown even larger as dusk encroached. He had sat thus, in stunned disbelief, for hours now, staring without blinking at the elf lying before him on the bed.

Legolas had been dying. Of that, he had been certain. And Aragorn had wept bitterly, clinging to his friend's hands and draping his living body over the failing one.

A slight tremor at first had brought him up, recoiling in shock, and then by some grace of power beyond his comprehension, by the hands of the Valar, perhaps, the elf had suddenly and violently fought his way back, sitting bolt upright and coughing up a terrifying gout of blood. He had cried out for his mother, and gasped something about the pain of knives piercing his eyes. He fell then with a wail into Aragorn's arms, and the astonished ranger had caught him as he collapsed into unconsciousness.

Now the elf lay quietly, finally cocooned in the merciful swaddling of insensibility, unaware that a very shaky man had been watching him for the remainder of the day without moving. Aragorn would not move, so convinced was he that if he so much as twitched a muscle, Legolas would stir. And if Legolas stirred, Aragorn knew full well that he himself would shatter into a thousand pieces.

Squinting as the grey shadows of evening filtered into the cottage, the ranger's eyes finally shifted, resting on the wooded scene outside the window. Inhaling deeply, he shot one more fear-laden glance at the elf, assessing him before rising quietly to his feet. He stooped over the still form. Legolas breathed with more ease. His color was improved. He swallowed. His head turned slightly and Aragorn froze, but to his relief a soft sigh was all that transpired.

The man crept to the door and made his unsteady way to the little barn. He numbly fended off the horse's excited greeting and saw to her needs, bringing down more food for her and replenishing her water before returning to the loft. Tossing down two bales of straw, he dragged them, each hand wrapped around the binding twine, across the lawn and into the house. Pushing them against the bed, he spread his cloak over them and lay down. Straw would serve well enough for his rest this night.

Exhausted, he stretched out onto his side, draping his right arm across the faintly glowing outline of his friend's body, feeling the slow, even rise and fall of his chest. If Legolas stopped breathing again, he would know it. But for now it seemed the danger had passed, and Aragorn's eyes were closed almost before he had finished pulling his jacket over himself.

If that soft breathy rhythm ceased, he would wake in an instant. But nothing else, not even an eruption of Mount Doom were it just outside the window, would make an impact. Aragorn was asleep.

To be continued…

 

Ahhh… I've always wanted to write a return from death scene. Whew! I'm completely exhausted. This chapter was entirely written in one six-hour stint in a bookstore café.

Disclaimer: the familiar characters are the creation of J.R.R. Tolkien and are owned by folk other than myself. No profit was made from this story. It was written for entertainment only.

A/N: Lisette betaed this chapter, and lucky for us all that she did. She pulled me back from murky waters indeed. Many of you good people would have fled in terror. And now, for your reading pleasure, I give you angst.

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Five: For Some Must Watch

"Now hold on, old lady," Aragorn laughed, staggering as he fought to keep his footing on the slippery turf. The horse had brought her head round and nudged him with enough force to knock him back a step, and now she came in again, shoving his arm as he was forced to clutch at her mane. He chuckled, raising his hand again and resting the stiff-bristled brush further up on her shoulder, moving it more briskly. "Is this more to your liking, Your Highness?" he inquired, looking into her soft brown eyes.

He was ignored as she dropped her muzzle to the earth, continuing to tear and grind the rain-soaked grass between her broad teeth. The man worked quickly, running the brush over her sleek brown coat, switching to a softer one for her legs, and picking through her mane and tail with a metal comb. There was not much time, but he took pleasure in giving the mare extra attention when he found a spare moment, picketing her on a line in the clearing before the doorway of the house so that she could graze, and chatting while he worked on her, bringing a bright sheen to her hair.

Aragorn inhaled deeply, his eyes moving up to roam slowly over his surroundings. After the night's rain, the sky had lightened to a clear blue, cloudless, and the darkness of the evergreens played against it, waving high in the wind like the brushes of an artist stroking the lighter background. It was a fine autumn afternoon, with the good rich smells of horse and pine filling his nostrils, and the cat, still deeply suspicious but at least willing to be spotted now and then, lurked beneath some low shrubs, watching him.

The weight of the brushes felt good in his hands. From the time he was a young boy Aragorn had loved horses, and caring for this one was a welcome respite, affording him a few precious moments of real relaxation before he had to return to the house. He curried and brushed quickly, and picked out her hooves with the hook, patting her and murmuring as he moved around to her other side. He faced the cottage now, and he gazed a long moment upon it as he rested his hands lightly on the mare's withers.

Old, but sturdily built of stone, with a well-thatched roof that did not leak even during the strongest downpour, the place had been a true gift to him and the elf who lay within. Ten days had passed since their desperate arrival in time of great need, and the owner of the place, whoever he was, had not returned. It troubled the ranger, who harbored an ill feeling about the disappearance, but he could not deny that this place, however it came to him, was precisely what he and his friend needed. All he could want of medicines and comfort were available for Legolas' needs, and for his own as well. There was a small but fine garden just to the right as he exited the door, filled with vegetables ready for harvest, the tomatoes plump and ripe and the squashes coming along. The stream wended its way through the trees along the edge of the sward, providing him with a close source of cold clear water. In the house itself were other foods to be found; not a great deal to be sure, but Aragorn had discovered bread and honey, fruit and a bit of dried meat, and even a modest supply of wine, which he had found to be surprisingly good upon tasting.

Should the owner return, he would make restitution as best he could for what had been taken, and had already begun to do so by taking care of the odd task or repair that he noticed needed doing around the place. He had mended some of the furniture, and kept the garden clear and the horse tended. When the owner finally returned he and the elf would have to move on, perhaps to the city which lay some miles off in the valley below, but for now they must stay. Legolas could not yet be disturbed, and Aragorn was thankful that there was such a place as this to aid in his friend's recovery.

Ten days since their arrival, and eight days since Legolas had struggled back to this world, and though Aragorn no longer feared that the elf would fail again, the convalescence was slow. Particularly for an elf, the recovery was so slow as to be almost imperceptible. Aragorn had expected he would be up and about long before this, and he grew increasingly concerned when Legolas continued much the same day by day, surrounded by pain and sickness and nightmare. 

Healer and patient had quickly moved into a fairly predictable routine, and for this Aragorn was grateful. The sedative usually lasted several hours, unless the elf was shaken by nightmares, and while he slept the ranger was able to take his ease or put his attention on other matters. He would go out briefly to tend the horse or work for a time in the garden, or sit quietly on the step before the door of the cottage and smoke his pipe. Amused, he would watch the small calico cat rather elaborately hide from him, crossing his line of vision several times as she sought to put distance between herself and the stranger while also keeping an eye on him. Filled with hostility but curious all the same, her green eyes would glow from the darkness of the foliage before she disappeared.

But ever Aragorn's attention was on the cottage's other occupant, and he was always back inside well before Legolas woke, preparing for the next time the elf clawed his way out of the potion-induced twilight and came gasping to painful awareness. When the moans began and the hands reached out, the healer was ready, seated beside the bed, all he needed of medicines, teas, water and linens at hand, murmuring quietly to soothe and reassure the one who was ill and in pain.

The elf's suffering and fever continued, though not at the same horrifying level as before, and Aragorn kept him drugged and sleeping as often as was possible. This was unfortunately not as consistent as either party would have liked, but Legolas had to be somewhat awake and aware for the times he was required to swallow water and medicines, and he could not do so when completely insensible. It was asking much of the elf to face the pain during these moments, but to Aragorn it seemed that Legolas understood why he had to be brought back to partial awareness, and that he responded and cooperated as best he could.

Legolas could not eat, but he received fluids almost frantically, drinking water and teas with the desperation of one who had been found abandoned in the desert. Aragorn was encouraged by this, for what goes in must come out, and eventually the poison from the dart would be purged. 

Legolas also could not speak, at least not voluntarily, though it seemed to Aragorn that he tried, his lips moving soundlessly when the drug had worn off and the pain returned and the strong grip of the elven archer found his own hands and crushed them. After drinking whatever was given him, Legolas would last be given the poppy extract, mixed with some of the good wine, and together they would wait for the pain to ebb again, the ranger speaking quietly, reassuring his friend that each day was an improvement. The elf's grip would tighten, his pale face turned toward Aragorn, his dark brows knotted and tensed above closed eyes.

"Rest, Legolas," Aragorn would murmur as the orbs gradually roamed more slowly beneath their shutters and the hands relaxed and slid away. "Whatever it is you need to tell me, you will be able to do so soon."

Now the horse's head came up, ears turning inquiringly toward the cottage, and Aragorn paused in his work as a soft moan drifted from the open window nearest the bed. Then he was moving. Tossing the brushes aside, he quickly returned the horse to her enclosure. Steeling himself for what lay ahead, he hastened across the clearing and into the dwelling in time to catch the elf by the shoulders and push him against the pillow. Aragorn sighed, pressing back his weariness as Legolas began to fight his way through another nightmare.

This was expected, and had also become part of the routine. The dreams usually came in late afternoon and in the dead of night when the fever was at its highest, and Aragorn had quickly learned to be ready for them as well, prepared with cool cloths for the burning brow and calm speech for the fear, grief and rage that boiled up from the depths of that inner heat.

It was less easy for the ranger to prepare himself for the nature of his friend's nightmares, and as he rested his weight against the thrashing elf to hold him down, he closed his eyes as a sudden torrent of Sindarin burst from Legolas' lips. These were the times the elf spoke, and if Aragorn could have, he would have been a mile off in the forest, unable to hear a word of what was said. Legolas' blond head rolled back and forth, the strangled words, often difficult to make out, rushing forth on waves of harshly drawn breath, and Aragorn flinched visibly as their meaning pierced him with the sharpness of barbs wrought to penetrate and wound deeply.

The elf, of course, did not intend this, and certainly would have stopped himself were he capable of doing so. But his anguish over the event that had broken his heart four years ago, the anguish that he had kept ruthlessly in check with incredible self-control, was now released without his consent by the fevered brain and the weakened body, when his defenses were at their lowest. Aragorn gritted his teeth and bowed his head as the words struck him again. He did not wish to hear them, and he knew Legolas wished the same.

The elf, with each nightmare, was reliving the death of his mother. Reliving the circumstances of her murder at the hands of orcs. That event, of which he never spoke, never, not even to his dearest friend, poured from him with all the force of a waterfall. The fever, the poison, the drug and the pain all conspired to wrest from him that which he desired to keep most private, and giving an unwilling Aragorn a look into the innermost thoughts and emotions of one who had desired to hold that privacy dear.

Legolas screamed and cursed, lashing out in desperate fury, and more than once his fists connected strongly with some part of his friend's body as he struggled. A great deal of what was said was difficult to make out, garbled, coming as it did on breaths half choked, but Aragorn understood most of it, and indeed already knew most of it. The elf spoke of orcs in strange garb, attempts made to track them, and he cried out the names of the other elves that had joined Thranduil's queen on that fateful hunt. They had been his friends.

Then came the tears, the pleading, and this was what drove the ranger to close his eyes and wish for a way to also close his ears. These were the things he did not know of, and should not know of… images of a young elf standing outside his father's door, begging to enter and being answered with silence. Apologies to a dead mother, asking forgiveness for being elsewhere when she was attacked. Arguments with an older brother about responsibility, and where loyalty should lie, and how a friendship, already disapproved of, might have contributed to the tragedy. And Aragorn's own name finally coming to his ears, spoken by his best friend, coated in sorrow and accompanied by angry words of defense.

"I chose to go with him, my brother, so if blame must be placed, put it on me, and me alone! I will not see Aragorn hurt by this! He could not have foreseen what would happen. You will say nothing to him." 

Aragorn raised his head, resting his eyes on the scene outside the window and watching the horse contentedly cropping the grass, her tail swishing busily to keep the flies off her flanks. The elf had quieted, and the ranger sat back against the chair he kept by the bedside, gazing out at the changing colors of the leaves. Four years ago… exactly four years ago, as it was in the autumn that Legolas' mother had ridden out from the palace of Thranduil one crisp morning and not returned. He remembered that day well, for four years is not a terribly long span of time even for a mortal. He glanced at the Prince of Mirkwood, watching him breathe evenly again, the fair face streaked with tears. To an elf, four years must seem no more than a snap of the fingers. It must seem as only yesterday.

Yes, Aragorn remembered that day well, the day Legolas learned his mother had died, for he also had been there.

                                                          * * * * * *

He was in Mirkwood at his friend's invitation, arriving in the midst of preparations for the fall hunts and the harvest celebration. It was always a grand time to be there. Spirits were high and a constant thrum of activity kept the elves happily occupied, and able to forget, for a time, the evil that pressed in on their homeland from the darkness of the southern reaches of the great forest.

It was a never-ending source of interest and amusement for Aragorn to observe the many differences between the elven community of King Thranduil and that of his foster-father, Lord Elrond of Imladris. In the hidden valley of waterfalls things were more orderly and sedate, the elves quieter. They were no less eager to sing and make merry, but they were calmer somehow, and went about their business with a strong sense of purpose. A balm of peace always seemed to rest over the place called Rivendell.

To Aragorn's eyes, Legolas' people were rather… for lack of a better word… wild. They celebrated their lives and their loves with a ferocity that was matched only by the deep hatred they held for the foul beasts that corrupted and maimed their beloved forest. Quick to laugh and quick to anger, they were simply a more emotional lot than the regal elves of Imladris, and Aragorn was immediately greeted with an example of just how great the contrast was when he came to the gates of the palace of King Thranduil and reined in his horse, pausing to glance over the tableau before him on that fine fall day when he had arrived to join the elves of Mirkwood in their revelry.

The youngest prince of the realm, usually considered one of the quieter elves, was anything but at this moment. Engaged in a violent shouting match with his eldest brother, he was waving his arms about vigorously as if the motion would somehow help to drive home the point he was trying to make. The brother was yelling back, and Aragorn quickly realized that neither was hearing a word of what the other was saying.

"You young fool!" thundered the older elf. "Can you not see that if we follow your suggestion, we will be doomed to failure? All will be lost! Your methods…"

"It will not fail! Anyone with an ounce of common sense could see that my idea will work!"

"Do not presume to speak above your station, Legolas! I am eldest son, and as such my word is…"

With a roar, Legolas was suddenly airborne, and he tackled his brother, wrapping his arms around his waist as the momentum of his charge sent both of them tumbling to the ground. Several nearby elves inexplicably joined the fray, and for a brief time a ridiculous struggling knot of flailing limbs and golden hair was all that the ranger could see. Aragorn could not have been more astonished if they had begun to levitate, and he watched in amazement, holding his frightened horse in check and striving, without success, to make some sense of the absurd scene. Then from the midst of the snarl of bodies there emerged an enraged elven face that suddenly broke into a delighted grin as intense blue eyes settled on him.

"Aragorn! Well met, my friend! A year is too long to be parted. But I was not expecting to see you for two days yet." Aragorn dismounted, and Legolas extracted himself from the tangle with a surprising amount of speed and bounded toward him. The man was enveloped in a bear hug, the prince's joy only slightly diminished when he was obliged to wipe at his bleeding nose with his sleeve, emitting a small yelp of pain.

"By the Valar, Legolas, what the devil is going on here?" Aragorn whispered, mystified, watching as the pile of elves sorted itself out and Legolas' brother escaped the confusion and strode towards them. The man quickly composed himself, bowing respectfully.

"It is good to see you, Prince Thendras. I thank your family for inviting me to your celebrations."

Legolas' brother bowed in return, managing to look coldly regal despite his disheveled appearance. "We are pleased you could come, son of Arathorn," he said formally. "You are early. I trust your journey was uneventful?"

"Yes. I encountered no difficulty on the paths, and came quickly."

"It is good. We have heard rumours of trouble, but I think the greatest difficulty will be encountered right here, and involve young whelps who have nothing better to do than plague the life out of their elders." This statement was accompanied by a savage glare and a cuff aimed at his brother's head, but Legolas leapt lightly aside, chortling wickedly.

"My idea is superior, O haughty one. Grant me the opportunity to prove myself."

"Do as you think best, child. As usual, you will have nothing but your own way. I will inform our parents of Aragorn's arrival."

With that, the heir to the kingdom of Mirkwood turned on his heel and walked away with all the dignity he could muster. The back of his cloak was covered with mud, and Legolas collapsed with a howl of laughter as his brother flung a hand out, offering a parting gesture with his finger, something which no one born of royal blood should ever have learned.

"What was that all about?" Aragorn asked as he helped his staggering friend steady himself. "It sounded serious. Is there need to go after more spiders? Do orcs threaten you?"

"No, no, nothing like that," Legolas wheezed, dabbing at his eyes with his sleeve. "We were merely discussing where we ought to hang one of the banners."

Aragorn gazed at the elf in disbelief and shook his head. This should be an interesting week.

"Ah, I must present you to my parents now. Come." Legolas grabbed Aragorn's arm and began steering him toward the great door and into the caves of his father's palace as a servant led the ranger's horse to the stables.

"You look a right mess, Legolas," Aragorn said as he panted alongside, the elf rapidly leading him deeper into the large airy passageways. "Your father-"

"Will have my head if I appear before him like this," the young prince finished for him, dodging around a corner. "Yes, he will, so do not tarry!"

Several twists and turns, down a flight or so, and Legolas dragged Aragorn into what the man knew must be a storage room. Dusty boxes and barrels littered the floor. Dimly lit and musty, Aragorn could scarcely make anything out in the gloom, but the elf prince obviously knew what he was about, striding directly to one of the boxes and yanking the lid off. Standing on tiptoe he drove his arm in, muttering to himself as he rummaged around. Eventually he extracted a comb, a clean shirt and a cloak, and in less than a minute he was changed and splashing water over his face from a jar that had also emerged from the box. Toweling himself off, he quickly raked the snarls from his hair.

"Will I pass?" the elf inquired, turning to his friend with a grin and a bowing with a flourish.

"You will," the ranger said, unable to keep the admiration from his voice. Legolas was quite resourceful. "I have no doubt that you have more than one of these boxes hidden about the place."

"Hundreds," Legolas laughed. "My brothers each have two or three."

"But you require hundreds?"

"It would appear so," the elf nodded. "They were my mother's idea, years ago, and I still find them useful at times. I kept catching the very devil from my father, or my tutors would spot me in the wrong place at the wrong time, and usually looking altogether wrong as well. She saved my life. Come!"

Five minutes later Aragorn was bowing low before the king and queen of Mirkwood, feeling distinctly uncomfortable, but well acquainted with the niceties of formal speech and behaviour that court etiquette demanded. He spoke the words of greeting that Lord Elrond had bade him make, giving the monarch the latest news, and told of his journey, when he was asked. Legolas stood beside him, cool and composed, every inch the respectful young son and prince, but the ranger caught an undercurrent of mirth whenever his friend glanced at his eldest brother, who had obviously made a similar attempt to pull himself together before joining his parents, but had been unable to entirely disguise a blossoming black eye.

Aragorn did not show it, but he sweated under the scrutiny of the great king. Thranduil was always courteous when Aragorn visited, politely inquiring as to his health and of news from Rivendell, but there was a coldness, an arrogance that could not be ignored. That the elven-lord did not like him was something Aragorn knew, and understood, but it pained him nevertheless, knowing that it came not for any valid reason, but only from long years of prejudice and misunderstandings between elves and men. He was not liked because he was a man, he was not entirely trusted, and that was the end of it. Legolas' two brothers were much the same, welcoming him gravely and formally, but they kept their distance, and he was unable to establish friendships with them. He was tolerated only because he was Legolas' friend, and he could not push past the barriers.

But the face of the elf prince who always stood beside him at these times, clear-eyed, young and strong, greatly eased his discomfort. Legolas always introduced his friend with pride, and the ranger was deeply grateful for the confidence the elf had in him. And he continued to hope that some day the king and the older princes would come to believe in the value of his friendship as Legolas did.

And there was one other whose presence reassured him when he was in Mirkwood. Whenever he raised his gaze and his eyes met those of Thranduil's queen, sparkling laughter could be detected bubbling out from her steady blue orbs, so much like her son's, though her face, smooth and beautiful, was schooled to an expression more in keeping with the formality of the occasion. She sat tall beside her powerful husband, remaining silent as he spoke, but in no way was she dwarfed by his imposing personality. It was said that she could hold her own in both argument and intellectual discussion with the king, and through what Legolas had told him, Aragorn knew that there was no one else who could so skillfully deflate the monarch's more pompous outbursts, with a wry and gentle humour that could even set the stern elven-lord laughing at himself.

Thranduil had other matters that demanded his attention, and the interview came to a close fairly quickly, much to the relief of Aragorn, and also apparently of Legolas, who relaxed visibly after his parents had exited the room, followed by the two eldest sons. The young elf blew his breath out slowly, smiling at his friend. "Well, that is over. It is always a dreadful ordeal for you, is it not?"

Aragorn nodded. "Now we need say little to each other for the remainder of my stay. He will be busy with the hunts and arrangements for the feasts."

"Too busy to be of much bother to me as well. But you handled yourself well, as always. We should be able to get away for our own little trip before joining up with the others for the big hunt. But now my mother would like us to join her in the garden. Will you come?"

"With pleasure."

They found the queen waiting for them, seated at a small table. She rose as Legolas and Aragorn entered the enclosed space, and Aragorn went to her, bending one knee and kissing her proffered hand. "My lady," he murmured.

"You look well, son of Arathorn. This last year sits easily on you."

Aragorn rose, feeling, as he always did, that he was in the presence of a sort of beauty that was almost beyond what was possible in the world. Physically, she was fair, her head poised gracefully on a slender neck, the golden hair falling unbound over her shoulders, but there was more than that. It was as if in Legolas' mother there was a gathering of all that was beautiful and kind. But there was also a restlessness that he sometimes sensed, visible in the quick way she moved and in the flash of her eyes, and the ranger often wondered if she did not grow bored with the sheltered life she lived within the palace walls.

She swept out her hand, gesturing to the seats and inviting them to join her at table. There a small repast was laid, cakes and cheese, and both wine and tea had been poured. She leaned forward eagerly. "Now Aragorn, tell me of your adventures. I wish to hear all about them, and I am sure Legolas does as well. He has not gotten out much this year," she added, with a smile at her youngest.

And so the ranger spoke, telling mother and son of his activities over the past year, and the day passed pleasantly. In the presence of the queen he did not have to choose his words, as she encouraged a relaxed atmosphere away from her husband and the formal doings of court, and the three of them talked openly of many things, as old friends will. The beauty of the garden was undimmed by the approaching winter, the colors as they waned seeming to work together to give one last burst of color before they knew they must fade. The day was warm and dragonflies darted about, gleaming blue and green in the sunlight.

It had been Legolas' intention to accompany his mother on the brief hunting excursion. It was only to last a day or two, but because Aragorn had unexpectedly arrived early, the prince asked to be excused. He and Aragorn would go off on a short trip of their own and return in plenty of time for the larger hunt planned for later in the week. It would include all three brothers and the king as well, among others.

The queen granted her son's request, and shortly thereafter they concluded their talk in the garden and adjourned to take care of matters that needed attending before morning. Legolas embraced his mother happily and went off to make other arrangements for her escort.

"Take a turn with me in the garden, Aragorn, and then I will see you to your quarters," the queen said, and he offered his arm to her.

The queen's face often turned in the direction her son had taken, but she said nothing for several minutes. When they reached the doorway she halted and looked at her companion. There was no need for her to raise her head. She was every inch as tall as he, and her direct gaze held his eyes.

"I am glad you are here, Aragorn. Legolas has needed the presence of a true friend. His father has required much of him this past year." Her voice lowered, and a shadow of sadness filtered into the tone. "He is very different from his brothers. While they willingly take in everything that they can of what their father has to offer, Legolas retreats, listening instead to all that calls to him from beyond these walls. He struggles with it, for he knows his ways do not entirely please his father. But he cannot change who he is."

Aragorn smiled. "I have noticed that he makes a somewhat unconventional prince," he said. "And I have noticed that it gets him into trouble on occasion."

She laughed. "Once or twice. Thranduil expected a family of obedient ducklings, willing to follow where he leads. In Legolas, what he got was a hawk who darts in every direction at once. And the king finds himself alternating between irritation and pride in his youngest child. There is great love between them, but little understanding."

The queen bowed her head for a moment, and when she raised it again her eyes were clouded. "I do not have the gift of foresight, Aragorn. But I do know that Legolas' path will lead him from here. And I fear for him, because I cannot see what lies ahead. The only thing I feel certain about is that his path and yours are the same. He and I have talked much of late about what the future may hold, and the dangers that lie ahead for the people of Middle-earth. And we have talked of you, Aragorn… of your destiny. He has told me all that he knows of you, certain that I will keep such information to myself. Not even to my husband will I speak of it." She paused, her eyes roaming over the flowers, small lines of worry etched into her brow.

"You are troubled. What do you need of me, Lady?" Aragorn asked softly.

She disengaged her arm from his and stepped back, turning away, and her head lifted as if she struggled for air. Her voice came with a slight quiver. "I want you to promise me that he will never be alone, Aragorn."

"My lady-"

Her words cut him off, coming in a rush. "He will not leave Middle-earth. His heart is bound to this land more strongly than I have ever seen in an elf, and he cares so deeply about its future. He loves you, Aragorn, and because of that love he risks more than just his life. If he follows you, his heart will be laid open. And for all his solitary ways, an elf cannot be alone for long, particularly if he is cut off from his own kind. Can a Man understand this?"

He moved, stepping around to face her, and he took her hands in his, kneeling before her. "I do understand," he told her, his voice thick with emotion. "Do not forget that I was raised among the elves of Imladris. In a friendship between a man and an elf there may be great sadness to be faced, but there is also much joy to be had while both yet live. I do not know what the future holds for either of us, Lady, but I do know this. I love your son as dearly as he loves me, and I swear to you that it is a friendship without end. If it is within my power to keep him from hurt I will do so. He will never be alone."

She closed her eyes with a sigh as Aragorn rose to his feet, and when they opened the happiness was within them again. "My heart is content, son of Arathorn. The Valar indeed were smiling on my child the day he met you." Her blue orbs observed the lengthening shadows, and the breeze was cooler as it blew softly over them. "Tomorrow we have out respective adventures, and it is time we were making ready."

They entered the palace, the queen leading Aragorn along the vast labyrinth of corridors to his room. "I will leave you now, and I expect we will not meet again until the big hunt. We ride out at dawn."

"Sleep well, my lady. Enjoy your hunt, and we will see you in two days time."

                                                         * * * * * *

They were returning at an easy pace, walking along together under the great canopy of green, gold and red. Carrying little but their packs, they had not really intended to hunt, but rather just enjoy spending time together once more. It was late afternoon, and Thranduil's palace lay not more than two hours ahead.

When Legolas stopped suddenly, his head snapping around, the ranger nearly collided with him. "Someone approaches, at a gallop," the elf murmured, his keen eyes raking the path. Aragorn listened and soon caught the sound of pounding hoofs. His hand reached for his knife.

"No, put up. It is one of our own horses," Legolas said quietly, "but why is it being ridden at such a pace? Something is amiss."

They stood together, waiting anxiously, and a moment later a bay horse came plunging down the trail, an elf clinging to its back. The animal skidded to a stop, nearly sinking onto its haunches as Legolas' eldest brother threw himself down and raced toward them. Legolas, with a gasp, rushed to meet him. "Thendras! What is it? What has happened?"

The elf was pale, panting, an expression of horror on his face. "Legolas, I have been sent to find you…" His eyes flickered toward Aragorn, and he grabbed Legolas' arm and pulled him some distance off. The man could not hear the urgently whispered words. He stood, heart thundering, watching in fear as his friend's face drained of all color and he staggered back, a cry of dismay breaking from his lips. Then Aragorn was running, catching hold of the young elf as he collapsed to his knees with a wail of anguish.

"No, no, no! Ai, how can this be?"

Aragorn looked wildly at Thendras, who met his eyes, tears streaming down his face. The elder elf's lips moved, but he choked on his breath. Coughing violently, he inhaled, shaking his head, and the words came in painful, constricted gasps. "Our mother… attacked by orcs… slain… all dead. They are all dead."

"No…" Aragorn's body reeled in shock and his arms lost their strength, sliding uselessly from his friend's shoulders. He stared pleadingly into the watery depths of Thendras' eyes. "It cannot be true!" Thendras turned away, clutching at his younger brother, his fair face contorted with sorrow.

"I have seen them," he whispered.

The ranger's heart caved in. No!

Legolas threw his head back and screamed, and the sound of it drove all breath from Aragorn's body. Weeping, he reached again for his friend.

"Help me get him up," Thendras rasped, pulling at his brother's jacket. "I must get him home."

Numbly, Aragorn dragged Legolas to his feet and aided his brother in getting him seated on the horse. Thendras scrambled up behind him, wrapping his arms around Legolas' waist, and then they were gone, racing down the trail as a stunned Aragorn stumbled against a tree and sank to the earth, burying his face in his hands.

                                                           * * * * * *

It was dark when he crept silently into Thranduil's palace. The place was a boiling chaos of activity. Cries of grief rent the air and choked voices were raised in song, but they broke down into weeping before getting very far. Servants scurried about as if in desperate hope that carrying out their usual activities would somehow make things right again. Aragorn pressed his way past a knot of warriors holding a hushed council in the corridor, their low voices shocked and angry, and they parted to let him by. He entered his room and gathered his gear.

There was nothing he could do. He could not help. Legolas' room was empty, and to try to approach him now would be impossible. And unwise. The elf was sequestered with his family, and there was no place for Aragorn there. He was an outsider. And so he had left a note, telling his friend where he could be found, and a few minutes later he was outside again, sadly making his way along the deeper trails leading away from the palace of Thranduil and the devastated elves of Mirkwood.

He camped in a small clearing some miles off, in a place that he and Legolas frequented, and three nights later his friend found him there, walking soundlessly into the ring of light thrown out by the campfire and sitting beside him. The young elf did not speak, nor did he look at the ranger. He sat silently, and for hours he gazed with unseeing eyes at the dance of the fire, the exhausted planes of his face standing out sharply in the red glow and heat of the flames, and Aragorn sat beside him.

Then the elf raised his grief-ravaged face to the dark sky and began to sing. And he did not stop. All that night, and all the next day, and all the following night he sang, and the tears ran from his eyes. Aragorn kept the fire going, and he draped his cloak over the elf's shoulders when the night air grew cold, and he brewed tea and offered it, but Legolas did not drink, nor did he move his gaze from the stars. His voice continued to pour like a river, hoarse and without hope.

At the coming of the second dawn he faltered at last, and the singing stopped. The dull blue eyes met Aragorn's. "You must go," the elf whispered.

"I do not want to go."

"Today we hunt them. Our warriors have been being tracking the orcs northward." Legolas cleared his throat and coughed, wincing. "My brothers and I, and our father, will ride with them."

"Let me come with you. Let me help."

The elf put a hand up to push back a lock of tangled hair. He shook his head. "Thank you, Aragorn. But this is our business. You cannot stay here." He rose slowly to his feet, and Aragorn wept to see the bleak emptiness in Legolas' tormented eyes. He bowed his head, his body trembling with sorrow as his friend embraced him.

"Ai, Legolas… I am so sorry. What can I do?"

"Come back to me in the spring Aragorn, when the flowers return. Help me with her garden."

"I will, my friend."

He watched as the elf retreated and vanished into the shadows of the trees, slowly making his way back to a home where love had died and arms of terrible loneliness were the only things that waited to embrace him now.

                                                            * * * * * *

Aragorn shifted wearily, his eyes cloudy and blurred with memory. Legolas slept again, but his sleep was restless, punctuated with soft moans, and his eyes roamed back and forth constantly beneath closed lids. Dark night had fallen, and the ranger rose stiffly. He crouched before the dying fire, reaching to poke it back to life. As he did so a soft sound came to him, and he turned his head, suddenly alert and wary. A quiet step was heard outside the door, and a quiet rustling noise accompanied it.

Aragorn rose silently and slid to the window, pressing his back against the wall at the foot of the elf's bed, all his attention directed toward the darkness outside. He thought he caught a glimpse of a slight shadow moving away, retreating quickly into the trees, and he spun and yanked open the door. He leaped out, but the shadow was gone.

A vague, lumpy shape lay at his feet, and he bent down to examine it. With an exclamation of amazement he picked it up and carried it inside. Placing the bundle on the table, he unwrapped it. The folded piece of cloth, tattered but clean, fell away from its contents, and he extracted a loaf of bread and several apples. He raised them in his hands, gazing at them in perplexed wonder. Stepping to the door he put his head out again, frowning as his eyes scanned the black forest, but he could see nothing.

This was the second time. Three mornings ago had been the first, when he had awakened and stepped outside to stumble over a carefully wrapped package that had been left on the doorstep during the night. Within it had been several small honey cakes and a wedge of cheese.

Mystified, he shook his head. Who was doing this? And why? The gifts were most welcome, but he very much wanted to know the identity of the giver. And though he did not sense danger, he wanted to know the reason.

But he was weary, and it would not do to drive himself further into exhaustion by pondering on things he did not understand. Perhaps tomorrow would bring answers. Legolas' latest nightmare had been a hard one for both of them, and the ranger recognized his need for sleep. He moved quietly about the cottage, readying himself for bed and putting out the lamp. Lying on his pallet of straw, which he had arranged permanently on the other side of the hearth, he closed his eyes.

To be continued

Disclaimer: the familiar characters are the creation of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to folks other than myself. This story was written for entertainment only. No profit was made.

Thanks again to Lisette for betaing. I wrote most of this chapter while running a fever, and things were a tad incoherent in places. Though overall, it may have helped to set the tone.

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Six: In the Gathering Dark

Shards of memory swept past, fleeting and maddeningly brief. He struggled vainly to grasp them, but they were always beyond his reach. There was something important… something that came to him in dreams that were filled with terror and dismay. He felt that he needed to recall it, and he cast about desperately, searching. Why? What?

His brow knotted with the effort, and agony was his reward. His head hurt. Always it hurt, and once again the pain forced him to abandon his attempts to understand. His fists clenched in frustration, anger rising in his chest as it swelled with his inhalation. He hated his infirmity. Never before had he been so weak, so helpless, and though he fought, the solid wall of fatigue could not be surmounted or broken. He was tethered by sickness and pain, his aching limbs lying heavy on the bed, his ability to think ensnared by clinging strands of darkness that surrounded him and pressed him into a sticky mire of confusion.

Breathing deeply again, he allowed his hands to open and lie relaxed by his sides. His strength, what little there had been, flickered away, expended completely during his brief flash of anger. In an effort to hold the pain back he thought on his recent perceptions. Hazy recollections came to him of the gentle, firm hands of a healer turning him on the bed and washing his body, and of a soft voice encouraging him to drink. The draught was sticky, heavy and sweet, leaving a taste in his mouth that he did not like. When he could rise again, his first course of action would be to clean his teeth. Yes…

That Aragorn was caring for him and keeping him drugged he understood, but he knew not what had happened. He knew only that something was terribly wrong, and that they were far from home. When his mind worked well enough to permit it, and when the sharp knife-thrusts in his head were dulled by the drug, he tried to take in his surroundings. He was in a bed, covered with good blankets woven close. The top one had a textured pattern worked into it, and he would use it to distract himself sometimes, his fingers tracing the bumps and ridges as he fought to hold back the pain.

There was a roof over his head, and he would rest, eyes closed, listening to the soft patter of raindrops as they fell above him. There also was birdsong, and breezes, usually soft, but once there had been a wild blowing as a storm swept through, and he thought he had heard a tree fall deep in the woods.

He would listen as Aragorn moved around, and this served as another way to occupy his attention. He feared opening his eyes, lest the pain in his head punish him for his boldness, and so he followed the ranger about with his ears and his nose, trying to guess his activities. It became something of a game for him, when he felt well enough, to monitor his friend and keep track of his chores. Time to light the fire. Going out now to change the horse's bedding. Back again with more wood. He is hungry. His stomach is growling. Where is he now? Ah, smoking his pipe. I am glad he goes outside to do that…

And always, in his heart rather than in his ears, there was the low, sweet music of the earth and the stars as they sang, helping him to remember that he still had a place in the world.

Unable to decide which perception was his favorite he simply clung to them all, as he once had clung to his mother's hand, and each one helped to reassure him and ease his terror when the nightmares came, splitting his head open with frightening images only half-glimpsed and understood.

The discomfort increased now, and he tensed. He was waking again. Each time he did so, it was with the hope that he would be able to function and speak with Aragorn. But then the pain would roar through him and seize his breath, demanding all his attention as he struggled to control it. Ai, when will this end?

His arms moved slowly as if weighted with heavy links of chain, his fingers finding and pressing against his pounding temples. A rustling sound nearby came to him and he reached toward it with a gasp.

"I am here, Legolas."

He yearned to communicate, struggling to force words past his burning throat. He wanted to open his eyes, to smile at his friend and show his gratitude. Why can I not speak? What has happened to me? He groaned, trying to turn himself on the bed.

"Easy, Legolas. Do not fight. Can you drink this?"

He was half-raised, his head propped in the crook of Aragorn's arm. A cup was pressed against his lips, something warm and fragrant slipping down to calm his churning belly. Broth. It was good, and he drained it all. It was followed by tea, laced with honey to mask the bitter taste. Something for the fever, he supposed. Then the drug, and he sighed quietly as the familiar hot, drowsy waves rolled over his aching body, washing pain and worry from him and bearing it away. He tried again to speak, his lips barely moving as soft words finally escaped them.

"Galu le…"

The chair beside him creaked as the man shifted his weight and leaned closer. A hand rested on his brow. Aragorn spoke, his tone overflowing with relief. "It is good to hear your voice again, Legolas. And you are welcome, my dear friend."

The elf nodded as awareness slid from him and he let the darkness claim him once more.

                                                             * * * * * *

He lay quietly for a time, listening to the murmurs of the forest. Soft wind sighed through the pine boughs, the breeze playing lightly over his hair and his arms. Turning his face toward it, he tried to recall what it was like to be outside and active, free, unfettered and able to move as he wished. Lately, he gathered what was possible of that freedom by breathing and listening, drawing all he could of the busy outside world from what he assumed must be a window beside his bed.

Yet despite the joy these simple sounds brought, he felt weighed down by the realization that there was something odd about his perceptions. His mind was still shrouded in fog, and during the rare times he braved the constant pain in his head to open his eyes and try to see, it was always dark. The drug perhaps had altered his natural sleep, causing him to awaken only at night. But as he closed his eyes again, he realized the birds sang a song of greeting to the morning sun. Morning? Aragorn covers the windows, then. He knows the light will hurt my head.

Sighing, he turned away. Not yet, but soon, perhaps, he would be able to sit up, and then go outside to answer the songs. He stretched experimentally, moving his legs and arms carefully, wincing slightly but noticing that the once fierce spasms in his limbs had dulled to a low ache. He moved with more ease, and felt encouraged. "Soon," he murmured as a weak cough wracked his frame.

There was a sudden stirring nearby, the sound of a chair being drawn close, scraping over a hard floor. "Legolas?"

"Ara - ". His throat seared him and he grimaced as a fit of coughing seized his body. Arms wrapped around his shoulders and helped him rise slightly.

"Drink this."

"No drug. No…"

"It is only water. I have been weaning you off the poppy."

The liquid, cool and wonderful, slid easily down his throat. "Where-?" he rasped.

"On fire with questions, eh? I expected you would be. But first tell me how you feel."

The elf exhaled sharply as Aragorn eased him back against the pillow, shifting his head slightly as the throbbing increased. "Torn asunder," he whispered. "What… what has happened to me?"

"Do you not remember? Our flight through the forest?"

Legolas shook his head, and immediately regretted doing so as pain stabbed through his temples. "Walking," he murmured, frowning as he strove to recall what he had assumed had been one of his nightmares. "We were walking, and we were afraid. You were helping me. And then I could walk no more."

"We were attacked by orcs, and you were hit by a poisoned dart."

"Poison?" The elf felt his heart quicken in fear. "My dreams have been troubled. I have been chasing orcs, I think. I… I do not remember. Why can I not remember?"

Legolas felt the bedcovers being drawn more snugly around him, and the reassuring weight of Aragorn's hand rested on his shoulder. "Do not ponder on it now. You nearly died, Legolas. Never have I seen anyone, man or elf, so horribly stricken."

"Where are we?"

"A cottage in the forest. I came upon it while searching for help. We have been here fourteen days."

The elf, surprised, forced his eyes open. "Fourteen days? I had no idea… I could not tell how long I lay sick. Who lives here?"

"I do not know. The place is abandoned."

"But they left the horse."

"How do you know about the horse?"

"You chat with her while you groom her, there, outside the window. I suppose it has been a lonely stretch of time for you, Aragorn."

"Now that I have my friend back, I expect my conversations will not be so one sided. But this tires you, Legolas. Enough talk for now. I have other things I can use to ease your pain, now that the worst of it is over."

"I think you are tired as well. I hear it in your voice. Caring for me cannot have been easy. And I have not yet thanked you." Legolas smiled, trying to make out his friend's features in the darkness. "I have been aware of your constant presence and of the care you have taken with me. And now I have bothered you in the middle of the night. Forgive me."

He closed his eyes again as exhaustion beckoned him toward sleep. There was a pause, a long pause, and the elf sensed a strange tension coming from his friend. A surge of apprehension swept over him, and he turned his head with a frown. "Aragorn?"

"It is not night, Legolas." The ranger's voice was constricted, and the elf heard fear in his soft whisper. The hand resting on his shoulder tightened. "It is full morning."

"Morning? Oh, yes, I remember… the birds…" Legolas paused, thinking, and then raised his head suddenly as the full meaning of Aragorn's words struck him with the force of an arrow set loose in the night. He wrenched his eyes open again, ignoring the pain in his head, and narrowed them, seeking to tear an opening through the blackness and find his friend's face. His breath caught in his throat as a cold tendril of dread snaked up his spine. "Aragorn, do you tell me that it is light here?"

Aragorn did not answer, but the elf heard a strangled breath, a gasped prayer that slipped from the ranger's lips and fled past his ears. Understanding came then, and with it, terror. He pushed his friend back, fighting to sit up. His pulse raced, hammering in his skull. "All is black… I can see nothing! Aragorn!"

Somehow he found the floor, his bare feet slamming against it. Violently shoving the man away from him he tried to escape, but he collided with something hard, some piece of furniture, and he fell to his knees with a cry. Shaking with horror, he struggled to rise, but Aragorn was there, holding him down. His limbs went numb, his heart urgently striving to force blood through a body that had turned to ice. Nausea welled up and he dropped his head to the floor, gasping as the stifling cloak of darkness pressed on him. The air around him grew thick, and he panicked.

"I cannot breathe. I cannot breathe! Let me go!"

Frantic, he pushed against his friend's confining arms, but the ranger would not release him. Dizziness engulfed him and he bent low, digging his nails into the floor as he felt himself being dragged into a whirlpool. A roaring sound filled his ears. He gulped for air, gagging as his senses reeled.

"No!" Throwing himself backward, he broke Aragorn's grip and recoiled with wide eyes, but the dark followed him. His spine came up painfully against the edge of the bed and he scrambled up onto it, crashing back against the wall and finding the corner. The dark followed him still, and he lashed out at it with both fists, expecting to connect with something solid, and he cried out in horror when his hands met nothing and vanished into the blackness. Losing his balance he fell forward, but was up again in an instant and hitting out once more, fighting desperately to force back the endless void.

Attacking, retreating, evading… whatever his move, his foe remained unchanged, and he choked at the suffocating closeness of it. It was all around him, impenetrable, untouchable and unyielding. Skilled as he was in battle, this was an enemy he could not defeat, and as despair engulfed him he fell back against the wall, throwing his arms over his head in a final attempt to fend off the dark blanket as it settled over him.

"Help me…"

Aragorn's arms held him again, and now the elf clung to them as he would a lifeline. The arms were real, solid, an anchor for him to grasp in that terrible sea of endless black, and he would not let go lest he become swept away and forever lost. "I feel sick…"

"You breathe too quickly," the ranger's voice whispered. "Try to slow it. Breathe with me."

He laid his head between his knees, and locking his attention on the rhythm of the man's breath, he followed it. He pressed his eyes closed. It was too horrible to keep them open and gaze, terror-stricken, into the fathomless depths that threatened to swallow him. His lids provided the only barrier he could erect against the gaping emptiness, and he set them firmly in place now, keeping them tightly clenched. He would not open them again.

He spoke, stumbling over the awful words, frightened to say them. "Aragorn, I…  I cannot see."

"I know, my friend." The ranger murmured, his voice choking, and his arms enfolded the elf and held him. "I know."

Sealed they were, but the elf's lids could not stop the tears that leaked past them. After all that he had been through, after all that he had endured, recovery had finally seemed within his grasp. And now… now he wept, and wept long, overcome with fear and exhaustion.

"Legolas, listen to me," Aragorn's firm voice came to him through a thick wall of despair. "This is what we will do. I say this to you not only as your friend, but also as your healer. You must listen to me now."

The elf lowered himself to the bed, still clinging to his friend's arms. His numbed body, quivering with shock and fatigue, could support him no longer. The ranger's voice came as if from miles away, covered in layers of heavy fog, but he extended himself past his terror and tried to fix his attention on it.

"This is the first day since you were injured that we have been able to speak together. You have either been drugged into insensibility or in great pain. You nearly died, Legolas, and your body is still terribly affected. Your recovery is what we must concentrate on now. Perhaps your vision will return as you regain your health. It may be so. I pray that it is, but if it is not…" Aragorn sighed. "We must see you strong again, then we will deal with what comes after."

"What do you propose?" the elf whispered.

"Let me bind your eyes. I can see that they hurt you. The person who lived in this place is a healer, and he kept papers. Out of respect, I have not looked over them, but I will do so now. Maybe there will be some information I can use. We will treat your eyes and keep them covered. I want you to concentrate on recovering your strength first. Let us think only on that. You must begin to take food again, and rest in true elven sleep rather than drugged. Then we will see what comes to your eyes."

"I will do as you say," Legolas said quietly. He inhaled deeply, feeling calmer. A plan was something else he could hold onto, and just as his hands gripped Aragorn's arms, his mind quickly worked its way around this other anchor and clung just as fiercely.

Aragorn shifted, and the elf heard him release his breath slowly. His voice came reluctantly. "Legolas, I fear to give you hope. You know that I cannot promise-"

"I know. But if this… blindness is permanent, I cannot face it yet. I am so tired, Aragorn. I still feel the coldness of death's shadow on me. I have no strength for this." He shuddered, reaching for the blankets and gripping them tightly. "Will you help me to sleep this one time? I do not want to be awake any longer."

"If that is your wish. It will put you in no danger. But when you wake again you must eat. Promise me."

"I will try."

As Aragorn stepped away to prepare the drug Legolas found himself alone for a few moments, and he teetered once more on the steep precipice of panic. He felt cut adrift, engulfed in terror, and he curled his fingers around the smooth wood of the bedstead, holding to it so tightly his hands ached. He pressed his forehead against his knuckles. The ranger had gone into the back room to fetch the supplies he needed, and the elf strained his hearing to remain connected to his friend. He fought against the urge to call out. Hold on. I am not alone. He will be back. Hold on…

He was losing the fight to master himself. His breath accelerated as a terrible emptiness spread before him. What does life hold for me now? How will I make my way in the world if… if I never see again?

"No. Please, no…" He pressed his face into the pillow, trying to stifle his weeping. Starting suddenly as something lighted beside him, he recoiled in fear as a warm softness brushed against his arms. A moment later a low sound began to vibrate in his ears. A cat?

Reaching tentatively, his fingers encountered a small body, and with a sob of gratitude he pulled the creature into his embrace, burying his face in its fur.

To be continued

Galu le: thank you (blessings to you).

Reviewer responses: Good grief! A lot of you are starting to look for a witch! And thanks to Theresa's wonderful suggestion that it was high time for a Mary Sue, here she comes! Forty-something, skinny and myopic, with fuzzy, chemically-enhanced auburn hair, she comes roaring out of Michigan with a screaming six-year-old child clinging to her broom, and begins streaking toward the northern lands of Middle-earth…

Ahh, there it is! The little cottage is in my sights now. Beginning descent. Ah, did I tell you all I found a babysitter after all? This really cool dude called Tom Bombadil offered to look after my daughter. Now I can nab both the gorgeous elf and that good-looking dark haired guy. Aww, look! They're so cute when they run. Vrooommm…

Disclaimer: the characters and the setting of Middle-earth were created by J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to someone else. I'm just having them over for a playdate.

Author's note: some of you have been asking how Legolas' blindness could have happened. Was it the poison? Was it the high fever? Was it the apnea episode, when his blood oxygen level was low? Or was it a combination of these? None of the above, my innocent friends. The dreadful truth will now be revealed to you. Somehow our beloved Elf managed to blunder into a realm of unbelievable visual horror, a place of such fell nightmare and torture that he was immediately stricken. It is the one place on the planet so terrifying and chaotic that the sanity of a mere mortal is immediately destroyed. I speak, of course, of Orlando Bloom's closet.

Thanks again to Lisette for betaing. Just how much does Legolas glow when he's sick, anyway?

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Seven: Starlight and Solace

A soft breeze sighed through the trees and entered the windows, whispering sadly as it stirred the tiny flame of the single candle glowing on the table. The flame waved silently in response and the shadows around the room shifted, growing larger for a moment and seeming to writhe upon the wall before shrinking and calming again as the yellow light stilled its dance and returned to a steady glow.

Aragorn, chin cupped in his left hand, passed the index finger of his right one through the small flame, watching without interest as the fire widened for an instant as he briefly held his position before pulling his hand back. The sharp edges of his face, even more defined by exhaustion, were bathed in gold, flickering with red overtones as the glowing logs in the hearth settled, the wood consumed but for the remnants that pattered softly through the iron grate as it dwindled to broken fragments. His eyes shifted to the fireplace. They would need more fuel soon, as the supply stacked against the side of the house under the roof's overhang was beginning to run low.

Tiredly, he resumed his game, slowly moving his finger back and forth above the candle, keeping it low as it passed through the flame and thinking about nothing until a quiet murmur drew his attention. He moved his gaze toward the sleeping elf, and with a sudden surge of guilt that he had permitted his attention to wander he dropped his hand to the table, resting his fingertips on the stack of paper arrayed before him. Narrowing his eyes slightly and adjusting his focus, he watched the elf closely, ready to stand should he be waking. But Legolas only turned himself, rolling from his side onto his back with a slight moan. His hands moved, ghostly white and fluttering, their dimly glowing outline enhanced by the lone candle and the dying fire, and lighted softly on the blindfold holding the compress in place over his eyes. Slowly the long fingers walked the length of the fabric and then tugged at it slightly, as if confirming the security of its attachment, and then the hands reached again, locating the cat and drawing it closer. With a sigh, the elf was still again.

Nestled in the crook of Legolas' right arm, the small creature's green eyes shone in the soft shadows of the room. To Aragorn's surprise, she had not left the elf's side but for the times she needed to take care of business outside. And Legolas, though not waking, seemed to know when her quiet presence had left him. His hands would seek something else then, tightly holding to his blankets or the simple wooden frame around the mattress, and his breathing would quicken. But always the little animal was back within minutes, appearing soundlessly upon the window ledge and gazing down upon the sleeping form of the elf before leaping lightly down to join him once more, curling under his arm or even lying directly on his chest if he happened to be on his back. And always his hands would go to her immediately, resting gently on the sleek fur.

The elf had been sleeping for nearly three days. Two mornings had passed since that horrible moment when Legolas had told Aragorn that he could not see, and now the third dawn was only a handful of hours away. Except for his agitation during the brief spells when the cat left him he had slept deeply and quietly, without pain and without nightmare.

Aragorn had done what he could. Injuries and infections of the eyes he knew well how to treat, but this - an acute onset of blindness - he had never experienced. In between short forays out of the cottage to tend the horse and gather what he needed of firewood and food from the garden, he sat beside his friend and poured over the many papers and notes that had been stacked on the small desk in the room where the healing herbs were kept. He had brought them all to the front room, to be closer to the elf, and all his attention was on them after he had finished the necessary chores.

He had pulled what information there was from the parchments and had made up some salves and washes for the elf's eyes, and several times a day he applied them, quietly removing the blindfold and pulling the lids apart. He would then lay a soothing compress over the eyes and replace the cloth, binding it around Legolas' head to secure it.

With Legolas asleep, he was able to examine the elf's blue orbs more closely, and he noticed that the pupils did react, narrowing when he pulled the candle closer and widening when the light was withdrawn again. This was heartening, as it showed some proper function, although he knew this was no guarantee that when he awoke the elf would be able to perceive what his eyes took in. 

The healer had kept detailed notes, and it was immediately apparent to Aragorn that this was a person of talent and wisdom. Writings on all the well-known healing herbs were to be found, and with much of this the ranger was already familiar, but there was new information as well, and it caught his interest.  Not only for Legolas did his attention linger there, but for his own knowledge, as he soon realized he was reading the work of a master, well learned in the healing arts.

The handwriting was thin and straggling, and from this Aragorn deduced that the healer was probably elderly. He would most likely have to be, for to have such deep understanding of the many herbs, of their gathering, preparation and use, it would take many years of study. Among the papers Aragorn found records of the people who had come for help. The healer had apparently lived in this place for many years, and from his notes the ranger was able to gather some information about his surroundings that he had not been able to discover for himself, tethered as he was to the cottage and his injured friend.

One entry ran thus, from two years back: "One of the shepherds came yesterday, needing something for his wife, who lingers with a bad cough. The cold rains we have had this spring are hard on these folk, who often live in rude huts that give them little shelter. The fellow was too shy to give me his name, and apologized for having no coin. But this morning I discovered two fresh-caught fish laid before my door, and that is handsome payment indeed. The poor folk often pay me in this way, with gifts of food or the work of their hands, doing tasks I no longer can manage on my own. I do prefer this method of payment, as it enables me to avoid going too often to the city for my supplies, where I now sense eyes piercing my back and no longer feel welcome."

And this one, dated three years ago: "The miller came up from the city this afternoon with one of his sons. The boy had cut his hand and it required sewing and a salve to prevent it festering. They brought news that a new captain has been appointed to command the soldiers. It seems Lord Cadean regards him highly, as this man's rise was swift, though he be a stranger to the area. Some say he came from beyond the mountains, where the beautiful people live."

Aragorn paused in his reading and turned to look at the golden-haired elf. The beautiful people?  He focused then on the loaf of bread that had appeared this very morning, still warm from the dawn baking and left at the door before he woke. Was this then the explanation for the mysterious gifts? The folk who lived nearby left them as payment for the healer's help?

"Then they do not know he is gone?" he murmured.

The elf stirred slightly, turning his face toward the ranger as if hearing his soft voice, but he did not surface from his sleep. Aragorn regarded his friend uncertainly, debating the wisdom of attempting to rouse him in order to get some drink and food into him. The sleep was healing, of that he was sure, but it had gone too long, and Aragorn had begun to feel uneasy as the hours turned to days and Legolas still did not wake.

When the blindness had made itself known, it had taken all of Aragorn's self-possession to calm his terrified friend. The elf had panicked, and the expression of fear on his face had nearly brought Aragorn to the same state. The sight of that usually calm visage shattering in despair, and of the graceful energy of the archer's proud body folding in tearful surrender, had been a devastating thing to witness. Legolas' horror and his desperate physical fight against the very air around him had been so powerful that it had torn its way into Aragorn with a breath-robbing violence that had come close to paralyzing him, stunning him into near immobility.

Only an emerging realization that that his friend's very sanity appeared poised to shatter gave Aragorn the strength to gather his own self-control and attempt to guide the stricken elf. Scarcely able to manage his own horror, he had nonetheless realized that he must do just that if he was to be of any help. And so he had schooled his quavering voice and forced to it a ring of confidence that he really did not feel, and he had firmly commanded Legolas' attention and cooperation. The elf had quieted, asking for the draught, and Aragorn had given it to him. And after, when Legolas had eventually succumbed to the drug and his exhaustion, Aragorn had staggered out into the bright sunlight, dropped to his knees and vomited.

And then Legolas had withdrawn. Sleep had offered the only refuge from the terror and confusion the blindness had wrought. Here, the darkness could not touch him, and the fear was held in abeyance until he woke again. But had he chosen not to wake? Had he retreated until he had found some remote place where he felt safe, and had determined to remain there?

Aragorn sighed. It had been many days since the elf had eaten, and he was losing flesh. His high cheekbones jutted clearly through the pale skin, and his strong limbs were growing thin and weak from disuse. It was time. Aragorn reached out.

"Legolas? Legolas, you must wake," he said quietly, resting his hand on the elf's shoulder and shaking it slightly.

The calico cat had been curled into a ball inside Legolas' bent arm, and she picked up her head, blinking inquiring green eyes at the ranger. The elf did not stir.

"Come, Legolas. You promised me you would begin to take food. And you must drink. Your body needs fuel more than sleep at this point. You must wake now."

Aragorn placed his palm against his patient's brow. He was still fevering, but the heat pouring from his body was less than it had been. The elf inhaled deeply and turned his head away.

"No more of this. It is time to return, Legolas." He slid his arms under the thin shoulders and raised him slightly, pressing a cup of water to the elf's dry lips. Legolas drank it all and settled back, and then he tried to push Aragorn's hands from him.

"Wake, Prince of Mirkwood."

The only response was a soft groan as the elf tried to turn his back on the ranger.

"I will take your cat," Aragorn warned.

"Then I will take your head. I like my cat," an elven voice retorted, raspy and faint with illness.

"Time to get up."

Legolas' head turned toward the window, and his brow furrowed as he lay silently for a moment. "It is the middle of the night this time Aragorn. You pick strange times to disturb people. Do you not remember how to sleep?"

"I have no need. You do it for me."

Legolas sighed. "I think it is not a good thing I have been sick these many days. You have turned into a cat-threatening insomniac in my absence."

The ranger smiled, relief sweeping over him at the elf's bantering tone. "Can you sit up? I've broth heated, and there is some good bread."

"Sounds horrid," Legolas whispered, swallowing audibly as he slowly pressed himself up onto his elbows. "I will be sick."

"Just the thing to get you started," Aragorn said cheerfully as he helped the elf sit up and arranged the pillows behind his back. Legolas leaned into them wearily and raised his hands to the blindfold, running his long fingers along the folds in the cloth. "I have done what I can, Legolas," Aragorn said quietly.

"Now we wait?" the elf asked, his voice coming so softly the man had to lean closer to hear it.

"Yes, now we wait, while you regain your strength."

Legolas sighed, dropping his hands into his lap. "I… I do not know how I will pass the time, Aragorn."

"Start with this," the ranger told him, pressing a mug into his hands and helping the long fingers to curl around it. "I'll put the bread plate on your lap, here. If we can convince your little friend here to keep her nose out if it."

"What does she look like?"

"She is small. Her fur is short, and of many colors - white, orange and black, and her eyes are green. She has not left your side these past days."

"She has been of great comfort to me."

Legolas ate slowly, and obviously with little interest, swallowing the bread with difficulty and only after he had first soaked it in the fragrant broth. But he managed all of it, and Aragorn was pleased when he removed the dishes to see that some color had returned to the elf's pale features. He watched as Legolas winced, sighing as he pressed his fingers against his temples. "I grow tired of this," the musical voice said quietly.

"Your head still pains you."

Legolas nodded, shifting himself lower into the bed and lying back, pulling the cat onto his chest. "It never stops, Aragorn. But it is better than it was," he murmured after a moment. He pushed his head against the pillow. "My neck is sore."

"That is where the dart struck. I will prepare something for your pain now, but I must go to the back room for the herbs. I shan't be long, Legolas."

"No need to rush. I have company," the elf smiled wearily, and he lifted up one of the cat's little paws, waving it at Aragorn.

                                                                 * * * * * *

In the days that followed, Aragorn was encouraged by the progress his friend made. The elf had promised to eat, and eat he did, to the best of his ability, though Aragorn knew it would be some time before his appetite returned to what it had once been. Soon he was able to sit up unaided on the bed, cross-legged and singing softly to himself, his blindfolded face turned toward the window as he gently stroked the cat's soft fur.

Some of Legolas' typical, and irritating, stoicism had returned. The man would question his friend, and it galled Aragorn to listen as Legolas told him that his pain had become increasingly insignificant when it was obvious from the elf's tightly drawn features that this was far from the truth. He chose not to argue, however, knowing there was little point in forcing the proud being to admit that he was still in pain. The ranger knew what he knew, and merely turned away, quietly preparing medicines to help ease the lingering discomfort, and the elf quietly accepted them without asking what they were for.

They did not speak of removing the blindfold. Aragorn watched his patient closely, and he understood that the folded cloth comforted Legolas somehow. The long, sensitive fingers investigated it frequently, and the elf would tighten the knot if he felt it was beginning to come loose. It provided a barrier for Legolas to take refuge behind as he tried to gather the strength needed to confront what lay beyond it, and the ranger would not push him before he was ready. In truth, Aragorn himself was in no greater hurry than his friend to discover what waited on the other side of that thin wall of fabric.

During the day he did his best to keep Legolas occupied and distracted. He had noticed the elf's anxiety during the times he was left alone, and Aragorn took pains to remember to keep a light chatter going when he had to tend to things outside. He spoke to his friend through the open window as he worked, and he brought the horse up and allowed her to put her head in so that the elf could meet her. He carried vegetables in from the garden and dumped them onto his patient's lap, telling him it was his job to sort through them and eliminate anything that had been blighted by insects and could not be eaten.

But often the elf still retreated into slumber, the pallor of his face marking all too clearly his continuing fatigue and pain. As long as he ate and drank what was given to him Aragorn allowed it, knowing sleep was the only place where his friend could find sanctuary from the fear that stalked them both.

                                                            * * * * * *

Aragorn stood on the lawn, gazing up at the night sky. It was late, and within the dark confines of the cottage the elf slept. The ranger knew he should be doing the same, but he had felt uneasy throughout the day, perhaps in reaction the elf's low mood, and had come out searching for the comfort that could often be found when he looked upon the beauty of the winking lights far above. His breath frosted in the clear cold air. On this autumn night the sky was at its most brilliant, the black cloudless sky sprinkled with dazzling points of fire.

Aragorn was mortal. He could not hear their song, but still he felt the connection. Whenever he looked at the stars, it was as if he immediately became joined to all of life on Arda, and it never failed to amaze him. Both infinite and small he felt as he gazed upward, his spirit brought to awareness of its immortality even as he understood with complete clarity that his body would one day die. In this, all beings were equal.

Except the elves. Something different waited for them. And it occurred to Aragorn that he had never asked Legolas what he felt when he looked at the stars. He had asked Arwen once, on a lovely night in Rivendell as they had stood on the bridge near her father's home and looked up together at the endless dark of the sky. She had turned to him with a small smile, tinged slightly with sadness, her eyes glowing with elvenlight, and his breath had caught in his throat. Her beauty, as familiar to him as his own reflection in a mirror, remained a thing that could not be caught and made fast. It flowed and shifted with each changing moment, and he had suddenly bowed his head, lest she see the tears of gratitude that came unbidden to his eyes as he realized, not for the first time, what a lucky man he was.

Her soft response had startled him somewhat. "They offer solace," her low voice had said. "And the ability to continue, even when all around you is darkness."

Legolas had been withdrawn this day. Sitting silently on the bed, his back resting against the pillows, he had refused all food. His hands rested quietly on the cat. He did not sleep, but simply sat, his face turned toward the window, and had said nothing to Aragorn until, in a sudden and startling flash of anger, he told the ranger to leave him alone when he had inquired of the elf if anything was amiss, and if he could be of help.

Arwen's words came back to Aragorn as he dropped his eyes and turned toward the cottage. They had not troubled him overmuch at the time she had spoken them, but now he felt weighted by their meaning, as if a message had been imparted that he did not wish to receive, and his shoulders were bowed as he entered the dwelling and readied himself for bed.

At dawn he woke. It was sooner than he would have liked. He was still tired, but fatigue had become the usual state of his body and mind these days, and there was no point in berating his internal clock. Caring for the injured elf had been an hour-by-hour task, and until Legolas was well again, his sleep would continue to be broken.

Aragorn kept his eyes closed as he breathed deeply, stretching his long legs as he listened to the first twitters of the birds beginning to stir outside. It would still be mostly dark within the room, with just the faintest lightening of the shadows to grey as the nighttime sky began to lift its veil. He shivered slightly. The season of the harvest was fully upon them, and he ran over in his mind all the things that would soon need doing to prepare them for winter. Perhaps they would go down to the city, once the elf was back on his feet, though Aragorn had pushed that thought away somewhat, having formed a vague reluctance to approach the place after reading the notes of the healer.

Which left remaining here in the cottage. It was an option, if the owner continued to be absent, but there would be much to do to ensure his and Legolas' survival before the snows fell. Of only one thing was he certain: the elf, no matter how swift his recovery, did not have the strength to journey to the mountains and hike back over them. They had run out of time to return home before winter descended, and soon the mountain passes would be completely blocked by snow until the warmth of spring opened them again.

"It is cold this morning, Legolas," Aragorn called quietly. "Shall I start some breakfast?"

There was no answer, and Aragorn frowned, a grimace of irritation brushing across his features. He sat up and threw back the blanket, rubbing his hands over his face. "You will eat today, my friend, even if I must force you to do so."

Swinging his legs over the edge of the straw pallet, he turned to face the elf's bed. It was empty.

"Legolas?" Alarm pushing him instantly to his feet, Aragorn somewhat stupidly went to the bed and bent over it, pressing his hands into the tangle of bedcovers. His friend had been confined there for three weeks, or had it been a month now? And the sight of it suddenly empty threw the tired ranger's composure for a moment. He paused, his heart in his throat, before recovering himself and looking at the door. In two strides he was before it, and yanked it open.

It was that quiet hour just before the true awakening of a new day. The stars were still present, but their brilliance had faded, and to the east a pale light had kindled, rendering barely visible the tall tips of the great evergreens against the backdrop of the sky.

The elf sat on the porch, his back straight and his face turned slightly to the left, toward the place where the sun rose. A blanket was wrapped around his naked form. The blindfold lay beside him, and Aragorn halted abruptly, staring at the discarded strip of cloth and trying desperately to remember how to breathe.

"Sit with me, Aragorn," Legolas said softly. "It is a beautiful morning."

Somehow Aragorn compelled his feet to obey, and he seated himself on the elf's right. He glanced quickly at him, but the fair being had his face locked on the sunrise.

"The birds tell me it will be a golden day. Anar casts her colors over the trees at this very moment. Pinks, yellows and deep golds blend in a palette never before seen by the finches and sparrows, for each sunrise is different. They are marveling at its beauty." The elf lowered his head. "Do they speak truly, Aragorn?" he whispered.

Aragorn opened his mouth to respond, and found himself unable to force a sound past his lips. His breath refused to flow, but welled up instead into the back of his throat, twisting and knotting until it gagged him.

"Aragorn?"

"Aye, Legolas," the man gasped, managing to force the strangled words forward. "They speak truly."

"I cannot see it." Legolas' tone was flat, empty of the rich musical beauty that usually resonated within his voice. "There is only black."

Gazing through suddenly swimming vision at the elf's pale face, the blue orbs wide and empty as Legolas raised his head and turned toward him, everything halted: time, memory, thought and breath were snatched away by the pain of this moment, and Aragorn felt himself sliding into quicksand, where the strength of his body, the skill of his hands and the agility of his mind were rendered useless. The air was driven from his lungs as he raised his hands, staring at them in sudden horror. The hands of a healer… they are of no use at all.

Except for one thing. The stricken elf fell against him then, and he was ready, his hands moving swiftly to offer the only thing that they were still able to give. Solace.

To be continued

All right, the not-as-skinny-as-she-was-last-week-because-she-is-still-sick-and-has-done-nothing-but-eat-like-a-pig-for-days red-haired myopic witch needs help! The intended abductees are not cooperating, and my contact lenses have long since blown out of my eyes. The elf scampered up a tree and has completely vanished from view, and the ranger is running around pelting me with tomatoes from the garden. Any of you who can get hold of a broomstick meet me here ASAP. I figure I need about four more witches to get these two under control. Theresa may already be on her way, so the rest of you make tracks! Oh, and bring hithlain. Lots and lots of hithlain.

Disclaimer: Middle-earth and its familiar characters were the creation of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. This is a work of fiction written for enjoyment only. No profit was made.

Author's notes: your attention please! The cat is just a cat. A nice, normal kitty. She is not a witch, a witch's familiar, a spy, or any type of evil thingy. But she is Legolas' little lady, and she gets to sleep with him. We don't. Hmmm, maybe she is a witch after all. How dare she?

To See A World  by Nightwing

Chapter Eight: And If Thou Wilt, Remember

Her feet had been noiseless as she raced through the trees, and had they been tracking her with their ears, she would have eluded them. But she bled, and the red splashes that dotted the autumn leaves marked her trail clearly. She could not hold back the flowing stream of crimson running from her left side, though she tried, pressing her hand tightly against the wound as she fled. But at last her steps had faltered, her body unable to push itself any further as the shock of pain and fear sapped her strength.

 

She came to a stumbling halt beside a rocky outcropping, and she pressed her slim form against it, seeking somehow to force the deep crevices to widen and permit her entry. It did not yield, of course, and she flattened her back against it, her blue eyes wide, anxiously scanning her surroundings. Her breaths came in ragged gasps, and she leaned forward for a moment, resting her hands on her knees as she struggled for air.

 

Her companions were dead, brutally struck down as they fought to defend her. She alone remained of the small party of elves that had but a short hour ago been singing and laughing as they made their way toward home once more. And alone she was now, as she realized she must turn and face them. There was no other option. Her flight was ended.

 

Her head snapped to the left, and she lifted a shaking hand, blood-covered, to push back her tangled blonde tresses. The dagger clutched tightly in her grip gleamed dully in the sun, its blade coated with black gore, the fine hilt, inlaid with a delicate design of gold leaves, hidden by her battered fist.

 

A howling group of at least twenty of them came, their iron boots slamming heavily against the soft bed of Mirkwood's forest floor. The colorful leaves whimpered in distress as they were crushed underfoot. She inhaled sharply, her eyes widening as the cruel glance of the foremost creature locked onto her. He shouted, pointing, and the thunder in her ears increased as they rushed forward.

 

It was over. Her face turned up toward the autumn canopy far above her head, her gaze sweeping over the lovely shapes of the leaves, and she listened as they wept. Hickory, oak, beech… how she had loved them. Her mouth moved soundlessly, and a single tear slide toward her temple as she stood, head tilted back, bidding farewell to all she had known. She crouched then, eyes scanning the ground before her, and reached with her long fingers toward the fallen leaves. From the jumble of golds and reds she extracted a small green leaf and pressed it to her lips.

 

Her fingers closed firmly over the hilt of the knife as she rose to her full height. Eyes closed, she listened as the footsteps drew near and separated as they fanned out to surround her. Her feet shifted, the right one sliding forward and planted firmly, the left rotating slightly, and she balanced easily on them both as she steeled herself and raised her head. Waiting silently, her beautiful face grown hard as stone, she lifted her pure, shining eyes and fixed them onto the merciless glitter of the orc captain's cold orbs. For a brief moment time held its breath, and she could hear nothing but the booming of her own heart. And then, with a roar, they were upon her.

 

She made no sound as she fell.

 

* * * *

 

"No!"

With a strangled gasp, Legolas threw himself clear of the piercing claws of the nightmare, coming half off the bed as he recoiled, his pulse amplified and rushing through his head. His mouth opened as a scream rose within his throat, demanding to be freed, but this time he caught it and forced it back, grating his teeth together painfully. He was determined not to wake Aragorn again. Not this time.

He sat, shuddering violently as the terrified racing of his thoughts pounded against his temples, and he crushed his lids closed as the pain swirled over him. A tear leaked from his eye, tickling him as it slid toward his nose, and with a flash of anger he struck it away. Fighting to control his breathing, he clutched at the blanket with shaking hands and drew it over his bare shoulders. He felt about for the cat but knew he would not find her. She always bolted when he came awake so violently, but usually returned once they both had regained their composure.

The nightmares had returned with the realization of the permanence of his blindness, and for the past week his sleep had been shattered by blurred, horrific images that assailed his mind and left him weeping in the darkness, empty and despairing. Why now, after four years, did the death of his mother come back to torment him so? It was over, it was done, and he thought he had managed to bury the anguish and self-loathing, and go on. Go on… go on to what? What sort of life waits for a blind elf? Perhaps I could take up embroidery…

He choked out a short laugh. It tasted bitter, like the food Aragorn pressed into his unwilling hands. Like the emotions that churned and throbbed in his heart and screamed for release… the lingering sourness of guilt, and a slowly building rage.

Despair continued to accompany the darkness, moving on stealthy feet that made no sound as it crept into his nights and his bed with the sick caresses of an unwelcome lover. Invading his thoughts as he lay awake long after Aragorn had fallen asleep, it stripped him of whatever threadbare mantle of courage he had managed to draw about himself that day. Fear of the dark, as real and palpable as when he was a child, pressed on him in those quiet hours when he was alone and sent him fleeing toward the refuge sleep offered. But there was no escape, for his blindness pursued him even there, mocking him as it forced wide the doors he had frantically closed, beckoning the nightmares to enter and laughing at his tears.

The days were little better. When he woke in the morning, if he had managed to sleep at all, his misery was increased by his exhaustion and a growing, smoldering resentment. His time was spent sitting in a chair before the hearth, wrapped in blankets and eating food that tasted like dust. He felt the heat of the fire on his face and the weakness of his limbs as he sat in the darkness, his hands clenched around the arms of the chair. Directing his unseeing gaze toward the burning logs, he would beg for something to come to him through the impenetrable film that shrouded his eyes, pleading for just one flash of yellow or orange flame to give him hope that his eyes still held some life. But the blackness would not lift. Instead it continued its domination, creeping over him and engulfing his heart just as ruthlessly as it had his vision, and his head would lower, his body bowing beneath the weight of his hopelessness. Why has this happened to me? Why?

He had attempted to walk around the cabin once when Aragorn had gone outside, and had been rewarded with weak, trembling legs that barely took him anywhere before he collided against some piece of furniture and was reprimanded by the angry man, his caretaker, who had come running back after hearing him fall.

"Do not attempt anything so foolish again, Legolas! You are not ready."

He felt empty and useless, a burden to Aragorn and a torment to himself. And so he sat. He ate. He behaved himself. And he listened to his friend moving freely around the cabin, the man's sure footsteps penetrating his ears with an easy, confident rhythm that taunted him as he dwelled in his prison of darkness and infirmity. And whenever Aragorn spoke to him, he answered in a voice seething with resentment and rage that neither could recognize, and that broke the hearts of them both.

* * * *

"Why will you not let me go outside?"

"I do not think it wise, Legolas. I would keep you in the cottage for a bit longer."

"You know I am better. And it is late afternoon now. I will be warm enough."

"Yes, but not strong enough. Your body is still weak, and you will tax yourself. I will not have you sicken again."

"I will sicken if I cannot get free of these walls, Aragorn. It is still autumn. You talk as if it is full winter out there. And if we must stay here until spring, you alone cannot possibly handle all of the work that needs doing to ensure our survival. I am no fool. We do not have enough food and firewood. I know this, though you choose not to tell me of these things."

"I did not want to worry you…"

"I worry more when I am left to guess at our situation. I am going outside."

Aragorn stared at the elf. True he was gaining weight again, and he walked around the cabin now with familiarity, having memorized the layout of the room and its sparse furnishings. But his face remained pale, his features tightly drawn, and Aragorn knew Legolas still did not feel well. His long fingers continued to seek out his temples, and his unseeing eyes, which had lost none of their inner light and beauty, would grow dark with pain. And the nightmares… Legolas refused to speak of them, but Aragorn knew they tormented the elf and robbed him of the sleep he so badly needed. He feared for his friend, knowing that the elf's frustration could well push him into attempting to take on more than he should.

"Going outside to do what, Legolas? Chop wood?" Aragorn demanded, harshly and without thought. Then he gasped, realizing immediately that the words had been cruel. The elf visibly flinched, and hurt shone in his eyes. His face grew hard, and his intake of breath was sharp. His voice came deliberately, coated with ice.

"An excellent suggestion. I assume the axe is in the barn?"

The elf stepped toward the door, but Aragorn grasped his shoulder and turned him. "Legolas, I am sorry. That was a terrible thing to say to you. I do not know why I said it. But you cannot do this. You will hurt yourself."

Legolas raised his head, and to the astonishment of the ranger, somehow he fixed his glittering eyes on Aragorn's. His voice rang with all the cold authority of an elven-prince. "Release me."

"I will not. You may not go outside, especially now that I know you intend to do something so utterly foolish," Aragorn said angrily as he tightened his grip, intending to steer the elf back to the chair set before the fire.

Legolas began to turn with him, as if in acquiescence, but suddenly he pivoted with a speed that astonished the ranger and attempted to shake off his grip. Aragorn twisted his body, following his friend's movement as the elf ducked under his arm, but Legolas shoved his shoulder against him then, and he found himself stumbling backward as he lost his footing. He fell against the table, his head striking the edge painfully, and landed on his backside, mouth agape, staring up in astonishment at the elf through a haze of red stars.

"Legolas?" he croaked.

The blurry form standing over him moved, and Aragorn scooted back in alarm. But Legolas spun away from him and collided with the wall. With a cry of rage he slammed his fist into it. Feeling his way along with his hands the elf paused, resting his forehead against the smooth wood of the door for a moment. Then he jerked it open and was gone.

Aragorn sighed and gingerly touched the back of his head, grimacing as his fingers came back bloody. Pulling a piece of cloth from his pocket, he pressed it against the injury and sat for a time as he collected himself. He leaned to his right, watching through the open doorway as the elf made his way tentatively across the greensward and halted beside the river. Once there, Legolas dropped to his knees and bowed his head.

Aragorn climbed to his feet. Crossing to the hearth, he poured some water from a pot onto the cloth and set about cleaning the cut on his head. It was a trifle, not serious, but his thoughts still spun in surprise at what had just occurred. As shocked as he was by Legolas' reaction to his efforts to keep him inside, he was doubly horrified by the words he had thrown at the elf in his moment of anger, and sickened by the hurt he had seen flash across his friend's face. Ai, why did I say that to him? Why did I speak in anger?

He went outside, bearing two cups filled with wine. The fallen leaves crunched under his feet, and Legolas stood as he approached, turning toward him with a look of anguish such as Aragorn had never seen before. His face was streaked with tears. "Forgive me," the elf whispered, and held out his hands. One of them was bleeding, the knuckles torn and bruised. "Tell me I have not lost my friend."

"Never. It would take much more than knocking me on my rear to do that. But it does appear that I underestimated how much strength you have regained," Aragorn said, setting the wine down as he wrapped his friend in a tight embrace. The elf released his breath in a choking sob as he returned it. "Sit, Legolas. It is a fair day. I will not even require that you cover up in a blanket."

Legolas hiccupped slightly as he seated himself on the grass once more, smiling sadly. "Thank the Valar for that. Did I hurt you?"

"No," Aragorn lied. "But I think we must have looked like a pair of absolute fools back there," he said with a chuckle.

The elf's smile widened fractionally and he nodded his head. He ran his sleeve across his eyes. "I expect it will not be sung of by the bards of Imladris as one of our more elegant moments."

"Indeed not. Best they never find out. Such a song would be more suited for a tavern. Have some wine?"

The elf nodded quietly, accepting the cup Aragorn pressed into his hands. "After all you have done for me, it was a shabby way to repay your kindness. This can be no easier for you, Aragorn. I am sorry. I do not know what came over me."

"I must apologize as well, mellon-nin," the ranger said. "I spoke harshly to you, and my words caused you pain. We are both weary and our tempers are short. We have much to adjust to, and it is only to be expected that our path will not always be smooth." Aragorn gazed at the elf's profile, noting with concern the sorrow on his friend's face. "Legolas, I was wrong to keep you confined. I sought to protect you, but I see now that I have hurt you by not allowing you your freedom. I have feared that you might become injured or sicken again."

"And it is difficult for you to look at me, Aragorn. You have been protecting yourself as well," the elf stated quietly.

Aragorn opened his mouth in surprise as words of protest prepared to spill out, but then he thought past his emotions and clapped his jaw shut. He nodded sadly. "Aye. You still see much, even without the use of your eyes. It does pain me to watch you. It breaks my heart to observe your hesitation when you move, and to see you trip over something I left lying on the floor. When you cast about searching for something you cannot find because I have forgotten to put it back in exactly the right spot..."

"And this morning when I tried to prepare our breakfast I burned my hand," Legolas added.

"Yes. Whenever you have a mishap it grieves me. And angers you. I was trying to spare us both. I berate myself every time I see you falter."

Legolas turned toward the ranger with an expression of bewilderment. "Why?"

"Because I remember that night, though your own recollections of it are marred. I saw the orc watching you as you fought, and I could see that he intended something. I knew not what, but I started toward him. I was too late. Too late, Legolas," Aragorn said. The familiar feeling of guilt rose in his throat, and it sickened him. "Had I gotten there just a moment sooner, I might have been able to stop him before he struck you with the dart."

The elf shook his head, a look of dismay and sadness spreading over his face. "Ai, Aragorn, you should have spoken sooner of this. I never blamed you, and you must not blame yourself. Please…" Legolas reached, seeking the ranger's hand. "Please do not blame yourself. You did your best, and you saved my life. That is too much sorrow to bear, Aragorn. Cast it aside, please."

"You have been so silent, Legolas. So angry. I feared that it was with me."

The elf sighed. "No, not with you, mellon-nin. Only at the restrictions that bind me. There is a part of me that wishes for nothing more than to sit in that chair before the fire and never move again. And it fills me with fear, because it means despair may yet win over my strength. So I try to fight this, though I do not know how." Legolas lowered his voice. "I hate it when I blunder into something and injure myself. Or when I spill water all over the table when all I sought was to fill my drinking cup. Without my eyesight, sometimes I cannot tell where I am, and I feel as though I am falling. I lose my balance. But if I do not get up and try to do things, I will never learn to live with this. I am a warrior no longer, but I do not want to be a burden, Aragorn. Let me contribute somehow, even if I fall a hundred times in the trying." The elf paused, flexing the fingers of his injured hand and sighing. He raised his head suddenly, tilting his face up as if searching the freedom of the skies. Aragorn followed his friend's action and spotted several songbirds, far above them, winging their way south toward warmer climes. Winging toward home. Legolas had heard them, then. He was not completely cut off from the natural world he loved so dearly. Not completely, but enough. What does he feel when he hears them?

"I feel badly, Aragorn," the elf's soft voice brought him back, sounding as if he had read Aragorn's thoughts. "We would be home now, but for my blindness. It has trapped us here, and winter will be upon us soon. I would make it up to you, for all you have done. I know that I will keep you from your beloved this winter, because you stayed with me." He leaned forward and reached toward the stream, resting his bleeding hand in the cool water, and his unbraided hair fell forward, curtaining his face from the man's startled gaze.

"Do you think that I should have abandoned you? What sort of talk is that?" Aragorn demanded. "Of course I chose to stay, my friend. And you would have done the same for me. Together we have always been, Legolas, and together we will go home, when spring returns. Arwen will understand, though I do have concerns that our friends and family will worry when we do not arrive as planned. There is no way to get word to them." Aragorn watched the elf's pale fingertips glide back and forth across the surface, the water parting and swirling around them. A large brown leaf floated against Legolas' hand and he plucked it, dripping, from the water. He rubbed his fingers over it, feeling the sharp edges.

"Oak. How I wish I could see it, Aragorn. The darkness is lonely."

"I know, Legolas. What I would not give to see your sight restored to you. Perhaps Lord Elrond can help…"

"And perhaps he cannot. I dare not trust to hope a second time."

"But you would be welcome in Imladris, as always. There would be a place for you."

"A place for the blind elf of Middle-earth?" Legolas asked, a hard edge creeping into his tone.

"No, not for him, but for Legolas of Mirkwood. The same place you have always occupied, as my friend and companion."

"It would not be the same."

"I know. But I will not permit your blindness to change our plans. I will not allow it to win. We made a vow that we would stand together, whatever the future brings."

"That was before," Legolas said sharply.  "I would be a hindrance on your journeys, Aragorn. I cannot go with you now." He turned away and set the leaf back in the water. Aragorn watched it drift from them as it was caught up in the stream's current once more. He placed his hand on Legolas' shoulder.

"You can. Blind or sighted, in the years to come there is still no one else I would rather have by my side, Legolas. Nothing has changed that."

"You cannot be serious. The stealthy ranger - the future king - and his blind companion? I had intended to protect you, to help you in your fight against Sauron. How can I fulfil my promise now? In times of danger, I would shoot you instead of the enemy."

Aragorn sighed, running his hands through his dark hair. He studied the elf, and the irritation mounting in Legolas' expressive face was not lost on him. But he decided to push. "How do you know that? Pick up your bow and find out."

The elf spun to face Aragorn, his eyes narrowing. "It is not lost?"

"No. I carried it when we fled the orcs. It is in the cottage, along with your quiver."

"It is yours now. I will not touch it. It is the weapon of a warrior," Legolas said stiffly, "and not for me."

"You are a still a warrior, Legolas. And your skills will be needed…"

"Leave it!" the elf hissed, a flush of anger spreading over his features. "There is no role for me in that fight now. I can be of no more use to you than I can to my family, even now that I remember…" he broke his words off abruptly and threw his hand up in a gesture of frustration.

"Even now that you remember what?" Aragorn prodded. Legolas ignored him, tilting his head back and closing his eyes, and the ranger saw anew the deep shadows of exhaustion that clung to his friend. He frowned as he looked closely at the elf. "There is more than the blindness here, Legolas. You do not sleep. Your rest is broken by nightmares. Tell me what is wrong. Maybe I can help."

"I will not speak of my dreams, Aragorn," the elf stated, pressing his fingers against his brow.

"You dream of your mother's death."

Legolas exhaled sharply. "Can you not respect my privacy, Aragorn?"

The ranger looked searchingly at his friend. "It is not so private when you scream it in the middle of the night, Legolas," he said gently. "Your fever tore most of it away from you without your knowledge. You spoke of many things when your sickness was at its worst. I do not ask you this out of idle curiosity. You know I would not pry. But it torments you, and I fear for your recovery if you cannot find rest."

There was a sharp ripple on the air, and Aragorn watched the elf turn his face into the breeze, closing his eyes to the caress as it lifted his hair from his shoulders. The afternoon had warmed them, and now the sun began its slow shift into the west. Legolas had drawn back, as if holding his thoughts, and he breathed deeply. "What would you ask of me?" he murmured quietly after a time.

"Does your father blame you?"

The elf stiffened, and an expression of pain passed over his features, though he did not move, keeping his face open to the wind. Then he spoke heavily, each word weighted with sadness. "He grieves yet, and does not know how to manage it. He lost his dearest friend when she died, and there is no one he will talk to now. He is King, and feels as such that he must show no weakness. In his eyes, grief and sorrow are weaknesses. He stands strong, hoping to be impervious, but he dies a little each day. He will open himself to no one. And his wrath and feelings of helplessness grow rather than fade."

"He sounds like another elf I know," Aragorn said softly. "But you did not answer my question."

"We had words. He was hurting, and it is in his nature to lash out when enduring pain. For some people, there is comfort to be found in allotting blame. He did not mean to cause me harm."

"But he did."

The elf's head tilted in an almost imperceptible nod. "Aye, he did. He needed to vent his rage and torment. I was a convenient target, and I opened myself to it, so that his heartache might be eased."

"And because you think you deserved it?"

Legolas flinched, shifting uneasily, and Aragorn heard him swallow. "I should have been there," the elf whispered. "Had I been with her as I originally planned, perhaps I could have turned the orcs away. My presence might have made the difference."

"Had you been with her you would have been killed, Legolas," Aragorn said bluntly. "You told me it appeared that many orcs had attacked your mother's party. She was guarded by some of Mirkwood's most skilled warriors, but they were hopelessly outnumbered. You would have died, too."

"Perhaps."

Aragorn knitted his brow, reluctant to ask his next question, but needing to hear the answer. "You did not accompany your mother because of my unexpected arrival in Mirkwood. You would have been with her but for me. Do… do you ever ponder on that?"

Turning abruptly, the elf set his cup down on the grass, an expression of shock on his face. He extended his hands and Aragorn caught them. "No, never Aragorn. Are you asking me if I blame you for what happened? No, mellon-nin. It was merely coincidence. A heartbreaking one, but none of us were able to foresee what was to come of our decision. You are without blame."

"As are you, Legolas. A short time ago you begged me to forgive myself for feeling I played a part in causing your blindness. You have forgiven your father, though he has caused you pain. But the hurt you bring to yourself is far greater, and far more damaging. I beg you now to forgive yourself. You did not cause your mother's death. And think on this: had you been there, you would have been struck down before her eyes. Had she seen that, her heart would have been torn with grief past bearing, my friend. She was spared that. She did not see her child die."

Legolas bowed his head, saying nothing, but his grip on Aragorn's hands tightened.

The ranger sighed. "Now I know why you drove yourself so hard to try to find the answers to her death. I scarcely saw you in the time that followed. You were always seeking, on the hunt, though the trail had long since grown cold. You felt the need to make it right, somehow. To redeem yourself. Your father blames me as well, does he not?"

The elf nodded, his face clouded as he dropped his hands. He did not speak, but ran his fingertips along the blades of grass, and Aragorn waited quietly for him to resume. "My friendship with you has complicated things," Legolas said at last. "But he had no business turning his anger on you. It was not right, and I would not permit my family to soil your name in Mirkwood." He sighed heavily. "It was unfortunate that things happened as they did, and you were there at that time. The last years have not been easy. Their grief is still fresh, but I have hopes that someday they will come to have a change of heart, and learn to see you as I do, as a friend. They are not bad people, Aragorn, nor are they bent on revenge. Sadness and anger still have the upper hand, but they are doing the best they can to continue and to see to the needs of our people. It will be a long road. Aragorn…" the elf hesitated, and his expression changed, a look of confusion mingled with fear touching his face. The ranger looked at him with growing concern.

"What is it, Legolas?"

"The night we were attacked… I cannot remember much of it. I think my eyes were failing even then… but we fled, yes? I sickened, and you were helping me."

"Yes," Aragorn said. "What of it?"

"Did you carry a blade in your hand? A strange blade, not your own?"

"My own sword was lost. I carried an orc weapon."

"Do you still have it?"

"Aye. It is inside the house."

"Would you bring it to me?" the elf asked.

"Of course, if you wish." Aragorn rose, somewhat confused, and made his way to the cottage. Shortly after their arrival he had cleaned the gore from the weapon, wrapped it in an old rag and set it in a corner, where it had promptly been forgotten. He carried the sword now to Legolas, who sat cross-legged on the grass, waiting for him, and laid it across his knees. The elf carefully unwrapped it, setting the cloth aside, and ran his sensitive fingertips over the weapon. He inhaled deeply and his eyes squeezed shut.

"Aye, this is it. Straight blade, very long, single-edged, and designs are etched into the flat. They are not words, but images. Images of death…  the faces are twisted in agony," the elf murmured as Aragorn stared at him in astonishment. A rush of apprehension crept down the ranger's spine as he leaned closer to gaze at the weapon. "The hilt is heavily ornamented," Legolas continued, bending his head over it as his hands swept along the pommel. "But not with jewels or anything of real value… only stones of black, set deep, and a blood-red line twines around them."

Aragorn gasped. "How do you know this? Do you remember that I carried it?"

"Only recently have I thought that you might have carried such a blade when we fled. But I have seen its like before. In my dreams."

Aragorn's heart began pounding with a strange dread, and he glanced at his friend in sudden fear. "Why do you dream of this sword, Legolas?" he asked in a low voice.

"In my dreams I have seen it raised, glittering against a sun-drenched sky, and, with a flash, descend to strike me down." The elf shuddered, and his hands tightened on the weapon lying across his lap. He drew a long, quivering breath. "The images were so confusing, so blurred… but gradually they became clearer, Aragorn. For the past number of nights, rather than felling me, this blade has struck down my mother."

"Ai, Legolas…"

"I think, because I have been sick with fever and my head has been hurting me so, it… it had taken me a long time to separate dream from reality. The nightmares were so terrifying, and I tried to push it all away from me. I have dreamt of orcs, and I pursued them, but they always escaped me. I have dreamt of my mother again and again..." Legolas flexed his shoulders, moving restlessly as if a weight had come to settle on him. He continued slowly, his voice laced with pain. "She was found a considerable distance from the other elves in her party. We do not know if she had been singled out, or had somehow managed to flee. At the spot where our warriors had fallen the ground told the story of a terrible struggle. They fought hard to defend her, and paid with their lives. In the end she was alone. They ran her down, Aragorn. The orcs ran her down like an animal. She found herself against a wall of rock, and there she was forced to make her final stand."

Aragorn sat silently, his eyes brimming as horrifying images of the elf-queen, alone and fighting for her life, seared their way into his mind. Legolas had told him none of this before, and he had never dared ask. He listened, wrapped in misery as his friend continued.

"When my brothers found her, a blade exactly like this one had been left in… in her chest. We sought them, and their trail seemed to go north, but then it broke apart and we could find no trace after that. We then directed our attention toward the south, from where trouble had always come before. It would appear we were looking in the wrong place. It never occurred to us to turn our eyes toward the Grey Mountains." Legolas picked the blade up and held it high. Its killing edge burned with red fire in the dying rays of the sun, and to Aragorn's tear-dazzled eyes it seemed as though blood had suddenly and horribly spread along its length. The elf's voice hardened, and the fingers gripping the weapon grew white. "Now I understand the meaning of my dreams. At last I have a clue. And I am blind," he laughed bitterly. "I cannot get home to tell my father, nor can I seek the orcs on my own. But they are here. They are here, Aragorn. My mother's killers came from the Northlands. And I can do nothing."

Legolas rose to his feet. Long he stood, pale and silent as the autumn moon, clutching the blade in his hands. Then he spun and drove it with all his force into the ground. Without a word, he turned away and started toward the cottage.

To be continued….

 

Disclaimer: the setting of Middle-earth and its characters are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien, and belong to his estate. This story is written for pleasure only. No profit was made.

Thanks once more to Lisette for betaing. 

To See A World  by Nightwing

Chapter Nine: Of Squeaky Cats and Swimming Holes

Aragorn stayed beside the stream as Legolas slowly navigated his way across the clearing to the cottage, and he watched the elf's unsteady, cautious gait with sadness. Before the attack, his friend had moved with a grace and power that had been unrivaled, and it tore his heart anew to see such an essential part of the elf's confidence so compromised. Legolas had always drawn much pleasure from the vitality and strength of his body, and to Aragorn, watching the elf now was as if watching the slow fading of a once bright candle.

Pausing several times as he neared the house, Legolas halted completely when he came abreast of it, faltering as his head turned, and Aragorn knew he was not sure of the precise location of the door. The man wanted desperately to go to his friend's aid and rescue him from the humiliation of finding himself lost but a few paces from his destination, but he hesitated, reluctant to offer help. Legolas would not welcome it, and undoubtedly would react with the same frustrated anger he had displayed earlier when he fought against his confinement. The elf needed to begin finding his way about on his own, and in his heart Aragorn knew this, though it pained him to see Legolas' fists clench and to sense the palpable wave of rage that flowed from his tense and silent form as the elf struggled with so simple a task as getting into the house on his own. Aragorn sighed as he realized an entirely new set of challenges faced them now. The time had come for Legolas to begin the hard work of learning to live in, and endure, a world of darkness, and Aragorn was determined to walk beside him.

He could tolerate the elf's current dilemma no longer however, and had begun to climb to his feet when help suddenly came to them both. The cat had been sitting quietly beside the door, and though he was too far away to hear it, Aragorn saw her mouth open in a tiny meow. Immediately Legolas turned and strode toward her, and scooping her into his arms, he vanished into the cottage.

For some time the ranger tarried beside the river, drinking in its calm as he watched the flow of water. The elf's story of his mother's death had filled him with dismay, and the revelation about the sword had startled him. The blade, driven deeply into the rich earth, rocked slightly in the breeze, and the blood-red line threaded through the hilt glowed in the embers of the setting sun. Aragorn's eyes drifted over the weapon as he pondered the elf's words. Why would orcs make the journey over the northern mountains and attack Mirkwood? In his considerable experience with the creatures, Aragorn knew that they usually flocked to or appointed a commander of some kind, much as pack animals seek out a dominant member to be their leader. Who had commanded these orcs in their endeavor to assault the wood-elves, and for what reason?

Lost in thought, he pondered long on what he might do to help Legolas, but no easy answers came to him. He fully understood the young elf's need to bring an end to the long anguish of his family by finding those responsible for the murder of the queen, and he shared Legolas' fierce desire to take action now and seek out answers. But it was not possible. For both of them, adjusting to the elf's blindness would take all of their time and their strength in the coming weeks, and preparations to ensure their survival during the cold winter months must be started in earnest. All other concerns, whatever the aching want of their hearts, would have to wait until spring.

Reluctantly turning away from the soothing river, Aragorn rose and made his way back to the cottage. Within, he found Legolas sitting cross-legged on the floor with the cat on his knees, both of them drawing comfort from the warmth of the fire. The elf had stoked it, bringing it back to life with only a small scattering of ashes over the hearth instead of the usual disastrous mess he made when attempting to tend the flames. He did not turn as Aragorn entered, and the hardness of his features made his pale face seem as if it was carved from white marble. The ranger stepped beside him and knelt, resting his hand on Legolas' shoulder, and he could feel the coiled and dangerous tension rippling beneath the elf's stoic exterior. Aragorn said nothing, but his grip tightened, and the powerful love he felt for his friend surged between them. Understanding, strength and support he offered silently to the elf, and after a moment Legolas responded, relaxing with a sigh as he reached to place his hand over Aragorn's, and the two friends sat quietly together for many minutes.

"We have much work to do," the ranger murmured at last. "Let us concentrate on preparing for the coming winter, and after, we will find some rest once the snows come. This is a fair place, Legolas, and we will be comfortable here. But you must have patience. We can do nothing now. Do not torment yourself further. I swear to you when spring comes I will help you find the answers you need." 

The golden-haired elf nodded. "Thank you, Aragorn," he whispered softly, and the ranger turned away to start preparing their supper.

When all was done, Aragorn set the plates on the table and called his friend to the evening meal.

"I am not hungry," came the familiar and expected response. The elf's sightless eyes were fixed, as they often were, on the flames dancing within the hearth.

"Legolas, I will not have this argument with you every night. Sit with me, or I shall give it all to the cat and watch her burst."

"She has more sense than that," Legolas stated, rising from the floor and finding his chair. "But she is a bit thin. She could use the extra food."

"Your need is greater. You look almost back to your proper weight, but I would see a few more pounds added to your frame, and see you keep them."

Aragorn started in happily on his dinner, eating with relish the meal he had concocted while Legolas had rested before the fire, but he paused after a few mouthfuls, glancing at his companion. The elf's face wore a strange expression, a combination of irritation and amusement mingled with expectation, and his long digits drummed softly on the smooth wood of the table.

"Is anything wrong, Legolas?" the ranger asked.

"Aragorn, there are many things I am willing to explore with my fingers. My supper plate is not one of them. Blind I may be, but I will do what I can to hold to proper manners at table."

The ranger set his fork down with clatter, flushing with embarrassed anger at himself. "Oh, Valar, Legolas. I am sorry to have forgotten. Your meat, rabbit, is at the top of your plate. Boiled potatoes are on the right, and the bread is on the left side. If you extend your left hand up about five inches you will find the honey. Your cup holds wine, and it is to the right of and above your plate. And you have just located your fork."

"Thank you."

"And your cat is about to launch herself onto the table," Aragorn added, glancing at the small creature as she crouched, coiling herself to spring. A soft word from the elf stopped her, and she rose instead, stretching comfortably and wandering off to explore some corner of the cottage.

"She could use a name," Legolas murmured, poking without interest at the potatoes with his fork.

"That she could. I thought 'Creepy' might be fitting."

"Creepy?" Legolas echoed, his brows drawing down into a disapproving line. He shook his head and began chewing on a small piece of meat. "I think not."

"I have watched her. When we first came here, she hid and would have nothing to do with me. She crept about very furtively until she became comfortable, and that was not until you awoke. She has adopted you."

"And that being the case, I will name her. 'Creepy' is not very flattering, Aragorn."

"What is your suggestion, then?"

"Alas, I cannot think of a name for her."

"Squeaky."

"Really, Aragorn…"

"You have commented yourself that she has a rather pathetic meow," the ranger said. "She does her best, but not much comes out. It is a fitting name."

"But I want her to have a name that shows my appreciation for the comfort she has given me. A nice name."

At that moment, the little animal returned to them and raised her small face to gaze at the elf. Aragorn glanced at her, noting the comical way she tilted her head when she watched something, and he grinned as a tiny peeping sound escaped from her mouth. Legolas suddenly put his head in his hands with a gasp, and his shoulders started shaking. Taken aback, remembering the high emotions of the day, the ranger stared uncertainly at his friend. It was a long moment before he realized with a rush of relief that the elf was trying, without much success, to hold back laughter.

"Well, Legolas?" he prodded.

"Aye, Aragorn. Squeaky it is. I only hope she will forgive me."

"Of course she will. It is the right name for her, and she likes it."

"You assume much," the elf commented, reaching for his cup. He took a sip of the sweet red liquid, letting it linger before swallowing. "This is good wine, Aragorn," he said, raising an eyebrow. "Every bit as fine as what my father serves."

"Unfortunately, it is nearly gone."

"Is it? That is a shame, as it would have made our confinement here over the winter more tolerable." The elf frowned slightly. "You had told me about mysterious gifts being left at the door. Do they still come?"

Aragorn shook his head. "Nothing has been left for some time now. I read in the healer's notes about his patients leaving gifts as payment for his services, and I believe that to be the source. Now he is gone, and perhaps the poor folk have realized he is no longer here. We have probably been seen, and so the gifts have stopped. But now that you are nearly well, we can poke around a bit and explore the area. I would learn more about our surroundings."

"The poor folk never left this wine for him," the elf commented. "This is of the highest quality."

"Another little mystery to add to the list," Aragorn said, his eyes roaming over the snug cottage.

"I do not like mysteries, Aragorn. Not when I am feeling so vulnerable," Legolas said, his voice troubled. "This is a quiet and peaceful place, but I am uneasy. Things are not right here." He leaned to his left and swept the cat up from the floor, propping her onto his shoulder, and she nuzzled the elf's ear.

"What does Squeaky tell you?" asked Aragorn.

"She tells me 'meow', Aragorn," the elf said, breaking into a smile.

"Elladan has always told me that he understands everything the animals say," Aragorn laughed. "Perhaps you could ask her where her owner has gone. Is he perhaps visiting his sister?"

Legolas' eyes gleamed with amusement. "Elladan has been toying with you, Aragorn, although I have no doubt his gifts are greater than mine. I cannot communicate with animals as clearly as that."

"But does anything come to you, Legolas?" the ranger asked seriously. "What is it the elves can sense? It is a gift I admire very much."

The elf lifted the cat down from his shoulder and pressed his brow against her soft fur, and she snuggled against him. Aragorn heard a soft murmur coming from his friend's throat as he whispered to the animal, and she purred contentedly in his embrace. After a moment Legolas sighed and raised his head. "It may be very different for one such as Elladan, who is the son of one of our most gifted elves, and the grandson of another even more powerful. I am more restricted in my abilities. But if I open my heart and listen deeply to the creatures of this world, I find that I can receive their emotions with clarity. They feel love and fear and grief as strongly as any of us, and all they truly desire is that those who care for them be willing to pause, and take the time to listen to them. As to the fate of the one who lived here, I sense deep concern from her. Fear. He is gone, but he should not be."

"And that does not ease our minds," Aragorn said, rising to clear the table. Darkness had fallen outside, chilly shadows having crept silently into the room as they talked, and he found himself shivering. He reached for his jacket. "I'll take these dishes to the stream and wash them up, Legolas."

"Water… Aragorn, is there any place nearby to have a good swim? I have been confined for so long, and feel quite desperate for a bath."

"Ah, more of the old Legolas returns. There is. A bit north of here is a spot where the stream widens into what looks to be a spot that might serve."

"How deep is it?"

"I do not know. I have not been in it," the ranger muttered reluctantly, knowing what was coming even before the elf's head came up, his fair face filling with astonishment.

"What?! You have not bathed since we came here? By the Valar, Aragorn, how long has it been? Seven weeks or more?"

Aragorn's hackles rose defensively. "I could not leave you alone in your illness, Legolas. The pond is out of earshot of this cottage. I would not have heard you if you called," he stated helplessly, a pleading tone creeping into his voice.

"Oh, sweet Elbereth," the elf gasped, shaking his head mournfully. "For the first time, I think it might be a blessing that I cannot see you."

"It is not that bad, Legolas," Aragorn protested. "I've splashed water over myself as needed."

The Prince of Mirkwood grimaced. "Not often enough, my filthy friend. I thought it was your cooking that offended my nose. We may be alone in the wilderness, and I may be blind, but neither of these are to be used as excuses any longer. Tomorrow morning you will come into the water with me, or I'll not let you into the house again."

* * * *

The dawn awoke to find one very alert and eager elf hauling an equally sleepy and protesting ranger across the clearing. "North, following the stream, you said? Lead on, Aragorn."

Aragorn gritted his teeth as he trudged alongside the small river, his breath billowing out behind him in a grey fog. It was cold, not yet bitter, but chilly enough to warn him that this would be an uncomfortable experience. After several minutes of walking he halted. "Legolas, the water will be freezing. Can we not wait until the afternoon sun warms it? I do not want you getting chilled…"

"I will not wait one more minute, Aragorn, and neither will you. Is this it?"

"Yes," Aragorn growled as he shivered miserably, glancing without enthusiasm at the dark stillness of the pond. The sun had yet to rise above the trees, and their surroundings were shrouded in shadows and silence.

"Excellent," the elf breathed, setting his folded clothes on the frosty turf. Casting off the blanket he had wrapped around his body, he waited expectantly, golden head held high, and the happy smile on his face caused Aragorn's reluctance to wilt. For Legolas he would do this. Allowing his own blanket to fall with a sigh, he led the way down the moderate slope and began wading out, the elf following with a hand on his shoulder.

"Aaargh…"

"Where is that tremendous fortitude I hear is one of the finest traits of the son of Arathorn?" Legolas laughed, tightening his grip slightly on his friend as he slipped on the rocky bottom of the pond.

"Still in bed," the man gasped. Icy needles stung his upper thighs, and he halted, having no desire to submerge himself further. This was definitely far enough.

"In. In all the way," the elf coaxed. "Clean body, clean hair, just think of it."

"This is as far as I will go."

"Courage, Aragorn. It will merely shrink a bit, not vanish altogether."

"No, Legolas. No."

  "Yes!" With the speed of a striking snake, the elf's other hand bore down sharply on Aragorn's shoulder, and Legolas shoved his hip into him. Flailing his arms desperately, the ranger fought to keep his balance on the slippery rocks beneath his feet, but his struggle was futile. Down he went, his shouted threat buried half-uttered in a paralyzing rush of water, and a freezing torrent engulfed him. He came up wrathful and sputtering, fighting to see through his streaming eyes, and was met with a long-fingered hand that clamped over his face and forced him under again. I will kill him. He was vaguely aware of a golden flash spinning beyond his vision and disappearing into the inky blackness of the water as the elf churned past him. He popped to the surface again, lashing out with his hands, but his companion had vanished.

Aragorn spun, looking around him. He was in the center of the pond, and a sudden and very uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability rose within him. "Legolas?" he called, wiping his hands over his streaming face. Frowning, he turned more slowly, narrowing his eyes and trying to peer into the darkness of the water's edge. "Legolas!"

A small line of bubbles began creeping near, and he shifted backward in alarm, sensing a subtle change in the current around him. A hand suddenly clamped around his ankle, and with a violent jerk, his leg was pulled out from under him and he was sent him tumbling into the water once more. Aragorn struck out and briefly got hold of what he though might have been an elven elbow, but his tormenter easily broke the grip and slid away again.

"Enough!" Aragorn roared as he surfaced, flinging himself toward the spot where they had left their blankets. Staggering up the slope he dropped to the ground and sprawled on his back, gasping.

"Coward!" the elf shouted from somewhere in the darkness. "Come back."

Aragorn propped himself onto his elbows, regarding with exasperation the glowing apparition that floated on its back in the center of the dark body of water. "You've done me enough harm, Legolas. Let me be. My heart nearly seized up out there."

"Weak mortal," Legolas laughed, and with a sudden kick, he flipped, arcing his back and diving under, his legs pointed toward the sky. He began walking on his hands. Aragorn grinned as he watched the legs travel the length of the pond, and then they gracefully folded and vanished.

"Is he an elf or an eel?" the man laughed to himself. He remained upright, watching the surface of the water quiet and still as the waves faded, lapping softly against the edge of the land. Elves could hold their breath for an astonishingly long time, and Aragorn recalled his feeble childhood attempts to match the endurance of his elven foster-brothers Elladan and Elrohir. Even as an adult he had tried and failed in his efforts to compete with the elves, though he still practiced often and had great endurance compared to other men. One never knew when the ability to hold one's breath for a long time might come in handy.

The water was like glass now, and he found himself beginning to grow uneasy as he stared at the pond. He knew the elf was testing himself. Certainly if Legolas was in trouble he would see some churning under the surface by now, some indication of a struggle or distress… but he knew his friend had yet to regain the full health he had enjoyed before, and the ranger suddenly found himself on his feet and moving quickly toward the water once more. He set his teeth against the onslaught of cold misery, splashed his way in to his hips, and dove. As he came up in the middle of the pond and worriedly sought for a sign of the elf in the blossoming dawn, a golden body suddenly shot out of the water beside him and knocked him flat.

"A curse on you, Elf!" the ranger yelled, floundering back to dry land as the fair being's laugh pealed like silver bells among the trees. Aragorn gathered up his blanket and quickly dried himself, shrugging desperately into his shirt. I will definitely kill him, he vowed silently, though in truth his heart had lightened with the realization that his friend's cheerful disposition was returning, and he grinned in spite of his irritation.

"Aragorn? I am coming out. I grow fatigued."

"Here, Legolas," the ranger called. "Are you pleased with yourself?" he demanded as the naked elf, dripping water and smiling broadly, followed his voice and clambered up the slope to stand beside him. He was breathing harder than he ordinarily would have, and his eyes had darkened in his pale face, as they always did when his head hurt him, but for the first time in many days, Legolas looked happy.

"Very," the elf chuckled. "I regret that I could not see your face. It would have been wonderful. But your shouts and threats were most satisfying, Aragorn. And behold! You are now clean."

"I do hope it will not be my lot to provide you with comic relief all winter," the ranger grumbled as he shoved a foot into his leggings, hopping around on the other to keep his balance.

"But I need it so, Aragorn," the elf said, his face sobering slightly.

"Agreed, but if your requirements for diversion result in the complete loss of my dignity, Legolas…"

"I must have an occupation. Tormenting you may be just what I need to keep my spirits up."

"Ai, Valar, there is nothing more unpredictable, or irritating, than a bored wood-elf," Aragorn sighed as he straightened, yanking his pants up. "I know that well enough. This will be a long winter. A very long winter. "

The elf smiled, raising his arms over his head and stretching luxuriously, like a young cat, and Aragorn watched in amusement as Legolas casually pulled his hair over his shoulder and squeezed the water from it, working his fingers through the snarls. The embarrassment that caused many mortals to cover their bodies was not a problem that seemed to affect the elves, and Legolas was as comfortable standing beside him unclothed as clothed. And in him now, standing golden and glowing as the first rays of the sun swept over him, Aragorn could finally detect a small rekindling of the blazing vitality that always been such a strong facet of his friend. Peace and power had begun to shine in the elf's face once more, despite the lingering shadow of pain that was evident in his eyes, and the ranger nodded in satisfaction as he gazed over the newly lit morning. It is good, he whispered to himself. I will let him swim every day if this is what it brings to him.

He turned back toward the elf, offering him his shirt, and Legolas took it absently, slinging it over his shoulder. A slight breeze had stirred, and he stood still, head raised and nostrils flaring slightly. A moment later his brows came down.

"You have pushed yourself hard today, Legolas," Aragorn said, looking at the elf with concern. "Your head pains you now. Let us go back. You need to rest."

"You speak the truth, Aragorn," Legolas said quietly, and his fingers lifted to massage his temples. "But there is more. Something on the air…" he shifted restlessly. "Can you not smell it?" His eyes widened as the breeze grew stronger, coming from the north, and he spun suddenly to face it.

The ranger inhaled deeply, but nothing came to his more limited sense of smell. "I cannot. What is it, Legolas?"

The elf turned toward him, alarm spreading rapidly over his features. "Death, Aragorn," the elf whispered. "I smell death."

To be continued…

 

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth were the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien, and belong to his estate. This was written for pleasure only, and no monetary profit was made.

Author's note: I will not kill the kitty. I'm mean, but not that mean, so do not fear for her. Just worry about Legolas and Aragorn.

Lisette betaed once again… keeping those sentences flowing and those segues smooth. Thank you.

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Ten: Murder Most Foul

 Aragorn hastened to the cottage to retrieve his and Legolas' boots, and he quickly pulled their cloaks from the pegs on the door. The elf's' quiver hung there as well, and his eyes fell on the two white-handled knives sheathed within. Without pondering why, only knowing that his heart had filled with foreboding, he extracted one and thrust it into his belt.

The elf was dressed and waiting for him when he returned, standing silently beside the pond with his face turned toward the north. As Legolas donned his cloak and sat to pull his boots onto his feet, Aragorn scanned their surroundings, his trained eyes taking in all he could as he gazed toward the direction his friend had indicated. To reach the pond, they had traveled a brief distance north of the house, following the stream as it wended its way past the edge of the clearing and into an area of meadow. Beyond this spot a low hill rose, and the ranger had never ventured beyond this point, unwilling to leave Legolas alone during his illness and slow recovery.

"I am ready," the elf said as he rose. "What lies in this direction?"

"I can see nothing amiss from here. We will cross through a meadow, and beyond it lies a small hill."

"I think we will have to climb this hill," Legolas murmured. "Go, Aragorn. I will follow you."

Setting out, Aragorn quickly spotted a small foot-path, little used, that passed through the meadow's high grasses. He guided his friend to it, and soon discovered that Legolas was able to keep pace with him easily. The elf's hearing had grown even more acute, it seemed to Aragorn, since the loss of his eyesight, and Legolas followed him unerringly as he traversed the twisting path through tangles of low-lying shrubs toward the rise, placing his feet precisely where Aragorn's had been so as to avoid anything that might trip him up. The hill soon rose before them, and this they climbed steadily, as the incline was not terribly steep. Aragorn paused when they reached the top, turning to lay a hand on Legolas' arm. "Hold a moment," he said.

Looking down the slope, he swept his eyes over the terrain. More trees gathered on the far side of the hill, spreading out at the base, but the trail could be faintly seen continuing through them and vanishing into another gentle incline that fell beyond the reach of his gaze. The wind came more clearly to him now, and Aragorn tensed as the sickening stench of decay entered his nostrils. His hand unconsciously tightened on the elf's elbow.

"Now you smell it," Legolas said quietly.

"Yes." Aragorn frowned as he looked over the view before him. "Most likely it is a deer," he added, but a quick glance at the elf's expression did nothing to bolster his hope that there was a simple answer for what lay ahead. "Let us go on, then."

Full morning had come, bright and filled with bird-song, and the sun was beginning to warm the air as its rays penetrated the wisps of cloud that floated above their heads. Aragorn's feet crunched softly over the leaf-strewn path as he walked forward, and his companion's footfalls were a mere whisper behind him. The ranger sensed Legolas' tension growing as the elf instinctively began to move with more caution, and the soft noises he made as he walked eventually became completely silent. A short distance further on they emerged into a small apple grove, the few aged, gnarled trees still holding some fruit, though their best days were past. Aragorn felt a quick surge of gratitude well up at this discovery, as this was a source of food he and the elf could make good use of. But his attention was drawn immediately to the trail again. Mingled with the sweet smell of fruit was the overpowering reek of death, and behind him he heard his companion's breath catch.

Around a bend, hidden by a knot of brambles, a low croaking came to Aragorn's ears. He realized that the elf's knife was tightly clenched in his fist, though he did not remember pulling it from his belt. Heart pounding, he strode slowly forward, bile rising into his throat as he drew near the sound. An explosion of black bodies suddenly burst from the tangle of shrubs, and he recoiled, eyes veering upward as a group of carrion crows, startled by his intrusion, fled with a whirring of dark wings and offended shrieks. As Legolas stood beside him, wide-eyed, the ranger crouched and peered into the thicket, and in that instant his blood froze.

"Ai, Valar…"

Within the concealing bracken lay a black, misshapen bulk, crawling with flies and grubbing insects. So advanced was the state of decay that Aragorn was unable to make out any features on what had become a hideous death-mask, but he knew without a doubt that he looked upon the body of a man. The corpse was clothed in a simple robe of some brown homespun fabric, but it had been partially torn away by animals that had worried it, and a feathery halo of grey hair still sprouted from the parts of the skull that had not yet been stripped of flesh.

With an oath, Aragorn stumbled back, overcome by the stench and the gruesome sight. Catching Legolas by the arm he retreated, moving back into the sunshine. He closed his eyes, gulping in the fresh air and fighting to gain control of his shock and nausea.

"Aragorn?" the elf's soft whisper nudged him.

"Forgive me, Legolas. It is the body of an old man."

"He who lived here?"

Aragorn shook his head. "I cannot say for certain, but I think that it must be." He glanced toward the sobering scene and noticed an overturned basket lying nearby, half-filled with apples that had long since gone bad. This then had been the old man's errand the day he left his home those many weeks ago. Just a simple outing, the sort of thing he must have done every day, only this time it had led to his death. Why? Aragorn's stunned mind groped for answers as he stared at his surroundings.

"What happened to him?" Legolas asked, bringing Aragorn's question into the open.

The ranger sighed. "To answer that, I must get closer again. And that is not something I wish to do just yet."

"We should go back. Find a spade…"

"Aye. A proper burial is the only thing we can do for him now," Aragorn agreed, turning away and leading the elf back along the path. He shivered in spite of the bright sunlight, glancing up at the shadows of branches overhead that had suddenly taken on the appearance of grasping fingers that hung, waiting, ready to seize and rend anyone who dared move beneath them.

* * * *

They returned, carrying a shovel and heavy gloves, and they had tied cloths soaked in lavender over their faces. Even so, the stench was nearly unbearable. A great weariness had settled on Aragorn, and though the elf was silent, his face set, he felt Legolas' distress as strongly as his own. They did not speak, but each bent to his task, anxious to finish their unhappy work as quickly as possible.

They chose a spot directly next to the body for the grave, and Legolas immediately began plying the spade, rapidly digging a deep hole into the soft earth. Aragorn grimaced in revulsion as he began to clear away some of the shrubs so as to enable them to roll the corpse into it. He averted his eyes as he did so and watched the elf, having seen all he wanted of the horror that lay before him. When at first his gloved hand came up against something hard, he disregarded it, thinking it merely a branch or a rock to be shifted. He grasped it and pushed it away, and the soft rattle of a chain attracted his attention. He glanced down at his hands, and his eyes widened.

"Legolas!"

The elf spun toward him, startled by the urgency in his voice. "What is it, Aragorn?"

Aragorn held the heavy chain in his hands, staring at it in bewilderment. Yanking on it, he saw one end had been secured to a nearby tree. "He was caught in a leg-hold trap," he gasped in dismay.

Legolas stepped toward him and dropped to his knees. Pulling on his gloves, he reached, catching hold of the chain and followed it to the ankle of the dead man. "Poor fellow," he murmured. "It must have been a slow and agonizing death."

Aragorn fiddled with the trap, feeling for the release. He could not find it. Frowning, he attempted to pry the jaws apart, but the strength of the iron grip defeated his own. "This thing is odd," he muttered, redoubling his efforts to remove it and free its victim from its killing grasp. "It will not release."

Legolas wrapped his fingers around the trap, adding his power to Aragorn's, and slowly their combined energy forced it to open. It was difficult work, and the ranger's hands had begun to tremble and cramp by the time they were able to maneuver it away from the body. "Be careful, Legolas," he gasped. "It will snap on our hands."

"Let it go on three," the elf told him. "Pull back quickly. One… two… three!"

Aragorn snatched his hands away, and the metal device slammed shut again with such force that it jumped into the air. He saw Legolas open and close his fists several times. "Are you hurt?"

The elf shook his head. "No. Just working the blood back into my fingers. That trap possesses enough tension to hold an oliphaunt, Aragorn."

"It certainly does," the ranger agreed. "And is very much beyond what any animal here would require." He stared uneasily at the twisted piece of metal, and his eyes followed the short chain to the tree. Beneath it, though it had been somewhat washed away by the rains and the passage of time, a groove was visible, cut deeply into the earth. The chain had once been completely buried and hidden from view. He glanced at the elf.

Still kneeling, Legolas had turned toward the dense woods surrounding the little apple grove, his head tilted as if he was listening to something. He looked uneasy, unwell in fact, and his dark eyes were as liquid pools, cradling pain within their quiet depths. Aragorn knew the elf had been tired even before their terrible discovery. It was time to get him back to the house. "Let us finish this, Legolas."

Shifting the corpse and pushing it into the grave proved to be the most horrible part of their task, and both ranger and elf were sickened and struggling to control their nausea once it was done. They backed away, standing quietly and breathing the clear air for a time before returning once more to lay the soil over the body of the old healer and allow the earth to reclaim him.

Aragorn stood with head bowed as the elf spoke some soft words in Elvish over the grave, a prayer for one who had suffered greatly and now was at rest, but his eyes wandered again to the metal device lying at their feet. "We will take the trap back with us, Legolas. I want to get a better look at it."

Taking up the spade, the ranger went to the tree to which the chain was affixed and examined the lock. It was as heavy as the links. Perhaps not quite heavy enough to hold an oliphaunt, he thought grimly as he struck at it with the spade, but more than adequate to hold a man with no tools to aid him. It took all his strength, but after numerous blows the lock broke and fell away.

* * * *

Legolas leaned back in his chair and raised his cup to his lips, sipping the tea Aragorn had prepared to ease his head pain. "How long do you think the old man has been dead?" he asked in a quiet voice.

The ranger furrowed his brow. "I am no great judge of such things. If I had to guess, I would say a number of weeks. Perhaps two months."

"About the time we arrived here," Legolas whispered, and an expression of sorrow crossed his face.

"Yes." Aragorn's unhappiness matched his friend's, and he knew what thoughts had crossed the elf's mind. Perhaps the man had yet been alive when they had entered his home. Perhaps he had still been enduring his isolation and agony even as they had taken refuge under his roof. It was a scenario the ranger could not bear to dwell on. "We could not have known, Legolas," he murmured.

"No, but it hurts nevertheless."

"Aye, it does," Aragorn agreed.

Washed in the stream and cleaned of the lingering remnants of decayed flesh, the trap lay on the table. The elf turned it over in his hands, his brow creased as he investigated the device with his sensitive fingers. "We do not use such things in Mirkwood, Aragorn. I have little knowledge of these traps."

"The elves of Imladris also do not capture game with these. They prefer the open hunt with bow and arrow," Aragorn said, reaching to take up the trap and examine it. "I have seen them used by men, and I know how they work. But never have I seen one such as this."

"Do you speak of the strength of it?"

"Not only that. Many traps have teeth, if you want to call them that. But they are dull, and usually widely spaced. Their purpose is to hold the leg firmly, and to prevent the animal from sliding it laterally along the length of the trap and injuring or freeing itself as it struggles. But these…" he paused, pondering the evil barbs meshed tightly together. "These are sharp, and the edges are jagged. They were intended to tear the flesh and cause great pain. And the crushing grip would add to the torment."

"Why would someone wish to set such a trap?" the elf asked, eyes wide with bewilderment. Aragorn smiled softly as he gazed at Legolas' stricken face. Though he had lived many long years, deliberate cruelty was a thing still quite foreign to the Prince of Mirkwood. He knew of it, yes, and at times he had seen it as well, but never would he understand it. And that inherent kindness was one of the things the ranger loved most about his friend.

"Why indeed? Neither of us can answer your question, Legolas, and I thank the Valar for that. But there is more that is odd here," Aragorn told him. Puzzled, he held the trap higher, looking at it more closely. "Every trap has a way to be released, to free the captured animal and reset for another. But this one has no such mechanism, but for a key-hole here at the base."

"A keyhole?" Legolas looked confused. "That seems rather over-elaborate. Why would this trap have such a release?"

"So that the animal being held could not open it and escape," Aragorn responded in a low voice as a terrible thought came to him. He felt his skin prickle. Suddenly filled with loathing, he set the trap down on the table with a clatter. "But animals generally are not able to release the simpler traps. There is no need for this sort of locking system."

The elf frowned, taking up the cold metal once more. "This is heavy, and certainly not intended for the small animals that some people trap for their fur. So it was set for wolves, or perhaps a mountain cat…"

"They cannot undo the common traps any more than the little creatures. And why would it be set even for those larger and more dangerous animals? The city is six miles off. Wolves would not approach a populated area. They would be no threat to those people, and if they were, the trap would not have been set out here in the wild."

"The folk who live in the hills nearby… perhaps their sheep were being killed by a predator. Or the old man set it…"

"Would you walk into your own trap, Legolas?"

"No. I would not."

"And the folk would have set traps in the areas where they grazed their herds. Not here. Where was this one placed?"

"In an apple grove," Legolas said, his voice lowering. His fingers whitened on the chain in his hands.

"Where deer would come," the ranger pressed, seeing that Legolas was following him. "This trap is not for them. Who else would come for the apples?"

The elf's unseeing eyes widened. "People."

"The grove, though made up of only a handful of trees, was still full of fruit. It looked to me that others did not come there to pick the apples. I think just one man went there regularly. The spot was his. This trap was placed directly on the foot-path, and covered. And rather than being attached to a stake in the ground, which he could have pulled up, the chain was locked around a stout tree."

The heavy irons slammed against the table with a jarring sound as Legolas abruptly set the cruel device down. "So we have a excessively strong trap that was wrought to hold with deliberate torture, and release only by the hands of those who set it. It was hidden in a spot where the old man would most likely tread at some point as he moved about gathering his apples. And once caught, there was no way he could have regained his freedom, as keys were required to open both the trap and the lock on the chain."

"And at the time of year, as the weather began to turn colder, the shepherds and woodsmen would have returned to their villages nearer the borders of the city and abandoned the high ground."

"His cries would have gone unheard."

"And they did. Legolas, this trap was clearly never set for an animal."

The elf inhaled sharply. "You speak of murder then," he whispered, turning his pale features toward his friend.

"Aye," the ranger said, his voice hardening with anger. "I speak of murder."

To be continued

 

Disclaimer: the setting of Middle-earth and the familiar characters are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien. This work of fiction was written for pleasure only. No profit was made.

To See A World  by Nightwing

Chapter Eleven: First Steps

The following morning, as he stepped outside, Legolas stumbled over a bundle left before the door. He carried it in and woke Aragorn, who sat at the table and untied the rough twine wrapped around the ragged cloth. Poking through its contents, he glanced up at the elf standing beside him. "It appears our friend is back, Legolas. We have a freshly snared rabbit, two loaves of bread and a bit of cheese. Even some dried fruit."

Legolas scowled. "The food itself is welcome, but it troubles me that someone was able to walk directly to this house and leave it at the door in the middle of the night without my knowledge. I should not have slept through it, Aragorn."

"You slept like the dead last night, Legolas. And you needed it. Yesterday was a horrible day. Do not fault yourself… you are still recovering from your poisoning."

"And while I recover, people trot all over the yard and steal within ten feet of my ears. My weakness puts us in danger." The elf grimaced in frustration.

Aragorn had finished examining the new gift. "Your sleep will not always be so heavy. And I think we face no danger from this person, Legolas. There is a message."

Legolas' head came around quickly. "And?" he prodded.

Squinting at a torn fragment of parchment, Aragorn struggled to make out the rough lettering. "This is not an educated man. But it reads thus: 'I saw what you did for the old man. We tried but could not. Our thanks to you.' "

"May I have the note?" the elf asked, extending his hand, and Aragorn placed it in his outstretched palm. The archer ran his fingertips over it thoughtfully. "Yesterday when we were burying the body, I sensed eyes watching us from the forest. But I did not sense evil. I wonder who he is?"

"Who they are," Aragorn corrected. "He mentions others."

"Well, there is some comfort in knowing we have friends out there, however elusive they might be. This is an odd business, Aragorn."

Legolas had been turning the stained fragment absently in his hands, and Aragorn suddenly leaned forward to look more closely at it. "Wait. There is more written on the other side."

The elf returned it, and Aragorn scrutinized the message once more. "I like this part less, Legolas. 'Do not go down to the city. They will not like you, and will try to hurt the strange one.' "

Feeling for his chair, Legolas drew it closer to Aragorn and sat beside him. He appeared lost in thought for a moment, then a corner of his mouth quirked up. "I have long regarded you as somewhat unusual, Aragorn. But for some reason I fear might be 'the strange one' ".

Aragorn nodded. "The people in these lands have seen little of elves. We did not always receive the most cordial of welcomes on our journey before, so there is no reason to think it would be different here."

"But you had thought to go to the city," the elf stated quietly. "To see if there could be made a place for us, or to obtain the supplies we need to remain here."

"Aye, I did," replied Aragorn. They had discussed the matter just last night, after returning from burying the body of the old healer. Whether right or wrong, the cottage appeared to belong to them now, until someone who had a claim to it might come. But Aragorn had entertained the thought that once Legolas was able to travel the distance, he would seek aid for the two of them in the city before the snows fell. They might obtain lodging for the winter, and he could find work to earn their keep. Or, if they chose to remain here, he would have attempted to establish relations with the city and go down regularly to gather what supplies he could. They would need much to survive the winter… fuel, foodstuffs and flour for the baking of bread, warmer clothing, fodder for the horse, tallow for candles… now it appeared the city was truly no longer an option.

Aragorn glanced at his friend, noting the straight back and stoic demeanor of the elf, but seeing just as clearly concern, and lingering sorrow. Legolas was worried, and still unwell. He had been through so much in a just a handful of weeks, and the ranger had hoped to find ways to make his life easier again. Adjusting to the blindness was difficult enough, and it was made more so by the resurgence of memories of his mother's death. Now their trouble was compounded by the rapidly approaching winter and their fears about surviving it, coupled with yesterday's disquieting discovery of the murdered man.

"The old fellow stayed here in winter," Legolas said after a moment. "He survived, and we shall too, Aragorn."

"He obviously had people looking after him. He would not have made it on his own."

"No, but we are two where he was one, and we are young and strong. Take me out, Aragorn. Help me to learn what lies around me, and then we will begin our work."

* * * *

They stood upon a bluff, having splashed their way across the small river and climbed the low rise facing the east. From this vantage point the ground fell away sharply into a steep incline coated with trees. Through the forest a faint twisted path could be seen wending downward and vanishing into the darkness of the wood. It would need to be so, for a straight road leading directly down into the city would have been too steep for people to navigate easily, and certainly impossible for horses or livestock.

The city lay some four miles off, cocooned in the valley below them, its sprawling expanse encircled by what appeared to be a wall. Scattered farms dotted the open expanse before the gate, and within it the buildings loomed large, with a labyrinth of roads winding among them.

Aragorn had stood on this spot many times before to look down upon the city, but even his keen eyes could make out little more than ant-like forms as people came and went. At night, when the torches had been kindled, he had sometimes come to sit quietly and smoke his pipe as he watched the twinkling lights far below him.

Legolas stood beside him, his unbraided hair waving in the breeze and his booted feet planted wide and firm on the bluff. His head was cocked slightly as if he listened to something. "The city is called Carbryddin?" he asked.

"I believe so. I was able to study just one map of the Northlands before we set out on our journey, and it showed the city in this area. When you were injured, my first thought was to try to reach it and seek aid, but you collapsed, and then I found the healer's home. I know nothing about the city, except the old man stated in his notes that he was not comfortable going there for his supplies any longer. He had gotten on the wrong side of the people there, perhaps."

"He certainly got on the wrong side of someone," the elf said with a grimace. "And, according to our mysterious benefactor, our own welcome would have been less than cordial had we managed to reach it. I think it is a good thing you stumbled upon the cottage, Aragorn, for the city seems a hostile place."

The ranger watched as the tiny forms of people and horses emerged from the city through what must have been a gate in the wall and move into the open area before it. He squinted, wishing he could make out their activity more clearly. "Legolas, can you hear anything down there?" he asked.

The elf edged forward, sliding his feet until he stood where the ground began to drop away. He halted just before a nervous Aragorn was about to grab his arm and pull him back, and he turned his head to the side as he concentrated. "No, Aragorn. Not from this distance. What do you see?"

"Many men, looking like no more than insects from here. And horses. They move in large groups, shifting here and there. I can make out little else." The ranger glanced at his companion, wishing anew for the amazing eyesight the elf had once possessed.

"An army?" the elf asked.

"Of course. That must be it. They drill this morning." Aragorn looked at the elf. "Legolas…"

A corner of the archer's mouth twitched up as he turned to face his friend. "All right, Aragorn. I sense your unease, and I know what you ask." He stepped back onto the level ground once more.

"Thank you."

"What will you do when I begin riding the horse? Or climb to the top of the tallest tree?"

"I expect my heart will stop," Aragorn laughed. "But I have no doubt you will do those things in spite of my fears for your safety."

"Yes," the elf murmured. "I will. But I will try not to worry you too much." He frowned as he turned his sightless eyes toward the city once more. "Why does the army train this time of year? Surely they do not plan to march on anyone just before the snows come?"

Aragorn watched the movements in the field. "They train to stay sharp. Perhaps they will begin a campaign in the spring."

"Against whom? We heard of no rumours of war between cities, only of very minor disagreements. Ah, well, it is no concern of ours," the elf said, shrugging his shoulders.

"No, it is not. 'The Strange One' and his friend will remain hidden in the forest and let others go about their business," Aragorn said with a chuckle. A slight movement caught his eye and he turned to see the cat trotting across the clearing toward them. She halted at the river and her mouth opened in a soundless meow. Soundless for Aragorn, that is, but Legolas stepped away from the bluff, smiling as he turned toward her.

"Ah, little Tithlam. Do you wish to avoid getting your dainty paws wet, my friend?" he called, laughing.

"She appears to be ready to accompany you on your tour," said Aragorn as they crossed the creek and came to the small creature. She meowed again, or, as Aragorn noticed with a smile, she attempted to, and padded quickly to Legolas. "She still squeaks, Legolas. Her new name changes nothing."

"True, but now that I have given her a proper elvish name, she is happier. It is more complimentary, and more respectful. Come, little one," the elf said to the cat as he crouched and gathered her into his arms. "Sit on my shoulder while I explore."

A good portion of the day was dedicated to Legolas' learning to navigate the area directly around the small cottage. Aragorn walked every inch of the clearing, tossing aside every stone and fallen stick that might trip up the elf, and Legolas walked with him. The elf had an uncanny memory, and it served him well now, for he was determined to memorize precisely how many steps each possible destination required. From the cottage door, they mapped out the distances to the gate of the horse's paddock, the garden, and the edge of the river, where Aragorn had set a great fallen log as a sort of bench to sit on. They walked the circumference of the clearing, Legolas' fingertips brushing along the rough bark of the great circle of trees as he counted, and it came to 427 of his long strides.

An unexpected problem developed as Legolas attempted to walk alone for the first time. As Aragorn watched from the front step and the cat nosed about in the garden, the elf tried to move from the house to the horse's structure, but shortly after he had gone about half the distance, he began to drift slightly to the right and missed his destination. Stopping, he reached for what should have been the latch to the gated enclosure and met nothing but air. Legolas faltered and his hands dropped to his sides.

"Aragorn?" he called, swinging his head around.

"Here, Legolas."

Legolas returned to Aragorn's side, frowning. "I walked precisely thirty-eight paces. What went wrong? Was it not a straight line?"

"No, my friend. After about fifteen steps, you began to wander a bit to your right. You missed the barn."

Scowling, the elf turned abruptly and marched away again, and again he missed his destination. Aragorn sighed as he saw his friend come to a halt and his fists clench. Legolas stood silently for a moment, and then turned toward the ranger once more.

"Here, Legolas," Aragorn called, and the elf strode back to him, his face dark with frustration.

"I will not spend the rest of my life being led about by the hand," Legolas said in a low voice. "Why can I not do this?"

"Actually, I think you can, with practice. You came directly back to me twice. How did you do it?"

The elf's empty blue eyes widened. "Your voice, Aragorn. I followed the sound." Immediately he turned toward the small barn and let out a low whistle. Within the enclosure, the horse lifted her head from her grazing, nickering softly. Aragorn watched the elf tilt his head, pausing a moment with eyes closed in concentration, and then he set off. A moment later he was patting the velvety muzzle of the old mare and murmuring to her.

"Back now," the ranger said to his friend, and Legolas returned, walking steadily with head held high. Aragorn had hoped to see a bit of happiness for this small victory, but the elf shook his head as he took his place beside Aragorn once more. "Well, it works well enough if I have a sound to focus on, but I can hardly expect to have such a signal every time I wish to walk about the place, Aragorn."

"Patience. I think your sense of direction will come to you as you work on it. For centuries you lived with eyes so gifted that I can only wonder at what their loss means for you, Legolas. And you have been blind for a mere handful of days. Give yourself time to adjust to it."

"I do not want to adjust to it," the elf said, and his voice was ice-edged.

"I know," Aragorn said quietly. "But you told me yourself that you must learn to live with this. You must give up the old path you once trod and open yourself to the new one. To adjust does not mean to surrender, Legolas. And I think tearing your way through every situation with anger as your driving force will not lead to independence."

Legolas sighed quietly and lowered his head. "I rush it," he murmured after a moment. "And yes, I feel anger. Always, I feel it." For a moment he was thoughtful, head bowed, and then he turned suddenly to Aragorn and gripped his arm. "Find me a tree, Aragorn. One I can climb."

Aragorn glanced at the elf in concern as his protective attitude sent forth a clamor of objections, but whatever sort of protest he was about to utter died in his throat when he saw the elf's need. Legolas' head had come up, and his body trembled slightly as he waited, his face lifted toward the sky. What am I thinking? He is a wood-elf. What better cure can there be for his sorrow?

The man's eyes swept the forest and lighted on one that would serve. Ancient, bent and of great size, and yet with branches bowing low that the elf would have little trouble handling. "How about a venerable oak?" he asked.

"Perfect," the elf responded, already trying to move forward. Aragorn stepped beside him and they went across the clearing to the line of trees, most of deciduous ones stripped bare but for the oaks, whose leaves, brown and rattling in the whispering wind, still clung in ragged bunches to the great branches. Legolas turned with a mischievous grin to the man. "Be certain of your selection, Ranger. I do not want to discover the hard way that you have sent me up a hawthorn."

Aragorn looked sidelong at the elf. He knew that Legolas joked, for just a fingertip's touch against bark and the elf would know precisely what type of tree he encountered. But the ranger played along, smiling slyly. "Then you must insult my knowledge of botany no more. I have lived among trees to a greater degree than others of my kind. And if you do not trust me, I see a lovely clump of gorse bushes to our right, and a bit further on is a knot of gooseberry vines which would serve just as well for your first romp through nature since your injury."

"Ouch," the elf laughed. "I see you know your thorny plants. I will doubt you no more, as it is apparent that my safety will be in jeopardy should I continue to sting your pride."

"Here we are," Aragorn quietly said, and Legolas reached eagerly, resting his hands on the rough bark of the old tree. His white fingers slowly traced the craggy surface, and then he pressed his brow against it with a sigh. For long he did not move, but simply leaned into the strength of the old tree, and breathed. When he finally pulled his face away, Aragorn saw that the elf's eyes were filled with tears.

"Legolas?" he asked, frowning in concern. "Are you all right?"

"Beautiful old oak, Aragorn," the elf whispered. "Its song runs deep and rich. Thank you." He raised his arms over his head and his hands curled around a branch. And then he was gone. In a silent, fluid movement that looked almost as though he flowed rather than climbed up the branches, Legolas vanished, leaving Aragorn standing alone.

To be continued

Many thanks to Ithilien for helping me find the perfect Sindarin name for Squeaky. "Tithlam" is a combination of the words tithen and lam, and translates to "little voice".

 

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them, and am making no profit from this story. It was written for enjoyment only.

Thanks to Lisette for betaing this chapter.

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Twelve: Songs in the Key of Life

As he carefully reached overhead and felt for the next branch, it was once more driven home to Legolas just how much he had always depended on his eyes. In earlier days he would have swept to the very top of the massive tree in a few brief seconds. He had tried to climb quickly this time as well, trembling in his haste and going much more rapidly than was safe, only to painfully smack his head into a branch above him and falter as he lost his balance for an instant. With a sigh he decreased his pace and began to move with more caution. If I cannot even walk a straight line on the ground, I had better slow down here. It would not do to fall. He would undoubtedly land right on top of Aragorn, who he knew stood anxiously beneath him and would continue to do so until he had settled himself.

His fingers met the next branch and he paused a moment, gauging its size and leaning against it to test its security. It held, and he pulled himself up another few feet and swung his legs over. Extending his right hand to the side he felt for the trunk again. He had taken care to stay close to it, where the branches were thickest and would be sure to support him. Before, he would have run along their full length, feeling them bend under his weight as they thinned, and then he would launch himself onto the next branch or perhaps directly into the air, the bent limbs serving as something of a catapult as they propelled him through the forests he loved. He had exulted in that freedom.

As it was, he raised his head and reached again. Another good branch, and he went higher. The wind began to come to him more clearly, and he realized that he had climbed high enough to pass many of the smaller trees and emerge from their sheltering arms. He did not know how high he had come, but judging from the age and strength of the great tree, he was very high indeed. He investigated the next branch. It was sturdy enough, but a small voice of caution stopped him here. This was far enough.

Drawing himself up until he was standing, he wrapped his arms around a higher limb and rested his chest against it as he faced the northern breeze. Breathing deeply, he drew in all he could of the sharp air. The whisper of the wind through the bare branches was soothing, but it was also a lonely sound, rattling as it did through the dead leaves and bringing with it promises of chill mists and the silence of winter. A heaviness of spirit pressed on the elf, and he turned to rest his hand on the bole of the tree and crouch to seat himself, settling his back against the great trunk. He shifted around a bit, making sure he was both comfortable and secure, and drew his legs up to wrap his arms around them.

Far below, he heard the faint sounds of the man moving away, no doubt relieved that Legolas had finished his climb. But despite his obvious concern, Aragorn had remained silent as the elf moved steadily up the tree, saying nothing to him after his first words, spoken as Legolas had begun his ascent. "Think not of the passage of time or of work to be done, Legolas. Come down only when you are ready." Legolas heard the cottage door close softly, and he found himself alone.

He knew should he call Aragorn's name the ranger would be standing under the tree again immediately. But he also knew that Aragorn understood why he had been left behind. Legolas needed to be alone, with no one but the trees to hear any other sounds that he might make. He needed to be alone, and Aragorn would not return until he was asked to do so.

And now that I am here, what do I do with myself? Wait for the great realization? Will the sky and the stars tell me why I cannot see? The elf shook his head, irritated by his usual tiresome thoughts. No. They will not. I am blind because I was sickened by poison. Random misfortune. A swift dart in the night, the fleeing of a mere handful of seconds, and my world changes forever. There is no great reason, no purpose and no destiny. My promises are broken.

  It was disgracefully indulgent to engage in such lingering self-pity. Had he not shed enough tears during those silent days spent sitting before the fire? Had he not walked this painful path long enough? The elf balled his hands into fists as his breath caught in his throat. Stop this! But he could not. And he recalled words someone, perhaps Lord Elrond, had said to him long ago. "Pain cannot be skirted. When it comes to you, take the direct path and walk. Walk through it until you reach the other side."

The grief was not ended. It ran through him as before, deep and fresh and damaging. Alone, held in the protective embrace of the old tree, the depths of Legolas' despair rose in a great rush and broke through the fragile dam he had struggled to build. Even with Aragorn he had held a part of himself back, trying to put on a brave front, but no more. To the great tree he released his anguish, losing himself in it completely. And the oak, strong and patient, listened in silence, cradling the heartbroken elf as a mother cradles her weeping child.

Thoughts crowded in too quickly. Wearied by lack of sleep and lingering sickness, he was pummeled by conflicting emotions and the resurfacing of memories long held in check. They swept in now, and he let them have their way at last as he turned his body, clinging to the ancient oak and pressing his forehead against the bark. So much had happened. The dead man, the orc sword… so much… and he fell under a wall of confusion, unable at first to make rational sense of what came to his mind.

He had been deeply disturbed by the discovery of the murdered man. And then had come the mysterious warning that the citizens of Carbryddin would possibly try to harm him and the ranger should they attempt to approach the city. They would stay away, of course, but Legolas felt vulnerable, and cold shadows seemed to clutch at him whenever he thought of the city that lay in the valley below. If trouble came, neither fight nor flight would be easy for him, even with Aragorn at his side.

His blindness continued to terrify him. It wrapped him in layers so heavy that at times he could draw no air, and he choked on the closeness of the unending dark. He had not yet been able to master his irrational fear that because he could see nothing, there was nothing of substance around him. He would reach and reach, extending his hands and trying without success to throw the shroud from his eyes. During the day he was able to distract himself by having conversations with Aragorn and working on small tasks that needed doing around the cottage, but the nights were a torment. He barely slept, and the better part of the quiet hours was spent hugging the cat and clinging to the sound of Aragorn's breath. He could find no other comfort, and dreaded being alone with his ragged thoughts, when fears for his future rose from the darkness and mocked him. He did not fear the coming winter, though he held no illusions that it would be difficult. He feared the thaw and the coming of spring, when the flowers would open into bright blossoms that he could not see and Aragorn would lead him over the mountains toward home. They would go to Rivendell and seek the assistance of Lord Elrond, but before he could come to that place of refuge there was Mirkwood to be faced. There was his father. How much less perfect will I be in his eyes now?

His father and lord would not reject him. He knew this. But the thought of living out his darkened days in the coldness of Thranduil's empty home was a possibility he could not bring himself to dwell on. For four years he had held to the hope that one day he would rise in the favor of the woodland king once more. For four years he had held to the hope that he would find the murderers of his mother. That hope had been snatched from him, as had the plans he had made with Aragorn to stand with him against the great enemy who was slowly coming to power in the east. His life had become directionless, and without the familiar anchor of his goals and plans he faltered, unable to determine which way to turn.

Sighing, the weary elf pulled his face away from the tree and wiped his eyes. He was unable to understand why, after his long search for answers to his mother's death, did the first hint come to him directly on the heels of his blindness. It was a cruel joke. The sword that Aragorn had carried with him that terrible night was certainly akin to the one that had killed the queen. And, had he his sight, he would be on the trail of the orcs this very moment. He would hunt them without ceasing until he found them, and then they would meet justice. They would know the wrath of a son who had lived four years with a torn heart that wept blood with each painful beat.

He had been stunned to discover that the orcs had come from the Northlands and had apparently traveled no small distance to commit their crime. They had crept unnoticed into the heart of Mirkwood, committed the most heinous of acts and had covered their tracks well afterward. These things pointed to a certain organization on their part which was usually lacking, and that meant that they probably had a leader. It had been no random skirmish resulting from a mob of orcs blundering into the elf party. The action had been planned, and planned well.

Legolas was not so foolish as to think that killing a group of orcs would return his mother to him. And he was not so driven by rage that he sought simply to slake his hands in the black blood of the foul beasts, to kill until he could kill no more. His mind was not so dark. Ever he had been a lover of peace and still thoughts. But he had been unable, despite the kind words of both Aragorn and Lord Elrond, to forgive himself for not being there to protect his mother on that day. And he had been unable to stop trying to find answers, driving himself on long and ultimately fruitless searches in the areas surrounding his homeland. Aragorn had accompanied him on several of his hunts, and his presence was always a strong comfort to the young elf who never stopped searching, convinced as he was that there was no other way to regain his father's love.

He slumped, exhausted, against the great oak, laying his cheek against the rough comfort of the bark. His search was ended. He did not have his sight. Robbed of the chance to find answers at last, the trail grew cold as he lingered in the dark.

* * * *

Night sounds came to him, and he realized with a start that he had fallen asleep. For a moment he forgot his blindness, as he always did upon waking, and tried to make out his surroundings with his eyes. But everything remained dark, and in a moment he remembered why. His fingers flew to the tree, feeling the powerful limbs around him. The press of strong wood was against his body, the branch under him broad and steady. Puzzled, he did not recall drifting off, but he had been exhausted after allowing his pain to tear through him and break open his defenses. He felt better now. His mind had calmed, and as he drew his cloak around his shoulders he settled back and put his attention on the night.

It felt good to be out here. He had always loved the noises of the late hours, and they came to him now in all their richness and diversity, soothing his nerves and his ever-aching head, easing the claustrophobic fear the blindness still used to torment him. All around, the soft breezes tickled his face and gently swept his hair from his shoulders, smelling of pine and mountain water. The vast stretch of forest was busy with night doings as tiny creatures crept and skittered about below him. The soft whir of wings told of the quiet passing of an owl, and he smiled briefly as the movements of the little animals ceased and they crouched, immobile, until that silent shadow passed by. To his right the stream burbled over rocks, and the elf shut his seeking eyes, opening himself to the songs of Arda.

The pines whispered of peace and rest. His oak, of strength and perseverance. It had endured much in its long, long life. Low and powerful, deeply connected to both earth and sky, its voice thrummed softly, telling of ancient days that he had never known. Sitting quietly, he gratefully accepted what the tree offered. Pressing his body even more closely against the massive bole, he drew strength as he raised his face and opened his eyes, seeking the sky.

A shaft of sorrow struck him as he searched. If anything was to come to his eyes, he thought it would be the light of the stars. But he had been wise enough not to cling too fiercely to that wish, and after a few moments of feeling this new pain he was able to let it pass through him and vanish on the slow controlled wave of his breath. He closed his eyes and listened again, and hope kindled as he realized he was not sundered from the tiny fires that burned and shimmered far above him. Solace came to his hurting heart, and he sighed deeply. There was still music in the dark, and he found himself adding his own voice to the melody that floated around him and bore him away from his sadness.

* ** *

The sun started to rise, and the birds joined the elf as he continued singing into the darkness that for him did not change with the arrival of the new day. And he did not cease his song when he heard Aragorn emerge from the house and make his way to the little barn to tend the horse. The man started his morning chores quietly, and did not approach the elf perched in the upper branches of the great oak tree.

Legolas sang on, grateful for the friend who always seemed to know when was the right time to speak and when silence was best. He smiled to himself as he drew one long leg up and rested his hands on his knee while letting the other dangle from the oak limb, having no doubt that though he had continued to respect the elf's need for time to himself, the ranger had paused to take a good hard look at him with his serious grey eyes before turning away and walking into the barn.

Were he to search Middle-earth end to end, Legolas believed he would never find a better friend. And never had that fact been more strongly demonstrated than in the springtime after the elf-queen had died. Aragorn had come back, just as he had said he would. Though no words had been spoken as to exact date and the ranger had sent no message of a rendezvous time, the young elf had sensed when his friend had returned to the forests of Mirkwood and had made his way to their usual camping spot one morning in late April. There he had found the man crouched over a bundle, sorting through a collection of tiny flower seedlings that he had brought with him from Imladris for the queen's garden, and he had turned when he heard Legolas' soft footfalls behind him. "I thought these might please her," was all Aragorn had said.

Aragorn had not been banned from Mirkwood, though his welcome was even less warm than it had been in the past. He was ignored, and was given no audience with Thranduil that year, which must have saddened him. It grieved Legolas that the friendship had garnered more animosity when he had hope that the opposite would come, but he continued as before, with head held high as he walked with his friend through the vast halls of his father's palace, and he allowed no harsh words of condemnation to be spoken to or about Aragorn by anyone.

King Thranduil had locked both the garden gate and the palace door that led into it. Legolas had been forced to do a fair amount of searching, without luck, for the keys. In the end, he and Aragorn had simply climbed the fifteen-foot high wall of stone to gain access. Side by side they had worked in silence, joined by no other as they weeded and raked aside the debris from the previous autumn's decay that no one had had the heart to take on so shortly after the tragedy. They cleared the way for the new shoots of the perennials that had just begun to show themselves and planted the seedlings with care. And after, when the garden was neatly groomed once more and the queen's chairs had been set in place, they had gone out for a month to search for the murderous orcs.

Their hunt had turned up nothing new. Alone, Legolas had combed every inch of Mirkwood's borders, even silently skirting around the dark tower in the south that clawed its way into the sky and cast a cold shadow that froze the blood of any who ventured near it, and Aragorn had silently followed him there when the elf had decided to go back again. The ranger brought his own tremendous tracking skills to add to Legolas', but still they made no significant discoveries. Aragorn had worried about his elf friend on the trip. Legolas could see concern in the man's face and the grey eyes followed him often. Legolas ate little and slept even less, and he had stalked through the endless dark forest with a simmering anger that the man could not help but notice, but Aragorn had said nothing. Little healing, and no resolution, had taken place during the handful of months since the queen's murder.

They had returned to the palace on a sunny afternoon at the end of May, and went directly to the garden to see what the passing month had wrought. The gate was still locked, and Legolas had climbed the wall and poked his head over the top to take a look. More beautiful than ever, sprinkled with pink, violet and yellow blossoms and coated with the rich scent of honeysuckle, it had become a refuge for the broken-hearted. There his father sat, alone, taking his tea in stiff-backed silence.

Legolas had bowed his head and dropped back to the earth without a sound. The next day he had seen Aragorn off on his return journey to Rivendell, and then he had packed his gear and gone out, alone once more, and resumed his search. And he did not return for almost a year, seeing neither his family nor his friend during that long and lonely stretch of time. And when he had finally did come home again, Aragorn had been camped in that same spot, waiting for him, and soon they had resumed their old habits of wandering Middle-earth and exploring new places. They had gone to Rivendell, where Legolas had his first talk with Elrond since the death of his mother, and in the elf-lord and his three children he found a sympathetic and supportive source of quiet strength and friendship.

When he was home, he aided his father and brothers in the running of the elven realm, becoming particularly adept at negotiations with the men of Lake-town. And when he was away, though he eventually stopped driving himself at the relentless pace he had adopted before and began taking excursions with Aragorn for pleasure once more, he never stopped searching.

The sun had risen high over his head now, and Legolas wondered at the passage of time that he had not noticed. He felt the warm rays bathing his upturned face despite the chill of near winter. Stopping his song, he listened for Aragorn but did not hear him. He had gone back inside the house at some point. Scooting carefully along the length of the branch, the elf fully stretched out on his back and folded his hands across his chest. With the bubbling sound of the stream in his ears and the birds chattering around him, he fell asleep once more.

* * * *

The smell of wood smoke penetrated his nostrils, and he shook his head slightly as he drifted again toward the waking world. Furrowing his brow, he listened and breathed. It was early evening only, not yet deep night, and he sat up, stretching his arms over his head and arching his back, breathing deeply as he worked out the kinks in his spine. He sang for a bit, a greeting for the moon as it rose in the dark sky, and his heart welled with gladness at the melody it gave back to him.

Another smell made him turn his head toward the cottage. Meat was being roasted, and bread was being warmed over the fire. And for the first time in more days than he was able to remember, the juices churned in his belly. He regarded the sensation with astonishment. I am hungry. Aragorn cooks, and I am hungry!

Taking hold of the branch, he began to climb down. He moved with care, and had descended what he thought might have been about one third of the way when a small noise stopped him. The soft sounds of little feet pattered somewhere below him, and he tilted his head. "Tithlam?" he called quietly.

The cat's tiny voice answered him, and he smiled. "Have you been waiting long for me, little one? Hold on, I'm on my way down."

He had lowered himself to the next branch when a thought struck him and he paused again, clinging to a branch and holding motionless. No, this is foolishness. He shook his head, intending to start again when the cat meowed once more. He twisted his head toward her. "Speak to me one more time, Tithlam, if you will," he said, and the cat responded.

Closing his eyes in concentration, he made his way out the edge of the branch, feeling it bend under his weight. For a moment he bounced slightly, getting used to the feel of the springiness as his worked to find his balance. Then he crouched, poised on the balls of his feet and resting his hands on his thighs. Every day I discover what a blind elf cannot do. Perhaps it is time to find out what he can do…

  And with that, before he could change his mind, he jumped. Releasing the energy coiled in his legs he propelled himself straight out into the night. If he had judged well, the cat's voice had come from a distance of 32 feet. Enough for a somersault or two if I have calculated correctly.

  Drawing his legs into a tight tuck he spun, and laughed as he felt his body arcing and flying, his hair whipping around him. Twisting his back, he maneuvered his arms and straightened his body, orienting to the earth. He landed in an easy crouch. His legs felt no jarring impact, as the ground was exactly where he knew it would be. Picking up his cat, he followed the scent of his dinner, walking without hesitation across the clearing to the cottage and opening the door.

There would be time enough to worry about the troubles facing him. But tonight the fire crackled in the hearth. The room was warm and smelled of good food. And a dear friend was waiting, ready to take his cloak and guide him to the table. It was enough. For this night, at least, it was enough.

"That was quite a jump, Legolas," Aragorn said, laughing, and Legolas laughed with him.

To be continued

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien, and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them in my story. It was written for enjoyment only and no monetary profit was made.

Author's notes: my apologies for being away for so long! My new job has been more than a little challenging, and it has been taking up a tremendous amount of my time. In addition, I took a little side-trip and returned to my first story --- To See A World is my second --- to do some re-writing and make improvements. With the help of Ithilien, who offered to beta it, it is greatly improved. And now, since I am only slightly embarrassed instead of horribly embarrassed, I will happy to direct you to it once it is posted.

Thanks again to Lisette for her beta efforts. You should have seen her galloping here and there with her fly-swatter, whapping all those pesky commas flitting about! The run-on sentences were amazing, folks.

And now, at last, on with the story!

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Thirteen: Toil and Trouble

The work had begun. For the past two weeks, elf and ranger had toiled almost nonstop to ready themselves for the coming of winter. Much there was to be done, and the tasks were long. Legolas had asked for, and been given, responsibility for the horse. He had named her Rhosgernroch. It was apparent to Aragorn that in the old mare the elf had found another source of solace and renewed confidence. He had rearranged the few items needed for her care within the small barn, and had done the same with the tools in the room beside the stall, enabling him to find whatever implement was required for a certain task with accuracy.

Thus it was that the plain brown coat of the aged horse glowed like bronze in the bright sun, and her mane and tail waved like silk banners in the breeze. The elf picketed her in the clearing before the cottage each afternoon, and Aragorn heard him singing softly whenever he brushed her. But this was not the real work. This was the stuff of pleasure and easy moments, taken when the elf felt the press of the darkness before his eyes and the thrum of pain in his head, which, though more tolerable now, still rose up to sap his energy and slow his steps by late afternoon.

The pattern of the elf's head pain had become predictable, and Aragorn was able to detect the first signs of discomfort in his friend's bright eyes and keep the worst of the pain at bay. At first Legolas had been reluctant to stop working, stating sharply that he was perfectly capable of contributing to the chores that needed to be done, but Aragorn had won that argument after the elf had swooned while helping to haul mud from the edge of the stream for use in chinking the walls of the house and barn against the chill winds. Legolas' strength had not failed him; indeed he had been stronger than the man in the weight that he was able to carry, but he had refused to cease his toil even after Aragorn had seen the warning signs: blue eyes darkening to near black, lines of pain tracking across his brow, and fair skin grown even more pale.

An alarmed Aragorn had watched the elf go down, and was busy bathing his forehead and preparing the herbs when Legolas had blinked and come around again. He had been quite mortified to find himself sprawled inelegantly on his back with a bucket of overturned mud splashed across his legs. After accepting the medicines and enduring a stern lecture from the ranger, Legolas had agreed to pay closer attention to how he felt, and Aragorn was relieved to see the elf keep his word. Now, when he began to feel an increase in his discomfort and fatigue, usually in the late afternoon, he stopped whatever activity he had been involved in, accepted without a word whatever concoction Aragorn had prepared and kept ready for him, and took the time to rest. He would make his way either to the horse to work quietly with her, or, if he truly felt poorly, to his tree - the great oak - to climb up and sleep for a few hours until he felt well enough to continue with his tasks.

When Legolas listened to the demands of his body and gave it the rest it needed in the afternoon, he functioned well. Startlingly well, in fact. He was able to make his way unerringly around the clearing now, and as long as Aragorn made certain that he left nothing unusual out that might trip him up, the elf had no trouble with treks to the barn, the stream and the garden. He had even gone to the pond for a swim one early morning, leaving a sleeping Aragorn behind, and had returned dripping wet and smiling just in time to stop the concerned ranger from starting out on a search expedition.

It remained difficult at times for Aragorn to watch his companion's attempts at independence. Some of them could not be considered immediate successes. The morning after Legolas had come down from the old oak for the first time, feeling buoyed - and overconfident - by his leap from the great tree, he had thought to challenge himself by running across the clearing. Unfortunately, he misjudged the distance and had slammed headlong into a tree, bloodying his nose. After retreating to the stream to cool both his face and his frustration, he had returned to the clearing and spent the next hour walking with deliberate concentration around the perimeter, pausing at each tree to rest his fingers on the bark and to listen. Or so it had seemed to Aragorn, who watched the elf with no small amount of fascination as he moved slowly from oak to hemlock to pine, murmuring softly in Sindarin and then standing quietly with head tilted before moving on to the next one, the tiny cat trotting at his heels.

When the elf had stopped where he had first begun his exploration of the circle of trees, the ranger had nearly been forced to jam his fist into his mouth to keep from shouting at his friend. Legolas had taken one deep breath and bolted at top speed across the clearing. When he did not slow his sprint as he neared the wall of trees on the other side Aragorn had flinched in horror, expecting to see the elf smash himself into a pulp. Instead, to the man's astonishment and admiration, Legolas skidded to a stop within an inch of the trees and, laughing, had briefly reached out to touch their rough surfaces before racing away again in the other direction.

Aragorn had seen Legolas on the back of Rhosgernroch later that day, only to fall a number of times as he struggled to find his equilibrium atop the moving animal. It was not long, however, before elf and horse had begun to work together, each learning to pay attention to the signals given by the other. Soon they were going at a full gallop around the clearing, Legolas guiding the mare as skillfully as he would have were he sighted, and the ranger had smiled and decided worrying was not going to change the future. Legolas would continue to challenge himself until he was satisfied, though Aragorn had begun to doubt that such a day would ever really come.

They had divided up their work fairly evenly on the day they had chosen to begin, and if Legolas chafed at his restrictions he did not show it. Foraging through the woods was not something he was able to do, and so he dealt with the tasks that needed doing closer to the house. At first he concentrated on the garden. The ranger could see the elf's gleaming head bobbing in the sunlight as he crept between the rows, stripping the aging plants of the last of the harvest. He piled the squashes, turnips and other vegetables into large osier baskets that had belonged to the old man, and when Aragorn had looked into the garden after the elf had finished, he saw that not even a solitary bean had been left behind to wither on the vines.

The two friends had returned with saddened faces to the apple orchard, and had worked quickly to gather what they could of the fruit that remained, moving without words around the silent mound of brown earth. Legolas climbed the trees, his sensitive fingers again leaving no fruit behind, and tossed the apples down to Aragorn, who waited to gather them into a basket. The ranger had felt edgy, and his grey eyes had constantly scanned the ground at their feet and the dark woods around them for any hint of hidden danger. Nothing seemed out of place, but the companions were relieved when they had finished and were able to leave the barren orchard behind them and return to the warmth of the cottage.

Most of Aragorn's time and effort had been concentrated in the forest. In addition to food, firewood for heat and cooking was the greatest concern. The ranger, with the aid of the horse, spent a number of days dragging fallen trees into the clearing to be chopped and stacked against the side of the cottage under the lean-to. A great amount of wood would be needed to get them through the long winter. It had been his intention to do the axe-work as well, but there again he was surprised. Returning from the forest one afternoon, wearily dragging yet another large branch behind him, he had been startled to hear the unmistakable sound of wood being chopped. By the Valar he has gone too far this time. Dropping his burden, the ranger ran into the clearing to stop Legolas before he came to harm. But the moment his fearful gaze had rested on the elf he realized, once again, that his friend could handle himself.

Shirtless, unaffected by the chilly day and with his unbraided hair pulled back in a ponytail, Legolas confidently whirled the axe over his head and brought it down precisely where his other blows had landed. In another moment the log had split, and the elf moved a step down the length of the tree and started again as the wood chips sprayed the air. The elf had, Aragorn noticed, hollowed out a slight depression in the ground, and into this he had nestled the pieces to be cut. In this way there was less danger that the great logs would accidentally roll as the blows from the axe made them shudder, and Legolas had reinforced the stability of the logs by placing large rocks at each end.

Once the length of the log had been reduced to smaller sections the elf would pick them up and further divide them, setting them upright on a wide, flat rock that he had obviously dragged from the edge of the river - for Aragorn had seen it there - and swing away until he had a pile of properly sized firewood suitable for the hearth. These he would periodically gather into his arms and carry to the lean-to, where they were stacked neatly against the house. Some of the pieces would fly off to land several feet away as he chopped, and Aragorn would later gather the ones that Legolas had been unable to find.

It was a tremendous help to have the elf cut the wood, and Aragorn saw that Legolas reserved this difficult task for the early hours of the day when he felt best. When he began to feel weary the elf would swallow Aragorn's medicines and rest for a time, and the later part of the day would be dedicated to quieter, but no less important, tasks. Legolas' deft fingers could weave cordage from plant fibers at an astonishing rate, and Aragorn would take these slim ropes and set them as snares throughout the surrounding area to bring in rabbits and other small game. These were utilized completely for their meat, the majority of it smoked with hickory chips and put away for later, and in a handful of days there was the beginning of a nice pile of furs for future use.

Legolas had also found an old fishing net, or one that would serve as such, hanging dusty and unused in the tool room. This he had mended by working the cordage fibers into the spots that had frayed, his face quiet and still in the evening firelight as he concentrated, running his fingertips over and over the twined ropes until he was satisfied that no gaps remained. The net had then been taken to the pond, and Aragorn had cast it into the dark waters several times and hauled it back again, each throw bringing in several good-sized fish.

And so food, firewood and furs gradually accumulated, and though it was a satisfying thing to know that their supplies grew, the two friends knew that many more days of toil lay before them before they would truly feel that that they had enough to see them through the cold months ahead.

* * * *

Legolas pushed his plate back and sighed contentedly as he stretched his long legs toward the fire and patted his lap in invitation. Tithlam leapt up immediately, and a soft smile came to his lips as his fingers played over the cat's soft fur. "I do like the taste of fish, Aragorn. The folk of Lake-town have inns that boast quite a number of excellent methods of preparation, but I think your efforts are just as praiseworthy."

Aragorn laughed. "I think my skills are quite limited. Wilderness cooking is a basic necessity, but there is little flair involved. I think you are simply making up for the time when you were unable to tolerate the thought of food."

"True. My appetite has returned in full. In fact, I seem to always be ravenous these days."

"That is undoubtedly due to all the work we are doing. For my part, I am either hungry or sleeping like the dead once we have finished for the day."

Aragorn winced slightly as he rose from the table to stoke the fire. His back ached from days of hauling downed trees to the elf, and the elf too seemed tired, though he said nothing. His only indication of discomfort had been several days ago, when he had asked Aragorn to look at his hands. The ranger had been dismayed to see rough cuts and blisters marring Legolas' fingers and palms, the result of chopping wood for hours on end, days in a row.

"You should have come to me long since about this, Legolas," the ranger had muttered as he coated the elf's raw hands with a salve and wrapped them in clean linen bandages, unhappy with his friend for his stoic silence and with himself for not noticing that Legolas had been working without protection. But Legolas had merely rolled his eyes and made a rather disconcerting clucking sound… buck-buck-buck…like a fussy old hen, and Aragorn had roared with laughter as he had gone in search of gloves for the elf. And Legolas, being what he was, had hands wholly healed within two days.

Aragorn groaned slightly as he rose from his crouch and the muscles in his thighs protested. The elf turned toward him with a grin.

"Are you sore?"

"Unfortunately, yes. I thought I was fit, but the activity of recent days is proving otherwise," Aragorn lamented as he limped back to the table.

"You are fit. You are not, however, suited to being yoked to downed trees like an ox and hauling them across the turf."

The ranger lowered himself gingerly into his seat - and froze when he saw two bright elven eyes fixed directly on his own. He lurched forward across the table and stared in shock at the elf. "Legolas!" he cried, grabbing at the folded hands resting on the polished wood.

"What?" the elf inquired with a soft smile, raising his eyebrows.

"I… can you -?" the man stammered, tightening his grip on those quiet hands.

The golden head moved slightly; a movement to the negative. "No, my friend. I cannot see you."

"But, I could have sworn your eyes looked directly at me! And it seems that they still do…" Aragorn stared, bewildered, into the fair being's clear orbs. "They… they have never lost their elven beauty, Legolas," he finished quietly in confusion, not sure what else to say.

"Then I am able to do it," the elf murmured.

"What do you mean?"

Legolas raised his head and turned his face toward the heat of the flames. "I had thought to see if I could disguise my affliction. I concentrated on your voice, and in doing so I was able to determine where your eyes should be. I sought to place my own onto yours. Was I successful?"

"It is uncanny, Legolas. In that moment, you no longer looked blind."

"Am I much changed, Aragorn?" the elf asked in a soft voice.

Aragorn had spoken the truth when he told Legolas that the beauty of the Eldar had not left his eyes. Although light no longer came to Legolas from without, radiance still flowed from within the depths of his sightless orbs. The eyes of the Firstborn were a startlingly beautiful phenomenon, particularly to those mortals who were fortunate enough to see them, lit as they were with an inner luminosity that glowed, softly incandescent, in a striking parallel to the starlight of the midnight sky. In moments of happiness and tranquility the eyes of the elves radiated a gentle light, and their layered depths spoke silently of the passing of many ages. But when angered, that light roared into a bright and terrifying wildfire that most mortal souls found impossible to bring their own shrinking gazes to meet.

And yet, though his eyes still shone with elven-light, Legolas had slowly begun to take on the unmistakable appearance of one who could not see. Whenever he heard a noise, his head would move toward it rather than his eyes alone, and he had adopted a peculiar habit of lowering and tilting his head whenever he listened to something. And the eyes themselves, though still bright and alive, had begun to look somewhat blurry to Aragorn, vague and wandering, lost as they were with nothing to focus on.

The ranger looked at Legolas with affection. He did not want to hurt him, but he knew the elf desired the truth. "Yes, Legolas. You are changed. Your appearance and manner have been altered since you lost your eyesight."

"I feared it was so. I will work on improving, and you must help me."

Now as the ranger watched, Legolas began to move his eyes. The elf set Tithlam onto the floor and sent her off, and he tracked her with his eyes as he deliberately held his head still, listening to her tiny footsteps moving about the room. He shifted them then to the fire as a log settled more deeply into the grate with a soft hiss. "Say something, Aragorn," the elf requested.

"Here," the ranger responded, and the blue eyes shifted back to settle on his own. Aragorn nodded his approval, then grimaced in irritation as the elf continued to wait expectantly. Fool, he cannot see a nod.

"You looked sighted, Legolas. I could not tell that you are not."

"Good. I am pleased to hear it. I will continue to practice, and you must be my observer."

Aragorn regarded the serious expression on his friend's face. "But why do you wish to do this?" he asked, puzzled.

"I do not want others to know that I am blind," the elf stated firmly. "I do not want anyone's pity."

"But people will eventually learn of it, Legolas. I do not think you can hide it from our friends."

"I do not plan to hide it from them. It would be impossible to do so. And I will not attempt to keep it from my family. But for those we may meet in the future - passing strangers - I would not have them know this about me. If I can appear whole before their eyes, I will try to do so. Consider it a new challenge, a new game for me."

Aragorn readily agreed to be of what help he could. Legolas was a proud being, and the ranger certainly could understand his desire to avoid the pity and stares that would follow him were his disability readily apparent. Nothing was of more importance to the elf than his independence, and his desire to contribute to his own upkeep and not be too great a burden on his companion was strong within him.

The elf had relaxed his posture, relinquishing the control he had exerted over his eyes, and they softened and went hazy once more. "It is fatiguing," he said quietly, and rose to his feet. "I will see to Rhosgernroch and make sure she is settled for the night." Tossing his cloak over his shoulders, he reached for the door handle. But then he paused and turned with a frown to Aragorn. "She will need food as well this winter."

"Aye," Aragorn said heavily. This was a problem they had not yet addressed, having directed their energy recently toward their own survival. He looked at the elf, noting the concern on his face. The thought had crossed his mind that they might simply set her free. The old mare could be taken down to the valley and left to find her way to the gates of the city, which she undoubtedly would do. Aragorn guessed that she had probably been there before, for what other use would the old man have for her but to ride into town for his supplies? She would find care there, he was certain of that.

But he and Legolas had grown fond of her, and in caring for the old mare the elf had found another anchor in the darkness. Perhaps it would be possible to keep her, though it meant even more hard labor. "There is the meadow," he said, and he watched the elf's face brighten.

"And an old scythe in the barn," Legolas added quickly. "We could sharpen it and cut fodder for her, and carry bracken from the forest for her bedding…"

The last thing I want to see is you flailing away with a scythe, Legolas, the man thought with a grimace, but he kept his concerns to himself. Undoubtedly the elf would prove just as skilled in this as in any other task he had taken on, and so Aragorn turned his mind elsewhere. "Sleeping inside or out tonight, my friend?"

Since Legolas' discovery of the old tree, he had spent a fair number of recent nights perched in its highest branches, for that was the place where sleep came best to him, quiet and free of nightmare.

"Inside," Legolas said with a grin. "I find the sound of your snores an essential evening experience. I miss it if I am away more than a night or so."

"I do not snore."

"You do."

"I do not. Arwen would have said something. She has never mentioned it."

"Of course not. She is your lover, and as such would strive to be diplomatic and not hurt your feelings. I am simply your friend, and I tell you that you do snore. Horrifyingly so."

"Your blindness makes your ears even more sensitive. I but breathe deeply."

"In the manner of a galloping Warg in pursuit of a meal," the elf laughed. "Your lady is renowned for her diplomacy and tact, as evidenced by her firm but splendidly skillful handling of my father's attempts to see the two of us betrothed. She had already been spoken for, after all."

"Ah," Aragorn said with a wry smile. "Another reason for him to dislike me."

"Indeed. The fact that Arwen and I felt no more than deep friendship for each other was not to be an impediment to his plans. He fiercely desired to see one of his sons wed to the daughter of Lord Elrond. And the fact that she is entirely too old for me never crossed his mind," the elf added with a grin.

"What? Too old for you?" Aragorn's jaw dropped.

"Well, yes. I am one of the last of the elves to be born. Arwen has been around for ages, Aragorn."

"By the Valar, Legolas, you are five hundred years my senior. If she is too old for you, what does that make her to me?

Legolas' face assumed a judicious expression. He tilted his head back as he pondered. "Let me think on this a moment," he murmured. "I believe the difference in years make it possible for her to be your great-great-great-great…"

"Stop," Aragorn warned.

The elf had produced his fingers and was busily ticking them off. "Great-great-great, ah yes, great-great…"

"Enough!!" Aragorn roared as Legolas quickly slid out the door. The ranger heard bell-like laughter as the elf vanished into the night. "Great-great-great-great-great…"

* * * *

The next morning found the elf and the ranger on the thatched roof of the cottage. Though it seemed tightly packed and impermeable to the fiercest rain, Aragorn wanted to investigate it to be certain that it would stand up to winter. As he explored every inch of the surface, looking for any thinned areas that might weaken further under the burden of snow and freezing temperatures, Legolas investigated the netting spread over the thatched surface. The ropes that held the dangling rocks, which acted to weigh down the netting and hold it securely over the roof, were checked to ensure that they were not fraying.

"The ropes seem to be fine, Aragorn," the elf said as he straightened. "The roof appears to have been worked on recently, over the summer, perhaps. And it has a proper incline as well. It should hold."

"I agree. This is a well-made and well-maintained structure. And a lucky thing for us that it is. We would be hard pressed to find time to put much work into the house in addition to all else that still remains to be done. Let us go down, Legolas."

Aragorn turned and headed for the ladder propped against the side of the house, the topmost rungs just visible as they poked above the line of the roof. He took hold of it and began to swing his foot around when the stance and expression of his companion brought him up. Legolas had turned toward the east and had stiffened, standing still as a statue with head held high. Then he was making his way rapidly across the roof's expanse to crouch on the far side of the house. With a frown Aragorn followed him, dropping quietly to his knees beside his friend. He knew the signs well enough. The elf had detected something.

Aragorn did not speak, but peered in the direction Legolas had silently indicated with a slight jerk of his blond head. Across the clearing and beyond the stream the solid wall of the forest rose before them, but he could make out nothing. Often were the times he was forced to rely on the elf's superior senses until whatever had disturbed Legolas eventually made itself known to him as well, and so he sank back on his haunches and waited.

After several moments he shifted his gaze to the elf. He could not see Legolas' face, lowered as it was and hidden by the fall of his unbound hair, but he was acutely aware of his friend's tension. Aragorn stirred uneasily, moving his eyes to the trees again.

The elf's hand suddenly clamped onto his shoulder. "Horsemen, Aragorn," Legolas hissed urgently. "Two of them, coming up the trail from the city at a good clip. They are not together. One rides ahead of the other."

Aragorn swore as he grasped the elf's wrist and scrambled with him back to the ladder. As he began to clamber down, the ranger remembered the warning they had received from their mysterious friend: the people of the city might be a danger to them.

Jumping lightly to the ground, he bolted for the cottage door with the elf at his heels, hurrying to where their weapons were stored. He may not yet have been able to hear the sound of hoof beats, but the quick hammering of his heart told him all he needed to know. Someone was coming their way at last, and he had the sinking feeling that they did not bring warm greetings.

To be continued

Rhosgernroch: "Old Brown Mare". Thanks again to She-Who-Names-The-Animals (aka Ithilien).

Disclaimer: the familiar characters and the setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them in this story. This is a work of fiction, written for entertainment only, and no monetary profit was made.

Author's notes: Suz, I hear you. Legolas should not be able to fix his eyes on someone perfectly, and I reworked that part. Posted on ff.net only, if you want to check it out. He is going to keep trying, though.

For those of you who have been inquiring about my first story, it has been reworked and reposted. I'll warn you now, it is chock-full of elf-torture and all that hooey, so do not go there if you do not like that sort of thing. Forgive its inadequacies, please. It was my first, written quickly with a great deal of enthusiasm and not much planning or understanding of the world of LOTR fanfic. You will find it on Cassia's site where she posts her Mellon Chronicles. The story is called The Healer. Once you have read it, do let me know what you thought. Thanks.

Thanks to Lisette for her beta efforts. I kept my sentences under control. Have fun in Mexico!

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Fourteen: First Contact

Aragorn stood beside the covered window to the right of the door, his back pressed against the wall and the orc blade clutched in his tense fist. Head turned, he held his eye against the drape, his gaze fixed on the spot where the start of the trail was barely visible beyond the soft flow of the stream, enfolded and half-hidden by the trees. The mare had also noticed the approach of the riders, and Aragorn grimaced as she whinnied shrilly. She moved to the far end of her enclosure and waited, ears pricked forward in anticipation.

The ranger gritted his teeth. Hiding behind closed doors did not suit him. He was not one to willingly seek danger, but when it came he preferred to meet it head on. But he was also a prudent man, and not given to rash action. Legolas' ability to fight was severely compromised, and if the two friends could avoid a physical confrontation, they would. His first concern was the safety of the elf, and so they remained in the house, silent and still, hoping that the riders would pass them by. Perhaps they were not coming to the cottage at all, but were merely on their way to another area. Unlikely, the man knew, but he prayed that it was so as he turned his eyes to look upon his companion.

Legolas was crouched on the other side of the window, head tilted and eyes closed. He was listening. His long fingers were curled around the ornamented handle of one of his knives, and his grip was firm and steady, his features composed and unreadable. Should the approaching riders be a danger he would fight them, but Aragorn easily detected the churning waves of tension flowing from the elf's coiled form. Legolas was not afraid, but it would be foolishness for him to feel absolute confidence in his abilities. He would do his best, but they both knew his best was not what it once had been.

"The first one comes now," the elf whispered, lowering his head slightly and pressing himself fully under the window, and his fingers whitened around the handle of his weapon. Aragorn stiffened and drew back as a sudden commotion pulled his eyes again to the trail nestled in the forest. A glimmer of red, flashing in the sun, caught his attention first, and a piercing whistle ripped the air. An instant later a large chestnut horse, its coat glistening and flecked with foam, burst from the trees and splashed across the water at a full gallop, its harness jingling in the afternoon air.

The horse snorted as the rider spurred it across the turf, and in less than two beats of the ranger's hammering heart they had raced directly to the cottage. The horseman hauled on the reins and threw himself from the saddle even before the plunging animal had come to a full stop. Legolas silently rose to his feet and turned to face the door.

"Hold a moment," Aragorn hissed, his hand coming down on the elf's shoulder. He stared in disbelief through the slit between the drape and the windowsill as the intruder regarded the door expectantly.

"Gildwas? Are you there? Did you not hear my signal?" a breathless, and distinctly youthful, voice called.

Legolas released an explosive breath and turned with a stunned expression to Aragorn. "A child?" he gasped.

"Aye," Aragorn murmured. "A child." He pressed his eye to the curtain once more.

A boy of about eleven years of age stood before the house. He was well-dressed, his red cloak of a rich fabric trimmed in black, and under it a tunic of silver caught the sun and shimmered in the light. A shock of unruly sandy-colored hair blew around his face, and he was quite liberally spattered with mud from his headlong rush into the clearing.

"I'll just put Firestar in with your horse then," the boy called. "They should get along fine." He turned and began leading the chestnut toward the mare's enclosure. He continued talking as he made his way to the fence and opened the gate, raising his voice to be heard by the one he obviously thought was inside the house. "I'm sorry to have been away for so long, Gildwas. We meant to come here long since, but that rotten sorcerer has got me yet another new tutor, and escaping him is nearly impossible! But I managed to give him the slip this afternoon. By the gods, how I hate him. The tutor, I mean. You already know how I feel about Malcovan. His beard stinks."

A sharp clicking sound, and the gate was closed. The boy strode back to the house. "But we thought we would see you in the city," he continued, addressing the closed door once again. "Why have you not come down? You even missed my birthday. I would have made father let you in." The child stirred impatiently. "Are you in there? Alun is coming up… he has some things for you. Wine, cheese, and even some eggs!  I just managed to pull ahead of him on the trail. You know how I like to ride." The boy flashed a grin, but then he sobered and narrowed his eyes at the silent portal.

"Apple orchard then," Aragorn heard him mutter, and the child turned away and began walking rapidly toward the rear of the house where the trail began.

"What now?" Legolas hissed.

What indeed? Aragorn felt at a complete loss. The last thing he expected was to have a child materialize on the doorstep, let alone one who had obviously been a friend to the old man. With a sigh he set his blade against the wall. "I will talk with him," he said resolutely, though he rather vehemently wished he could avoid it.

"But the other one comes."

"I know. I will talk with him, too. Legolas, please stay inside until we know which way this wind will blow."

"Aragorn…"

"What else can we do? They will enter this place if we remain here in silence. And they were his friends. They may not be a danger to us."

"And they may be," the elf said sharply as his emotions warred across his face. Finally he nodded, though he was obviously unhappy with the ranger's decision. "Watch yourself out there. Let me know if you need help."

Aragorn took a deep breath and, opening the door, he stepped onto the porch. Jumping lightly to the ground, he respectfully called to the retreating figure. "Young sir, will you pause and speak with me?"

The boy spun instantly at the sound of the unfamiliar voice, his mouth dropping open in surprise. For a moment he stood rooted to the earth, staring at the ranger with wide, surprised eyes, then he began inching toward the horses. "Who are you? Where is Gildwas?"

"I wish to speak with you about your friend," Aragorn said quietly. He took one step toward the boy, but the child reached for his boot then and produced a dagger, yanking it out with the speed of a snake and pointing it at him. Aragorn retreated and spread his hands apart, palms up. "I am unarmed. I will not harm you."

The boy, eyes narrowed, advanced several paces. The small blade never wavered as it hovered between them. Aragorn knew the child would be easy to subdue should he attack, but it was obvious from his stance and grip that he knew how to handle his knife. And if he decided to throw it…

"Peace, young sir. Shall we wait for your companion?" Slowly, with hands still raised, the ranger sank to the grass and sat cross-legged. "I will not move."

For some seconds they were still, eyeing each other warily. In these moments, Aragorn appraised the young person standing before him. Despite the mud and disheveled appearance of the child, he appeared of noble bearing. The richness of his apparel and the fine horse, not to mention his ability to handle such a steed, indicated that he was of a wealthy family. The son of a nobleman, perhaps. And he had obviously been trained in the use of arms. He stood before Aragorn, blade in hand, unshrinking, and though he could not entirely disguise his fear, he masked it surprisingly well for one of so few years.

The boy slid forward another step, his brown eyes fixed on Aragorn's. "Where is Gildwas?" he repeated.

At that moment Aragorn heard a shout from the direction of the river, and the second rider came at a fast canter into the clearing. The ringing of a sword being withdrawn from its sheath came to his ears, and he raised his hands higher as a fighting man in his prime, brown-haired and bearded, leaped from the saddle and strode toward him.

Aragorn darted a glance toward the door of the cottage and saw it open fractionally. "Legolas, stay back. All is well," he called softly. "I hope all is well," he muttered to himself as the second of the day's visitors hastened to the side of the boy.

"Tarnan? Are you well?" the man gasped, his gaze sweeping rapidly over his young charge before settling on Aragorn. He leveled his blade at the ranger's heart. "Who the devil are you?" he demanded.

"My name is Aragorn. The boy is unharmed. He held me effectively enough until your arrival."

At his words, something kindled in the eyes of the child. Pride. The boy drew himself up even taller as he turned to his guardian. "There is someone else inside, Alun. I heard him call to him."

"Tell him to come out," the man said.

"I would rather he…"

"He comes out now, or I cut you down where you sit." Alun raised his voice. "Out of the house, now!"

Aragorn turned his head as the door swung open once again. "Come, Legolas. Leave your blade."

As the elf emerged into the sunlight, Aragorn watched the eyes of the newcomers widen in surprise. The man's fingers tightened around the hilt of his sword as Legolas descended the step and moved toward them. "Sit with me," Aragorn said quietly, and his friend found him, following his voice and dropping to his knees beside him. The elf's features were tense, and he kept his head lowered, averting his face from the strangers to shield his blindness.

"Is this an elf?" Alun whispered. He was staring at Legolas with an expression mingled with awe and distrust. The boy stood open-mouthed beside him, and he had unconsciously allowed the tip of his dagger to droop and point uselessly toward the ground.

"My friend, Legolas," Aragorn stated. "Yes, he is an elf."

"Keep your hands where I can see them, Legolas," Alun warned. "Where is the old man, and why are you in his house?"

Aragorn hesitated, his eyes flickering to the child. He furrowed his brow and looked silently at the man standing over him, and a look of understanding lit in Alun's angry gaze. After staring at Aragorn for a moment, he turned to the boy. "Tarnan, I left my horse standing. Will you catch him and put him in with the others? And it would not hurt Firestar to have a bit of a rubdown after the way you drove him up the hill. I'll keep an eye on these two."

The boy hesitated, looking up at the man. "Are you sure? They look dangerous…"

"I'll handle them all right, lad. See to the horses."

Alun waited until the child had reached the paddock, darting a quick glance over his shoulder to ensure that he was out of earshot. The man had not lowered his weapon, and now he twitched it slightly at Aragorn. "Speak," he commanded.

"The old man is dead."

"And did you kill him?"

"No."

Alun shook his head, scowling. "You expect me to believe that? You have taken his home. You are strangers in this land. Why are you here?"

Aragorn shifted slightly, and looked frankly at the man standing over him. "We are travelers from over the mountains. It was our intention to have returned home by now, but circumstances forced us to remain in your lands longer than we had wished. When we came upon the house, it was deserted. We needed shelter, and so we stayed."

"You said the old man is dead. How do you know this?"

"We came upon his body in the apple orchard some two weeks back. We buried him there."

Aragorn watched the man's featured tighten. "You killed him."

The ranger shook his head. "Indeed, we did not. Though proving our innocence may be difficult."

"Next to impossible, if it were not for…" the soldier broke off with a grimace. He glanced at Legolas. "Does your friend not have a voice?"

Legolas raised his head. "I have a voice," he responded quietly.

"Your kind is not spoken well of in the city. What is your purpose here, so close to the city of Carbryddin?"

"It is as Aragorn told you. We have been unable to leave, and now it is too late to pass over the mountains before the snows come."

"Or did you come with the intention to spy?"

"I would make a poor spy," the elf said with a small smile, and he turned away again.

Aragorn was irritated. "Why would the goings-on of your city interest us? We are travelers, nothing more."

"Why stay here then, where there is nothing?" Alun demanded. "If you are travelers, why not travel to the city?"

Aragorn glanced at the elf. He knew Legolas did not want his blindness revealed, but he saw no harm in giving their interrogator something that might satisfy his curiosity. "In September we were headed toward the mountains, toward home, when we were attacked by orcs in the night. Legolas was seriously injured, struck by a poisoned dart. We tried to reach the city, but he could go no further, and then we came upon the cottage. He needed shelter, and this place stood empty. He needed medicines, and I took what I found here. I sought only to save the life of my friend. Can you fault me for using what came to my hands?"

"Why did you not go to the city once he had recovered?"

Legolas' voice came coldly. "As you said, my kind is not well-regarded there. And we were warned of the same by those who live nearby."

The man's eyebrows shot up. "What? Who gave you this warning?"

"We do not know," Aragorn said. "Folk have been leaving occasional gifts of food for us on the doorstep. They do so secretly, and so we have never met them. But they left a message warning us to avoid the city. We chose to heed their advice."

Alun was silent, gazing thoughtfully at the two companions. His expression softened somewhat. "Odd… the folk round here see much. I have no doubt they have been watching you since the day you first arrived. You seem to have met with their approval." He gestured with his sword. "Stand, both of you. Take me to his grave."

The man moved cautiously behind Legolas as the elf rose, taking hold of his upper arm and pressing the tip of his sword against his back. "You lead," Alun said, his eyes meeting Aragorn's.  "And the elf will feel my blade if you make a move out of line."

Aragorn caught Legolas' quick frown. Restraint of any kind angered the wood-elf, and the ranger knew that his friend could spin and knock the man's weapon away in less time than it took to blink. But he wanted to prove his sincerity to Alun, if it could be done, and he did not want an unpleasant situation to arise in front of the boy. "Release him. We willingly take you, but he will walk freely. And we go slowly. He still recovers."

"I'm surprised he's not dead. The poison of the orcs is potent," Alun muttered, glancing sharply at Legolas, measuring him, and then he nodded and removed his hand from the elf's arm. As Aragorn stepped past him Alun turned and called to the boy, who had been doing a rather sketchy job of rubbing his horse down while staring over the fence at his guardian and the strangers. "Tarnan, these two must show me something. Wait for me here. I will be back directly."

The child nodded, watching with wide eyes as the strange procession moved past him. Alun kept his sword-point leveled at Legolas' back as they made their way to the trail and began the trek to the orchard. Aragorn kept the pace steady for the elf's sake, and Legolas silently followed him just as he had before, listening to his footfalls and placing his own feet in the same spots. The ranger turned several times, glancing over his shoulder to reassure himself that his friend was well. It must have been more than a little frightening for Legolas to be forced to march ahead of someone holding a blade at his back, but the elf's face was calm as he walked steadily behind Aragorn, his hands held slightly away from his sides so that Alun could see them. It seemed Legolas was able to sense, as Aragorn had, that the armed man possessed a good heart. The three did not speak, but walked in silence across the meadow and over the hill until the apple trees lay before them.

Aragorn turned to Alun. "There," he said quietly, gesturing to the mound of raised earth under the gnarled branches. The soldier regarded the grave for some moments in silence, his face still and saddened. He lowered his weapon, turning it away from Legolas, but he did not yet sheath it.

"What happened to him?" he asked.

As Aragorn explained the circumstances of the old man's death, Alun listened with a growing expression of anger on his broad face. "He was a good man… a good man," he murmured, shaking his head sorrowfully after Aragorn had finished. "In these times, an honest man seems to gain enemies more readily than a deceitful one."

"He had indicated in his notes that he felt he was disliked in the city," Aragorn said.

"Aye, he was, by those who hold power in their hands. And if this is their work, they are cowards indeed." Alun fastened his gaze on the resting place of the old man. "I have been away too long, old friend," he whispered. "Forgive me."

The soldier looked at Aragorn and Legolas quietly for a moment, and Aragorn met his eyes directly. "We did not do this thing, Alun. I swear it to you."

Alun nodded. "I believe you. There is no deceit in your eyes. Nor in his…" The man's gaze lingered thoughtfully on Legolas, and he then turned away abruptly and rammed his weapon into its sheath. "I should have looked after him better. And by the Valar, how do I tell the boy of this? They were the dearest of friends."

"Alun, is the child your son?" asked Aragorn as he gently tapped Legolas' arm, turning him, and they began the return trek to the house.

"No," the man responded with a smile. "But I often feel as if he is my own. I am merely a city guard, and the one appointed to chase after him and keep him from harm."

Aragorn laughed. "If the way he rode up to the house is any indication, I think your task is not an easy one."

Alun shot a grin at the ranger. "He is a fine boy. He is the son of our lord, Cadean of Carbryddin, and will be ruler of our city when he comes to manhood."

"Is he?" Aragorn raised his eyebrows, and he nodded in understanding. "That explains much about the child's obvious poise and education. I am certain he would have taken me on had I tried to challenge or escape him," he commented with a chuckle.

"Doubt it not. And you would have found him a worthy foe."

Aragorn was full of questions, but the cottage was coming into view, and he saw the small form of the boy sitting on the step before the door, waiting for them. The cat was in his arms, but he stood quickly and set her aside when he caught sight of them. Alun checked briefly, a grimace of pain crossing his features. He turned to the ranger. "He will have seen that you have lived in the house for some time. I will take him now and explain all as we ride home, without the details, of course. I will not have him know this was a murder."

"Alun, do you know who set the trap for the old man?" Legolas asked in a low voice.

"I have my suspicions," the man answered darkly. "I will speak with the others who are with me, and find out what I can."

"The others who are with you?" Aragorn questioned with a frown. "What do you mean?"

Alun sighed. "We have no time to speak of it now. And my advice to you is to not ask. You do not want to get involved in the affairs of our city. It would be best if the leaders do not learn that you dwell here. In particular, they should not hear of him." He gestured to Legolas. "They talk of elves, and their words are hostile. Tarnan and I will say nothing of you, but you must remain hidden. Legolas should stay within the house, and you should not stray far from it. I have heard nothing of you in idle talk about the city, so I think they do not yet know of you. It would be wise to keep it that way."

"We pose no threat," Aragorn said with a confused shake of his head. "I do not understand why the presence of two harmless people four miles up into the hills would matter to those in the city."

"They see everyone as a threat. When greed and lust for power are what drives a man, rational thinking is nowhere to be found. Who can look into the hearts of such men and make sense of what is found there?"

They had come to the house now, and the boy ran to meet Alun, his face filled with tension. "I looked in the house, Alun. They live there. Two beds are within, and there are things I have never seen. Where is Gildwas?"

The man rested his hands on the boy's shoulders and looked at him sadly. "Tarnan, we must speak. I will tell you what you need to know as we ride home."

Tarnan shook his head, backing up a pace, and tears started in his eyes. "Is he dead?" he whispered.

Alun sighed and nodded slowly. "Yes, child."

"Oh," the boy gasped. "Oh…" He spun, darting watery eyes at Aragorn and Legolas. "Did they do it?"

"No, Tarnan. They found his body after and buried him. That is all."

"But they are from over the mountains, where people say the evil ones live. They come. The elf is a spy…"

Alun glanced quickly at Legolas' startled face before turning to the boy. "Nonsense. Remember who says these things, lad. They try to sway you with their lies. This elf is no spy." And Alun silently raised his hand and passed it slowly before Legolas' eyes. The elf did not react, and Alun looked silently then at Aragorn. The ranger, understanding what the man had realized, nodded quietly to him.

The child's face was contorted, his mouth working soundlessly as he fought with his grief. He had not noticed the communication that had transpired between the soldier and the ranger, for he had cast his stricken gaze to the ground in his anguish. He clenched his fists as his small form trembled. As Alun stepped forward to embrace him he jerked his face up, staring up with wild eyes at his guardian. "Malcovan did it," Tarnan hissed. Aragorn, surprised, looked sharply at the boy, amazed at the anger in his young voice. "That filthy sorcerer, and his followers. They did it."

"Child, you do not know that, either," Alun said quietly.

"Yes I do. I do know it. And you know it, too." The boy broke away from the soldier's arms and stumbled toward the horses, his sobs audible as he fumbled awkwardly with the gate's latch. Aragorn watched as the man went to the boy and aided him in readying their mounts. Legolas, standing silently beside him with his arms crossed over his chest, sighed softly and lowered his head as the sound of weeping filled their ears.

"I think you could make use of these," Alun said to Aragorn as he drew his horse alongside and pulled several packs off the animal's back and handed them to the ranger. "I will see what I can do to help you with supplies. Winter comes soon, and I would not see two men starve or freeze to death out here."

"Do not worry about us, Alun," Aragorn told him. "Legolas and I are resourceful and strong. It seems your life is complicated enough without taking us on as well."

"I failed to protect the old healer. I'll not have any other people on my conscience," the man said firmly. "If I can protect you from what lies ahead, I will."

As Aragorn frowned, wondering at his words, the man spun his horse and set off after the boy, and in a moment the two riders were gone. The ranger and the elf stood alone and bewildered as the soft echoes of hoof-beats faded into the lonely whispers of the wind in the trees.

To be continued

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and are owned by his estate. I do not have permission to use them, and am making no monetary profit from this story. It was written for entertainment only.

Author's note: my gratitude to those of you who checked out my first story, The Healer, and sent me email reviews. They weren't as scathing as I feared, so I thank you! I do not think I can post the URL for Cassia's site here but if you want it, send me an email and I'll get it to you.

I'm flying solo this time as Lisette, my dear beta reader, is taking a well-earned vacation in a warm climate, searching for that lost shaker of salt. I do hope my propensity to spit out massive run-on sentences is under control here. This chapter is short, but sweet. Hope you enjoy it.

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Fifteen: Search for Understanding

"From the notes of the old healer, two years ago: More unrest in the city. I am happy to be here, alone with my beloved garden and the quiet of these woods. But the unrest down below reaches me even here, for the poor folk bring disquieting news when they visit. A clenched fist seems to rise above the citizens, and they are helpless to escape the shadow it casts. The folk of the hills hide themselves deeper in the wild lest they be caught in the net. And I, simple healer that I am, counsel all who come to me to resist those who have manipulated the Lord of the city. Cadean is a good man, but never was he firm of purpose. He is easily swayed by the ill winds that blow. But the boy! Such a lad has not been seen in many a year in these parts. His son will be the leader Lord Cadean never could be. And he loves me. A joy it is to have such a friend. He quite restores my sense of purpose."

  "A different entry, dated one year ago in late autumn: The city mourns. The Lady has died after great suffering of more than two weeks duration. It seems nothing could be done, though I myself had not been permitted to see her. I went down when I heard of her illness, but found myself barred from the great home. It was with terrible sadness that I turned away, for I think I might have been of help. But those close to Cadean know I oppose them, and Malcovan, the self-styled wizard and healer, would not permit me to pass, even to save her life. How distressing it must have been for her to be treated by him, for she disliked him greatly. The lord, ruler of the city, will become weaker than ever without the moral strength of his wife, and will wither into a mere shadow of what he once had been. And what now comes of Tarnan? His mother permitted his visits to me, and encouraged them, but now I fear I shall see him no more. Wicked days will come hard on the heels of this tragedy."

  "And this, written in early spring of this year, just six months ago: I stand above the city and watch the army drill. Alun tells me, on the rare occasions that he is able to slip away to meet me, that the sorcerer Malcovan and his right hand, the foreign captain of the troops, decide all things now. Their word is law. Lord Cadean sits in the high chair at the head of the table, as he always did, but says little and does less. In all things he defers to these two charlatans, and the black clouds gather and thicken, even on the sunniest day. My heart is heavy. The strong people resist, but all their actions are furtive and guarded as they struggle to find a way to overcome the evil that has come to their fair city. They dare not revolt openly when they are so few in number. The folk in the hills run and hide, not yet able to muster their courage to fight. But fight they must, for they will be hunted down and pressed into service, for it seems the army trains for a reason, and will march next year wherever. What the foreign captain intends I do not know."

  With a sigh and a soft rustle of paper, Aragorn ended his narrative. "And that, my friend, is all I can find among the old man's papers to shed a small beam of light on this matter. The rest of these notes pertain only to his healing practice… records of visitors and treatments."

Legolas nodded quietly, his brow furrowed as he pondered the words the ranger had read aloud to him. His dinner was eaten, consisting of some of the provisions Alun had left them, and though he welcomed the fresh eggs and the good wine, the elf had not been able to truly enjoy his meal. The food had come to their hands surrounded by a fog of confusing circumstances and distressing emotions, and the pleasant taste of it was buried under the distant threat of danger.

He sought the cat, as he always did when he felt uneasy, and she was close by, padding softly to him and jumping up when he chirped and patted his lap. He ran his fingers through her warm fur as she arched her back against his hands, purring softly. "Would it not be a fine thing to be a small cat in a cozy cottage when the world makes no sense?" he murmured.

"Their world is a less complicated one than ours." Aragorn had risen, and his voice now came from a corner of the cottage. "I sometimes feel men could do worse than watch the way cats live their lives. They care not for riches and personal gain. A full belly, a warm fire, a bit of mischief and good companionship are enough to fill their hearts."

"As it should be for any of us," the elf sighed. "What are you doing over there?"

"Looking for my socks. She takes them."

"Who?"

"Your cat," Aragorn responded. The ranger was moving a heavy object. It scraped noisily over the floor.

"What?" the bewildered elf exclaimed.

"She steals my socks. I have seen her do it. Here they are, behind the water jugs. All dusty now, too."

"Aragorn, why would Tithlam steal your socks? I cannot fathom what the appeal would be."

"Nor can I, but she steals them nevertheless." Aragorn returned to the table and resumed his seat. Legolas heard him pulling his socks on.

"Are you cold?" he asked.

"Yes. I want something on my feet. Soon we should get to work on those rabbit pelts. I will make slippers and gloves. We'll need them."

Legolas nodded, turning his face toward the south, where he knew the silent and distant Grey Mountains loomed as a great barrier between himself and his homeland. He imagined the icy currents that crept through narrow rocky passes, and freezing winds that scoured the peaks and drove the breath from the body with its savagery. When he spoke again, his voice was low and troubled. "When Alun was speaking to us this afternoon, I had a wild though for a moment that we should try to make for the mountains tomorrow. Just start out, and try to avoid all of this… but I know the snows have already begun to fill the passes. We would not be able to get through. And the air will change here ere long, and then winter will be upon us. We cannot leave, and so tomorrow we should start on the meadow and get the grasses cut for the horse."

Aragorn was silent, but the heaviness of his worry was easily felt by the elf. A cold wash of fear flowed over him at the ranger's silence. Legolas narrowed his eyes and he set the cat down. "I will not hide in this house, Aragorn. I know what Alun said, and I appreciate his warning, but this situation is absurd. We will stay away from the people in the city, but I will not be kept prisoner within these walls." He shuddered. "The darkness before my eyes binds me in so many ways, Aragorn. I will submit to no other confinement. Do not ask it of me. Please, do not."

The elf felt a hand rest on his shoulder. "I would sooner try to cage an eagle, Legolas. And I remember well enough what happened the last time I tried to keep you inside. But we must respect Alun's warning. Whatever is happening down in the city does not bode well for us, though I fail to understand why. We cannot hide inside this cottage, Legolas, but we must be cautious from this point on. We stay together when we do our work. And do not go to the pond without me."

"In other words, you want me where you can see me," Legolas said with a grimace of irritation.

"Yes."

The elf sighed, unhappy that just when his efforts toward independence were beginning to please him, he would be forced to rein in his activities. But he knew the soldier's words were valid. And in the matter of his blindness, he had to acknowledge, though it pained him, that he was dependent as never before upon his friend. He was dependent for his very life. "Make the same promise to me, Aragorn. I cannot lose you," he said softly.

"And you will not. We stay together in all things."

"Except when I go to the privy, my friend. I'll handle that little chore on my own," the elf stated with a grin. "And if you think to follow me there I will see that you regret it."

Aragorn laughed, and Legolas heard the pouring of more wine into his cup. "I'll try to keep a proper balance, Elf. I have no desire to watch your every move to that extent."

"Thank you. As for you, as long as you sing and I can hear you, I'll not worry when you step out of the house to attend to those small but vital necessities."

"Sing?" The ranger sounded horrified. "While I'm…? No. No, no, no. The people in the city force us to take precautions and change our activities to some extent, but we must draw the line somewhere."

"I agree completely," Legolas chuckled, but then he sobered once more. The events of the day were far too serious to brush completely aside with a few jokes. He found his cup and drank from it. Setting it down on the table once more, he took care to slide it away from the edge so that it would not fall if he accidentally brushed his hand against it. "We do not have enough information to make any sense of what is happening in the city, Aragorn. I am more than willing to stay out of their way, and leave this place when spring comes. But the words of the boy trouble me. The things he said about us… about the people over the mountains, and his belief that I was a spy…" Legolas broke off with a shake of his head. "I am curious as to why the leaders of the city would say such things about elves."

"Ignorance, probably. But it does seem odd to me as well that they seem to be so focused on a group of people whom they have probably never even met," Aragorn said. "I wonder what they have heard of elves that would garner such a reaction? I could see fear in Alun's eyes, when he first set them on you. And the boy was amazed. Legolas, I must tell you…" the ranger paused, and he appeared reluctant to continue.

Legolas smiled softly, wanting to spare Aragorn his discomfort. "That Alun knows I am blind?"

"Yes. How did you know?" Aragorn asked.

"Something he said in the orchard, about my eyes holding no deceit. He is one who meets the gaze of others directly, I am certain of it, and I did not feel confident enough to attempt to hide my affliction from him. What about the boy?"

"I think he does not know. He was dealing with the shock of his friend's death, and before that he was just busy gaping at his first elf. As was Alun in the beginning."

"I fear the boy may be quite excited to tell his people all about the two strangers from over the mountains."

"As am I, but Alun said that he would say nothing. The boy may have been told that we are his enemies, but he obviously holds no love or respect for those who have taught him. He will not tell them of us. As for him telling his friends, we can only pray that he does not. I'm sure Alun will speak with him and ask for his silence."

"You read in the healer's journals that the child lost his mother only last year. And now the old man, his friend, is dead," Legolas remarked with sadness. "He is experiencing losses that would be hard for anyone, but especially so for a young child."

"And he appears to be growing up in a less that ideal atmosphere, where ignorance and prejudice shadow his world."

Legolas sighed. "Ignorance is a wicked thing. Many think it is an innocent failing, but it is in truth the root of distrust and hostility. All that is needed is the start of communication, and the blossom of understanding will begin to open. But that first step toward communication is often the hardest to take."

Aragorn laughed softly. "Spoken like the son of a king, and one used to the long talks at the negotiating table, Legolas."

Legolas nodded. "I like it. It is a wonderful opportunity to learn about one's neighbors, though the proceedings can be rather dull and risk becoming bogged down in tedious details and petty grievances. The intimate one-on-one meetings in an informal setting satisfy me most. I have had many talks with Bain of Dale over the dying embers of a campfire, and we have come to fruitful understandings in this way. He is a good man and wise, as was his father."

"I would like to meet him some day."

"I will introduce you to him. Once we return and I take up my duties once more…" Legolas stopped abruptly.

Aragorn remained silent, and Legolas reached for his cup again, but he did not lift it to his lips. He only turned it absently, feeling the smooth glaze of the drinking vessel cool against his fingertips as his thoughts wandered again to his home and his uncertain future. He struggled not to dwell overmuch on the concerns such thoughts carried with them, but it was not possible to entirely push them aside. Spring would come, and he and Aragorn would go home, and… and after that he could envision nothing. Loneliness and long days of idle lingering were the only things that came to him clearly when he pondered the life waiting for him on the other side of the mountains, and it filled him with fear. The endless worry and doubt gnawed relentlessly at his spirit as he quietly exhaled and removed his fingers from his wine cup.

A hand suddenly grasped his own and squeezed hard, and he lifted his bowed head with a start. "Your future is not empty, Legolas," the ranger's voice came to him, strongly and with conviction. "I will not permit it to be so, and neither will you. You will not wander without purpose."

"Then why am I blind, Aragorn?" the elf whispered. "I feel as if I am waiting, waiting interminably… drifting aimlessly in the dark. But for what? What purpose?"

The man cleared his throat as he shifted in his chair. "I do not know. The reason for your blindness, if there can be a reason at all, also torments me. But in our many adventures together there have been two undeniable truths that I have learned, and one of them is this: when fate forces your hand, go with it. You must find whatever truth you can in the darkness."

"The seeking is not so easy," the elf murmured. He swallowed hard on the lump of anguish that rose in his throat. "I am lost, Aragorn. I do not know which way to turn."

"Nor do I, but you have already begun to walk the path laid before you, and you do not walk it alone."

"And what is the other truth you have learned?" Legolas asked, his sightless eyes seeking the floor beneath his feet.

Aragorn's hand tightened again on his own. "That Legolas of Mirkwood has never wanted courage. Not this afternoon, when he was ready to burst through the door and fight whoever might seek to harm me, and not in the mornings, when he rises from his bed and faces another day in a dark world. But right now, I think an old oak tree is waiting for a wood-elf to climb it."

Legolas raised his head and smiled. Grateful for Aragorn's constant presence and encouragement, he reached with his arms and embraced his mortal friend. "It is, and I will go to it now. Thank you, Aragorn. Thank you for everything."

To be continued

  

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creation of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them. This story was written for entertainment only and no monetary profit was made.

Author's Notes: Lisette is back, all relaxed and tan! Thanks for betaing, mellon-nin. And to all of you still demanding that I give Legolas his eyesight back, I am disinclined to acquiesce to your request.

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Sixteen: Daydream Believer

Pausing to wipe the sweat from his brow, Aragorn leaned his weight on the handle of the scythe and rested his weary body for a moment. Day three of cutting the grasses, and he had grown more than a little tired of swinging the sickle back and forth, back and forth… he was wretchedly tired of it, in fact, and the only thing that kept him going was the fact that this was the last day. The small loft above the horse's stall was almost full of tied bundles of grass, and what he and Legolas carried back this evening should be enough. Then I go back to hauling wood from the forest, for we must have more fuel… and the ranger, without realizing he had done so, sighed aloud at the thought.

The soft sound of pouring water came to him, and through his closed eyes he envisioned the waterfalls of Imladris. His favorite swimming spot lay beneath one of the great falls. Secluded, enclosed by shrubs of wildflowers, the place had a claim on his heart like no other. The low, graceful dip of weeping willow branches provided a private place; a place to swim in a calm, warm pond and to rest on the cool, grassy bank, where the scent of lilac filled his nostrils and the sweet songs of the larks could be heard even over the rush of the cascading water. The spray that constantly misted the air had saturated his hair, and his hands were wet as he reached again for Arwen. Laughing, she drew near for the kiss. This place was theirs, and her eyes, dark and sparkling, locked onto his as she stretched out one long leg and straddled him. Ai, Valar, there is no other moment in the world to compare to this… and he raised his arms, his fingers tangling into her black hair and pulling at the ties of her gown. Her breasts rounded in his hands as the loosened fabric fell away from her body. No other moment...

"Aragorn?" A voice, beautiful in the way that only the voice of an elf could be, spoke his name. But the voice was male, and there was a concerned, insistent tone to it that requested his attention. The sounds of falling water and the smells of spring faded, and with a shake of his head the ranger returned to the present moment. He smiled and turned toward the voice. Legolas stood behind him, extending a cup toward him with a worried expression on his face. "Are you thirsty?"

"I am." Aragorn took the cup and, tilting his head back, drained it in three swallows. The elf proffered the water container again, and the cup was refilled.

"We can return tomorrow if we must," Legolas said. "You are wearing yourself out, Aragorn."

"No. I wish to finish this task." Aragorn emptied the cup for the second time and drew the back of his hand across his mouth. "We must return to our own needs tomorrow. Food and firewood."

"I know, but you will injure yourself if you do not rest. The handle of the scythe is too short for you, and it forces you to stoop. And the balance of it does not please me. Since you will not permit me to wield the blade, you must at least pace yourself better than this. I will sharpen it now, and you will rest your back for a few minutes."

"The blade is fine. I sharpened it this morning."

The elf shook his head and sat cross-legged on the ground. Removing the rectangular whetstone from the pack slung at his hip, he trickled a few drops of water onto it. He reached up with his free hand and gestured for the ranger to place the blade in it. "That was hours ago, Aragorn. It begins to drag now rather than cut. I hear the difference, even if you do not yet feel it. Give me the sickle."

"As you wish," Aragorn grumbled. He turned the instrument over to the elf and lowered himself to the ground, stretching out on his back. It did feel good to relax, and he raised his aching arms above his head and sank with a sigh into the cool earth. His eyes drifted over the grey leaden sky, dark with low clouds. The day was cold, though sweat stood out on his body from his labors. He listened to the sound of stone and metal rasping together. It ceased as the elf paused to drip more water onto the stone, and then it resumed.

"Better," Legolas murmured. "So… where were you just now?"

Aragorn frowned. "Where was I?"

"I had a very strong impression that you were elsewhere. Perhaps in the place you dreamt of last night." The elf's voice quivered with barely restrained mirth, and the ranger shifted his head and regarded the blond elf in alarm. Legolas' mouth was twitching, his arms moving rhythmically as he worked the sickle edge against the stone.

"Oh, Valar. Do not tell me I spoke in my sleep again, Legolas."

Legolas snickered. "It was a good dream."

"Do not go any further."

"I do not need to go any further. You went far enough."

"Legolas!"

The elf laughed. "Fear not. You did not give me all the details. She sounds intriguingly frisky, however. Imaginative. Things were getting interesting."

"You are, from this point on," Aragorn snarled, "banished forever from the cottage at night. Spend the late hours with your cold tree and stay out of my dreams."

"We could fit you with a gag. That would be an interesting solution to your nocturnal revelations. And it would remedy the snoring as well."

Aragorn lurched to his feet, ignoring the clamor his sore muscles sent up as he leaned over the elf and took hold of the handle of the scythe, pulling it from his friend's hands. "Back to it, Elf. I will ensure that we are both so tired tonight neither of us makes a sound."

Aragorn swung the blade at the tall withered grasses, knowing well that they were far past their best time for harvest. Still, it was better than nothing and would see the old horse through until the pale green shoots showed their faces to the spring sun again. Legolas labored behind him, gathering up the fallen stalks and tying them into bundles. The elf sang softly as he worked, and few words of tree and star were contained in the melodies.His fair face was a picture of innocence as he launched into yet another lyrical song that began sweetly enough about the beauty of a summer's day and the entwined hands of lovers as they idly strolled a winding path, but before long the words turned and the elf let fly something about legs waving in all four directions like standards in the breeze and the proud raising of one's banner-pole. Aragorn turned more than once to stare at Legolas. They do not make such songs in the realm of Thranduil. Do they? And each time he paused the elf raised his head and burst out laughing.

They toiled until the sky darkened and the air quieted. With a sigh, Aragorn set the scythe down. "The day wanes. We are finished, my bawdy friend. We have enough. And I have had enough."

The elf nodded as he tied off the ends of the bundle in his arms. "We have a small supply of oats in the shed as well. It is not much, but if we use it sparingly we should be able to keep Rhosgernroch fed. Where is the blanket?"

"Here." They had been using an old tattered barn blanket to haul the grass, and Aragorn spread it out beside the elf. "I will bring the bundles to you."

"There are thirty-three of them."

"What a memory you have," Aragorn laughed. He turned and walked back through the meadow, great patches of it shorn and stubby now, and gathered up the scattered bundles. He carried them to his friend, and Legolas stacked them onto the blanket.

"That should be the lot. And I am not sorry to be done. Why did we decide to keep the horse?" Aragorn muttered as he folded the blanket over the grass. He and Legolas took up the corners and began dragging their burden toward the cottage.

"We will need her," the elf responded.

"For what?"

The elf furrowed his brow. "I do not know. I just think we will need her."

"We need her right now. She ought to haul her own food."

"Aye," Legolas agreed. "But it is too late to fetch her now. By the time we brought her here, figured out how to harness her to this load, and started back again, we would already have the hay stored in the loft."

"That we will do tomorrow. Once we get this to the barn, all I want is dinner and a smoke. I would go for a hot bath as well, were one available."

"I wish it could be so. It would ease the pain in your back."

Something in the musical voice made Aragorn glance quickly at his companion. The elf's pupils were dilated and dark, the lids tensed and narrowed as if they sought to fend something off, and the man realized that in addition to satisfying the very elven urge for playful teasing, Legolas had used the songs to distract himself from the worsening pain in his head as the day drew on. A wave of angry self-reproach swept over Aragorn. "I am sorry, Legolas. I was so bent on getting this task completed that I forgot to bring the herbs for you this afternoon."

"No matter. We have food for our horse now, and I will rest the easier for it," the elf responded lightly, but he turned his pale face away from Aragorn's scrutiny, taking a firmer grip on the blanket and pulling more strongly.

Shadows had settled heavily on the evening, and Aragorn squinted as he and Legolas rounded the curve in the trail and the small barn came into view. He stopped abruptly as he heard soft hoof-beats tramping about in the enclosure and he realized that more than one horse shared the small space. Legolas' head came up in the same instant, and together they crouched, Aragorn resting his hand on the elf's shoulder. "I cannot see the horses from here. The barn blocks my view," he whispered.

"It is Alun's horse," Legolas murmured after a moment, turning his head not toward the barn, but to the silent trees surrounding them.

"Did he come alone?"

The elf's eyes closed as he put his attention out into the forest. He remained still for a short time, listening, and then he nodded his head. "I hear no one else. I think it is safe."

Aragorn stood and peered in the direction of the house. "Ah, he is waiting on the porch. Let us see what brings him here."

They dragged the laden blanket with them until they reached the side of the barn, and there they left it and continued on to the house. Alun had risen to his feet when they entered the clearing, but he did not approach them. As the ranger and the elf drew near, he quietly unbuckled his scabbard and laid his weapon on the ground, stepping away from it with a slight incline of his head toward Aragorn. Aragorn nodded back, appreciating the gesture of tentative trust and friendship. "Well met, Alun. I had hoped we would see you again. Will you stay a while? Legolas and I were about to prepare our evening meal."

"I can stay for a time," the soldier answered in his gruff voice. "I am off duty as far as my young lord is concerned, and I often patrol the areas around the city's borders at night. I will not be missed."

Aragorn looked closely at his visitor. He looked tired, and distracted, his fingers tugging absently at his beard. "Come inside, then, for there is much I would ask you, if you are willing to tell."

Alun's eyes met his. "The matters of the city are best left alone," he said slowly, and his eyes moved to rest on Legolas. They widened, and Aragorn looked at Legolas as well to see what had startled the man. He smiled. Though not yet entirely gone, the daylight had waned enough to make quite obvious the soft, luminous glow of the elf's body.

Aragorn spoke as the soldier's eyes shifted back to him. "Then I will ask you how the boy fares, and if his grief is eased."

"His grief continues. He is not one to shrug off such a loss in a mere handful of days. But he weeps in private only, or with me. And I see the question in your eyes. Even the great excitement of seeing an elf for the first time will not cause him to open his mouth when he understands the need for secrecy. He has not spoken of you to anyone, and I can assure you he will not."

Legolas inhaled deeply. "I am relieved to hear that. We had concerns."

Aragorn regarded the elf standing quietly beside him, his eyes half-closed with pain he could not entirely mask. "Let us go inside," he urged, taking hold of his friend's arm, but Legolas quietly pulled away.

"I would like to see to Rhosgernroch, Aragorn. If you would be so kind as to bring the tea out to me, I will join you after a time." Without waiting for a response, the elf turned and walked quickly toward the small barn. Upon reaching the fence he placed his left hand on it and, vaulting gracefully over the rails, he vanished into the dark building.

Alun watched the elf in silence until he had disappeared, then turned to Aragorn with raised brows. "I thought he could not see? But just now he moved with the ease of one who can."

"Legolas is blind. A lasting gift from the orcs," the ranger said, his voice low and bitter, and they entered the cottage. "As is lingering pain in his head. I need to prepare his medicines. Please sit," he gestured to the table. The room was dark and chilled with the ending of the day. He lit the lamp and turned to the cold hearth.  "I must get a fire going and boil the bark. But we can talk while I do so."

"How is it that he is able to walk about with such confidence?"

"He is an elf," Aragorn responded as he quickly readied the tinder and struck a spark to light it. He needs something stronger tonight. A curse on my impatience! And on his stubbornness… he of course says nothing, even when his head is about to explode.  He stood and regarded the small collection of herbs he kept on the chimney-shelf and pulled down the pouch containing the valerian leaves. A bit of this added to the willow bark… it will tire him slightly, and no doubt he will complain about that, but it is of little matter if it eases his pain quickly.

"And elves have magical powers. I have heard of them."

Aragorn grimaced as he added several small sticks and gently blew on the flame to encourage it to spread. What Alun had heard was undoubtedly nonsense, colorful stories passed from mouth to mouth by people who had never met an elf in their lives. He pulled in a deep breath and turned his head over his shoulder to look at the soldier, who was watching him expectantly. "I think what you have heard is not entirely factual. Given the prevailing attitude toward elves in your city, I feel quite certain there are untruths in what you have been told. Elves are not "magical" in the way you might think. They live their lives much as we do, and in them joy and sorrow are woven close."

"I have heard they do not die. I have heard they can detect the flutter of a bird's wing a mile off. And your friend… there is a shine about his body. Or was I imagining it?" the man demanded with an expression of perplexed bewilderment.

Aragorn chuckled. "You did not imagine it." The fire was going well now, and he settled the grate over it and reached for the small pot he prepared each morning, containing water and several pieces of willow bark, which was kept steeping during the day. He added a few dried leaves from the pouch and set it over the flames. "They are immortal, for they do not age as we do. Nor do they fall to illness as we do. But they can die, if they are wounded or poisoned so severely that the body is unable to heal. They do have enhanced abilities. Hearing, eyesight, speed and skill in battle, and the ability to sense things around them… they are connected to the earth and the stars in ways that we cannot understand. They are like us in many ways, but in countless other ways they are very different. But differences ought not be feared, Alun. Just respected. And I think if you were that wary of Legolas you would not be protecting us. Nor would you have returned to this place."

Alun grinned. "True enough. My curiosity has gotten the better of me. Perhaps the fact that he is blind encourages me to believe he is not dangerous."

"He is no threat to you because you have declared yourself a friend. Blind or sighted, he is formidable, and were you his enemy, you would learn just how dangerous he yet can be." Aragorn strained the boiling water into a cup, added some cool water to it, and rose to his feet. "I must go to him now."

"Shall I leave? If he is ill…"

"Stay. He has his pride and does not want you to see his pain, but I expect he will join us when he feels better. And there is much we wish to ask you."

"And much you need to know," Alun said, darting his sharp eyes toward Aragorn. "I see you went foraging today. I know it was necessary. You must hunt and gather your fuel, but there is danger in doing so. They will kill him if they see him. They will kill you. I do not know if that is something you want him to know."

Aragorn paused in the doorway at the soldier's warning. Frowning, he digested the words for a moment. "Legolas must know. I am his friend, and now his protector, though that fact distresses us both. But he is no child, and I will not keep information from him. Will you wait, and stay for dinner? I shall return shortly."

Alun nodded, and Aragorn stepped into the darkening evening. The last orange-red rays of the sun had faded, and he shivered as the cold air struck him. He crossed to the horses and opened the gate. The animals were busy with the grass that Legolas had hung for them in a net, and they barely flicked an ear in his direction as he went to the byre and paused in the doorway, searching for the soft glow of the elf in the shadows.

"Here, Aragorn." Legolas' voice came quietly from a corner of the storage room. He sat cross-legged on the floor, his back propped against the wall and the cat curled and purring in his lap. The ranger knelt beside him, looking with concern at his friend's strained features and closed eyes.

"I am sorry I took so long. I needed to boil the bark, but it is ready now." He took the elf's hands and placed the warm cup into them. "Drink."

Legolas raised the cup and smelled the draught with a suspicious expression. "This tea smells like your feet, Aragorn."

Aragorn laughed. "Only the finest medicines for you, my dear friend."

Legolas swallowed the bitter mixture with a grimace. "You forgot the honey."

"My apologies."

"No," Legolas shook his head irritably. "Forgive me. The pain makes me peevish. It is wrong of me to complain." He stirred slightly, sighing, and straightened his back. He did not open his eyes. "Is Alun still here?"

"He is. I will send him away if you wish it. If you are not comfortable meeting him..."

"It does feel odd to be in the presence of a stranger after all this time, Aragorn, but I do not desire the life of a hermit, hiding myself away. I am actually relieved that he knows I cannot see, for I do not have the energy tonight to try to hide my blindness from him. And if he has information for us, I would hear it. We need to have a better idea of what surrounds us. Too much is unknown."

"I agree. Perhaps tonight we can get some answers. Do you desire me to stay with you?"

"No. Go back and see to our guest. I will come when I can."

"Very well." Aragorn rose, knowing the elf did not want to be fussed over, and quietly left him. The ranger returned to the cabin to find Alun still seated at the table.

"How is he?" the soldier asked as Aragorn set the wine before him.

"He rests, and will join us soon."

Alun drank while Aragorn prepared the meal, his eyes roaming slowly over the small cabin. "You have few things," he remarked.

"The orcs came upon us without warning. We traveled light, but were forced to leave what few possessions we did have behind when we fled. We arrived here with little more than the clothes on our backs."

"And these weapons," the soldier gestured to Legolas' bow and quiver hung on the door. "Have I your permission to take a closer look?"

"They belong to Legolas. But I think he would not mind if you took them down."

Alun laid the quiver on the table and, extracting one of the long knives, examined it with keen eyes. "Wonderful workmanship. It is lighter than I thought it would be. Almost too delicate, but there is strength in the metal and the balance is perfect. Our metalsmiths would be delighted to see this." He turned his attention to the bow, laying it across his lap to more closely examine the inlaid design of gold leaves against the dark wood. "And this… it seems the elves place much value on beauty. But the bow is dusty, and the string needs waxing. Ah, it sits idle because he can no longer use it."

"He has not touched it since the night of the attack."

The soldier set the end of the bow on the floor and made an effort to flex it. His eyebrows shot up. "What is the draw-weight of this thing?" he gasped.

Aragorn chucked. "I believe about one hundred pounds. I have shot that bow once or twice, and thought my body would shatter. I cannot handle it for any length of time. Legolas can fire over forty arrows per minute, and his arms never tire. And he never misses his target."

Alun shook his head, scowling. "Impossible. No one is that fast. And I have seen men who have the strength to handle bows of this type. They train daily, and they are much larger and more powerful than your friend."

"Well, perhaps you will be able to see Legolas in action some day, if I can convince him to take up his bow again."

"That would be something to see. And Tarnan would love it. That boy loves all weapons and excels in his training, but he particularly enjoys the bow."

Aragorn placed the food on the table and returned Legolas' weapons to their peg on the door. Opening it he gazed out into the night, and noticed the softly lit outline of the elf coming toward him. "I was just putting the food on, Legolas," he called.

"And I am ready for it," the elf responded with a smile. He looked tired, but the dark shadow in his eyes had lightened. He trod forward, soft-footed, and paused somewhat uncertainly in the doorway. Tithlam was in his arms, and she turned her green-eyed gaze onto the soldier. Without warning, she gathered herself and leapt from the elf to Alun, who caught her in midair as if he was long used to doing so.

"Well, hello, little Squeaky. I have not seen you in an age."

Aragorn's jaw dropped in surprise, and he darted a sidelong glance at Legolas, who stood rooted to the floor with an expression of horror on his face. "Squeaky?" the elf gasped. "Her name is Squeaky?"

"It is indeed," Alun said with a somewhat bewildered smile as he took note of the elf's dismay. "It is the name the old man gave her, because she cannot meow."

As the elf closed his eyes and sagged against the door Aragorn collapsed against the table with a shout of laughter. "Oh Eru," Legolas moaned sorrowfully. "I will never hear the end of this."

To be continued

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth were created by J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them. This story was written for enjoyment only and no monetary profit was made.  

Thanks to Lisette for her beta work. All talk and no description makes for a dull chapter.

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Sixteen: A Tale of One City

Aragorn leaned back in his chair and stretched to ease his sore back. The meal had been eaten quickly and quietly, for Alun appeared reluctant to disclose just why he had returned to the cabin. He still seemed to regard Legolas with some unease, and stole quick glances out of the corner of his eye at the elf seated beside him. Aragorn regarded his discomfiture with amusement. Perhaps he was told elves do not eat food, but feast only on the air.

Alun, looking toward Aragorn, saw the ranger watching him. With a slightly embarrassed smile he set his fork down and pushed his plate aside. "My thanks to you both. It was a fine meal."

"Made better by the wine you provided," Aragorn told him. He reached across the table and refilled the soldier's cup. "Have some more. Perhaps it will help to loosen your tongue, and you can finally tell us why you have come to see us."

Alun nodded. "I came to tell you of the arrangements I have made to help you through the winter. It is not much, but it will help. I have spoken with some of my companions—" he broke off at the look of alarm that raced across Aragorn's features. "Fear not. These are men who will keep their silence. They pose no threat to you. They are with me in the fight against the takers of our city."

"But the more who know of us, the greater the chances of someone betraying us, even unintentionally," Aragorn said uneasily. "If it is so vital that our presence here remain a secret…"

"There are but two whom I have spoken with about you, and you were already known to one of them."

Legolas nodded in understanding. "He who left the gifts," he said.

"Yes. I have met with him, though it took a bit of seeking to find him. Arath and his band move about frequently, so as to avoid detection by our enemies. As I suspected, they had seen you. They watched you, and are indeed the ones who left you the food, once they had determined that you were not to be feared. They saw that you were in need."

"Who are these men?" Aragorn asked.

"They are the hill-dwellers. They have never lived in the city, as they prefer a different sort of life. They have been in these parts years uncounted, as were their fathers before them. But their relations with the city were friendly until the changes came. Now they hide, moving from cave to cave, hill to hill, trying to avoid capture."

"But why do those in the city seek them?"

"All men are to be pressed into service, to fill the ranks of the army. And, as I said before, those in power trust no one, not even a small band of impoverished men who scratch out a living in these hills. Any who strive against them are to be hunted down." The soldier barked out a short laugh. "They are not entirely wrong to feel such concern, though. The hill people work with us, and we will one day reclaim our city and drive the enemy out. That is our sworn oath. But our struggles are not your concern," Alun added quickly. "Let us talk of the practicalities of seeing the two of you through the winter. Arath and his folk have promised to look in on you when they are nearby, but their aid cannot be counted upon, as they move about frequently. You may not ever meet them at all. They are reluctant to mingle with others, and they have little to spare. What food they were able to leave you was given because they noticed your situation. They saw that you cared for an injured companion. They also realized in observing the two of you that Legolas has lost his sight." Alun's sharp eyes moved again to settle on the elf, and one brow quirked up.  "And that, even so, he often sleeps in a large tree just beyond the clearing. And that he sometimes does not sleep at all, but sings all night with his face turned up toward the stars."

Aragorn regarded Legolas, expecting to see unhappiness at the news that others beside Alun had noticed his blindness, but instead his friend seemed to relax, and even laughed softly. "It took no small amount of work to learn my way around after I had recovered from the poison," the elf said. "I have little doubt your friends have seen all manner of interesting events and behavior."

Alun smiled, settling more comfortably into his chair. "They have found watching both of you an amusing diversion. But in doing so they have also become convinced that you are not leagued with those in the city. Arath saw you bury Gildwas. He had come upon the body earlier, but was alone at the time and had not the means to tend to him properly. But he did verify that you had buried him as you said."

Legolas frowned, a look of concern brushing across his face. "But if the hill-folk hide in these parts because they are being pursued by those in the city, is it not just a matter of time before Aragorn and I are discovered? I must confess it surprises me that no one has come to check on this house, particularly if the old man was a target."

"I think," said Alun, "that the enemy had tired of chasing after Arath and his group. They are few, after all, and there are other matters that are more important. As for this house, there is little of value here. They knew nothing here would interest them, as Gildwas was a poor man. I have no doubt that someone came up here to be sure that their leg trap had worked though," he muttered, his face dark with anger. "But the house was ignored. They did not take the horse, for that would have raised suspicion amongst those who might recognize her. So it appears she was left to die as well. It is a good thing you came along when you did. With luck, this place will continue to be of no importance. I can think of no reason for anyone to come this way, especially once the snows come."

"You said you have spoken of us to another friend," said Aragorn. "Who is he?"

"The miller. He is with us in the fight. He lives on the outskirts of the town, near this hill. He will do what he can to provide you with bread, and we will contrive to get supplies to you."

"Do not endanger yourself and your friends, Alun," Aragorn said firmly. "Legolas and I can manage."

The soldier chuckled. "It is much too late for that, as we have been dancing around peril for the past handful of years. And it is unlikely that any of the things we take will be missed from the storerooms of our lord's house. They are filled with goods that would be better distributed to those in need. The great men have no need of so much, yet they hoard it all the same. It pleases me to work against them in any small way, even if I simply steal a cloak or two. Knowing they are helping to keep you warm up here will do much to ease my heart."

"But you do far more than steal cloaks for the needy," Aragorn said, looking with interest at his visitor. Alun sat solidly, chin on fist, watching him under his heavy brows. "You are the guardian of the son of the city's lord, and yet you plot against those in power. What is your role in all this?"

Alun nodded grimly. "It is a complicated business. I would not see you involved."

"We have little interest in that, believe me, but Legolas and I both want to know what goes on down there. Call it idle curiosity. We have been isolated here a long time, and would welcome a fresh story. Tell us first about yourself, guardian of the child and enemy of his father."

"No, not of his father," Alun interjected quickly. "Lord Cadean is not an evil man. But he is not strong, and those who seek power have managed to turn his mind from what is right and just. I was born in Carbryddin, and have lived there my whole life. When I was a boy, Cadean's father, Lord Peredan, ruled us with wisdom and strength. Cadean was a young man and newly married when his father died and he assumed leadership of the city. For many years, his counselors and advisors aided him in his decisions, and we continued to prosper. Our city was fair, a place of peace and beauty." The soldier paused, sighing deeply. "From the time I became a man I have been a guard of the city. I was trustworthy, and grew to favor with my lord and his family. The boy was born, and it was if he became the child of the entire city. Those were good years."

"When did things begin to go bad?" asked Aragorn.

"It began almost imperceptibly. To give you the start of it all, I suppose I must tell you of Gildwas. He lived in this house for ages. No one knows just how old he was, but certainly he was here when I was born. Even as a very young boy I knew of the old healer who lived in the hills. And when I was old enough I would ride up on my pony to visit with him. He was my friend, just as he became Tarnan's. He always welcomed visitors." Alun fell silent, his glance moving slowly over the small cabin and resting on the shadowed wall. He shook his head sadly. "It feels odd to sit in this very room and talk with two strangers, and realize that they live here now, and that he is gone. I have sat at this table many times with Gildwas. I have not yet fully grasped that I will see him no more."

"I am sorry," Aragorn said quietly. "It must be difficult to see new people in the place he held so long."

"It is," Alun said, reaching for his cup and drinking deeply. "Gildwas was loved in the city, and many came to him seeking help for the sick and injured. But he would not move down and stay with us, even when he grew old and the winters were harder for him. He loved this place. The solitude suited him. He would come down on his horse for his supplies twice a month, and, if summoned, would visit the sick. Folk looked after him up here, making sure he had what he needed, and he was a great favorite with the men in the hills. But then Malcovan began to push himself forward, as was his wont, and the trouble began."

Legolas lifted his head. "Malcovan," he murmured softly, rolling the name around his tongue and grimacing slightly as if he found the taste of it offensive. "The boy mentioned him. The sorcerer with the stinking beard."

Alun laughed aloud and thumped his fist on the table so hard that the wine cups jumped. "He said that? Valar, how I love that boy." His face grew serious once more. "It is an apt description. Malcovan is feared by many and loved by none, save by himself alone. Would that he had never come to us."

"And how did he?" Aragorn inquired, rising to tend to the hearth. He watched the sparks fly up as he dropped a new log onto the fire, and kept his eyes on the dancing flames as Alun continued.

"He has been around as long as Gildwas. In fact, they had once been friends, and had studied the healing arts together. For years, Malcovan was a healer as well, and had his own place some two miles from here. But he was very different from Gildwas, and their friendship ended years ago. Malcovan has always been a seeker of wealth and power. He moved to the city, and began trying to turn the people away from Gildwas." Alun's voice dropped, as if enemy ears were hidden in the shadows and might hear his words. "And it was said that he began looking for power in other ways than in the healing arts. He began to dabble in the black arts, and found that he had some skill. He would travel, vanishing for long periods, and return with eyes that had gone hard and cold. Slowly, he began to wield influence in the city, to gather followers to him, and to gain the confidence of Lord Cadean. And then, some three years back, the other man came. He was friend to Malcovan, though no one knows how or when they met. He is called Ramhar, and has become captain of our army."

Aragorn nodded. "Gildwas mentioned him in his notes."

"He is a talented leader of men. He knows how to command, and he knows how to fight. Imposing and vain, he now wields much power. But there is madness in his eyes. I see it. Together, he and Malcovan have slowly crushed the life out of us. All who do not obey risk either the punishments Ramhar devises in the dungeons, or are forced to face the spells of the sorcerer. They have taken Carbryddin, and are the only ones who now sit with Lord Cadean at the council table. They walk the streets draped in the finest robes, and live in our lord's house as his honored guests in rooms as rich as his own."

A frown creased Legolas' brow. "Aragorn, did not the old man state in his notes that this warrior is not from the Northlands? He referred to him as 'the foreign captain'."

"He is from over the mountains, as you are," Alun said, answering the elf's question. "Where he came from, and why he left his home, no one knows. He reveals nothing about himself."

Aragorn seated himself at the table once more as he pondered what Alun had said. He watched the elf's hand slide forward as he sought his wine. "And these are the two who speak ill of elves?" Legolas asked as he found the cup and wrapped his fingers around it. He looked troubled, and tired, his eyes darkening again as he raised his drink to his lips.

"Yes. Both of them tell stories of their power and trickery. They say that the elves revel in all sorts of evil deeds, and that the world would be a better place without them."

"And the people listen to them? Believe them?"

"Not all, but many do. When such stories are shoved down their throats about a race they have never met, they have nothing to counter the lies."

"But you sit beside me now," Legolas remarked. "You could have killed me the other day, or taken me to them. Why did you not? Have you met an elf before?"

Alun laughed. "Never in my life have I seen an elf until you. And I will confess that I have been more than a little uncomfortable sitting here with you tonight. I was frightened when I first saw you, and it was difficult to control that reaction. But I have heard good stories about your people to counter the bad. And always I remember the source of the bad. I do not believe them."

Aragorn looked at the soldier with interest. "And who told you the good stories?"

"Gildwas, for one. He thought it foolish to hate and distrust folk simply because they are different. When I was a boy he told me he had met some elves in his younger days, when he had been a wanderer. He said they were beautiful, and kind. They had helped him when he was injured."

"Did he travel over the mountains?" Legolas asked quickly.

"I do not know if he went over, or if the elves had been here."

"And who else spoke in favor of the elves?"

Aragorn watched as a curious expression crept over Alun's face. Sorrow mingled with a soft smile, and the soldier bowed his head. "Our lady," he said with a quiet sigh.

The ranger's brows came up. "She who died a year ago? Wife of your lord, and the boy's mother?"

"Yes. The day we lost her the sun set on our city, and all has been dark since."

"The old man said in his notes that he went down to try to help her, but was turned away by Malcovan."

"Of course he was, for had he seen her, he would have known instantly what had been done." Alun's voice was dark with anger, his eyes flashing as he raised his head.

"What had been done?" Aragorn asked in a hushed tone. Beside him Legolas leaned forward, resting his folded hands on the table, and both elf and ranger seemed to hold their breath as they waited. There was a silence, long and uncomfortable.

"They poisoned her," the soldier said slowly.

"You know this?"

"I know it. But I cannot prove it. She was a healthy woman, still young, and quite suddenly she fell sick. Malcovan allowed no one from the healer's quarters to see her. And he barred Gildwas at the door."

"But why would they want to kill her?" the elf murmured. "It was a dangerous move to make against one so high."

"But worth their while to attempt it. Their success removed the one person who still had some influence with her husband. She hated them, and ever sought to have them stripped of their rank. Without her, Cadean folded. His strength of will is gone, and now he is no more than a shell. A puppet in their hands."

"He was not able to see that they had committed murder?"

"He alone was with his wife during her sickness, and never left her side. In his eyes, Malcovan appeared a caring and devoted healer who had done his best. But he dripped poison into the draughts, as surely as I am speaking with you now. Gildwas believed it to be so, and when he came to our lord's house he accused Malcovan, publicly and loudly. He was ejected from the city."

"And by publicly accusing his enemy of poisoning the lady, he undoubtedly set the wheels in motion that eventually sealed his own fate," said Aragorn. "I do not suppose Malcovan would forget such an affront. Gildwas came too close to the truth. But why was his claim not investigated? Surely others had their suspicions, even if Lord Cadean did not."

Alun nodded. "We are too few. Malcovan, for all his self-importance, has power. He commands powers and spells. The people fear him and his captain, and dare not make a move against them. Folk have disappeared without a trace, and men do not speak out in public for fear that they will return home and find their families gone. Spies are everywhere, and they have followers who will do their bidding."

"You are guard to the boy, and yet you plot against the leaders of your city," the elf commented. "How do you hold such a high position?"

"Precariously," Alun said with grim smile. "I am two things," the man stated, and Aragorn heard pride mingled with determination in his voice. "In the light of day I am a solid and trustworthy soldier of long standing. I obey, never question, and in the eyes of the evil ones I support them. By night I am part of the underground, meeting secretly with my allies and plotting their destruction."

"You play a dangerous game Alun," Aragorn murmured. "It must be difficult at times to tell friend from foe."

"Yes. The ice is thin, but we will risk all to see our fair city returned to us. How it will happen I do not know. We wait, silent and watchful, learning all we can. The time to strike must be soon, though, for our people lose hope the longer this goes on."

"How much of all this does the boy understand?" Aragorn inquired. "He obviously has no love for the sorcerer."

Alun smiled, his eyes softening as he began to speak of his young charge. "He is well protected from the darkness of these days. Life in our city does go on, and our children thrive and are happy. Tarnan has friends and the active life any boy craves. He excels in his studies, and loves the arts of war. But Malcovan does have an interest in him. As Cadean's heir, the boy will have power one day. The wizard wishes to bend Tarnan to his will and believe the lies he speaks. He had taken it upon himself to teach the boy his narrow views, and to appoint tutors who do the same. Tarnan is smart enough to recognize falsehoods when he hears them, but I fear the effect the wizard will have on him over time. The boy dislikes him, but does not yet see the real evil." Alun paused, frowning. "But he continues to insist that Malcovan is responsible for Gildwas' death, though I told him it appeared the old man had simply died of age. The boy begins to open his eyes."

"I do hope you have warned him to keep his opinions to himself," Aragorn said. "Tarnan is better off if Malcovan believes that he continues to see with the innocent eyes of a child."

"I have. He knows that such matters are to be spoken of with me alone. And he knows nothing of the underground movement to which I belong. He is too young to be told of such matters, and it would endanger him."

"What of his mother's death?" Legolas questioned. "Is the boy aware of Gildwas' accusation? Does he know she was poisoned?"

"No, I believe he does not. We have shielded him. And Cadean, of course, believes she simply took ill. I'm certain the boy believes the same. But he grieves yet. He misses her terribly, for she was the one who loved him best. His father loves him too, but is too weighed down by his own grief and confusion to be as attentive to his son as he should be." A small smile tugged at the soldier's lips. "Tarnan has found a new diversion, however: the two strangers who live in Gildwas' cottage. He speaks of you with great excitement and begs me to bring him back."

"He would be welcome to visit us, if you think it safe," said Aragorn.

"I would enjoy talking with him," Legolas added softly, a thoughtful expression on his face. "And show him that an elf can be a friend."

"His request was the other reason I came back here," Alun said as he drained his cup and rose to his feet. "I wanted to spend some time with you and decide if you were appropriate company for the boy."

Aragorn laughed as he stood. "Did we pass?"

"You did. And I had better get him back here soon, before the snow falls and makes the trail difficult."

"Is it not possible to navigate the trail once it snows?"

Alun reached for the jacket he had slung over the back of his chair. "It is possible. The trail zigzags, and thus it is not too steep. Even after the snows fall we can make the trip, provided we are well insulated from the cold and have strong horses that can push through and open the trail for us. But such concerns can be put off for another day. Now I must be off. I will bring Tarnan for a visit, perhaps tomorrow afternoon, if it is no inconvenience."

"Tomorrow afternoon is fine. In the morning Legolas and I will be gathering firewood. It is tiring work, and we will be looking for an excuse to stop later in the day."

Legolas turned his head toward the soldier. "Thank you for telling us your story, Alun."

"I was hesitant, but perhaps it is for the best that you know all. And I will tell you what I told Aragorn earlier. You must stay hidden. They will kill you, Legolas."

The elf nodded, his features unreadable. "I know."

"Do not wander far from the house, either of you," Alun warned as he threw his heavy cloak over his shoulders. "I have a few supplies gathered for you and will bring them tomorrow. Until then."

Aragorn opened the door and stood aside. As the soldier passed him he extended his hand. "Thank you," the ranger said quietly. "We will repay your kindness somehow."

Alun shook his head as he clasped Aragorn's arm. "No need for that. I do not look for reward, but only to do what is right." With a quick salute, he vanished into the night.

Aragorn cleared the table in silence as he mulled over all that Alun had said. The elf too was quiet. He continued to sit, his elbow braced on the table and his chin cupped in his hand. His eyes were half-lidded, the fire lighting the planes of his face.

"You put something in my tea, Aragorn," he said after a time. "I can scarcely hold my head up."

"I thought it necessary. You looked positively ill earlier this evening."

Legolas nodded. "I have not felt that badly in some time. I wonder when my head pain will ease. I begin to fear it never will."

"It concerns me that your pain continues," Aragorn said honestly. "I hope it will improve when we are finished working so hard and you can rest."

"Aragorn, did you hear what Alun said? About the captain, Ramhar, having come from beyond the mountains, and of his hatred of elves?"

"Yes."

"The nearest elves on the other side of the mountains are those of Mirkwood. My people."

"It may mean nothing," Aragorn said as he straightened from stirring the fire and turned to study the elf in the flickering light. The flames wavered and faded, and for a moment Legolas' features seemed to recede behind a dark shadow that rose up and separated them. Aragorn blinked, squinting to see clearly, then the logs settled with a hiss and the fire sprang to life again. Suddenly fearful, he stepped closer to his friend. "Stay inside tonight, Legolas. Do not go to your tree."

"He gathers an army," the elf whispered, and turned his face to the wall.

To be continued

Reviewer responses: yipes, there were a lot of you! I am delighted, but it is difficult to respond to each person this time. Just as well, for there are a couple of people I do wish to respond to, and these will be lengthier than usual. Bear with me y'all, or feel free to run away now if these subjects are not of interest to you.

First off, I received an email or two stating that no way could Legolas manage a bow with a draw-weight of 100 lbs. Oh yes he can, my little chickadees! It is a massively heavy bow, but here are some facts:

1)     Elves are tremendously strong physically. I think Tolkien made that clear. It was not a chance misstep that caused Aragorn to land on his butt some chapters back when Legolas pushed him. The elf could have torn his head off if he had wanted to. (And isn’t the elf-worship fun, when we think of what a magnificent physical specimen Legolas is? Oh yeah!)

2)     In 1545, during the reign of Henry the Eighth, one of his great warships sank during a battle with the French. On this ship were yew longbows. Tested by archery experts and scientists, their draw-weights ranged from 100lb to one measuring 185! The skeletons of the archers on the boat were found to be "massively boned", and "exhibiting changes to the shoulder-blades which could be the result of working with heavy bows". This info is from the book Longbow, A Social and Military History by Robert Hardy. In addition, Hardy states: "I know of young archers who can handle weights well over a hundred pounds, as well as those who have trained themselves to shoot, with reliable accuracy, twenty and more arrows in a minute." He also makes it clear that these ancient archers practiced daily. It took very rigorous training to become skilled enough, and strong enough, to handle such big bows. They had to build up their muscles, because shooting in war went on and on with the archers firing away while the boys kept piling sheaves of arrows at their feet, and a heavy bow really makes the arms shake if you don't have the muscles for it.

If you want to talk about speed in shooting, go to the Net and type in the name Lajos Kassai. This guy is a master horseback archer, and can get off three arrows, from the back of a galloping horse, in five seconds. Watch the videos. This is poetry in motion.

So, if mortals can wield these bows an elf certainly can, and the elf will do it better.

Luthien Greenleaf: oh, dear. Since I have no email address so that I can respond to your review privately, I must answer you here. You told me quite emphatically I was VERY wrong about certain facts in this story. I feel compelled to defend myself, so here we go:

Canon: plot and character facts written by Tolkien. Fanon: plot ideas and character experiences written by authors of fan fiction. Book-verse: again, as written by Tolkien. Movie-verse: scenes and situations in the films that may or may not have been based on Tolkien. PJ and Co. fiddled quite a bit with canon in the movies. It is absolutely essential that writers and readers understand what these words mean. When I write, it is with a deep respect for what Tolkien established for Middle-earth and its inhabitants. I am not a Tolkien scholar, but I have read the Hobbit, The Trilogy, and the Silmarillion. I consult the Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien and The Histories of Middle-earth when I need more information for my stories, and I communicate with other writers who are more knowledgeable than I. To the best of my ability, I follow canon while also trying to find room to play.

Nowhere did Tolkien tell us Legolas' age. The elf did make some statements here and there that do indicate he is considerably older than his companions: seeing oaks go from acorn to death, referring to the other members of the Fellowship as "children", etc, but, once again, this does not give us a specific age. I know that Orlando Bloom said Legolas is 2,931 years old. With all due respect to that fine young actor and his movie colleagues, it ain't canon. That number has no basis in Tolkien. Legolas might be 5000 years old. He might be 500 years old. Authors are free to choose. I chose to make him young in this story.

You may be thinking of the Legolas of the First Age who helped to lead the refugees from Gondolin to safety. Here is what is written in the appendix of The Book of Lost Tales, Part One (p. 267), in the bit about Tari-Laisi: "Legolas Greenleaf appears in the tale The Fall of Gondolin; he was an elf of Gondolin, and being night-sighted he led the fugitives from the city over the plain in the dark. A note associated with the tale says that 'he liveth still in Tol Eressea, named by the Eldar there Laiqalasse.'" This note, written by Tolkien and cited by his son Christopher, would indicate that this First-Age Legolas is not our Third Age Legolas, as the first one continues to dwell in Tol Eressea. Lest you still think they might be the same Legolas, I'll point out that the Prince of Mirkwood does not appear to be "night-sighted". He wanted better light for shooting at Helm's Deep.

 Arwen's age is given to us: she was born in the year 241 of the Third Age. But nowhere is it stated in Tolkien's writings, as far as I have been able to ascertain, that she is the last elf to have been born. And nowhere is it stated in canon that Legolas is older than Arwen. If this is something that you found in a fanfic story, it is fanon, not canon. Also, Tolkien gave us nothing specific about when the elves stopped giving birth to children. "The Eldar would beget children only in days of happiness and peace if they could" is about all we got from Tolkien in the chapter entitled The Laws and Customs of the Eldar in The History of Middle-earth, Vm X. Some believe this indicates that elves continued to have children until the end of The Watchful Peace in T.A. 2460, which is long after Arwen's birth. This is not definitely established, however I do feel very strongly that your statement that Arwen is the youngest elf in Middle-earth is not supported by canon.

I have a request to make of you, Luthien. Please stop reading this story. Get thee to a bookstore and buy the Trilogy, because I feel quite certain that you have not read it. It dismays me when I think of all the young readers of LOTR fanfic who love the movies (as I do) and leapt into fanfic (as I did), but have never read Tolkien. Fanon becomes canon in their minds. Ai! Ai! Stop, stop, please stop reading my story and read The Lord of the Rings. That goes for all of you who are unfamiliar with the professor's wonderful work. If I lose half of my readers and my reviews dwindle down to nothing I will bow my head and accept it. Come back to me after, Luthien, if you are still of a mind to do so. I'd be happy to see you on the review pages again. And one last thing: please understand that if you inform an author in such strong terms that her facts are VERY wrong, you should be prepared to support your claim with references. Canon references.

  Phew! On to daw the minstrel, and a more light-hearted subject: elven sexuality! Yes, "my" Legolas is not a virgin. There is a sweet, innocent, youthful quality about him that I adore, but in my universe he has had lovers. I just choose not to write about them, because I hate those women with a barely contained fury. I don’t want to think about them. They are somewhere off in Mirkwood, and there they shall remain, in his memories only. I have read The Laws and Customs of the Eldar, and (looks heavenward, begging forgiveness from the great Professor), I (deep breath)… disagree. Gulp, scary to say it. But I was so filled with dismay when I read that the elves marry usually about age 50 (apparently without prior sexual experience), have a few kids, and then stop having sex. Not only that, the married couple often separated after the elflings left the nest, thus really ensuring that no more sex took place! Oh, dear… it seems so cold, so dull, and I must say it struck me as out of character for the elves, who elsewhere in Tolkien's writings are full-blooded, passionate, fiery and often very emotional people. They have had moments of greed, violence, and temptation. They sing, they dance and have feasts. They are valiant warriors. I believe such people would also have healthy and active sex lives. So, on this I diverge from Tolkien and many fanfic authors.

And do not get me going on the other thing I cannot accept in Tolkien's writing: how things are in the Halls of Mandos. "The reborn report that in Mandos there are many elves, but that there is in the Halls of Waiting little mingling or communing of kind with kind, or of any fea with another, for the houseless fea is solitary by nature and turns only towards those with whom it formed strong bonds of love in life." Oh, I cannot tell you how distressing it was to read those words! Lonely silent little elf feas wandering about… sigh… I nearly burst into tears.

Thank you all so very much, and see you next update!

  

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. This story is written for entertainment only and no monetary profit is being made.

Author's notes: some folks are asking about Malcovan. He has no real basis in Tolkien. He's just a creepy wizard guy of my own making. I like creepy wizard guys.

Thanks to Lisette once again, though if she'd had her way Legolas never would have put his shirt back on. That's my kind of beta reader!

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Eighteen: Extra, Extra, Read All About It! The Mirkwood Elf in a Miracle Cure!

(For all of you who really cannot stand Legolas being blind anymore and keep demanding that he be fixed).

Legolas woke the next morning to find his eyesight miraculously restored. "I'm free!" he yelled. "I'm free! And freedom tastes of reality! Cool skippy!" He and Aragorn gathered their stuff and split, booking over the mountains and making it back to Mirkwood in record time. Legolas and his father made up, Thranduil decided to be nice to the grungy ranger, and they all partied like lunatics even unto the ending of the world.

THE END

 

There! How's that?

No? This won't do?

Aaahh… stay with me then, trust me, and let us mosey along together and see what happens next.

 

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Eighteen: You've Got A Friend

"Horsemen, Legolas!"

The elf jerked his head up, startled, and turned toward the river. He scowled, irritated with himself for his lapse in concentration. Aragorn heard them before I did. I have lost my head today. He set the axe down and reached behind him for the shirt he had draped over a nearby shrub. Shaking his head to dislodge the wood chips clinging to his hair, he drew the garment over his torso and went to stand beside the ranger. The sound of horses drew near. He listened briefly, assuring himself that they were the familiar sounds of the steeds of Alun and the boy, and ran his sweaty hands nervously over his thighs.

Legolas welcomed the diversion the visitors would bring. Though he felt uneasy, his blindness remaining a constant source of embarrassment and frustration to him, he badly needed something to take his thoughts from the troubling words Alun had spoken the previous evening. He had pondered through the night, sitting sleepless and worried before the fire, trying to come to some understanding of what he had heard. There was not enough information to work with and draw definite conclusions, but the few facts he did have filled him with fear. An army was being gathered and trained for some unknown purpose. The leaders, one of whom apparently hailed from over the mountains, spoke against elves. What did it mean?

If the wizard and the captain meant to march on his people, they had a long journey ahead of them. The trek over the mountains would be arduous and time consuming for a large force of men, but it could be done. And after that? One hundred miles, perhaps one hundred fifty, would lie between the army and the home of his father. Were the enemy to attempt to approach the realm of Thranduil directly from the mountains they would undoubtedly be spotted by all who dwelt in those open areas. Men, dwarves and elves all moved freely around the wide plains northwest of Lake-town and Dale.

If they opted instead to close on Thranduil from the other side, moving southwest and then turning east to approach from under the cover of the forest, the elves would undoubtedly detect the army long before it got within striking distance. Neither possibility could be considered truly dangerous. This army was a remote threat at best. To march a distance of many miles over mountains and on to a target that was sure to retaliate ere one soldier set foot in the elven realm was complete folly. Surely the leaders had their eyes fixed on a different place, one that would yield more bountiful fruit. 

The rational part of Legolas' mind whispered that all was well. Then why do I feel so uneasy? As if a shadow lingers, waiting for an opportunity to smother me. He stirred, angrily trying to shrug off the feeling of foreboding. Headaches and the darkness before my eyes change me. My thoughts turn too easily to fear. The army can no more march on Mirkwood than I can use my bow again.

"Tell me again what they look like; the boy and his horse," he said to Aragorn, yanking his thoughts away from situations he could not control.

Aragorn spoke quickly as the sound of splashing water told the elf that the riders were now crossing the river. "The boy has sandy brown hair and dark eyes. He is tall and slender but strongly built, about eleven years of age. Today he wears the same red cloak. It is richly embroidered with a border of gold and what must be the emblem of his house across his back: a rearing stag of white and gold against a backdrop of red. His horse is a fine chestnut stallion. The boy handles him extremely well. Greetings, my friends!" he called as the horses clattered to a stop before them.

"A good day to you both." Alun's voice was somewhat breathless. He had apparently been hard pressed to keep up with what seemed to be the child's usual pace up the hill.

"I see it was another hard ride," Aragorn said, his tone filled with mirth.

"Indeed. I can scarcely keep up with this young devil, and his horse rivals those of legend, the Mearas. How he can manage such a creature is beyond my comprehension." The saddle creaked as the soldier swung his weight over and dismounted with a grunt. There was no sound from the boy, whose horse stamped and jingled several feet to Alun's right.

Legolas steeled himself and turned toward the sound. If he was to play host, he would do so to the best of his ability. "Welcome, Lord Tarnan," he said, bowing formally. "It is an honour to have you visit with us today."

Alun's sharp laugh rang out. "The child's eyes are as large as saucers. And they appear to have swallowed his tongue. An unusual occurrence, I assure you. Get off your horse, boy," he added with gruff affection.

The child dropped lightly to the ground, and rapid footsteps approached the elf. "You can ride him if you want to."

"Ride your horse?" Legolas asked, his brows shooting up in surprise. "I thank you. It is a generous offer. Let us first put your mounts in with the old mare, and we will discuss it."

"Elves can ride anything. He won't throw you."

"I have fallen from horses before," the elf said with a smile. "And I take it so has someone else in our company."

Alun cleared his throat. "The beast is wild. I can do nothing with him," he said, sounding embarrassed. "They named him Firestar, and for good reason. Steer clear of him, Legolas."

"He is the fastest horse in our city," Tarnan said with pride. "No one has defeated us in a race."

"I see you are a bold horseman, young sir," laughed Aragorn. "If you and Alun put your steeds in the pen, we can discuss such matters inside where the fire will warm us. Are you hungry?"

"Of course," the boy replied. "I'm always hungry." The harness sounded like bells as he turned his horse toward the barn. Alun followed, and the elf tracked them with his ears, his head held high. He felt strangely excited.

"The boy does not know I am blind," he whispered.

"I agree," Aragorn told him. "It seems in character for Alun to not speak of it, but to leave it for you to tell. Do you mean to play your game, then?"

"Yes. I do not wish to deceive the child, but I desire a genuine friendship with him. It will be tainted somehow if he knows I cannot see."

"I disagree with you there, but I will help you as promised. But the boy may realize your blindness eventually and be angry you misled him."

"I will not mislead him. I will not tell him that I can see, any more than I will tell him that I cannot." Legolas stepped forward, intending to walk to the horses, but Aragorn's hand suddenly clamped onto his forearm.

"I recognize that glint in your eye, Legolas. Stay off that horse."

The elf laughed, shaking free of the grip, but he remained standing beside his friend. "Very well, Aragorn. I will not ride him today, but I make no such promise for tomorrow."

"I was afraid you'd say that. Do you remember how the table is laid out?"

"Exactly. I know where everything is. That is, I think I do…" Legolas added, furrowing his brow. He closed his eyes, trying to control his apprehension, and pictured the table again in his mind. The bread is already on my plate. I will not have to cut it. The wine is poured. Did we set out raisins or apples? What if the boy asks me to pass something to him? Please, sweet Elbereth, get me through this meal…

"You do not look entirely at ease, my friend."

Legolas blew out a breath. "I am not. But I hope any peculiarities the boy notices will simply be thought elven traits."

"Elven traits are peculiar enough," Aragorn laughed. "Your ruse may just succeed. If I notice the boy scrutinizing you I will attempt to divert his attention. Ah, they are finished with the horses now. Are you ready?"

Legolas listened to the approaching footsteps, noting the solid even tread of the big man and the light ones of the child. He inhaled deeply, seeking to dispel his tension. "Let us go in."

The elf soon discovered there was little opportunity to feel uncomfortable. He ate sparingly, so as to avoid having to reach for things, and found himself struggling to keep up with the boy's rapid-fire questions. In between gulps of bread and honey Tarnan peppered him with all manner of inquiries ranging from elven archery (he had immediately spotted the elf's longbow hanging from the door), to whether he liked rabbit or mutton stew best. And why was the cat walking about with a sock in her mouth? The latter question the baffled elf could not answer.

And then, before Legolas could stop what happened next, the boy turned the conversation around once more and was requesting an archery demonstration. Quickly formulating a graceful excuse, the elf was in the act of drawing breath to respond when Aragorn chose that moment to interject. To his astonishment and dismay, the ranger told Tarnan that Legolas would be delighted to oblige him.

Stunned, the elf turned toward his friend, fighting to keep his anger in check before their guests. "Aragorn, you know I have not picked up my bow since I was injured," he said in a low voice.

"You can pick it up now. Begin to practice again," Aragorn said firmly.

What is he thinking? He knows how I feel about this matter. Legolas felt his body go weak and his heart wither, but with an effort he pulled himself up from the mire of self-doubt. Fueled by his rage, he responded to the ranger's challenge. "I will practice, Aragorn. Indeed I will, starting tomorrow," he said coldly. "With you as my target, tied to a tree with an apple on your head."

"I'll risk it."

"You may regret having such faith in me."

"Never," the man answered. "My faith is well-placed."

The boy was delighted. With that desire granted, he moved on to another area of interest: what lay over the mountains. Aragorn told him of the many kinds of people living there; elves, men, dwarves and hobbits, but he revealed nothing of individual realms, and he did not tell the boy and Alun that Legolas was a prince.

"I will visit them one day," Tarnan declared firmly. "All the people. Malcovan and my tutors tell me I must stay home and not form friendships with others, but I don't believe that is the way. Friendships will strengthen my city, not threaten it."

"You have much wisdom for one so young," said Aragorn. "It pleases me to hear you say this, as I understand your tutors try to convince you otherwise."

Legolas heard the boy snort derisively. "I do not listen to them. I listen to what my mother taught me. She liked other people and making new friends. Her words are more important than theirs."

"Yes," Alun stated. "And you honour her memory by holding true to what she taught you."

"It is how I keep her alive," the boy said quietly, and Legolas heard a slight tremble in the young voice. He turned toward Tarnan in concern and sympathy. The child had lost his mother just one short year ago. The hurt and bewilderment must still be very fresh.

"Tarnan, will you introduce me to Firestar now?" he asked as he rose to his feet, eager both to distract the boy and to be quit of Aragorn's company. The urge to throw himself across the table and grab the ranger around the neck had not abated as the conversation continued. In fact it had grown so fierce as to be almost overwhelming.

"Oh, yes!" The child's chair scraped noisily against the floor as he quickly jumped up. "I want you to ride him."

"Remember your promise, Legolas," Aragorn growled in a low voice.

The elf raised his head and did his best to freeze the ranger with an icy elven glare. "Today I will not ride. Instead, I eagerly look forward to shooting you with my arrows tomorrow. I have decided to abandon the apple. My new target lies exactly thirty-seven inches from the ground, which I believe is the length of your legs. And I will, of course, be certain to center my shots. You will be called Strider no more, as I intend to permanently alter your gait."

"It appears I have gone too far," the ranger said quietly.

"You have. Let us go, Tarnan. I will follow you."

Legolas heard Aragorn rise. "I am sorry, Legolas. I thought…"

"I do not care what you thought. You knew my stand on this." The elf turned his back on his friend and left him, trailing after the boy as he crossed the yard to the horses. He was fuming. He knows I cannot do this. Why make my humiliation a public spectacle? I am an archer no more.

He sighed and pushed his anger aside as he leaned against the fence, knowing the stallion would sense his mood and choose to avoid him. He extended his hand over the fence and chirped. A soft whinny answered and he listened as a horse drew near. A velvety muzzle brushed against his hand. This was Rhosgernroch. "Hello, old lady," he murmured. "Are you enjoying your visitors?"

"She and our horses are old mates. Alun and I often came up to visit Gildwas."

"I understand he was a good friend."

"Yes," the boy said curtly, and changed the subject. "Why did Aragorn make you promise not to ride Firestar?"

"He worries about me. Did Alun tell you how Aragorn and I came to live in Gildwas' house?"

"He said you were attacked by orcs, and they hit you with a poisoned dart. It made you sick."

"Yes, very sick. I came close to dying, but Aragorn cared for me. He is a skilled healer, and by his hands I recovered. I am nearly well now, but Aragorn does not want to see me taking too many risks just yet."

"Are you really going to shoot him where you said?"

"I am seriously considering it."

"Can I watch?"

Startled, Legolas burst out laughing at the boy's sense of humour. "Yes. I will grant you a seat of honour in the first row."

"Firestar is staring at you."

"I expect he will come once he has finished looking me over," the elf. He kept his face turned toward the animals as he stroked Rhosgernroch, not wanting to try to locate the boy's eyes while speaking with him. A gust of wind blew his hair back, and he heard Tarnan hiss.

"Are you cold?" he asked in concern.

"Valar, yes. Are you not?"

"No," Legolas said. "It is not yet cold enough to bother me." But it will be cold enough to bother Aragorn. I will tie him to a tree with no jacket or cloak and leave him for a bit until he is miserable, shivering with cold and begging me to free him, and then I will start shooting. Better yet, he will be tied to the tree naked. It will be a pathetically small target, of course, but I just might be able to hit it…

"You don't even have a cloak on. Let alone a jacket!" The unmistakable sound of a boy jumping up and down came to the elf's ears.

"And you left your outer-garments inside. Let us go back," the elf suggested.

"No, wait. Here comes Firestar."

Legolas listened as the stallion approached with more than a little snorting and stomping of feet. "He really thinks he is something," he laughed. "A supremely confident animal."

Rhosgernroch, with an irritated squeal, pulled back and trotted away. A new horse head appeared, thrusting into Legolas' chest and nearly knocking him backward. "Hello, Firestar. Did you just nip the old lady in the rear? I think she did not appreciate that." The elf quietly raised his hand and rested it on the horse's withers. Slowly he stroked his fingers along the neck, feeling the powerful muscles rippling beneath the warm skin. The animal jerked his head up and danced about briefly before settling again. The elf touched him once more, whispering softly to him in Sindarin as he worked his way toward the face. He traced the elegant structure of the head, moving his fingers along the ridge of the jaw, and Firestar nickered softly.

"He is a truly beautiful animal, Tarnan. And he loves you."

"He was my mother's horse," the child whispered softly.

"Was he? She must have been quite a horsewoman."

The fence vibrated as the boy leaned against it. Legolas felt Tarnan's hand lightly brush past his own as he began petting his horse. "She was. He is still perhaps a bit too much horse for me, at least everyone tells me that he is, but I wanted to learn to ride him. And take care of him. It… I thought for a while if I took good care of him, she might come back. Or at least it would make her happy, if she was watching from somewhere. Now I don't know why I thought that. It was silly." the young voice sounded defeated. Legolas heard the boy inhale deeply, but Tarnan said no more.

"Caring for Firestar and learning to ride him brings you closer to her," Legolas said. "And it comforts you. There is no foolishness in finding solace in such things. I did the same."

The fence shook again as the child shifted his weight. "You did? Your mother is dead?"

"Yes. I lost her four years ago. She was killed by orcs."

"Oh. I'm sorry," the boy said, his voice sounding unsure. He began to kick one foot against a post. "I didn't know elves had mothers."

"We have mothers."

"Was she pretty?"

The wistful question radiated an innocence that caused Legolas' heart to tighten. He smiled and closed his eyes to more easily envision the face of the one who had brought him into the world. The picture was fuzzy though, like a dream only half recalled, and he frowned in sudden confusion as he struggled to bring her features more clearly to his mind. But things other than her face came to him with clarity then and he reached gratefully for them. The scent of lavender, the silky smoothness of her gown, and a laugh like silver bells on a bright sunlit morning. His smile deepened.

"Yes, she was beautiful. Beautiful inside and out, as was your mother."

"What did you do to make it better?" the boy asked quickly. Legolas could well imagine the intensity of those young eyes watching him, waiting for an answer that would bring comfort.

"I worked in her garden. It was her greatest pleasure to bring beauty into the natural world, and after she was gone her garden sat empty and neglected. It hurt my family to think of it, and so they closed the gate and would not enter it. But I could not bear the thought of her beloved place standing cold and barren. And so I worked it whenever I had the time, and brought it back to what it had been. Aragorn helped me. And now, when it comes to life every spring, she comes to life as well."

"I'll come see it someday. We will have tea in her garden, and we will talk about our mothers there."

Strangely moved by the boy's words, Legolas turned suddenly and reached. He found Tarnan's shoulder and rested his hand on it. "I would welcome you as a dear friend."

For a moment they stood in silence, and Legolas sensed the start of a connection with this young boy who spoke so plainly and who felt the same pain that he felt. Then the moment was over, broken by the abruptness that he was beginning to understand was a characteristic of all young children.

"I'm bloody freezing," Tarnan announced, and started jumping again.

"Back to the cabin then," the elf said with a chuckle. "It won't do for our friendship to begin with you catching a chill. Alun will not allow you to return for another visit, and he would demand my head as well."

"Alun does as I command," the young lord of Carbryddin said proudly as they retreated from the biting wind. "You are my friend now. I will not permit anyone chop off your head."

"I am glad to hear it," Legolas laughed, and together the elf and the boy entered the house and closed the door behind them.

 

To be continued

 

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and are the property of his estate. I do not have permission to use them, and am making no monetary profit from this story. It was written for entertainment only.

Author's Notes: thanks once again to Lisette for her betaing of this chapter. Bowstrings and harpstrings, bowstrings and harpstrings…

Some of you complimented me on writing realistically from Legolas' POV without the use of sight. I appreciate that very much, for in truth I am finding it incredibly difficult to write from his POV. In fact, Lisette pointed out to me recently that Aragorn has had the lion's share of the chapters. So true! I find myself shying away from Legolas due to the difficulty of describing things through his "eyes". So I am grateful for the thumbs-up from my readers. And I will, before too much longer, have to resign myself to writing more from the elf's POV, so I'd better get used to it.

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Nineteen: Speak To Me

Thud. Aragorn started from his sleep, his eyes flying open in surprise. He turned his head, frowning, and stared at the window frame. For just a moment he lay quietly, straining his hearing and gathering what information he could before he moved. It was still black outside; no dim outline of lifting grey yet penetrated the heavy blanket that covered the unglazed opening. The birds had not begun their morning songs, but something - a muffled sound - had disturbed his rest, and he quickly rolled onto his left side and propped himself on his elbow, twitching the edge of the thick cloth aside to pushed open the wooden shutters and peer into the darkness.

Thud. Something hit the ground softly. The ranger twisted on his knees and looked out the other side of the window, gazing toward the barn. He squinted as he struggled with the darkness, then a soft glow came to his eyes and he fixed his eyes on it. In the window of the loft the dim outline of the elf appeared. He held something large and blocky in his hands, and he maneuvered this object through the window and let it fall to the earth. Thud. Legolas immediately followed, jumping from the opening and landing in a soundless crouch beside the three fallen objects.

Aragorn watched in bewilderment as the elf grasped two of the dark rectangles and began hauling them across the clearing, and he cast his memory back to last night as he pondered why his friend was dragging bales of straw about in the dark.

He had held out hope that Legolas' anger with him would cool once he had visited the horses with the boy, but that had been quickly dashed when the elf returned to the cottage as silent and furious as before. Shortly thereafter Alun had steered Tarnan out the door, stating that they had tarried overlong. The soldier had glanced warily at the smoldering elf, offered Aragorn a sickly, sympathetic smile, and beaten a hasty retreat, dragging the reluctant young Lord of Carbryddin behind him. Aragorn suddenly found himself alone, and he had unhappily steeled himself to face his friend's wrath.

The ranger knew he had pushed Legolas too far. But it had continued to sadden him to see the bow hanging unused on the door and the elf's skilled hands holding only cook-pots or his cat. When the boy begged for a demonstration from the elf, recognizing immediately the beauty and power of the bow suspended on the hook, the idea had struck Aragorn that this was the moment to force Legolas to confront his fear. He knew his friend could not be the archer he once had been, but was it true, as Legolas believed, that he could not use his bow at all? How could he know if he did not even try?

Directly after he spoke, volunteering Legolas for a demonstration, Aragorn had wanted to take back his words. Legolas had visibly paled, his stoic demeanor crumbling, and Aragorn immediately realized he had driven a knife into the most painful of the elf's numerous wounds. Before his blindness Legolas had been many things, but first and foremost he had been an archer, and he had spent his formative years honing and perfecting his natural talent until he had become perhaps the greatest archer to ever walk the forests and fields of Middle-earth. This skill had been a source of pride for the elf and a means of self-expression, and it had been cruelly ripped from him when he lost his eyesight.

But what was done was done. The boy had whooped with excitement, turning bright admiring eyes on the shocked elf, and it was too late to turn back after that. Aragorn had watched Legolas regain his composure, though it was obviously rage that drove the fear back, and coldly accept the challenge.

After their guests had departed, Aragorn had made an attempt to speak with Legolas, both to apologize and help find a way to avoid the archery demonstration, but the elf had turned his back on him. Making his way to the door, Legolas jerked the bow and quiver from their hooks and stalked out of the house. Several minutes later he had returned, asking in an icy tone for a jar of fat, an old rag and beeswax. He waited in stiff silence as Aragorn found the items and placed them into his hands, and Legolas had stalked out again, calling for Tithlam to follow him. After that he had not returned but retreated to the barn, and after night had fallen he had emerged from the barn and crossed the clearing to his tree, the cat a tiny shadow trotting at his heels. The ranger kept an eye on Legolas' activities, out of both concern and curiosity, and when the elf crossed the yard in the dark Aragorn had been ready to swear that his usual warm, golden luminescence flared with an angry color he had never seen before. Can he actually be glowing red? Valar, this is worse than I thought.

 

Silent and heavy-hearted, the ranger had eaten his dinner alone. The evening had not been entirely without cheer though, for Alun and the boy had brought several large packs, and Aragorn had happily gone through them after his lonely meal and been delighted with what he had found. Several changes of clothing for both himself and Legolas; leggings, thick and woven close for winter, shirts, a warm jacket and cloak for each of them, and two sets of sturdy, fur-lined leather boots. Another pack held gloves, hats, a supply of candles wrapped in paper, oil for the lamp, and a bundle of socks. Aragorn laughed aloud at this last discovery, for his own single set, repaired with straggling stitches again and again, had been increasingly difficult to find of late because of the peculiar habit of the elf's little cat.

 

Aragorn could not have been more grateful had he stumbled upon a treasure trove, for these were things that would get him and the elf through the cold months ahead. Their own clothing had been summer wear, for they had never intended to be caught so far from home in winter, and these had become threadbare, being the only garments they had. The rest of their clothing had been abandoned when they fled the orcs, and those that had belonged to the old healer Aragorn and Legolas were not able to make use of, for Gildwas had apparently been a small man and his things did not fit them.

The ranger had wanted to share this good news with the elf, and waited up for him long after night had fallen. But finally he had sighed unhappily and gone to bed, realizing that Legolas was not going to return. What the elf would do about the situation Aragorn had forced upon him he did not know, but perhaps tomorrow they would be able to talk about it and find a solution.

Aragorn shifted his position again as the elf passed the window, dragging two bales of straw behind him. As he came abreast of the house Legolas turned and started for the trees across the clearing. Once there he shoved one of the bales against a tree - the old oak tree, Aragorn realized - and lifted the other on top of it. Then he went back for the third bale, hauling it across the turf and heaving it onto the others. The elf produced a rope then, which had been slung over his shoulder, and began wrapping it around the bales. He was securing them to the tree, and Aragorn smiled as he realized what was happening.

Legolas was making a target.

The elf grasped the bales and drove his weight against them, ensuring that they remained steady and would not topple, and returned once more to the barn. He remained there for a brief time, and when he emerged once more the birds had begun chirping their first greetings to the new dawn. The sky was lightening, pale hues of grey and pink streaking the sky to the east, and Legolas held his bow and quiver in his hands. He set them down some thirty yards from the bales and went to them once more. He spent some time running his hands over the bales as if measuring them, and then he crouched beside the old oak, his fingers searching over the ground. He picked up a small broken branch. From it dangled numerous clusters of leaves, dried and brown. Legolas turned and drove the twig into the upper left corner of the stacked bales of straw. He stood motionless for a moment, his hands resting on the bales and his head tilted, and then walked back to the items he had placed on the ground. Sitting on the grass, he pulled his longbow into his lap and bent his head over it. For several long minutes the elf held it, his long fingers slowly tracing the graceful curves of the beautiful weapon, and then he suddenly set it aside. Legolas swept the cat into his arms as the rising sun spread its golden light over the clearing.

Aragorn turned away from the window and set about reviving the fire from the few glowing embers that remained from the night before. After the flames were leaping high in the hearth once more he looked outside. The elf had not moved, and so the ranger pulled his clothes on, including one of the new jackets, and opened the door. His breath sent a plume of smoky grey drifting into the sky. The morning was cold, but it did not match the chill that had settled on his heart when he observed his friend sitting silently, as if unable to take the next step. Aragorn felt miserable, and steeling himself to face Legolas' fury again, he stepped onto the frosted grass. The elf's head immediately came up and turned toward him. Gritting his teeth the ranger drew near, gazing at his friend's face and trying to gauge his anger and determine if it was as hot as it had been the night before.

He sensed that it was not, for the prince's features had softened, and the fire in his blue eyes had been replaced by sadness. Aragorn halted uneasily as Legolas turned away from him and bent over the cat again, his fingers stroking her soft fur. The ranger waited for a brief moment, but Legolas did not stir - and did not acknowledge him – and so, uninvited, Aragorn finally just sat down beside the silent elf.

"Legolas, speak to me."

"Why did you do it?" Legolas' soft voice drifted past the ranger on the breeze, quiet and filled with pain.

The weathered furrows in Aragorn's brow deepened, and he sighed. "I wish I knew how to answer that. There are many reasons, I suppose. I have long wanted to see you take up your bow, because I thought it would bring you pleasure to work with it again. I saw the boy's request as an opportunity to nudge you toward your weapons. I think you can do it Legolas. I truly do, but it was not my choice to make. It was yours, and I took it from you. I am sorry, mellon-nin."

"Would you care to tell me why you encourage me to use my longbow, but then almost in the same breath tell me not to ride that stallion?"

Aragorn shrugged. "You cannot fall off your bow."

The elf's teeth grated audibly as he jerked his head up and faced the ranger. "Or why you permit me to chop wood with the axe, but not to swing the scythe? One minute I am free to try things, and in the next you try to shackle me. You are driving me mad, Aragorn."

The ranger looked helplessly at his friend. "I know. I think I am driving myself mad as well. When I see your successes, I exult just as you do. It is a wondrous thing to see you run, or leap from the tree… and at those times I almost forget that you cannot see. But always your blindness is with us, and always it is on my mind. Legolas, the potential for disaster is high when you take risks. If you become injured, we cannot seek aide. Our supply of medicines runs low. Unknown enemies surround us. There is danger here, though I cannot see it any more than you can. I fear for you."

"I am not a child who needs looking after," the elf spat angrily. He turned, setting the cat aside and reaching for his longbow.

"No. But you are blind, and I… I do not know how to care for someone who is blind," the ranger said, his voice tense with frustration. "Especially a blind elf. I know I am inconsistent. I try to protect you one minute and wave you off on an adventure the next, worrying the entire time, just as I would were you a child. I do not know what I am doing, Legolas. I do not know how to care for you. And I seem to be making a shambles of it. I'm sorry."

Aragorn watched as Tithlam left Legolas and trotted toward the cottage. The little animal had undoubtedly had enough of the clashing waves of anger and impatience surging between her elf and his friend, and she hopped up onto the window ledge and vanished into the peace of the warm house.

With a sigh Legolas slowly leaned back until his body rested against the cold grass. He set the bow across his chest, gripping it with two white knuckled hands. Silently he released the pressure on the weapon, opening his fingers and letting them drift idly, tracing the patterns and curves in the fine wood.  After several tense minutes the elf turned his head toward the man. "You have done nothing for which you must apologize. You do a fine job, Aragorn, and you speak the truth. I do need looking after. I do need your help. But I hate admitting it." He squeezed his eyes shut. "Dear Eru," he gasped, his voice choked with misery and anger. "How I hate it."

"I know, mellon-nin. I hate it, too. Tell me what to do."

"Stop deciding things for me, Aragorn. The choices are mine to make. If they truly alarm you, you may protest, and we will discuss. But the final say is mine. You must respect that."

"Done."

Legolas stirred slightly, opening his eyes and shifting his head on the crackling grass. "Would it be easier to care for a blind mortal?" he inquired.

The ranger pondered the question in silence for a few moments, watching his friend's long fingers sweep over his bow with the same love and familiarity as a harper who gently caresses the strings of his instrument before making music. The elf's face was turned up toward the brilliant sky, eyes wide and unblinking in the bright sunlight like two small mirrors reflecting the great expanse of blue.

"In elf or man, blindness is a tragedy," Aragorn said slowly. "But it does seem particularly terrible to see it in an elf. It is… wrong, somehow, and it fills me with anger and sadness. And you frighten me, because I think you take more chances than a human would."

Legolas smiled. "I apologize for being so alarming." He paused, and his face became grave and reflective once more. "You said that you do not know how to take care of a blind person. And I do not know how to be blind. One minute I believe that I am coming to terms with it - starting to accept it - and the next I am overwhelmed with a nearly uncontrollable rage. Fear and despair still claw at me, especially at night, and they steal the very air from my lungs. I… I listen to the sound of your breath when you sleep, Aragorn. There are times when your breathing is the only thing that keeps me from drowning in the terror of it."

Aragorn stared at his friend, shaken by the elf's soft words. "Is it still so bad, Legolas?"

"Yes."

"Alas, I cannot help you more with your fear. I wish with all my heart I could, but I do not know what it is like to be blind. I can only imagine, and that is terrible enough. I'm sure it is only a fraction of what you truly are experiencing."

"I have wished at times that there was someone I could speak to about it," Legolas said quietly. "But I have no kindred spirits in this. There are no other blind elves. I am certain of that."

"You always have been one of a kind," the ranger said lightly, hoping to brighten his friend's mood, and was pleased when his remark elicited an amused, if derisive, snort from the elf. Aragorn's eyes remained fixed on the white fingers playing along the curved length of wood. "How does it feel to hold your bow?"

"Terrifying."

"Has it any fractures? Did it become too dry?"

"No. It appears none the worse for being neglected for such a long time. I rubbed the fat into it and waxed the string last night. It still bends well."

"What will you do now?"

The elf rose to his feet in one controlled, swift motion. As he had done a thousand times before, he placed the bow against the back of his leg and bent it, sliding the looped end of the string into the notch. His features were pale, but determined. "I will shoot."

Aragorn smiled, delighted. "What can I do to help?"

"I have only four arrows. If they go astray, as I expect they will, you must fetch them for me."

The ranger rolled his eyes. "Wonderful. I must seek green and brown fletched arrows in the pre-winter forest. Can we not dye them red first?"

"This was your idea, Aragorn."

"I suppose we can make arrow fetching my punishment then. I would prefer it to what you had originally planned." The ranger grinned, peering at the elf's unreadable face. "You have given that up, I hope?" he inquired. "Such an injury could have permanent consequences beyond changing the way I walk."

Legolas turned toward him with a smile, enjoying the joke. "If my plans for revenge result in an altered voice, I will certainly change them. I do not think I could bear listening to you screech all winter." He paused, raising his head and inhaling. "Speaking of winter… the air has changed."

"The snow will come this week," the ranger said with a nod, narrowing his grey eyes to scan the skies and the distant mountains far to the south, their highest points shrouded in white.

"How are our supplies?" the elf asked quietly, his brow furrowed. "Have we enough of what we need?"

"Our wood supply is good. I plan to haul a few more large pieces to the house, simply to have them close by, and we can cut them later as needed. We will have to keep the fire going at all times for warmth."

"And food?"

Aragorn frowned. "Not as plentiful. We have been concentrating on the firewood and the horse's needs. But I will set my snares in the woods again and start bringing in more meat. And we have Alun's promise of bread from the miller."

"We probably should not depend on that, in case aught goes amiss down in the city. And how are we to obtain the bread? Can Alun bring food to us once the snows come?"

"He indicated that he could. I had thought to ask him for a sack of flour. We could make our own bread here, rather than risking visits that might draw unwanted attention."

"Can you make bread?"

"No. But I have made little meal-cakes."

"I think it is not the same," the elf said in a dubious tone, shaking his blond head.

"How difficult can it be?" Aragorn laughed. "I have watched it being done in the kitchens of Imladris. A bit of flour, a bit of water, mix it up and bake it."

"Are there not other ingredients? Yeast?"

"Oh, yes. Yeast. Well, we can ask about all that when we next speak with Alun."

"Which will be tomorrow. He will bring the boy, and I will perform," the elf stated. He extended his left arm, holding the bow ready, and he pulled the string back halfway. Several times he did this, flexing and releasing the weapon.

"You do not have to do this, Legolas. We can give the boy some excuse…"

"No. The point of no return has been crossed," said Legolas as he reached for his quiver. He slung it across his back and buckled it around his torso. "Do you see the little twig I placed in the target?"

"Yes."

"Can you hear its leaves rattling in the breeze?"

"No."

"I can," the elf said with a grin. His fathomless sapphire eyes, sparkling like a child's, were suddenly alight with excitement. With a flurry of movements that were almost too fast for the ranger to follow he spun toward the target and whipped an arrow from the quiver. Nocking it to the string, Legolas pulled the powerful longbow back into its full arc. He paused briefly, his back straight and his boots planted wide and firm on the frosted grass, and he closed his eyes. And then, like a soft breath released into the wind after a holding, he let the arrow go.

To be continued

 

Disclaimer: the familiar characters and the setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. This story is written for entertainment only, and I am making no monetary profit from it.

Author's notes: Lisette betaed once again. I feel compelled to point out (though no one complained) that the unfortunate typos that appeared in the last chapter were by no means the fault of my beta reader. I have a terrible habit of continuing to tweak the chapters after I have sent them to Lisette, but not sending her the tweaks! And I, of course, never spot the typos until I have posted. So it's not her fault. Keeping this monster under control is not easy. Three cheers for all the hardworking betas out there!

To See A World  by Nightwing

Chapter Twenty: Slings and Arrows

Legolas bent his head and smiled as he listened to the rustling sounds coming from the woods behind the target. He sat comfortably on a log set beside the stacked bundles of straw, absorbing the smells and sounds of late afternoon as his friend wandered about in the shrubs. It felt good to take a moment to relax between shooting sessions.

"I cannot find this last one, Legolas," Aragorn's voice called, a hint of exasperation creeping into the tone.

The elf's smile widened. "Keep looking. That arrow went to the left of the target and skittered about thirty feet past it. It slid on the ground a bit, and is probably buried under the leaves."

"If it is buried under leaves, how the devil do I find it?" The rustling sounds became louder as Aragorn waded through the underbrush.

"You will locate it eventually. And while you search, I am enjoying a well-earned rest. No need to rush, Aragorn," the elf added with a laugh. "I will drink my tea now, so take your time. Appreciate the fact that you are not gathering firewood today."

"Firewood I can see. Skinny arrows with fletchings that blend perfectly with the background are another matter altogether. And it is growing dark, Legolas."

Legolas laughed again and set his bow aside. "In that case, we will consider this archery session ended."

"Thank the Valar for that. I feared you would want to go all night."

Reaching for his tea, the elf curled his fingers around the mug and allowed the warmth of the drink to penetrate his hands. It was a cold day, and he tilted his face back as he inhaled deeply, testing the direction and temperature of the breeze. He agreed with Aragorn's assessment of the weather. The time of snow was nearly upon them.

Blowing carefully on the hot drink, the elf took a small sip and grimaced. Even with the honey, the bitter taste of the bark Aragorn used to control his head pain could not be entirely masked. But he drank it willingly. Early evening approached now, and the ranger had been at Legolas' side with the tea the moment the elf had first raised his hand to his head early in the afternoon. It was a good time to drink it, when only the initial vague twinges of discomfort had started. If Legolas delayed, ignoring his discomfort until the pain worsened, the tea was not as effective. As it was, the cup he now held was his second. Aragorn had silently settled the hot drink into his hands a few minutes ago, having stolen off to the cottage when the archer had sat to examine his arrows. No words had passed between them, but the ranger had apparently seen the price Legolas was paying for his prolonged practice.

Legolas did not mind taking the time now for respite and reflection. He had been shooting for over nine hours, with only small moments of rest when Aragorn was forced to go in search of errant arrows. The two companions had paused to eat a light mid-day meal and then they had been back at it, the ranger standing by, silently supportive as the elf struggled to regain a skill that had once been as effortless as breathing.

Seating himself on the grass and resting his back against the rough log, Legolas idly listened to the ranger thrashing about in the shrubs and thought over his accomplishments thus far. His results with the bow had been erratic, sure enough, but because he had controlled his emotions during his less successful moments he was pleased with himself and with his progress. When the arrow met the target with a satisfying thump, he was delighted. And when the arrow missed the target, hissing past it and striking the ground beyond with a softer sound and a rattle of leaves, he had merely nodded, accepting it, and stepped forward to analyze what had gone wrong. Understanding that anger and disappointment had no place here, the elf had set all negative emotions aside. Capable of intense concentration, he had bent all his thought and mental strength to the task at hand, and the results had not been as terrible as he had feared.

Nestling the empty mug into the grass, Legolas assessed his body's reaction to the day's efforts. After enduring such a devastating illness and not working with his bow for so many weeks he had expected to encounter some difficulty. Surprisingly, there had been little of significance that concerned him. There was no weakness. There was no real pain. His left arm was consistently strong as it bore the burden of holding the great bow steady. His right shoulder never tired, though he demanded much of it, pulling again and again on the string. The muscles of his back did not ache with overuse, and it was with a feeling of wonder that he soon realized he felt as he always did when he wielded his bow; strong, confident and completely comfortable. The great weapon had been made specifically for his hands by Mirkwood's finest bowyer, and it had settled into his grip as it always had, the fine wood smooth and cool against his palms. He felt the passion that lingered there still as he ran his fingers over the string, discovering anew the familiar feeling of lightness and power.

In only a few ways did his body complain, informing him that this renewed activity was not entirely to its liking. Three fingers of his right hand - the ones he curled around the bowstring - were torn and bloody, as his calluses had softened and no longer afforded him the protection they once had. But it was a trifle, and he ignored the stinging pain, knowing that his fingers would heal soon enough and be as they had always been. The skin of his left forearm also voiced complaint, burning and stinging where the bowstring had rebounded to smack against it when he had begun shooting. His protective bracers had been lost on that terrible night long ago, and he had rolled the sleeve of his shirt over his elbow to keep it from catching. But he had quickly made adjustments, changing the angle of the bow slightly, and after that the problem had lessened.

Only the pain in his head had truly concerned him, growing steadily and wearying him despite the tea he had consumed early in the afternoon. No doubt the continuous mental calculations he ran through his brain as he shot his arrows were taxing that still fragile aspect of his physical body, as did the low thrum of nervousness that threatened to distract him whenever his thoughts strayed to what he must do tomorrow. This emotion he kept tightly harnessed, lest it burst free and engulf him. The head pain was tiresome, but tolerable, and the elf had quietly disregarded Aragorn's concerned inquiries and continued with his practice.

As for the shooting, there had been good moments and bad. At first he had stood directly in front of the target at twenty yards and concentrated on simply hitting the bales. Focusing on the rattling leaves of the little twig, he had been consistent. Then Aragorn had affixed a small piece of bark directly to the center of the uppermost bale, and the elf had tried to strike it. This had been more difficult, and he spent a good amount of time struggling with both the cant of his bow and establishing the correct angle of his upper body in relation to the target.

When the wind had died, effectively silencing the rustle of the leaves, Legolas found himself having to concentrate even more on calculating angles, distances, and arrow velocity, committing to memory which ones aided his successful shots. Not for the first time, the elf felt gratitude for his uncanny memory as he ran through numerous calculations in his head. I stand thirty-two yards from the target, and to the left of it. I must raise the bow slightly to compensate for the greater distance, otherwise the arrow will begin its descent before reaching the target. I will need a bit more speed out of it as well. And now the wind is gone. It will not steal the arrow mid-flight and cause it to drift as it did before, so I must adjust slightly for that …

As the hours marched past, Legolas patiently and doggedly approached each shot with the combined precision of mathematician and engineer. Aragorn had been a steady assistant throughout the day, willingly and without complaint following lost arrows and ferreting them out of tangled shrubs and clumps of dried leaves. In time, the elf had challenged himself by risking more difficult shots. Aragorn had been forced to do more fetching, but not a great deal more. During the course of the day only one arrow had been lost forever, smacking into the trunk of a tree and breaking with a sharp crack that had made both elf and ranger wince.

His practice session had not been perfect, but Legolas knew that it could not have been. As he unbuckled his quiver and removed it from his back he felt some trepidation, but strove to dismiss it and focus his thoughts on the shots he had done well. He congratulated himself. It had been a long and trying day, but he had retained his equanimity throughout. Night was drawing near, and it was time to rest. Tomorrow he would attempt to satisfy the boy's desire to see one of the Firstborn wield a longbow.

* * * *

Aragorn awoke, once again roused by an unusual sound that brought him swimming up from the warm depths of his dreams into awareness of both the cold morning and the elf's activities. ThumpThumpThump! The sounds were so close together they almost blended into one. Aragorn sat up and put his head out the window, gazing at the three quivering arrows protruding from the target. The grouping was not perfect, not by elven standards that is, but he smiled nonetheless. Though he may be challenged as to target location, Legolas had lost none of his astonishing speed. That alone should be enough to impress both the boy and his bodyguard for days.

He listened to the elf's soft footsteps crunching over the frosted grass as he made his way to the target. Legolas retrieved his arrows, sliding them into his quiver, and slowly walked back. A small frown marred his fair features. Pausing a moment, he seemed to be gathering himself, and then he spun and whipped the arrows off in quick succession. ThumpThumpCrack! Aragorn grimaced as the third arrow glanced off the oak tree and spiraled into the shrubs. The elf's frown deepened, and with an irritated shake of his head he stalked toward the target again.

Aragorn pulled his clothes on and headed out the door. Legolas was yanking the arrows free of the straw, and he turned as the ranger approached him. "I have lost another one, Aragorn," he muttered in a low voice.

"I saw where it went. I will find it."

"I think it broke."

"No, it was whole, and just flew off to the side." Aragorn rummaged through the bushes. "Here it is." He extracted the arrow from a clump of damp leaves and handed it to the elf, who ran his fingers over it anxiously. The ranger studied his friend, and quickly came to the conclusion that the calm confidence of yesterday had been usurped by a far different emotion. Legolas' entire form seemed charged with tension, his face pale and drawn in the morning sun. Aragorn felt his heart drop, and he placed his hand on the elf's shoulder. "Legolas?"

"They will be here soon. Alun said they would come in the morning." The elf sighed. "Aragorn, I do not think I can do this. If I make a shot like that in front of them…"

"Would it really be so bad if you did?"

"Yes. I will not appear sighted. The boy will know."

"Then let him know."

Legolas silently shook his head and turned away, removing the quiver from his back as he walked toward the house. Aragorn did not pursue him. He watched as his friend disappeared into the cottage, closing the door behind him, and then he regarded the target.

Yesterday, the elf had surprised him. Legolas' skills, blind though he was, were still impressive, and Aragorn's admiration for his friend's indomitable spirit had grown as he watched the elf systematically approach each shot with calm, analytical precision. True, there had been missed shots and awkward moments, but the successes were far greater than these, and last night the elf had seemed pleased with his accomplishments.

But now the moment was rapidly approaching when he would be put to the test, and Legolas' carefully built confidence had faltered. The elf had his reasons for wanting to keep his blindness hidden from the boy. Aragorn did not agree with them, but he would not press him on it. He respected the elf's feelings, though he did not entirely understand them. But did Legolas really have to abandon the performance? The ranger extended a hand toward the little twig protruding from the straw and brushed his fingers against the leaves. He raised his head, testing the air. The day was breezy, and the leaves rattled as the wind sighed through them. With a sudden smile, Aragorn patted the target and trotted into the house to talk to his friend.

* * * *

Aragorn was waiting in the doorway when Alun and Tarnan cantered into the clearing. The boy was off his horse in an instant, his red cape swirling around him as he tossed the reins to his guardian and rushed directly to the ranger. "Where is he? Is he ready?"

Aragorn laughed at the child's eagerness. "Patience. He we will be with us soon. He is inside, preparing himself."

"Is he really going to shoot at you?" Tarnan asked breathlessly, his eyes shining with excitement.

Aragorn smiled. "No. He has forgiven me, and erected a proper target instead," he said, gesturing to the stacked bales of straw.

"Oh," the boy sounded disappointed, but an instant later he brightened again and grinned. "I suppose you must be relieved. It should still be a good show."

"I guarantee it. And now, Lord Tarnan, if you will take a seat on the log just over there, you will have but a few minutes to wait. Let me assist Alun with the horses."

As Aragorn walked with Alun into the enclosure and helped him unsaddle the steeds the soldier glanced at him with a flicker of concern in his dark eyes. "How is Legolas? Is he still angry with you about this?"

"No. He practiced all day yesterday. All day, and he feels he is as ready as he can be."

"But he must be somewhat uncomfortable. It appears he does not want the boy to know of his blindness, and so I have said nothing to him. But how can your friend possibly shoot well enough to disguise it?"

"He cannot," Aragorn said, and broke into a laugh as Alun looked at him quizzically. He gripped the soldier's arm and began steering him out of the paddock. "Come now, seat yourself beside your young lord. The show is about to begin."

With a bewildered shake of his head Alun allowed himself to be led to the log, and his eyes wandered to the target of straw bales erected some thirty yards off, tied to the stout old oak tree with rope. Beside him the boy fidgeted impatiently, his gaze locked on the closed door of the small cottage.

"Legolas, are you ready?" Aragorn called as he settled himself beside Tarnan. "Your audience awaits."

The door opened, and the elf emerged, bow in hand and quiver strapped to his back. Aragorn kept his eyes on Tarnan as the boy watched the elf descend the step and move toward them, and he smiled quietly at the expression of delighted surprise that swept over the young face. "Can he really shoot like that?" the boy gasped. "He must really be good."

"He is," the ranger chuckled as Legolas, smiling broadly, stopped before them and bowed low. "But he wanted to challenge himself today."

"Indeed," the elf said evenly. "It is not so difficult to shoot sighted, nor is it terribly exciting. Shooting blind is another matter. It is my hope that I can still impress you." He raised his right hand and traced the strip of cloth bound across his eyes.

"Oh, wonderful!" Tarnan exclaimed, clapping his hands.

Alun, seated on the other side of the boy, leaned forward and met Aragorn's eyes. "Clever," he said with an approving nod.

"I will fetch the arrows," Aragorn said as Legolas turned away and faced the bales, readying himself for the first shot.

"And hopefully not too many will go astray, as I only have three to begin with," the elf laughed. He looked completely relaxed, ready for fun, and Aragorn settled back comfortably, crossing his arms as the archer nocked an arrow and pulled the string back, tilting his head as he listened to the rustling leaves. The first arrow whizzed through the air and struck the uppermost bale dead center.

"Oh, well done!" Tarnan shouted.

Two more arrows flew, one lighting directly next to the first, the other several inches higher. Aragorn scooted off the log and made his way to the target, clapping the elf on the shoulder as he passed him, and Legolas bent his head toward the ranger's ear briefly. "Thank you," he whispered.

The two guest members of the audience watched with delight as the graceful elf sent arrow after arrow flying toward the target. When Legolas attempted particularly challenging shots he did not always strike the bales, but for the most part his aim was true. With the strip of cloth tied around his eyes the need to hide his blindness was eliminated, and the elf was able to relax and enjoy performing. He shot standing, kneeling, walking and at a variety of distances and angles, and of course he demonstrated his astonishing ability at speed shooting, firing his three arrows into the target with such rapidity that the boy whooped, leaping from his seat and jumping about while Alun stared at the elf in astonishment.

It thrilled Aragorn to see Legolas like this again; poised, confident, and controlled. His face, though half-covered by the strip of cloth binding his eyes, glowed with happiness. Legolas' successes were cheered, and his occasional misses were greeted with good-natured laughs, with the archer himself able to join in. The performance was a triumph, and when it was over and elf set his weapon down, both Tarnan and Alun applauded enthusiastically, their eyes shining with admiration.

As Alun and the boy went to the barn, intending to unload the supplies they had brought with them, Aragorn approached the elf and touched his blindfold. "Ready to have this off?" he whispered.

"In truth, in front of the boy I am more comfortable with it on," Legolas responded in a low voice. "But I suppose it would look odd to keep it."

"It would," the ranger agreed, and Legolas reached up and pulled the cloth away. He folded it with care, grinning wearily as he offered it to Aragorn.

"Well, we did it," he murmured as he pressed the blindfold into the ranger's hand.

Aragorn shook his head. "No, Legolas. You did it. The work was all yours, as is the triumph."

"You thought of the blindfold, not I. Without it, I could not have found the courage to shoot in front of the boy. It went surprisingly well, did it not?"

"It went beautifully, Legolas, and no surprise. You still possess more skill than most sighted people."

The elf spoke quietly. "There were moments of frustration, but they matter little now. It felt good to hold my bow again, Aragorn. It felt good. I thought I would never take it up again. I was afraid."

Aragorn smiled as he looked at his friend, seeing the renewed confidence that had settled on the elf like a shining cloak. He rested his hand on Legolas' shoulder. "I know. I could see the fear, and the damage it wrought as it gnawed on you. But you faced it, and you defeated it. Well done, mellon-nin."

The sudden sharp neigh of a horse pierced the air, and Legolas shifted toward the sound. "Time for a new challenge," he laughed. "Someone is calling me."

Aragorn looked at the horses and spotted the chestnut stallion snorting and kicking up his heels in the pen. His red coat gleaming in the sun, Firestar suddenly looked less like a horse than a creature wrought of roiling flames. Rhosgernroch and Alun's sturdy grey gelding apparently felt little appreciation for their companion's antics, for they huddled in the far corner of the paddock, regarding the younger horse with flattened ears and nipping at him when he drew too near.

Aragorn's heart lurched painfully against his ribs. "You cannot mean it. Legolas, are you not tired? Should you not rest now, and wait another day?" he stammered anxiously, wrenching his incredulous eyes away from the writhing red demon to stare in disbelief at the elf.

Legolas rubbed his hands together gleefully, and a wide grin spread across his face. He broke away from the vice-like grip the ranger had clamped onto his shoulder.

"Firestar, horse of wind and sky,

Ridden by an elf with darkness in his eye,

Together they know that the moment is nigh,

Though pursued by a ranger fearing goodbye…"

The elf sang deliberately off-key, scarcely able to force the ridiculous words past his laughter. He began heading toward the barn, humming as he went.

"Oh, balls," sighed Aragorn. Resigning himself to the fact that his friend would not be dissuaded, he unhappily fell into step behind him and began a mental inventory of the medical supplies he had on hand, certain that a long stint of piecing together broken elven bones lay before him.

To be continued

 

Disclaimer: the familiar characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and are the property of his estate. I do not have permission to use them. This story was written for entertainment only, and no monetary profit was made.

Author's notes: praise be to Lisette once again for her beta efforts, keeping the subject of the sentences clear. It just will not do to have Aragorn galloping around and snorting like a horse.

To See A World

By Nightwing

Chapter Twenty-One: Freedom Rider

"What is he doing?" Tarnan demanded.

Aragorn grinned. The boy was nearly breathing fire in his impatience, squeezing the words out between clenched teeth as he peered at the motionless elf. Legolas stood in the center of the horse's enclosure - he had been standing there a good while now - as the great chestnut stallion trotted circles around him.

"He isn't doing anything," the boy grumbled, answering his own question. Perched between Aragorn and Alun on the same log they had used for seating during the archery demonstration, the young lord of Carbryddin sighed, crossed his arms over his chest, and began to jiggle his leg up and down. "He's been standing there for hours."

"Twenty minutes," Aragorn corrected with a laugh. "But it obviously feels much longer to you."

"When is he going to do something?"

"He is doing something."

"But-"

"Hush, boy," Alun's deep voice broke in. "The elf is no longer performing for you. He does as he sees fit now, and in his own time." Though the words were meant to chastise, the soldier dropped an understanding hand on Tarnan's shoulder. "If the waiting is so difficult, we might go inside the cottage and find another occupation."

The boy glanced sidelong at his guardian. "And miss this? You must be daft. When he does get on Firestar, they will go like the wind. It's how elves ride."

"He will fall," Alun stated, his eyes fixed on the elf as Legolas slowly pivoted on his heel, following the horse's movements as it trotted round and round.

"He will not!" the outraged boy retorted.

"The beast is wild. How you manage to stay on him I do not know, but no one else can handle that horse. Certainly no stranger can, particularly one who-" the soldier broke off, hastily swallowing his words as the ranger turned and sent a warning glare in his direction. Alun grimaced, but met Aragorn's eyes squarely. "You should not have let him do this, Aragorn. You have told me he is not yet fully recovered from his illness. He will be hurt."

"Legolas understands the risks. He makes his own decisions," Aragorn said quietly, though in truth he felt the same concern. He turned away, directing his attention back to the pen and the two beings within.

At the elf's request the other horses had been confined to the barn, leaving the paddock entirely to him and the stallion. Also at his request, the three spectators had been relegated to the log and asked to stay there, much to the dismay of the youngest member of the trio. The boy had acquiesced without too much fuss, however, confident that another episode of grand entertainment would be forthcoming. This happy mood of contented expectation had lasted all of five minutes, and when the two objects of his attention continued to simply stand quietly (elf) or caper about (horse), the boy's poorly bottled impatience had reached eruption point.

"Why isn't he doing anything?" Tarnan hissed.

"He is," Aragorn said. "He is singing."

The boy narrowed his eyes at Aragorn. "Singing?"

"Singing."

"No he isn't. I can't hear a thing."

"He is singing to the horse, Tarnan," Aragorn said gently. "Not to us."

"Oh."

"Watch now."

The stallion had finally begun to slow his prancing. Aragorn ran his eyes over him as Firestar came to a stop and shook his head, blowing softly as he turned toward the elf. The creature was uniquely beautiful. Long and elegant, his neck arching proudly, it was clear that he was of impeccable breeding. It was also clear that he enjoyed showing off. He was a bundle of raw energy, but every movement was swift and controlled, his gait perfect, and his red-gold coat glowed like embers in the afternoon sun. Legolas stood still as a statue. Only his lips moved as the stallion drew nearer, ears swiveling until at last he came to the elf and nudged his shoulder, knocking into him. Aragorn heard Legolas laugh softly, and the elf raised his hand to stroke Firestar's face and run it over his glossy neck as he bent his head to the horse.

The faint song came to Aragorn again as the elf's long fingers stroked over the stallion's body. This was how Legolas could "see" the magnificent animal, and the ranger knew that was just what his friend was doing as he traced the planes of the horse's face and felt down the legs, caressing the mane and even exploring the length and thickness of Firestar's tail. There was no hurry; no need to rush what was forming between the elf and the horse, and the low murmur of Legolas' voice continued as he stepped around to Firestar's left side, his hand trailing across the muscular chest as he passed in front of the stallion. The elf's movements were slow, almost languid, and the horse, aside from the occasional toss of his head, stood quietly.

After several minutes the stallion began to dance about once more. Legolas turned toward the people watching him. "Aragorn," he called softly. "Will you open the gate for me?"

The ranger went to the fence. His approach caused the stallion to recoil, but Legolas, one hand lightly twined in Firestar's mane, went with him, stepping easily alongside the horse and whispering to him. Firestar calmed again, though fire burned brightly in his orbs. "Are you certain about this, Legolas?" Aragorn asked in a low voice, regarding the great horse with distrust.

Legolas nodded. He looked confident, head high, and his blue eyes had grown bright as crystals. A light smile played about his lips as he sang his sweet song to the animal that danced and pawed the ground in his eagerness to be moving. Reaching for the latch, the ranger paused for a moment. Gazing at the golden-haired elf and the magnificent horse, he was suddenly struck by how beautiful the two of them looked together. His felt his heart leap as he realized – somewhat to his astonishment - that he could not wait to see the Prince of Mirkwood astride the powerful stallion. Aragorn quickly pulled the gate wide and stepped back.

The elf's hand, which had casually been holding a handful of mane near the withers, suddenly shifted higher and gripped hard. As Firestar shot forward Legolas vaulted onto his back. So close did they come to him that the wind of their passing whipped the hair from Aragorn's shoulders, and he turned away to shield his eyes from the cloud of dust flying up from the hooves, but not before he caught a blurred glimpse of Legolas' face, shining with excitement.

The elf clung like a burr as the stallion streaked across the clearing. Aragorn raced after them and joined Alun, who had jumped up from the log and dragged the boy to the safety of the cottage doorway as Legolas tore past them. Tarnan stood frozen, his hands clapped over his mouth and his eyes enormous.

"No saddle? No bridle?" he gasped.

Aragorn didn't answer, for his heart was in his throat. Legolas was rapidly approaching the thick wall of trees on the other end of the clearing, and the horse showed no signs of slowing. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to swallow the shout of warning that threatened to erupt from his mouth. He knew that the elf was well acquainted by now with the dimensions of the glade. Legolas knew where the trees were.

As Firestar roared up to the edge of the clearing Legolas suddenly threw his weight to the left, leaning hard and guiding the stallion into a sharp turn. The horse half came up onto his hind legs, spinning in a reddish blur before landing with a thud and bolting in the other direction. His hoof-beats echoed like thunder in the ranger's ears. He watched as Legolas, crouching low, urged the horse on, and shook his head in amazement. This should not be possible. Eyesight was essential to one wishing to ride a horse such as Firestar. Eyesight gave one a sense of balance, of orientation to one's surroundings, and awareness of possible dangers.

The day that Legolas had first ridden the old mare he had fallen several times. It had been a struggle for him to find his balance even at a gentle trot or canter. How was it that he now could ride the great stallion - a much more challenging steed - with such skill? Legolas' balance was perfect, his seat soft and his body relaxed and flowing with the movements of his mount. As Aragorn stared, the elf threw his head back and laughed – an exultant, free sound that bounced among the closely clustered trees, echoing throughout the clearing until it seemed all the oaks and pines laughed with him.

Confidence.

Every day the elf gained more of that precious asset. Though many of his efforts were at first rewarded with failure and frustration, Legolas had never given up on any of his endeavors. From the seemingly small victory – making breakfast for the two of them without assistance – to the apparently insurmountable goals of archery and riding, not once had the elf allowed himself to succumb to doubt and despair. He had toiled, climbing past his tears and his terror, at times without the support of his dearest friend, until he had reached the summit of each mountain that he had been forced to ascend.

Aragorn looked after his friend as he raced along the length of the clearing once more. There was a new steadiness about the elf-prince, wrought of his experiences. Discipline was in his face, and Aragorn suddenly realized that – at least physically if not emotionally – Legolas was growing accustomed to being blind.

Filled with sorrow and with awe, he watched as the elf slowed the horse and cantered easily past him, and it was as if a layer of blindness had suddenly been stripped away from his own eyes. The ranger felt shame for having had reservations, unendurable sadness for what had come to Legolas, and a powerful surge of pride in his friend. He bowed his head.

Why did I ever doubt him?

Something tapped his shoulder softly, and he turned to find Alun looking at him. "Your face is wet," the soldier murmured.

"Is it? I did not realize." Aragorn smiled, feeling no embarrassment, and without haste lifted a hand to wipe his tears away.

"Were he my friend, I would weep as well," Alun said quietly. "In all my days, I have never seen anything more beautiful."

* * * * * *

"He is a horse meant for the gods, Aragorn," Legolas exclaimed enthusiastically between bites of bread. His wind-whipped hair remained tousled, a flaxen cascade over his shoulders, and his eyes glowed with happiness. The cat, purring contentedly, was curled on his lap, and his hands flowed over her as he spoke. "Never have I ridden such a magnificent animal. He is well named, full of fire and energy. But he is so much more… intelligent and responsive, and with a mettle to rival that of the Mearas. He is a wonder."

Aragorn leaned back in his chair and laughed. They were inside, the warmth of the cottage driving the chill from their bones. The fire crackled merrily in the hearth, and their new friends were seated with them at the table. "Poor Rhosgernroch. How will she feel when she learns you have thrown her over for that young upstart?"

Legolas chuckled as he lifted his cup to his lips. "Fear not. I will never permit her feelings to be hurt. She is dear to me, and will always be first in my heart. And I am the one who cares for her needs every day."

Tarnan, his mouth full of food, fixed his eyes on Alun and pointed at the elf. "You said Legolas would fall."

Alun blanched, glancing apprehensively at Legolas, who merely smiled at the boy's words and continued to happily devour his meal as if he hadn't eaten in days. "Did I?" the soldier stammered. "I do not quite recall-"

"You said it. But he didn't fall. I was right," the boy said triumphantly.

Aragorn came to the soldier's defense. "I also feared Legolas would fall," he told the child.

"Why?" Tarnan asked, and it was Aragorn's turn to grope for an answer.

"Yes, why?" Legolas chimed in with a smirk, moving his eyes to settle them on Aragorn's face. The ranger regarded the elf in silence for a moment, and decided that he was improving in his attempts to appear sighted.

"I feared you were still not well enough," the ranger said. "As of today, I have changed my mind."

Alun paused with his fork in mid-air. "I am more easily able to understand how Legolas can ride that horse than I can Tarnan. How is it that Firestar, who would settle for no one but the Lady and became uncontrollable after her death, now allows the boy to ride him? Tarnan is the only person, save Legolas, who the horse has permitted to sit on him. Not even our best horsemen can work with that stallion."

"Firestar knows who Tarnan is," Legolas said. "And he loves him."

Alun looked skeptical. "You mean to say Firestar knows that Tarnan is the child of the woman who once rode him?"

Legolas nodded. "Of course. How could he not?"

Tarnan shrugged. "I used to visit him with Mama, and watch her ride him. Maybe he remembers that."

"He undoubtedly does, but it runs deeper than that," the elf stated. "He knows it in his heart, for you are of her flesh. You need not ever fear to ride him, Tarnan. Firestar will never throw you."

The boy nodded soberly, his expression turned thoughtful and his gaze focused on something far away. Then he shook himself and grinned broadly as he slid gleeful, mischievous eyes toward his guardian. "Did I not tell you that he is always gentle with me, Alun? And he always does what I ask. Would that my servants did the same."

The soldier rolled his eyes skyward and snorted - a most un-servant like sound - and both ranger and elf shared in the laughter that filled the small cottage. It was the sort of laughter shared between intimate friends, and Aragorn's heart lightened yet again as he noted the pleasure shining in Legolas' eyes.

All too soon the day had drawn to a close. As the boy went to ready the horses, Alun tarried on the porch. "We have brought a few more supplies for you," he said, turning to Aragorn and Legolas. "Not so much this time, for we cannot let it be noticed that things are missing."

"You have done enough for us," said Aragorn. "We have been concerned that you might be discovered. What is the current mood of the city?"

Alun blew his breath out, and it drifted, cloud-like, over their heads. "Tense. Winter arrives, and the folk grow restless. Some fear that our oppressors will further tighten their stranglehold as we draw into ourselves during the cold months, forgoing trade with other cities and thus allowing no one outside to bear witness. Some are pushing for the rebellion, but others feel that the time is not right."

"When will the time be right?" the elf queried.

The soldier's voice was troubled. "No one can say. Some argue that we must be stronger… that we need more numbers. Others fear that the longer we wait, the stronger Malcovan and his followers become. He persuades people to come over to him with promises of land and title, or he threatens them and casts his spells. Whatever his tactics, we cannot stand up to him as we are. We are too few, but we have nearly reached the breaking point. What the trigger will finally be I do not know, but something will happen this winter. Of that I am certain."

Tarnan was calling, waving from the barn where he waited with the two horses. Alun drew his cloak more firmly around his body and fastened it. "I will try to return in a few days with more supplies. The flour you requested is an excellent idea, Aragorn, as trying to arrange meetings with the miller could be difficult. I will also bring up some oats for the mare, more food for you, if I can, and the herbs you wanted. I will have to raid the healer's stock for the things you need, but fear not. They are with us in the fight, and will willingly give me what I ask without question."

Aragorn nodded. "I would be most grateful, as Legolas still needs medicines. But then you must stop, Alun. Now that we have a good supply of wood stacked beside the cottage, Legolas and I can once more turn our attention to the procurement of food."

"The trapping is good along the river, true enough, and fish are plentiful in that small lake yonder," Alun said. "But I'll still feel better knowing I've gotten a few more things up here to you." He turned to the elf. "It was a fine display today, Legolas. You gave Tarnan the thrill of his life, and I must confess I myself was more than a little astonished at what you can do."

The elf smiled quietly. "I was rather astonished myself. And now that it is over, I want nothing more than to sleep for two days."

"It would be a well-deserved rest," Alun said. With a salute, he stepped to the ground. "It grows late, gentlemen, and I must get the child home to his father."

"Are you and the boy missed when you come up here?" Aragorn asked with concern.

The soldier shook his head. "I think not. When he is not being tutored, Tarnan is quite free to go where he wishes as long as he is escorted. We have been putting it about that he is learning what lies outside the borders of his city, and working to improve his horsemanship by accompanying me on my patrols. But we must limit his visits so as to not arouse suspicion. It may be some days before I am able to return with him for another visit."

"Whenever you are able, know that you are welcome here," Aragorn told the soldier. He waved as the man and the boy mounted their steeds and guided them to the trail beyond the river, and then he glanced at the sky, heavy with clouds. As he watched, the first snowflakes fell, lazily floating down to settle on the golden hair of the elf standing beside him.

"It is snowing, Legolas."

The elf stepped away from the threshold and tilted his face back. "So it is."

"Let us hope for a soft winter, my friend."

"And an uneventful one," Legolas added.

The snows had come at last to the Northlands. With a final glance at the rapidly gathering flakes beginning to swirl around him, Aragorn followed the elf into the little cottage and closed the door behind them.

To be continued

Disclaimer: the familiar characters and the setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and are the property of his estate. I do have permission to use them, and no profit is being made from this story.

Author's Notes: here you will find the answer to that eternal question we have long pondered: why are Aragorn's hands always so filthy? Thanks again to Lisette for her beta work.

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Twenty-Two: White World 

Aragorn stood in the doorway and gazed out at a world that had quickly become shrouded in white. Throughout the evening meal he had kept a distracted eye on the weather, watching as the silent heavy flakes floated down and the drifts began to collect, blowing against the edges of the cottage and the barn. The descending night and enfolding silence had not served to instill any feelings of peace within him. It had only sharpened his discomfort, and he frowned uneasily as he glanced up at the sky. He wished with all his heart that it would stop snowing. He wished with all his heart that it had never begun.

It had grown dark, and he could see nothing beyond the soft light thrown out by the open door. The numerous flakes whirled and blended together, drawing an impenetrable curtain between his eyes and the shadowed trees beyond the clearing. They dazzled his eyes as they caught the glow of firelight and lamplight, dancing and swirling as if suspended on invisible strings controlled by a skilled puppeteer. He stared, mesmerized, as they twinkled and leapt like tiny glittering gems, weaving a spell with the complex patterns they traced before his gaze.

The bitter air pierced him, the temperature having dropped in precise timing with the arrival of the snow, and the wind had picked up, hissing through the bare branches with a hollow, lonely sound that made Aragorn shudder. He was usually able to stoically resign himself to whatever weather came his way, as was appropriate for a ranger who often lived for long stretches in the wild. But he was unwontedly unhappy this night at the sight of the snows arriving at last to settle a silent, heavy blanket over the little cottage. He felt terribly alone, acutely aware of his isolation, stranded and cut off from the assistance and solace of others. In all his days as an adventurer, he had never been forced to stay rooted to one place. Even in the deepest part of winter he had always been free to break camp and move on, seeking solitude or companionship as he wished. And never before had the snows come to him in the guise of anything but snow, but now the dizzily spinning flakes closed on him, pressing about him and hemming him in, and the wind whispered in soft moans, warning of a trap. A slight breeze wove through the air and brushed his cheek, a chill caress, and his breath caught in his throat as he recoiled. Then he shook his head, irritated at his fanciful thoughts. Snow was snow, nothing more. Wrenching his gaze from the tiny white dancers, he peered into the fire-lightened room, searching for his friend.

If Legolas shared Aragorn's unease he did not show it. Sitting cross-legged on the floor before the hearth with Tithlam settled happily in his lap, he gazed with his unseeing eyes upon the flames, a look of contentment on his fair features. The archer was not so arrogant as to expect that the elements conform to his personal wishes. Be it rain, snow, or a sunny day with clear blue overhead, he accepted all variations of weather with typical elven pragmatism. After all, wishing the snow would ease would not make it do so, and it made no sense to fret over circumstances that could not be changed. In the elf's mind it was foolish and futile to waste one's mental energy and attention on such pointless thoughts.

Aragorn smiled softly, heartened by Legolas' calm demeanor as the elf relaxed before the hearth, peacefully soaking up the warmth of the fire. Legolas did not indulge in such foolishness, nor was he subject to ridiculous imaginings, believing that the snow had a cruel conscience of its own and was plotting and scheming to entomb the helpless. A snowstorm was something to be accepted and dealt with. Perhaps even enjoyed, if the situation permitted. It was not a malevolent creature come to trap them.

The elf stirred suddenly, as if he felt the ranger's eyes upon him, and he turned his head. "Close the door and come sit with me, Aragorn. You are letting the heat escape."

With a grimace Aragorn obeyed, crossing the small room and grasping a chair set at the table. He pulled it round and straddled it backwards, resting his chin on his hand. He made an effort to force back his apprehension, not wanting to burden his friend's happy mood with his own dark thoughts. He laughed lightly. "I am surprised you noticed the cold, Legolas. You appear to still be basking in the warm glow of today's successes."

"I am," the elf said. He set the cat aside and extended his long legs toward the fire, wiggling his bare toes. "I had a good day. That horse, Aragorn… that horse! Were the wolves of Sauron snapping at my heels, I know that on Firestar I could escape them." Legolas smiled happily. "I hope for the opportunity to ride him again. He guided me more than I guided him, and it was as if my blindness had fallen away. I felt free, Aragorn. So free." The elf paused as the firelight played over his wistful features, and he briefly closed his eyes as if feeling anew the wind in his hair and the powerful body of the stallion surging beneath him. A moment later he shook himself and turned toward Aragorn with a grin. "As for that open door, even if I do not feel the chill as acutely as you, be assured I will notice - and say something – if I fear you are wasting the firewood. I spent far too much time chopping those logs to permit their warmth to simply fly out the door."

"Fair enough. But rest easy. I will not waste our fuel."

The elf nodded. "I know. Your needs have always been few, and in truth I can no more imagine a ranger wasting precious supplies than I can a dwarf climbing a tree."

"Speaking of trees, will you go to your old oak tonight?" the ranger inquired, watching out of the corner of his eye as Tithlam began nosing about near the beds.

"No, I will sleep here, and I will take the straw pallet. It is time we switched again." Legolas paused, his brow wrinkling. "What is gnawing on you, Aragorn?" he asked.

The ranger started slightly. "What? Oh, nothing at all-"

"You rose from the table three times to look outside as we ate our supper. The snow makes you uneasy."

"Yes."

"Has much come down?"

"Quite a bit," Aragorn replied, his eyes automatically wandering to the window. He could see nothing though, as it was covered with a heavy blanket and shuttered on the outside. "The snow is accumulating quickly and drifting against the buildings."

Legolas sighed quietly. The firelight glimmered over his hair as he turned toward the ranger. "I feel uneasy as well, but I cannot tell if it is because of the winter itself or the danger posed by those in the city."

"A combination of the two, I should think," said Aragorn.

"There is naught we can do but face whatever may come," the elf stated, leaning back to prop himself on his elbows. "And perhaps nothing will. The snows may well prove our protector rather than our enemy. It may keep those who would attack us away from this place."

"True."

"Will you set your snares or seek fish tomorrow?"

"I will set the snares. I plan to go along the edge of the river, and also set some in the woods. There are animal trails that crisscross the area. The old man may well have followed them as he set his own snares."

"And I will practice archery tomorrow with my three arrows," the elf said. "I must do my best not to lose them until Alun returns. He said he would try to find some new ones for me, though he doubted anyone in the city has arms as long as mine."

"I hope he can locate arrows of the correct length. Shooting with ones that are too short for you will compromise your draw-length, and - " the ranger paused, shaking his head in amused exasperation as the grey cat emerged from under the bed, carrying a sock in her mouth. Daintily she trotted across the room and vanished with her prize into the back room where the herbs were kept. "There she goes again," he laughed.

"Tithlam? What is she doing?"

"Your little friend has one of my socks. One of the new ones."

The elf grinned. "I thought you had secured them in a drawer."

"The clean ones, yes. The dirty ones I have been placing in a box under the bed until we take our clothing to the river for washing. The box has a lid. I thought that would be enough to deter her."

"Apparently not. How many socks did you find scattered about this morning?"

"Four. I think you are putting her up to this, Legolas," Aragorn said in a severe voice.

The elf's jaw dropped. "Why would I tell Tithlam to steal your socks?"

"It just seems the sort of thing you would do."

Legolas shook his head, laughing. "The game is entirely hers, I assure you. If I were to encourage her to steal something, it certainly would not be your dirty socks, Aragorn. I would put her penchant for thievery to better use."

"Then why does she not take your dirty socks?" the ranger demanded as Tithlam emerged from the back room and vanished under the bed again.

The elf snorted. "Apparently they lack some essential element she finds attractive. And what that might be I would rather not dwell on."

"She's going back for another one, Legolas. You must talk to her. I grow tired of picking them up all the time. She leaves them everywhere, and hides them in odd corners. The place is a mess."

"The place is a mess? I had not noticed," the elf joked. "Clean or in disarray, it is all the same to me as long as I can find what I need and do not trip over anything. Best put a rock on the box. She'll not be deterred otherwise, for she seems quite passionate about your socks."

"Ah well, I still have an advantage over you. She may be teasing me, but she loves you. You will be the one gifted with the headless corpses of mice this winter. She will line their little bodies up directly beside your bed during the night. You will step on them the instant you rise, and be forced to feign delight so as to not hurt her feelings."

"And I will. Gifts from a cat should never be ignored."

* * * * 

They woke the next morning to a dazzling world. Snow shrouded the forest, deep and silent, and the air was still. The sun stabbed downward from the vast expanse of azure sky, forcing Aragorn to squint as it reflected, glaring, off the great white carpet. The drifts had risen knee high, and he trudged through the cold, the elf gliding beside him, to the barn to see to the old mare. On the way he described his visual impressions to Legolas, doing his best to make the day come alive for his friend, and was pleasantly surprised to have Legolas return the favor in his unique way. Aragorn spoke of white snows, glittering and rounded over hummock and building, and of the cloudy vapor of their breath streaming behind them. The elf spoke of the tree boughs groaning under the weight of heavy snow, the little animals curled and sleeping deep within their cozy burrows, the sharpness of the air piercing his nostrils, and the tang of bitter cold on his tongue.

"It is a perfect day," the Prince of Mirkwood pronounced with a satisfied nod.

"Perfectly cold," the ranger returned as he stepped into the barn where Rhosgernroch was waiting, comfortably warm in the well-built building with a horse blanket thrown over her back. As Legolas provided her with breakfast Aragorn poked about in the storage-room, pulling down from a rusty hook the simple rope snares the elf had spent long hours plaiting. These he would set out today in the forest, to bring in small game for the table. He paused as he gazed at the coils in his hands, noting the fine workmanship. Most of the cords were twisted in the simplest of ways, suitable for snares, while others had been more intricately worked, braided in complex patterns with multiple strands running through them. The extraordinary skill of the elf's fingers had made each thin layer of plant fiber into a work of art. One of the patterns the ranger immediately recognized, and he glanced at Legolas from the corner of his eye, quickly and furtively, as if fearing his friend might catch him looking.

As Legolas crouched to check the water level in the mare's bucket, the fall of his long hair swept down like a golden sheet and hid his face from the ranger's scrutiny. The elf no longer braided his hair. The complex woven patterns that announced his status as a warrior of Mirkwood had not been plaited into his hair since the night of his poisoning by the orcs. Now he either pulled it back into a simple ponytail, securing it with a strip of leather at the nape of his neck, or he allowed it to fall freely over his shoulders without any bindings. Aragorn had never asked why, for he knew the reason well enough, and he knew that it caused pain to his friend. Legolas no longer considered himself a warrior. He deemed it inappropriate to braid his hair.

He braided plant fibers instead.

Aragorn ran his fingers lightly over the familiar multi-stranded braid, and a sudden desire came over him. This rope was considerably shorter than the others, and would not be particularly useful. With another glance in the elf's direction, he slipped it into his pocket. This one he would keep.

"Are you sure you will not reconsider your decision and come with me, Legolas?" he inquired. "I confess I have some concerns about leaving you on your own. If anyone should come…"

The elf smiled and shook his head. "I will be fine. I cannot imagine any enemies trying to fight their way up the hill in this snow, and if they do, I have a good set of ears and Rhosgernroch to help me. Do not worry, Aragorn. You know as well as I that when you lay snares for animals you must check them every day. I can hardly be tagging along each time. I will accompany you on some days, but most often it makes more sense for me to remain here. While you are gone I will perform whatever tasks need doing around the cottage. And I will work with my bow."

Legolas was right. He would make better use of his time here rather than trailing after Aragorn in the woods, and the ranger also knew that the elf needed to contribute as best he could to their survival and give his days some purpose. Aragorn turned his head and gazed out at the bright, beautiful day. His fears of the previous night suddenly seemed a silly thing in the clear light of morning. Shaking his head, he looked at Legolas and saw that the elf was waiting for an answer with a smile on his face and a stubborn glint in his eyes that Aragorn recognized. Fighting the forces of evil down in the city would be child's play compared to standing against Legolas when he looked like that. The ranger grinned.

"So be it. Should you have need, the tea for your head pain is in the pot beside the hearth. The bark is steeping. You must bring it to a boil and then cool it. I will circle round the cottage but not venture more than a mile away, and will be back well before the sun sets."

* * * * 

Most of the day Aragorn spent quietly and patiently scouting a one-mile radius around the cottage, seeking the signs of animals. The snow was powder-soft, soundless under his boots as he made his way through the woods. He walked without difficulty among the winding trees, setting his small traps with care. Rabbit runs were easy to spot throughout the forest, the footprints and droppings leading him to several burrows, and squirrels were plentiful, chattering and leaping from tree to tree. And to the north of the house, beside the river, he had been pleased to see the tracks of deer.

As he worked he pushed aside distracting thoughts of his friend waiting alone at the cottage. The trapping had to be done. He and the elf were both adults with healthy appetites, and meat must be put on the table each day. And once the supply of vegetables and fruit ran out, his efforts to bring in game would be even more important. He and Legolas would smoke much of the meat with wood chips and store it away for the late weeks of winter – the difficult weeks – but fresh meat was needed now as well.

He selected just one area in which to concentrate his snares. A small area would be easier for him to monitor and would take little time, thus ensuring that he would not be separated from Legolas for long stretches each day. The other sections of the forest he would leave alone for now, moving his traps to them later as needed.

Moving quietly so as to not alert the animals to his presence, he trimmed and bent hardwood saplings to the ground and attached the nooses. He kept his hands bathed in mud from the river to mask the human scent as he worked, and carefully covered his snares when he had finished. He placed some near the river, some along the rabbit runs, and a few he set along the branches where the squirrels ran. By the time he had finished and hungrily sat to eat the food he had packed for his mid-day meal, the sun was already moving toward the west.

He was northeast of the cottage, and had made his way to the ridge that overlooked the valley.  Finding a comfortable perch, he settled back and regarded the city that lay far below. He frowned slightly as he peered down at the snow-blanketed scene. The army was out despite the cold, seeming no more than black ants against the white ground, the groups moving to and fro. Some of the ants moved more quickly than others, and these Aragorn guessed were on horseback. Whatever the army trained for, Captain Ramhar of Carbryddin was apparently not going to let winter stand in his way.

The ranger watched for a time, idly relaxing as he finished his meal. Then he closed his eyes and held them closed, drawing on the senses of sound, smell, taste and touch as he tried to imagine what it was like to live in Legolas' dark world. For a time he sat quietly and concentrated, growing more aware of the roughness of the downed tree trunk against his buttocks, the burning ache in his ears from the cold, the still breath of the wind, the skittering movements of little animals. But though he tried to keep his eyelids down they would not cooperate, flying open reflexively as they sought the source of the sounds he heard. He could not entirely relax here in this spot where he could see the city and feel its quiet malice even from afar. Tense and alert, he could not keep his eyes closed, so frequently did he need to seek information with his eyes. He began to understand more clearly just how deeply Legolas' frustration must run. How often did the elf still turn quickly upon hearing a strange sound, his blue orbs wide and searching, only to have nothing come to his eyes?

Aragorn rose to his feet with a sigh. It was time to be getting back. As he gathered his belongings he glanced into the valley once more. The little sections of the army had stopped their movements and the men appeared to be lined up now, row upon row facing the great gate of the city as if waiting for something. A moment later several tiny figures emerged from the gate and halted before the massed people. The ranger wrapped his arm around a sturdy tree and leaned forward, squinting in an attempt to make out more detail. The figures were so small that it was almost impossible for mortal eyes to see much of anything at such a distance, but for a mortal man, Aragorn's eyesight was exceptional. He stared, his grey orbs narrowed and boring intently into the distant scene. As the minute figures walked beyond the gate and took their places before the army one of them broke away and began moving rapidly toward the open field, only to be quickly followed by the others and dragged back. The man stood alone for a moment. He did not attempt to run a second time. As Aragorn watched there was a sudden swarming, a converging of several people around the solitary figure. And when they pulled away again, the one who had tried to flee lay upon the snowy ground and did not move.

Aragorn lingered a moment longer, his hand gripping the rough trunk of the tree, and then he turned away. Drawing his cloak around him he slung his pack over his shoulder. Deeply disturbed by the brutality of what had just transpired, he hurried back toward the cottage, anxious to return to his friend.

To be continued

 

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and are the property of his estate. Contrary to what I stated at the start of my last chapter, I do NOT have permission to use them, and I never did. Wishful thinking, I guess.

Thanks once again to Lisette, betaing between sessions of tiny cute orphaned kitten nursing and hydroplaning into ditches. No sleep for her this week!

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Twenty-Three: In the Eyes of an Elf

Alun returned one early afternoon two weeks later, pushing his way up the hill on his sturdy grey gelding. He brought more supplies, dumping several bundles onto the table as he shook the snow from his clothing. He also brought Tarnan, who in turn had brought Firestar, much to the elf's evident pleasure. Legolas had been quiet of late, and Aragorn breathed a soft sigh of gratitude when he saw his friend's sober face light up upon the arrival of the visitors. The elf was instantly on his feet, rising from another silent staring session in front of the flames and grabbing the laughing boy by the hand. Tarnan managed no more than a grin and a quick wave in Aragorn's direction before Legolas bolted with him out the door, slamming it behind them.

With an amused shake of his head, Alun cast off his cloak and flung it over a chair. "The two of them are getting to be great friends, are they not?" He strode to the hearth and extended his hands toward the warmth of the flames. "Ah, that is better. It is a long ride from the city."

"And how is the city?" Aragorn inquired, rising from the table to fetch wine.

"The same," Alun stated bluntly, rubbing his hands together vigorously.

"I am relieved to see you, Alun. Legolas and I were concerned that you might be dead."

Startled, the soldier turned toward him. "Why the devil would you think that?"

Aragorn set the flask on the table and sat again. "I saw a man killed before the gates of your city the day the snows came. We feared it was you."

Alun sighed and shook his head. "No, I was not the one." He joined Aragorn at the table, the chair creaking slightly under his weight. "It was a friend. Somehow his activities were discovered, and he was put to death publicly and cruelly as a warning to all." He paused, eyeing the ranger with a curious expression. "How is it you witnessed the execution?"

"I was out setting my snares and paused upon the ridge to look at the city. The distance was too great to see much detail, but what was done to the man was clear enough."

Alun nodded and drank deeply of the wine. "I am thankful I was not there," he said in a low voice. He dropped his eyes and gazed into the depths of his cup. "It would have been difficult to stand by and not act."

"You say his activities were discovered. Does this not endanger all who fight against the takers of your city?" Aragorn questioned with a frown. "He might have spoken of you, albeit unwillingly, under threats or torture."

"No, he held his tongue. Of that we are certain. It would have taken more than whips and glowing irons to break that man." The soldier rested his hands on the table, his eyes narrowing. "Of greater concern is how he was discovered. We fear he may have been betrayed, perhaps by one of us."

"It must be difficult to tell friend from foe," Aragorn said. "And now to be on guard against a possible traitor –"

"Yes, we must be doubly cautious from this point on. It may be that I will not be able to bring Tarnan back here, at least for some time. And my own visits will be less often than I would like. How goes it with your hunting?"

"The small animals are plentiful," Aragorn said. "My snares always yield something, and we preserve all we can. We will be fine, Alun, though we will miss your visits - Legolas even more than I."

"I brought some of the things you needed, including the herbs for him. How is his head pain?"

"It has abated somewhat, now that he no longer works so hard. His days are easier since the snows fell, and he can rest. But he has been feeling idle, with little to occupy him at times, and so he frets. And he cannot shoot. He has lost his arrows."

"Ah, I can help you there at least." Alun began rummaging through one of the packs. "I brought more for him. Fifteen in all, and they should be the correct length." He extracted a long, carefully wrapped bundle and set it on the table.

Aragorn nodded gratefully. "Thank you. This will do much to lift his spirits again."

Alun regarded the ranger quizzically. "I think one such as Legolas was not made to be blind, or idle. He was obviously a warrior of some standing before he lost his eyesight."

"He was," the ranger murmured. He hesitated for a brief moment, unsure if he should speak of the concerns that burdened him of late, but the need to communicate with someone in order to ease his mind was strong. The soldier was watching him, his eyes sympathetic. Aragorn inhaled deeply and continued, his voice low. "Legolas was a brilliant, talented warrior. Now he is like a falcon with its wings clipped, battering himself against the cage. The restricted life he is now forced to lead weighs heavily on him, even more so since the snows came. I see his mood darkening, and it frightens me. He is restless at times, and in other moments he is quiet. Too quiet, withdrawing from me and burrowing into dark thoughts. He sits before the fire and does not speak, as he did when he first woke from his sickness and discovered he was blind. He often goes out to the barn, saying he is going to look after the mare, but he stays for hours. He spends most nights in the tree he loves, but he no longer sings to the stars. I take him out with me most days when I check my snares, both to get him out of this house and because of your warning of danger, but he refuses to come with me every time." Aragorn paused to smile at the other man. "I am glad you brought the boy today. Legolas has needed a change."

"I am sorry we cannot visit more often," Alun returned. "Tarnan enjoys it as much as Legolas. And it pleases me to see the boy learning about other people. Malcovan and Ramhar seek to keep him ignorant and suspicious of outsiders."

"They can more easily sway his mind if he is thus," Aragorn said, "but I have the feeling that the child's curiosity will never permit them to gain such power over him. His personality is too strong."

At that moment the door banged open and Tarnan rushed into the cottage, pursued by a swirl of cold wind. He slammed the door, stomped his snowy boots on the rug, and headed for the fire. "It's freezing out there!" he gasped, rocking back and forth before the flames so vigorously that Aragorn feared he would pitch forward right into the fireplace. "Legolas wants to stay out there and sing to Firestar, but I could not take it any longer. He said he'd be along in a minute." The boy's bright eyes slid toward Aragorn's. "Do you have anything to eat?"

"They haven't enough food, child, to be feeding you the absurd amount you always demand," Alun said gently. "They must conserve what they have, for the winter will be long."

"But we just brought up cheese and more eggs," the boy protested. "And the flour."

Aragorn laughed. "We can surely find something to satisfy you, and hot tea for you and Legolas as well." He rose and went to the shelves, pulling down the last of the apples.

"Legolas is strange," the boy commented as he turned his back to the fire and let the warmth penetrate the other side of his body. "Is something wrong with him?"

Aragorn paused and turned toward the child, who was looking at him expectantly. He straightened, suddenly apprehensive, and his fingers tightened on the bowl of apples. "Legolas is an elf, and the ways of elves often seem odd to mortals," he said carefully. "Why do you think something is wrong with him?"

"He laughs when I laugh, but he does not smile when I smile. He looks at me only rarely. Usually he turns his face away."

"I see." Aragorn glanced at Alun, who grimaced and shrugged helplessly. The ranger's thoughts raced, struggling to give the boy a plausible answer. "The direct gaze of an elf can be a very uncomfortable thing for mortals. Elven eyes have a way of penetrating deeply, and many people do not like it. He is probably trying to protect you from his gaze, lest it makes you uneasy."

The boy stepped lightly to the table and grabbed an apple. "Oh. He is trying to be polite."

"Yes." Aragorn crouched before the hearth and settled the pot of water over the flames, thinking it was high time Legolas stop trying to hide his blindness from Tarnan. The boy was as observant as a hawk, and it was only a matter of time before he discovered the elf's affliction. And he would probably not appreciate the deception.

"I like Legolas' voice," the boy commented between bites of apple. "I could not hear him when he sang before to Firestar, but today I was right next to him. His voice sounds like bells. And Firestar loves it. He settled right down."

Aragorn smiled. "Song is very important to the elves, as are all things of beauty."

"Where does he live?" Tarnan asked as he reached for the cheese Aragorn set before him. "Besides over the mountains, I mean."

"He comes from an elven realm called Mirkwood," the ranger told him. He did not speak of Legolas' royal status. That was for the elf to reveal if and when he chose to do so. "It is a great forest. The elves live beside a river, and engage in trade with the nearby town of men."

"Does he live in a tree?"

"Sometimes. Many of the elves have homes up in the trees, and others live in a great network of caves."

"He told me he doesn't like caves."

"They are not like ordinary caves, but vast and airy and filled with light. The king has his palace in the caves."

The boy rounded on Aragorn and hastily swallowed what he had been chewing. "A king? The elves have a king?"

"They do indeed."

"Oh! I should like to meet him." Tarnan busily set about slicing another piece of cheese. "Have you seen the king?"

Aragorn nodded with a small smile as he worked on the tea. "I have met him a number of times."

"What is he like?"

"He is all a great elven-king should be," Aragorn murmured. Memories of sweeping majestic robes, hair of glittering gold, sapphire-ice eyes came into his mind, and a voice that somehow managed to sound both pleasantly musical and deeply authoritative vibrated in his ears. The ranger looked at Tarnan. "He is a just ruler, fair and wise. The king is well-loved by his people."

The door opened again, and Legolas entered quietly. He closed the portal behind him and leaned against it, not entering the room. "Aye, he is much loved," the elf said. "He fights hard for our people, to keep our realm safe from the evil that never sleeps."

"I am making tea, Legolas," Aragorn said. It seemed an unnecessary statement, except that it helped the elf to locate him. "Come to the fire and warm yourself."

Legolas nodded and stepped silently to the hearth, leaning forward slightly to warm his hands.

"You have good ears to have heard us from outside," the boy said, staring hard at Legolas' back. "Do you know the elf-king?"

"Yes, I know the king."

"When I come to visit you, can I meet him?"

"You will one day be ruler of your city," the elf said as he straightened. "King Thranduil would be most pleased to establish relations with Carbryddin, and friendship with you."

Alun, who had been quietly following the conversation, moved his sharp eyes to Aragorn. "Thranduil? That is the king's name?"

"Yes." Aragorn regarded his visitor with surprise. "Is the name familiar to you?"

"It is," the soldier affirmed as Legolas spun toward him. "But I do not recall why I know the name. I have heard it somewhere."

"Have you heard your enemies speak that name?" the elf asked quickly.

Alun shook his head, frowning as he thought on it. "I truly do not remember," he said after a pause. "If it comes to me how I know the name I will certainly tell you."

Legolas turned away again to face the fire, his face tense and unhappy. Aragorn knew what was in his thoughts, for they had discussed the possible reasons for the army's intensive training schedule. In their conversation, the ranger and the elf had both agreed the chances were remote that the army intended to march on Mirkwood, but Aragorn knew that privately Legolas continued to worry.

Alun glanced with concern at the elf before turning to his young charge, who was busily gulping the tea Aragorn had given him.  "I hope your appetite has been satisfied. We must be getting back to the city."

The boy nodded quietly. He ran his hand over his mouth and stood, then pointed suddenly at his guardian's chest, his eyes widening. "Alun, you still have that thing in your shirt!" he laughed.

"What?" the soldier asked, groping in confusion at his clothing. "Oh, yes. I had forgotten about it." Looking somewhat sheepish, Alun reached into his shirt and extracted a small round bundle wrapped in cloth. He set it on the table. "The miller told me I had to keep it warm."

"What is it?" Aragorn asked, staring at the object. He wrinkled his nose as a sour smell infiltrated his nostrils.

"Dough," Legolas said from his place before the hearth. "Do you not smell the yeast?"

"I do indeed. Very well, we shall bake it. Give the miller our thanks, Alun."

Alun shook his head. "He said you must not use it all. Only pieces of it, when you make your own dough from the flour."

"How do we do that?" the ranger queried, leaning closer to the bundle and peering at it suspiciously.

Alun shrugged. "You ask the wrong man. I merely brought what he said you needed. I know nothing of the baking of bread, and fully intend to keep it that way."

"Well, Legolas and I shall have a go at it tomorrow. It cannot be that difficult," Aragorn said confidently. Behind him he heard the elf snort.

Alun settled his cloak around his shoulders and gestured to the child. "We must be off," he stated as he glanced toward the covered window at the waning daylight peeking around the edges of the heavy cloth. "The sky grows dark, though it is not yet time for the sun to set. It will snow again tonight. Come Tarnan."

As Alun reached for the door the boy turned suddenly and looked at the elf. "You needn't be so polite Legolas. Don't worry about your eyes."

Aragorn saw Legolas stiffen, his face going white. "What do you mean?" the elf whispered, and he stepped back a pace, as if he had momentarily lost his balance. Moving quickly, Aragorn was beside his friend, ready to support him should he need it. He watched the boy apprehensively, bracing himself for whatever he was going to say next.

Tarnan was looking at Legolas with his clear gaze. "I asked Aragorn why you don't look at me. He told me that elf eyes sometimes bother people. He said you were trying to protect me. But you can look at me. You're my friend, and your eyes won't hurt me."

Aragorn felt the soft whisper of a Sindarin prayer graze his ear, and then the elf was moving forward. Legolas knelt before Tarnan and gently placed his hands on the boy's slender shoulders. They were face to face, mere inches apart, and Aragorn knew Legolas' wide blue eyes could only be fixed on those of the boy.

"How is this?" the elf asked quietly, and Aragorn detected a slight tremor in Legolas' low voice.

Tarnan grinned. "Doesn't hurt. I like your eyes. They look like the sky. They… they look like my mother's eyes."

Legolas dipped his head. "Your words honour me." He continued to kneel, and there was a moment of silence as elf and boy regarded each other.

Tarnan suddenly narrowed his eyes and his expression became somewhat critical. Peering more closely at the elf's features, he suddenly reached out and touched Legolas' face. Aragorn winced, certain that his friend's deception had come to an end at last, and he waited anxiously for Tarnan to voice what he had finally seen. Legolas was frozen in place, the rapid rise and fall of his chest the only outward sign of his apprehension. Behind the child Alun hovered uneasily, his hand still gripping the door handle, and he seemed to be holding his breath entirely.

The boy suddenly nodded as if a suspicion had been confirmed, and he flashed an unexpected grin at Aragorn. "Legolas, you have broken your nose before, haven't you?" Tarnan asked.

The elf's jaw dropped, and his fingers slid away from the child's shoulders. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back as his body began shaking with laughter. Alun gave a great shout, and Aragorn joined in as a wave of relief swept over him. Legolas' secret was still safe, for now. And the boy was right. Though it did not detract from the beauty of Legolas' face, the elf's nose had indeed seen better days.

"What's so funny?" the boy demanded, staring round at the adults. "He has! You can see it goes off to the side if you take a proper look at it."

Legolas struggled to speak between desperate gasps for air. "I have broken it, my young friend. Two times in fact. Once when I fell out of a tree, and once when my eldest brother punched me during one of our many disagreements." He raised his hand and investigated his nose. "I had always held out hope that the second time might have set it straight again. I suppose I must stop deluding myself. It is still crooked, and I fear it will always remain thus."

"It could always get punched back the other way," Tarnan suggested with a giggle. "Though it might just make things worse."

"I will live with it the way it is. A broken nose is not pleasant. I have no desire to experience another." Legolas paused, and then hesitantly raised his hands, resting them gently on the child's face and tracing the youthful countenance. If Tarnan found the elf's actions odd he did not indicate so. He stood quietly, eyes closed, as the long white fingers glided over his face. Aragorn saw a fleeting expression of longing and sorrow sweep over Legolas' features, but it was quickly replaced by a bright smile. The elf grabbed the boy's nose and tweaked it. "You should not speak of my nose, Tarnan. You have broken your own."

Tarnan's laugh rang through the cottage. "Only last year. I fell out of a tree, just as you did. But my nose doesn't look nearly as bad as yours."

With a chuckle, Alun turned again to the door. "This is a good note on which to end our visit, my friends. Tarnan and I must ready our mounts and be on our way."

Legolas wrapped his arms around the boy and embraced him. "There are times I miss my home, Tarnan. Your visits help to cheer me. Thank you."

Tarnan smiled and nodded as he returned the hug. "I will visit you after you return home. I want to see why an elf-king would live in a cave."

"I shall see to it that you receive a personal tour from one of the princes of Mirkwood," said Legolas as he rose easily to his feet and bowed low. "You will be their honoured guest."

An excited fire kindled in the boy's eyes. "There are princes too? I will be glad to meet them. I hope they like me."

Legolas smiled gently. "They will adore you," he said.

Alun steered the boy out of the cottage. Turning on the threshold, the soldier pointed to the forgotten blob on the table. "It grows," he warned, and grinned at Aragorn's sudden expression of fear. "Remember to keep it warm. Happy baking, gentlemen." And with a final wave he was gone, his booming laugh echoing among the trees as he closed the door behind him.

To be continued

Quick author's note: please do not come after me with sharp pointy things because Legolas has a crooked nose in this story! Think of our beloved movie Legolas. Lord knows I admire Orlando Bloom's beauty immensely, but that boy has obviously smashed his nose at some time in his life… it's all over the place. And I figure if we can have an elf with a chopped-off hand (Maedhros), or a completely pathetic broken down elf (Gwindor), we can have an elf with a slightly crooked nose. It certainly doesn't hurt his looks… perhaps it even makes him more appealing, yes?

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them, and am making no monetary profit from this story. It was written for entertainment only.

Author's Notes: you might find the writing style of this chapter somewhat different. I felt like playing around a bit, just for a giggle.

Thanks to Lisette for betaing. I think little Gizmo sleeps through the night now. Thanks also to Lamiel for keeping me at least somewhat on track regarding the requirements and behavior of dough. Any diversions from the usual activities of dough are just for fun.

As always, thanks very much to you all for the lovely reviews.

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Twenty-Four: Burnt Offerings

  The elf was staring at the fire again. He had been doing so all morning, saying nothing as Aragorn puttered about the cottage and dug through various cooking implements gathered on the shelf beyond the hearth. Only after the ranger had explained to Legolas his plans for the day's baking did the elf finally stir and make known his opinion. "Aragorn, your plan to make our own bread is faced at the outset with a serious obstacle. One that may in fact be insurmountable."

"And what is that?"

"We have no oven."

"Oh."

Ideas were brought forth, ruminated on, and rejected. They had no bricks, and attempting to dig clay from the rapidly freezing earth and construct a beehive oven was a prospect neither elf nor ranger was willing to contemplate. Digging a pit may have created a workable oven, but again the idea was unappealing. Aragorn had broken the shovel last time he had used it, and the thought of using their hands, bare or gloved, to hollow out the cold ground held little enticement for the two adventurers.

"Let us go for a swim and think on it."

"Swim, Legolas?"

"Swim, Aragorn. The water is not iced over yet."

"You must be mad. I have no wish to die in that lake."

"Swim with me, Aragorn. Please."

Aragorn regarded his friend briefly and bowed his head in defeat. The elf's empty blue eyes were wide and hopeful. Legolas was happy when he visited the lake, or appeared to be, and Aragorn was willing to endure nearly anything to see that beautiful but increasingly rare smile grace the elf's fair features. Gritting his teeth, Aragorn grabbed two blankets and led the way into the white morning.

On the north side of the small lake the ground rose in a low ridge that overhung the still water. Legolas had taken to diving from it – a height of about twenty-five feet - whenever they came to bathe. Draping his clothing over a tree branch, the elf rapidly strode along the snowy trail that led to the high spot. Aragorn remained below, disrobing unhappily. The instant he was unclothed he rushed into the water, splashed about for all of two seconds and shot out again, shivering and gasping as he dried himself.

"Not long enough!" the elf shouted, standing poised on the lip of the overhang, his lean body silhouetted against the bright winter sky.

"Leave me alone."

Legolas laughed as he sprang into the air, his back arcing as his powerful legs propelled him over the edge of the ridge. The young elf-prince seemed suspended in the air for a moment before he plunged downward, arms over his head. Straight as one of his arrows he flew, and his body sliced through the water with nary a splash to indicate his intrusion into the calm blue lake. He popped to the surface halfway across the expanse and immediately made his way toward the ranger, swimming with strong strokes. "Ahhhh, that is invigorating," he announced as he exited the water.

"Invigorating? Really, Legolas. My hair is frozen stiff and I cannot move my fingers," Aragorn growled as he finally managed to yank his leggings over his still-wet skin and pulled his shirt over his head.

"Where did I leave my clothes?" Legolas muttered, groping his way along the tree branches. Icicles were forming at the ends of his soaking hair. "Help me," he entreated as he turned toward the ranger.

"No."

"Aragorn, please…"

"Your skin has taken on a rather interesting shade of blue. It quite becomes you, Legolas."

"Aragorn!"

"Here they are."

"Thank you. Let us return tomorrow for another swim."

"Out of the question, Elf. I do not intend to enter that lake again until spring. I must get inside now, and I was not joking when I said you were turning blue."

The elf reluctantly agreed, and shortly the two friends were thawing themselves at the hearth and clinging to cups of hot tea. Once Aragorn felt he could control his jaw spasms well enough to speak without shattering his teeth he turned to the elf, only to find him already gazing sightlessly at the flames again. Not today, my friend. Today I will do something to shake you out of this sadness. "I have thought of a solution to our oven problem," he announced.

"What is it?"

"We will put a pot inside of a pot."

Legolas' eyebrow came up. "A pot inside of a pot?"

"Yes."

"Explain."

"It is simple. Inside the large pot we will place hot coals on the bottom. Then we nestle the small pot into the large one. The dough goes into this smaller pot, and the coals all round it will bake the bread."

The elf frowned and then shrugged. "It sounds a bit odd, but I can think of no other way to do it. When do you wish to start this adventure?"

"Are you sufficiently thawed?"

"Yes."

"Then we shall begin now, and have bread for our supper," Aragorn announced. "Let us gather what we need and arrange them on the table."

"What do we need?" the elf inquired.

"The flour, Alun's dough, and a bowl."

"And?"

"Erm… that is all."

"That is not all. Water."

"Oh, yes. We'd not get far without water."

"Aragorn, have you any idea at all what you are doing?"

The ranger laughed. "Not a wretched clue. Let's get started."

Onto the table went the required items. Legolas stood one side of the oak expanse and Aragorn on the other. "Now," said the ranger-turned-baker, "we will put a bit of the flour into the bowl."

"How much is a bit?" inquired the elven skeptic.

"I'll just dump some in."

The elf rolled his eyes. "Right."

"Alun said some of this dough he brought up had to go in with it. I'll take a pinch."

"Hold a moment, Aragorn. I think this part is important. The proportions do matter. You need more than 'a pinch'."

"Well, do you know how much to mix in with the dry flour?"

"No."

"Neither do I. I'll put in most of it." Aragorn reached for the dough and gingerly lifted the wrapping, peeking with trepidation under the shroud. "It has grown overnight. I'll just pull a nice big chunk off here and get it into the bowl."

"'A nice big chunk?' Sweet Elbereth…"

"Now the water. Pour in a bit, and then we shall mix it up. Shall I go first?"

"By all means," Legolas laughed. "I want as little to do with this as possible."

"It's gooey."

"You are hopeless," the elf groaned. He reluctantly drove his hands into the mess. "It is too wet. Add more flour."

"Is this enough?"

Legolas sneezed. "Put the flour into the bowl, Aragorn. Not all over me. Yes, that is better. Now we must leave it for a time by the fire."

"Why? Let's just put it into the pot."

"It must sit now. Cover it up, and let us visit Rhosgernroch. Her bedding needs changing."

Shrugging his shoulders, Aragorn agreed. They spent some time in the barn raking out the old mare's stall and spreading fresh bracken for her. Upon their return Aragorn scrutinized the dough. It appeared to have doubled in size. "Amazing how it does that. Now let us cook it."

The elf looked exasperated. "Kneading. Have you ever heard that word?"

"Yes..."

"I think it must be worked for some minutes. Dump it out onto the table. This is your job."

Aragorn grinned as he kneaded the dough. "I rather like this part."

"You would."

"Your turn."

"I told you I do not want to touch it."

"It's good tactile fun, Legolas. Go ahead."

The elf kneaded the dough for all of a minute before withdrawing from the table. "This is disgusting," he stated as he began picking at his fingernails.

"Now into the pot."

The elf impatiently grabbed at a dangling lock of hair with his sticky fingers and put it behind his ear, leaving a smear of dough on his cheek. "Not yet. It must rise again."

"Again?"

Legolas sighed. "Yes. Set it aside for a time. It should get puffy once more, then you bake it."

"How do you know all this?"

"I watched my father's kitchen staff at their baking once… about four hundred and ninety years ago."

"When you were but a wee elfling? Well, that still makes you the expert in this house. What is next?"

"We should set it near the hearth to keep it warm, and ready your little oven in the meantime. Please, may I have a towel? I want this muck off my hands."

With the bowl of dough settled happily beside the hearth, the "oven" was prepared, and a bit of chat ensued to pass the time.

"Aragorn, this little pot does not fit. This handle sticking out the side makes it crooked…"

"Try this one."

"That is better. I think it would be best if you put the coals in, O sighted one."

"Done. Now we'll put the little pot in like so… ah, it fits perfectly. More coals built up around the sides…"

"Take care not to make it too hot in there."

"I am hungry. It will cook faster this way."

"Hmm…"

"We will give the pot time to get nice and hot, and by then the dough will have puffed up. Then we will be in business."

"Hmmmmm…"

"Tithlam is watching us with extreme interest. She recognizes hidden talent when she sees it."

"Nay, Aragorn. She recognizes idiocy when she sees it. She wants to be certain we do not burn down the house."

"Is that why she has set all my socks in a pile by the door? So she can rescue them if need be?"

"Undoubtedly."

"You tried out your new arrows last night. How were they?"

"For mortal make, they are quite satisfactory. I must remember to thank Alun next time he comes. Fifteen should last me a good long time. My aim improves."

"I am glad to hear it. I think we need more coals. Ah, it is glowing red now."

"I do not like the sound of that."

"Let us put the dough in. By all the gods - !"

"What is it?"

"The thing is huge! How do we get it into the pot?"

"Punch it down."

"What?"

"For the love of Iluvatar... Aragorn, just give it to me." Aragorn tipped the bowl, grinning as the obscene blob ponderously emerged and oozed onto the table. The elf slammed his fists into it. "It is huge. Too much for one loaf."

"No it isn't. Your hitting it makes it little again. It will fit into the pot now."

"It is too much."

Aragorn began stuffing the mass into the container. "No, it is going in just fine. Ow!"

"Are you hurt?"

"Just a little burn. Now to cover it with this lid… and there we are. We should have bread within the hour. Now snuggle it into the fire..."

"What, more heat?"

"Worry not."

"Aragorn, I am not worried. I am terrified. Bread is supposed to be silent. It should not sizzle." The elf swiveled his head round. "Where is Tithlam?"

"Gone out the cat door. And a good mouthful of socks with her."

"She moves her children to the safety of the barn. I am tempted to join her."

"We need to clean up first."

"Why clean up a house that will shortly catch fire and burn down?"

"Have faith."

"Aragorn, in battle your judgment and abilities are unmatched. I would trust you with my very life. But as a baker, your intentions run considerably beyond your skill. I would rather subject myself to a night in an orc cave than trust you in this."

"Your words wound me."

"It is burning, Aragorn. I smell it already."

"It smells good. Let us busy ourselves with other tasks while the baking commences."

"I smell smoke."

"Nay, it is steam. It is simply venting."

"It vents smoke, not steam."

"Here, start wiping the table. I will take the bowl to the river."

"Do not leave me alone with that thing."

"Very well. Come with me."

"I will," the elf stated emphatically. "When the house explodes I do not want to be in it."

Off to the river they went, bearing the dirty bowl and various utensils in need of a good scrubbing. Legolas knelt and attempted to wash the dough from his hair. "I need another swim."

"You are clean. Your hair looks fine."

"Still sticky," the elf muttered, splashing his floury face and gasping at the cold of the water. Then he jumped to his feet and spun toward the house. "Aragorn, I really smell smoke."

The ranger sighed. "Can we just ignore it, please?"

"Not if we want a roof over our heads tonight."

Man and elf hastened back to the house. "Hmm. It is a bit smoky in here. In fact I cannot see a thing."

"That makes two of us," Legolas managed to gasp before succumbing to a violent coughing fit. "What is happening?" he demanded, waving his hands about to fan the smoke away.

"We must get it out of here. Quickly, open the door and stand clear. I'll grab it with these towels."

"Take care not to burn yourself."

"Legolas, open the door!"

Aragorn bolted past the startled elf and flung the pot-inside-a-pot into the clearing, as far from the house as possible, where it landed with a violent hissing sound. The contraption somersaulted across the snow, the inner pot clanging violently within the larger before springing free and spiraling wildly through the air. Great burnt chunks of dough broke off in every direction, accompanied by an explosion of fireworks as the glowing coals spilled out. Fiery sparks of red-gold arced through the air and landed in the snow, where they sizzled unhappily before winking out. The hideous cacophony reverberated amongst the trees as the pots finally came to rest. All was deathly silent as every plant and animal paused, frozen in shock as the final echoes slowly faded away.

Aragorn trailed slowly after his pots and stood gazing at the disastrous results of his baking day. He picked up a stick and poked sadly at the charred mass.  But then the ringing laughter of the elf came to his ears like the sweetest music, and he knew the day had been a success after all. Legolas had left the safety of the cottage and was staggering about in the snow, bent double and howling with laughter. He wandered here and there for a bit, hands outstretched, but finally he located the ranger (who was terribly affronted and not inclined to give aid to the seeking elf) and leaned against his shoulder. "Too bad. You did your best," Legolas said, trying desperately to keep a straight face and not succeeding at all. He turned away, clutching at his ribs as his body folded again.

"Thank you so very much for your sympathy," Aragorn growled in mock anger as the elf roared.

Legolas straightened with an effort and wiped his streaming eyes. "Perhaps the birds will enjoy it."

Aragorn shook his head. "No. Be happy you cannot see it, mellon-nin. It is truly a dreadful sight, and I'm certain it will poison them. The animals will give it a wide berth."

"A lawn decoration then."

"No, it is not tasteful. What would the neighbors think? They already want to kill us."

"If it is as ugly as you say, it may scare them off. We will make sacrifices to it. It could be our protector, striking terror into the hearts of all who draw near."

"I cannot bear the sight of it. It is too graphic a reminder of my failure this day."

"I understand. It is a grievous blow to your pride. When it cools, we will put it in the barn and cover it. You need never lay eyes on it again, and the painful memories can begin to fade."

"You are a good friend, Legolas."

"And you are a terrible baker, Aragorn."

"I do make a pretty decent flat bread."

"No yeast I hope," the elf gasped in alarm.

"No yeast," assured Aragorn.

"Very well. You have my permission to proceed. We still need something for our supper. And while you do that I will take the remainder of Alun's dough and drown it in the river. I do not trust it."

"Be sure to hold it under for a long time. We do not want that thing crawling out in the middle of the night seeking revenge."

"Indeed not. Perhaps you should distract it while I creep up from behind and throw a bag over it. We must catch it off guard."

"Too late, Legolas! It is on to us, and is already hastening across the yard. It makes for the forest."

"How is that possible? Has it sprouted feet?" the elf gasped, spinning on his heel and pretending to look wildly around him.

"Apparently."

"Good thing we did not eat it. Was it armed?"

"No. It merely flees after observing what we did to its other half. It has vanished into the shadows. I am certain we have seen the last of it."

"Well enough. Come, we must swim."

"What? Absolutely not. I already swam today."

The elf extended his hand and felt over Aragorn's head. "Your hair is coated with dough! You cannot remain thus."

"Ah, I see your game now, Elf. This was just another of your devious little plots to force me into that lake. You and the dough conspired against me. I have been betrayed."

"If you say so. Let us be off. Sooner in, sooner out."

"After this, I most certainly will not be entering that lake again until spring. I mean it, Legolas."

"Famous last words," the elf laughed as he set off for the water once again, dragging the miserable ranger behind him.

To be continued

 

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them and am making no monetary profit. This story was written for enjoyment only.

Lisette has galloped off to play and watch fireworks, so I am paddling my kayak alone. I hope I don't fall out!

Heide's having a baby! Heide's having baby! Yippee!

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Twenty-Five: Moonflower

Aragorn listened to the soft whisper of his boots as he made his way through the white-blanketed forest. It was a still day, windless, and grey clouds hovered low with the promise of yet more snow. It was drawing on toward late afternoon, and another day of laying his small snares had fleeted by.

Today he had moved his traps to a new spot, taking the little ropes to an area north of the cottage, past the small lake and beyond the apple orchard where the body of the old healer lay under its cold white shroud. Here the trees crowded close, but Aragorn easily moved among them, seeking the signs of small animals and placing his snares carefully.

The winter had deepened. Several weeks had passed since the unsuccessful bread-making episode, and in that time the forest had seemed to draw in on itself, the silent boughs of the trees lowered and bending close together as if seeking the comfort of each other's company. The forest stretched on for countless hilly miles, and in the center of it the little cottage rested like an island, its roof rounded and glittering white, shrouded and hidden from prying eyes.

The quiet winter life of the forest suited Aragorn. He was a man of few words, and his heart was at peace with his surroundings and situation. A kind of contentment had come to rest over him. His days had become settled, and he moved easily through the simple tasks that needed doing. The wood supply was holding out well, and rare were the times that he did not bring home something from his snares. Both man and elf ate sparingly, saving all they could lest the days grow harder, and though they were not starving, neither were their bellies full. But it was a mild hunger; not enough to rob them of energy or health, and they both easily shrugged off what was but a trifling discomfort. They had endured moments of hunger before in their travels together, and some had been far worse than this.

The cold was more troubling for the ranger at times, for it seemed long since he had truly felt warm and comfortable. The chill seemed to search him to the bone when he was out for long periods of time, and in the evening after returning from walking the forest he clung to the hearth, wrapped in a blanket and drinking tea. The fireplace did little to heat the tiny cottage save for the small area right around it, and it was here that he and Legolas spent the quiet hours, sometimes in companionable silence, sometimes telling stories or discussing the events of the day.

But Aragorn was a ranger, hardened in matters of survival, and endurance was bred into both body and mind. Moments of comfort were appreciated as they came, and he used them to fortify himself to face the long trudges through the lonely forest as he walked his snare paths. Despite the cold and the lingering concerns about food and safety, he had found pleasure in his solitude. The quiet lifestyle had offered him a gift in addition to the hardship, providing long stretches of time for reflection and deep contemplation. There was a certain freedom in this forced stay in the depths of the white forest, with few obligations but for the care of his friend, and his mind had gradually turned from earlier feelings of being trapped and had opened itself to the calm of deep winter. The solace of simplicity struck a harmonious chord within him, and he fretted less and less under the burden of his exile. The solitude had helped him find a path that led him even closer to his soul, assisting him in realizing a new appreciation for life. He wanted it to be so for the elf as well, but the days had not settled as contentedly for Legolas.

Aragorn's concerns for his companion continued, and here is where unhappiness lingered. To Aragorn's eyes, Legolas seemed to be slowly buckling under the weight of his blindness. The elf was restless. He fought against inactivity with an intensity bordering on ferocity, practicing his archery for hours on end and maintaining the old mare and her stall with meticulous care. In the evenings, even as they relaxed before the fire, Legolas seemed to always have something in his hands. He braided more plant fibers, polished his bow nightly, rewrapped the arrow fletchings, and he whittled pieces of wood into little animals, asking Aragorn if they looked correct, and then held them – when he was not holding Tithlam – for long stretches, his fingers tracing over their features again and again.

Aragorn strove to keep Legolas busy with activities. He always encouraged the elf to accompany him when he walked his traps, though he usually refused, and they prepared their meals together. Legolas did much of the butchering when Aragorn brought meat home, working under the lean-to where the woodpile was kept, and he stitched the furs together to add to their outerwear. In addition, the ranger had begun an inventory of the medicinal herbs the old man had kept in the back room, and he encouraged Legolas' participation. He had brought many of the containers out and set them upon the table, and as he went through them he explained their properties and uses to the elf. Legolas had listened with interest and asked questions as he investigated the herbs with his fingers and his nose.

At odd times the elf's sense of humour still managed to escape from the confines of his blindness and desperation. Once Legolas had stolen all of Aragorn's socks down to the last one and sought to blame the cat. Aragorn had angrily searched for the better part of an hour trying to find them, even going so far as to poke about in the corners of the barn, only to finally spot them flapping from the highest branches of the old oak tree, far beyond where Tithlam was able to climb.

Another time, in the dead of night, the shivering ranger had staggered half-asleep into the dark for a quick trip to the privy, only to find himself being pelted with snowballs thrown with astonishing accuracy from the roof of the barn. It was only after he had retreated to the cottage again – he never was able to reach the outhouse – that he recalled how Legolas had solicitously plied him with several extra mugs of tea, insisting that it would be of benefit to his health. Thus the elf had ensured that his victim would eventually have to emerge from the cottage as he lay in wait with his snowballs.

But despite the moments of levity, it was apparent to Aragorn that the elf was growing increasingly despondent. He watched with uneasy sadness whenever Legolas became quiet and turned abruptly away from his tasks to gaze into the fire, the orange flames dancing deep within his brilliant sightless orbs. With a soft breath the elf would rise and disappear into the night, sometimes to the barn, or to sleep cradled in the arms of the ancient oak, or simply to pace back and forth across the clearing for hours during the night. He never sang to the dark and the dawn now, and this the ranger found most distressing. For an elf, song was as necessary as food and drink. It was as vital as breathing, for the beauty of music nourished Legolas' soul as nothing else could. It connected him to the living essence of the surrounding world. For the elves, there was song in all things – in tree, flower, river and star – and Legolas returned the gift of their melodies by offering his own in return. Without this exchange he was closing himself off from what strengthened him in mind, body and spirit, and it troubled Aragorn deeply to see this withdrawal from the world. And Legolas would not speak of his heartache to Aragorn, though the ranger encouraged him frequently and endured the refusals with quiet resolve, determined to press the elf again later.

The pain in Legolas' head had seemed to ebb at first, when the quiet days had arrived and his hard physical labor had ended, but the reprieve had not lasted long. On some days the elf's discomfort did not seem too bad, but on others it was apparent that he felt miserable. Legolas fought against it, retiring to the tree when he felt unwell, working to control his pain with meditation and calm surroundings, but Aragorn knew it was the pain that often drove his friend to pace the clearing at night. The ranger was greatly concerned about the continuing pain, which Legolas, when he was willing to discuss it, described as a whip across the eyes. His head throbbed and his neck ached where the dart had struck, and Aragorn had anxiously examined the site of the old wound. It had long since healed, though an angry red mark remained, but he could detect nothing more as he ran his fingers over the elf's smooth skin. Privately he worried that perhaps a sliver remained embedded deep within his friend's neck, but he said nothing to Legolas of this, not wanting to frighten him. If a piece of the dart did remain, it would be impossible for Aragorn to attempt to remove it without assistance. To cut into the neck required great skill and knowledge of the anatomy, or further damage could be the result. Aragorn was a healer with no small amount of talent, but he lacked the necessary tools and medicines to attempt such a surgery out here in the wild, and to do so without the aid and skill of others added to the chance that greater harm could befall Legolas. It could not be risked. And so Aragorn once again supplemented the elf's tea with herbs to ease swelling and combat poisons, and he watched his friend closely, feeling as if Legolas navigated a treacherous path alone while he could only look on helplessly and pray for his safety.

Aragorn had also made a discovery - one that the elf had apparently made an effort to hide. The day after the disastrous bread-making venture, the man had carried the smaller of the two pots into the barn. The larger container had been salvageable, needing nothing more than a vigorous scrubbing, but the other was forever encrusted with the blackened dough that not even a troop of dwarves armed with hammer and chisel could have removed. Aragorn had carried it from the clearing and sought to set it on a shelf in the small storage room beside Rhosgernroch's stall. The shelves had been cluttered with all manner of things, but Legolas had organized them long ago so that he could easily locate whatever he might need. They were still crowded though, with tools, ropes and various odd items. Aragorn had stood for a moment, pot in hand, running his eyes over the shelves to locate a place for the ruined cooking implement. He settled on a likely spot on the top shelf and had reached overhead to settle the pot onto it. As he had done so, something secreted in the back of the shelf and hidden behind a coil of rope had fallen to the floor and broken open.

Aragorn had stooped to pick it up, and paused with a frown as he recognized it. It was a small wooden box carved with a leaf pattern. It was Legolas', and had been made by his hand. Aragorn had seen the elf working on it some weeks back, but had given no further thought to the little container after it had been finished and Legolas had taken it off somewhere. Now it had suddenly reappeared, hidden away in the dark recesses of the barn, its contents spilled out onto the floor at the ranger's feet.

As Aragorn had hastened to gather up the scattered items, he realized that he had disturbed a collection of leaves. Each leaf was from a different type of tree, and each had been carefully pressed flat so that they could rest atop each other within the box and maintain their shape. Several pine and spruce cones also made up part of the box's contents, as did a gathered bundle of evergreen needles tied with a bit of string. Wondering why the elf had collected a variety of fallen leaves and hidden them away, Aragorn knelt and gently replaced them as he hoped they had been arranged, taking care not to bend them, for they were brittle and dry. He replaced the box and said nothing of his discovery to Legolas.

With a sigh the ranger came back to the present moment, glancing uneasily around him as he crouched over his final snare. On the days he moved his traps to a new location he was away from the cottage for longer stretches of time. The sun was sinking now, and the dark moved in and began to settle its grey cloak over the silent trees. The sky was heavy with clouds. Legolas would be waiting for him, for Aragorn had promised never to be gone after the sun had set. He did not like leaving Legolas alone for many hours, fearing that the elf brooded in his solitude. The ranger rose to his feet and looked over his snare with a critical eye. Satisfied that it was properly set and concealed, he set off for home.

The forest opened a little and the ground dipped as he drew near the apple orchard. The day had waned, and Aragorn quickened his pace, walking with long strides past the old man's grave. The forest had fallen silent, awaiting with patient acceptance the new snow that would come this night, and the shadows reached over the land. The sharp snap of a twig breaking somewhere to his left came to the ranger and he halted abruptly, spinning toward the sound with narrowed eyes. He peered into the darkened forest, and his fingers gripped the handle of the short hunting knife in his belt. Quietly and quickly he set off in the direction of the sound, pausing at the edge of the open orchard to crouch in the shadows and stare into the deeper woods with senses straining.

It could have been a deer. Perhaps simply a dead tree limb had chosen that moment to break free and fall to the ground. But Aragorn's body had tensed, and his heart was pumping blood through his tingling extremities with force. He had learned long ago to never ignore his instincts. Alert as any wild creature of the forest, he waited.

All was silent. He did not turn his head. Pressed against a tree, only his eyes moved, raking the scene before him with their keen glance. But he heard nothing else. No figure detached itself from the shadows to either approach or flee. Whatever it had been, it was gone. The ranger waited some minutes, brow furrowed as he listened, and then he turned away.

- - - - - - - - -

It was dark by the time he returned to the cottage. The elf was not there, but the fire was burning strongly in the hearth and the water for Aragorn's tea had been set over the flames. It was bubbling, but not yet at a full boil, and in another pot carrots and potatoes simmered. The tea that Aragorn had left for Legolas' head pain was entirely gone, however, and the ranger frowned at this as he stripped off his cloak and shook the light dusting of snow from it. Hanging it over the back of a chair he wrapped himself in a thick blanket, grabbed the lantern, and set out for the barn.

Pausing in the doorway, he glanced at the dozing mare. As he entered she shifted her weight to her other hip, flicked a lazy ear in his direction, and returned to her dreams of sunny meadows and sweet clover. As Aragorn passed her, he noticed that both her mane and tail had been intricately braided. A slight scuffling noise came from the storage room, and he moved forward to put his head around the corner. "Legolas?"

The elf was standing beside the shelves, his hands just withdrawing from the uppermost one as Aragorn stepped into the small room. Legolas turned, dropping his arms quickly to his sides. His face was calm, but he had worked to make it so, and his eyes appeared nearly black in the shadows of the darkened room. Aragorn regarded him for a moment, and then glanced up at the shelf. There he saw the box, hastily and less than perfectly hidden behind the coil of rope. The silence stretched awkwardly, and Aragorn sought to dispel it. "Rhosgernroch looks fine enough for your father's stables," he commented, and the elf smiled quietly. "I am a bit later than I had intended to be. I hope you did not worry."

"I knew you were laying your snares in a new area," Legolas responded. It was cold in the barn, and the elf's breath frosted, drifting above his head as he spoke. "It makes for a longer day. Where did you go?"

"I have moved the traps further north, beyond the apple orchard."

"Was the army out again?"

"Yes. As always."

The elf nodded silently and turned away, searching for his discarded cloak. Aragorn watched his hands skip along the lower shelf until they encountered the heavy fabric.

"Perhaps tomorrow you could accompany me," Aragorn offered.

"Perhaps," Legolas shrugged. He shook out the cloak and wrapped it around his shoulders.

"But probably not," the ranger said tersely, suddenly irritated by his companion's continued reticence.

"Aragorn – "

"Why do you do this to yourself?"

"What?" Legolas' brow creased in confusion.

Aragorn gestured impatiently, though the elf could not see it. "Each day I see you withdraw more from the world. You withdraw from me, and you no longer sing. You cannot continue this, Legolas. The self-imposed isolation is killing you."

Pain flashed across the elf's face. White-faced, he spun away and clutched at the wall. Instantly Aragorn was by Legolas' side, gripping his arm. His anger fled when he felt his friend's body trembling, and he gentled his voice. "I understand that you miss the child and his horse. I hope each day that Alun brings them back to us, but you and I both know the difficulty they face in doing so. Perhaps we will have a thaw soon, and they can ride up once again." He watched as Legolas crushed his eyes shut. "Your head pain worsens, I know. I have strengthened the medicines. Do they help?"

"Today was bad," Legolas murmured with a slight nod. "But it abated several hours ago. I am not in pain at the moment."

"What is happening to you? Why will you not go out with me when I hunt?" Aragorn watched the elf's fingers trace the ridges of the wall and noted the intent expression on Legolas' face as he did so. "Why do you touch everything?" he whispered. "And why do you sit here, alone, with a box full of old leaves?"

Legolas jerked his head up. He did not speak, and Aragorn saw the struggle warring behind the elf's features before they calmed again and he nodded. His body still trembled as he pulled free of Aragorn's grasp and stepped toward the shelves. Pulling the box down, the elf knelt on the floor with a sigh. For a moment he paused silently, hid fingers caressing the carved pattern, then he raised his head and gestured to the ranger. Aragorn joined him, his brow wrinkled with concern. He watched as the white hands lifted the lid away and drifted lightly over the contents.

"I thought you must have found it," the elf said. "The leaves were not in order one day."

"I accidentally knocked the box off the shelf. I am sorry if I damaged them."

"No, they are fine."

And I am sorry I stumbled upon something you desired to keep private."

Legolas shook his head, smiling sadly. "It was foolish to try to keep it to myself. Why I thought to hide it from you I do not entirely know. I suppose to mask what has been happening, for I can hardly bring myself to acknowledge it in my own mind."

"I will not push you," Aragorn said quickly. "If this is something you feel you must keep to yourself – "

"No. I think you will better understand me if I tell you of it. But I do no know where to begin," the elf murmured. His shoulders were bowed, his voice heavy and saddened. He extracted a brittle leaf and ran his fingertips gently over the ridged edges. "This is from an elm," he murmured. "It took me a bit of time to find it. I had to travel into the forest a small distance. And this – " he pulled out a long thin leaf. "This is from a willow. The tree stands beside the pond." The pale hands pulled out two small cones. "This is from a black spruce. The edges are rough. And this one is from a white spruce." Legolas gently replaced them. "I do not need to tell you this, of course. You are a woodsman. You are able to recognize the trees as well as I."

The elf fell silent again. He bent over the box and set the leaves within, and replaced the lid. His right index finger traced the carved pattern as it swirled and twisted on itself. He spoke then, his voice low and troubled. "Your hair is dark, and mine is blond. Your eyes are grey and mine are blue. I recall these descriptions as true, but they begin to lose their meaning."

Aragorn frowned. "I am sorry. I do not understand, mellon-nin."

Legolas raised his head, his features anguished. His voice quivered as he spoke. "I have begun to forget what things look like. Color, trees, animals, the faces of those I love… they recede from me," he whispered.

A sharp stab of pain pierced the ranger as he looked upon the despairing face of his companion. This was an added cruelty he had not anticipated. Tears had filled the elf's eyes, shimmering in the dim light of the lantern as they welled over and tricked silently down his cheeks.

"So this is why you carve animals, and collect leaves…" Aragorn said softly.

"Aye. The world is shrouded until I run my fingers over something, and then the image comes to my mind again. I am trying so hard not to lose the memories of what I have seen in my life. My home, the beech trees… I thought that if I must lose my eyesight, I would always have the memories." Legolas released a shaky breath and bowed his head. "But I cannot touch a sunrise. I cannot touch the silver sparkles on the surface of the river. And the faces fade, Aragorn. I cannot touch the faces. My father and brothers are shadowed now, and my mother…" The elf's voice choked, and he drew his legs up, pressing his forehead against his knees. "I can no longer recall her face at all. She is gone. I have lost her a second time."

Aragorn shifted closer and rested his hand on Legolas' shoulder, stunned with the sudden realization of just how deeply the blindness had wounded his friend. The elf had lifted his face toward the ceiling, his eyes wide and desperate in the flickering flame of the lantern. "Why?" he whispered. "Why this?"

Aragorn's mouth worked soundlessly as he struggled for words that might be of comfort. Finding none, he simply wrapped his arms around his friend and held him tightly, rocking the elf is if he were a child and allowing him some moments to release the tight hold he had kept on his pain. After a time Legolas quieted, but he did not pull away from Aragorn's embrace. He sank more deeply into it with a sigh, and buried his blond head against the ranger's shoulder.

"I cannot return the image of your mother to you," Aragorn said at last, forcing his voice with difficulty past his constricted throat. "But you will know the faces of your father and your brothers again. I swear it."

"Your image has grown hazy as well," Legolas said after a time. "The darkness crowds ever closer. Your voice comes to me as if disembodied. It comes to me from black nothingness."

"No, Legolas. It comes from me. I am here." Aragorn twisted his body until he sat before his friend. Grasping the elf's hands firmly, he pressed them against his own face. "I am here, and I am real. I will not fade," he said, and closed his eyes as the white fingers began moving tentatively over his features. Aragorn heard Legolas catch his breath, and the fingers began tracking more urgently. For several long minutes the elf caressed the man's face as he would that of a lover, his hands warm and smelling of pine and wind. They swept over Aragorn's tousled hair, lingered over his brow, cheekbones and lips, and then they quietly pulled away.

Aragorn opened his eyes in time to see a ghost of a smile fleet over the elf's sorrowful features. "I know your face now," Legolas said softly. "It is more careworn than I remember it being, but the strength is still there. I have missed your face, Aragorn. The blindness takes too much from me."

"Then let it take no more," the ranger said. "Legolas, have you ever heard of the moonflower?"

The elf shook his head. "I have not. But I like the name."

"Not every flower blossoms in the sunlight. The moonflower opens its petals after the daylight has gone. It blooms only in the dark."

"I understand what you are saying," Legolas said with a soft laugh. "You suggest I stop struggling to be a morning glory and try my hand at becoming a moonflower."

"Something like that," Aragorn responded with a grin.

"You speak in metaphors," the elf stated as he rose to his feet. "I do not mind it, however. They have their uses." He crouched to pick up the box and turned toward Aragorn. "I will keep this in the house now. And I think I will sleep this night, for the first time in many." He extended his hand again and lightly brushed his fingers over Aragorn's temple, and a fleeting glimmer of something – hope – had kindled again his blue eyes. "If love is indeed the brightest of things," he whispered, "I will never truly be blind. Your friendship is a light for me in the darkness."

Aragorn followed the elf out of the barn. Legolas raised his voice to the snow-laden trees as he crossed to the cottage, and to the ranger's eyes they seemed to straighten somehow in response, casting off their sadness as they listened to his song.

To be continued

Author's notes: in my readings on the topic of blindness, I have run across several memoirs written by those who have lost their sight. There is a facet of blindness that I find rather fascinating: in some people there is an eventual and complete loss of visual memory and imagery, and in others there appears to be visual enhancement. In "Out of Darkness", the author Zoltan Torey, blinded in an accident as a young man, describes his efforts to retain his visual memories, and indeed is still able to bring to his mind incredible images, filled with color, light and detail. On the other side, in a beautifully written book entitled "Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness", John M. Hull, who lost his eyesight in his forties after years of degeneration, tells of the eventual loss of all visual memory. Faces and places faded from his mind after a few years, except in his dreams, which continued to be filled with visual imagery. Why such a profound difference between these two men? This interests scientists, as it may give some indication of the different ways blindness can affect the brain. These two authors lost their vision in very different ways, so perhaps that could be one reason for the different outcomes. But it is believed that the visual cortex of the brain cannot continue to manufacture images indefinitely without stimulus and input from the eyes, and the eventual result is what Hull describes as "deep blindness".

So where does all this leave our elf? Well, being a lover of angst (and knowing you all love it too), I had to go with the Hull experience to some degree. For those of you are grumbling that this is happening much too quickly, especially since an elf would probably retain his visual memories longer than a human, I can only shrug helplessly. I could not resist adding to the fun. Err, heartache, I mean. Not fun. Poor elf.

  

Disclaimer: the familiar characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them. This story is for entertainment only, and no monetary profit is being made.

Author's notes: I have a new job. A better job! But, as is true with all of us full-time working moms with a child at home, the writing time is now very limited. I'm staying the course with this story, but updates will be slower. Thanks for understanding.

Thanks again to Speedy Beta Gonzales, aka Lisette, for working me in around weddings, birthdays, viruses and a tiny kitten in perpetual assault mode.

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter 26: Then The Perilous Path Was Planted

The next morning Aragorn woke to a bright, glittering day. Another half-foot of snow had fallen during the night, and all traces of his earlier footprints were gone. A wind had risen, and the grey clouds of the previous night had been driven before it to vanish into the brightness of a new sunrise. As he emerged from the cottage the ranger noticed that the air was much colder. Pausing to tighten the collar of his coat, he glanced up at the old oak. Legolas was there, wrapped in a dark blanket and stretched out on one of the uppermost limbs. He did not stir as Aragorn began moving about, and the ranger concluded that the elf was asleep. He was not surprised, as they had talked into the wee hours of the morning after returning to the cottage. Legolas had then retired to his tree, but instead of falling asleep he had sung for some time, softly but clearly, and the ranger had not been able to bring himself to drift away on the sound of the elf's voice. Unwilling to miss any of the songs, he had stayed awake rather than melting into dreams, for he had longed to hear his friend sing again. He knew that he would be weary in the morning, but decided that remaining in bed a bit longer would be an acceptable way to catch up with his sleep. It would not be of great concern to start the day later than usual.

The elf did not move, and with a grin and a shake of his head Aragorn slogged his way to the barn and did his friend's chores, bringing down fodder for the mare and opening the door so that she could go into the paddock. Tithlam appeared from some warm corner, blinking in the sunlight and shaking the dust from her fur. Chuckling, Aragorn picked her up and carried her back into the house so that he would have company while he prepared breakfast.

The cat sat on the floor before the hearth and watched him with her clear green eyes as he started the water boiling. He made tea for himself, set the herbs steeping for Legolas, and ate a small meal of hideously overcooked carrots and potatoes left from the previous night's dinner. He placed a few pieces of rabbit meat on a plate and set it on the floor for the cat to nibble, and set a plate of food on the table for the elf. Then he began gathering his gear for the daily trek into the forest.

"Tell Legolas I may not return until close to dusk," he instructed the little animal, grinning as she tilted her head, much in the same way the elf did. "I am off to a late start today, due to the fact that he kept me up all night with his singing. And now he sleeps, forcing me to do his work for him. You may tell him that as well."

Tithlam looked up at him and peeped.

"It is apparent he is not coming with me unless I wake him, and that I am loath to do. He has had too little rest of late. It is your job to keep him company until I return. Do not go off in search of mice. He needs you to stay with him."

Aragorn donned his jacket and threw a heavy cloak over his shoulders. Into his belt he thrust a hunting knife that Alun had given him, and nestled a carefully wrapped and not too badly burned piece of flat bread into his pocket, along with a few strips of dried meat. He filled the flask with wine, well watered, and strapped it to his side. As he grasped the door handle he turned to regard Tithlam, who paused in her eating to meet his gaze. Aragorn shook a menacing finger at her. "I do not want to find one single sock out of place when I come home, little cat. This absurd game of yours must stop. I promise you there will be serious consequences if you persist in these attempts to harass me."

The cat tilted her head, squeaked, and returned to her meal. With a laugh, Aragorn closed the door behind him. The bitter wind struck, snatching a soft gasp from his lips. The snow blew in swirling patterns at his feet, the cold air smelling sharply of pine and wood smoke. He squinted against the harsh glare, hastily pulling his hat over his ears and his gloves over his hands. Trudging to the massive oak tree, he shaded his eyes and looked up at his companion.

Ordinarily the elf slept on his back, his hands folded peacefully on his chest, but this morning he was sprawled rather ridiculously on his belly along the length of a huge branch, his face turned away from the ranger. He was snugly cocooned in both his cloak and a thick blanket that covered most of his body but for his arms, head and a single booted foot. One arm was extended overhead, the gloved hand, even in sleep, firmly gripping a smaller branch for security. The other arm dangled limply from the tree, and the radiant blond tresses spilled over the elf's shoulders, loose and waving in the breeze.

Aragorn edged around to the other side of the tree, peered upward, and tried not to laugh. After singing for most of the night, softly offering his voice once more to the dark world around him, the elf had entirely given himself over to the sleep he had so badly needed. Looking as if he had simply toppled forward mid-song, the right side of Legolas' noble face was smashed against the rough bark and his mouth hung open slightly. The blue eyes were half-lidded, and for the briefest of moments Aragorn toyed with the idea of lobbing a retaliatory snowball at him. But he knew how desperately his friend needed this rest. With a soft chuckle the ranger turned away, regretting that he would not be present to see the Prince of Mirkwood when he woke, his face temporarily marred by the deep imprint of tree bark pressed into his cheek. Leaving the elf to his slumbers, Aragorn set off for the woods.

* * * * * 

He ran swiftly through the forest of Mirkwood, for another sunrise had come. Though he loved the stars and the night as dearly as any elf of the woodland realm, so too did he love the start of the day. Even as a child, when most of the elves were still wrapped in sleep, he would rush to the trees and climb as quickly as he could to greet the dawn, gasping with pleasure as the breathtaking sweep of gold and orange poured over him like a rush of pure water.

His mother always ran with him. Her face lit with excitement, she challenged him to a race to see who could reach the top of the tree first. The little prince invariably won, and he never thought it odd that his Nana, so long of limb and swift of foot, was unable to match the pace of a tiny struggling elfling. She was always right behind him, close but unable to pass, and when he reached the top, he would turn to her in triumph to boast that she could never catch him. Quicker than thought, she would snare him in a fierce embrace and tickle him until he howled with laughter, breathlessly clinging to the branches.

Again he ran, heart racing, filled with a strange sense of urgency that he would miss this new blossoming of morning. Feeling the power in his adult legs, he laughed as he leapt into the welcoming branches of the trees. Little had changed since he was a child. The grown Legolas still flew to meet the sunrise with the same thrill of anticipation. He climbed ever higher, swift and silent, eagerly grasping each limb until he finally broke through the canopy. He turned his face to the east and settled his dancing blue eyes onto the horizon. The wind blew his shining hair back, and he waited breathlessly for the first glimmerings to break through the dark blanket of night.

He sang a little song as he waited, a morning song his mother had taught him. He waited, but the dark did not lift. Frowning slightly, he shifted his grip on the branches and stared into the blackness. He counted slowly… one hundred… two hundred… and his heart began to pound more strongly against his ribs. Puzzled, he waited. Had he somehow misjudged the time, and come too early? An unusual thing for him to have done, but that must be it. How could the sun not rise?

Three hundred… four hundred… five hundred

His mouth had gone dry. Frightened, he turned his golden head, his keen eyes raking the endless stretch of darkness. Where was the sun? Where was the light?

He could see nothing. Dear Valar, what has happened to the sun?

He spun then, bending his head and listening intently to a sudden noise that came to him from the forest far below. The tromping of iron-shod boots rang in his ears, and he grimaced in revulsion at the harsh breathing that echoed around him. He felt the trees shudder. Growling voices grated on his sensitive ears and he winced in pain. A vile odor assailed his nose. He gagged at the stench, even as his eyes widened in shock and horror. No! This cannot be! How have they come here?

 

Silently he raced down the tree. All was black, but he did not need his eyes to climb down. This tree he knew, and within seconds he was crouched on the lowest branch, pressed into the thick foliage where he would not be seen. With head tilted he listened, and drew in a sharp frightened breath as he realized there were far too many for him to handle. His heart hammered painfully, his temples throbbing with horror. How could so many of them have come unseen into his father's realm? Border guards were posted everywhere. This simply was not possible!

He must reach his father. He had to get back to his home and sound the alarm. Cautiously he crept around the great trunk of the tree and lowered himself to the ground. Then he heard a sound that froze his blood: the soft pained cry of a female, and the derisive laughter of the foul beasts. Legolas gasped. He knew that voice.

His mother. They had taken his mother!

Where is the sun? I can see nothing!

He ran forward, a battle cry on his lips. There was no time for anything else. He could not leave her in their hands. He yanked his knife from his belt and struck a savage blow, aiming blindly at one of the harsh breathers. He felt the blade drive into flesh, heard the scream, and the hot putrid blood gushed over his hand. Spinning, he drove his shoulder into another foe, knocking him back. Sensing another creature's fetid breath against his neck, he flung himself to the side and lashed out again.

He heard her voice and tried to reach her. But the darkness thwarted him, and he cast about helplessly. If I could see, I could find her! I could stop them! Why is it so dark? I cannot fight so many in the dark!

His foes were everywhere. He swept his knife in a desperate arc to keep them back, but they crowded him from all sides, and his blade was ripped from his hand. Claws tore into his flesh, and he was beaten to his knees. Fists battered him, smashing relentlessly into his belly and sides. Whipping his head from side to side as cruel fingers tangled into his hair and a hand gripped his throat, he cried out in helpless fury and panic.

Nana! Where are you? Nana! I will stop them! I must!

  But he could not. Frantic, he struggled to locate her in the darkness. She no longer answered his cries. He fought fiercely, but could not break free of his captors. He gasped as his arms were yanked painfully behind him, and the fist in his hair hauled his head back until it nearly touched his spine. Something caressed his throat, icy with the sharp promise of death, and he stilled his desperate struggles and closed his eyes.

This cannot be happening! They cannot be here. It is not possible for orcs to come upon us unawares like this. Sorcery… it is sorcery… somebody help me!

"Let her go," he panted. "Take me. Do not kill her, I beg you. Take me…"

A savage jerk on his hair caused his eyes to snap open in pain, and he could see again. In the surrounding black one thing came to him, with all the clarity of a vision sent him by the gods.

The sword.

The black blade gleamed brightly, its length bathed in red blood. The black stones in the hilt wept wet splashes of that precious fluid, and they spilled, drop by drop, onto his upturned face. The crimson line writhed through the pommel like a snake coiling to strike. His terrified eyes scanned the dreadful weapon, searching for the hand that held it, but there was nothing. The sword moved alone, shimmering as it lifted over his head. He jerked once more against his captors - a futile movement. Eyes wide with horror, he could only watch helplessly as the flashing blade swept down.

* * * * *

He awoke, a shout of fear bursting from his lips, and nearly toppled from the great tree. It hummed a warning, and his instinctive reaction to its voice saved him. Grabbing for the branches to steady himself, he half scrambled, half slid down the trunk to fall onto his knees in the snow. The image of the sword burned in his mind; it was all he could see as he leaped to his feet and crouched, unarmed, ready to do battle. The weapon suddenly flared into brilliant painful light, and he staggered back with a cry as he flung his arms up to shield himself, but in the next moment the sword vanished into the darkness and all was black before his eyes once more.

He stood, gasping in fear and confusion at the abrupt change from the blazing blade to the unending black, and he felt his body reel as the pain in his head crashed in upon him. Gritting his teeth at its onslaught, he fled across the clearing to the cottage, barely able to wait the time needed to boil the bark before forcing the too hot liquid down his throat. Grimacing at the bitter taste, the elf crouched before the hearth, and there he remained as the hours slowly slipped past. He had listened to the hiss of dying embers and the soft pattering of charred fragments falling through the metal grate, but he had not cared, and now the ashes lay cold and dead. The breakfast Aragorn had left for him remained uneaten on the table, though the headache tea had been entirely consumed. Tithlam nosed about somewhere behind him, having long since given up her game of rubbing against and head-butting her unresponsive owner.

The throbbing in his temples had eventually eased, but he gave no thought to moving from his place before the dying fire. His mind was awash in horrific visions, and he did not know how to shake free of them. Constant shivers ran over his flesh, and he curled into himself, wrapping his arms around his legs. He had gone many weeks now without the nightmare, and he puzzled over its return. Why had the terrible sword come to him again, and with such heart-stopping clarity and terror? For what purpose had it attacked him once more?

A thought struck his numbed mind, and he bowed under the weight of it. The dream had come to mock him in his blindness. It had come to remind him that he was of no use to himself or anyone else. His failure to save his mother in the dream world simply reinforced what he knew to be the truth about himself in life. It mattered not that he could ride the chestnut stallion. It mattered not that he could hit a stationary target with his arrows. He was helpless, entirely dependent, and fear lurked in the recesses of his mind. He and Aragorn were in danger, as were their new friends from the city. He feared the army, and where the captain might have set his sights. Shadows drew near, and he knew he would not be able to stop them. He was useless, and the taste of it was bitter on his tongue. He was useless, for the dream had showed him the truth.

Deep within, a part of him cried out against these heartless whispers. But he was tired beyond all reason and could not rally his strength to look more kindly upon himself. In the end, he could only draw courage from the knowledge that Aragorn would be home soon. Perhaps a talk with the ranger would help him, as it had last night. A glimmer of a smile passed over the elf's lips as he thought of his friend. He would tell Aragorn of this dream. He would not withhold it this time. There is still light, he thought. There is still light, as long as I have my friend. And I will do what I can to not be such a burden on him.

Rising to his knees the elf reached for the fire, stirring the fading ashes back to life and feeding them tiny twigs until he heard the crackling. He would find something to make for dinner, and have it ready by the time Aragorn returned. This, at least, he could do for his friend.

* * * * *

Aragorn came to his last trap at dusk. He had walked as quickly as he could as he followed his path, for the day was bitter and it was important to keep his body warm and moving. It had been tiring work to push his way through the deep new snow, and he was pleased to finally reach the site of his final trap. It held a rabbit, his second of the day, and he quickly bent to work the noose free. He coiled the little rope and placed it in his pocket. He would plant it in a new location tomorrow, for no animal would now come to this spot until some time had passed.

He tied the rabbits together and slung the little bodies over his shoulder. It was enough meat to see him and the elf through another day. He wondered how Legolas fared, and what he had done with himself this day. He was pleased that his friend had at last been able to tell him what had been bothering him of late. Aragorn was determined to do all he could to help the elf; to try to slow the fading of his visual memories, for he could well imagine how isolating and frightening this new loss must be for Legolas. It had eased the elf's heart to speak of it though, and the long sleep must have done him some good as well. Aragorn chuckled again at the image of his friend's lean body sprawled across the tree, his face smashed into the supporting branch. The elf had looked as relaxed as an open-mouthed baby, and just as utterly absurd. The ranger mused on how best to tease him about it over dinner.

The wind had picked up, and it blew through the naked branches, causing them to creak and grate together with a brittle sound that made him shiver. The images of the warm fire beckoned, for this night would be perhaps the coldest yet. Tonight he and Legolas would tell more stories, and he hoped the elf would finally tell him why his nose had been broken by his brother's fist. Aragorn really wanted to hear that one. Most of all, he hoped his friend would sing again.

Aragorn rose from his crouch and glanced at the clear sky. The stars would be magnificent tonight. He turned, took two steps, and felt his right foot come down on something odd. His instincts shrieked in sudden warning, and he leaped back with a gasp. But for all his speed, he was not fast enough. Something slammed shut onto his ankle, clamping over it with vicious force, and he fell onto his back in the deep snow with a cry of surprise. Struggling to a sitting position, he stared in stunned disbelief at his foot. It was caught fast. A leg-hold trap had been concealed under the new-fallen snow, and the ranger knew, as his heart began pounding in dread, that it had not been there the day before.

To be continued

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth were the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them, and am making no monetary profit from this story.

Thanks to Lisette for betaing and telling me who Mr. Pointy is.

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Beware of Darkness

Aragorn anxiously looked around him, ignoring the dull pain as he struggled to yank his hunting knife from his belt, certain that his assailants were watching. They would come for him now that he was helpless, but he would sell his life dearly if they thought to lay a hand on him, and his fingers curled tightly around the small weapon as he readied himself. Trembling, tense with anticipation and fear, he waited, listening to every soft sound the forest made and trying not to let them be overridden by his own panting gasps. This wind hissed through the bare trees and snow pattered down on him from the branches above his head, but no approaching footsteps broke the quiet of the winter woods, and after a few moments he allowed himself to relax. He closed his eyes as he leaned back and braced his weight on his arms. Inhaling deeply to calm himself and quiet his racing heartbeat, he knew he must subdue the scream of panic building in his mind before he could go about attempting to free himself.

After a time he was able to open his eyes and take stock of his situation. The pain was not too great, and he realized that his thick, fur-lined boot had saved him from the worst of the trap's crushing grip. The leather exterior was torn, the inner lining of rabbit fur exposed, but the dreadful metal teeth had not penetrated to his skin. The tension of the trap was fierce though, and he reached forward to wrap his gloved hands around the device. His breaths grew sharp as he strained, drawing on all of his strength to pry the thing open, but it would not yield. He could only budge it a fraction. Easing off and pulling his hands away, he grimaced as it renewed its savage hold on his ankle.

Ignoring the bright flare of fear that struck him at his inability to open the trap, his eyes moved next to the chain. His initial leap backward had extracted it from the snow, and his gaze followed it to the tree beside him. The links were wrapped low around the trunk, the snow built up around it. The length of his tether was short, no more than about four feet. He yanked on it once with his hands, eyed the heavy lock securing it to the tree, and turned his attention back to the trap.

Scooting forward to ease the pull of the chain, he drew his leg up and scrutinized the device clamped to his ankle. The make of it was the same as the one he and the elf had dismantled and thrown into a corner of the barn many weeks ago. It had the same cruel teeth, and the fierce grip was already beginning to make his foot ache. There was also a keyhole, just as before, visible on the bottom when he twisted his foot up – a motion that made him grit his teeth at the increase in his discomfort. Extracting his hunting knife from his belt, he began picking at the locking device with the sharp tip of the blade. He kept at it for some time, driving the point in at different angles, but it would not release. The hole was tiny, and the tip of the knife did not fit into the tiny opening. But it was the only chance he had, and so he continued his struggle, stopping only when he recognized a pang of warning in his mind. He was shivering. He was getting cold, and his fingers were beginning to stiffen inside their gloves. And his foot was now throbbing with a deeper ache that made him groan in misery.

Glancing anxiously at the sky, Aragorn realized with a start that the sun had begun to lower itself, and the shadows were growing long. Time was passing, and it was too precious to waste. It would not be getting any warmer out here, and he knew full well what his fate would be if he could not free himself of the trap and get back to the warmth of the cottage. And Legolas? Ai, he dared not think of Legolas. He must get free!

He peered into the darkened forest again and swallowed the sudden lump of fear that had lodged in his throat. He pulled himself to the tree, looked at the second lock – the one holding the chain to the tree – and went after it with his knife. After several minutes of fruitless effort he threw down the blade and grabbed the chain. He scrutinized the links in the fading light, checking over the entire length for a weak spot or rusted area that might offer some hope.

There was nothing.

The links were thick, heavy, and without flaw in the soldering. With a hiss of dismay he dropped the chain and pulled off his gloves. Grabbing at the trap again, he gathered all his strength and attempted once again to open it. Grunting with the effort, his body shook as he fought with the cruel device. Aided by the adrenaline coursing through his body, he strained until the sweat ran down his back and his pulse pounded in his head. Drops of blood wept from his lacerated fingers, but the trap would not yield. After a protracted gasping struggle he finally yanked his hands back, swearing as the crushing metal renewed its claim on his ankle.

Shivering miserably, his sweat-soaked shirt gone cold and clinging to his body, Aragorn shifted to the protected side of the tree and hunched against it as best he could to avoid the worst of the low bitter wind. His fingers were numb and stiff, and he fumbled awkwardly with the buttons of his coat, undoing them so that he could push his hands into his armpits to warm them. Once they had somewhat thawed, he would put the gloves back on and try again to open the trap. He drew his knees up and bent his body over them, curling up to conserve heat and stay behind the protection of the tree. Closing his eyes as the fiery ache began to send spasms through his fingers, he swallowed at the sickness rising in his throat and rested his head on his knees, waiting for the pain to pass.

He cursed himself for a fool. Someone had been watching him yesterday. That noise had been a footstep, and if he had investigated it properly and gone into the woods, seeking its source, he would have come upon signs and realized the danger. He would have known that the time had come, and he would have taken Legolas and abandoned the cottage. But instead he had disregarded the peculiar noise, having grown complacent. The quiet winter woods and the long weeks of uneventful life had lulled him into a false belief that the danger was remote at best. But now he knew, too late, the bitter truth: the danger was here and now, and he had walked right into it with no sense of foreboding. He and Legolas had been discovered.

Legolas.

The elf would be expecting his return by now. What would happen if he did not come? Legolas was resourceful, but he could not possibly survive on his own. Not for long. He was entirely dependant on Aragorn, and now the ranger's foolishness had sealed the blind elf's fate as well as his own. And if the enemies in the city had seen Aragorn and laid the trap for him with the certainty that he would return the next day to check his snares, they could know much more than that. Had they been watching the cottage? Had they been watching Legolas? Did they know he could not see?

Desperation drove the ranger to attack the trap with renewed vigor. Again he pried at the locks, jabbing at them with the tip of his knife until he succeeded in snapping the tip off the blade, and again he wrapped his hands around the metal vice and struggled to open it wide enough to tear his foot free. For a time he banged on the hinges of the trap with a large stone in hope of somehow breaking it apart, not caring that the loud clanging echoed around him and kept pace with his hammering heartbeat. Stomach clenched, gasping as the pain ricocheted through his ankle with each blow, he kept at it until his numbed, bloody fingers could no longer hold the rock properly and he accidentally slammed it into his foot instead.

He screamed.

At last the terror of his plight overcame his self-control, and his frightened thoughts exploded into panic as the evening sky dwindled to dark.

* * * * * 

Aragorn had not come home.

Legolas had made dinner, bringing out two fish from the barrel and cooking both a squash and some onions – trying to make the meal festive – and waited while it grew cold. He had gone out to tend to the old mare, had dangled a string for Tithlam, made an attempt to locate the ranger's scattered socks, and then began pacing, certain that his friend would be along any moment with an apology and an explanation, but the ranger had not returned.

Aragorn certainly could not have gotten himself lost. Though a man, his abilities in the wild were nearly as developed as an elf's – a talent that the Prince of Mirkwood greatly admired in his friend. Aragorn had an intelligent head on his shoulders as well, and Legolas knew that he would never simply lose track of time or veer off his usual track on a whim to examine something new. And there was another certainly about Aragorn: a promise had been made. The man had told Legolas that he would never be away from the cottage after the sun had set, and the blind elf knew his friend would hold to that vow with his very life.

A heavy feeling of apprehension had crept over Legolas as the time passed. He knew it had grown dark outside, and eventually he gave up trying to keep himself busy. No longer able to ignore his growing fear, he went to the door and pulled it open. Standing silently on the threshold, he turned his head this way and that with furrowed brow as he attempted to quiet his worried thoughts and open his mind to his surroundings. All was hushed and tense, as if a breath was being held, and the elf shuddered as a tremor raced up his spine.

A freshening wind hit him and he noticed the cold, realizing immediately that the temperature would be a danger to Aragorn were he to remain outdoors long after nightfall. Damage to both the skin and the body were concerns in such weather. Even elves could be affected by the extremes if caught away from shelter, and Aragorn, though skilled in the woods and strong with the blood of the Numenor, was no elf. He had already been outside all day, and his mortal body would be harmed, perhaps beyond healing, if he did not return to the cottage soon.

Full of dark uncertainty, Legolas quietly closed the door and again began pacing the length of the small cabin, circling the table, walking to the storage room containing the herbs and back again. "Where is he?" he hissed aloud. "Why is his return delayed?"

The night felt wrong. Fear ached in the elf's bones, and his thoughts tumbled as he strode the length of the cabin. Something had happened to his friend. Aragorn was injured, or perhaps he had become ill with one of the random odd maladies that would occasionally beset him. Nothing else could explain the ranger's continued absence. Or he had been taken…

Legolas halted with a gasp in the center of the room. Was that it? Had Aragorn been taken by the men in the city? Had they been discovered at last? The elf closed his eyes and leaned against the table to steady himself as his heartbeat thundered in his ears. His thoughts spun in confusing circles, and for a time he could not move, so paralyzed was he with fear. For both Aragorn and himself, he felt the noose of terror and helplessness grow tight. He was blind, and understood full well how vulnerable he was. If Aragorn had been captured and taken to the city, Legolas could not hope to aid him. If he were to attempt to enter the city, he would be struck down by those who hated the elves, or taken by them as well. That is, if he managed to reach Carbryddin at all. And if he stayed here and tried to fend for himself in hopes that Aragorn would eventually return, he knew he would not survive. He quivered at the thought that he might possibly be alone now. Without Aragorn's help he would eventually starve, or become injured, or the men from the city would discover him. And, he realized with a shudder, he would have no chance of ever reaching home again and being reunited with his family.

A hot flush of anger rose in his blood at his thoughts, and a firm voice from within began scolding him. How can you be so selfish? Aragorn may be in danger, and you think only of yourself! What of his pain? What of his fear this night?

"How do I find him?" he whispered. "If he is taken, how will I follow?"

The elf slowly turned away from the table and bowed his head. "I cannot do this."

You must.

"I do not know where he is!" Legolas screamed aloud, his voice shaking with anguish.

Think. And while you do so, prepare.

The elf inhaled deeply and reached for the jacket he kept draped over one of the chairs. His fingers shook as he struggled with the buttons. Next he donned his heavy cloak. He went to the door and lifted his weapons from their hooks. He checked his bow, strung it, and made certain that his arrows and knives were in place. Slinging the quiver onto his back, he fastened the straps tightly across his chest.

What will he need, should you find him?

Legolas pulled the thickest blanket from Aragorn's bed and rolled it, tying it at both ends with strips of leather. He located an extra set of gloves, and a hat, and affixed them to the blanket. He could think of nothing else.

He remembered now what Aragorn had told him. The ranger had just moved his traps to a new area north of the cabin, beyond the small lake where they swam, past the apple orchard. Somewhere beyond that place, Aragorn would have been this day.

It was a start. The elf pulled the door open and paused briefly on the threshold to tilt his face toward the glittering stars that he could not see. "Help me. Help me to find him, please."

With a sharp intake of breath, he pulled the door closed behind him and plunged into the night.

to be continued…..

 

  

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them, and no monetary profit is being made from this story. It is written for entertainment purposes only. 

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Twenty-Eight: For Your Life

Aragorn could fight no more. He had tried. The Valar knew he had tried, and the battle seemed endless as he wrestled with the trap while time crept slowly past. He had assaulted the chain with the rock, and struggled again and again to open the device with his hands - gloved for protection and ungloved for a better grip - but both ways had proved fruitless. He had even attempted to wedge a branch into the trap, holding it between his teeth and shoving it in as he strained with both hands to pull the metal jaws apart, but it had broken the moment he had attempted to use it to gain leverage.

When the strain became too great he would rest his aching body, moaning between gritted teeth as he tried to thaw his burning hands in his armpits and gather his energy for another attempt at regaining his liberty. Yet with each respite he felt a terrifying fatigue seep further into his quivering muscles. His body had become increasingly reluctant to respond to his commands, and he was gradually losing control of his ability to move. Simply shifting his arms to pull the dangling rabbits from his back had been a prolonged nightmare of gasping effort, and his mind had grown sluggish, hazed by an odd sensation of sleepiness that crept over him and whispered soft promises of warmth and ease, if he would but close his eyes. Frightened, he would rouse himself and continue his struggles, trying desperately to keep his body warm and the blood flowing to his trapped foot, but each time the effort was more difficult than the last. Finally he fell against the tree and pressed his brow against the trunk with a low moan. All his attempts to free himself had failed, and he realized with a heart choked with despair that there was nothing else he could do.

Exhausted, Aragorn gazed about at the haunted night, watching the clawed forms of the branches grasping and stretching toward him. The eerie white light of the moon distorted the shadows of tree and shrub into frightening apparitions, and filled with dread, he shrank away and averted his gaze. He would die here tonight. And without him, his dearest friend and companion would die as well. Helpless and abandoned, alone in a foreign land, the blind elf would struggle to survive, but his fight would not last long without Aragorn. The ranger's only hope for his friend was that he might live on until Alun returned to the cottage. He was certain that the soldier would do what he could for Legolas; perhaps he would even find a way to help the elf return to his home. And he prayed fervently that Alun found Legolas before their enemies did.

"I am sorry," the ranger whispered as his eyes welled. "Forgive me, Legolas. I did not mean to abandon you. Stay alive. Please stay alive…"

There was no one to hear his pleas on this dark night. He was alone, and he closed his eyes as the cold seeped into him, twining ever more relentlessly around his bowed and weary form.

 

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Legolas crouched and ran his hands over the ground. Slowly and methodically he brushed his fingertips lightly over the powdery snow, probing until he found what he sought. Faint but still remaining, not entirely obliterated by the earlier swift breezes of evening, Aragorn's tracks continued to move north.

Rising to his full height, the elf drew his gloves back on and reached for the mare, resting his hand on her neck. "We have come to the edge of the apple grove, old friend," he murmured as his fingers twisted in her mane. "This is the furthest I have ever been from the cottage."

Patting further down past her withers, reassuring himself that the rolled blanket was still tied to her back, he pivoted to face the endless forest and stood quietly for a moment. The air was crisp, cold, biting and completely still. He inhaled deeply, concentrating on all the odors that came to him, and listened with hushed breath. No specific threat made itself known to him, but his senses still hummed with fear. The silence pressed, and his surroundings seemed suffused with tension, as if the black world around him waited for a storm to break that would tear it apart.

There was peril here.

Shuddering, the elf leaned into the solid warmth of the mare, and she blew softly as she turned to nuzzle him. Gratefully he curled against her and found comfort in her calm presence, breathing deeply of her familiar smell as he raised a hand to massage the low ache in his temples.

"Do the shadows wait only for me, girl? You do not yet feel the danger, but I do. I do." He lingered another moment, drawing on her warmth, and then he pulled away and turned toward the unknown. There was no time for hesitation and doubt, for the easy part of tracking the missing ranger had just ended.

"Everything begins with a first step," he whispered, and pulling gently on her mane with his right hand, he urged Rhosgernroch to move along beside him once more. With his left hand he reached into the dark, trailing it from tree to tree to keep his bearings and remain connected to the mood of the forest while he used the horse to aid him in avoiding whatever lay directly in his path. When she stopped in her tracks he would reach out and carefully investigate what was before him - usually a downed tree or a thick tangle of brush blocking his path - and he moved with her as she skirted round these obstacles.

Upon leaving the cottage, Legolas had been reasonably certain that Aragorn had taken the same route to the apple orchard that they had always used – a trail he knew it by heart. Thus the elf had moved relatively swiftly as he made his way past the small lake and crossed the meadow, stopping several times to bend low and investigate the snow for tracks. Thus far he had been correct about the ranger's movements, but now new terrain lay before the elf, and he was forced to no longer rely on assumptions. He dared not lose the footprints now.

Aragorn had told him that his new trapping spot was located north of the cabin, and the elf held to that as he crept ahead, one hand clinging to Rhosgernroch's stiff mane. The ranger knew his directions, and Legolas felt certain that the man meant just that. And so he pushed on toward the north, orienting himself as only an elf could, hearing the soft, light humming sounds of star, air and tree as they blended in his mind and heart.

Fearful of tacking away from Aragorn's trail, Legolas stopped after every few steps to crouch and find the tracks. In the back of his mind a faint whisper of warning kept sounding, a constant voice whispering that this was taking too long. Aragorn was sure to be suffering from the cold in addition to whatever had befallen him, and the elf's tension rose with this bleak understanding. He had to move faster than this, but he did not know how. Had he his sight he would have flown through the forest, swift and silent as a wolf, and the ranger would already have been found and carried to a place of safety. As it was, the elf stopped constantly to pull off his gloves and feel the ground, and his progress was distressingly slow to him as he painstakingly made his way through the trees. At length he was forced to come to a complete halt as the signs became jumbled, and he cursed his blindness anew as he dropped to his knees to try to make sense of the change.

Aragorn's tracks cross back upon themselves, the elf thought as his long fingers groped over the churned up snow. And here the direction changes…? But no, further up they go on, moving north. So what are these tracks that head east?

Perplexed, Legolas hesitated. Which direction to follow? Aragorn had been moving north, but what if he had turned here? I must not lose his trace!

The elf's concern was not for himself. If he truly lost his way he knew he could slip onto Rhosgernroch's back and the old mare would carry him back to the cottage. She would know the way, but if he became confused and lost Aragorn's tracks, the ranger would be lost forever.

Frowning, Legolas realized that he had no choice but to find out what this new track was before he could be certain he should continue north. Turning to his right, he crept on for some thirty yards as he swept his hands over the ground. It was difficult, for the snow was not crusted but powder soft. He could only make out that it had been disturbed by someone's passing, but the true shape of the footprints could not be felt. "This track is too wide for one man to have made. Many have passed here," he said quietly to himself, and his heart leapt into his throat. "Was he taken? Do men carry him to the city?"

No. He would have fought them. There is no smell of blood here.

But a moment later there was another smell, and his fingers brushed against what felt like a pile of hard little pebbles in the snow. He halted, and then threw them from him with a sharp exclamation of frustration. Deer! I have been following a herd of deer. Ai, ten more minutes wasted!

Backtracking rapidly, he located the northward footprints once more and urgently pressed on. He held tightly to the horse's mane, his fingers curled into tight fists, but he could not grasp time within his strong hands, and the loss of each minute pained him as sorely as a knife thrust.

 

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"Farewell sweet earth and northern sky,

For ever blest, since here did lie

And here with lissome limbs did run

Beneath the Moon, beneath the Sun,

Luthien Tinuviel

More fair than mortal tongue can tell.

Though all to ruin fell the world

And were dissolved and backward hurled

Unmade in the old abyss,

Yet were its makings good, for this-

The dusk, the dawn, the earth, the sea-

That Luthien for a time should be."  *

He would never see her again, in this life or the next. But she filled him now, her image having come to him as he sang for her in a voice choked with pain and tears, and it had cut through his agony to bathe him in warmth and splendor. Just as she had been on that first day so long ago, she was again and would ever be, her dark hair swept away from her face by the evening breeze, the gems on her brow shining in the sunset. She stood under the birch trees in her father's land, tall and fair, laughing as they spoke together. And then she stood on a hill, solemn, not laughing, and he stood with her. Their feet were unshod, and a soft blanket of golden stars lay beneath them. Her steps did not crush the tiny blossoms as his own did, but it mattered not as she turned her shining eyes to his. "I will cleave to you, Dunadan, and turn from the Twilight." **

For many long years their vows had sustained him, giving him strength and a reason to fight on against the horrifying power of the Shadow in the east. But a life together, promised under the stars until the end of their days, had been stolen from them by the sharp grip of a metal tool and by his moment of foolishness.

It was over.

He had been torn from her and would never return, but in the pitch and the cold he clung to her now as he never had before. It was night, deep and dark and silent. Her time. At this moment she would be standing under the beech trees of Imladris, gaze lifted to the moonlit sky as she had done every night of her long life. He would do the same, and in this way share his final moments with her.

Closing his eyes, he could almost hear her voice, her touch as she rested her hand on his shoulder and pointed upward. "Look at the moon, my beloved. Aragorn, look at the moon. Is it not beautiful this night? Does it not give you hope, Estel? I often feel that the impossible becomes possible when I behold the light of Isil."

He looked up again at the dark sky. The stars were piercing, glittering coldly like dagger points. He turned his head and stared at the white scythe of the moon glaring down upon him from the blackness, its edges sharp and keen, like a newly honed knife. A spasm of pain stabbed through his body, racking him until he nearly howled in agony, and he fixed his desperate gaze on the glowing white knife as he fought to control his gasps and regain his breath. Cut me. I am ready. End this, please.

The glittering dome overhead had no answers for him. The pain eased, and Aragorn lowered his head and returned his eyes to the ground. The hunting knife lay beside him, its curved blade gleaming as it reflected the moonlight. In it the ranger could see the arc of the white crescent far above him, and he narrowed his eyes to better to see the image of the moon glowing on the similar shape of the weapon. His heart convulsed and began to pound as his gaze shifted from the knife to his leg. The trap was his prison, and the knife… his freedom?

Cut me…

His mouth went dry with horror. No! Not this! Sweet Eru, not this. I cannot cut myself! With a cry of anguish he slammed his head against the tree, and he wept.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"Come, little Estel, do not cry. We will get you fixed up in a few minutes. You can take this pain."

"He can indeed. Such a little wound cannot stop a fierce warrior like our Estel. A captain of armies he will be, when he is grown to man."

"Just as soon as we tend this scraped knee, that is."

Laughter, light-hearted and kind, floated round him. The soft crackling of a campfire sounded in his ears, the heat licking over his face in the dark. He cracked a teary eye open to see two identical faces, beautiful and high-boned, bent in concern as they tended his injury. He scowled.

"I am not crying, Elladan."

The dark heads turned toward him. Four bright eyes, grey and twinkling, locked onto his. The twins smiled. "Of course not, little brother. I see now that the smoke from the campfire blew your way and stung your eyes. That is all."

"Stop treating me like a baby."

Elrohir darted an amused glance at his brother and grinned at the boy. "We do not doubt your courage, Estel. It is merely a little cut. We know you can take much worse. We merely wish you would not. You always seem to be getting into one scrape after another."

I certainly seem to have gotten myself into quite a scrape this time.

The child raised his head proudly as he regarded the elven brothers. "Sometimes it is necessary to walk the hard path."

"Look at the moon, Aragorn," she whispered, and then she was gone.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 

Wake! Cut…

Aragorn opened his eyes, watching without thought as the vapor of his breath drifted from his body and into the dark. He had unknowingly slid from the tree and was now lying on his back in the snow. The pain was still there, but his perceptions were dulling, and he relaxed back into in this new sensation of warmth and comfort. He would float on to meet the end of the night.

Will you die, then? Will you leave them?

He answered with a savage jerk of his head. His dry lips parted and moved feebly. "I do not want this." He fought to sit up, teeth clenched in rage and pain as he struggled to make his sluggish body obey him. He turned his head to gaze at the knife lying at his side. He could not curl his wooden fingers around the handle of the small weapon, and so he grasped the blade between his palms. He could barely feel it. Laboriously he dragged it onto his lap and dropped it there, where it would be within easy reach. For many long moments he stared at his foot. The horrid throbbing had faded into the background, though he knew that the pain was in truth still there, as agonizing as ever. He began to process the steps he would have to take now. This was his final chance at freedom, and he rallied his energy one last time for Legolas and Arwen. For them, he must not give in. For his loved ones, he had to fight on.

I can go through the places where the small bones of the ankle are joined… pull the trap further up my leg, get it out of the way…

Perhaps the terrible cold would hold back the pain. Perhaps it would not bleed too much, if he could get one of his snares looped around it and tightened quickly. Then he would crawl. The effort would warm his body somewhat, and he would crawl toward the cottage, get within earshot of the elf's remarkable hearing, and scream for his friend.

Somehow he managed to extract one of Legolas' tiny ropes from his pocket. It rested in his lacerated palm, and he gazed at it stupidly, tilting his head slowly this way and that to see all the angles of the thin braided cord. Pretty… his hands are so skilled.

Pretty…  pretty…

Wake, you fool! If you ever again wish to see another sunrise, wake!

Aragorn jerked his head up in confusion. Blurrily he looked at his bloody hands. They were empty. The little rope rested beside him on the snow, and the knife lay beside it. When had that happened? Did he put them there? He could not remember, but he supposed it didn't really matter. It was no longer important. He was so tired. So very tired. Sleep beckoned, silently offering a heavy blanket to settle over his weary body, and he yearned to accept it.

Shaking his head with a grunt, he began to fumble with the rope. His hands felt like they were made of wood, and the small length of cordage fell from his fingers again and again before he finally managed to lay it across his ankle and slip the end through the little noose. He would tighten it with his teeth when the time came. He pushed his hands into his armpits again, vaguely noticing that he could not detect any warmth. My hands are dying… Sweet Elbereth, give me strength. His eyes shuttered closed again as he rested against the tree.

Wake! It is time, before your strength is completely gone. Cut…

It seemed to take forever to pull his leg close. His fingers were useless. Again he pressed the handle of the knife tightly between his palms, holding it steady as he looked at his foot and assessed the metal encasing it. The boot would need to be sliced through first. Then he could get at his leg. Readying himself, he raised his face to the shimmering stars and gasped out a prayer through trembling lips. Then he bent his head and placed the jagged tip of the blade against his ankle.

To be continued

* By J.R.R. Tolkien: The Song of Parting, sung by Beren to Luthien. From The Silmarillion, Del Rey, 2nd edition. 2001, page 210.

** By J.R.R. Tolkien: The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, From The Return of the King, Appendix A. Ballantine Books, 29th edition. 1971, page 425.

 

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them, and am making no monetary profit from this story. It is written for entertainment only.

Author's notes: many astonished thanks to Lisette, my battery-operated beta. What is to give light must endure burning.

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Seeker

The footprints had led Legolas to a downed log, and he crouched to run his hands over it. The snow had been swept off a small area, and the imprints of Aragorn's boots deepened here, indicating that he had lingered in this spot for a time. The puzzled elf frowned for a moment before nodding in sudden understanding. "He sat here to rest and eat his midday meal," he noted as his long fingers trotted along the length of wood. Small markings were noticeable, and he hesitated over something that felt odd, and swept his hand back again. Tiny crumbs were scattered in the snow. He rubbed them between his fingertips and raised a handful to his nose, inhaling the smell of bread. "And he shared it with a squirrel," he concluded with a soft smile.

Rising, he turned toward the mare and reached for her. "Come, we must move on."

Finding the trail once more, Legolas following it around a tree – where the footprints had stopped briefly once more - and back to where he had started. The elf paused for a moment, perplexed, wondering why the ranger would walk a circle round a tree, and then he nearly laughed. Alone in the woods, he still seeks privacy. As if anyone would be interested in watching him do that!

Urging the mare forward, he pressed on. The elf clung to her mane as the ground began to slope downward and they carefully picked their way through thickening trees and tangles of bracken that Aragorn had skirted. The terrain grew uneven, and several times the mare faltered when her hoofs sank deep into drifts that had accumulated, but she slogged through them gamely with Legolas' encouragement and led him on.

As he walked along, Legolas strained his ears for any sound that might lead him to his friend. He had thought about calling out for Aragorn, but had quickly rejected the idea. The hovering threat of enemies in the nearby city, and his lessened ability to combat them should they be behind the ranger's disappearance, forced him to swallow the frantic shout he longed to utter.

He estimated that about four hours had passed since he had left the safety of the cottage. Four hours… a long time for a mortal to be caught out in such cold. The icy air seared the elf's nostrils with the sweet scent of the pines as he shook his head in dismay. Dropping to his knees to reassure himself of the trail, he rose once more with a grimace as his fingers clenched around Aragorn's blanket.

As time passed, he sensed disquiet among the creatures around him - the sudden trotting of several deer some yards to his left, and the silence of the smaller woodland animals. Rhosgernroch grew edgy, frequently throwing up her head and snorting softly, and she gradually became more difficult to keep moving forward.

Legolas shook his head unhappily. It was an odd thing, to feel so ill at ease here in the depths of the snow-shrouded forest. He, who was at home in any forest, strange or familiar, had never before felt so helpless, so utterly lost among the trees he loved. He had faced peril before: patrolling the great expanse of Mirkwood's shadowed land, silently keeping watch on the dark tower to the south, battling orcs and spiders, searching for elves that had gone missing… all of these things he had done. And there had indeed been moments in his life when his heart had convulsed in his chest and the ice of terror had gripped his mind and paralyzed his body. But never before had he felt the fear that welled within him now. Never before had he sought a missing friend and faced unknown danger without his eyes to guide him. Never before, until this night, had he ever believed that he could fail.

But you have failed in the past. You failed her, four years ago. She is gone, and now Aragorn will be lost to you. You are blind and alone with no one to help you. You cannot find him.

The little voice of doubt that had been yammering in his mind broke free, loud and insistent, and he believed its words. The elf's hands clenched and his heart pounded as panic washed over him. The mare halted abruptly, feeling his tension, and Legolas turned his wide eyes to the night. For a time he heard nothing but the rush of blood in his ears and the rapid intake of his breath. He stood, an elf alone in a forest, and he was afraid.

He let himself feel the fear. There was nothing else he could do, for continuing in his effort to push it aside was no longer possible. It was too powerful, gripping both his body and mind, and he realized that his struggle to deny it had served only to increase its hold over him. He was alone, terribly alone, and the horror of his situation rose before him as a great wave and crashed in upon him. The elf closed his eyes as frightening thoughts rushed past, and for a long time he simply let them, allowing himself to be borne along on their tumultuous swells as he clung to the old mare and buried his face against her, his body rocking slightly with the hammering of his heart.

In the end, it was the forest song that pulled him from the maelstrom of emotions that was dragging him under. The song was discordant, and one facet of it echoed continuously around him. It was out of place; it did not belong here, and its jarring tone hurt him. Raising his head, Legolas listened deeply, his features grave and puzzled until at last he realized with a sudden feeling of shock that this peculiar, lonely tone was his own. He blinked in surprise and then bent his head in sorrow and shame at the terrible misdeed that he had committed.

Focused as he always was on his blindness and mired by fear, he had mistakenly perceived that the forest was an obstacle, a hindrance to his efforts. Ever since he had entered it in search of his missing friend he had been fighting it as if it was his enemy. Never should one of the Firstborn be so at odds with the natural world. An elf should be a part of any forest that surrounded him. An elf in harmony - with body, mind and spirit in balance – should be as one with any great gathering of trees, even if he was a stranger walking for the first time under its branches.

His throbbing pulse slowly calmed as his breathing became regular once more, but he did not yet stir. Though precious time was passing, he simply breathed, working to quiet his mind. He knew he must push past this sea of self-doubt and stop the distraction of his endless thoughts. Gradually he was able to relax, and as he did so, he raised his face to the night sky as his senses expanded outward. Tree-song and star-song pulsed deep within his core, and he directed his focus on them to force back the pain in his head. The scent of pine, sharp and pungent, tickled his nostrils along with the earthy smell of the horse. Gentle breezes traced light touches over his face, brushing the powdery snow from the branches over his head with a soft hiss. The stream on his right burbled over the rocks with a soothing sound, and his two hands, previously knotted and aching, eased their fierce grasps upon his longbow and Rhosgernroch's mane.

"Forgive me," he murmured to the trees around him as he bowed his head and went down on one knee. "I have behaved disgracefully under your boughs."

Like a vessel long empty, he opened himself to be filled once more, and Legolas felt his heart quicken with joy as he renewed his connection to the forest. How foolish he had been, to set himself against it!

Of course, he knew the forest had not been the true source of his fear and anger. Even as he had searched for Aragorn he had permitted himself to be distracted by the endless bitter anger that consumed him. How much of his energy over these past months had he wasted on fruitless and painful yearning, raging against the darkness before his eyes, and to what end? Would he spend all of eternity hoping for that which he could never have again? Would he never be able to accept his blindness?

He lingered, remaining bowed, and drank in the physical sensations of the winter world as he immersed himself in the familiar comfort of the companionship of the trees. He was not alone – not really. No elf ever was, if he but remembered to walk openly under the timeless watch of oak and elm with a respectful, loving heart. The changes they had weathered over the span of countless years of death and rebirth were far beyond anything he would ever be able to comprehend. What was the loss of his eyesight, when he was still a part of the undying Song that renewed and restored his soul?

What had Aragorn said to him on that autumn day long ago when Legolas had given in to his rage and despair and had hurt his mortal friend? You still see much, Legolas. Even without the use of your eyes.

Legolas raised his face to the trees, his eyes glittering with tears, and nodded his head. Was it not better to think of what he might find, rather than continuing to mourn what had been lost?

The forest song continued to signal distress, and from its depths he heard the low thrum of another ancient oak, much like his own great tree at the edge of the clearing before the cabin. It was to the north. The elf turned toward it as he rose to his feet.

His thoughts had quieted. There was only the here and the now, and a task to be completed. He would begin this journey anew with his mind clear and receptive. The fear remained, but now it only nudged him, and no longer surged to the fore to overwhelm. Legolas' eyes shone as he spoke gently to the mare, and together they moved forward once more. And this time the elf, not the horse, led the way.

 

0-0-0-0-0

The moon had abandoned him, leaving him alone in the depths of the night. The light it had offered was gone, the bright scythe having tracked its path across the sky as it always did until it vanished into the west. Unhappily he had watched its slow departure until he could see it no more, and the loneliness of his plight had crashed in upon him with ten times its former strength.  It was after midnight now. As he cast about yet again for his dropped knife, Aragorn felt the tears running from his eyes.

He had finally succeeded in tearing away a good portion of the inner side of his boot, and his ankle was exposed now. It was gashed and bloody, but the wounds he had managed to inflict were merely superficial. The wretched trap hindered him. He had been unable to shift it to gain better access to the area he needed to cut, forcing him instead to try to twist the knife at an awkward angle and come at his ankle from underneath. Adding to the difficulty was the uselessness of his hands.

Wearily, the ranger retrieved the blade and pulled it onto his lap. Dragging his gaze from it, he squinted at his trapped foot. He had made no real progress at all.

Exhausted beyond measure he rested again, and his thoughts wandered aimlessly, slowly curling from his mind and fading away like breath. The shivering that had assaulted him earlier with the frightening force of near convulsions had faded to random odd twitches of his limbs. Head propped against the tree, he watched as his legs jerked and kicked of their own volition, and he realized, with a stroke of understanding that hit him with the force of a physical blow, that he had lost this battle.

Aragorn could no longer look at his foot, at the bloody snow, and at the trap that had cost him his life. The chain clinked dully as he slowly shifted his body, and he turned away from the sight to lean his left shoulder against the wide trunk of the tree. He laid his head along the rough bark and gazed into the forest. Were I Legolas, I would hear the song of this old oak. How I wish I could hear it now… it would comfort me. 

Resting against the tree, he thought that dying in this manner was not too horrible. The agonizing contractions of his muscles had eased, the pain had faded, and when he ceased fighting he felt the warmth glide over his body. He listened to the soft rhythm of his breath and the slowing contractions of his heart, and he knew when death came for him it would be gentle, a mere sliver of time as his final breath left him and he slipped through the portal into the unknown realm. Already it seemed they came, silent grey shadows that flitted and moved from tree to tree just beyond; the ghosts that would escort him on his journey.

His eyes closed, but he sensed them draw near, the soft sounds of their footfalls, the caress of warm breath against cold skin. He sang again, in a voice utterly gone but for a ragged whisper, and dreamt of an elf-woman with raven tresses who danced beneath the glittering stars. No longer afraid, a fleeting smile graced Aragorn's features as he slid from the tree and, like a marionette with the strings cut, toppled silently to the ground.

 

0-0-0-0-0

The elf continued to follow Aragorn's tracks, crouching every so often to feel over the snow with his hands. He had traveled across a clearing and down into a small depression that had caused the mare to slip and falter on the incline. She had become more skittish, and when they had labored up the other side and reached level ground again she balked entirely, driving her forefeet into the ground.

Legolas curled his arm around Rhosgernroch's neck and felt her shiver. Silently he wrapped his cloak over her face, murmuring soothingly in a voice too low for any but her to hear. Then he fell silent, listening, and his eyes widened as fear wove through the air, coiled, and struck. The unseen danger had made itself known at last.

They were still some distance off, but he heard them clearly: the pattering of feet, the low snarls, and snapping of their jaws as they quarreled amongst themselves. Wolves. This was why the forest animals had been silently fleeing, and why his own senses had been thrumming with tension during the greater part of his search. Legolas tightened his grip over the old mare's muzzle and whispered, urging her to remain silent. They were downwind of the creatures and had not yet been detected. Something else occupied their attention, otherwise on this cold mid-winter night they would be on the move, searching for food. What had they found to fight over?

"Do not fear. I will protect you," he promised the nervous horse. Though his mouth had gone dry as dust he spoke with a calm and confident tone, lest Rhosgernroch sense his fear and bolt. Gradually she grew quiet, and he pulled his hands away, freeing her from his grasp. "Quietly now, find a place where you will feel safe and wait for me there."

Legolas waited as she moved off at a fast trot, her steps softened by the snow, and then he turned his attention to the situation ahead. Silently he removed his gloves, extracted an arrow from his quiver and fixed it to the string. He listened another moment, and then slowly crept forward. His footsteps were soundless, and he came up against a large tree and pressed against it to hide himself. They are some thirty yards ahead, and busy with something.

After another moment of listening, the elf judged them to be three in number. Given different circumstances, he might climb a tree and attempt to communicate with the animals. Although wargs and Mirkwood's great spiders were in the service of the Shadow and could not be reasoned with or befriended, these were ordinary wolves, and it was not beyond the capabilities of the elves to establish an understanding with them. If he sang, it might be possible to get them to move off so that he could continue his search. But then he heard another sound, and it froze the blood in his veins. A low moan, the ragged whisper of an injured man, and Legolas knew there was no time for the song.

"Aragorn!" He leapt from the tree with a shout, and the predators came. Legolas stood his ground, bowstring drawn to full length, and waited. The smallest one was also the swiftest, and it rushed him head-on. The elf heard the panting breaths and the savage snarls as it drew closer. He calculated, shifted his aim slightly to the left, and the arrow flew. He heard a yelp, and a heavy body tumbled and skidded to a stop at his feet, sending up a shower of snow that struck his face as he leapt aside. Whipping another shaft from his quiver, he sent it streaking toward a second creature that sought to attack him from the right. This one fell without a cry, and the elf felt a quick flash of satisfaction that his shot had been clean and the animal's death instantaneous.

Then the third and largest wolf was upon him, galloping straight in from the front. Legolas flung his bow away and tore one of his knives from its sheath. He shouted a command to try to deter the creature, but it never hesitated, launching itself over the body of its companion and on toward the elf with a roar. Legolas tracked it, attempting to gauge the leap, and felt hot breath against his face as he twisted and jumped to evade the impact. He moved too late, and their bodies collided. The hurtling wolf smashed against his left side and the elf staggered at the impact, crying out as sharp teeth ripped into his shoulder. As he stumbled and fell he struck out with his weapon. The blade glance off the wolf's ribs and the animal howled, but Legolas knew the wound was superficial. He rolled, trying to get his legs under him, but an instant later the enraged creature had spun and landed on top of him, knocking him onto his back. Desperate, Legolas drove his left hand into the wolf's neck. Clutching at a wet handful of reeking pelt, he fought with all his strength to hold the terrible teeth away from him. The horrid snapping of its jaws was mere inches from his throat; he felt the saliva dripping onto his face.

He raised his right hand and struck again, and his blade sank deep into the animal's side. It shrieked, twisting violently in his grasp as Legolas, teeth gritted as the pain flared from his bitten shoulder down his arm, called on all of his elven strength to hold the wolf away from him until it began to weaken. A final blow ended the animal's life at last, and the elf, his left arm shaking from the strain, thrust the body from him and rolled onto his knees.

Sorrow wrung his heart as he clambered, panting, to his feet and clamped his hand over his wounded shoulder. The wolves had been hungry, nothing more. They had probably viewed him as a competitor for their food. If only there had been more time.

"Aragorn? Are you here?" he called, turning his head. He had lost his bearings in the battle with the wolves. From what direction had he heard the moan? "Aragorn, for the love of the Valar, answer me! Aragorn!"

He knew he had not imagined the sound, but no one responded to him now. "Sweet Elbereth, where is he?" the elf gasped.

Legolas took several frantic steps forward, stumbled against the body of one of the wolves and nearly fell again. He stopped abruptly and closed his eyes. Calm… calm… breathe and listen.

The rich, low voice of an ancient tree came to him again - a soft touch in the dark – and its song ran deeper than all the years he had known. Suddenly the elf understood. With a cry, he leaped over the carcass of the wolf and rushed toward the great oak and the man it sheltered beneath its snow-laden boughs.

To be continued

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and are the property of his estate. I do not have permission to use them and am making no monetary profit from this story. It is written for entertainment only.

Author's Notes: thanks once again to the Lisette the Resilient for her beta efforts.

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Thirty: Hold On

Legolas skidded to a stop beside the great oak and dropped to his knees. Reaching out, he groped over the base of the tree and the snow beneath it, feeling frantically until his hands brushed up against the rough fabric of the ranger's cloak. "Aragorn! Did the wolves attack you? Are you wounded?"

The man did not answer, and Legolas' heart quailed at the silence. Aragorn was lying curled on his side, his arms crossed and hugged tightly to his body. Legolas sought his friend's face. A muffler was pulled up over his mouth and nose, and the elf yanked the fabric aside and pressed his fingers under Aragorn's nostrils. "Oh Valar… please…" he whispered.

Detecting a slight movement of breath against his hand, Legolas squeezed his eyes closed in relief. Quickly pulling his cloak over his head, he wrapped it around the ranger's shoulders and pulled the hood snugly over his matted hair, adding what warmth he could as he struggled to pull Aragorn up. "Aragorn, you must not sleep! It will be your death if you do. Aragorn!"

Legolas wrapped his arms around the ranger and hauled him into a seated position. Aragorn's body instantly slumped like a rag doll, but he moaned softly, and Legolas took this as a sign that the man was not entirely removed from the conscious world. Thus encouraged, he shook him. "Come, Aragorn. You must wake." Reaching, the elf sought to hold Aragorn's hands and found them to be tucked under his armpits. Legolas pulled them out, but immediately upon touching them he withdrew with a horrified gasp. The ranger's ungloved fingers were cold and stiffened, crusted with dried blood. "Oh, Estel…" Legolas whispered brokenly. He reached for the hands again, and for a moment pressed them gently between his own.

The smell of the man's blood was strong. The wolves must have bitten him, but how many times, and how badly? The elf longed to investigate his friend's body, concerned that Aragorn might be bleeding dangerously, but the cold was of much greater concern. He must be taken to shelter and warmed immediately.

Crouched over the ranger and trying to pull him up, Legolas suddenly paused and raised his head. He gasped as he listened to the dead silence of the forest. Rhosgernroch! Ai, where was she? The fight with the wolves must have frightened her, but if she had fled, both he and Aragorn were doomed.

Easing Aragorn to the ground, Legolas jumped to his feet and called out for her. He heard nothing in response, and swallowed hard against the sudden dryness of his throat as he began singing softly into the night. For a few minutes all was quiet, then he heard her draw near. Hesitant and frightened, the old mare picked her way past the bodies of the wolves and thrust her soft nose into the elf's chest, blowing softly. The elf leaned into her, his legs suddenly gone weak and shaking, and he wrapped his arms around her neck. "Hannon-le, hannon-le," he whispered. Praising her effusively, he continued to embrace her as his fingers worked to free the rolled blanket tied to her back. Then, bidding her to stay close, he crouched again beside the injured man.

Dragging Aragorn upright once more, the elf wrapped the heavy blanket around him. He pressed his forehead against his friend's and cradled his face between his hands. "Aragorn, I am here. Wake now! You must speak. I've come to take you home, but you must speak to me now!"

He felt the ranger shudder, and the man's head jerked against his hands. He moaned again. Shifting behind him, Legolas pushed his arms under Aragorn's and started to lift, gritting his teeth as his wounded shoulder protested. "Come. I will carry you to Rhosgernroch. She waits to take us to the cabin."

As the elf began to raise Aragorn he heard the sudden rattle of metal, and the ranger cried out softly. "What?" the startled elf gasped. "What is it?" He dropped back to the ground and quickly felt over the ranger's left leg, but found nothing. Then he moved to the right, and his hands collided with metal, heavy and painfully cold. His fingers raced over the trap and tracked the chain that anchored the ranger to the tree. "Oh no…  No!"

In an instant Legolas knew that this trap was the same kind that had killed the old man. He closed his eyes as a frightening thought flashed through his mind: and so they have found us at last.

Aragorn groaned, twisting in his arms, and the elf tightened his grip on his friend's shoulders. The ranger was in pain, and Legolas felt his fear burn away under a hot torrent of anger. Who would do such a thing? What cowards, to lay a trap for a man and abandon him to a slow and agonizing death! The cruelty of the act seared the elf's heart as he thought of the torment his dear friend had endured this night. He pressed his lips against the ranger's brow as tears stung his eyes. "Courage, Aragorn. I will get you out now."

His hands trembled as he felt over the trap, taking note of its configuration and strength. It was clamped viciously over Aragorn's right ankle, and the boot was torn. Legolas prodded, seeking the best spot to work his fingers into the thing. He did not pause to search for the gloves he had thrown down when the battle with the wolves had begun, though he knew his hands would need the protection. He was too frightened to risk the time.

Aragorn whimpered as Legolas forced his fingers into either side of the injured ankle and wrapped them around the trap. "This will hurt," the elf told his friend in a firm voice. "Hold on. Scream if you must, but do not hinder me. You must keep still, and not fight me. Do you understand?"

There was no response. Adjusting his hold on the freezing metal, the elf bowed his head. He knew he must not falter once he had begun and allow the trap to renew its grip on Aragorn's leg. It had to be done quickly, and in one attempt. For a moment he concentrated on himself, feeling the power of elven vitality honed through centuries of training and discipline. Through the heated rush of blood he felt the unyielding structure of bone, the energy of sinew and muscle in his arms, and the strength of his hands as he tightened his grip on the trap. The rage, hot and controlled, fired through his body and added its heat to what already burned. Dismissing the throbbing pain of his injured shoulder as nothing more than a trifle, he turned his face toward the injured man and nodded.

"Now, Aragorn," he said, and began to pull.

 

0-0-0-0-0

The grey spirits had hurt him. Frightened and bewildered, he lay still, having no strength to do anything else, and the sound of their snarls echoed round him, their gleaming yellow eyes staring into his own. He cried out softly as he felt the sharp pain of their knives. He did not know why they did this to him, and he felt a vague concern that he must have done something to displease them. But the fear soon washed away on another wave of fatigue, and he closed his eyes once more, trying to appease the demons and not give voice to his pain should their knives fall again. He would give himself over to them. Perhaps this was some final trial he was meant to endure, and if he did well, he would be permitted to enter into the great mystery. And perhaps beyond it there would be comfort for him at last, and an easing of his pain.

He heard a shout then, and with an effort he cracked his swollen eyelids open once more. Another being had come, softly lit and golden against the dark night, and to his blurry gaze it seemed this new spirit did battle with the grey ones. They raced away to engage it, and a fierce but brief struggle ensued. His eyes widened as he watched from his position on the ground, his face half-buried in snow. The bright being shone with a rare beauty that took his breath, and it leapt and fought with amazing speed. One of the grey demons knocked it to the ground, and he found himself hoping desperately that the golden one would be the victor. Surely this one would be more kind.

Had he slept again? He did not remember the golden one coming to him, but it had, and he found himself gazing with blurred awe into a face of heartbreaking perfection. As it knelt beside him he tried to smile at the beautiful being, feeling certain that this must be one of the lesser gods come for him at last, but the creature did not return the smile. Its clear eyes, wide and brilliant blue, never met his own, and it spoke urgently to him in a voice lovely to hear but not gentle. It demanded that he speak.

He moved his lips and tried, but he had lost all control over his ability to respond. He lay still, eyes brimming with relief, and let the beautiful one prepare him for the journey. It hugged him and wrapped him in a blanket, and it kissed him. He closed his eyes again, certain that he was safe now, and he sighed deeply. With calm acceptance, he readied himself for death.

Jolted out of his reverie by a searing pain in his foot, he screamed. Ai, he had thought that agony was past! Why did the beautiful one hurt him now? Had he not tried his best to show his love and gratitude to it? He struck out clumsily, and his arm jerked and slammed against the golden being. It responded by shouting at him to hold still, and he stopped his feeble struggles and obeyed. He dared not defy the commanding tone in the melodic voice, though he was frightened. He lay, punctuating the night with his whimpers, and watched helplessly, wondering why a being so radiant would want to cause him such terrible suffering. He lay, his body shaking violently as the pain in his foot grew and shot horrific spikes of agony along the length of his leg, and he stared at the ethereal creature as it tortured him.

To his surprise, it appeared to be enduring pain as well. Suddenly the beautiful face fractured into an expression of agony, and the being moaned softly as it slowly leaned its head back until he could see only its white throat, the pulse leaping strongly beneath glowing skin. The tendons in its neck stood out, the muscles around the jaw knotted and quivered, and then the being lowered its head once more and turned it to the side, and he saw that the eyes were tightly clenched before the golden fall of hair swept down to veil them. The being's breath grew ragged, and it choked on its gasps.

His eyes widened as they settled on the golden one's shoulder, and he realized that it was blood-soaked. Raising his head, he followed its trembling arms down and saw that its hands ran scarlet. Suddenly it threw its head back and screamed, and he echoed it as something ripped with terrible force over his foot, sending a new blaze of hot agony through him. He fell back, panting and sickened, and the being cried out again. A sharp metallic snap rang in his ears, and then a weight collapsed against him, warm and shaking, and he listened to the gasped words uttered between small sounds of pain. "I am sorry… sorry I hurt you, mellon-nin. I… am so sorry…"

Somehow he managed to raise his head. The beautiful being lay across him, shuddering, and blood dripped from its hands. The pale face was turned toward him, the star-filled eyes brilliant in the darkness. Aragorn smiled and reached out with one of his own mangled hands to caress the curtain of golden hair.

"Legolas…" he whispered.

 

0-0-0-0-0

 

  Once Aragorn was free of the trap, the elf wasted no time in getting him onto the horse. He swung himself up behind the ranger, wrapped his arms around the heavily bundled figure, and bade Rhosgernroch to return to the cabin with all haste. He permitted her to choose her own path, knowing she would pick the straightest way, and the old mare responded with enthusiasm if not great speed, more than happy to leave that place of blood and fear behind her. The forest was heavily wooded for the most part, and she moved from a trot to a slow canter and back again as she was able.

Legolas paid little attention to the route she chose, leaving everything to her entirely. All his attention was on Aragorn, and he struggled to hold the injured man upright while maintaining his own balance as the mare turned this way and that, at times faltering when she briefly lost her footing in the deep snow. The ranger had not spoken again though the elf continued to urge him to do so, desperate to prevent him from sinking into the depthless sleep that he knew beckoned with a near irresistible power that was both seductive and fatal.

After a time the mare began to labor up a low hill, and Legolas realized with a quick lightening of his heart they must have moved beyond the apple orchard. He shifted his weight back as Rhosgernroch began descending the other side, helping her maintain her balance as she stumbled and slid on the snowy slope. Keeping up a stream of words and song to hold Aragorn's attention, Legolas broke off only when the mare suddenly increased her speed to a laborious gallop, and he knew they had reached clear land at last- the meadow near the lake. Her gait was not smooth, and he gripped hard with his legs, clinging tightly to the ranger as he thought about what he would do once they finally gained the safety of the cabin.

Though no healer himself, Legolas knew what it was to stand at the bedside of elves that had been caught out in the savage storms of winter. He had watched the healers of Mirkwood at their work, and he hoped he remembered enough to be of aid to the ranger. Serious as Aragorn's injuries undoubtedly were, the cold that had infiltrated his body was the greater danger. The man would have to be warmed, but carefully, with gentle handling and as little shock as possible.

Raising his head as the faint smell of wood-smoke came to him, Legolas recalled that he had thought to bank the fire well before leaving the cottage. Some glowing coals would still remain, and he hoped he would not have too much of a struggle to get the flames leaping in the hearth once more.

Rhosgernroch was trotting again, weaving through the trees, and then she was in the clearing and slowing to a stop before the doorway of the barn. Blowing hard, she lowered her head as the elf slid from her back, pulling Aragorn down with him. "Wait a moment for me, old girl," Legolas said to her, and rushed with his burden to the cottage. Bursting through the door, he quickly laid the man on the bed and ran out again. Finding the old mare already in her stall, he threw a warm blanket over her and fastened it awkwardly under her belly with his injured hands. Frightened to leave Aragorn even for a few brief moments, he worked as quickly as he could to reward the old mare for her loyalty and her help, for she had saved two lives this night. There was no time for a rub-down, but he promised Rhosgernroch that he would return as soon as possible to care for her needs. He permitted her to drink but a little water, and then raced back to the cabin, shrugged out of his quiver, and knelt beside the bed.

"Aragorn!" he shouted as he reached for his friend. "Do not sleep!" The man did not respond, and Legolas pressed his fingertips against the side of the man's throat. The pulse was there, slow and somewhat erratic. "I will not lose you now, mellon-nin. Stay with me!"

Aragorn stirred slightly, and the elf felt the ranger's head roll against his arm. Legolas quickly turned to the hearth, continuing to call out as he worked to get the fire going. His hands hurt fiercely as he gathered kindling from the basket on the floor, laid them over the coals and blew gently on them, waiting to hear the crackling that would tell him that the flames had begun to come to life. He added a few more small pieces, then rose and shoved the table aside. Moving to the foot of the bed, he hooked his forearms under the wooden frame and dragged it around until it lay fully before the fireplace, exposing Aragorn to as much of the heat as possible. Sensing that the small fire was ready for more fuel, Legolas crawled across the bed and added several larger pieces of wood. The area before the bed gradually began to grow warmer, and Legolas turned his attention again to Aragorn.

Carefully unwrapping the blanket, he laid it aside and pulled the cloaks and muffler off. The ranger's clothing was cold and wet, and Legolas struggled with the fastenings, working as quickly as he could to strip the garments away. It was not fast enough, and with a growl of frustration he spun away, crawled across the floor and located his quiver. He yanked one of his knives from it. Gasping as he curled his maimed fingers around the hilt, he pulled up on the man's coat with his other hand and slid the tip of the blade under it, slicing through the heavy fabric. He cut through the shirt as well and worked his way down each arm, ripping and tearing, not wanting to add to the man's pain by trying to pull the sleeves over his injured hands. Once the garments had been laid open he pulled Aragorn up, trying not to jostle him too much, dragged the clothes off the bed and eased him back again. The bare skin of Aragorn's torso was terribly cold. Legolas scrambled over the bed and added two large logs to the fire, listening as the flames grew stronger and the heat began to bathe his face.

He cut Aragorn's leggings away, but when his hands came up against the ranger's boots he froze, suddenly filled with uncertainty. What to do with the foot that had been caught? Doubtless it was terribly injured and swollen, perhaps even broken. Should he try to remove the boot? His thoughts raced as he pulled the other one off and flung it over his shoulder to land with a thud somewhere behind him. He decided against touching the injured foot for now, fearing to cause more pain.

The fire was roaring. Legolas gently turned the ranger onto his side, facing the warmth of the hearth, and demanded again that Aragorn speak. But the ranger could not be roused, and when the elf pressed his hands gently against Aragorn's cold skin his concern mounted. The fire was not enough.

Legolas cast his mind back to Mirkwood, and the healing rooms deep within his father's vast network of caves. What more had the healers done for those that had been caught out in winter storms? They had given the impaired elves warmed fluids to drink, but Aragorn was too deeply affected to swallow properly. A gentle sponge bath with warm water was sometimes employed, but Legolas feared the time it would take him to fetch and heat water from the river would be too long. What else could he do?

His memory shifted again, and suddenly settled on a story his brother Thendras had told him long ago. When Legolas was an elfling, Thendras had been out on patrol with several other warriors, and a fierce winter storm had come upon them seemingly from nowhere. Battered by a howling wind that ripped their shouts from their lips before they could be heard and dazed by a thick snowfall that made visibility nearly impossible, the small company of elves was hard pressed to stay together and find shelter. It was some time before they stumbled into the protection of a cave, and once there, they discovered that one of the warriors had become separated from them in the confusion. He was found hours later, near death, pressed into the hollow of a tree. Thendras and the others had carried their injured companion to the cave and settled there to wait out the remainder of the storm. They had no fire, and no means to make one. The only warmth available to save the life of their friend had been that of their own bodies, and this they willingly gave. Stripping their clothing off, they lay on either side of the frozen elf, huddling close and covering up with their cloaks, and by the time the storm had abated he was recovered enough to make the return journey.

Heedless of his bleeding hands and wounded shoulder, Legolas tore the clothing from his body and slid into the bed behind Aragorn. He reached for the blanket and drew it over them both. Curling tightly against the ranger, he wrapped his arms around him, setting his teeth against the discomfort as Aragorn's cold skin pressed against his own. The heat from the fire quickly penetrated the front of the quilt, and the elf began to sing again as he continued the struggle, fighting to keep his friend from drifting into death.

To be continued

 

Disclaimer: the setting and characters of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and are the property of his estate. I do not have permission to use them and am making no monetary profit from this story. It is written for entertainment only.   

Author's notes: My apologies for the wait. It has been a challenging month, but I hope this update makes up for the delay. Happy Thanksgiving to you all! And thanks once again to Lisette for betaing.

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter 31: Shelter from the Storm  

Legolas lay quietly as the burning logs shifted and fell within the hearth with a thump and a hiss of sparks. The fire crackled softly. Soon he would need to add more fuel, but he thought it could wait a bit longer. He was loath to move from his position in the bed and disturb his friend, for it seemed that Aragorn had somehow moved from grave danger into sleep without the elf truly able to discern just when the peril had passed, or indeed if it had. As he had sung, his fingertips pressed continuously against the ranger's throat, Aragorn had begun to shiver. The elf had clung to him, frightened lest this reaction meant that even greater stresses were being put upon the ranger's body, but after a time Aragorn had quieted once more. Gradually his muscles had relaxed, and his pulse grew stronger. Aragorn had stirred then, murmuring something the elf could not make out, and inhaled deeply before settling into what seemed to be a healthier state. Legolas prayed that it was, though he knew it would be only a short respite for them both before pain would rouse the ranger. Finally permitting his wide-eyed apprehension to ease just a little, he slid his throbbing hand away from Aragorn's neck and rested it gently against the mattress. Laying his head down, the elf turned his full attention toward his surroundings for the first time.

He did not know when Tithlam had joined him, but he welcomed her soft presence when he realized she had at some point curled herself behind his bent knees. Fearing that he and Aragorn might have been followed by whoever had set the trap, he listened intently for a long while, wondering moment by moment if he would detect the muted jingle of harnesses on the night air or the steps of men moving stealthily across the clearing, and he wondered how he would fight them. But he heard nothing when he focused on the world beyond the cabin. He thought it was not yet dawn, though very close to it, and the tired elf longed to fully rest and drift into dreams, wanting nothing more than to blot out the horror of the night. Instead he slowly turned himself and sat up, trying not to disturb Aragorn, and investigated his injuries. The bite wound on his shoulder throbbed with the heat of swelling, and he felt the crusted blood that had run over his chest and arm. He gritted his teeth as he tried to move his fingers. His torn hands burned and stung, but at least his headache had dulled to nothing more than a minor irritation in comparison to the other complaints of his body. Quietly he pushed the blanket away and leaned over Aragorn. Groping for another log, he added it to the fire and then eased himself off the bed. Much as he might wish otherwise, now was not the time for rest.

He dressed himself and brought in more wood, making several trips to the lean-to and piling the logs at the foot of the bed, and then he cleared the remains of the uneaten meal from the table. This done, he set two bowls, one large and one small, on its weathered surface beside the herbs he had gathered together in their packets and jars. Frowning, he tried to recall which ones Aragorn had spoken of as being good for wounds and fever, and which would be useful for pain. As he rummaged in a corner of the cabin, searching for the large pot he and Aragorn used to transport water from the river, the ranger's breathing suddenly increased to gasps and the elf heard him thrash.

Legolas leaped toward the bed and knelt beside his friend. "Aragorn?" he whispered as he placed his hands on the man's quivering body. The ranger groaned, turning onto his back and struggling to sit up, but Legolas held him down. "You are safe. Lay still or you will bring yourself more pain," he cautioned.

"No… no," Aragorn gasped.

The elf passed his fingertips over Aragorn's eyes, which were tightly sealed, and the man tossed his head as if to shake free of the touch. Legolas frowned, unsure if the ranger was regaining his senses or was still buried in dreams. "Aragorn, wake and find where you are. The trap no longer holds you."

Aragorn drew a great shuddering breath and released it. "Legolas?" he whispered.

Legolas smiled, relieved to hear the man's voice at last, however weak. "Yes, I am here."

"How…" the man paused to swallow noisily. Legolas heard him lick his lips. "How did…"

"Rest, Aragorn. We can speak of it when you are stronger."

"I do not…" Aragorn's voice faltered, and then he sighed. "Legolas…"

The elf shook his head, sensing the man's confusion and pain. "Do not speak now. Let me care for you. I was about to fetch water to set on the fire. Will you be able to wait here for a minute while I get it?"

"Yes," the ranger said. He moved again, and groaned. "My hands… they burn."

Legolas grimaced in sympathy, but he tried to speak encouragingly. "Which means they are alive. You kept them tucked into your body as much as you were able. Aragorn, you are badly hurt. I will need guidance in treating your wounds, but first the water. You must drink something warm."

As the elf turned away and resumed his search for the bucket, he listened to the labored breathing of the injured man. His mind whirled with all that must be done. The ranger's hands were in a bad way, and he knew what needed to be done for the foot would be unpleasant. He hated to ask for help, when Aragorn was the one in pain and in need of care and rest, but perhaps once he gained more awareness of the extent of the ranger's injuries he could be of better assistance to him. Legolas located the water pot and set it on the table as he prepared to go to the river.

"Not safe here," he heard Aragorn whisper. "They will come for us."

"If they do, I will fight them," the elf stated fiercely, feeling again the hot stirring of anger within him. "I will not permit them to harm you further. Now will you be all right for a moment while I get the water?"

"Yes. Legolas, your shoulder… blood…"

"It is nothing. It will heal," Legolas said dismissively as he pulled the blankets snugly over his friend once more.

"Your hands are injured…" the ranger rasped. "Gloves. Another set… the pegs on the door. Put them on while you work."

Legolas nodded. "I will. And now you must stop speaking. I will be back directly."

Hooking the handle of the pot over his elbow, Legolas felt for the gloves and pulled them from the door. As he stepped outside he paused briefly, head tilted as he searched the sounds of the forest, waiting again for anything that might signal the approach of his unknown enemies. He detected nothing out of the ordinary however, but the wind had picked up, blowing in short gusts, and he felt the light touch of snowflakes as he turned his face up to the sky. With a sigh of relief he strode rapidly to the river and dropped to his knees beside it. Steeling himself, he plunged his hands into the freezing water for a brief moment in an effort to clean the wounds, but could not hold back an involuntary gasp as stinging pain lanced through his palms and fingers. Teeth clenched, he withdrew and pulled the gloves over his hands for protection. Dipping the pot into the flowing water, he filled it and hastened back to the cottage.

Soon he had the water suspended over the fire. Kneeling on the bed at Aragorn's feet, he monitored the temperature until he deemed it warm enough to benefit the man, and scooped some of it into a cup. Moving behind Aragorn, he slid his arm behind him to raise him and held the drink to his lips. When the cup was empty he filled it again, and added some honey. The man eagerly drained it as well, but when Legolas tried to help Aragorn lie down again he resisted.

"Aragorn, you must rest."

"No… my hands… must warm them in water. Still bad..."

The elf detected fear in the man's voice, and he turned toward him in alarm. "I will do as you say. I knew they were frozen… was I wrong to delay?"

"No… you are doing well," Aragorn said weakly.

Legolas frowned in concern. He knew thawing the ranger's hands would be a painful experience. "Should you take something first? An herb?" he suggested.

"Now," Aragorn gasped, still trying to rise.

"Wait. Let me put the pillow up."

Aragorn grunted as Legolas helped him to lean against the headboard. The elf filled the big bowl half way with the heated water and settled it carefully into the ranger's lap. "It is only warm, Aragorn. Not hot. It will not burn your hands. What else do you need of me?"

"Hold me. Do not let me pull them out," Aragorn responded. Legolas sat beside him and wrapped his fingers around Aragorn's wrists as the ranger leaned forward and slid his hands into the water.

For a time Aragorn made no sound. He sat quietly, but the elf felt him trembling, and he waited apprehensively until the ranger spoke again. Aragorn's voice was tight with misery. "Warmer," was all he said. Legolas hastened to comply, carefully removing the bowl and replacing the water. He checked it with his elbow, judged it to be too hot, and rushed outside to scoop some snow to cool it slightly.

The elf set the bowl on the bed once more, and this time Aragorn gasped as he placed his hands in the water. He doubled over. "Ai, Valar this hurts…"

Legolas gripped the ranger tightly, wishing with all his heart that he could somehow take the pain upon himself. Aragorn soon gave up any effort he may have been making to remain stoic, and his gasps and curses rang in Legolas' ears. The elf murmured what encouragement he could as he held the ranger's hands steady so that they would not strike against the bowl and be further harmed. After a span of time that seemed to stretch forever Aragorn's cries lessened, and then the elf allowed him to withdraw from the water. He helped Aragorn settle back against the pillow and waited anxiously until the ranger stopped quaking and his breathing returned to an easier rhythm before speaking.

"Aragorn?"

"That was… awful," the man murmured.

"But your hands-?"

"I cannot say," Aragorn admitted after a long pause. "In the back room… there is cloth for bandages. Can you find them? Long strips, on the lowest shelf."

"In the small basket? I know where it is."

"And a jar of salve… the small one just to the right of the basket."

"I will get them," the elf assured, rising swiftly and going to the shelves in the storage room. The basket was easily located, but there were two jars beside it. Not knowing which one was needed, he returned with both.

Following Aragorn's directions, Legolas applied the salve as gently as he could, and wrapped each finger loosely to keep them separated before putting a final wrap around them all and extending the bandages over the man's palms to finish at the wrists. The elf had removed his gloves, as this task called for more dexterity than they permitted, and he set his jaw firmly against the pain of his own hands as he struggled awkwardly to tie off the last of the bandages as Aragorn's pained gasps filled the room. After it was done they were silent for a time, resting in order to regain what strength they could. Legolas knelt beside the bed, facing Aragorn, and listened to the fire, not yet willing to speak of what had to be faced next with the man's foot. He bent his head to hide his grimace of pain as he flexed his fingers.

"They look terrible," Aragorn said quietly. "Must wrap the wounds… and apply the salve…"

Scowling down at the hands he could not see, the elf shrugged. "I will, once we have finished here."

"I am sorry, Legolas."

Legolas turned to the ranger with a smile and shook his head. "For what? As you cared for me those many weeks ago, I will care for you."

"The wound on your shoulder… how did you come by that?"

"The wolves attacked me."

"Wolves?" Aragorn asked softly.

"You do not remember? The noise of their fighting led me to you. Did they bite you?"

"I do not know… everything hurts." The ranger's voice drifted tiredly. Legolas heard him shift his body as if he looked at himself. "My upper right arm."

Rising from the floor, Legolas probed the area and found the wound. As he gently washed it, he spoke the words he had been dreading. "Aragorn, what about your foot? We need to get the boot off."

The elf sensed the man sinking lower in the bed. "Yes, I know."

"What do you need for your pain? The poppy? It would make it at least somewhat tolerable while I work on your foot, and then ease you into sleep."

"No. Not safe… if they come, you cannot face them alone."

Legolas laughed gently. "And you cannot face them at all. But wait…" He turned his head and listened as a low moaning of wind crept over the cottage, and jumped to his feet. Hastening to the door, he put his head out and then turned toward the ranger. "Has dawn come? Is it light outside?"

He heard Aragorn groan slightly as he turned to look. "Yes, it is daylight."

"And what is happening?"

There was a pause, and Legolas heard relief in the ranger's exhausted voice. "A snowstorm. All white. Odd… earlier in the night the sky was clear."

Legolas smiled. "Thank the Valar for well-timed snowstorms. They will not come in this. Now will you take the poppy?"

"Yes, but not too much… not good…"

Aragorn instructed Legolas in the preparation of the drug, and after he had consumed it he quietly talked the elf through the making of a poultice. This was another task that Legolas' injured hands did not appreciate, but there was naught to do but endure the discomfort as he ground the different types of dried leaves together and worked in a small amount of water to create a thick paste. He did not know how badly Aragorn's foot was injured, but at a minimum it would require cleaning and bandaging once he had managed to get the boot off, and the healing mixture would work well for their bite wounds as well.

By the time the elf finished making the poultice Aragorn had begun to slur his words. He had also become, in Legolas' opinion, somewhat giddy, having rather startlingly broken away from describing the medicinal aspects of yarrow and plantain to launch into an off-key song about begetting days. Not certain if this was a good thing or not, Legolas frowned uneasily. Given the precarious state of the ranger's health, he feared the drug might cause him to lose what meager strength he had regained. But the removal of the boot and the cleaning of the wounded ankle and foot would be too much to ask the exhausted man to bear without something to ease the pain, and so the elf sent up a hasty prayer that the dosage of drug was the right one, and turned to his friend.

"The poultice is done, and I have filled the bowl again with clean water. It rests on the floor beside the bed, and once the boot is off we can put your foot into it. Plenty of cloth for cleaning and bandaging. Can you think of anything else?"

The ranger's voice sobered instantly. "It appears we have all we need."

Aragorn insisted that Legolas help him sit up once more so that he could watch and lend what guidance he could. The elf shifted the blanket aside and gently moved Aragorn's leg to rest on top of it. As Legolas investigated the boot with his fingertips he noted the long gashes where the trap had torn through, and thought that would be the best place to begin. He reached for his knife. "I think I should not try to pull it off as it is, but cut it at the ankle where it is torn and then we would only need to pull the lower part off. What do you say?"

"Yes. It should be easy to cut through what is left. Legolas…" the ranger paused to clear his throat. "Your knife looks disgusting."

"What?"

"All bloody…"

"Is it?" the elf inquired. "Ah, yes, the wolves. I take it you would like me to clean the blade before I go after your leg?" he added with a grin as he reached for a rag and dipped it in the water.

"If it is not too much trouble, Elf," Aragorn responded with a hoarse chuckle.

"No, not at all. It seems I must learn to tolerate your absurd demands until you are well again." Blade wiped down, he reached for the ranger's boot once more. "Are you ready?" he asked as he took a firm grip on the handle.

"I have to be," the ranger muttered, and Legolas felt him tense as he brought the edge of the knife to rest against the tattered boot. Taking care to keep the sharp edge turned away from Aragorn's leg, the elf slid the long blade into the top of the boot at mid-calf and angled it down until the tip poked out through one of the gashes at the ankle. With his other hand he braced the ranger's leg, and with a sudden swift jerk of his arm he yanked the blade through the boot and laid the upper part of it open.

Aragorn gasped, but made no other sound. Setting the knife down, the elf used his hands to open the upper part of the boot and felt along the part encircling the ankle. After two more cuts he had it off and tossed it into a corner. He turned to Aragorn. "Ready to finish this?"

The ranger blew his breath out. "In truth, no. I think that was the easy part. Valar, how it throbs."

Legolas nodded in understanding. "Your foot is swollen. It might be difficult to pull the boot off." Taking up the knife again, he investigated the possibility of inserting it along the foot and making another cut that would open it sufficiently to make pulling unnecessary. But the part of the boot covering Aragorn's foot was a tighter fit, and he abandoned the idea when his gentle manipulations caused the ranger to yelp.

"Make a cut just in the heel, if you can," Aragorn said after a moment.

"That should open it a bit," Legolas agreed. "Then with luck it should come straight off." He made a cut at the back of the boot. Opening it as far as he could, he began easing it off the ranger's foot. Aragorn groaned but the boot was moving, and so the elf took a firmer grip and ignored the sounds of his friend's pain. He continued to pull until with a final determined tug the boot came free. "How does it look?" Legolas asked anxiously as he pulled his gloves off and reached for the ranger's ankle.

"Dreadful," the ranger answered in a strained voice. "Very swollen, but I can move it a bit. I do not think any bones are broken."

Legolas assisted Aragorn in lowering his foot into the water, and instantly the ranger gasped and a litany of curses in several languages burst from his mouth. After a few moments the elf heard him draw his free leg up and slam it several times against the bedpost. The bed shook with the blows, but Aragorn managed to hold his injured foot still as Legolas bathed it. The elf winced in understanding, for he knew that it was not the lacerations that caused such great pain, for they seemed not so terrible to Legolas' searching fingers, but that lowering the foot had increased the pulsing of blood within it. Working as quickly as he could he washed the worst of the dried blood away, hoping that whatever dirt was in the wounds went with it, and helped Aragorn to raise his leg back onto the bed. Gently he dried the ankle and foot and waited once more for the ranger's pain to abate – indicated by a lessening of his rapid breaths - before he threw yet another question at his suffering patient, whom he well imagined was close to the end of his ability to endure much more.

"Is it clean enough?" he asked. "Do we need fresh water to bathe it again?"

"I… it is fine." The ranger's voice was a mere whisper, and the elf heard him settle back against the pillow. "No more..."

The elf nodded as he reached for the bowl holding the healing mixture. "I think you are not bleeding excessively," he stated as he applied the poultice and began wrapping the linen strips around Aragorn's ankle. "The lacerations are not as bad as I had feared."

"The boot protected me. Most of the cuts are superficial, and the result of my own hand."

"Your own hand?" the elf enquired. Confused, he turned abruptly to face his friend. "What do you mean?"

"I used my knife," Aragorn sighed. His words had become somewhat slurred again. "I tried to cut through my foot. I thought… thought it was the only way I could get out. The only way to get back to you."

The elf suddenly felt as though his heart had stopped. A strip of cloth slid through his fingers and fell to the floor as he turned to the ranger in dismay. "You attempted to cut off your foot?" he demanded. "It came to that? Aragorn… I am sorry. If only I had found you sooner. What a terrible ordeal it must have been."

Legolas was startled to hear a weak laugh. "You apologize for not finding me sooner?" the ranger gasped. "How did you manage to find me at all? I never thought that you…" Aragorn paused, and the elf heard him shift himself on the bed. A moment later a bandaged hand rested lightly atop his own. "I should have known you would find a way. And I have not yet thanked you, my friend," the ranger said in a choked voice. "You saved my life. How you did it I do not know, but it was no small feat. You… you are a wonder, Legolas."

Whatever embarrassed protests had been building in the elf's mind died before he could give voice to them. Though there had not yet been time to rest and truly think on all that he had accomplished, he realized as he heard the amazement in Aragorn's hoarse voice and felt the touch of his hand that he had indeed done something remarkable. In a handful of hours he had been confronted by challenges that he never believed he could face. He had triumphed over them all, and not the least of these obstacles had been one of his own making - the fear of trying.

In the companionable silence that followed, Legolas finished bandaging the ankle and the bite wound on the ranger's arm. As he sat beside Aragorn, listened as the sound of his friend's pained breaths finally moved into the deeper rhythm of slumber, the elf felt the reawakening of a feeling that had long been lost to him: pride in himself. He knew it was not a selfish thing to feel this, though many might think otherwise. Pride gave one confidence, and when balanced with humility it was kept in check and did not grow to arrogance. And so he bowed his head and silently accepted Aragorn's words of praise and gratitude, and was strengthened by them.

He longed to join Aragorn in sleep, but his own hurts continued to clamor for attention, and he had not forgotten that the faithful Rhosgernroch was still waiting in the barn for him to feed her and make her comfortable. Scooping up Tithlam, who had begun rubbing against him as he sat on the floor, he settled her into the bed with Aragorn and pulled the blanket over them both. Silently he rose to his feet and stepped out into the cold. He was now the one upon whom the others depended, and though his new responsibilities were weighty, he felt curiously unburdened as he tilted his head back and allowed the thick snowflakes to settle on his face for a moment before heading to the barn to care for another friend who needed him.

~  

To be continued… 

 

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them. This story is written for entertainment only and no monetary profit is being made.

Author's Notes: phew! I promised myself I'd get this to you by Christmas. I apologize for the delay. Writing time is scarce, but I'm vowing once again to stay with this story until the end. Lisette betaed most of this chapter, so my thanks to her once again. Happy holidays to you all!

 

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To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Thirty-Two: Out of Time.

It has been said that healers make the worse patients. It has also been said - exactly by whom is unknown, but it might have been an elf – that anyone who goes by the epithet "Strider" was not meant to be bedridden. Both of these statements are true, but also true is the fact that when a man has nearly been frozen to death, dramatically rescued, and finds himself recuperating from multiple injuries including one that does not permit him to walk, said person is forced to bow to forces beyond his control and accept the fact that he is, for the time being at least, a bed-ridden patient.

Aragorn had not accepted this situation with particularly good grace. He was compelled to do so only after two failed attempts at ambulation the very day he had been brought home, which was, of course, entirely too soon for any activity beyond the drinking of broth and sleeping. The attempts had resulted in severe pain and instant collapse, and the resulting noise had brought an alarmed Legolas at a run. The argument that had ensued after the second fall was short and fiercely fought, and the enraged elf had quickly declared himself to be the victor, for he would permit no other outcome. The ranger had retreated, chastened and irritated but not yet defeated, to the bed. And there he remained, though he had plotted otherwise, for a fever had come that night and invited itself to stay. It was not so high as to bring him near death, but it was enough to cause concern to the elf and even greater misery to the man, and he was forced to finally admit defeat to himself as well as to Legolas. He found himself confined to the bed, hurting and ill, intermittently dozing and waking as one does when in a fever, and he lost track of time. It became a seamless thing, unmarked by the shifting of sunlight across the weathered floor of the cabin, and his strength had slipped away with it. Morning and night were the same to him, but perhaps this was also attributable to the weather, for the storm that had begun the day of his rescue had raged long. The wind had moaned and clawed at the little cottage like some feral thing demanding entry, and it may very well have been that the days had indeed been as dark as the nights.

Twice daily he and Legolas faced the unhappy task of unwrapping bandages, examining and treating wounds, and bandaging them again by the flickering orange light of the fire. In truth Legolas did it all, but for the examining, for Aragorn could not move his hands without searing pain being the result. To use them at all would be to risk serious damage to the skin as it healed, and so he lay quietly, fighting the pain as the elf gently undid the wraps and exposed his maimed hands to the air. Even the smallest draft felt like a scorching flame to the sensitive skin. He would stare at his hands with narrowed eyes, struggling through the fog of his fever to assess them properly. There were blisters, but they were clear. The skin was peeling and cracked, but not blackened. His fingers had sensation. The elf would ask the same question – "how do they look now?" – and he would answer that they appeared to be healing well. After Legolas had applied the salve and rewrapped his hands in clean strips of cloth, they would move on to the bite wound on his arm. By the time Legolas was carefully extracting the injured foot from under the blankets, he would already be drifting again, his eyesight gone blurry and his mind tacking off in another direction. The elf's insistent voice would bring him back for a brief moment – "tell me, tell me" – and he would stare at his foot, puffy and blossoming with colors that astonished him, and respond that it looked better than it had. Then he would remember that his friend had been hurt as well, and a vague sense of worry and unease would cause his brow to furrow as he struggled to gather the threads of his broken thoughts. "Let me see your shoulder… your hands…" he would murmur, but more often than not he would be asleep before the elf had managed unwrap his own bandages and present his injuries for assessment.

His sleep was uncomfortable and his waking hours more so, but the elf sang to him when they treated the wounds, when they rested, and when Aragorn gagged on the bitter taste of the medicines. Legolas' voice was comforting to the wounded man, for there is healing to be found in elven songs, and beauty in the dreams they bring.

And thus seven days passed.

 

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Aragorn woke abruptly, jarred from sleep by the intense itching of his bandaged hands. This sensation had recently arisen to take the first spot on his list of physical complaints, and though it indicated that his hands were healing, the constant irritation was maddening. With a grimace he shifted his hands on the blanket, hoping to find a more comfortable position, and attempted to curl his fingers within their bandages. He was unable to do so, of course, for immobilization was one of the reasons for the wrappings, and he was forced to acknowledge with a frustrated groan that any effort he might make to ease his discomfort was quite futile. The salve gave him some relief, but it was not enough. As always, the tingling and burning simply had to be endured, and so he sought to place his attention elsewhere. Carefully propping himself up on his elbows, he glanced around the darkened room for the elf. "Legolas?" he whispered.

The straw pallet was empty. It was not an unusual occurrence for the elf to be outside for brief periods, for there was the horse to care for, but from the quiet and the dark Aragorn thought that it must be somewhere between midnight and dawn. It was an odd time to be doing chores in the barn, and Legolas would certainly not have left him alone during the night. Suddenly apprehensive, the ranger brushed aside the heavy blanket covering the window with his forearm and put his eye against a gap in the shutters to gain a view of the clearing.

The cold air crept over him the instant he moved the blanket, feeling its way past the slats and seeping into the room behind him. He recalled vaguely that a storm had started just after the elf had carried him home, but until now he had been unable to sit up properly and see the results for himself. Gazing transfixed at the great amount of snow that had fallen since the night of his entrapment, crystalline and gleaming white in the light of the half-moon, he shivered. The sight was beautiful, and deadly, with great mounds of snow forcing the evergreen trees to bow to them, and he felt the bitter cold wash over him anew when he realized that if not for the courage and tenacity of his friend, his body would also be covered by that silent white blanket, with the tears still frozen on his face. So altered was the view from the window that he found it difficult to locate various features within it, but then his eyes fell on the dark twisted shape of the massive oak. Slowly raising his gaze he scanned the tree for some time, moving his eyes back and forth until he finally spotted the dim outline of the elf, glowing warm and golden against the icy silver glare of the moonlit snow and the black sky.

Legolas was alert, sitting straight-backed and motionless against the tree's great trunk, his face turned to the east. Aragorn watched the elf's head slowly move and tilt to one side, and he understood that Legolas was monitoring the city, listening for the sounds that would give warning of intruders trying to come upon them in the dark of night. For a moment the ranger tensed, his heart racing with uncertainty, but after watching his friend for a few moments longer he was able to relax. Nothing in Legolas' posture indicated that he had detected anything amiss. The elf was merely assessing the night, nothing more.

The ranger smiled at the sight of his friend standing guard over the little cottage. He had noticed a subtle change in the elf since the night of the rescue, when Legolas had suddenly found himself thrust into the position of caretaker. Though the reversal of their respective roles had not been wanted, and certainly the manner in which it had happened had been terrifying for them both, Aragorn had come to realize that his accident had not been an entirely disastrous event for Legolas. The blind elf now moved and acted with more self-assurance than the ranger had seen in a long while.

Letting the blanket drop over the window, Aragorn sighed and rested his body against the headboard as his eyes wandered over his surroundings. Just yesterday he had managed to convince the elf to move the bed back to its usual place beside the window, with the hearth between them once again so that Legolas could also benefit from the warmth of the fire. The golden light cast by the low flames flickered over the walls and set the shadows dancing. The table was covered with all manner of strips of cloth for bandages, bowls and containers of herbs and tinctures, eating implements - and a pile of socks. Upon first glance the table looked appallingly cluttered, but the ranger knew that the elf had each item placed exactly where he could find it easily. Through the haze of his fever Aragorn had directed Legolas in the making of medicines, and the elf had proved to be an apt pupil. Aragorn had expected the measuring of ingredients to be a problem, but once again his friend had surprised him. Though the ranger had always used his eyes to determine the proper amounts, the elf was able to detect even the slightest differences in weight as he added various things to the mixing bowls, and Aragorn had to believe that Legolas' measurements were probably more precise than his own had ever been.

A cup half-filled with water rested on a stool beside his bed, and though he longed to drink from it he was not yet able to hold anything with his hands. Helpless as a baby, he was entirely dependent upon the elf for his needs, and so he sought to turn his attention from his thirst and moved his gaze from the cup to the embers in the hearth. He watched their steady glow for a time, lulled by the sound of the burning wood and the pleasant warmth of the flames. He realized that his fever had abated and that he felt better than he had in days. His thoughts were clear again, and the memory of what had happened to him was clear as well, though he still could not recall the wolves. Someone had been watching him as he had walked the peaceful woods, and had set the trap for him. He did not understand the reason, but the message was obvious enough, and the pleasure of the comfortable room and the warm fire evaporated under a soft warning knell of danger.

The door opened a fraction, and the elf silently slipped inside, bringing with him a swift gust of cold air and the scent of trees. He quickly closed the door and latched it, and then paused at the foot of Aragorn's bed with his head cocked to one side. The ranger watched quietly, grinning as his friend studied him, the elf's features fair and serious in the wavering light of the fire. The flames briefly caught the dusting of light snow in Legolas' hair, causing them to glitter like tiny stars on his golden head before they melted and vanished. For a moment he did not move, then Legolas leaned a bit closer to the ranger with narrowed eyes, and a sudden smile broke over his face. "You are awake," he said with conviction as he turned away to kick his snowy boots against the doorframe.

"How did you know?"

"You were not breathing as one who is asleep. What woke you? Are you in pain?" The elf pulled a chair up to the bed, seated himself, and pressed his palm against Aragorn's brow.

"Some pain," the ranger admitted. "But it is improving."

"Your fever has eased at last. That is a relief. I do not mind confessing that it had me worried." Legolas extended his hand toward the stool and curled his fingers around the cup. "Are you thirsty?"

"Yes," said Aragorn. The elf held the cup for Aragorn, tilting it expertly as the ranger drank, and he laughed as he set it down again. "I think we have perfected the art of cup holding at last."

"We have had a lot of practice," Aragorn agreed with a smile. "The first few times we attempted it I feared you would drown me."

"Ah, well, your fever needed cooling. Spilling water all over your face was simply one of my methods." The elf swept his hand out and began feeling over the bed with his long fingers. "How many socks did Tithlam gift you with during my absence?"

Aragorn glanced at the woven blanket that covered his body. "I count five. She has been busy. There is one more… down a bit further on the left near my foot… there, you have it."

"She takes her self-appointed job as your nurse very seriously." Having gathered the socks together, the elf added them to the growing collection on the tabletop.

"I haven't the heart to tell her that socks do not have any healing properties," Aragorn said. "She looks so pleased with herself when she jumps up onto the bed and deposits another one on me."

"It is the thought that counts, after all," the elf said as the little animal stalked up to him and bumped her head against his leg. He lifted her to the bed, where she settled herself comfortably on Aragorn's chest and began kneading him with her paws as she gazed at the elf with her clear green eyes.

Aragorn ignored the minor irritation of her sharp claws and glanced at Legolas' hands. "While we are on the subject of healing, let me see your injuries. Have you been using the salve?"

The elf nodded as he extended his hands toward Aragorn. The ranger looked them over carefully, and though the cuts were still visible, with one particularly severe gash on Legolas' right palm, they were healing well with no sign of infection. "Do they hurt? Are you wearing gloves when you work?"

"No and yes," Legolas responded with a grin.

"In that order, I hope. Keep applying the salve a bit longer. And the wound on your shoulder?"

"It is barely noticeable. I am able to move my arm freely now," the elf stated. He rose to his feet and pulled his cloak over his head. Unlacing his shirt and pulling the cloth away from his shoulder, he revealed the mark of the wolf's teeth. It also appeared to be healing well, and Aragorn nodded in satisfaction. For a moment his glance lingered on the elf's face, looking for signs of discomfort or fatigue.

"How have your headaches been?"

"Manageable," the elf responded. "I use the willow bark when I need it, but the pain has eased somewhat of late. I think…" Legolas paused, and his expression turned thoughtful. "I think that I have come to terms with my blindness, Aragorn, as much as I am able. Raging against it was a constant torment. But on the night you were lost, I came to a moment of understanding when I was alone in the forest." As he resumed his seat he gestured toward the window and the world beyond it. "I realized the pain I was causing not only to myself, but to you, and the animals. Even the trees… I had betrayed even them. I was lost and angry; bitterly angry at the world for going on and continuing to create things of beauty that I could no longer see. My thoughts were poisoning everything around me, but an elf cannot live fully with a heart that has been closed off. No one can live with such rage." The elf raised his head, and he seemed to focus on something beyond the walls of the cottage. "I was forced to face myself that night, with all my fears of failure and of loneliness stretched before me like an endless, treacherous path. And this I learned: what the eye sees will always vanish, but what the soul sees can never be lost." Slowly Legolas raised a graceful hand and passed it before his shining eyes. Then he smiled and let it fall back to his lap. "And so I can say it at last, and without flinching. I am blind. I am blind, but I am still Legolas."

"You always were," Aragorn said as he gazed at his friend. "But if my accident helped you to find yourself again, than I will not count it entirely unfortunate."

"But it was a terrible price for you to pay."

"Think not of it. But I do wish I shared your healing ability," Aragorn stated, grimacing as he tried to settle his hands more comfortably. The elf nodded as he drew one long leg up and began tugging at his boot.

"Are your wounds healing well, Aragorn?" Legolas asked.

"Yes. Truly they are, though not quickly enough to suit me. But I believe I will be ready to stand tomorrow, and perhaps even walk, with your assistance."

"That is good," the elf said in a low voice. "That is good, because…" his words faltered. With a small frown and a shake of his blond head, Legolas turned away and set his boots beside the hearth.

"Because we are nearly out of food," Aragorn finished for him. "I know. Yesterday I think you gave me the last of the meat we had stored."

"Perhaps I have missed some?" the elf asked, his voice hopeful. "Is there another place where you might have kept supplies?"

"No, there is no other place," Aragorn told him. "Have you eaten anything this past day, Legolas?"

The elf shook his head with a smile. "No, but it is of no concern just yet. If I eat sparingly, and you eat what you must to continue your recovery, we will be fine for a few more days. Then the thaw will come."

"A thaw comes?"

Legolas nodded. "The snow has protected us well this week, but tonight I detected a change in the wind. It comes from the south now, and already the air is warmer than it has been for some time."

"I see." Aragorn murmured. He looked at his friend, and it was not easy to miss the worry etched into the elf's expressive face. "Have we already seen so much of the winter pass by? Well, Legolas, it seems our time of rest is nearly over then. We must leave this place."

"And go where?" Legolas asked as he rose from his chair and moved to stir the fire and add more fuel. The motion seemed easy, but Aragorn saw that the elf handled the rough logs carefully, apparently mindful of his still-healing hands. Legolas did not turn away from the hearth once he had done but remained crouched before the fire, poking at it with the iron, and the flames flared up to send shadows dancing over his fair elven face, bathing his features in a red glow like splashes of blood. He frowned suddenly, and turned his head toward the window.

"I do not know where we will find shelter," the ranger murmured. "In all my treks in these woods, I have found no other place that would suit. Nor the caves that Alun spoke of that the wild men sometimes use."

"They would be further out, I expect. You seldom ventured terribly far from this cabin," the elf said as he rose from the fire and swept the dirt from his hands. "Well then, we will simply have to go exploring. Rhosgernroch can carry you. I think we should move south, and put as much distance as possible between ourselves and the city."

"And moving south will bring us closer to the Grey Mountains. Yes," Aragorn nodded in agreement. "If the thaw brings much warmth, we can make camp for several nights without much discomfort. We can build shelters from pine boughs. And if I am able to walk, the mare will carry more supplies for us. We will bring all the blankets and warm clothing, carry what food remains, and hunt for meat as we move. We will use your bow, and perhaps…" Aragorn stopped abruptly as the elf suddenly spun and leaped toward the door. "Legolas, what is it?"

Legolas gestured curtly for silence as he pressed his ear against the door. As the elf ripped his knives from the quiver and raced into the back room Aragorn sat up in fear. As he was struggling to pull himself to his feet his friend returned. Making his way to Aragorn's bed, Legolas gripped him by the arm. "Curse me for a fool," he hissed. "I should not have relaxed my guard and come inside before the sun rose."

"What is happening?"

"They did not wait for the thaw," Legolas stated as he turned on his heel, his eyes wide in the firelight. "Valar help us, they have come. They have come, and even now they surround the cabin."

 

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To be continued…

 

Disclaimer: the setting and characters are the creation of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them and am making no profit from this story. It is written for entertainment only.

Author's notes: Thanks to Lisette for her very fast beta turnaround, the corralling of scampering commas, and for getting Leaping Legolas under control.

I was scared to death to face this chapter. Legolas fights? Blind? Filled with terror, I went begging for both advice and reassurance from Lamiel and Anarien (who is writing a fine story, "Dark Forest": a Legolas-Gimli adventure gone horribly wrong. Go read!), and they were kind enough to respond and give me the nudge I needed to get this going.

And so the bad guys are here at last.

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Thirty-Three: Safe No More

For a brief moment Aragorn seemed not to react to the elf's warning, and Legolas tightened his grip on his friend's arm in confusion, wondering if the sudden statement had stunned the ranger into immobility. Then Aragorn tore free of his grasp and scrambled across the bed to the window. Legolas leapt to join him, dropping to his knees on the rumpled blankets. "The storm held them back for only a short time, but it serves us no longer," he whispered. "Now it has aided them. Their movements in the snow were but pale whispers of sound to me. I did not detect them soon enough." Legolas paused, reluctant to say what he must, but after a moment's uncomfortable hesitation he spoke again. "Aragorn, I do not have my bow. I lost it the night you were injured."

Aragorn swore softly but said no more. Legolas knew he was searching every inch of the clearing with his keen eyes, and the elf spun away and raced back to the storage room to make his own assessment of the far side of the cabin. Pressing his body against the wall, he slid soundlessly toward the window and crouched beneath it. Raising his hand, he brushed it lightly across the woven blanket that draped the window and pressed carefully against the fastened shutters to assure himself that it was well covered. The enemy would not have seen him, and the shutters were sturdily built to lock out both weather and intruders. Swallowing hard against the fear that had swelled in the wake of his initial shock, he focused his attention on what lay beyond the window, his fists clenched tightly on the handles of his knives.

At first there was nothing. All was silent but for the rapid beating of his heart, and he wondered for a moment if he had been mistaken. Then something came to his ears - the quiet shifting of weight from one leg to the other, a slowly release of breath, and his nape prickled as he backed quietly away and returned to the ranger. Aragorn had not moved, but the elf noticed that his breathing had quickened, and when he reached for his friend's arm he found it to be tensed and trembling. "At least one man is at the back window. He waits silently. If there are others I cannot tell. What do you see, Aragorn?"

"Shadows, and furtive movement among the trees. They have not yet entered the clearing. They believe we sleep."

"Their numbers?"

"Fifteen. Perhaps twenty."

"Can we gain the barn? If we can get you to Rhosgernroch, I could hold the ground for you - "

"Without your bow?" Aragorn snapped, and the elf recoiled at the anger in the harshly spoken words. It put them at a serious disadvantage to be without his weapon, a grim fact they both fully understood, and though the forgetting of his bow was perhaps understandable given the terror of that dark night when he had thrown it down and rushed to the side of his injured friend, the loss might very well have just cost them their lives.

Legolas winced, burning with self-recrimination at his mistake, and turned away as he absorbed Aragorn's anger.

"No, we cannot gain the barn," the ranger continued in a calmer voice. "They would be on top of us ere we made it half the distance. And do not think for one minute that I will flee and leave you to face this alone."

The bed suddenly began to shake, and the ranger cursed again as Legolas heard the sound of cloth tearing. Aragorn spat something from his mouth. "What are you doing?" the elf demanded, though he was quite certain he knew what the answer would be.

"Taking these bandages off. Help me."

"Aragorn – "

"Help me!"

Legolas grasped the ranger's hands and tore at the strips of cloth binding each finger, doing as his friend commanded. "You cannot fight," he whispered heatedly as he fumbled with a difficult knot.

"I have no choice. I must fight."

"No. I can kill the men at the back of the cottage. Then we can slip away and hide ourselves in the forest. If they have horses, perhaps we can get to them."

Aragorn yanked his hands free, and Legolas heard him pull back the window drape again. "It is too late! They have started across the clearing, and if I am any judge of men, they do not appear to be interested in negotiations. Give me one of your knives Legolas, for I cannot use the sword."

Legolas grasped Aragorn by the arm, helping him from the bed, and the ranger grabbed the proffered blade as they started toward the back room. He groaned as he stumbled alongside the elf, and Legolas shifted his body to take more of his friend's weight upon himself. Before they had gone more than a few faltering steps, however, a terrible thudding came from the storage room, and shouts rang out over the sound of wood being smashed and splintered. With a shocked gasp Legolas recoiled, dragging Aragorn with him, and together they hastened to the front door. Jerking it open, the elf struggled to pull the injured man outside as his thoughts raced. His greatest concern was that they must not be caught within the cabin. There was too little room to maneuver in a fight.

But no sooner had he opened the door than Aragorn flung his body against him and knocked him back against the threshold. "Arrow!" the ranger cried, and Legolas reacted instantly, wrapping his arms around Aragorn and dropping to the floor. The ranger landed on top of him with a pained gasp, and not a second later the elf heard the familiar thwack as a bolt struck the door and stuck there, quivering. Shouts from the direction of the clearing filled his ears as they scrambled back into the cabin and leaped to slam and bolt the door. Men continued to pound on the far window – they had yet to break through – and Legolas stood in shock and horror in the center of the room, tightly gripping Aragorn's arm. In just a matter of seconds their enemies would be upon them, and the elf had no idea how he would fight. For several moments the input of sounds was overwhelming – the shouts and the hammering mingled with Aragorn's panting breaths and the low growls of Tithlam crouched in some corner – until it seemed that he was facing all the black perils of the world in this one instant, and he knew not which way to turn. Bowing his head, he inhaled deeply, seeking to detach himself from the fear and confusion and find the discipline he knew he possessed when moments of danger were upon him.

Heavy blows against the door echoed everywhere as the attack began at the front of the cottage as well, and Tithlam yowled and hissed in fear. Legolas spared a moment to worry for her welfare as he readied himself, blade held firm, and he prayed she would find some way to escape.

He collided with the table, but scarcely felt the sharp pain as he turned, thinking to shove it against the portal to slow the men. Grasping the edges, his hands encountered the bucket, still nearly full from his filling it at the river earlier in the evening. He dipped his fingers into the cool water as his whirling thoughts latched on to the tenuous thread of an idea. Tightening his grip on the bucket, he spun toward the fireplace and dashed its contents onto the cracking flames. He flung the container aside as he dropped to his knees before the hearth and groped frantically for the iron. A loud sizzling and hissing filled his ears. "Help me to put it out!" he called to Aragorn over his shoulder.

"What-?" Aragorn stumbled forward and crouched beside him. "Why?"

"Take away the light," the elf stated as he handed the poker to the ranger and rushed to upend the table and shove it against the door. He braced against it for a moment, feeling the vibrating shock of the blows from outside. "Make them fight us in the dark."

"I will be fighting in the dark too, Legolas," Aragorn growled, but the elf heard him stir the sputtering coals, and a moment later he spoke again. "But I know the layout of the cabin. They do not."

"Exactly," Legolas stated. "And what does the dark matter to me?" Pulling his cloak from the chair, Legolas quickly donned it and yanked the hood over his head. He reached down and helped the ranger to his feet, and they hastened to the back room once more, where it seemed to them that fewer men were striving to break in. That Aragorn was limping badly and in pain was obvious to the elf, and Legolas quickly pressed him against the wall. "You must let me know where you are at all times," he whispered. "And stay clear of my blade. I will strike at anything that comes near me."

"I will try," Aragorn muttered tensely. Legolas reached and pulled him close. He felt a hand rest lightly on his shoulder – the only way the ranger could return the gesture – and they pressed their foreheads together. As the shouts and hammering grew louder they remained locked in the embrace, drawing strength and comfort from each other in the final seconds before their quiet world was shattered.

"Are you afraid, Legolas?" Aragorn asked quietly.

There was no time for false bravado or impressive stoicism, nor had there ever been need for such trivialities in their relationship. Legolas drew in a long steadying breath as another blow shook the cabin to its foundations. "Yes."

"No less than I, mellon-nin. I cannot defend you," the ranger said, and his voice was heavy with sorrow.

"Then we will defend each other until they strike us down," Legolas murmured. As he pulled away and took up his position beside the window, he flashed an anxious smile at his longtime companion. "If you produce your usual amount of shouts and grunts, Aragorn, I will have no trouble keeping track of your whereabouts. You are the noisiest fighter I have ever known."

 

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They came in a rush from both sides of the cabin, and Aragorn scarcely had time to jump forward and bring his knife down upon a shadowy figure that had leapt through the splintered shutters before another attacker plunged against him from behind and swept at him with a club. He evaded the blow, but for a glancing strike that skipped along his ribcage, and scrambled back against the wall. He gripped the elven blade tightly in his burning hand as a wavering light bobbed eerily from the front room, casting massive writhing shadows over the darkened walls of the smaller room where he struggled against his foes. Someone had carried a torch into the cabin, and a desperate glance at the numbers arrayed against him and the elf froze his heart. It was not a terribly great crowd of men, perhaps fifteen in all, but in the confined space of the old healer's workplace he found himself pressed against the shelves, warding off blows from fists coming at him from all directions.

In the first wave of the attack he had glimpsed the hooded figure of Legolas near the window, the glint of his knife flashing as he laid about him with furious strokes, and the surprised cries of injured men had filled the small room. One or two had fallen at the elf's feet, but more had come in through the window, and in the press and confusion he had been driven from Aragorn's side and into the other room. Struggling to rejoin his friend, Aragorn plunged against the men surrounding him, hacking at the warriors with the silver blade, driving for their throats and their eyes. He could see no swords in the hands of his assailants, which surprised him, but of fists there were many, and he found himself slowly folding under the onslaught, so weakened was he by his recent illness and injuries.

A man with light-colored hair pinned him against the corner and made to seize him by the throat. As Aragorn locked eyes with him the fellow grinned, his face in the wavering shadows twisted with anger and hatred. "Give it up," he hissed as Aragorn writhed free of his grasp and struck his hand away. Shoving hard, the ranger knocked his attacker back, and the man tripped over the body of one of his fallen comrades and tumbled to the floor with a shout. An opening was created as the warriors jumped aside, and Aragorn bolted through it, striking right and left with his weapon as he leaped past them and fought to reach the other room. He came down hard on his bad foot and could not withhold a howl of pain as his ankle buckled and he nearly fell. Arms flailing, he twisted and grasped at the shelves that held the healing herbs and dragged himself up, but his tenuous grasp on Legolas' knife failed, and he gasped in dismay as the flashing blade spiraled through the air and landed in the middle of the room, far beyond his reach. Already the men were coming at him, and his eyes darted frantically over the shelves in hope of finding something he could use to hold them back. The shelves shuddered as he pulled against them, tilting away from the wall, and Aragorn renewed his grip, braced himself, and heaved. The structure swayed briefly like a tree caught in a gale, and toppled. Flinging himself across the threshold as the many jars and pots rained down upon his enemies, Aragorn heard their curses change to cries of alarm as the containers were followed by the heavy shelves themselves.

The structure smashed against the doorway and broke apart into large jagged fragments. The threshold was effectively blocked, for a time at least, and Aragorn spun away and pressed himself into the darkness of the corner as he searched for the embattled elf, lost somewhere in the leap of shadow and flaring torchlight. A group of men was engaged in a struggle before the hearth, and so engrossed were they that the commotion made by the falling of the shelves had not caused any of them to turn. In the midst of the flailing arms and legs Aragorn caught sight of a pale blur of motion, and a long-fingered hand shot out. The elegant elven blade flashed, and a soldier screamed and stumbled back, his hands pressed together in a futile effort to contain a belly laid wide open. Legolas came fully into view through a gap then, teeth bared, fighting wildly with blade and fist and foot alike.

Eyes blazing, he lashed out against his attackers, and if his usual accuracy was wanting, the elf more than made up for it with his astonishing speed as he struck three or four blows in the time it took his enemies to deliver one. The black-clad warriors moved against him warily, their faces set and determined, but their eyes were wide as they watched the elf hold his ground against numbers that would have long since driven an ordinary man to his knees. His assailants had not drawn their swords, but instead seemed intent on subduing him with their fists, and they pressed about him so closely that the elf had little opportunity to move his arm freely and make use of his weapon. Several men held ropes, and they grabbed and clutched at Legolas as he struggled against them. Cries of "bring him down!" mingled with "he fights like a demon!" echoed round the small room, and Aragorn saw that in the frenzy of fighting and the confusion of flickering flame, none of Legolas' attackers had appeared to realize that he was blind.

As the elf lunged forward, seeking to break his way past the men enveloping him, a roar of anger rose from the throats of his attackers. They grabbed at him, their fingers closing on his arms and hair and dragging him into their midst once more, and Aragorn heard him cry out.

"He bleeds! That should tell you something!" someone shouted.

Clinging to the dark corner, Aragorn quickly wrapped his throbbing hands around the pommel of the orc blade he kept there. Before him one man stood alone, keeping well away from the fray as he held the torch high to aid his companions. The ranger detached himself from the shadows and struck, the sword slicing deeply into the throat of the torch-bearer. The flame was a small thing clinging to nothing more than a knotted rag at the end of a stick, and as the man slumped to the floor with a wordless gurgle Aragorn caught it up and doused it in the water bowl Legolas kept for his cat.

The room instantly went dark, but for a lighter shade of grey that fell across the broken threshold from the moonlit sky, and the black bulk of the fighting men broke apart into individual shapes as cries of confusion went up. "What happened?"

"Where is the light?"

"Catch hold of him - he slips free!"

Wasting no time in taking advantage of the disorder, the elf tore loose and made for the door. Aragorn, hobbling as quickly as he could and keeping to the wall, despaired of overtaking him, but when Legolas reached the threshold he halted abruptly, clinging to the broken frame with an expression of anguish twisting his fair features. As Aragorn stumbled closer the elf dropped into a defensive crouch, but the ranger whispered to him, and Legolas sagged against the door with soft cry of relief. He was breathing hard, and blood had trickled down his face from a cut on his temple to spread in a thin red ribbon over the curve of his jaw. A rope was knotted around his left wrist, and he angrily yanked it off and threw it aside.

"Thank the Valar," he gasped. "I did not know how to find you. I feared you were slain." Tightly gripping the ranger by the arm Legolas pulled him outside, stumbling over the wreckage and kicking it aside in his haste. "Come, Aragorn! Let us try to lose ourselves in the forest."

Ere he and the elf had taken ten painful steps through the snow, Aragorn knew that their fight had ended. Shouts sounded behind them as the men sorted themselves out and poured from the cabin in angry pursuit, and as he stumbled and staggered through the deep snow, gasping as hot spikes of pain shot through his foot, Aragorn saw more shadowy figures detach themselves from the woods and the darkness of the barn – fresh soldiers who had not yet exerted themselves in the fight. He halted abruptly, cursing under his breath, and Legolas stopped with him, his blue eyes wide. The elf instantly pivoted to place himself against the ranger's back. "How many?" he asked over his shoulder, his voice low and breathless.

"More than enough to finish what they came for," Aragorn murmured, his heart sinking at the sight of so many. "I have the orc-blade, but my hands cannot grip it much longer."

Swords were withdrawn, and he felt the elf stiffen as the cold rasp of metal tore the still night air. The men had grown silent, and they moved slowly now from the cabin and from the woods to encircle the two companions. Aragorn faced them squarely, and anger glittered in his eyes as he moved his gaze from one man to the next. They were black-clad, with the air of seasoned fighters, and in their faces he saw nothing that gave him hope that he and the elf would meet with any sympathy or understanding. But he saw no other option now, and so he thought he would try. Fixing his eyes on the man standing directly before him, he drew a deep breath. "Why have you come here?" he demanded.

 

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Words were being exchanged, but the elf paid them little heed, for their meaning would only distract him. He focused on the brief conversation only enough to discern that the intent of the attackers remained hostile, and that Aragorn, speaking in a voice angry but controlled, was not succeeding in his attempts to communicate with them. Thus Legolas maintained his fighting stance at Aragorn's back, his fine blade held lightly in his hand, and he kept his head lowered as he brought all of his attention to bear on the men who had encircled them.

He realized instantly that there were too many. Those who ringed him and the ranger were backed by more behind. Even were he sighted and Aragorn uninjured, they would have been hard pressed to stand against such numbers. As it was, he felt Aragorn's balance shift slightly against his back as he struggled to stand on his bad foot, and he felt an almost imperceptible tremble run through his friend's tall frame. This would not be the result of fear, but of sheer fatigue and stress brought on by the pain of his injuries and the lingering weakness of fever. Legolas knew that Aragorn had come near the end of his ability to fight. But he himself had not, though his bitten shoulder had begun to ache and his own hands stung with a sharper pain, and he would not willingly give the men their victory. He felt a quick flash of fear for Aragorn's well-being but quickly controlled it, pulling free of his emotions as he emptied his thoughts, allowing only his senses and his instincts to fill him.

Through the soft sighing of the southern breeze he blocked out the conversation and listened to the sounds that rode on the air around him, concentrating on separating them into individual men. To his right was a soldier who took sharp quick breaths, and his steps were light as he shifted back and forth as if unable to keep still. He is small and fast, the elf thought, but he is afraid. The next man, poised directly in front of Legolas, was also shifting and moving restlessly, but he exuded no fear. Legolas raised his head and flicked his knife toward him, and the soldier reacted, cutting the air with his own weapon in a downward whoosh. The elf offered a flourish of his own, mockingly, and he heard the man utter a vulgar exclamation, crowning it with a snarled remark about elves. Tall, left-handed, likes to slice. He cannot control his temper. A third soldier, to the elf's left, was quiet and contained, and more difficult to assess. The elf twitched the tip of his blade at him, and the fellow took one step to the side, growled low in his throat, and settled again. A solid fighter, not easily spooked, but he is heavy. He will not move well, and the snow will hinder him.

Legolas did not continue his assessment beyond these three. More men completed the circle on Aragorn's side, and others had held back. They would rush in once the fighting began, and the elf would simply have to deal with them as they came. He turned on the nervous man again and turned his blade in his direction. The fellow took a hasty step back, and the elf smiled. He continued to face this one, bringing his balance to the balls of his feet and pointing his weapon, but he kept his focus on the high-tempered soldier as the brief exchange between Aragorn and their attackers came to an end. He heard a curt demand – a final ultimatum – followed by a cold refusal from the ranger. The press of Aragorn's back against his own suddenly vanished as he shouted and lunged at the men. Legolas leaped forward at the same moment, directly toward the frightened soldier, and as the fellow retreated, floundering through the snow with a surprised yell, the elf veered abruptly to his left and charged at the man he knew he must take down first. As Legolas rushed toward the hate-filled soldier, his fleet steps scarcely brushing the snow, he heard a sharp startled intake of breath, and the man's steps faltered. Ducking as the sword whistled somewhere near his head, the elf lashed out with his blade as he sped past. Rewarded with a solid strike - probably to the man's leg - and a howl of pain and anger, Legolas spun round. Dropping into a crouch, he readied himself for the next clash.

"Sheath your blade, fool! The elf is not to be harmed, yet you nearly took his head off!" a furious voice snarled.

Legolas frowned. The heavy man… but what does he say?

The man he had injured was staggering about and cursing loudly, but he held himself back. He would walk only with difficulty now.

"Best stop now, Elf. You cannot defeat all of us," the big soldier said in a silky whisper as he closed the distance between them.

Legolas straightened and stood quietly, his head lowered, listening as soft footsteps surrounded him once more. Several yards off he heard the embattled ranger, and each clash of metal wrung a pained gasp from Aragorn's lips. Body tensed but held absolutely still, the elf pointed his knife downward and spread his hands apart.

"Good. Perhaps your kind has some sense after all. Drop your weapon."

Legolas stooped slightly and allowed the elven blade to slip from his fingers. The handle landed on his right boot and slid into the snow.

"Move away from it."

Two steps back and the elf halted. He did not raise his head, but he did his hands when the command was given. Taking another step away from his knife he sighed deeply and audibly, as one who has been forced to admit defeat, and allowed his proud shoulders to slump. He heard their breathing relax, and they moved closer to him. One of them laughed, and Legolas smiled grimly under the curtain of hair that hid his features and began counting.

One…

A sword slid into its sheath, and the heavy man stepped behind him to clamp a hard grip upon his shoulder. His other hand fastened around the elf's right arm.

Two…

The small man, moving in his quick way, still fearful, stepped toward the dropped knife.

Three…

The injured man, breathing hard and limping, approached him from the left. Legolas concentrated on his footsteps, and the position he took beside him as he whispered something offensive into his ear. He began to tighten a rope around Legolas' wrist.

Now!

Wrenching himself free of the big fellow's grip, the elf drove his shoulder into him and sent him sprawling to the ground. A hard jerk on the wrist tether dragged Legolas back, but instead of resisting he propelled himself toward the one holding the rope, grappled with him, and slammed his fist into his injured leg. As the man stumbled to the side with a loud cry Legolas spun and flung himself toward his knife. Landing on his belly in the snow he threw his hand out, his fingers stretching and groping until they closed upon the hilt, cold and familiar in his grip. Springing to his feet, he slashed at the smallest of his assailants, who had – as Legolas had hoped - begun retreating the instant the elf had attacked the first man. The sharp blade ripped through leather, fabric and flesh, and an ear-spitting wail pierced the still night air. Behind him the harsh rasp of a blade being yanked free of its sheath was audible through the screams. The elf turned and readied himself as with a shout of rage the one with the wounded leg - he knew their voices now - rushed forward, his erratic steps churning the snow. Left-handed Legolas reminded himself, and as the sharp whistle of a blade sliced the air from high to low the elf dodged and struck out with all the strength of his arm. The elven knife sank deeply into the soldier's side through the ribs. With a gasp the man's knees buckled. Legolas twisted the blade, felt the death-shudder run through the body, and pulled away.

He rounded on his third attacker and started for him at a dead run. The heavy soldier had clambered to his feet again, breathing hard and cursing as he struggled to put distance between himself and the elf. His hands fumbled and clawed at his sword as he backpedaled, but Legolas slammed directly into him, giving him no chance to free his blade, and together they fell in a whirling mass of fists and legs and churning snow.

The elf managed to get the man onto his back and jumped on him, driving his knee into his chest to hold him, but a huge fist plowed into his ribs with all the force of a hammer and he was nearly flung aside. The enraged soldier fought hard, heaving and punching, and Legolas grappled with him, fighting furiously to remain on top. He struck out with his own clenched fist and connected strongly with the man's face. Grasping a fistful of hair and setting his blood-soaked blade against his enemy's throat, he flung his head back as rushing footsteps drew near. "Stay back or I will end his life!" he shouted.

The soldiers halted, skidding and floundering in the snow, cursing in low voices. Nearby, the man Legolas had stabbed was whimpering, his cries half-strangled and gurgling as the blood welled in his throat. Further away, almost to the cottage it seemed, Aragorn fought on. Legolas tightened his grip and pressed the sharp edge of his knife firmly into the thick neck. "The elf is not to be harmed?" he hissed through clenched teeth. "Tell me why you have come here and attacked us with no reason."

The man spat in his face. "Devil spawn," he snarled. "Cast your glowing eyes upon me, I shall not flinch! You do not frighten me. What purpose had youin murdering the old man and settling so close to our city?"

The words startled Legolas. The circle of men around him muttered and shifted, and he felt gazes of hatred burning into his back. What had these men been told, and who had done the telling? Unbidden, the memory of a voice he had known came to him, low and firm and friendly, though he had not heard it for many weeks. The elf's eyes shuttered closed. Please, do not let me learn that Alun has betrayed us.

As he drew breath to make some sort of response a loud cry pierced his ears, agonized and breathless, and a body thudded to the floor of the porch. A cold rush of fear broke over the elf at the sound, and he leaped to his feet. "Aragorn!" he cried.

Struggling to force his way past the knot of men closed about him, he swept the blade in a wide arc and lunged forward, but as he broke past them his right arm was seized and he was jerked around. Snarling in rage, Legolas struggled to free himself when a tremendous blow across his shoulders sent him stumbling forward with a cry. His arm jerked out numbly, the knife flying from his fingers. Fighting to keep his footing on the slippery ground, another violent impact across his back drove the breath from his body. His dark world exploded in pain. Reeling, he fell into the arms of the men, and they had him on the ground in an instant. Hands fisted into his hair as his arms were yanked behind his back. The rope was drawn tight over his wrists and his head was pushed down. Desperate for air, the elf writhed and kicked, fighting to lift his face or turn it somehow as the snow filled his mouth and nostrils. As more hands came to pin him down he tried to cry out that he could not breathe, but his voice was strangled in his throat. The blood pounded painfully in his head, and awareness slowly slid from him he went limp in the arms of his enemies.

 

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With a low groan Aragorn drew himself up to a sitting position and rested his head on his knees. His hands were bound tightly behind his back and his ankles were secured as well, but whatever feelings of rage and humiliation this might have caused were he uninjured made little impression upon him now. He bit his lip and squeezed his eyes shut, begging time to take the burning of his hands and the throbbing of his foot from him. Let these next moments pass swiftly, let him simply endure until the agony eased a little, and then he would make an attempt to assess his new situation and find out what had happened to Legolas.

After dragging him from the porch and dumping him before the garden gate, his captors had left him with two guards. The rest of the men had moved off and gathered before the cottage, speaking in low voices, and a few had entered the dwelling. The injured soldiers were helped outside, but three had to be carried, and when they had been laid in the snow they did not move.

In the heat of the fighting Aragorn had surprised himself, swinging the unwieldy blade furiously and holding his ground well enough for a time against the men who had pressed him. Legolas had been occupied with three assailants of his own, and the ranger had caught brief glimpses of the elf as he had attacked the one whom Aragorn had judged would be the most trouble, and again as he had subdued a big man and thrust his blade against his jugular, his blind eyes glittering with rage in the flare of bobbing torchlight. Another man lay on the ground near the elf, his weak cries dying in his throat. For an instant Aragorn rejoiced, amazed at the self-possession and skill his friend had demonstrated as he had triumphed over his attackers, but he knew the victory was only a small one that ultimately must give way to defeat. The men of the city were too many. Aragorn could see them, circling around Legolas like wolves, and he knew the elf was as aware of their numbers as he.

The skin of his hands had broken open as he fought, weeping droplets of blood onto the trampled snow. This the soldiers noticed, and the force of their sword strikes had increased until the ranger had nearly howled with each parry and attack. That he was hobbled by his injured ankle had also become obvious to the men as they fought him; their eyes strayed often to his bruised and swollen foot, and they worked together to make him step upon it more often as they changed their tactics and began coming at him from different directions. Finally someone had broken through the flashing ring of defense he had established with the orc sword and lashed a hard kick directly against his ankle, and Aragorn had been unable to hold back a scream of agony. He had stumbled onto the steps of the porch and gone to his knees, sickened by the pain, and the men had fallen upon him.

The elf had called out his name, and Aragorn had managed to turn his head as his foes had thrown him down and begun to bind him. Legolas was on his feet and fighting to reach him, his face a frightened oval in the darkness. Cursing himself for crying out and distracting his friend, Aragorn made ready to shout to the elf to flee. Legolas was fleet of foot and knew the nearby woods; there was still a chance that he could escape. But the words died on his lips an instant later as the big man whom Legolas had taken down loomed up behind the struggling elf, brandished a great club gripped in both hands, and swung. The blow struck Legolas full across the shoulders, and Aragorn had cried out in horror as the force of the impact sounded in his own ears.

He renewed his attempts to free himself as a second violent strike sent the elf stumbling into the arms of his attackers, but a fist had slammed into his face and effectively stopped his struggles. As another savage kick was directed at his foot concern for his friend was swept from him. Blinded by pain, Aragorn had clung to consciousness by the narrowest of threads as they had secured him and dragged him from the porch, and it had been some moments before he gradually became aware of his surroundings once more and had been able to sit up, spitting blood from his mouth.

Footsteps plodded closer, heavy and shuffling through the drifts, dragging something near. He raised his head, straining to clear the mist from his eyes as the limp figure of the elf, bound hand and foot, was thrown down beside him. Squinting in the darkness, the ranger gasped in relief as he saw Legolas wince. He was alive, and conscious.

With a glance at the guards, who leaned comfortably against the garden fence and stared back at him with impassive faces, Aragorn dragged himself to the elf. "Legolas, can you hear me?" he whispered in the Sindarin tongue, but his friend did not respond. "Legolas, answer!"

A shudder ran through the elf's lean body as he turned his face toward Aragorn. Coughing as he struggled to raise his head, his lids fluttered open. "Aragorn… I am sorry…" he murmured at length, responding in his own language as well. Setting his cheek against the snow again, he closed his eyes.

Aragorn stared at his friend in alarm. Legolas' face was terribly pale, and his normally clear eyes had appeared clouded. Had he suffered a blow to the head? "Your words make no sense. For what do you apologise?"

The elf's dark brows knotted. "My bow. If I had not lost it…"

Looking sorrowfully at his friend, Aragorn saw that Legolas had opened his eyes again, and they were dark and filled with anguish. The ranger sighed and bowed his head. "No, Legolas. It is I who should beg forgiveness from you," he said. "It was wrong of me to react as I did to your words. You fought well enough without it. You fought well enough."

"Only as well as I could," Legolas responded in a hoarse whisper. "It was not enough." Gritting his teeth, he attempted to twist his wrists in their bindings, and his long fingers began picking over the ropes, searching. But their captors knew what they had been about when they had tied their hands, and the knots had been placed in spots that could not be reached and undone, even by one with such dexterous fingers as Legolas. After a few minutes the elf ceased his efforts. He rested a moment, pressing his brow into the snow and breathing deeply, and then he began squirming. A moment later he had struggled half onto his side, but even that small battle seemed to drain his energy from him, and he slumped to the ground again and lay quietly.

Looking him over anxiously, Aragorn noted his labored breaths and the trembling of his shoulders. "Legolas, how badly have they hurt you? I saw that big fellow come down on you with his great cudgel."

"Is that what it was?" the elf asked with a flicker of a smile. "I thought it was a tree."

"It was about as big as one," Aragorn stated. "And I expect it felt like one as well. I feared he had killed you."

"He might have, had he struck my head. As it was, he hit my upper back. But it is all connected," the elf added in a tense voice as he raised his head slightly and lowered it again. "Head and neck and back. I think… I think it probably was not a good thing to be struck so. I feel… odd. Dizzy. But they came close to suffocating me as well for a few moments back there, so perhaps that is adding to it. I expect it will pass in time."

"Bring your eyes to mine, if you can," the ranger commanded. He struggled closer and peered into the elf's dazed orbs. They reflected his shock and pain, but the night and their situation made a proper assessment difficult. Aragorn shook his head in frustration. "The moon has lowered. It is dark and I cannot see well. You might be concussed."

"If I am so," the elf sighed, "I am certain my attacker did not intend it. He said something during the struggle; that I was to be taken, not killed. He knew about me, Aragorn. And he accused us of killing the old man."

Alarmed by Legolas' words, the ranger glanced quickly at their guards. Though they had watched their captives closely, the two men had made no move to stop them conversing, and indeed had been chatting quietly between themselves for the past few moments. And of course they would not understand Sindarin. Turning his head, Aragorn looked at the cabin and the men milling about before it. He noted that a fair number of them had gone, and that they had taken the dead and injured with them. Including his guards, just eight soldiers remained, plus one tall man the ranger had not noticed before, black-haired and dressed in a sweeping cloak of some dark material. He was speaking with the heavy-set man, and glanced several times in the direction of the captives with eyes sharp and glittering in the wavering glare of the torches. His gaze suddenly locked onto Aragorn, and they stared at each other for a long moment. As he shifted his eyes to the elf a glimmer of a smile swept over the man's face, and he began striding toward the captives.

"I believe their leader approaches," Aragorn whispered. "What he intends I do not know, but we must tell him of your blindness."

"No!" Legolas gasped, fighting to raise his head. He looked frightened. "They must not know!"

"But if it will move them to mercy…"

"It will not." The elf twisted his body and struggled to a sitting position. "They will have none. Say nothing of my blindness. Swear it to me now that you will not tell them."

Aragorn stared at Legolas in bewilderment. "You cannot hope to deceive them for long," he hissed. "Why do you do this?"

"I do not know!" Legolas gasped, turning his head briefly toward their captor as he drew near.  "I… I cannot tell you why, only that the thought of them knowing fills me with fear. Aragorn, please…"

"I will do as you ask," the ranger quickly responded, not understanding but anxious to calm the frantic elf. With a sigh, Legolas lowered his head as the man came to stand before them, his rich cloak tumbling black against the deep snow. Despite the humiliation of his position Aragorn raised his chin defiantly, but his captor did not spare a glance in his direction. His eyes were fixed on Legolas, his expression one of triumph, and he nodded in satisfaction as he turned to call for more light.

A soldier swiftly obeyed, bearing the torch at a run, and in the light Aragorn was better able to see. The coldness of the man's countenance and the haughty gleam in his heavily-lidded eyes did nothing to assuage the ranger's fear. Aragorn watched apprehensively as their captor grasped the elf by the chin and attempted to force his head up. Legolas reacted violently to the unexpected touch, wrenching free of the brutal grip and kicking out with his bound legs.

The man quickly retreated and gestured to the two guards. "Hold him."

The soldiers moved behind Legolas. The ensuing struggle was short but furiously fought, the elf twisting and kicking as Aragorn shouted at their captors in a desperate attempt to help his friend, but in the end Legolas was held fast and breathing hard, his face brought up to meet the searching gaze of the dark man who crouched before him once more. As the flaring torch was brought close the elf flinched and squeezed his eyes shut. Aragorn watched as the man's expression became keenly arrested, and as he stared at Legolas a look almost of wonder fleeted over his features. "What grace brings this gift to me?" he whispered as he rose to his feet. "This is a far richer prize than I had expected." He nodded to the men. "Leave us," he said, and they released Legolas and moved away.

The elf slumped to the ground with a soft moan, his eyes clouded and wandering as he rolled onto his side and lay still. The man stepped forward and peered closely at him, frowning, and bent to gaze into Legolas' face.

"Your men hurt him," Aragorn said quickly, seeking to divert his attention. "He is dazed. They struck him with a club."

"So it would seem," their captor said. "Though it did not quench the fire in him. He will mend."

Aragorn frowned as he listened to the man's voice. There was something he thought he recognized in his way of speaking, something in the accent that he could not quite place, but as he began to search his memory Legolas raised his head. "You are from the land of Dale," he murmured.

As he gazed down at the elf the man smiled, though it did not touch the coldness of his eyes. The torchlight gleamed on his black hair as he bent closer and regarded his captive. "Am I that easy to place, even after all these years?" he asked with a laugh. "I am indeed from Dale. I am far from home, and so too, my unfortunate elf, are you."

To be continued

 

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them and am making no monetary profit from this story. It is written for entertainment only.

Thanks again to beta reader Lisette. Legolas appreciates her concern.

Slight warning: our heroes do not have fun in this chapter. Nothing too terrible - no gaping wounds or sexual attacks or the like - just physical control and terror. For those who love that stuff, dig in! For those who prefer gentler situations, grit your teeth and hang on. It’s part of the story at this point, but we’ll get through it, and so will our elf and ranger.

 

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To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Thirty-Four: World on Fire

Aragorn watched the black-cloaked man warily as he continued to stare intently at Legolas. He still had not turned his attention to the ranger, and Aragorn’s breath caught in fear as the gleam of possession burned even more brightly in their captor’s dark eyes as he stood tall over the elf lying bound at his feet, his cloak swirling round his shoulders as the wind increased.

"Have you been to Dale, little elf?" the man asked in a low voice as he bent closer. A cold smile drifted over his lips as Legolas clenched his jaw and turned his head away, making no answer. His captor took in his breath sharply, seeming about to say more, but at that moment a soldier began approaching from the direction of the cottage. Halting some distance away, the fellow saluted and stood quietly. With visible irritation, the man tore his attention from Legolas and turned. "Well?"

"Forgive me, Lord Ramhar," the soldier said hastily as he drew near. "We have found something we thought might interest you. If you would step this way for a moment…"

"Very well. Make ready to depart. We must return to the city before the sun rises." He crouched and took the dazed elf by the chin once more and angled his face toward him. Aragorn tensed, expecting another violent struggle to begin, but Legolas lay still. His eyes were tightly sealed. Furrows of pain radiated across his brow, and some of the haughty confidence faded from the man’s face as he regarded his elven captive.

"This will not do," he hissed. "How much hurt did he take?" He rounded on the two guards standing at stiff attention in their spot beside the garden gate and gestured to them. "I made it clear that the elf was not to be harmed, yet here he lies injured. The man who struck him - bring him to me in the cabin."

He rose, a quick flash of red and black glittering at his hip from what must have been the jeweled hilt of his sword, and went with long strides toward the small group of men waiting before the house. Aragorn watched him go, and turned to find Legolas struggling back to a sitting position. The elf’s face was filled with bewilderment. "A man from Dale?" he gasped. "Why is he here?"

"I cannot say, but did you note his name?" Aragorn whispered.

The elf bit his lip as he pondered Aragorn’s words, and then his face cleared. He nodded slowly. "I remember… Alun told us of him, and he was mentioned in the old healer’s journal. 'Lord' seems a rather lofty title for an army captain," he added with a sarcastic edge to his voice. "Ramhar is arrogant."

Aragorn glanced toward the cabin. The leader and his men had vanished inside, but for two who leaned against the porch and watched the captives closely. "You were often in Dale. Do you know him? Does his voice sound familiar?" the ranger asked urgently, but Legolas shook his head.

"I am certain I would remember his voice had I ever spoken with him at length," the elf said. "I do not know him. Unfortunately, I fear that is about to change." He pulled uselessly against his restraints with a grimace and then lowered his head. Resting his brow against his knees, he said no more.

Aragorn’s own discomfort, which had eased for a time - or perhaps had only been pushed aside in his concern for his friend – was growing again. His injured foot was aching and pulsing with a ferocity he could no longer ignore as the tight thongs bit into his ankles, and his hands felt as if they were on fire. He used the silence to try to gather what energy remained to him for the long trek to the city. It would not be easy. He hoped only that they would not force him to walk on the steeply winding path, and that Legolas would somehow find the strength to endure the journey without losing consciousness. Though perhaps it would be better if he did, the ranger thought as he looked at the bowed form of his friend and watched as his long white fingers continued their investigation of the ropes. He feared what trials lay ahead for the elf if he was taken into the city.

Gritting his teeth against his pain, Aragorn turned his eyes toward the cottage as the door banged open and the men emerged. Ramhar came first, bounding off the porch and striding directly toward the captives, and this time his eyes were not riveted on Legolas. In his hand he held the orc blade that Aragorn had wielded in the fight, and he stopped before the ranger, pinning him with his sharp gaze. "Where did you get this sword?" he hissed, holding the weapon up as one of his followers moved forward with a torch.

Aragorn fixed his eyes on his captor and concentrated all the rage he could gather into the cold stare. He said nothing, seeing no reason to give information of any kind to this man, but an instant later his jaw dropped as Ramhar dropped the sword to the ground and pulled his own weapon from its sheath with a swift movement. He held it aloft for a moment, then twisted it to the side and unwrapped his fingers from the hilt to display it. The red and black stones glittered like the eyes of a serpent in the wavering light.

Aragorn gasped aloud, for the weapon was identical to the one he had used.

His eyes flew immediately to Legolas. The elf had not moved, remaining as before with head bowed over his knees, torn away from the present as he fought an inner battle with his pain. Aragorn’s eyes raced back to the captain and settled on the blade. Though more finely wrought and more ornamented than the crude, heavy instrument he had taken from the orcs, there was no doubt at all in the ranger’s mind that the blade possessed by Ramhar was of the same design. He stared up at the man’s face as the color drained from his own.

"You ask me where I got my blade?" he hissed. "What of yours?"

The man smiled thinly. Only the sharp edges of his teeth showed. "A dear friend made it for me."

"Then perhaps it was from your friend that I took mine," Aragorn flung back. "Do you run with orcs, then?"

Ramhar laughed. "Hardly. But I wonder… has your companion ever seen such a blade?" and he swung the shimmering weapon down to level it at Legolas, his eyes gleaming with cold intensity as the elf slowly lifted his head.

Legolas turned toward Aragorn, his face gone even whiter than the snow beneath his body. He trembled, and his voice came in a whisper. "What does he say?"

Aragorn’s heart sank as he saw a shock of understanding race across the elf’s features. "It is nothing, mellon-nin," he murmured quietly in Sindarin, anxious to keep his injured friend from further upset. "Do not trouble yourself about it now."

"No," the elf gasped, shaking his head. He tried to struggle closer. His eyes were very dark. "Why do you speak of his sword?"

"It is nothing," Aragorn repeated quickly as several men moved behind Legolas at a gesture from the captain. "Go easy, Legolas. Now is not the time."

"What sword? What-?" As the soldiers forced him to the ground Legolas kicked out and fought to right himself, and he cried out as the men began to drag him away.

"Leave him alone!" Aragorn shouted. "Your men have hurt him enough," he said, turning angrily to Ramhar. "We know you take us to the city. Give me a minute to talk to him. I can calm him."

The blade flashed as it was brought up and rammed home into its sheath. The dark-haired man looked a long moment at Aragorn, and then he glanced at his injured foot. "You were not so easy to get rid of the first time," he remarked in a soft whisper as Aragorn stared into his eyes, and a sudden horrible realization shivered over the ranger. Ramhar leaned closer, his voice brought low for Aragorn’s ears alone, though several yards off the elf’s struggles ended abruptly as if he had heard the words as well. "Were I not pressed for time, I would ask you how you managed to survive that night. But it is of little importance. I have what I came for."

He turned and called to the soldiers not occupied with Legolas. The elf had ceased fighting and waited tensely in the grip of his captors, head high and nostrils flaring, his frightened face turned toward his friend.

Ramhar waved his hand toward Aragorn. "I have no need of this man. Take him to the cottage and bind him within. We will burn it."

"No!" Legolas screamed.

Aragorn’s eyes were wrenched away from the black gaze of Ramhar as he was grasped by many hands and forced toward the house. He fought with all the strength left in his bound and battered body, bringing his feet round and driving them into the ground to slow his progress, flinging himself from side to side to throw off the stride of the soldiers, but in the end they simply hauled him from the ground entirely and carried him, writhing and thrashing, across the broken threshold. The men threw him to the floor beside the bed and wrapped rope around him to secure him to the heavy frame. Through his struggles he heard Legolas’ protests, alternately pleading and shouting in a voice filled with panicked rage, and suddenly the noise of a great commotion began just outside the doorway. Aragorn only had a moment to wonder how the elf had managed to get so close to the house when Legolas’ voice was cut off mid-cry, and silence fell. For a time the only sounds were the ranger’s own gasps as he fought to pull air into his hammering ribcage, his wide eyes scanning the darkness of the destroyed room. The men had left him and he was alone, fighting helplessly against the restraints as he waited.

Ramhar came at last, torch in hand, and stood silently over him. Aragorn fixed his gaze straight ahead, setting his jaw tightly to keep himself from begging for his life, from breaking down utterly before this man, though he knew he could not hide the horrified shaking of his body from Ramhar's eyes. As he focused on a spot beyond his legs he saw something odd, and he tilted his head to better see it. His eyes widened in astonishment. Lying on the floor in a pool of blood was the large man whom Legolas had fought, his eyes fixed and empty, his mouth opened in a silent scream. His throat had been cut. Shaken, Aragorn fell back against the bed frame and stared silently up at the captain, who regarded him with cold contemplation.

"I do not tolerate mistakes," Ramhar said in answer to the unspoken question in Aragorn’s eyes.

"Why do you take my friend?"

"I saw an opportunity I could not let slip away."

Aragorn pulled desperately at his bonds. "We have done nothing to deserve this! The elf is no threat to you. Please, do not harm him. If it is riches you seek, something can be arranged-"

"I seek another kind of wealth through your friend. He could not have arrived at a better time for implementing my plans."

"And what are they? Did they include murdering the old man who lived here?" Aragorn demanded, but Ramhar raised the torch higher and gestured for silence.

"Enough. No doubt you and I could find many interesting topics to discuss, but the hour grows late. There is no more time for you."

Aragorn’s heart pounded in fear and despair, but he faced his murderer without faltering. "And little is left to you, Ramhar," he whispered hoarsely. "Do you kill simply for the joy of it? You yourself are marked for death. Your greed and hatred will destroy you as surely as they destroy us."

Something flickered briefly in the captain’s black orbs then, but in an instant he had controlled the reaction. Cold rage flared up to replace the uncertainty, and his lip lifted in disdain. Stepping forward without a word, he struck the ranger a powerful blow across the face.

Laying the torch on the straw pallet, Ramhar nodded to Aragorn and strode from the cabin.

 

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It was a considerable distance to the city down a steep and twisting path choked with snow and broken branches, and the elf fought against his captors every miserable step of the way. As they dragged him across the river and into the forest he had kicked and twisted so violently that the men could scarcely keep hold of him, and it was only after they had come to their horses - left in a sheltered spot some distance down the hill - that Legolas was finally brought under some degree of control. He had been flung on his belly across the back of one of the animals, his ribs impacting painfully with the saddle, but even then he continued to fight, flinging his body free of the horse again and again as the small party made its way down the slippery hill. Tumbling to the ground, heedless of the stabbing branches and the blows of the men, the elf felt no pain. There was nothing within him but a crashing torrent of grief and rage that drowned all caution and robbed him of rational thought, and he struggled with the hopeless frenzy of a trapped animal as he was dragged up and put on the horse again.

How long he fought them he could not tell. He would not stop, and after he had nearly come off the horse for what might have been the sixth time Ramhar’s exasperated voice barked out a command, and the animal was brought to a halt. A rope was twined around the elf's neck, brought under the belly of the horse, fed through the one binding his ankles, and drawn fast. Bent painfully over the animal, his head dangling, Legolas was scarcely able to draw breath. He groaned as a hand rested briefly against the side of his face and slid up to tighten into his hair.

"I would not see you come to further harm, Elf, but you have brought this pain upon yourself," Ramhar told him. "Stop fighting and I will ease your restraints."

In answer, Legolas jerked his head away. I will not stop fighting until you are dead, he vowed silently. Or I am.

They had killed Aragorn. He had heard it all; the command to burn the cabin, his friend’s desperate struggles as he was carried away, and Legolas had fought against his captors with a renewed power born of absolute terror. Somehow he had managed to break the bindings at his ankles and regain his feet, and he had raced frantically toward the cottage, his hands still lashed behind his back. But the soldiers who had been securing Aragorn had come out, and upon reaching the porch he had plunged directly into them. The other men had been hard on his heels, and against them all there had been no chance. His shouts and pleas had been ignored, and he had been thrown down and tied again. A cloth had been bound over his eyes and a gag forced into his mouth, and they had begun dragging him across the clearing again when the proof of what had been done to the ranger made itself known to him.

The crackling of fire crept into his ears, and the faint smell of smoke assailed his nostrils. The men paused in their rush across the clearing, no doubt turning to look, and Legolas strained against them, fighting to return to the burning house. And then the scream had come - a wail of fear and pain such as he had never before heard from the lips of Aragorn - and Legolas screamed with him, his mind flooded with terrified disbelief at what his friend was enduring.

One of the men swore quietly under his breath, and then the running footsteps of Ramhar caught up with them. He shouted angrily to his soldiers to make haste as a second cry drifted clearly through the night air.

Despairing, the elf redoubled his efforts to break free, weeping in anguish as his captors turned away and carried him into the forest.

Why did they not slay him first? Oh, let death come swiftly! Sweet Elbereth, help him… help him…

 

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The horse lurched, slipping as it struggled to find footing on the slick slope, and it took all of Legolas' self-control to hold back a cry of pain. The descent had seemed to take forever, and the tension forced upon his body from his position on the horse had quickly grown to agony. The tight bonds bit into his flesh. His heart pounded, the rhythm of his blood beat in his temples, hurting him, though at times his shock and fatigue were able to blunt the sharper of his perceptions and carry him away from complete awareness of his pain. As his mount struggled along the path he fell often into a feverish stupor, his thoughts whirling and nightmarish, until another jolting misstep would force full consciousness upon him again and bring him back to the present.

Through the haze of pain and dizziness he had been aware of a hand constantly at his neck throughout the long trek, loosening the rope when his breathing became difficult, but then it would tighten his restraints again and come to rest possessively on his hair or curl around his throat as if to drive home the fact of his vulnerability, and helpless fury would boil in the elf’s heart. He would make an effort to throw Ramhar’s hand off, growling dire promises through his gag, and he would hear the soft laugh of his tormentor as the gloved fingers shifted again to knot into his hair, pulling his head back painfully and stilling his struggles.

At last the ground grew level, and the stride of the horse lengthened and became easier. Legolas felt the crowded closeness of the forest give way, and a fresh breeze passed across his face. He turned his head as much as he was able, inhaling.

"Do you wish to know where we are?" inquired Ramhar. "We have nearly reached our destination. In less than an hour the sun will rise."

They turned to the right, and the trek continued for some time along smoother terrain, skirting the edge of the forest. At length they halted, and Ramhar pulled his hand away from the elf’s neck.

"Hold him," he said, and another man came to stand beside Legolas, gripping the elf’s hair and yanking his head down when he tried to raise it. But then, as Ramhar’s steps faded, the soldier suddenly moved his hands to the rope lashed around his neck and eased it, releasing some of the terrible strain. Surprised, Legolas attempted to pull away, and a questioning trill rose in his throat.

"I see your distress," the man whispered. "Rest a moment, if you can."

Perplexed but grateful for the small act of kindness, the elf allowed his head to fall back against the man's hands with a sigh. His body hurt fiercely; every muscle ached and burned, and he clenched his eyes tightly behind the blindfold as if to erect a barrier between himself and his anguish. Voices drifted through the darkness surrounding him. His captors were murmuring quietly together. He judged them to be fewer, no more than three or four now, and a new man had joined them.

"I have brought the cart myself," he said, and his voice was soft, yet menacing. The malice of it swept along the elf's skin like the brush of a blade in the night. "I wanted to be certain all went smoothly."

"Our plans went well," said Ramhar. "You were not seen?"

"Only by the guards at the gate, but I merely looked like any other man heading out early for supplies from the outlying farms."

"Your disguise suits you badly," the captain said with a laugh. "But you return with cargo no one could imagine."

Legolas tensed as footsteps drew near, and the soldier holding his head instantly renewed the crueler grip. The elf heard him hiss slightly, as if in fear, or loathing.

"So, you have got the elf," the new man said. He crouched, and his breath, hot and stinking, washed over the captive. Legolas flinched, repulsed by the cold fingers that pressed briefly against his face. "But not after a fight, it seems."

"We had some difficulty with him," said Ramhar. "But I know how to handle his kind. We will speak more of him once he is settled."

"And his friend?"

"Dead. Quickly now, you men get him into the cart," Ramhar commanded.

The rope around Legolas’ neck was cut at last. He could not hold back a sharp exclamation of pain as he was dragged from the horse and carried a short distance. He felt himself being lifted. His knees were pushed against his chest and he was flung down, landing on his side with a startled gasp. He tried to straighten his legs, and the closeness of his prison enfolded him. A box, he realized. Horror rushed over him and he struggled to rise, but they held him down, and firm hands tugged at his gag, checking it. It was tightened, and then Ramhar was speaking again.

"You are my most trusted men, and you will remember your oaths. The work of this night was to protect our city. Have I not told you before of the danger the elves pose to us? This one's presence so nearby is proof that they were beginning to implement their plan. Do not speak of him to anyone, and should any man fail in this he will be dealt with severely. Now we ride to the city, returning from our night patrol. The cart will follow. You there - stay beside the elf, and do not permit one sound to escape him."

Something heavy slammed down – the lid - and Legolas heard the rattle of locks being fastened at each end. His hands knotted helplessly behind his back as he struggled against the choking closeness of his prison. He fought to extend his legs or turn himself, to move in any way possible, but his body demanded freedom that he could not give it. A cold sweat broke over him, and he groaned in misery and despair.

A quiet sound came to him - someone had settled himself beside the crate in which he had been pressed. A voice whispered low. "Hold on, elf. This last part of the journey will not be long."

And then the cart was moving, creaking its way along the rutted road toward the city.

To be continued

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them. This story was written for entertainment only and no monetary profit is being made.

Author's notes: I thank each of you for the wonderful reviews I received for the last chapter. You guys really keep me going!

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter 35: In Other Hands

Aragorn stared helplessly as the torch's flame flickered and then dimmed. The waving shadows loomed menacingly and then shrank against the darks walls, and a soft hissing sound rose from the straw pallet. The ranger's breath caught in his throat as the flame sputtered, and a desperate hope rose in him as he strained forward against his bonds, not daring to tear his eyes away lest the intensity of his gaze was the only thing preventing the feeble fire from surging into a conflagration.

The straw was wet. What else would cause the hissing, the curling tendrils of smoke, the lack of growth? When Legolas had hurled the water onto the fireplace, some of it must have splashed onto the pallet. The straw was wet!

The ranger worked frantically against the ties holding him to the bed as he kept his eyes fastened on the reluctant flame, praying to whatever god might be listening: let it die, let it die, let it die!

He could gain no easing of his bonds. With a growl of frustration he twisted his head in an effort to visualize how he was held. Ropes lashed around his middle held him fast to the bedpost. Could he find a knot within reach of his trembling fingers? Could he rub the bindings around his wrists vigorously enough against the bedpost to fray them? Or could he somehow break the stout bed-frame at a weak spot? Gritting his teeth, he pulled forward as strongly as he could, seeking to work some slack into the bindings securing him so he could move more freely.

A sudden whoosh brought Aragorn up with a gasp. Golden light burst forth, and he found himself staring in mute horror at a bright wall of leaping flame not twenty feet from where he sat. In seconds the straw bed was entirely engulfed and long fingers of fire began shooting up the wall at the head, reaching for whatever they could grasp.

Terror surged. The flames were moving too fast. Aragorn flinched away from the sudden wave of heat that struck him, pressing himself back and averting his face, and he fought with all his might against the unyielding restraints. Too soon his breath came in shorts panting gasps; already the air had grown painful to his throat, searing his chest, and his eyes stung. A sudden crackling overhead wrenched his gaze upward, and he cried aloud as he saw tendrils of flame licking along the thatched ceiling. With terrifying speed the fire rushed across. He watched it for a moment, uncertain if the roof would burn with its burden of snow on top. The inner section undoubtedly would, but would the snow then fall through and help him?

Wisps of smoke had begun to curl from the clothing of the dead man lying before him, and Aragorn struggled to back up and somehow put distance between himself and the corpse. He heaved at the bed in an effort to shift it to the side so that he could drag himself closer to the door, but it was heavy, set firmly against the wall, and there was no budging it from the position he was in.

Small embers began pattering down, dancing past his blurred gaze like fireflies. He kicked with his bound feet at the ones that fell to the floor near him and shook his head violently to dislodge the tiny sparks that drifted into his hair, but as the searing air made him choke on his breath he knew there was no fighting this. Whether the snow on the roof could douse the fire was of no import. The flames on the straw bed were raging, the heat had already grown agonizing, and he was sitting on a wooden floor that smoldered and sprouted small flames of its own as the sparks rained down from the ceiling. He would burn. He would burn, and when the roof fell in it would crush him.

A burning fragment broke from the ceiling and struck his left shoulder. As he shook it off, the searing pain tore an agonized scream from him. Trembling, he dropped his head and crushed his eyes shut, no longer able to tolerate the sight of the whirling wall of scarlet and orange advancing upon him. Tiny flames floated down and bit into his hunched shoulders. He could not draw another breath. His lungs shuddered and heaved in agony, but he held what air he could inside him, unwilling to let it go, for he knew the next breath would be unbearable. The noise of the flames grew to a roar. As he sought to press himself under the bed, a sudden strange thumping sound came from the doorway. Aragorn jerked his head up and looked wildly around as he heard a shout.

"Here, Arath! He is here!"

Fighting to see through the haze, Aragorn saw dark shapes appear at his side. He felt an insistent tugging at the ropes wrapped tightly around his chest, and a moment later they parted. Toppling forward with a cry, he was caught up in the strong grip of a man, who yelled "Get out! The roof is about to come down!"

"What about this other fellow?"

"Already dead. Take his feet – go!"

Hands grasped Aragorn at the shoulders and the ankles. He felt himself being lifted, jostled roughly as the panting men stumbled at the threshold, nearly dropping him, and then a blast of freezing air struck him. The cold tore through his lungs with the searing agony of a lightning strike, and his mouth opened in a scream that caught, choking, in his throat. He thrashed helplessly as the men turned abruptly once through the doorway and rushed toward the back of the cabin.

"Quickly, get behind the house where they cannot see us," the man at his head hissed. "Make for the trees."

A quick, jolting run ensued, and then they halted. Aragorn, writhing, broke free of their grip and tumbled to the ground. He was grabbed roughly and flipped over.

"What's wrong with him? He can't breathe!"

"He can. He's just forgotten how to do it." A hand slapped him smartly across the face, and then again. Startled, Aragorn drew a wheezing breath, and as his lungs filled again the cold air pierced him with blades sharper than any weapon. He forced it out with a scream of agony, but the hand quickly clamped over his mouth and nose, stifling his outcry.

"Hold on there, mate. Sorry, but we can't risk all that yelling bringing your friends round again. They're not that far off that they wouldn't come back to see they'd finished the job right."

A cloth was shoved brutally against Aragorn's face. Frightened, he tried to fight it off, but the men held him firmly. His breath labored harshly in his chest as he gulped frantically, his body demanding air no matter the pain it caused him to inhale it. A spasm seized his throat. Coughing violently, he thrashed in misery as he struggled to fill his tortured lungs. Curling onto his side, he sobbed as pain flared through him.

Through the agony he heard the continued roar of flames some distance off, and then a great crashing sound echoed through the trees.

"There goes the roof," someone muttered. "We got this poor fellow out just in time."

Aragorn groaned. His breath gradually began to come with more ease, and he realized that the cloth pressed against his face had not been to smother him, but to warm the air as he pulled it into his injured lungs. He stopped fighting, and as he did the hands holding him eased. The cloth was pulled away.

"Feeling better now?"

The cold touch of a knife pressed against his wrists, and the bonds securing his hands and feet were cut. Aragorn blinked furiously, his eyes streaming with tears, but a burst of red and orange, the terrible afterimage of the fire, was all he could see as he struggled to make out the faces of his rescuers. His body began to quake uncontrollably.

"Here, wrap him in the blanket. The cold is too great a shock."

"Look at his hands! And his foot…"

"Aye. He had been hurt before what was done to him tonight."

Aragorn squeezed his eyes shut, fighting a sudden surge of nausea as he was unceremoniously hauled up to a sitting position. A thick blanket that felt like his own and smelled rather singed was settled around his shoulders. His head lolled helplessly against someone's chest as the world wavered, and he slumped, suddenly bled of all strength. The men laid him back on the ground.

"See if the horse is in the barn. We must get him to shelter."

Footsteps shuffled away as Aragorn struggled to rise. Squinting through his burning eyes, he glimpsed as if through a thick film of fog a small figure with a broad weathered face, framed by a mop of brown hair and a beard flecked with grey. Sharp blue eyes looked back at Aragorn, and the man suddenly grinned, flashing a mouthful of crooked and missing teeth. He reached out and pushed the ranger down.

"Easy there! Lie back and don't make a fuss," he barked. "Where do you think you're going? I say nowhere, the shape you're in."

Aragorn gasped as pain flared over him again, but he fixed his gaze on the man pleadingly. "My friend?" he whispered.

"You mean the elf? Aye, they took him."

"They will kill him," Aragorn croaked, wincing at the burning sensation in his throat. He started coughing again. "Please, help…"

The man's expression became sober, and he turned his eyes away. "Well now, one rescue at a time. We've got our hands full with you at the moment. And I am not one to go to the city."

"No. Please-" Aragorn pressed his elbows into the ground and tried to lift himself, but agony jolted through him like a spear thrust. With a soft cry of anguish he fell back, and his vision darkened. He curled his throbbing hands into fists and dug the nails into his palms, trying to anchor himself to awareness as he felt himself slipping, but he could not hold back the sickness and pain. They engulfed him, but as the world faded he heard the voice of his rescuer one last time, speaking to himself in a savage whisper:

"Ramhar is one cold-hearted bastard. And the mere tread of that cursed enchanter Malcovan blights the land! If there is justice in this world, their time will come. The people will rise. Oh yes, their time will come…"

 

0-0-0-0-0

 

The final part of the journey to the city, though the shortest, proved also to be the most torturous for Legolas. Trapped in the horrific closeness of the crate, tormented by pain and the absolute confinement of his body, the elf fought to control his panic and rage. He struggled to break free of the box, maddened by the press of walls around him, but without room to move there was no power behind his efforts. He could only squirm helplessly, unable even to turn himself from his left side. Though he was aware of voices outside they were muffled, as if coming to his ears from a great distance, and where he lay there was no free air. 

Stunned by all that had happened and his mind awash in desperate disbelief, the elf barely clung to some semblance of composure. He tried to hold to the small hope offered by the soldier's whispered assurance that his confinement would not last long. Ramhar would eventually free him of the box, if only for worse torments, but as the jolting ride continued Legolas' misery increased. He was certain that his neck had taken some hurt from the blows of the club as he had fought against his abductors. He could move his head, but it throbbed horribly, and occasional sharp spikes of pain made him catch his breath. An uncomfortable fogginess had descended over him as well, making concentration difficult, and he realized how easily he could fall into unconsciousness. His body felt strangely weakened, as if he had been drugged, and yet his legs continued to push and kick against the unyielding crate, and his bound hands knotted fretfully behind his back and punched as best they could against the wall behind him. It was as if the anguish of his heart drove his body to violence and caused it to fight against its confinement, regardless of the pain.

His physical struggles served to keep him awake and aware, preventing him from slipping into the darkness that he feared would bring him to more harm. Though a part of his mind yearned for just that - to let oblivion claim him and spirit him away from this nightmare, he feared what might come to him were he to succumb to unconsciousness. Much as he dreaded being helpless in the hands of his captors, he dreaded more the thought of what they might do were he insensible, and so he fought with all his strength against the alluring pull of the darkness.

In an effort to calm his terror and keep his mind from the comforting promises of the dark, Legolas focused his attention on his breath. It was difficult, with the air so oppressive and the moisture wicked from his mouth by the gag, but he forced himself to draw air into his lungs in a slow and steady rhythm, knowing if he were to succumb to his rising panic he would only bring himself greater discomfort. But the tension would not ease. His limbs trembled violently as his body strained for freedom, and as he fought to calm himself he dug his fingernails into the part of the box that pressed against his back and found it to be padded. He wondered at this, as he traced long gouges and tears in the thick layers of fabric, and came to the conclusion that its purpose was to muffle the sound of his struggles from outside ears. He doubted it had been installed for his comfort.

As the cart rumbled along, Legolas became aware of a foul smell that began permeating the smothering air around him. He shuddered miserably. Faint it was, as if efforts had been made in the past to wash it away, but it was clear enough to his nose, and he recognized it as the blood of men, mingled with other odors even less pleasant. He was not the first prisoner to be held thus. Others had been confined in this small and terrible space, and they too had clawed in desperation at the padded walls. The elf wondered how long they had been held, if it had been hours, or even days. And he remembered the words of Alun, uttered what now seemed a lifetime ago on a comfortable night round the dinner table: "All who do not obey risk the punishments Ramhar devises..."

The elf's blood ran cold as he realized that he was in the hands of a torturer. But even as his heart convulsed fearfully he negated the thought, forcing back the frightened imaginings of torture. Why Ramhar had taken him he did not know, but it was not simply to inflict torment upon an elf. Legolas sensed his abduction was a part of something far more complicated. That he was in mortal peril he had no doubt, but he did not believe death would come to him this night. It would not come to him as swiftly and as shockingly as it had come to Aragorn. 

Legolas' breath caught on a moan of anguish. The wild events of the night had melded into a chaotic blur that he could scarcely parse, let alone comprehend, but the sudden death of his friend stood alone, horrifying in its clarity. He heard anew the ranger's struggles, his cries of pain, and he felt the terror Aragorn had endured as if it was his own. Fresh misery broke over the elf like a great wave, and the pain was crushing. His chest heaved in as a torrent of grief rushed in and swept away the remnants of his courage along with his breath. Sorrow dragged muffled sounds from his gagged mouth. The loss was unfathomable. Legolas' life had been bound to Aragorn's, first in the oath of brotherhood they had made long ago, and later in the dependency of illness and blindness. Even through their final difficult months together, as Aragorn had cared for Legolas, the vow of friendship between elf and man remained as it ever had. Unbreakable. Inviolate. And so the Prince of Mirkwood had thought it would always be, until many more years had passed. He had firmly believed that his friend's death was safely held by the future, to be faced on some far off day that would come later, much later, after Aragorn had grown old. Never had the bewildered elf imagined that it would come so soon.

A heavy weight of fear pressed down upon him. How could he face what was to come now that he was utterly alone? From what source could he draw strength now that his own was so depleted? Perhaps it would be better stop fighting and let the heartbreak and injury take him. Perhaps it would be better to simply let go and seek death at the first opportunity.

The cart suddenly lurched to a stop. Legolas' body shifted abruptly, his head impacting painfully against the front panel of the crate, and he then heard the step of a horse drawing near. He strained his ears as he recognized the voice of Ramhar.

"How is the elf?"

The soldier sitting beside the box answered him. "He has been fighting, sir, almost the entire way. He only ceased his struggles a few moments ago."

"No doubt he is plotting in silence now," Ramhar said. "He is a dangerous creature. Be on your guard against him. Until we have him secured, we must not trust that we are safe."

"Excuse me, my lord." The soldier sounded hesitant. "I… I do not think he plots. I have heard him. He weeps."

"Untrue," Ramhar hissed. "Do not forget that he killed the old man in order to take his house. If he weeps, it is only a deception rendered to confuse you and cause you to err. I know elves, and I have seen what they are capable of. They do not feel as we do. They cannot weep, for they do not love. They do not grieve."

Legolas listened in stunned disbelief. The words, so coldly uttered, were terribly untrue. Elves felt the pain of their losses profoundly, and the extent of their mourning surely reached the same depths as that of Men. Why did Ramhar say this, and with such anger and conviction? Relations between the folk in Mirkwood and the men of Dale were friendly. The two races engaged in trade and met regularly to discuss matters of territory and government. And at times, though they were uncommon, they even gathered for social events. Legolas could recall no recent incidents or conflicts that would cause a man of Dale to feel such hatred for elves.

He knew that there had been a brief exchange of words between Aragorn and Ramhar regarding a sword. Legolas had barely been aware of it, for he had pulled deeply within himself as he had struggled with his pain, but the very end of the string of words had reached out and struck him like the flashing tail of a whip, and his blood had run cold at the memories that had swept over him. What sword did Ramhar carry? Why had he asked if it was familiar to Legolas?

The soldier seated beside the elf's small prison shifted slightly as he settled himself, and Legolas heard him sigh quietly. Though he had taken part in the abduction, the man had made several attempts to ease his captive's suffering. It seemed to Legolas that not all of the citizens of the city felt the same burning level of hatred for elves that apparently consumed Ramhar. Perhaps not all of the people were his enemy.

 As the cart began moving once more, Legolas pulled in a long breath to steady himself. Despite his despair and the uneasy feeling of injury, he knew he was not yet ready to relinquish himself fully to Ramhar's control. He wanted answers. He would steel himself to face whatever was to come and stay alive long enough to understand what was happening here. If it was within his power to thwart or at least turn Ramhar's plans, whatever they might be, he would. In this way he would strive to honor Aragorn's memory.

There would be time later, he hoped, to grieve.

To be continued

 

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them and am making no monetary profit from this story. It is written for entertainment only.

Author's notes: Thanks to beta-reader Lisette, newly returned to us from the nowhere land of crashed computers.

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To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Thirty-Six: Close to the Edge

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The terrain had changed. For a time the cart had wobbled and tilted along a path that was rutted with deep grooves, as trails tend to be when they are neglected in winter, but now the wheels rumbled along more smoothly, and the elf heard the distinct sound of hoofs striking against a cobbled surface. His captors were now taking him along a properly maintained road, and from this Legolas inferred that they must at last be nearing the city. He pressed his forehead against the box with a sigh, thankful that the sickening swaying and bumping had eased, for they had added greatly to his discomfort as he lay within his small prison. His suspicions were soon confirmed when a voice called out a challenge. The cart jerked to a halt and Ramhar shouted a reply.

"Ho there, guardsmen! Open the gates. We bring provisions for the great house."

The tone of the voice changed abruptly. "Lord Ramhar? Forgive me, sir, it's a bit dark yet. I was not expecting you."

Legolas heard a door bang open, and the hasty tromping of feet drew near, followed by the faint scent of wood smoke. Metal screeched as the gates swung open, and the men who escorted the cart immediately began engaging in idle chatter and laughter. The elf realized their voices were intended to conceal from the guards any sounds that he might make as the cart rolled past. He did not bother to struggle, knowing there was no noise he was capable of producing that would carry to the hearing of others. He remained quiet as the cart picked up the pace once again, and he tried to make out sounds beyond the peculiar humming that vibrated in his ears, no doubt caused by the wracking pain within his skull. He heard nothing however, except the voices of his captors and the far off barking of a dog. All else was silent and still around him. The folk of the city had not yet risen to begin their day.

The journey continued along a flat road that seemed to curve now and again, and the elf tried to rest, keeping his breath slow and even to gather what strength he could and quiet the ache in his head. At length the road steepened into a low rise, and he pressed his feet against the crate as his body shifted backward. He sensed it would not be much longer now. After a short time they reached a second gate, which was flung open with even more alacrity than the first, and the cart pushed on with scarcely a pause. The ground leveled briefly once more before suddenly pitching downward. The clattering steps of the horse's hoofs echoed hollowly against a close press of walls, and then the cart stopped.

There came the sound of someone knocking, a heavy door creaked open, and a new voice made inquiries. The explanation was the same as before - provisions for the storerooms – the prison storerooms - but it was not Ramhar who answered this time. Legolas wondered if he had gone. Escorting goods to the dungeons was probably not among the captain's usual tasks.

The elf tensed as the box was suddenly grasped and dragged along the length of the cart-bed. It dipped alarmingly as the men struggled to find their balance and the proper placement of their hands, and then they were moving, shuffling across a small area and coming next to what Legolas assumed was a downward staircase. He found himself pitched forward, his head pressed uncomfortably against the front of the box, and his body rocked with the awkward jostling as the soldiers struggled with their burden. Upon landing, a voice panted "turn left", and the final leg of the journey took the elf down a long corridor. Torches sputtered and crackled at intervals, fading back to silence as he was carried past, and then the crate was set down abruptly with a loud thud that rattled the captive's teeth.

"You two, get out. The rest will stay here until we have him settled."

Ramhar again. Legolas braced himself as a fist rapped sharply on the top of the box.

"Hear me, Elf. You will be removed now, and secured within the walls of a prison cell. I think you will agree there is little use in fighting us any longer. It will go ill for you should you struggle."

The elf drew in his breath. And it will go well for me if I submit?

As the men went about unlocking the lid Legolas tested his bonds one more time, but they were as unyielding as ever, and his hands had gone hopelessly numb. There truly was no way that he could fight free of the men, fettered and hurt as he was. Even if he could somehow break his restraints and escape the soldiers, what then? Without his eyes he would not get far in an unfamiliar place before being run down and taken again, and he felt so sick… so utterly drained. His body trembled with shock and fatigue, his limbs lying heavy and weakened as if they no longer belonged to him at all, and he knew that any physical effort on his part would serve only to deplete him further. He needed rest, if it was at all possible to find rest under such circumstances, and he needed time to gather his wits and think on all that had happened. He would have to wait for a better opportunity to strive against his captors. In the interim, he would pray that such a moment would come to him somehow, and that he would be ready for it.

The lid was lifted. Legolas lay still and did not move, gratefully pulling the purer air through his nose as the foul stench of the box dissipated. The men grasped him by the shoulders and hauled him up and out. He grimaced, biting hard on the gag to hold back an outcry as his body, stiffened by its confinement, was moved.  He did not fight as he took note of the hands that held him, and listened to the footsteps walking around him. There were too many. Fighting against them would be futile.

They dragged him across a floor of uneven flagstones and seated him with his back against what felt to be a thick rounded pillar. The blindfold and the gag were adjusted, and then a hand fisted into his hair to hold him. Pain flared in his head. He tried to pull away, but something cold pressed against his throat, and he stilled his movements with a gasp.

"Ah-ah. None of that," Ramhar whispered. The blade swept along the length of Legolas' neck and then angled sharply under his jaw and pressed close, compelling the elf to raise his chin. He held himself rock-still as restraints were wrapped around his belly, securing him the post, but even so he felt the stinging cut as it was deliberately made, his skin itching as a thin trickle of blood began to trace its way downward. Ramhar's breath was hot against his cheek.

"Red it is," the captain hissed in a voice low and trembling with barely suppressed fury. "Just as mine is, and as my father's was. Valar, what I would not give to slit your throat right now and watch the rest of your cursed Elven blood spill all over this floor."

The hand shook that held the weapon. Legolas remained frozen in place, not swallowing, scarcely daring to breathe as the razor-edged blade pressed against the fragile barrier of skin, coming dangerously close to what throbbed beneath. Long seconds passed in dead stillness. It seemed the men had drawn back in alarm, their light, rapid breaths fleeing past the elf's ears as if seeking escape on the air. Only one soldier still remained near, crouched on Legolas' left side and grasping the elf's bound wrists as if he had been about to do something, but he too had paused in his work and did not move. 

"Immortal?" Ramhar whispered. "I think not. I have the power to rip your life from you in a heartbeat." He exhaled sharply, and Legolas felt the blade tremble against his neck as if the man fought a battle within himself to hold off striking the fatal blow to his captive. The elf's heartbeat shuddered, sending the pulse in his throat leaping strongly to meet the promise of the cold blade. He heard the soldier beside him gasp, and Legolas tensed himself, his numbed hands knotting convulsively as he waited for the blow to fall. Then the pressure against his neck eased slightly. "No… hold but a little while longer. Now is not the time," Ramhar murmured quietly, and a breath broke from Legolas' lungs that he did not know he had been holding.

"What are you all staring at?" Ramhar suddenly demanded in a harsh voice. "Get back here and finish this. You, put that strap around his neck."

A wide band of leather was passed across the elf's throat and pulled tight, securing his neck firmly to the pillar. Ramhar shifted his grip on Legolas' hair and pressed his weapon close once more, brushing the edge of it across the elf's throat above the strap, but his hand was steadier now. "Come on, boy, bring his hands round. He cannot harm you while he is silenced and his eyes are covered, nor would he be so foolish as to struggle when he is secured at the neck. Elves can choke as well as bleed."

The soldier holding Legolas' hands stirred. "Yes, my lord," he said breathlessly. He sounded very young, and the elf recognized him as the one who had tried to comfort him earlier. Shaking hands fumbled awkwardly with the knotted ropes, and a small dagger slid between his wrists. The cords parted, but the soldiers were back, with more hands than was necessary to force the elf's arms behind the pillar. His wrists were secured again with bands of leather similar to that which had been placed around his neck. The elf grimaced in frustration as yet more straps were tightened around his chest and his abdomen to hold him against the pillar. Though the ropes probably would have been adequate, he would have worked against them in hope of eventually breaking free, but he realized immediately that the leather bindings would be impossible to fray or weaken, no matter how much he might fight them.

Ramhar moved around him, checking the restraints carefully, and then he dismissed his men, but for two he commanded to remain outside. The elf turned his head, listening after them as the booted feet vanished into the darkness, and he suddenly wished that they would not go. The door slammed with a loud boom, and then there was only one set of footsteps remaining with him in the room, walking slowly round the pillar.

Legolas listened uneasily as he was circled, and circled again. He could see nothing, but he knew nonetheless that the man's eyes were upon him, stabbing into him with hatred. The elf held himself steady, head up but not following the footsteps, fighting to keep his breathing low and calm. He wanted nothing of his fear and pain to show outwardly, for such signs were not for his captor to witness and use to taunt him and claim victory. Yet within, he was filled with a cold anguish that threatened to tear loose from his very bones and burst from every pore of his body, and he knew he could not entirely hold back the tremors that wracked his lean frame, the result of both agony and anger.

"You must have gotten some feeling back in your hands. They are fisted again," Ramhar said from somewhere behind him. "I can see how badly you want to move, to fight. Elves were not made for confinement, but for the wind and the stars, yes? This must be driving you mad, to be taken and fettered thus. An elf felled - like an eagle caged and yearning for the skies. And I have made you so."

The man walked forward, his heavy boots crunching over the gritty floor, and settled himself against the wall with a grunt. Legolas turned his head away as much as he was able, in a gesture of dismissal.

Ramhar merely laughed. "Well, I suppose that is the best you can manage at the moment," he said.

The door creaked open, and someone new entered the room. The feet were not booted, but clad in something like slippers, and their steps were not as heavy as Ramhar's. It was the tread of an older man, slow and measured but not yet infirm. His breath whistled in his nostrils, and Legolas turned his attention to the newcomer uneasily as tension welled and knotted in his belly. The room suddenly felt charged with fear, as if a black shadow had swept over it and drawn away the air. An overwhelming feeling of rage and revulsion took hold of the elf. He pressed his back against the post, his breath accelerating as the soft footsteps halted before him.

Ramhar was saying something, but Legolas did not hear the words. The man before him had crouched directly in front of him. An edge of his robe brushed across the elf's legs, and Legolas felt icy fingertips probing at his neck, seeking the pulse that shuddered there. With a muffled cry of fury he struggled to evade the loathsome touch. A sense of aversion washed over him that went beyond simple anger and fear at his plight. A nameless horror danced in the corners of his mind, as if a distant memory had been stirred, and he fought violently to dislodge the unwanted contact as a growl of hatred escaped his gagged mouth.

"Cease this fighting," the newcomer commanded, and the elf recognized the voice he heard earlier when he had been brought down from the forest and confined in the crate. The man's other hand clamped firmly across Legolas' forehead, securing the only part of his body that he was still able to move. The elf's mind cried out a desperate warning against the hideous corruption it sensed within the touch. Evil, evil! To him, inflicting death is a dark ecstasy.

 

His head was wrenched around and forced up. "Excellent," the old man breathed. "You have done well in taking this elf, Ramhar. Better than we had hoped, eh? And how much difficulty did you have in not cutting his throat when presented with the opportunity?"

"I do confess it. I had great difficulty."

"Your chance will come. I admire your restraint. The sight of him must bring the terrible memories back to you, yes?"

"It does. It does," Ramhar said in a low voice. "When I think of it – what was done – I long for vengeance. It has been what I have lived for, these many years. But the reality of him being held and at my mercy pleases me far more than I could have imagined. And I have already struck the first blow in taking his friend from him. Already, he begins to pay, but I will not rush to end his life. When the time finally does come, the moment will be the sweeter for having made full use of him."

"Good. We hold this one for a greater cause than your desire to see blood spilled to repay the debt. If all goes as we plan, a fine victory will be ours to claim, and it will spread far beyond the boundaries of our city. He will have his uses beyond tonight."

"He certainly seems to have taken a dislike to you," Ramhar remarked with a laugh.

"It appears I have offended his elven purity in some way," the old man said mockingly. The cold hands finally eased their fierce grip, and Legolas yanked his head aside angrily, wincing as a burning pain flared in his neck. He gasped, bringing his head around slowly and resting it against the pillar with a moan.

"Is he badly hurt? He put up quite a fight, and I fear he was injured when we took him."

"He is yet strong. Hurt, yes, but not enough to endanger our plans for tonight, and afterward we can bring the healer to him. Come now Ramhar, and leave your prize. He will not be going anywhere, and we still have much to do."

As the old man rose and his steps receded toward the door Ramhar's step drew nearer, and he crouched silently beside the elf. Legolas stiffened as he felt the man take up a handful of his hair and slowly slide his fingers through it. For several moments he played with the golden tresses, and then he gently rested the hair back against the elf's shoulder and brought his lips close to his curved ear.

"Beautiful are the elves. You look just like her," Ramhar whispered, and then he was gone.

.

To be continued

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Message to my readers: after giving it much thought, I have decided that I must take a break from writing this story. Many real life issues are looming this summer that will use up virtually all of my time. Among the items on the agenda: my husband will be having shoulder surgery in two weeks and will be pretty compromised for most of the summer, my child will be out of school, I will be continuing to work full time, and we are going to begin building a new house that we hope will be ready for us to occupy by autumn. The new house will either be built beside our current house, or on the same spot, and so it is likely that we will be forced to vacate, put our belongings into storage and live out of a suitcase in some hotel this summer. The house plans are still up in the air at the moment as we work it out.

And, to be honest, I'm more than a little burned out. To See a World has been consuming a great deal of my energy since it began in August 2003, and I am feeling the strain. The story has also reached a point where I need to slow down and do some serious thinking about where it will go from here. It has snowballed into quite a monster. I don't feel I have the control over it that I once did, and I keep having ideas and dreams and thoughts that must be sorted and filed accordingly. TSAW refuses to stop changing and evolving from what I had originally intended!

During the summer, as time allows, I will be doing work on this story "behind the scenes", with the goal of regaining control of the plot and mapping out what is to come. I need to take another look at the writings of the great Professor as I develop the rest of the tale. I might even get a few chapters under my belt, written at a pace that works for me and without the pressure I put on myself to update regularly. And I just might kick back for a time, drink lemonade and read the new Harry Potter book.

It is my intention to resume posting chapters in September or October, house and sanity permitting. Perhaps by then I will be happily holed up in my new writing room!

My sincerest apologies for any disappointment this might cause. Let me assure you that this story is not being abandoned. I need a break, but I hope that when I return it will be with renewed enthusiasm and energy.

If you have any questions or want a response from me, please leave reviews at Stories of Arda. I will answer.

I thank you for your understanding. Your interest in this story has been nothing short of astonishing, and I am more grateful to you than I can say. Have a great summer, and I'll be back with you in the autumn.

--Nightwing

 

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them. This story is written for entertainment only and no monetary profit is being made.

Author's Notes: hello, hello! Much to my surprise, and perhaps yours as well, here is an update. Unfortunately, the horrid old house in which I reside is still standing, but the chapter is done, beta'd by the amazing one-handed, energizer-bunnied, newly auntified Lisette (who is having a most adventurous summer. Ah, to be young again…), so I thought I should waste no more time in getting it out to you all. Many thanks for your patience. It is much appreciated.

To See a World by Nightwing

Chapter 37: Helpless

He was alone now. His captors had left him, and with the closing of the cell door it seemed that the world had suddenly vanished. Sound was swallowed by darkness, and in this silent black void Legolas waited, straining his hearing to the utmost as the sweat started on his body and a soft warning knell of fear echoed within him. He was utterly alone, able to hear only the sound of his breath, and beyond it… beyond it there was nothing.

After he had lost his sight, information about his surroundings still came to his ears, and the elf had quickly come to understand just how important sound was to him as he had learned to navigate in his new world of darkness. Sound told him of all that surrounded him - and not merely of the happenings within that black world, but that the world existed at all. Even the supposedly quiet hours of night were not without sound. When he had slept outside, cradled in the great branches of the old oak, the time between sunset and sunrise was as full of sound as the day had been. The busy doings of nocturnal animals, the low murmur of running water in the river and the voice of the air as it shifted and moved in both gentle breezes and occasional wild blowing had told him all he needed to know of the world around him, and of his place within it. And when he had slept inside the cabin he had also gained knowledge through his ears that reassured him of the existence of the world – the patter of Tithlam's feet, the soft sounds of the fire burning in the hearth, the low steady breathing of Aragorn in sleep.

The darkness he could endure. He had endured it. For months now he had done so, but it had been a learned thing, come only after a protracted and difficult battle against the fear that stalked him in his newly darkened world. There had been many moments in the beginning when he had been certain he would not survive the surges of panic that the blindness had wrought. It had taken concentrated effort, and help from Aragorn, to control the horror when it came upon him, but finally it had begun to ease. He felt it less and less; the sudden overwhelming sensation that the world was gone, and the terror rushing in to snatch the breath from his lungs. These moments continued to come upon him at times, but gradually he had gained more confidence in his ability to take control of them.

But now, in this place of peril, the silence was as absolute as the darkness, and the elf felt a terrible heaviness press upon him. Deprived of any noise to tell him what lay around him, he could not orient himself. He needed sound desperately, and he grappled with panic as his mind filled with an eerie conviction that beyond him lay a vast and empty abyss into which he was about to fall, and in falling he would not land. Never again would he touch down onto solid ground, but would be enfolded in the dark emptiness and buried under its layers, lost forever in the silence.

His heart flared and began to hammer frantically against his ribs, fighting to break free of what caged it. The space around him seemed to draw in, shrinking around him as he struggled for breath. He lifted his head as much as he was able, sucking desperately at the air, terrified lest it be the next thing to disappear. This was a familiar fear, and one he had hoped he had mastered. But this moment was tenfold stronger, and it filled him with horror and despair. There was no sound to bring an answer to his questions, no reassuring voice and touch to calm him, nor would there be. Aragorn was gone. Torn violently away from all that was familiar, held in a place of danger from which he could not hope to escape, the elf knew that this time there was no one to whom he could turn for help as he struggled with his mounting terror.

Frantically kicking out with his legs, he shoved himself against the post, trying to put distance between his body and the endless emptiness and gain some air. Unthinkingly he slammed his bare heels against the stone floor. Sharp distress was his reward, but not his only one, and he jerked his head up, listening as a faint echo came back to him. Two more times he struck the flagstones, bearing the pain in his feet as he focused intently on the sounds that returned.

There were walls around him, solid and reassuring. Though they were meant to confine him, he felt an overwhelming sense of relief that they were there, for they told him of the contours of his surroundings. He turned his attention next to the pillar to which he was bound, clutching at it with his fingers and pushing his spine against it, welcoming the stability of the heavy structure. It would not shift. There would be no breaking free of it, but the solid reality of it comforted him.

Directing his attention to the sensations of his body as it interacted with his environment, he focused on these in order to bring his panicked thoughts back under his control. He shifted his legs, feeling a new rush of cold penetrate his leggings as he pressed them against a different part of the floor. He twisted his wrists inside their leather bindings, not so much with the intention of freeing himself as needing to concentrate on the creaking sound they produced as they rubbed against each other. These too echoed slightly off the cell walls and returned to his sensitive ears, but in a way that was different and much less painful than slamming his feet against the floor had been.

For some time he continued his efforts to produce noise, working thus to quell the imaginings of his mind. Slowly his frantic gasps became more controlled and the horrid feeling of being buried under a tremendous weight of darkness began to lift. There was a solid world around him; he knew this now, and at last he was able to sit quietly, rest his throbbing head against the pillar, and just breathe.

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You look just like her.

The mocking voice charged him with horror. Who had Ramhar been speaking of? He might have meant anyone… a woman in the city, his wife… but Legolas knew, with a terrible conviction that could not be disregarded, that the man had been speaking of his mother, the elf-queen. Laughing and gay, wise and beautiful, she had been loved by all who had known her. The elf-queen, lying in the dirt with a sword through her breast, a wilted leaf clutched in her hand.

Legolas had overheard Aragorn and Ramhar exchange heated words about their respective blades. There had been a connection between the weapons, and Aragorn had noticed it. The ranger had tried to shield Legolas from this knowledge, but the elf was certain that the appearance of the two blades must have been similar, and he recalled that Ramhar had taunted him with his weapon, inquiring if he had ever seen such a sword before. Legolas was certain that he had.

But if the killer of his mother was Ramhar, what then was Legolas to make of the orcs that had been found slain, taken down by the elven warriors who had fought to protect her? How had a man from Dale come to be leagued with creatures of Mordor? And who was the old man who had met them on the trail with the wagon and had spoken with Ramhar after Legolas had been brought to this room?

The elf shook his head in frustration. Being forced to wait helplessly for whatever his captors had planned for him had made time slow to an intolerable crawl. He could not be sure how much of it had crept past, imprisoned as he was by both darkness and silence, but time was moving entirely too slowly. He wanted answers. It had been some hours at least since he had been left alone, though he knew it could not yet be night. Night was when his captors had indicated that their plans would be implemented. They would come for him during the dark hours, he expected, and not before. Perhaps then there might be a chance to talk to Ramhar and demand the truth, before they killed him.

Legolas pulled against his restraints with a groan. The hours of idleness and pain were wearing on him, his bruised back and shoulders pressed against the post, his body stiff and aching from all it had endured. The beat in his head flared and ebbed, flared and ebbed, writhing like tendrils of fire across his skull and down his neck. During the moments that the pain was not requiring all his concentration to withstand it, he had made efforts to free himself. It had been an impossible goal, particularly as anything beyond the smallest of movements was effectively halted by the strap securing his neck to the pillar, but his struggles had served to keep his mind occupied when it began to drift again toward fear. He had gone about testing his restraints systematically, not with the wild panicked thrashings of before, when the men had first taken him. The thorough, methodical investigation of the leather straps had helped him to focus outward rather than descend within himself again, where terror and grief continued to wait in the shadows of his mind.

Though he was exhausted, he had not slept. The close press of danger would not permit any lessening of vigilance. He remained awake, tensed and alert for anything that might indicate that a change in his situation was at hand. Thus when there came a quiet rattling from the direction of the door, his head came up instantly and his back straightened. His attention rushed to the sound, the first he had heard beyond those of his own making. It was so consoling to finally have proof of another person's existence in the dark silence that he nearly whimpered in gratitude, but he swallowed the compulsion instantly and clenched his fists, readying himself for whatever his captors had now come to do to him. He did not turn his head as the door creaked open, but when the newcomer stepped across the threshold the elf breathed a sigh of relief. It was neither Ramhar nor the old man who had entered. The steps were quieter than Ramhar's, and more hesitant. The door was closed again, but not so far as to engage the latch, and the steps drew near. Legolas expected this was a guard come to check on him, and he raised his chin slightly to let his captor know that he was awake and aware. He did not expect to be spoken to, but in another moment the man addressed him quietly.

"I have water. Are you thirsty?"

It was the voice of the young soldier – the one who had attempted to help him earlier. Legolas did not respond, though he did allow himself to relax back against the pillar, hopeful that there would be no abuse forthcoming. But he was keenly on his guard, unwilling to place trust in anyone who had been a part of his abduction and Aragorn's murder. He turned his face away, and heard the young man sigh.

"I cannot blame you for that," the soldier murmured. "You have been ill-used. I promise you the water is untainted. Please accept it. You must be thirsty."

Valar knew the young man spoke the truth. The dryness of his mouth had become a torment, and at the very mention of water the elf had felt his throat constrict with need. And he longed to have the gag removed, if only for a short time, to ease the cramping in his jaw. Now he heard the stopper being removed from the container, and he turned his head back again. He nodded.

The guard seemed to hesitate, his boots scraping against the flagstones but not drawing nearer. Then he cleared his throat and said, "If I remove the gag, you will not curse me? I do you a kindness. I do not wish to be harmed for it."

Legolas shook his head in irritation. What nonsense had these people been told? Did this man truly believe that he could cast enchantments with his voice? It was absurd.

"I cannot remove the blindfold. The other guard has gone for food, but he will return soon. You must permit me to replace the gag immediately. If he catches me helping you…"

Legolas nodded again, and the man moved forward and dropped to his knees beside him. Strong fingers fumbled with the knots behind the elf's head, and then the thick cloth loosened and was eased from between his teeth. Legolas sighed audibly and spent a moment working out the ache in his jaw, and then he felt a light touch as the guard pressed his hand under his chin to angle his head up. The flask was set against his lips. As the cool water began to flow the elf gulped hastily, the fluid threatening to spill over his face, for the man's hands were shaking. Legolas drank until the container was empty, and listened as the stopper was replaced.

"I am sorry – I must replace the gag now," the guard said, and the sodden fabric, already gone cold, was pressed against Legolas' mouth. The elf turned his head away quickly.

"He is not yet returning," Legolas stated in a voice strained and roughened by his trials. He scarcely managed to push the words beyond a whisper, but if one were to judge the volume of his voice by the reaction of his guard, one would have thought that he had shouted. With a startled oath the young man clapped a hand sharply across the elf's mouth and pressed hard.

"You promised me you would not speak!" he hissed.

Legolas wrenched his head free. "I promised I would not curse you," he stated angrily, taking care to keep his words low so they would not carry beyond the walls of his prison. "I do have a voice, and I will use it if you will permit me. But I will not put a spell on you, if that is what you fear. I possess no such ability."

The young man's whisper was rushed. "You cannot -?"

"Harm you with my voice? No. If I had such power I would have saved my friend from death last night, and I would not be here now." The elf broke off, his hoarse voice faltering. He swallowed painfully, and sighed. "Whoever has been telling you such things about elves is talking nonsense. And at the moment, my attempts to speak cause me far more pain than they do you."

"Did you say that the other guard is not yet coming back?"

Legolas indicated the door with a restricted jerk of his head. "Am I correct in assuming the portal is not quite closed? I do not hear his step. Check the corridor for yourself if you doubt me."

The guard made his way quickly to the door, and it creaked slightly as he pulled it back. Then he withdrew and returned to what he appeared to judge was a safe distance from the prisoner. "You will hear when he comes? And warn me?"

"Yes," the elf answered curtly. He said no more, but rested his aching head against the pillar and ran his tongue round his mouth, grateful for even this small opportunity to move a part of his body as he wished. Though he strongly desired to know what was happening around him, and what was going to happen to him, he ignored the young man. Legolas was under the strong impression that the fellow was regarding him expectantly, even eagerly. He shrugged his shoulders, grimacing as he tried to dispel the fierce agony that flared along the back of his head and traveled like lightning down his neck.

"I am sorry," the man said again, apparently having noted the elf's display of pain.

Legolas rounded on his captor in anger. "Why do you say that to me? Do you seek forgiveness for abducting me and murdering my friend?"

The young guard answered quickly, and with equal heat. "I had no part in that. I did not lay a hand on him."

"But you were present when he and I were attacked last night, yes?" the elf asked sharply. "You supported those who did kill him, and stood by while it was done. Do not seek to do kindnesses for me. They will not absolve you of what you did not do for him."

The man was silent for a moment, grinding his teeth together as if he chewed on the elf's words, and then he stepped closer and crouched beside his captive. "No, I suppose they will not. But we were acting on orders from our captain to apprehend those who had killed the old healer and taken his cabin, and once it was known that an elf dwelt there, spying on our city…"

"We did not kill the old man. Aragorn and I wintered peacefully in the cabin, which was empty when we found it, and in the spring we intended to go home."

"To report to your elven warriors about us."

"No. I am not a spy, but merely a traveler. I have harmed no one, but last night you murdered an innocent man," Legolas hissed. "I think you have killed men before, but fairly, in battle. They were not left to die in a burning house after having already been taken." As his grief swelled the elf turned his head away. "You seek forgiveness, but do not ask it of me. I cannot grant it." He realized his voice had begun to shake as he fought to hold back his sorrow. The words choked in his throat. "The man you killed last night was not meant for such an end. You do not realize what you have done," he whispered.

After a moment's silence the guard spoke hesitantly. "They told me elves cannot love, and that your people are demons in a form that is deliberately beautiful and entirely deceiving. But you wept when you were in the crate, and I knew that your tears were real. And now you weep again. I no longer believe that you have no feelings. You loved your friend, and you mourn his death."

"In matters of friendship and brotherhood, Elves are not so different from Men," Legolas murmured. "Yes, I loved him."

The young man's voice was filled with confusion. "This is not what I had expected. You are not what I expected. I had been told we moved against dangerous enemies who plotted the destruction of our city. But now -"

Legolas shook his head suddenly and the guard fell silent. Listening, the elf realized someone had just entered the corridor, and the footsteps were rapidly making their way along the long expanse toward his cell. He turned quickly to the young man. "The other one - he returns now."

The guard swore, and Legolas heard him snatch at something. The gag was shoved against his mouth. "Please, you must –"

The elf twisted away for a moment longer. "What is your name?"

"Koryon."

"Do not believe everything you are told, Koryon," Legolas said. The guard pressed the cloth against his face insistently, and the elf nodded. "Thank you for the water," he whispered, and opened his mouth to receive the gag. The young man secured it firmly and then he moved behind Legolas and began tugging at his restraints. Legolas heard the footsteps in the corridor quicken to a run. Something was set down with a clatter, and a moment later the door slammed open and rebounded against the wall with a bang. The second guard rushed in.

"What are you about, boy?" a man's deep voice demanded. "The door was open. Lord Ramhar said we were not to enter here unless necessary."

The young guard had schooled himself, and he yanked against the strap encircling Legolas' neck, wringing a gasp of genuine pain from the elf. His voice had grown hard. "I heard him struggling. I wanted to be certain he was not breaking loose."

"For his sake, there had better not be any sign of that." The man strode behind Legolas and wrenched at the restraints, tightening what he could as the elf gritted his teeth. Then he moved around in front of the captive. Resting his hands on Legolas' shoulders, he pressed him against the pillar. He was a big man, possessed of great strength, and he shifted one arm to set it across the elf's neck. "There will be no messing about on my watch, elf. Remember that."

Legolas felt the painful constriction in his throat as the blood began surging in his temples. He tried to nod, wanting to convince the man that he would cooperate. Were he to throw his legs up, he expected that he could land a decent kick and knock the guard aside, but to do so would only anger him further and provoke him to do real harm. Legolas dared not defy his captors; he could neither fight nor protect himself. He remained still and obedient, but his body trembled in distress and rage as he struggled to draw breath.

"Come now, Maibon. Ease up," he heard Koryon demand. The young man's voice sounded oddly distant and tinny through the roaring in his ears. "Lord Ramhar will not be pleased if you strangle his elf. Let him go."

The man jerked his arm back with an oath and heaved himself to his feet. He kicked at Legolas as he turned away, the blow clouting the elf high up on the left thigh. "Come on, then. I brought bread and stew. And we've a couple of good mugs of ale to wash it down. Sounds good, eh?"

The young man followed. "It sounds excellent. You have the favour of the scullery maids, my friend, and I enjoy all the benefits as well."

"Not all the benefits, lad. Their finest favours are reserved for me alone," the older man responded gleefully, and both guards broke into laughter.

The door was slammed and bolted. They began their meal, murmuring together over the clicking of dice, and the elf bowed his head, finally permitting one small sound of misery to escape his throat once he was certain they would not hear it.

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His body hurt. A terrible ache gripped every shaking muscle; his shoulders strained, his arms wrenched back too tightly. Ai, he hurt! Helplessly he tried to shift somehow, to tear his body free of his fetters and ease the awful burning. When his head drooped wearily, he could not draw air. When he raised it, fire split his temples and rushed down his neck. No escape.

Each minute became an eternity, settling layers of pain over him like a stifling blanket. Someone was groaning, panting hard. Quiet sounds of suffering, swallowed and lost in the darkness. He rolled his head against the wooden post, biting down on the cloth in agony. It tasted of blood.

The night hours came. He walked the edges of unconsciousness, where the footing was slippery. He tried not to go there, for he must be prepared for what was to come! But he could not fight it. His mind went where it would, rushing toward the shadows, and he was powerless to stop it. He stumbled on the treacherous slope and fell into nightmare.

Voices, muted at first, crept out of the darkness as if from a tomb. They spoke no words, but uttered cries of pain, gasps of effort and struggle. He rushed toward them into the black world. Already he knew that their fight had ended, and that they had been forced to their knees. Despair gripped him as he ran. He tried to call to them, to tell them that he was coming, but his voice was trapped within his mouth. Faster! he shouted to himself. Faster!

A woman cried out. The sword flashed up, blazing, the stones of blood shooting fire through his blind eyes. He saw it, the blade gleaming, poised to strike with no hand wielding it, and he lunged forward just as the downward stroke began. His hands closed over the hilt. He fought with all his strength to hold it back, but was tossed to the ground as if he were no more than a rag doll.

A scream, high and piercing, drove through him, rushing over his body in a torrent of pain. He clambered to his feet, clutching at the pain in his head, staring wildly around at the blackness. Where is she? Ai, what is happening?

He staggered forward. A man was groaning, still trying to struggle, but with the useless strained sounds of one who is pinned to the ground by too many hands. The sword leapt forth from the darkness once more, the brightness of it pulsing and flashing. With a muffled scream of desperation the elf caught at the weapon again, frantic to stop the second killing blow. The blade struck, dragging him with it. Aragorn's cry of agony split the air.

Blackness fell again, and over it settled a deathly silence. It was the silence of the dead, stark and without breath but for the low, triumphant laughter of a man. You look just like her. Legolas dropped to his knees in anguish.

The hands were on him now, yanking his head back, exposing his throat. He fought wildly, his eyes searching for the sword in the darkness, but saw nothing. Suddenly his voice was freed. "Where is the blade?" he shouted. "Show it to me!"

"Get that draught into him and silence him."

Something was shoved against his mouth. He wrenched his head aside. "You have destroyed the two I loved most. Do not keep it from me!" he screamed.

Bitter liquid was forced down his throat. Cloth was crammed into his mouth and held there. He raged, his fury hot against the straps that held him, but slowly his body weakened and his limbs lost their power. He slumped with a moan but remained upright, bound to the pillar. The gag was pulled away.

"Was there something you wanted to say to me, while we have a moment?"

Legolas slowly raised his head, finally understanding that this was no horrific illusion of his mind, but a living nightmare. He shuddered as the drug coursed with heat throughout his body. His lips and tongue had already begun to go numb. "You killed her," he whispered, sickened to his soul. "Four years I have sought you."

Ramhar laughed softly. "Is that so? It is a pity that after such a long effort you appear to have bungled it, my dear elf. Ah well, life is not always fair, is it? A hard lesson learned. And now it is time to go."

He was released from the post. Hands lifted him, and he was carried into darkness.

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To be continued

Another author's note: it has come to my attention that ef-ef-dot-net has warned some authors against writing reviewer responses. I have searched and have not been able to find any reference regarding this policy, and yet I do know that some stories have been threatened with removal or have in fact been removed from the site for this reason. This is very distressing news to me, as I love responding to my reviewers personally. I want to acknowledge you guys individually for all your feedback and encouragement, because your reviews really stoke the fires. You keep this puppy rolling, not me.

But I fear breaking any rules and having something catastrophic occur as a result. I'm not quite sure what I will do, but for this chapter at least, I will not post reviewer responses. My advice is to review this tale on Stories of Arda. It is a very nice site, easy to use, and it encourages communication between the writer and the readers. I will respond to reviews on that site.

When is the next update, you ask? I cannot say for certain, but probably some time in September, unless we actually do start killing this house. Until then!

Disclaimer: the setting and characters of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them, and am making no monetary profit. This story is written for entertainment only.

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To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter 38: The Pawn

Awareness was slow in returning to the elf. He hovered, dreamlike, for some time, floating in the watery warmth of unconsciousness as if submerged in a hot bath, but at last, pushed by random perceptions – a cold breeze that drifted over him, an assortment of strange odors, and a pervasive pain that stole his breath - his innate curiosity gradually overcame the tethering effects of the drug, and he surfaced groggily from the dark depths to learn what had been done.

He did not attempt to move at first, but lay quietly. The draught had weakened him. He felt dull-witted, scarcely capable of coherent thought. His tongue was still swollen and numbed, and swallowing was difficult. And they had hurt him; this was easy enough to determine simply by his efforts to draw breath. His right side burned fiercely, the pain stabbed him with each shallow inhalation, and, not surprisingly, his skull throbbed with a horrible cadence that increased tenfold when he cautiously lifted his head. Swallowing miserably, Legolas pressed his brow against the floor and struggled with all his strength not to be sick.

He was lying on his belly, right arm stretched over his head and left arm tucked under his body, his hand pressed against the area of hurt at his ribs. His fingers were sticky. He shifted his legs, and immediately realized that he was no longer held by restraints. This alarmed him more than if he had woken to find his limbs still fettered. Deeply suspicious, Legolas ceased moving and attempted to push past the pain and project his drugged senses outward.

There was a slight wind blowing over him, coming from two directions he thought, cold and carrying with it the smell of the outdoors. It was not of the forest, however. The breeze brought with it different odours; that of wood-smoke freshly kindled, and bread, horses, and, vaguely, the smell of human waste. He was still in the city. And over it all, frighteningly close, was the stench of blood freshly spilled. He inhaled silently, trying to pinpoint its source, but it was all around him, it was on him, and for a moment he had to fight the urge to leap to his feet in alarm. He remained as he was, quivering with tension, and tried to make out what it all meant.

He was not outside. He lay on what felt like a thick rug, intricately woven and slightly perfumed, and the breeze blew quietly over him from what he decided were two open windows set some distance apart. The soft rustling of light curtains shifted on the air, and somewhere beyond it he heard the steady ringing of hammer against metal as a blacksmith labored in his shop. A slight smell of smoke lingered on the air – the acrid smell of a torch gone out. And some few feet from him he heard the dying sighs of a hearth fire. He had been brought to a room then, and been freed of his bonds, but for what purpose he could not fathom.

He lay still and listened carefully, trying to determine whether he was alone. He heard nothing to indicate any other person was in the room with him - no breath, no creak of leather or rustle of fabric – but he waited long, not daring to move lest someone indeed lurked in the shadows, waiting for him to wake.

Finally he twisted his right hand, intending to set it against the floor and push himself to a seated position. As he did so, he realized for the first time that his fingers were folded around an object that felt completely familiar in his grip. Scarcely able to contain a cry of shock, he recognized it as his own fighting blade; the long white knife given him by his father when he had reached adulthood and taken his vows as a defender of Mirkwood. How has it come to be placed in his hand?

Slowly he drew it close, and as he did so he noticed that his fingers were covered in a tacky substance, half-dried and smelling of meat. With a grimace of revulsion, he investigated his weapon. It was bathed to the hilt in blood.

Heart pounding, the elf forced himself to his knees, but as he did so a sickening pain tore through his right side. Dropping the blade with a gasp, he pressed both hands against his ribs, feeling the warm seep of his own blood soaking through his shirt. Dizzy with hurt and the stupefying effects of the drug, he bowed his head over his knees and struggled to steady himself.

What game do they play with me?

Finally, clutching his injury with his left hand, he gritted his teeth and sat up. He swept his right hand outward, reaching into the darkness. Here was a wall, and the edge of the rug. The legs of a table…

Turning without thought toward the window nearest him, searching for fresher air to clear his head, he encountered a cascade of fabric that had fallen to the floor. Tracing it upward, he recognized the feel of linen sheets and blankets of silk overlaid with a coverlet of finely woven wool. Grasping at the mattress, the elf pulled himself to his knees and investigated the bed.

The bed-clothes were snarled, as if a struggle had taken place; the smell of blood was strong here. Filled with foreboding, his heart hammering, Legolas reached – and met skin. Startled, he pulled away, and then reached again. His fingers closed round an arm.

He knew instantly that the man was dead. Though the skin still radiated some warmth, it was colder than it should have been were the body living. Legolas' fingers scurried over the twisted corpse, seeking the face. The eyes were open, the mouth as well, but the elf could detect no breath. Silently, he pressed his fingertips over the lids to close the man's eyes, and then he closed his own. The plot of his captors was clear to him now.

He turned again toward the window, thinking to crawl to it and assess how much of a drop it might be to the ground. Perhaps he would not be seen, and could somehow make his way to a hiding place. There he would think on what to do next.

But escape was not to be. No sooner had he started for the source of the fresh winter air when he felt an almost imperceptible tug on his right ankle. Something scraped across the floor and toppled behind him with a terrific crash. Crockery splintered around him, and the elf felt himself suddenly splashed with water. He had upset the bedside washbasin.

Legolas grasped at the thin string binding his ankle and broke it. The other end of it had been tied to the leg of the tall spindly table, thus ensuring that the instant he truly moved, he would alert everyone within earshot of his presence in this strange room. Cursing his foul luck, the elf crawled rapidly to the window nearest him and pressed his hands against the sill. It was barred.

Muffled footsteps rang out behind him, and there came a quick rapping on a heavy door. "Lord Cadean? Sir, is all well with you?" a voice called in alarm.

Frantic, Legolas yanked on the bars, but they would not give. He raised his head, seeking the location of the other window. The noise at the door continued as he crept across the floor, moving as rapidly and as quietly around the bed as his injured body would permit. Other men had joined the guard at the door, their voices merging into a confused babbling, and a heavy pounding began as they started efforts to force their way in.

And then they were upon him. Legolas struggled to his feet as the door banged open and footsteps rushed into the room. Shouts broke round him. Hands clamped upon his body, forcing him back against the wall. He fought them, struggling to pull free as the cry was given and taken up by others that carried the alarm beyond the room and on down the passage.

"Lord Cadean is slain!"

The rest was a nightmare of confusion and pain. He was struck, and struck again as he resisted their efforts to take hold of him, the blows landing on his head and on his injured side. Unable to hold back a cry of agony, the elf collapsed and was unable to rise again. They held him firmly, but he fought for nothing but air now, and consciousness, and he did not resist as they yanked him to his knees and slammed him against the wall. The voices swirled around him, stunned and horror-filled, and he retreated deep within himself as they hit him again, bound his hands, and twined a rope around his neck. The shouts and cries gradually waned, leaving in their wake an eerie metallic ringing in his ears and the thundering of his own pulse in his skull. He shook his head with a moan that he was certain he had uttered, but could not hear.

Then someone had hold of his chin and forced his head up. The touch was cold, as penetrating as the bitterest winter night, and Legolas shuddered in sudden horror. The touch of this person was familiar, and hated. His head cleared and his gorge rose. With a hiss of revulsion, he strove to pull away.

"What have we here?" the old man whispered.

More people rushed in, and above the din rang the arrogant shouts of Ramhar. "Make way, fools! What the devil are you all yammering about?"

"My lord Ramhar, Lord Cadean is slain!" someone cried.

"What?"

The room became quiet. The captain strode forward, his boots thumping on the floor until they were suddenly muffled by the thick carpets. Legolas pulled his head free of the old man's grip and lowered it, closing his eyes as he heard Ramhar take in his breath sharply.

"Murdered in his bed," the captain said in a low voice. "But not in his sleep. He struggled against his attacker. Did you not hear that?"

Legolas heard the guard swallow. "No sir. I regret that I did not."

"And who do you hold here?"

Another of the guards, his hand knotted into the elf's hair, answered. "We found this man in the room, sir. There was a crash, as if something had fallen, and we came to investigate. Lord Cadean did not respond to our calls, so we forced the door. And here he was. Making for the window, which is likely how he got in. It appears he forced the grate, sir. See how it has been twisted, so that he could slip through. Though how he managed that I cannot say."

"You cannot say? Have you not looked at what you hold?" Ramhar barked. "You there, bring that torch closer. Let us see him in the light."

Legolas was dragged forward and held on his knees. His breath came fast and frantic, and he yearned to shout to these people that it was impossible for him to have committed this crime. But a moment later he bit his lip and swallowed the words. He did not understand it, but the unexpected knell of warning that had driven him to hide his blindness from Ramhar earlier had grown even stronger within him. He had always trusted his inner voice in sudden situations of peril, following his natural instincts even when they seemed to make no sense, and more often than not his choice to go with his immediate impulses had been the right action. Like any creature of the forest, his instincts guided him now. He kept his eyes and his mouth tightly closed, struggling to keep his wits about him as Ramhar grasped him by the hair and wrenched his head up.

"You imbeciles," the captain hissed. "This is no man. Behold." His free hand swept Legolas' hair back, revealing his ears.

The voices broke out again; cries of astonishment and fear, and murmurs of amazement. "Then it is as you told us, my lord!" a man called out. "The elves come!"

"We must prepare!"

"Hold, hold," Ramhar said. "I have long expected this, but we do not yet know this elf's origin. Is he simply a rogue acting on his own, or if he is part of a small band of outlaws? The greater threat may not yet be upon us. But wherever this one came from, it is to our great advantage that Lord Cadean was not slain outright." Legolas gasped, bending his body in pain as the captain suddenly pressed his fingers against the wound in his side. "Our dear lord fought bravely for his life, and managed to sink his blade into this elf. It hindered his escape. Take him to the prison and secure him well. We must convene the council with all haste to discuss our security. We are confused and vulnerable now, with no ruler to guide us. Our enemies will attempt to take advantage of that."

"We need not be without a ruler, Lord Ramhar," the soft voice of the old man crooned. "This is a dangerous time. We need a firm man, a warrior, to guide us now. I know where I cast my vote, and I do it now."

"No, my lord Malcovan. We will call a council. All must be in agreement, and I will abide by the wishes of the people in choosing a new ruler. Come now, there is much to be done. Take the elf and guard him well. I will deal with him later."

As Legolas was hauled to his feet and pulled forward, a man called out to Ramhar. "Here is his weapon, sir. I found the blade on the floor beside the bed."

"I will take it," the captain said. "But wait! What is this design on the handle? By all the gods! I recognize it. Stop! Turn the elf toward me."

Legolas was pulled round and shoved against the wall. He continued to hold his eyes closed as Ramhar grasped his chin, forcing his head up. "You are from Mirkwood. Your weapon tells me so. I know those elves… I know them well. And you…"

Legolas' head was shoved to the side and back again, as if Ramhar was taking in every aspect of his face. He heard the man take in his breath. "So it is. I never expected he would send one so dear."

Ramhar grasped the elf by the hair and stepped to the side. "Look well upon this face! Our worst nightmare is upon us. This is no rogue elf, but Prince Legolas, the youngest son of the elven-king himself!"

The room exploded with cries of alarm. Legolas' blood went cold. He began struggling against the men holding him, trying to fight his way free of this horror. He opened his mouth to scream the truth aloud, to put a stop to this farce, and found that he could not utter a word. His throat seemed locked, his tongue thick and unresponsive. The drug had done its work well. Frantically he fought to find his voice, to free himself of the hands that held him, but they twisted the rope tied round his neck until he doubled over, choking for air. Through it all he heard Ramhar's shouts.

"The elven-king sent his own son to murder our lord in the dark of night! We need no further proof of his treachery. He seeks to throw us into a state of panic, and then he will make his move to destroy us! Have I not told you of the menace the elves pose to us? Some of you doubted me, but there can be no clearer proof than this! We must convene the council immediately and appoint a regent, to govern the city until the boy is grown."

"I think, under the circumstances," said the old man smoothly, "we have no need of a vote now. Most of our council members are already present in this room. All will follow your command, Ramhar. You are the only one who can save our city now. You are from the lands over the mountains, and you know the elves for what they are."

"Yes!" the men shouted. "Tell us what to do, Lord Ramhar! No one else can guide us through this peril!"

Ramhar drew in his breath. "Is this truly what you wish?" he asked in a low voice. "That I should be regent?"

"Yes, yes!"

"So be it," the old man stated quickly. "The papers will be drawn today, for we dare not have division among us. We must act quickly, and decisively."

As the elf finally managed to find his breath and straighten his body, Ramhar began to speak. "You honor me with your confidence. I shall accept the position and rule the city of Carbryddin until the boy Tarnan is grown. Lord Malcovan will advise me in all things, for he is wise in the ways of the world and one of your own people. And I shall retain command over the army. You know that I have been training the men in tactics of war. You will find them ready to meet this challenge. I will keep your city safe from the evil that threatens your loved ones. The elven-king and his kind will be destroyed."

Legolas painfully raised his head. "You lie…" The words were terribly difficult to get out. "Forced… forced me…"

"Take him away," Ramhar hissed. "But do not harm him further."

"Kill him, my lord!" someone shouted. "Send his severed head back to his father!"

"Kill him!"

"No. We need him. We will treat his wound," the hideous voice of the old man whispered, and the cold hands again brushed along the elf's cheek. Legolas flinched, unable to tolerate the contact. "He will regain his voice, and then we will make him sing."

"What Lord Malcovan says is true. We have the opportunity to get information from him," Ramhar stated. "I will be paying Prince Legolas a visit very soon, and I will learn all there is to know of his people and of his treacherous father's plans."

Legolas lunged for him. The guards hauled him back. The chorus of voices had begun again; shouts for revenge, Ramhar barking out orders, the quiet murmurs of those beginning to attend the body. Footsteps hurried about the room, and in and out the door. Thinking of nothing but reaching Ramhar and somehow taking his life, the desperate elf did not at first hear the light, rushed footsteps that signaled the arrival of someone new.

"Stop him!" the frantic voice of a woman called from beyond the doorway. "Someone stop him!"

"Do not let him in here!" Ramhar shouted.

But it was too late. Legolas froze in horror as he at last realized who had fought his way into the room. He pulled back, struggling with his captors to turn his body, trying somehow to shield his face from his friend.

"Father!" the child's voice cried out. "What is happening here? Father!"

"Get him out!"

The sounds of a struggle began. "No! Let me go! Father!"

Ramhar's voice was heavy. "Release him. Let him see what he must."

Swift footsteps ran to the bed, and Tarnan screamed. Legolas bowed his head, tears spilling from his eyes as he listened to the strangled sobs of the devastated boy. He stood quietly in the arms of his captors, no longer fighting, and the room had grown quiet as a tomb but for the sound of the child's weeping.

"Papa…"

A woman's skirts rustled past, her low voice murmuring comforts as she tended to her young charge. The people had fallen silent, and some of them began to move slowly from the room.

"Take him away," Ramhar snarled, and Legolas was pulled forward. He tried to keep his face turned, praying that he would go unnoticed. He kept pace with his keepers now as they lead him out, desperate to be quit of the room.

Just as he felt himself crossing the threshold, there came a terrible cry from the boy. "Legolas?!"

The elf was dragged to a halt. The room was filled with horrified gasps as Ramhar grabbed Legolas and wrenched him around. His voice rang out harshly. "Tarnan, do you know this elf?"

The boy hiccupped, his sobs catching in his throat. "I… I…"

"Answer me, boy! Do you know him?!"

Legolas shook his head desperately, fighting again to utter words clearly, but the child was already speaking. His voice was filled with confusion and fear. "I… Alun and I met them one day. He and his friend were staying in… a place up in the hills."

"Alun took you to see him? How many times?"

Tarnan's voice had become wary. "I… do not remember."

"But it was more than once."

The boy sniffled. "Yes," he whispered. "We visited several times. I liked him. He was so nice…"

"He is your father's murderer," Ramhar hissed, and the child cried out in dismay.

"He cannot be! We talked, and we…" Tarnan broke into sobs. "We were friends!"

"No friend is he to you. He has taken advantage of your innocence, and has betrayed you."

The boy wept. Someone stirred beside Legolas, and again he felt the cold touch upon his face. A fingernail sliced across his cheek like a chilled blade, tracing the tracks of his tears. The elf flinched and turned his face upward, his empty eyes seeking the heavens as if beseeching them to open up and take him in. The old man breathed his rotted stench quietly into his ear, and only Legolas heard the words that he uttered. "You weep for the boy? Yes. Hearts will be broken, and bodies too, to meet the requirements of my Master. Children and elves will not be spared. No one will be spared."

Legolas felt his heart convulse. He swallowed in horror, shuddering under the hideous caress of Malcovan's fingers, but he did not move. "Your master?" he whispered hoarsely.

"You are an elf of Mirkwood. You recognized what I was when you met me earlier. You recognize me now. You feel it in the very depths of your soul." Cold terror swept over Legolas, and he bowed his head. The old man chuckled. "I see there is no misunderstanding between us. You know whom I serve, and you are alone in your knowledge. These foolish Men realize nothing."

The calculated malice of the old sorcerer was overwhelming, a thin yet powerful extension of what lurked, coiled and watchful, in the darkness of the eastern reaches of Middle-earth. Filled with helpless dread, Legolas struggled anew to break the touch of those hands.

He was dragged from the room. Behind him the sorcerer laughed, the boy wailed, and the men shouted. Above the tumult rang the voice of Ramhar. "Ready the army! We will march as soon at is possible. Secure the elf in the lowest dungeon. And then find Alun and bring him to me. He has much to answer for."

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To be continued


Author's note: it was my sincere desire to keep this story moving at a good pace, but unfortunately real life has other ideas. My child is unwell, and she requires my full attention at this time. Until I hear her laugh again, I cannot write another word. Thank you for understanding.

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them. This story is written for entertainment only, and no monetary profit is being made.

Author's notes: as always, my deepest appreciation goes to Lisette for her beta work on this chapter.

Hello! I am delighted to be giving you a new chapter at last. Tis the season for giving after all, and this is the least I can do for all you good people after I received so many thoughtful and concerned well wishes regarding my daughter. She is better, though the battle continues. She suffers from an anxiety disorder, and her behavior had become very frightening toward the end of summer. She is under the care of professionals now, and her ability to enjoy life is much improved. But it is a sad and distressing thing to see so much worry and fear in a little girl who is only eight years old.

Her needs will continue to come first, but I hope to be able at this point to reclaim a bit of my life for my own again and return some of my attention to this, my favorite hobby! The holiday season will dominate the ensuing weeks however, and so I will only say that the next chapter will be along some time after the New Year. Until then, happy holidays and my thanks to you all.

---Nightwing

 

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter 39: Hope Fades

The new cell was larger than the previous one had been. It was also colder, or so it seemed to the elf as he lay with the bare skin of his back pressed against the stone floor, and he wondered at this sensation. Normally, the mild coldness of a room would not have bothered him at all, but there was nothing normal in any of what had been happening to him of late. He had been abducted and his friend slain, and he had been framed for the murder of the lord of the city. He had been drugged and injured by his captors. After all that had been done to him the cold should have been the least of his worries, but it concerned him nonetheless as he lay shivering, for he wondered if this peculiar discomfort indicated that the vitality and strength of his body had begun to wane. Perhaps it had finally been forced to endure too much, and had reached the point where it had begun to die.

He knew he had never fully regained his health after the orc attack that had left him blind. His ability to continue his life with something resembling normalcy after his recovery from the poison owed much to Aragorn’s ability with medicines. The man’s skill had held the pain in Legolas' head at bay, aided his sleep, and given strength to his limbs. Without the herbs, and he had been without them now longer than ever before, the elf feared he was growing weaker. He was noticing changes. The pain in his head had deepened somehow, as if the roots of it had increased in strength until they had at last broken past the fragile barrier that Aragorn’s treatments had erected.

The physical travails that he had recently undergone at the hands of his captors had added significantly to his distress. The blows to his upper body that he had endured during his abduction had done harm. A deep penetrating pain had been unleashed in his neck at the site of the old wound. It burned and tingled oddly. He could turn his head, but was reluctant to do so, and so he lay still and awkwardly investigated the stab wound in his side with his manacled hands.

It was with relief that he noted that the bleeding had stopped at last. The guards had not bandaged the injury. They had given him no aid at all, but had simply abandoned him after dragging him into the dungeon and locking a heavy metal collar round his neck. The chain leading from it was affixed to the wall, but it was long enough to permit some freedom of movement. He had remained on his feet, standing silently as they had shackled his hands together before him, cut what remained of his shirt from his body, and mocked him as they placed a filthy bucket beside him for his needs. It had obviously never been emptied of the waste from the previous prisoner. He had stood, head held high until he heard the door slam and their footsteps recede down the corridor. Then he had kicked the revolting receptacle away from him and fallen to his knees.

It was difficult to ascertain how much blood he had lost. The blade had been driven into his right side, just under the lowest rib. He did not think a lung had been punctured. It pained him to breathe, yes, but it was not so difficult that it caused him panic. Nor had he bled so profusely that he had feared for his life. The wound had only oozed, not gushed. Ramhar himself had probably inflicted it, and had done so with care so as to hinder the elf and make it seem as though a struggle had occurred between Legolas and the murdered lord. The wound was not meant to kill.

And so Legolas had rested quietly for some hours - until perhaps midday had passed - and held pressure against the injury as best he could with his hands, permitting what healing his body could manage on its own. No help would be forthcoming from his captors. Only once had someone entered his cell – the young guard, Koryon – but he had only come to ensure that his prisoner was still effectively held, and still lived. He had said nothing. Legolas assumed that Koryon was not permitted to assist him, and the elf had not expected it anyway. He had remained silent as well, lying quietly while the security of his fetters were checked and his hands gently pulled aside to reveal the wound, and then the young man had left him. But Legolas had heard him sigh and mutter something under his breath as he departed, and it renewed his hope that he still might have a friend in Koryon. 

Noises came now and again from above him. Muffled they were, but the tumult caused by the morning’s events were conveyed clearly enough to the captive who lay in the dungeon below. The scene was not difficult to imagine. The thunder of rushing feet, the shouts of men, the cries of women all served to bring to life the chaos into which the household of Cadean has been thrown upon the murder of their lord. No doubt the horrifying events were being retold throughout the city with lightning speed, and Legolas wondered if the army was already preparing for the march upon Mirkwood.

This particular facet of the situation made little sense to the elf. Whatever Ramhar's reasons for his hatred of the elves, and it certainly seemed deeply imprinted upon him, he could not possibly hope to defeat Thranduil's folk in battle. It would take weeks for an army of any size to struggle its way through the mountain passes, and once it did emerge on the other side there still remained a considerable trek to the borders of the elven realm. The men would be spotted by the elves and met long before they could possibly reach Mirkwood, and their prowess in battle, however strong, would never match those of the Firstborn. If it truly came to battle, there would be a bloodbath. The men would fall. If Ramhar was as well acquainted with the elves as he claimed to be, surely he would know this? What did he hope to accomplish in attacking them? It made no sense.

Legolas still could not remember ever meeting Ramhar, though he had spent considerable time trying to recall his own doings in Dale in recent years. The man was from the realm of King Bain, and certainly his path must have crossed at some point with Legolas' for him to recognize the elf as the son of Thranduil. There had been many times that Legolas had ridden into Dale at the side of his father, and alone as well, to meet with Bain and discuss matters of concern to both Dale and Mirkwood. The elves had always entered the city of men openly, and with the flair and majesty that Thranduil enjoyed displaying as sovereign of his realm. It was not surprising to Legolas that he was known to the common folk of Dale by sight alone, even if he had never made their acquaintance personally. This must be how Ramhar had recognized him.

The elf was certain now that Ramhar was the murderer of his mother, but why that deed had been done he could not fathom. A strike against Thranduil, obviously, but what past event could possibly have caused such hatred against the elven-king, and such a terrible desire for revenge? And murdering Thranduil's queen had apparently not been enough to satisfy Ramhar's rage. Now, four years later, he was planning a full-scale assault upon Mirkwood. Why?

Legolas knew that the old man had to be the driving force behind Ramhar's actions. He was the source of the rumours and misunderstandings, for that was Sauron's way. Legolas could not imagine that Thranduil had done anything to deserve such unrelenting hatred from Ramhar. The servant of the Dark Lord was the true source of the trouble that had taken hold in the city of Carbryddin. The young elf shuddered anew at the memory of the cold fingers tracing his face, the nauseating voice, and the whispered promises of destruction. The sorcerer's proximity alone was enough to cause Legolas' courage to falter. He could feel the power of the old man; it coiled about him with the slow, dangerous movements of a viper. The force was real, and it was terrifying.

This agent of Sauron was striving in the Northlands for some terrible purpose, working to twist minds and lives to meet the Dark Lord's needs. The eventual enslavement and destruction of all the people of Middle-earth was his final goal, but in order to do so, Sauron employed many methods to further hatred between the races. Sewing seeds of distrust and causing communication to break was a powerful tool, and made all folk more vulnerable to insidious whispers. A war between the men of Carbryddin and the elves of Mirkwood could benefit Mordor. Perhaps an attack upon the elves by the northern men would be enough to distract them away from their constant vigilance against Dol Guldur, and then the evil forces that waited in the dark reaches of the forest would find an opportunity to strike a blow. The elimination of one of the last remaining elven realms was certainly one of the goals of the Dark Lord, for the hatred between the Firstborn and Sauron was long and bitter. If Mirkwood was to find itself under attack from the southwestern reaches of the forest once the elven warriors had moved north to engage the army of men, Thranduil and his people might indeed find their survival jeopardized. Or perhaps the destruction of the men of Carbryddin was what the evil ones sought. To gain land was to gain power, and were Sauron to establish another base of operations in this remote northern area, he would no doubt make use of it.

Legolas listened for some time to the muffled footsteps and shouts from above, but it was sound that gave him no real information. He feared for his people, and for the innocent men of Carbryddin who were about to be swept up in a massacre that would benefit none but those who served the Lord of Death. Deeply afraid, grieving and exhausted, he curled slowly onto his right side and sought escape in sleep, for he could do nothing to stop these events from unfolding. But sleep would offer no refuge. Dark dreams descended, rushing in on wings strengthened by pain and fever, empowered by feelings of guilt and failure, and they swept aside the comfort that he had hoped to find in retreating from the waking world.

 

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In frozen silence he waited, not moving, his eyes cast down. The hardness of the stone floor dug into his knees but he did not shift his body or attempt to rise, for how else could one who had failed so utterly present himself? He had brought the story to him who must hear it first, and had told it. He knelt in silence now, for he could not stand, nor could he lift his gaze to look into the anguished eyes of one who had loved Aragorn.

The light and warmth of the great fire offered no comfort. He could not even feel its heat, though the dancing flames bathed the right side of his face and body as he knelt beside it. The blue-grey flagstones, usually the color of evening sky, darkened to that of iron as the tears fell from his eyes to splash upon them. Silk robes silently brushed the floor. The fire leapt up as a log shifted, and the color of blood splashed across the feet of the one who had come to stand before him. A hand gently descended to caress his temple. Closing his eyes, Legolas pulled free of the touch and bent lower, pressing his brow against the cold stone. There could be no forgiveness, and no comfort. Not for this.

"Legolas, what is it you would ask of me?" a voice, softened by pain, asked quietly.

The young elf shook his head blindly. "Nothing my lord," he choked out. "But a swift sword-strike, if that is your wish."

"Legolas," the voice whispered again, and the hand touched him once more, under his chin, bidding him to raise his head. With a sigh he did so, forcing his burning eyes to meet the sorrowful ones of Lord Elrond.

"A sword-strike is not my wish, Prince of Mirkwood," the lord of Imladris said. "Is it yours?"

"I have failed you," Legolas whispered. "Did you not bid me keep watch over him, to keep him safe, even as my friendship with him strengthened into love? He is dead, and I am the cause."

"Your death will not bring him back, nor will it change what the future will bring now. Or do you desire death as a means to end your own grief?"

Legolas lowered his head again. "I am a coward, my lord. I cannot live with this pain."

The elf-lord's voice had grown hard, though not cruel. "You must live with it, Legolas. You cannot seek death for such a reason."

Elrond turned away, making for the great oak desk at which he worked. "Word must be sent to his mother," he said, picking up a quill and beginning to write. "She recently returned to her people in Eriador. I will send a messenger today, while you get what rest you can."

"I will go to her," Legolas said. He had not moved from his position on the floor, and the cracks in the flagstones blurred under his gaze. "She will hear of her son's death from me and no other."

The elf-lord turned to look searchingly at him. "And after?" he asked quietly. "Will you seek your own death then?"

Legolas nearly strangled on his words. "No, my lord. If you forbid it, then I will bear life as my punishment. And though it will never be enough, all I do from this day forth will be in his name, until our end is upon us."

"I will send you to Gilraen in Eriador. From there, choose your own path."

Legolas nodded and wearily passed his hand over his eyes. He was not finished yet, for there was another here in Rivendell to whom he must speak ere he left. And if facing Elrond had taken all his courage, he knew that facing the elf-lord's daughter would strip him of everything else.

Again, a soft touch to the side of his face angled his head up. He was puzzled, for he had thought Elrond still remained bent over his desk. Legolas' eyes widened and fixed on the steady gaze of Arwen. Her face was pale, her cheeks glistening wet in the firelight. He did not know when she had entered the room, and the sharp stab of pain he felt at the sight of her forced the air from his lungs. Shadows clung to her features, and her hands were cold.

"Arwen…"

"You will not die, Prince of Mirkwood. You will not be the one who follows him," she whispered. 

Legolas broke free of her dark gaze and glanced at Elrond. The elf-lord was staring at his daughter, the pen slipping unnoticed from his grasp to fall on the desk with a clatter. Fear was in his face, and he quickly crossed the room to enfold her in his arms.

Legolas tore his eyes from them both and buried his face in his hands.

 

*-*-*-*-*

Forgive me

A rattle brought him up with a start; the heavy door was being pulled back. Beyond it, low voices whispered. He remembered nothing but the anguish of his dream… how much time had slipped by as he lay? With gritted teeth Legolas carefully rolled onto his back, trying to clear his mind and orient himself to the passed hours, but then he shook his head and drew deeply at the air. It mattered not. If Ramhar had finally come for him, the only time that mattered was now. Legolas did not attempt to rise, but wiped the wetness from his eyes and sang softly to himself as he strove to gather his courage. If Ramhar thought to force him to talk of his father and of the secrets of Mirkwood, he would be given false information. If he had come only to deliver death, that would be met with song. Legolas sang, and so he did not recognize who had entered the room until the man had come to him, knelt, and grasped him by the hands.

"Valar’s breath, Legolas, how the devil did come to be here?"

The elf gasped and struggled to raise himself. "Alun?"

 

The man pressed him back. "Lie still."

"You must flee! They seek you… "

"I know it. I have little time, but I could not leave without trying to see you."

The elf's head spun in confusion. "How did you get in here?"

"Koryon admitted me. He will not tell them." Legolas felt strong hands investigate the heavy metal collar about his neck, and the chain clanked dully against the wall as Alun fiddled with it. "Ramhar holds the keys, curse him," the man said. "I cannot get these off you."

Legolas shook his head. "Do not trouble yourself. You must get out…" He paused for breath, and closed his eyes with a grimace as his injuries sent a spike of pain through him.

"What have they done to you?" the soldier demanded in an angry growl. "This wound in your side is untreated."

Legolas did not answer. There was no need, and after a moment's pause Alun spoke again. "I know what they have said – that you murdered Lord Cadean - but I know that is not possible. How is it you are here?"

The elf sighed and pressed his hands against his ribs. "I… what time of day is it? I cannot tell any longer."

"It is past midnight."

"Is it? Then it was two nights ago that they came to the cottage and took me by force. I have been held captive since, and framed for the murder of your lord. Alun, the boy…"

"I have not seen him. I hate to think what he is going through, but I dare not try to get to him. I've been on the run since dawn, and soon will slip from the city under cover of darkness."

"He was there… he saw it all… his murdered father. And he saw me."

Alun sighed heavily. "Poor lad. If I can get to him later I will. Tarnan will know the truth about you. I swear it." He paused, and then asked in a low voice, "Legolas, where is Aragorn?"

"He is dead," the elf whispered. "They left him to die in the cottage. Ramhar only wanted me."

The soldier swore softly. "Then it is as I feared. The house was come upon yesterday by one of my men, burned out. It still smoldered. The walls remained standing, being made of stone, but the roof was collapsed. He went in and poked around a bit, and…" Alun hesitated.

"Tell me."

"He found the body of a man within. I am sorry, Legolas."

Legolas turned away. Alun murmured something, his hand on his shoulder, but the elf did not hear it. He thought he had accepted that his friend was gone, but learning this, the irrevocable truth, brought fresh pain to him. There could be no denial now, no hope that Aragorn had escaped somehow. The elf choked as he struggled to speak. "They burned him alive, Alun. I heard his screams."

"No," the man gasped.

"I brought this upon him. He was far from where he longed to be. He should not have stayed in these lands to care for me."

Alun's hand tightened on his shoulder. "You are not responsible for this. There is no one to blame. Aragorn was a man who made his own decisions and stood by them. I cannot imagine that he ever regretted his choice to remain with you when you lost your eyesight."

"His choice was wrong," Legolas hissed. "He should have gone home."

"In speaking thus you dishonor his sacrifice. His life had meaning, and if he chose to give it for his friend, in trying to protect you…"

"It was I who should have protected him," the elf stated through gritted teeth. "He died because of me, and it was wrong. His death was wrong." Legolas laughed bitterly. "His life had meaning, you say? Were there time, Alun, I would tell you of Aragorn. His life was worth more than all of ours combined, and now none of us on this side of the Grey Mountains or the other will have the world that should have been. He was our future, and I? I fancied myself his protector. Never again will I believe in destiny."

"Valar's breath, Legolas, what are you talking about?" Alun gasped. The man had moved his hand to rest it on the elf's brow.

"Aye, I fever, but my mind is clear enough," Legolas murmured, reaching up with his chained hands to brush Alun's fingers aside. He struggled to raise himself, to convey more urgency than he could with words alone. "Alun, tell me of the old man who guides Ramhar – what is his name?"

"Stop trying to move, will you?" the soldier hissed, and he pushed the elf down again. "His name is Malcovan. What of him?"

"He serves Sauron."

Alun met the elf's words with a hiss of fear. "Sauron? The Lord of Mordor? We… we never speak of him here. Are you certain of this?"

Legolas nodded wearily. "He told me so himself, boldly and without attempt to hide it. But I knew it even before, from the first moment that I was forced into his presence."

Alun sounded perplexed. "He is one of our own citizens! He was always slipping off, vanishing for months on end and returning with an even darker feel about him than before. We knew he had gone wrong - about as wrong as one could go in my book," he added. "I care not for him, but I never suspected this. It cannot be! No Legolas, it is too fanciful. It simply cannot be."

"He desires to keep it from the folk of the city. I believe that even Ramhar does not know. Malcovan only told me because he knew that I had already recognized what he was."

"It is difficult to believe, Legolas."

"Believe it," the elf whispered. "For the sake of all you hold dear, believe it. I would not lie to you."

Alun said nothing, but sat silently, his hands pressed against the elf's manacled ones. "Valar protect us," he murmured at last. "I will see what more I can learn. If what you say is true, we will be hard pressed to know which way to turn. Legolas, is it true you are the son of the elven-king over the mountains?"

"Yes."

The soldier blew out his breath. "That worked well for their plot, didn't it?"

"Perfectly. I cannot see how it could have gone better for them. They seem to hold all the cards. Does Ramhar ready the army to march against my people?"

"So it would seem. It'll take a bit of preparing though. They'll not start for a few days at least, and they may not even get that far."

"Why is that?"

"You'll recall that I have spoken before of an uprising? We know that Ramhar and the old man have been planning to seize power. Those of us who oppose them will gather for a meeting, and I for one will vote to strike against them. The time is now, before we lose half the men in the city on a quest that will see most of them killed."

"Will the people believe you? They have been convinced that the son of the elven-king has murdered their lord. It is a compelling reason to attack my father."

"They might believe all manner of distorted stories about elves, but not even the most gullible of men can believe that an elf who is blind can slip into our city and carry out an assassination."

"I have told no one of my blindness."

"Why the devil not?" Alun demanded. "If the people know that you cannot see, it would make Ramhar look a right idiot. It would expose him as a liar. His plan would fail right there."

Legolas shook his head. "I did try to tell them, when they found me in the dead man's room and accused me of the murder. They were screaming for revenge against my father, but I could not speak. Ramhar had drugged me. And now, when I think more on it, I will hold my secret as long as I can."

"No, the people must be told of your blindness."

"If Ramhar learns that I cannot see, how long do you think he will permit me to live?" Legolas asked sharply. "He will put his sword through me before the hour is out. And the army will march whether the people know of my blindness or not. The old sorcerer wants the men to leave this city and attack my people; it is his wish even more than it is Ramhar's. I am certain of that, and Malcovan has the greater power." The elf paused and turned his head toward the door. The guard was shifting his feet restlessly.

"I need time, Alun," Legolas continued. "Though I may not learn anything, and I certainly cannot do anything," he added, grasping at the chains binding him, "I must find out more of what is happening here. A few days, that is all I ask. Tell them of my blindness then, before the army marches, if you think it will make a difference."

A low whistle came from the direction of the door, and Alun sighed. "Koryon warns me that I must move on," he murmured. "Valar, how I wish I could get you out of here. I hate to leave you in their hands, Legolas. Whether they learn of your blindness or not, I fear you will not live long."

The elf nodded. "I will be tortured, and forced to speak of my home and my father. They have already said as much to me. But perhaps before I die I can turn their plans with false information about Mirkwood's strengths and vulnerabilities. I will do what I can to save my people. Go now, and do what you can to save yours."

Alun gripped Legolas' hands tightly for a moment and then he heaved himself to his feet. As he reached the door, the elf called after him quietly. "Alun, will you do one thing for me?"

"Name it," the soldier said.

"If you survive what is to come, will you send word to my father? I would not have him always wondering, never knowing what became of me."

"I give you my word."

"And tell him also of Aragorn. My father will send the news on to those who…" the elf faltered briefly. "Who loved him… his betrothed, and his foster-father."

"Aye," Alun said hoarsely. " Trust me for it. It will be done, Legolas."

The door crashed shut, and the lock was rammed into place. Alone again, Legolas turned his face to the wall and wept.

 

*-*-*-*-*

To be continued… (about time Aragorn woke up, don't you think?)

 

Disclaimer: the character and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them. This story is written for entertainment only and no profit is being made.

Many thanks to Lisette for keeping our elf strong.

.

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter 40: Fragile

Waiting had never been a favorite activity of the Prince of Mirkwood. He was good at it however, for if one was a warrior of the darkened and treacherous forest of Mirkwood, one spent far more time waiting and watching than in actual action. Countless days spent in silence as he and his brethren kept watch over the dark tower of Dol Guldur from hidden vantage points, hours of stalking and staking out spider lairs and laying in wait for the foul creatures, and the very different sort of waiting that was the result of the endless, mind-numbing attentiveness required of him during matters of court when his father sat upon his throne… all of these situations had instilled in the young elf-prince an ability to remain rock-still and silently aware, whatever his situation and emotional state. Whether in a tree, or crouched in a shallow hollow beneath a boulder, or even hidden underwater with only a reed to breathe through – as had happened once when he had been caught too far from safety at the edges of his lands and had sensed danger in a large party of unwashed Men passing by – he had long since learned to master himself and control his emotions whenever he had been forced to wait. There was no place for boredom, inattentiveness or fear when waiting was required of a warrior and a prince.

But what he was being forced to undergo now was a sort of waiting he had never before experienced. It was the uncertain waiting of a captive, where the only surety was the promise he had been given: that physical trials and suffering of the spirit would be inflicted upon him. When and how the tortures would be done he did not know, but be felt certain that it would be soon. It would have to be, if the army indeed was preparing to march out within the next day or so.

Legolas assumed that Ramhar's methods would be of the physical kind. He feared that less that what the old man might have in store, for Ramhar would strike only his body. Malcovan would attempt to attack his mind, and the elf did not know in what manner it would be done. He worried that he would not be capable of withstanding it, given that he was already weakened and in pain. Even were he whole and in possession of his entire strength he knew that he would still fear the old man, for how could one prepare for an attack that would involve the use of sorcery?

The silence of the room chilled the elf. He had been alone since Alun's departure, but for one check by the other guard – the cruel one - some time during the night. Maibon had taunted him with water but had given him none, and had struck several blows when he felt his prisoner had not cooperated quickly enough with his demands. Legolas had been left clutching at the wall and panting for breath after the man had finished with him. 

If Legolas was still able to judge time accurately, the hours that had since crawled past had nearly brought the dawn. It had been a full day since he had been secured in this room. Ramhar and Malcovan were undoubtedly busy ensuring their new positions and overseeing the readying of the army, but they would not have forgotten their prisoner. They would come for him soon. Morning would break, and then his time would be upon him.

With gritted teeth, Legolas pressed his hands against the wound in his side and shifted his body. The chains clanked in the quiet as he settled cross-legged and pressed his back against the rough-hewn wall. Squeezing his eyes shut he exhaled softly, fighting with the pain in his neck and head. The unending pounding within his skull was a miserable feeling, and the occasional piercing pain worse. He rested his head in his hands as he once more ran through his mind the falsehoods he would tell them.

 

Legolas knew that he could not entirely lie to his captors, for he did not know how much they might already know about Mirkwood. Ramhar was from Dale, and though he would never have come close to his father's inner realm - only elves and those invited were permitted that - the man might well have a reasonable understanding of Thranduil's territory, its boundaries and entrances, and its number of warriors. And the old sorcerer, if he did indeed spend time in Dol Guldur, would know even more.

The elf was resolved to hold his tongue as long as he possibly could. If he could stand firm against the torments they had devised for him, he would. But he knew in his heart that they would keep at it until he was forced to give voice to his agony, and when that moment came he must be certain about what he would reveal to them. He would sprinkle little falsehoods here and there amidst the true statements; that bands of roaming elven scouts were less than they truly were, and of watch posts being here when in fact they were there. He only hoped he would remember all he had thought to tell them, when they finally succeeded in making him scream, and that he would be able to draw them out and make them reveal some of their plans. Ai, if only his head did not hurt him so, for he had to hang onto his wits!

At last the door opened, and he felt himself falter, longing to shrink back from what awaited him. Fighting to master his fear, he drew deeply at the air, summoning what he could of his courage. Remember who you are, he told himself. Warrior and prince, and no plaything for corrupt men. They can take nothing from you that you do not offer.

With his features carefully controlled, Legolas turned toward the sound and unfolded his legs. Rising to his feet he stood quietly, his manacled hands clenched before him. The chain running from his collar to the wall was heavy, but he resisted its dragging weight and held his head erect, fixing his eyes as best he could upon the doorway.

The elf knew that in truth there was much they could take from him. Though he would resist them long, eventually the dual torments delivered upon his body and his mind would break him, and his self-control would crumble. In the end he would struggle, and he would scream. But he was determined to triumph over his captors in the way that mattered most. They would not get the information they sought. They must not.

Legolas loosed the breath he had been holding as he recognized the footsteps as Koryon's, and he felt his knees nearly give way in relief. The fear had been greater than he wished to acknowledge, even to himself. Drawing quick control over his reaction he waited silently, noting the haste in the young man's movements. The door was pulled half-closed, and Koryon strode rapidly toward him.

"Prince Legolas, they are coming for you soon, within the half hour. I have been told to wake you and bid you prepare yourself."

The elf nodded. "I have been expecting it," he murmured.

"They also want me to inform you that if you cooperate and tell them what they wish to know, they will be… merciful."

Legolas snorted. "Merciful? Will they cut my head from my body once I have given them the information they desire? I think not. They will kill me only after they have made me scream, and no doubt in a manner more drawn-out than a quick beheading." The elf shook his head. "They are not capable of mercy. I begged for my friend's life, but I will not beg for my own. You can take that back to Ramhar."

"They do not wish for your death. I have been asked several times to report on your condition since you were brought here. They will question you, yes, but not kill you. You are to live. I do not know what they intend, but Ramhar considers you of great value. I… I suppose you are, being both an elf and a prince."

The weight of the chain made his neck ache. Legolas grasped at it to ease the pull, and lowered his head. For a time he stood silent, tasting the full bitterness of the young guard's words, and then he sighed. "So I am to be kept as Ramhar's prize, where my days will grind together one after the other until they are naught but powder in his hands? I prefer death, Koryon."

"There may be a way to put the interrogation off for a time," Koryon said. "Alun spoke with me after he left you. He struck on an idea that might give you some time, and perhaps attention to your injuries as well."

"What did he say?"

"Ramhar will not torture you if you appear unable to bear it; he will not risk losing you. Lie down again, act sick, and they will bring in a healer. Perhaps even my grandmother will be sent for. She is a master healer, and highly skilled. She will do what she can to help you regain a bit of strength."

Legolas frowned uneasily. He was reluctant to delay what he had spent so many hours preparing to face, for the endless waiting had been unbearable. But it was true that were he even slightly stronger in body, his chances of controlling what he could of the interrogation would be improved. And at this moment his body suddenly seemed to make the decision for him. Pain lanced through him, spreading through his head and down his back in a strike like lightning, and with a groan he buckled. Koryon caught him as he fell to his knees.

"What is it?" the young man gasped. "What is wrong? No, do not try to stand."

Legolas allowed the guard to press him to the floor. He bit his lip, eyes tightly clenched as he rode out the waves of nausea that followed the pain, and for a few moments he could not speak.

"I think you need not act ill at all," Koryon said. He had stripped off his cloak to drape it over the elf's bare shoulders. "You've gone completely white – they have hurt you too much. And I see new wounds on your body. Did Maibon abuse you during the night?"

Nodding, the elf clutched at the warm fabric and drew himself up to lean against the wall. "Yes, but he did not cause this. I bear the pain of an old injury that never truly healed. It worsens in this place."

Footsteps rang out sharply in the corridor. With an oath Koryon hastened to the door and pulled it open. Legolas remained where he was, resting his head against the iron ring anchoring the chain that ran from his neck to the wall.

The steps were Ramhar's. Several men had accompanied him, but they remained outside as their captain strode into the room. "Well Koryon, is our elf awake?"

"He is, my lord, but he is very ill. His condition has grown worse since I left him last night."

"Bring the torch closer. Let me get a look at him."

Legolas listened dully as the booted steps neared him. He did not respond as Ramhar nudged him in the leg, but he shuttered his eyes closed as the man shifted to stand in front of him.

"How does it seem to you this morning, Prince of Mirkwood? Are you as sick as our kind-hearted guard would have me believe? Up now, on your feet."

The man's arrogant voice was too loud in this enclosed space, booming and echoing round, a grievous assault upon the elf's ears. Legolas winced as he struggled to a standing position. This voice was the last one ever heard by my mother. How it must have pained her. Was the old man part of her death as well? His voice is as the shadow of death… cold and so terribly dark… so dark…

 

Ramhar was speaking again, his voice harsh and demanding, and Koryon's joined it, his tone raised in sudden alarm. Words, words rushed out and spilled over the elf. Arms tried to grasp at him, but he had already fallen, toppling forward and striking his temple against the dirty floor, and he heard no more of what his captors said to him.

 

0-0-0-0-0

He woke to the sound of running water. Gentle splashing to his left – it was being poured into a basin. A cool cloth was draped over his brow, and he silently thanked whoever ministered to him. He began to raise his hands to touch the cloth, but he became aware of someone holding him by the shoulders, pressing him down, and another set of hands suddenly clamped over his bound wrists to prevent his movement. Legolas settled back, intending to cooperate, but then his hands were pulled to the side and a steaming hot cloth was placed firmly over the knife wound in his side. With an involuntary gasp he twisted his body in reaction to the pain, and was rewarded with a sharp blow to the face. A hand knotted into his hair and yanked his head back, and a thin edge of a blade was set against his throat. He swallowed, body held tense beneath the weapon.

"Do not move, elf," a low voice warned him.

"And you would do well not to strike my patient," another voice snapped. A woman's voice; dry and brittle as a winter twig, and sharp as the knife Ramhar pressed against the elf's neck. "I will not have it, sir. You will either put him into my hands for healing, or take him away now and do whatever it is you do to people in those dark rooms of yours. Make your choice."

Legolas furrowed his brow in confusion – who is this? Then he smiled inwardly. This must be Koryon's grandmother, the healer.

 

"I want him tended," Ramhar said. "But he is a dangerous creature. He will kill us at the first opportunity. He must be given no chance, for the elves - "

"Yes, yes, I know what you have said about the elves," the old woman said. "They are devils hiding behind beautiful faces, deceivers and deliverers of heartbreak. He killed our lord. I am merely going to treat his hurts, not release him from his bonds."

Legolas dared to speak. "I will not harm your healer, Ramhar."

Ramhar jerked the elf's head back even further. Legolas waited, teeth gritted against the pain the awkward position caused in his neck, as the captain addressed the woman. "I want to know precisely what you intend to do for him, Brina. I do not want him returned to full strength, but neither do I want him to die."

"I have hardly had enough time for a proper assessment of him," the old woman said shortly. She had continued to press the heated cloth against the wound, and now she pulled it away. "But it is obvious that you have brought me here to patch him up so that you can tear him apart later. I know your game, my lord, and an ugly one it is."

"You misspeak yourself," Ramhar growled.

The old woman snorted. "As you command, I will treat him. I shall bind this knife injury, and give him medicines to lower the fever. Water, for it is obvious he has been permitted none. Food… no? It would help him. Very well, he will not be given food. He can be drugged if he begins to cause trouble, though I doubt that even an elf at full health can break these chains. I fail to see why he frightens you so, my lord."

The woman had made no attempt to hide the sarcasm in her voice. Ramhar, for his part, hissed angrily and pressed his blade further into the thin flesh that covered the elf's throat. "One day I will see you look at me with fear, old woman."

"You are hindering me," she retorted, and Legolas blinked in astonishment at her words.

Ramhar shook the elf by the hair. "Do not get too comfortable under this woman's care, Prince. I will have you soon enough."

"I look forward to it," Legolas said evenly, and the weapon was pulled away. The captain rose to his feet and strode from the prison cell in offended silence.

"Idiot," the old woman muttered, and then she broke out laughing.

"You do not fear him?" Legolas murmured in bewilderment.

Koryon, who had been holding the elf by the shoulders, now released his grip. "My grandmama fears no one," he stated proudly.

"It is difficult to fear much of anything once you get to be my age," Brina cackled. "But, yes, I do fear him, for he has the power to harm my loved ones."

"And do you fear me?" Legolas asked, wincing as he rolled his head on the floor to loosen the cramped muscles in his neck.

"No, the woman said softly. "Koryon told me what they did to you. I know that you did not kill Lord Cadean, but the folk of the city do believe it. You are in a terrible pickle, young prince, and no mistake. It is beyond my ability to help you with that. But I will give you what aid I can. Let me have a look at you."

Legolas lay quietly and endured the uncomfortable things that had to be done as the woman cleaned and dressed his wounds. He was not pleased that he had collapsed before Ramhar. To display such weakness before his captor was a shameful thing, but perhaps it had been for the best. Even if he had only gained a few hours, he would be better able to face his enemies when they returned for him.

The woman spoke as she sponged his wounds. "You've got some great bruises across your back, but they already are fading. The manacles are cutting your wrists." She held his hands gently and applied a salve, cool and soothing on his broken skin. On the scent of valerian and balm drifted the memory of Aragorn.

Brina sent Koryon for blankets, and once the elf had been tended and given water and medicines to drink, she wrapped him carefully and set a pillow under his head.

"Well now, that's that," the old woman said briskly. "Stay under those blankets and rest as best you can. I must say for all my healing experience, you are the first elf I have ever tended. I thought my chance of meeting one was long past, and I would simply have to remember the story my old friend used to tell me about them."

Legolas stirred under the blankets and raised his head. "Your old friend?"

"Yes, the man in whose house you stayed – Gildwas."

"He had met elves?"

"Indeed he did, though it was long ago. I see you would like to hear the tale."

"Very much so, if you have time to tell it."

"I should have the time, if Koryon will mind the corridor and let us know if anyone approaches?"

"Of course, Grandmother." The young man retreated and quietly closed the door behind him.

Brina seemed to be settling herself, and Legolas waited for her to begin. Suddenly he felt a light touch on his face, and the woman gently angled his face toward her. "I will tell you my story if you will tell me yours, Prince Legolas of Mirkwood," she whispered. "Why do Malcovan and Ramhar hate your people so, and how is it you have lost your eyesight?"

To be continued

 

Author's notes: I know some of you were expecting Aragorn in this chapter. I do apologize, but it just isn’t quite time for him yet. You see, it's about mid-morning of the third day since Legolas was abducted. Say he got nabbed on a Sunday night. Monday at dawn he was brought to the city and held all day. Monday night/Tuesday morning he was taken to Lord Cadean's room, where he was found at dawn Tuesday. Then he was held for 24 hours in his current cell. So now it's Wednesday mid-morning.

Aragorn is going to wake up tomorrow (Thursday) morning. Don't be mad at him, he's been sick! I do not believe in the super hero slogging his way through fire and agony to get to his friend no matter his state. He is human, he had been severely hurt, and he collapsed. Real stuff, and he needed time to recover.

So hang on a bit longer for Aragorn please. On Thursday night we will have a coughing, angry ranger hopping on one foot down the hill toward the city. Well, actually I expect he'll have a horse…

Another note: I have had some concerns throughout the writing of this story that it is difficult for readers to believe that Legolas' blindness has not been noticed. That is why I keep mentioning that he turns his face away from people, closes his eyes when someone stands directly in front of him, and that he has been seen mostly in darkness or in flaring torchlight, which can be shadowy and confusing. I've been worried that it's been a bit too unbelievable though.

But then I met someone in a theology class I was taking a few weeks ago. There was a group of about six of us sitting round a table, and one of my fellow students was an older man named Peter. I did notice something peculiar about him, in the way he moved his head, and in the way his hands floated when he spoke. There was an odd blackness to his eyes, but he turned them to me whenever he addressed me during our class discussion, and at those times I swear he was looking directly into my eyes with his own. But at the end of class I spotted the white cane tucked under his chair. Peter was blind, his vision taken from him entirely some years ago by diabetes.

After that first night, I paid more attention to Peter than I did to my class work! I seated myself in different places so I could take him in from every possible angle. Good thing he was blind, or no doubt he would have been made uneasy by my staring at him!

And folks, I could not see the blindness. When he was up and walking, yes. But when we were seated and discussing, not really. His eyes shifted normally and appeared to rest perfectly on mine when he spoke to me. They even appeared to be animated and alive, if you know what I mean. They had light, though it was somehow different, muted by the funny blackness. I was never able to get a very close look at his eyes, but I am thinking that perhaps his pupils did not shrink. They probably stayed wide open all the time.

It was fascinating to see, and it made me feel much better about Legolas' ability to deceive people thus far. If Peter could fool me when I was aware of his blindness, the elf should be able to fool people who are not. I'm going with it.

See you next update!

Oh, and my daughter is doing very well. Thanks again for your concern.

 

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them, and am making no monetary profit from this story. It is written for entertainment purposes only.

Author's notes: many thanks to Lisette for her fine beta efforts. It was she who first suggested an interesting twist to the story of Gildwas that Brina tells in this chapter, when a small act of kindness done long ago comes back to affect the present.

 

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter 41: Revelations

 

"Why do Ramhar and Malcovan hate your people so, and how is it you have lost your eyesight?"

The old healer's words filled Legolas with dismay. He had wanted no one to know of his blindness, though in truth he did not know why he felt so strongly about hiding his affliction. He only knew that a warning came from deep within, in the part of him that had learned to listen to the voices carried on the wind, to the sighing of the trees, and to the cries of birds as they winged toward home at day's end. It was the thing that kept him safe, and when he did not heed it, he often came to regret it later.

The elf's hands clenched tightly to the blanket's folds. He did not want Ramhar and Malcovan to know that he could not see, but did it really matter if the woman, Brina, had realized it? It was unlikely she would tell them; she obviously was no friend to his captors. But if she had seen his blindness so easily, perhaps they had seen it too. That thought filled him with fear, and it must have shown in his face, for a gentle hand suddenly came out of the darkness and lit on his face. He flinched momentarily, for a sudden touch out of the darkness was always startling, but then he found himself sighing and closing his eyes as she began to stroke his hair, and he settled his head deeper into the pillow. He was weary, in pain, and the desire to find comfort overrode any lingering fears he had regarding the old woman.

"You hide your blindness well," Brina told him quietly. "I do not think they have seen it, and I will not speak of it."

"How did you know?" he asked.

"It is my work to closely observe those who are in my care. Oft times my patients do not give me enough information with their words. I gather more by watching." She paused, chuckling. "And just now a ridiculous great spider strolled right past your nose. You never shifted your gaze to look upon him, let alone retreat so that he would not begin to explore your face."

The elf smiled. "I hope you have sent him on his way?"

"Wherever it is spiders go once they have been squashed," Brina chortled. "Ordinarily I'd have taken the little fellow outside and set him in my garden, but as it is winter, I thought a quick end would be best. I could not leave him to wander about down here once I am gone and bite my patient."

"You do not think Ramhar has noted my blindness? Has the old man?"

"Of Malcovan I cannot be sure, for I have not seen him with you. I can tell you that my grandson does not detect it, for he turns his eyes from you." She sighed heavily. "He has wronged you, and he knows it. In his guilt and fear, he averts his gaze from your face. I have not wronged you, nor do I fear you, and so I look directly. I find your face beautiful to gaze upon, but in your eyes, for all their light and clarity, there is something amiss. You cannot see, but there is pain in their depths, more than these wounds should have caused. And deeper yet in your eyes lies grief."

Legolas disregarded the comment. "And Ramhar?" he pressed anxiously.

"He does look directly at you, and closely, but his eyes are so clouded by hate that he sees nothing. Whatever vision fills his mind when he looks upon you, it is as far from the truth as we are from the heavens."

"Tell me, what does Ramhar's sword look like?"

"His sword? Well now, let me think. It is an evil-looking thing, black handle with red and black stones and a red thread running through it. The blade itself is etched with faces that are twisted in pain. Why do you ask?"

"It is the only thing I can still see," Legolas replied, and closed his eyes.

The woman drew in her breath as if she would speak, but remained silent. She merely rested her hand along the elf's cheek once more in a gesture of comfort. For a time she busied herself, plying cloths to Legolas' brow and encouraging him to drink again. The elf sank into a state of what might almost have been bliss, so great had his need been for a friendly voice and a gentle touch. He lay on his back, pressing his hands still against the tightly bandaged wound in his side, and allowed the tension in his body to ease. "Will you tell me the story of Gildwas and the elves?" he asked.

"I wish to hear your tale first, if you will oblige me."

Legolas shook his head slightly. "I am unable to answer the question you have asked about my captors. Why Ramhar bears such hatred for my people I cannot fathom. I do not know him. I can only tell you than he comes from a country over the Grey Mountains called Dale, which borders my own. He has apparently encountered my father before, and now holds a terrible desire for revenge for some perceived transgression, but he has not told me what that transgression is." The elf did not mention his suspicions of Ramhar's connection to the death of his mother.

"And Malcovan?"

"Again I can tell you nothing, except that I suspect him to be the source of the malice that Ramhar holds in his heart. I sense great corruption in the old man. He is tainted with the influence of Mordor."

Legolas heard Brina inhale slowly, and she shifted where she sat beside him. "I have suspected it," she said at length, "though it is a hard thought, and has been long in coming. Such vanity, such weakness…" She trailed off. "When I tell you of Gildwas, I will also tell you something of Malcovan. Gildwas was my mentor. He taught me the art of healing, and I studied long under his tutelage. But first, I wish to know what pains you. Koryon told me that you collapsed twice this morning, once before Ramhar. If I am any judge of your mettle, that was not a deliberate act on your part."

"It was not, but now I am grateful that it happened as it did. This reprieve has been most welcome."

"And now tell me how you have lost your eyesight, and why you are so ill. Do the two go hand in hand?"

"They do," the elf said. "But have we the time? I do not think Ramhar will grant us many more minutes."

"Let me handle him," the old woman stated brusquely. "I want to know what has happened to you."

Brina listened attentively as Legolas told her of the autumn night he and Aragorn had been attacked by the orcs. How long ago it now seemed to the elf. So much had changed since that terrible moment the dart had pierced his neck – the long struggle to adapt to his blindness, the work he and Aragorn had done in preparing for winter, Alun and Tarnan's visits, his capture, and Aragorn's death. He did not speak of these things, though they filled his mind as he spoke, but kept his words focused on what the old healer wanted to know. The poisoning and subsequent illness that had robbed him of his eyesight, and the lingering pain in his head and neck were what Brina focused on. The old woman interrupted him several times to ask quick questions and demand more details. He was asked again to describe the symptoms of the poisoning, and tell her the herbs and medicines Aragorn had used.

Brina said nothing for some time after the elf fell silent, but for "Orc poison… hmmm… hmmm…" muttered under her breath. Legolas knew she was thinking, and let her be. He was tired, and speaking of the pain in his head seemed to have given it strength once more. He raised his hands to massage his temples.

"Let me see where the dart struck," Brina suddenly commanded.

Legolas rolled onto his side, turning away from her. "The back of my neck," he said.

She swept his hair aside. Something was pulled closer, and he felt heat against his skin. "I'm just bringing my lamp closer, I shan't burn you. It is terribly dark in here. Typical dungeon atmosphere, I suppose. Too bad the full effect is lost on you. I give you my word they've put you into the most depressing one we've got." She grasped hold of the heavy collar locked round the elf's neck and pulled it up, then down. "Bend your neck, try to put your chin to your chest as best you can. This wretched iron collar doesn't help much does it? But at least we've got a bit of slack to play with. Ah, there it is. I see the mark."

Fingers began probing his neck. At first her investigation was gentle, and then she rested a fingertip on one spot and pressed firmly. The resulting sensation elicited a startled gasp from the elf, and Brina pulled away.

"The dart was made of wood?" she asked as she helped him to roll onto his back once more.

Legolas furrowed his brow. "I… cannot be certain," he murmured. "My memory of how things looked has grown faulty. But my friend voiced concern that it might have left splinters behind."

"And the poison, how quickly did it work?"

"Almost immediately," the elf responded. "I remember that well enough. It burned, like ice burns, if you understand my meaning."

"I do. And then?"

"The cold spread from my neck, rushing through my blood like a torrent of ice. I broke a sweat, though the night was cold. And my eyesight began to fade, even as my friend and I were forced to flee the orcs. After, I was sick, my stomach roiled… and then there was pain, as if all my muscles were twisted and bound. I was in agony. I remember crying out, and my friend weeping. It faded, and I recall little else. When I woke two weeks later I was blind."

"And since then your head has pained you? And your neck?"

"Yes. The discomfort has never left me, though my friend was able to ease it greatly. He too was a healer."

The woman bent lower, adjusting the blankets more snugly around him. "Tell me, young prince, have you ever been bitten by a spider? Not a little one, but one of the big spiders from your own lands?"

The question startled Legolas. "Yes," he said. "Long ago, when I was on patrol in my forest."

"And were you sickened?"

"Very. My recovery was long. It was weeks before I regained my full strength."

"And did that poison feel anything like the orc poison?"

The elf nodded slowly, his eyes widening. "Yes."

"I have something that might help you – more medicines. I will fetch them and be back as quickly as I can. If anyone comes while I am gone, feign sleep, or unconsciousness."

Legolas listened as her firm step receded. Age was in her voice, but he felt that if he were to see her, he would find that she still stood as straight and tall as a girl. The door closed quietly and he waited, pondering on spiders, but the wait was not terribly long. She soon returned and seated herself beside him once more.

"I think," she said softly, "that Malcovan has dealings with the orcs that roam nearby. There are rumours. I have seen nothing, but Gildwas suspected him – of many things."

"If Malcovan is leagued with Sauron, it stands to reason he would be on terms with the orcs," Legolas said. "Would you go so far as to say he commands them?"

"It may be so," the old woman said as she slipped her arms under the elf and helped him to sit. "Take this."

Legolas raised his hands and she settled a small glass vial into his grasp. It was knobby and he gripped it easily. "Do you think the poison the orcs used on me contained spider venom?" he asked.

"Yes I do. But more than that, I think the orcs used poison made by Malcovan, and he has added his own ingredients to the concoction. Perhaps the spider bite you suffered earlier enabled your body to survive, for I feel certain that you should have died. Malcovan dabbles in potions and poisons, and they are potent. I think not even your people could withstand it. And he has used his poisons against one of the highest in our city."

Legolas paused, the tip of the bottle pressed against his lips. He lowered it with a frown. "I have heard a story of your city," he said slowly. "The Lady, dying a terrible death with no one tending her but Malcovan."

"She said it felt as if burning ice was coursing through her blood."

If he could have, Legolas would have stared at her. The vial nearly dropped from his numbed fingers; the old woman wrapped her own hands over his to hold it steady. "She died of the same poison?" he whispered, stunned.

"I believe it a good possibility," Brina answered. "I strongly suspected Malcovan in her illness and death, and spoke of it with my friend Gildwas. And there is more. I ventured into her room after she had died. There I found the remnants of her drinks, and of Malcovan's 'remedies'. I took some of them, and have worked since to make an antidote to the poison. You hold it now in your hands."

"You give it to me?" the elf asked in astonishment.

"Do not thank me yet. This is something of an experiment, young prince. I want to see if it will ease your pain. It will not reverse the blindness, but it may help you to feel better. Or it may have no effect at all. It tastes foul, but that is of no matter. Drink now, but only a few sips."

Legolas bowed his head in gratitude, and raised the vial to his mouth. He swallowed a small amount of the liquid. It was unpleasant, with a taste that reminded him of metal and blood, and he grimaced as it burned its way down his throat and set a fire in his stomach. Brina took the bottle from him and thrust something else into his hands. It was bread.

"Quickly, eat this. It will ease the pain in your belly. And don't leave any crumbs about, or they'll know I've fed you. Now we must hide the medicine… let me see if there is one in here. I think there is…" she muttered, and Legolas heard her move to the wall beside him and begin running her hands over it, making little slapping sounds.  "Ah, here it is!" she exclaimed. "I'll need your help. It's a bit stuck. Turn round, feel the wall."

The elf did as she bade him, and she guided his hands over the stones to a spot directly above where his neck chain was anchored. He was forced to rise to his knees and reach slightly overhead. "Feel this stone with the jagged corner. Jiggle it a bit. Can you get your fingers round it? Now pull."

With a grating sound, the stone came free. Debris pattered to the floor. Legolas lowered the stone, and Brina pulled his hands back up. She thrust them into an opening – a hidden space where small items could be secreted. "Someone hollowed these into a few of the dungeons long ago," the old woman told the elf as he explored the gritty space with his fingertips. "He must have thought they'd come in handy someday, and he was right. Now, in with the vial, and a bit more bread, and we'll pop the stone back into place. I want you to drink a bit from the vial every so often, if you can. The point is to take in small amounts of the medicine regularly over time."

Having replaced the rock, Legolas was made to lie down once more. The bread had helped – he felt only a dull nausea now. "Will you tell me of Gildwas and the elves now?" he asked as he burrowed more deeply into the blankets. He had begun to feel immensely tired, but he still wanted to hear the tale, and truth be told, he did not want to be left alone. The old woman's friendliness and compassion had succored him, but he was not yet willing to lose her company.

"I shall tell you the tale," Brina replied. "I checked on Ramhar's whereabouts when I fetched the medicine; he will be occupied with meetings for the greater part of the day. Now, where to begin? At the beginning, I suppose, though I shall make it brief, as my lone listener looks as if he will soon be falling asleep. Gildwas and Malcovan are – were - about the same age. They were both born here in Carbryddin, and had been friends in their youth. Both possessed skill in the healing arts, and both chose it as their profession. But, over time, Gildwas noticed a change come over Malcovan, or perhaps Gildwas simply became less tolerant of the undesirable traits he saw in his friend. Gildwas had always been a humble man, never interested in wealth and recognition. He preferred to live simply, and in time even took himself off to the little cottage and made that his home, where he could live quietly and study in peace. But Malcovan was full of pride, and his desire for power grew. He began to put on airs, promoting himself as a healer possessed of great powers, but he could not win the hearts of the common folk. Gildwas was much loved, and they turned their backs on Malcovan, who hated him for it. He began to slip away for months on end, and none knew where he went. It was whispered that he was in search of greater powers, that he was learning sorcery." Brina's voice dropped. "It was then that the first rumours of Mordor began, but none had the courage to look into them. As Malcovan's power grew, he began to insinuate himself with the powerful men of the city. He gained influence, and the people feared him. None had the courage to stand up to him, except his old friend Gildwas.

"Gildwas suggested to Malcovan that he accompany his old friend the next time he went on one of his journeys. Malcovan was reluctant, but could hardly forbid Gildwas from traveling with him. And so the two of them set out together, and Gildwas went with Malcovan over the mountains into a land none of us had ventured into before. And it was there he met some of your people."

Brina paused as voices grew loud in the corridor. Legolas drew in his breath sharply, expecting that they had come for him at last, but the shuffling footsteps passed beyond his cell and faded. In another moment a door slammed. There was a single despairing cry – a woman's – and then silence. Brina sighed. "They are rounding up any who might pose a threat to their plans. And if they cannot find the man, they will take his wife."

"To ensure his cooperation?"

"Yes."

"Are there none who will stand against them?"

"There are, but I will not speak of them to you. I think it would be best if you do not have information."

Legolas nodded. "I understand. I cannot speak of what I do not know."

For a time the elf and the woman were silent, each lost in thought. In another part of the prison a child was crying. Legolas curled his hands into fists, pulling angrily against the chains that bound him. "Sweet Elbereth," he hissed. "Have they no mercy?"

"They are the worst of the worst," Brina stated flatly.

The door to Legolas' cell creaked slightly. "Grandmama?" Koryon's voice, breathless with dismay.

"Go to the child," Brina said. "Offer what comfort you can. I will be there directly." She turned back to the elf. "I will be brief with the ending of the story. Gildwas and Malcovan set up camp several days march beyond the southern edge of the mountains. Gildwas tried to keep an eye on Malcovan, but he was constantly slipping away. Gildwas became determined to trail him one day and see where he went. One morning, when Malcovan rose before dawn and left camp, Gildwas followed. Malcovan moved quickly, but furtively, blending with the shadows. Gildwas was hard pressed to keep up, but finally Malcovan halted in a small grove and settled himself against a tree. He began speaking, chanting was more like it, and the language was one Gildwas did not recognize. It hurt him to hear it though, as if the words themselves contained venom that dripped with every utterance. Gildwas swore the very trees shook with pain."

"The language of Mordor," Legolas whispered.

"Another man came, black-cloaked and hooded. He and Malcovan conferred, but what they discussed Gildwas could not make out. He made an attempt to draw closer, but then he set his foot upon a twig and the noise betrayed him. They saw him. The black-cloaked man fled, but Malcovan gave chase. Gildwas ran, but he could hear the voice of his old friend cursing him in that dreadful tongue, and a web of enchantment encircled him and tumbled him to the ground.

"Gildwas stared up at the face of his friend, but Malcovan had become unrecognizable; his features contorted with rage. He began waving his hands, weaving a pattern it seemed, and Gildwas' mind was flooded with terrible images. He saw people he loved in anguish, his city in flames, blood and destruction. He fought, knowing in his heart that the visions could not be real, but the horror was too much and he lost consciousness.

"He woke some time later, alone and badly hurt. Malcovan had abandoned him, and Gildwas surely would have died then and there, but as he lay on the ground in terrible pain, staring up at the crescent moon, someone came to his aid. An elf, golden and beautiful, knelt beside him and murmured comforts. He bore Gildwas to an encampment of his people, and they cared for him until he was healed.

"And then Gildwas returned home, making his way alone over the mountains. Malcovan had put it about that he had died in an accident, and as you can well imagine, he was rather shocked to see Gildwas again. Thereafter the two men were enemies, and Gildwas, in his quiet way, strove against Malcovan. But the power of the evil man grew, and Gildwas found himself shut off from the city. And, after many more years had passed, Malcovan finally succeeded in putting Gildwas out of his way."

A distant memory nudged the elf's mind. "How long ago did this happen – their journey over the mountains?"

"They were young men when they made the journey. Probably some seventy years back." Brina sighed and rose to her feet. "And now, Prince Legolas, I must go. There are others who are in need of comfort this day. Continue to take the medicine as often as you can. If I can come back to check on you later, I will."

"Thank you," Legolas said simply, and he raised his chained hands to grasp her own for a moment.

After she had gone he lay quietly. His fatigue had fled, and thoughts chased each other round and round in his mind. An image had come to him, something other than the sword for once. A young man, grievously battered and frightened, lying alone on a darkened path. He was unable to speak, so great was his distress. The memory was clear and sharp to Legolas, and he realized in astonishment that the golden-haired elf who had discovered the injured man had been himself.

 

0-0-0-0-0

 

Voices, low and hushed, flitted past where he lay. For a long time he had tried to grasp at them, to hold them still so that he could truly hear them and understand, for he felt they were of importance, but always they slithered beyond his feeble efforts. Sickness had thwarted him. Coughing and retching overtook him every time he floated near enough to consciousness to try to take stock of his surroundings, and he would fall back with a cry of agony and retreat back into the dark.

This time it was better, though his throat still felt as charred as a roast left forgotten on a fire, and he inhaled with great care, desperate to not succumb to yet another horrid fit of coughing. They had been agonizing, making him feel as if his ribs were shattering and his lungs were coming out in bloody chunks. He raised his hands, looking blurrily at misshapen white-wrapped stumps, and in another moment a slight weight landed squarely on his chest, and he shifted his swollen eyes to see what had jumped on him.

Aragorn found himself staring into eyes of such brilliant green that he gazed without blinking into their liquid depths, startled and mesmerized, and then he remembered her. And for just a moment he forgot that having someone, however small, sitting on his chest did not help his ability to draw breath. He tried to embrace her.

"Here now, this won't do, little lady," a voice muttered. "He can't breathe as it is. Can't have cats sitting on him." Hands large and calloused loomed into view, encircled the small creature, and lifted her away. Aragorn turned his head, his lips moving in soundless protest, and a moment later a startled face appeared from the blackness and hovered inches from his own. "Bones of my mother, he's awake. Arath, he's awake!" Setting Tithlam back on the ranger's chest, the fellow ran off.

Suddenly the small space where he lay was filled with faces and the clamor of many voices. Blinking as a candle was thrust into his face, Aragorn struggled to see past its yellow glare. More faces appeared, mere shadows in the dark, and the voices increased until they melded into a confusing babble.

"All right, you lot, be off! Let the poor fellow have some room," someone yelled from the back. A small bearded man forced his way through the throng, waving wildly to shoo the men away, and gazed down at Aragorn. He was grinning widely, his mouth a mass of crooked and broken teeth, and a moment later the ranger nodded in recognition and attempted a smile in return.

"Aye, you remember me then? Good, your head still works. But I doubt we can say the same for your voice just yet."

Aragorn opened his mouth to respond, thought for a brief instance about how his throat felt, and closed it again. He shook his head with a grimace and raised his hands to gaze at the bandages engulfing them. His eyes flickered to the man with a desperate question in them.

"You were a right disaster when we dragged you out of that fire, mate," Arath told him. "But you look to be in one piece. Your hands are whole, your foot too. You've a nasty burn on your shoulder as well, but it'll mend. Judging by what you've been coughing up, your lungs look to be a good deal better than they ought. You must have held your breath in that burning house longer than I would have thought possible for a man."

Arath suddenly slapped his palm to his forehead. "Ai, I must tell him you're awake! He's been waiting in a right anxious state. Stay there," he commanded, and dashed off. Aragorn looked after him in confusion. Who was waiting for him? Legolas?

 

He began to clamber free of the blankets. This was not to be however, for the instant he forced himself upright he was obliged to gasp for air, and the dreaded cough started. It bent him double, shuddering him with deep racking spasms. He wrapped his arms around his ribs as if to hold his body together and sank back, miserably pressing his face into the pillow.

"Aragorn? Valar's breath, but you're a mess."

The ranger froze and turned his head. This was not Legolas. Aragorn peered through tear-filled eyes as a man dragged a chair near and sat beside him. It was Alun, holding a mug in his hands.

"Here, Arath wants you to try to drink this," Alun said. "Smells like warg's piss," he added with a grimace. "Can you hold it?"

Aragorn nodded, and carefully cradled the cup between his bandaged hands. He raised the drink to his lips fearfully, unsure that he was capable of swallowing. But he was, albeit with great concentration. In a few minutes the cup was empty, and it had helped. He looked at Alun and whispered one word. "Legolas?"

"He lives," Alun told him. "At least he was alive last midnight, when I saw him. But he is in grave danger, and the situation is desperate. All in my city are in peril."

Aragorn listened in mounting horror as the soldier told him of the plotting of Ramhar and Malcovan, the assassination of Lord Cadean, and the role Legolas had been forced to play. And he was aghast to learn how much time had passed since he and the elf had been attacked - nearly three days.

"What time is it?" he rasped, his eyes taking in his surroundings for the first time. Alun had set a lamp beside him, and by its light the ranger could make out dirt walls and a low ceiling. He was in a cave, the blankets upon which he lay piled on the floor against the back wall. The corridor twisted out of sight; he could not see the entrance to determine if it was day or night.

"Late morning," Alun told him.

Aragorn forced himself upright. "Tell me how I can find him."

"You'll never make it on your own," the soldier stated with a shake of his head. "The city is heavily guarded at the main gate, and I've no doubt Ramhar has planted men everywhere."

"I've got to try." Aragorn had not ceased looking around him, and finally he spotted his shirt and leggings in a dark corner. He heaved himself to his feet and hobbled toward them. Alun caught his arm.

"Wait, Aragorn. We are heading down to the city tonight, Arath and his men and I. We will be meeting others. You can come with us then, and gain entry in the dark. You cannot possibly go alone, injured and in broad daylight. And you do not know where to find him."

"And if they kill Legolas today?" the ranger demanded, struggling to stifle the urge to cough.

"Then he dies, and you will be unable to stop it," Alun conceded. "But it would be folly to go down there now. You know it. Stay here, rest a bit longer and take some nourishment. Tonight I can try to take you to him before I must get on with my own business."

"Will you begin a rebellion?"

Alun's eyes flashed. "Valar willing," he said. "As for you, get back into bed. I'll fetch some stew."

Aragorn nodded wearily and allowed Alun to steer him back to the blankets. He knew the soldier was right. He could not simply walk into the city and demand to see the prisoner, and he did not know his way around Carbryddin to attempt to infiltrate it secretly and locate his friend. And he was still weak, disturbingly so. He needed food and drink, and time to examine his injuries.

"He thinks I'm dead," Aragorn whispered.

Alun looked at him strangely. "Aye, he does, and he said something that I have not been able to make any sense of. Something about your life being worth more than all of ours combined. I did not understand it. I thought perhaps it was just the fever talking."

Aragorn closed his eyes in misery. "I do understand what he meant, and the pain it is causing him. I cannot speak of it now, Alun, but perhaps someday I can."

"Very well. It got my curiosity up, no doubt about that, but I'm not one to pry. I'll get you that stew."

"Thank you. And Alun, when you return, please help me take these bandages off my hands. I want to see if I can hold a sword."

To be continued

 

Disclaimer: the setting and characters of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them. This story is written for entertainment only and no monetary profit is being made.

Author's notes: my apologies for the wait. The usual excuses apply. Many thanks to Lisette for betaing this chapter.

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To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter Forty-Two: The Reason

 

When Legolas woke, he did not at first know why. There had been no sound or disturbance; all was still in the darkness. He was warm under the blankets, curled onto his side with his hands pressed under his chin, and his pain had faded until it seemed little more than a distant throbbing endured by someone other than himself.  In this soft comfort he might even have dreamed. Not with his eyes, of course. Nothing visual came to him, but he thought that perhaps he had dreamt of water running, of music and good food and the laughter of those he loved. He had felt drowsy and relaxed, drifting on the gentle pull of memory, but now he was awake and aware, and he started as his heart suddenly leapt and began thundering against his ribs.

Casting off the blankets he stood quickly, and the cold of the room rushed over him. Voices filtered out of the darkness, coming from the corridor, and as the door to his cell was opened he pressed his back against the wall. He listened as three sets of footsteps passed the threshold, and he finally understood what had yanked him from his comforting dreams to uneasy wakefulness.

"He is here, as always, my lords," the guard Koryon said. "And he seems to be feeling stronger."

"Leave us," the old man said, and the young guard retreated hastily and closed the door behind him.

"It's wretchedly dark in here, like a tomb," Ramhar remarked loudly, as if seeking to disperse any spirits that might yet be lingering with the forced bravado of his voice. "If not for the light the elf gives off, I'd not be able to see him at all. He looks like a ghost in the mist."

"It is a gift perhaps," Malcovan whispered, "from Iluvatar to his greatly beloved Firstborn. To shine in the darkness of the world, much as a star glows in the black dome of night. But what happens to them?" the sorcerer murmured as his shuffling steps grew near. "What happens to the stars when shadows cover the sky?"

Though fear and loathing nearly choked the breath from his body, Legolas swung toward his tormentor and faced him squarely. "Do not touch me," he hissed.

Malcovan retreated with a laugh. "As you wish, Prince Legolas. I leave our guest to you, Ramhar. Should you require my assistance, you need only ask."

"I will handle him without difficulty," Ramhar responded confidently. "But I thank you."

Legolas listened intently as the footsteps of the old man faded, and the door was shut behind him. The elf then dropped his head and swallowed to clear the sickness that had risen in his throat.

"Do you prefer him gone?" Ramhar asked in a tone that seemed almost conversational.

"The old man is tainted," Legolas responded, drawing in air that already seemed cleaner with the departure of Malcovan. "I think that you do not know what he is."

"He is my long-time friend, and mentor."

"Can you not see that he is a servant of Mordor?" the elf demanded.

"Rubbish. What he is," Ramhar snarled, "is a great and powerful sorcerer in his own right. And he is the man who saved my life, after your treacherous father and king butchered my family and left me near death, lying across the threshold of my own home."

Legolas jerked his head up. "What?" he cried in astonishment. "That is why you killed my mother? You are mad! My father never – "

"He did!" the captain shouted. "He did, and I have sworn by every oath to destroy him. The first blow I struck four years ago, and now, by the grace of the Valar, his son has fallen into my hands! I knew they were smiling upon me to have granted such a gift after all my toil, all my planning. They have given me their blessing, for the good work I will do."

The elf listened in mounting horror at the wild rush of words that spilled from his captor. "It took me long to assume command of the army, to rise as I did in the favor of the lords of my adopted city and turn their hearts. Were it not for the wisdom of Malcovan, who guided me and urged me to hold back until all was ready, I would have grown impatient and marched too soon. But in that time my power had grown, and I had obtained for myself nearly all that I have desired. And now, with Thranduil's youngest in my hands… yes, it was truly meant to be. Meant to be… all will see what it is I strive to do!"" Ramhar's voice had risen with passion, and he paced before the elf, his boots ringing out sharply on the stone floor, but suddenly he stopped and stood still, his breath grating harshly in his captive's ears. Legolas waited tensely, braced for whatever was to come next.

"And now you have a decision to make, Prince Legolas," Ramhar said at last, and his voice was now carefully controlled. "If you do not speak to me in this moment, you will speak to me in the darkest hours of the coming night. I assure you, should you choose the latter, it will go the worse for you."

"And what would you have me speak of?" Legolas asked quietly.

"Don't play innocent with me. You know what it is I require of you."

Legolas nodded. "Yes, I know. And I tell you now that you will be wasting your energy. I have not guarded my father's realm for centuries simply to reveal his secrets to you, whatever your method of gaining them." The elf's voice was filled with unchecked scorn. "Think you capable of offering a true threat to my people? Even if you were to learn of my father's passages and way posts, your men will never come close to the inner realm. They will die."

Ramhar laughed. "I came close enough the last time I struck a blow against your father. So close that I could see the brilliance of her eyes, and taste the sweetness of her final breath."

Legolas' voice shook with fury. "You murdered my mother as revenge against my father, for an act he never committed! Your crime will not go unpunished, Ramhar. It is only a matter of time; the reckoning will come. She was innocent."

"She was his wife. I merely took from him what he had taken from me!" Ramhar cried out, and for the first time the elf heard sorrow burst past the hatred in the man's voice. "I saw him! I saw him with my very eyes, kneeling over the bodies of my wife and child, and that of my father."

"That is not possible," Legolas stated firmly. "What you saw I do not know, but you did not see that. You were mistaken, or deluded…"

"I know what I saw," Ramhar said. "He was familiar to me. You all were. When Thranduil would parade into Dale in all his finery to meet with our Lord, all eyes would turn toward him – the great Elven-king, with his sons at his side! Your power and beauty were much admired, and your father reveled in the attention. Do not tell me that he did not. I was in training in my King's army, and ranked highly as a young commander. My star was rising, and I would not be taken in by the Elves. I kept my distance. But I knew your father, and it was his eyes, his cold blue eyes, that stared into mine the day he drove his blade into my belly and scattered my family like dry leaves on the ground."

Legolas shook his head in bewilderment. "For what reason would my father do such a thing? This is madness! The old man has deceived you with his sorcery. It is clear what he is. You did not enter Mirkwood alone, you were accompanied by orcs."

"Lord Malcovan had at one time commanded a small band of them, having won them with promises, but he tired of their intractable ways and sent them packing. They were not as useful as he had hoped."

"Can you not see the connection?" Legolas cried out in frustration. "Orcs are the spawn of Mordor, they have no other master save one who commands in Sauron's name! The creatures that were slain in Mirkwood were left behind, and though we knew not whence they had come, we did not doubt that it was the work of the Death-lord himself. Only under a cloak of sorcery – the sort that he alone can wield - could you and those foul creatures have entered our realm undetected. Can you still doubt what your master is? He uses you for his own gain, and that of the Lord of Mordor."

"Malcovan is not my master," Ramhar said, his voice sharp-edged with rage. "He uses many people, but I am not one of them. I rule beside him, in full partnership. And he has made me promises…"

"That he will not honor!" the elf shouted. "You are a fool to follow him! He deceives you!"

A fist suddenly leapt from the darkness and slammed into Legolas' jaw, throwing him hard against the wall. He fell to his knees and remained there, stunned and fighting for breath. Ramhar bent near. "This is your final chance to tell me about your father and your territory," he said in a low voice. "Or I will make arrangements to have you moved to a far less comfortable room tonight."

Legolas wiped the blood from his mouth and sighed. He suddenly felt very weary and tired of it all - tired of hunger and pain, of grief and sorrow, of the chains on his body, and of Ramhar. "Here or there, it will make no difference," he said quietly. "I will tell you nothing. Leave me."

Ramhar was silent. Legolas inhaled and held himself ready, waiting for another blow. He sensed the man's eyes hard upon him, measuring him, and a shiver ran over his skin.

"I admire your courage, Prince Legolas. Truly I do," Ramhar said after a pause. The elf frowned, sensing a subtle, dangerous change in the man's tone. "Though you are my captive, you have stood strong against me. You are a warrior, and a worthy opponent. Of course you do not fear torment and death – for yourself."

Legolas froze at the words and turned slowly toward his captor. "Ah," Ramhar said, a glow of satisfaction in his voice. "I see you understand me. There are other ways to help you find your tongue. I can harm your friend. If I forced you to witness another's torment, and made it clear that it would not stop until you told me what I wanted to know, even such a brave warrior as yourself would find it difficult to hold to silence."

Legolas felt a stab of fear as he tried to puzzle out the man's game. "You have already killed my friend – my only friend. You have no further hold over me."

"The man at the cabin was not your only friend. You have another, if I am not mistaken, and one who appears to be very dear to you indeed. The boy."

In an instant the elf was on his feet. "You would not dare -!" he cried out. The man jumped back, and Legolas was brought up violently by his fetters before he could reach his captor.

"Wouldn't I?" Ramhar laughed. "I will do whatever I must to achieve my goal."

"The people will not permit you to harm him! He is – "

"Already missing," Ramhar said. "It appears the dear child met with abductors when he went for a ride in the woods this morning. Our city has many enemies. Of course young Lord Tarnan is actually in my keeping, and that of Malcovan. He will be brought down here tonight – a reunion of sorts with his elven friend. How dreadful will his experience be? Will you choose a quick death for the boy, or a long suffering?"

The elf gasped in dismay. "You will kill him tonight, whether I speak or not!"

"Yes. You control only the manner of his death."

Legolas cast about desperately for words that might stop the man's terrible plan. "Harm him not! He is innocent! How can you kill a child, when you know what it is to have lost your own?" The elf's nails gouged deep grooves into his palms as he spoke. "You build sin upon sin, murder upon murder, in a misguided attempt to make good a heart that grows blacker with each terrible deed. You poison yourself, Ramhar. Stop, before it kills you entirely. For the love of the Valar, for the love of your destroyed family, do not do this. Please, do not do this! They would not want it. This is not the way to honor their memory."

Ramhar's voice was bleak, empty of any emotion. "Do not try to appeal to my heart. It stopped beating years ago."

"Then bring it to life again, by seeking the truth and pursuing the one responsible for the murder of your family," Legolas urged, fighting to turn the man's thoughts. "It was not my father. Do not continue with this plan to attack my realm. You will only lead your men to their deaths."

"Then they will die, and in doing so they will at least take some of the elves of King Thranduil with them. Somehow I will reach your father, if only to let him know that I hold his youngest son's life in my hands. I could not control the orcs that day, Prince Legolas. I lost her much more quickly than I had intended. It was not my desire to have her die there, in that moment. I planned to carry her to a place where Malcovan waited. And then – ah, if only it had been! But now it will never be more than a dream. Just a dream." The man's voice had dropped to a rasping whisper, and Legolas clutched at the wall, unable to bring himself to shut out the sickening words. He knew he had to hear them, to know just how much she had endured.

"Your mother was fair," Ramhar continued. "She possessed the kind of beauty that could drive a man to madness. There should have been more, much more, and what a blow that would have been to your father! But the orcs, in their bloodlust, could not be held back, and Malcovan was not there to stop them. She fought hard. She was truly magnificent to watch, but her skill could not save her. In the end she fell badly wounded, and I knew then that I would not be able to have her. And so I drove my blade into her heart and left it there. It was a kindness, really. I spared her being forced to undergo much worse."

Legolas turned away in loathing. "Speak no more of her. You are not the only one who has sworn an oath to avenge a murdered loved one, Ramhar. The blade you carry now will somehow come into my hands, and I will use it."

"That hardly seems likely, given your current situation," Ramhar said. He strode away and called loudly for the guard. The door opened. "Koryon, tonight when Maibon comes to relieve you, you will assist him in moving the elf to the chamber at the end of the corridor. I have other matters to attend to, and so I leave the keys with you. This door is to be kept locked, and you are not to go near the elf or speak to him after I leave here. Is that understood?"

"Yes, my lord."

The men exchanged further words outside the cell door, and then one set of quiet footsteps returned and paused on the threshold. Koryon did not come closer, and a tense stillness fell between captive and guard. Legolas suddenly felt sick and he licked his lips, wondering how to speak to the man who now held the keys to his chains.

Koryon was the first to break the silence. "You heard what he said."

Legolas nodded, and waited. He realized he was shaking.

"I cannot free you. My duty is to my city, to see its greatness restored. Ramhar swears he can do this."

"With children locked in its dungeons?" Legolas demanded. "And its people ruled by terror? What 'greatness' can there be in this? He has abducted the boy, Tarnan. He will kill him!"

"No," the young man sounded confused. "He was taken by kidnappers this morning. Lord Ramhar would not – "

"Koryon, you recite their words like a trained puppet! Where is your own voice? Ramhar and the old man bring you under the yoke of Mordor. Obey them, and your city will be destroyed."

"Obey them, and I might live," the young man said quietly.

Legolas sighed. "I know you fear them, but how long will you continue to blindly follow where they lead? In surrendering your own judgment you will keep yourself safe, for now, but you are paying a terrible price. You strive to be a good man, but you no longer think for yourself. You have already taken the first step toward becoming a slave."

"I cannot free you," Koryon repeated. "I dare not. I am sorry." He retreated, and the elf listened as the door was closed and the lock was set.

Legolas cursed. He could not break through the young man's fear, and undoubtedly the same fear was what controlled most of the men of the city. The horrible presence of the sorcerer still crawled over him like beads of sweat on flesh; how much worse must the terror of the townsfolk be? The elf could not combat it. With a groan of despair he turned to the wall and felt for the loose stone. He had taken Brina's medicine several times before falling asleep, and he realized with some lightening of his spirits that it seemed to be helping him. His thoughts were clearer than they had been, his head pained him only a little, and he felt renewed strength in his limbs. Quickly he swallowed a bit more from the bottle and slid it back into its hiding place.

For a time he occupied himself in exploring the chains that fettered him, but he could find no weakness. The locks secured at his throat and on his hands were thick and unbreakable. The links of the neck chain were solid and smooth as he slid his fingers over them, feeling each one, and the end of it appeared to be soldered directly to the ring in the wall. With a sigh the elf ceased his efforts. There would be no freedom without the keys.

He wondered how late it was. Perhaps he had slept through most of the afternoon, and evening was coming now. He thought he detected the scent of roasted meat, and the sounds of Koryon eating just outside the door. The elf's mouth watered, but the bread was gone. The cold rose from the flagstones. Drawing the blanket onto his lap, Legolas settled his back against the wall and wondered how he could get the keys from Koryon without being forced to kill him.

 

0-0-0-0-0

 

Aragorn sat near the entrance of the cave, chewing carefully on a stringy piece of meat. A steaming bowl of stew was nestled in his lap. Stretched out before him and propped on a log, his bandaged foot hovered in the darkness, a peculiar blob of white standing alone against the flickering orange shadows of the fire. Around the flames cloaked figures huddled, talking quietly as they roasted meat and handed drinks to each other, their faces grim and drawn in the firelight. Taller men mingled with the small ones who dwelled in the hills, and Aragorn realized that they must have come up from the city to join in the talks.

Earlier in the day, as the men had begun gathering and planning their night's work, the ranger had remained inside the cave taking what food he could, and after that he had slept for several hours more, deeply and without discomfort. Waking at dusk, he had assessed his injuries and spent some time tending his wounds. The burn on his left shoulder from the falling debris of the ceiling was an ugly thing; the mark wide and weeping fluid, and he found his ability to move his arm badly compromised. It was not his fighting arm, but he had also discovered, to his dismay, that he was unable to control a sword with his injured hands. Arath had then given him a smaller weapon, a curved blade with a jagged edge honed for killing. Along with a dagger one of the other hill-men had pressed upon him, Aragorn was as effectively armed as he could be.

He knew little of the men's plans. The battle for possession of the city was not his, and he did not attempt to intrude upon the council. His thoughts were fixed on Legolas, and he busied himself running possible scenarios through his mind and developing his own strategies regarding them.

Alun had agreed to lead Aragorn to the cell where Legolas was being held. After that, if time allowed, he would guide them to a place where they could hide. He would have to abandon them then, and Aragorn would attempt to escape with the elf when the way out of the city appeared to be clear. If he found Legolas unable to walk, he would steal a horse. If at all possible he would avoid fighting, for both his own sake and that of his friend, whom he feared had suffered cruel treatment at the hands of his captors.

Two shadows broke away from the group, and Alun and Arath approached to crouch beside Aragorn. "We leave within the hour," the soldier told him. "Have you been able to eat more food?"

Aragorn nodded, clearing his throat with difficulty. "I did not realize how hungry I was," he said in a voice still strained and hoarse. "And the drink - whatever it was - has helped my throat. My thanks to you both."

Arath grinned. "That drink is an old recipe of my great-grandmother's. She swore it would cure any ailment, from boils on the bum to pain in the gut. It'll keep your coughing quiet, that's sure, and we'll need that if we're to get into the city unheard. We can't have you alerting everyone within miles, so I've got a good flask filled right up for you here. Carry it along with you and you'll be all right." He thrust an old leather container into Aragorn's hands and trotted away.

Aragorn glanced up at Alun. "Boils on the bum? Valar help me, I suppose it doubles as a liniment for horses with strained tendons. Tonight only I will drink this concoction as needed. Afterward, this wretched flask is going to find itself at the bottom of the river."

"I have no doubt," Alun laughed. "But you've earned their respect by drinking it without falling down dead on the spot. Here, I've unearthed some boots for you. They're mismatched, but that's what you need. The right one is larger, it will fit over your bad foot."

Mindful of his bandaged hands, the ranger pulled on the smaller left boot, a well-worn leather thing cracked and stained with use. The right one was made of wolf fur, and dyed what appeared in the doubtful firelight to be a bright brilliant green. He stared at Alun, who was struggling to keep a straight face.

"Where did this come from?" Aragorn muttered.

"Couldn't tell you," the soldier responded as he grasped Aragorn's injured foot and began easing the boot over it. "We're not off to a fancy to-do, after all. It'll protect your foot well enough."

"At least Legolas won't be making any comments. Believe me, if he saw these boots, he would."

Aragorn rose to his feet and took a few cautious steps. He had wrapped his foot and ankle carefully, and with the added support of the strange boot, he found that he could walk fairly steadily and with minimal pain. He knew he had to continue to be mindful of his injuries however, and Alun had earlier gone in search of a horse that might carry the ranger down the winding trail until they came to the flat. Once there, all the men who had horses would dismount and continue on foot toward the city.

Moving past the fire, Aragorn scooped Legolas' cat into his arms and made his way to the edge of the hill. Far below, the city glittered with lights, but soon many of them would be extinguished as its residents retired to their beds. In the midst of the shadowed buildings Legolas lay, imprisoned in the lowest level of the Lord's great house. Aragorn fixed his eyes on it as Alun came to stand beside him.

"We will break up and enter through the back of the city, and from the sides," the soldier said. "Our allies within will assist us in getting past the walls. You will accompany my group, and we make for that spot there," he pointed, "where the near edge of the wall runs into that grove of trees. It is the closest point to Lord Cadean's house. We'll have about a half-mile's distance to cover after we are over the wall, mostly under tree cover. I'll get you to it, and down to Legolas."

Aragorn turned to the soldier. "I cannot thank you enough, Alun. You have dangerous plans to implement tonight, and yet you strive also to help me free Legolas. I am in your debt."

"Do not thank me yet," Alun murmured. "Most likely I lead you to your death. I have reservations about taking you down there, injured as you are."

Aragorn shot his companion a grin. "I will do my best to stay out of your hair and not hinder you."

Alun met his eyes and held them. "No, it is not that. I am a fair judge of men, Aragorn. You have the look of a fighter, and one with smarts at that. And there is more that I can use to judge your mettle – you enter into the unknown to save your friend, though you do not even know if he yet lives. No, you'll not hinder me." The soldier sighed then, and turned an anxious gaze back to the city. "But I want no innocent man's blood on my hands this night. I lead in this battle, Aragorn, and I have never done such a thing before. It weighs on me, for I know lives will be lost ere we see tomorrow's sunrise. These men are my friends."

Aragorn nodded. "He who leads carries the lives of all his men with him when he rides into battle. I know how this feels."

"I thought you did. What do you think of our plan?" Alun asked. "I've been involved in a skirmish or two in my day, but nothing like what we will attempt tonight. You said little, but I know you were listening. Is it sound?"

"I do not know the layout of your city but what I can see of it from here and the map you traced in the dirt, but I agree that multiple attacks in different areas sounds like the best way to achieve your goal. Starting the attacks further out to draw most of Ramhar's men away from the Lord's house is a good plan, and then going for those warriors who remain behind to guard their lords. You will have surprise on your side. But can you be certain of the men who say they will side with you? Will they turn against your enemies when the time comes?"

"I am certain of them," Alun said firmly. "Fully half, if not more, of the men in the army bear no love for Ramhar and Malcovan, and many have been waiting for this night. They are ready. The others, save those truly loyal to our enemies, may well turn toward us when they see that a rebellion has begun. We will let them see there is hope to break free of the stranglehold. But it must be done in one night, or we are lost. Ramhar and Malcovan must be captured or killed, and their supporters imprisoned. We must not fail."

"Why do Arath and his men help you in this?" Aragorn asked, glancing at the small forms of the hill-men as they began gathering their weapons and slinging packs over their shoulders. Arath, as if hearing his name, glanced at Aragorn in his quick way and grinned. With a half-salute he leaped onto the back of a sway-backed old horse and vanished into the trees. The men were leaving now, in small bands that could move quickly and quietly down the hill.

"They tire of being persecuted," Alun replied. "Ramhar and Malcovan send troops to harass them and force them to join the army. In earlier days peace existed between my city and the hill-men. We engaged in trade, and both side prospered. With trade forbidden now, Arath and his people are starving. They cannot feed and clothe their children, and they suffer from the winter's cold. It is our hope relations can be mended once Ramhar and the old man are gone. The old man…" Alun paused, frowning, and suddenly turned to grasp the ranger's arm. "I must speak with you of Malcovan. There is more you must know."

Aragorn had started to turn back toward the fire. He paused with a frown, noting the sudden urgency in the man's voice. "What more?" he asked.

"When I spoke with Legolas, he warned me against Malcovan. He told me that the old man is leagued with Sauron."

"What?" Aragorn spun about and stared at Alun. The soldier nodded uneasily.

"I found his words difficult to believe. Malcovan is filled with malice and contempt for all he deems lesser than himself, which is just about all of us. But for all that, he is one of our own citizens. To think that he has gone that far – "

Aragorn looked again at the city, his eyes narrowed. "Did Legolas say that he suspected it, or that he knew it?"

"That he knew it. I thought – I hoped – that perhaps it was just the fever speaking. But he was insistent, and begged me to believe him."

Aragorn bowed his head, feeling a new weight of sadness settle onto his shoulders. "If Legolas said it, then it is the truth. He is not easily deceived."

Alun blew his breath out. "Then Valar help us all. I have spoken to my men of it, and they are frightened. They are still willing to fight for their city, but I could not keep the information from them that we might be facing a greater enemy than was first supposed. I could not remain silent."

"You did what was right. Against such a foe, each man must be informed and make his own choice."

"And they did choose. None will shrink from the fight," Alun said with pride. "Though it has taken some of our courage from us, it also strengthened our resolve. We cannot let our city fall to Sauron. But we do not know how to fight the old man, if indeed he does serve the Death Lord, and if he summons… Valar, I know not what he might summon."

"Does he command orcs?" Aragorn asked, remembering the small band of creatures that had attacked him and Legolas months ago. "Could they assist him in the battle for the city?"

"I think not," Alun responded. "I have heard talk of orcs only infrequently. They are sighted sometimes in the forest, and then they are gone. Their numbers are few; a ragged band of perhaps twenty or thirty."

"Good. And if the old man is truly surprised tonight, he will not be able to summon them before it is over. Has Malcovan any powers, any abilities that you know of?"

"Do you ask if he is truly a sorcerer? I believe it is so," Alun murmured. He chewed on his lip, his broad face lined with worry. "But there is nothing that I have seen myself. Rumours only, stories I have heard…"

"Tell me what they are."

"Well, there was something Gildwas once told me - the old man in whose cabin you lived. He knew Malcovan from years back, and he said there was a time that Malcovan had put a sort of spell on him when they were traveling together. He had waved his hands in some weird pattern, like he was flinging spider webs about Gildwas said, and chanted strange words. Gildwas' eyes were suddenly filled with strange and horrible visions. I could see that he was deeply troubled about it, and I pressed him a time or two to tell me more of what happened, but he would not. The poor fellow was right terrified of Malcovan after that, though he stood up to him when he saw need, as when our Lady died."

Aragorn nodded silently and turned away. One of the hill-men approached through the darkness, leading a horse, and spoke to Alun. "Will this one do?" he asked.

"Aye, she will. Here is another old friend, Aragorn. She's not exactly the sort you'd ride into battle, but she'll get you down the hill well enough."

Aragorn found himself taking the reins of Rhosgernroch, and delightedly embraced the old mare as she nuzzled him. Alun clapped him on the back. "I must see to the men. We leave now."

Aragorn stood alone on the edge of the bluff and stared down at the city. Some of the lights had gone out, but the great house was still brightly lit. Tithlam purred comfortably in his arms, and the horse blew warm breath on his neck. Seeing Legolas' beloved pets filled Aragorn with hope that he would soon be reunited with the elf as well.

"Two lost friends have come back to me this day," he said as he gave the cat a final pat and set her gently on the ground. "Valar willing, I will find the last one tonight."

Tithlam trotted into the cave as Aragorn climbed onto the mare's broad back. At a signal from Alun, he turned her and made his way toward the darkened trail.

To be continued

 

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them. This story is written for entertainment only and no monetary profit is being made.

Author's Notes: here is a new chapter at last. I thank you for your patience in waiting for updates, and I especially want to acknowledge those readers who have been with me since the beginning. To See A World is nearing its third birthday (good lord!), and your persistence in staying with this monster and reviewing regularly instead of vanishing into the shadows is very much appreciated.

The slow pace of chapter updates is probably quite permanent – real life makes many demands on me – but I promise you that new installments will continue to come. This story will not be abandoned, but I do sincerely hope that it will not come close to celebrating its fourth birthday, and you are probably hoping the same. I think we'd all collapse.

 

To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter 43: Love is the Answer

Under a darkened sky, Aragorn crouched under the protection of the trees that crowded near the crumbling stones of the city wall and took a quick swallow of Arath's brew. The wind, which had blown with sharp strength as the men had furtively crossed the open meadow in tiny groups, was only able to whisper here. The barren branches of a massive oak creaked overhead, the last of the clinging leaves rattling dryly.

As he had come down the hillside and crept across the open plain, the ranger had been impressed by the closer glimpses he had gotten - though they were shadowed by the night - of the outer stone wall of the city of Carbryddin. It was massive; three times the height of a man, and had undoubtedly been nearly impenetrable in earlier times. Once he was closer, Aragorn could see the scars and pits that both time and weapons had inflicted on the great stones. He wondered how old the city was, and how many sieges it had withstood.

Alun was a short distance off, speaking with a knot of men who pressed against the shadows, their backs hunched to the cold. Final words were being said, and as Aragorn watched, one man broke away from the group at a gesture from Alun and ran toward the waiting hill-men, who were clustered in their own group a short distance away. Alun turned away and joined Aragorn.

"Do you see it?" he hissed, gesturing to one of the stone towers that jutted above the wall. "Do you see that banner?"

Aragorn glanced up, straining his eyes at the banner snapping in the wind. In the darkness it was difficult to make out its features, but after a moment he saw, red against a darker background, the image of an eye. It appeared to be roving, seeking, looking in every direction as the wind caught at the flag and whipped it about. Aragorn regarded it for a moment in silence before turning to Alun.

The soldier shook his head in anger. "That is not the banner of our city. Do you remember Tarnan's cloak – red, with the rearing white stag? That is the emblem of our Lord's city, not that eye thing. Ramhar has torn down the emblem of our Lords and put up his own – the traitorous bastard!"

"No," Aragorn said grimly. "That is not Ramhar's banner. It is the old man's doing. He claims your city for Mordor."

Alun swore under his breath and stared up at the tower again. "The bloody thing looks like it's watching us," he muttered. He squared his shoulders, his eyes smoldering. "I'll tear it down myself ere the night is out or die in the trying. I'll not have Sauron's banner flying on the walls of my city."

The soldier squatted and leaned his back against the wall. He extracted a container of tobacco from his pocket. "Everyone will be in position soon. We await our friends from inside. As one, we will all go over - or through - the wall and settle into our places before the attack. The first move is to take care of the guards posted around the city and at the main gate. Some of us will move on the known houses of our enemies. It should all be quick and quiet, in the beginning. Meanwhile, I will take you to the Lord's house, try to get you in and down to Legolas before things get wild." Eyeing the tobacco with a scowl, Alun groaned and thrust it back into his coat. "Valar, what I would give for a quick pipe before we start this."

Aragorn smiled, understanding the longing. "Once we are over the wall and occupied, you will forget you ever wanted it. The waiting makes it worse." He raised his gaze to the solid wall. "This is a monstrous barricade," he said, and glanced unhappily at his bandaged hands.

"From the Great Days," Alun said. "It was built some five-hundred years ago, when the city was founded, and has withstood many attacks. Lucky for you and your hands, we will go through it, not over it. Should save you some pain."

Aragorn tilted his head back, taking in the size of the individual stones. "I appreciate that. However did they move these great stones?" he murmured.

Alun shook his head. "It was either magic, or bloody good engineering. For the sake of the slaves who built it, I hope it was magic. It must have been back-breaking work, and taken years to complete."

"And how do we go through the wall? Have we a bit of magic to help us with that as well?"

Alun grinned. "Mere human labor. We have spent over a year, cutting away secret openings here and there where the wall is crumbling and at its weakest. The masons know their work."

"You have been planning this for some time."

The soldier sighed. "I can hardly say what we have been planning. We've been all in a muddle for such a long time, Aragorn, so fearful and unsure. Do we act, do we not act, and when, how? We might have debated - and thus hesitated - forever, but for the assassination of our Lord. We knew then we had to pull our plans together and act. And so, Valar help us, here we are at last. Perhaps we should thank Legolas for finally getting things in motion, unwilling though he was to play the role that was forced upon him."

A low whistle from the other side of the wall brought both men to their feet. Alun responded with a different whistle of his own, and pulled Aragorn back. He pointed to a section of the wall covered by shrubs. "Watch there – tell me if we were able to deceive your eyes."

The sound of something heavy being pushed aside came to Aragorn's ears, and a moment later the bushes began to shake. A man's head popped out. "Alun?"

"Well met, Celyn. Is all quiet within?"

"Aye. No sign that anyone suspects a thing, though Ramhar has set more archers than usual along the parapet these past few nights. I don't mind telling you I've been jumpier than a hound with fleas waiting here. One of the cows over there made a bit of noise and I nearly shot her head off. I'm glad to finally be seeing you. How many men are with you?"

"Twenty-three with me. Arath is at the next opening with about fifteen of his folk from the hills. Goreu is near the main gate with his brother and enough fellows to handle the guards. They will remain there and open the gate if we need to flee the city. We've Anwas and Garym on the other side with good numbers of men each. I count on them to handle the soldiers in the barracks. Did you manage to speak with your friends there?"

"I did. They will attempt to gather the weapons while the soldiers sleep, and await Anwas' arrival. It will be interesting, when the time comes, to see how some of the men will choose. It is a hard thing, to ask them to turn against their masters. They will be caught between fear and loyalty."

"Both powerful motivators," Alun said. "But choose they must. Anwas will spare their lives if possible, but we cannot allow anyone to betray us. He must hold them there, and let none escape who might cause trouble."

"Aye," Celyn said quietly. "Well now, all is quiet here. Send your men through, one at a time. Mind they bend low and watch their heads. Tell them to stick to the wall when they come out, and to be quiet for Valar's sake and not frighten the cows. Skirt wide around them. Oh, and watch where you put your feet."

Alun snorted. "It would be just my luck to trod in cow shit my first step in. Not a good way to start this off."

Aragorn and Alun waited as the men crept to the tunnel in the wall and vanished into the black hole one by one. The bushes snagged Aragorn's cloak as he crouched and ran his hands over the opening. It was small, and he was a tall man; the walls pressed around him, and he nearly had to take to hands and knees as he made his way through. On the other side, he straightened and glanced quickly around him. Celyn took him by the arm and pushed him against a nearby tree. Alun emerged a moment later, brushing the dirt from his clothing. "Nearly got stuck in there," he muttered.

An open field spread before them. In the darkness, Aragorn could make out the humped shapes of cattle clustered together near a shelter, their rumps to the wind. Here and there, watch fires gleamed in the darkness, and the silhouettes of the guards could be seen. Amid the shadowed buildings the great mass of the Lord's house could be seen, silent and dark, some half-mile away. Alun turned away to speak with his men. Aragorn did not join them. He drank again of Arath's brew and stared at the place where Legolas was imprisoned.

The men broke apart into several groups and melted into the night, and Alun turned to Aragorn. "Come."

They traveled along the wall, giving the animals a wide berth, and then struck out across an open field. It was dotted with trees however, and the two men crouched low, darting from one to the next along the edge, holding their cloaks closed against the cold. Aragorn saw that in fact the great field was divided into multiple garden plots. The barren stalks of the previous summer's corn hissed in the wind.

Alun nodded toward them. "It is said that our city withstood a three-year siege long ago," he whispered. "The people were able to grow enough food to keep themselves alive without aid from outside. We have many of these gardens within our walls."

As the bulk of the Lord's house loomed before them, Alun drew Aragorn toward the back, where it was most shadowed. Together they slid against what Aragorn took to be a supply shed. Before him lay a cobbled path large enough to accommodate the carts that carried provisions to the house, swept free of snow. Alun pointed.

"Do you see the black opening there, where the steps go down?" he whispered. "They lead to a door – that is our way into the dungeons."

Aragorn could see the dark forms of two guards at the steps. One stood motionless, propped over his sword, the tip driven into the ground. At first glance he looked asleep, but then he moved his head, and his eyes gleamed in the darkness. The other man was frankly asleep, sprawled against the wall with his mouth hanging open. The watch fire had burned to embers.

Aragorn's hand tightened on the small dagger in his belt. Now that only a short distance separated him from Legolas, it was all he could do not to burst from his hiding place and attack the guards himself. "Do we take them?"

"No. We do not want a commotion here, for if we get in we will never get out. Let the start of the fighting draw them away."

"How long?"

"I hope it will be soon," Alun told him. "But we must be sure that the soldiers in the guardhouse have been dealt with before the fighting begins. Once that is done, Anwas will give the signal for the others to start."

Aragorn nodded. It made sense. Were the soldiers to break free and regain their weapons, the result would be disastrous for Alun's men, and it would be for Legolas as well. But it was difficult to wait, and Aragorn found himself silently counting to five-hundred, and five-hundred again, as he stared at the guards and Alun fixed his gaze in the direction of the courtyard, barely visible to their right beyond a low hedge, and pulled at his beard.

Shouts rang out from the courtyard, and a moment later, a clash of swords. The alarm brought the dozing guard to his feet, and both men ran toward the front of the house and disappeared into the dark.

Aragorn and Alun broke from cover and raced to the steps. Alun flashed a grin at Aragorn as they stopped before the heavy door. He fished a key from his pocket. "Seems I forgot to turn this in when I quit my job," he whispered.

Cautiously he turned the lock and opened the door a fraction. He paused, listening, then nodded. "Quietly now – we do not know who else is about. Go in, get down the steps and hide yourself in the first storeroom on the left. I will follow."

They slid onto the landing and closed the door behind them. Alun did not lock it. A torch affixed to the wall gave light, and Aragorn, despite the pain in his foot, took the stairs two at a time. Before him lay a long corridor, the floor made of flagstones. Flickering torches lined the walls. Ducking into the storage room, he shoved his cloak against his mouth to stifle his coughing and reached for the flask Arath had given him.

Alun put his head around the corner. "Follow me. Legolas is down here. I do not have keys to the prison cells, however. We may have to break the door down, but we must be sure no guards are about before we attempt that."

Dagger in hand, Aragorn trailed Alun down the corridor, past numerous heavy doors that held only a small barred grate at the bottom. The last door before the corridor branched both left and right stood open. Alun looked at it and swore. Quickening his pace, he rushed into the room. "He's gone!" he hissed. "Valar help the elf, they have taken him out."

Aragorn pushed past him, staring round the darkened room in dismay. Dimly, he could make out chains dangling from the wall, a crumpled blanket on the floor beneath them. The cold seeped up through the floor. He spun about. "Where would they have taken him?" he demanded.

"There are several possibilities," Alun muttered as he strode out of the cell. "None of them good."

Aragorn's thoughts raced in desperation as he limped after the soldier. Had they taken Legolas to torture him? Had they already killed him? Valar, surely he was not too late!

Something suddenly clamped around his ankle, nearly sending him sprawling. With a snarl he kicked his foot free and turned, his blade flashing, and sought to engage his attacker. There was no one. Looking around him in confusion, he caught sight of a hand extending from the grate of one of the prison doors. One of the captives had grabbed at him as he passed. Alun knelt at the door and tried to look in. "Who's there?"

"Alun, is that you? It's Iaen."

Aragorn crouched behind Alun and peered into the grate. Barely visible in the darkness, he saw a young man, looking thin and tired, clinging to the bars.

"Iaen? Why do they hold you?"

The prisoner sighed. "I would not swear allegiance to Ramhar when he demanded it, as he has of every citizen. He demands a blood oath, Alun. He demands our very lives. They took my wife and child too, when I would not cooperate. I know not what has befallen them."

Alun clasped the man's hand as his cellmates pressed against the grate. "The rebellion begins, my friends. It comes tonight."

A low murmur of voices leaked from the locked room. "Can you get us out?" someone called. "We will fight!"

"If I can find the keys," Alun said. "Are there any guards about at this hour?"

"There might be," said Iaen. "But they are occupied. They have someone in that room Ramhar is so fond of, down at the end of the right side corridor."

"Was it the prisoner from this open cell?" Alun asked, pointing. "The elf?"

"Aye, it was the elf. They pulled him out some hours back. He put up an amazing fight. We were cheering him on. It took four men to drag him down there, but they got him in the end."

Aragorn started down the corridor, veering right as the hallway divided. Alun drew alongside. The corridor was unlit here, but for a faint red glow from the last room, and as they approached it, Aragorn heard a burst of derisive laughter. "What is this? You do not like your new accommodations, Prince?" There was the sound of a fist hitting flesh, and a surprised grunt, followed by a colorful explosion of Sindarin threats. The sound of that elven voice, filled with rage – filled with life - propelled Aragorn toward the door at a run.

Alun touched him lightly on the shoulder, reminding him to use caution. Gritting his teeth, Aragorn stopped as he reached the door. He peered around it. In the shadowed room, lit only by one feeble torch and a tiny brazier that glowed in the far corner, two men stood over a raised table of sorts. On it, the ranger could just make out the shape of someone lying with his arms stretched overhead and secured. Legolas' face was not visible, but Aragorn saw the elf's pale-gold hair spill over the edge of the platform as he fought to free himself, and his bare feet, roped together and lashed down, jerked hard against their bindings.

One of the guards, a big hulking brute with matted hair and a heavy jaw, was holding a metal poker in his hand. The end of it glowed red-hot, and his brought it to hover several inches above Legolas' arms. The elf's chest heaved, his hands knotting into fists as the burning tip was brought near.

"Stop," the other guard said. He was a younger man whose hair gleamed red in the firelight, and he tried to catch hold of the big man's arm. "Should we not wait for Lord Ramhar to return? If you hurt him too much – "

The older man angrily shook him off. "Koryon, you sniveling little beggar, I swear when I am done with him I'll brand you next! Lord Ramhar said to ready our guest for talking. The first mark will be mine, and I think I'll put it right on his pretty little face." He shifted his grip on the iron and began to lower it.

The younger guard said something else, and made another attempt to steer the poker elsewhere. Aragorn started forward, but Alun's hand clamped hard on his arm. "You take the boy," the soldier hissed, "and get him up against the wall. Do not slay him, I beg you. That big bastard is mine. And Aragorn, I'm first."

The last sentence was accompanied by a feral grin. Aragorn nodded silently, and the soldier pushed away from him, bolting into the chamber with a shout. The big guard spun about, his mouth opening wide, and he brought up the glowing iron to defend himself as Alun lunged forward. Alun smacked the rod aside with his blade and Aragorn raced past him, dodging the spray of sparks. Throwing his weight against the other guard, Aragorn bore the young man against the wall and set the dagger against his throat. The boy's blue eyes blinked in astonishment. "You!" he gasped. Aragorn stared hard at him, and recognized him as one of the men who had accompanied Ramhar on the night of the attack on the cottage. He growled and pressed the blade harder.

For an instant the boy seemed frozen in place, looking at Aragorn fearfully, and then he slowly raised his hands and held them high. A moment later his eyes widened even further and slid past Aragorn's shoulder, but the ranger did not need to turn to know what it was the young man watched. He had already heard Alun's sword enter his foe, heard the agonized gasp and the staggering, and the final, frantic wheezing breaths. In another moment, a body thudded heavily to the floor. Alun muttered, "Farewell Maibon, you wretched brute."

He was instantly beside Aragorn, glaring dangerously at the red-haired guard. Reaching out, Alun shoved Aragorn's dagger aside and clamped his hand over the boy's throat. "Valar's breath, Koryon!" he shouted furiously. "What the devil are you playing at? You've been torturing the elf? Torturing him?? I should run you through here and now!"

 

Legolas' voice came quickly from behind them. "No, Alun! He did not harm me."

Aragorn ran to him. The elf's features were strained, and no wonder, for as Aragorn drew near his friend he was able to see just how painfully stretched his body was. Aragorn slashed at the ropes binding Legolas' hands and feet, and in a moment he was helping him to sit up and swing his legs over the edge of the platform. The elf grimaced as he slowly lowered his arms.

"Ah-ah! They have held me in that position for some hours – it is miserable once the ache sets in." Legolas shrugged his shoulders several times and rolled his head about. His eyes were pain-filled, weary, but shone brightly in the dim room. "I do not know why you have come back to help me, but am most grateful that you did, Alun. Thank you." He slid carefully to the floor and extended his hand.

Aragorn took it, smiling gently. "You are welcome, my dear friend," he murmured hoarsely in Sindarin.

The elf stiffened, and he recoiled against the table as if he had been struck. His mouth worked, but no sound emerged for a moment. Then he managed one word, his voice sounding as faint and ragged as the ranger's own. "Aragorn?"

"Yes, mellon-nin. I am here."

"Not - not dead?"

"Not dead," the ranger whispered, and took the elf's head between his hands to steady him, looking intently into his friend's stunned face. "Not dead."

Legolas' features suddenly darkened. He struck Aragorn away and pressed the heels of his hands against his brow, taking breath in great shuddering gasps. "The sorcerer toys with my mind! This is not real! I will not succumb to his manipulations!"

Aragorn started toward the elf, but Legolas retreated. "Take no step toward me," he snarled.

Aragorn halted, watching the elf closely. "This is real," he said gently. "I am here, though somewhat the worse for wear, with an injured foot and bandaged hands from the night you saved me from the trap, and a voice hoarsened by smoke."

"This is deception. My friend is dead," Legolas hissed. "How dare you foul his memory in this way? I tell you I will not be taken in by your tricks, sorcerer!"

The ranger looked at Legolas in dismay, seeing the wall of fear and rage that blocked his efforts to reach his suffering friend. And the elf had suffered – his wrists and ankles were torn and bloodied by his struggles against his bonds, dark bruises and cuts stood out starkly on his pale skin. He was clad only in leggings. A bandage encircled his ribs, and as Aragorn watched, the elf bent his body slightly as if in pain and pressed his hand against his right side. Then his face grew hard again, as if in anger at himself for showing weakness before one he perceived as an enemy. He straightened to face his unseen foe, and this time he took a step toward Aragorn, his eyes glittering dangerously. He tilted his head slightly, listening, the ranger knew, for even the smallest movement.

Aragorn realized he was about to be attacked. Legolas did not - could not – believe what he was experiencing. The blind elf had undoubtedly been subjected to terror, pain and isolation during his captivity. His mind was in turmoil. He was unable to fully recognize Aragorn. The ranger knew how badly the smoke had altered his voice, just as his injuries had affected his natural gait. If only Legolas could see him!

He cleared his throat in an effort to speak again, and in that instant realized his mistake. The elf flew at him. Aragorn gasped and tried to avoid the blow, but he could no more outrun Legolas than he could a lightning strike. Stars exploded before his eyes as a fist smashed into his temple, and he fell against the wall.

"Legolas, no!" Alun shouted.

The elf twisted his fingers into Aragorn's hair and yanked his head back. The ranger cried out. Blinking frantically to clear his vision, he saw Legolas' face, inches from his own, and saw the cold resolve in his friend's blazing eyes. Aragorn had seen that look before. It was only a matter of seconds before the elf would snap his neck.

"Legolas, I cannot find my socks!" he blurted in desperation.

The elf froze. "Socks? What -?"

"You must tell your cat to stop stealing my socks, Legolas. She has taken them all!"

"The… the cat is stealing your socks?"

"Tithlam, yes," Aragorn gasped. "She is a terrible thief."

White-faced, Legolas released Aragorn and stumbled back, horror dawning on his features. For a long moment he stood still, and then he reached out, extending his trembling hands before him. Aragorn understood, and taking them gently between his own, he led the elf's fingers to his face.

"Aragorn…" Tears sprang to Legolas' eyes, and he turned away. He came up against the table and clutched briefly at it, his face twisted in anguish, then he gave up the struggle to master himself and fell to his knees with a cry. Aragorn went to the floor beside him and took him by the shoulders as Alun, still pressing the guard against the wall, watched them in silence.

"Not dead… not dead…" the elf gasped. "Sweet Elbereth, what have I done?" Shuddering violently, his body jerked as if buffeted by a gale. Aragorn wrapped his arms around Legolas tightly and held him still.

"Easy, Legolas! Breathe… just breathe."

Legolas groaned. "Aragorn… forgive me. I have lost my mind. I wondered why I did not sense the evil. I felt only my own fear, and it blinded me to everything else. I should have known!"

"There is nothing to forgive. Your reaction is understandable, given what you have been through these past days. You nearly broke my head open, but it is good to see such strength in you!" Aragorn stroked the elf's tangled hair. "I feared I had run out of time to find you alive. Thank the Valar you are safe."

Legolas' voice was muffled, and he clung fiercely to Aragorn's jacket. "I had given up hope. When Alun told me there was a dead man in the burned-out cottage…"

"Nay, you cannot be rid of me so easily, Elf. It was one of Ramhar's own men, slain and left behind. The men who live in the hills pulled me out, and without a moment to spare." Aragorn glanced over his friend's body as he spoke, taking in the bruises that blossomed over his back, and he remembered the savage blows of the club that had finally taken the elf down during the fight at the cottage.

"Are you badly hurt?" Aragorn asked.

"Not too badly. Ramhar put a knife into me, but it was not meant to kill, and already it is healing. The other wounds you see are unimportant, merely the result of mistreatment. They had not yet begun their real work." The elf heaved a sigh and raised his head. His features were pale under the dirt on his face. He ran a shaking hand through his hair. "Alun, are you still here? Koryon was trying to stop the other one burning me. He has helped me through all of this. Please do not harm him."

"If that is your wish, Prince Legolas, I will stay my hand," Alun said. He released the boy and stepped back, fixing him with furious eyes. "You disappoint me, Koryon. It is time you made your decision. The rebellion begins tonight. Have you the keys to the other cells?"

Koryon nodded. "They hang on a hook in the storeroom, behind some boxes."

"Good," Alun said. "You will free the prisoners, all who are held without just cause." He grabbed the young guard by the collar and began to hustle him out of the room, muttering furiously.

The elf turned his head after them and called out. "Alun, wait! Ramhar and the old man have taken the boy Tarnan. They planned to bring him here tonight, to kill him in my presence. Now I know not what they will do."

Alun's hands fell away from Koryon. He stared at Legolas for a moment as if he could not truly see him, eyes squinting in a face gone the color of clay. "Do not tell me that, Legolas. Please do not tell me that," he whispered.

"I am sorry."

The soldier crushed his eyes shut. "Valar, what will I do? How will I find him in the midst of all this?"

"In the midst of all what, Alun?" Legolas asked. "Do you truly attack the city tonight?"

"Yes. It has already begun, and I must join my men now. But the boy – "

Aragorn watched Alun closely, sympathizing with his difficult choice. "Alun, you cannot abandon your men. They wait for you," he finally said quietly. "We can only pray that the child remains safe until he can be found. Your enemies will be busy enough tonight. Their plans for Tarnan will be put aside, and you will find him when the battle is over."

"I hope you are right," Alun said. He paced the small room and swung back again, his face set with helpless rage. "I will have Ramhar's head before the night is out, aye, and the old man's too, if they harm that boy! Valar protect him, I cannot help him now." He turned to Koryon. "You come with me – I'll give you one last chance to prove you can be trusted. Aragorn, I must leave you now. I think you will be as safe here as anywhere else. Shall I lock you and Legolas in? If anyone were to come for him, the door would stop them."

The elf tensed, frowning uneasily, and Aragorn understood. "No more confinement," he said to Alun. "Have you a weapon for Legolas, in case we must fight?"

Koryon stepped forward, looking at Legolas with a curious expression, and slowly pulled a well-made dagger from his belt. He offered it handle-first to Aragorn. "He can have this."

Aragorn took it as the young man crouched before the elf. "Prince Legolas, I know that you cannot forgive me for the wrongs I have done you, but I offer my apologies nonetheless. I am sorry for what you have suffered here."

The elf nodded. "I do forgive you," he said quietly. "And I thank you for the kindnesses you have shown me."

"You – cannot see?" Koryon asked hesitantly.

"I am blind, and have been since last autumn."

Koryon stared at the elf. "But - but I saw the way you fought that night!" he stammered. "How could you do that without your sight?"

The elf smiled gently. "You know the answer, Koryon. We have discussed it before," he said, and closed his eyes.

Alun grabbed Koryon. "Get that body out of here. Drag him down to another room and hide him." He followed as the guard took hold of the dead man's feet and hauled him away. Glancing back as he crossed the threshold, Alun met Aragorn's eyes. "If it goes ill for us, get yourselves out of the city before daybreak. Do not tarry here overlong."

Aragorn nodded. "We will move on after Legolas has rested, and find a better spot to hide. You have done all you can for us, Alun. Go now, and may the Valar watch over you and your men this night."

Legolas raised his head. "I am indebted to you for my life, Alun. I will pay when I can."

"You owe me nothing, Prince Legolas," the soldier murmured. "You are reunited with your friend now, and if this night is my last one on this earth, at least I will die knowing that there was one good moment in it. If I do not see you again, farewell."

Aragorn helped the elf to sit against the wall. Legolas leaned his head back wearily. He had yet to relinquish his grip on the ranger's jacket. Aragorn was filled with questions and the desire to examine Legolas' injuries more closely, but he was willing to allow some time to quietly pass. Battle raged in the streets outside, but it was silent and peaceful in the dungeon.

"Aragorn, there is so much to tell…"

"I know, but it can wait for a bit. Rest, mellon-nin."

The elf still trembled. Aragorn stripped away his cloak, draped it over Legolas' shoulders, and drew him near. For a long while they did not speak, but simply held close, each listening to the sound of the other's breath. After a time the elf stirred. "Aragorn, have you water?"

Aragorn grimaced. "Forgive me, Legolas. I do not. I have only a medicinal brew given me by the hill-men. There is nothing in it that will cause you harm. You are welcome to it, but I must warn you - it does not taste pleasant."

"I thirst," Legolas said simply. "Please."

"You will regret it," Aragorn warned. But the elf extended his hands, and the ranger could see how desperate was Legolas' need for drink. Aragorn gave him the battered container. He watched as Legolas pressed the flask against his lips and tilted his head back. The elf swallowed eagerly, four great gulps, and suddenly wrenched the container away from his mouth with an exclamation of dismay.

"Aiiee! What is this?" Legolas gasped, sputtering. "Aragorn, it is terrible!"

Aragorn looked fondly at the elf's contorted face. "I cannot quite remember what they told me. It is either Warg piss or a cure for boils on the bum," he said with a grin.

The elf hastily corked the flask and thrust it toward the ranger. "Take it back. Next time you give me something to drink, I shall head straight to Ramhar and ask him to burn me, flog me, and string me up by my toes. His tortures cannot possibly compare to the horror of that brew."

"Valar, but it is good to see you again, Legolas," Aragorn laughed.

The elf lowered his head. "As it is to hear your voice again," he said softly. "I thought you were lost forever, and I was as good as, kept here in chains as Ramhar's prize. The old man controls him, and he in turn serves the Lord of Mordor. Never have I felt such despair."

"Your strength enabled you to endure it, my friend. But we are not rid of Ramhar and the sorcerer yet. It will be a long night," Aragorn said.

Legolas nodded. "I fear that our chances of getting out of this are still not good."

"Perhaps not, but whatever comes, we will now face it together."

Legolas grasped Aragorn's bandaged hands and held them for a long moment. "Yes, we are together again," he said. His fingers brushed against the dagger Koryon had left them, and he curled his fingers around the handle. His face settled into determined lines as he examined the sharp blade. "And if Alun cannot find the boy, you and I will."

"Legolas, how were you able to fight as you did that night? Koryon was not the only one who was amazed."

"Need you ask, old friend?" the elf said, his features softening as he turned to face the ranger. "I do not think I could have fought so hard if it had been only for myself. I fought for you. The answer is love, Aragorn."

 

To be continued…

 

 

Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R Tolkien and belong to his estate. I do not have permission to use them. This story is written for pleasure only, and no monetary profit is being made.

 

Author's Notes: I apologize. Dreadful, absolutely dreadful, the amount of time it has taken me to update. I have a thousand excuses, but you don't need to hear them, nor should you want to. But there is good news: my husband, the dear man, has begun to set me up with my own home office. I have my very own desk and bookshelf now. But I still lack a computer of my own, and therein lies the true difficulty in updating regularly. This one is shared, and the wife slash mommy of the house is always dead last in gaining possession.

My husband has promised me a laptop. This has been promised me since last January actually (my birthday month), so obviously a lot of time has passed without results. I have yet to see it. So, those of you who have magic wands or can send "vibes" his way, please begin doing so. Let's give him two more weeks. Then you have my permission to start throwing things at him – rotten fruit, soggy sponges, bricks, rolls of toilet paper, whatever comes to hand. Help Nightwing get her groove back! Thank you.

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To See A World by Nightwing

Chapter 44: A Brief Quiet

Legolas was asleep. Lying on his back with Koryon's dagger in one hand and the other resting over the bandaged wound in his side, he breathed easily and slowly, his face turned toward the door. He lay bundled in Aragorn's cloak near the glowing brazier, which until recently had been intended as an instrument of torture. Now it provided much-needed warmth against the winter chill that seeped through the stones of the dark prison. Elves did not suffer greatly from the cold, but Legolas had been subjected to terrible experiences that had drained him of strength, and Aragorn knew that the added warmth would be of help in both healing and comforting his friend.

The elf had entered into sleep unwillingly, voicing concern about his and Aragorn's safety on this violent night. But Aragorn had, with all the authority of a master healer, convinced his friend that rest was necessary. The elf's exhaustion was evident; the strain of captivity and ill use had dragged him to the edge of endurance, and his horror at nearly killing Aragorn had not abated. Even were Legolas to sleep only an hour or two, it would do much to restore his strength and his state of mind, and they both knew that the elf would not enter sleep so deeply that his awareness of his surroundings would be severed. Should danger come upon them, Legolas would be awake and on his feet in an instant.

Earlier, Aragorn had explored the room and found an empty drinking cup. Taking great care and moving quickly, he had ventured outside and scooped snow into his cloak and carried it in. Placing some snow into the cup, he melted it over the brazier for Legolas to consume, and did so until the elf's desperate thirst was eased. He had then examined his friend's injuries, and was relieved to have found nothing of great significance. The numerous cuts and bruises were easily dismissed, and the knife wound was indeed healing well, just as Legolas had stated. It would continue to be painful for a few days yet, but as long as the elf did not exert himself, Aragorn expected it to mend. The injury had been cleaned and treated, the bandage expertly wrapped. Impressed, Aragorn had asked Legolas about the healer who had tended him, and had been intrigued to hear his friend tell of an old woman – Koryon's grandmother - who had been brought to the dungeon after he had collapsed. She was obviously no friend to Ramhar, and had spoken strongly against him. In addition to treating his injuries, she had given the elf a vial of medicine that had greatly eased the pain in his head and given him strength. His curiosity aroused, Aragorn asked Legolas if he still had it, but the elf replied that he had consumed the last of it shortly before the guards had removed him to the interrogation cell, and had in fact smashed the vial into the face of one of the men as they had begun to lay hands on him. The glass had shattered, and that particular guard had retreated from the fight with a cry of agony.

"I was rather pleased with myself," the elf commented with a weary smile as he carefully wrapped his battered torso in the ranger's cloak and stretched out beside the fire. "But they apparently did not share my happiness. The blows came swift and hard after that."

"I want you to sleep now, Legolas," Aragorn ordered.

"You will wake me should the slightest thing disturb you," the elf said. It was not a request.

"I give you my word. But you must sleep for a time. In fact, I command it."

Legolas laughed. "I dare not refuse! You should hear yourself. Your voice has a distinctly regal tone to it when you speak thus, filled with authority and confidence. What a king you will make when the time comes, Aragorn."

"Be quiet, Elf."

Aragorn watched over his friend for perhaps two hours. He kept his attention divided between Legolas and the corridor beyond the door, but both the sleeping elf and the prison halls remained quiet. Whatever was happening in the city remained a mystery, and one that the ranger was growing increasingly curious about. Taking care not to disturb Legolas, Aragorn at last rose to his feet and limped into the corridor.

A single torch burned on the wall, the others having been taken by the men Alun had released from the nearby cells. Aragorn lifted it carefully from its holder and carried it with him. All along the corridor, prison doors were flung wide. Debris littered the floor. Here and there a door remained closed and firmly locked however, where those truly guilty of crimes had been passed over by Alun. Behind one issued a loud snoring, from another, agitated pacing came to Aragorn's ears as he made his way along the passage.

He paused when he came to the cell that had held Legolas. Stepping into the shadowed room, he saw the shards of the broken bottle twinkling in the reflected light of the torch. A spray of blood decorated the floor. Aragorn picked up one of the shattered pieces of glass and brought it to his nose, trying to discern what medicines the old woman had used, but the acrid smell was unfamiliar to him.

At the top of the steps, he fitted the torch into a holder and gently pressed against the door to open it a fraction. Listening intently, Aragorn peered into the darkness, and then he slid outside and up the steps and pressed himself against the wall. From some distance off, he heard dim shouts. He stole ahead, keeping to the shadows, until he reached the corner of the Lord's house and could look upon the courtyard.

It was silent here. No torch or watch fire was lit against the black night. At a casual glance, the place appeared deserted. But round the perimeter of the courtyard, Aragorn could make out the still figures of men waiting in the darkness, armed and ready, facing outward as they stood guard over their slain lord's domain. The house itself was darkened. Aragorn thought it likely that people were hiding within - perhaps relatives of Lord Cadean, or those who ranked highly and had served on his council. And what of the boy? Could he be confined somewhere within the walls of his own home?

On the far side of the courtyard there was a sudden scuffling of feet. Two men bearing the limp body of a third between them rushed to a long white building on the far end of the courtyard, its door illuminated by just one small lantern. Shadows passed before lit windows that were covered from within. The injured man was carried inside, and the two who had brought him raced away into the darkness again. Aragorn nodded to himself as he watched the figures in the windows. This was where the wounded were being brought from the fighting.

He could gain no sense of how the battle for possession of the city was going. He dared not move from his place among the shadows, though he longed for a glimpse beyond the courtyard. He heard the noise of distant shouting, and a far-off red glow could be seen over the hedges that surrounded the Lord's house. In the city, at least one building burned. A shriek split the night, the cry of a man mortally wounded, or mortally afraid. Silently Aragorn withdrew and made his way back to Legolas.

It occurred to him as he limped down the prison corridor that the elf might have wakened and been alarmed by his absence, or worse, imagined him to be an attacker. Aragorn rubbed his still throbbing head and realized he had best let the elf know who approached. "I am coming back, Legolas," he called softly as he drew near the room. "I took a moment to step outside."

Legolas put his head around the door. "I knew it was you. Who else would come wobbling down the corridor, steady on the left leg and favoring the right?"

Aragorn laughed. "There are probably a hundred limping men in this city by now. I could have been anyone."

"I doubt any of them are wearing boots that do not match," the elf retorted. "And your breath does not come easily. But I knew it was you – you still walk more softly than other men, despite your injuries. What did you see outside?"

"Very little," Aragorn said as he went to the brazier to warm himself. "The courtyard is quiet, and beyond it, faint shouts. The fighting continues." He coughed, and reached for the hill-man's flask at his hip.

Legolas followed him, extending the cloak. "Take this. I have no more need of it at present."

"Are you certain?"

"Very," the elf said. "Sleeping helped. The cold bothers me less than it did."

Aragorn looked searchingly at his friend as he took the cloak. Legolas did appear to move with more ease, and the heavy shadows of exhaustion had faded, though a trace of it lingered yet in his eyes. "Sit with me, Legolas," Aragorn said. "We still have time. The pain in your head – how is it? I know you said the old woman's medicine helped you, but now it is gone."

Legolas nodded as he seated himself beside the ranger. His face was unreadable. "I feel well enough."

"Before you were given the drug, how was the pain? You told me you had collapsed."

A shadow passed over the elf's features. "It was bearable at first, but later it became more difficult to cope," he murmured. "Without the medicines you had been giving me, it worsened."

"Perhaps the old woman has more of the drug," Aragorn said. "I was able to see where they were taking the wounded – a building directly across the courtyard from the lord's house. I could slip in there and try to find it. I confess that I am reluctant to leave this city with nothing to aid you. The cottage and all that was in it was lost when it burned. I have no medicines. If you were to become ill in the wild, we would be in serious difficulty."

"Unpleasant as that sounds, I will take my chances in the wild. It would be preferable to another interrogation session conducted by my new friends," the elf said.

"It must have been dreadful."

"It would have been. They really had not started on me yet. The first part was merely threats and discomfort, and that was when you and Alun found me. I thank you for your timing, Aragorn. Ramhar would have come next, and though I feared what he would do, it was nothing compared to the terror I felt knowing that that after him the old man would have his turn. You know what he is."

"Yes. And I have seen for myself Sauron's banner flying on the walls of the city tonight."

Legolas' voice lowered. "He has the capacity for great evil. I can feel it in him when he draws near. But I now have learned something of why Ramhar is here, and what he and the old man have done."

As the elf told Aragorn what he had discovered, the ranger shook his head in bewilderment. "Certainly he is mistaken in blaming your father for the killing of his family, and his desire for revenge seems to have driven him to madness. He did not stop at murdering your mother the queen, but has pushed further in an attempt to bring war to Mirkwood, four years later? This cannot be the workings of one man's mind, however driven by rage he might be. The sorcerer must have a hand in it."

Legolas nodded. "He feeds Ramhar's delusions, I am certain of it."

"And created them in the first place. From what I have seen of Ramhar, I believe him very capable of leading an army of men. He is smart and educated. He would be cunning on the battlefield, and compelling in his speech. People would follow such a man. But for what purpose does Ramhar do this? If he has truly studied his intended target, he would know that his army would never be able to strike a real blow against Mirkwood. They cannot hope to succeed."

"But if our enemies in Dol Guldur are part of the plan, and wait until the elves are forced to turn their attention to the north, whence this army of men will come – "

Aragorn nodded, his eyes narrowing as he envisioned the scene. "Yes, that could be trouble – real trouble. If the purpose of the army is to simply divert Thranduil's attention away from Dol Guldur, it will have an opportunity to strike hard against your people. The old man is working to see it done, and Ramhar is his tool."

"His blind tool. Ramhar does not see that he is being used." The elf sighed and ran his hands through his hair. "I have long sought my mother's killer. Now that I have found him, I have more questions than I ever did before."

"I think the answers lie with the sorcerer, and not with Ramhar."

"I would welcome the chance to question them both."

"Their motivations will be base," Aragorn said. "They usually are. Greed, lust, promises of power. Sauron plays with such men as a child plays with the strings of a puppet. And before they realize what is happening, the strings become a snare. They are easily trapped."

"The sorcerer must be stopped, Aragorn. We cannot let him continue in his work."

"Yes," Aragorn murmured. "It is my oath to fight against Sauron and all who aid him, and so I must pursue this man as well. He will not live to concoct another plan if it is in my power to stop him."

The elf frowned suddenly and climbed to his feet. He gestured toward the corridor. "Someone comes," he whispered. "Two sets of steps," he added. Aragorn hastened to the door, dagger in hand, pulling the elf behind him. They pressed themselves into the shadows.

"I think one of them is Koryon," Legolas said after a moment.

"Up to good, or ill?" Aragorn muttered.

The elf raised his head and inhaled deeply. A smile lit his face. "I would say good. He brings food."

Aragorn, unwilling to entirely trust the young guard, stepped through the doorway and faced the men, his weapon at the ready. Koryon carried a wrapped package in one hand, a pair of boots in the other, and clothing was draped over one arm. At his side, a red-haired boy of about fourteen years carried a large bucket that bumped against his leg with each step, sloshing water over the rim. Koryon halted abruptly at the sight of Aragorn and the dagger. "I have food and garb for the elf," he said quietly. "And water, if he wishes to wash."

Aragorn beckoned. "Come."

Legolas received the offerings quietly, and he solemnly thanked his former captor. "Aragorn, are you hungry?" he asked as he turned toward the ranger.

"I am fine. The hill-men fed me well."

"And Ramhar fed me not at all," Legolas responded. He took possession of the pack and carried it to his spot beside the brazier. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, he set upon the meat and bread with obvious desire. Koryon spoke to the boy carrying the water, who was staring at the elf with wide eyes.

"Set the bucket there, and the towel beside it. Now get you back to the courtyard. Keep a sharp eye on the road, and come back immediately if you see anything at all. Do not speak of the elf to anyone," he added. "Alun will skin you alive, and so will I."

The boy nodded and backed out of the room. Aragorn looked after him uneasily. "Can you trust him?"

"He is my brother," Koryon said with a smile. "He will be silent."

"What news of the battle?" Aragorn asked.

"It is fiercely fought in the lower sections of the city," Koryon said as he set the clothing on a chair. "I have seen some of it, but have mostly been carrying the wounded to the healers. Skirmishes here and there, no large numbers of men in any one place. Things are a bit confusing, it being dark out there and people rushing about between the houses. I cannot say how it will end. The healing rooms are packed – my grandmother and her assistants are hard pressed, and they treat both friend and foe, for that is my grandmother's way. I was going to stay and help her, but Alun got hold of me and told me to come back here to check on you and to bring some things for Prince Legolas' comfort first."

"How does Alun fare? Did he tell you anything?"

"He was uninjured, but in a rush to get back to it. He did say that the soldiers in the barracks remain there. They are imprisoned, or perhaps they have chosen not to stand against the rebels. He did say that you and Legolas should get out of the city soon – just in case it goes badly."

Legolas paused over his food. "I do not want to go too far. I wish to stay close enough to learn of the outcome, and to be of help later if possible."

"As do I," Aragorn agreed. He knew Legolas was concerned for the boy's safety, and Alun's. For good or ill, the ranger and the elf had become attached to the people here. It would be impossible to turn their backs on the city of Carbryddin and simply leave its folk to their fate. And there was more to hold them here, Aragorn knew, as he watched the elf check that the knife Koryon had given him was still within reach. The old man must be stopped, and his plans to aid Sauron ended permanently. Once the mayhem of the night had ended and the boy's safety secured, Aragorn would turn his attention to the sorcerer.

But what would this mean for Legolas? If Alun and his men were victorious, the elf would be able to stay in the city until Aragorn's return. If the battle went badly, there may not be a chance to deal with the old man at all. Aragorn would have to secure his friend's safety first and see to his health, and by then Malcovan might slip away entirely.

As if able to feel Aragorn's worried eyes upon him, Legolas raised his head. "One step at a time, Aragorn," he said quietly. The elf drained the container of drinking water Koryon had brought and then sought out the wash bucket. He plunged his arms in up to the shoulders and sighed happily.

"Still hot!" he exclaimed. "How did you manage this, Koryon?"

"My grandmother asked about you. She wants you looked after, and said the water could be spared from her healing rooms."

"I am grateful," Legolas said. "That lady is dear to my heart, though I met her only briefly." Taking a deep breath, he buried his head under the water and began scrubbing at his hair.

Aragorn had the towel waiting when the elf came up. "You must keep the bandage around that stab wound dry, Legolas. I must forbid a complete submersion."

"Must you? I thought to climb in," Legolas laughed. "I have never been so desperate to clean myself. But this will do – I feel much better."

Legolas dried himself and tied his hair back. The shirt and boots that Koryon had brought him fit well, and the hooded cloak was of good quality and warm. He slid the dagger into his belt. "What now?" he asked. "Where do we go?"

"I can lead you to the wall and help you get over it," Koryon said. You can hide yourselves in the woods and return later – if there is a later."

Aragorn nodded. "We will follow you."

The darkness had penetrated every corne