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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.
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.
"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,
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?
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.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
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.
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.
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