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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 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.
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.
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…
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