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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.
"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."
"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…
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