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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. 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!
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.
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."
To be continued…
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