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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."
"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."
"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.
"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…
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