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Disclaimer: the familiar characters and the setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and belong to his estate. This story is written for entertainment only, and I am making no monetary profit from it.
Author's notes: Lisette betaed once again. I feel compelled to point out (though no one complained) that the unfortunate typos that appeared in the last chapter were by no means the fault of my beta reader. I have a terrible habit of continuing to tweak the chapters after I have sent them to Lisette, but not sending her the tweaks! And I, of course, never spot the typos until I have posted. So it's not her fault. Keeping this monster under control is not easy. Three cheers for all the hardworking betas out there!
To See A World by Nightwing
Chapter Twenty: Slings and Arrows
Legolas bent his head and smiled as he listened to the rustling sounds coming from the woods behind the target. He sat comfortably on a log set beside the stacked bundles of straw, absorbing the smells and sounds of late afternoon as his friend wandered about in the shrubs. It felt good to take a moment to relax between shooting sessions.
"I cannot find this last one, Legolas," Aragorn's voice called, a hint of exasperation creeping into the tone.
The elf's smile widened. "Keep looking. That arrow went to the left of the target and skittered about thirty feet past it. It slid on the ground a bit, and is probably buried under the leaves."
"If it is buried under leaves, how the devil do I find it?" The rustling sounds became louder as Aragorn waded through the underbrush.
"You will locate it eventually. And while you search, I am enjoying a well-earned rest. No need to rush, Aragorn," the elf added with a laugh. "I will drink my tea now, so take your time. Appreciate the fact that you are not gathering firewood today."
"Firewood I can see. Skinny arrows with fletchings that blend perfectly with the background are another matter altogether. And it is growing dark, Legolas."
Legolas laughed again and set his bow aside. "In that case, we will consider this archery session ended."
"Thank the Valar for that. I feared you would want to go all night."
Reaching for his tea, the elf curled his fingers around the mug and allowed the warmth of the drink to penetrate his hands. It was a cold day, and he tilted his face back as he inhaled deeply, testing the direction and temperature of the breeze. He agreed with Aragorn's assessment of the weather. The time of snow was nearly upon them.
Blowing carefully on the hot drink, the elf took a small sip and grimaced. Even with the honey, the bitter taste of the bark Aragorn used to control his head pain could not be entirely masked. But he drank it willingly. Early evening approached now, and the ranger had been at Legolas' side with the tea the moment the elf had first raised his hand to his head early in the afternoon. It was a good time to drink it, when only the initial vague twinges of discomfort had started. If Legolas delayed, ignoring his discomfort until the pain worsened, the tea was not as effective. As it was, the cup he now held was his second. Aragorn had silently settled the hot drink into his hands a few minutes ago, having stolen off to the cottage when the archer had sat to examine his arrows. No words had passed between them, but the ranger had apparently seen the price Legolas was paying for his prolonged practice.
Legolas did not mind taking the time now for respite and reflection. He had been shooting for over nine hours, with only small moments of rest when Aragorn was forced to go in search of errant arrows. The two companions had paused to eat a light mid-day meal and then they had been back at it, the ranger standing by, silently supportive as the elf struggled to regain a skill that had once been as effortless as breathing.
Seating himself on the grass and resting his back against the rough log, Legolas idly listened to the ranger thrashing about in the shrubs and thought over his accomplishments thus far. His results with the bow had been erratic, sure enough, but because he had controlled his emotions during his less successful moments he was pleased with himself and with his progress. When the arrow met the target with a satisfying thump, he was delighted. And when the arrow missed the target, hissing past it and striking the ground beyond with a softer sound and a rattle of leaves, he had merely nodded, accepting it, and stepped forward to analyze what had gone wrong. Understanding that anger and disappointment had no place here, the elf had set all negative emotions aside. Capable of intense concentration, he had bent all his thought and mental strength to the task at hand, and the results had not been as terrible as he had feared.
Nestling the empty mug into the grass, Legolas assessed his body's reaction to the day's efforts. After enduring such a devastating illness and not working with his bow for so many weeks he had expected to encounter some difficulty. Surprisingly, there had been little of significance that concerned him. There was no weakness. There was no real pain. His left arm was consistently strong as it bore the burden of holding the great bow steady. His right shoulder never tired, though he demanded much of it, pulling again and again on the string. The muscles of his back did not ache with overuse, and it was with a feeling of wonder that he soon realized he felt as he always did when he wielded his bow; strong, confident and completely comfortable. The great weapon had been made specifically for his hands by Mirkwood's finest bowyer, and it had settled into his grip as it always had, the fine wood smooth and cool against his palms. He felt the passion that lingered there still as he ran his fingers over the string, discovering anew the familiar feeling of lightness and power.
In only a few ways did his body complain, informing him that this renewed activity was not entirely to its liking. Three fingers of his right hand - the ones he curled around the bowstring - were torn and bloody, as his calluses had softened and no longer afforded him the protection they once had. But it was a trifle, and he ignored the stinging pain, knowing that his fingers would heal soon enough and be as they had always been. The skin of his left forearm also voiced complaint, burning and stinging where the bowstring had rebounded to smack against it when he had begun shooting. His protective bracers had been lost on that terrible night long ago, and he had rolled the sleeve of his shirt over his elbow to keep it from catching. But he had quickly made adjustments, changing the angle of the bow slightly, and after that the problem had lessened.
Only the pain in his head had truly concerned him, growing steadily and wearying him despite the tea he had consumed early in the afternoon. No doubt the continuous mental calculations he ran through his brain as he shot his arrows were taxing that still fragile aspect of his physical body, as did the low thrum of nervousness that threatened to distract him whenever his thoughts strayed to what he must do tomorrow. This emotion he kept tightly harnessed, lest it burst free and engulf him. The head pain was tiresome, but tolerable, and the elf had quietly disregarded Aragorn's concerned inquiries and continued with his practice.
As for the shooting, there had been good moments and bad. At first he had stood directly in front of the target at twenty yards and concentrated on simply hitting the bales. Focusing on the rattling leaves of the little twig, he had been consistent. Then Aragorn had affixed a small piece of bark directly to the center of the uppermost bale, and the elf had tried to strike it. This had been more difficult, and he spent a good amount of time struggling with both the cant of his bow and establishing the correct angle of his upper body in relation to the target.
When the wind had died, effectively silencing the rustle of the leaves, Legolas found himself having to concentrate even more on calculating angles, distances, and arrow velocity, committing to memory which ones aided his successful shots. Not for the first time, the elf felt gratitude for his uncanny memory as he ran through numerous calculations in his head. I stand thirty-two yards from the target, and to the left of it. I must raise the bow slightly to compensate for the greater distance, otherwise the arrow will begin its descent before reaching the target. I will need a bit more speed out of it as well. And now the wind is gone. It will not steal the arrow mid-flight and cause it to drift as it did before, so I must adjust slightly for that …
As the hours marched past, Legolas patiently and doggedly approached each shot with the combined precision of mathematician and engineer. Aragorn had been a steady assistant throughout the day, willingly and without complaint following lost arrows and ferreting them out of tangled shrubs and clumps of dried leaves. In time, the elf had challenged himself by risking more difficult shots. Aragorn had been forced to do more fetching, but not a great deal more. During the course of the day only one arrow had been lost forever, smacking into the trunk of a tree and breaking with a sharp crack that had made both elf and ranger wince.
His practice session had not been perfect, but Legolas knew that it could not have been. As he unbuckled his quiver and removed it from his back he felt some trepidation, but strove to dismiss it and focus his thoughts on the shots he had done well. He congratulated himself. It had been a long and trying day, but he had retained his equanimity throughout. Night was drawing near, and it was time to rest. Tomorrow he would attempt to satisfy the boy's desire to see one of the Firstborn wield a longbow.
* * * *
Aragorn awoke, once again roused by an unusual sound that brought him swimming up from the warm depths of his dreams into awareness of both the cold morning and the elf's activities. ThumpThumpThump! The sounds were so close together they almost blended into one. Aragorn sat up and put his head out the window, gazing at the three quivering arrows protruding from the target. The grouping was not perfect, not by elven standards that is, but he smiled nonetheless. Though he may be challenged as to target location, Legolas had lost none of his astonishing speed. That alone should be enough to impress both the boy and his bodyguard for days.
He listened to the elf's soft footsteps crunching over the frosted grass as he made his way to the target. Legolas retrieved his arrows, sliding them into his quiver, and slowly walked back. A small frown marred his fair features. Pausing a moment, he seemed to be gathering himself, and then he spun and whipped the arrows off in quick succession. ThumpThumpCrack! Aragorn grimaced as the third arrow glanced off the oak tree and spiraled into the shrubs. The elf's frown deepened, and with an irritated shake of his head he stalked toward the target again.
Aragorn pulled his clothes on and headed out the door. Legolas was yanking the arrows free of the straw, and he turned as the ranger approached him. "I have lost another one, Aragorn," he muttered in a low voice.
"I saw where it went. I will find it."
"I think it broke."
"No, it was whole, and just flew off to the side." Aragorn rummaged through the bushes. "Here it is." He extracted the arrow from a clump of damp leaves and handed it to the elf, who ran his fingers over it anxiously. The ranger studied his friend, and quickly came to the conclusion that the calm confidence of yesterday had been usurped by a far different emotion. Legolas' entire form seemed charged with tension, his face pale and drawn in the morning sun. Aragorn felt his heart drop, and he placed his hand on the elf's shoulder. "Legolas?"
"They will be here soon. Alun said they would come in the morning." The elf sighed. "Aragorn, I do not think I can do this. If I make a shot like that in front of them…"
"Would it really be so bad if you did?"
"Yes. I will not appear sighted. The boy will know."
"Then let him know."
Legolas silently shook his head and turned away, removing the quiver from his back as he walked toward the house. Aragorn did not pursue him. He watched as his friend disappeared into the cottage, closing the door behind him, and then he regarded the target.
Yesterday, the elf had surprised him. Legolas' skills, blind though he was, were still impressive, and Aragorn's admiration for his friend's indomitable spirit had grown as he watched the elf systematically approach each shot with calm, analytical precision. True, there had been missed shots and awkward moments, but the successes were far greater than these, and last night the elf had seemed pleased with his accomplishments.
But now the moment was rapidly approaching when he would be put to the test, and Legolas' carefully built confidence had faltered. The elf had his reasons for wanting to keep his blindness hidden from the boy. Aragorn did not agree with them, but he would not press him on it. He respected the elf's feelings, though he did not entirely understand them. But did Legolas really have to abandon the performance? The ranger extended a hand toward the little twig protruding from the straw and brushed his fingers against the leaves. He raised his head, testing the air. The day was breezy, and the leaves rattled as the wind sighed through them. With a sudden smile, Aragorn patted the target and trotted into the house to talk to his friend.
* * * *
Aragorn was waiting in the doorway when Alun and Tarnan cantered into the clearing. The boy was off his horse in an instant, his red cape swirling around him as he tossed the reins to his guardian and rushed directly to the ranger. "Where is he? Is he ready?"
Aragorn laughed at the child's eagerness. "Patience. He we will be with us soon. He is inside, preparing himself."
"Is he really going to shoot at you?" Tarnan asked breathlessly, his eyes shining with excitement.
Aragorn smiled. "No. He has forgiven me, and erected a proper target instead," he said, gesturing to the stacked bales of straw.
"Oh," the boy sounded disappointed, but an instant later he brightened again and grinned. "I suppose you must be relieved. It should still be a good show."
"I guarantee it. And now, Lord Tarnan, if you will take a seat on the log just over there, you will have but a few minutes to wait. Let me assist Alun with the horses."
As Aragorn walked with Alun into the enclosure and helped him unsaddle the steeds the soldier glanced at him with a flicker of concern in his dark eyes. "How is Legolas? Is he still angry with you about this?"
"No. He practiced all day yesterday. All day, and he feels he is as ready as he can be."
"But he must be somewhat uncomfortable. It appears he does not want the boy to know of his blindness, and so I have said nothing to him. But how can your friend possibly shoot well enough to disguise it?"
"He cannot," Aragorn said, and broke into a laugh as Alun looked at him quizzically. He gripped the soldier's arm and began steering him out of the paddock. "Come now, seat yourself beside your young lord. The show is about to begin."
With a bewildered shake of his head Alun allowed himself to be led to the log, and his eyes wandered to the target of straw bales erected some thirty yards off, tied to the stout old oak tree with rope. Beside him the boy fidgeted impatiently, his gaze locked on the closed door of the small cottage.
"Legolas, are you ready?" Aragorn called as he settled himself beside Tarnan. "Your audience awaits."
The door opened, and the elf emerged, bow in hand and quiver strapped to his back. Aragorn kept his eyes on Tarnan as the boy watched the elf descend the step and move toward them, and he smiled quietly at the expression of delighted surprise that swept over the young face. "Can he really shoot like that?" the boy gasped. "He must really be good."
"He is," the ranger chuckled as Legolas, smiling broadly, stopped before them and bowed low. "But he wanted to challenge himself today."
"Indeed," the elf said evenly. "It is not so difficult to shoot sighted, nor is it terribly exciting. Shooting blind is another matter. It is my hope that I can still impress you." He raised his right hand and traced the strip of cloth bound across his eyes.
"Oh, wonderful!" Tarnan exclaimed, clapping his hands.
Alun, seated on the other side of the boy, leaned forward and met Aragorn's eyes. "Clever," he said with an approving nod.
"I will fetch the arrows," Aragorn said as Legolas turned away and faced the bales, readying himself for the first shot.
"And hopefully not too many will go astray, as I only have three to begin with," the elf laughed. He looked completely relaxed, ready for fun, and Aragorn settled back comfortably, crossing his arms as the archer nocked an arrow and pulled the string back, tilting his head as he listened to the rustling leaves. The first arrow whizzed through the air and struck the uppermost bale dead center.
"Oh, well done!" Tarnan shouted.
Two more arrows flew, one lighting directly next to the first, the other several inches higher. Aragorn scooted off the log and made his way to the target, clapping the elf on the shoulder as he passed him, and Legolas bent his head toward the ranger's ear briefly. "Thank you," he whispered.
The two guest members of the audience watched with delight as the graceful elf sent arrow after arrow flying toward the target. When Legolas attempted particularly challenging shots he did not always strike the bales, but for the most part his aim was true. With the strip of cloth tied around his eyes the need to hide his blindness was eliminated, and the elf was able to relax and enjoy performing. He shot standing, kneeling, walking and at a variety of distances and angles, and of course he demonstrated his astonishing ability at speed shooting, firing his three arrows into the target with such rapidity that the boy whooped, leaping from his seat and jumping about while Alun stared at the elf in astonishment.
It thrilled Aragorn to see Legolas like this again; poised, confident, and controlled. His face, though half-covered by the strip of cloth binding his eyes, glowed with happiness. Legolas' successes were cheered, and his occasional misses were greeted with good-natured laughs, with the archer himself able to join in. The performance was a triumph, and when it was over and elf set his weapon down, both Tarnan and Alun applauded enthusiastically, their eyes shining with admiration.
As Alun and the boy went to the barn, intending to unload the supplies they had brought with them, Aragorn approached the elf and touched his blindfold. "Ready to have this off?" he whispered.
"In truth, in front of the boy I am more comfortable with it on," Legolas responded in a low voice. "But I suppose it would look odd to keep it."
"It would," the ranger agreed, and Legolas reached up and pulled the cloth away. He folded it with care, grinning wearily as he offered it to Aragorn.
"Well, we did it," he murmured as he pressed the blindfold into the ranger's hand.
Aragorn shook his head. "No, Legolas. You did it. The work was all yours, as is the triumph."
"You thought of the blindfold, not I. Without it, I could not have found the courage to shoot in front of the boy. It went surprisingly well, did it not?"
"It went beautifully, Legolas, and no surprise. You still possess more skill than most sighted people."
The elf spoke quietly. "There were moments of frustration, but they matter little now. It felt good to hold my bow again, Aragorn. It felt good. I thought I would never take it up again. I was afraid."
Aragorn smiled as he looked at his friend, seeing the renewed confidence that had settled on the elf like a shining cloak. He rested his hand on Legolas' shoulder. "I know. I could see the fear, and the damage it wrought as it gnawed on you. But you faced it, and you defeated it. Well done, mellon-nin."
The sudden sharp neigh of a horse pierced the air, and Legolas shifted toward the sound. "Time for a new challenge," he laughed. "Someone is calling me."
Aragorn looked at the horses and spotted the chestnut stallion snorting and kicking up his heels in the pen. His red coat gleaming in the sun, Firestar suddenly looked less like a horse than a creature wrought of roiling flames. Rhosgernroch and Alun's sturdy grey gelding apparently felt little appreciation for their companion's antics, for they huddled in the far corner of the paddock, regarding the younger horse with flattened ears and nipping at him when he drew too near.
Aragorn's heart lurched painfully against his ribs. "You cannot mean it. Legolas, are you not tired? Should you not rest now, and wait another day?" he stammered anxiously, wrenching his incredulous eyes away from the writhing red demon to stare in disbelief at the elf.
Legolas rubbed his hands together gleefully, and a wide grin spread across his face. He broke away from the vice-like grip the ranger had clamped onto his shoulder.
"Firestar, horse of wind and sky,
Ridden by an elf with darkness in his eye,
Together they know that the moment is nigh,
Though pursued by a ranger fearing goodbye…"
The elf sang deliberately off-key, scarcely able to force the ridiculous words past his laughter. He began heading toward the barn, humming as he went.
"Oh, balls," sighed Aragorn. Resigning himself to the fact that his friend would not be dissuaded, he unhappily fell into step behind him and began a mental inventory of the medical supplies he had on hand, certain that a long stint of piecing together broken elven bones lay before him.
To be continued…
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