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Disclaimer: the familiar characters and setting 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. This story was written for entertainment only, and no monetary profit was made.
Author's notes: praise be to Lisette once again for her beta efforts, keeping the subject of the sentences clear. It just will not do to have Aragorn galloping around and snorting like a horse.
To See A World
Chapter Twenty-One: Freedom Rider
"What is he doing?" Tarnan demanded.
Aragorn grinned. The boy was nearly breathing fire in his impatience, squeezing the words out between clenched teeth as he peered at the motionless elf. Legolas stood in the center of the horse's enclosure - he had been standing there a good while now - as the great chestnut stallion trotted circles around him.
"He isn't doing anything," the boy grumbled, answering his own question. Perched between Aragorn and Alun on the same log they had used for seating during the archery demonstration, the young lord of Carbryddin sighed, crossed his arms over his chest, and began to jiggle his leg up and down. "He's been standing there for hours."
"Twenty minutes," Aragorn corrected with a laugh. "But it obviously feels much longer to you."
"When is he going to do something?"
"He is doing something."
"Hush, boy," Alun's deep voice broke in. "The elf is no longer performing for you. He does as he sees fit now, and in his own time." Though the words were meant to chastise, the soldier dropped an understanding hand on Tarnan's shoulder. "If the waiting is so difficult, we might go inside the cottage and find another occupation."
The boy glanced sidelong at his guardian. "And miss this? You must be daft. When he does get on Firestar, they will go like the wind. It's how elves ride."
"He will fall," Alun stated, his eyes fixed on the elf as Legolas slowly pivoted on his heel, following the horse's movements as it trotted round and round.
"He will not!" the outraged boy retorted.
"The beast is wild. How you manage to stay on him I do not know, but no one else can handle that horse. Certainly no stranger can, particularly one who-" the soldier broke off, hastily swallowing his words as the ranger turned and sent a warning glare in his direction. Alun grimaced, but met Aragorn's eyes squarely. "You should not have let him do this, Aragorn. You have told me he is not yet fully recovered from his illness. He will be hurt."
"Legolas understands the risks. He makes his own decisions," Aragorn said quietly, though in truth he felt the same concern. He turned away, directing his attention back to the pen and the two beings within.
At the elf's request the other horses had been confined to the barn, leaving the paddock entirely to him and the stallion. Also at his request, the three spectators had been relegated to the log and asked to stay there, much to the dismay of the youngest member of the trio. The boy had acquiesced without too much fuss, however, confident that another episode of grand entertainment would be forthcoming. This happy mood of contented expectation had lasted all of five minutes, and when the two objects of his attention continued to simply stand quietly (elf) or caper about (horse), the boy's poorly bottled impatience had reached eruption point.
"Why isn't he doing anything?" Tarnan hissed.
"He is," Aragorn said. "He is singing."
The boy narrowed his eyes at Aragorn. "Singing?"
"No he isn't. I can't hear a thing."
"He is singing to the horse, Tarnan," Aragorn said gently. "Not to us."
The stallion had finally begun to slow his prancing. Aragorn ran his eyes over him as Firestar came to a stop and shook his head, blowing softly as he turned toward the elf. The creature was uniquely beautiful. Long and elegant, his neck arching proudly, it was clear that he was of impeccable breeding. It was also clear that he enjoyed showing off. He was a bundle of raw energy, but every movement was swift and controlled, his gait perfect, and his red-gold coat glowed like embers in the afternoon sun. Legolas stood still as a statue. Only his lips moved as the stallion drew nearer, ears swiveling until at last he came to the elf and nudged his shoulder, knocking into him. Aragorn heard Legolas laugh softly, and the elf raised his hand to stroke Firestar's face and run it over his glossy neck as he bent his head to the horse.
The faint song came to Aragorn again as the elf's long fingers stroked over the stallion's body. This was how Legolas could "see" the magnificent animal, and the ranger knew that was just what his friend was doing as he traced the planes of the horse's face and felt down the legs, caressing the mane and even exploring the length and thickness of Firestar's tail. There was no hurry; no need to rush what was forming between the elf and the horse, and the low murmur of Legolas' voice continued as he stepped around to Firestar's left side, his hand trailing across the muscular chest as he passed in front of the stallion. The elf's movements were slow, almost languid, and the horse, aside from the occasional toss of his head, stood quietly.
After several minutes the stallion began to dance about once more. Legolas turned toward the people watching him. "Aragorn," he called softly. "Will you open the gate for me?"
The ranger went to the fence. His approach caused the stallion to recoil, but Legolas, one hand lightly twined in Firestar's mane, went with him, stepping easily alongside the horse and whispering to him. Firestar calmed again, though fire burned brightly in his orbs. "Are you certain about this, Legolas?" Aragorn asked in a low voice, regarding the great horse with distrust.
Legolas nodded. He looked confident, head high, and his blue eyes had grown bright as crystals. A light smile played about his lips as he sang his sweet song to the animal that danced and pawed the ground in his eagerness to be moving. Reaching for the latch, the ranger paused for a moment. Gazing at the golden-haired elf and the magnificent horse, he was suddenly struck by how beautiful the two of them looked together. His felt his heart leap as he realized – somewhat to his astonishment - that he could not wait to see the Prince of Mirkwood astride the powerful stallion. Aragorn quickly pulled the gate wide and stepped back.
The elf's hand, which had casually been holding a handful of mane near the withers, suddenly shifted higher and gripped hard. As Firestar shot forward Legolas vaulted onto his back. So close did they come to him that the wind of their passing whipped the hair from Aragorn's shoulders, and he turned away to shield his eyes from the cloud of dust flying up from the hooves, but not before he caught a blurred glimpse of Legolas' face, shining with excitement.
The elf clung like a burr as the stallion streaked across the clearing. Aragorn raced after them and joined Alun, who had jumped up from the log and dragged the boy to the safety of the cottage doorway as Legolas tore past them. Tarnan stood frozen, his hands clapped over his mouth and his eyes enormous.
"No saddle? No bridle?" he gasped.
Aragorn didn't answer, for his heart was in his throat. Legolas was rapidly approaching the thick wall of trees on the other end of the clearing, and the horse showed no signs of slowing. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to swallow the shout of warning that threatened to erupt from his mouth. He knew that the elf was well acquainted by now with the dimensions of the glade. Legolas knew where the trees were.
As Firestar roared up to the edge of the clearing Legolas suddenly threw his weight to the left, leaning hard and guiding the stallion into a sharp turn. The horse half came up onto his hind legs, spinning in a reddish blur before landing with a thud and bolting in the other direction. His hoof-beats echoed like thunder in the ranger's ears. He watched as Legolas, crouching low, urged the horse on, and shook his head in amazement. This should not be possible. Eyesight was essential to one wishing to ride a horse such as Firestar. Eyesight gave one a sense of balance, of orientation to one's surroundings, and awareness of possible dangers.
The day that Legolas had first ridden the old mare he had fallen several times. It had been a struggle for him to find his balance even at a gentle trot or canter. How was it that he now could ride the great stallion - a much more challenging steed - with such skill? Legolas' balance was perfect, his seat soft and his body relaxed and flowing with the movements of his mount. As Aragorn stared, the elf threw his head back and laughed – an exultant, free sound that bounced among the closely clustered trees, echoing throughout the clearing until it seemed all the oaks and pines laughed with him.
Every day the elf gained more of that precious asset. Though many of his efforts were at first rewarded with failure and frustration, Legolas had never given up on any of his endeavors. From the seemingly small victory – making breakfast for the two of them without assistance – to the apparently insurmountable goals of archery and riding, not once had the elf allowed himself to succumb to doubt and despair. He had toiled, climbing past his tears and his terror, at times without the support of his dearest friend, until he had reached the summit of each mountain that he had been forced to ascend.
Aragorn looked after his friend as he raced along the length of the clearing once more. There was a new steadiness about the elf-prince, wrought of his experiences. Discipline was in his face, and Aragorn suddenly realized that – at least physically if not emotionally – Legolas was growing accustomed to being blind.
Filled with sorrow and with awe, he watched as the elf slowed the horse and cantered easily past him, and it was as if a layer of blindness had suddenly been stripped away from his own eyes. The ranger felt shame for having had reservations, unendurable sadness for what had come to Legolas, and a powerful surge of pride in his friend. He bowed his head.
Why did I ever doubt him?
Something tapped his shoulder softly, and he turned to find Alun looking at him. "Your face is wet," the soldier murmured.
"Is it? I did not realize." Aragorn smiled, feeling no embarrassment, and without haste lifted a hand to wipe his tears away.
"Were he my friend, I would weep as well," Alun said quietly. "In all my days, I have never seen anything more beautiful."
* * * * * *
"He is a horse meant for the gods, Aragorn," Legolas exclaimed enthusiastically between bites of bread. His wind-whipped hair remained tousled, a flaxen cascade over his shoulders, and his eyes glowed with happiness. The cat, purring contentedly, was curled on his lap, and his hands flowed over her as he spoke. "Never have I ridden such a magnificent animal. He is well named, full of fire and energy. But he is so much more… intelligent and responsive, and with a mettle to rival that of the Mearas. He is a wonder."
Aragorn leaned back in his chair and laughed. They were inside, the warmth of the cottage driving the chill from their bones. The fire crackled merrily in the hearth, and their new friends were seated with them at the table. "Poor Rhosgernroch. How will she feel when she learns you have thrown her over for that young upstart?"
Legolas chuckled as he lifted his cup to his lips. "Fear not. I will never permit her feelings to be hurt. She is dear to me, and will always be first in my heart. And I am the one who cares for her needs every day."
Tarnan, his mouth full of food, fixed his eyes on Alun and pointed at the elf. "You said Legolas would fall."
Alun blanched, glancing apprehensively at Legolas, who merely smiled at the boy's words and continued to happily devour his meal as if he hadn't eaten in days. "Did I?" the soldier stammered. "I do not quite recall-"
"You said it. But he didn't fall. I was right," the boy said triumphantly.
Aragorn came to the soldier's defense. "I also feared Legolas would fall," he told the child.
"Why?" Tarnan asked, and it was Aragorn's turn to grope for an answer.
"Yes, why?" Legolas chimed in with a smirk, moving his eyes to settle them on Aragorn's face. The ranger regarded the elf in silence for a moment, and decided that he was improving in his attempts to appear sighted.
"I feared you were still not well enough," the ranger said. "As of today, I have changed my mind."
Alun paused with his fork in mid-air. "I am more easily able to understand how Legolas can ride that horse than I can Tarnan. How is it that Firestar, who would settle for no one but the Lady and became uncontrollable after her death, now allows the boy to ride him? Tarnan is the only person, save Legolas, who the horse has permitted to sit on him. Not even our best horsemen can work with that stallion."
"Firestar knows who Tarnan is," Legolas said. "And he loves him."
Alun looked skeptical. "You mean to say Firestar knows that Tarnan is the child of the woman who once rode him?"
Legolas nodded. "Of course. How could he not?"
Tarnan shrugged. "I used to visit him with Mama, and watch her ride him. Maybe he remembers that."
"He undoubtedly does, but it runs deeper than that," the elf stated. "He knows it in his heart, for you are of her flesh. You need not ever fear to ride him, Tarnan. Firestar will never throw you."
The boy nodded soberly, his expression turned thoughtful and his gaze focused on something far away. Then he shook himself and grinned broadly as he slid gleeful, mischievous eyes toward his guardian. "Did I not tell you that he is always gentle with me, Alun? And he always does what I ask. Would that my servants did the same."
The soldier rolled his eyes skyward and snorted - a most un-servant like sound - and both ranger and elf shared in the laughter that filled the small cottage. It was the sort of laughter shared between intimate friends, and Aragorn's heart lightened yet again as he noted the pleasure shining in Legolas' eyes.
All too soon the day had drawn to a close. As the boy went to ready the horses, Alun tarried on the porch. "We have brought a few more supplies for you," he said, turning to Aragorn and Legolas. "Not so much this time, for we cannot let it be noticed that things are missing."
"You have done enough for us," said Aragorn. "We have been concerned that you might be discovered. What is the current mood of the city?"
Alun blew his breath out, and it drifted, cloud-like, over their heads. "Tense. Winter arrives, and the folk grow restless. Some fear that our oppressors will further tighten their stranglehold as we draw into ourselves during the cold months, forgoing trade with other cities and thus allowing no one outside to bear witness. Some are pushing for the rebellion, but others feel that the time is not right."
"When will the time be right?" the elf queried.
The soldier's voice was troubled. "No one can say. Some argue that we must be stronger… that we need more numbers. Others fear that the longer we wait, the stronger Malcovan and his followers become. He persuades people to come over to him with promises of land and title, or he threatens them and casts his spells. Whatever his tactics, we cannot stand up to him as we are. We are too few, but we have nearly reached the breaking point. What the trigger will finally be I do not know, but something will happen this winter. Of that I am certain."
Tarnan was calling, waving from the barn where he waited with the two horses. Alun drew his cloak more firmly around his body and fastened it. "I will try to return in a few days with more supplies. The flour you requested is an excellent idea, Aragorn, as trying to arrange meetings with the miller could be difficult. I will also bring up some oats for the mare, more food for you, if I can, and the herbs you wanted. I will have to raid the healer's stock for the things you need, but fear not. They are with us in the fight, and will willingly give me what I ask without question."
Aragorn nodded. "I would be most grateful, as Legolas still needs medicines. But then you must stop, Alun. Now that we have a good supply of wood stacked beside the cottage, Legolas and I can once more turn our attention to the procurement of food."
"The trapping is good along the river, true enough, and fish are plentiful in that small lake yonder," Alun said. "But I'll still feel better knowing I've gotten a few more things up here to you." He turned to the elf. "It was a fine display today, Legolas. You gave Tarnan the thrill of his life, and I must confess I myself was more than a little astonished at what you can do."
The elf smiled quietly. "I was rather astonished myself. And now that it is over, I want nothing more than to sleep for two days."
"It would be a well-deserved rest," Alun said. With a salute, he stepped to the ground. "It grows late, gentlemen, and I must get the child home to his father."
"Are you and the boy missed when you come up here?" Aragorn asked with concern.
The soldier shook his head. "I think not. When he is not being tutored, Tarnan is quite free to go where he wishes as long as he is escorted. We have been putting it about that he is learning what lies outside the borders of his city, and working to improve his horsemanship by accompanying me on my patrols. But we must limit his visits so as to not arouse suspicion. It may be some days before I am able to return with him for another visit."
"Whenever you are able, know that you are welcome here," Aragorn told the soldier. He waved as the man and the boy mounted their steeds and guided them to the trail beyond the river, and then he glanced at the sky, heavy with clouds. As he watched, the first snowflakes fell, lazily floating down to settle on the golden hair of the elf standing beside him.
"It is snowing, Legolas."
The elf stepped away from the threshold and tilted his face back. "So it is."
"Let us hope for a soft winter, my friend."
"And an uneventful one," Legolas added.
The snows had come at last to the Northlands. With a final glance at the rapidly gathering flakes beginning to swirl around him, Aragorn followed the elf into the little cottage and closed the door behind them.
To be continued…
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