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Disclaimer: the familiar characters and the setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and are the property of his estate. I do have permission to use them, and no profit is being made from this story.
Author's Notes: here you will find the answer to that eternal question we have long pondered: why are Aragorn's hands always so filthy? Thanks again to Lisette for her beta work.
To See A World by Nightwing
Chapter Twenty-Two: White World
Aragorn stood in the doorway and gazed out at a world that had quickly become shrouded in white. Throughout the evening meal he had kept a distracted eye on the weather, watching as the silent heavy flakes floated down and the drifts began to collect, blowing against the edges of the cottage and the barn. The descending night and enfolding silence had not served to instill any feelings of peace within him. It had only sharpened his discomfort, and he frowned uneasily as he glanced up at the sky. He wished with all his heart that it would stop snowing. He wished with all his heart that it had never begun.
It had grown dark, and he could see nothing beyond the soft light thrown out by the open door. The numerous flakes whirled and blended together, drawing an impenetrable curtain between his eyes and the shadowed trees beyond the clearing. They dazzled his eyes as they caught the glow of firelight and lamplight, dancing and swirling as if suspended on invisible strings controlled by a skilled puppeteer. He stared, mesmerized, as they twinkled and leapt like tiny glittering gems, weaving a spell with the complex patterns they traced before his gaze.
The bitter air pierced him, the temperature having dropped in precise timing with the arrival of the snow, and the wind had picked up, hissing through the bare branches with a hollow, lonely sound that made Aragorn shudder. He was usually able to stoically resign himself to whatever weather came his way, as was appropriate for a ranger who often lived for long stretches in the wild. But he was unwontedly unhappy this night at the sight of the snows arriving at last to settle a silent, heavy blanket over the little cottage. He felt terribly alone, acutely aware of his isolation, stranded and cut off from the assistance and solace of others. In all his days as an adventurer, he had never been forced to stay rooted to one place. Even in the deepest part of winter he had always been free to break camp and move on, seeking solitude or companionship as he wished. And never before had the snows come to him in the guise of anything but snow, but now the dizzily spinning flakes closed on him, pressing about him and hemming him in, and the wind whispered in soft moans, warning of a trap. A slight breeze wove through the air and brushed his cheek, a chill caress, and his breath caught in his throat as he recoiled. Then he shook his head, irritated at his fanciful thoughts. Snow was snow, nothing more. Wrenching his gaze from the tiny white dancers, he peered into the fire-lightened room, searching for his friend.
If Legolas shared Aragorn's unease he did not show it. Sitting cross-legged on the floor before the hearth with Tithlam settled happily in his lap, he gazed with his unseeing eyes upon the flames, a look of contentment on his fair features. The archer was not so arrogant as to expect that the elements conform to his personal wishes. Be it rain, snow, or a sunny day with clear blue overhead, he accepted all variations of weather with typical elven pragmatism. After all, wishing the snow would ease would not make it do so, and it made no sense to fret over circumstances that could not be changed. In the elf's mind it was foolish and futile to waste one's mental energy and attention on such pointless thoughts.
Aragorn smiled softly, heartened by Legolas' calm demeanor as the elf relaxed before the hearth, peacefully soaking up the warmth of the fire. Legolas did not indulge in such foolishness, nor was he subject to ridiculous imaginings, believing that the snow had a cruel conscience of its own and was plotting and scheming to entomb the helpless. A snowstorm was something to be accepted and dealt with. Perhaps even enjoyed, if the situation permitted. It was not a malevolent creature come to trap them.
The elf stirred suddenly, as if he felt the ranger's eyes upon him, and he turned his head. "Close the door and come sit with me, Aragorn. You are letting the heat escape."
With a grimace Aragorn obeyed, crossing the small room and grasping a chair set at the table. He pulled it round and straddled it backwards, resting his chin on his hand. He made an effort to force back his apprehension, not wanting to burden his friend's happy mood with his own dark thoughts. He laughed lightly. "I am surprised you noticed the cold, Legolas. You appear to still be basking in the warm glow of today's successes."
"I am," the elf said. He set the cat aside and extended his long legs toward the fire, wiggling his bare toes. "I had a good day. That horse, Aragorn… that horse! Were the wolves of Sauron snapping at my heels, I know that on Firestar I could escape them." Legolas smiled happily. "I hope for the opportunity to ride him again. He guided me more than I guided him, and it was as if my blindness had fallen away. I felt free, Aragorn. So free." The elf paused as the firelight played over his wistful features, and he briefly closed his eyes as if feeling anew the wind in his hair and the powerful body of the stallion surging beneath him. A moment later he shook himself and turned toward Aragorn with a grin. "As for that open door, even if I do not feel the chill as acutely as you, be assured I will notice - and say something – if I fear you are wasting the firewood. I spent far too much time chopping those logs to permit their warmth to simply fly out the door."
"Fair enough. But rest easy. I will not waste our fuel."
The elf nodded. "I know. Your needs have always been few, and in truth I can no more imagine a ranger wasting precious supplies than I can a dwarf climbing a tree."
"Speaking of trees, will you go to your old oak tonight?" the ranger inquired, watching out of the corner of his eye as Tithlam began nosing about near the beds.
"No, I will sleep here, and I will take the straw pallet. It is time we switched again." Legolas paused, his brow wrinkling. "What is gnawing on you, Aragorn?" he asked.
The ranger started slightly. "What? Oh, nothing at all-"
"You rose from the table three times to look outside as we ate our supper. The snow makes you uneasy."
"Has much come down?"
"Quite a bit," Aragorn replied, his eyes automatically wandering to the window. He could see nothing though, as it was covered with a heavy blanket and shuttered on the outside. "The snow is accumulating quickly and drifting against the buildings."
Legolas sighed quietly. The firelight glimmered over his hair as he turned toward the ranger. "I feel uneasy as well, but I cannot tell if it is because of the winter itself or the danger posed by those in the city."
"A combination of the two, I should think," said Aragorn.
"There is naught we can do but face whatever may come," the elf stated, leaning back to prop himself on his elbows. "And perhaps nothing will. The snows may well prove our protector rather than our enemy. It may keep those who would attack us away from this place."
"Will you set your snares or seek fish tomorrow?"
"I will set the snares. I plan to go along the edge of the river, and also set some in the woods. There are animal trails that crisscross the area. The old man may well have followed them as he set his own snares."
"And I will practice archery tomorrow with my three arrows," the elf said. "I must do my best not to lose them until Alun returns. He said he would try to find some new ones for me, though he doubted anyone in the city has arms as long as mine."
"I hope he can locate arrows of the correct length. Shooting with ones that are too short for you will compromise your draw-length, and - " the ranger paused, shaking his head in amused exasperation as the grey cat emerged from under the bed, carrying a sock in her mouth. Daintily she trotted across the room and vanished with her prize into the back room where the herbs were kept. "There she goes again," he laughed.
"Tithlam? What is she doing?"
"Your little friend has one of my socks. One of the new ones."
The elf grinned. "I thought you had secured them in a drawer."
"The clean ones, yes. The dirty ones I have been placing in a box under the bed until we take our clothing to the river for washing. The box has a lid. I thought that would be enough to deter her."
"Apparently not. How many socks did you find scattered about this morning?"
"Four. I think you are putting her up to this, Legolas," Aragorn said in a severe voice.
The elf's jaw dropped. "Why would I tell Tithlam to steal your socks?"
"It just seems the sort of thing you would do."
Legolas shook his head, laughing. "The game is entirely hers, I assure you. If I were to encourage her to steal something, it certainly would not be your dirty socks, Aragorn. I would put her penchant for thievery to better use."
"Then why does she not take your dirty socks?" the ranger demanded as Tithlam emerged from the back room and vanished under the bed again.
The elf snorted. "Apparently they lack some essential element she finds attractive. And what that might be I would rather not dwell on."
"She's going back for another one, Legolas. You must talk to her. I grow tired of picking them up all the time. She leaves them everywhere, and hides them in odd corners. The place is a mess."
"The place is a mess? I had not noticed," the elf joked. "Clean or in disarray, it is all the same to me as long as I can find what I need and do not trip over anything. Best put a rock on the box. She'll not be deterred otherwise, for she seems quite passionate about your socks."
"Ah well, I still have an advantage over you. She may be teasing me, but she loves you. You will be the one gifted with the headless corpses of mice this winter. She will line their little bodies up directly beside your bed during the night. You will step on them the instant you rise, and be forced to feign delight so as to not hurt her feelings."
"And I will. Gifts from a cat should never be ignored."
* * * *
They woke the next morning to a dazzling world. Snow shrouded the forest, deep and silent, and the air was still. The sun stabbed downward from the vast expanse of azure sky, forcing Aragorn to squint as it reflected, glaring, off the great white carpet. The drifts had risen knee high, and he trudged through the cold, the elf gliding beside him, to the barn to see to the old mare. On the way he described his visual impressions to Legolas, doing his best to make the day come alive for his friend, and was pleasantly surprised to have Legolas return the favor in his unique way. Aragorn spoke of white snows, glittering and rounded over hummock and building, and of the cloudy vapor of their breath streaming behind them. The elf spoke of the tree boughs groaning under the weight of heavy snow, the little animals curled and sleeping deep within their cozy burrows, the sharpness of the air piercing his nostrils, and the tang of bitter cold on his tongue.
"It is a perfect day," the Prince of Mirkwood pronounced with a satisfied nod.
"Perfectly cold," the ranger returned as he stepped into the barn where Rhosgernroch was waiting, comfortably warm in the well-built building with a horse blanket thrown over her back. As Legolas provided her with breakfast Aragorn poked about in the storage-room, pulling down from a rusty hook the simple rope snares the elf had spent long hours plaiting. These he would set out today in the forest, to bring in small game for the table. He paused as he gazed at the coils in his hands, noting the fine workmanship. Most of the cords were twisted in the simplest of ways, suitable for snares, while others had been more intricately worked, braided in complex patterns with multiple strands running through them. The extraordinary skill of the elf's fingers had made each thin layer of plant fiber into a work of art. One of the patterns the ranger immediately recognized, and he glanced at Legolas from the corner of his eye, quickly and furtively, as if fearing his friend might catch him looking.
As Legolas crouched to check the water level in the mare's bucket, the fall of his long hair swept down like a golden sheet and hid his face from the ranger's scrutiny. The elf no longer braided his hair. The complex woven patterns that announced his status as a warrior of Mirkwood had not been plaited into his hair since the night of his poisoning by the orcs. Now he either pulled it back into a simple ponytail, securing it with a strip of leather at the nape of his neck, or he allowed it to fall freely over his shoulders without any bindings. Aragorn had never asked why, for he knew the reason well enough, and he knew that it caused pain to his friend. Legolas no longer considered himself a warrior. He deemed it inappropriate to braid his hair.
He braided plant fibers instead.
Aragorn ran his fingers lightly over the familiar multi-stranded braid, and a sudden desire came over him. This rope was considerably shorter than the others, and would not be particularly useful. With another glance in the elf's direction, he slipped it into his pocket. This one he would keep.
"Are you sure you will not reconsider your decision and come with me, Legolas?" he inquired. "I confess I have some concerns about leaving you on your own. If anyone should come…"
The elf smiled and shook his head. "I will be fine. I cannot imagine any enemies trying to fight their way up the hill in this snow, and if they do, I have a good set of ears and Rhosgernroch to help me. Do not worry, Aragorn. You know as well as I that when you lay snares for animals you must check them every day. I can hardly be tagging along each time. I will accompany you on some days, but most often it makes more sense for me to remain here. While you are gone I will perform whatever tasks need doing around the cottage. And I will work with my bow."
Legolas was right. He would make better use of his time here rather than trailing after Aragorn in the woods, and the ranger also knew that the elf needed to contribute as best he could to their survival and give his days some purpose. Aragorn turned his head and gazed out at the bright, beautiful day. His fears of the previous night suddenly seemed a silly thing in the clear light of morning. Shaking his head, he looked at Legolas and saw that the elf was waiting for an answer with a smile on his face and a stubborn glint in his eyes that Aragorn recognized. Fighting the forces of evil down in the city would be child's play compared to standing against Legolas when he looked like that. The ranger grinned.
"So be it. Should you have need, the tea for your head pain is in the pot beside the hearth. The bark is steeping. You must bring it to a boil and then cool it. I will circle round the cottage but not venture more than a mile away, and will be back well before the sun sets."
* * * *
Most of the day Aragorn spent quietly and patiently scouting a one-mile radius around the cottage, seeking the signs of animals. The snow was powder-soft, soundless under his boots as he made his way through the woods. He walked without difficulty among the winding trees, setting his small traps with care. Rabbit runs were easy to spot throughout the forest, the footprints and droppings leading him to several burrows, and squirrels were plentiful, chattering and leaping from tree to tree. And to the north of the house, beside the river, he had been pleased to see the tracks of deer.
As he worked he pushed aside distracting thoughts of his friend waiting alone at the cottage. The trapping had to be done. He and the elf were both adults with healthy appetites, and meat must be put on the table each day. And once the supply of vegetables and fruit ran out, his efforts to bring in game would be even more important. He and Legolas would smoke much of the meat with wood chips and store it away for the late weeks of winter – the difficult weeks – but fresh meat was needed now as well.
He selected just one area in which to concentrate his snares. A small area would be easier for him to monitor and would take little time, thus ensuring that he would not be separated from Legolas for long stretches each day. The other sections of the forest he would leave alone for now, moving his traps to them later as needed.
Moving quietly so as to not alert the animals to his presence, he trimmed and bent hardwood saplings to the ground and attached the nooses. He kept his hands bathed in mud from the river to mask the human scent as he worked, and carefully covered his snares when he had finished. He placed some near the river, some along the rabbit runs, and a few he set along the branches where the squirrels ran. By the time he had finished and hungrily sat to eat the food he had packed for his mid-day meal, the sun was already moving toward the west.
He was northeast of the cottage, and had made his way to the ridge that overlooked the valley. Finding a comfortable perch, he settled back and regarded the city that lay far below. He frowned slightly as he peered down at the snow-blanketed scene. The army was out despite the cold, seeming no more than black ants against the white ground, the groups moving to and fro. Some of the ants moved more quickly than others, and these Aragorn guessed were on horseback. Whatever the army trained for, Captain Ramhar of Carbryddin was apparently not going to let winter stand in his way.
The ranger watched for a time, idly relaxing as he finished his meal. Then he closed his eyes and held them closed, drawing on the senses of sound, smell, taste and touch as he tried to imagine what it was like to live in Legolas' dark world. For a time he sat quietly and concentrated, growing more aware of the roughness of the downed tree trunk against his buttocks, the burning ache in his ears from the cold, the still breath of the wind, the skittering movements of little animals. But though he tried to keep his eyelids down they would not cooperate, flying open reflexively as they sought the source of the sounds he heard. He could not entirely relax here in this spot where he could see the city and feel its quiet malice even from afar. Tense and alert, he could not keep his eyes closed, so frequently did he need to seek information with his eyes. He began to understand more clearly just how deeply Legolas' frustration must run. How often did the elf still turn quickly upon hearing a strange sound, his blue orbs wide and searching, only to have nothing come to his eyes?
Aragorn rose to his feet with a sigh. It was time to be getting back. As he gathered his belongings he glanced into the valley once more. The little sections of the army had stopped their movements and the men appeared to be lined up now, row upon row facing the great gate of the city as if waiting for something. A moment later several tiny figures emerged from the gate and halted before the massed people. The ranger wrapped his arm around a sturdy tree and leaned forward, squinting in an attempt to make out more detail. The figures were so small that it was almost impossible for mortal eyes to see much of anything at such a distance, but for a mortal man, Aragorn's eyesight was exceptional. He stared, his grey orbs narrowed and boring intently into the distant scene. As the minute figures walked beyond the gate and took their places before the army one of them broke away and began moving rapidly toward the open field, only to be quickly followed by the others and dragged back. The man stood alone for a moment. He did not attempt to run a second time. As Aragorn watched there was a sudden swarming, a converging of several people around the solitary figure. And when they pulled away again, the one who had tried to flee lay upon the snowy ground and did not move.
Aragorn lingered a moment longer, his hand gripping the rough trunk of the tree, and then he turned away. Drawing his cloak around him he slung his pack over his shoulder. Deeply disturbed by the brutality of what had just transpired, he hurried back toward the cottage, anxious to return to his friend.
To be continued…
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