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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, and am making no monetary profit from this story. It was written for entertainment only.
Author's Notes: you might find the writing style of this chapter somewhat different. I felt like playing around a bit, just for a giggle.
Thanks to Lisette for betaing. I think little Gizmo sleeps through the night now. Thanks also to Lamiel for keeping me at least somewhat on track regarding the requirements and behavior of dough. Any diversions from the usual activities of dough are just for fun.
As always, thanks very much to you all for the lovely reviews.
To See A World by Nightwing
Chapter Twenty-Four: Burnt Offerings
The elf was staring at the fire again. He had been doing so all morning, saying nothing as Aragorn puttered about the cottage and dug through various cooking implements gathered on the shelf beyond the hearth. Only after the ranger had explained to Legolas his plans for the day's baking did the elf finally stir and make known his opinion. "Aragorn, your plan to make our own bread is faced at the outset with a serious obstacle. One that may in fact be insurmountable."
"And what is that?"
"We have no oven."
Ideas were brought forth, ruminated on, and rejected. They had no bricks, and attempting to dig clay from the rapidly freezing earth and construct a beehive oven was a prospect neither elf nor ranger was willing to contemplate. Digging a pit may have created a workable oven, but again the idea was unappealing. Aragorn had broken the shovel last time he had used it, and the thought of using their hands, bare or gloved, to hollow out the cold ground held little enticement for the two adventurers.
"Let us go for a swim and think on it."
"Swim, Aragorn. The water is not iced over yet."
"You must be mad. I have no wish to die in that lake."
"Swim with me, Aragorn. Please."
Aragorn regarded his friend briefly and bowed his head in defeat. The elf's empty blue eyes were wide and hopeful. Legolas was happy when he visited the lake, or appeared to be, and Aragorn was willing to endure nearly anything to see that beautiful but increasingly rare smile grace the elf's fair features. Gritting his teeth, Aragorn grabbed two blankets and led the way into the white morning.
On the north side of the small lake the ground rose in a low ridge that overhung the still water. Legolas had taken to diving from it – a height of about twenty-five feet - whenever they came to bathe. Draping his clothing over a tree branch, the elf rapidly strode along the snowy trail that led to the high spot. Aragorn remained below, disrobing unhappily. The instant he was unclothed he rushed into the water, splashed about for all of two seconds and shot out again, shivering and gasping as he dried himself.
"Not long enough!" the elf shouted, standing poised on the lip of the overhang, his lean body silhouetted against the bright winter sky.
"Leave me alone."
Legolas laughed as he sprang into the air, his back arcing as his powerful legs propelled him over the edge of the ridge. The young elf-prince seemed suspended in the air for a moment before he plunged downward, arms over his head. Straight as one of his arrows he flew, and his body sliced through the water with nary a splash to indicate his intrusion into the calm blue lake. He popped to the surface halfway across the expanse and immediately made his way toward the ranger, swimming with strong strokes. "Ahhhh, that is invigorating," he announced as he exited the water.
"Invigorating? Really, Legolas. My hair is frozen stiff and I cannot move my fingers," Aragorn growled as he finally managed to yank his leggings over his still-wet skin and pulled his shirt over his head.
"Where did I leave my clothes?" Legolas muttered, groping his way along the tree branches. Icicles were forming at the ends of his soaking hair. "Help me," he entreated as he turned toward the ranger.
"Your skin has taken on a rather interesting shade of blue. It quite becomes you, Legolas."
"Here they are."
"Thank you. Let us return tomorrow for another swim."
"Out of the question, Elf. I do not intend to enter that lake again until spring. I must get inside now, and I was not joking when I said you were turning blue."
The elf reluctantly agreed, and shortly the two friends were thawing themselves at the hearth and clinging to cups of hot tea. Once Aragorn felt he could control his jaw spasms well enough to speak without shattering his teeth he turned to the elf, only to find him already gazing sightlessly at the flames again. Not today, my friend. Today I will do something to shake you out of this sadness. "I have thought of a solution to our oven problem," he announced.
"What is it?"
"We will put a pot inside of a pot."
Legolas' eyebrow came up. "A pot inside of a pot?"
"It is simple. Inside the large pot we will place hot coals on the bottom. Then we nestle the small pot into the large one. The dough goes into this smaller pot, and the coals all round it will bake the bread."
The elf frowned and then shrugged. "It sounds a bit odd, but I can think of no other way to do it. When do you wish to start this adventure?"
"Are you sufficiently thawed?"
"Then we shall begin now, and have bread for our supper," Aragorn announced. "Let us gather what we need and arrange them on the table."
"What do we need?" the elf inquired.
"The flour, Alun's dough, and a bowl."
"Erm… that is all."
"That is not all. Water."
"Oh, yes. We'd not get far without water."
"Aragorn, have you any idea at all what you are doing?"
The ranger laughed. "Not a wretched clue. Let's get started."
Onto the table went the required items. Legolas stood one side of the oak expanse and Aragorn on the other. "Now," said the ranger-turned-baker, "we will put a bit of the flour into the bowl."
"How much is a bit?" inquired the elven skeptic.
"I'll just dump some in."
The elf rolled his eyes. "Right."
"Alun said some of this dough he brought up had to go in with it. I'll take a pinch."
"Hold a moment, Aragorn. I think this part is important. The proportions do matter. You need more than 'a pinch'."
"Well, do you know how much to mix in with the dry flour?"
"Neither do I. I'll put in most of it." Aragorn reached for the dough and gingerly lifted the wrapping, peeking with trepidation under the shroud. "It has grown overnight. I'll just pull a nice big chunk off here and get it into the bowl."
"'A nice big chunk?' Sweet Elbereth…"
"Now the water. Pour in a bit, and then we shall mix it up. Shall I go first?"
"By all means," Legolas laughed. "I want as little to do with this as possible."
"You are hopeless," the elf groaned. He reluctantly drove his hands into the mess. "It is too wet. Add more flour."
"Is this enough?"
Legolas sneezed. "Put the flour into the bowl, Aragorn. Not all over me. Yes, that is better. Now we must leave it for a time by the fire."
"Why? Let's just put it into the pot."
"It must sit now. Cover it up, and let us visit Rhosgernroch. Her bedding needs changing."
Shrugging his shoulders, Aragorn agreed. They spent some time in the barn raking out the old mare's stall and spreading fresh bracken for her. Upon their return Aragorn scrutinized the dough. It appeared to have doubled in size. "Amazing how it does that. Now let us cook it."
The elf looked exasperated. "Kneading. Have you ever heard that word?"
"I think it must be worked for some minutes. Dump it out onto the table. This is your job."
Aragorn grinned as he kneaded the dough. "I rather like this part."
"I told you I do not want to touch it."
"It's good tactile fun, Legolas. Go ahead."
The elf kneaded the dough for all of a minute before withdrawing from the table. "This is disgusting," he stated as he began picking at his fingernails.
"Now into the pot."
The elf impatiently grabbed at a dangling lock of hair with his sticky fingers and put it behind his ear, leaving a smear of dough on his cheek. "Not yet. It must rise again."
Legolas sighed. "Yes. Set it aside for a time. It should get puffy once more, then you bake it."
"How do you know all this?"
"I watched my father's kitchen staff at their baking once… about four hundred and ninety years ago."
"When you were but a wee elfling? Well, that still makes you the expert in this house. What is next?"
"We should set it near the hearth to keep it warm, and ready your little oven in the meantime. Please, may I have a towel? I want this muck off my hands."
With the bowl of dough settled happily beside the hearth, the "oven" was prepared, and a bit of chat ensued to pass the time.
"Aragorn, this little pot does not fit. This handle sticking out the side makes it crooked…"
"Try this one."
"That is better. I think it would be best if you put the coals in, O sighted one."
"Done. Now we'll put the little pot in like so… ah, it fits perfectly. More coals built up around the sides…"
"Take care not to make it too hot in there."
"I am hungry. It will cook faster this way."
"We will give the pot time to get nice and hot, and by then the dough will have puffed up. Then we will be in business."
"Tithlam is watching us with extreme interest. She recognizes hidden talent when she sees it."
"Nay, Aragorn. She recognizes idiocy when she sees it. She wants to be certain we do not burn down the house."
"Is that why she has set all my socks in a pile by the door? So she can rescue them if need be?"
"You tried out your new arrows last night. How were they?"
"For mortal make, they are quite satisfactory. I must remember to thank Alun next time he comes. Fifteen should last me a good long time. My aim improves."
"I am glad to hear it. I think we need more coals. Ah, it is glowing red now."
"I do not like the sound of that."
"Let us put the dough in. By all the gods - !"
"What is it?"
"The thing is huge! How do we get it into the pot?"
"Punch it down."
"For the love of Iluvatar... Aragorn, just give it to me." Aragorn tipped the bowl, grinning as the obscene blob ponderously emerged and oozed onto the table. The elf slammed his fists into it. "It is huge. Too much for one loaf."
"No it isn't. Your hitting it makes it little again. It will fit into the pot now."
"It is too much."
Aragorn began stuffing the mass into the container. "No, it is going in just fine. Ow!"
"Are you hurt?"
"Just a little burn. Now to cover it with this lid… and there we are. We should have bread within the hour. Now snuggle it into the fire..."
"What, more heat?"
"Aragorn, I am not worried. I am terrified. Bread is supposed to be silent. It should not sizzle." The elf swiveled his head round. "Where is Tithlam?"
"Gone out the cat door. And a good mouthful of socks with her."
"She moves her children to the safety of the barn. I am tempted to join her."
"We need to clean up first."
"Why clean up a house that will shortly catch fire and burn down?"
"Aragorn, in battle your judgment and abilities are unmatched. I would trust you with my very life. But as a baker, your intentions run considerably beyond your skill. I would rather subject myself to a night in an orc cave than trust you in this."
"Your words wound me."
"It is burning, Aragorn. I smell it already."
"It smells good. Let us busy ourselves with other tasks while the baking commences."
"I smell smoke."
"Nay, it is steam. It is simply venting."
"It vents smoke, not steam."
"Here, start wiping the table. I will take the bowl to the river."
"Do not leave me alone with that thing."
"Very well. Come with me."
"I will," the elf stated emphatically. "When the house explodes I do not want to be in it."
Off to the river they went, bearing the dirty bowl and various utensils in need of a good scrubbing. Legolas knelt and attempted to wash the dough from his hair. "I need another swim."
"You are clean. Your hair looks fine."
"Still sticky," the elf muttered, splashing his floury face and gasping at the cold of the water. Then he jumped to his feet and spun toward the house. "Aragorn, I really smell smoke."
The ranger sighed. "Can we just ignore it, please?"
"Not if we want a roof over our heads tonight."
Man and elf hastened back to the house. "Hmm. It is a bit smoky in here. In fact I cannot see a thing."
"That makes two of us," Legolas managed to gasp before succumbing to a violent coughing fit. "What is happening?" he demanded, waving his hands about to fan the smoke away.
"We must get it out of here. Quickly, open the door and stand clear. I'll grab it with these towels."
"Take care not to burn yourself."
"Legolas, open the door!"
Aragorn bolted past the startled elf and flung the pot-inside-a-pot into the clearing, as far from the house as possible, where it landed with a violent hissing sound. The contraption somersaulted across the snow, the inner pot clanging violently within the larger before springing free and spiraling wildly through the air. Great burnt chunks of dough broke off in every direction, accompanied by an explosion of fireworks as the glowing coals spilled out. Fiery sparks of red-gold arced through the air and landed in the snow, where they sizzled unhappily before winking out. The hideous cacophony reverberated amongst the trees as the pots finally came to rest. All was deathly silent as every plant and animal paused, frozen in shock as the final echoes slowly faded away.
Aragorn trailed slowly after his pots and stood gazing at the disastrous results of his baking day. He picked up a stick and poked sadly at the charred mass. But then the ringing laughter of the elf came to his ears like the sweetest music, and he knew the day had been a success after all. Legolas had left the safety of the cottage and was staggering about in the snow, bent double and howling with laughter. He wandered here and there for a bit, hands outstretched, but finally he located the ranger (who was terribly affronted and not inclined to give aid to the seeking elf) and leaned against his shoulder. "Too bad. You did your best," Legolas said, trying desperately to keep a straight face and not succeeding at all. He turned away, clutching at his ribs as his body folded again.
"Thank you so very much for your sympathy," Aragorn growled in mock anger as the elf roared.
Legolas straightened with an effort and wiped his streaming eyes. "Perhaps the birds will enjoy it."
Aragorn shook his head. "No. Be happy you cannot see it, mellon-nin. It is truly a dreadful sight, and I'm certain it will poison them. The animals will give it a wide berth."
"A lawn decoration then."
"No, it is not tasteful. What would the neighbors think? They already want to kill us."
"If it is as ugly as you say, it may scare them off. We will make sacrifices to it. It could be our protector, striking terror into the hearts of all who draw near."
"I cannot bear the sight of it. It is too graphic a reminder of my failure this day."
"I understand. It is a grievous blow to your pride. When it cools, we will put it in the barn and cover it. You need never lay eyes on it again, and the painful memories can begin to fade."
"You are a good friend, Legolas."
"And you are a terrible baker, Aragorn."
"I do make a pretty decent flat bread."
"No yeast I hope," the elf gasped in alarm.
"No yeast," assured Aragorn.
"Very well. You have my permission to proceed. We still need something for our supper. And while you do that I will take the remainder of Alun's dough and drown it in the river. I do not trust it."
"Be sure to hold it under for a long time. We do not want that thing crawling out in the middle of the night seeking revenge."
"Indeed not. Perhaps you should distract it while I creep up from behind and throw a bag over it. We must catch it off guard."
"Too late, Legolas! It is on to us, and is already hastening across the yard. It makes for the forest."
"How is that possible? Has it sprouted feet?" the elf gasped, spinning on his heel and pretending to look wildly around him.
"Good thing we did not eat it. Was it armed?"
"No. It merely flees after observing what we did to its other half. It has vanished into the shadows. I am certain we have seen the last of it."
"Well enough. Come, we must swim."
"What? Absolutely not. I already swam today."
The elf extended his hand and felt over Aragorn's head. "Your hair is coated with dough! You cannot remain thus."
"Ah, I see your game now, Elf. This was just another of your devious little plots to force me into that lake. You and the dough conspired against me. I have been betrayed."
"If you say so. Let us be off. Sooner in, sooner out."
"After this, I most certainly will not be entering that lake again until spring. I mean it, Legolas."
"Famous last words," the elf laughed as he set off for the water once again, dragging the miserable ranger behind him.
To be continued…
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