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Disclaimer: the familiar 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. This story is for entertainment only, and no monetary profit is being made.
Author's notes: I have a new job. A better job! But, as is true with all of us full-time working moms with a child at home, the writing time is now very limited. I'm staying the course with this story, but updates will be slower. Thanks for understanding.
Thanks again to Speedy Beta Gonzales, aka Lisette, for working me in around weddings, birthdays, viruses and a tiny kitten in perpetual assault mode.
To See A World by Nightwing
Chapter 26: Then The Perilous Path Was Planted
The next morning Aragorn woke to a bright, glittering day. Another half-foot of snow had fallen during the night, and all traces of his earlier footprints were gone. A wind had risen, and the grey clouds of the previous night had been driven before it to vanish into the brightness of a new sunrise. As he emerged from the cottage the ranger noticed that the air was much colder. Pausing to tighten the collar of his coat, he glanced up at the old oak. Legolas was there, wrapped in a dark blanket and stretched out on one of the uppermost limbs. He did not stir as Aragorn began moving about, and the ranger concluded that the elf was asleep. He was not surprised, as they had talked into the wee hours of the morning after returning to the cottage. Legolas had then retired to his tree, but instead of falling asleep he had sung for some time, softly but clearly, and the ranger had not been able to bring himself to drift away on the sound of the elf's voice. Unwilling to miss any of the songs, he had stayed awake rather than melting into dreams, for he had longed to hear his friend sing again. He knew that he would be weary in the morning, but decided that remaining in bed a bit longer would be an acceptable way to catch up with his sleep. It would not be of great concern to start the day later than usual.
The elf did not move, and with a grin and a shake of his head Aragorn slogged his way to the barn and did his friend's chores, bringing down fodder for the mare and opening the door so that she could go into the paddock. Tithlam appeared from some warm corner, blinking in the sunlight and shaking the dust from her fur. Chuckling, Aragorn picked her up and carried her back into the house so that he would have company while he prepared breakfast.
The cat sat on the floor before the hearth and watched him with her clear green eyes as he started the water boiling. He made tea for himself, set the herbs steeping for Legolas, and ate a small meal of hideously overcooked carrots and potatoes left from the previous night's dinner. He placed a few pieces of rabbit meat on a plate and set it on the floor for the cat to nibble, and set a plate of food on the table for the elf. Then he began gathering his gear for the daily trek into the forest.
"Tell Legolas I may not return until close to dusk," he instructed the little animal, grinning as she tilted her head, much in the same way the elf did. "I am off to a late start today, due to the fact that he kept me up all night with his singing. And now he sleeps, forcing me to do his work for him. You may tell him that as well."
Tithlam looked up at him and peeped.
"It is apparent he is not coming with me unless I wake him, and that I am loath to do. He has had too little rest of late. It is your job to keep him company until I return. Do not go off in search of mice. He needs you to stay with him."
Aragorn donned his jacket and threw a heavy cloak over his shoulders. Into his belt he thrust a hunting knife that Alun had given him, and nestled a carefully wrapped and not too badly burned piece of flat bread into his pocket, along with a few strips of dried meat. He filled the flask with wine, well watered, and strapped it to his side. As he grasped the door handle he turned to regard Tithlam, who paused in her eating to meet his gaze. Aragorn shook a menacing finger at her. "I do not want to find one single sock out of place when I come home, little cat. This absurd game of yours must stop. I promise you there will be serious consequences if you persist in these attempts to harass me."
The cat tilted her head, squeaked, and returned to her meal. With a laugh, Aragorn closed the door behind him. The bitter wind struck, snatching a soft gasp from his lips. The snow blew in swirling patterns at his feet, the cold air smelling sharply of pine and wood smoke. He squinted against the harsh glare, hastily pulling his hat over his ears and his gloves over his hands. Trudging to the massive oak tree, he shaded his eyes and looked up at his companion.
Ordinarily the elf slept on his back, his hands folded peacefully on his chest, but this morning he was sprawled rather ridiculously on his belly along the length of a huge branch, his face turned away from the ranger. He was snugly cocooned in both his cloak and a thick blanket that covered most of his body but for his arms, head and a single booted foot. One arm was extended overhead, the gloved hand, even in sleep, firmly gripping a smaller branch for security. The other arm dangled limply from the tree, and the radiant blond tresses spilled over the elf's shoulders, loose and waving in the breeze.
Aragorn edged around to the other side of the tree, peered upward, and tried not to laugh. After singing for most of the night, softly offering his voice once more to the dark world around him, the elf had entirely given himself over to the sleep he had so badly needed. Looking as if he had simply toppled forward mid-song, the right side of Legolas' noble face was smashed against the rough bark and his mouth hung open slightly. The blue eyes were half-lidded, and for the briefest of moments Aragorn toyed with the idea of lobbing a retaliatory snowball at him. But he knew how desperately his friend needed this rest. With a soft chuckle the ranger turned away, regretting that he would not be present to see the Prince of Mirkwood when he woke, his face temporarily marred by the deep imprint of tree bark pressed into his cheek. Leaving the elf to his slumbers, Aragorn set off for the woods.
* * * * *
He ran swiftly through the forest of Mirkwood, for another sunrise had come. Though he loved the stars and the night as dearly as any elf of the woodland realm, so too did he love the start of the day. Even as a child, when most of the elves were still wrapped in sleep, he would rush to the trees and climb as quickly as he could to greet the dawn, gasping with pleasure as the breathtaking sweep of gold and orange poured over him like a rush of pure water.
His mother always ran with him. Her face lit with excitement, she challenged him to a race to see who could reach the top of the tree first. The little prince invariably won, and he never thought it odd that his Nana, so long of limb and swift of foot, was unable to match the pace of a tiny struggling elfling. She was always right behind him, close but unable to pass, and when he reached the top, he would turn to her in triumph to boast that she could never catch him. Quicker than thought, she would snare him in a fierce embrace and tickle him until he howled with laughter, breathlessly clinging to the branches.
Again he ran, heart racing, filled with a strange sense of urgency that he would miss this new blossoming of morning. Feeling the power in his adult legs, he laughed as he leapt into the welcoming branches of the trees. Little had changed since he was a child. The grown Legolas still flew to meet the sunrise with the same thrill of anticipation. He climbed ever higher, swift and silent, eagerly grasping each limb until he finally broke through the canopy. He turned his face to the east and settled his dancing blue eyes onto the horizon. The wind blew his shining hair back, and he waited breathlessly for the first glimmerings to break through the dark blanket of night.
He sang a little song as he waited, a morning song his mother had taught him. He waited, but the dark did not lift. Frowning slightly, he shifted his grip on the branches and stared into the blackness. He counted slowly… one hundred… two hundred… and his heart began to pound more strongly against his ribs. Puzzled, he waited. Had he somehow misjudged the time, and come too early? An unusual thing for him to have done, but that must be it. How could the sun not rise?
Three hundred… four hundred… five hundred…
His mouth had gone dry. Frightened, he turned his golden head, his keen eyes raking the endless stretch of darkness. Where was the sun? Where was the light?
He could see nothing. Dear Valar, what has happened to the sun?
He spun then, bending his head and listening intently to a sudden noise that came to him from the forest far below. The tromping of iron-shod boots rang in his ears, and he grimaced in revulsion at the harsh breathing that echoed around him. He felt the trees shudder. Growling voices grated on his sensitive ears and he winced in pain. A vile odor assailed his nose. He gagged at the stench, even as his eyes widened in shock and horror. No! This cannot be! How have they come here?
Silently he raced down the tree. All was black, but he did not need his eyes to climb down. This tree he knew, and within seconds he was crouched on the lowest branch, pressed into the thick foliage where he would not be seen. With head tilted he listened, and drew in a sharp frightened breath as he realized there were far too many for him to handle. His heart hammered painfully, his temples throbbing with horror. How could so many of them have come unseen into his father's realm? Border guards were posted everywhere. This simply was not possible!
He must reach his father. He had to get back to his home and sound the alarm. Cautiously he crept around the great trunk of the tree and lowered himself to the ground. Then he heard a sound that froze his blood: the soft pained cry of a female, and the derisive laughter of the foul beasts. Legolas gasped. He knew that voice.
His mother. They had taken his mother!
Where is the sun? I can see nothing!
He ran forward, a battle cry on his lips. There was no time for anything else. He could not leave her in their hands. He yanked his knife from his belt and struck a savage blow, aiming blindly at one of the harsh breathers. He felt the blade drive into flesh, heard the scream, and the hot putrid blood gushed over his hand. Spinning, he drove his shoulder into another foe, knocking him back. Sensing another creature's fetid breath against his neck, he flung himself to the side and lashed out again.
He heard her voice and tried to reach her. But the darkness thwarted him, and he cast about helplessly. If I could see, I could find her! I could stop them! Why is it so dark? I cannot fight so many in the dark!
His foes were everywhere. He swept his knife in a desperate arc to keep them back, but they crowded him from all sides, and his blade was ripped from his hand. Claws tore into his flesh, and he was beaten to his knees. Fists battered him, smashing relentlessly into his belly and sides. Whipping his head from side to side as cruel fingers tangled into his hair and a hand gripped his throat, he cried out in helpless fury and panic.
Nana! Where are you? Nana! I will stop them! I must!
But he could not. Frantic, he struggled to locate her in the darkness. She no longer answered his cries. He fought fiercely, but could not break free of his captors. He gasped as his arms were yanked painfully behind him, and the fist in his hair hauled his head back until it nearly touched his spine. Something caressed his throat, icy with the sharp promise of death, and he stilled his desperate struggles and closed his eyes.
This cannot be happening! They cannot be here. It is not possible for orcs to come upon us unawares like this. Sorcery… it is sorcery… somebody help me!
"Let her go," he panted. "Take me. Do not kill her, I beg you. Take me…"
A savage jerk on his hair caused his eyes to snap open in pain, and he could see again. In the surrounding black one thing came to him, with all the clarity of a vision sent him by the gods.
The black blade gleamed brightly, its length bathed in red blood. The black stones in the hilt wept wet splashes of that precious fluid, and they spilled, drop by drop, onto his upturned face. The crimson line writhed through the pommel like a snake coiling to strike. His terrified eyes scanned the dreadful weapon, searching for the hand that held it, but there was nothing. The sword moved alone, shimmering as it lifted over his head. He jerked once more against his captors - a futile movement. Eyes wide with horror, he could only watch helplessly as the flashing blade swept down.
* * * * *
He awoke, a shout of fear bursting from his lips, and nearly toppled from the great tree. It hummed a warning, and his instinctive reaction to its voice saved him. Grabbing for the branches to steady himself, he half scrambled, half slid down the trunk to fall onto his knees in the snow. The image of the sword burned in his mind; it was all he could see as he leaped to his feet and crouched, unarmed, ready to do battle. The weapon suddenly flared into brilliant painful light, and he staggered back with a cry as he flung his arms up to shield himself, but in the next moment the sword vanished into the darkness and all was black before his eyes once more.
He stood, gasping in fear and confusion at the abrupt change from the blazing blade to the unending black, and he felt his body reel as the pain in his head crashed in upon him. Gritting his teeth at its onslaught, he fled across the clearing to the cottage, barely able to wait the time needed to boil the bark before forcing the too hot liquid down his throat. Grimacing at the bitter taste, the elf crouched before the hearth, and there he remained as the hours slowly slipped past. He had listened to the hiss of dying embers and the soft pattering of charred fragments falling through the metal grate, but he had not cared, and now the ashes lay cold and dead. The breakfast Aragorn had left for him remained uneaten on the table, though the headache tea had been entirely consumed. Tithlam nosed about somewhere behind him, having long since given up her game of rubbing against and head-butting her unresponsive owner.
The throbbing in his temples had eventually eased, but he gave no thought to moving from his place before the dying fire. His mind was awash in horrific visions, and he did not know how to shake free of them. Constant shivers ran over his flesh, and he curled into himself, wrapping his arms around his legs. He had gone many weeks now without the nightmare, and he puzzled over its return. Why had the terrible sword come to him again, and with such heart-stopping clarity and terror? For what purpose had it attacked him once more?
A thought struck his numbed mind, and he bowed under the weight of it. The dream had come to mock him in his blindness. It had come to remind him that he was of no use to himself or anyone else. His failure to save his mother in the dream world simply reinforced what he knew to be the truth about himself in life. It mattered not that he could ride the chestnut stallion. It mattered not that he could hit a stationary target with his arrows. He was helpless, entirely dependent, and fear lurked in the recesses of his mind. He and Aragorn were in danger, as were their new friends from the city. He feared the army, and where the captain might have set his sights. Shadows drew near, and he knew he would not be able to stop them. He was useless, and the taste of it was bitter on his tongue. He was useless, for the dream had showed him the truth.
Deep within, a part of him cried out against these heartless whispers. But he was tired beyond all reason and could not rally his strength to look more kindly upon himself. In the end, he could only draw courage from the knowledge that Aragorn would be home soon. Perhaps a talk with the ranger would help him, as it had last night. A glimmer of a smile passed over the elf's lips as he thought of his friend. He would tell Aragorn of this dream. He would not withhold it this time. There is still light, he thought. There is still light, as long as I have my friend. And I will do what I can to not be such a burden on him.
Rising to his knees the elf reached for the fire, stirring the fading ashes back to life and feeding them tiny twigs until he heard the crackling. He would find something to make for dinner, and have it ready by the time Aragorn returned. This, at least, he could do for his friend.
* * * * *
Aragorn came to his last trap at dusk. He had walked as quickly as he could as he followed his path, for the day was bitter and it was important to keep his body warm and moving. It had been tiring work to push his way through the deep new snow, and he was pleased to finally reach the site of his final trap. It held a rabbit, his second of the day, and he quickly bent to work the noose free. He coiled the little rope and placed it in his pocket. He would plant it in a new location tomorrow, for no animal would now come to this spot until some time had passed.
He tied the rabbits together and slung the little bodies over his shoulder. It was enough meat to see him and the elf through another day. He wondered how Legolas fared, and what he had done with himself this day. He was pleased that his friend had at last been able to tell him what had been bothering him of late. Aragorn was determined to do all he could to help the elf; to try to slow the fading of his visual memories, for he could well imagine how isolating and frightening this new loss must be for Legolas. It had eased the elf's heart to speak of it though, and the long sleep must have done him some good as well. Aragorn chuckled again at the image of his friend's lean body sprawled across the tree, his face smashed into the supporting branch. The elf had looked as relaxed as an open-mouthed baby, and just as utterly absurd. The ranger mused on how best to tease him about it over dinner.
The wind had picked up, and it blew through the naked branches, causing them to creak and grate together with a brittle sound that made him shiver. The images of the warm fire beckoned, for this night would be perhaps the coldest yet. Tonight he and Legolas would tell more stories, and he hoped the elf would finally tell him why his nose had been broken by his brother's fist. Aragorn really wanted to hear that one. Most of all, he hoped his friend would sing again.
Aragorn rose from his crouch and glanced at the clear sky. The stars would be magnificent tonight. He turned, took two steps, and felt his right foot come down on something odd. His instincts shrieked in sudden warning, and he leaped back with a gasp. But for all his speed, he was not fast enough. Something slammed shut onto his ankle, clamping over it with vicious force, and he fell onto his back in the deep snow with a cry of surprise. Struggling to a sitting position, he stared in stunned disbelief at his foot. It was caught fast. A leg-hold trap had been concealed under the new-fallen snow, and the ranger knew, as his heart began pounding in dread, that it had not been there the day before.
To be continued…
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