The following morning, as he stepped outside, Legolas stumbled over a bundle left before the door. He carried it in and woke Aragorn, who sat at the table and untied the rough twine wrapped around the ragged cloth. Poking through its contents, he glanced up at the elf standing beside him. "It appears our friend is back, Legolas. We have a freshly snared rabbit, two loaves of bread and a bit of cheese. Even some dried fruit."
Legolas scowled. "The food itself is welcome, but it troubles me that someone was able to walk directly to this house and leave it at the door in the middle of the night without my knowledge. I should not have slept through it, Aragorn."
"You slept like the dead last night, Legolas. And you needed it. Yesterday was a horrible day. Do not fault yourself… you are still recovering from your poisoning."
"And while I recover, people trot all over the yard and steal within ten feet of my ears. My weakness puts us in danger." The elf grimaced in frustration.
Aragorn had finished examining the new gift. "Your sleep will not always be so heavy. And I think we face no danger from this person, Legolas. There is a message."
Legolas' head came around quickly. "And?" he prodded.
Squinting at a torn fragment of parchment, Aragorn struggled to make out the rough lettering. "This is not an educated man. But it reads thus: 'I saw what you did for the old man. We tried but could not. Our thanks to you.' "
"May I have the note?" the elf asked, extending his hand, and Aragorn placed it in his outstretched palm. The archer ran his fingertips over it thoughtfully. "Yesterday when we were burying the body, I sensed eyes watching us from the forest. But I did not sense evil. I wonder who he is?"
"Who they are," Aragorn corrected. "He mentions others."
"Well, there is some comfort in knowing we have friends out there, however elusive they might be. This is an odd business, Aragorn."
Legolas had been turning the stained fragment absently in his hands, and Aragorn suddenly leaned forward to look more closely at it. "Wait. There is more written on the other side."
The elf returned it, and Aragorn scrutinized the message once more. "I like this part less, Legolas. 'Do not go down to the city. They will not like you, and will try to hurt the strange one.' "
Feeling for his chair, Legolas drew it closer to Aragorn and sat beside him. He appeared lost in thought for a moment, then a corner of his mouth quirked up. "I have long regarded you as somewhat unusual, Aragorn. But for some reason I fear might be 'the strange one' ".
Aragorn nodded. "The people in these lands have seen little of elves. We did not always receive the most cordial of welcomes on our journey before, so there is no reason to think it would be different here."
"But you had thought to go to the city," the elf stated quietly. "To see if there could be made a place for us, or to obtain the supplies we need to remain here."
"Aye, I did," replied Aragorn. They had discussed the matter just last night, after returning from burying the body of the old healer. Whether right or wrong, the cottage appeared to belong to them now, until someone who had a claim to it might come. But Aragorn had entertained the thought that once Legolas was able to travel the distance, he would seek aid for the two of them in the city before the snows fell. They might obtain lodging for the winter, and he could find work to earn their keep. Or, if they chose to remain here, he would have attempted to establish relations with the city and go down regularly to gather what supplies he could. They would need much to survive the winter… fuel, foodstuffs and flour for the baking of bread, warmer clothing, fodder for the horse, tallow for candles… now it appeared the city was truly no longer an option.
Aragorn glanced at his friend, noting the straight back and stoic demeanor of the elf, but seeing just as clearly concern, and lingering sorrow. Legolas was worried, and still unwell. He had been through so much in a just a handful of weeks, and the ranger had hoped to find ways to make his life easier again. Adjusting to the blindness was difficult enough, and it was made more so by the resurgence of memories of his mother's death. Now their trouble was compounded by the rapidly approaching winter and their fears about surviving it, coupled with yesterday's disquieting discovery of the murdered man.
"The old fellow stayed here in winter," Legolas said after a moment. "He survived, and we shall too, Aragorn."
"He obviously had people looking after him. He would not have made it on his own."
"No, but we are two where he was one, and we are young and strong. Take me out, Aragorn. Help me to learn what lies around me, and then we will begin our work."
* * * *
They stood upon a bluff, having splashed their way across the small river and climbed the low rise facing the east. From this vantage point the ground fell away sharply into a steep incline coated with trees. Through the forest a faint twisted path could be seen wending downward and vanishing into the darkness of the wood. It would need to be so, for a straight road leading directly down into the city would have been too steep for people to navigate easily, and certainly impossible for horses or livestock.
The city lay some four miles off, cocooned in the valley below them, its sprawling expanse encircled by what appeared to be a wall. Scattered farms dotted the open expanse before the gate, and within it the buildings loomed large, with a labyrinth of roads winding among them.
Aragorn had stood on this spot many times before to look down upon the city, but even his keen eyes could make out little more than ant-like forms as people came and went. At night, when the torches had been kindled, he had sometimes come to sit quietly and smoke his pipe as he watched the twinkling lights far below him.
Legolas stood beside him, his unbraided hair waving in the breeze and his booted feet planted wide and firm on the bluff. His head was cocked slightly as if he listened to something. "The city is called Carbryddin?" he asked.
"I believe so. I was able to study just one map of the Northlands before we set out on our journey, and it showed the city in this area. When you were injured, my first thought was to try to reach it and seek aid, but you collapsed, and then I found the healer's home. I know nothing about the city, except the old man stated in his notes that he was not comfortable going there for his supplies any longer. He had gotten on the wrong side of the people there, perhaps."
"He certainly got on the wrong side of someone," the elf said with a grimace. "And, according to our mysterious benefactor, our own welcome would have been less than cordial had we managed to reach it. I think it is a good thing you stumbled upon the cottage, Aragorn, for the city seems a hostile place."
The ranger watched as the tiny forms of people and horses emerged from the city through what must have been a gate in the wall and move into the open area before it. He squinted, wishing he could make out their activity more clearly. "Legolas, can you hear anything down there?" he asked.
The elf edged forward, sliding his feet until he stood where the ground began to drop away. He halted just before a nervous Aragorn was about to grab his arm and pull him back, and he turned his head to the side as he concentrated. "No, Aragorn. Not from this distance. What do you see?"
"Many men, looking like no more than insects from here. And horses. They move in large groups, shifting here and there. I can make out little else." The ranger glanced at his companion, wishing anew for the amazing eyesight the elf had once possessed.
"An army?" the elf asked.
"Of course. That must be it. They drill this morning." Aragorn looked at the elf. "Legolas…"
A corner of the archer's mouth twitched up as he turned to face his friend. "All right, Aragorn. I sense your unease, and I know what you ask." He stepped back onto the level ground once more.
"What will you do when I begin riding the horse? Or climb to the top of the tallest tree?"
"I expect my heart will stop," Aragorn laughed. "But I have no doubt you will do those things in spite of my fears for your safety."
"Yes," the elf murmured. "I will. But I will try not to worry you too much." He frowned as he turned his sightless eyes toward the city once more. "Why does the army train this time of year? Surely they do not plan to march on anyone just before the snows come?"
Aragorn watched the movements in the field. "They train to stay sharp. Perhaps they will begin a campaign in the spring."
"Against whom? We heard of no rumours of war between cities, only of very minor disagreements. Ah, well, it is no concern of ours," the elf said, shrugging his shoulders.
"No, it is not. 'The Strange One' and his friend will remain hidden in the forest and let others go about their business," Aragorn said with a chuckle. A slight movement caught his eye and he turned to see the cat trotting across the clearing toward them. She halted at the river and her mouth opened in a soundless meow. Soundless for Aragorn, that is, but Legolas stepped away from the bluff, smiling as he turned toward her.
"Ah, little Tithlam. Do you wish to avoid getting your dainty paws wet, my friend?" he called, laughing.
"She appears to be ready to accompany you on your tour," said Aragorn as they crossed the creek and came to the small creature. She meowed again, or, as Aragorn noticed with a smile, she attempted to, and padded quickly to Legolas. "She still squeaks, Legolas. Her new name changes nothing."
"True, but now that I have given her a proper elvish name, she is happier. It is more complimentary, and more respectful. Come, little one," the elf said to the cat as he crouched and gathered her into his arms. "Sit on my shoulder while I explore."
A good portion of the day was dedicated to Legolas' learning to navigate the area directly around the small cottage. Aragorn walked every inch of the clearing, tossing aside every stone and fallen stick that might trip up the elf, and Legolas walked with him. The elf had an uncanny memory, and it served him well now, for he was determined to memorize precisely how many steps each possible destination required. From the cottage door, they mapped out the distances to the gate of the horse's paddock, the garden, and the edge of the river, where Aragorn had set a great fallen log as a sort of bench to sit on. They walked the circumference of the clearing, Legolas' fingertips brushing along the rough bark of the great circle of trees as he counted, and it came to 427 of his long strides.
An unexpected problem developed as Legolas attempted to walk alone for the first time. As Aragorn watched from the front step and the cat nosed about in the garden, the elf tried to move from the house to the horse's structure, but shortly after he had gone about half the distance, he began to drift slightly to the right and missed his destination. Stopping, he reached for what should have been the latch to the gated enclosure and met nothing but air. Legolas faltered and his hands dropped to his sides.
"Aragorn?" he called, swinging his head around.
Legolas returned to Aragorn's side, frowning. "I walked precisely thirty-eight paces. What went wrong? Was it not a straight line?"
"No, my friend. After about fifteen steps, you began to wander a bit to your right. You missed the barn."
Scowling, the elf turned abruptly and marched away again, and again he missed his destination. Aragorn sighed as he saw his friend come to a halt and his fists clench. Legolas stood silently for a moment, and then turned toward the ranger once more.
"Here, Legolas," Aragorn called, and the elf strode back to him, his face dark with frustration.
"I will not spend the rest of my life being led about by the hand," Legolas said in a low voice. "Why can I not do this?"
"Actually, I think you can, with practice. You came directly back to me twice. How did you do it?"
The elf's empty blue eyes widened. "Your voice, Aragorn. I followed the sound." Immediately he turned toward the small barn and let out a low whistle. Within the enclosure, the horse lifted her head from her grazing, nickering softly. Aragorn watched the elf tilt his head, pausing a moment with eyes closed in concentration, and then he set off. A moment later he was patting the velvety muzzle of the old mare and murmuring to her.
"Back now," the ranger said to his friend, and Legolas returned, walking steadily with head held high. Aragorn had hoped to see a bit of happiness for this small victory, but the elf shook his head as he took his place beside Aragorn once more. "Well, it works well enough if I have a sound to focus on, but I can hardly expect to have such a signal every time I wish to walk about the place, Aragorn."
"Patience. I think your sense of direction will come to you as you work on it. For centuries you lived with eyes so gifted that I can only wonder at what their loss means for you, Legolas. And you have been blind for a mere handful of days. Give yourself time to adjust to it."
"I do not want to adjust to it," the elf said, and his voice was ice-edged.
"I know," Aragorn said quietly. "But you told me yourself that you must learn to live with this. You must give up the old path you once trod and open yourself to the new one. To adjust does not mean to surrender, Legolas. And I think tearing your way through every situation with anger as your driving force will not lead to independence."
Legolas sighed quietly and lowered his head. "I rush it," he murmured after a moment. "And yes, I feel anger. Always, I feel it." For a moment he was thoughtful, head bowed, and then he turned suddenly to Aragorn and gripped his arm. "Find me a tree, Aragorn. One I can climb."
Aragorn glanced at the elf in concern as his protective attitude sent forth a clamor of objections, but whatever sort of protest he was about to utter died in his throat when he saw the elf's need. Legolas' head had come up, and his body trembled slightly as he waited, his face lifted toward the sky. What am I thinking? He is a wood-elf. What better cure can there be for his sorrow?
The man's eyes swept the forest and lighted on one that would serve. Ancient, bent and of great size, and yet with branches bowing low that the elf would have little trouble handling. "How about a venerable oak?" he asked.
"Perfect," the elf responded, already trying to move forward. Aragorn stepped beside him and they went across the clearing to the line of trees, most of deciduous ones stripped bare but for the oaks, whose leaves, brown and rattling in the whispering wind, still clung in ragged bunches to the great branches. Legolas turned with a mischievous grin to the man. "Be certain of your selection, Ranger. I do not want to discover the hard way that you have sent me up a hawthorn."
Aragorn looked sidelong at the elf. He knew that Legolas joked, for just a fingertip's touch against bark and the elf would know precisely what type of tree he encountered. But the ranger played along, smiling slyly. "Then you must insult my knowledge of botany no more. I have lived among trees to a greater degree than others of my kind. And if you do not trust me, I see a lovely clump of gorse bushes to our right, and a bit further on is a knot of gooseberry vines which would serve just as well for your first romp through nature since your injury."
"Ouch," the elf laughed. "I see you know your thorny plants. I will doubt you no more, as it is apparent that my safety will be in jeopardy should I continue to sting your pride."
"Here we are," Aragorn quietly said, and Legolas reached eagerly, resting his hands on the rough bark of the old tree. His white fingers slowly traced the craggy surface, and then he pressed his brow against it with a sigh. For long he did not move, but simply leaned into the strength of the old tree, and breathed. When he finally pulled his face away, Aragorn saw that the elf's eyes were filled with tears.
"Legolas?" he asked, frowning in concern. "Are you all right?"
"Beautiful old oak, Aragorn," the elf whispered. "Its song runs deep and rich. Thank you." He raised his arms over his head and his hands curled around a branch. And then he was gone. In a silent, fluid movement that looked almost as though he flowed rather than climbed up the branches, Legolas vanished, leaving Aragorn standing alone.
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