The work had begun. For the past two weeks, elf and ranger had toiled almost nonstop to ready themselves for the coming of winter. Much there was to be done, and the tasks were long. Legolas had asked for, and been given, responsibility for the horse. He had named her Rhosgernroch. It was apparent to Aragorn that in the old mare the elf had found another source of solace and renewed confidence. He had rearranged the few items needed for her care within the small barn, and had done the same with the tools in the room beside the stall, enabling him to find whatever implement was required for a certain task with accuracy.
Thus it was that the plain brown coat of the aged horse glowed like bronze in the bright sun, and her mane and tail waved like silk banners in the breeze. The elf picketed her in the clearing before the cottage each afternoon, and Aragorn heard him singing softly whenever he brushed her. But this was not the real work. This was the stuff of pleasure and easy moments, taken when the elf felt the press of the darkness before his eyes and the thrum of pain in his head, which, though more tolerable now, still rose up to sap his energy and slow his steps by late afternoon.
The pattern of the elf's head pain had become predictable, and Aragorn was able to detect the first signs of discomfort in his friend's bright eyes and keep the worst of the pain at bay. At first Legolas had been reluctant to stop working, stating sharply that he was perfectly capable of contributing to the chores that needed to be done, but Aragorn had won that argument after the elf had swooned while helping to haul mud from the edge of the stream for use in chinking the walls of the house and barn against the chill winds. Legolas' strength had not failed him; indeed he had been stronger than the man in the weight that he was able to carry, but he had refused to cease his toil even after Aragorn had seen the warning signs: blue eyes darkening to near black, lines of pain tracking across his brow, and fair skin grown even more pale.
An alarmed Aragorn had watched the elf go down, and was busy bathing his forehead and preparing the herbs when Legolas had blinked and come around again. He had been quite mortified to find himself sprawled inelegantly on his back with a bucket of overturned mud splashed across his legs. After accepting the medicines and enduring a stern lecture from the ranger, Legolas had agreed to pay closer attention to how he felt, and Aragorn was relieved to see the elf keep his word. Now, when he began to feel an increase in his discomfort and fatigue, usually in the late afternoon, he stopped whatever activity he had been involved in, accepted without a word whatever concoction Aragorn had prepared and kept ready for him, and took the time to rest. He would make his way either to the horse to work quietly with her, or, if he truly felt poorly, to his tree - the great oak - to climb up and sleep for a few hours until he felt well enough to continue with his tasks.
When Legolas listened to the demands of his body and gave it the rest it needed in the afternoon, he functioned well. Startlingly well, in fact. He was able to make his way unerringly around the clearing now, and as long as Aragorn made certain that he left nothing unusual out that might trip him up, the elf had no trouble with treks to the barn, the stream and the garden. He had even gone to the pond for a swim one early morning, leaving a sleeping Aragorn behind, and had returned dripping wet and smiling just in time to stop the concerned ranger from starting out on a search expedition.
It remained difficult at times for Aragorn to watch his companion's attempts at independence. Some of them could not be considered immediate successes. The morning after Legolas had come down from the old oak for the first time, feeling buoyed - and overconfident - by his leap from the great tree, he had thought to challenge himself by running across the clearing. Unfortunately, he misjudged the distance and had slammed headlong into a tree, bloodying his nose. After retreating to the stream to cool both his face and his frustration, he had returned to the clearing and spent the next hour walking with deliberate concentration around the perimeter, pausing at each tree to rest his fingers on the bark and to listen. Or so it had seemed to Aragorn, who watched the elf with no small amount of fascination as he moved slowly from oak to hemlock to pine, murmuring softly in Sindarin and then standing quietly with head tilted before moving on to the next one, the tiny cat trotting at his heels.
When the elf had stopped where he had first begun his exploration of the circle of trees, the ranger had nearly been forced to jam his fist into his mouth to keep from shouting at his friend. Legolas had taken one deep breath and bolted at top speed across the clearing. When he did not slow his sprint as he neared the wall of trees on the other side Aragorn had flinched in horror, expecting to see the elf smash himself into a pulp. Instead, to the man's astonishment and admiration, Legolas skidded to a stop within an inch of the trees and, laughing, had briefly reached out to touch their rough surfaces before racing away again in the other direction.
Aragorn had seen Legolas on the back of Rhosgernroch later that day, only to fall a number of times as he struggled to find his equilibrium atop the moving animal. It was not long, however, before elf and horse had begun to work together, each learning to pay attention to the signals given by the other. Soon they were going at a full gallop around the clearing, Legolas guiding the mare as skillfully as he would have were he sighted, and the ranger had smiled and decided worrying was not going to change the future. Legolas would continue to challenge himself until he was satisfied, though Aragorn had begun to doubt that such a day would ever really come.
They had divided up their work fairly evenly on the day they had chosen to begin, and if Legolas chafed at his restrictions he did not show it. Foraging through the woods was not something he was able to do, and so he dealt with the tasks that needed doing closer to the house. At first he concentrated on the garden. The ranger could see the elf's gleaming head bobbing in the sunlight as he crept between the rows, stripping the aging plants of the last of the harvest. He piled the squashes, turnips and other vegetables into large osier baskets that had belonged to the old man, and when Aragorn had looked into the garden after the elf had finished, he saw that not even a solitary bean had been left behind to wither on the vines.
The two friends had returned with saddened faces to the apple orchard, and had worked quickly to gather what they could of the fruit that remained, moving without words around the silent mound of brown earth. Legolas climbed the trees, his sensitive fingers again leaving no fruit behind, and tossed the apples down to Aragorn, who waited to gather them into a basket. The ranger had felt edgy, and his grey eyes had constantly scanned the ground at their feet and the dark woods around them for any hint of hidden danger. Nothing seemed out of place, but the companions were relieved when they had finished and were able to leave the barren orchard behind them and return to the warmth of the cottage.
Most of Aragorn's time and effort had been concentrated in the forest. In addition to food, firewood for heat and cooking was the greatest concern. The ranger, with the aid of the horse, spent a number of days dragging fallen trees into the clearing to be chopped and stacked against the side of the cottage under the lean-to. A great amount of wood would be needed to get them through the long winter. It had been his intention to do the axe-work as well, but there again he was surprised. Returning from the forest one afternoon, wearily dragging yet another large branch behind him, he had been startled to hear the unmistakable sound of wood being chopped. By the Valar he has gone too far this time. Dropping his burden, the ranger ran into the clearing to stop Legolas before he came to harm. But the moment his fearful gaze had rested on the elf he realized, once again, that his friend could handle himself.
Shirtless, unaffected by the chilly day and with his unbraided hair pulled back in a ponytail, Legolas confidently whirled the axe over his head and brought it down precisely where his other blows had landed. In another moment the log had split, and the elf moved a step down the length of the tree and started again as the wood chips sprayed the air. The elf had, Aragorn noticed, hollowed out a slight depression in the ground, and into this he had nestled the pieces to be cut. In this way there was less danger that the great logs would accidentally roll as the blows from the axe made them shudder, and Legolas had reinforced the stability of the logs by placing large rocks at each end.
Once the length of the log had been reduced to smaller sections the elf would pick them up and further divide them, setting them upright on a wide, flat rock that he had obviously dragged from the edge of the river - for Aragorn had seen it there - and swing away until he had a pile of properly sized firewood suitable for the hearth. These he would periodically gather into his arms and carry to the lean-to, where they were stacked neatly against the house. Some of the pieces would fly off to land several feet away as he chopped, and Aragorn would later gather the ones that Legolas had been unable to find.
It was a tremendous help to have the elf cut the wood, and Aragorn saw that Legolas reserved this difficult task for the early hours of the day when he felt best. When he began to feel weary the elf would swallow Aragorn's medicines and rest for a time, and the later part of the day would be dedicated to quieter, but no less important, tasks. Legolas' deft fingers could weave cordage from plant fibers at an astonishing rate, and Aragorn would take these slim ropes and set them as snares throughout the surrounding area to bring in rabbits and other small game. These were utilized completely for their meat, the majority of it smoked with hickory chips and put away for later, and in a handful of days there was the beginning of a nice pile of furs for future use.
Legolas had also found an old fishing net, or one that would serve as such, hanging dusty and unused in the tool room. This he had mended by working the cordage fibers into the spots that had frayed, his face quiet and still in the evening firelight as he concentrated, running his fingertips over and over the twined ropes until he was satisfied that no gaps remained. The net had then been taken to the pond, and Aragorn had cast it into the dark waters several times and hauled it back again, each throw bringing in several good-sized fish.
And so food, firewood and furs gradually accumulated, and though it was a satisfying thing to know that their supplies grew, the two friends knew that many more days of toil lay before them before they would truly feel that that they had enough to see them through the cold months ahead.
* * * *
Legolas pushed his plate back and sighed contentedly as he stretched his long legs toward the fire and patted his lap in invitation. Tithlam leapt up immediately, and a soft smile came to his lips as his fingers played over the cat's soft fur. "I do like the taste of fish, Aragorn. The folk of Lake-town have inns that boast quite a number of excellent methods of preparation, but I think your efforts are just as praiseworthy."
Aragorn laughed. "I think my skills are quite limited. Wilderness cooking is a basic necessity, but there is little flair involved. I think you are simply making up for the time when you were unable to tolerate the thought of food."
"True. My appetite has returned in full. In fact, I seem to always be ravenous these days."
"That is undoubtedly due to all the work we are doing. For my part, I am either hungry or sleeping like the dead once we have finished for the day."
Aragorn winced slightly as he rose from the table to stoke the fire. His back ached from days of hauling downed trees to the elf, and the elf too seemed tired, though he said nothing. His only indication of discomfort had been several days ago, when he had asked Aragorn to look at his hands. The ranger had been dismayed to see rough cuts and blisters marring Legolas' fingers and palms, the result of chopping wood for hours on end, days in a row.
"You should have come to me long since about this, Legolas," the ranger had muttered as he coated the elf's raw hands with a salve and wrapped them in clean linen bandages, unhappy with his friend for his stoic silence and with himself for not noticing that Legolas had been working without protection. But Legolas had merely rolled his eyes and made a rather disconcerting clucking sound… buck-buck-buck…like a fussy old hen, and Aragorn had roared with laughter as he had gone in search of gloves for the elf. And Legolas, being what he was, had hands wholly healed within two days.
Aragorn groaned slightly as he rose from his crouch and the muscles in his thighs protested. The elf turned toward him with a grin.
"Are you sore?"
"Unfortunately, yes. I thought I was fit, but the activity of recent days is proving otherwise," Aragorn lamented as he limped back to the table.
"You are fit. You are not, however, suited to being yoked to downed trees like an ox and hauling them across the turf."
The ranger lowered himself gingerly into his seat - and froze when he saw two bright elven eyes fixed directly on his own. He lurched forward across the table and stared in shock at the elf. "Legolas!" he cried, grabbing at the folded hands resting on the polished wood.
"What?" the elf inquired with a soft smile, raising his eyebrows.
"I… can you -?" the man stammered, tightening his grip on those quiet hands.
The golden head moved slightly; a movement to the negative. "No, my friend. I cannot see you."
"But, I could have sworn your eyes looked directly at me! And it seems that they still do…" Aragorn stared, bewildered, into the fair being's clear orbs. "They… they have never lost their elven beauty, Legolas," he finished quietly in confusion, not sure what else to say.
"Then I am able to do it," the elf murmured.
"What do you mean?"
Legolas raised his head and turned his face toward the heat of the flames. "I had thought to see if I could disguise my affliction. I concentrated on your voice, and in doing so I was able to determine where your eyes should be. I sought to place my own onto yours. Was I successful?"
"It is uncanny, Legolas. In that moment, you no longer looked blind."
"Am I much changed, Aragorn?" the elf asked in a soft voice.
Aragorn had spoken the truth when he told Legolas that the beauty of the Eldar had not left his eyes. Although light no longer came to Legolas from without, radiance still flowed from within the depths of his sightless orbs. The eyes of the Firstborn were a startlingly beautiful phenomenon, particularly to those mortals who were fortunate enough to see them, lit as they were with an inner luminosity that glowed, softly incandescent, in a striking parallel to the starlight of the midnight sky. In moments of happiness and tranquility the eyes of the elves radiated a gentle light, and their layered depths spoke silently of the passing of many ages. But when angered, that light roared into a bright and terrifying wildfire that most mortal souls found impossible to bring their own shrinking gazes to meet.
And yet, though his eyes still shone with elven-light, Legolas had slowly begun to take on the unmistakable appearance of one who could not see. Whenever he heard a noise, his head would move toward it rather than his eyes alone, and he had adopted a peculiar habit of lowering and tilting his head whenever he listened to something. And the eyes themselves, though still bright and alive, had begun to look somewhat blurry to Aragorn, vague and wandering, lost as they were with nothing to focus on.
The ranger looked at Legolas with affection. He did not want to hurt him, but he knew the elf desired the truth. "Yes, Legolas. You are changed. Your appearance and manner have been altered since you lost your eyesight."
"I feared it was so. I will work on improving, and you must help me."
Now as the ranger watched, Legolas began to move his eyes. The elf set Tithlam onto the floor and sent her off, and he tracked her with his eyes as he deliberately held his head still, listening to her tiny footsteps moving about the room. He shifted them then to the fire as a log settled more deeply into the grate with a soft hiss. "Say something, Aragorn," the elf requested.
"Here," the ranger responded, and the blue eyes shifted back to settle on his own. Aragorn nodded his approval, then grimaced in irritation as the elf continued to wait expectantly. Fool, he cannot see a nod.
"You looked sighted, Legolas. I could not tell that you are not."
"Good. I am pleased to hear it. I will continue to practice, and you must be my observer."
Aragorn regarded the serious expression on his friend's face. "But why do you wish to do this?" he asked, puzzled.
"I do not want others to know that I am blind," the elf stated firmly. "I do not want anyone's pity."
"But people will eventually learn of it, Legolas. I do not think you can hide it from our friends."
"I do not plan to hide it from them. It would be impossible to do so. And I will not attempt to keep it from my family. But for those we may meet in the future - passing strangers - I would not have them know this about me. If I can appear whole before their eyes, I will try to do so. Consider it a new challenge, a new game for me."
Aragorn readily agreed to be of what help he could. Legolas was a proud being, and the ranger certainly could understand his desire to avoid the pity and stares that would follow him were his disability readily apparent. Nothing was of more importance to the elf than his independence, and his desire to contribute to his own upkeep and not be too great a burden on his companion was strong within him.
The elf had relaxed his posture, relinquishing the control he had exerted over his eyes, and they softened and went hazy once more. "It is fatiguing," he said quietly, and rose to his feet. "I will see to Rhosgernroch and make sure she is settled for the night." Tossing his cloak over his shoulders, he reached for the door handle. But then he paused and turned with a frown to Aragorn. "She will need food as well this winter."
"Aye," Aragorn said heavily. This was a problem they had not yet addressed, having directed their energy recently toward their own survival. He looked at the elf, noting the concern on his face. The thought had crossed his mind that they might simply set her free. The old mare could be taken down to the valley and left to find her way to the gates of the city, which she undoubtedly would do. Aragorn guessed that she had probably been there before, for what other use would the old man have for her but to ride into town for his supplies? She would find care there, he was certain of that.
But he and Legolas had grown fond of her, and in caring for the old mare the elf had found another anchor in the darkness. Perhaps it would be possible to keep her, though it meant even more hard labor. "There is the meadow," he said, and he watched the elf's face brighten.
"And an old scythe in the barn," Legolas added quickly. "We could sharpen it and cut fodder for her, and carry bracken from the forest for her bedding…"
The last thing I want to see is you flailing away with a scythe, Legolas, the man thought with a grimace, but he kept his concerns to himself. Undoubtedly the elf would prove just as skilled in this as in any other task he had taken on, and so Aragorn turned his mind elsewhere. "Sleeping inside or out tonight, my friend?"
Since Legolas' discovery of the old tree, he had spent a fair number of recent nights perched in its highest branches, for that was the place where sleep came best to him, quiet and free of nightmare.
"Inside," Legolas said with a grin. "I find the sound of your snores an essential evening experience. I miss it if I am away more than a night or so."
"I do not snore."
"I do not. Arwen would have said something. She has never mentioned it."
"Of course not. She is your lover, and as such would strive to be diplomatic and not hurt your feelings. I am simply your friend, and I tell you that you do snore. Horrifyingly so."
"Your blindness makes your ears even more sensitive. I but breathe deeply."
"In the manner of a galloping Warg in pursuit of a meal," the elf laughed. "Your lady is renowned for her diplomacy and tact, as evidenced by her firm but splendidly skillful handling of my father's attempts to see the two of us betrothed. She had already been spoken for, after all."
"Ah," Aragorn said with a wry smile. "Another reason for him to dislike me."
"Indeed. The fact that Arwen and I felt no more than deep friendship for each other was not to be an impediment to his plans. He fiercely desired to see one of his sons wed to the daughter of Lord Elrond. And the fact that she is entirely too old for me never crossed his mind," the elf added with a grin.
"What? Too old for you?" Aragorn's jaw dropped.
"Well, yes. I am one of the last of the elves to be born. Arwen has been around for ages, Aragorn."
"By the Valar, Legolas, you are five hundred years my senior. If she is too old for you, what does that make her to me?"
Legolas' face assumed a judicious expression. He tilted his head back as he pondered. "Let me think on this a moment," he murmured. "I believe the difference in years make it possible for her to be your great-great-great-great…"
"Stop," Aragorn warned.
The elf had produced his fingers and was busily ticking them off. "Great-great-great, ah yes, great-great…"
"Enough!!" Aragorn roared as Legolas quickly slid out the door. The ranger heard bell-like laughter as the elf vanished into the night. "Great-great-great-great-great…"
* * * *
The next morning found the elf and the ranger on the thatched roof of the cottage. Though it seemed tightly packed and impermeable to the fiercest rain, Aragorn wanted to investigate it to be certain that it would stand up to winter. As he explored every inch of the surface, looking for any thinned areas that might weaken further under the burden of snow and freezing temperatures, Legolas investigated the netting spread over the thatched surface. The ropes that held the dangling rocks, which acted to weigh down the netting and hold it securely over the roof, were checked to ensure that they were not fraying.
"The ropes seem to be fine, Aragorn," the elf said as he straightened. "The roof appears to have been worked on recently, over the summer, perhaps. And it has a proper incline as well. It should hold."
"I agree. This is a well-made and well-maintained structure. And a lucky thing for us that it is. We would be hard pressed to find time to put much work into the house in addition to all else that still remains to be done. Let us go down, Legolas."
Aragorn turned and headed for the ladder propped against the side of the house, the topmost rungs just visible as they poked above the line of the roof. He took hold of it and began to swing his foot around when the stance and expression of his companion brought him up. Legolas had turned toward the east and had stiffened, standing still as a statue with head held high. Then he was making his way rapidly across the roof's expanse to crouch on the far side of the house. With a frown Aragorn followed him, dropping quietly to his knees beside his friend. He knew the signs well enough. The elf had detected something.
Aragorn did not speak, but peered in the direction Legolas had silently indicated with a slight jerk of his blond head. Across the clearing and beyond the stream the solid wall of the forest rose before them, but he could make out nothing. Often were the times he was forced to rely on the elf's superior senses until whatever had disturbed Legolas eventually made itself known to him as well, and so he sank back on his haunches and waited.
After several moments he shifted his gaze to the elf. He could not see Legolas' face, lowered as it was and hidden by the fall of his unbound hair, but he was acutely aware of his friend's tension. Aragorn stirred uneasily, moving his eyes to the trees again.
The elf's hand suddenly clamped onto his shoulder. "Horsemen, Aragorn," Legolas hissed urgently. "Two of them, coming up the trail from the city at a good clip. They are not together. One rides ahead of the other."
Aragorn swore as he grasped the elf's wrist and scrambled with him back to the ladder. As he began to clamber down, the ranger remembered the warning they had received from their mysterious friend: the people of the city might be a danger to them.
Jumping lightly to the ground, he bolted for the cottage door with the elf at his heels, hurrying to where their weapons were stored. He may not yet have been able to hear the sound of hoof beats, but the quick hammering of his heart told him all he needed to know. Someone was coming their way at last, and he had the sinking feeling that they did not bring warm greetings.
First > Previous > Next