Pausing to wipe the sweat from his brow, Aragorn leaned his weight on the handle of the scythe and rested his weary body for a moment. Day three of cutting the grasses, and he had grown more than a little tired of swinging the sickle back and forth, back and forth… he was wretchedly tired of it, in fact, and the only thing that kept him going was the fact that this was the last day. The small loft above the horse's stall was almost full of tied bundles of grass, and what he and Legolas carried back this evening should be enough. Then I go back to hauling wood from the forest, for we must have more fuel… and the ranger, without realizing he had done so, sighed aloud at the thought.
The soft sound of pouring water came to him, and through his closed eyes he envisioned the waterfalls of Imladris. His favorite swimming spot lay beneath one of the great falls. Secluded, enclosed by shrubs of wildflowers, the place had a claim on his heart like no other. The low, graceful dip of weeping willow branches provided a private place; a place to swim in a calm, warm pond and to rest on the cool, grassy bank, where the scent of lilac filled his nostrils and the sweet songs of the larks could be heard even over the rush of the cascading water. The spray that constantly misted the air had saturated his hair, and his hands were wet as he reached again for Arwen. Laughing, she drew near for the kiss. This place was theirs, and her eyes, dark and sparkling, locked onto his as she stretched out one long leg and straddled him. Ai, Valar, there is no other moment in the world to compare to this… and he raised his arms, his fingers tangling into her black hair and pulling at the ties of her gown. Her breasts rounded in his hands as the loosened fabric fell away from her body. No other moment...
"Aragorn?" A voice, beautiful in the way that only the voice of an elf could be, spoke his name. But the voice was male, and there was a concerned, insistent tone to it that requested his attention. The sounds of falling water and the smells of spring faded, and with a shake of his head the ranger returned to the present moment. He smiled and turned toward the voice. Legolas stood behind him, extending a cup toward him with a worried expression on his face. "Are you thirsty?"
"I am." Aragorn took the cup and, tilting his head back, drained it in three swallows. The elf proffered the water container again, and the cup was refilled.
"We can return tomorrow if we must," Legolas said. "You are wearing yourself out, Aragorn."
"No. I wish to finish this task." Aragorn emptied the cup for the second time and drew the back of his hand across his mouth. "We must return to our own needs tomorrow. Food and firewood."
"I know, but you will injure yourself if you do not rest. The handle of the scythe is too short for you, and it forces you to stoop. And the balance of it does not please me. Since you will not permit me to wield the blade, you must at least pace yourself better than this. I will sharpen it now, and you will rest your back for a few minutes."
"The blade is fine. I sharpened it this morning."
The elf shook his head and sat cross-legged on the ground. Removing the rectangular whetstone from the pack slung at his hip, he trickled a few drops of water onto it. He reached up with his free hand and gestured for the ranger to place the blade in it. "That was hours ago, Aragorn. It begins to drag now rather than cut. I hear the difference, even if you do not yet feel it. Give me the sickle."
"As you wish," Aragorn grumbled. He turned the instrument over to the elf and lowered himself to the ground, stretching out on his back. It did feel good to relax, and he raised his aching arms above his head and sank with a sigh into the cool earth. His eyes drifted over the grey leaden sky, dark with low clouds. The day was cold, though sweat stood out on his body from his labors. He listened to the sound of stone and metal rasping together. It ceased as the elf paused to drip more water onto the stone, and then it resumed.
"Better," Legolas murmured. "So… where were you just now?"
Aragorn frowned. "Where was I?"
"I had a very strong impression that you were elsewhere. Perhaps in the place you dreamt of last night." The elf's voice quivered with barely restrained mirth, and the ranger shifted his head and regarded the blond elf in alarm. Legolas' mouth was twitching, his arms moving rhythmically as he worked the sickle edge against the stone.
"Oh, Valar. Do not tell me I spoke in my sleep again, Legolas."
Legolas snickered. "It was a good dream."
"Do not go any further."
"I do not need to go any further. You went far enough."
The elf laughed. "Fear not. You did not give me all the details. She sounds intriguingly frisky, however. Imaginative. Things were getting interesting."
"You are, from this point on," Aragorn snarled, "banished forever from the cottage at night. Spend the late hours with your cold tree and stay out of my dreams."
"We could fit you with a gag. That would be an interesting solution to your nocturnal revelations. And it would remedy the snoring as well."
Aragorn lurched to his feet, ignoring the clamor his sore muscles sent up as he leaned over the elf and took hold of the handle of the scythe, pulling it from his friend's hands. "Back to it, Elf. I will ensure that we are both so tired tonight neither of us makes a sound."
Aragorn swung the blade at the tall withered grasses, knowing well that they were far past their best time for harvest. Still, it was better than nothing and would see the old horse through until the pale green shoots showed their faces to the spring sun again. Legolas labored behind him, gathering up the fallen stalks and tying them into bundles. The elf sang softly as he worked, and few words of tree and star were contained in the melodies.His fair face was a picture of innocence as he launched into yet another lyrical song that began sweetly enough about the beauty of a summer's day and the entwined hands of lovers as they idly strolled a winding path, but before long the words turned and the elf let fly something about legs waving in all four directions like standards in the breeze and the proud raising of one's banner-pole. Aragorn turned more than once to stare at Legolas. They do not make such songs in the realm of Thranduil. Do they? And each time he paused the elf raised his head and burst out laughing.
They toiled until the sky darkened and the air quieted. With a sigh, Aragorn set the scythe down. "The day wanes. We are finished, my bawdy friend. We have enough. And I have had enough."
The elf nodded as he tied off the ends of the bundle in his arms. "We have a small supply of oats in the shed as well. It is not much, but if we use it sparingly we should be able to keep Rhosgernroch fed. Where is the blanket?"
"Here." They had been using an old tattered barn blanket to haul the grass, and Aragorn spread it out beside the elf. "I will bring the bundles to you."
"There are thirty-three of them."
"What a memory you have," Aragorn laughed. He turned and walked back through the meadow, great patches of it shorn and stubby now, and gathered up the scattered bundles. He carried them to his friend, and Legolas stacked them onto the blanket.
"That should be the lot. And I am not sorry to be done. Why did we decide to keep the horse?" Aragorn muttered as he folded the blanket over the grass. He and Legolas took up the corners and began dragging their burden toward the cottage.
"We will need her," the elf responded.
The elf furrowed his brow. "I do not know. I just think we will need her."
"We need her right now. She ought to haul her own food."
"Aye," Legolas agreed. "But it is too late to fetch her now. By the time we brought her here, figured out how to harness her to this load, and started back again, we would already have the hay stored in the loft."
"That we will do tomorrow. Once we get this to the barn, all I want is dinner and a smoke. I would go for a hot bath as well, were one available."
"I wish it could be so. It would ease the pain in your back."
Something in the musical voice made Aragorn glance quickly at his companion. The elf's pupils were dilated and dark, the lids tensed and narrowed as if they sought to fend something off, and the man realized that in addition to satisfying the very elven urge for playful teasing, Legolas had used the songs to distract himself from the worsening pain in his head as the day drew on. A wave of angry self-reproach swept over Aragorn. "I am sorry, Legolas. I was so bent on getting this task completed that I forgot to bring the herbs for you this afternoon."
"No matter. We have food for our horse now, and I will rest the easier for it," the elf responded lightly, but he turned his pale face away from Aragorn's scrutiny, taking a firmer grip on the blanket and pulling more strongly.
Shadows had settled heavily on the evening, and Aragorn squinted as he and Legolas rounded the curve in the trail and the small barn came into view. He stopped abruptly as he heard soft hoof-beats tramping about in the enclosure and he realized that more than one horse shared the small space. Legolas' head came up in the same instant, and together they crouched, Aragorn resting his hand on the elf's shoulder. "I cannot see the horses from here. The barn blocks my view," he whispered.
"It is Alun's horse," Legolas murmured after a moment, turning his head not toward the barn, but to the silent trees surrounding them.
"Did he come alone?"
The elf's eyes closed as he put his attention out into the forest. He remained still for a short time, listening, and then he nodded his head. "I hear no one else. I think it is safe."
Aragorn stood and peered in the direction of the house. "Ah, he is waiting on the porch. Let us see what brings him here."
They dragged the laden blanket with them until they reached the side of the barn, and there they left it and continued on to the house. Alun had risen to his feet when they entered the clearing, but he did not approach them. As the ranger and the elf drew near, he quietly unbuckled his scabbard and laid his weapon on the ground, stepping away from it with a slight incline of his head toward Aragorn. Aragorn nodded back, appreciating the gesture of tentative trust and friendship. "Well met, Alun. I had hoped we would see you again. Will you stay a while? Legolas and I were about to prepare our evening meal."
"I can stay for a time," the soldier answered in his gruff voice. "I am off duty as far as my young lord is concerned, and I often patrol the areas around the city's borders at night. I will not be missed."
Aragorn looked closely at his visitor. He looked tired, and distracted, his fingers tugging absently at his beard. "Come inside, then, for there is much I would ask you, if you are willing to tell."
Alun's eyes met his. "The matters of the city are best left alone," he said slowly, and his eyes moved to rest on Legolas. They widened, and Aragorn looked at Legolas as well to see what had startled the man. He smiled. Though not yet entirely gone, the daylight had waned enough to make quite obvious the soft, luminous glow of the elf's body.
Aragorn spoke as the soldier's eyes shifted back to him. "Then I will ask you how the boy fares, and if his grief is eased."
"His grief continues. He is not one to shrug off such a loss in a mere handful of days. But he weeps in private only, or with me. And I see the question in your eyes. Even the great excitement of seeing an elf for the first time will not cause him to open his mouth when he understands the need for secrecy. He has not spoken of you to anyone, and I can assure you he will not."
Legolas inhaled deeply. "I am relieved to hear that. We had concerns."
Aragorn regarded the elf standing quietly beside him, his eyes half-closed with pain he could not entirely mask. "Let us go inside," he urged, taking hold of his friend's arm, but Legolas quietly pulled away.
"I would like to see to Rhosgernroch, Aragorn. If you would be so kind as to bring the tea out to me, I will join you after a time." Without waiting for a response, the elf turned and walked quickly toward the small barn. Upon reaching the fence he placed his left hand on it and, vaulting gracefully over the rails, he vanished into the dark building.
Alun watched the elf in silence until he had disappeared, then turned to Aragorn with raised brows. "I thought he could not see? But just now he moved with the ease of one who can."
"Legolas is blind. A lasting gift from the orcs," the ranger said, his voice low and bitter, and they entered the cottage. "As is lingering pain in his head. I need to prepare his medicines. Please sit," he gestured to the table. The room was dark and chilled with the ending of the day. He lit the lamp and turned to the cold hearth. "I must get a fire going and boil the bark. But we can talk while I do so."
"How is it that he is able to walk about with such confidence?"
"He is an elf," Aragorn responded as he quickly readied the tinder and struck a spark to light it. He needs something stronger tonight. A curse on my impatience! And on his stubbornness… he of course says nothing, even when his head is about to explode. He stood and regarded the small collection of herbs he kept on the chimney-shelf and pulled down the pouch containing the valerian leaves. A bit of this added to the willow bark… it will tire him slightly, and no doubt he will complain about that, but it is of little matter if it eases his pain quickly.
"And elves have magical powers. I have heard of them."
Aragorn grimaced as he added several small sticks and gently blew on the flame to encourage it to spread. What Alun had heard was undoubtedly nonsense, colorful stories passed from mouth to mouth by people who had never met an elf in their lives. He pulled in a deep breath and turned his head over his shoulder to look at the soldier, who was watching him expectantly. "I think what you have heard is not entirely factual. Given the prevailing attitude toward elves in your city, I feel quite certain there are untruths in what you have been told. Elves are not "magical" in the way you might think. They live their lives much as we do, and in them joy and sorrow are woven close."
"I have heard they do not die. I have heard they can detect the flutter of a bird's wing a mile off. And your friend… there is a shine about his body. Or was I imagining it?" the man demanded with an expression of perplexed bewilderment.
Aragorn chuckled. "You did not imagine it." The fire was going well now, and he settled the grate over it and reached for the small pot he prepared each morning, containing water and several pieces of willow bark, which was kept steeping during the day. He added a few dried leaves from the pouch and set it over the flames. "They are immortal, for they do not age as we do. Nor do they fall to illness as we do. But they can die, if they are wounded or poisoned so severely that the body is unable to heal. They do have enhanced abilities. Hearing, eyesight, speed and skill in battle, and the ability to sense things around them… they are connected to the earth and the stars in ways that we cannot understand. They are like us in many ways, but in countless other ways they are very different. But differences ought not be feared, Alun. Just respected. And I think if you were that wary of Legolas you would not be protecting us. Nor would you have returned to this place."
Alun grinned. "True enough. My curiosity has gotten the better of me. Perhaps the fact that he is blind encourages me to believe he is not dangerous."
"He is no threat to you because you have declared yourself a friend. Blind or sighted, he is formidable, and were you his enemy, you would learn just how dangerous he yet can be." Aragorn strained the boiling water into a cup, added some cool water to it, and rose to his feet. "I must go to him now."
"Shall I leave? If he is ill…"
"Stay. He has his pride and does not want you to see his pain, but I expect he will join us when he feels better. And there is much we wish to ask you."
"And much you need to know," Alun said, darting his sharp eyes toward Aragorn. "I see you went foraging today. I know it was necessary. You must hunt and gather your fuel, but there is danger in doing so. They will kill him if they see him. They will kill you. I do not know if that is something you want him to know."
Aragorn paused in the doorway at the soldier's warning. Frowning, he digested the words for a moment. "Legolas must know. I am his friend, and now his protector, though that fact distresses us both. But he is no child, and I will not keep information from him. Will you wait, and stay for dinner? I shall return shortly."
Alun nodded, and Aragorn stepped into the darkening evening. The last orange-red rays of the sun had faded, and he shivered as the cold air struck him. He crossed to the horses and opened the gate. The animals were busy with the grass that Legolas had hung for them in a net, and they barely flicked an ear in his direction as he went to the byre and paused in the doorway, searching for the soft glow of the elf in the shadows.
"Here, Aragorn." Legolas' voice came quietly from a corner of the storage room. He sat cross-legged on the floor, his back propped against the wall and the cat curled and purring in his lap. The ranger knelt beside him, looking with concern at his friend's strained features and closed eyes.
"I am sorry I took so long. I needed to boil the bark, but it is ready now." He took the elf's hands and placed the warm cup into them. "Drink."
Legolas raised the cup and smelled the draught with a suspicious expression. "This tea smells like your feet, Aragorn."
Aragorn laughed. "Only the finest medicines for you, my dear friend."
Legolas swallowed the bitter mixture with a grimace. "You forgot the honey."
"No," Legolas shook his head irritably. "Forgive me. The pain makes me peevish. It is wrong of me to complain." He stirred slightly, sighing, and straightened his back. He did not open his eyes. "Is Alun still here?"
"He is. I will send him away if you wish it. If you are not comfortable meeting him..."
"It does feel odd to be in the presence of a stranger after all this time, Aragorn, but I do not desire the life of a hermit, hiding myself away. I am actually relieved that he knows I cannot see, for I do not have the energy tonight to try to hide my blindness from him. And if he has information for us, I would hear it. We need to have a better idea of what surrounds us. Too much is unknown."
"I agree. Perhaps tonight we can get some answers. Do you desire me to stay with you?"
"No. Go back and see to our guest. I will come when I can."
"Very well." Aragorn rose, knowing the elf did not want to be fussed over, and quietly left him. The ranger returned to the cabin to find Alun still seated at the table.
"How is he?" the soldier asked as Aragorn set the wine before him.
"He rests, and will join us soon."
Alun drank while Aragorn prepared the meal, his eyes roaming slowly over the small cabin. "You have few things," he remarked.
"The orcs came upon us without warning. We traveled light, but were forced to leave what few possessions we did have behind when we fled. We arrived here with little more than the clothes on our backs."
"And these weapons," the soldier gestured to Legolas' bow and quiver hung on the door. "Have I your permission to take a closer look?"
"They belong to Legolas. But I think he would not mind if you took them down."
Alun laid the quiver on the table and, extracting one of the long knives, examined it with keen eyes. "Wonderful workmanship. It is lighter than I thought it would be. Almost too delicate, but there is strength in the metal and the balance is perfect. Our metalsmiths would be delighted to see this." He turned his attention to the bow, laying it across his lap to more closely examine the inlaid design of gold leaves against the dark wood. "And this… it seems the elves place much value on beauty. But the bow is dusty, and the string needs waxing. Ah, it sits idle because he can no longer use it."
"He has not touched it since the night of the attack."
The soldier set the end of the bow on the floor and made an effort to flex it. His eyebrows shot up. "What is the draw-weight of this thing?" he gasped.
Aragorn chucked. "I believe about one hundred pounds. I have shot that bow once or twice, and thought my body would shatter. I cannot handle it for any length of time. Legolas can fire over forty arrows per minute, and his arms never tire. And he never misses his target."
Alun shook his head, scowling. "Impossible. No one is that fast. And I have seen men who have the strength to handle bows of this type. They train daily, and they are much larger and more powerful than your friend."
"Well, perhaps you will be able to see Legolas in action some day, if I can convince him to take up his bow again."
"That would be something to see. And Tarnan would love it. That boy loves all weapons and excels in his training, but he particularly enjoys the bow."
Aragorn placed the food on the table and returned Legolas' weapons to their peg on the door. Opening it he gazed out into the night, and noticed the softly lit outline of the elf coming toward him. "I was just putting the food on, Legolas," he called.
"And I am ready for it," the elf responded with a smile. He looked tired, but the dark shadow in his eyes had lightened. He trod forward, soft-footed, and paused somewhat uncertainly in the doorway. Tithlam was in his arms, and she turned her green-eyed gaze onto the soldier. Without warning, she gathered herself and leapt from the elf to Alun, who caught her in midair as if he was long used to doing so.
"Well, hello, little Squeaky. I have not seen you in an age."
Aragorn's jaw dropped in surprise, and he darted a sidelong glance at Legolas, who stood rooted to the floor with an expression of horror on his face. "Squeaky?" the elf gasped. "Her name is Squeaky?"
"It is indeed," Alun said with a somewhat bewildered smile as he took note of the elf's dismay. "It is the name the old man gave her, because she cannot meow."
As the elf closed his eyes and sagged against the door Aragorn collapsed against the table with a shout of laughter. "Oh Eru," Legolas moaned sorrowfully. "I will never hear the end of this."First > Previous > Next