Alun returned one early afternoon two weeks later, pushing his way up the hill on his sturdy grey gelding. He brought more supplies, dumping several bundles onto the table as he shook the snow from his clothing. He also brought Tarnan, who in turn had brought Firestar, much to the elf's evident pleasure. Legolas had been quiet of late, and Aragorn breathed a soft sigh of gratitude when he saw his friend's sober face light up upon the arrival of the visitors. The elf was instantly on his feet, rising from another silent staring session in front of the flames and grabbing the laughing boy by the hand. Tarnan managed no more than a grin and a quick wave in Aragorn's direction before Legolas bolted with him out the door, slamming it behind them.
With an amused shake of his head, Alun cast off his cloak and flung it over a chair. "The two of them are getting to be great friends, are they not?" He strode to the hearth and extended his hands toward the warmth of the flames. "Ah, that is better. It is a long ride from the city."
"And how is the city?" Aragorn inquired, rising from the table to fetch wine.
"The same," Alun stated bluntly, rubbing his hands together vigorously.
"I am relieved to see you, Alun. Legolas and I were concerned that you might be dead."
Startled, the soldier turned toward him. "Why the devil would you think that?"
Aragorn set the flask on the table and sat again. "I saw a man killed before the gates of your city the day the snows came. We feared it was you."
Alun sighed and shook his head. "No, I was not the one." He joined Aragorn at the table, the chair creaking slightly under his weight. "It was a friend. Somehow his activities were discovered, and he was put to death publicly and cruelly as a warning to all." He paused, eyeing the ranger with a curious expression. "How is it you witnessed the execution?"
"I was out setting my snares and paused upon the ridge to look at the city. The distance was too great to see much detail, but what was done to the man was clear enough."
Alun nodded and drank deeply of the wine. "I am thankful I was not there," he said in a low voice. He dropped his eyes and gazed into the depths of his cup. "It would have been difficult to stand by and not act."
"You say his activities were discovered. Does this not endanger all who fight against the takers of your city?" Aragorn questioned with a frown. "He might have spoken of you, albeit unwillingly, under threats or torture."
"No, he held his tongue. Of that we are certain. It would have taken more than whips and glowing irons to break that man." The soldier rested his hands on the table, his eyes narrowing. "Of greater concern is how he was discovered. We fear he may have been betrayed, perhaps by one of us."
"It must be difficult to tell friend from foe," Aragorn said. "And now to be on guard against a possible traitor –"
"Yes, we must be doubly cautious from this point on. It may be that I will not be able to bring Tarnan back here, at least for some time. And my own visits will be less often than I would like. How goes it with your hunting?"
"The small animals are plentiful," Aragorn said. "My snares always yield something, and we preserve all we can. We will be fine, Alun, though we will miss your visits - Legolas even more than I."
"I brought some of the things you needed, including the herbs for him. How is his head pain?"
"It has abated somewhat, now that he no longer works so hard. His days are easier since the snows fell, and he can rest. But he has been feeling idle, with little to occupy him at times, and so he frets. And he cannot shoot. He has lost his arrows."
"Ah, I can help you there at least." Alun began rummaging through one of the packs. "I brought more for him. Fifteen in all, and they should be the correct length." He extracted a long, carefully wrapped bundle and set it on the table.
Aragorn nodded gratefully. "Thank you. This will do much to lift his spirits again."
Alun regarded the ranger quizzically. "I think one such as Legolas was not made to be blind, or idle. He was obviously a warrior of some standing before he lost his eyesight."
"He was," the ranger murmured. He hesitated for a brief moment, unsure if he should speak of the concerns that burdened him of late, but the need to communicate with someone in order to ease his mind was strong. The soldier was watching him, his eyes sympathetic. Aragorn inhaled deeply and continued, his voice low. "Legolas was a brilliant, talented warrior. Now he is like a falcon with its wings clipped, battering himself against the cage. The restricted life he is now forced to lead weighs heavily on him, even more so since the snows came. I see his mood darkening, and it frightens me. He is restless at times, and in other moments he is quiet. Too quiet, withdrawing from me and burrowing into dark thoughts. He sits before the fire and does not speak, as he did when he first woke from his sickness and discovered he was blind. He often goes out to the barn, saying he is going to look after the mare, but he stays for hours. He spends most nights in the tree he loves, but he no longer sings to the stars. I take him out with me most days when I check my snares, both to get him out of this house and because of your warning of danger, but he refuses to come with me every time." Aragorn paused to smile at the other man. "I am glad you brought the boy today. Legolas has needed a change."
"I am sorry we cannot visit more often," Alun returned. "Tarnan enjoys it as much as Legolas. And it pleases me to see the boy learning about other people. Malcovan and Ramhar seek to keep him ignorant and suspicious of outsiders."
"They can more easily sway his mind if he is thus," Aragorn said, "but I have the feeling that the child's curiosity will never permit them to gain such power over him. His personality is too strong."
At that moment the door banged open and Tarnan rushed into the cottage, pursued by a swirl of cold wind. He slammed the door, stomped his snowy boots on the rug, and headed for the fire. "It's freezing out there!" he gasped, rocking back and forth before the flames so vigorously that Aragorn feared he would pitch forward right into the fireplace. "Legolas wants to stay out there and sing to Firestar, but I could not take it any longer. He said he'd be along in a minute." The boy's bright eyes slid toward Aragorn's. "Do you have anything to eat?"
"They haven't enough food, child, to be feeding you the absurd amount you always demand," Alun said gently. "They must conserve what they have, for the winter will be long."
"But we just brought up cheese and more eggs," the boy protested. "And the flour."
Aragorn laughed. "We can surely find something to satisfy you, and hot tea for you and Legolas as well." He rose and went to the shelves, pulling down the last of the apples.
"Legolas is strange," the boy commented as he turned his back to the fire and let the warmth penetrate the other side of his body. "Is something wrong with him?"
Aragorn paused and turned toward the child, who was looking at him expectantly. He straightened, suddenly apprehensive, and his fingers tightened on the bowl of apples. "Legolas is an elf, and the ways of elves often seem odd to mortals," he said carefully. "Why do you think something is wrong with him?"
"He laughs when I laugh, but he does not smile when I smile. He looks at me only rarely. Usually he turns his face away."
"I see." Aragorn glanced at Alun, who grimaced and shrugged helplessly. The ranger's thoughts raced, struggling to give the boy a plausible answer. "The direct gaze of an elf can be a very uncomfortable thing for mortals. Elven eyes have a way of penetrating deeply, and many people do not like it. He is probably trying to protect you from his gaze, lest it makes you uneasy."
The boy stepped lightly to the table and grabbed an apple. "Oh. He is trying to be polite."
"Yes." Aragorn crouched before the hearth and settled the pot of water over the flames, thinking it was high time Legolas stop trying to hide his blindness from Tarnan. The boy was as observant as a hawk, and it was only a matter of time before he discovered the elf's affliction. And he would probably not appreciate the deception.
"I like Legolas' voice," the boy commented between bites of apple. "I could not hear him when he sang before to Firestar, but today I was right next to him. His voice sounds like bells. And Firestar loves it. He settled right down."
Aragorn smiled. "Song is very important to the elves, as are all things of beauty."
"Where does he live?" Tarnan asked as he reached for the cheese Aragorn set before him. "Besides over the mountains, I mean."
"He comes from an elven realm called Mirkwood," the ranger told him. He did not speak of Legolas' royal status. That was for the elf to reveal if and when he chose to do so. "It is a great forest. The elves live beside a river, and engage in trade with the nearby town of men."
"Does he live in a tree?"
"Sometimes. Many of the elves have homes up in the trees, and others live in a great network of caves."
"He told me he doesn't like caves."
"They are not like ordinary caves, but vast and airy and filled with light. The king has his palace in the caves."
The boy rounded on Aragorn and hastily swallowed what he had been chewing. "A king? The elves have a king?"
"They do indeed."
"Oh! I should like to meet him." Tarnan busily set about slicing another piece of cheese. "Have you seen the king?"
Aragorn nodded with a small smile as he worked on the tea. "I have met him a number of times."
"What is he like?"
"He is all a great elven-king should be," Aragorn murmured. Memories of sweeping majestic robes, hair of glittering gold, sapphire-ice eyes came into his mind, and a voice that somehow managed to sound both pleasantly musical and deeply authoritative vibrated in his ears. The ranger looked at Tarnan. "He is a just ruler, fair and wise. The king is well-loved by his people."
The door opened again, and Legolas entered quietly. He closed the portal behind him and leaned against it, not entering the room. "Aye, he is much loved," the elf said. "He fights hard for our people, to keep our realm safe from the evil that never sleeps."
"I am making tea, Legolas," Aragorn said. It seemed an unnecessary statement, except that it helped the elf to locate him. "Come to the fire and warm yourself."
Legolas nodded and stepped silently to the hearth, leaning forward slightly to warm his hands.
"You have good ears to have heard us from outside," the boy said, staring hard at Legolas' back. "Do you know the elf-king?"
"Yes, I know the king."
"When I come to visit you, can I meet him?"
"You will one day be ruler of your city," the elf said as he straightened. "King Thranduil would be most pleased to establish relations with Carbryddin, and friendship with you."
Alun, who had been quietly following the conversation, moved his sharp eyes to Aragorn. "Thranduil? That is the king's name?"
"Yes." Aragorn regarded his visitor with surprise. "Is the name familiar to you?"
"It is," the soldier affirmed as Legolas spun toward him. "But I do not recall why I know the name. I have heard it somewhere."
"Have you heard your enemies speak that name?" the elf asked quickly.
Alun shook his head, frowning as he thought on it. "I truly do not remember," he said after a pause. "If it comes to me how I know the name I will certainly tell you."
Legolas turned away again to face the fire, his face tense and unhappy. Aragorn knew what was in his thoughts, for they had discussed the possible reasons for the army's intensive training schedule. In their conversation, the ranger and the elf had both agreed the chances were remote that the army intended to march on Mirkwood, but Aragorn knew that privately Legolas continued to worry.
Alun glanced with concern at the elf before turning to his young charge, who was busily gulping the tea Aragorn had given him. "I hope your appetite has been satisfied. We must be getting back to the city."
The boy nodded quietly. He ran his hand over his mouth and stood, then pointed suddenly at his guardian's chest, his eyes widening. "Alun, you still have that thing in your shirt!" he laughed.
"What?" the soldier asked, groping in confusion at his clothing. "Oh, yes. I had forgotten about it." Looking somewhat sheepish, Alun reached into his shirt and extracted a small round bundle wrapped in cloth. He set it on the table. "The miller told me I had to keep it warm."
"What is it?" Aragorn asked, staring at the object. He wrinkled his nose as a sour smell infiltrated his nostrils.
"Dough," Legolas said from his place before the hearth. "Do you not smell the yeast?"
"I do indeed. Very well, we shall bake it. Give the miller our thanks, Alun."
Alun shook his head. "He said you must not use it all. Only pieces of it, when you make your own dough from the flour."
"How do we do that?" the ranger queried, leaning closer to the bundle and peering at it suspiciously.
Alun shrugged. "You ask the wrong man. I merely brought what he said you needed. I know nothing of the baking of bread, and fully intend to keep it that way."
"Well, Legolas and I shall have a go at it tomorrow. It cannot be that difficult," Aragorn said confidently. Behind him he heard the elf snort.
Alun settled his cloak around his shoulders and gestured to the child. "We must be off," he stated as he glanced toward the covered window at the waning daylight peeking around the edges of the heavy cloth. "The sky grows dark, though it is not yet time for the sun to set. It will snow again tonight. Come Tarnan."
As Alun reached for the door the boy turned suddenly and looked at the elf. "You needn't be so polite Legolas. Don't worry about your eyes."
Aragorn saw Legolas stiffen, his face going white. "What do you mean?" the elf whispered, and he stepped back a pace, as if he had momentarily lost his balance. Moving quickly, Aragorn was beside his friend, ready to support him should he need it. He watched the boy apprehensively, bracing himself for whatever he was going to say next.
Tarnan was looking at Legolas with his clear gaze. "I asked Aragorn why you don't look at me. He told me that elf eyes sometimes bother people. He said you were trying to protect me. But you can look at me. You're my friend, and your eyes won't hurt me."
Aragorn felt the soft whisper of a Sindarin prayer graze his ear, and then the elf was moving forward. Legolas knelt before Tarnan and gently placed his hands on the boy's slender shoulders. They were face to face, mere inches apart, and Aragorn knew Legolas' wide blue eyes could only be fixed on those of the boy.
"How is this?" the elf asked quietly, and Aragorn detected a slight tremor in Legolas' low voice.
Tarnan grinned. "Doesn't hurt. I like your eyes. They look like the sky. They… they look like my mother's eyes."
Legolas dipped his head. "Your words honour me." He continued to kneel, and there was a moment of silence as elf and boy regarded each other.
Tarnan suddenly narrowed his eyes and his expression became somewhat critical. Peering more closely at the elf's features, he suddenly reached out and touched Legolas' face. Aragorn winced, certain that his friend's deception had come to an end at last, and he waited anxiously for Tarnan to voice what he had finally seen. Legolas was frozen in place, the rapid rise and fall of his chest the only outward sign of his apprehension. Behind the child Alun hovered uneasily, his hand still gripping the door handle, and he seemed to be holding his breath entirely.
The boy suddenly nodded as if a suspicion had been confirmed, and he flashed an unexpected grin at Aragorn. "Legolas, you have broken your nose before, haven't you?" Tarnan asked.
The elf's jaw dropped, and his fingers slid away from the child's shoulders. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back as his body began shaking with laughter. Alun gave a great shout, and Aragorn joined in as a wave of relief swept over him. Legolas' secret was still safe, for now. And the boy was right. Though it did not detract from the beauty of Legolas' face, the elf's nose had indeed seen better days.
"What's so funny?" the boy demanded, staring round at the adults. "He has! You can see it goes off to the side if you take a proper look at it."
Legolas struggled to speak between desperate gasps for air. "I have broken it, my young friend. Two times in fact. Once when I fell out of a tree, and once when my eldest brother punched me during one of our many disagreements." He raised his hand and investigated his nose. "I had always held out hope that the second time might have set it straight again. I suppose I must stop deluding myself. It is still crooked, and I fear it will always remain thus."
"It could always get punched back the other way," Tarnan suggested with a giggle. "Though it might just make things worse."
"I will live with it the way it is. A broken nose is not pleasant. I have no desire to experience another." Legolas paused, and then hesitantly raised his hands, resting them gently on the child's face and tracing the youthful countenance. If Tarnan found the elf's actions odd he did not indicate so. He stood quietly, eyes closed, as the long white fingers glided over his face. Aragorn saw a fleeting expression of longing and sorrow sweep over Legolas' features, but it was quickly replaced by a bright smile. The elf grabbed the boy's nose and tweaked it. "You should not speak of my nose, Tarnan. You have broken your own."
Tarnan's laugh rang through the cottage. "Only last year. I fell out of a tree, just as you did. But my nose doesn't look nearly as bad as yours."
With a chuckle, Alun turned again to the door. "This is a good note on which to end our visit, my friends. Tarnan and I must ready our mounts and be on our way."
Legolas wrapped his arms around the boy and embraced him. "There are times I miss my home, Tarnan. Your visits help to cheer me. Thank you."
Tarnan smiled and nodded as he returned the hug. "I will visit you after you return home. I want to see why an elf-king would live in a cave."
"I shall see to it that you receive a personal tour from one of the princes of Mirkwood," said Legolas as he rose easily to his feet and bowed low. "You will be their honoured guest."
An excited fire kindled in the boy's eyes. "There are princes too? I will be glad to meet them. I hope they like me."
Legolas smiled gently. "They will adore you," he said.
Alun steered the boy out of the cottage. Turning on the threshold, the soldier pointed to the forgotten blob on the table. "It grows," he warned, and grinned at Aragorn's sudden expression of fear. "Remember to keep it warm. Happy baking, gentlemen." And with a final wave he was gone, his booming laugh echoing among the trees as he closed the door behind him.First > Previous > Next