Aragorn listened to the soft whisper of his boots as he made his way through the white-blanketed forest. It was a still day, windless, and grey clouds hovered low with the promise of yet more snow. It was drawing on toward late afternoon, and another day of laying his small snares had fleeted by.
Today he had moved his traps to a new spot, taking the little ropes to an area north of the cottage, past the small lake and beyond the apple orchard where the body of the old healer lay under its cold white shroud. Here the trees crowded close, but Aragorn easily moved among them, seeking the signs of small animals and placing his snares carefully.
The winter had deepened. Several weeks had passed since the unsuccessful bread-making episode, and in that time the forest had seemed to draw in on itself, the silent boughs of the trees lowered and bending close together as if seeking the comfort of each other's company. The forest stretched on for countless hilly miles, and in the center of it the little cottage rested like an island, its roof rounded and glittering white, shrouded and hidden from prying eyes.
The quiet winter life of the forest suited Aragorn. He was a man of few words, and his heart was at peace with his surroundings and situation. A kind of contentment had come to rest over him. His days had become settled, and he moved easily through the simple tasks that needed doing. The wood supply was holding out well, and rare were the times that he did not bring home something from his snares. Both man and elf ate sparingly, saving all they could lest the days grow harder, and though they were not starving, neither were their bellies full. But it was a mild hunger; not enough to rob them of energy or health, and they both easily shrugged off what was but a trifling discomfort. They had endured moments of hunger before in their travels together, and some had been far worse than this.
The cold was more troubling for the ranger at times, for it seemed long since he had truly felt warm and comfortable. The chill seemed to search him to the bone when he was out for long periods of time, and in the evening after returning from walking the forest he clung to the hearth, wrapped in a blanket and drinking tea. The fireplace did little to heat the tiny cottage save for the small area right around it, and it was here that he and Legolas spent the quiet hours, sometimes in companionable silence, sometimes telling stories or discussing the events of the day.
But Aragorn was a ranger, hardened in matters of survival, and endurance was bred into both body and mind. Moments of comfort were appreciated as they came, and he used them to fortify himself to face the long trudges through the lonely forest as he walked his snare paths. Despite the cold and the lingering concerns about food and safety, he had found pleasure in his solitude. The quiet lifestyle had offered him a gift in addition to the hardship, providing long stretches of time for reflection and deep contemplation. There was a certain freedom in this forced stay in the depths of the white forest, with few obligations but for the care of his friend, and his mind had gradually turned from earlier feelings of being trapped and had opened itself to the calm of deep winter. The solace of simplicity struck a harmonious chord within him, and he fretted less and less under the burden of his exile. The solitude had helped him find a path that led him even closer to his soul, assisting him in realizing a new appreciation for life. He wanted it to be so for the elf as well, but the days had not settled as contentedly for Legolas.
Aragorn's concerns for his companion continued, and here is where unhappiness lingered. To Aragorn's eyes, Legolas seemed to be slowly buckling under the weight of his blindness. The elf was restless. He fought against inactivity with an intensity bordering on ferocity, practicing his archery for hours on end and maintaining the old mare and her stall with meticulous care. In the evenings, even as they relaxed before the fire, Legolas seemed to always have something in his hands. He braided more plant fibers, polished his bow nightly, rewrapped the arrow fletchings, and he whittled pieces of wood into little animals, asking Aragorn if they looked correct, and then held them – when he was not holding Tithlam – for long stretches, his fingers tracing over their features again and again.
Aragorn strove to keep Legolas busy with activities. He always encouraged the elf to accompany him when he walked his traps, though he usually refused, and they prepared their meals together. Legolas did much of the butchering when Aragorn brought meat home, working under the lean-to where the woodpile was kept, and he stitched the furs together to add to their outerwear. In addition, the ranger had begun an inventory of the medicinal herbs the old man had kept in the back room, and he encouraged Legolas' participation. He had brought many of the containers out and set them upon the table, and as he went through them he explained their properties and uses to the elf. Legolas had listened with interest and asked questions as he investigated the herbs with his fingers and his nose.
At odd times the elf's sense of humour still managed to escape from the confines of his blindness and desperation. Once Legolas had stolen all of Aragorn's socks down to the last one and sought to blame the cat. Aragorn had angrily searched for the better part of an hour trying to find them, even going so far as to poke about in the corners of the barn, only to finally spot them flapping from the highest branches of the old oak tree, far beyond where Tithlam was able to climb.
Another time, in the dead of night, the shivering ranger had staggered half-asleep into the dark for a quick trip to the privy, only to find himself being pelted with snowballs thrown with astonishing accuracy from the roof of the barn. It was only after he had retreated to the cottage again – he never was able to reach the outhouse – that he recalled how Legolas had solicitously plied him with several extra mugs of tea, insisting that it would be of benefit to his health. Thus the elf had ensured that his victim would eventually have to emerge from the cottage as he lay in wait with his snowballs.
But despite the moments of levity, it was apparent to Aragorn that the elf was growing increasingly despondent. He watched with uneasy sadness whenever Legolas became quiet and turned abruptly away from his tasks to gaze into the fire, the orange flames dancing deep within his brilliant sightless orbs. With a soft breath the elf would rise and disappear into the night, sometimes to the barn, or to sleep cradled in the arms of the ancient oak, or simply to pace back and forth across the clearing for hours during the night. He never sang to the dark and the dawn now, and this the ranger found most distressing. For an elf, song was as necessary as food and drink. It was as vital as breathing, for the beauty of music nourished Legolas' soul as nothing else could. It connected him to the living essence of the surrounding world. For the elves, there was song in all things – in tree, flower, river and star – and Legolas returned the gift of their melodies by offering his own in return. Without this exchange he was closing himself off from what strengthened him in mind, body and spirit, and it troubled Aragorn deeply to see this withdrawal from the world. And Legolas would not speak of his heartache to Aragorn, though the ranger encouraged him frequently and endured the refusals with quiet resolve, determined to press the elf again later.
The pain in Legolas' head had seemed to ebb at first, when the quiet days had arrived and his hard physical labor had ended, but the reprieve had not lasted long. On some days the elf's discomfort did not seem too bad, but on others it was apparent that he felt miserable. Legolas fought against it, retiring to the tree when he felt unwell, working to control his pain with meditation and calm surroundings, but Aragorn knew it was the pain that often drove his friend to pace the clearing at night. The ranger was greatly concerned about the continuing pain, which Legolas, when he was willing to discuss it, described as a whip across the eyes. His head throbbed and his neck ached where the dart had struck, and Aragorn had anxiously examined the site of the old wound. It had long since healed, though an angry red mark remained, but he could detect nothing more as he ran his fingers over the elf's smooth skin. Privately he worried that perhaps a sliver remained embedded deep within his friend's neck, but he said nothing to Legolas of this, not wanting to frighten him. If a piece of the dart did remain, it would be impossible for Aragorn to attempt to remove it without assistance. To cut into the neck required great skill and knowledge of the anatomy, or further damage could be the result. Aragorn was a healer with no small amount of talent, but he lacked the necessary tools and medicines to attempt such a surgery out here in the wild, and to do so without the aid and skill of others added to the chance that greater harm could befall Legolas. It could not be risked. And so Aragorn once again supplemented the elf's tea with herbs to ease swelling and combat poisons, and he watched his friend closely, feeling as if Legolas navigated a treacherous path alone while he could only look on helplessly and pray for his safety.
Aragorn had also made a discovery - one that the elf had apparently made an effort to hide. The day after the disastrous bread-making venture, the man had carried the smaller of the two pots into the barn. The larger container had been salvageable, needing nothing more than a vigorous scrubbing, but the other was forever encrusted with the blackened dough that not even a troop of dwarves armed with hammer and chisel could have removed. Aragorn had carried it from the clearing and sought to set it on a shelf in the small storage room beside Rhosgernroch's stall. The shelves had been cluttered with all manner of things, but Legolas had organized them long ago so that he could easily locate whatever he might need. They were still crowded though, with tools, ropes and various odd items. Aragorn had stood for a moment, pot in hand, running his eyes over the shelves to locate a place for the ruined cooking implement. He settled on a likely spot on the top shelf and had reached overhead to settle the pot onto it. As he had done so, something secreted in the back of the shelf and hidden behind a coil of rope had fallen to the floor and broken open.
Aragorn had stooped to pick it up, and paused with a frown as he recognized it. It was a small wooden box carved with a leaf pattern. It was Legolas', and had been made by his hand. Aragorn had seen the elf working on it some weeks back, but had given no further thought to the little container after it had been finished and Legolas had taken it off somewhere. Now it had suddenly reappeared, hidden away in the dark recesses of the barn, its contents spilled out onto the floor at the ranger's feet.
As Aragorn had hastened to gather up the scattered items, he realized that he had disturbed a collection of leaves. Each leaf was from a different type of tree, and each had been carefully pressed flat so that they could rest atop each other within the box and maintain their shape. Several pine and spruce cones also made up part of the box's contents, as did a gathered bundle of evergreen needles tied with a bit of string. Wondering why the elf had collected a variety of fallen leaves and hidden them away, Aragorn knelt and gently replaced them as he hoped they had been arranged, taking care not to bend them, for they were brittle and dry. He replaced the box and said nothing of his discovery to Legolas.
With a sigh the ranger came back to the present moment, glancing uneasily around him as he crouched over his final snare. On the days he moved his traps to a new location he was away from the cottage for longer stretches of time. The sun was sinking now, and the dark moved in and began to settle its grey cloak over the silent trees. The sky was heavy with clouds. Legolas would be waiting for him, for Aragorn had promised never to be gone after the sun had set. He did not like leaving Legolas alone for many hours, fearing that the elf brooded in his solitude. The ranger rose to his feet and looked over his snare with a critical eye. Satisfied that it was properly set and concealed, he set off for home.
The forest opened a little and the ground dipped as he drew near the apple orchard. The day had waned, and Aragorn quickened his pace, walking with long strides past the old man's grave. The forest had fallen silent, awaiting with patient acceptance the new snow that would come this night, and the shadows reached over the land. The sharp snap of a twig breaking somewhere to his left came to the ranger and he halted abruptly, spinning toward the sound with narrowed eyes. He peered into the darkened forest, and his fingers gripped the handle of the short hunting knife in his belt. Quietly and quickly he set off in the direction of the sound, pausing at the edge of the open orchard to crouch in the shadows and stare into the deeper woods with senses straining.
It could have been a deer. Perhaps simply a dead tree limb had chosen that moment to break free and fall to the ground. But Aragorn's body had tensed, and his heart was pumping blood through his tingling extremities with force. He had learned long ago to never ignore his instincts. Alert as any wild creature of the forest, he waited.
All was silent. He did not turn his head. Pressed against a tree, only his eyes moved, raking the scene before him with their keen glance. But he heard nothing else. No figure detached itself from the shadows to either approach or flee. Whatever it had been, it was gone. The ranger waited some minutes, brow furrowed as he listened, and then he turned away.
* * * *
It was dark by the time he returned to the cottage. The elf was not there, but the fire was burning strongly in the hearth and the water for Aragorn's tea had been set over the flames. It was bubbling, but not yet at a full boil, and in another pot carrots and potatoes simmered. The tea that Aragorn had left for Legolas' head pain was entirely gone, however, and the ranger frowned at this as he stripped off his cloak and shook the light dusting of snow from it. Hanging it over the back of a chair he wrapped himself in a thick blanket, grabbed the lantern, and set out for the barn.
Pausing in the doorway, he glanced at the dozing mare. As he entered she shifted her weight to her other hip, flicked a lazy ear in his direction, and returned to her dreams of sunny meadows and sweet clover. As Aragorn passed her, he noticed that both her mane and tail had been intricately braided. A slight scuffling noise came from the storage room, and he moved forward to put his head around the corner. "Legolas?"
The elf was standing beside the shelves, his hands just withdrawing from the uppermost one as Aragorn stepped into the small room. Legolas turned, dropping his arms quickly to his sides. His face was calm, but he had worked to make it so, and his eyes appeared nearly black in the shadows of the darkened room. Aragorn regarded him for a moment, and then glanced up at the shelf. There he saw the box, hastily and less than perfectly hidden behind the coil of rope. The silence stretched awkwardly, and Aragorn sought to dispel it. "Rhosgernroch looks fine enough for your father's stables," he commented, and the elf smiled quietly. "I am a bit later than I had intended to be. I hope you did not worry."
"I knew you were laying your snares in a new area," Legolas responded. It was cold in the barn, and the elf's breath frosted, drifting above his head as he spoke. "It makes for a longer day. Where did you go?"
"I have moved the traps further north, beyond the apple orchard."
"Was the army out again?"
"Yes. As always."
The elf nodded silently and turned away, searching for his discarded cloak. Aragorn watched his hands skip along the lower shelf until they encountered the heavy fabric.
"Perhaps tomorrow you could accompany me," Aragorn offered.
"Perhaps," Legolas shrugged. He shook out the cloak and wrapped it around his shoulders.
"But probably not," the ranger said tersely, suddenly irritated by his companion's continued reticence.
"Aragorn – "
"Why do you do this to yourself?"
"What?" Legolas' brow creased in confusion.
Aragorn gestured impatiently, though the elf could not see it. "Each day I see you withdraw more from the world. You withdraw from me, and you no longer sing. You cannot continue this, Legolas. The self-imposed isolation is killing you."
Pain flashed across the elf's face. White-faced, he spun away and clutched at the wall. Instantly Aragorn was by Legolas' side, gripping his arm. His anger fled when he felt his friend's body trembling, and he gentled his voice. "I understand that you miss the child and his horse. I hope each day that Alun brings them back to us, but you and I both know the difficulty they face in doing so. Perhaps we will have a thaw soon, and they can ride up once again." He watched as Legolas crushed his eyes shut. "Your head pain worsens, I know. I have strengthened the medicines. Do they help?"
"Today was bad," Legolas murmured with a slight nod. "But it abated several hours ago. I am not in pain at the moment."
"What is happening to you? Why will you not go out with me when I hunt?" Aragorn watched the elf's fingers trace the ridges of the wall and noted the intent expression on Legolas' face as he did so. "Why do you touch everything?" he whispered. "And why do you sit here, alone, with a box full of old leaves?"
Legolas jerked his head up. He did not speak, and Aragorn saw the struggle warring behind the elf's features before they calmed again and he nodded. His body still trembled as he pulled free of Aragorn's grasp and stepped toward the shelves. Pulling the box down, the elf knelt on the floor with a sigh. For a moment he paused silently, hid fingers caressing the carved pattern, then he raised his head and gestured to the ranger. Aragorn joined him, his brow wrinkled with concern. He watched as the white hands lifted the lid away and drifted lightly over the contents.
"I thought you must have found it," the elf said. "The leaves were not in order one day."
"I accidentally knocked the box off the shelf. I am sorry if I damaged them."
"No, they are fine."
And I am sorry I stumbled upon something you desired to keep private."
Legolas shook his head, smiling sadly. "It was foolish to try to keep it to myself. Why I thought to hide it from you I do not entirely know. I suppose to mask what has been happening, for I can hardly bring myself to acknowledge it in my own mind."
"I will not push you," Aragorn said quickly. "If this is something you feel you must keep to yourself – "
"No. I think you will better understand me if I tell you of it. But I do no know where to begin," the elf murmured. His shoulders were bowed, his voice heavy and saddened. He extracted a brittle leaf and ran his fingertips gently over the ridged edges. "This is from an elm," he murmured. "It took me a bit of time to find it. I had to travel into the forest a small distance. And this – " he pulled out a long thin leaf. "This is from a willow. The tree stands beside the pond." The pale hands pulled out two small cones. "This is from a black spruce. The edges are rough. And this one is from a white spruce." Legolas gently replaced them. "I do not need to tell you this, of course. You are a woodsman. You are able to recognize the trees as well as I."
The elf fell silent again. He bent over the box and set the leaves within, and replaced the lid. His right index finger traced the carved pattern as it swirled and twisted on itself. He spoke then, his voice low and troubled. "Your hair is dark, and mine is blond. Your eyes are grey and mine are blue. I recall these descriptions as true, but they begin to lose their meaning."
Aragorn frowned. "I am sorry. I do not understand, mellon-nin."
Legolas raised his head, his features anguished. His voice quivered as he spoke. "I have begun to forget what things look like. Color, trees, animals, the faces of those I love… they recede from me," he whispered.
A sharp stab of pain pierced the ranger as he looked upon the despairing face of his companion. This was an added cruelty he had not anticipated. Tears had filled the elf's eyes, shimmering in the dim light of the lantern as they welled over and tricked silently down his cheeks.
"So this is why you carve animals, and collect leaves…" Aragorn said softly.
"Aye. The world is shrouded until I run my fingers over something, and then the image comes to my mind again. I am trying so hard not to lose the memories of what I have seen in my life. My home, the beech trees… I thought that if I must lose my eyesight, I would always have the memories." Legolas released a shaky breath and bowed his head. "But I cannot touch a sunrise. I cannot touch the silver sparkles on the surface of the river. And the faces fade, Aragorn. I cannot touch the faces. My father and brothers are shadowed now, and my mother…" The elf's voice choked, and he drew his legs up, pressing his forehead against his knees. "I can no longer recall her face at all. She is gone. I have lost her a second time."
Aragorn shifted closer and rested his hand on Legolas' shoulder, stunned with the sudden realization of just how deeply the blindness had wounded his friend. The elf had lifted his face toward the ceiling, his eyes wide and desperate in the flickering flame of the lantern. "Why?" he whispered. "Why this?"
Aragorn's mouth worked soundlessly as he struggled for words that might be of comfort. Finding none, he simply wrapped his arms around his friend and held him tightly, rocking the elf is if he were a child and allowing him some moments to release the tight hold he had kept on his pain. After a time Legolas quieted, but he did not pull away from Aragorn's embrace. He sank more deeply into it with a sigh, and buried his blond head against the ranger's shoulder.
"I cannot return the image of your mother to you," Aragorn said at last, forcing his voice with difficulty past his constricted throat. "But you will know the faces of your father and your brothers again. I swear it."
"Your image has grown hazy as well," Legolas said after a time. "The darkness crowds ever closer. Your voice comes to me as if disembodied. It comes to me from black nothingness."
"No, Legolas. It comes from me. I am here." Aragorn twisted his body until he sat before his friend. Grasping the elf's hands firmly, he pressed them against his own face. "I am here, and I am real. I will not fade," he said, and closed his eyes as the white fingers began moving tentatively over his features. Aragorn heard Legolas catch his breath, and the fingers began tracking more urgently. For several long minutes the elf caressed the man's face as he would that of a lover, his hands warm and smelling of pine and wind. They swept over Aragorn's tousled hair, lingered over his brow, cheekbones and lips, and then they quietly pulled away.
Aragorn opened his eyes in time to see a ghost of a smile fleet over the elf's sorrowful features. "I know your face now," Legolas said softly. "It is more careworn than I remember it being, but the strength is still there. I have missed your face, Aragorn. The blindness takes too much from me."
"Then let it take no more," the ranger said. "Legolas, have you ever heard of the moonflower?"
The elf shook his head. "I have not. But I like the name."
"Not every flower blossoms in the sunlight. The moonflower opens its petals after the daylight has gone. It blooms only in the dark."
"I understand what you are saying," Legolas said with a soft laugh. "You suggest I stop struggling to be a morning glory and try my hand at becoming a moonflower."
"Something like that," Aragorn responded with a grin.
"You speak in metaphors," the elf stated as he rose to his feet. "I do not mind it, however. They have their uses." He crouched to pick up the box and turned toward Aragorn. "I will keep this in the house now. And I think I will sleep this night, for the first time in many." He extended his hand again and lightly brushed his fingers over Aragorn's temple, and a fleeting glimmer of something – hope – had kindled again his blue eyes. "If love is indeed the brightest of things," he whispered, "I will never truly be blind. Your friendship is a light for me in the darkness."
Aragorn followed the elf out of the barn. Legolas raised his voice to the snow-laden trees as he crossed to the cottage, and to the ranger's eyes they seemed to straighten somehow in response, casting off their sadness as they listened to his song.First > Previous > Next