A soft breeze sighed through the trees and entered the windows, whispering sadly as it stirred the tiny flame of the single candle glowing on the table. The flame waved silently in response and the shadows around the room shifted, growing larger for a moment and seeming to writhe upon the wall before shrinking and calming again as the yellow light stilled its dance and returned to a steady glow.
Aragorn, chin cupped in his left hand, passed the index finger of his right one through the small flame, watching without interest as the fire widened for an instant as he briefly held his position before pulling back. The sharp edges of his face, even more defined by exhaustion, were bathed in gold, flickering with red overtones as the glowing logs in the hearth settled, the wood consumed but for the remnants that pattered softly through the iron grate as it dwindled to broken fragments. His eyes shifted to the fireplace. They would need more fuel soon, as the supply stacked against the side of the house under the roof's overhang was beginning to run low.
Tiredly, he resumed his game, slowly moving his finger back and forth above the candle, keeping it low as it passed through the flame and thinking about nothing until a quiet murmur drew his attention. He moved his gaze toward the sleeping elf, and with a sudden surge of guilt that he had permitted his attention to wander he dropped his hand to the table, resting his fingertips on the stacks of paper arrayed before him. Narrowing his eyes slightly and adjusting his focus, he watched the archer closely, ready to stand should he be waking. But Legolas only turned himself, rolling from his side onto his back with a slight moan. The elf's hands moved, ghostly white and fluttering, their dimly glowing outline enhanced by the lone candle and the dying fire, and lighted softly on the blindfold holding the compress in place over his eyes. Slowly the long digits walked the length of the fabric and then tugged at it slightly, as if confirming the security of its attachment, and then the hands reached again, locating the cat and drawing it closer. With a sigh, the elf was still again.
Nestled in the crook of Legolas' right arm, the small creature's green eyes shone in the soft shadows of the room. To Aragorn's surprise, she had not left the elf's side but for the times she needed to take care of business outside. And Legolas, though not waking, seemed to know when her quiet presence had left him. His hands would seek something else then, tightly holding to his blankets or the simple wooden frame around the mattress, and his breathing would quicken. But always the little animal was back within minutes, appearing soundlessly upon the window ledge and gazing down upon the sleeping form of the elf before leaping lightly down to join him once more, curling under his arm or even lying directly on his chest if he happened to be on his back. And always his hands would go to her immediately, resting gently on the sleek grey fur.
The elf had been sleeping for nearly three days. Two mornings had passed since that horrible moment when Legolas had told Aragorn that he could not see, and now the third dawn was only a handful of hours away. Except for his agitation during the brief spells when the cat left him he had slept deeply and quietly, without pain and without nightmare.
Aragorn had done what he could. Injuries and infections of the eyes he knew well how to treat, but this… an acute onset of blindness… he had never experienced. In between short forays out of the cottage to tend the horse and gather what he needed of firewood and food from the garden, he sat beside his friend and poured over the many papers and notes that had been stacked on the small table in the room where the healing herbs were kept. He had brought them all to the front room, to be closer to the elf, and all his attention was on them after he had finished the necessary chores.
He had pulled what information there was from the parchments and had made up some salves and washes for the elf's eyes, and several times a day he applied them, quietly removing the blindfold and pulling the lids apart. He would then lay a soothing compress over the eyes and replace the cloth, binding it around Legolas' head to secure it.
With Legolas asleep, he was able to examine the blue orbs more closely, and he noticed that the pupils did react, narrowing when he pulled the candle closer and widening when the light was withdrawn again. This was heartening, as it showed some proper function, although he knew this was no guarantee that when he awoke the elf would be able to perceive what his eyes took in.
The healer had kept detailed notes, and it was immediately apparent to Aragorn that this was a person of talent and wisdom. Writings on all the well-known healing herbs were to be found, and with much of this the ranger was already familiar, but there was new information as well, and it caught his interest. Not only for Legolas did his attention linger there, but for his own knowledge, as he soon realized he was reading the work of a master, well learned in the healing arts.
The handwriting was thin and straggling, and from this Aragorn deduced that the healer was probably elderly. He would most likely have to be, for to have such deep understanding of the many herbs, of their gathering, preparation and use, it would take many years of study. Among the papers Aragorn found records of the people who had come for help. The healer had apparently lived in this place for many years, and from his notes the ranger was able to gather some information about his surroundings that he had not been able to discover for himself, tethered as he was to the cottage and his injured friend.
One entry ran thus, from two years back: "One of the shepherds came yesterday, needing something for his wife, who lingers with a bad cough. The cold rains we have had this spring are hard on these folk, who often live in rude huts that give them little shelter. The fellow was too shy to give me his name, and apologized for having no coin. But this morning I discovered two fresh-caught fish laid before my door, and that is handsome payment indeed. The poor folk often pay me in this way, with gifts of food or the work of their hands, doing tasks I no longer can manage on my own. I do prefer this method of payment, as it enables me to avoid going too often to the city for my supplies, where I now sense eyes piercing my back and no longer feel welcome."
And this one, dated three years ago: "The miller came up from the city this afternoon with one of his sons. The boy had cut his hand and it required sewing and a salve to prevent it festering. They brought news that a new captain has been appointed to command the soldiers. It seems Lord Cadean regards him highly, as this man's rise was swift, though he be a stranger to the area. Some say he came from beyond the mountains, where the beautiful people live."
Aragorn paused in his reading and turned to look at the golden-haired elf. The beautiful people? He focused then on the loaf of bread that had appeared this very morning, still warm from the dawn baking and left at the door before he woke. Was this then the explanation for the mysterious gifts? The folk who lived nearby left them as payment for the healer's help?
"Then they do not know he is gone?" he murmured.
The elf stirred slightly, turning his face toward the ranger as if hearing his soft voice, but he did not surface from his sleep. Aragorn regarded the archer uncertainly, debating the wisdom of attempting to rouse him in order to get some drink and food into him. The sleep was healing, of that he was sure, but it had gone too long, and the ranger had begun to feel uneasy as the hours turned to days and the elf still did not wake.
When the blindness had made itself known, it had taken all of his self-possession to calm his terrified friend. The fair being had panicked, and the expression of fear on his face had nearly brought Aragorn to the same state. The sight of that usually calm visage shattering in despair, and of the graceful energy of the archer's proud body folding in tearful surrender, had been a devastating thing to witness. The elf's horror and his desperate physical fight against the very air around him had been so powerful that it had torn its way into Aragorn with a breath-robbing violence that had come close to paralyzing him, stunning him into near immobility.
Only an emerging realization that that his friend's very sanity appeared poised to shatter gave him the strength to gather the shards of his own self-control and attempt to guide the stricken elf. Scarcely able to manage his own horror, he had nonetheless realized that he must do just that if he was to be of any help. And so he had schooled his quavering voice and forced to it a ring of confidence that he really did not feel, and he had firmly commanded Legolas' attention and cooperation. The Prince of Mirkwood had quieted, asking for the draught, and Aragorn had given it to him. And after, when the elf had eventually succumbed to the drug and his exhausted sobs, the ranger had staggered out into the bright sunlight, dropped to his knees and vomited.
Legolas had withdrawn. Sleep had offered the only refuge from the terror and confusion the blindness had wrought. Here, the darkness could not touch him, and the fear was held in abeyance until he woke again. But had he chosen not to wake? Had he retreated until he had found some remote place where he felt safe, and had determined to remain there?
Aragorn sighed. It had been many days since the elf had eaten, and he was losing flesh. The high elven cheekbones jutted clearly through the pale skin, and the strong limbs were growing thin and weak from disuse. It was time. He reached out.
"Legolas? Legolas, you must wake," he said quietly, resting his hand on the elf's shoulder and shaking it slightly.
The grey cat had been curled into a ball inside the archer's bent arm, and she picked up her head, blinking inquiring green eyes at the ranger. The elf did not stir.
"Come, Legolas. You promised me you would begin to take food. And you must drink. Your body needs fuel more than sleep at this point. You must wake now."
Aragorn placed his palm against his patient's brow. He was still fevering, but the heat pouring from his body was less than it had been. The elf inhaled deeply and turned his head away.
"No more of this. It is time to return, Legolas." He slid his arms under the thin shoulders and raised him slightly, pressing a cup of water to the dry lips. Legolas drank it all and settled back, and then he tried to push Aragorn's hands from him.
"Wake, Prince of Mirkwood."
The only response was a soft groan as the archer tried to turn his back on the ranger.
"I'll take your cat," Aragorn warned.
"Then I will take your head. I like my cat," the fair voice retorted, raspy and faint with illness.
"Time to get up."
Legolas' head turned toward the window, and his brow furrowed as he lay silently for a moment. "It is the middle of the night this time Aragorn. You pick strange times to disturb people. Do you not remember how to sleep?"
"I have no need. You do it for me."
Legolas sighed. "I think it is not a good thing I have been sick these many days. You have turned into a cat-threatening insomniac in my absence."
The ranger smiled, relief sweeping over him at the elf's bantering tone. "Can you sit up? I've broth heated, and there is some good bread."
"Sounds horrid," the elf whispered, swallowing audibly as he slowly pressed himself up onto his elbows. "I will be sick."
"Just the thing to get you started," Aragorn said cheerfully as he helped the elf sit up and arranged the pillows behind his back. His friend leaned into them wearily and raised his hands to the blindfold, running his long fingers along the folds in the cloth. "I have done what I can, Legolas," the ranger said quietly.
"Now we wait?" the archer asked, his voice coming so softly the man had to lean closer to hear it.
"Yes, now we wait, while you regain your strength."
Legolas sighed, dropping his hands into his lap. "I… I do not know how I will pass the time, Aragorn."
"Start with this," the ranger told him, pressing a mug into his hands and helping the long fingers to curl around it. "I'll put the bread plate on your lap, here. If we can convince your little friend to keep her nose out if it."
"What does she look like?"
"She is small. Her fur is short, a dark grey with lighter stripes running through it, and her eyes are green. She has not left your side these past days."
"She has been of great comfort to me."
Legolas ate slowly, and obviously with little interest, swallowing the bread with difficulty and only after he had first soaked it in the fragrant broth. But he managed all of it, and Aragorn was pleased when he removed the dishes to see that some color had returned to the elf's pale features. He watched as Legolas winced, sighing as he pressed his fingers against his temples. "I grow tired of this," the musical voice said quietly.
"Your head still pains you."
The archer nodded, shifting himself lower into the bed and lying back, pulling the cat onto his chest. "It never stops, Aragorn. But it is better than it was," he murmured after a moment. He pushed his head against the pillow. "My neck is sore."
"That is where the dart struck. I will prepare something for your pain now, but I must go to the back room for the herbs. I shan't be long, Legolas."
"No need to rush. I have company," the elf smiled wearily, and he lifted up one of the cat's little paws, waving it at Aragorn.
* * * *
In the days that followed, Aragorn was encouraged by the progress his friend made. The elf had promised to eat, and eat he did, to the best of his ability, though Aragorn knew it would be some time before his appetite returned to what it had once been. Soon he was able to sit up unaided on the bed, cross-legged and singing softly to himself, his blindfolded face turned toward the window as he gently stroked the cat's soft fur.
Some of Legolas' typical, and irritating, stoicism had returned. The man would question the prince, and it galled Aragorn to listen as his friend told him that his pain had become increasingly insignificant when it was obvious from the elf's tightly drawn features that this was far from the truth. He chose not to argue, however, knowing there was little point in forcing the proud being to admit that he was still in pain. The ranger knew what he knew, and merely turned away, quietly preparing medicines to help ease the lingering discomfort, and the elf quietly accepted them without asking what they were for.
They did not speak of removing the blindfold. Aragorn watched his patient closely, and he understood that the folded cloth comforted Legolas somehow. The long, sensitive fingers investigated it frequently, and the elf would tighten the knot if he felt it was beginning to come loose. It provided a barrier for Legolas to take refuge behind as he tried to gather the strength needed to confront what lay beyond it, and the ranger would not push him before he was ready. In truth, Aragorn himself was in no greater hurry than his friend to discover what waited on the other side of that thin wall of fabric.
During the day he did his best to keep Legolas occupied and distracted. He had noticed the elf's anxiety during the times he was left alone, and the man took pains to remember to keep a light chatter going when he had to tend to things outside. He spoke to his friend through the open window as he worked, and he brought the horse up and allowed her to put her head in so that the archer could meet her. He carried vegetables in from the garden and dumped them onto his patient's lap, telling him it was his job to sort through them and eliminate anything that had been blighted by insects and could not be eaten.
But often the elf still retreated into slumber, the pallor of his face marking all too clearly his continuing fatigue and pain. As long as he ate and drank what was given to him Aragorn allowed it, knowing sleep was the only place where his friend could find sanctuary from the fear that stalked them both.
* * * *
Aragorn stood on the lawn, gazing up at the night sky. It was late, and within the dark confines of the cottage the elf slept. The ranger knew he should be doing the same, but he had felt uneasy throughout the day, perhaps in reaction the elf's low mood, and had come out searching for the comfort that could often be found when he looked upon the beauty of the winking lights far above. His breath frosted in the clear cold air. On this autumn night the sky was at its most brilliant, the black cloudless sky sprinkled with dazzling points of fire.
He was mortal. He could not hear their song, but still he felt the connection. Whenever he looked at the stars, it was as if he immediately became joined to all of life on Arda, and it never stopped amazing him. Both infinite and small he felt as he gazed upward, his spirit brought to awareness of its immortality even as he understood with complete clarity that his body would one day die. In this, all beings were equal.
Except the elves. Something different waited for them. And it occurred to Aragorn that he had never asked Legolas what he felt when he looked at the stars. He had asked Arwen once, on a lovely night in Rivendell as they had stood on the bridge near her father's home and looked up together at the endless dark of the sky. She had turned to him with a small smile, tinged slightly with sadness, her eyes glowing with elvenlight, and his breath had caught in his throat. Her beauty, as familiar to him as his own reflection in a mirror, remained a thing that could not be caught and made fast. It flowed and shifted with each changing moment, and he had suddenly bowed his head, lest she see the tears of gratitude that came unbidden to his eyes as he realized, not for the first time, what a lucky man he was.
Her soft response had startled him somewhat. "They offer solace," her low voice had said. "And the ability to continue, even when all around you is darkness."
Legolas had been withdrawn this day. Sitting silently on the bed, his back resting against the pillows, he had refused all food. His hands rested quietly on the cat. He did not sleep, but simply sat, his face turned toward the window, and had said nothing to Aragorn until, in a sudden and startling flash of anger, he told the ranger to leave him alone when he had inquired of the elf if anything was amiss, and if he could be of help.
Arwen's words came back to the ranger as he dropped his eyes and turned toward the cottage. They had not troubled him at the time she had spoken them, but now he felt weighted by their meaning, as if a message had been imparted that he did not wish to receive, and his shoulders were bowed as he entered the dwelling and readied himself for bed.
At dawn he woke. It was sooner than he would have liked. He was still tired, but fatigue had become the usual state of his body and mind these days, and there was no point in berating his internal clock. Caring for the injured elf had been an hour-by-hour task, and until Legolas was well again, his sleep would continue to be broken.
Aragorn kept his eyes closed as he breathed deeply, stretching his long legs as he listened to the first twitters of the birds beginning to stir outside. It would still be mostly dark within the room, with just the faintest lightening of the shadows to grey as the nighttime sky began to lift its veil. He shivered slightly. The season of the harvest was fully upon them, and he ran over in his mind things that would soon need doing to prepare them for winter. Perhaps they would go down to the city, once the elf was back on his feet, though Aragorn had pushed that thought back somewhat, having come away with a reluctance to approach the place after reading the notes of the healer wherein he described his discomfort when visiting. Which left remaining here in the cottage. It was an option, if the owner continued to be absent, but there would be much to do to ensure his and Legolas' survival before the snows fell. Of only one thing was he certain: the elf, no matter how swift his recovery, did not have the strength to journey to the mountains and hike back over them. They had run out of time to return home before winter descended, and soon the mountain passes would be completely blocked until the warmth of spring opened them again.
"It is cold this morning, Legolas," he called quietly. "Shall I start some breakfast?"
There was no answer, and Aragorn frowned, a grimace of irritation brushing across his features. He sat up and threw back the blanket, rubbing his hands over his face. "You will eat today, my friend, even if I must force you to do so."
Swinging his legs over the edge of the straw pallet, he turned to face the elf's bed. It was empty.
"Legolas?" he called. Alarm pushing him instantly to his feet, he somewhat stupidly went to the bed and bent over it, pressing his hands into the tangle of bedcovers. His friend had been confined there for three weeks, or had it been a month now? And the sight of it suddenly empty threw the tired ranger's composure for a moment. He paused, his heart in his throat, before recovering himself and looking at the door. In two strides he was before it and yanking it open.
It was that quiet hour just before the true awakening of a new day. The stars were still present, but their brilliance had faded, and to the east a pale light had kindled, rendering barely visible the tall tips of the great evergreens against the backdrop of the sky.
The elf sat on the porch, his back straight and his face turned slightly to the left, toward the place where the sun rose. A blanket was wrapped around his naked form. The blindfold lay beside him, and Aragorn halted abruptly, staring at the folded strip of cloth and trying desperately to remember how to breathe.
"Sit with me, Aragorn," the elf's voice said softly. "It is a beautiful morning."
Somehow Aragorn was able to compel his feet to obey, and he seated himself on the elf's right. He glanced quickly at his friend, but the fair being had his face locked on the sunrise.
"The birds tell me it will be a golden day. Anar casts her colors over the trees at this very moment. Pinks, yellows and deep golds blend in a palette never before seen by the finches and sparrows, for each sunrise is different. They are marveling at its beauty." The elf lowered his head. "Do they speak truly, Aragorn?" he whispered.
The ranger opened his mouth to respond, and found himself unable to force a sound past his lips. His breath refused to flow, but welled up instead into the back of his throat, twisting and knotting until it gagged him.
"Aye, Legolas," the ranger gasped, managing to force the strangled words forward. "They speak truly."
"I cannot see it." The elf's tone was flat, empty of the rich musical beauty that usually resonated within his voice. "There is only black."
Gazing through suddenly swimming vision at the elf's pale face, the blue orbs wide and empty as the fair being raised his head and turned toward him, everything halted: time, memory, thought and breath were snatched away by the pain of this moment, and Aragorn felt himself sliding into quicksand, where the strength of his body, the skill of his hands and the agility of his mind were rendered useless. The air was driven from his lungs as he raised his hands, staring at them in sudden horror. The hands of a healer… they are of no use at all.
Except for one thing. The weeping elf fell against him then, and he was ready, his hands moving swiftly to offer the only thing that they were still able to give. Solace.First > Previous > Next