Five Senses

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Five Ingredients - Your Recipe

The Student Surpasses the Teacher

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The Price of Freedom

Giving Gifts, Receiving Gifts

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"When I Was Your Age...!

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A Glimpse of the Future

That's a First

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What If ...?

One Title: Your Story

A Fairy Tale, Middle-Earth style

Games People Play

Friends in Small Places

I Came Upon a Mighty Wood


Magic

Aragorn wants nothing more than to get back home to the West, but a sight he did not expect to see causes a detour.

Rated PG13 for some scary elements, though this is by no means a horror story.

Note: There’s much ambiguity and debate about the fate of Cuiviénen and its location, as well as the location of the Orocarni, or Red Mountains. For the purposes of this story, I’m using the maps in Karen Wynn Fonstad’s The Atlas of Middle-earth, which place the Orocarni and the Wild Wood east of the Sea of Rhûn, north and east of Mordor.

Many thanks to my betas-to-be-named-later, without whose expertise and encouragement this story would have remained nothing more than a wild idea. Many thanks to the good Professor Tolkien for giving us such a lovely playground.





Summer, TA 2985

Long, long leagues, perhaps some three hundred, he had traveled, by river, horse and now foot, and Aragorn was weary. He had completed, for the time being, his mission to investigate the Easterlings living in Rhûn. It had been perilous, living among them. Fear of discovery had been a constant companion, but no one who saw the tall man standing here would mistake him for the simple-minded, crippled beggar haunting the doorways of Rhûn’s settlements, nor would they connect him to the stammering, shy farrier trading his shoeing skills for a half-wild horse. Those and other guises had stood him in good stead, and he had little reason to fear pursuit of any kind, especially given that the farrier’s new horse had very likely returned to its former owner stained with what would be assumed to be the farrier’s blood. The unlucky fellow would have been forgotten within a fortnight.

No, the only things pursuing him now were memories, memories of fear, suspicion, anger… he witnessed those base emotions in the hearts of the Easterlings far more often than kindness. In all his time there, he heard not a single friendly word spoken of the West. Had they discovered his own origins, his life would have lasted only as long as it took to shove a blade into his heart. Even now, safely away from all settlements, he dared not let down his guard, and that was a wearisome way to live.

Oh, to be home in the West, at ease amongst those who knew his name and loved him, whose hearts were untainted by Sauron’s growing shadow. How he longed for the music and beauty and companionship of his own people to soothe his spirit.

He longed most of all for Arwen’s gentle embrace and soft kiss.

But home and its familiar comfort lay many long days westward. Before him, as he stood upon a swell of the great grasslands somewhere north of Rhûn, lay lands that had gone uncharted for an Age or more.

He gazed at the featureless sea of grass and realized glumly that he was unsure exactly where he was. He had intended to head north, hugging the eastern coast of the Sea of Rhûn, and then pass through Dorwinion on his way ever westward to Mirkwood, giving Mordor a very wide berth. He had no desire to toil again along those borders, not without an army behind him. His plans, however, had been stymied by a seemingly endless line of storms, great crashing deluges that had driven him eastward for the last fortnight. Their outlying clouds hid the sun by day and the stars by night and had confounded all sense of direction. It was only last night at sunset that the skies had finally relented to afford him a glimpse of the sun’s pale disk. He had carefully set his bed so his feet faced north, and the only uncertainty now was exactly how far eastward he had wandered. He ruefully wished there might be someone he could ask.

“But I walk in the wild alone,” he whispered, then kicked a clump of grass. “But where exactly am I in these wilds?”

He squinted at the featureless plains. “The world has fallen away and nothing remains but grass, grass and more grass.” He yanked at a clump of tall stems topped with plumes of feathery seed heads and nearly pitched onto his face when they did not come free from the ground. He might have done better to try to uproot Orthanc.

He rubbed his hand where the prickly stem had chafed it, then chided himself. Arise and shed this dark despair, he thought. Surely he would find his path eventually. In the meantime, nothing for it but to crack on, as the hobbits would say. He smiled rather grimly and hurried down the slope, eager once more to see what lay beyond.

But when he topped the next rise, he sighed. Apparently the only thing to be found over this rolling rise was yet another rolling rise, with still more beyond it.

He set his jaw against growing despondency and kept on. Down this slope and up the next, over and over, until finally he saw a smudge on the horizon. He studied it, trying to picture it against Master Elrond’s maps, maps he had carefully studied and memorized against the day when he might not have any to hand. He glanced westward, where somewhere lay the Sea of Rhûn. But what was to its east?

He shut his eyes, thinking…

They suddenly flew open. “No! I could not have gone so far East, surely!” He stared hard into the distance. It shouldn’t be… but he had traveled swiftly to stay ahead of the storms, so that smudge could very well be the westernmost edge of the Wild Wood.

And with that, his imagination promptly galloped away from him. “Cuiviénen,” he breathed. The very word rolled like a magical spell from the tongue. Reason would tell him that it could not be Cuiviénen itself he saw, for the Place of Awakening of the Elves was lost, gone along with the great Sea of Helcar, which in this area was nothing more than league after league of woodland-dotted grassland. The distant trees were likely just another of the scattered copses that dotted these plains, insignificant and unstoried. To go any closer was no doubt folly. Still, he found he was not quite ready to consign such a heady daydream to reality’s cold light. If that was indeed the Wild Wood, he might never be this close again. It would be a shame, really, to forego exploring it, for what if the lore was wrong?

What if Cuiviénen wasn’t lost…

Seized with a sudden unquenchable curiousity, he forgot his weariness as he angled to his right and hurried over the next swell of land, and the one after, and the one after that. He glanced at the sky. As was the case the evening before, the sullen overcast had thinned toward the western horizon, and here and there shafts of sunlight poured through breaks in the clouds. Maybe this night he would finally see the stars.

The same stars seen from the same place as the first Elves, perhaps?

Laughing a little at himself for getting so excited over what would no doubt be nothing more than an ordinary clump of trees, he stopped at the crest of a particularly high hillock and nonetheless gazed eagerly eastward. There, in the blue distance, he finally beheld that the smudge was not a copse at all but a true forest of mighty width and breadth.

His breath caught, but there remained one last test before he could declare it the Wild Wood. He searched the grey eastern horizon, and there, beyond and above the woodland, he spotted them: the faint snow-clad peaks of towering mountains. The Orocarni.

This then truly was the Wild Wood, and only a few leagues distant! But as he perceived the vastness of the forest, stretching away for miles and miles to the south, his fertile imagination nearly failed him. Even if Cuiviénen still stood, how could he find it in that vast wild? He continued his study, though, memorizing what he saw against a day when his grandchildren might ask if he had ever seen Cuiviénen.

“I might have, once, when lost upon the plains I came upon a mighty Wood…”

A disappointing story to tell. He could just picture the boredom falling over their faces, but going on would be the worst sort of self-indulgence. None surely dwelt there besides, perhaps, an isolated clan or two of Avari, those Elves who did not make the Great Journey. They kept to themselves, often hostile to strangers who dared enter their realm, and while they might not be counted as overt enemies, they could not be depended upon as allies. Their role in this struggle against the growing shadow would be insignificant at best. He should return to the West, to report what he had found…

But his blood seemed to sing to him, Cuiviénen! Cuiviénen! Go… run and see!

His resolve wavered. What could it harm to take a few days to look upon the possible birthplace of the Elves…

Then he smiled broadly, for he remembered that beyond the Wild Wood lay Hildórien, the birthplace of the Secondborn, where Men yet dwelt. There, then, was all the justification he needed. To Hildórien he would go, to judge the hearts and minds there, and he would inspect the woods along the way, because it wouldn’t do, after all, to make assumptions about Avari numbers or allegiances. They might prove to be valuable allies.

Still smiling, he turned to the east.

###

He walked until the light started to fail. Though these lands seemed empty of all but the blowing wind and the wandering kine of Araw, he dared not gainsay the wisdom that told him to find a secure camp, since any wild lands held predators, be they natural or unnatural. Here especially, Morgoth himself once sent dark things to plague the Elves, shadow creatures and evil spirits that those in Rhûn whispered might still linger.

He shivered. Surely the stories he had heard as he huddled beneath open windows at night were nothing more than fireside tales told to scare little children. The dark spirits of Morgoth would have long ago moved on to wreak havoc on larger numbers than these small remnant Avari clans.

Then again… perhaps not.

Suddenly feeling very exposed, he hurried down into a swale, and he found at its bottom a small stream by which he could set up camp. He made swift work of stamping down the grasses and spreading his cloak for a soft bed, then set out snares in the hopes of capturing his breakfast. Finally, he started a small fire of dried dung he had gathered throughout the day.

He drank his fill of the water, though it tasted slightly of mud. He plundered his pack for some dried venison, then stretched out with a weary sigh. The clouds were finally breaking overhead, and he watched the first stars emerge. He tried to imagine a world with no other light, but as he listened to the soft trickle of the stream, he found it easier instead to picture the waters around Cuiviénen, for he often thought it must have sounded much like Rivendell and its falling waters.

Rivendell… Eriador…

His thoughts tortured him with images of the Dúnedain, his people. What were they doing right now? Tucking children to bed, singing quietly by the fire, or on patrol, standing in silent watch over the borders of their northern homeland? Homesickness swelled, and of a sudden swallowing became a difficult task.

Enough! He blinked furiously and cleared his throat. He forced all thoughts of home out of his mind as he rolled onto his side, thinking instead on Cuiviénen. His eyelids grew heavy, and he fell fast asleep, dreaming first that he was Oromë, the Huntsman of the Valar, hearkening to the distant singing of Elves. But then he dreamt of darker things, of wandering the wastes of Middle-earth, pursued by shadows until he lost all knowledge of himself, even his own name.

###

It took two more days of steady walking and nights of mingled dreams and nightmares before he finally reached the trees. He stopped before their massive trunks, marveling. Had these trees stood when the Elves played among them? Very likely not, but these were ancient even so, and as with all ancient woodlands, there hung a watchfulness, a heavy sense that unseen eyes marked his passage, for good or ill, he did not know.

He kept his hand close to his sword.

The path, when he finally came upon it, was little more than a game trail. It wasn’t the first such trail he had found, and he had no reason to think it any different than the other three he had passed by, except for a small stirring in his heart. It simply felt like the one he should take.

He stepped into the shaded woods. As the trail wound gently uphill, packed sandy earth gave way to ever larger flat stones embedded in the ground. He wondered if the stones marked places where bedrock emerged through thin topsoil or if they had perhaps been placed there with a purpose by unknown hands years—perhaps Ages—before. He stopped beside one and ran his hand along it. It was smooth, worn down by years of wind, rain and perhaps even the passage of Elven feet. He brushed away the soil around its edges and tried to pull it up, but he would need more than bare hands and fingernails to prise it loose. He moved on, wondering if the stone had been trod on by Elu Thingol himself, and then he wondered if the stone, by some magic, remembered the fair steps of those who once tarried here.

The thought raised goosebumps along his arms.

He grinned at the follies of his imagination, for follies such thoughts were. Cuiviénen was lost, he reminded himself yet again. That the Wild Wood remained at all would have to be magic enough.

###

Some hours later he heard the merry music of water trickling over stone, a small stream flowing from the east. He eyed it with pleasure. Perhaps Elu Thingol had knelt here, just as he was doing, and cupped his hand into the water just so….

He drank deeply. Even if Thingol never drank here, the water was pure and icy enough to suit even the greatest of Elven kings. It was certainly fresh enough for a lonely Ranger who may or may not someday be a king himself.

He sat down on a sunlit boulder and spent a few minutes watching dappled sunlight play along the water, then he raised his face to the sky and shut his eyes, basking in the warmth, for it was chilly under the boughs, away from Anor’s light. After so many days walking in damp if not soaking wet clothing, he felt he could bask for hours and still not feel completely warm and dry.

Sitting as he was, eyes shut, brought the sounds of the forest into prominence. He heard small animals scratching amongst the leaf litter on the forest floor, and birds twittering in the branches overhead. He smiled. Their happy songs always soothed his spirit. He whispered a thanks to his foremother Melian for filling Yavanna’s forests with their music.

A sudden explosion of wings startled him from his reverie. He opened his eyes in time to see three doves shoot away through the trees. His hand went to his sword, but nothing else seemed amiss. A few squirrels ran with unconcerned ease through the treetops, and the songbirds kept up their nonchalant conversations with one another. No doubt he was the one who had, by some small movement, frightened the skittish doves. He relaxed and went on his way, wondering where the trail would lead and hoping he would meet nothing darker than the dappled shadows cast by the leaves.

###

He had traveled on for another hour when he felt the first stirring of unease tighten the skin on the back of his neck. With his mind so possessed by the story of the Awakening and the earliest days of Middle-earth, his first thought was that a dark spirit of Morgoth stalked him. His heart gave a great lurch, but he sternly marshaled the panicked urge to run. He slowed almost imperceptibly, then swiftly ducked off the trail.

He settled onto one knee behind a wide tree trunk, watching.

The squirrels that had kept him company all this time had disappeared, and the birds had ceased their friendly chirping. He realized it had been the silence that had warned him. Now he kept his own silence, watching motionless for nearly an hour, but nothing more troublesome than a few stinging insects plagued him. The birds resumed their song, and when a squirrel gamboled along the trail carrying a large nut in its mouth, he deemed the danger had passed. Perhaps it had been nothing more than a small predator passing through. He scratched at a bite on his neck as he emerged from his hiding place and continued on.

Afternoon waned toward evening, and all the while Aragorn felt as though something followed him, watching with eyes that might be less than friendly. He stepped off the trail at odd moments, but saw nothing more menacing than a hart bounding away from him, and in its wake a flash of movement by something less readily identified, something that might as easily be stalking him rather than the hart.

The uncertainty did nothing to calm his growing unease.

He walked another mile, perhaps, before the first signs of fatigue had him looking for a suitable site to sleep. The trees were too tall and broad to scale, with limbs far too high to catch even at a jump, so he kept an eye out for outcrops of stone that might hold a cave entrance. He knew, no matter where he settled, be it in a cave or under a tree, he would have to sleep lightly indeed.

As the gloaming deepened, he happened on a giant boulder standing beside the rock face of the hillside. Walking round it revealed a space perhaps five or six feet wide between the rock and the cliff. A tight fit, but as he walked into it, he saw that by some quirk of erosion or avalanche, a third stone had fallen across the top, leaving the space below dry and clean. It was by no means a cave but more like a tunnel or corridor, perhaps fifteen feet long and as high. He studied the smooth walls. They offered no footholds or handholds whatsoever. Climbing to escape any inquisitive snakes was out of the question, but he remembered a time from his youth when Elladan and Elrohir taught him the trick of leaping between two parallel walls and hanging there, braced by hands and feet. He wondered if he might accomplish such a feat here, should need demand.

Not expecting much in the way of success, he dropped his pack and leaned forward with his hands braced against the wall at shoulder height. Then, with a backwards sort of kick, he lifted both feet behind him so that he was parallel to the ground, braced between the two walls. He had never been able to do it with his brothers’ grace, for they seemed able to move along at the top of the hallways as easily as insects. He grinned and, with nothing to lose, tried the same, but his boot soles started to slip. He abandoned the attempt, landing lightly on his feet. A neat trick, perhaps, but he couldn’t see it availing him much, unless one of his brothers chanced by and he wished to ambush them from above as they used to do to him. He still remembered the first time Elrohir dropped with a hiss before him like some pale-limbed manifestation of Ungoliant. Aragorn, a mere ten years old at the time, had shrieked so loud that Elrond came flying into the hallway, convinced that his young fosterling had come to some horrible end. Aragorn had suffered no physical harm, but from that day on, he had harbored a very unseemly fear of things dropping on his head, a weakness that caused his cousin Halbarad no end of glee when he learned of it.

He smiled at the memories as he brushed away a few scattered leaves from the floor. A tiny shrew, kicked from its hiding place amongst them, scolded him as it disappeared into the brush beyond. He decided against a fire, not knowing what eyes might see it from the trees, and after a scanty meal of dried meat and water, settled down to sleep.

###

His dreams were darker this time. There was no Elven song, no mighty Vala on his steed. Instead, dark things chased him and a black shadow like unto the sludge of a mire trapped his legs and pulled him ever deeper into its depths.

He awoke gasping just as the dream shadow closed over his head. He scrambled to his knees, clawing for his sword, though what good it might do against a shadow, he had no answer. But gripping it felt more reassuring than not. He raised it before him as he shoved his back against the solid comfort of stone.

He took a deep breath. “’twas a dream, nothing more,” he whispered. Several deep breaths had his heart calm again.

Full night had fallen, and moonlight spilled into the cave, lighting the length of its floor. The ceiling was lost in shadow, albeit shadow that felt perfectly natural and didn’t seem to harbor plans to swallow him alive. He reckoned it to be just past midnight. He sheathed his sword and stood, stretching stiff muscles. He started to emerge for a look at the sky, but stopped when he glimpsed a movement at the edge of the opening, there and gone too quickly to identify. He whirled around toward the other entrance and spied movement at the corner of his eye, but again, it vanished in the same manner.

Was it his imagination, fueled by too many odd dreams? Or, Elbereth forbid, was he about to see that the tales that Morgorth’s tormenters remained were indeed true?

He wracked his brain, trying to remember if the spirits did anything more harmful than instill suspicion and terror in the Elves. If not, then he had little to fear. But then he thought of the Elves that had been captured, carried away to horrific fates…

He swallowed. Pulled his sword back out and gripped the hilt tightly enough to make his knuckles ache.

Another movement, and this time he spied a shadow darkening the floor just within the cave.

He forced himself to breathe slowly and deeply. Panic would serve him ill. But resolution melted into horror when he realized he could still see the bright half-circle of the moon and all of the clearing beyond the entrance. There was nothing solid standing in the entrance, certainly nothing that would cast such a shadow. Yet there it was on the floor, creeping ever toward him. He scrambled back, intent on escape through the other entrance, until he saw the same darkness spreading toward him from that quarter as well.

He was trapped.

He thought briefly of trying to jump over one of them, but they were already too wide, impossible to clear in a single bound. Whatever might happen when the shadow touched him he refused to contemplate.

Since the walls offered no hand or toe holds, it looked as though acrobatics would be needed after all.

In the fleeting moments it took to come to that conclusion, the shadows had closed nearly upon him. Panic gripped him fully, and he dropped the sword and leapt upward, throwing out his feet and hands to wedge himself against the stone. The shadows flowed into the shelter below him, a darkling veil that swallowed the entire cave floor as the two shapes met and merged. He watched in horror as his sword seemed to melt and disappear. Then the shadow started up the walls. He had but one hope, that he could somehow walk along the two walls and leap over the shadow to safety.

He shifted his weight, but his foot slipped on the stone just as before, and he knew he was doomed.

He fell.

###

He landed hard on his belly. His wind blasted from his lungs and for a moment simply regaining his breath took precedence over all other concerns.

A great gulp of air and then a sharp, stabbing pain in his ribs.

Was it the shadow…?

No! To his vast relief, he discovered it was not the darkness eating away at him but merely the edge of the guard on his sword, which had not melted after all. He rolled over, snatching it up. But even as he tried to regain his feet, a strange lethargy took him. He made it as far as his knees, but could lift himself no further. He felt heavy, sluggish… as if the darkness weighed upon his legs. He started to fall forward. Caught himself one-armed against the floor. His hand and wrist immediately felt cold, as though he had plunged them into icy water.

He tried to jerk his hand back, but the darkness trapped it… trapped him… pulling him into a mire… just as in his dream…

He shuddered at the relentless creep of the shadow… up his left arm, then the other… he couldn’t move… couldn’t fight…

The sword dropped from his hand.

The shadow gripped his chest… his shoulders…

He could’t move …

Barrow-wight cold clamped around his neck… his jaw… clawing, wretched fingers sealed his lips and his nose and he could no longer breathe…

The darkness closed over his eyes….

He fell… blinded… sinking… no air… down, down to death...

… no awakening…

…no awak–

###

He gasped, for suddenly there was air, and… singing? A wild tumult of words in a language unknown filled the darkness. He hearkened to the sound, for it felt, even in its strangeness, like something he had heard before, something reassuring and comforting.

The darkness had weakened. He could breathe again, barely, for the shadow still trapped him in its fierce grip.

On and on the song went. Soaring and falling, shouting then whispering. Pushing against the darkness, failing, then pushing again…

He clung to the song as a drowning man clings to driftwood, and indeed he heard water and rivers and starlight and aching sorrow in that untamed voice…

… and then finally the shadow broke.

Air and light beckoned, and Aragorn returned to life with a sobbing gulp of good clean air, and then another, and another. He could move his arms, and he felt solid rock beneath him, and when he reached for his sword, his hand answered and fumbled and found it. The sound of steel blade grating against unyielding stone was as sweet as the song.

The song he realized had gone silent.

Aragorn opened his eyes and pushed to his knees, then his feet. The cave whirled around him for a moment, but he steadied himself against the wall and saw that dawn had pushed away the shadows of night. He staggered to the opening of his tunnel, but his knees weakened and then he was lying exhausted on the ground, in the dirt, wondering… who had sung the wild song…

…wondering… by what magic… what…

He fell asleep in the warm light of the sun.

###

Wakefulness returned slowly, then in a rush when he felt again that someone was watching him. He resisted the urge to jump to his feet. He very slowly opened his eyes.

Then he did jump, or rather scrambled and scooted inelegantly backwards.

An Elf squatted not ten feet away, regarding him with calm grey eyes and a faint smile. He said something in a language that, like the music, seemed strangely familiar but utterly foreign at the same time. Aragorn didn’t answer, partly because panic once again had him by the throat, but also because of the simple fact that he had no idea what the Elf had just said.

The Elf frowned and repeated himself.

Aragorn shook his head and finally found his voice. “I don’t understand,” he said in Common, then in Sindarin, and with increasing desperation, Quenya and even Dwarvish.

The Elf, obviously one of the Avari, shrugged. He leaned down and with his right index finger drew something in the dirt. His black hair, unadorned but for a single mithril feather woven in small section of braid, fell like a curtain, hiding his face. His wore dark brown leggings of some sort of leather, and his tunic was of rough cloth dyed a mottled green, and embroidered along one shoulder was the same feather motif as the ornament in his hair. A short sword hung at his belt, a full quiver across his back, and in his left hand he held a small bow that seemed to have runes inlaid along its length. Everything about him spoke of extremely competent deadliness.

Aragorn swallowed and scooted back another foot.

At his movement, the Avar glanced up, freezing Aragorn with a keen gaze that seemed to hold all the Ages of Arda in its depths. Lesser men might have flinched, but Aragorn had withstood such looks from Elves since his childhood. Glorfindel especially had been fond of trying to send him fleeing with a glare, though it never worked. He forced back his fear and met the Elf’s grey eyes with a steady gaze of his own. The Elf’s lips quirked upward again in the same faintly mocking smile, and he pointed at the dirt drawing.

Aragorn stayed where he was.

The Elf waved him forward and pointed again, but Aragorn simply drew his legs under him and squatted, ready to fly if need be. After the night he had just had, he was taking no chances that this Avar might be trying to put some sort of spell on him.

The Elf cocked his head and rolled his eyes, then spread both hands and backed away from his drawing. He finally sat down near a tree, as if to wait.

Feeling a little foolish, Aragorn relaxed his death grip on his sword and walked over to the drawing. He saw it was a representation of the trail he had taken here, with a figure, presumably him, kneeling in the bushes, and another figure, unmistakably the Elf, following him. So it had been an Avar… this Avar… whose presence he had felt. He glanced at the Elf, smiling a little ruefully.

The Elf laughed and then jumped to his feet, which caused Aragorn to scurry backwards and again reach for his sword, but the Elf merely squatted down and drew for several minutes, and, this time, Aragorn came close enough to watch. The Elf drew a picture of the cave, the creeping shadow, Aragorn trapped within it, and then a fair approximation of the Elf’s own face, with his mouth open wide. He watched Aragorn, then made sure Aragorn saw him erase the shadow from Aragorn’s figure.

“So it was your singing,” Aragorn said.

At the Elf’s quizzical look, he pointed at the Elf and tried to mimic the song he had heard in the night. The Elf cringed and covered his ears, which of course caused Aragorn’s singing to fade to a mortified silence. Then the Elf sang, and the beauty of it nearly brought Aragorn to tears. He swallowed hard and tried to blink away the moisture gathering in his eyes.

The Elf smirked, then he hurriedly drew another picture, one showing a path back out of the woods. He pointed to the path and then to Aragorn and back to the path. There was no doubt that he wanted this strange and apparently foolish wanderer, who moreover had no talent for singing, out of his Wild Wood. Aragorn planned on doing just that, but first he needed to ask this Elf some questions, if he could but render them into picture form. He knelt and drew his own picture in the dust, one not nearly as elegant as the Elf’s, but one that he hoped got his point across. “Cuiviénen?”

The Elf frowned. “Coo-vi-… Cwoo-”

Aragorn repeated the word, slowly. He pointed at the Avar and to the stars he had sketched, then mimed sleeping, then awakening.

The Elf’s eyes suddenly widened. “Cuiviénen!” he said, then pointed to the drawing and nodded.

Finally, one word at least of understanding! Aragorn waved his hand in a sweeping arc across all the woodland. “Cuiviénen?”

The Elf shook his head, then swiped away Aragorn’s crude dust drawing of a sea and shore and awakening Elves. He even did away with Oromë and his horse. He scooped up a handful of dust and threw it into the wind, which carried it away.

So Cuiviénen truly was gone. Aragorn felt an aching hollow inside as the excitement of finding it drained away. There would be no stories about it to his grandchildren.

He shook off the melancholy and drew again, this time a tower, with a great Eye atop it, but before he could finish, the Elf grabbed his wrist in an iron grip and somehow flipped him completely backwards and onto his stomach. Aragorn felt a knee bury itself between his shoulder blades, pressing painfully against his spine, and he let out an explosive grunt when the Elf yanked his head back by his hair. The cold edge of a blade pressed against his exposed throat.

The Elf hissed something at him, and though the words were foreign, their meaning was clear: this Avar would suffer no ally of Sauron to live. With no way to verbally offer assurances that he was no such thing, he forced himself to go limp. As a matter of trust, it was an extreme risk, but he could think of no other alternative.

Many tense moments passed, and then the blade pressed harder and Aragorn knew he had lost the gamble. He shut his eyes, hoping the Elf would at least be quick…

The knife disappeared, and the knee lifted from his back. When the Elf released Aragorn’s hair, for a moment all he could do was lie gasping in the dust, trembling at how very close he had come to death. He finally collected himself and very slowly and carefully rolled onto his back.

The Elf stood glaring down at him.

Still trembling a little, Aragorn raised both hands, palms outward. Surely even without a common tongue, the Avar would understand that gesture of peace.

Apparently he did, for he jerked the knife toward Aragorn’s crude drawing, firing off a string of angry syllables.

Aragorn, remaining on his knees, scooted over to the drawing. He pointed at it, then at himself. He made a fist and hammered it as hard as he could onto the tower. He violently scrubbed out the entire picture, then glared back at the Elf, daring him to think anything other than that he was an enemy of Sauron. He neither flinched nor blinked as the Elf seemed to study him all the way to his soul.

Finally, the Avar nodded. He took a deep breath, nodded again, and sheathed his knife. He offered his hand. Aragorn took it without hesitation, and the Avar hauled him to his feet.

Aragorn pointed to himself. “Friend,” he said. He pointed to the Avar, then to himself, then linked his two index fingers together. “Friend.”

“Fr-iend,” the Elf repeated, slowly. He smiled. He patted his chest, then patted Aragorn’s. “Friend.”

But then he scowled. He jabbed a finger at his drawing of the path out of the woods. Then he pointed at the cave and swiped a hand up from his chin over his mouth, nose and then eyes. He stiffened, shutting his eyes and twisting his face into a rictus of death. He then started to sing but cut it off by covering his own mouth while shaking his head as he waved at some distant spot in the forest.

The Elf’s warning was obvious: if Aragorn tarried another night, the Elf and his song might not be nearby to drive back the shadow. Aragorn nodded his understanding. He crossed an arm over his chest and bowed, hoping the Elf sensed his gratitude and his respect. “Friend,” he said.

When he straightened, the Elf awkwardly crossed his own chest and mimicked Aragorn’s motions. “Friend.” For a moment, he looked deep into Aragorn’s eyes, then frowned and looked away, apparently thinking hard. He looked for a moment as though he walked in dreams, but then he blinked, his eyes alight with amazement. He leaned down, excitedly dragging Aragorn beside him. More drawing, and Aragorn was astonished to see the unmistakable figure of a crown, a crown with what looked to be wings on either side.

The crown of Gondor…

The Elf looked at him eagerly, but Aragorn’s mouth seemed filled suddenly with cotton wool. How had the Avar so easily plumbed his mind for the very secret he kept so carefully hidden? Or had he the gift of foresight? Regardless, that he had discovered Aragorn’s identity so easily was disastrous. Knowing it was too late to hide his shocked reaction, he nonetheless shook his head vigorously as he waved both hands in denial. “No, nothing like that,” he said, acutely aware that his voice had gone up an octave. He cleared his throat. “Just… friend means friend, not king. No. No king.”

The Elf laughed as he calmed Aragorn’s flailing hands by grabbing his wrists. “No king?”

“No!”

He smirked, then winked. “No king. Friend.”

Aragorn’s relief left him weak. “Yes. Friend.”

The Elf shook his head with more than a little disdain. He tapped the embroidery on his shoulder, then the mithril leaf in his braid. He knelt and pointed to the crown, then to the silvered leaf. “King.”

“You?”

A shrug and that smirk again. He stood tall and puffed out his chest. His mien turned proud as he jabbed a thumb at himself. “King!”

Aragorn shut his gaping jaw and started to bend a knee, but the Elf couldn’t maintain the haughty manner. He collapsed in such lighthearted mirth that Aragorn couldn’t help laughing along with him.

“King. No King.” He shrugged as if it were no matter. Then he linked his fingers together as Aragorn had and shook them for emphasis. “Friend!” But then sorrow touched his eyes. He gently turned Aragorn toward the path and gave him a nudge. He muttered a single word that could only have meant, “Go,” and then with a final sad smile and a soft squeeze of Aragorn’s shoulder, he stepped back and just that quickly, melted into the forest as though he had never been.

Aragorn stood blinking at the trees, a little stunned by the Avar’s sudden disappearance. He searched the shadows, but the Elf was truly gone, leaving Aragorn gripped by a sudden malaise that in its melancholy felt nearly as paralyzing as last night’s shadow.

He had never even learned the Elf’s name.

His steps reluctant, he nonetheless turned away to his own path and retraced his steps all the way to the Wild Wood’s edge and beyond before turning around for one last look. A tale of Cuiviénen he would never tell his grandchildren, but he took comfort knowing that instead, he would tell them of coming upon a mighty wood and finding an ancient evil, and of being delivered from sure death by an Elf’s timeless song. More importantly, though, he would tell them of the magic of an unexpected friendship that needed no words.

He lifted his hand, somehow sure the Avar would see. “Farewell, friend.”

Then he turned his face toward Hildórien and started walking.

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