Legolas was the first one awake, which was usually the way it happened. The elf was not one to linger in his bed once his mind had reached its normally alert state.
Aragorn woke a short time later. The human yawned and stretched, happy to see the fire blazing not too far from him.
The cave was warmer than it had been the night before. The rock walls had absorbed the heat from the flames and was now reflecting it back out into the air. There was also no wind to blow cold air inside the shelter.
Aragorn looked outside. The sun was up, which meant there were no clouds and no more snow would be falling, at least for a while.
"Good morning, sleepy-head," Legolas greeted. "Slept well, I assume."
"Very well, thank you. It's nice and toasty in here. I think we should stay a while." The man looked at the elf hopefully.
Legolas laughed. "You just do not want to go out trudging in the snow again, do you?"
The ranger shook his head. "No, I do not, but I suppose there's no other way to reach the palace, if we don't move on." He wiggled a few inches closer to the fire and yawned again. His words may have indicated he was willing to go, but his body did not want to leave this warm shelter. "Unless..."
Legolas looked at his friend. "Unless what?" he inquired, having no idea what his friend had in mind.
"We could stay here until one of the elven patrols comes by. They have horses, and they could take us to the palace. They would do anything for their prince - and his friend." Aragorn's face wore a silly grin, and his tone was even more hopeful.
"The patrols cover a wide area, and it could take days for one to come by this exact spot. Maybe even weeks. Besides, they have more important things to do."
With disappointed resignation, Aragorn said, "I knew it was too good to be true."
"I have something that might change your mind about leaving," Legolas told the ranger. "I think you will like it."
"What?" asked a very curious human. He raised his eyebrows in question. He knew Legolas didn't have a horse in his pocket, so what else could possibly make him want to leave the warmth of this cave and venture once again into the frozen world outside.
The archer got up and walked around to where the much diminished pile of wood rested. He pulled out two objects.
The man's curiosity was really peaked now.
Legolas quickly hid the objects behind his back, believing their identity would be more of a surprise, if he pulled them out right in front of the ranger before he had time to figure out what they were.
The elf approached Aragorn. Grinning down at the man, Legolas pulled the wooden objects out, one in each hand, and held them toward his friend.
Aragorn's eyes widened first in surprise and then in delight. He took the objects from the elf's hands. The ranger stared down at two beautifully hand crafted snow shoes. It was obvious Legolas had made then with great care. "Thank you, mellon nin. I love them." At a loss, he added, "I don't know what else to say."
"That is all you need to say, Estel. I am happy you are pleased."
"They put my lost ones to shame." He grinned when he said the word 'lost'. Aragorn looked at Legolas. "You obviously stayed up late and made these while I slept."
"It did not take too long, once I found just the right pieces I needed to do the job. I already had the twine to lash the wood together."
"Now you won't have to listen to me complain, because now I won't have to." More seriously, Aragorn said, "I truly am pleased by this thoughtful gift, Legolas."
The prince sat down across from his friend and spoke softly and with obvious pride. "I wish to show you some of the wonders of Mirkwood in winter. Few outsiders travel here, as you know. They think there is only darkness and ruin, not to mention they think elves are to be feared. I know you have been here in winter many times before, Estel, but I do not think you have truly seen it the way I do. There is great beauty that even the Shadow has not touched. You would miss it, if you had to spend your time dragging yourself through the snow."
"And griping," Aragorn added with a twinge of guilt, though there was a twinkle of humor in his eyes. He smiled. He was genuinely touched by what the elf had done for him.
When he was a child, his twin foster brothers, Elladan and Elrohir, had taken him many times and helped him appreciate the beauty that surrounded his home in Rivendell: the gardens, the valley, the river, the waterfalls. But he had the feeling that this was going to be a unique experience.
"Let us eat, Estel, and while you put out the fire and then put on your new snow shoes, I will gather more wood to replenish what we have used. Then we can be on our way."
Aragorn was a little shocked by how anxious he was to get out into the snow again, especially after yesterday, when he was sure he wanted nothing to do with winter snow again, at least until he saw his first gray hair.
When all was made ready, Aragorn started to make his way out of the shelter, walking carefully so he wouldn't damage the snow shoes on the rocky floor of the cave.
Legolas, who had returned and replaced the pile of wood for future fires, reached out and gripped the ranger's arm and stopped him. They were both standing in the entrance to the cave.
"What's wrong?" the man asked, puzzled.
"Stop here and look out into the forest, Estel. What do you see?"
Aragorn knew it wasn't just a frivolous question with an obvious answer, so he thought about his words before he said anything. But try as he might, he could only answer, "Snow, trees, blue sky. It's all beautiful, Legolas, but I'm sure you're talking about something else. I just don't see what."
Legolas picked up the staff that Aragorn had discarded the day before and handed it to him. "Extra help." he grinned. "Now follow me."
The elf led the way out into the snow.
Aragorn followed much more easily this time. His new snow shoes were working just as he expected they would. He sank no more than three or four inches into the snow, which was no problem for him at all.
Legolas moved out over the snow until he had passed the old oak trees in front of the cave. When he reached a spot about ten yards from them, he stopped and turned back to face them.
The ranger had been only a few paces behind and came up to stand beside his elven friend.
"The problem you are having is that you are taking everything in as a whole. You need to look at things individually." Legolas pointed toward the oak trees they had just passed. "Do not look at the whole group of trees. Do not look at even one tree. Look into the branches of that largest tree on the right. What do you see there?"
Aragorn stared hard at the branches Legolas indicated and concentrated on them. "They are covered with ice and sparkle in the sunlight." The sight was dazzling.
"Yes, but that is obvious. Look harder. What else do you see?"
After several moments, the man frowned and threw up his hands in defeat. "I'm sorry, Legolas. I was looking for a squirrel or a bird in the branches, but I don't see any animals or anything else you might be wanting me to see." He felt bad that he was not only disappointing Legolas but making himself seem ignorant. After all, he was a ranger who lived a great deal of his life among Nature's bounty. He sighed in frustration.
Legolas, with the inborn patience of the Eldar, smiled indulgently. "Do not despair, Estel. I will show you." He pointed to the center of the branches just above the lower ones. "Look there. Do you see those small twigs that grow at odd angles from the larger branches?"
"Yes. I see them."
"It is just like seeing objects in the clouds. Only the clouds are constantly shifting, and the horse head you may see one moment is gone the next, perhaps to be replaced by a flower. Here whatever you see remains the same, as long as you see it from exactly the same spot each time." Legolas looked at his friend and smiled. "Study those twigs. Do you see the picture they are forming?"
The ranger squinted and stared once again. "I see..." He paused a few seconds, and then his face lit up. "I see a ship with two sails. No,." he paused again. "It has three sails, two large ones and one small one near the front."
Legolas nodded. "That is what I see, as well. It is exactly like the ones I have seen in drawings. The sparkling ice makes it even more beautiful, as if the ship is made of crystals. Do you not agree?"
"Definitely," the ranger readily agreed.
"You only have to use your imagination to see all kinds of wonderful things." The sparkle in the elf's eyes almost matched that in the trees.
Aragorn shifted his position and then pointed to the left at another tree. "Look there. It's a wagon with very large somewhat lopsided wheels," he laughed triumphantly. He had spotted something Legolas had not needed to point out to him.
Aragorn turned his head and looked at the elf beside him. His grin widened at the elf's equally triumphant expression.
"You will be good at this, Estel," the elf remarked. "But now we must go. I have more to show you. Just remember that you can always find wonderful and unexpected things in the trees. It is a good way to pass the time, if for some reason, you are stuck in one place."
Aragorn wanted to stay and look for more pictures in the trees but understood the need to move on. He was also anxious to see what the elf would show him next.
After a little while, they came to a stream. It flowed so fast that ice could only form near the banks where the current moved more slowly. It was beautiful, as the sun sparkled on the tumbling water. However, it didn't have to be winter to see the beauty of it. Such a sight could be found in any season.
When Legolas saw the puzzled look on Aragorn's face, he motioned the ranger to come closer to the water. He himself was standing at the very edge of it.
"I've seen this in summer, too," Aragorn remarked, voicing his thought of a minute ago, "except for the snow, of course. But the sparkling of the water is the same."
"Ah but listen, Estel. Have you heard this in summer?"
Aragorn leaned down and turned his head so that his left ear was right above the ice at the edge of the stream and the water that flowed under it where Legolas pointed. He heard the bubbling of the shallow water, as it moved over the bed of small pebbles and larger rocks, but that was normal, too.
Knowing Legolas would not have brought him here unless there was something unusual to experience, Aragorn held himself very still and held his breath.
Before long he raised his head. "I hear it, Legolas. It sounds like the tinkling of tiny silver bells ringing in the distance. Yet, it is different, too. It almost sings. I have never heard a stream do this before."
"And you will not again unless you come here during the winter snows."
"No other streams in Middle-earth will make this sound?"
"None that I have found outside of this forest and not all here do it, only a few. I have tried to find one every time I am in another part of Arda when it snows, but I never have."
Aragorn lowered his head again to listen to the beautiful sound of the singing, tinkling bells. He wanted to fill his memory with it, because the future was uncertain, and he could not be sure he would ever hear the purity of this sound again.
It was with a sense of awe and privilege that Aragorn left the stream behind, following his elven friend toward his palace home.
Along the way, Legolas showed him other wonders of winter that had somehow slipped past he ranger's notice in the past.
There was a comical coyote, who silently stalked its prey, nose jerking back and forth over the ground. When the tiny creature being pursued stopped moving, thinking itself safe under the cover of snow, the coyote would leap straight up into the air, twist around and then pounce, digging frantically to reach the animal below. When the pray escaped this assault, the coyote repeated the maneuver several times until it finally trotted away in triumph with its catch held firmly in its mouth.
Aragorn had laughed quietly, as he watched. Nowhere else had he seen such strange and funny behavior.
There were also the trees, who moved their branches gracefully so that they made the blue shadows they cast dance in ever changing and intricate patterns upon the sparkling white snow.
It was mesmerizing to the ranger. He knew it must have been done at Legolas's bidding, because there was not so much as a breath of wind.
Aragorn was thoroughly in awe of all he had seen and heard.
x x x x x
In late afternoon, when the bridge leading to the elven king's stronghold finally came into view, Aragorn put his hand on Legolas's shoulder and brought the elf to a stop. "Thank you, mellon nin. You have shown me wonders I would never have been aware of on my own."
Legolas smiled at his friend, as he returned the gesture and placed his own hand on the man's shoulder. "I am happy that it brought you joy, Estel. Despite the Shadow's efforts, you can see my home is truly a winter wonderland with amazing things to delight your heart, if you will but look for them."
The ranger knew that Legolas was right. He had seen things he never would have known existed, if he had not seen them through the eyes of an elf.