Chapter Forty-Two - Friction: Ache
Snow was cold. That was a fact of life. But there was no denying that standing shin deep beside the hill of Bag End was considerably warmer than trudging through a light slurry of Rohan.
Caled's hand in his and her body leaning comfortably towards him probably helped.
Legolas waited with her and Anex along the row of windows that ran the length of Bag End. The Avari Elf smiled fondly at their close stance though he was discreet about it.
As the thought came to him, Legolas glanced over at the largest window. An imagined scene played in his head: the window flying open, scattering snow everywhere, and Denya leaning out over the sill with a grin the promised loud things about to happen.
All that he saw was the thin, black form of her ferret laying against the panes. Like a tiny, dark ghost keeping watch.
A door closing sent some of the snow cascading off the hill. Spluttering under the shower, Aurora rounded the corner from the front yard. She lead Bowman and Rali. A broom in her hands made a wider path in the snow in consideration for Bowman's knee.
The window next to Anex rattled. Auron propped the window open then carefully sat down. Darin's bed had been pulled over to the window to include him in the meeting. Dias and Mornie sat at the end of the bed. Tan stood by the door of the room, able to hear while keeping watch.
Aurora frowned into the room and poked the broom's handle inside. She nudged the floor beneath the sill. Her frown deepened when she found nothing. "Where is Clad?"
"Listening to orders, for once," Darin said. The smile he gave was weak but its presence was encouraging. "He's in Denya's room."
Aurora rolled her eyes but said nothing.
As though waiting for a lull, Na'Tath emerged from the shadows of the hill and came forward. Her white-on-black eyes looked up to Auron.
He nodded before addressing everyone. "I doubt there's much use in deciding what to do as we've yet to fully recover our strength. But we also cannot ignore that this last attack was different than before. So: what's changed?"
"Na'Tath joined us," Tan said. A flicker of something passed over him before returning to calm.
"But they waited," Dias pointed out. "If that were the reason, they could have struck much sooner. Why wait?"
"We were getting closer to the Harnen," Legolas pointed out. "If they've been tracking us, then surely they've realized our destination. Did they know before?" He directed the last to Na'Tath.
The Reaper shook her head.
"They could have realized after that incident at the Firien wood," Bowman said.
"It could be all those things," Anex said. "Or it could be none of them. Whatever the reason, we know their intent is now more murderous than curious."
"Which brings a new problem," Dias picked up. "How do we proceed? We cannot deny we have been lucky. Extremely so. But now we're leagues away from where we need to be, none of us are fit to travel, and there is no guarntee that whatever has kept the Reapers from the Shire will continue to do so when they find out where we are."
"They will not come."
Na'Tath gazed at the ground. One arm wrapped around her knees while the other hand drew lazy shapes in the snow before her. She did not appear happy but the tension that usually weighed at her seemed to have lifted a bit. It was a moment longer before she went on, "They do not like what affects them. This place is not good for them. The Voice does not reach here. Even I cannot hear her. They will not come."
Auron raised a brow at the curious behavior but did not comment.
"Which brings us back to the start," Bowman said. "And I honestly can't even see how to plan a thing until we are whole."
The double meaning was not lost on the others. Many eyes glanced at the window with the thin little ghost. "How is she?" Auron asked, face pinched as though he didn't want the answer.
Aurora shook her head. "Until she wakes, I cannot say. The fits are less. I don't need to use the pain killers all the time now; only when she gets truly bad. Merry finds me before that happens though." A small smile lightened her expression. "If one could heal by sheer force of will, that Hobbit could."
Merry whistled softly as he stoked the fire. The embers glowed, small flames leaping for a moment before vanishing.
A grunt came from behind him.
The Hobbit looked over his shoulder. Clad towered over the bed even when sitting down. His fringe of hair kept his eyes hidden but Merry knew he watched the still form closely. He only moved when Merry straightened and walked over to the bedside.
Merry could feel the sharp gaze on him. He could not say why, but he felt as though he were being silently accused of something. "I'll go and refresh the water," he said into the quiet. "Do you need anything?"
Clad shook his head once.
Merry frowned all the way down the hall, unable to shake the feeling. In the kitchen, he found Legolas and Aurora conversing back in forth in Sindarin as she tended a simmering pot on the stove.
Legolas nodded when he entered. Then he paused at the other's expression. "Is something wrong?"
Aurora stiffened, her hand at the bag of emergency supplies she kept on her person at all times now.
"Everything's fine," Merry said. He switched out the pitcher for a fresh one. Yet when he got to the water barrel he helped fill not even an hour ago, he stopped.
"Are you sure?"
The Hobbit turned around yet it was to Aurora he directed, "Have I offended Clad?"
Aurora blinked. She rubbed her knuckles against her ears for a moment. "Can you repeat that?"
"Clad," Merry said again, a little louder. "Have I offended him? He stares at me like I've committed some sort of crime."
The Hobbit paused. "Not...recently, I believe."
Legolas chuckled. "Clad keeps to himself," he assured his friend. "Yet I doubt you have done anything truly wrong."
Merry scowled. No matter how much he thought about it, he still had no answer for the nagging sense that Clad did not approve of something and it was his fault. It shouldn't bother him. But it did.
"What have you done recently?" Aurora asked. She shrugged when the other two blinked in confusion. "Seriously. What have you done in the past few days?"
"Nothing much," he said, refilling the pitcher with water. "I help out around Bag End. I run errands for you and Frodo when you need it. That's all."
"The snowball fight between you, Pippin, the little Gamgees and various other young ones?" Legolas pointed out, grinning.
Merry brushed at his sleeves and smirked, "Elanor issued a challenge. I could not let it go."
"Convincing your half of the group into making your fort at the base of the tree right above our heads?"
"A solid strategy."
"And a noisy one," Aurora said though it was with a smile. "You might be noticing his concern for Denya. The word 'overprotective' does not begin to describe him."
At that, Merry's face fell. He had not considered that.
In truth, the state of the dark-hair Elf maiden weighed on his mind greatly. It was a mystery to all and a great concern that she did not wake. He tried to help shoulder whatever job needed to be done, if only to take some of the stress of the others. Even so, he often found himself spending whatever time he had left in the room, mostly sitting at the bedside and talking. Since Clad had regained his strength, he spent almost as much time there as well.
A gentle hand on his shoulder drew him out of his thoughts. Aurora smiled, a knowing light to her eyes. "I do not think he faults you for anything," she said gently. "His worry for her is possibly the greatest of us all. Do not take it to heart."
Emboldened, Merry nodded. He gathered the pitcher and made his way out to the hall. A bundle on the sitting room table caught his eye. "Who brought these?" he called.
Legolas leaned back in his seat to see what he referred to. "Sam dropped them off this morning."
After a moment's thought, Merry picked up the bundle and grabbed a spare jug kept at the window there. Balancing his load, he went back to Denya's room.
The weight of Clad's eyes returned and Merry did his best to ignore it. He carefully set the pitcher of water aside before arranging the last two. When he was satisfied, he tipped a small measure of the water into the jug.
Merry smiled down at the bouquet of winter blooms. He shifted the jug so the shaft of sunlight fell on the brightly colored petals. "A bit of a change, yes," he said, partly to the still form on the bed and partly to the ever watchful sentinel. "But it's the simplest way to freshen a room, I've been told. Not going to leave the window open, I'll not risk Aurora finding out about that. I'll ask Sam if he can help me keep up with fresh ones."
He bustled about the room. He rekindled the fire, checked the cupboards, and even restocked the small stash of supplies Aurora kept in the room. All the while, the song stuck in his head continued to sneak out. Perhaps brought on by the flowers. Whether in whistle or by humming a stray bar, the song was quite demanding. He even found himself singing a few lines to himself.
"And the flower petals swayed
As if they were asleep.
This serene feeling...
Tell me, what's the name that people give it?"
It was an old song Bilbo had taught them, learned during his travels. So often of late, Merry found those old tales and even his own adventures returning to him.
All the while, Clad watched the Hobbit. Watched, listened.
Pain like nothing before broke the gray fog of the nightmares. At first she was certain that they would end and she'd awake. But they continued. Then they became something more than nightmares. Images, voices, and things she knew far too well came back. They stayed.
It was then she first thought she had died. Died and ended up in a hellish limbo that replayed her worse memories and fears.
She had almost slipped into the gray, wishing for it to take her and end the torment.
A different voice drew her out. It was new, never heard before. That was why she listened. This voice was real. It wasn't part of whatever demon plagued her mind. Where ever she was, whatever state her body was in, the owner of that voice watched over her.
Slowly she was able to push back the terrors. The fear faded away a little more each time that new voice spoke. The gray was all that remained.
Then the pain returned. So swift and powerful it shattered the gray into black nothing. She cried out as she felt it settle, sharp and agonizing, in her eyes. The voices returned.
She fought the call of the voices, didn't believe their claims that she was fine. Other familiar voices came, talking to one another. She heard her name. But she didn't trust these voices. It was the nightmares returning. It always started out as voices she knew.
Never with the new voice. When the new voice spoke, the terrors could not come.
As long as the new voice was there, she knew everything would be all right.
Caled swallowed entire mug of warmed water with lemon, letting it slowly seep into her throat. She winced. The throb of pain was dull compared to how it had been but it remained. Perhaps in another day her voice would return.
Rali chuckled and she glared across the table at the Half-Dwarf. He merely smirked back with an 'I'll tell Aurora on you' tone to it. The expression was diminished by the combination of the woven flower crown poised on his head to half-shield his wounded eye and the two little Hobbit girls hanging off his broad shoulders, giggling.
The table was strewn with more flowers and crown, each unique in their own way. Caled had shown the girls various different ways to weave the fragile plants. Both took to it with such wild abandon she worried if poor Sam would have any blooming foliage left after that day.
Rosie came by and plucked the empty mug off the table, adding it to the pile of dishes she carried with an ease that told of her past experience with cutlery and the art of balancing towering stacks of it. "Another?"
Caled shook her head with a smile.
Rosie tutted but did not reply. Instead, she gently admonished the little girls for bothering their guest and shooed them out the door.
Elanor pouted, blond curls bouncing as she latched on to Rali's arm. "Only playing!" she insisted.
Rali lifted his arm to let her dangle off it, her peals of laughter cutting into his words. "No harm, Lady Gamgee. I'm tougher than I appear."
"You're still on the mend," Rosie said. She deposited the dishes by the sink with quick efficiency and pinned the same frown to the hulking figure at her kitchen table.
To Caled's amusement, Rali drew back from the gaze. He cleared his throat them ushered the girls out the door himself, insisting they needed to help Sam in the gardens.
Rosie tutted again. A faint cry from the other room had her hurrying off to check on the baby.
Caled silently laughed. The last few weeks had past with an ease she could not have hoped for. It seemed that whenever a cloud of depression started to fall over them, one of the Hobbits appeared and dispelled the tension by simply being there.
Through the windows, she could see the girls running over to where Sam tended the garden that surrounded his home. Legolas and Dias were with him, examining the small clump of green and white plants Dias held. A nostalgic smile played with the Lorien Elf's ice-blue eyes.
Elanor jumped onto her father's back and eagerly waved one of her flower-crown for him to see. Sam's laugh could be heard even in the kitchen.
The other girl, her name escaped Caled at the moment, peeked around at the two Elves. A gentle word from Rali seemed to give her courage and she approached them. She first handed a flower-crown to Dias, almost dropping it in her haste-he accepted it with such a solemn expression she giggled.
Then she looked up at Legolas, shyness returning. The crown she held out for him was the one she had spent the most effort on, blushing each time Caled helped her adjust the white and blue blooms into the correct alignment. She lifted the crown to him.
To her surprise, the tall Elf knelt before her. He said something to the Hobbit girl that made her eyes widen before he inclined his head to her. She placed the crown against the blonde locks and beamed, delighted beyond words.
Legolas grinned back at her and held out his hands. She jumped as he stood and he easily caught her, tossing her up to sit on his shoulders. Her excited words mingled with the chuckles of Rali and Elanor's own.
A different chuckle broke Caled away from the endearing scene. Rosie watched as well, tiny baby Frodo blinking blearedly at the room from his mother's arm. "Such a natural, he is," she said. "Nowadays, Elanor always asks when we can visit Uncle Frodo so she can play with her 'tall friends.'"
Caled laughed silently at that.
As though hearing her name, Elanor suddenly called out, "Mama!"
Rosie sighed and turned to Caled. "Would you mind?" she asked, nodding at Frodo.
Caled was too stunned to decline. Before she realized it, Rosie was out the door and baby Frodo was in Caled's hands.
The huge, dark eyes looked at her. Though she knew it was not true, Caled felt as though the tiny Hobbit was judging how she held him. And by the way his face was starting to pucker, he did not approve.
Horrified at the thought of somehow letting Rosie down- even something as simple as this-Caled quickly tried to rearrange the small being with as much care as she could. She held him against her shoulder as she'd seen Rosie do. The noises he made were not comforting ones. So she quickly held him in the crook of her arm. Still he frowned up at her, judging her in the way of infants and children.
Close to panic, Caled stood and paced the room. Her neck twinged with the added weight she carried. Without thinking, she flipped the babe and held his back to her front, one arm under his bottom and the other across his chest to steady him. This let him face the kitchen without anything blocking his sight. A soft coo made Caled look down in alarm. He kicked his legs and gurgled, happy.
Caled let out a breath, never stopping in her pacing. She did not know what exactly pleased the child but she was not going to stop anything just yet.
She did not pay attention to anything beside the little person she carried. Back and forth they moved through the room, Caled pivoting with a twirl to made him laugh. Occasionally she would hum low in her throat as though to reassure him she was still there. Times like this was when she hated the slow healing process of her wound. Talking was possible if she did not do so unless absolutely necessary. Yet tiny Frodo seemed not to mind.
The light shifted. Caled looked around to see Legolas leaning against the door. An odd expression touched his face: part surprise and part pain. When their eyes met, he looked away as though trying to hide it. The sharp unease spread to her, the words not quite accompanying the feeling that threatened to pull her down with it.
Rosie appeared, beaming at Caled. "It took me far longer than I care to admit to learn that trick," she said in a hushed voice. Caled looked down and saw the babe was asleep. His mother easily disentangled him from Caled's arms. As she moved down the hall to return him to the nursery, she said over her shoulder, "You will make a fine mother."
The footsteps fell into a silence as cold as the outside. Caled stared at the corner as the woman vanished. For some time, she did not move.
A hand touched her back. "Caled?"
She jerked, startled. Legolas stood beside her. The same expression was back and she felt it mirrored in the pounding of her heart.
"She doesn't know, Caled," he said gently. "She didn't mean anything by it." He reached up to cup her cheek.
Caled nodded, disturbed by the rush of emotions crashing over her. Unwilling, her empty arms closed against herself. Her hand pressed tight to her belly, feeling the scar as though it were burning.
Legolas pulled her to him, wrapping his arms around her so tight it was almost painful. Even so, she buried her face in his chest to hide the tears that fell.
It was a fact she long ago accepted. It was something she knew long before they ever met. And in all honesty, she had never even considered a world where miracles happened and the likelihood was returned to her.
But the casual comment-made all the more sincere by the one who spoke it-brought the realization into crystal clarity. She saw again the little child Legolas tossed into the air with care and ease. Yet instead of the dark-haired Hobbit child, it was a boy with golden brown hair. Or a little girl with long, pale locks and flashing red eyes that wove a crown of flowers to give to him. Or another baby, so tiny and so full of possibility, asleep in her arms.
In that moment, she would have given anything for the chance to have that.
The quiet was shattered by the sounds of someone shouting from outside. They broke apart, each reaching for a weapon, and hurried out into the gardens.
Pippin was running up the short drive. He was pale and looked as though something terrifying was chasing him. When he spoke, it sent a chill over them all. "Denya's gone!"