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Chapter 5 - Tuck Your Head Under
Menelris returned, as promised, but not alone, and not empty taloned. A smaller male was with her, and they both carried bundles, which they placed beside the cave entrance.
Menelris gave her bundle a nudge so it was not blocking the cave opening. "I return, although I do not bring glad tidings. You no doubt feel for yourself that the heat of this afternoon is no warmer than the cold of this morning. And that may be blamed on a storm looming just on the western side of these mountains. It is moving fast, and I do not trust the winds to carry us to Beorn’s Hall before it hits. I am afraid you and Strider must remain here for the duration."
Gandalf was filled with dismay. He looked up toward the tops of the mountains, and indeed, heavy dark clouds were gathered about the peaks. It looked like it could snow at any moment. "What else can possibly go wrong," he muttered, then put aside his consternation. It could be worse, he supposed. They could both be out in the open instead of in a cozy cave, however small it might be, and they might not have the caring attentions of two noble Eagles. He turned to them and bowed. "I thank you for your wisdom in this. You know far better than I how to read the weather signs. But for your wise counsel, I in my ignorance might have insisted on travel that likely would have proven deadly."
"I know you must be sorely disappointed, but it is for the best to wait. And to that end, we have brought some things that will give you a bit of ease and comfort. But I am remiss... let me first introduce to you Durvain, my mate."
"We are well met, Gandalf the Grey," Durvain said. Durvain's voice was surprisingly gentle, pitched higher than Menelris’, and his eyes glowed with a warmer, more gentle light than Menelris’ own. But for all that he seemed more friendly than fierce, he was still a formidable presence, towering above Gandalf.
"Well met, indeed," Gandalf said. "And an apt name, for dark and beautiful indeed are your feathers."
Durvain ducked his head and plucked in almost embarrassed fashion at said dark feathers on his breast, and Menelris nodded her approval of the greetings. She then pulled at her bundle. "As I said, we bring you things to ease your stay. Behold, blankets, but more important: warm down, from beneath our own feathers. Durvain will take it into the cave and make pallets for you and your companion, to raise you off the cold cave floor."
Durvain stepped forward with his offerings, which included a small stag. "Wood for your fire, taken from several abandoned nests. Eagles are far larger than wizards, and what to us seem merely twigs might be too heavy for you to lift, so I took the liberty of cracking them into what I hope are more manageable pieces. And I also bring meat for your bellies. It should be enough to outlast the storm."
"And I am leaving you Durvain himself," Menelris added. "He is smaller than I, as you can see, and can fit through the entrance of the cave. The warmth of his body will add to your warmth, and he will block the wind rushing in."
"But he will be too cold, surely," Gandalf protested.
"Though it is rarely pleasant, we Eagles can survive blizzards out in the open," Durvain said. He suddenly fluffed his feathers until he was nearly twice his size, an alarming sight that, even knowing Eagles as allies who would never bring him harm, nonetheless caused Gandalf to take an involuntary step backwards. "See? We trap a layer of air in our feathers and stay quite warm. And truly, only a very small part of my back will be exposed to the wind, so I will actually be more comfortable in your cave than Menelris will be in our nest."
The things one learns, even at my great age, Gandalf thought. He stepped forward again. "If you’re certain, then. I thank you."
Menelris said, "Once the storm passes here, he can, if needs must, carry the two of you individually to The Carrock, should foul weather on the heights prevent my timely return. Durvain is small, but he has strength that belies his stature. And he has an exceeding gentle nature, as you can probably see from the light in his eyes. He is unique among Eagles in his compassion for all things. That is why I chose him as a mate," she added, rubbing his head affectionately with her beak. He cooed back at her, and such were the tender glances they exchanged that Gandalf almost wondered if he should step into the cave to give them a moment of privacy. After a final caress, she straightened. "His warm heart balances my fierce tendencies. But that is likely of little interest to you. I must go now, but as our journey together is not ended, I will simply bid you the very strength of Manwë, until we meet again."
Gandalf bowed deeply. "Menelris, I thank you for your many kindnesses, and eagerly await your return. May the wind bear you to safety in the meantime."
"I will come at the earliest opportunity." She spread her wings. "Until the weather breaks, then." Without another word, she lifted her wings and launched herself effortlessly into the air.
"Keep your feathers fluffed!" Durvain called to her, then he watched her until she disappeared. He breathed out a slightly mournful coo. "I will miss her, but this is good for her," he said softly.
"Good for her? How so?"
He let out a soft, plaintive cry that was quite possibly the saddest sound Gandalf had ever heard a creature utter. "We lost our fledgling, just last week."
"Oh, I am so very sorry. You have my condolences."
"Thank you. He was born late in the season, you see, and was smaller than most," he replied, and then he continued, and it seemed that the bird had so much on his heart that he simply had to speak it forth, even to a stranger. "His egg was so tiny! And he was such a wee eaglet, but fierce! Oh how stubborn and strong-willed he was; a real fighter, like his mother, so we named him Belechen, Mighty Child. We knew he had little chance at surviving, but how our hearts warmed to him and how we hoped he would prevail despite all evidence that spoke of a certain much sadder fate. And bound up in that hope, at least for me, was much guilt, for as you can see, I am small – some say too small – for an eagle, and there were those that thought Menelris had lost her wits, choosing me as her mate."
"Surely not," Gandalf couldn’t help interjecting. His heart was already taken by this wonderful creature’s kind eyes and unassuming sincerity; he could not harbor the thought of anyone speaking ill of him.
"No, I think sometimes they must be right. Likely it was foolish of her, for though we have had many healthy and strong eaglets, I knew eventually I might pass my own small stature on... and I did, in poor Belechen." He paused, looking toward the empty sky where she had disappeared from sight. Then he shook himself, and blinked several times, as if returning from a journey to some land of sorrows unseen. "I had difficulty learning to fly, you see, and had to work twice as hard as the other eagles to hone my hunting skills. So I knew the hard life our tiny eaglet faced, but I knew I could help him, and Menelris assured me over and over that he would grow into as fine a bird as... well, that he would be counted among the best."
Again he paused, looking at the ground. Gandalf found he was holding his breath, spellbound by Durvain’s softly spoken tale. "Menelris encourages me always, holding me in higher esteem than I could ever hold myself," he said quietly, then again the shake of the head and the return of his gaze to the present. "Belechen was so bright and intelligent, determined to do everything an Eagle should, including of course learning to fly. We all believed he would prevail."
Gandalf could hardly bear to hear the tale’s sad end. He remained silent, but he wanted to cry out for Durvain to stop, to not tell such a sorrowful thing to a Maia already too burdened with the heartaches of this world.
But Durvain continued, his voice steady but filled with such suffering that Gandalf felt the bird’s grief as if it were a physical blow. "We did not stop him from his first attempt. He flew from the nest, with an eager light in his eyes and our hearts on his wings, but the wind took an ill turn, and he was simply not strong enough to return against it. He plunged to his death."
Gandalf had to swallow hard several times before he found his voice. "How terrible for all of you. I’m so sorry."
"It happens too often. Even among healthy fledglings, only a bit more than half survive their first flight."
"I had no idea."
"It is to be expected, time to time, though it is no less painful when it does." He raised his feathers and let them settle, as if literally shaking off the spell of sorrow his tale had wrought. "We grieve, of course, but take comfort knowing we will have another little one next year, hopefully a full-sized eaglet, strong in every way. But for now, the death has left her with nothing to care for, and her maternal instincts are still running high. She needed something to mother, you see, even if it is a Man." His gaze brightened. "She has been buzzing with plans ever since she found you both this morning. In fact, when she decided you needed down for warmth, she all but sat atop me and tried to strip me of every last one of my underfeathers!" He let out a whistling snort that Gandalf could only interpret as laughter. "But I managed to convince her that, rather than expose me to death by freezing, perhaps it would be wiser to supplement it with the down from our nest."
"This came from your nest?"
"The majority of it, yes. But fear not, we still have plenty to keep Menelris warm, and this down is very clean. Though other Eagles let their nests get in a right tip, Menelris insists always on keeping ours tidy. No egg shells laying about, none of that." A sudden skirl of snowflakes stung their faces as a gust of wind lifted his feathers. "Here it comes, then; storms do not wait on storytellers to finally cease their long-winded tales, do they. I thank you for your forbearance in listening; a sorrow shared somehow feels less a burden, doesn’t it. But enough chatter! I believe we best get everything, and ourselves, inside the cave before the real fury of the storm hits." He picked up the bundle and without further adieu squeezed into the cave. It was a tight fit, but he wiggled and squirmed and shook his tail feathers and made it inside with the loss of only two feathers that the wind picked up and blew out into the storm.
Gandalf hurried after him, carrying as much wood as he was able, then watched as Durvain quickly went back and forth bringing in the remaining wood and the meat as well. The bird nearly filled the front of the cave, but there was just room enough at the back to move around comfortably. Aragorn, Gandalf was happy to see, was still sound asleep. He could only imagine how high the Ranger might have leapt, wounded or no, to find another giant Eagle bearing down on him at such close quarters. But he would have to waken, regardless, so they might move him to his new bed. Gandalf knelt beside him and gently touched his shoulder. "Strider."
Aragorn took a shuddering breath and slowly opened his eyes. He squinted at Gandalf, then gazed beyond his shoulder, and his eyes flew open wide. "What – who –"
"Shh, easy, easy. This is Durvain. He’s here to help us."
Aragorn eyed the large eagle warily but said nothing, and so fearful did he seem that Gandalf felt it likely that Aragorn still did not have his wits completely about him. He looked more frightened than Bilbo had, if that were possible.
"Fear not," Durvain said quietly. "I am not here to harm but to help. A storm comes, and I am going to stay with both of you until it passes."
Aragorn looked at Gandalf, a thousand questions in his eyes. Gandalf smiled reassuringly. "He looks fierce, but his heart is pure and his touch gentle."
To Gandalf’s relief, Aragorn finally relaxed and the confusion cleared from his eyes. He nodded toward Durvain. "Of course. I’m sorry. I just – it was unexpected, seeing you –"
"I understand. It is not every day that one wakens from a sound sleep to see a creature as large and fierce as I looming over him. I would have been more concerned had you shown no fear at all, for that would have proven you were delirious indeed." He let out another of the chuckling coos.
Aragorn bowed his head, as much as he was able while lying down. "I am honored to meet you."
"And I you."
"Strider," Gandalf said, "I know you will not like this, for it will be painful I’m sure, but we will need to move you. Durvain has brought bedding for us."
"Eagle down," Durvain said, plucking a bit and dropping it beside Aragorn’s chest. "Soft and warm and far better than a stony floor."
Aragorn took the grey fluff and felt it, then rubbed it against his cheek. For the first time since stumbling into Gandalf’s care, he smiled. "Eagle down," he whispered wonderingly as his eyes drifted shut. "So soft..." But his hand fell weakly away, and his breathing deepened as he fell back into a light sleep.
"Dear boy, I hate that the wound has weakened you so," Gandalf murmured, covering Aragorn’s hand with his own. He watched Aragorn’s breathing for a moment, then turned his attention to Durvain as he busied himself with spreading the down by talonfuls into two neat piles, each just long enough to accommodate a man or a wizard. He then took the blanket in which it had been wrapped and tore it down the center, laying each half neatly atop each pile. He patted them smooth with the knuckles of his inwardly curled talons.
"Finished," he announced. "That should do nicely. I always have enjoyed making a nest."
"How is it, if I might ask, that an eagle owns blankets?" Gandalf asked.
"You may certainly ask. As a point of fact, I found this one along the mountain pass, discarded. It seemed serviceable, and did not smell of orc, so I plucked it up and took it home. Menelris accuses me of being more magpie than eagle, because I’m always picking up scraps and trinkets and bringing them home. And maybe she’s right, because I do seem attracted to anything shiny or interesting. Or useful, like this old blanket. Now, shall we try to move your friend?"
Gandalf squeezed Aragorn’s hand. "Strider."
It took several calls before Aragorn started and blinked his eyes open. He looked around the cave, then looked blankly at the eagle down still resting by his hand. "What... oh. I fell asleep. Is it time to go?"
"No," Gandalf chuckled. "Not in this storm. But it is time to move you to your soft new bed."
"Oh. Of course." He started to push himself up. "I can –" But he winced and fell back. To Gandalf’s surprise, he did not reach for his back but for his head. "Dizzy..."
Gandalf brushed his hair away from the laceration. It was still swollen, and beneath Aragorn’s dark hair he could see the skin was terribly bruised. "My dear fellow," Gandalf murmured. He put his hand across Aragorn’s eyes, placing fingertips and thumb on either temple. He shut his eyes and immediately felt a disorienting whirl. He sang an ancient hymn of healing, and the dizziness abated. He felt Aragorn relax, and he released him. "Better, I think?"
"I have not really healed it, that not being in my power, but I was able this time to block the dizziness for you. But I fear any movement will likely cause it to flare up."
"I... I will be all right. It is not as if..." He paused and shut his eyes for a moment, evidently bracing himself against another wave of dizziness, or perhaps of pain. "It’s not as if I have not had to deal with this before."
Gandalf patted his shoulder. "I will help you sit up, this time, and maybe if we move slowly it will not go so ill."
But Durvain made a fluttering movement of denial, a rustling of feathers raised and lowered quickly and short, agitated bobs of his head. "Gandalf, with all due respect, I believe it best if you allow me."
Aragorn looked worriedly at the sharp talons, obviously not eager to put himself in their clutches, but Gandalf could immediately see it was the only sensible course of action. "I’m sorry, Strider, but I think Durvain is correct."
Aragorn lowered his voice to a mere whisper, "I mean no disrespect to him, Gandalf, for you know my regard for eagles, but..."
Gandalf raised a hand and cut him off. "My dear boy, I understand completely. It is one thing to admire them from afar, but quite another to put yourself at one’s mercy, am I right?"
"And I’m sure Durvain understands and is not offended. But keeping you warm is paramount, and truly, after these few hard moments, you will be far more comfortable."
So Aragorn set his chin, bracing for the inevitable.
Durvain stepped forward. "Where exactly is his wound?"
"On his lower back, toward the left side."
"I will not touch it, Strider," Durvain said. "This is what I will do: I am strong enough to lift you with one foot, pivoting on the other to place you in the new bed, thus." He demonstrated by lifting one foot as though carrying Aragorn as he swivelled smoothly on the other. "See? There will be as little jostling as I can manage, but still, it will likely hurt, no matter how careful I am, so yes, you must brace yourself. I will curl my talons behind your neck, around your upper back and your legs and as much as possible your hips, to support you as I swing you over to your new bed. But fear not; I will not touch your wound, nor pierce you with my talons. I have moved our eggs, which are quite fragile, and our little hatchlings themselves many times and never cracked a shell nor drew blood even once. So know that I will be gentle, and set aside your fears."
Gandalf hid a smile; despite Durvain’s assurances, it was plain to see that Aragorn was not altogether confident that the eagle’s great talons wouldn’t pierce him through. But Aragorn lay still, if trembling a bit, until finally, at his nod, Durvain grasped him with great care and in a twinkling had him lifted, carried and settled on his side atop the new bedding.
"Thank you," Aragorn whispered, but his face was grey beneath a sheen of perspiration, and his hands shook as he tried clumsily to pull the blanket under his chin.
"Did I hurt you?"
Aragorn shook his head, but Durvain looked at Gandalf. "I think I hurt him," he said, his words quick and worried.
Gandalf hurried over and took Aragorn’s hand. "Strider?"
"A moment," he gritted. He squeezed Gandalf’s hand hard enough to make the bones creak, then his grip slowly eased and his hitched breathing grew even. Indeed, it seemed he had again lost consciousness.
Gandalf hurriedly checked the bandages. Thankfully, there was no evidence of new bleeding.
"How is he?" Durvain demanded. "Did I hurt him?"
"It seems all is well. It was just pain from moving, I think, and the dizziness that seems to be plaguing him. The head wound is worrisome, but he wakes easily enough to lead me to believe his swoon is less from the concussion than due to his strength being utterly depleted because of his ordeal. He simply cannot stay awake because of extreme fatigue. And I wonder, perhaps, if that part of him that is a healer, even without his conscious effort, is trying to put him in a healing sleep, but cannot because I keep waking him. It’s impossible to say, really, because I have no experience at that sort of thing, but I think as long as his eyes seem clear and his fever grows no worse, he will mend."
Durvain let out a whistling breath. "I was so afraid I’d hurt him. Menelris would have plucked me!"
Gandalf smiled faintly, but despite his confident words, he was a bit shaky in the knees himself. He turned from Durvain and patted Aragorn’s shoulder and tried to hide how frightened he truly felt. Seeing Aragorn weak and wounded never failed to open a great hollow in his belly. Sentimental twaddle it may be, but he must admit to himself that Aragorn’s death would utterly shatter him, for if any Maia ever held thoughts of fatherhood, then surely Aragorn had locked up that most tender office of son in Gandalf’s heart of hearts. And of course, there remained, beyond filial affection, the inescapable and often distressing fact that he was the last possible heir to the throne of Gondor... the last of Elros’ great line...
Durvain eased a bit closer again, interrupting Gandalf’s worried reverie as he reached around Gandalf to pull a second blanket across Aragorn. Where it had come from, Gandalf could only guess; he had only noticed one blanket in the bundles the Eagles had brought with them, but he had been a bit distracted, admittedly. Durvain’s movements were gentle, and it was a wonder how the massive bird kept his talons safely balled up, using his knuckles only. Durvain truly had a gentle nature, just as Menelris had said. As he watched, Gandalf unexpectedly found himself overcome with emotion. Gratitude in extremis for Durvain’s assistance warred with stress and worry over Aragorn’s condition to the point where he felt quite unsure of his ability to maintain his composure. Toward that end, he cleared his throat, but the blasted lump would not go away.
"It must hurt terribly, that wound," Durvain said, and made a small clucking noise. He used his beak to finish tugging the blanket up to Aragorn’s chin. When Aragorn’s eyes opened, he clucked again. "I suggest you tuck your head under as much as possible now."
"Tuck my head–?"
"Ah, my apologies. That is what we Eagles say when we mean ‘sleep’." He demonstrated by tucking his head under his wing and softly snoring.
Aragorn smiled, a sketchy thing that was a mere shadow of the mirth that lit his face from time to time, but enough to reassure Gandalf that there was spark remaining in his friend. He patted his shoulder yet again, knowing that Aragorn must think him mad for carrying on so with such a useless gesture, but at the moment it was the best he could manage at offering comfort; he was still far too stricken for words.
"So," Durvain said, straightening back up. "Yes, sleep; it’s what you need most. Your friend Gandalf and I will cook the stag, although not my part, Gandalf. I prefer mine raw."
Gandalf finally found his voice. "Of course, of course. Any way you wish." Indeed, he was so grateful for everything the Eagle had done for them thus far that had Durvain insisted Gandalf eat his own portion raw as well, he would have fallen on it tooth and nail and demanded seconds.
"It’s settled, then," Durvain nodded. He touched Aragorn’s face lightly with a feathered wing tip. "Sleep, young man."
Aragorn’s eyes drifted shut so readily and peacefully that Gandalf wondered if the Eagle had some magic in his touch. Then again, likely not; he still surmised that Aragorn was so weak that it must require no effort at all to fall asleep. After watching his steady, deep breathing for several moments, Gandalf blew out a long sigh and felt some of the tension leave his shoulders.
Perhaps hoping for the best need not be such a stretch of the imagination after all.
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