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A Perilous Journey to Lorien  by LadyJaina

Summary: "So overwrought were the Company at Mithrandir's passing, that they tarried too long at the first glimpse of safety."

Disclaimer: I do not own Lord of the Rings, I'm just playing with the characters Tolkien created.

Note: Seventeen years ago, I first posted a story titled A Perilous Journey to Lórien to  It went on to gain almost two hundred reviews and nearly one hundred favorites, for what reason I cannot fathom. The writing was terrible, and the plot even worse.

Here, I think, is the story as it should have been told. If you've read the other, I think you'll find this to be a completely different, and much superior, tale. I've kept only the setting and basic idea of the plot. The story picks up just after the events on the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm, as recorded in the books, and will closely follow the events after the fall of Gandalf—except where my own plot conflicts with said events. At times, the story will change events as actually written by Tolkien, but will not affect canon beyond Lothlórien, except, perhaps in the memories of the characters involved. Though some elements from the films may be present, this story is book-verse. Quotes from The Fellowship of the Ring will be italicized.

Chapter One

The shafts of light grew ahead of them, driving away the shadows of Moria. Here at last, was the way out of this dreadful place. Black Pit*, indeed, Frodo thought darkly as he struggled to keep pace with the others. He heard Sam at his side weeping, and then he found that he himself was weeping as he ran. Ahead of him, Legolas eclipsed the brilliant light of the entryway, the three arrows remaining in this quiver bouncing around like dark black shadows at his shoulder. Just behind the elf, huffing a bit, was Gimli. His heavy boots thudded quickly on the stone. Frodo risked a backward glance for his kin and was relieved to find them being herded, however kindly, by Boromir at the rear. Their faces were drawn and pale, and their eyes huge with tears and disbelief.

A clatter and hurried footsteps ahead jerked Frodo's attention back to the front. There was a guard of orcs crouching in the shadows behind the great door-posts towering on either side, and a tall orc stood blocking the way out. Frodo knew a moment of fear before Aragorn smote to the ground the captain that stood in his path. It was over before any of the others could join the fray, and the rest fled in terror of his wrath. At last the feeling of mortal peril began to ebb. The orcs would not have fled unless they had been outmatched and cut off. The Company swept past them and took no heed of them. By some miracle of Elbereth, they were emerging from Moria as the victors.

Out of the Gates they ran and sprang down the huge and age-worn steps. Each impact jarred Frodo's entire body, and he gritted his teeth at the stab of pain that lanced through his side and his chest. He heard Sam moan a bit beside him and remembered the dear gardener had taken wounds of his own in the mines, but he was managing. They all were. To not manage was to die. To fail.

Thus, at last, they came beyond hope under the sky and felt the wind on their faces, and as they fled, they could forget, for a moment the haunting dark of Moria and look on blue sky.

They did not halt until they were out of bowshot from the walls. Frodo stood apart from the others, struggling to catch his breath as he gazed out over the Dimrill Dale, still blinking a bit with eyes unaccustomed to daylight. It was shadowed by the Misty Mountains, but eastward he could see a golden light on the land. He reckoned it was but one hour after noon. The sun was shining; the clouds were white and high. He looked back. Dark yawned the archway of the Gates under the mountain-shadow. Faint and far beneath the earth rolled the slow drumbeats: doom. A thin black smoke trailed out. Nothing else was to be seen; the dale all around them was empty. Doom.

Grief at last wholly overcame him, the tears on his face cutting a trail through the dirt and filth of the mines. He was weary already, so weary, and yet they still had so far to go. Without Gandalf. The great, heaving sobs threatening to overtake him sent waves of pain lancing through his chest and side. Fire and darkness flashed through his mind, in time with each throb of agony. His heart still raced at the sheer terror of the Balrog. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, but in his mind all he could see was Gandalf falling again and again. "Fly, you fools." Instead of the calm he sought, his breaths only came faster, in little panicked puffs.

He'd acted so rashly, so naively, in agreeing to this Quest. And now Gandalf was gone. Though he was still surrounded with companions, the task fell to him alone and the weight of it was suddenly too much to bear. Gradually, the chapping mountain wind calmed him, its icy kiss grounding him to his present reality. At last, the grief of the others penetrated the fog and terror that had gripped his mind. He could breathe again, even if more shallowly than he was accustomed. Slowly, he loosened the hand that had been absently gripping the ring and turned, looking back at his companions. They had scattered over the hillside, each trying to give and take a bit of solitude in their mourning. Pippin's and Merry's cries were the loudest from their place on the ground, and Sam was in a daze. Poor Sam, Frodo thought with a bitter pang, he's never looked for any adventures, and I've dragged him into mortal peril. They've never known tragedy or heartache, and I've dragged them all here. Next to them, Boromir's face was a careful mask, though his eyes glistened, and he was clearly keeping guard over the little folk, as he so often called Frodo and his kin.

Frodo's attention went next to Gimli as the dwarf shifted and leaned on his axe. He made no effort to hide the tears spilling down and wetting his coarse beard. Frodo was struck suddenly by how, in his grief, the dwarf looked so very young. Gone was the gruff mask, though Frodo knew the dwarf would soon raise it again lest he appear vulnerable in front of the elf.

Almost as if he was accounting for everyone, his eyes continued on to Legolas. Grief welled up again, and his breath hitched at the bereft resignation on the elf's face. This is not the first sorrow in his long life, Frodo suspected, nor the last. Another tear fell, and despite the wails of Merry and Pippin, Frodo perceived the depths of sadness in the elf's eyes and considered that perhaps Gandalf in his long and wandering life had made many friends dearer even than hobbits.

At last, it seemed to Frodo's ears, the drum-beats faded and a large hand came to rest on his shoulder. He jerked in surprise, then hissed lightly at the pain of the sudden movement. That the perceptive ranger had not noticed told the hobbit more than he needed to know of the man's state of mind. He shifted his regard to the man. Aragorn. The heir of Elendil. The Ranger's gray eyes were misty, and his great anger had left him. Now he only looked weary and heart sick. His voice was rough when he finally spoke. "Come, Frodo, we must not linger here. He would desire we leave the gates of Moria and mourn him elsewhere."

He looked towards the mountains and held up his sword. "Farewell, Gandalf!" he cried. Frodo's vision blurred again with tears, and he felt he should turn away from the private moment, though Aragorn was speaking loudly. "Did I not say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware? Alas that I spoke true! What hope have we without you?"

What hope indeed, Frodo agreed.

The Ranger turned to the Company. "We must do without hope," he said. "At least we may yet be avenged. Let us gird ourselves and weep no more! Come! We have a long road, and much to do."

Frodo allowed himself to be steered back toward the others, the wind picking up and ruffling his hair.

"Aragorn!" Came a sharp warning from Legolas, and Frodo gave a shocked grunt as the man grabbed him by the shoulders and violently shoved him to the ground.

"Stay down!"

It took him a few moments to identify the little breezes as arrows flying perilously close to his head. Frodo's mind raced as Aragorn's weight pressed him even further into the cleft created by the ancient roadside drainage system. They had gotten clear of the high vaulted and vent-like windows above the gate that could have been used to pick them off had they stopped and rested too soon, and they had run down the steps, a smooth rock wall hewn out of the mountain itself at their right. Their senses had still been heightened from Moria, and they had all been careful to look for any sign of the enemy. Surely they hadn't missed something? Yet, here was evidence that they had.

The landscape lent a bit of natural protection, but also meant Frodo couldn't see what was happening—and if anything was worse than sheer terror, it was being trapped with no way to see what was happening, or protect oneself.

"Aragorn?!" He questioned frantically as it became clear the ranger was shielding him with his own body. Frodo hoped the small culvert was deep enough to keep them both safe, but the man's body muffled the sounds above him.

"They must have been waiting for us—to pick off whoever passed. I don't think they'll come out until nightfall—we are safe enough here, and we'll be safer yet when we rejoin the others. We were so caught up in our grief that we tarried too long at the first sign of safety. I am sorry, Frodo. I should have pressed us on."

He raised his voice slightly and called, still softly, "Legolas—can you see anything?"

Frodo wriggled until he could see out a bit and felt Aragorn instinctively ease his weight off of him. He sighed with relief as air came more easily into his lungs. Looking left, he saw that the others were relatively sheltered behind a crumbling stone ruin, the remains of an ancient guardhouse of Moria, perhaps. Really, only part of a wall remained. Behind it the rest of the Company huddled, weapons at attention. Legolas stood closest to the edge, an arrow nocked and already drawn.

Black arrows fletched with great black feathers littered the mountainside, but their direction was far to the right of the main Company.

"I wandered too far and now we've been cut off from the others." Guilt weighed on him more at present than the injury he had taken in the mines.

Aragorn sighed. "The responsibility is not yours. We were all too much in shock to have taken the proper precautions. But," he flashed him a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes, "orcs have terrible aim, and we are going to use that to our advantage."

"Legolas!" It was almost a whisper, but Frodo knew the elf would still be able to hear. The elf immediately straightened and looked toward them. "At the count of three, I want you to pick off their main archer, if you can, and we're going to make a run for it." Frodo felt a shadow of fear in his heart. He had no doubt of Legolas' aim and quickness with a bow, but he'd seen the near empty quiver.

A quick burst of elvish from the ranger perplexed Frodo, but he could have sworn he saw a smirk appear on Legolas' face. He looked like he might have replied, but decided they were too far to hear any wry retorts.

"We just need enough of a pause while they rearrange positions to leap behind that wall, and then we'll be out of their range." The man told him soothingly. Pain forgotten, Frodo readied himself. He felt slow and stiff, and it would take him twice as many steps to cross the distance. To a man, it might not look so great, but for a hobbit, it was quite far. His heart warmed gratefully as he heard Sam plaintively inform Legolas of the very same thing. Truthfully, it was Aragorn's safety that concerned him. Bilbo's gift had already proven true; it was the man who was in greater danger if short hobbit legs slowed him down.

"Get ready, Frodo-Mîn, tâd, NÊL!*"

So many things happened at once. Aragorn sprang out of the culvert, hauling Frodo with him under one arm and propelling him toward the wall. Frodo's feet barely had a chance to touch the ground as they leapt, his legs scrambling uselessly in the air. He braced for the impact of the arrows even as Legolas stepped out swiftly in front of them from behind the wall and let fly two arrows in quick succession, automatically feeling for a third. Safe behind the wall, Frodo was forcefully delivered into Sam's arms, and he turned to offer Aragorn a relieved smile. Frodo's heart clenched as Legolas staggered back behind the wall to join the rest of the Company. Elves never staggered, at least not that he'd ever seen. They all seemed only to be capable of movements of infuriating grace and fluidity. Ignoring the pain in his ribs, he leaned around the man for a better view.

An expression of mild surprise was on the elf's face as he gazed down at his torso. Frodo's eyes widened, taking in at almost the same moment the blood on the slender fingers and the black fletched arrow protruding from the elf's side.

*The name Moria means Black Pit, and, according to Tolkien, was given to Khazad-dum by the elves after the dwarves awakened the Balrog. What I, personally, do not understand is how the Western Gates were inscribed with the name Moria during the time of Narvi, at the height of the dwarf kingdom.

*Mîn, tâd, NÊL!—One, two, THREE!

Please consider leaving a review. Any and all feedback is very helpful and much appreciated!

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

Note: I've made the assumption that Gimli at least understands Sindarin. After all, his father had dealings with Thranduil. Also, I cannot take credit for the idea behind Sam's outburst mid-chapter. The idea came from the fanfic The River by Indigo Bunting. I highly recommend giving it a read!

Chapter Two

It was not only Gandalf whom Gimli mourned. He'd held out hope to the very last moment, but after Moria he could no longer deny Balin's demise. His kin. In his younger days, he'd sat up with them nursing an ale late into the night while they'd regaled him with the legends of Khazad-Dûm, and of their desire to restore it to the glory days of the dwarves, or of their adventures with a certain hobbit. It had long been their dream, and now they lay dead. Now Gimli had proof undeniable that all those who had set out to reclaim Moria were lost. The book of Marzarbul would be an extra weight in his pack and burden on his heart until he could bring it to his father. How glad he had been of the wizard's stubborn choosing of the path under the mountains, and now the mines had claimed him, too. It was unfathomable.

He should have returned his axe to its place on his belt, but instead he leaned against it, gripping the axe head tightly. The bite of the metal into his gloves felt calming. Later, he would remember to clean off the orc blood, but for the moment he paid it no mind. These were grievous losses, each too near to the other to bear. His very knees trembled with the weight of all that had passed. Aye, Moria had been grander than even his youthful visions, but he wished now it had been sealed up long ago, never to be looked on again. He bowed his head. Had anyone been paying attention, they might have noticed the tears wetting his beard, but he did not feel ashamed.

A little clatter ahead of him jerked him from his reverie, and his eyes flashed to a spot several paces ahead. Even as he comprehended the black arrow, more began to fly. Before he could react, the elf called out a warning, but the Ranger and Frodo were already too far away for any of the Company to come swiftly to aid them.

Arrows continued to fly all around, one bounced harmlessly off his mail coat as Gimli, also, took shelter, propelling the still paralyzed Sam in front of him. Beside him, Boromir's oath was unintelligible as he pulled the younger hobbits behind the ruin of an ancient wall.

"Aragorn and Frodo are cut off!" the man reported. It was sheer luck shelter had been so near, slowed as they were by grief and weariness. The ruin of a guardhouse, perhaps.

"Can you see who is shooting at us?" This came from Merry, who had snapped out of his stupor of grief and drawn his sword, Gimli noted with approval.

Boromir shook his head, and Gimli muttered. "I suppose we'll have to ask the elf."

"Our friends are safe for now," came the reply, its usual merriment tempered a bit, "but our enemy is concealed in the trees. Their numbers are small, maybe five archers. Even to my eyes, the area appears to be the roots of the mountain, but there must have been some window out of Moria, or at least a shelter for them to lie in wait."

"They were biding their time, waiting until we had tasted freedom." Gimli said bitterly.

"Likely a last guard, to prevent any of us from escaping should all other means fail, and in our grief, we have made their job all too easy," Boromir spat.

"Aye," Legolas replied. "They guard the road, but they cannot reach us, save by arrows…at least for now."

"They've stopped shooting," Sam observed quietly.

Gimli's eyes turned back to the elf, whose jaw was set with a grim knowledge, and perhaps a hint of resignation.

"Their targets have disappeared. We are concealed behind this ruin, and I saw Aragorn push Frodo forward and out of their line of sight—there" he pointed to the left and across the wide courtyard. The dwarf could see Aragorn couched low, and Frodo beneath him.

"They are waiting for our next move, conserving their arrows," Legolas continued softly, "and I suspect they'll be willing to wait until night if necessary, when they can come out in greater numbers."

"Could Frodo and Strider continue against the mountain wall until they are out of reach?"

Merry asked a valid question.

Legolas tilted his head in consideration and gazed across the expanse, seeking the road's direction. Finally, he shook his head. "That rock face ends almost as soon as the road narrows. There would be no more shelter until the road curved again. The distance to us would be safer."

"But Mr. Legolas!" Sam sounded both panicked and indignant. He seemed to have rallied a bit. "That may be a short dash for Mr. Strider, but it's twice as far for Mr. Frodo! Hobbits can be speedy, I'll grant you, but it will take him much longer to get to safety." The other hobbits nodded in solidarity.

"Peace, Sam. Aragorn will not leave Frodo to fend for himself." Boromir eyed Legolas' bow.

Guessing his thoughts, Legolas spoke. "Neither will I. I shall distract them—and with some luck, perhaps it will be their numbers that are reduced, not our own." He paused as if listening to something, and the dwarf was a little surprised to see a smirk cross his lips. No doubt the Ranger was forming a plan. He'd never admit to envying an elf, but such sensitive hearing would be helpful from time to time.

Gimli eyed Legolas' quiver with a feeling of unease. Even he would not deny the elf was talented with his bow, but a bow was useless without arrows, and the three knocking around in the near-empty quiver would not be enough to subdue the five above.

They all fell silent, waiting in jittery anticipation of what would happen. Aragorn was counting, Gimli suspected.

"NÊL*!" cracked harshly across the courtyard to them, and Legolas stepped swiftly out to the side of the wall and aimed his bow up and to the right, staying parallel to the wall. He had nocked and loosed a second arrow before anything else had moved. Gimli could hear the orcs chattering excitedly at the elf's appearance and pressed his lips together to suppress his alarm. The stupid elf was making himself a target. There was no denying the orcs found him to be a far worthier prize than a man and a hobbit.

As so often happens in battle or skirmish, time seemed to slow. Aragorn sprang forward, the Ringbearer a blur of green and rusty brown under one arm. Legolas nocked his final arrow and shot, while at the same time the man dove between him around the stony wall, almost tossing Frodo in front of him. Had the situation been less dire, he might have come less close to outright throwing Master Baggins. Before the hobbit had fully reached the ground and before Gimli even had time to cry out a proper warning, a black blur-barely discernable to his mortal eyes-propelled the elf backward several steps, but he remained upright and staggered at last behind the safety of the wall.

Aragorn turned at Gimli's abbreviated cry and stared. Slowly, as if he wasn't yet certain what had happened, the elf looked down at the damage. The man sprang to the elf's side as the fire of battle ebbed, and Legolas slid downward. He only just managed to slow his friend's descent and ease him to the ground where he could lean again the wall.

Around him, Gimli could hear surprise and dismay as each of the Company became aware of what had transpired. Aragorn was heedless of them, his focus solely on the elf in front of him. He knelt close to Legolas, firing off something in rapid Sindarin and pressing his fingers around the wound. Gimli thought it strange that any man's default language when upset would be the Grey Tongue. Perhaps the man and the elf were even closer than he had previously thought, or maybe he was just trying to keep the elf calm. Gimli shook his head. He might as well speak in Weston, for his words were secret only to the hobbits and Boromir, thought he suspected Frodo understood more than he let on.

"Estel-we must go. We cannot tarry here." The elf's voice was rough with pain.

"You cannot afford to bleed to death, gwador nîn*," Aragorn retorted, "We have time enough, and your adar* would have my head, heir of Elendil or not."

Gimli raised an eyebrow at this. He had thought when the Company set out, that the man and the elf had perhaps been previously acquainted, but here was proof of a deeper bond. He wondered why the Ranger had hidden it from them.

Boromir had joined Aragorn at the elf's side, or maybe he had been there for some time and it had escaped Gimli's notice. He hovered over the elf and the man, speaking softly, and then he folded his stout frame into a crouch. "Surely you don't mean to remove it?!"

"Of course not!" came the somewhat indignant reply. But Gimli heard fear there, too.

"Why doesn't he hurry and pull it out?" Pippin exclaimed in soft surprise beside him. Gimli wrenched his gaze from the elf to look at the young hobbit, whose eyes were wide and horrified. His kin were all gathered around him. Merry had a comforting hand on his cousin's shoulder. Gimli's eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he noticed Frodo's stiff and shallow breathing and Sam's pale face. Clearly, neither felt well, but each was distracted from his own hurts. He'd need to keep an eye out, but as they were on their feet now, the elf was the priority.

"Learn this lesson and learn it well, my lad, for we may have need of it where we're going—Mahal bless we won't," Gimli answered gently, "To pull an arrow out is like enough as to bleed to death. If you're ever in that situation, you're to leave it alone. Now, Aragorn here might choose to remove it, but I expect he knows a thing or two more about it."

"Indeed, he does." Came the wry reply from the man, who was looking pointedly at Boromir.

Nothing else was said by the hobbits as Aragorn held pressure against the wound, and none too gently. His actions were methodical and decisive. Keeping his hand firmly pressed on the wound, he rummaged through his pouch with the other, retrieving bandages and a small, corked vial. Gimli squinted a bit, for they were all in close enough quarters that he could almost make out elvish script on the label. Passing it to Boromir to uncork, Aragorn turned back to the already protesting elf.

"I need to be clear-minded," he was saying.

"You need to be able to move."

Boromir passed the bottle to the elf. It seemed he and Aragorn had reached an agreement about one thing, at least.

"We're in short supply, but it was Elladan who you can thank for insisting I take what supplies they had that I could carry. This will dull your pain."

"I'll be insensate!" Legolas clearly recognized the concoction. Gimli marveled that the elf still managed to be argumentative under such circumstances.

"Just half, then," Aragorn cajoled, a notes of both exasperation and desperation in his voice.

The elf nodded finally and threw back half the contents with a grimace before thrusting it back at Boromir and wiping a shaky arm across his mouth.

Satisfied, the man drew a dagger from his belt. It was clean—untouched by their skirmishes in the mines. Aragorn's hands were practiced as he cut away the blood-soaked suede jerkin and blue shirt underneath it to expose the wound. Gimli's stomach roiled at the sight of the orc arrow in the flesh of a companion. Even an elf. It never became easier. He spared a sideways glance at the hobbits and noted with some surprise that, though their faces were pale, a fiery anger shone in their eyes. That was unexpected—anger over horror or revulsion.

"Goheno nîn, mellon nîn.* The draught will take the edge off soon, but you know we cannot wait." the man paused and gripped the elf's shoulder. He stabilized the arrow with bandages, then began whetting the dagger against a stone. The dwarf watched as deft hands, still grimy from battle, scored the outside of the shaft round and round with the sharp blade. Even the slightest jostling of the arrow had to pain the elf, whose jaw was clenched tightly. He continued to tense against the pain, but no sound escaped. The shaft at last broke away, falling with a clatter to the ground amidst the eerie silence.

Boromir cast it away with the toe of his boot in disgust, but the dark look he shared with Aragorn did not go unnoticed. Gimli's heart sank. The elf had paled dramatically, and Aragorn was now whispering in hushed Sindarin, "Breathe, mellon nîn. The pain will pass." To Gimli's amazement, after several frantic, gulping breaths, his color returned and he calmed a bit. A man or dwarf would not have recovered so quickly.

"I fear blood loss will weaken you in a way that pain will not, at least for now. Can you stand?"

Gimli thought with some dismay how much walking would pain the elf, if even the care Aragorn took was excruciating. He hoped somewhat ruefully that the elvish medicine would work just as pretentiously as it seemed every other elvish creation did.

The answering chuckle was unexpected, and somewhere between a grin and a gasp. "Peace! I've had worse than this, and your brother's draught is taking hold." And apparently it was, for the elf finally had the presence of mind to speak in Westron, so all could understand. A calculated move, maybe, but the entire Company cheered a bit and seemed to take a collective sigh of relief. The elf's tone was light enough, but his voice was strained, and Gimli could not dismiss the worry in Aragorn's eyes.

"Good. We'll be safer the more distance we can put between us and this accursed place," Boromir cut in tersely. "What is our direction?"

At last they began to assess their location. Gimli looked northward and could see that there the dale ran up into a glen of shadows between two great arms of the mountains, above which three white peaks were shining: Celebdil, Fanuidhol, Caradhras, the Mountains of Moria. At the head of the glen a torrent flowed like a white lace over an endless ladder of short falls, and a mist of foam hung in the air about the mountains' feet.

Aragorn followed his gaze. "Yonder is the Dimrill Stair," he said, pointing to the falls. "Down the deep-cloven way that climbs beside the torrent we should have come, if fortune had been kinder."

"Or Caradhras less cruel," said Gimli. "There he stands smiling in the sun!" He shook his fist at the furthest of the snow-capped peaks and turned away. How they had paid for his cruelty.

"The road lies below us. If we are to avoid further encounters with unfriendly arrows, we must pick our way down the mountainside to the place the road curves back east." He pointed to the rocky terrain that descended below them.

"Easy does it," he cautioned, as he and Boromir helped Legolas to his feet. The elf groaned at the movement and braced himself against the wall for a few moments to grow used to being on his feet. Gimli blinked in surprised when, after a few breaths, he looked up and proclaimed, "I am ready."

Indeed, if not for the disfigured and stained jerkin and shirt, one would hardly realize the elf was injured. Even the steward's son seemed taken aback, and the hobbits were similarly in awe, but Aragorn merely gave a sad smile and squeezed the elf's shoulder before turning and leading them all in their chosen direction.

The mountainside was steep and stony, and, though picking their way down it proved slow and precarious at times, the way was not overly difficult. Young birches grew sparsely and Legolas used them like great walking staffs, letting them brace him as he made his way down.

At last, they came to an ancient stone ledge, and in it Gimli recognized the craftsmanship of his kin. Below it, the road curved to meet them. It was rough and broken, now fading to a winding track between heather and whin that thrust amid the cracking stones. But still it could be seen that once long ago a great paved way had wound upwards from the lowlands of the Dwarf-kingdom. In places there were ruined works of stone beside the path not unlike the wall that had sheltered them from the orcs above, and mounds of green topped with slender birches, or fir-trees sighing in the wind.

How ironic that this time, it was the elf that needed to catch his breath. Gimli's heart twinged. How angry he had been at the elf's merriment on Caradharas as he dashed along the snow. He should have already danced his merry way halfway down the road and back to report on his findings. They paused here and looked about them. To the east the outflung arm of the mountains marched to a sudden end, and far lands could be descried beyond them, wide and vague. To the south the Misty Mountains receded endlessly as far as sight could reach. Less than a mile away, and a little below them, for they still stood high up on the west side of the dale, there lay a mere. It was long and oval, shaped like a great spear-head thrust deep into the northern glen; but its southern end was beyond the shadows under the sunlit sky. Yet its waters were dark: a deep blue like clear evening sky seen from a lamp-lit room. Its face was still and unruffled. About it lay a smooth sward, shelving down on all sides to its bare unbroken rim.

Grief rose up again. There Balin had been slain.

"There lies the Mirrormere, deep Kheled-zaram!" said Gimli sadly. "I remember that he said: 'May you have joy of the sight! But we cannot linger there.' Now long shall I journey ere I have joy again. It is I that must hasten away, and he that must remain." The sight would have been the joy of his life, but he'd now ever associate its beauty with loss-loss of his kin and loss of Gandalf.

The Company moved on for a while. Eventually, an eastward bend led them hard by the sward of Mirrormere, and there not far from the roadside stood a single column broken at the top.

"That is Durin's Stone!" cried Gimli, before he could stop himself. He dared not turn aside for a moment to look at the wonder of the dale, but the ancient places of his kin stirred something in him that was impossible to ignore.

"Be swift!" said Aragorn, giving him a nod of encouragement and looking back toward the Gates. "I would have not have us hurry by when this is as convenient a place to pause as any to make sure the bandages are holding, but we must not stay here long. The Sun sinks early. The Orcs will not, maybe, come out till after dusk, but we must be far away before nightfall. The Moon is almost spent, and it will be dark tonight. Be quick."

Gimli looked darkly at the elf. He looked a bit more tired than before, his bandages already soaked from the jostling climb down. It felt a betrayal to turn aside now, yet something in the elf's eyes spoke of understanding. In that moment, Gimli felt such a kinship with the elf that it shook him to his very boots. The elves understood and honored history and heritage in a way similar to his own people.

Gimli bowed his head in thanks.

"Come with me, Frodo!" he decided suddenly, turning to the Ringbearer and beckoning him from the road. "I would not have you go without seeing Kheled-zaram." He ran down the long green slope and could hear Frodo following slowly behind, and also another. A quick glance confirmed it was Sam.

Behind the standing stone Gimli halted and looked up. It was cracked and weather-worn, and the faint runes upon its side could not be read. "This pillar marks the spot where Durin first looked in the Mirrormere," said the dwarf, feeling no little amount of awe and reverence. "Let us look ourselves once, ere we go!"

They stooped over the dark water. At first they could see nothing. Then slowly they saw the forms of the encircling mountains mirrored in a profound blue, and the peaks were like plumes of white flame above them; beyond there was a space of sky. There like jewels sunk in shone glinting stars, though sunlight was in the sky above. Of their own stooping forms no shadow could be seen.

"O Kheled-zaram fair and wonderful!" said Gimli, sadly and wistfully. "There lies the Crown of Durin till he wakes. Farewell!" He bowed, and turned away, and hastened back up the green-sward to the road again.

When they returned from the mere, the elf was leaning against a tree, apparently preferring its support to the men hovering beside him. He was far too pale. Even his lips were bloodless, but he was still upright. The elf grunted as the new bandages were tied even more tightly.

"Would that we could be still," the man was saying, "I fear the terrain has done you no favors, mellon nîn, but I will do what I can for you, and the road is easier for a while."

The elf batted his hands away. "I will be fine." The look on his face spoke of wounded pride.

Aragorn looked doubtful, if bit annoyed. Gimli allowed himself to relax ever so slightly. Perhaps the wound had not been so dire as it had first feared.

"I tell no lie. We will press on as long as I can, and we have your brothers' foresight to thank for it. We cannot stop here at any rate—and if things should suddenly go ill, better that we are nearer to Lothlórien."


gwador nîn=my (sworn) brother


Goheno nîn, mellon nîn=I'm sorry, my friend.

As always, any feedback is welcome and appreciated.

Disclaimer: Still not mine.

Note: Parts of this chapter are very quote-heavy, but where possible, I wanted to preserve the original story, since the events in my own are so closely tied to it.

Chapter Three

The road now turned south and went quickly downwards, running out from between the arms of the dale. Merry jogged along in the middle as the Company hurried along, strung out in a long line along the ancient road. Some way below the mere they came on a deep well of water, clear as crystal, from which a freshet fell over a stone lip and ran glistening and gurgling down a steep rocky channel.

'Here is the spring from which the Silverlode rises," said Gimli, who jogged to his left. "Do not drink of it! It is icy cold." Merry turned his head toward the voice and felt a stab of envy at the dwarf's endurance. Surely his own legs weren't so much shorter than a dwarf's? Besides, thirsty though he was, the decision to stop for a drink did not lie with him. Did Gimli really think he would heedlessly veer off and start lapping it up?

"Soon it becomes a swift river, and it gathers water from many other mountain-streams," said Aragorn, from the front. "Our road leads beside it for many miles. For I shall take you by the road that Gandalf chose, and first I hope to come to the woods where the Silverlode flows into the Great River—out yonder." They looked as he pointed, and before them they could see the stream leaping down to the trough of a valley, and then running on and away into the lower lands, until it was lost in a golden haze.

"The woods of Lothlórien!" said Legolas from his place beside Aragorn, though it was more of a gasp. He was breathing heavily from the brisk pace required of them. It seemed to Merry that there was more he wanted to say as he gazed longingly Southward, but hadn't the energy. Lothlórien. He'd heard the name spoken before—by Aragorn and Gandalf, even Legolas. It was obviously their destination, but Merry wished someone would take the time to tell them exactly what it was and who exactly lived there.

His thoughts turned back to Legolas. Elves were certainly hardy folk, though they did not look it. The elf was tall and lithe, to be sure, but how he had managed to press on, and at such a speed, Merry did not know. When they'd departed Rivendell, he had certainly doubted Legolas' prowess in battle. Even when he'd seen him in action, he still hadn't been quite convinced until the fight had come too close for bow or arrow. Seeing the elf fight with a blade had been a fearsome thing to behold. Legolas had struck fast and fierce—almost like a viper, sure of each movement, his fighting no less deadly for its grace.

Strider had been leading at an almost jog for some time now. The pace was fast, too fast for shorter hobbit legs, anyway. Merry suspected it would have been far more difficult to keep up if the man hadn't slowed for Legolas' sake, though his concession barely eased Merry's difficulty. At other points in their journey, Merry had often found himself quite irritated and annoyed by this tendency to forget that hobbits could not so easily keep pace with their taller friends. What made the point even more irksome was how, when they did remember, the others persisted in treating them as children. They really could not have it both ways. The concepts were both entirely incongruent, and Merry had to confess to himself that for a long while now, he'd been nursing a sullen anger at it all. Perhaps at Bilbo for finding the blasted ring in the first place. And at Gandalf, too, for not safeguarding it better and relieving the hobbits of the responsibility, though he understood better now why.

Now that anger also held a shade of guilt. Gandalf may have treated them as incompetent fools, but reflectively, Merry supposed he had had several more millennia of experience than even Legolas, and if anyone had that right, he supposed the Gray Wizard did-and he had defended them bravely, with his very life. Though Strider had perhaps overtaken him on time spent with him and his kin, Gandalf was far more acquainted with the weaknesses and habits of hobbits. But, Merry thought fiercely, being of small stature and requiring more than a man's average amount of meals did not make one a child. Nor did an appreciation for lazy spring days—but these thoughts weren't helpful. Merry bowed his head and jogged on, hearing only his quick breaths and the pounding of his feet on the road. They'd come to be with Frodo, and with Frodo he would stay, though the adventure had long lost its appeal. Truthfully, it had lost its appeal somewhere between the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs, though he had hoped fervently the worst of the danger had been at Weathertop. Moria had proven him wrong. Whatever that creature had been, it had terrified even the merry elf, and had certainly made the Nazgûl seem a friendlier foe. He shuddered.

The steep decline of the road as it made its way to the lowlands gave haste to their steps, and aside from an occasional missing stone or one that had been displaced, their way was smooth enough. After a bit, he raised his eyes again and watched the spring tripping along beside the worn road. It was such a peaceful reminder of the Shire on a sunny day that Merry nearly wept with homesickness. His feet felt heavy, and not a little sore from the terrain and their fast pace. He'd had stitch stabbing in his side for several minutes now.

Merry looked behind for Frodo and Sam and frowned. They were lagging behind. It wasn't safe for them to fall so far back. At his right, Pippin mirrored his action, and his frown. His younger cousin might have barely escaped his tweenage years, but he was a true adult and not nearly as foolhardy as he might appear, the incident with the rock in the mines notwithstanding.

Ahead Aragorn still hovered on Legolas' left, and Boromir was on his right, either man ready to step in at a moment's notice and support him, but from what little Merry could see, so far the bandages still stood out a stark white and the elf went forward under his own power. Perhaps with Legolas holding his own, the wound was not so dire. It was worry for Sam and Frodo that was foremost in his mind. They'd yet to be tended, nor had they complained. But he could not forget the gut-clenching horror of seeing Frodo hurled against the wall, half skewered. He had to take a deep breath and swallow hard at the bile that suddenly burned his throat. Frodo was not dead, he reminded himself. How, he couldn't say, but that mattered very little. What mattered was that he'd not been killed before their very eyes.

"I wish we had time to give them a good look over." Pippin murmured softly, less out of breath than Merry.

"When we can. It's miraculous, but nothing as dire as it appeared." His cousin gave him a dark look and shuddered.

With each step, it seemed Frodo and Sam fell further and further behind. Merry supposed it was stubborn pride that kept them from saying something. Hobbits could be just as prideful as an elf or dwarf when it came to revealing weaknesses—except for where food was concerned, maybe. More likely, though, it was worry for their companion that was keeping them silent. As long as Legolas kept going, so would those two, he suspected. He looked up again at the sound of an uneven footstep sliding against the road and saw Aragorn catch the elf by the elbow as he stumbled.

Legolas cried out at the sudden jerk, though it was choked off and muffled some by the distance. After the fight in Moria, seeing the elf anything less than graceful, fierce, and sure-footed was alarming. After a moment of staring, he realized why the elf was being so stubborn about making it on his own. If his left arm was over Aragorn's shoulder, it stretched the wound, and if his right arm was over Boromir's shoulder, the most natural place for the man to hold onto him was too near the wound. The elf straightened after a moment, and on they continued at the same brisk speed. Thinking again of Frodo and Sam, Merry frowned suddenly, and revised his assessment of the situation. Aragorn must be very worried indeed to have failed to set a rearguard, or else he expected no further attack until nightfall.

After they had gone on a little ways, Merry glanced behind again. To his dismay, he found that Frodo and Sam had lagged so far behind that they were close to being out of sight entirely. He stopped dead in his tracks and dropped his pack to the ground, alerting others that something was amiss. He could hear Pippin following directly behind him as he rushed backward, retracing their path. Mercifully, he didn't have to go far, and when he reached them, he could see that Frodo was gasping for breath, more so than Merry's huffing and puffing from exertion. Sam was sagging listlessly against him.

"'s okay," the gardener murmured when he perceived they had come, "Jus' a bit dizzy, is all." He shivered, even in the shining sun, and Merry took in their pale faces with growing concern. Perhaps he and Pippin had given in a bit too hastily to their relief. Guilt came again, and he wished he'd spoken up sooner, for their sakes.

Boots sounded on the road behind him as Pippin supported Frodo, and in a moment Aragorn swept past him and knelt in front of the two hobbits. Boromir had retreated also. Looking behind him now, Merry could see Legolas standing in place, hunched slightly at the waist, and watching from ahead. Gimli had paused next to Merry's discarded pack and looked torn between coming to see about the hobbits or making sure someone stayed near the elf.

"I am sorry, Frodo!" Aragorn was saying, concern in his voice. "So much has happened this day and we have such need of haste, that I have forgotten that you were hurt; and Sam too. You should have spoken. We have done nothing to ease you, as we ought, though all the orcs of Moria were after us. Come now! A little further on there is a place where we can rest for a little. There I will do what I can for you. Come, Boromir! We will carry them."

Merry nodded in satisfaction and went to retrieve his pack. Frodo and Sam would now be taken care of. He and Pippin would look help after Legolas. The elf looked at them in some amusement as they approached. "Have you come to be my nursemaids, now?" His voice held a forced merriment that did not match his eyes. Merry could see at once why Aragorn had been so distracted. Up close, the elf was haggard and pale, his eyes were bright, but with pain instead of laughter. With each step there was a low moan of which, the hobbit suspected, the elf was entirely unaware. The bandages, at least, were mostly dry, though the end of the black shaft that peaked out from the middle was disconcerting indeed, especially with the elf pretending nothing was amiss.

"You look awful, laddie," Gimli whispered as he joined them. It was the first time Merry had heard any affection in the dwarf's usual jibe.

They trudged on, Legolas steadying himself from time to time with a hand on their shoulders. Merry noted with some satisfaction that this arrangement was a better one than before, so long as the elf could support his own weight.

Soon afterward they came upon another stream that ran down from the west, and joined its bubbling water with the hurrying Silverlode. Together they plunged over a fall of green-hued stone, and foamed down into a dell. Merry and Pippin slowed to a stop alongside Legolas and peered down. Dusk would soon be upon them, and they could scarce afford a further delay, but they could go no further without rest, and Frodo and Sam were in desperate need of tending. He glanced up at Legolas, who was trembling from the exertion of remaining upright.

Presently, Aragorn joined them, Frodo on his back like an uncle would carry a little nephew. "Do not look so forlorn, Merry, we will rest soon. Here we will leave the road and follow the stream into Lothlórien from the north. I had thought to rest here and continue on the road, but delayed as we are, I think it would be best if we left the road entirely. Continuing beside it in the woods will be more defensible."

So this was the place Strider had mentioned. Merry looked at him in disbelief. "You cannot mean for us all to climb down there."

"I'm afraid I do. This is the last place until we have reached the plains where we can safely leave the road, and we are all weary." He looked at Legolas grimly, and said, "You and Merry stay here and rest, mellon nîn. When the fire is built we will help you down."

My friend. Those two words Merry knew well. Where Legolas was concerned, Aragorn didn't seem to ever bestow the title in Westron.

A flicker of embarrassment crossed the elf's face, but he merely nodded. "Tend the hobbit's first," Legolas waved the man away. "They have waited long enough."


"Nothing is yet quite so dire. See to them. I will rest while you do." Merry suspected that what the elf did not say was that he could not actually make it down to the dale without resting first.

Legolas sought out a lone tree not far from the road, as had been his custom since they had set out, and all but collapsed against it. Merry stood and watched as the others climbed down the embankment. It was steep and quite precarious, more mountainside than hill, really just a pile of mossy green rocks. The men had to take great care not to fall with Sam and Frodo, who were nervous enough about the climb down that they had roused considerably. Merry sucked in a sudden breath as Boromir lost his footing, sliding several feet and flailing out with his free hand before he at last found purchase on a larger stone that was sturdily wedged into the embankment wall. Several disturbed stones continued on to the bottom. The man adjusted Sam's weight and regained his balance before continuing onward much more carefully, but the incident had left Merry with a growing concern. Legolas would have a difficult time with the climb down.

Gimli did not appear to be the least bit amused at the man's abilities. He looked heavenward and huffed a bit, muttering to himself every time someone slipped or tried to step on a wobbly rock. He was the last to descend, and unlike the others, turned to hug the rocks that jutted out here and there. He scrambled down the stones with an agility that could only belong to a dwarf. Not a pebble had been disturbed. Merry's eyes narrowed thoughtfully, a promising idea unveiling in his mind. He made a note to ask Gimli to advise Legolas when it can time for them to rejoin the others. Neither man would be able to balance and carry the elf to the bottom, nor there was any room to stand beside him and support his weight, but a dwarf would know which stones were true. Legolas would only have to set aside some of his pride and allow himself to be helped by a dwarf. Merry grimaced. No, that was unlikely—but if Gimli helped Strider, and Strider helped Legolas… Merry grinned. Problem solved.

At last the Company reached the valley floor. About them stood fir-trees, short and bent. "Merry! There's whortleberry shrubs to last for days down here!" Pippin called up with excitement.

Merry could not suppress a grin, and his stomach rumbled in agreement. "No need to shout, Pip, the sound carries just fine!"

"Then we will need to be cautious!" Boromir warned darkly. "But gather some up—it has been many hours since our last meal, and we are all in need of some sustenance."

At the bottom, Merry could see a level space through which the stream flowed noisily over shining pebbles. It was not nearly five hours after noon, and they had come only a few miles from the Gates. Sunset was quickly approaching and Merry wished they were all already resting comfortably down below, or better yet in this Lothlórien where they headed.

"We'll be needing a fire." Gimli suggested gruffly.

"Heat some water, too," Aragorn agreed.

Boromir joined the dwarf in gathering loose twigs and branches for a small fire while Pippin retrieved a small pot from Sam's pack and went to collect water from the stream. Merry gave a small chuckle that, even injured, the gardener would not part with his pots. Perhaps soon they would be able to persuade him to part with just a few of the items he had hoarded.

By the time Pip returned, a small fire crackled merrily. Duty discharged, the hungry young hobbit began fast filling up his cloak with copious amounts whortleberries. Merry rolled his eyes, it would be forever stained and the impish behavior would only support the others' ideas that he was still a child.

"Good luck, Sam!" Aragorn's voice drifted up from below and Merry turned his attention from his berry-picking cousin to the man tending Frodo and Sam. The man was holding the gardener's blond hair out of the way with one hand, while probing at an awful looking gash with the other. Had Aragorn not just made an exclamation of relief, Merry would have been very concerned, indeed. Sam's floppy hair had hidden a wound that looked ugly and grievous indeed. "Many have received worse than this in payment for the slaying of their first orc. The cut is not poisoned, as the wounds of orc-blades too often are. It should heal well when I have tended it. Bathe it when Gimli has heated water."

Merry's eyes flashed to Legolas. The elf was observing the scene below in silence, his face drawn with pain, unaware of Merry's gaze on him. Was he so lucky, or was poison weakening his body even now? Surely even elves were susceptible to that? Merry sighed; he really needed to learn some optimism. He'd always been bit of a dark cloud among his kin, but he'd been proven right far too many times to change the habit now.

Strider opened his pouch and drew something out. "They are dry, and some of their virtue has gone," he was saying, "but here I have still some of the leaves of athelas that I gathered near Weathertop. Crush one in the water, and wash the wound clean, and I will bind it." He passed the delicate herb over to Gimli to be put into the water. "Now it is your turn, Frodo!"

"I am all right. All I needed was some food and a little rest." Merry's eyebrows disappeared into his curly mop of hair as Frodo clutched his coat closed rather prudishly. Now this was interesting.

"No!" said Aragorn. "We must have a look and see what the hammer and the anvil have done to you. I still marvel that you are alive at all." Gently he stripped off Frodo's old jacket and worn tunic, and gave a gasp of wonder. Then he laughed. Merry blinked as a shimmering silver coat of mail was revealed. Carefully the man took it off and held it up, and the gems on it glittered like stars, and the sound of the shaken rings was like the tinkle of rain in a pool.

Merry's jaw dropped in utter astonishment.

"Look, my friends!" Strider called. "Here's a pretty hobbit-skin to wrap an elven-princeling in! If it were known that hobbits had such hides, all the hunters of Middle-earth would be riding to the Shire."

"And all the arrows of all the hunters in the world would be in vain," said Gimli, gazing over in wonder from his place tending the fire. "It is mithril-coat. Mithril! I have never seen or heard tell of one so fair. Is this the coat that Gandalf spoke of? Then he undervalued it. But it was well given!"

"I have often wondered what you and Bilbo were doing, so close in his little room," called down Merry. "Bless the old hobbit! I love him more than ever. I hope we get a chance of telling him about it."

His mirth died when he looked back to share a smile with Legolas and saw that the elf had barely noticed the exchange. The frown that appeared only deepened when he turned his attention back downward and laid eyes on the dark and blackened bruise on Frodo's right side and breast. It must be quite severe indeed if it could be seen so clearly from this distance.

While the others set the food ready, Aragorn bathed the hurts with water in which athelas was steeped. The pungent fragrance filled the dell, and Merry felt all the hurts of the day fade away. He looked at Legolas and saw that he, too, was resting easier, walking in dreams. The lines of pain had faded from his face, and his open eyes gazed into nothingness. Merry wasn't sure he'd ever get used to the strange way elves slept, but strange or not he was glad the elf was able to rest.

Pippin scrambled back up and, after depositing a small pile of whortleberries in front of Legolas, plopped down next to Merry. The both of them hungrily munched on the berries and sipped some water, but the elf's portion remained untouched. For the moment, though, Merry was content. He would take the rest that was offered. The sweet aroma of the athelas wafted up to him and soothed his spirit, and he felt a trace of optimism return for the first time in a fortnight.

To be continued...

As always, any feedback is welcome and appreciated.

A/N: Still not mine. Based on some of the discussion in the actual text of The Fellowship of the Ring, I've made the assumption that some members of the Fellowship know little about where they are headed beyond a name on a map. Legolas, obviously, would know, and Aragorn, Tolkien tells us, has been there before. Boromir has heard strange tales. I find it safe to assume the hobbits and Gimli would have had little, if any knowledge of the Golden Wood. Also, for ease of reading, I've decided to use italics to denote emphasis and quotes from Tolkien. Single words are probably mine and being emphasized, phrases and sentences are quotes.

Chapter Four

Guilt weighed heavily on Aragorn as he tended Sam and Frodo. They had suffered for his distraction, yet had not uttered a single complaint. When he'd first, finally, given a good long look at Sam, fear and sadness had warred in his heart. At first glance, the wound had looked so grievous, and the thought that Sam might have been hurrying after him, cut to the bone, head pounding, felt like a physical blow.

But it had not been so. The cut was shallow and already clotted. It would look much improved once cleansed of the crusted blood. Boromir would bind it so that it would trouble the gardener little more. Yet how could he have forgotten such a thing? Though they had become like brothers, while on this quest, Legolas could be no more important to him than any other member of the Fellowship. Even he would have said something before now if their positions had been reversed, despite the Balrog, despite the weight of Gandalf's fate. Gandalf, who had been so weary, so much so that Aragorn had known fear, even before the Balrog had shown itself.

And Frodo. Now that had been one of the surprises of his long life, and joyously so, yet even with the mithril, the hobbit was in no small amount of pain. Under the mail there had been a shirt of soft leather, but at one point the rings had been driven through it into the flesh, a testimony to the force of the blow. Frodo's left side also was scored and bruised where he had been hurled against the wall. The Ringbearer was quite fortunate no ribs had been broken. It had been a close thing, and the one area where luck, fickle though she was, had decided in the Company's favor. His hands faltered a bit in their binding as his mind's eye pictured the wound that might have been. Frodo could have died. Should have died. Only the mithril had spared him. They might jest about the surprise treasure they had found, but they were all grateful.

By the time he was mechanically securing two soft pads over Frodo's blackening skin, a task he could do in his sleep, Aragorn's mind had returned to the friend he could do very little for. Half a vial of painkiller yet remained, and a sedative, but neither would make up for lost speed and agility.

Dusk approached. Light remained, but the noise of twilight was beginning to grow around the dell as the insects welcomed the night. In his heart, he felt only resignation. He couldn't prevent them meeting the orcs now—they were no longer be able to outrun them. With rest and the tending of wounds, their odds of hiding from or losing the orcs in the Golden Wood were better. They were so very near it, but still much too far to give him comfort when he took into account the short-legged hobbits and the dwarf-and Legolas. Especially Legolas. At best maybe a few miles lay between them and the orcs.

"Aragorn—we must continue on. We cannot linger here any longer." Boromir no longer bothered to hide his restless impatience. Aragorn couldn't blame him—all his own choices had gone ill.

At last he nodded, "As soon as we can."

The man seemed to grit his teeth, but he kept his peace.

Climbing back up the embankment was far easier than climbing down had been. When he reached the top, he could not hold in a chuckle of amusement at the two hobbits munching on berries as if it were a fine spring day in the Shire.

"We offered Legolas some," Pippin defended somewhat guiltily, though if Aragorn was not mistaken, it appeared to be feigned. He took a long look at the youngest hobbit, but already the playful mask was firmly in place, as if he'd never been anything other than merry.

Aragorn laughed outright anyway. Truthfully, it warmed his heart that they could still manage a carefree moment. He himself was ever on guard, ever weighing their options and chances. Before he could shift his attention to Legolas, Merry paused and caught his attention, berry halfway to his mouth. "You should ask Gimli to help. I noticed he chose the best path down."

Aragorn straightened at the challenge in Merry's tone. Of course. Why hadn't it occurred to him that the dwarf would know how rock behaved better than any? To their folly, he had been under utilizing him. He looked at Merry again. He always had been more quiet and curious than the others. He alone of the hobbits had not gone drinking in Bree, but had gone to look around and scout out the situation. He was careful, calculating, and curious—perhaps he was another underestimated and underutilized.

"I'll have him coach our way down," he conceded.

At last, he glanced at his friend. The elf was resting against a tree, his right hand draped over his torso, guarding it. His blue eyes stared sightlessly. He was so very still—too still. Aragorn's breath caught and his heart began to race. He scrambled across the remaining few feet between them, not caring that his feet slid clumsily over the loose dirt. His hands trembled uncertainly as he checked the pulse point in the elf's neck. He was so still, unnaturally still, but blood thrummed reassuringly beneath his fingertips. Legolas' heart raced, even in sleep, but the beat was strong and sure. Aragorn raked a hand through his scraggly hair and let out a shaky breath. He hadn't had a scare like that from a sleeping elf since he was a boy. The sleep itself was concerning, though. Legolas had less need of it than a man, and that he was so exhausted hinted at graver circumstances than mere blood loss. He hoped it was only a need for rest.

"The athelas lulled him to sleep, but he needed it so we let him be." Merry eyed him apprehensively.

"It's worse than he's been letting on isn't it?"

Aragorn sighed. His own nightmares were resurfacing to haunt him. He weighed his words several times before finally replying, "Legolas has a long history of downplaying his own hurts, but I've no right to be in such fear for him."

As he spoke, he inspected the bandages, reassured to find only a slight amount of bleeding. Being an elf, his body was already trying to heal itself, but the wound couldn't heal entirely, until the arrow was moved. As long as the bleeding was controlled, Legolas had time. Aragorn firmly banished any thoughts of what might yet go ill. The area around the wound was a bit swollen, but not excessively so. "He's in no danger of dying this night," he added, forcing an optimism he did not feel into his voice.

He found himself unable to voice his deepest fears. In his mind's eye, he could see his own hands treating similar wounds over the years—slicing, searching, stitching—and always with mixed outcomes. Even under Lord Elrond's skilled hands, he'd seen events quickly turn dire—wounds that suddenly bled rivers of red, or fevers that took hold and would not break. His breath hitched and he shook himself back to the present, busying himself with his friend. There was no overt fever yet. Legolas' skin was cool and slightly clammy, but poison—whether from the arrow or an infection—was all too common. A fever was likely to take hold soon, but save for fresh bandages, nothing could be done until the morning, not here in the wild, if they were to remain undetected by orcs.

"Will you remove the arrow now?"

Aragorn almost jerked at Pippin's voice. He'd not noticed the hobbit moving so close beside him. He sighed. There was no time, and Legolas would suffer all the more for the delay. "It is too close to nightfall, and even if it were not, we cannot tarry here long enough to do so. It is safer to wait—until we are safely in Caras Galadhon, if we are able."

He gave Legolas him a gentle shake, "Wake up, mellon nîn."*

The elf twitched a bit.

"Legolas!" He had expected the elf to rouse while he talked with the hobbits. He gave him another shake, as jarring as he dared, and at last the elf stirred, his blue eyes clearing of dreams. Almost immediately, his peaceful face clenched against the pain, but his eyes were alert and clear...and fearful.

"Yrch telir, Estel*!" He hissed, trying to sit upright and failing.

But Aragorn could hear nothing over the sounds of the crickets and cicadas. Still, a hand went to his sword. He had expected this, though perhaps not this soon. He had known the orcs would pursue them as night fell, but all their plans had gone ill. There was still light yet, but they had not come far enough from the gates, and if Legolas said orcs were coming, then orcs were coming.

Hiding his alarm, he clasped the elf's shoulder. "How near?"

"A few miles, the trees whisper that orcs have begun passing beneath their boughs, crawling out of the shadows of Moria. You know their speed will increase as it grows darker."

Aragorn unclenched his fingers from his sword. They yet had time to flee, not endlessly so, but they still maintained a head start.

"Estel—" Legolas had that look on his face that he got when he'd made a decision, and Aragorn knew exactly what that decision would be, and he couldn't allow himself to consider it. Not yet.

"Baw!* It's not as dire as that yet. Let's get you off the road before any decisions are made," he cajoled, "Orcs or not, I'm not leaving you here to wait for them by the roadside. Below, at least, you'll have places to hide." He fumbled in his pouch until his fingers closed around the correct vial, and he pressed it into the elf's hand. "Here. Drink it all."

Returning to embankment, he saw that Boromir was already dousing the fire while Gimli gathered up packs and refilled the water skins in the stream. He called softly, his voice a sharp whisper, "Gimli—I have need of you."

He turned to find the hobbits waiting expectantly, confusion and distress plain on their faces. Belatedly, he realized that they'd understood none of his conversation with Legolas. He motioned toward the dell with a raise of his chin. "Go on down, and help make ready to leave. We are already pursued."

Understanding crossed their faces and they scrambled down without needing to be told twice, fear of the orcs overcoming any lingering fear of heights.

He looked at Legolas. At any other time, he would have thrown him over his shoulder, but his injury meant they would be forced to do it the hard way, so instead he placed a hand firmly under each arm and pulled.

"On your feet." His unspoken apology was in his voice. A high pitched keening sound escaped the elf's clamped lips as he pushed himself upright, his breath coming in little strangled gasps. He swayed suddenly as his face lost what little color it had had and his knees went out from under him. Aragorn grunted at the sudden weight, only his strength keeping the elf from sliding straight back to the ground.

Legolas' legs flailed weakly for a foothold. He shuddered, then turned his head and wretched painfully. Aragorn's arms shook with the effort of holding him upright, but after a moment, the elf began to take more of his own weight. A few seconds more and, at last, he stood under his own power. Aragorn took in his dark ringed eyes and bloodless lips with considerable worry. There was nothing more he could give him to dull the pain, and the elf looked like a light breeze would blow him over.

"I am sorry, but you know we must rejoin the others, and I fear we have run out of time."

They turned to find Gimli waiting expectantly below, having stopped at about the halfway point, no thought other than concern on his face. He seemed to know what was expected of him.

"You know the trees, and trust them," he said, and not unkindly, "but I know the stones—both their strength and deceitfulness. Let's get you down." The elf stilled, almost as if he was looking through the dwarf before he finally relaxed, wounded pride in his eyes. At last he gave a single nod.

Easing his arms away, Aragorn let the elf test his own weight. He seemed to have regained his equilibrium and Aragorn was pleased to see a bit more color in his face.

"Alright, then." Gimli, likely sensing they could delay no further, took charge of the situation. "Turn around both of you. Aragorn, you will climb down just below Legolas. Lean into the hillside for support. Laddie—you just pretend for a moment you're climbing one of your trees. Quickly, now."

Aragorn gave a chuckle, but that Legolas allowed himself to take instructions from a dwarf with no comment to ease his pride concerned him. He was truly reaching the end of his strength. Even Gimli seemed to sense it, for the dwarf made no attempt at his usual jabs.

Gimli climbed several feet below them, then looked up and called for them to begin. This would not be an easy descent.

"Aragorn, to your left—that large flat stone about a foot down."

Aragorn twisted a bit until he could see it and stepped cautiously down. The rock held without the slightest wobble.

"Now move your right foot slightly down and to the left."

Aragorn obeyed and was pleased to find the footholds ample enough to release his hand holds. Under any other circumstances, he thought Gimli would have gloated and admonished the Fellowship not to ignore the skills of a dwarf, but the dwarf merely called up, "Your turn now, Legolas."

The elf trembled violently, his arms shaking as he struggled to grip his handholds. Aragorn's kept his hands at the elf's waist as he stretched one foot and placed it just in front of Aragorn, and then did the same with the other, a deep guttural groan escaping with each intake of breath.

At Gimli's instruction, Aragorn stepped to the right, and then climbed to another foothold, supporting as much of Legolas' weight as he could. They quickly realized that the elf no longer had the strength to grip any handhold above his head, his balance depending solely on Aragorn as they picked their way down. One false step, and—though Aragorn would likely be able to regain his own footing—the elf would fall. On they went, slowly and excruciatingly down the embankment, but never once did a stone slip, or even waver, underneath their feet.

At last, they reached the bottom of the vale, Legolas' clothes soaked and his skin clammy. By this time, the sun had disappeared on the horizon and the shadows of evening were taking hold. In just a few minutes, the night would begin darkening around them. Aragorn turned to find that the rest of the Company had crowded around, watching anxiously as they took their final steps down from the road. They were ready to depart. All traces off the small fire had been covered, and they all had a wary alertness about them.

In the dim light that remained, Aragorn could see the darkened bandages at Legolas' left side. Careful though they had been, the climb down had caused a good deal of bleeding. Even the upper thigh of the elf's leggings was soaked, but there could be no rest, or even time for fresh bandages. Already Boromir was edging the others southward, but Aragorn resisted. Legolas had yet to take a single step to follow.

"Estel." Legolas waited until he had his attention, "Fasto!* I am pleading with you, and you all must listen. They are coming—drawing very near now." Legolas' words were halting and urgent, for he'd taken no time to catch his breath, nor to recover from the climb down.

Aragorn could see the rest of the Company watching anxiously. He knew that tone. He knew what the elf was asking of him. They all knew. The tone a commander gives to his subordinate when the battle must be won at all costs. The sacrifice play. Grief swelled in his chest. "I cannot leave you, gwador,* do not ask it of me." His voice was thick, his words whispered.

He received only a cold glance from a prince, not the warm gentleness of a friend. "Then you endanger the mission, and place the Ringbearer in grave danger. I have sworn-you have sworn-to aid in this quest. The ring cannot fall into their hands. You know this. We have tarried far too long on my account. You must lead the others to Lothlórien with all haste."

It seemed for a moment he'd overcome the weakness of his wound, and that he would be able to rally and flee with them, but even the effort of speaking so forcefully had cost him and his chest heaved as his lungs struggled to regain the lost air. Though he had fallen silent, his eyes yet spoke, pleading and commanding.

The duty of a king and the bond of a friend tore at him. "I cannot just leave you here to face them alone." Aragorn answered at last in defeat. A king should put his people first, but his oldest and trusted friend, who had seen adventures uncounted with him, who had refused to leave him in similar circumstances…he simply could not leave injured and alone for the orcs to find.

The elf seemed to sense his thoughts, but even his strength to speak was spent.

Aragorn was frozen. Friendship, it seemed, had blinded him to the path that must be taken. He looked desperately from face to face at the rest of the company, as if they could offer a solution. He saw both understanding and resignation, and grief. The hobbits couldn't know the fate of an elf taken by orcs, for if they had, the horror in his heart would have been mirrored on their faces.

Suddenly, a throat was clearing, "You won't be leaving him alone. I will stay with the elf."


"Quiet, laddie, you've no say. It's my thinking that the elves of this strange wood won't admit a dwarf so easily, especially with no elf to vouch for him. It seems to me that by going with you, I would hinder your arriving to safety."

Aragorn opened his mouth, then shut it again, unsure whether to argue further, or to thank him, but his answer died on his lips as everyone began to hear what Legolas had been hearing for some time. The orcs were coming, and they were making no effort to conceal their size and numbers.

"We must get out of sight!" Boromir hissed.

Legolas seemed to shove him backward with his very eyes, "Meno!"*

*Mellon nîn=my friend

*Yrch telir, Estel=Orcs come, Estel.



*gwador=sworn brother


As always, I love hearing from my readers! Tell me what you loved. Tell me what you didn't love. Tell me what I could do better!

A/N: Tolkien dreamed up all the original characters and plot, not me.

Chapter Five

Even in the face of the orcs' approach, Aragorn still would not move and Boromir was beginning to think his feet would leave of their own accord. The Ring wanted to be found, and if Aragorn could not see his folly, then all would be lost. His precious elven lands. Gondor. Especially Gondor. He understood honor, but those thoughts that contradicted his current restlessness seemed dull, as if they belonged to another person entirely. The Ranger was frozen with indecision. With grief, really. Hardly the actions and manner of a king. A king's priority should be to his own people.

Deep down, he supposed, it was true honor, not to leave a friend, and in times past, he himself would have been hard pressed to give up his duty to a companion. But the Ring—Gondor needed it. Even Faramir would not have stood in the way of Gondor's salvation. Even the elf didn't. He was begging the man to leave. For pity's sake, even Gimli understood. The Ring came first. It could not be allowed to fall into enemy hands. That settled it in his mind. Aragorn could catch up. Clenching his jaw against any protests, whether from the others or within his own mind, he began propelling the others southward, and quickly. The orcs would be on the road above them any minute.

The company fled, staying just inside the tree line where it met the embankment that climbed up to the ancient road. They could hear the orcs growing closer on the open road. After a moment, Aragorn rejoined them, but his expression was hidden in the darkening night. Boromir could only glower at him.

The anticipation of battle had a way of making a person forget hurts or weariness, and, though the trees impeded their speed, they also gave shelter. Being down the embankment gave the Company a head start. Even Boromir found that Aragorn's plan to stay off the road to be a sound one—until the dale dropped away into a wide open plain, its tall grasses waving under the starlit sky. They could easily be overtaken on the open plain. The Silverlode divided it, and they were fortunate—had it been spring, the entire plain would have been flooded with the melting mountain snow. To this point the orcs had not yet caught up with them, to his surprise, but they could not avoid the inevitable. He steeled himself to continue on across the plain, folly or not.

"Wait! We will be seen!" Aragorn hissed, grabbing at Frodo's cloak and pulling him back just as the trees fell away. They all stopped instantly and withdrew back to the treeline. More clearly, he said, "We must remain beneath the shelter of the trees until it is safe to move on. We've a better chance of evading them if we wait here until they pass, but we will need to be watchful for any scouting parties."

Now that they had paused, it seemed the orcs grew louder by the second, gaining ground now that their quarry had stilled. No one moved, fearing to make the slightest sound, or to even breathe. Through the sparse trees, they could make out their grotesque shadows on the road in the darkness. Boromir guessed there were at least one hundred. They went on and on in disorganized companies until finally, they had passed.

The Fellowship left the dale then, continuing onto the plain a bit more assured of their safety. With relief came a clearing in Boromir's mind. He gazed up at the stars for a moment and felt the weight of shame at his desperation. Yet a part of his mind saw no dishonor, and was still adamant that the Ring must be protected at all costs.

They had not been jogging on the plain for even five minutes, when an orc horn sounded in the distance. Perhaps a mile away, two at the most. Boromir's head snapped up and back to the North

"Get down!" He commanded.

At his warning, the others dove into the grasses beside him. He hoped the tall grasses would be enough to conceal them, and that the orcs would only be concerned with answering the call. At first there was only silence, but he didn't dare give the all clear. To his relief, it seemed Aragorn agreed. Just when he was beginning to wonder if it had been a false alarm, the orcs rumbled past them, barreling down the road in the direction they had come. A few scouts even came from the plain, rushing past within several feet of them. His hand went to his dagger, prepared to soundlessly cut down any who spotted them.

They huddled down for several more minutes before Aragorn cautiously stood again. It seemed that, despite the folly of their many delays, they had been successful in evading the orcs.

"What was that?" Merry exclaimed softly as he rose, dusting off his coat.

"Likely a scouting party calling for reinforcements," Aragorn answered grimly.

Frodo's eyes snapped to the Ranger. "Do you think they've found Gimli and Legolas?"

"There is nothing we can do to change what is happening behind us," Boromir cut in. "No matter what has happened, this is our chance, and we cannot waste it."

The hobbits bristled at this command, and he was surprised, and gratified, when Aragorn finally voiced his agreement. "They've at least discovered our trail. That does not mean they've found Legolas and Gimli, and neither would want us to return for their sake when we have no way of knowing for certain that they are in any danger. They are resourceful. We should not doubt them. Boromir is right. Our paths have diverged from the others, and this night, our duty is to the quest, to reach the safety of Lothlórien-and we have need of haste. If they have found our trail, we will be pursued all the faster."

"Keep an eye out, there may yet be orcs scouting ahead." Boromir cautioned. They had been granted a reprieve, but he felt deep in his gut that before the night was out, they would have to stand and fight. The little folk were no warriors, and while the two men would defend them to the death, if necessary, they would not provide a lengthy protection against such a large party of orcs. Yet, if they could not, the mission would fail. He could see now that the Ring must be taken to Minas Tirith, if it was not already too late. He must persuade Aragorn of that.

Aragorn led the Company on for nearly three more hours. Their pace was quite urgent, and Boromir was glad to give speed to his restless anxiety, though their pace was yet too cautious to be frantic. He'd never been patient. That was Faramir. Faramir was the patient one, who plotted strategy and read books. He himself was more appreciative of brute strength and the decisive handling of a conflict. Why complicate matters unnecessarily?

Mist rose in the hollows and settled low over the plain. The hobbits were almost impossible to see amidst the tall grass. In the deepening night, guilt began to weigh on Boromir. The more he wrestled with his thoughts on leaving the elf, he found he both admired and cringed at Aragorn's reluctance to leave him behind. And thinking of the elf raised another worry. How was Aragorn so certain they would be allowed to enter a forbidden realm without the elven part of the Company? It had been clear from the start that it would be their destination after their crossed the Misty Mountains, but Gimli had spoken truthfully—and Boromir found it likely they would be hard pressed to be met as friends. They had heard in Gondor of that perilous land, and it was said that few come out who once went in; and of that few none escaped unscathed. Yet Aragorn spoke of it as a refuge. Now, like his protestations about Moria, it seemed that they'd given themselves only one option for retreat. A plain road through the swords of orcs seemed more certain—and more preferable-than this Golden Wood.

Aragorn's frequent backward glances as they traversed the plain had more to do, he suspected, with worry for the elf than worry for their pursuers, since they would likely hear the orcs before they ever saw them.

All they had heard for hours was the pounding of his and Aragorn's boots bruising the grasses of the plain, and the Silverlode gurgling beside them. The hobbits' feet were surprisingly quiet. There was a good chance they could sneak away undetected in the tall grass when the time came. The Company stumbled frequently over the unfamiliar and uneven terrain due to their speed, but they had not still not sighted the forest. He wasn't sure, if it were light, if he would see it looming or not. Above them, many clear stars had begun to twinkle, but the fast-waning moon would not be seen till late. It would be a dark night, and Boromir was again beginning to feel restless and exposed on the plain. He and Aragorn could be easily seen if they did not have a care, and the road lay to their right, unrolled like a carpet on the plain, the embankment now only a slight slope as the land flattened.

It was Sam who first heard the orcs' return, and to his credit, he did not stop to listen, instead picking up his pace and puffing, "They're coming, Strider." No one needed to be told to move more quickly-they all seemed to find a faster speed despite the many hours of running they had already endured. It was fortunate they had been able to ease Sam and Frodo at the dell, for there was no time now to cater to the injured.

It was some time before Boromir could hear their pursuers. Apparently hobbit ears were more sensitive than his own. Yet, after several minutes, he began to hear their movements, and as they drew closer, he could hear them talking excitedly in their guttural language. It was then Boromir realized the orcs were coming from behind them, not the road where they might pass them by a second time. They had indeed picked up their trail. The hobbits could go no faster, and the distance between the orcs and their quarry was quickly lessening. He could hear their metal armor grating from their fast pace, aided by darkness and malice.

He sensed the change in the orcs' pursuit and knew the instant they'd been spotted. There was nowhere to hide, no defensible position. He'd begun to spot a lone tree here and there, but that meant little. The wood was still an unknown distance away. Their only chance was to keep moving. If they stopped, they would be surrounded.

Retrieving his shield from its place over his pack, he slid his arm through its braces and held it at the ready. Its weight was reassuring and grounding. Already, his mind scrambled to find a strategy. Aragorn had no shield. Even if the hobbits had been seasoned warriors, by stature alone, they would be hard-pressed to defend themselves. There was a reason dwarves were so heavily armored and chose axes over swords. In trousers and coats, the hobbits were completely vulnerable, with the exception of Frodo.

Bitterness over not being able to see the ring to Minas Tirith kindled an anger within him. He'd had no intention to go to Mordor, but this was not how he wanted things to end. He wanted his city restored—the might of Gondor restored.

"Get behind us. Keep us between you and the orcs at all times."

He slowed so the stragglers would be behind him when the orcs reached him. They were innocents in all this. He wasn't happy they had been permitted to come, but he bore them no ill will. They carded through the grass until they were to his south. He and Aragorn a rear guard, they would fend the orcs off as long as possible so the hobbits could flee. Shadows approached, gradually becoming clearer in the starlight.

They stood several paces away, sizing them up. Two broke ranks to challenge them, sacrificed for a test of their strength. The clash was fierce and quick. They hardly stopped, just deflected and kept moving backward. Stop. Engage. Break free. The rage grew in his chest. They would soon be surrounded and it would be over. He could only deflect and parry. There was no time to keep track of the hobbits, even Frodo. They would have to take responsibility for staying out of the way.

A glance as he ran revealed Merry with his sword drawn. Apparently the Halflings needed to be brought up to speed on the plan. "Don't fight! You cannot win. You cannot help. Run!"

The orcs kept coming, one after the other, and-while they had no real talent with the blade-they certainly weren't laying down their lives so easily.

"You cannot mean to stand alone!" Boromir wasn't sure to which hobbit belonged the indignant and horrified voice, and for a moment rage at his failure clouded all his thoughts. Did no one understand that the orcs could not be allowed to have the Ring?

The forest loomed ahead suddenly, both sheltering and unknown. All misgivings fled at the sight of refuge, and relief unclenched in his chest as hope filtered through his anger. It was chaos. Orcs littered the ground in front of him. Aragorn kicked and parried and whirled next to him. Behind him, even Frodo got in a good jab now and then when an orc got too close, but the hobbits still weren't fleeing as they should. The tall grasses began to fade away, and with them gone, the hobbits would be sheltered no longer. A shadow dove at him from his left and he whirled his shield around to deflect the blow—that one had come from behind. Any minute they would be completely surrounded. With each pause to deflect, the orcs gained ground and more swarmed around them to take the place of those that had been slain.

Then, to his dismay, he could hear Merry and Pippin shouting over the fray and making a racket with their swords like there were ten of themselves. Boromir wanted to turn and scold them, and to see what they were up to, but he dared not divert his attention from the onslaught in front of him. He could hear them shouting. Their jesting tone perplexed him. Where those…insults? An orc horn blew again, and, to his horror, at least half of the force ahead of him broke off and gave chase to something to his left. His gut churned in horror.

"Merry?! Pippin?!" He still couldn't spare a look over his shoulder, but the silence told him all he needed to know.

He cut down another orc. They would be dead. Two helpless hobbits against fifty orcs.

"No!" Frodo's anguished cry was cut off as Sam, he supposed, clapped a hand over his mouth. Boromir's eyes stung, but the heat of battle was no time to give in to grief. Merry and Pippin had charmed him with their smiles and banter, and he could not fathom their end at the hands of orcs. From the corner of his eye, he could see the blue glow of Frodo's sword. Sam had all but tackled his master to keep him from racing after them. At least someone was keeping his head. As it was, several orcs had turned and pursued the sound. Aragorn lunged to the right and blocked them, hacking them down with a furious growl, buying the two hobbits time to slip out of sight.

The orcs had almost completely surrounded them now, and Aragorn realized it, too. If Frodo and Sam did not go now, they would be caught in the ring of orcs encircling them. If they could just get to the forest, maybe they would have a chance of evading them, but they needed to slip through before the gap closed.

"Run! Due South! Follow the Silverlode. There is another stream-cross it and keep running until a marchwarden stops you." Aragorn's words were breathless and urgent.

"And be silent, for pity's sake!" Boromir muttered, jabbing at an orc trying to slip between himself and Aragorn. Suspicion grew in his mind, and then anger. The Ranger knew far too much about this Lothlórien. He spoke as if he had been there before, yet he had not volunteered his knowledge to any of them. Boromir could only hope these strange elves would aid the Ringbearer. His thoughts darkened-and that they would not try to keep the Ring for themselves.

An instant more and the orcs had closed the circle and were pressing towards them. He couldn't see if Sam and Frodo had slipped through, and had no time to seek them out. He settled back to back with Aragorn. There was no thought, only instinct. Deflect. Parry. Deflect. Jab. He lost himself to the rhythm of the fight, and it became as if he was fighting his way out of another scrape with Faramir-Soldier of Gondor and Ranger of Ithilien.

Even with his shield, he was hard pressed to deflect the many blows. The orcs were pressed in so closely now that they were cutting each other in their attempts to breech his defenses. He barely had space to use his sword, so many were the enemy pressing against them. His left side relied entirely on his shield, and his right on his sword arm.

It would only take one jab, one false parry in the dance of battle for it all to be over. They could manage ten, twenty even, with better light, but here they'd been forced to their defenses, and they couldn't hold forever. He still hadn't caught a glimpse or heard anything of Frodo and Sam, or of Merry and Pippin. But the orcs pursuing them had yet to return to handle the men. Still, the sheer number of orcs overwhelmed them. The only saving grace was that he and Aragorn were far more accomplished in swordplay than these savages, who were neither particularly bright nor cunning.

Without room to properly swing his sword, he had to put power behind his deflections, using the force of his shield to propel the orcs backward while slashing to the right with his sword arm, but it was not enough to push them back completely…and it was causing him to tire quickly.

They need an opening to break through the orcs surrounding them. The trees were their only option if they wanted to live until morning. No words were exchanged, but singlemindedly they kicked and slashed, throwing all their weight behind each blow-putting all their strength into pushing the circle of orcs out. Separating slightly was risky, but they needed to force the orcs to spread out. The footing was difficult in the dark. Dead orcs littered the ground beneath them. One stumble, and it was very likely they wouldn't get back up.

"We must break through. Do not stop!"

An orc blade made a deep cut into his sword arm, and his sword was almost wrenched from his grip. This could not go on. Behind him, he could hear the frenzied ring of steel on steel. Aragorn had no shield, and his movements were beginning to slow. He was in real danger of being run through. There was no more time for defenses that merely knocked back one's opponent. If they were to break through, the orcs needed to go down and stay down. Maybe they would die either way, but if they didn't try, they surely would. Boromir's back was protected only as long as Aragorn's defenses held.

The orcs in front of him were quite startled when he dropped his shield, but with their pause, he was already drawing his dagger and slashing at the closest one. With a roar, he thrust his sword into the closest orc and stabbed with his dagger at the one coming up on his far left. He narrowly missed a blow that came from his right as another orc stepped into the gap. This one he also slew, leaping over its body and knocking another to the ground, and then another and another.

The risk had bought their freedom, and they both swept past the orcs encircling them and into the tree line, twisting and parrying. They couldn't stop. The orcs had thinned, unable to see them so easily, instead following the sounds of the fight as the men ran from trunk to trunk. The great gray trunks hid them in the moonlight.

If they could just get ahead enough, they might yet evade them. His lungs burned with exertion, but renewed hoped chased away his weariness.

In silence, he sprang from tree to tree. He could no longer hear Aragorn, but when he caught a glimpse of him, he saw that the man had sheathed his sword and was moving stealthily along, dagger in hand. The man had experience fighting in the trees, and Boromir found that he trusted it in the same way he trusted Faramir's skills in the woods.

His own sword handle was slick with the blood running down his arm, but he dared not stop to tend it. Though the battle was less frantic, their foes still outnumbered them, and the enemy could come on them from any direction in this wood. They would have to rely on stealth. He could only hope these strange elves that Aragorn apparently knew might hear their plight and come to their aid. Even if they were not friendly toward the men, surely they wouldn't allow orcs to roam freely over their lands? Legolas had not given him that impression when he had spoken of the plight of Mirkwood.

Following Aragorn's lead, he sheathed his sword, using his dagger to silently dispatch any orcs who stumbled in to him, never stopping long enough for them to detect him. His heart still raced from the heat of battle, and his mind was flooded with the pleasant disbelief that they might actually live.

The deeper into the forest they went, the fewer orcs they encountered, but he could see no sign of the Halflings. Under the night the trees stood tall before them, arched over the road and stream. In the dim light of the stars their stems were grey, and their quivering leaves a hint of fallow gold.

Thank you so much for reading! This chapter was difficult to write, and really stretched my skills. Any feedback would be quite welcome!

A/N: I don't own The Lord of the Rings.

Chapter Six

After the climb down the embankment, Legolas was desperate to heave air into his lungs, but instead he forced his body to submit to him. He needed to appear strong, despite the waves of agony threatening his efforts at remaining conscious. The others had already begun to flee, but still Estel lingered. The guilt in Aragorn's eyes when he at last came to his senses and relented told Legolas the man's mind was decades in the past.

"Now at this last, we must take a hard road," he whispered, echoing Lord Elrond's words to their Company. He had always known that at some point they would have to choose the good of many over their friendship—probably should have years ago, but then Aragorn be alive and being forced to leave him now. He forced himself to hold the man's gaze, and at last Estel's shoulders dropped and his stature seemed to shrink. The man looked away, shoving his pouch into Gimli's hands. And then he was gone, disappearing into the dark mists after the others. There had been no goodbye, for that would have been too painful. Too final. That he would return for them did not have to be voiced.

"Don't do anything I would do," he whispered to himself darkly in farewell. How coldly he had pushed Estel away. He stood frozen, his weakening knees threatening to send him to the ground.

"There's a vein of rock to the northeast that looks promising, mayhap we can find a shelter there."

Legolas blinked. He had forgotten about the dwarf. They needed to hide, and quickly, but his body felt heavy and disobedient. His eyes went to the trees around them, but the wound at his side already pained him viciously, and the fir trees had no low hanging bows. Finding shelter there was as likely as finding shelter in a hole in the ground.

The approach of the orcs was louder now. "Aye," Legolas acknowledged at last, his words thick in his mouth, "but we haven't the time to scout it out." His pride would not yet allow him to admit aloud that it was because he could no longer move swiftly enough. He wasn't certain he could move at all. Now that he'd convinced Aragorn to leave, the show was over and his strength was sapped.

Gimli gave him an appraising look, and Legolas found to his chagrin that the dwarf hadn't been the least bit fooled by his show of strength. He sighed, he supposed the dwarf deserved an honest appraisal of their chances. Gimli would likely stay in the open with him if he made no attempt at concealment, and the sounds of the orcs had begun to drown out the merry rushing of the stream.

The dwarf seemed to read his thoughts. "We have to get out of the open. Can you make it to the falls? Perhaps if they don't see us, they'll not look for us. I'd bet my second axe there's a divot behind the falls, and it's not far."

"Only your second axe?" His own voice sounded strange to his ears—raspy and halting. Legolas wasn't sure that gave him much confidence, but he hadn't the energy to truly provoke the dwarf. The fall in question was only a few paces away, yet it felt too far. They'd have to cross the stream and climb up a bit to access it, and he was so very tired. Instead, he replied, "Aye, I'll make it." But he couldn't seem to will himself to move.

"Come on, laddie." The dwarf's gentle voice finally cut through the fog. He'd stepped closer, a note of hurry in his speech, "You can't just stand here and let a dwarf take credit for dragging you to safety."

Legolas sighed, but didn't bother to retort that Gimli was too short to drag him anywhere. Any moment, the orcs would round the bend of the road. Just a little longer and he could rest. His legs trembled as he followed Gimli across the cold stream. The icy water swirled just above his ankles, but was nearly mid-calf on the dwarf. The rocks on the bottom were smooth and slippery from mountain flow. He knew the dwarf had slowed for his sake, yet it felt impossible to keep up. With a dwarf. His father would not be amused. His foot slipped suddenly, and agony lanced through him, the icy water soaking his leggings as his knees crashed down into the stream, his arm thrown out to catch himself.

With whom did he jest? His father would be in anguish if he saw him like this. He tried and failed to stand. Then the dwarf was there, hauling him upright. He was saying something, but what it was, he hadn't the energy to make out. Gimli looked frightened, and kept glancing toward the road. He realized dimly that it was him that the dwarf was frightened for, or maybe that his weakness was going to get the both of them killed. Wearily, he steadied himself against Gimli until he got his legs underneath him, ashamed to let more than one gasp of pain escape his lips. It was so different than with Aragorn. The man was his brother, and they'd seen each others' weaknesses many times. With the dwarf, he was a prince. A few more steps and they were across. The ledge leading to the falls was mercifully low hanging.

Gimli climbed up to take a look, and then returned to help steady him, worry on his face warring with triumph over being correct. He tried to lock the pain of the climb away, reminding himself he could rest in just a few more steps. He turned suddenly at a movement on his left and saw the first company of orcs appearing on the road. He quickly hastened behind the fall, Gimli close behind him. He could see very little behind the falls at first, but two steps more and he found just enough room for himself to fit. Had the situation not been so dire, he would have laughed that the dwarf was standing under the full soaking power of the small fall, but as it was he shivered from the cold spray, his wet leggings and right sleeve cold against his skin. The floor called to him, and he sank down gratefully, crossing his legs to keep them away from the water. He just needed to rest, just for a little while. He listened carefully, but even his ears could hear nothing over the low running and splattering of the water, nor the roaring in his ears. Had they been seen? He cringed. Perhaps he should have made sure of that before he so foolishly gave into weakness. He leaned his head back against the rock in self-reproach.

The dwarf waited impatiently for several minutes until he finally stepped out, then swiftly back in again. "They're still passing on the road." With the difference in height, Legolas could barely hear him, but the dwarf's ax was already out of his belt at the ready. Legolas put a hand to his knife, but doubted he'd even make it to his feet without Gimli's help. The part of the fall in front of him was smooth and almost translucent; through it, Legolas realized he could just make out the last of the shadowy forms marching away from them on the road. At last he allowed himself to relax, but then he saw them, crawling down the embankment. He motioned to Gimli to stay under the falls. And they waited.

They descended one after another, a small rear guard, searching for any trace of them, so low to the ground it almost seemed they crawled. Legolas' breath hitched as two of them came very close to the falls. If they looked carefully, he and Gimli would be seen, and that would be the end of it. His hand tightened on the damp hilt of his knife, prepared to take at least one of them with him. Slowly the orcs moved away, sniffing and kicking at the dirt, as they began tracking footprints round and around the place where their fire had been buried. They could easily find the dwarf's boot prints, and Legolas' gait had not taken care. Alarm was the only thing keeping Legolas from succumbing to the darkness threatening to overtake his vision.

The orcs tracked the footsteps out several paces in the direction the Company had gone, before returning again to where the fire had been buried. For whatever reason, for now they had dismissed the tracks that led to the stream. An orc horn cut through the still night, and then there was silence. Gimli's arm jostled him and he sucked in a gasp at the pain it caused. The dwarf's eyes were apologetic, but he motioned beyond them with his head. His very expression said, "Well? What's happening?!" Good. At least the dwarf was smarter than to attempt speaking. Legolas shook his head and put a shaky finger to his lips. Gimli would have to trust him, and the wait would be a long time for a dwarf to trust an elf.

Though he hadn't been certain he would remain conscious long enough to see what happened, about fifteen minutes later a large party of orcs came back down the road and began pouring over the embankment. The descent went on and on, their black shapes circling around the leader who stood watching by the stream. They were conferring together, and they were so close now. Those standing at the rear were just a few paces from the falls. Legolas tensed. Worry, at least dulled the pain, making him forget he was in no fit condition to fight.

At last he watched with both relief and dismay as the whole host followed the path taken by the rest of the Fellowship. It was perhaps fortunate that he was unable to rise, since it kept him from any actions Aragorn would categorize as stupid—like trying to buy him, Boromir, and the hobbits time to get away. Besides, any delay they caused wouldn't be enough. The main group would continue on when they saw only two remained, and he would have spent Gimli's life on nothing. Instead, he allowed his eyes to flutter closed as he tried to distract himself from the throbbing pain by focusing on his jerkin and the soaked tunic sticking to his skin beneath it.

Gimli, sensing the danger had passed, stepped out from under the falls and looked around. Then he removed his helm and shook the water from his hair.

"They have gone. Come on, laddie, let's go while we can and see if we can find a suitable place to wait for the others to come back. The water is squishing all the way to my boots."

Legolas nodded wearily, but made no move to follow.

"Up you get." The dwarf carefully reached under his left shoulder and tugged. It wasn't much leverage, but Legolas obeyed, a bit surprised at the dwarf's strength. Painstakingly, he got to his feet. Gimli remained beside him in silence as he rode out the waves of pain caused by standing. Legolas clenched his mouth firmly shut and clung to the shreds of his dignity. He was determined that whatever remained in his stomach would not reappear at the dwarf's feet.

Gimli seemed energized by the long wait under the falls, but Legolas felt like they had leeched the last of his strength. Each movement was stiff and required so much thought, and the cold spray and dunking from his fall in the stream had made his body even more numb and sluggish. His very bones ached, yet he knew they could risk no fire tonight. Orcs were notorious about doubling back, and they were not out of danger. And besides, the blow to his pride would be great. An elf should have no need of the warmth of a fire. He paid no attention to their direction beyond his own footsteps. He couldn't let himself think of where the orcs might be going, only of one step, and then another, of the feeling of his muscles as his weight transferred from foot to foot, and of the agony building again now that immediate danger was passed.

His lungs were beginning to burn from exertion when Gimli stopped suddenly.

"Perhaps I should scout ahead." There was something in his voice—not malice. False cheer, perhaps. Legolas was too weary to decide. He shook his head a few times—a futile attempt at stopping the ringing in his ears.

"Rest here, and I'll return shortly." Before Legolas' sluggish mind could come up with a retort, the dwarf was gone. He could hear the sound of Gimli's wet boots fading away from him. He continued on unsteadily to a young birch tree, his ears roaring now and a dark curtain threatening his sight. His knees threatened to buckle, but he feared if he let them there would be no getting up again. Too young to be truly awake, the tree did not speak, but its melody soothed his spirit and bolstered his strength.

Ai Elbereth this was a rotten affair. His body had well and truly betrayed him and where he might have found optimism, he could only feel a calm resignation. For the first time since the arrow had pierced him, he was no longer certain of the outcome. He didn't fear death, but if death was to be the outcome, he'd rather not die a slow useless death in the wilderness. Better than in Moria, though, his mind supplied morbidly. He was so lost somewhere between thoughts and dreams that he didn't hear Gimli's return.

He started a bit to find the dwarf peering down at him with concern. When had he sat down? Or closed his eyes? "Just needed to rest…for a moment," he finally supplied in defense.

Gimli gave him that look again and then a canteen appeared in front of his face. "Drink."

"…found a shelter…just a bit further." Legolas blinked slowly. Why was it so difficult to focus? He shook himself. He could do this. It was as if he mind was slogging through the mud. How long had Gimli been gone?

"Come on elf. Get on your feet or I shall tell every soul from Gondor to Erebor how Gimli the Brave had to carry the Son of Thranduil, Prince of Mirkwood to safety." That snapped him to attention, though he hadn't the energy for indignation, nor for laughter. Nor to point out that the dwarf had left out half of Arda. He found he cared very little about the threat, and for the first time, perhaps, since they set out, he trusted the dwarf completely—with his health and with his pride. Circumstances were beyond pride now, anyway.

The short rest, he was pleased to find, had done him good, and with a few tugs from Gimli and the aid of the tree, he was at last able to get back on his feet. Getting to the aforementioned sheltered, however, was still no easy feat. Gimli hovered at his right, never straying too far ahead or behind, always there when he stumbled over the uneven terrain. His wound burned a fiery trail outward to his ribs and down into his left hip, stabbing in time with his racing heart. He felt cold. So very cold. He couldn't recall a time he'd ever been so effected. His whole body trembled, and he ground his teeth together to keep them from chattering.

He, of all the fellowship, would be the most qualified for a woodland battle, yet instead of helping them he was miles away, being helped to shelter, his teeth chattering from a little wet. He kept losing track of time and would become aware of Gimli bearing most of his weight while his legs moved mechanically. He would remember himself, and then his mind would grow dim again.

At last they made it. The shelter felt too much like a trap for Legolas' liking. Too exposed, and yet too enclosed, yawning dark and deep between two great rocks that grew straight from the hillside. Loss of the freedom of the trees made him anxious. Not another cave. He couldn't go in one again. Not now. He must have said so aloud, for Gimli hastened to assure him it was merely a cleft in the mountain and not a true cave.

"I'll bet you can still see the stars!"

The floor was uneven, and in the darkness, Legolas almost tripped over Gimli's pack. His wound flared viciously as he regained his balance. When had the dwarf put it there, and how had he not noticed that he hadn't been carrying it?

"Best let me look at you."

He made no protest as the dwarf helped ease him down to the cool dirt. Gimli was fumbling with Aragorn's pouch, but at last he sighed and cast it away. "It is useless in this dark. My eyes might be keen at night, but without moonlight at least, I can't see a thing."

Legolas closed his eyes. He knew very well what Aragorn kept in his pouch. The man was a creature of habit, and those habits were elvish in nature. Medicines. Sachets of herbs for pastes. Needle and thread. Scant bandages. Spirits. Doing his best to hold in a moan, he stretched until his fingers closed over the strap and pulled the pouch close.

"I'll change the bandages, at least." He opened the flap and rummaged around, sniffing herbs. He could almost hear Gimli shrug.

"I expect you know more about it than I do, anyway."

Peeling off his jerkin and the wet shirt beneath proved more exhausting than he had anticipated. Legolas was fond of this jerkin. His mother had designed it and though it had been a frequent casualty of his many skirmishes, he'd had it remade countless times over the long years. As he tried to catch his breath after the pain and exertion of even those small movements, he could hear Gimli spreading them out to dry and taking off his own soaked gear. He wondered distantly if the dwarf was a cold as he was. His fingers fumbling numbly at the soaked bandages. At this point he wasn't sure how much was from the water and how much was blood, though from his wooziness he suspected it was mostly the latter.

He felt restless underneath the stone, so soon after Moria. The stones in Hollin had disturbed him greatly, but the stones of Moria and the doom they spoke of had stayed with him. That there had been a Balrog of Morgoth, of all creatures, to confront them. He shuddered, and this time not from the chill. Its touch had been evil, and truly terrifying in a way that an orc was not. Worse, even, than the evil that seemed to emanate from Dol Guldur. It had cut him to his very soul, almost a wound itself. Each time he surrendered to rest, the flames would again appear, and the creature would emerge to haunt him. These stones, at least, were blessedly silent.

"How's the bleeding?"

Whether he had dozed or stared into space, he wasn't sure, but the question caught him off guard and for a moment he forgot to answer.


"Oh." He felt absently at the sticky wetness at his left side. He'd forgotten he was supposed to be tending to it. "Better than it could be, I suppose." He kept his voice light, but suspected Gimli was not so easily fooled.

The silence was heavy between them as Legolas dwelt on the wound. Perhaps if he hadn't been so distracted by the Balrog—and by Mithrandir's fall—he could have prevented all of this misfortune. He couldn't help but feel that, if not for him, they would all be safely ensconced in a galadhrim talan.

"What's it like," Gimli asked rather abruptly, and Legolas remembered again that he had been working at replacing his bandages.

"What's what like?" He rummaged in the pouch until his hand closed around the roll of fresh linen.

"The Golden Wood."

Legolas saw the distraction for what it was, but cast himself in memory, his breath coming more easily now that he was reclined and still. If he could just focus.

"That is the fairest of all the dwellings of my people. There are no trees like the trees of that land."

The dwarf snorted a bit. "Trees. Of course it's about the trees, but I suppose you think we dwarves bewildering for our love of mountain rock."

"Aye." A wave of weariness washed over him again and he fought to stay awake. His fingers resumed their absent probing as if he had never stopped, though his mind was a bit lost in tales his own mother had told to him. Perhaps he would see her again soon. "In the autumn their leaves fall not, but turn to gold. Not till the spring comes and the new green opens do they fall, and then the boughs are laden with yellow flowers; and the floor of the wood is golden, and golden is the roof, and its pillars are of silver, for the bark of the trees is smooth and grey. My heart would be glad if I were beneath the eaves of the wood, and it were springtime!"

He could hear Gimli's frown. Perhaps his tone had been a bit too wistful. "I'd be glad to be there at all, if I were you."

He'd almost managed to unpeel the last of the drenched bandages when he paused, his heart pounding suddenly in alarm—not at something he had found, but at what he had not found. The black shaft was gone. It must have separated from the arrowhead. He leaned his head against the rock behind him in defeat, barely hearing Gimli's next words.

He knew a fever was building, there could be no other explanation for the violence of his chills, and the loss of the shaft had likely determined his fate. Estel was talented, but he'd seen very few survive when an arrowhead could not be found. And their deaths had not been something he'd wish on an enemy. He'd recognized the correct herbs in the pouch. Ones that would ease his passing, but he felt a responsibility to the dwarf. Gimli would go out alone and fight any orcs that crossed their path. He would lay down his life defending both an elf and his honor, when, as far as Legolas was concerned, his life was forfeit anyway—better to spend it in Gimli's defense this night than to die slowly over the next few days. The orcs would come before morning, he was certain of it.

He remembered again that he was supposed to be speaking of Lothlórien, but Gimli seemed not to have minded the long pause. "They will cross the Nimrodel and into that realm. would sing you a song of the maiden Nimrodel, who bore the same name as the stream, but I fear it is beyond my skill this moment." He felt a bit bewildered to be admitting this to a dwarf, but supposed his lengthy pauses had already made it obvious.

"I hope I will be able to see it," came the charitable reply. "Do elves still dwell in this Golden Wood?"

Legolas felt it best left unsaid that if he didn't live to vouch for him, Gimli would never set eyes on that realm. "Its people are called the Galadhrim, the Tree-people. Deep in their forest the trees are very great, but it is long since any of my own folk journeyed there,' said Legolas, "but we hear that Lórien is not yet deserted, for there is a secret power there that holds evil from the land. Its folk are seldom seen, and maybe they dwell deep in the woods and far from the northern border."

"It's not so far from Southern Mirkwood. In all your long years you've never traveled there?"

"Eryn Galen." The correction slipped off his tongue before he could stop it, and bitterness crept into his voice. "The reason you call it Mirkwood is the very reason I've not journeyed to Lothlórien."

"But you visited Rivendell?" Gimli seemed perplexed.

"Aye, but even Erebor is closer than Lórien—and a Necromancer's lair does not separate Eryn Galen from those places as it separates our Southern forest from the Golden Wood. Lothlórien is a haven, but the way from my home to there is perilous. Aragorn has traveled there, though, many years ago…"

Please consider leaving a review! I'd love to hear from each one of my readers and to know your thoughts! Are you on the edge of your seat? Are you bored? Do you want me to kill off Legolas? (I kid….maybe.) I rewrote this chapter four times and I'm still not sure I got it quite how I wanted. Shoot me a message if you know of any beta readers you'd recommend!

A/N: I'm so sorry for the long delay getting this chapter up, as an apology—or maybe because I revised it four times—it's the longest one yet! Though I've made every effort to follow the book as closely as possible, the Fellowship's circumstances are very different from canon as they enter Lothlórien. Some of the original dialogue is said by different people, and the elven response to their arrival is changed in various ways by the events in my story.

Chapter Seven:

Pippin's knees quaked in terror as he stumbled backward, running aimlessly in the opposite direction of the orcs rushing toward them. He tried his hardest to distract himself from the danger, but now it was unavoidable. He would have to face it. True, he'd faced orcs in Moria, but there they'd had Gandalf. There he'd still thought they were all invincible.

Even though Boromir and Strider stood between them and clearly meant to defend them, Pippin wasn't stupid. Eventually the orcs would slip past, he could see their shadows swarming all around. He could hear blades clashing and grunts and cries of battle.

Merry unsheathed his sword, and after a few moments, Pippin realized he should do the same.

Boromir glanced back at Merry, and Pippin was taken aback to see the anger in his face. He'd always been so lighthearted with them. The man's voice was hoarse and breathless. "Don't fight! You can't win. You cannot help. Run!"

There was no reply from Merry, but at last Pippin found his voice. "You cannot mean to stand alone!"

Who was he kidding? His sword was mere knife to anyone bigger than a hobbit, and it felt strange and unwieldy in his hands. Still, abandoning one's defenders wasn't the Took way.

The tall grasses around them were quickly becoming trampled. Aragorn and Boromir's attention was almost completely taken with repelling the hoard of orcs that threatened to overwhelm them at any moment. They had slowed, no longer able to break free so easily. Pippin glanced behind him, and he felt a glimmer of his usual optimism returning.

"Merry—the trees! I think we've made it!"

Frodo and Sam were at his right, Sting's soft blue glow giving him a good glimpse at Frodo's face. "Please hide!" Merry pleaded to their cousin. The grasses were falling away, but if they crawled, there was a good chance they could conceal themselves until it was safe, as they had done before.

"Not if you don't!" Pippin rolled his eyes. Typical Frodo, loyal and far too humble to realize his own importance, of course he and Merry couldn't hide. It was a thing of honor—and Frodo was the reason they were all here.

A shadow loomed over him suddenly and Pippin gulped. An orc had slipped around Boromir and had almost walked right over them in the grass. "Pay attention, Pip," he admonished himself. A mighty whoosh sounded, and he brought up his sword. He was shocked when his parry wasn't instantly knocked aside. He'd learned very quickly in Moria that locking swords with an orc was futile. His chance lay in avoidance and careful jabs. A grunt sounded behind him, and he finally realized that Merry had taken the opening to stab the beast. It slumped forward, its crude sword scraping limply off of Pippin's and almost crushing Merry as he struggled to free his sword. Pippin rushed forward to brace the falling beast with his shoulder, grunting and straining with his legs so that Merry could get free.

"Just leave it!" He ground out.

"I…need…it!" And then it was loose and Merry was wheeling backwards. Pip dove away, avoiding the crushing deadweight by inches. With the immediate danger passed, he found himself gagging at the stench. Orcs truly were foul in every sense.

He wasn't sure whether to thank, praise, or scold Merry, but his cousin just gave him a knowing nod, breathing heavily, before jerking back upright as another threat loomed. He leapt away just in time and the stupid beast lost sight of him in the grass.

"This is useless, Pip. We're no help against these."

But not as useless as the men seemed to think, remained unsaid.

"Do you want to do something useful, Merry?" He had to shout to be heard.

Frodo looked over at him sharply. Pippin knew his cheerful question had roused thoughts of their spying and scheming with Fredegar-cunning that had kept Frodo from leaving without them at the beginning of this whole mess. His gaze shifted to Sam and an unspoken decision seemed to pass between himself, the gardener, and Merry. The stocky hobbit squared his jaw and gave a small nod, but there was worry and sorrow in his eyes. Poor Sam...pessimism was a heavy load to bear.

"Something foolish, you mean?" Merry returned with a wicked grin, cutting Pip's musing short.

"Very foolish." The cheer was a bit false.

"We can't win. Not here, but we're not going to stand here and wait for them to cut us down." Merry always had been able to read his mind, even if he was older and usually several steps ahead. Where Pippin wanted mischief and fun, Merry knew the best way to achieve both the latter and the former.

"Quite right."

The swarm was going to encircle them any moment, and without a distraction Pippin didn't see how the men would hold them off any longer. It had to be now. "Who knows?" He shrugged merrily, before adding cheekily, "Maybe we'll live!" At least, he hoped they would. He'd like to be Thain someday, and he had some legendary pranks he'd like to live to be known for.

Ducking underneath and breaking through at almost the last moment, he heard Merry shout from beside him, "Hey! You great black hulk! Over here!" Once they'd created more distance between them, they began to shout. They jumped up and down a bit to make sure they'd been spotted and clashed swords with each other to make sure they were heard. It was easily the most reckless thing he'd ever done, and that included letting Merry talk him into using the tunnel gate in the Hedge to venture into the Old Forest. Still, he supposed that had turned out alright…eventually. An orc horn sounded right behind them.

"Merry? Pippin?!" Boromir sounded frantic and sad—and very, very angry. He found himself a bit perplexed at all the fuss, and Frodo's anguished wail, even, stirred little guilt. They were doing this for him, after all. Not for the Ring—for Frodo. Sam would know what to do. He'd never shied away from it. Besides, they'd die for sure if they stayed, and it seemed silly to him that they would be expected to abandon the others to save their own skins.

The host following them was immense and far faster than they'd anticipated, and for a moment, Pippin's heart pounded with dread, but Merry tugged at his arm. "Come on, you great statue."

"Merry—I think we might have gotten in over our head."

"They can't see us behind those great trees. They won't know we're back there unless they watched us go there." Merry seemed to sense he had unfrozen, and with a burst of speed, they made a mad dash toward the tree line. Such speed definitely would have ensured the top prize at the Midsummer Fair on the White Downs. Pippin slammed the door on his distracting musings. He was sure he was going madder than Bilbo. The orcs seemed so very close, now. One swipe and they'd be well and truly caught.

They dove for the nearest tree, skidding into it with a jarring thud before dashing to the next nearest tree without pausing. Pippin panted, trying to catch his breath, ready to leap away again. Peering carefully around the great gray trunk, he saw, to his surprise, that the orcs had halted in confusion. They couldn't find them! And there were so many of them—more than he'd expected. He felt both alarm and satisfaction that half of the orcs had pursued them. Aragorn and Boromir surely had a better chance now.

This could actually work! He found himself grinning stupidly in the darkness before frowning in dismay. How quickly the orcs had given up the search! They couldn't let them return to the others, not if they were to maintain any hope of surviving. The fear that had gripped him before had faded now that their odds were improved.

He thought he heard Aragorn shouting something, but the man's words were drowned out by the fight, and his footsteps, and his breath in his ears. His stomach clenched in worry, and he jumped when Merry laid a hand on his shoulder.

"We can't change what's happening back there, Pip."

He nodded and straightened up. "Well then, let's lead them on a merry chase. Perhaps we'll meet some friendly elves who will help us out a bit."

Merry's eyes danced in agreement, and he took a deep breath before shouting, "Hey you ugly idiots! Over here! Can't catch us!" Pippin moved in step with his cousin as he darted behind one tree, then another. The orcs roared when they spotted their quarry. It was in that moment that Pippin decided that orcs might just be the stupidest creatures he'd ever seen. Dangerous, but stupid.

"It's working, Merry!"

"A little too well," his cousin puffed back.

It wasn't all fun and games and there were several close calls, especially at the beginning while the trees were sparse. They had to maintain their head start, and for once Pippin desperately wished for a low hanging branch so they could climb to safety, but he couldn't even make out any branches, so great and tall were the trunks of the strange silver trees. Legolas, he suspected, would have had a lot to say about them if he'd been able to come with them. Leaving him behind left his stomach sour, and gave him a feeling of guilt and doom he couldn't quite shake. Worse, the orcs were slowly regaining their lead.

Pippin's ankle twinged as he stepped on a tree root, but they kept on, both frantically running through the brush, crushing leaves underneath their feet and stumbling over many an unexpected hole. They ran until their feet throbbed and stitches stabbed in their sides, still making great effort to be as noisy as possible as they drew the orcs more deeply into the forest, creating just enough distance to keep the orcs on the hunt and themselves out of reach.

They had gone little more than a mile into the forest when they came upon another stream flowing down swiftly from the tree-clad slopes that climbed back westward towards the mountains. The orcs all but drowned out the sound of it splashing over a fall away among the shadows on their right. Its dark hurrying waters ran across the path before them, and joined the Silverlode in a swirl of dim pools among the roots of the trees.

Despite the danger behind him, Pippin felt a bit of trepidation at the water and slowed down instinctively. Any hobbit would, he reasoned—except Brandybucks, apparently, he revised, as Merry, dashed forward and without hesitation climbed down the deep-cloven bank and stepped into the steam. He wasn't even sure they were going the right away, and it seemed hasty to cross a stream without need.

"Follow me!" Merry cried, turning and calling to him from the mid-way point, "The water is not deep and it's better than being a tasty orc-treat!" Taking a fortifying breath, Pippin clambered down behind his cousin. It was cold but its touch was clean, and as he went on and it mounted to his knees, he felt that the stain of travel and all weariness was washed from his limbs. For a moment, he wished he could just stand and let the water flow over his tired feet, but the orcs were too close. He came out on the opposite bank energized and ready to start the chase once again.

He fancied that he could hear a voice singing, mingled with the sound of the water, but was sure it must have been a figment of his imagination, for the roar of the orcs' pursuit was loud in his ears. He dashed after Merry as he went into the shadows of the deeper woods, westward along the mountain-stream away from Silverlode.

They stopped to catch their breath in a cluster of trees, some of which overhung the stream. Their great grey trunks were of mighty girth, but their height could not be guessed.

Just as Pippin was beginning to wonder if they'd put more distance between themselves and the orcs than they'd realized, they appeared suddenly in the darkness on the far side of the stream. To his surprise, they paused, grimacing with distaste. Pip held his breath. Would they really just let them go? He knew they could see him. Though only a sliver, the moon shone brightly now overhead. The pause broke in an instant and the orcs came hurtling across, though they hissed and stepped quickly, as though the pleasant water burned their feet.

"Run!" Pippin shoved Merry forward, ready to set off again, when out of the trees came a sudden glint of gold in the starlight. A gray-cloaked elf dropped out of the trees and directly in front of them, bow in hand. Merry stopped so suddenly that Pippin plowed right into him, almost sending them both to the ground.

Pippin was paralyzed with shock, though he was gratified to see that Merry was similarly slack jawed. It took him a moment to realize the elf was speaking.

"Up! Up! Into the treetops!" Just as he was about to retort that they were no elves to be swinging branch by branch up into the treetops, he perceived that, a few paces beyond, out of the shadows a ladder was being let down: it was made of rope, silver-grey and glimmering in the dark, and though it looked slender it proved strong enough to bear many men. Arrows were already reigning down at the orcs, flowing in little breezes much closer to Pippin's face than he found to be entirely comforting. The two hobbits did not hesitate as they might have done if not so pressed, instead sheathing their swords and dashing for the ladder, beginning a hasty scramble to an unknown height above. Pippin resolutely refused to look down.

The arrows continued to fly relentlessly downward as they climbed, and Pippin felt the ladder jostle behind him. "Faster!" He wasn't sure if the elf intended to come up behind him, or if he was only trying to keep the orcs from going up. Only a moment had passed, but it felt like an hour. His stomach rumbled unhappily at the reminder, but he shushed it and did as he was told. There were more dire things at hand than another missed meal.

The climb seemed to go on forever, and the higher he got, the harder he found it not to cling to the ladder in sheer terror. Or to vomit. Movement on either side of him caught his eye and he paused in awe as two more elves slid by rope from the treetops. They were fierce and graceful, and so very unlike hobbits. He thought perhaps this was how Legolas had fought for centuries in his forest.

The ladder jerked a bit as the elf below him leapt back down, and Pippin came to himself again, realizing he'd stopped and that Merry was far above him. He still dared not look down, but he could hear the sound of blades clashing directly below him as the warriors engaged in hand to hand combat. When at last the ladder passed through a wooden platform, Merry was there waiting for him. The branches of the great tree grew out nearly straight from the trunk, and here, which must be near the top, the main stem divided into a crown of many boughs, and here had been built a flet.

It made Pippin nervous. He felt as if he would fall through the floor—or dislodge the platform from the tree if he made the slightest movement, and he didn't get to his feet. It had no walls, not even a rail; only on one side was there a light plaited screen, which could be moved and fixed in different places according to the wind.

Eventually, curiosity overtook him, and he told himself nothing elven made could possibly as flimsy as all that. Compromising, he and Merry scooted on their bellies to a far edge and peered down. To his disappointment, he couldn't see much of what was happening beneath him, and the dizzying height didn't encourage him to lean out any farther. Instead, he stared down in the darkness and tried not to think about everything that had happened.

"Pip!" The younger hobbit's head jerked upright. Merry's voice had come from farther away than he'd expected. He looked over his shoulder, surprised to see that his cousin had returned to the hole they'd climbed through and was peering down.

"They're trying to climb the tree!"

Indeed, several orcs had skirted the main skirmish and were aiming for the ladder. Another two had leapt up onto a low hanging branch. That the elves hadn't yet noticed told him more than he'd like to know about the precariousness of the situation.

Merry seemed to read his mind and pointed them out, "There are only three."

The cloaked elves were in constant motion, around them the shadowed corpses of the orcs had begun to accumulate like boulders encircling them. Between arrow and blade, they'd acquitted themselves admirably. Indeed, the arrows alone must have dispatched over half of the force that had followed them. He watched with relief as one elf finally leapt up and dispatched the orcs swinging from the lowest branch, while another broke away to deal with the ones climbing the ladder. Their movements were so swift and synchronized that it looked like they'd rehearsed them for centuries. Perhaps they had, but it was quickly becoming obvious they weren't moving with the same lightning speed they had at first.

"Pip." Merry said urgently, "I think we ought to raise the ladder. We're making access to the tree a bit too easy, and I don't think they'll be able to keep breaking away to take care of it."

"We'll trap them down there!"

But Merry was already pulling the rope ladder up hand over hand. "No we won't! We've seen Legolas climb a tree. They'll manage just fine. Now help me!"

Pippin grasped the edge of a rung where it met the side of the ladder and heaved. It was heavier than he expected for a thing so delicate looking. The orcs farthest from the fight noticed the shortening immediately and made a sudden lunge, taking Pippin by surprise. He found himself jerked straight out of the hole in the platform as the weight of the ascending orcs overpowered him and Merry, causing the slack in the ladder to vanish instantly.

Pippin's hands tightened around the tope, and he held on for dear life as he hurtled upside down. The seconds of freefall ended almost as abruptly as they'd begun as the ladder snapped taut, almost wrenching from his hands as his body righted itself. His arms shook and burned from holding his weight, and his hands slid down to the next rung despite the strong hold he had on it. His hands stung as the skin was peeled off, but in his fear, he felt little pain. His feet flailed madly until they found a rung. Once he realized the danger of falling had passed, he clung trembling to the ladder, his breaths coming in shaky bursts and his heart in his throat.

"Pippin?!" Merry was calling in from above panic, but Pippin couldn't seem to get his mouth to form words. Relief rushed through him that his cousin wasn't lying on the ground below. Collecting his wits, he looked up to find he'd only fallen six feet or so.

He'd yet to find his voice to reassure his cousin when there was a snarl of glee from below. He forced himself to look down and saw an orc climbing quickly toward him, and another below it-he was the prey. Their yellow eyes pierced him and their teeth were bared in a menacing growl. Pippin's mind raced with panic. What to do? He felt dreadfully off balance on the swaying ladder, and the fear of heights was difficult to overcome. All his mind and body seemed willing to allow was for him to cling to the ladder and breathe.

The jostling below him grew more forceful, and he peeled his eyes open once more to see an elf casting the orcs from the ladder. He hadn't even thought they'd noticed! For a moment, his muddled mind thought Legolas had come, and the illusion was so strong he was almost able to overcome the shock of his close brush with death. Happiness began to overcome the haze of panic, but the elf just looked at him and shouted something in elvish before leaping back down and rejoining the fray. Disappointment weighed on him. Pippin wasn't sure what had been yelled at him, but he didn't need to be told twice to get back up to safety.

"You've done it once already, Peregrin Took. Now do it again." His hands burned and protested at the climb, too slick and stiff to get a grip that felt entirely secure.

Upon reaching the platform, he all but collapsed against Merry, who cleared his throat suspiciously and gave him a tight hug.

A sharper and louder ring of steel drew their attention below them once more. Pippin blinked in surprise and promptly forgot his new fear of heights as he looked down. A smile split his face.

"It's Strider!" Merry pointed with excitement.

"And Boromir!"

"They've made it!"

Pippin frowned. Where were Frodo and Sam? If they were hiding, the two hobbits could not be seen, and it was impossible in the darkness and constant motion even to tell how the two men fared.

The joy of seeing their companions alive had rekindled Pippin's optimism, and he thought the men would make short work of the remaining orcs, but it seemed even more had followed. What ensued was a pitched battle, just as frightening as the one of the plain—no longer due to the numbers of orcs, but to the weariness of those fighting. Pippin loathed his helplessness, but he couldn't look away. Five against what—he counted as best he could-twenty or thirty weren't great odds for tiring defenders, but they were better than they had been. He was a bit awed that they'd felled so many, and that they still seemed to be holding their own.

As suddenly as if lightning had struck, both parties of orcs seemed to realize that their quarry had been joined by a set of formidable warriors. A cry went up, and they turned tail and fled, apparently no longer willing to engage in a losing battle. Pippin almost let out a cheer, but kept his mouth shut for fear they would change their minds. It was over at last.

Swords and knives were wiped down and sheathed below. Aragorn was inquiring frantically in elvish. With the orcs gone, the sound carried quite well, thought to his frustration, Pippin couldn't understand a word exchanged. An answer came, and then one of the elves pointed straight at them.

With the gesture, Pippin understood. "Hi, Strider!"

The Ranger looked up at Pippin and waved. Even at this distance, he could see the relief on the man's face as it was split by an unguarded smile.

"Are Frodo and Sam with you?" Merry called down.

Aragorn shook his head and must have heard the fear in Merry's voice, because the man hastened to call up, "They hid, we think, and then we didn't see them again."

Pippin refused to give thought to the worry unfurling in his gut. They were safe. They would return for Legolas and Gimli, and if Sam and Frodo evaded Black Riders in the Shire before they even knew what they were, they could certainly evade orcs.

Had they been caught with Legolas or on the open road, results would have been far worse. The three elven warriors aided them considerably, especially with their archery, but despite fortune having favored them, Pippin perceived as Boromir came nearer up the ladder, that he was in a foul mood.

The group was climbing in silence, men first, and then the elves. Boromir wasn't even fully on the flet before his poorly contained fury burst out of him. He looked so angry that Pippin almost forgot to be scared of the wall-less platform and scrambled backward as the Gondorian swiftly stepped toward them.

"What were you thinking?!"

The man seemed unfazed by the height of the flet and hardly paused in his tirade. "Your actions would have been foolish even for a warrior of Gondor—which you are not." There was anger there, yes, but the worry beneath it drove away any fear of the man. Pippin joined Merry in giving him a most deserved glare.

The younger hobbit just shrugged and offered icily, with a hint of false cheer. "Maybe we were thinking we didn't want to die a useless death in a field, or run away like cowards."

Boromir opened his mouth to retort, then promptly shut it again. Pippin noted with some satisfaction that a flicker of chagrin had crossed the man's face. Strider's head of dark hair appeared through the hole in the flet, followed quickly by the rest of his body. Aragorn wore a bemused expression as he stepped onto the platform beside the man, who stalked a few paces over from them and sat down heavily, his head in his hands.

When they were all up safely in the flet, the elf who had spoken to them earlier lit a small lamp and gave a stiff little bow. They gathered around it and sat down wearily as he joined them, addressing them formally despite his obvious exhaustion.

"Welcome, Aragorn, son of Arathorn—you and your companions." the Elf then said in the Common Language, speaking slowly. He seemed to realize how halting was his speech, for he went on to explain apologetically. "We seldom use any tongue but our own; for we dwell now in the heart of the forest, and do not willingly have dealings with any other folk. Even our own kindred in the North are sundered from us. But there are some of us still who go abroad for the gathering of news and the watching of our enemies, and they speak the languages of other lands. I am one. Haldir is my name. My brothers, Rúmil and Orophin, speak little of your tongue." He gestured in turn to each of the other two elves.

"We have heard rumours of your coming, for the messengers of Elrond passed by Lórien on their way home up the Dimrill Stair. We have not heard of—hobbits, of halflings, for many a long year, and did not know that any yet dwelt in Middle-earth. You do not look evil!"

Here the elf called Haldir paused and offered Pippin and Merry a rather sheepish smile, before continuing thoughtfully, "Since your companions slew orcs alongside us, we are willing to befriend you, as Elrond asked; though it is not our custom to lead strangers through our land. The days grow ever darker, and dangers from abroad grow ever closer. Wolves have been howling on the wood's borders, and we have been keeping watch on the rivers ever since we saw a great troop of orcs going north toward Moria, along the skirts of the mountains, many days ago."

"I suspect we have now met them many times over," Aragorn commented flatly. How tired he looked, Pippin thought.

Boromir seemed tense and distrusting, but held his tongue despite his scowl. Or perhaps the needle and thread a silent elf had handed Aragorn were the cause of his expression. For the first time, Pippin took note of the hastily wrapped gash in the man's right arm.

A hand touched his shoulder, and Pippin flinched before looking up to see one of Haldir's brothers—Rúmil, he thought-motion to his hands. He'd almost forgotten. He held his palms up for the elf to inspect. Beside him, Merry let out a soft gasp.


In the lamplight, he could see now that his palms were flayed and missing the top layer of skin. He winced. Climbing back down was going to be quite the chore. Aragorn looked up at them quizzically from his stitching, but Pippin could only shrug. Injured hands were a small price to pay for being up in the flet instead of broken on the ground.

He let the elf rub an ointment onto the raw skin and hardly paid attention as they were gently wrapped. At first, he dozed, but the whispered conversation between Boromir and Aragorn was increasing in volume until it became so heated neither bothered to conceal it. Why was the man so ill-tempered lately?

"What other fairer way would you desire?" Strider was hissing incredulously.

"A plain road, though it led through a hedge of swords," Boromir shot back. "By strange paths has this Company been led, and so far to evil fortune. Against my will we passed under the shades of Moria, to our loss. And now we must enter the Golden Wood, you say. But of that perilous land we have heard in Gondor, and it is said that few come out who once go in: and of that few none have escaped unscathed."

Pippin shifted his eyes first to Rúmil, and then over to Haldir. Yes, definitely offended. "Wonderful," he muttered to himself. And Gandalf accused him of being juvenile. His eyes pricked at the thought of the wizard, and he quickly re-immersed himself in the men's argument.

"Say not unscathed, but if you say unchanged, then maybe you will speak the truth," said Aragorn. "But lore wanes in Gondor, Boromir, if in the city of those who once were wise they now speak evil of Lothlórien."

Boromir fell silent at that final jab, seeming to accept their road now that he'd said his piece. Aragorn was silent for several moments, gazing up at the night sky before he at last said softly, lost in thought, "Glad I am to hear again the wind in the trees!"

"I do not know what your business is in our forest," Haldir said quietly, apparently choosing to ignore Boromir's words, "but we will not allow the orcs to go unchecked." The elf who had fetched the needle and thread for Aragorn stood. "We are still little more than five leagues from the Gates, but Orophin will go in haste back to our dwellings to warn our people. None of the Orcs will remain uncaught to return to either Moria or Mordor. And there will be many Elves hidden on the northern border before another night falls."

Orophin, who truly did resemble his brothers, gave a nod of goodbye and leapt out into the night. Pippin could see him no longer, but the trees swayed gently as he leapt from branch to branch.

In the next chapter we'll either check in with Legolas and Gimli or Sam and Frodo. I keep changing my mind. Please review and let me know what you think of the story so far! It's so encouraging and motivating to know my story is being read and enjoyed!

A/N: Italicized phrases are quotes direction from Tolkein.

Chapter Eight

It seemed like yesterday that Pippin and Merry had convinced him over an ale in a smoky corner of The Green Dragon that Frodo was up to something. Merry had known about the Ring even before Bilbo went away. He'd also read Mr. Bilbo's book, sneaky chap. In the spring, he enlisted Sam, who had felt every bit the outsider. While he would have liked to proclaim Mr. Frodo's innocence in their suspicions of "up to something," Mr. Frodo was a Baggins and Mr. Bilbo had seen something in him—likely that something was a quality a more hobbit-like hobbit would have found odd or bewildering. So he had agreed, however reluctantly, that Mr. Frodo needed to be kept an eye on—for his own good. He and Fatty, whom Sam hoped was safely tucked away at Crickhollow, and Merry and Pippin had kept a close eye on Frodo because they were terrified he'd go away on his own like Bilbo had.

He'd had no idea-no idea-of the consequences of his "spying". That a wizard had been involved should have been a clue, and, though Gandalf had let him off lightly upon discovery, said wizard's admonitions about the Ring and Sauron should have made it blatantly obvious just what he was getting into. Sam knew that if he'd wanted to avoid danger, he should have refused, but even then, he just couldn't. He suspected the Gaffer's stubbornness was partly to blame, and sometimes he wondered if Gandalf had but a spell on him. He couldn't really explain his loyalty, but Frodo Baggins was the best of hobbits, and Sam meant to see him through to the end—and hopefully back home again.

"Don't you leave him," Gildor had said. A day hadn't gone by where he'd not thought those words. He certainly couldn't leave Frodo when the Black Riders pursued them. And he couldn't leave after Weathertop, where he had at last begun to understand the forces against them. And he couldn't through Caradharas or Moria. He knew now that the couldn't leaves wouldn't let up until the task was finished.

The business with the Ring mattered, of course it did, but Mr. Frodo mattered more. Leastwise to him. He knew that what was best for them all was for It to be destroyed, and Sam wouldn't leave Frodo to the task alone, a task made all the harder by said hobbit's refusal to realize his importance in the grand scheme of things.

"Please hide," Merry was pleading, his voice hushed and frantic, but loud enough to carry.

"Not if you don't!"

The trees of the Golden Wood loomed to the nearby South and with every step toward them the tall grasses that hid them thinned a bit more.

An orc pressed down on them and Frodo pivoted, then jabbed at him before retreating several paces and crouching hidden in once more in the grasses. The trick was not to stick around long enough to see the orc's revenge.

Another orc rushed at the two cousins. It was all Sam could do to hold Frodo back from intervening. Sam couldn't hear the frantic conversation the two seemed to be having, but they didn't seem to notice their peril. The fabric of Frodo's coat threatened to rip from Sam's fingers as he strained toward his cousins. They watched, horrified, as the orc raised his sword and began to bring it down with such force that it would cleave the youngest hobbit in two.

They were too far away to do anything but follow the orc's sword with their eyes as it swung downward. Sam was not naïve enough to hope Pippin's parry would have any effect. Then Merry was there next to Pippin, stabbing fiercely upward.

Sam's knees nearly went weak with relief. Another orc slipped through and they scrambled backwards again, but it seemed enough to awaken Frodo from his stupor. They moved as a team, Frodo hacking at the orc's left, and Sam at its right. When it fell, they crouched back down in the grasses.

"Do you want to do something useful, Merry?!" Pippin's voice carried from over the throng. Frodo's head jerked up and locked onto Pippin's face. Sam had always known it would come to this. The two cousins avoided Frodo's piercing gaze, but looked at him. Words weren't needed—if Frodo wouldn't leave, then they would keep him safe another way.

Frodo didn't understand, but Sam did. His cousins would do anything for Frodo, with the understanding that Sam would remain by his side. And, of course, he would. He wouldn't—couldn't—leave Frodo while he still breathed. He squared his jaw and gave a Merry and Pippin a small nod.

You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin—to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours—closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. Sam willed Frodo to remember Merry's words from that evening months ago at Crickhollow.

Beside him, Frodo was pleading, "Run, please, just run." But they wouldn't be able to hear, not that it mattered.

"Who knows, maybe we'll live." Pippin's cheeky voice wafted over the din, and he turned and gave Frodo a small smile.

"No, no, no, no, no…" Frodo was whispering harshly at them, his face pale, and his voice growing louder as grief overwhelmed his caution. "No—don't do it you fools. Just run—just go!" But his words were drowned out as they sprang up, clashing their swords together and hurling insults at the orcs before turning tail and fleeing to the tree line. They made more noise than a raucous drinking party. An orc horn blew and the shadows around them thinned as orc after orc peeled away to pursue the pair dashing toward the wood. He felt bile rise in his throat and swallowed hard. Dimly he heard the horror in Boromir's voice as he called for them.

"No!" Frodo was yelling now—picking up speed as he went after them, heedless of the danger. Sam lunged at him and yanked him down, clamping a hand over his mouth. "I'm so sorry, Mr. Frodo, so sorry, but you've got to be quiet now, you hear-or they'll have done all that for nothing." He flinched as an orc fell dead on the ground next to him. Strider had only barely managed to catch it before it had reached them, and it wasn't fair to make his job harder.

The fight became even more frenzied around them as the ring of orcs drew ever tighter around their prey. Huddled in the grasses, the two hobbits were overlooked by the orcs, but Aragorn must have known they were still there.

"Run! Due South! Follow the—" his words were drowned out by the clash of swords "—cross it and keep running until a marchwarden stops you."

"And be silent for pity's sake!"

The two men were struggling to keep up the defense. It wouldn't be long now, until they lost. Sam's throat tightened with grief. "Mr. Frodo, we have to go!" Sam was frantic. He was no coward, but this was no battle for a hobbit. His duty was to Frodo. But Frodo wouldn't—or couldn't—move, so they stayed crouched down, ready to spring up at any second. Sam couldn't see much, but he thought he could hear Merry shouting a bunch of silly nonsense. Sam's face felt hot with the dizzying emotions. They were nearly surrounded. He looked in all directions, but everywhere he looked, shadows loomed. And then Mr. Frodo was tugging his arm. He'd finally unfrozen.

Sheathing their swords, they dragged themselves along the ground with their arms. Sam had no idea of their direction as they turned this way and that to avoid being trampled. He hissed in pain and bit off a yelp as a booted foot descended on his fingers, but then it was gone. Sam remained frozen a few seconds more, but the orc hadn't even noticed him. Fingers smarting, Sam started moving again. His coat sleeves would need a good patching after this, and he'd lost track of Mr. Frodo somewhere along the way. Coming to the edge of the stream, he stayed huddled in the grasses next to it and tried to catch his breath.

A hand landed on his shoulder and he jumped, his hand going to his sword, though he knew it would be too late to draw it. It was only Mr. Frodo. Sam deflated in relief.

"Sorry, Mr. Frodo," he stammered, "I'm a bit jumpy."

"No harm done." They stayed crouched together, expecting that at any moment they would be discovered. The battle continued nearby, but to his surprise, it seemed the orcs had forgotten them. He desperately wanted to see what was happening—he wasn't even sure if Aragorn or Boromir knew they had not gone far. In the darkness, all he could make out was a swath of shadows several paces away—so very close to them. He could hear grunts and cries and the frenzied clash of swords as easily as if he was in the fight himself. He was quite frightened for them. There was a sound of pain and then he thought he heard Aragorn yelling.

Suddenly, he was glad he couldn't see. He didn't want to watch them die. A sob rose in his chest, but he refused to let it escape. Frodo gave his shoulder a squeeze. There were no words.

They waited and waited until the pounding of footsteps faded and the grasses could again be heard shivering in the breeze. At last they peeked out, expecting a shadow to instantly accost them, but nothing moved. They crept out to the trampled circle of grasses, not wanting to know, but compelled to look. The orcs had left for a reason. In the dark, they searched as best they could.

Boromir's shield lay right in the center of a ring of trampled grass and dead orcs, its embellishments glinting in the moonlight. Sam stopped, dread filling him. The shield itself didn't appear to be badly damaged—but why had Boromir left it behind? They searched the grasses nearby carefully, finding many an orc corpse and a few discarded packs, but they found no trace of the men.

"He's not here—neither of them are." Sam's face burst into a smile and he let out a quiet whoop.

"I can't believe they've made it through," Frodo murmured.

"And if they've made it to the trees, surely they'll be able to hold their own now!"

"And perhaps Merry and Pippin will also." Frodo's words were quiet, but hopeful.

With a grimace, Sam picked his way back over to where the shield lay. The smell was already unbearable, and he suspected it would only worsen. It seemed wrong to leave it there. Frodo joined him and together they dragged the heavy shield a few feet away from the circle of dead orcs and piled up the packs next to it.

For several moments they said nothing. "Sam?"


"Thank you…for tackling me back there."

"They'll be okay, Mr. Frodo, just you wait. I suppose we hobbits are too often underestimated—but let's not underestimate ourselves."

They walked slowly back to the water's edge. "Cross the Silverlode…" Sam muttered to himself. "I think that was what he said…and something about a marchwarden, whatever that was." He couldn't quite remember what Strider had said.

"The stream is deeper here than it was before."

Sam eyed the swift stream with some trepidation, "It looks faster, too. More river-like, if you ask me."

"I think you're right, Sam, and I'll bet it will become even deeper the farther South we delay. Perhaps we ought to cross here."

Sam tried to put on a brave face, "Aye, better now than when it's deeper than a hobbit—my old gaffer would be horrified by all our adventures, you know."

"I'm horrified by all our adventures," Frodo returned wryly.

"Leave the pack with the others," Frodo urged softly, "Perhaps we can return for it when we go back for Legolas."

"Not a chance," Sam protested, "If anything else happens, we'll have no supplies."

"No pots, you mean."

"Well…" Sam hedged a bit peevishly, "I reckon you may be right, but I'd rather not part with them if it's all the same to you."

Frodo rolled his eyes, or at least Sam thought he did, it was too dark to see his face very clearly, and stepped into the stream without further comment. There was nothing for it—Sam had to follow.

The stream was icy cold and the current swifter than he expected as it pulled at his feet. By midstream, he felt some regret over his stubborn refusal to part with his pack. Its contents were surely soaked, and the weight of it threatened to pull him backward.

"Come on!" The pull of Frodo's hand—Sam didn't even remember grabbing it—propelled him forward, and after a few more steps they came out on the opposite bank safely and without incident, to Sam's eternal relief.

The night wind blew chill up the valley to meet them. Before them a wide grey shadow loomed, and they heard an endless rustle of leaves like poplars in the breeze. Sam shivered in his wet clothes as he and Frodo began making their way into the forest. The grasses were much the same on this side of the Silverlode—fading away as the trees became less sparse and the forest deepened. Fire burned in Sam's shoulders from the weight of the wet pack as he trudged behind Frodo, lamenting that there would be no fire to dry off by this night. The great silver trunks grew numerous and thick, and if it weren't for the river, Sam knew they would have begun to wander aimlessly.

"There!" Frodo stopped so suddenly that Sam almost ran into him. It took a moment for Sam to realize he was pointing to a tree.

It seemed to stand out a little ways from the rest of the forest, a bent and gnarled silhouette against the strange trees of the Golden Wood. With a certainty he could not explain, Sam knew it was older than those trees. But was it friendly? He chuckled a bit at his thoughts. He'd been spending too much time amongst the elves, he supposed, for it was a very unhobbit-like thought. Frodo spotted a low hanging branch, and they scrambled up it—not far, but high enough that he hoped they wouldn't be spotted. Mr. Legolas would have been so proud.

For a long while, it was quiet. The sickle Moon was gleaming dimly among the leaves. The wind was still. A little way off he heard a harsh laugh and the tread of many feet on the ground. There was a ring of metal. The sounds died slowly away, and seemed to go southward, on into the wood. Sam wondered if that was the orcs that had followed Pippin and Merry into the forest, or if it was those Strider and Boromir had fought. For at least an hour, they stayed silent, their coats drying on the branches beside them. It was winter, and unlike the gold and silver trees, their shorter refuge was bare, and they felt vulnerable and exposed.

Far off sounds of battle and orc movements could be heard off and on, but eventually the forest fell silent once more. Neither hobbit felt safe enough to climb down. Frodo drew out Sting from time to time. Sometimes it was dark, and sometimes it flashed and glittered like a blue flame; and then slowly faded again and grew dull. Sam wondered what this meant about the orcs' direction.

Sam and Frodo sat quietly for a long time, listening for any sound from wood or plain.

Sam woke with a start. "What is it?" His words were slurred from sleep, and the crick in his neck made it hard to look over at Frodo. Falling asleep, even unintentionally, in the tree had been a very bad idea. His head throbbed a bit, but at least it wasn't as bad as it had been after Moria, and it seemed every muscle in his body had stiffened in the short time he'd been asleep. "What time is it? How long was I out?"

Frodo smiled ruefully in the moonlight, "You weren't the only one who drifted off, Sam. Something woke me, but I'm not sure what I heard." His voice was low and hushed.

The night was even colder now, and Sam was grateful to find that his trousers were only a bit damp. He looked uneasily down into the dark forest. "I reckon we've stayed here long enough. Best be moving on now." But neither hobbit made any move to climb down. The more Sam went over events in his mind, the more he was beginning to think that in the heat of things, they'd gotten Strider's instructions wrong. He was certain that crossing the Silverlode had been a safer choice than staying on the same side as all those orcs, but he wasn't sure now that they had been supposed to cross it at all.

Frodo seemed to read his mind. "Fine adventurers we are, Sam. We've gotten lost."

The last cobwebs of sleep vanished as Sam tried to think on their location. "Well, not lost, exactly, Mr. Frodo. The Silverlode runs south, but now that I've thought about it, I think we've missed something in Mr. Strider's instructions. I think we're on the wrong side."

"Then we've reached the same conclusion, but don't forget, Sam, I was the one that led you across the river."

After they'd climbed down and gone a few paces, Sam noticed. There were no more sounds. Even the leaves were silent. Sam shivered, and this time not from his still-damp clothes. The hairs stood up on the back of his neck and the feeling of immediate danger grew stronger. Sam was almost certain that he could hear stealthy movements. Frodo heard it too, Sam thought. His hand always strayed to It when he was worried. Sam thought Sting would be more helpful.

"I hope that the Orcs want nothing else to do with us—with the Ring, I mean."

Frodo did not answer. He looked at Sting, and the blade was dull. "Whatever is following us, I don't think it's an orc."

Sam gave a great sigh of relief.

His relief was cut short as Frodo continued, reminding him worriedly, "Sauron has other servants."

Sam tamped down his alarm, straining with his ears, but try as he might, he heard only an unnerving silence—like even the crickets were waiting for something to happen. The movements did not come again.

They continued on, which was really all they could do unless they decided to brave the river again. Lost and safe was better than found and surrounded by orcs. He struggled to remember the maps Frodo had shown him before they left. He could be mistaken, but he thought Lothlórien lay on this side of the River, though perhaps they would not be approaching it the way Strider had intended. After a while, Sam thoughts were interrupted. He could hear the sound clearly this time—the quick patter of feet. He turned swiftly. There were two tiny gleams of light behind, or for a moment he thought he saw them, but at once they slipped aside and vanished.

"Do you know what it is?" asked Sam.

"Not for sure," answered Frodo. "I thought I heard feet, and I thought I saw a light—like eyes. I have thought so often, since we first entered Moria."

Sam shuddered at the mention of that awful place, "Well, I hope it's friendly since it's not harmed us thus far." He did not say that he thought whatever it was was more likely biding its time. If Frodo was right and it had followed them all the way through the mines, it had waited until they were alone to reveal itself. If Frodo had any clue to the creature's identity, he was keeping his own council. Sam's hand strayed to the hilt of his sword, but he forced himself to keep putting one foot in front of the other. He hoped there would be no confrontation, but he would be ready if it came to that.

It wasn't elves, surely; for the woodland folk were altogether noiseless in their movements. Then he heard faintly a sound like sniffing; and something seemed to be scabbling on the bark of a nearby tree-trunk. Sam held his breath, but nothing else could be heard over his own footsteps. Whatever was going to happen would happen soon. Frodo had stopped.

Something was now climbing slowly in a tree near them, and its breath came like a soft hissing through closed teeth. Then he saw it. Two pale eyes. They stopped and gazed downward unwinking. Sam scarcely had time to cry out a warning before the eyes blinked and a pale blur shot straight at him.

Whatever the creature was, it landed right on his shoulders, knocking Sam to the ground, his pack causing his back to arch painfully around the pots he'd refused to leave behind. A rather serpentine voice said from right by his ear, "Stupid hobbitses alone in the woods."

Sam tried to shove it away, but whatever it was, the creature was wild and wiry. All of Sam's strength was focused on keeping it at arm's length. It was like bathing a cat-hissing and claws and teeth, but Sam managed to land a punch here and there.

"Get off of him!" Frodo cried, and out of the corner of his eye, Sam could see Frodo trying to find an opening to help.

Above him, he could see a pale face, and luminous blue eyes—and teeth. He gulped. Another punch caught the creature in the shoulder, but still it held on, hardly pausing in its four legged assault. "Must kill fat hobbit, precious!"

"Why me?!" Sam yelped in protest, his arms shaking with the effort of holding the creature away.

"We wants the precious, and fat hobbit gets in our way." Spittle flew in Sam's eyes and he blinked furiously. The next instant his attacker grew still. Sam cracked open an eyelid and saw immediately why. Frodo had the creature by its sparse and scraggly hair, Sting at its throat.

"You forgot about one thing, Gollum," Frodo declared breathlessly. Sam gasped at the name and looked with revulsion. Why, he wasn't any bigger than a hobbit, just wiry—and mostly naked…and almost bald. Sam didn't think he'd ever met a bald hobbit. He shook himself. His mind needed to attend to the matter at hand. "I have Sting. I don't wish you dead, but I can't let you have the Ring."

Sam lay still under the sad creature, not a little unnerved by the sight of Frodo holding Sting at its throat. "What are we going to do with him-I knew we'd need rope."

"Well, we can't let him go, either."

"Please, don't kill us." The creature was whining now.

Sam stared. The thought hadn't crossed his mind, not in cold blood, anyway. But the look on Frodo's face—he'd never seen it before, and in that moment he knew Frodo could kill Gollum. Oh, he'd feel horrible afterward when his own thoughts returned, but the pitiful creature would still be dead. Blasted Ring.

"Don't, Mr. Frodo," he pleaded. "Not like this." As if a curtain had been parted in his mind, Frodo staggered backward in self-loathing.

Sam used the distraction and flipped Gollum off of him. For once being "fat hobbit" had its advantages, he thought ruefully as he sat on the squirming creature, the scratches on his neck and face smarting. He wasn't quite sure what else to do without some other way to restrain him.

"Don't hurt us! Don't let them hurt us, precious!"

"We're not going to hurt you—but we can't exactly have you attacking us when we turn our backs either, can we?"

Sam looked over to Frodo, and it seemed his gaze had softened.

"Daro*!" A voice interrupted suddenly, causing Sam to jolt with surprise. As he looked around to find the owner of the voice, a horrible pain lanced through his hand, and he let go with a yelp as Gollum scrambled out from underneath him.

"That nasty little bugger bit me! He actually bit me!" Frodo leapt to grab its ankle, but it easily wrenched away. Arrows began flying at Gollum as he fled—at least, Sam hoped that was where they were aimed-but somehow the wiry creature avoided them all and faded into the shadows. Sam didn't dare rise, and instead knelt panting next to Frodo, hands raised. Somehow, Sam was certain they'd not seen the last of Gollum, and his throbbing hand and scratched neck did not leave him with charitable thoughts. If they met again, he was going to be much more cautious—and he was determined to make sure he had some rope.

Out of the darkness, a patrol of five elves emerged across the river. A sixth dropped out of the treetops directly over them and studied them carefully, his head tilted. He was tall, with golden hair, and he held an ornate bow in his left hand. Sam's mouth dropped open. Unless he was very much mistaken, the elf had just crossed the river from the treetops. He sighed wearily—it felt like he'd seen a lifetime of things in this one night.

"Nathlo*," the elf said finally with a little bow. He turned and rattled off something to the others still across river—Sam thought he caught the word Legolas had used for hobbits, though it didn't sound exactly the same.

"I think they are speaking another dialect amongst themselves," Frodo whispered in frustration before trying again. "He greeted us in Sindarin, and whatever they are saying sounds like it should be familiar, but I can't understand a word."

"Frodo Baggins, at your service—and this is Samwise Gamgee. Uh… I eneth nîn Frodo Baggins*." He gestured to Sam. "I eneth dîn Samwise Gamgee. Telim o Shire*." Apparently even Frodo was having trouble recalling what he'd learned. His words were childlike and halting. "It keeps getting mixed up in my head," he lamented softly.

"Mae govannen, Frodo—Samwise. Im Orophin.* Marchwarden," the tall elf returned at last. The final word was said like he was forcing his mouth to make sounds they'd never made before.

So these were the marchwardens Strider had spoken about.

Frodo brightened, and he asked hopefully, "Carfol…carfol I lam nîn?"*

Orophin the Marchwarden shook his head with regret. "Ú-garfon Annúnaid."*

Frodo wilted again. "He doesn't speak Westron," he explained.

Sam had to concentrate to wipe a scowl from his face. Some of Gimli's words about elven conceit came to mind. Gildor, Legolas, and even those in Elrond's house had learned. How could one live a millennia and not study another's language?

Frodo began again haltingly, "Tiron an canad mellyn."* He fell silent for several moments, thinking hard before he continued, "Mathasser yrch."*

Sam wisely did not say that he felt Gildor had been a bit premature in praising Frodo's language abilities, but relief flooded him when he saw a glimmer of understanding—and recognition—in the tall elf's face.

"Iston*…" the elf rattled off a long sentence of unfamiliar words, though Sam thought he heard something about a brother.

"Mr. Frodo," he whispered, "They are alive. They've made it!"

"Aphado ven,"* the elf interrupted, before abruptly turning and walking away. Sam looked at him in surprise, then across the river. The other elves had already vanished into the treetops.

"I guess that means follow me," he muttered. The elf—Orophin—didn't try to interact with them any further. It seemed he recognized the futility, which irritated Sam, because Mr. Frodo did know enough to at least be polite, if they'd only be patient. What kind of elves were not patient? And shouldn't a border guard be a tad more like a welcoming committee? Sam suspected his thoughts, if shared, would offend the marchwardens, but that Legolas would have found something merry and humorous in all of this.

The elf barely slowed to accommodate the hobbits' shorter legs, and they had to sprint to keep up. He'd made no mention of Legolas, or Gimli—at least Sam thought he hadn't. He wondered why Strider had said nothing, but then revised his thoughts. These elves probably hadn't stuck around long enough for the information to be relayed. He hoped it wasn't because the man had been too injured to relay the information.

It soon became obvious to Sam that these elves were tracking the orcs that had chased them earlier. Guilt churned in his stomach. They must have fled back this way while they'd been sleeping. They retraced their steps for some time, the Silverlode at their left, before emerging once more onto the grassy plain.

Orophin stopped, "Cross here."

Sam was a bit indignant when he found himself being carried across with no warning, but in truth, he was relieved to avoid another cold dunking, and for a few moments to stop and catch his breath. He took back every uncharitable thought he'd ever had about Gandalf or Strider giving no thought to hobbit legs in their pace. They'd been much more accommodating than he'd realized.

The grasses were less shadowed now in the early hours before sunrise. Sam took in the sight with wide eyes. The grasses were blackened and trampled. Great hulking shadows lay scattered like boulders on the ground. The packs were piled and waiting where they'd left them next to Boromir's shield. After a moment, Frodo joined him quietly.

The elves were consumed with their tracking, calling their findings back and forth to each other. Frodo could not get their attention, growling in frustration, "If they would at least speak amongst themselves in Sindarin, then I wouldn't be completely lost. And if they haven't been told about Legolas, then we need to do it, but I can't get a word in edgewise."

Finally, Sam decided it was high time he took matters into his own hands and stepped in front of the leader. Orophin stumbled a bit as he was forced to stop abruptly. Sam glared at him, and the elf raised his eyebrows in curiosity and surprise.

"Lasto!* My master has something to say to you." He didn't care if the elf understood him or not.

Frodo was beside him now, and, after giving him a glance of thanks, stammered, "Geheno nîn. Penin andreth a brestannen. Penin ist… Mellon nîn te harn. I eneth dîn Legolas, o Eryn Galen."

Frodo's halting, but clear words drew the eye of all six elves, who looked at him with some alarm. Sam was a bit taken aback when Orophin placed a gentle hand on Frodo's shoulder. He was crouching now, his eyes level with Frodo's, a look of grave concern on his face.

"Henion. Mas I Thranduillion?"* So these elves knew Legolas' name—Sam wasn't sure even the entire Fellowship knew that. That meant that somehow, they knew him. He nearly sat down in relief.

"Forod. Nef hîr*," Frodo stammered, confirming that they were indeed talking about the same Legolas.

Orophin shot to his feet then and began shouting orders in his strange dialect, dispatching a messenger Southward and propelling the two hobbits toward him. Sam could have cried in relief at having others share the burden. He was certain they would take care of their own kind.



* I eneth nîn Frodo Baggins—My name is Frodo Baggins

* I eneth dîn Samwise Gamgee. Telim o Shire—He is Samwise Gamgee. We are from the Shire.

* Mae govannen, Frodo-Samwise. Im Orophin.Well met…I am Orophin.

* Carfol I lam nîn?Do you speak my language?

* Ú-garfon Annúnaid—I don't speak Westron.

* Tiron an canad mellyn—I'm looking for four of my friends.

* Mathasser yrch—They fought orcs.

* Iston—I know.

*Aphado ven—Follow me.

* Lasto!—Listen

* Geheno nîn. Penin andreth a brestannen. Penin ist… Mellon nîn te harn. I eneth dîn Legolas, o Eryn Galen—I'm sorry. I'm impatient and troubled. I don't know…my friend is wounded. His name is Legolas, of Eryn Galen (Mirkwood).

* Henion. Mas I Thranduillion?—I understand. Where is the son of Thranduil?

* Forod. Nef hîr—North. Beside the river.

End note: I've had a couple requests for more of Gimli's thoughts, and I apologize for making you wait so long. Don't worry, we're finally back to him in the next chapter.

A/N: Usual disclaimer applies.

Some words of caution for this chapter: because of Gimli's use of an axe, the battle scenes might be a smidge gorier than I'd usually write, though I don't go into great detail. Also, injury descriptions from here on out are not for the squeamish. I have always found reading about a fight and the injuries caused by it to be less problematic for me than watching the described actions happen on screen. That said, I've tried to be realistic and descriptive, but not excessive. While this chapter constitutes a strong T, I did not feel it warranted an M.

Chapter Nine

Legolas had drifted off again. One moment, Gimli had thought he was about to learn the mystery of Aragorn's connection with Lothlórien, and the next there had been no reply. It had already been rather disconcerting how one comment might be in Westron and the next Sindarin, not to mention a bit difficult for Gimli to keep up. What concerned Gimli even more was that, despite his previous fluency with Westron, the elf seemed to struggle to understand. In the darkness it was becoming harder for him to tell if the elf was trying to process his words, or if he had lost consciousness.

"How's that bandaging coming along," Gimli tried again, hoping the elf might rouse at the sound of his voice, now that it had become clear he wasn't going to answer.

He hadn't protested the Legolas' decision to change his own bandages because he didn't imagine the elf would trust him to do it, and he hadn't planned on forcing the issue, but now the elf had lapsed into another of his strange silences. Finally giving up on the elf answering him, he scooted nearer in the darkness until he could see the outline of the elf's form. Glassy eyes reflected in the starlight, startling him a bit, but in the silence, he could still hear the elf's breathing.

"Stupid elves and their sleeping habits," he grumbled, as his heart rate slowed. At least this time he hadn't thought the elf was dead—he'd about had a heart attack when he'd returned from finding this shelter and had found him staring sightlessly, slumped at the base of the tree.

Gimli was no healer like Aragorn, but neither was he unfamiliar with wounds. Feeling almost like he was abusing a trust, he stretched his hand up toward the elf's shoulder. His hand hovered an inch away, wavering. He'd never touched an elf before tonight—even fully armored with gloves, and here he was clad only in his spare cloak and his smalls, with his armor and clothes all drying on the floor. Shoving back the feeling of vulnerability, he tentatively placed a hand on the elf's shoulder. He expecting Legolas to flinch and jolt immediately back to alertness, but the skin underneath his hand was still.

"You're burning up," he murmured.

A breeze blew through the shelter then, and the elf shuddered in his damp leggings. "Best get on with it then," the dwarf told himself.

Legolas didn't move as Gimli ran his hand carefully along the elf's side until his fingertips met the sodden bandages. He shook his head-the elf hadn't even managed to get the soiled bandages all the way off. His fingers ghosted over the wound, and he frowned. His heart sped up, and he felt around more carefully for a second time. The shaft was missing. He had to swallow against the bile that suddenly rose in his throat at this discovery.

The elf didn't make a sound as Gimli unwound the last of the soiled bandages from around his waist and inspected the wound as best he could in the dark. The shaft was definitely missing. Feeling around for the roll of fresh bandages, he grabbed it and began wrapping it around the elf's torso, taking care that it wasn't too lose or too tight. Finished, he eased him to the dirt floor and straightened his legs. That Legolas didn't stir worried him. In the darkness, he fumbled around until he found his pack, and he emptied it out until he found a blanket at the bottom. He returned and draped it over the elf, and then he sat for a long time next to him in the darkness, lost in thought.

Gimli could spare no fire, which was what Legolas really needed to drive away the chill of wearing still damp leggings, but orcs were notorious about doubling back, and they were not out of danger. He suspected they would eventually track them here.

A fingernail moon eventually rose overhead and cast a scant amount of light into the shelter, so that Gimli could see more than just shadows. His muscles protested as he rose, stiffened already in the short time he'd been sitting. Helping the elf to the shelter had been no easy feat, weighed down as he had been by wet armor and an insensate elf, not that he'd ever admit it to a soul. His soaked armor had been so heavy his legs had been about to buckle—and that was just with him keeping himself on his feet.

Locating their damp things, he was pleased to find his own clothes mostly dry, except for his boots. That was hardly surprising. They were good boots, but hadn't been built for standing under waterfalls. It was with relief that he donned his clothes again, and then fastened his armor over them—all but the boots and his leather pauldrons. Those had taken the brunt of the waterfall, and he'd been lucky if they were dry by spring. Leather took forever to dry out.

As the night wore on, he found himself pacing near the entrance. To keep warm, he told himself, and not because of anything else. Even in the complete darkness, he could see how pale the elf was, and how he trembled, even beneath the blanket. That he should feel this level of panic over an elf was dismaying, but he no longer fought it. When they'd met in Rivendell, he hadn't known what to expect and had made his own assumptions, but even in those early days when they hadn't gotten along at all, he'd been forced to admit to himself that Legolas was very different from his father.

A cry from inside the shelter drew his attention behind him. Legolas was thrashing around beneath his blanket, muttering unintelligibly in elvish. Gimli was at his side in two long strides and knelt down by his head, shaking his shoulders gently. Nothing would rouse the elf, though he did stop thrashing quite so wildly, instead turning his head back and forth as if he were trying to forcibly shake away whatever it was he saw. Gimli settled in next to him, keeping a hand on the elf's arm.

Eventually—to Gimli's alarm—the elf's eyes drifted closed, though the dreams continued on for hours. Occasionally there were names—sometimes whispered, sometimes shouted in bitter grief. Often he heard Mithrandir, and even occasionally Lord Elrond's sons, but eventually it all built into a crescendo of one word. Estel.

Like lightning a piece of memory slid into place and Gimli remembered all the many times the elf had conversed in Sindarin with Aragorn. He wasn't calling out about lost hope, he was dreaming about something that had happened to them—and there were tears and wails and whispers of regret that would no doubt mortify the elf if he were conscious enough to know he had an audience. Nothing Gimli said or did would wake or calm him. He could catch some of it now and then-"Sorry, Estel…sorry we failed."

It was the fourth watch of the night when, at last, Legolas slipped into a deep and peaceful sleep, leaving the dwarf quite shaken. He'd no idea that such raw grief lay beneath the elf's merry disposition. He saw it for what it was now—a mask.

The elf slept peacefully after that, his eyes closed in utter exhaustion while Gimli kept watch. He did not resume his pacing, choosing instead to remain near the elf. As dawn neared, Gimli's ear began to hear ominous sounds. First thuds-like distant footfalls, then the occasional tink of metal on stone. Quietly, Gimli retrieved his axes and strapped his pauldrons back over his shoulders. As sounds of scratching and boots on the ground quickly became unmistakable, he leaned over Legolas and clasped his shoulder urgently, not entirely certain he would even wake.

To his relief, elf's eyes flew open immediately. At first he seemed a bit dazed, but to Gimli's relief, he blinked to alertness and his eyes went wide with alarm. "I hear them. Help me up, they are very close."

"Laddie…are you sure you can?" Gimli asked the question gently, struggling to keep the doubt from his voice. Though he was more relieved than he could say to hear that some strength had returned to the elf's voice, after all he'd witnessed, he didn't see how the elf would be any help at all in the coming fight.

"I must," the elf bit out, trying and failing to rise on his own, "There is every reason to expect they'll find our trail. Now will you help me up, or must I do it myself?"

Gimli held his hands out, as if the placate him, "Aye, I'll help, but laddie, if they find us, you know you can't match them."

Refusing to look him in the eye, the elf actually growled in frustration and spat, "You are not sacrificing yourself for me. I will do what I can and die with my knife in my hand, hopefully taking a few of them with me. You should go, Gimli—slip away while you still can." His last words were clipped and breathless, as if the impassioned words had sapped his energy.

Gimli reared back at the finality in his voice. Legolas was expecting to die anyway. He'd given up. Gimli doubted he would even fight it if he was alone.

"I'm not going to leave you here," he managed to choke out, "Legolas—" His throat was tight with emotion, and the elf interrupted him before he could finish.

"You must Gimli. The galadhrim will never allow you entry when I am gone, but if you go now, you can get away and go back to the Lonely Mountain." There was a pleading and yet hopeful quality to his voice.

"We dwarves are not cowards," Gimli found himself growling in dismay. He'd already known that a dwarf being allowed to pass through a reclusive elven realm might never happen, especially with Gandalf gone.

"Gimli!" Legolas' voice was weakening, though he was still flat on his back, "I don't want your death to be the last thing on my conscience."

"Who said anything about dying," Gimli patted his arm soothingly, "I'll have you know we dwarves know how to fight between rock and stone." He didn't add that a fight alongside an unarmored and injured elf in a space both too wide and too narrow was a bit different.

A ghost of a grin flickered on the elf's face for just a moment before it slipped away, "Gimli—help me up. They are almost upon us."

Relieved Legolas was not going to argue further, Gimli quickly complied and stretched out his hand. The elf grasped it strongly as Gimli hauled him into a sitting position. He didn't quite succeed in biting back a cry of pain, but he ground out, "Keep pulling—I'll be no good to you on the floor." He didn't waste time wrestling with Legolas' jerkin, or even his shirt—it was a waste of the elf's energy, but he did stop to retrieve the elf's vambraces and help him get them fastened around his lower arms while the elf got used to being in a sitting position. The dwarf had no intention of letting the elf defend him, and for once, pride had nothing to do with it, the only problem was that it seemed they were both of the same, stubborn mindset.

The hairs on Gimli's neck prickled, and he tugged again, "Up you get." They didn't have much time now. Gimli gave a final tug, and this time the elf clenched his teeth and mercifully managed to get his feet under him. Bracing himself with a hand on the dwarf's shoulder, he hauled himself upright. Gimli grunted and locked his knees against the elf's weight as he leaned heavily against him, trembling—his breath coming in shallow pants.

"I wish I had my bow," Legolas wheezed out when he was finally able to stand under his own power.

Try as he might, Gimli couldn't remember what had happened to it, and realized suddenly that the elf's knife belt was missing as well…though he thought the elf had mentioned having his knife. "You do have a weapon, don't you?"

The fissure was just wide enough for the orcs to press through side by side and Gimli couldn't entirely keep them back. The elf would have to be able to defend himself. He fingered one of his hand axes, and was about to pass it to Legolas when the elf drew his white knife from his boot.

"Took the belt off earlier—kept the knife," Legolas shrugged, pain keeping his explanation brief. The elf had stopped trembling now, though he leaned heavily against the stone wall of the shelter. In the dim light of the approaching dawn, Gimli could see his face was chalk white.

"You know there'll be no winning," the elf broke the silence again. It rattled Gimli that he was so morbid when he had been so merry.

Gimli shrugged, "Too late to flee now," he returned wryly, "You never know—the others may have whittled them down quite a bit if they are returning so late."

"It will not be enough—not in here."

Gimli didn't ask again if he could fight. They both knew the honest answer was no, but if they wanted to survive, they both would have to find the strength.

The orcs approached slowly, scratching and sniffing along, clearly following the trail they'd left the night before, and Gimli wished now that he'd thought to go back out and cover their tracks. The anticipation of battle drove away the all traces of the weariness that had been threatening to creep. Quietly, he slipped his two throwing axes from their place on his belt, their firm handles reassuring in his hands. Any moment now, his senses screamed.

For a moment, everything became quiet. Complete silence held for several seconds, their only warning before an orc burst through the opening in the fissure, his dark form a black shadow against the lightening sky. Seeing its quarry, the orc gave a great cry and lunged straight at them with its crude blade. More poured in immediately behind him.

"Baruk khazâd!" Gimli roared, rushing forward to meet them, blocking Legolas somewhat from their view and giving him room to swing his axes freely without worrying about the injured elf being caught by a friendly blade. He was grateful when Legolas seemed to understand and did not attempt to follow. Digging in his feet and pushing back at them, he hacked viciously with the axes in each hand. At first, he fought with relative success, but sooner than he'd anticipated, the force of their onslaught propelled him backward several feet.

A sword came down toward his head, crashing off his helm with such force his ears rang. His armor would protect him, but if he went down now, he knew he wouldn't get getting back up. He felt himself being pushed even farther backward. They would trample him to get to Legolas. He was losing ground quickly now, though the elf was still behind him. Frantically, he struggled to swing his hatchet as the press of orcs threatened to trap his arms against him. It was all he could do to hold them back.

"Argh!" He grunted, digging his feet in and meeting force with force.

A glint of silver flashed to his left and there was a high pitched scrape of steel and a blade that had been swinging for his neck was parried and lost momentum, glanced harmlessly off of Gimli's armor. The press lightened briefly, but there was no time to thank the elf.

There was very little room to get a good swing of his hatchet, so he resorted to using its razor sharp edge like a knife, slashing instead of hacking. The orc pressing against him went down like a stone and Gimli regained his footing. The press resumed, the frenzied orcs more concerned with getting past Gimli to get to the elf than actually ending the dwarf. They were like wolves drawn to a wounded animal. Gimli heard a groan from Legolas every so often, or a sudden hiss of pain as the elf jabbed at an orc who'd gotten too close, but he couldn't spare too close a look. He didn't know how the elf was even upright, but thank Mahal he was. He hacked and pushed, shoved and kicked-the fight using his entire body until his limbs burned and trembled.

There was a sudden squeal of alarm and, to Gimli's surprise, it seemed as if the orcs in the rear were turning to defend themselves, halting their forward press, while the orcs nearest him had worked themselves into a panic in a way only doomed and dying creatures can. The others must have found them! Beside him, Legolas was slowing, his wounded side was guarded far from the blade and against the wall, but his movements were sluggish and jerky, and the orc he feebly fought was determined to take an elf prize with him before its last breath. Kicking the orcs in front of him away to buy himself some time, Gimli reached across and hurled the axe in his left hand at the orc's chest.

To his dismay, the orc barely slowed. Gimli nearly fell over with relief when the glint of Legolas' knife came again and sloppily parried the blade Gimli had been unable to block.

The orcs on his right pressed in again, though there seemed to be less of them now. If Aragorn had joined the fight, Gimli had yet to hear the singing of his sword. To his left, there was grunt of paint and the grinding of steel as Legolas was forced to block another blow. This time the force of the orc blade wrenched the knife from the elf's grip and it clattered uselessly to the ground. The orc Gimli had tried and failed to kill jeered in victory and raised his sword.

Pinned down as he was, Gimli wasn't going to be able to get there in time. Frantically, he slashed at the orcs on his right and desperately dove in front of Legolas, throwing his left hand out to slow the blade crashing toward the elf. He bit back a cry of pain as the sharp edge cut through the leather palm of his glove and into his skin before the sword finally lost momentum and grazed down in the armored inside of his arm. Reflexively his fingers closed, and he clutched his injured hand to his chest while he swung the axe in his other hand viciously at the orc's neck. He heaved a great sigh of relief as the orc, at last, fell headlong to the ground.

Not pausing to feel pain, he turned, ready to fend off a blade that would surely be coming from his right, but found himself swinging at empty air. Wheeling his right arm a bit to recover from the uncountered forward momentum, he found himself starting at the pile of orcs lying dead at his feet, arrows in their backs. Breathing heavily, he could only blink at them, his exhausted brain unable to process anything beyond the fact that the battle was over.

"Gimli!" Legolas gasped out, and Gimli whirled around and took a good look at the elf. Wide, glassy eyes locked onto his out of a pale and clammy face, "Why did you…" The elf's knees buckled then, and he sank toward the floor, his hand flailing unsuccessfully for a hold in Gimli's armor. Gimli rushed underneath his arm, bracing the elf just enough to slow his decent.

"You should have just let it happen," the elf murmured, dazed, as his knees collided with the ground.

Gimli ignored the biting throb of his hand, deciding it couldn't be too awful if he'd been able to close it. The elf leaned into him, breaths rapid and shallow, deep furrows of pain lining his face. Struggling to keep the note of panic from his voice, Gimli found himself pleading, "Stay awake just a little while longer, laddie. You can rest in just a bit."

The elf wasn't looking at him. Instead, he gazed toward the entrance uneasily. Gimli couldn't recall a time he'd ever seen quite this expression on the elf's face—a strange combination of relief and concern, perhaps even fear. He placed a shaky hand on Gimli's shoulder and struggled to rise, but Gimli pushed him back down, following his gaze and starting with surprise. It hadn't been Aragorn and their Company who had come to their rescue.

Five elves, clad in cloaks of gray, slowly approached him. Gimli's heart sped up as he thought of the picture he and Legolas made. He turned and raised his hands, willing Legolas not to face plant into the dirt without his support, and dropped the axe he still gripped in his right hand. The last thing he needed was for the situation to be misconstrued and to turnaround to an arrow through the forehead.

"Need to…" Legolas bit out, gritting his teeth and pulling on Gimli's shoulder for leverage as he struggled desperately to his feet.

The elf swayed, leaning against the shelter wall. When he'd regained his equilibrium, he began to tug the dwarf behind him, though too feebly to have any success. Ignoring the unfolding situation, Gimli wedged himself once more against the elf's right side and steadied him. Legolas kept opening his mouth in a frantic sort of frustration, but no words would come. Gimli could feel the tremors wracking the elf's form as he took more and more of the Legolas' weight.

Try as he might, the elf couldn't speak. From the sheen of sweat on his face, and the way his eyes kept unfocusing, Gimli suspected he was using every ounce of his considerable willpower not to succumb to the pain. Surely he wasn't that worried about Gimli's safety?

"It will be fine," Gimli whispered, trying to sound optimistic, and might actually have succeeded, had Legolas' sheer panic at the situation not sent cold fear racing through his veins. Surely they wouldn't believe he had done this—that a dwarf was in league with orcs? But this was not Mirkwood, and if he'd never heard of Lothlórien, chances are, they'd never heard of him.

In place of words, there was only the sound of Legolas' harsh breathing as fought to speak through the agony. Gimli tried and failed to read the intentions in the grim faces of the elves as they neared. They stopped in front of them and Gimli tensed, expecting to be thrown aside.

Legolas tried again to step in front of him. "No you don't," Gimli growled and held him back awkwardly with his mangled hand. He wasn't strong enough to do much else, but he wasn't letting the elf try to defend him in this state. It would kill him.

For a few moments, the two parties just stared at each other, and for a moment Gimli's own vision tilted. Blood loss, he supposed, absently observing the blood running steadily back down the hand he held at his chest and dripping off his elbow. Legolas was seconds away from collapse, and the eyes of these elves seemed to take it all in. The dwarf expected them at any moment to demand an explanation at the state Legolas was in, and perhaps to manhandle or restrain him. Instead, not taking his eyes from Legolas, the elf greeted him a bit uncertainly in Sindarin-as if he did not expect Gimli to understand. "Master dwarf, would you please allow my kin the honor of tending your hand while I see to Thranduillion? My brothers and I mean you no harm."

Gimli's eyes widened. Honor? At almost the same moment his relieved mind comprehended his good fortune, Legolas wilted with relief. Another elf shouldered into his place, catching Legolas before he could pitch forward. He embraced the elf, speaking soothingly in a dialect Gimli had heard in Mirkwood, but did not understand. He was no longer needed.

The gray-clad elves surrounded him then, and Gimli allowed one of them to pull him away. He couldn't help but feel gratified that Legolas had not worried about keeping the strange elves safe from him. He might not have realized Gimli had understood the greeting, but the dwarf knew enough about Legolas to know that he would have never given in to the pain if he'd thought Gimli would harm his kinsmen. The ground lurched violently he moved, but he managed to keep his feet as he was gently ushered out into the open.

The sky was a pale pink and the muted pre-dawn colors silhouetted the trees. Gimli stopped for a moment and took it all in. When the orcs had found them, he hadn't been certain he'd ever see another sunrise. He followed the elf, who leapt lightly over the rocky terrain, slowing occasionally to wait for Gimli. After a night of darkness, the world was so green. Legolas would be comforted by it, he thought.

Feeling unsteady, he paused again, his vision threatening to go black and his ears buzzing strangely. When his hearing cleared, Gimli blinked and realized the elf had been speaking. He was looking at Gimli with no small amount of concern. Predictably, a tree had been selected and he was indicating that Gimli should sit at its base.

Once seated, he clamped his good hand around his palm, his thumb pressing hard against the gash, but the pain of his own injury was forgotten when they brought Legolas out. He was ashen and gray, draped limply upright between two of them. The fresh bandages Gimli had applied were saturated again, red and glistening in the morning sunlight, all the way down to the elf's knee. Two more elves trailed behind, and Gimli saw they'd retrieved most of his and Legolas' belongings.

They laid Legolas down carefully on the ground beside him. A great mossy boulder sheltered the elf from the wind, and Gimli felt a bit of relief when they dug out medicines of their own. It seemed they'd forgotten about their offer to tend his hand, but he didn't begrudge the elf the care. The galadhrim unwound the bandages and probed at the wound, frowning. As they washed away the old blood, Gimli could only look with dismay. It was puckered and quite swollen, sluggishly oozing blood and foul fluid.

He had to practice several times in his head before he managed the words, interrupting their whispers with his halting and childlike attempts at speaking elvish for the first time in his life, "Non pilin yrch.*" Their heads snapped up at his explanation, and he added, "Gîr.*"

Had it really only been a day? Less than, since Gandalf fell. The scene of the wizard and the Balrog flashed through his mind once more, and he scrubbed his good hand wearily over his face before he remembered he was supposed to be holding pressure on his other hand. It was the longest day he'd ever had the displeasure of living through, but he was grateful to have made it to the other side.

"Aragorn removed it?" The sharp elven voice cut through his thoughts, the words both surprising and intriguing him. He raised an eyebrow, wondering how they knew Aragorn traveled with them. Wearily, he shook his head, and then leaned back against the tree, too exhausted to come up with a better explanation.

For the most part, they ignored Gimli after that, hovering around Legolas, talking grimly in their dialect, applying poultices, and pouring strange draughts down the elf's throat. He never roused, and Gimli refused to think about what this might mean. He hoped the elf had merely been drugged into a pain free slumber. He didn't notice right away when their conversation died down and one peeled away from the close-knit group around Legolas to re-enter the shelter. He emerged and approached Gimli uncertainly, one of Gimli's throwing axes in each hand. His sure feet ambled over the rough terrain toward Gimli and, after a moment, he bowed slightly and extended them to him, handles first.

Gimli could only stare in openmouthed amazement. It took a moment to find his voice before he offered gruffly, "Hannon le.*" Another moment passed before he realized he still hadn't taken the elf's offering. He tentatively reached up and grasped the axes one at a time with his good hand and slid them carefully into place on his belt. He couldn't help but wrinkle his nose at the grime of two battles worth of orc scum caked on the blades.

Gimli expected the elf to turn and leave, but when, after a few moments, he made no move, Gimli looked up again and found himself being watched. The glittering humor in those eyes told him that the elf had all but read his mind, and the sight so strongly reminded him of Legolas that he had to swallow hard at the emotion welling up in his chest. The elf's merriment disappeared, and he glanced at Legolas for a moment before turning back to Gimli.

"I am Orophin," he said at last in the Grey Tongue, with a slight dip of his golden head. "I bring news of your companions—they are both safe and well." At this Gimli sagged with relief, and almost didn't notice that the elf was still speaking, "I am sorry we have left your injury for so long. I'm afraid my brothers were quite overwrought at the state of our kinsman, but if you would allow me, I will tend your hand now, elvellon."

Gimli blinked at the term. He knew he should respond appropriately at the bestowal, but it seemed words had left him. He looked over to where Legolas lay, then he looked back hesitantly at the elf in front of him, and then he looked down at the appendage he still had tightly fisted against his stomach. This was not at all how he was used to his interactions with elves going. Slowly, he relinquished his hand to the elf's care.

"Gimli, son of Glóin, at your service," he managed belatedly, not even bothering with Sindarin. Why did his head feel like it was stuffed full of cotton?

The elf gave a nod of acknowledgement, and then got down to business. "I've sent Foendil and Tûron back with a report. If Aragorn is not already on his way, they will make sure he is coming to intercept us." He paused, before acknowledging, "Thranduillion's injury is beyond our skill."

Orophin carefully worked off Gimli's glove, and as he did so, a burning pain lanced across his palm and blood flow that had been slowly ebbing began to pour more quickly. Forcing himself to look down, Gimli at last took in the damage. As the elf gently pried his fingers open, Gimli could see a deep cut that ran across his palm from his thumb where it was bleeding steadily, to his little finger, where it grew more shallow.

"I'm afraid this will be quite painful, but it's bleeding too heavily to leave it untended," the elf offered apologetically before pouring water over it to clean it. Gimli could briefly glimpse pale sinew before blood welled up again and wiggled his fingers experimentally, biting his lip at the cry of pain that threatened to escape. Orophin looked like he wanted to scold him, but held his peace. For his part, Gimli was pleased to find that everything still worked, and that would just have to be good enough-at least he'd still be able to hold his axe when it healed.

The elf bound the hand tightly with fresh bandages, wrapping them around and around until the hand was fairly engulfed in white linen. "When we are able to stop, I can stitch it for you," then he gave a little bow and returned to Legolas' side, giving orders and organizing their departure for Lórien.

*Non pilin yrch=It was an orc arrow.


*Hannon le=thank you (Movie verse Sindarin for thank you.)

*Elvellon=elf friend

End notes—You can see here that this chapter introduces quite the deviation from canon. In the movie, Gimli's arrival in the Golden Wood is met with veiled death threats ("the dwarf breathes so loud we could have shot him in the dark"). I always loved Legolas' movie response, but in the book, Legolas and Gimli were not yet close and Gimli was singled out with extreme prejudice, yet for reason we are never told, he and Legolas become close friends while in Lórien. My story explores all the ramifications of Legolas being injured. Some of the changes are minor, but for Gimli, his treatment by the galadhrim will be completely different—and perhaps he will still be distrustful because he feels they've only changed their minds because he's saved one of their own.

A few further notes: In the books, Gimli is only mentioned as having an axe, so this could be a bit of movie verse, but honestly one large axe isn't practical for close quarter battle. I think that Gimli probably did have more than one axe on him. Also, if you're more of a movie verse fan, I should note that in the book, Legolas didn't have twin knives.

A/N: Buckle in, dear readers—this one is quite the ride. If you've binge-watched ER, you'll probably be fine, but if that kind of thing makes you squeamish, you may want to skip to the end when you get to that part. I hope the length of this chapter makes up for how long you had to wait-it's the longest one yet. This chapter contains italicized quotes from The Fellowship of the Ring.

Chapter Ten:

Aragorn blinked, struggling to clear his vision as he tied off the last stitch on Boromir's arm. His arms trembled at the effort, but he needed to hold them up and steady a few minutes longer. Stitching wounds on a thrice empty stomach after the day he'd just experienced really was inadvisable. It was difficult to see by lantern light, and he hoped the scar resulting from his shoddy needlework wouldn't become another point of contention between himself and the man of Gondor, who—judging by the slump of his head—had fallen asleep almost as soon as he'd resigned himself to their current path. His own mind kept stuttering to a halt, and he kept finding himself staring at each newly completed stitch, trying to remember where he was in the process. Counting the stitches, he realized he just needed to tie off the thread and then stay awake to plan with Haldir. He hadn't been able to manage the act of speaking and stitching at the same time, and with each stitch the monotony of the task had made the siren call of sleep even harder to resist. A full day had not passed, yet it felt like a lifetime.

A call came from below, and Aragorn jerked to alertness once more, yanking on the uncut thread that had somehow become tangled in his fingers. Boromir gave a yelp, and the ranger jabbed his thumb with the needle before he came awake enough to realize what was happening.

As he sucked the bead of blood from his smarting digit and wondered exactly how long he'd succumbed to sleep, Pippin's excited voice cut through the fog. "It's Frodo and Sam!"

He watched with relief, bemused, as he and Merry overcame their fear of heights once more and wobbled over to the opening to watch their kin climb shakily up the rope ladder to the talan. An elf Aragorn hadn't yet seen brought up their rear. As they stepped onto the talan, he could see that Sam's face was pinched with pain, and Frodo was breathing shallowly again, but when he looked them over, he saw no sign of new injury, save some new scratches on Sam. His eyes narrowed. He was sure there was a story there, but the two weren't exactly diving right into explanations. Indeed, they stood frozen on the platform in a crouched sort of way that suggested being terrified at the talan's great height. He thought Sam was muttering something about hobbits not being meant for places so high above ground, and how he didn't trust a few pieces of wood not to give way beneath them.

The other elf, who of course was used to the treetops, ignored them all and began a rapid report in Silvan almost the moment he was off the ladder. Aragorn found himself looking from the elf, to the hobbits, and back again for clues. As the story—whatever it was-was related, they all settled around the lantern. Aragorn started a bit as Boromir handed him a water skin and a wafer of lembas.

"Eat," the man growled quietly.

Across from them, Haldir was sharing his supply of the waybread with the hobbits. Watching them dig in, he suspected the marchwarden's supply might soon begin to run low. Midway through the report, and long since he'd given up trying to understand, Haldir sucked in a breath and looked over at him expectantly. Sam and Frodo, ironically, seemed to have followed the conversation and now somehow seemed to be waiting for him to explain. Feeling wrong footed, he scrubbed a hand over his face and tried to shake the last of the cobwebs from his mind.

"Orophin and the others have gone for Thranduillion." Haldir's tone was somewhat chiding, both clueing him in and admonishing him without words for failing to report such an important detail.

"How did..." Aragorn was still struggling to follow, and with great aggravation longed for a mug of black, sludgy coffee to jolt him awake. Elves of course, had little use for such a brew, and therefore never had any one hand.

"We told him about Legolas," Frodo supplied helpfully, interrupting the side trip his brain had taken. The ringbearer was looking at him curiously, as if to ask why Haldir hadn't already known about their elven friend. Aragorn flinched under his gaze, guilt descending like a cloak.

"Don't be too hard on yourself," Haldir allowed, offering an olive branch, "You were too weary to think clearly, so Eru intervened. Besides, I'm impressed you managed to stitch up your companion's arm in your state."

Boromir shuffled a bit at his right, and Aragorn grimaced as the man inspected the stitching that held his wound closed. There was a muttered oath before the man fixed him with a stern glare. Aragorn shrugged apologetically, steadfastly ignoring the teasing glint that had come into Haldir's eyes. The steward's son, however, peered at Aragorn evaluatingly and then grunted his acceptance.

"How bad is it this time?" Haldir's voice brought the ranger back to the present, and he turned to find the elf's mirth dying and his expression growing more serious. "Oh come now, even in Lothlórien we hear the tales of Thranduillion's escapades with a certain Dúnedain. Undómiel herself has regaled us with quite a few of them—not to mention your erstwhile companions from your last stay here. All fraught with perils and tales of barely surviving."

"He's certainly gotten out of worse scrapes," Aragorn allowed, ignoring the curious looks he was receiving from the others and forcing himself to focus. He didn't share the marchwarden's optimism.

"You know Legolas?" Pippin interrupted curiously, and the elves' eyes grew round as the hobbit reached gingerly for another piece of lembas and popped it into his mouth. Aragorn was reminded immediately of the hobbit's tendency to latch onto the smallest, most random detail and remember it for all eternity.

"Only by reputation. I've never met the Green Leaf. I've met his father, and that is enough." Haldir grimaced at this last, and the ranger struggled to keep his lips from twitching.

Legolas' father did have quite the reputation. Pippin's eyes were already narrowing in suspicion, and Aragorn could seem him mouthing Thran-du-il-li-on, his eyebrows furrowing as he tried to riddle out the elvish name. Aragorn saw the moment he'd gotten it-hobbit's jaw dropped in utter astonishment.

Merry was not far behind him in his deductions and looked from Aragorn to the two elves, and then back to Aragorn. "Thranduil's son."

"Wait," Pippin cut in, "You mean that our Legolas is the son of Thranduil. The Thranduil." Both hobbits' eyes widened further when Aragorn made no attempt to deny it.

"You mean to that Mr. Legolas is the son of the elven King from Mr. Bilbo's adventures?!" Sam actually dropped his dinner in shock.

Aragorn found himself nodding, not missing how Frodo's face lacked any surprise—perhaps Bilbo had told him. For his part, Boromir seemed well and truly confused by the significance of the moment. "He would have preferred that fact remain unknown to you, though it was no secret."

"But, why?" Merry asked quizzically.

"Because he and his father never quite saw eye to eye on that little misadventure and he'd rather you and your kin got to know him as himself."

"So-how bad?" Haldir repeated, ending their digression from the point at hand. At least for all his optimism, he'd gotten some sense of the urgency.

"It's…not good." The Ranger managed, looking both chagrined and worried. "He took an orc arrow near Moria. If it had not happened while we were still so far from Lothlórien, and we had not been pursued, I think this would hardly be worth a note in his history of scrapes, but we were forced to flee instead of treating it, and aside from the wound itself, if the orcs have tracked them, he will not be able to defend himself. Gimli will defend him, of course, but one companion…"

"It is likely too late to intercept the orcs now. What will come to pass has likely been determined already," the elf pronounced gravely.

"I'm worried about Mr. Gimli, too," Sam interrupted suddenly, "he'll defend Mr. Legolas with his life, he will. He's honorable like that, but it's my thinking that whenever those elves find them, they won't treat him right."

Aragorn found himself heartened by the faith Sam had that their two companions would live long enough to be found, but Haldir frowned in confusion, and not a little offense, "Why would we harm one of your companions?"

"Because," Aragorn replied evenly, catching the elf's eye, "Gimli is a dwarf."

"A dwarf?!" The ranger groaned as the elf, predictably, proved Sam's point, his nose wrinkling. "We have not had dealings with the Dwarves since the Dark Days. They are not permitted in our land," he spat.

After that outburst, Aragorn was inclined to agree with the hobbits. In a moment, the genial supper had shifted and all four hobbits were beginning to look very, very angry and rather less accepting of the elven hospitality they had been shown. Gimli's position when found with a wounded elf by a patrol of galadhrim would be perilous indeed, even if Legolas reassured them otherwise, and to this point, the elf himself had barely tolerated the dwarf—a fault over which he and Aragorn had already exchanged words over several times.

"But he is from the Lonely Mountain, one of Dain's trusty people, and friendly to Elrond—who himself chose him to be one of our companions," Frodo cried indignantly, "and he has been brave and faithful."

Boromir rose then, and began to pace with a nervous sort of energy that Aragorn wished he could share. "Gimli will not be able to resist a war of words if provoked. The situation could very easily come to blows."

"We've got to get out there!" Merry decided, giving a single nod as if the matter was settled, "For both their sakes."

Haldir paused to consider. "Even if you left this very moment, it would be impossible for you to overtake them. Once it is light, my marchwardens will be able to handle any number of wounds. No one denies you are a skilled healer, Aragorn, but they may not in fact, have need of you."

"You have yet to reassure us about our companion," Frodo cut in, falling silent when Aragorn held up a hand. Trying to plead Gimli's cause was a futile waste of time.

"It is my hope that I will not be needed," he allowed, "But my heart tells me differently." Legolas had been away from help too long, and the reclusive Lórien elves, protected by Nenya, had more of a patch them up and retreat strategy. Healers of the caliber his friend's wound required were only found within the walls of Caras Galadhon.

Haldir's eyes narrowed at this pronouncement, and the ranger knew he'd finally revealed, without the rest of the Company realizing it, the gravity of Legolas' situation. The elf could die, simply because time had forced their hand. And if he died—Aragorn shivered—Gimli's position would be precarious indeed, especially if no one of their Company was present.

"I'm going with you," Merry announced suddenly, getting to his feet.

"Not you, Merry," Aragorn said wearily, trying to dredge up enough energy to argue. "Me. I must go alone. And soon." It was not lost on him, or apparently any of the others that Haldir had not refuted their assumptions about how their dwarf companion might be treated.

"Alone? But why?" Pippin retorted in dismay before crossing his arms and fixing his jaw mulishly. "That's ridiculous."

"You would only slow him down," Boromir replied in Aragorn's defense, sitting back down. The ranger winced at the bald truth of his words, and was not surprised to find that Merry and Sam, in particular, had not taken them well.

"Now see here—" Sam began.

"You know Boromir meant no offense, Sam," Frodo jumped in soothingly, though he threw the man a peevish look.

"Prejudice aside-you're wrong, the both of you," Merry hissed. "Can you not see how foolish it would be to go alone? Once you've found them—and that's optimistic 'cause you're dead on your feet—you'll be focused on Legolas. There will be no one to watch over Gimli—he could be hurt for all we know! The fact remains that we are not children to be cossetted and protected. Sure, we're short and unaccustomed to battle, but I think we've more than proven our worth. You must take one of us with you!"

His eyes simmered as Aragorn met them, but the tension was broken when Pippin—reaching for another wafer of waybread—exclaimed with a calculated sort of cheer, "We are burglars, after all." Boromir looked confused, but Aragorn found his ire loosening in the face of the hobbit's subtle point. They were not children to be cossetted and protected—Bilbo's adventures proved that much, and perhaps their loyalty to Gimli stemmed not only from their recent friendship, but also from their shared histories.

"And you think you're the best choice?" Boromir asked, having disregarded Pippin's comment and gotten to his feet again to tower over Merry, his voice harsh and incredulous. Aragorn looked at him in surprise. The man was usually less abrasive with the hobbits.

"Well—I'm fitter than you lot," Merry returned testily as he looked them over pointedly. Following his gaze, Aragorn had to concede that he wasn't wrong. Boromir's arm needed to knit a while longer before he climbed down the ladder and went traipsing all over the countryside, and even though the man could likely manage just fine, one of them needed to stay with the hobbits. Poor Pippin's hands wouldn't be able to hold anything without pain for at least a week, and of course it would be foolhardy to take the ring bearer further from safety. Aragorn frowned suddenly at the wound he'd spotted on Sam's hand. Were those…tooth marks?

The ranger gave a great sigh, at which Merry seemed to sense he'd won and bit out slowly and deliberately, "I'm coming with you."

And that had been the end of it.

About two hours before dawn, Aragorn set out with Merry, leaving instructions for the others to take the road south as soon as it was fully light. His muscles had stiffened in the stillness of the talan and now protested mightily. They crossed the Nimrodel, and set a brisk pace to the edge of the wood. The crisp morning air invigorated him at first, but as their distance increased, he found himself tiring once more. To his chagrin, it appeared he was slowing Merry down, but the hobbit graciously refrained from the kind of told-you-so-remarks that so often made up Legolas' particular brand of torment.

Dawn was approaching as they emerged from the wood. To their left lay the old road, like a worn and winding carpet on the grasses, and to the right dead bodies of orcs lay scattered about. A little apart, Aragorn could see a curious pile of packs, and beside them, Boromir's shield. Beyond that, the Silverlode ran, gurgling merrily.

The orcs' trail extended northward, a blackened path of trampled grass. Their direction was obvious even to a child, though Aragorn dropped into a squat to examine their tracks. As he'd expected, the heels of the topmost tracks dug in to the South. Of the elves Frodo and Sam had mentioned, he found only an occasional trace that yielded no information at all. "Well, I guess it's no secret which way we'll be going," Merry commented dryly as he approached, hefting his newly-retrieved pack higher on his shoulders.

The second trip across the plains seemed a much greater distance when not fleeing for one's life. They continued on, side by side, and Aragorn could see the angry set of the hobbit's jaw. He wasn't quite sure how to deal with an angry hobbit—as he'd only ever had experience with merry, valiant, and stubborn hobbits-though some of that fierceness he'd seen in Bree came belatedly to mind.

As day dawned, the grasses on the plain began to glisten like a golden sea and Aragorn picked up the pace, not wanting to waste a single moment of daylight.

They had continued on like this for quite a while, Merry keeping up just as he'd promised, when a sharp whistle rent the air. Merry stumbled into Aragorn as he stopped suddenly, searching for the signal's source.

"Is it them already?" The hobbit asked breathlessly as he bent over, hands on his knees, using the pause to catch his breath.

Across the Silverlode, and still some distance away, he sighted two elves, who held up a hand in greeting. They wore only simple tunics and jerkins, but as they neared, he recognized the faces of two marchwardens who were known to him.

He turned to Merry, unable to contain his relief, "These elves are known to me-we must cross over to them."

Without waiting for the hobbit's reply, he waded across the shallow stream, ignoring the slight roll of Merry's eyes at his stating of the obvious. "Foendil! Tûron!"

Merry followed him, completely soaking his trousers, but the hobbit made no comment as he reappeared at his elbow.

Of the elves that could have found them, Aragorn was doubly relieved it was these two. Though they had never met Legolas, they had been his companions during his travels through Lórien. If anyone would listen to him about Gimli, these two would. The conversation that followed almost made him wilt with relief.

A look of impatience flickered across Merry's face, and he found himself offering hurriedly, "They have found them both—alive, but we must hurry." He found himself raking a hand through his scraggly hair to hide the relieved tremble of the appendage.

As they continued on northward, he realized he should probably begin instructions.

"Tûron, Foendil—" he gestured to Merry, "Meriadoc Brandybuck, tôl en Shire."*

The hobbit dipped his head in acknowledgement as they hurried along, "Yes, yes. Hello." Then he rounded on Aragorn, "Now that introductions are over, perhaps you'd be so kind as to tell me what exactly they've told you."

"They found both of them this morning," he began, letting the elves walk in front of them.

"So you've already said," the hobbit snapped impatiently.

Thinking that perhaps the Brandybucks might have some overlooked reputation for fierceness, Aragorn hastened to add, "Alive, and for the most part, no worse for wear. They told me they tracked the orcs into the early morning. Legolas and Gimli had taken refuge in a narrow gap in the hillside—I suspect our dwarf friend had something to do with that choice. Its defensibility saved their lives when the orcs found them."

Here Merry's breath sucked in sharply, so Aragorn plowed ahead, "Gimli took a blade to the hand—the only injury."

The hobbit's eyes flashed and the ranger hurriedly added, "From the orcs!"

Somewhat mollified, Merry huffed, "Well, they had better be treating him fairly!" The hobbit sent a glare at the two elves they trailed.

Normally Aragorn would have found humor in a hobbit threatening and stamping about with his feet, but Merry looked so ferocious that Aragorn merely hastened to continue on with the story.

"Foendil and Tûron have reported, quite ruefully in fact, that he might have indeed been in some peril from them"—here Merry actually growled—"had he not made quite the impression by saving Legolas' life." This seemed to satisfy the hobbit, who relaxed and let Aragorn finish telling the story without further interruption.

The party hastened ahead in silence. Surely they must be nearly there, Aragorn hoped, all the urgency he had felt since they'd left Legolas behind the night before giving speed to his tiring legs, though they burned and trembled. He was sure Merry's shorter legs would have trouble keeping up, but he thought he might jump out of his skin if he slowed now. Foendil slowed and let him pass, falling behind to keep up with the hobbit, and some of Aragorn's guilt lessened.

He'd gone little more than a quarter league when he stumbled. Tûron grabbed him by the elbow before he could pitch too far forward and gave him a critical look. The ranger merely righted himself and shook his head. His exhaustion would be dealt with later.

Ahead, an elf emerged from the wooded hillside that led up to the dale where they had rested not a day before. He wore a cloak of gray and shouldered a pack as he led two other elves who held the ends of a narrow litter of foraged branches. Aragorn had no doubt it was Legolas being carried on it, covered by several gray cloaks and blankets. Behind them, a shorter figure stumbled laboriously along, the last to come into view. In the vibrant morning light, the dwarf—trailing behind-was pale, and what he could see of Legolas peeking out from underneath the cloaks and blankets heaped over him, was a sickly gray. Aragorn's heart clenched at how much he'd deteriorated since the night before.

"By the Shire…" Merry swore softly, appearing next to him. The others halted as Aragorn approached, his hands ghosting over Legolas' shoulders and forehead in despair before he finally got his wild emotions under control and pulled back the cloaks and blankets.

The elf shivered ever so slightly as his chest and torso were bared. Aragorn had never seem him like this. "Geheno nîn, mellon nîn,"* Aragorn whispered, his throat so tight with emotion that he could hardly get the words out. At the sound of his voice, the elf's eyes opened, and, for a moment, the ranger felt a swell of hope. But they drifted immediately closed again.

Legolas was so still. The ranger's practiced eyes skimmed the elf's torso, ignoring the older scars of pale silver to seek out the bandaged left side. The bandages were fresh and white, he noted, and he was loathe to remove the careful work. Something about them wasn't quite right—as if they should appear different—but, though the answer drew near, it eluded his weary mind. An elf drew near on his right, and after a moment, he recognized Haldir's brother, who was likely in charge. He looked up expectantly for a report.

"The arrow has separated from the shaft," Orophin told him quietly, the elf at last supplying what his brain had refused to work out.

With the knowledge came a wave of hopelessness that almost took his knees out from under him. "Damn shoddy craftsmanship," he growled tightly, despair making him feel suddenly unsteady on his feet. All he could feel was sorrow and exhaustion.

Orophin looked him over appraisingly before ordering quietly, "We stop here. Set him down."

Tûron placed a hand on Aragorn's shoulder and peered carefully into his face. "Perhaps you should take some rest first, son of Arathorn."

"No," he replied, turning away from the elf, "he has waited too long as it is and I don't want to waste anymore daylight." Looking down, he was surprised to see his pouch waiting by Legolas' feet. He wasn't sure how it had wound up exactly where and when he needed it, but he was grateful.

"Light a fire! Boil water from the stream."

Leaving the more menial tasks to the others, he knelt next to Legolas and readied his supplies, his hands shaking as he made sure each instrument was cleaned and laid out within reach, knowing that each cut he made with them could speed his friends' departure to Valinor. Through it all, Legolas never stirred, his breathing so shallow that Aragorn worried he would just slip away before anyone noticed. A water skin appeared in front of his face, jolting him from his thoughts.

"Drink," Merry ordered, thrusting it further under his nose. He obeyed and handed it back. It was exchanged for a hunk of cheese. He looked up questioningly.

"I've been saving it," the hobbit shrugged. There was no trace of his earlier ire. "Elven food isn't all that tasty—now eat before you collapse."

Raising the cheese for a moment in a gesture of thanks, Aragorn ate. Apparently satisfied, Merry retreated. Aragorn watched as he picked his way over to where Gimli sat. Orophin, to the ranger's surprise, was already unrolling the dwarf's bandages. He winced and felt a pang of concern for the dwarf—they looked to be soaked through. The dwarf himself was staring blankly at the ground, looking every bit as haunted as Aragorn felt. Merry had been right to come, Aragorn decided, as he listened to him chatter soothingly to the dwarf, the only Westron voice in the camp, relating the adventure of the night before.

The sun beat down, and Aragorn found himself sweating despite the air's current chill. It promised to be a muggy day, and the cottonball clouds provided little shade, but he welcomed the discomfort for Legolas' sake. He placed a shaky hand on the elf's neck as he watched the low rise and fall of his chest. Stable for now, but that could change in an instant.

"Tûron!" Aragorn motioned and gestured across to Legolas' right. "Sit there and tell me if there's even the slightest change." The elf in question accepted the order with grace and knelt down on Legolas' other side, leaving the ranger free to wash his hands.

Bracing himself, he slowly began to unwrap the wound. He knew what to expect, having seen and treated many arrow wounds since Lord Elrond had begun fostering his innate talent, but he still he had to take several calming breaths against the bile that rose in his throat. The wound was angry and infected, as he'd known it would be. The orc habit of reusing arrows coupled with the attempts of the elf's body to heal itself despite the foreign body had produced a rather nasty infection. This was why so many considered orc arrows to be poisoned. Truly, it wasn't that the orcs spared so much time to lace their weapons with poisons, but rather that arrows—especially scavenged from carrion and returned to the quiver to be used again infused the wounds they made with many a foul substance. Legolas was lucky he was an elf—a man would have already succumbed, as Aragorn knew all too well.

Struggling to keep his hands steady, Aragorn palpated around the wound, feeling for the loose arrowhead that could easily have slipped too deeply to find. Legolas was far too weak to survive a prolonged blood-letting. Blood and pus oozed over his fingers as he pressed around, continuing his careful search. A soft moan breeched the elf's lips and Aragorn frowned. He was going to have to do something for his pain.

Tûron seemed to be ahead of him, motioning for Foendil to bring him some of the water that had been boiled and fishing a packet of powdered herbs from his own pack. Satisfied, the ranger returned to his inspection. About two inches down from where the arrow had entered, his fingertips met resistance. He pressed gently on and around the area to make sure it wasn't a pocket of infection before he allowed himself to hope.

Not able to take the risk of moving his hand, or even looking away, he kept his left hand carefully in place while he searched with his right, his fingertips tracing each utensil until he found the item he sought. He closed his fingers around it, hanging onto it as he dragged his forearm across his forehead to keep the sweat from dripping into his eyes. It was time to begin.

This part was so important, and the wrong kind of pressure would cause the arrowhead could slip deeper, or move to another place and he'd be playing a game of hunt and find that he'd never seen end in recovery. There could be no turning back. His eyes lingered on Legolas' ashen form. "Please don't die at my hand, gwador nîn."*

He glanced quickly at Tûron and watched as the elf continued to drip the pain draught into Legolas' mouth. Every few minutes, the elf would swallow reflexively. Satisfied that everything was being done as exactly as he wanted, the ranger steeled himself and made a careful incision beneath the lump. Slipping his finger in, he probed gently for the arrowhead.

Legolas jerked, a cry of pain gurgling in his throat. "Hold him!" He cried, scarcely able to breath. As Foendil raced over to brace the elf's knees, Aragorn forced himself not to panic. This was nothing he hadn't dealt with before.

Barely any force was required, but Aragorn still needed him kept completely still. Taking a deep breath, he cut deeper, slicing again and probing carefully. His heart clenched with sorrow as the elf arched feebly at the pain. This time his finger bumped something hard, and foreign.

Keeping his finger in place, he weighed the risk before commanding, "Add more powder to the draught—he can't afford for me to lose my grip on this, and I fear in his pain, you will not be able to keep him still enough." Tûron complied instantly, and continued dripping the medicine in bit by bit, this time massaging his throat so he swallowed more quickly.

Aragorn waited as long as he dared for it to take effect, hoping he hadn't just ensured that his brother would never wake again. To use so potent a draught had its own dangers. Laying a hand over Legolas' chest, he motioned for Tûron to stop. "That's enough for now—his breathing is far too shallow."

Not taking his eyes from the spot, he widened the incision and dropped his knife with a clatter onto his other tools, feeling frantically for his tongs.

"Here," Foendil said urgently, pressing them into his hands. "Just tell me what you need."

Guiding the tongs parallel to his finger, he secured them around the arrowhead and slowly drew out the digit to give himself more room to work. He tugged gently—terrified the arrowhead would escape the tongs and slip out of reach-until it emerged, dark and soaked in blood. Behind it, more blood was welling up. With a cry, Aragorn shoved his forefinger back into the wound, plugging it.

"You've got it!" Foendil breathed out encouragingly.

Aragorn nodded, hardly trusting himself to speak as he held it up the light. As he examined it, he thought he might be sick. The end that had been attached to the shaft was crumbling, and indeed the entire bottom of the arrowhead was threatening to crumble and fall from the tongs. He quickly discarded it.

"Our work is far from over," he choked out, "the arrow damn near disintegrated. We must retrieve even the tiniest piece if we are to save his life." Impotent rage clouded his vision for a moment and he fervently wished for a few orcs to skewer with his sword.

The day wore slowly on as he picked out dirt and debris from the entry and exit wounds, tuning out everything that didn't involve the wound in front of him, praying Legolas would hold on. There was nothing else that could be done for him. It was difficult to see for all the blood that kept welling up, and Aragorn was very glad he'd not attempted to remove the arrow at the gates of Moria. Even if they'd managed to avoid their entire Company being slaughtered by orcs, Legolas would have bled to death as they tried to flee—and he wouldn't have had time to ensure the wound was clean. Somehow knowing that it would have been a disaster eased his guilt.

He looked up for a moment and ordered more bandages to be cut and boiled. Every dip of the tongs brought out more dirt and bits of stone and the softened sinew that had once attached the arrow to the shaft. "This isn't working," he finally growled in defeat, throwing the tongs down and retrieving the knife. The entire wound would have to be opened.

Emotion welled up and his eyes burned, but he swallowed and ignored it. He had to do this. There was no choice if he wanted Legolas to live. He froze when the first slice drew a whimper from the elf, who flinched away from the razor sharp blade. The draught was wearing off. Aragorn opened his mouth to tell Tûron, but the elf was already retrieving it.

This time, the elf fought it. Blood began to pour out more quickly. Panicking, Aragorn dropped his tools and grabbed the cup, slipping his other hand behind Legolas' neck and bringing his head up to drink, his fingers leaving bloody smears in the golden hair. He glanced back for a moment, relieved that Foendil had taken up his place and was pressing hard against the wound.

"Ssh. You must drink this, mellon nîn.* I am here, but you must allow me to take care of you." There was so much more he wanted to say, not caring about the tears soaking his beard, but then Legolas calmed suddenly at his touch. To Aragorn's surprise, his eyes opened.

"Legolas?" The elf gave him a funny little smile and took a swallow from the cup held out his lips before he sagged against Aragorn's hand. Alarmed, the ranger thrust the draught back at Tûron and placed his free hand on the elf's chest. He nearly wilted in relief at the reassuring beating of the elf's heart.

Instinct told him he needed to hurry now. His friend could not survive a prolonged search which would also prolong blood loss, but neither could he seal the wound in a rush to prevent him from bleeding to death. That would insure a fatal infection from any debris that was left behind. The burden of the task pressed on him and he swayed, his hands trembling violently and his throat working frantically to keep the contents of his stomach where they belonged.

Suddenly, Merry was back, steadying him. He nodded his thanks as he forced himself to drink deeply from the water skin. He accepted some more lembas, forcing it down. The light fare was ashes in his mouth. Sustenance could only help so much. He knew what he really needed was rest, but that was out of the question. He couldn't trust anyone but himself to do this.

Steadying his hands once more, he sliced as deeply as he dared between the two wounds, opening the entire abdomen. It was as he had suspected. Debris was visible from the entry point all the way to where the arrow had slipped after breaking off from the shaft. At least, he noted, save for some small scratches, none of his organs had been pierced. He'd take good news where he could find it. Taking a deep breath, he accepted the tongs from Foendil and set to work.

While he struggled to find and remove the tiny crumbles of debris, Orophin rejoined them, sitting at Legolas' head, his fingers slowly teasing out the warrior's braids and combing out the tangles. Aragorn could hear Merry and Gimli's low curiosity as dirt and grime were sponged away and the golden hair braided again, as if Legolas were an elfling.

"It is their custom," he found himself explaining in a gravelly voice, allowing them to distract him from the tendrils of doubt that had begun to creep in. Aragorn had always found the practice oddly comforting-feeling of home and family. Tûron motioned with an encouraging nod to the elf in their care, who seemed to be resting more easily, some of the lines of pain on his face smoothing even further.

The winter light had begun to wane as Aragorn continued to painstakingly pick out the debris left by the arrow. He had to be certain not the slightest speck of dirt remained. By now, Legolas' breathing was shallow enough to worry him, but each time he looked up expectantly at Tûron, the elf merely nodded for him to continue. There wasn't much else he could do, and Aragorn suspected the marchwarden saw the value in a quick death now instead of a slow death later. For his part, the ranger could only silently plead with his friend to hold on.

The sun had completely set as he turned to heat his knife, leaving Foendil to douse the wound with spirits. He thought he'd gotten everything, but it was too dark now to continue further. His vision grayed out for a moment as he rose to make his way to the fire, and he stumbled.

Strange hands caught him and hauled him upright. With dismay, he felt the knife being taken from his hand. "Let me do this part—it is time for you to rest, my friend." Aragorn's head felt heavy as he forced it upright to look blearily over their camp, taking in the crackling fire and the circular perimeter that had been set up, then Gimli talking quietly with Merry, a fresh bandage on his hand, and then Legolas. He opened his mouth to protest, but the words wouldn't come.

"I believe we are skilled enough to handle his care from this point," Tûron said kindly in his ear. Aragorn felt himself panicking as his body betrayed him at last.

"We are not taking over," the elf soothed, "we know of your deep friendship, but you can delay rest no longer. Please trust us—at least Foendil and I. His care will not suffer while you restore your body."

This time the ranger managed a noise of protest.

"I promise you I will take one last look before the wound is sealed."

Aragorn sagged, finding himself too weary to resist further and the elf steered him to a pallet a few strides from Legolas' side. He sank down in spite of his tormented mind, hardly able to resist the call of sleep, but his hand flailed upward in determination, grabbing the Tûron's jerkin. "Promise me you will wake me in two hours…"

"Of course."

His eyes fluttered closed, but he forced them open.

"Don't leave his side. Promise me."

"You have my word." The words came faintly to him as he at last surrendered unwillingly to the fog.

Ends notes: If you are a knitter, I'd highly recommend looking up Jennifer Woodhouse's (Woodhouse Knits) Lothlórien Shawl. I'm currently knitting it, and it's such a nice companion to writing this story.

Also, I realized after reading this that the entire first half could have been a chapter of its own directly before Gimli's last chapter. I'm not sure yet if I will go back and move it, or just leave it as is, since this is all from Aragorn's POV.

Meriadoc Brandybuck, tôl en Shire= Meriadoc Brandybuck of the Shire. (I chose "of the" instead of "he comes from the Shire" as Frodo used to show Aragorn's ease with the elvish language, but I am by no means an expert in which of these forms is correct.)

Geheno nîn, mellon nîn=I'm sorry my friend.

Gwador nîn=my brother (sworn)

Mellon nîn=my friend.

A/N: Thank you to everyone who has left me a comment or review, and for those following along! That each of you have taken the time to do so means to much. Now, on with the show as we go back to where we left the others. The perils our beloved Company face are far from over. Remember, the events at the gates of Moria have caused an entire chain reaction of problems.

Chapter Eleven

Day came pale from the East and Pippin jolted awake. Someone was shaking him. His eyes followed the hand on his shoulder to Frodo's haggard face. "We're to set out soon," his cousin offered apologetically, looking as exhausted as Pippin felt. Somewhere behind Frodo, he heard Sam let out a great yawn.

He stayed on his back for another moment as he came to full alertness, staring at the pale-blue sky peeping among the moving branches and trying to work up the courage to actually roll over. He get couldn't say for certain he hadn't rolled closer to the edge in the night—a thought that terrified him just as much now as it had when he'd been trying to fall asleep. He had said so a time or two…or perhaps three before the others had implored him to just be silent. Now his skin crawled with both the need to see how near he was to the edge and the utter terror of actually knowing.

Pippin might have a reputation as a bit of a climber, but this was the highest he'd ever been from the ground—a record he hoped never to repeat or surpass. He finally forced himself to look to his right and was reassured to find there was still a safe amount of room before the edge of the flet dropped away into midair. Breathing a sigh of relief, he rolled over and got to his knees, putting out a hand out to brace himself. Instantly, pain flared in his palm and fingers and a yelp escaped his mouth before he could stop it. He quickly took his weight off of the offended appendage. He'd forgotten about that.

Somewhat sheepishly, he glanced around, but other than a raised eyebrow from Boromir and one of the elves, the others paid him no heed as they gathered the meager remains of their belongings and rolled up the borrowed bedding. Frodo and Sam were far too uneasy over the height to take much notice of anything else. Rúmil must have already gone ahead of them, Pippin observed absently.

In the growing light, he brought his throbbing hands up to inspect them. He couldn't see beneath the bandages, but his fingers felt swollen and stiff. The hand he'd disturbed stung like mad. Not a good sign of how the morning was going to go, in his opinion, but he had to go down the ladder sometime—if for no other reason than to finally deal with urgent needs best taken care of behind a private tree somewhere. He shuddered. How was it everyone else managed to appear so dignified while he came across as a bumbling tween? He struggled to his feet with a groan, his entire body had stiffened and now protested at the interruption of the first real rest it had been allowed since the orcs had come upon them in Moria.

He wondered absently if Merry and Strider had been this sore—or worse, in Strider's case, when they'd set out before dawn. He chanced another look at Boromir and wasn't surprised to see the man trying to stretch out sore muscles. The man looked quite perturbed that he had to show the weakness, but Pippin was just relieved they'd all lived long enough to be sore. His hands were a minor hurt in the scheme of things.

Glancing over at Sam, he could see from his demeanor, and how he avoided Haldir, that the gardener's opinion of the elves had suffered after the revelations of the night before. He himself had never been overawed by the elves. In his mind, their refusal to see Gimli's worth because he was a dwarf was less of a fall from grace and more of a glaring and stupid prejudice. Haldir, he thought, was a bit thick anyway when it came to matters of mere mortals. The elf had acted like a few wafers of bread were a great hospitality. If not for Rivendell, he'd have thought elves ate waybread for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It tasted nice enough, but hobbits needed more variety. Let him come to the Shire—perhaps he'd learn a thing or two. His thoughts stuttered to a halt as a wave of homesickness washed over him.

With Merry gone, he felt hesitant and wrong footed, and he certainly wasn't going to call attention to the fact that he was nearly helpless, at least where climbing was concerned. He wasn't proud as Merry, but even so, he'd been treated like a youngster often enough since Rivendell and, after Moria, he didn't want to give them further reason to think he should have stayed in the Shire. Slamming the door firmly shut on that train of thought, he gave a decisive nod. Boromir certainly wouldn't be asking to have his wounds looked at again, so neither would he-and, anyway, nothing would change the fact that he still had to go down that ladder in a few minutes.

No one tried to make conversation as he waited for his turn down the ladder. Pippin supposed he was relieved. He wasn't in the mood for small talk anyway. Instead, he looked through an opening on the south side of the flet. Beyond, he saw all the valley of the Silverlode lying like a sea of fallow gold tossing gently in the breeze. That was where they were going. He swallowed hard. For all its beauty, the Golden Wood only reminded him how very far he was from the Shire.

As Sam began his descent, Pippin forced himself to open and close his hands. He winced as he felt the newly formed scabs break open and weep, but he was grateful for the light bandaging—it would help with the pain of trying to hang on to the rope. Still, if they didn't loosen up a bit, he didn't know how he would make it down the ladder. He would have thought a night of healing would have done his hands good, but, if anything, they felt worse than before. The night had only served to make them swollen and inflamed.

When Sam had gone down far enough, Pippin sat down and took a deep breath before positioning his feet on the rungs and climbing gingerly over onto the ladder. It jerked slightly and swayed both with his weight, and with Sam and Frodo's movements below. He froze, clenching his eyes shut as his heart sped up in terror. For a few moments, it was all he could do to cling to the ladder, weak kneed and trembling, his hands stinging painfully.

"Come on, then, Pippin!" Boromir's voice wafted impatiently from below, and Pippin came to himself again. Of course it looked odd that he hadn't moved. The man's words had not been unkind, but Pippin found he could neither move nor speak and belatedly realized that none of the others knew of his close call the night before. If only Merry were here, he would know just want to say, he lamented to himself before giving himself a firm shake, muttering, "Pull yourself together, Peregrin Took."

Forcing himself to breathe in and out, he clung to the ladder, trying to convince himself he couldn't fall when he began his descent. He could feel the rung under his feet. He wasn't going anywhere. Determination overcame terror, and some of the pain, though not as quickly as Pippin would have preferred. He made his move slowly, making sure to keep his arm crooked over each rung as he went, never moving until he made sure he had a firm foothold and handhold, terrified his clumsy hands would slip and drop him to his death. "Sterner stuff, Pippin. Sterner stuff."

When he at last reached the bottom without incident, he staggered backward off the ladder, stumbling a bit as he misjudged the distance. He looked up to see Frodo eyeing him critically, his face pale, with smudges of exhaustion under his bloodshot eyes. His cousin's eyes narrowed as Pippin shakily regained his footing, and he knew the exact moment Frodo finally noticed his hands because his cousin paled a bit and looked back and forth between the flet, now hidden in the treetops, and Pippin's bandaged hands, only now realizing the danger Pippin had been in as he'd climbed down.

"Are you alright, Pippin?" The strain in Frodo's voice did not go un-noticed. He stepped closer to him with an expression Pippin had seen many times before-one that plainly said he thought Pippin had just done something very, very stupid, but that he was too relieved to scold him. Sam picked up on this almost instantly.

As the attention was turned to him, Pippin flashed his most cheerful smile and lowered his hands with a shrug. "Just a bit of rope burn from last night." He was certain the trip back down the ladder had undone any healing that had taken place the night before.

"You didn't have any run-ins with those nasty orcs, did you, Pippin?" Sam asked, the older hobbit's eyes looking him over from head to toe.

"I promise, those orcs never even got close to us," Pippin hastened to reassure him before the attention of the others was also drawn to his shortcomings. That it depended on a person's interpretation of close, he wisely did not add. He felt a burst of triumph and relief as the look of guilt eased from Frodo's face. Pippin hoped he wasn't imagining that his cousin stood a bit taller. It was Sam who fixed him with a hard look, but Pippin couldn't be bothered to care. Frodo had enough burdens. He would manage just fine now that they were on the ground.

The morning was still young and cold as Haldir guided them southward. They went back to the path that still went on along the west side of the Silverlode, and for some way they followed it southward. As their distance from the others increased, their steps became heavier, despite the wood's pleasantness.

Pippin felt he might have found some pleasure in the walk had his heart not been so heavy and had his hands not become more painful the deeper into the wood they went. After the ladder, they'd begun to throb and now felt even more stiff and swollen, but he knew he wasn't the only one suffering. He didn't miss the lines of weariness in the others' faces, or the occasional grimace from Boromir, who was walking behind him. Having had his share of mishaps, he knew from experience that climbing with fresh stitches was extremely painful, but the man didn't seem too worse for wear. At first, Boromir had fallen in step with Haldir, discussing their path—and wargs, of all things. Pippin didn't want to think about those, but eventually the man had taken up the rear, and since the other elf didn't speak Westron, they'd fallen silent.

The great stones of the road grew fewer the farther south they hiked, though one occasionally appeared just in time to be stumbled over. Poor Sam had stubbed his big toe more than once and had settled into a quiet grouchiness.

Frodo hovered on his right-he had apparently forgiven, but not forgotten, his and Merry's mad plan from the night before. Retrospectively, he and Merry had probably scared several years off his life. He didn't regret it, exactly, but he wished he would have spared Frodo the fright. He knew his cousin felt responsible for keeping them all safe, and he knew Frodo wasn't willing to lose anyone else he cared about, even if it meant risking himself.

They had not gone far when they found prints of orc-feet in the earth, rekindling their worry for Legolas and Gimli. No one said much after that, not even to comment on the tranquil beauty surrounding them, each keeping his own worries.

All Pippin could think about was the last time he'd seen the elf-faltering in the dusk, yet trying to be strong. Legolas, who seemed to match him in temperament with pranks and merry jokes, who had seemed to understand him, yet had had such grief and sadness in him. Pippin had seen it early on, in the quiet of the night when the elf would stand apart from them—and when Gandalf fell, it was as if the elf's mask had shattered. Pippin shuddered and pulled his coat tighter. Besides Merry, he suspected only Legolas had seen his love of good cheer as anything other than a young hobbit-like exuberance. Even Frodo and Sam tended to forget he'd done his own share of careful plotting to get them all out of the Shire—it hadn't all been Merry's doing.

His heart sped up with the knowledge that whatever had happened the night before could not now be undone. Their companions could be dead, but he refused to let himself think on that for long. He took comfort in the uncertainty. With nothing confirmed, he could choose to believe Legolas and Gimli were alive and well, and that Aragorn and Merry were no longer in any danger.

Soon Haldir turned aside into the trees and halted on the bank of the river under their shadows. It didn't take a genius to deduce that the elf meant to lead them across it. Pippin felt a prickle of unease as he watched the swift water carry away the golden leaves that fell into it from the great tree limbs that overhung the water.

The marchwarden waited until they'd all gathered near before he spoke, "There is one of my people yonder across the stream," he said, "though you may not yet see him." He gave a call like the low whistle of a bird, and out of a thicket of young trees Pippin saw an Elf step forward, clad in grey, but with his hood thrown back; his hair glinted like gold in the morning sun. As the hobbits and Boromir watched, Haldir produced a grey rope and skillfully cast it over the stream, and he caught it and bound the end about a tree near the bank.

"Celebrant is already a strong stream here," said Haldir, and Pippin rather thought he was stating the obvious. He turned slightly, expecting a sarcastic remark from Merry before he remembered the hobbit was miles away. Giving himself a shake, he forced himself to listen.

"And it runs both swift and deep, and is very cold. We do not set foot in it so far north, unless we must. But in these days of watchfulness, we do not make bridges. This is how we cross! Follow me! He made his end of the rope fast about another tree, and then ran lightly along it, over the river and back again, as if he were on a road.

Pippin was not the only one staring, mouth agape. Sam looked horrified, and Frodo pale, but Haldir didn't seem to notice. The elf just stood in front of in front of them with his arms crossed, looking very satisfied with himself as he waited for them to say something. Surely the elf didn't expect them all to prance right across.

"Come on, Pip," he chided himself under his breath, "Where's your sense of adventure?" The water didn't scare him so much, nor did the prospective balancing act—he was very unhobbit like in that way, but there was no room for error here, and it made him nervous. He wouldn't stumble harmlessly into a straw hill, or splash into a shallow pond.

It was Boromir who finally broke their incredulous silence. He cleared his throat and seemed to be at a loss for words for a moment before he finally declared briskly, "We are no elves to walk this path—are we to swim across?" Sam gave an audible sigh of relief. The man had tried—and failed—to sound diplomatic, and Pippin found himself suddenly feeling very, very fond of the man and his abrasive manner.

"No!" said Haldir, somewhat sheepishly, "We have two more ropes. We will fasten them above the other, one shoulder-high, and another half-high, and holding these you should be able to cross with care."

Only when this slender bridge had been made did the others relax, though the extra ropes did not solve all of Pippin's worries, and he anxiously tried and failed to flex his fingers closed. The Company passed over, some cautiously and slowly, others more easily. Sam shuffled along in a manner that would have been comical in a less perilous situation, clutching hard, and looking down into the pale eddying water as if it was a chasm in the mountains. Pippin could hear his relief when he was safely across. "Live and learn! As my gaffer used to say. Though he was thinking of gardening, not of roosting like a bird, nor of trying to walk like a spider. Not even my uncle Andy ever did a trick like that!"

Frodo went next, turning to Pippin before he went and grasping him by his upper arms. "You can manage, right?"

"I've the best balance in Westfarthing, and you know it," Pippin retorted with a calculated preen, "I'm practically famous."

Frodo gave huff of fond exasperation. "As I recall, Pervinca has bested you for two years running."

Pippin's laugh was genuine. It felt good to feel real humor. "That's only because she blackmailed me," he returned, lowering his voice as he let Frodo in on the conspiracy.

"Just promise me you'll be careful, Pip."

"I always am."

His cousin raised an eyebrow severely in return, but did not challenge him further, making it to the other side with ease. Boromir followed, also without mishap, and then it was Pippin's turn. The elf who had been accompanying Haldir remained on the western bank behind him.

He could do this, he decided, resisting the urge to glance downward. After all, his balance had always been quite good, and he had won a quite lot of dares, beyond even those Frodo knew about. There was nothing wrong with his balance, only his hands. He just needed to convince his mind that he didn't need the hand hold. Besides, if he went across like Sam, grasping at the makeshift hand rail for dear life, he was sure he would slip or get stuck.

At first, everything was fine, and he walked quickly and surely, only trailing his right hand lightly to keep his balance. The key was to go at a brisk, steady pace. Too slow, and he'd start wobbling. He was glad to finally show his worth-that he didn't come in last and youngest in everything.

The Silverlode rushed beneath his feet, no longer the merry gurgling stream it had been closer to Moria. This far south, it had indeed picked up both depth and speed, rushing along beneath him. He swallowed hard. The sounds below him reminded him far too much of the sounds he'd heard in the depths of the chasm he'd been forced to leap over in Moria. He pushed away the thought. This was nothing like that—this was familiar. He'd done this before, even if it hadn't been over a river.

Pippin was nearing the eastern bank when the wind picked up a bit, gusting warmly from the South with a scent of rain. It was hardly noticeable to the others on land, sheltered as they were by the trees. A downpour of golden leaves rained down from the treetops as the gust strengthened, upsetting Pippin's balance.

He wavered and flailed only slightly at first, wheeling his left arm in an effort to stay upright while he instinctively grabbed for the makeshift hand rail with his right hand. At any other time, he would have instantly regained his balance, and perhaps been accused by his friends of a poorly timed joke, but despite straining painfully for a tight grip, his hand couldn't close around the thin rope enough to hold his weight. Tamping down his panic, he hastened his pace, gaining a few more steps as his body continued to waver, and then there was only air beneath him, and he was falling, dropping like a stone into the water below.

The icy mountain water knifed through him, stealing his breath as it closed over his head. It was even colder than he could have guessed. He panicked for a moment, and had the shock of the water not paralyzed his lungs, he might have forgotten to hold his breath. To his surprise, his feet scraped at the river rocks on the bottom. Frantically, he shoved off, his lungs screaming for air as the current resisted him. A long few seconds later, his head surfaced and he gasped and sputtered frantically, breaking free to the frantic cries of his companions, muffled by the rush of the water. They already sounded farther away.

He tried to call to them, but could only cough and wheeze before the current pulled him under again, and he instead inhaled the river water. Kicking himself up to the surface again, he sputtered and gulped in the air as soon as his head broke the surface. He couldn't see the others, but he could hear them. What if they couldn't reach him? He could be swept all the way to the Great River—he would drown for certain then. He had to get to shore. Struggling not to panic, he tried to swim to the side, but he was powerless against the pull of the river.

The next time he went under, he tried his best to propel himself toward shore, but the current was so strong. If anything, it felt like it was pushing him farther from the bank. He glimpsed the others running frantically along the river's edge before the water closed over him again. It took even longer to surface this time—was the water getting deeper? Frodo and Sam were at a dead run and still trailed far behind the others. He knew they were as powerless as he was.

Pippin could no longer feel his feet, though he kicked anyway, struggling to stay above the water. He could still see his kin to his left. His eyes locked on Frodo's ashen face and his stomach clenched in guilt as he heard the anguished calling of his name. The water closed over him again, but the panic he had been fighting against was slowly being replaced by resignation. He didn't see a way out, but neither did he want his cousin to watch him drown. Everyone knew the story of Drogo and Primula. If he was to drown, why did it have to be with Frodo watching?

He pushed himself upward again. He sank. He broke free again and gulped in the air. He sank again. Over and over the river pushed him under until he could neither see nor hear the others. Was the river too swift for them to keep up? He could no longer feel his knees working, and dimly, he thought he should be worried about that, though he couldn't recall why. It took even longer to resurface now, but he felt strangely calm.

He was just considering how the river must be growing warmer as it flowed further south when his head came up again and he was swept right into something solid. He flinched, expecting to be dashed against a rock, but suddenly, there were arms wrapped around his body, though he could barely feel them. He started to sink again, but something held him fast. Blinking, he looked up into the piercing gaze of Haldir. The elf stood easily-he seemed hardly bothered by the current flowing over his shoulders. The elf's expression in that moment so closely matched a look he'd seen many times on Legolas' face that, for a moment, Pippin dimly wondered if it was instead Legolas who had caught him. But that couldn't be possible. He blinked to look again, but his eyes weren't cooperating. Everything was so gray, and he was starting to feel very strange. There were more calls and shouts. Something struck his cheek, but he knew no more.

End Notes:

Pervinca is Pippin's older sister by five years.

If you are a stickler for the geography in the book, read on. If you don't really care about canon geography as long as what you just read made sense, you may wish to skip this extremely winded explanation: Tolkien's map of Middle Earth shows the Celebrant (Silverlode) running west-east, dividing Lothlórien, but Tolkien writes the Company stayed on the West side and crossed to the east, which means the Silverlode/Celebrant would be running Southeast into Lothlórien. The party with Legolas is already on the other side of the Silverlode, so I'm assuming they would have no need to cross the Celebrant like the others do in the book. So in your mind, ditch the map and picture a stream flowing southeast from the Misty Mountains. The Nimrodel comes from the west and flows into it, at the edge of the Golden Wood, merging to become the Celebrant, which continues southeastward into the Great River. I think this is what Tolkien was describing, but I have no idea why his map doesn't seem to match up with his writing. I was very confused when I tried to use it to follow along with that part of the book.

Thank you all for following along so patiently. I hope this chapter didn't seem too disconnected from the rest of the story, but PJL was never just about Legolas.

A/N: This chapter is quite quote heavy, but I did my best to spread them out. Also, I realized I realized an upcoming plot point might be too much of a surprise, so there are now some very minor additions to Chapter 7. It isn't necessary to go back and read that chapter, though.

Chapter Twelve

Boromir had been distracted by the throbbing in his arm. This he freely admitted. He was sore. He was tired. He was cranky. That he had likely pulled a stitch or two that morning, trying to get down from the heights of elven hospitality, hadn't exactly improved his mood. He had been content to wallow in his ire all morning, but something about the hitched gasp from Frodo had driven him from him from his wallowing. He'd turned in alarm, following Frodo's horrified gaze to see Pippin wavering.

At first, Boromir had thought the Halfling was grand standing, and had felt only irritation that Pippin didn't just grab the makeshift handrail, instead choosing to cause a stir in order to get attention. He'd made it almost all the way across already, for goodness sake, and Boromir had personally witnessed the hobbit's rather extraordinary sense of balance. After all they had been through, could he not see this was no time for jesting? Could he not see what it was doing to Frodo? Why did he not grab onto the rail?

"His hands," Haldir gasped in Sindarin beside him, supplying the answer. Guilt sank like a stone in his stomach as a flash of memory surfaced from the night before. In his own anger and exhaustion, he'd barely even registered the hobbit's flayed hands, and he hadn't even tried to find out if Pippin was alright, or even what had happened. He'd just yelled at him for scaring him so. Boromir realized with a jolt that Pippin was well and truly in trouble.

The Halfling almost—almost—pulled it off, skillfully managing a few more feet before he tried a last ditch grab at the handrail. "He's going to fall in!" Sam yelled when Pippin's weak grasp failed to arrest his fall. Rúmil, who had been waiting for them on the eastern side dove toward the Halfling. Boromir began running down stream. The elf would not be able to catch Pippin, even fast as he was, and they would be hard pressed to outrun the swift current. Behind him, Haldir cursed and began running faster. Boromir turned his head upstream to see Pippin wheeling his arms frantically as he dropped into the water.

The hobbit instantly sank beneath the current. The man stopped for a moment, his heart pounding in terror, his eyes roaming for any sign of the Halfling. The seconds passed like minutes as they all waited for him to resurface. If Sam was pale, Frodo was white—his hands fisted in terror. He gave a little cry as a head bobbed out of the water, curly hair plastered to its head.

The current was merciless and swiftly began to carry Pippin downstream. Even at a dead sprint, Boromir couldn't keep pace with the elves, who had now pulled ahead of him, while Sam and Frodo trailed far behind. If the Halfling managed any sound, the rush of the river drowned it out, and he was dragged back under.

Boromir looked in vain for an opportunity to grab him, but Pippin seemed to sink as soon as he surfaced, tossed up and down by the current. The river was slowly funneling Pippin away from the edge and toward the deeper middle, and it was taking longer and longer for the hobbit to resurface. He was slipping under much more quickly now. A minute or two more, and he'd be beyond their reach. Boromir dug into the last of his reserves, but he couldn't quite run fast enough to overtake the hobbit, and he kept losing sight of him when he went under. But somehow, Haldir could track him, even when he was beneath the water, and the elf knew the river better.

At almost the last possible moment, Haldir managed to jump into the water in front of the hobbit and halt Pippin's course. He didn't so much catch the hobbit, as provide an obstacle to halt his being swept away by the water. Boromir splashed in after him. The temperature of the water was much colder than he'd expected, and the current quite fast as it pulled at Pippin's limp form. At least he was no longer at the river's mercy. The hobbit was limp-a sickly white, his lips blue with the cold. Boromir couldn't even say for certain that he was alive, but the hobbit had held on this long, and he refused to allow him to slip away from them now.

He barely registered the popping of his stitches as he helped Haldir haul the Halfling from the River. Pippin's sodden clothes more than doubled his weight, and his arms and legs dangled limply from the anchoring arms that held him. The Halfling's head was propped in the crook of the elf's arm. Blue eyes stared vacantly at him from beneath dripping curls, making Boromir's heart clench in dread. But then the hobbit blinked sluggishly and fixed him with a dazed stare. He still hung limply in their arms, but he was alive.

"Quickly now, let's lay him over here," Rúmil guided from their left as Frodo and Sam crowded around. They carried Pippin a bit farther up the river bank, stumbling occasionally, the hobbit's feet bouncing as they dragged him backward on the uneven ground. They set him down at last, and the Halfling flopped backward against Frodo like a fish.

Haldir knelt in his sodden clothes beside Pippin's still form, looking unfazed by his own dunk in the icy water. His keen eyes assessed the hobbit in front of him. A bit dazed himself by the turn of events and the icy water, Boromir followed the elf's gaze and was relieved to see Pippin's chest rise and fall steadily, his breathing unlabored. Even so, it was unsettling to see the hobbit so still.

"Someone get a fire going," Boromir relayed, taking charge. "He needs to get out of these wet clothes and warmed up." He refrained from saying he didn't trust these elves to know what to do, and that he'd handled situations like this before-Pippin would be fine. Surely they could risk a fire, deep as they now were in the Golden wood, and in the middle of the day.

If a fire was a problem, neither Haldir nor Rúmil batted an eye, but the Halfling panicked as they stripped off his wet clothes. No amount of explanations would calm him, and he began to kick out in confusion. Despite this confusion, he seemed to be a bit more alert, and Boromir was heartened that he might be snapping out of it. He could hear the Halfling mumbling about it all being a strange dream before yelping quite loudly, "I am a very modest Took, thank you very much!"

"Hush, Pip-we know," Frodo soothed, brushing the wet curls from his cousin's eyes yet again, his voice amused, though his face was still pinched. Boromir marveled at how the Halfling calmed immediately and sank back against Frodo, allowing them to tuck a blanket around him.

In the end, it was Sam who got a fire organized, and Boromir found himself appreciating the stout hobbit's level-headed practicality. "Alright, Pippin, let's get you warmed up," Sam said, leaving no room for further argument.

At a nod from Frodo, Boromir allowed himself to be pushed aside as the two older hobbits moved the tween as close to the small fire as they dared. He tried to flinch away, but his kin refused to relent. Feeling rather useless, Boromir stayed nearby, leaning close to Pippin's ear so the hobbit could hear his sage advice.

"It will hurt at first when the feeling is coming back, but I promise you your feet are not actually on fire."

Beside him, Sam and Frodo chattered worriedly, cajoling and prodding-doing anything they could think of to rouse Pippin to do more than stare and blink. Frodo looked haunted, Boromir realized, and had Pippin been able to comprehend it, he thought the Halfling might have snapped out of it immediately. Instead, his eyes fluttered shut.

"No, Pippin!" Boromir coaxed urgently, leaning forward to give him a shake.

"Jus' res' ….moment," the Halfling slurred.

"You can't rest yet, Pippin," Frodo said, sounding both relieved and alarmed.

Boromir gave him a more vigorous jolt, and Pippin jerked feebly away from the man's insistent shaking. "Stop that….'s rude!"

He still didn't seem to understand what was happening around him, but after a few minutes, the pain of waking nerves seemed to drive Pippin to complete alertness. He gave a squeak and stared from Boromir to his feet. The man could see that he was more coherent now.

The Halfling's gaze drifted out to the river, and he shuddered violently in spite of the fire's scalding heat. His teeth soon began to chatter, a good sign, though Boromir knew well that the return of feeling would soon turn even more painful. He'd not soon forget his own experience with rewarming.

"Well," Pippin croaked shakily, "That was a close one." His voice was low and gravelly, but aside from being so cold, he was remarkably unscathed. There wasn't a scratch on him.

Sensing the crisis had passed, Sam put his head in his hands. "What else is going to go wrong?" He wailed quietly. He had a point, Boromir thought. So much misfortune, and they hadn't yet reached their crossroads.

"Just a bit of bad luck, Sam," Pippin managed after a few false starts, having some trouble getting his tongue to work over his chattering teeth. "If it hadn't been so cold, it might have actually been kind of fun!"

Boromir sighed and rubbed at his forehead, while Sam gave an indignant huff, "See there, Mr. Frodo—he's already on the mend. We just need to warm him up a bit more, and he'll be right as rain—you'll see!"

After giving Pippin a stern glare that was clearly a command to behave, Sam leveled such a curious look at him, that Boromir found himself raising his eyebrows in confusion. The look grew harder, and the blond hobbit tilted his head toward Frodo. Observing the ringbearer's still-stricken expression, the man found himself hastily voicing his agreement with Sam's words. "Sam is right, Frodo. Pippin will be alright."

The fire crackled cheerily, filling the silence.

"Sorry I worried you," Pippin said, looking chastened. "I promise…it was an accident."

"We know, Pippin," Frodo reached over and gave the tween's hand a squeeze.

"No, master hobbit, it is I who should apologize," Haldir interrupted, "In all the excitement, we forgot about your hands, and should have made concessions for you to cross the Celebrant safely. The luck of Eru was with, though I wish it had not needed to be. Had you been swept to the middle of the river, you would not have been able to resurface—it's at least twice my own height."

Frodo blanched. "The Thain's son…drowned in a river," he said faintly.

Boromir raised an eyebrow. "Thain?"

"A bit like your own position back home, if you take my meaning." Sam explained simply.

"We've been through this before," Pippin warned sharply, acting a bit more like himself, and whatever either Sam or Frodo had been going to say was promptly dropped.

"We can find another Thain, but I can't so easily replace a cousin," Frodo said quietly.

"I'm sure one of my sisters would be glad to take my place," Pippin said with a shrug, "Wouldn't that be a first for the Shire? Or Merry, if they are too set in their ways to allow a girl."

Sam groaned, but Frodo merely continued earnestly, leaning over to grab the cup Rúmil was offering, "You are irreplaceable, Peregrin Took."

It happened in slow motion, arresting Boromir's eyes. The Ring tipped out from Frodo's shirt. Boromir found himself staring at it as it flickered in the fire light, level with Pippin's nose, almost touching him. The Ring held his gaze for a moment before he blinked. To his surprise, the hobbit flinched violently, as if the Ring had been speaking to him. There had been times on their journey Boromir had thought he'd heard it, but he'd rather thought the Halflings were immune. Apparently not.

The Halfling swallowed hard, but his wide, round eyes followed the Ring, even after Frodo leaned backward, as if it held him captive. The hobbit had paled again, losing the bit of pink that had begun to come back into his cheeks.

"Pippin—what's the matter?"

He shook his head. Boromir wasn't even sure he was capable of speech, but his eyes remained fixed on the ring as he trembled violently and curled in on himself. He looked as if he might put his hands over his ears.

Tears began to stream down the hobbit's cheeks, and Boromir had to look away.

"Please, tell us." But Pippin couldn't, and in the silence, the call of the ring grew stronger. Boromir was certain now that was what it was. It would be so easy to just reach out…

"Put it away," Boromir croaked at Frodo, shaking his head as if to throw off the thoughts that had come over him. The ringbearer's hand came up to clutch possessively at the Ring. He shot Boromir such a look of distrust that the man almost flinched at the violence of it. The moment passed, and Frodo shrank back from them, grief and resignation on his face. He tucked the Ring back out of sight and its hold on them released. Even the elves looked shaken.

"It's my fault…all of it." The whisper was barely audible.

"What is, Pip?" Sam had recovered first.

"Gandalf. I am a fool. Might as well have killed him myself…and everything that followed. If he'd been with us, everything might have gone differently."

"You can't know that, Pip," Frodo soothed.

"Lord Elrond was right to be against my coming. 'You do not understand and cannot imagine what lies ahead,' he told me, and he was right. He only relented because I threatened to follow you on my own. He should have sent me packing—and now look what I've caused. I shouldn't have come."

"The Enemy was already watching for us-would have found us anyway. If anything, your so called foolishness warned us we weren't alone."

"Well I warned them, too."

"Gandalf himself lamented that he should not have delayed us, if you'll remember," Boromir interjected, "And it was Saruman who thwarted us at Caradhras. And Sauron drove us into the mines in the first place. I think they'd have been laying in wait for us, regardless."

"Besides," Frodo said firmly, "Gandalf would say you are here because you have a part to play in all this—and I agree with him. Now," he turned to Sam, neatly changing the subject, "would you mind passing me your spare trousers so Pippin can start getting dressed?"

Pippin looked down then, and a deep blush bloomed over his cheeks as he realized he had not, in fact, imagined being relieved of his clothes. "At least Merry isn't here to tease me about this," he said softly, though Boromir thought by his tone that he felt exactly the opposite.

While Pippin warmed up, they took refreshment by the fire. Boromir took the opportunity to remove the sodden and useless bandages from the tween's fingers and reapplied a salve supplied by Rúmil. When he was finished, he grudgingly allowed Haldir to add a couple new stitches to the slice in his arm. Eventually, they would need to continue on, but no one wanted to risk doing so before Pippin was sufficiently rewarmed and all hurts had been tended. Though the weather itself was not dangerously cold, the icy river could easily cause a chill, and the group was weary and bedraggled enough without adding unnecessary discomfort.

It was at Pippin's insistence that they set out again. He had again donned his good cheer and proclaimed that they had rested long enough. Boromir and the others were not fooled. The incident with the ring had shaken him more badly than his near drowning.

The Company filed slowly along the paths in the wood, led by Haldir, while Rúmil walked behind. Boromir could smell the trees and the leaves overhead, the river murmuring away on his right, and the thin clear voices of birds in the sky. He closed his eyes and tilted his head up. He felt the sun upon his face and hands when they passed through an open glade.

As soon as he had set foot upon the far bank of Silverlode a strange feeling had come upon him. He had forgotten it with the near-catastrophe, but now he noticed it again. It deepened as he walked on into the Naith: it seemed to him that he had stepped over a bridge of time into a corner of the Elder Days, and was now walking in a world that was no more. In Rivendell, there was memory of ancient things; in Lórien the ancient things still lived on in the waking world. Orcs might have pressed close on the wood's borders: but on the land of Lórien no shadow lay.

The crisp freshness to the air reminded Boromir of bonfires and spiced cider, and the farther they went, the more he felt the edgy wariness that had been dogging their steps loosening like a knot that had been untied. Though his arm throbbed in time with his steps, he felt a peace and energy he'd not felt in a long while.

Boromir welcomed the solace. It made venturing into this strange place much more palatable. He could see the whole picture much more clearly now, and ,though he still saw the necessity of wielding the Ring on Gondor's behalf, the urgency had been muted. He now found that he could focus on their other options—like Frodo's task. Here in the peace of the woods, he allowed himself to feel optimism, to imagine the quest playing out as Elrond hoped. It no longer seemed such an impossibility.

All that day the Company marched on, until they felt the cool evening come and heard the early night-wind whispering among many leaves. They gathered with the elves around a small fire, sipping elf wine and munching on lembas. It was clear to him that the hobbits would have appreciated more variety.

"Welcome, friends," said Haldir, oblivious to half the party's thoughts on the menu, "to the Naith of Lórien, or the Gore, as you would say. It is the land that lies like a spearhead between the arms of the Silverlode—with which you are all by now very well acquainted-and Anduin the Great." Boromir tactfully avoided looking in Pippin's direction.

"These rivers have long defended us," the elf continued, "but they are a sure guard no more; for the Shadow has crept northward all about us. Some speak of departing, yet for that it already seems too late. The mountains to the west are growing evil; to the east the lands are waste, and full of Sauron's creatures; and it is rumoured that we cannot now safely pass southward through Rohan, and the mouths of the Great River are watched by the Enemy.

All this would need to be reported to Aragorn later. Conditions abroad had worsened dramatically since he had departed Gondor, and the path beyond Lothlórien would be perilous indeed. Boromir thought now of home, and of the encroaching shadow that threatened his people.

"In Gondor, also, the shadow draws near, and daily our numbers and lands are reduced as Sauron grows ever stronger," he found himself offering, his tongue loosened by the wine. "Even Minas Tirith with its great fortifications, will not be able to mount a strong enough defense. Though we managed to retake the outpost of Osgiliath, it was hard won. I fear the enemy will soon retake it permanently, if we cannot find some way to hold back the tide."

"It is the way of the enemy." The elf's face looked resigned in the fire light. "Whatever plan Lord Elrond has conceived, I can only pray you have success."

They bedded down on the ground that night. For the first time since the House of Elrond, they would rest and sleep without fear on the ground," but it was bittersweet, for their company were separated, and their safety could not be known. It left a sick feeling in Boromir's gut. Not for the first time, he thought of Faramir and wondered how his brother fared in light of Haldir's tidings. Was he safe? Was he well? He thought for a moment could hear the distant howls of wolves amongst the sounds of night, and strained briefly to see if he would hear them again, but his weariness at last overcame him. Sleep claimed him.

A/N: I'm so sorry for the wait-this chapter was incredibly difficult to write. I hope its length makes up for its tardiness. Quotes are italicized (with the except of elvish and single words italicized for emphasis).

Chapter Thirteen

Dusk had come, enveloping the camp in gray twilight when Strider finally consented to rest, his body leaving him little recourse. Neither Merry nor Gimli made any move to interfere now as the knife was taken from his hand. The man had done all he could, even beyond his capacity during the unending day. The words being whispered into Strider's ear must have been effective, for the ranger at last sagged in surrender and was all but tucked into bed like a wayward child. He protested once more, but the answer seemed to satisfy him because he allowed his eyes to flutter closed.

Merry watched as one of the elves that had been assisting the ranger-he had promptly forgotten their names an instant after their hasty introduction-retrieved the tongs and squinted a bit before carefully dipping them into the wound a few times more. He seemed to be satisfied, for he gave a nod to his kinsman, who began heating the knife he had taken from Aragorn in the embers of their small fire.

When he looked back over at Gimli, he saw that the dwarf had nodded off again, and with the dwarf resting, Merry's ability to communicate was seriously hampered. He knew he should be resting himself now that things were quiet. Still, a curious hobbit found it hard to sleep and he crept over to watch as the small knife was heated until the metal began to emit a faint glow. The elf withdrew it from the flames and turned back to Legolas. His body hid his actions from view, but Merry instinctively knew what he was doing despite his inexperience. The smell of burning flesh soon caught his nose. He tried and failed not to think about the smell and what was happening to the elf's skin. The picture brought Merry's stomach to his throat and he found himself scrambling for a safe spot to deposit its meager contents. He returned to his spot next to Gimli, desperately wishing that Pip was here to distract him.

A soft wind began to blow as Merry studied the sleeping dwarf beside him. Gimli had nodded off where he sat, his chin tucked into his chest. He noted with relief that the dwarf's gruff features were no longer as pale and pinched as they had been at Merry's first alarming glimpse of him. The dwarf had dozed off and on all day after Orophin had stitched the gruesome gash to his left hand, in spite of his efforts to stay awake and his worry over Legolas. Blood loss and exhaustion had finally caught up with him.

With Strider asleep and Legolas as patched up as they could make him, the camp grew quiet. The galadhrim kept sentry on their little encampment and their charges, their watchful eyes missing nothing. With nothing left to distract him, weariness at last began to sink into his bones, and Merry found himself nodding off as the fire burned low, his chin on his hand.

A loud pop from the fire startled him awake again, and he winced at the pain in his neck. Stretching it a bit, he looked around. Aragorn had moved closer to Legolas. His head was on his pouch, but he'd fallen asleep again with his hand still wrapped around the elf's left wrist. Merry decided he must have slept longer than he'd thought if the man had already wakened to check on the elf. Strider had done the same many times after Frodo had been stabbed on Weathertop. Others attributed Frodo's survival to the stubbornness of hobbits, but Strider had certainly played a part. Merry thought he had an uncanny ability to sooth hurts of body and mind. He'd never seen the like.

"It's going to rain," he muttered to himself distractedly, rolling his shoulders and stretching again, but the elves, if they noticed, seemed unconcerned. He looked over to see that Gimli was still asleep and decided that, rather than prolong the crick in his neck, he would take advantage of the bedroll someone had rolled out beside him.

Once situated, he found to his annoyance that sleep eluded him. He lay awake for a long while, hands clasped behind his head, watching the stars as they came out. As the night deepened, the air began to smell of rain and the wind grew stronger. Still, it was a pleasant night. Brandybucks weren't overly bothered by a little water. As he began to relax, his mind wandered from the mines to dirt, to farms, to the Brandywine flowing across the gently rolling fields of the Shire, golden in the evening sun. Merry allowed himself to drift off at last.

Screaming. Someone was screaming-a hoarse high-pitched keen of utter terror. Merry's muddled mind struggled to solve the puzzle of this strange dream. Who was screaming? Why were they screaming? What reason in the Shire could their possibly be for such screaming.

Something about the raw, frantic quality of the screams at last roused him, and he jolted awake, thrashing about for a moment, disoriented and trying to free himself from whatever was holding him down. Just as he'd begun to panic, awareness came, and he realized he'd somehow become tangled in his bedding. Extricating himself, he propped an arm underneath himself and looked around for the source of the screams.

The fire had burned low, and the camp had plunged into a deep darkness that seemed to close in from every side. Squinting a bit, Merry could make out the shadows of the others as they tried to keep Legolas from hurting himself in his panic. The screams began again. Most of what he could hear was unintelligible, but it was punctuated by elvish words that sounded familiar.

The fire flared up suddenly, and Merry jumped, looking to his right to see Gimli poking and blowing at the orange tendrils. His injured hand was still tucked carefully against his chest, but otherwise, he looked a lot more like himself.

"The elf is dreaming," the dwarf told him, his voice still gravelly from sleep, "He is dreaming about the Balrog."

Another burst of words punctuated the night, though the elf seemed to be growing calmer.

"I suspect Aragorn has managed to force a sleeping draught down his throat by now." Gimli cleared his throat suspiciously before he was able to continue, "He says he isn't Glorfindel—that the evil burns him and he cannot fight it any longer. That he is tired. That it haunts him."

"How is he doing?" Merry asked, swallowing the lump of emotion that had risen in his throat. He crossed his legs and sat up the rest of the way.

"Who—Aragorn?" Gimli asked distractedly. He was listening carefully to something—Legolas, Merry supposed, though the elf had fallen silent.

Unbothered, Merry shrugged, "I don't know. Both of them, I guess."

Gimli didn't answer, instead his sharp eyes stared into the darkness that surrounded them. He seemed as tense as a bow string.

Legolas was still quiet, but Merry could hear the low tones of Strider's voice, soothing him in the Grey Tongue.

"The elf has a fever," the dwarf at last replied. It took Merry a moment to realize that Gimli had finally answered his question, for the dwarf was still staring fixedly into the darkness.

Merry's feeling of disquiet grew. It really was unnervingly quiet. He looked sidelong at Gimli again, then over at the elves. They paced watchfully. Even Aragorn was crouched beside Legolas instead of kneeling, as if at any moment he would need to spring to his feet. As if the plain was no longer safe.

At that thought, Merry's heart began to race and his hands began to tremble. Suddenly the very last thing he wanted to be doing was sitting, and he scrambled to his feet. Legolas was sensitive to the trees and the stones. Maybe it was his imagination, but Merry wondered if the elf was sensing something now—something that reminded him of the evil of the Balrog. He joined the others in gazing out at the darkened horizon.

Miles away, lightning flashed to reveal giant thunderclouds to the west. In the darkness, the wind teased his hair away from his face as he gazed up at the stars. The night was calm and beautiful, completely incongruous with the terror welling up inside him.

Then he heard it. A howl in the distance. It seemed to pierce to his very soul. A chill ran almost painfully down his spine as the sound faded.

"What was that?!"

"Ngaurhoth telir*" Orophin told him in a hissing whisper.

"And where the warg howls, there also the orc prowls," Gimli muttered grimly.

Cold fear turned Merry's stomach. Wargs. His breath hitched as the glowing eyes from the Company's last encounter rose up in his memory. They'd had a wizard with them then.

"They're still miles away—that's the first time I've been able to hear them," Gimli assured him. If Merry could have made his voice work, he would have told the dwarf that an eventuality of being attacked by wargs was not all that much less terrifying than if they were coming in a second or two.

"But you suspected they were there?" He managed at last.

"I suspected something approached. Elves aren't generally so tense around a campfire, even after the day we've had. I wish I could say there was a chance they won't find us tonight." The dwarf trailed off, but they both knew the answer.

They gathered at Legolas' side, where Orophin began to speak urgently, but quietly. Strider motioned for Merry and Gimli to come closer, "Tûron, Foendil, and Ain will scout out extra kindling outside the perimeter. We will need much more kindling to build up the fire and sustain it. Gimli, I need you to assemble a bonfire with the resources we have—both as a signal and a defense. Can you manage?"

The dwarf nodded gamely, though Merry suspected he'd never admit it if he couldn't manage.

"Merry, you'll assist him."

Merry nodded, "We can't have those fancy stitches ripping out." His attempt at humor was botched by his shaky voice.

Merry kept the elves in sight for as long as he could as they ventured out into the darkness. Another howl rent the air and he cringed. "Are you sure it wouldn't be better to hide?" The words just slipped out.

"Wargs love the fear they create. They can smell it—they're drawn to it, if the legends are to be believed," Strider answered, his voice grim with experience. "They would find us with ease."

"It's not the same was a wizard with a staff, but the fire will be advantageous to us,” Gimli explained.  “The wargs won't reveal themselves until the very second they attack. Without fire, they could sneak up and grab us one by one without anyone knowing."

Merry wasn't reassured.

A small flask was passed around, and when he had taken a sip, Merry realized the galadhrim had their own version of miruvor. Before handing it back to Orophin, Strider knelt next to Legolas and dropped a few drops into the elf's mouth, massaging his throat until he swallowed. The elf, swathed in blankets and cloaks, never stirred.

As the sounds of the wargs grew closer, the camp came alive with preparations. Cloaks were torn and soaked in wine, sacrificed to create makeshift torches. With Merry's help, Gimli began to construct the base of what would become a bigger fire. The fire burned very low as he and the dwarf rearranged the smoldering logs and dug into the glowing embers. They needed to conserve fuel, even with the others searching for some, there were no guarantees any would be found.

Orophin helped Strider drag Legolas so close to the fire that Merry was sure the elf would be burned. With his part in the preparations complete, Merry settled in next to him, frowning in concern at the damp locks plastered to a pale, sweaty forehead. The elf's breathing was raspy and his face drawn with pain. Merry shook his head. Had no one thought to get rid of the blankets? It seemed to him that the worst thing one could do for a fever was put him near the fire with such heavy covers.

Shrugging off his own coat, Merry didn't ask permission as he untucked the blanket and cloaks around the elf and flung them off. He looked up to gauge the others' reaction, relaxing a bit when Strider caught his eye and gave him a nod of approval. As a breeze blew over his bare torso, Legolas' brow smoothed and his lips parted a bit. Merry glanced nervously at his side and sighed in relief when he saw nothing to make him squeamish.

In the quiet, Merry could hear the nearby flowing of the Silverlode, and it gave him an idea. He wanted to soak the blankets to give Legolas a bit more protection from the fire, and to cool him off a bit. But was it safe? Aragorn's eyes met his again, and Merry cocked his head toward the river. The ranger looked piercingly into the darkness, considering, before he gave a small nod.

"A fine idea, Merry," he said as he came closer. "You'll need to be very quick."

Merry didn't need to be told twice. He gathered the large bundle in his arms, expecting to go alone, but was comforted as the ranger fell in step beside him. They continued southward into the shadows for several paces until the Silverlode appeared, glistening in the moonlight. A howl came again from somewhere a bit too close for comfort, and Merry hastened to dump the bundle of cloaks and blankets into the river.

Once they were saturated, they threatened to flow away and Merry almost splashed face first in after them. Strider gave a dry chuckle and helped him haul them in. Merry was grateful the man had come, for once soaked, the garments had become heavier than the weight of himself and Samwise Gamgee combined. The man helped him carry them back. By the time they arrived, they were both soaked in the freezing water.

"Makes me a bit grateful for the fire just now," Merry commented with a shrug.

"Put some under his arms, like this, and around his thighs—just try to keep the bandages dry," the ranger cautioned, a sense of urgency about him.

A howl came again. Even closer this time. Much closer. Gimli tensed, and Strider regained his feet.

Merry's fear must have been written all over his face, for Gimli clasped his good hand on the hobbit's shoulder and squeezed. "Steady now, Master Meriadoc, I've no desire to be a warg's dinner, so we must fight like Smaug himself has come to our camp."

Merry chuckled even his teeth began to chatter with nervousness. "I d-doubt dwarves are too tasty, anyway."

"No, but a hobbit would be," came the uncharacteristically candid retort from Aragorn. He didn't shield the hobbit from the bald truth, and in this moment, Merry wasn't certain whether he wanted the truth or false optimism. Ignoring a pointed glare from Gimli, who apparently preferred false optimism, the man continued, his voice severe and earnest, "That's why I want you to stay close to the fire. Defensive stance only. This is not a fight for heroics, no matter how brave you are."

For once, Merry couldn't find the ire to bristle at the order. He was too afraid, and the look in the man's eyes was too raw. He managed a small nod to show that he understood. He didn't know the first thing about how to defend himself from a creature so large and powerful. Orcs, for some reason, were less alarming. They walked on two legs like him—many of them were quite short. But wargs. He shuddered.

The others returned swiftly, the howls of the enemy on their heels. They left their foragings with Gimli and Merry before grabbing a torch each and immediately spreading out to make a defensive perimeter.

Gimli set to work, placing more branches on the structure he'd built over the fire and directing Merry to do the same. It did not escape Merry's notice that there remained precious few branches to burn.

"They're very close, my lad," the dwarf said with a low voice.

Helped along by a newly lit torch, the fire began to blaze upward, catching the crisscrossed mound of logs until it burned like a beacon on the plain. Its glow illuminated the circle of their camp and cast the long shadows of its occupants beyond the golden circle of light where the grasses faded to gray. Beyond this, it was pitch black. Another rumble of thunder sounded. On all sides of the perimeter, the four galadhrim crouched low, torches in one hand, knives ready in the other. The enemy was surely approaching, their numbers hidden by the darkness.

All traces of weariness were gone from Aragorn's face, replaced by the grim fierceness of a battle hardened warrior. Legolas' bow was gripped in his hand, and a quiver of galadhrim arrows was at his back as he took up a position on the southeastern perimeter near Merry, Gimli, and Legolas, where a gap could easily allow the enemy to slip through. Merry's heart sank as he counted three more gaps which would remain unguarded.

A growl rumbled, so low that Merry almost mistook it for thunder, and an eerie silence descended. No more thunder sounded, no more growls came. He couldn't even hear the sounds of the night insects. There was only the wind. At any moment, Merry expected the quiet to be broken, but it stretched on. On Legolas' other side, Gimli had his hatchet gripped tightly in his right hand. It was time.

"By the fire, now," Strider called over this shoulder, "Close as you can. Do not make yourself easy prey." Swallowing a lump in his throat, Merry drew his sword out of its scabbard. Its weight no longer assured him as it had when they had fended off the orcs. He wished desperately that they had a wizard to get them out of this mess again. Not for the first time since he'd set out, he felt out of place and overwhelmed by the foe. He'd thought he loved adventure—how wrong he had been. Once again, he was in a fight for his life beside seasoned warriors with no skills or strategies he could contribute. He felt like a liability.

Snarls rose suddenly in the night, punctuating the air until it seemed as if pack of ghost wolves surrounded them. As the minutes passed, the sounds increased to a fever pitch, encroaching from every angle. The wind carried the scent of something unwashed, and very foul, which mingled strangely with the scent of approaching rain.

Merry quirked an out of place smile. Taking a page from Pippin's book, he said lightly, "I think everything is going to be fine—Legolas, too." It felt like a lie, and a feeble one at that, but Gimli raised an eyebrow and seemed to recognize the offering for what it was.

"By Mahal, I hope you are right Meriadoc Brandybuck," the dwarf's voice was rough with emotion. "How strange are these times, that an injured elf's last defense should be a dwarf and a hobbit."

The cacophony felt like it went on for hours. The air felt heavy and warm as the storm began to move in with intensity, the sounds of the enemy continuing to crescendo until Merry thought he might go mad. He was sure that was their intention with his game, and it infuriated him. If the elves shared his feelings, they didn't show it. They never moved. His own nerves might be flayed, but they never even shifted their weight from one foot to the other. It was unnatural, their stillness. Even Aragorn had begun to show signs of restlessness, though his eyes never stopped scanning the darkness for any sign the inevitable attack had begun.

From one second to the next, a sudden silence descended. The hairs on Merry's neck stood on end, and he adjusted his clammy grip on his sword. With no warning, a volley of arrows emerged from the shadows. Merry dove to the ground, his eyes wide. This wasn't the kind of attack he'd expected. An arrow scored his sleeve, gouging his upper arm and making him yelp in surprise and flatten himself further against the ground.

"Merry?!" Gimli's boots appeared in his line of sight, and a moment later the dwarf was crouching down next to him, gruff and worried.

"I'm okay," he replied, getting ahold of himself and feeling embarrassed at the shake in his voice, "just a close call."

Scooting along on the ground, he quickly checked on Legolas before gazing out to make sure everyone else had been as lucky as he. No more arrows came. No night noises, no thunder, no more snarls. The eerie had silence returned. Merry wasn't sure he'd be able to hear anything anyway over his pounding heart, so he watched intently and waited.

Like a low encroaching fog, the shape of a wolf emerged from the shadows. It seemed a giant of a creature to Merry, gray and shaggy with dreadful glowing eyes that could surely see through to his soul. It felt as though it was looking straight at him.

At almost the same time, the elf nearest Merry's position cried, "Harad*!" Arrows began to fly. As the warg lunged up at him, the galadhrim held fast, resolute. The warg yelped suddenly and twisted in midair before beating a hasty and erratic retreat back into the shadows. Merry thought he saw two shafts piercing its shoulder. For just a moment, he allowed himself to feel hopeful.

"Forod*!" This time, Merry had to strain to look over his shoulder and around the fire to follow the sound. More arrows reigned. This warg had managed to creep closer, using the distraction caused by its comrade to the south.

An arrow from Strider it found its mark, but this time the warg was undeterred. Enraged, the great wolf shook its head, as if to shake the arrow off. Merry wanted to scream at Orophin to move—to do something. Why didn't he use his knife? He'd seen elves fight-what could he be waiting for? The warg lunged, and the marchwarden moved at last, lightning fast, but not backward, to Merry's shock. The elf leapt forward to meet it, the silver blade of knife in his hand flashed in the firelight and the torch sweeping toward the warg. Orophin deftly evaded the snapping teeth and slashed at the creature's neck. He made it look like a dance, so gracefully and deadly, as if he was reading the warg's mind and preempting its every move. Some optimism returned, and Merry felt a bit silly for his previous terror-he'd underestimated these elves. Clearly they could handle the wargs.

More arrows flew, and Merry ducked instinctively, not even sure until they landed whether they had come from friend of foe. At least one elf had dropped his torch onto the grass and switched to his bow, leaping behind the small grass fire. Merry looked southward to see another warg emerging, and drew back instinctively, almost singing his shirt. The warg leapt, snapping sharp white teeth that stood out below its glinting eyes. At almost the last possible second the galadhrim leapt backward, bringing his knife up to deflect the snapping teeth. Blood spurted, almost black in the firelight as the warg whined and fell limp.

Turning to his right, he saw a warg that had been wounded earlier snarl and leap to its feet, knocking an elf to the ground. Merry's jaw was clenched so hard he was surprised his teeth hadn't cracked. He felt the mad urge to do something, but he was paralyzed in the face of such a foe. The elf slashed with the torch and stabbed upward as more movement to his left caught Merry's eye, and he realized in horror that the scene in front of him was being repeated on the opposite side of the camp.

Just when he was certain they were about to be overrun, another yelp sounded and the camp grew silent again. Merry tore his eyes from the east and looked north to see Orophin regaining his feet. He gave a deep sigh of relief as he saw everyone dusting themselves off and retaking their earlier positions. He frantically looked everyone over, taking note of injuries, his head swiveling this way and that. It seemed they'd come through the first onslaught unscathed. Just a few torches lost and smoldering grass fires to be put out. That was good, right? He found Gimli's eyes and grinned.

The dwarf didn't return his smile. "They're testing us," Gimli told him grimly, tossing more kindling on the fire. "They won't retreat again, laddie. You need to be ready."

When the fire blazed up again, sure enough, Merry could see the wargs that had been encroaching on them in the darkness. Exposed by the light, some sprinted for the cover of darkness, but a few were close enough to lunge.

There was very little warning as the marchwardens again engaged the enemy. Lightning flashed from the approaching storm, and for an instant, Merry could see everything-a dozen or more wargs waited beyond the perimeter, some ridden. A platoon of orcs on foot was in position behind the orcs. Not nearly as many as the night before, though Merry wasn't sure it mattered. More arrows whistled as their party pressed the advantage the lightning had given. Darkness resumed, but the charge continued.

As the onslaught intensified, Merry's hand gripped his sword even tighter as Strider joined the fray. Arrows were no longer of any use, but the elves still didn't tighten the perimeter. It was to keep the fight away from Legolas, Merry realized, but it was only a matter of time before either orc or warg slipped through. He glanced sideways at Gimli. An injured dwarf and a hobbit were a pretty weak defense against giant wolves.

As soon as one warg was dealt with, another would emerge, sometimes two at once, and Merry found himself miserably wishing that he had not argued so adamantly to come. Why had he put up such a fuss? Gimli had been fine—the elves had treated him with more kindness than Merry could have imagined-and Boromir would have been much better equipped for this. If he'd just been content to stay with Pippin, there might be someone else here who could actually contribute to the fight, but he'd thought the danger had passed. How wrong he had been.

Lightning lit up the sky as Merry crouched beside Legolas. Each time the lightning flashed, he could see the skirmishes clearly, pushing farther and farther out from the original camp. The fire had burned low again, Merry realized suddenly and began looking around frantically for Gimli. What if something had happened to the dwarf? He spotted him at last, axe in hand in the middle of the fray. Their defenses were no longer holding, and Merry could see orcs breaking through now alongside wargs. Carcasses littered the camp, great hulking shadows on the flattened grasses.

He was on his own now, he and Legolas, as the others struggled to defend themselves from enemies on all sides. Desperately, Merry stepped over the elf and threw the last of the branches and kindling on the fire with trembling hands before retrieving his sword.

A low growl sounded close on his left, startling him, and Merry turned just in time to see the glowing eyes and gathering hindquarters of a warg that had crept up on him undetected. He wanted to screw his eyes shut and cover his head and pretend it was all a dream, except he couldn't. No one else was going to get him out of this one. The creature lunged, and Merry's heart quailed in terror, but the fear of being some foul creature's dinner did wonders for his willpower.

Gripping his sword in both hands, he did the only thing he could think to do and stood fast, stabbing upward as the warg landed. It struggled, its weight knocking him over and on top of Legolas, wrenching the sword from his hands and pinning him across the elf's legs. To his dismay—and relief—it panted strangely for a moment and then sagged and lay still, a dead weight across his chest. He wiggled beneath it, trying to get out from under the carcass, but the body of the giant creature held him fast. He could feel its hot blood soaking his clothes. It smelled awful and he found himself struggling not to gag. Great. Just great, he grumbled to himself, struggling to expand his lungs under its weight.

He could still hear the fight all around him. It had lost none of its fervor. He hoped that meant his companions were still holding their own. He'd be fine under here, he assured himself, though it was a bit harder to breath-but where was his sword? Blast it, he needed that sword. He could hear movement coming too near for comfort and here he was-literally defenseless. He had begun to feel around more frantically with his fingers when he felt a soft nudge against his head. It came again, and he turned his head to see Legolas' hunting knife, the blade resting underneath the elf's palm.

"Legolas?" He asked, gazing into piercing blue eyes, surprised to find the elf awake. There was no response. The elf almost seemed to stare right through him, his face ghost white in the light of the dying fire. Then there was a blink and the fingertips brushed once again across his brow. The hand moved just slightly, almost patting the knife.

The sound grew closer and Legolas' hand brushed jerkily at his face again, almost urgently, despite the action having no strength.

"Calm down," Merry whispered, "I understand, but I've got to get my hands out from under this mangy beast." The elf blinked, as though he lacked the strength to nod. Whoever or whatever was approaching was getting very close now as Merry pulled and wiggled, gritting his teeth. His left hand was caught fast, but his right arm finally gave, and he was able to slip it free. The blue eyes had already closed when Merry reached his right arm over, twisting and straining until his fingertips at last brushed the blade.

There was no time to murmur his thanks. He heard the creak of armor and frantically scooted the knife towards himself with his fingertips until he was able to grab it properly. It felt huge in his hands—bigger than the trusty barrow knife he'd claimed that night on the downs, but it was weighted evenly, and he was sure it was razor sharp. He tightened his grip on it and slid it out of sight while he waited, his eyes hooded. Yellow eyes appeared over the warg's body. He could smell the foul breath as the orc sniffed at him. He didn't dare breathe. Even dead, he might look too tempting. It drew back, but Merry's relief fled when he realized the orc had turned its attention to Legolas. No, no, no. No. His agitation drew the orc's attention back to himself, and it bared stained and pointed teeth in a grotesque smile.

"Steady, Merry…" He told himself, forcing himself to lie completely still until as it leaned over the warg to peer at him more closely. He had to look helpless, injured—a curiosity. He'd only have one shot at this. Just a bit closer. The creature's face was almost even with his own.

In one motion, Merry brought the knife up and slashed at the orc's exposed neck.

*Ngaurhoth telir=Wargs are coming. Technically, this is werewolves are coming, but Gandalf called them this in Sindarin, so I'm assuming the elves used the word interchangeably.



End note: Thank you all for your kind review and comments on this story-they keep me going! I love hearing your favorite parts and thoughts about my work!

A/N: Many apologies for the lengthy delay in getting this chapter up. In addition to life getting in the way, the chapter itself took on a life all its own. It must have gone through five drafts before I got it just right. I hope you find it worth the wait:

Chapter Fourteen:

The wind gusts continued to strengthen and the lightning flashed almost without pause, but Aragorn knew little beyond teeth, saliva, and black blood. Orcs and wargs had begun to slip through and lunged from all sides now. In not tightening their perimeter, they had known they would be overrun, but they had managed to draw the fight farther away from their weakest, placing all their hopes on the signal fire. Gimli could repel anything that slipped through for now, but if aide did not come soon, they had only delayed the inevitable. Once the fire burned low, the enemy would began to engage the dwarf, leaving Legolas and Merry open and defenseless. The hobbit was brave and crafty, and would be incensed to be dismissed so thoughtlessly, but against wargs, he was simply too small. One swipe, and he would be out of the fight.

A glance toward the fire revealed Merry, but Aragorn couldn't see Gimli anywhere. His heart clenched. Had the dwarf fallen? There was no time to look further, or even to ponder what had happened. A low snarl warned him almost too late, and he leapt back at the last moment, narrowly avoiding the sharp yellow teeth. The broad sword strokes required to repel the warg left his flank exposed, a dangerous vulnerability without someone fighting at his back. Only able to focus from one deflection to another, it was too chaotic to tell what was going on around him. At first, he had tried to keep the galadhrim in sight, but in the glimpses he managed now, he saw only the enemy. With Gimli missing, the only positions he knew with any certainty were those of Merry and Legolas, but the press of the enemy kept driving him farther away from them. Aragorn suspected he alone remained anywhere remotely near the two, and only because he'd fought so hard to hold his ground.

A decisive thrust ended the orc in front of him, and he pushed back toward the center of the camp just as the fire flared up again. The flames dimmed quickly, and Aragorn chanced a glance toward them. The unfolding scene captured his gaze, and he could not wrench his eyes away. A warg lurked much nearer to the fire than he would have expected—only a few paces from Merry, who had stiffened, his sword glinting in the fire's glow. Go back, the man willed the warg desperately, shy away from the fire. Then the scene unfroze and the warg sprang.

Another orc lunged at the man, drawing his attention away from unfolding peril, and he slashed at it angrily, pressing desperately now toward where he'd last seen the hobbit. He could make nothing out in the brief glimpses he managed.

"Merry!" His throat was tight. Trying to run, he tripped over a carcass, landing almost on his chin with a thud that echoed painfully through outstretched arms that took the brunt of the fall. Adjusting his grip on his sword, he found it stuck fast. Looking up, his eyes found a boot holding it in place, and when he craned his neck, he found himself looking up into yellow eyes that peered down at him out of a grotesque face. The orc revealed its stained and pointed teeth, and Aragorn realized it was smiling. His hand jerked at his sword again, but it remained tightly wedged beneath the boot. Realization dawned with a swiftness that made him lightheaded. He would not be able to get up in time. Death would not come from a stroke in battle that he never saw. It would come now, before his eyes. He set his jaw and stared back at the orc.

For a moment, the orc held his gaze, malice in its expression and tensed for the blow it would deliver. In the time it took to blink, its face disappeared from before his eyes. It happened so suddenly that Aragorn wondered if he had imagined it, but then the orc's body crumpled to reveal Gimli, axe in hand.

With practiced eased, the dwarf turned and hewed at an oncoming orc as he yelled over the din, "Well, don't just keep laying there, Aragorn!"

"Gimli!" He breathed out in relief, recovering quickly from the shock of his brush with death and wrenching his sword out from under the dead orc. He scrambled to his feet while the dwarf held off anything that approached. "Glad I am to see you—our friends are in trouble!"

"Aye, I saw," came the terse reply. A glimpse at the dwarf's grim face told him the words that had not been said—that it was likely too late to aid them. Man and dwarf fell in back to back without needing to speak further.

"On your right!" Gimli cried. Two orcs rushed at them in as a warg crept close on the other side. The dwarf swung out with his axe, and Aragorn brought his sword up just in time, his arms protesting the abuse they'd suffered over the past two days. Elbereth, had it just been two days?

Lightning flashed, and he chanced another look. The warg lay where he'd last seen Legolas. That was curious—and hopeful. Wargs didn't just lay down in the middle of a battle.

"Can you see anything?" Gimli shouted. Aragorn slashed again, his mind racing. The warg was dead, he thought, and if it was, Legolas was likely underneath. But where was Merry—had the warg hurt him or Legolas? The image of the great beast lunging at the Halfling replayed in his mind, and he struggled to keep his emotions in check. Who had come to their aide and killed the wolf, and had it been killed in time?

"I cannot see them," he replied at last, his voice strained.

"Well, can you tell what happened?" The dwarf managed to reply after throwing off a warg that had almost caught hold of his arm. He must have got in a good blow, too, for Aragorn heard a whine before the beast relented.

"I do not know. I cannot see them any longer. I can only see the warg…I think it is dead!"

Lightning flashed again. Cold fear almost got him run through with a rusty orc blade. He managed to deflect it at the last moment and peered out again. In the flickering storm light, an orc crept near the warg's body. If their friends were still alive, it would find them. He strained to see any sign of Merry.

"Merry!" Thunder drowned out his scream, and he called again when it had passed, "Merry-Legolas!"

An orc blocked his path, and he dealt with it in an enraged swipe of his sword, staggering backward and jostling the dwarf, who turned and squinted toward the dying fire.

"If they were in trouble before, I'd say they're in the gravest of peril now." Gimli's words were light, but his voice was thick and urgent.

"We need to get to them!"

"I'm aware," the dwarf growled and knocked an orc aside with an urgency he hadn't had a few moments before, but still their efforts proved futile.

Thunder sounded and rumbled on and on in time with the lightning. As soon as the light and sound had faded again, torrents began to pour from the sky, instantly drenching them. It took very little time for water to fill the footprints that pocked the ground, turning the plain to mud, but it seemed the enemy was unbothered. Aragorn wasn't able to spare another glance toward the fire.

"Can you see what's happening?" He shouted backward.

There came a grunt of exertion, and then, "The orc's still there—hasn't moved."

What did that mean? No amount of effort could get him where he wanted to go, even with Gimli also striving with one purpose. Grief, fury, and desperation warred within him, but he remained powerless to do anything. With a roar of frustration, Aragorn feinted left then hacked at his right, leaving the others to Gimli while he advanced, slashing furiously at the dark gray fur. To have come this far, and to have overcome so much—to have lost Gandalf, yet survive the dark of Moria-only to lose Legolas and Merry when they had been so close would be a bitter loss indeed.

When next he was able to glance toward his friends, he could see only the faintest glow of red embers, almost obscured by smoke and steam as the rain hampered the fire.

An arrow seemed to materialize from thin air, startling Aragorn from his black thoughts and landing squarely in the neck of an orc that had slipped past his defenses. The man blinked its falling body in confusion. Motion came from his right and he turned to deflect a blow that never came. Aragorn wheeled back around as everywhere, the enemy began to fall. Help had come at last. The lightning revealed a scout of galadhrim creeping up on the perimeter, silent and deadly. Their gray cloaks made them almost invisible in the darkness and rain.

Not bothering to wait for an all-clear, or even for most of the fighting to die off, Aragorn used the opening to his advantage and took off at a dead sprint toward the smoldering fire and the rest of their company. Sword still in hand, he leapt over carrion and dodged the now-swarming galadhrim with an energy he hadn't known he still possessed, his drenched hair slapping at his cheeks and eyes.

Beside him, he could hear Gimli's boots pounding and splashing in the mud. The fight had pushed them so very far away from the camp's original center. The fire hissed and steamed, beyond salvation, almost completely obscuring his view, but as he neared, he could just make out the hulk of a warg's carcass. Its foul stench mingled with the acrid smoke, making his eyes water.

"As Aulë lives," Gimli murmured beside him as they took in the scene.

Draped across the warg was an inexplicably dead orc. He doubted Legolas had had any strength for defense, yet here both warg and orc lay dead, and he doubted they'd fallen conveniently on a sword. In the dim light, and he could just make out Legolas' feet. Not far from them, a knife lay half submerged in a puddle. The blade was covered in black blood. It was Merry's—he would recognize it anywhere. He swallowed bile, almost afraid to look. He didn't want to see whatever carnage had been caused by the attack, and it did not bode well that Merry's only weapon was no longer on his person.

Aragorn's hands trembled as he knelt beside Legolas and the great hulking corpse. With no time or thought to clean or sheath it, he let his sword fall gently to the ground beside him. He could hear Gimli beginning to search in earnest for Merry, his voice hoarse with worry. All that could be heard in reply was driving rain and thunder, and the hissing of the fire. Shaking his head in a hopeless attempt to get the rain out of his face, the man finally forced himself to look, half expecting to find the elf's skin flayed and his life's blood already drained and emptied, or his eyes staring vacantly. To his relief, there was no obvious sign of further injury, but in the darkness, he couldn't make out the rise and fall of the elf's chest. He reached out with a shaky hand, only to jerk back in surprise as a weak cough escaped the elf's lips. He lowered his hand the rest of the way, his anguish fading away at the knowledge that his friend was alive. Even in the rain, the skin under his hand radiated with an intense heat, but the elf's heartbeat was strong and steady, if a bit fast. After a moment, the elf coughed again, though there was no strength behind it.

Rain dripped down his face as Aragorn leaned over Legolas. He was surprised to find the elf awake, the blue eyes studying his face, blinking frequently against the rain. His face was pale and looked eerie in the lightning. His bloodless lips were moving in a slow, repetitive pattern, but Aragorn couldn't even tell what language he was trying to speak. It sounded a bit slurred, as if the elf was just on the edge of consciousness. His own hands were already running over the elf's shoulders, and then his arms, his eyes searching frantically for additional injuries and noting with relief that the wound from the arrow wasn't bleeding again.

"We're going to get this off of you just as soon as we can round up more hands. Are you hurt anywhere?" The man could hear the sounds of fighting in the distance as the galadhrim continued to ensure none of the enemy escaped. He almost missed the miniscule shaking of the elf's head in answer to his question, but when he saw it, he gave the lax hand a squeeze. Unexpectedly, he felt Legolas squeeze back. The elf moved his eyes ever so slightly in the direction of Gimli's voice-the dwarf was now several paces away, his search fruitless.

"Legolas, do you know what happened?" The elf's eyelids had drifted closed again for so long that Aragorn thought he might have fallen asleep. He needed to be somewhere out of the elements with medicines and constant care—not all but abandoned on a rainy battlefield. The man gave the hand another squeeze, jostling it gently until the blue eyes sluggishly opened again.

"This is important, mellon nîn,* I need you to concentrate. Do you know where Merry is? Where did you last see him?" Legolas opened his mouth, but was overtaken immediately by a coughing fit. The elf stared at him all the while, his brow furrowing before his eyes rolled to his right and then back to capture Aragorn's gaze. By the time the spasm eased its hold, the elf was struggling to stay conscious. The man sighed and gave the elf's hand a final squeeze. "Just rest, we'll find him."

Beneath his grip, the elf's hand moved ever so slightly-weak, but persistent. There was something piercing in the hooded eyes that told Aragorn that Legolas was trying desperately not to succumb to pain and weariness, and that he was frustrated.

"Goheno nîn, gwador nîn*—I do not know what you are trying to tell me." Dimly, he heard Orophin call, "Report!" Casting his eyes around again for some clue to Legolas' agitation, he didn't bother answering the marchwarden. His eyes drifted over the warg's carcass again, and he tilted his head curiously. The orc draped across the carcass had its hands still fixed at the fatal blow in its neck. It was the kind of wound that would have killed it where it stood. He turned his gaze back to Legolas, the question in his eyes. No, Legolas hadn't the strength, but those blue eyes were pinning him in place. The elf's fingers began to move once more in his hand, his grip stronger than it had been before. Aragorn could see him tensing and trying to speak, but each time the elf tried, coughs would burst from his mouth.

The elf licked his lips and finally managed to croak out, "Merry…." So the hobbit had killed the orc. Aragon's heart began hammering in his chest. He had to be close.

He'd had to have survived the warg's attack if he was able to kill the orc, but was he injured? Where had he gone after that? "Merry?!"

Gimli whirled around. "Have you found something? There's no sign of him, Aragorn, and the rain has washed out any tracks."

Aragorn ignored the dwarf and called again, refusing to think about the reasons the hobbit had not yet been found. Without warning, the orc's head shifted slightly, and the man leapt back, his hand flying to unsheath a sword that wasn't there before sense prevailed. The orc could not have survived the blow, and had no weapon in its hand if by some miracle it had. The head moved again—upward an inch or two before falling swiftly and limply back in place. Aragorn peered more closely.

As his own eyes struggled to comprehend what he saw, Gimli gave a great cry of relief, "He's here!"

Before Aragorn could even react, the dwarf had heaved the orc aside to reveal Merry's face, blinking owlishly up at them, his body pinned beneath the warg. As they made this discovery, others began to trickle in beside them, equally concerned by whatever had happened near the fire and ignoring their own hurts. Orophin, who had a nasty gash over his right eye, had Tûron's left arm draped across his shoulder and was helping ease the elf to the ground. Taking in the nasty bite to the elf's leg, Aragorn felt a twinge of guilt that in his haste, he hadn't spared a thought for anyone else—and yet, he would make the same decision again. He turned his attention quickly back to Merry.

The hobbit's mouth moved and, though Aragorn couldn't hear him over the deluge, it was plain to see he had been panicking. Merry's head was half buried in mud, and he kept blinking against the rain, his jaw clenched in a painful grimace. Gimli had sunk to his knees on the other side on the carcass, his gloved hand brushing the hobbit's muddy hair from his face.

"Don't worry, laddie, we've figured it out now and we're going to get you out."

"Quickly! We need to get this off them now-I'm not sure he can breathe properly under there." The surrounding elves complied immediately, some surging forward, and others lighting torches so they could see.

"Alright, Merry?" He called again from Legolas' side as everyone got into position.

"There's a story there if ever there was one," Gimli murmured solemnly, motioning for Aragorn to lean over and look. Still tightly gripped in Merry's right hand was Legolas' white hunting knife. Aragorn raised an eyebrow. Somehow Merry had known it was there and had used it…and thank Eru he had, but there was no time to ponder that now.

So many hands joined them that they were able to haul the giant carcass straight up and away to reveal Merry, covered in filth and the warg's blood. The hobbit immediately tried to roll off the elf's legs, but Aragorn reached quickly over and stilled him with his hand.

"No, don't try to move just yet." The hobbit was pale, but gave a nod as he sucked in a deep breath. Aragorn wasn't sure if the resulting grimace was from pain or disgust. Merry's green eyes flitted over to Legolas, tracking every move as Orophin draped the injured elf in a dry cloak.

"Glad I am to see you alive once again," the man offered softly, "Are you hurt anywhere?"

The hobbit shook his head, revealing the mud filling his ears and smeared on his cheek. "Jus' was a bit hard….to breathe." Aragorn leaned in closer, his hands already going over the hobbit's ribs. He found no obvious injuries, though he'd need to check more carefully to be sure—a weight like that could have easily crushed him.

The hobbit sucked in another deep breath and gagged. "By the Shire, I smell worse than my Great Aunt Hilda's mustard and onion poultice. Feels like a troll was sitting on my chest."

The hobbit's disgust was so strong that Aragorn found himself chuckling in relief.

He gave a nod to Gimli, who was waiting expectantly for permission. Merry groaned as the dwarf helped him sit up. Aragorn didn't fail to note the dwarf's grimace as he tucked his hand safely against his chest, letting Merry lean heavily against him as he was helped the rest of the way off Legolas' legs.

The hobbit looked pale and shaken, obvious even in the low light, but he assured them quietly, "I'm alright Strider. My entire lower half just went to sleep after a while."

Aragorn frowned. A quiet Merry concerned him, but he let it pass.

The rain began to taper off as his attention shifted back to Legolas, carefully feeling the legs beneath the ruined leggings. They might have bruised, but there was no urgent damage. The elf's eyes were closed again, but the weak coughs still wracked his frame. Aragorn suspected that they would have been much more productive if the elf hadn't been hovering in such a state of shock. "We need to move him away from all this smoke, Aragorn grunted out to no one in particular, already straining to lift the elf's litter. In the end, it was Foendil who helped him get the elf settled away from the fire.

Satisfied the elf's breathing had eased, the man turned and began barking out orders, "You—get the fire going again properly. I need someone to find another blanket or cloak that hasn't been drenched by the rain, and perhaps some smooth stones, heated in the fire, then wrapped up carefully and tucked in with him. My pouch is probably empty by now, if you can even find it—we need to find supplies. He needs medicines and dry bandages…and a proper fire. He must be kept warm and dry." A hand on his shoulder stopped him, and Aragorn realized he had been babbling.

Slowly, he unclenched hands he hadn't realized had been fisted and looked over at Foendil. "He is not the first ailing elf we've tended, Estel…we will take care of him now. Go see to your friends."

As he stumbled away, he could see those galadhrim who had already completed their assigned duties crowding around, taking in Legolas' condition with grave concern. Aragorn stood and stared for a moment longer, still feeling the pull to watch over his friend, yet help had arrived, well rested and supplied. As he watched, the haze of panic loosened its hold, and he realized he was neither. Abused muscles, bruises, and shallow cuts were beginning to make themselves known. He looked down at his hands. They were caked with dried and drying blood. He wasn't even certain whose blood it was, but his hands trembled as he saw it. Only last night they had been covered in the lifeblood of a friend.

He turned bleary eyes toward his companions. Merry was still white-faced and unsteady on his feet, fixating on his ruined vest and shirt. They were truly beyond salvaging. The hobbit's fingers were shaking so badly he could barely undo his buttons, and he was offering a surprisingly amount of protest at Gimli's attempts to help.

"I'll loan you my spare," Gimli was saying in a voice that was still far too relieved to be truly testy, "Now stop fussing." It looked like the hobbit was all but being held up by the dwarf.

Realizing he was still needed, Aragorn closed the distance between them knelt in front of the hobbit, looking him over critically once more as he shivered, "Are you in any pain, Merry?" A shrug was given in reply, but Aragorn was reassured to note that no wincing accompanied it.

"Can't feel much of anything just now, Strider," the hobbit whispered.

"I think he's still in a bit of shock," Gimli rumbled quietly.

"He can hear you," Merry retorted testily, but Aragorn was pleased to see a bit of the hobbit's spark returning. "I'd like to get all this…," he paused and gulped back a gag, "Filth off."

The sky was lightening into a pale red as he followed Merry's gaze across the now-bustling camp, past the mounds of carrion being piled up to be burned, to where some of the galadhrim were washing up by the river.

Sharing a look with Gimli, Aragorn considered it. His keen eyes raked over the hobbit once more. Now that dawn approached, he could see the furrowed brow and the careful guarding of the hobbit's left side that hinted at more pain than Merry had admitted to.

"Alright, Merry," he agreed with a nod. The hobbit nearly wilted in relief, only to frown when Aragorn continued, "But I do need to check those ribs first, and I would prefer there be a fire going before we risk freezing to death for a bath."

The hobbit rolled his eyes and huffed good-naturedly, but he allowed the man to unbutton his vest and shirt the rest of the way, and the dwarf to peel them off. The frown returned at the sight of Gimli tossing them in a heap on the ground, and the dwarf to hastily soothed, "We'll try to wash them off a bit while we're at it."

"I wonder if the elves of this Golden Wood have any seamstresses," Merry murmured absently, trembling in the cold as gooseflesh appeared on his skin. He ground his teeth and winced as Aragorn's fingers pressed back and forth against his ribs, and a moan escaped as the man's fingers found a sore place.

To Aragorn's relief, though the hobbit groaned and grimaced, each of Merry's ribs felt sound under his fingers. The weight of the warg could have easily snapped his entire ribcage as it crushed him, but nothing gave when pressed upon. Aragorn sat back, his fingers coming away stained and brown. He couldn't see any bruising for all the filth that had yet to be washed off. "Well, Merry, at worst, I'd say they're cracked, but I didn't feel anything obviously broken. Where is the pain the worst?"

"Mostly on my left, those bottom ribs in the back. It turns out, if one is going to be trapped beneath a warg," he shuddered despite the chipper mask he'd donned, "It's best not to land on bony elf legs." The hobbit's eyes began searching around suddenly until they landed on the Legolas. "He saved my life, you know…gave me his knife."

The man's eyebrows rose at the hobbit's complete lack of acknowledgement of his own role in saving the Legolas' life, but he held his peace. Merry's voice trailed off and he looked up at Aragorn, a bit dazed, as if he were still half in the memory. Then he blinked, and the old Merry was back with them.

"Now, about that bath…"

*mellon nîn = my friend

*Goheno nîn, gwador nîn = I'm sorry, brother.

You may have picked up on this, but just an editorial note: When a chapter's point of view involves a character who can speak Sindarin, I have rendered interactions with the galadhrim in English. I generally prefer to use elvish only for emphasis, or when the point of view has switched to someone who can only speak Westron (like chapter 8 where Sam and Frodo deal with a language barrier).

Also, some of your may be thinking ahead to when Gimli hauls a troll off of Pippin in Return of the King. Let's just call that a feat of adrenaline. I don't know how a single dwarf could do so.

A/N: My profuse apologies for the lengthy delay. This chapter did not want to be written, and world events killed my muse for a while there—but hang onto your hats because SHE'S BACK! Reminder: italics are quotes from Fellowship of the Ring.

Chapter Fifteen:

As the remaining drizzle from the storm cleared away, the air became markedly colder and a biting wind began to blow toward the east, ensuring that any washing undertaken would be a brief and miserable affair. The cold mountain stream stole Gimli's breath from his lungs the moment he stepped into it. His teeth began to chatter as he waded through the shallow waters to Merry's side, and hurriedly leaned down to scrub the blood and gore from his limbs—along with weeks of filth from his travels. The water only reached mid-thigh on him and wasn't nearly as effective as being submerged in a hot bath would have been. Still, he was grateful the icy stream wasn't deep enough for a thorough dunking—he had no wish to freeze to death. Within a minute, his feet and hands began to throb painfully.

A whistle came from the shore, and Gimli's head came up just as Foendil tossed something in their direction.

"S-soap on a-a rope!" Merry shivered out after he had fished it out of the water, a glimmer of his old self returning. Bending his knees to further submerge his body, the hobbit began scrubbing with vigor, briefly turning the water around him a murky brown. "In-ingenious!"

"Faster!" Aragorn hissed at them as he joined them, splashing around in water even more shallow for his great height. "It is not safe to stay in the water too long." He glanced pointedly at Merry, whose lips were already blue with the cold.

None of them were eager to stay in the icy waters any longer than was necessary, and soon stumbled unsteadily toward the banks on numb feet, going as quickly they were able.

"Can you make it alright, laddie?" Gimli called, but the hobbit was already scrambling out of the water.

"Feet're a bit numb," Merry slurred out, his breaths white puffs in the air. "So're my arms."

The ranger sighed and all but dragged him back toward the fire. "It's time you warmed up."

Clad only in their wet smalls, they made their way back to the now-roaring fire. The elves had managed to coax a fire out of the wet wood. Aragorn and the others crowded around it, gratefully accepting dry blankets and wrapped, heated stones before scooting so close to it steam began to rise off of them. For once, Gimli was unconcerned about singeing his beard—he'd never felt so cold in his life. He accepted a cup of mulled cider with gratitude.

As they warmed up, the camp around them buzzed with activity. The elves were busy burning the carrion, offering no succor as the sun rose to reveal the carnage. Swords and knives came out as the galadhrim reinforcements brought some fresh water from the river and began to meticulously clean them. Gimli found himself begrudgingly admiring elven efficiency, so tired that he couldn't come up with a single critique.

It didn't take long for his hands and feet to begin to warm—quite painfully. Across from him, the hobbit's cheeks had reddened from the sudden heat, and after a moment, Merry drew back from the fire, gingerly guarding his side. Gimli's eyes narrowed. Those ribs would need to be tended, and he could see the gouge in the hobbit's upper right arm bleeding sluggishly again. The set of Aragorn's jaw told him the ranger had also taken note. Like Frodo's encounter with the troll, he hadn't even expected to find the hobbit alive, and then he had. A hobbit from the Shire, and here he was fighting battles when he should be smoking pipeweed and planning mischief over ale. Seeing that knife in the hobbit's hand, his heart had filled with relief and pride. He knew without question that Merry had killed that fell beast, and he didn't blame him for feeling a bit shaken, or for wanting to keep his dignity and ignore those small hurts that would begin to make themselves known now that the roar of battle had faded. But small hurts untended could worsen and cause needless pain.

Draining the dregs of his cider, Aragorn sat aside his cup and at last crossed over to the hobbit, who scowled a bit, but relinquished his arm for inspection. The man wasn't the only one tending wounds. Around him, the last of the stitches were being put in place. Aside from Merry's ribs and the gouge the arrow had raked across his upper arm, Tûron had taken a nasty bite to his hip, though he was already up and stubbornly walking after washing it in the river. It was something Legolas would have done, Gimli noted wryly. He was no healer, but he doubted the waters of the Silverlode alone would be sufficient to prevent the wound from festering. Still, the injury could have been so much worse. The marchwarden was extremely fortunate his entire side hadn't been ripped out and that he was now able to tell in great exaggeration how he'd managed to slay he fell beast. Everyone had a scrape here or a scratch there, but somehow they had all escaped any dire wounds.

His thoughts sobered and drifted to Legolas, who was bundled up a pace of two from the other side of the fire, no less than three galadhrim hovering over him, conferring anxiously. They had tucked a few heated river stones in with the elf, but his fever had immediately spiked, Gimli surmised, since they were now removing them. Grief welled up in his own throat—and anger, that for all their combined knowledge, they could do so little to help the elf. Aragorn glanced their way often as his practiced hands bound Merry's ribs, an uncharacteristically lost look on his face. Merry was still far too quiet, and his hand trembled slightly as he brought his cider up for a sip, but the lines of pain had cleared from his face. He glanced up briefly as Aragorn rose and returned to Legolas' side, then returned to staring at the bottom of his mug.

Aragorn conferred briefly with the elves as he knelt at Legolas' side, placing a hand on the elf's chest, his fingers spreading over the elf's heart, as if to assure himself it was still beating. The elf seemed to be resting peacefully, but his skin was still far too pale and deep circles had begun to carve themselves under the elf's eyes.

Gimli started a bit as Orophin walked through his line of sight. He hadn't heard anyone approaching. The elf pretended not to notice the dwarf's reaction as he deposited Gimli's arsenal of armor and weapons careful on his right. To his surprise, the axes and leather had been scrubbed clean of the grime and gore. Any oiling would have to wait until they had dried out, but at least they were no longer covered in vile substances. He gave a nod of gratitude to the elf, who tipped his head in acknowledgement before motioning at the dwarf's hand until he wordlessly passed it over for inspection. Gimli watched carefully as it was unwrapped. On the whole, it wasn't too terrible. Most of the middle stitches had still held, but he was unsurprised to find it enflamed and oozing blood from each end. The elf did not chide him as he patched up his handiwork, and the dwarf stoically bore the painful washing and resewing of the stitches. There had been no choice but to join the fray.

The break in the rain did not last. Gimli jolted awake to find himself soaked once more. A glance at the other mortals told him they shared his misery. He blinked a few times, trying to remember when he had dozed off and how long he had been asleep. The Mahal forsaken elves had let them sleep in the rain while they made preparations. Gimli wasn't sure if he should be grateful for the desperately needed rest or irritated that the stupid elves were trying to murder them with pneumonia. Did the galadhrim not realize how dangerous the conditions were to the mortals present?

Merry's teeth were chattering again, but he was already awake and had scooted close to the fire once more. "Stupid elves," the hobbit muttered in fond exasperation. The rest seemed to have bolstered his spirits, and he looked a bit more clear-eyed as he huddled by the fire. The shirt he had borrowed from Gimli was soaked through.

"At least they didn't leave without us," Gimli grumbled.

"Indeed," Aragorn voiced hoarsely from his place next to Merry as he blinked the sleep from his eyes and mumbled something about coffee before stretching his neck gingerly. While they had dozed, a makeshift tent had been erected over Legolas, and the fire had been stoked even higher with newly scavenged kindling despite the rain.

A hand appeared in front of his face, and Gimli eagerly accepted the offered swig of miruvor, sighing contentedly as warmth enveloped him all the way down to his toes. "Finally remembered the needs of us mere mortals, then," he muttered testily. Foendil met his eyes a bit guiltily, but Gimli still couldn't quite bring himself to admit he was glad of the sleep, if not the neglectful soaking. He gratefully accepted an oiled cloak, though its size swallowed him. What he didn't smell was breakfast. Right on cue, Merry's stomach growled loudly, a sure sign the rest had done him good.

"Well I, for one, could do with a warm breakfast-eggs and nice crispy bacon. No more lembas, thank you very much!" The hobbit hadn't quite been able to hide his petulant tone behind his forced cheer.

Aragorn chuckled. "Do you see any hens wondering around?"

"What did he say?" Tûron called from across the fire, grimacing a bit as he shifted his weight. At some point, he must have relented and sat down to rest his injury. Aragorn obligingly translated, and the elf laughed heartily.

"I assure you, Master Merry, that when we reach Caras Galadhon, we shall feast to your heart's content each night—all the eggs and bacon you want."

I wouldn't be so hasty, if I were you, Master Elf," Gimli offered drily, "The hobbits will clean out your larder."

Tûron's look of confusion made it clear he'd understood only half of the dwarf's remark, but Aragorn threw back his head and laughed out loud.

His heart felt glad of some humor, but Gimli knew they would soon have to move. Aragorn knew it too, and sobered immediately when Orophin approached, cleaned up and dressed once again for travel. They conferred in hushed tones, gesturing occasionally at Legolas, or to the west.

"Wouldn't it be safer for Legolas if we remained here?" Merry asked slowly, finally noticing the preparations being made for their departure.

The man sighed heavily, "Aye, if that was our only concern, I would not move him at all. I had hoped to allow Legolas a day or two for his wounds to knit, but the enemy has seen our defenses and will return as soon as it is dark with means enough to breech them. We will need to depart very soon if we are to keep our pace slow enough to avoid further harm to Legolas."

Gimli found himself nodding in agreement. "They'll be back, and in greater number next time."

"Greater number?" Merry asked faintly, his face chalk white, and Gimli felt a twinge of regret at his bluntness. The hobbits weren't hardened as the dwarves were by being forced to face the enemy again and again.

"Yes, Merry," Aragorn confirmed gently, "Our saving grace last night was that they thought our numbers were so few. We can no longer risk remaining here, even in hopes of allowing our friend to regain some strength before he is moved."

"Surely there cannot be more?!" Merry lamented, clutching his wet shirttails in a death grip. "We've fought masses here on the plains, and in Moria."

This last bit was said so wretchedly that Gimli barely heard him. With a sigh, the dwarf gave his shoulder a squeeze. He opened his mouth to assure the hobbit that they'd reach safety well before nightfall when Ain spoke.

"Moria?" Several heads had come up sharply at the word. "In Moria, not near Moria?" The usually quiet elf clarified. Merry was looking at Aragorn with a furrowed brow, clearly lost as the conversation descended into rapid elvish and several elves gathered more closely, but the man seemed equally confused at the emotion behind the question.

Pain Gimli didn't know he could feel unfurled and grew at each utterance of the word, and he found his fist clenching involuntarily. If there was ever a subject he wished to avoid among elven kind, Khazad-Dûm was the one. It was called Moria by men and elves alike—even Gandalf, but the elves meant Black Pit wholeheartedly, and his aching heart couldn't bear to hear his heritage trampled upon just now, especially after so high a price had been paid by his dearest kin. But Ain hadn't seized on the place to disparage it.

"Aye, we came through the mines," Aragorn offered with a sigh, "The enemy, or perhaps fate, forced our hand, and we escaped very narrowly. I'm not even sure it was worth the price."

"Gandalf thought it was, the felt that the Gap of Rohan was too dangerous," Gimli murmured quietly in Westron as another flurry of the strange dialect sounded. He was very glad he couldn't understand whatever comments they might be making.

Foendil threw Gimli a look of surprise before turning expectantly to Aragorn, speaking in rapid Sindarin, demanding why they had not taken the Redhorn Pass. Poor Merry was completely lost. Gimli quietly leaned over to explain as the low rumble of Aragorn's reply was heard over the crackling fire.

"How we all regret it now, but Caradhras the Cruel let us no choice, and Mithrandir kept pressing for it."

"And where is he now?" Orophin joined in. "Why is he with you no longer?" Gimli could see in the elf's face that he already knew the terrible truth.

The man swallowed, his voice wavering as he answered, "He…he fell—facing a Balrog of Morgoth." Around them were dozens of intakes of breath and whispered words of shock and grief as several heads bowed in anguish. Gimli's own throat grew tight.

"Ai, ai!" Came the murmuring all around. Gimli could feel the eyes on him and sighed heavily. It always came back to this. He hadn't wakened it, but his ancestors had, and he would never be able to escape this black mark on their history.

"We thought he was just dreaming of a balrog," Tûron at last explained in Sindarin, "Thranduillion actually saw Durin's Bane, didn't he?" Gimli thought he seemed shaken.

The man's voice was gravelly and tight as he continued, "Not three days ago. With all that has happened, we have not had the chance to properly relay all the details of our coming—we have been grossly delayed. I had intended to inform Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel in person, though she may have already discerned it, or one of our Company may have shared the news by now."

How odd, Gimli thought, raising an eyebrow. How could this Lady already know the griefs that had befallen them, and-if this she-elf did have foreknowledge-why was Legolas still forced to fight for his life. If she knew things, why had no medicines or healers had been sent to aid an elven prince? And even if her gift had been overstated, surely they'd received some word of their plight by now… The dwarf's eyes met Aragorn's and he saw his own questions reflected back at him. The man's jaw was clenched in anger, but in the eyes of the galadhrim, it was confusion that he saw.

"It's not like with men and dwarves, being so near to such unspeakable evil…it is a grave wound all its own." Ain explained quietly after an uncomfortable silence, though Gimli had the feeling he was guiding the conversation back to safer ground.

Aragorn ran a frustrated hand through his tangled hair. "But he said nothing—even when he was lucid, he gave no hint."

"Once we reach our borders, the trees will strength him and mend his soul. We must hope his purpose in Arda is stronger than the call to leave it," Orophin soothed, "The fact remains that the enemy will return, and therefore we must leave."

Gimli peered over at Legolas once more. He looked so very weak. "How many leagues? How long does the elf have to hold on before we reach safety?" He ignored several frowns directed his way as his words drew attention to himself.

"About three days, at the pace we'll need to set," Orophin answered flatly.

"He won't make it to Caras Galadhon," the ranger countered as he got to his feet, his face drawn and tired. "The best we can hope for is Cerin Amroth. Send for Lord Celeborn himself to meet us with supplies—we will need his skill." His voice sounded small to Gimli's ears—as if he'd lost hope.

Movement at the edge of the fire arrested their attention, and a tall elf moved forward, his lip curled in distain. He was not alone, but he appeared to be representing those standing behind him. "Surely the naugrim*, is not going to accompany us into the Naith, and certainly not to Cerin Amroth—it's unheard of! How can you trust him around our Lord?" The elf's Sindarin was harsh and biting as his haughty tone rent the air. Had he not been an elf, Gimli suspected he would have spat on the ground.

"We don't have time to debate this," Aragorn growled as Gimli ground his teeth. It wasn't the dwarven way to leave an insult unanswered. To his surprise, more than one elf bristled in his defense, but it was Orophin who replied sharply in Silvan. The two elves stood toe to toe. The complainant was almost a head taller, and far broader, but their dress and looks were almost identical, so that Gimli wasn't sure who actually had the final say.

"I say he goes." Orophin ground out firmly, switching back to the Grey Tongue, his face flint. The jovial marchwarden had vanished and in his place stood a hardened warrior whose tone was colder than any Gimli had heard, even from Thranduil himself. He didn't know what rank Orophin held, but the other elf backed unhappily, though he still glared defiantly at Gimli.

They set out almost immediately, keeping a slow pace, more so as not to jostle Legolas, and so the injured could keep up, than as any concession for mortal weakness. The galadhrim surrounded them on all sides, armed to the teeth and looking very forbidding, a true escort. Gimli and Merry trudged along together several paces behind Aragorn, who was keeping pace beside Legolas' litter. Every few minutes, the elf would moan and struggle, as if by moving he could escape pain or whatever foe pursued him in his dreams, and the ranger would reach out and encircle the elf's wrist with his hand, and Legolas would settle again. Even the low melodies the elves sang as they walked did not soothe his spirit.

"It's likely the movement," Gimli explained when Merry wrung his hands at the sounds of pain. "It never feels good being jostled after a grievous wound, even when you're unconscious."

The hobbit raised his eyebrow at this, as if to ask when Gimli had had this particular experience, but remained silent. Gimli waited for the many questions that were sure to burst forth from the curious hobbit, but none came. He wasn't sure if he felt relieved at not having to relive painful memories, or concerned about a hobbit who didn't pursue hints of a story such as this.

The energy gained by their brief respite by the fire and sip of miruvor had long worn off by midday. The hobbit continued to remain far too quiet—it was the first time Gimli had ever heard of a hobbit failing to ask about second breakfast or elevensies…or just not be hungry in general. Aragorn had grown increasingly haggard and pale as the day had worn on. He had relinquished Legolas' care to the galadhrim, though he didn't remove his hand from the elf's arm. It was Orophin who called for and applied compresses and forced tinctures down the elf's throat, all with little effect—the elf would keep nothing down. Through it all, only the galadhrim somehow managed to continue with any lightness of step. Gimli was quite irritated at how refreshed they seemed.

Even without his armor, Gimli's every step felt sluggish and heavy. Though his distrustful unease about being so vulnerably dressed in the presence of unfamiliar elves remained, he was no longer able to muster up the energy to remain vigilant. Only his hand throbbing in time with each step kept him from falling asleep while walking. Lembas was passed around for sustenance, but the elves did not halt their slow, plodding pace, which, for a hobbit and a dwarf, wasn't very slow at all. The hobbit, he noted, had begun to weave back and forth a bit, perked up at the prospect of food, only to wrinkle his nose when he remembered what it was. It was only at Gimli's coaxing that he began to nibble at it, though he still offered no comment.

Frowning, the dwarf turned his head to peer more closely at the Halfling. Before Moria, none of his kind had ever given them a moment's peace, preferring to chatter their tiredness away, or to complain and commiserate amongst themselves in their cheerful sort of way. Merry's gait seemed steady enough, but Gimli's eyes narrowed suspiciously at the sheen of sweat on the hobbit's pale brown.

"Are you alright, laddie?" He asked softly, watching the hobbit gingerly chew the waybread as though it had the flavor of dirt. Merry's hand trembled slightly as he lowered the uneaten portion.

A single nod was given, but the hobbit wouldn't meet his eyes.

"Merry?" Gimli pressed.

"I'm fine." The hobbit hissed through clenched teeth, grimacing in pain at the final sound. His eyes were fixed ahead on Legolas' litter, which told Gimli quite a lot. Merry was determined that they keep going.

Following his gaze, Gimli peered ahead. The elf's face was gray, and lines of tense pain marred his expression. He was sleeping fitfully, but it would only be a matter of time before pain or dizziness woke him again.

Gimli's steps faltered as he glanced back at Merry, uncertain what to say. The hobbit wasn't the only one in pain from their encounter with the wargs. Tûron's limp became more pronounced with each mile, though he bore it as stoically as Merry, and Gimli's own hand felt as though it was holding hot coals. There wasn't anything for it-Merry wasn't a child any more than he was, and the hobbit would take offense at being coddled when Legolas' condition was so dire. If they rested now for their benefit, the pace they'd be required to set afterward would be too fast for the elf to bear. They only kept going now because, if they didn't, by nightfall, the enemy would find them again.

The afternoon wore on similarly until the occasional tree began to dot the grasses. Step by step, the forest loomed more closely. How strange that an elven forest was no longer a sinister unknown, but a place of solace and safety that wouldn't be reached a moment too soon for their weary and wounded bodies. Gimli was relieved to see signs of it. It was obvious that Legolas was weakening—his cries had grown faint and he no longer moved on his own. The elves had ceased trying to ply him with medicines. He'd been able to keep none of them down, and the dwarf thought they'd probably done more harm than good.

For his own part, the dwarf was struggling to walk in a straight line despite the promise of refuge, but Merry seemed to perk up a bit as the landscape changed, his eyes scanning southward across the river to where piles of carrion still smoldered in the midst of prairie grasses, blackened and flat-the only remaining signs of whatever had happened. Gimli had known, of course, that they had met orcs on the edge of the wood; Merry had told him the story as Orophin had placed nearly twenty stitches in his palm, but he hadn't realized the situation had been quite so dire.

"And you said no one suffered grave injury?" He found himself asking in sharp disbelief, unable to look away from the massive pile of dead orcs and trampled grasses.

"Yes," Merry replied simply, taking in the scene once more.

"It must have been a very close thing."

"We were lucky," the hobbit murmured tiredly, looking away again and wiping his forehead on his sleeve.

"Or extremely foolish…" Aragorn cut in, falling back for a moment to join them, his voice weary, but his eyes glinting briefly before grief overshadowed his humor once more. "Did he tell you what he and Pippin got up to in the midst of all that?"

Gimli's eyebrows rose. If the man wanted to be distracted, he would gladly oblige. Now that he considered it, the tale Merry had recounted seemed a tad disjointed, though his mind was too sluggish to work out exactly how. "Might you have left out a few details, Master Brandybuck?"

Merry, abashed, began in fits and starts to fill in some of his earlier omissions—of Pippin's sudden plan, of how they'd been separated. Gimli was astounded to learn the numbers of the orcs had been even greater than what could be seen burning across the river. The Halfling's voice was gravelly and didn't carry far, and he had to pause to catch his breath several times as he related the tale, but he seemed grateful for the chance to keep his mind off what appeared to be some very sore ribs.

"It was a close shave, indeed," Aragorn confirmed quietly, glancing briefly ahead to assure himself that Legolas had no need of him. "Boromir and I were very hard pressed. Though it seemed foolhardy at the time, drawing off so many saved all our lives. Scared the daylights out of us, though—Boromir was quite irate. I can only hope he has calmed down a bit by now and has had no cause to further scold anyone." The man muttered this last bit wryly to himself.

"We're not children," the hobbit retorted peevishly. "But Pippin will be glad to hear of your approval. He's not…" The hobbit trailed off. When he didn't continue, Gimli looked at him sharply. The hobbit was staring at Legolas, but not in worry or alarm.

To Gimli's surprise, the elf's head was turned, and his blue eyes were open, curiously taking in the sights across the Silverlode. Gimli was hopeful he might speak, or give some sign he was feeling better, but his eyes drifted closed just as they slipped at last under a canopy of golden leaves.

"How good it is to once again have the shelter of the trees," he heard Orophin murmur as the marchwarden actually sagged a bit in relief as the forest enveloped them. Gimli surpressed a grin. How very like an elf.

Most of their galadhrim escort dispersed as they continued on deeper into the forest, vanishing without fanfare into the trees around them. Some would guard the borders, and some would bring news of their arrival. Ain and Foendil now carried Legolas' litter while strangers brought up the rear, singing tales of great feats as they meandered along eastward, until, on their right, they came to a gurgling stream that flowed into the Silverlode from its southwestern bank. It was called the Nimrodel, Gimli knew, from the maps he'd studied in the House of Elrond, and it certainly was a merry little stream. He stopped suddenly—he almost fancied that he could hear a voice singing, mingled with the sound of the water.

When he came back to himself, he saw to his surprise that the entire company had stopped, almost as if the peaceful sounds were weaving a spell over them. But Gimli felt no darkness or compulsion.

"Legolas will be sorry that he missed it," Aragorn said sadly, the first to break the silence, "he could speak of little else when he learned our path was to lead this way." This place is quite famous among the elves.

Gimli thought of his own desire to see the Mirrormere and the blow it would have been to come so far and never lay eyes on it. He decided then and there that when—he refused to think if—Legolas recovered, he would make sure he saw it. They took their rest beside the fabled stream, the elves softly singing a song about the maiden Nimrodel, and for the first time since their setting out that morning, Legolas rested peacefully.

The dwarf looked up at movement out of the corner of his eye and noticed that the elves had begun to fill their water skins where the sweet waters mingled with the Silverlode. "It is said that the water is healing to the weary." One by one they climbed down…for a moment Merry stood near the brink and let the water flow over his tired feet. Gimli joined him, using his good hand to wash his face with the fresh water. It was cold but its touch was clean, and as he went on and mounted to his knees, he felt that the stain of travel and all weariness was washed from his limbs.

Legolas seemed to give a great sigh as a fresh compress was placed on his brow, the lines on his face smoothing out as, his head lolling to the side, he was able to sink into a deeper sleep. The jostling of the day had exhausted the elf beyond any reserves he had, and Gimli was relieved to see him getting some true rest. The place was soothing, and the dwarf wished they could let the elf rest here for the night, but the orcs had already shown their willingness to pursue prey this far into the forest. They would soon need to move on

After some time, a brief argument ensued. Elves, who to this point had begrudgingly borne Gimli's presence without further debate, began to bristle now that it had become clear he would be continuing on with them into the Naith. Whatever and wherever the naith was, Gimli had no idea. Apparently, only hearing of a heroic feat secondhand wasn't so galvanizing as when Orophin, Tûron, Foendil, and Ain had seen it with their own eyes. The four marchwardens seemed to feel their honor and trustworthiness were being called into question and made no secret of their resentment, but the dissenters remained unmoved, determined that their feelings on the matter should at least be heard. The argument switched back to Sindarin, and Gimli was shocked to learn the few elves who had remained with their party besides those in Orophin's initial search party were insisting he be blindfolded. Merry growled, not understanding the words, but understanding immediately that there was some slight against his friend and moved closer to Gimli. Pain was making all their tempers a bit short, but it was Tûron, looking a bit wan and worse for wear, who spoke the most adamantly as he stood beside Orophin, arms folded defiantly.

"This is nonsense!"

"They are not permitted in our land. You cannot allow him to pass."

Gimli huffed. Heaving himself upright, he addressed them, his tongue tripping over his words. He knew his accent was atrocious. "I will not walk blindfold, like a beggar or a prisoner. And I am no spy. My folk have never had dealings with any of the servants of the Enemy. Neither have we done harm to the Elves. I am no more likely to betray you than Legolas, or any other of my companions."

He planted his feet firmly apart, and laid his hand upon the haft of his axe. "I will go forward free," he said, "or I will go back and see my own land, where I am known to be true of word, though I perish alone in the wilderness." He ignored his companion's anguish at his words—he would be insulted no longer.

"No, Master Dwarf," Ain said quietly, "We will not allow that, even if Lady Galadriel herself forbids you entry, which I promise you will not happen," here he leveled a steely glare at any who disagreed, "We four would see you safely home."

Orophin gave a nod of agreement, and Gimli felt suddenly that his exhaustion must have gotten the better of him. He must be dreaming.

"The dwarf has fought bravely on our behalf—defending our kind when we could not. He is coming, and I will allow him to be disrespected no longer. Never have we treated an elvellon* thus."

"On your own head be it, then, but mark my words, he is no friend of me or mine, no matter how he has fooled you," the elf snarled, and to Gimli's astonishment, he actually left them behind, though the feelings of disquiet and worry he had caused remained, spoiling the peaceful spell of the Nimrodel.

Dusk was closing in as the mallyrn grew even more dense, yet Gimli felt no apprehension at the forest-his future reception, perhaps, but not from the forest itself. Beside him, Merry, too seemed to relax. Struggling to just keep pace and put one foot in front of the other, they kept going, fueled by miruvor and fear for their friend. Gimli's foggy exhaustion cleared in an instant as raspy and labored breathing began to echo in the quiet of the night. At first, he hoped he'd imagined it-it was a distinct sound, that rattle, and it had long haunted the ears of warriors after a battle, but as they continued, he could see in the faces of the elves that they had detected it long before the sound had reach his own ears.

At Aragorns signal, they halted immediately, lowering the litter to the ground and crowding around the struggling elf. Gimli studied the elf in the waning light. He'd seen it before, of course, though not in an elf—the awful rattling noise, the blue lips and fingers. With each breath, Legolas' nostrils flared and the notch in his neck sucked inward. The dwarf's legs almost gave way beneath him. The elf who had pranced merrily atop the snow of the Redhorn, teasing them all-that elf was dying.

"He can go no further," Aragorn said in quiet defeat, "We must pray we've come far enough into the forest that we will not be pursued, or that the border guard may hold back the enemy."

"It matters little whether we move on or risk the enemy, you must know that, Estel," Foendil stated in quiet anguish, "He is beyond our skill. Without medicines from our healers at Caras Galadhon, he will go to the Halls of Mandos. His body is too weak to hang on any longer." Merry, reading in their faces what he could not hear in their words, let out a moan of anguish, but Aragorn said nothing, his grip on Legolas' hand tightening as he knelt at the elf's side. Gimli was certain Aragorn had not needed to be told. His gaze remained fixed on Legolas in sorrow and disbelief.

"Surely someone has informed Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel by now. I cannot understand the delay in immediately sending the supplies we need. It has never taken so long before for a message to be answered!" Orophin seemed truly dismayed, and very nearly overwrought. The elves never took death well. "She has to know… And to risk Thranduil's wrath…"

Gimli didn't know what to think. To deliberately withhold help from one of their own when the situation was so dire…he didn't want to believe that even elves could be capable of such malice. And Orophin wasn't wrong about Legolas' father—his anger was legendary. Whatever the reasoning, Gimli could make no sense of any purposeful delay.

"They must be close by now—he only needs to hold on a bit longer," Tûron assured wearily, though he was unable to keep the doubt from his face.

"I don't understand," Orophin said again.

"I'll go to Cerin Amroth. The supplies must have reached there by now—perhaps they are merely unware of our desperation," Ain volunteered suddenly, speaking quickly with forced optimism. He was already casting his pack aside to lighten his load. "I'm the fastest! I'll go and return with whatever we need."

"Go." The command was quiet and flat, and Gimli wasn't even sure who had given it, but the blond elf sprang away and up into the trees, and Gimli silently willed Legolas to somehow hold on just a bit longer.

*Naugrim=the elvish word for dwarf, literally "the stunted people."

*elvellon=elf friend

End note: Sorry for the cliff hanger. I promise it won't be as long a wait for the next chapter.

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