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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.
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.
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!
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