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A Perilous Journey to Lorien  by LadyJaina

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 Tűron'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.

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