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A Perilous Journey to Lorien  by LadyJaina

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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