"Please stop, Aragorn. I can go no further."
For most of the day they had struggled along the winding streambed. The injured elf had made no sound as the time passed, but his growing distress was obvious to Aragorn as he supported his friend, helping him to walk and speaking encouraging words in an effort to keep his spirits up. When he removed them from elf, the ranger’s eyes never ceased to sweep their surroundings, looking for anything that might be of aid. But there were no plants he could use to alleviate his friend’s pain, no hut or dwelling to shelter him from the encroaching dark and the chill of night, and Aragorn’s heart contracted in despair when he heard the soft whisper. Legolas had reached the end of his strength.
The ranger's strong arms gently lowered the archer to the soft floor of the forest, helping him to find support against a stout tree. Legolas’ skin was ashen as he leaned forward, silently burying his face in his hands. Aragorn quickly dipped a cloth into the stream’s cold water and moved the shaking fingers aside, pressing it against the elf’s brow and gently wiping his face, but when he tried to offer his flask, Legolas turned away.
"You must drink, my friend," Aragorn encouraged softly, then started forward in alarm as the elf shuddered miserably and twisted his body, falling forward onto his hands. The ranger knelt, grasping his friend’s shoulders as Legolas began retching, violently bringing up the contents of his stomach. Helpless, the man could only bear silent witness as the painful convulsions tore the weeping elf apart, his heart aching at the sight of the strong warrior so utterly devastated.
When it was over, Legolas was sobbing with exhaustion. He weakly pushed himself away from the mess, shifting to the other side of the tree, and slowly lowered himself with shaking arms to the ground, pressing his cheek against the cool earth.
Aragorn’s tension mounted as he hastily examined his companion. The prince’s heart was thundering within his chest, his body tense and rigid, the muscles contracted and quivering so violently that the simple act of drawing breath appeared to be increasingly difficult. The ranger pressed the cool cloth again to the furrowed brow and gently tried to turn the elf’s head to wipe the sickness from his trembling lips, but Legolas gasped, his hands lashing out to catch Aragorn's and hold them.
"Do not turn my head," the agonized elf begged. "It hurts, Aragorn… it hurts."
Helpless misery engulfed the man. He had seen Legolas injured before. He had seen him poisoned by the venomous bites of the terrible spiders that prowled in Mirkwood’s dark forest. But never had he seen him completely incapacitated, and for the elf to make such a tearful admission of pain was frightening. Legolas was a proud creature, usually enduring physical discomfort in resolute silence and seldom seeking aid, with the result often being that his companion never knew anything was amiss at all.
The ranger raised his gaze toward the skies and closed his eyes briefly, wearily leaning into the soft caress of the woodland breeze on his face as the strangled gasps of the elf echoed in his ears. Help us. This is beyond what he can tolerate.
Peering closely into the dilated eyes, more black than blue, Aragorn saw that they did not focus on his face, but stared blankly at nothing. Gently he disengaged one of his hands from the crushing grip and extended his fingers toward the wide orbs, moving them so close that they nearly touched the glistening, tear-filled surface. The elf did not blink. Only when Aragorn withdrew did the lids close, and the archer's hands rose again to massage throbbing temples, the fingers tangling into and pulling at the blond hair.
"We cannot stay here, Legolas," Aragorn told him. "We must move on. Try to ready yourself, and I shall lift you."
"No, Aragorn. No…"
"We must go." Aragorn gently began to slip his hands under the elf’s body, feeling the knots of tension in the muscles along his spine, and Legolas threw his head back with an open-mouthed wail of agony. Terrified, the ranger released his friend with a gasp and snatched his hands away as if he had been burned. Stinging tears seared his eyes as he stared down at his companion, whose hands now clutched convulsively at the roots in the earth as if grasping at life itself. A wild thought came to Aragorn’s frantic mind and he angrily shoved it aside. I cannot do that! What if I cause more harm?
"Legolas, please…" he begged. "One more try."
He started again to lift his friend, but Legolas twisted violently in his arms. Another piercing scream lacerated the quiet forest, bringing the trees to shuddering awareness. The leaves fluttered, keening softly for the elf’s agony.
Aragorn bowed his head as the unwelcome, desperate idea came to him again. The pain will kill him if I do not put a stop to this. And he is not the only one who can bear no more. Slowly, carefully, he turned the elf onto his back. For a moment he looked with uncertain fear at the tortured form, looking for some assurance that his choice was correct. Legolas inhaled deeply and cried out again, and the decision was made. Aragorn tried to speak, but his mouth had gone so dry the words came in a croaking whisper.
"Forgive me, my friend." Scarcely able to see through eyes blurred with grief and horror at what he was about to do, Aragorn drew his fist back and struck the archer hard across the right temple. Legolas sagged to the ground, his breath escaping in a soft moan. His tormented body relaxed and his beautiful face changed, tranquil at last, eyes closed as if in sleep. The elf wept no more, but his devastated companion, kneeling beside him on the soft bed of pine needles, shed enough tears for them both.
* * * *
"Aragorn, have you ever seen such a magnificent day?"
The elf was enthusiastically admiring the fall foliage. Never before had he seen such brightness of hue, he said, exclaiming over the exquisite beauty of the rich reds, deep golds and vibrant yellows, and he had run ahead, shedding his pack and his quiver as he went, and climbed up several trees to get a closer look while Aragorn remained on the ground, staring up at his friend and laughing. The archer would not come down, and Aragorn finally gave up pleading with him to return to earth so they could continue their trek. Forced to content himself by settling his back against the trunk of the beech tree in which Legolas had taken up temporary residence, he pulled out his pipe and relaxed, listening to the elf sing songs of thankfulness for the beauty around him. The man shook his head, smiling quietly to himself as he pondered the unique personality of the Prince of Mirkwood.
He has lived longer than most of these trees by several centuries, but he plays among them as a child would. And though I have not walked in this world for nearly as long, I fear I am the older one.
Musical laughter reached his ears, and not for the first time the man felt a slight twinge of jealousy at the elf’s ability to take pleasure in so simple a thing as a sunny day. Aragorn was a serious man, and lonely, given to periods of gloomy introspection, and many people shied away from him and his guise as a dangerous man, a mysterious Ranger of the wild. He did not make friends easily, and when the young elf began to accompany him on his adventures, he had been frankly amazed at their compatibility and how easily their friendship had developed. Legolas was also quiet by nature and reserved around those he did not know well, but he was a steadfast companion who shared Aragorn’s sense of adventure, and had proven to be an astonishing fighter when situations turned dangerous.
The elf loved the natural world with a fierce passion that had startled Aragorn. Of the forests and its creatures he had studied deeply, and his knowledge often surpassed that of elves hundreds of years older. With this understanding of the intricacies of life came wisdom, and a heart that accepted love as easily as it was offered. He also possessed an innocent sense of fun that the man lacked at times, and the moments of lightness inspired by the archer’s happier disposition helped Aragorn maintain his perspective about himself and the people around him.
As the ranger sat and smoked his pipe, having resigned himself to losing an afternoon’s travel, Legolas began flinging nuts at him from the relative safety of the tree’s canopy, laughing as he did so and telling Aragorn that he was wearing "that grim face" again.
"What is your hurry, Aragorn?" the elf called, taking precise aim and knocking the pipe out of the ranger’s mouth. "I will never be able to understand your sense of urgency. We have plenty of time to make our way back to the mountains. Men always seem to be in such a rush."
Aragorn retrieved his pipe, knocking the pine needles out of it. "If I did not prod you, Elf, we would never get anywhere. I agree with you. You have no sense of time. I would die under this tree ere you would notice. You would continue to sing your heart out, and I would be a dried up skeleton beneath you."
Legolas suddenly landed beside him, the steady blue eyes meeting his own with a serious glance. "Do not speak of such a thing, Aragorn, even in jest." The elf turned away, reaching for his pack and slinging it over his shoulder. "Shall we go on? How many miles do you wish to cover before nightfall?" Without waiting for an answer he started down the trail, his long stride graceful and soundless. The man followed without a word. He had not missed his friend’s abrupt change in mood.
They had talked long that night as their campfire dwindled to glowing embers and the soft radiance of the moon bathed them in her silver sheen. Aragorn had questioned his friend, although he was fairly certain he knew the reason for the elf’s troubled expression, and he was touched by the quiet response.
"I had forgotten that life is very different for you, Aragorn. I do not share your sense of urgency because I will not run out of time. But you will, someday. That understanding must permeate your every thought and action."
The man smiled. "Not always. I think most of us who are destined to die do not dwell overmuch on the subject. If we did, our lives would be filled with fear. And so we push the knowledge that our days will end away from us and fill them with activity and purpose so as to give our time here meaning, but also in order to divert our thoughts." Aragorn noticed the elf was watching him with interest, waiting for more information on this topic, which he did not recall ever discussing with Legolas before. "I fear death less than many of my kind, I believe," he added, "because I know better than to long for and plot for that which we are not permitted. Such desire led to the fall of Numenor long ago." He glanced at the elf. "But it seems you have thought more than once about the fate of men, Legolas, just as I have pondered often on what comes to the elves. On what will come to you."
"And I do fear it, Aragorn. I am drawn to friendships with mortals, it seems, and I will one day lose those friends. Then I will be alone in the world."
"Aye. You are doing little to protect your own heart, Legolas."
The blond head nodded in agreement. "I know it. I could follow the example of many of my people living in isolated Elven communities, but were I to do so, life would be empty for me. I have made my choice, and my heart tells me I could not choose other. I do not have doubts about what I wish to do, but I fully understand that there may be more pain for me in the end."
"There is Valinor," Aragorn reminded him.
"And I will go, but not before I wish. The decision to make that journey will be mine and mine alone," the elf added, somewhat fiercely. "There are things to take care of here ere I depart. Wrongs to right. I would see peace and safety come to these lands again, and help you to gain them ere you come into your kingship."
Aragorn looked quietly at the elf’s beautiful, ageless face. The sapphire eyes were locked onto the glowing coals, and he sensed a great river of sadness running beneath that calm gaze. "You miss your mother," he murmured.
It seemed to Aragorn that Legolas flinched then, and he regretted moving too close to what seemed an open wound. The ranger knitted his brow, trying to find the most fitting words to comfort his friend. "Whatever awaits you, when your time here is ended, your hurt will be eased. The Valar are not without love or mercy, Legolas."
The elf brightened, and he turned to Aragorn with a smile. "No, they are not. They look after us well. It takes very little searching to find that they have provided us with all that we need." Legolas tilted his face back, regarding the twinkling lights far above him with an expression of amazement. "The future is unknown, and the past is gone. We truly have only this moment in time, and right now I am happy, Aragorn. Each breath we draw is cause for celebration."
Aragorn arched an eyebrow. "More elvish wisdom? Since you have come of age you have become a veritable wellspring of sagacity, Legolas."
"Someone must try to point the way for you, young one," the elf retorted, his own eyebrow twitching to match the ranger’s.
"Who is the child? Among my people, I have been considered an adult for many years. You are but a fledgling scarcely out of the nest, little elf."
Legolas laughed and rose easily to his feet. "This little elf is undoubtedly the only one who has the ability to tolerate your company for any length of time. And if my attempts to insert profound insights into that rigid skull of yours have been unsuccessful, I shall now plague you with my singing." He grasped the branches above his head and vanished into the thick foliage of an oak tree.
"Do your worst, Elf."
Aragorn settled into his bedroll, drawing the blanket over his body with a deep sigh. It was no ordeal to hear his friend sing. Indeed, it usually filled his restless heart with a feeling of harmony that was otherwise elusive, and tonight was no exception. He lay awake for some time, listening with eyes closed to the elf’s quiet voice, allowing it to transport him gently toward sleep. Legolas was singing something he had never heard before and his low voice was filled with longing, welling up quietly, drawing on the wind in the trees. And yet it seemed also a song of deep contentment, and Aragorn’s mind was eased about his friend’s unhappiness.
The ranger had begun to doze when words he could barely hear were whispered in his ear as the elf returned to the ground and stretched out beside him. "Sleep well, mellon nin."
Several hours later, the orcs had attacked.
* * * *
Silently, Aragorn made his way along the small river. He had long since pushed all thought from his mind as he trudged, concentrating on setting one foot in front of the other, the weight of the unconscious elf cradled in his arms. Dusk was falling now, shrouding the tall trees in misty grey, and overhead it looked no better. The moon had abandoned him this night, and the ranger glanced briefly upward through the spikes the forest thrust into the sky, watching the clouds take shape above him.
He could smell it. Rain was coming.
Sighing, he resigned himself to the approaching storm and began to look about him for somewhere to shelter. His eyes lit on an outcropping of rock within a small circle of trees, and he pulled away from the creek and started toward it.
The elf suddenly convulsed in his arms and he nearly dropped his burden. Reflexively he hugged Legolas more closely as a low moan escaped, filtering softly into his ears, and the strong body twisted again. Aragorn stumbled to the rocks and fell to his knees, setting his friend on the earth. He had dreaded this moment. The elf was awake again, all tension and misery as his fingers gouged the soft soil beneath him before flying to his head and clutching, twining into the blond hair. "Ai, Elbereth, help me, help me, help me…"
Aragorn had been carrying the archer’s bow and quiver on his back and now he discarded them, flinging them to the ground and stripping off his cloak, adding it to the elf’s own, draping and wrapping the shivering form. The autumn air had grown chilly, the wind picking up and bringing with it the fresh scent of rain. The first cool droplets began to fall as he moved Legolas closer to the shelter of the rocks.
Leaning his back against them and pulling the Prince of Mirkwood into his embrace, the man held his companion tightly as the cries echoed in his ears, his own body rocking with the motion of the elf’s rapid, painful breaths, feeling the heat burning his hand as he gently touched the fevered brow.
The rigidity in the archer’s body relaxed suddenly as the muscle spasms released him, and he sagged in Aragorn’s arms with a whimper. A moment later he turned his head, tilting his face up toward the rain. The elf inhaled deeply, his lips moving, and the man bent closely over him as a soft whisper came to his ears. "I am sorry. I would spare you this…"
"No, Legolas," Aragorn told him. "You have nothing for which to apologise. Think not of me. We will rest here for a time, and you will gather your strength."
Legolas shook his head slightly, lines of pain etched into his brow. The ranger held him in a close embrace, and the elf’s hand reached up to wrap around Aragorn’s arm. Legolas blinked, frowning as his unfocused eyes searched the sky somewhere above his friend’s head, then his lids squeezed tightly shut. His voice came in a broken sob. "I die, Aragorn."
"No," the man whispered, the sudden knot rising in his throat threatening to choke the breath from his body. "Would you break your promise to me, my friend? That we would face the future together?"
The pale lids opened again and a look of anguish passed through the elf’s glazed eyes. "Nay, Aragorn… I would not, but I cannot hold…" His fingers tightened on the man’s arm.
"You do not die, Legolas. Not here. Not like this!"
A slight smile graced the elf’s face before the mask of pain returned to replace it. "There… there are worse places I could be. You are with me." He gasped, bending his head down. The grip of his hand became painful to Aragorn. "I am not alone…"
"No, Legolas. You are not alone," the ranger echoed brokenly, resting his face against the elf’s hair, his shoulders shaking with grief. What would I give to hear him sing again, as he did last night? My own life. Can I not offer it for his?
Aragorn raised angry tear-filled eyes to the clouds, searching for a star, for some beacon of hope and light filtering through the dark curtain that covered both the sky and his heart. Take me. Or if you will not, end this now. He does not deserve such suffering.
The agony ripped through the elf again. Legolas cried out - and there came an immediate echo scarcely a second later that brought the ranger’s head up like a hound’s to his master’s whistle. Someone had responded, calling out in the darkness. The sharp insistent whinny of a horse came to Aragorn again, and instantly he was on his feet, easing the elf to the ground and racing toward the noise. He followed a narrow foot-trail, and he could not tell which pounded harder: his feet as he ran or his heart as it twisted in frantic hope. This had to be it… the help that he needed. It must be!
He rounded a turn in the faint path, and several hundred yards further on he skidded to an astonished halt. Just ahead, in a large clearing, was a small cottage of stone with a thatched roof. The windows were dark although night had fully come to the forest. Next to the dwelling was a wooden structure surrounded by a fence, and within this enclosure a brown horse nickered and capered about, looking at him with interest. It whinnied again as Aragorn ran across the green expanse and threw himself against the door. It had not occurred to the frantic ranger to make a polite entrance, and as the door gave way he nearly collided with a round table set in the middle of the shadowy room as his momentum sent him hurtling into the cottage.
"Hello? I need help! Is anyone here?" Only silence answered, and he gazed about him, perplexed. His scanning eyes could make out little in the darkness, but he could see a great stone hearth and went to it, pulling down a lamp from the chimney shelf and striking a spark from the flint and steel to light it. Quickly he looked about, noting the neat interior, a bed in the corner beside the cold fireplace, deep windows with the ledges cluttered with hanging bundles of leaves. The house appeared entirely empty, but he tried again. "Hello?"
His gaze fell onto an opening into another room at the back of the cottage and he approached it, peering around the corner of the portal. This room was smaller and had the appearance of a study. A small table was placed in the corner, a candle of sheep’s tallow standing on a brass holder on its edge, and it was stacked high with papers, the handwriting on them a spidery scrawl. Aragorn stepped within, raising the lamp, and froze with a gasp of astonishment. Shelves lined the south wall, framing the lone window. The man leapt forward as a great choking sob of gratitude burst from his throat.
On the shelves were medicines. Bundles of dried herbs, extracts in small bottles, jars of salves, all neatly labeled and carefully arranged. Aragorn closed his eyes briefly, deeply inhaling the sweet pungent smells, and sent up a shaky prayer of thankfulness. Surely there was a merciful being watching over the elf this night. Trembling fingers tore through the stocked items, trained eyes quickly scrutinizing the contents of the containers. Valerian. Comfrey. Yarrow. Then his eyes lit on something else. The extract of poppy seedpods! Aragorn nearly wept. This last item he snatched from the shelf, and he hastened with it to the front room. He flung his drinking flask to the table and set the bundle comprised of neatly wrapped leaves beside it. This will remove him from his pain, if I can manage to get it down his throat.
The ranger clutched at the edge of the table, leaning into it and closing his eyes as he concentrated. He had used this drug before. It was a powerful medicine for inducing sleep and easing pain, particularly when the enduring and treatment of wounds was too great for the patient to bear without aid. In lesser doses it created a not unpleasant state of euphoria, and he knew that for some men the drug became an obsession.
He calculated quickly. Elves required more of the stuff than men, but were not subject to the addiction. He shook the water flask, checking the volume, and deliberately spilled out about half of the liquid before beginning to add the proper amount of the drug, watching carefully as he did so.
He had moved with all possible haste, and was already replacing the stopper in the flask and making for the door when he heard the sound he had been hoping to prevent. From the forest came a piercing wail of utter devastation. The scream ripped through the trees and smote his heart with such a tremendous blow that he nearly toppled. It was the shriek of a wounded animal, and it signified the end of Legolas’ ability to endure.
No! I cannot be too late!
With a cry of dismay the ranger bolted from the cottage, running as he had never run before, racing back down the trail and into the shadows.First > Next