He found the elf lying on the path on his abdomen with one arm flung out, some distance from the sheltering rocks where he had been left, and Aragorn realized with a painful twinge of sadness that his friend had sought to follow him. The rain was beating down in sheets now, and the ranger quickly bent over the prostrate form, shielding Legolas from the worst of it as he carefully took hold of the quivering shoulders and turned him over. As he pulled his suffering friend into a half-sitting position and supported him against his chest, the archer’s head rolled limply against Aragorn’s shoulder, a desolate whimper escaping his lips. A rasping cough followed, the elf's body contracting strongly, and his hands reached out blindly, searching. Aragorn grasped them, immediately noting how cold they felt.
"I am here, Legolas. I have not left you." Aragorn yanked the cork from the flask with his teeth and moved to brush aside the rain-soaked hair plastered against the fair being’s face. "I have found shelter, my friend, and medicines. I have something that will help you now. You must drink this."
The trembling increased and the elf cried out as the painful muscle spasms assailed him anew. His back arched and his head slammed with remarkable force into Aragorn’s chest, nearly driving the breath from the man’s lungs. Aragorn fought to control the convulsions as the elf thrashed, but the natural power of the Prince of Mirkwood, combined with the involuntary firing of muscle and nerve was almost more than the ranger could handle, strong as he was.
Wrapping his arms around his friend he clung fiercely, struggling as well to maintain his grip on the flask and not spill any of its precious contents. Then the worst of it was over and Legolas fell back again, slumping against Aragorn with a low moan.
Aragorn pressed the flask against Legolas’ mouth and tipped it up slightly, but the elf gagged, choking, and a thin trickle of fluid spilled out and ran down his cheek, mixing with the rivulets of rain running from his hair over his face. He shook his head slightly, and Aragorn understood. The elf could not swallow.
Cautiously the ranger tried again, slowly placing small drops of the drug into the prince’s mouth, and they slipped down his throat without need of the swallowing reflex. It was time consuming, and Aragorn had to fight to keep his fear under control as the pain swept over his friend again, but at last he was able to discern signs of increasing drowsiness come over the stricken elf. Hurt-filled blue eyes that had been wide open and filled with terror slowly slipped shut. Breaths that had been harsh and rapid sank into a slower, deeper rhythm, and the quivering tension throughout the archer’s body ebbed. With a final vocalization that was something between a whimper and a wail, Legolas sagged against Aragorn and lost consciousness.
The ranger sighed heavily, suddenly and acutely aware of the overwhelming weariness that had penetrated his own body to its very core. He pulled his friend into his embrace and held him tightly, resting with eyes closed and bowed head as the rain lashed down on them both. For some time he did not move, sitting quietly until the frantic pounding of his own heart eased and the careening terror of his thoughts was once again under his control and no longer steered by panic and desperation. Then, blinking to clear his eyes of both the tears flooding them and the torrent pelting his face, he raised the elf in his arms and staggered to his feet, starting back along the route that would lead him to the cottage.
The forest was completely dark now, and in his exhausted state he might have lost his way but for the insistent demands of the horse ringing among the trees, and he used her voice to guide him along the slippery, nearly invisible path. Soon the glow from the lamp he had left on the table was drawing him across the clearing and he entered the house easily, having left the door wide open when he had raced back to his friend.
A small cat standing beside the table, green-eyed and grey-striped, bristled and spat at him as Aragorn moved past it and laid his burden on the bed. The creature darted out the door and vanished into the night. There was still no sign of the house’s occupant, but only after he had stripped the soaking clothes off the elf and gotten him settled into the bed, drawing the warm blankets closely around him, did the man spare a moment to wonder at this. The small dwelling was neatly kept, the wood floor swept clean, cookware and crockery stacked on a narrow shelf mounted on the wall beyond the hearth. A small vase of brown clay holding a gathering of fall wildflowers was set upon the chimney shelf, but the water was nearly gone, the petals faded and beginning to fall. Aragorn frowned at this. How long had the place stood empty? Three days? Four?
Reassuring himself that Legolas was comfortable for the moment, the ranger pulled his cloak around his own shoulders again, picked up the lamp and ventured outside. The brown horse would not cease her indignant demands, and he knew he would have to find a way to get the creature calmed before he could concentrate on his friend. She was waiting for him at the gate of her enclosure, and he caught hold of her soft muzzle as he entered. "All right, my girl," he murmured as she jerked her head up and flattened her ears. A quick investigation of the stall showed she had no available food or water, but he soon located a supply of grain and hay in the small loft above, and he brought up a pail of water from the stream that continued past the cottage, running north of the clearing and disappearing into the trees. Soon the mare was happily satisfying her appetite.
"Where is your master? Why have you been left unattended?" Aragorn asked, glancing around him uneasily. Like the house, the stable was well built and neatly kept, and the horse, while not distinctive in any way, had obviously been groomed and looked after. Until now.
But there was no time to ponder on this mystery. Needing to leave the horse and his questions for another time, the ranger quickly made his way through the rain back to the cottage. Legolas still lay quietly, but his face was pale and there was a rasping sound when he inhaled that the man did not like. He seemed to be struggling to draw breath. Slight tremors continued to shake the elf’s body, and Aragorn brushed his hand over the furrowed brow, trying to smooth the lines of pain away.
Dry wood and kindling were stacked beside the stone hearth and Aragorn soon had a fire burning that quickly warmed the room and cast soft flickering shadows against the walls. He pulled a chair away from the table and set it beside the bed, draping his sodden cloak over the back of it to dry. Sitting heavily, he rested his fatigued body for a short time, eyes closed, but his thoughts were racing beneath his quiet exterior. The crackling fire and the coziness of the small house, humble at it was, seemed a great luxury after his harrowing journey. The soft sounds and the comforting heat of the blaze lulled him, coaxing him toward sleep, but he forced himself to refuse the invitation. He had much to do ere the sun rose.
The ranger observed his companion, thinking carefully as he leaned forward to run a towel over the elf’s wet hair. The drug had eased the pain, for now, but what of the poison? Aragorn had little doubt that it continued its insidious work within Legolas’ body, and he could find no answers as he tried to gaze ahead at what the coming hours and days would bring. He knew he must be prepared for anything, and after a short time, when the fire had warmed him, he rose and took up the lamp. Retreating to the back room, he gathered what he thought he might need from the shelves and returned to his friend, sitting at the table and beginning the work that was to save Legolas’ life.
Long into the night he toiled, selecting distillations and simples, mixing and preparing what might be of help as the rain lashed the roof over his head and the wind howled outside the lonely cottage, and he forced what he could of his medicines down the elf’s throat.
Dawn came. The gusts had died but the rain continued, falling in a soft grey mist. The scene outside the windows was fogged, cheerless and devoid of color. The drug had begun to wear off, the elf stirring uncomfortably at first, then tossing and struggling on the bed, and from that moment on getting anything else down his throat became all but impossible. The pain had returned and, as it assaulted him without abating, Legolas’ body temperature soared to dangerous heights. He could swallow nothing. The elf even choked on his saliva, and Aragorn kept his friend turned onto his side to allow the fluid to drain out of his mouth.
It seemed mostly to his head that the fluttering hands flew, to massage and sometimes strike before Aragorn could stop them, or the long fingers would press against tightly shut lids in mute testimony of pain in his eyes. But Legolas no longer had strength left even to cry out. Low moans were the only sound he made now, and on his face was an expression of agony. Aragorn fought to control the torment, inserting the sedative cautiously into the elf’s mouth, placing it into the pouch he created by inserting a finger and pulling Legolas’ cheek away from his teeth, allowing it to slowly trickle toward his throat in tiny amounts. The delirium caused by the high fever helped in some way, he hoped, to make the elf unaware of the gravity of his condition, though Aragorn strove to lower it by soaking cloths in cool water scented with soothing lavender, placing them on the elf’s head, and by continuing to attempt to force into him some of the other drugs he had arrayed on the table.
It was not until later in the morning that the situation became truly terrifying. The elf’s breathing, difficult before, suddenly deteriorated rapidly. The gasps became increasingly shallow and erratic, and with a start of terror the ranger threw back the blankets, staring with frightened eyes at the straining efforts of a ribcage that was becoming paralyzed. Legolas could no longer draw enough air into his tortured body, and the man noted the bluish tinge on the archer’s lips and fingernails.
The next span of time became a nightmare. For more hours than he could ever recall afterward Aragorn breathed for his friend, pressing his mouth over the elf’s and forcing his breath into Legolas’ lungs. He had been well-trained by Lord Elrond in the arts of healing, and in times of extreme urgency there were methods the elves had developed that could be employed to prolong life. At the same time he tried to stimulate the archer, shouting at him, rolling him on the bed and slapping him in an attempt to startle him into inhaling more deeply. Sometimes it worked, and Aragorn would clutch his friend’s tightly curled hand, desperately willing him to continue breathing on his own. Legolas would manage for a while, but always his strength would gradually wane again and Aragorn would start anew as despair wound a tight web around him and the cruel bite of exhaustion sapped his energy.
The ranger’s existence narrowed into an unending cycle. Breathing. Checking. Screaming into the elf’s ear. Striking his face. Watching. Waiting. Breathing.
Outside, the sun, blotted out by grey clouds, traveled across its arc and dipped into the west. Darkness crept once more into the tiny cottage and the rain continued, pattering softly against the thatched roof. Aragorn turned his head, blinking blurrily, and lurched to his feet from his kneeling position by the side of the bed. A sharp pain pierced his lower back as he straightened, the muscles in his legs aching as he forced them to move for the first time in hours. He nearly fell as he stumbled to the mantle and struck a light within the lamp, clumsy in his trembling haste. Now he could see once more, and was immediately on his knees again, reaching for his friend.
Breathe, Legolas! Breathe! Please, my friend…
The tiniest movements became arduous, slow and heavy as if he had been swimming forever upstream, and his stiff efforts blended with the turbid sluggishness of his mind. His dark head drooped, though the ranger continued to fight against the relentless debilitation of his fatigue.
* * * *
Startled, he raised his head abruptly. Where am I? Squinting uncomprehendingly around him, he was unable to recognize his surroundings. A fresh breeze wafted over him, lightly brushing back his tangled hair, and the soft scent of pine filtered into his nostrils. Sunlight streamed in through the open window, the morning light dancing over the naked form of the elf sprawled on the bed before him, bathing his skin in gold.
He stared as memory clawed its way back into his foggy brain, and he reached, trembling, toward the pale, unmoving body. The archer’s head rolled as Aragorn shook him, the fair elven face turning up toward the ceiling. The blond hair cascaded like silk over the ranger's hands and slipped through his fingers, falling from them even as he saw the light within the blue eyes fading. Life was slipping away, and his strong grasp could not hold it.
Aragorn slowly bowed his head. He dies in my arms now. I can do no more. Ai, Legolas…
The face rolled back again as Aragorn collapsed over the silent shell and drew it close. A terrible cry of anguish shook the stone walls of the little cottage in the forest, and it was silently taken up by the nearby trees that had stood together in mute unmoving vigil during the long hours of Aragorn’s frantic efforts to save the life of his friend. The leaves swayed gently now, and the start of a soft song murmured among the oaks, beeches and evergreens, a song of peace and rest meant for a woodland elf who had finally broken free of a failing body and could hear everything now.
* * * *
He followed the song through the rain. During the worst of his pain he had been aware of it, though it had been terribly faint and difficult to focus on. Now it filled him, beckoning with soft promises of rest. He would blend with it and add his own voice. Drifting, the senses to which he had always been accustomed were altered. True sight, sound and smell no longer came to him, but these things still existed as part of a deeper perception. And all of the emotions of fear, rage, grief, and joy were fallen away.
He did not feel. He did not do. He simply was. There was only the song, washing over him like tiny raindrops that gradually swelled into ocean waves, and all else was stripped away. He would grow and expand his energy out into the shimmering melody, becoming saturated in the beauty and promise of water, forever bathed in luminous notes of love. Completely nourished.
Waves and song… a beautiful blending of possibilities. New forms. Rain smiles, making music as it falls, changing to mist, feeding the world, rising to cloud, turning to white crystals, swelling the seas, adding its powerful song to that of the gulls. Water in all its manifestations. Ever flowing. Without birth and without death. Unending song.
A golden shaft of brilliant sunlight suddenly washed over him.
He rose and extended himself to meet it.
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