DISCLAIMER: Lord of the Rings is the property of the Tolkien estate, New Line Cinema, and Warner Brothers Studios. This work was created purely for enjoyment. No money was made, and no infringement was intended.
RATING: T (for violence)
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Hi, everyone! This story goes way back (way back like numerous pennames and more than a decade, which makes me feel old – where has the time gone?). I recently unearthed a large pile of old works and decided to share them.
This is just a little "what-if" twist to the trek through Moria during Fellowship of the Ring. Enjoy!
FOR THE SAKE OF ONE
Things had very quickly gone from bad to worse.
Coming to Moria had been a terrible mistake but realizing that meant little now.
Aragorn felt his heart thunder violently as the swamp monster neared, sweeping his sword at a careening tentacle. The blade passed through the slimy limb with little resistance, severing the tip from the arm. The beast screamed, the horrible sound piercing the stillness of the night. Stepping back, he barely avoided another blow.
Boromir gave a wrangled cry as he half-dragged, half-carried the dazed Frodo from the lake. "Into the mines!" Gandalf hollered, grabbing the other Hobbits and pushing them inside the dark cavern.
Aragorn waited until Boromir had stumbled past him, slashing at the beast. It was rising from the muddy swamp floor, its mouth wide. "Legolas!" hollered Boromir, carrying his charge to the shore. The Elf prince was quick to respond, his eyes narrowed in concentration as he fired an arrow. Aragorn could not trace its lightning path but watched in small satisfaction as the monster reeled, screeching once more, the butt of the shaft extending from the hollowed ball he assumed to be the beast's eye.
"Hurry!" Merry cried. The terror in his voice was enough to spurt energy and panic into Aragorn's heart. He turned quickly and charged after his comrades. Legolas let loose one last shot before ripping around to follow, narrowly missing the swipe of an arm which crashed into the ground with a terrible rumble.
Without a second thought, Aragorn charged into the pitch black of the foul cave, Legolas at his heels. His heart was pumping, his mind racing, as he ran. Faster. Behind him he heard the scream of the wretched beast. The cave shook; he felt the walls shudder around him and the floor jump below his feet, threatening to spill him to the unforgiving and black ground. Dirt and dust suddenly covered him. The beast struggled against the small entrance, pushing its hulking body forcefully against it. The stone whined in protest, cracking. He felt tentacles reach vainly for them, whizzing at his feet. But he could not think to be afraid. The cavern's entrance was collapsing! Faster!
He tripped and rolled forward, plunging himself into the complete vacuum. The darkness swallowed him whole, engulfing him in a chilly and frightening hold. Forever he seemed to fall, reeling, spinning, and he could not breathe. Then he hit the ground hard.
There was a great explosion of rock behind them, causing the cavern to lurch and quake. Choking dust filled the air as the walls tumbled down. The light from the moon outside was snatched away, sending them all into darkness.
For a moment, no one breathed. It seemed to stretch on infinitely, as if motion or word or breath might topple whatever now precariously supported the ceiling over their heads. The beating of hearts and the rushing of blood were so loud.
Then Frodo coughed. Merry sniffled. A few rocks tumbling still echoed through the cave. There was a rush of breath, and suddenly a gentle light flooded the room, chasing away the suffocating blackness and leaving only creeping shadows running from the soft and blessed illumination.
Gandalf turned, the small, white light atop his staff slicing through the darkness. Aragorn released a long, relieved breath, shaken. He grasped Boromir's outstretched hand slowly, dizzily pulling himself to his unsteady feet. Everything seemed to spin for a moment, but finally his heart slowed and the burning in his throat ceased.
Gimli grumbled a curse or two, standing and brushing away the dirt from his beard. "Is everybody all right?" Boromir called, glancing about the group. Gandalf released a slow breath, turning to them. The Hobbits stood against a cold wall, shaking, pressed together. Frodo was soaked, but they were otherwise unharmed.
One was missing.
It was then Aragorn realized this, and the thought brought panic to him as though the coldest water had struck his body. He looked around quickly, trying to convince himself his eyes had deceived him. "Legolas?" There was no answer. The Elf was not among them. His eyes widened. His sword dropped to the floor from suddenly numb fingers, clanking against the ground loudly. His dazed gaze snapped up and met Boromir's. Seeing the other's face pale starkly, he jerked into action. "Legolas!" he shouted, stumbling back to the rubble. "Bring the light!"
Gandalf breathed a soft moan of despair before jumping after the heir of Isildur. Boromir surged past him to join his friend at the wall of rubble. Aragorn felt horror burn in his stomach as the full extent of the damage was unveiled before his desperate eyes.
Rocks piled high, from the ground to the ceiling, blocking their path. They were tightly packed, weight upon crushing weight, like an impenetrable wall. His heart pounded as he beheld the destruction.
Legolas had been buried alive.
Frantically they dug, the two men, pushing rock and stone aside with energy borne from fear and worry. The Hobbits stood back, wide-eyed and terrified, watching as the wreckage and ruin was pushed aside. Their grief was evident on waxen faces. Gimli dropped his axe and joined with the men, hefting heavy rocks away from the stone barricade, his teeth bared with a snarl in the effort.
For ages, it seemed, they worked, grunting, sweating, driven by fear for their companion. But the wall of rocks had grown no smaller, and they were no closer to finding him. Time began to weigh upon them as well as the strain, for if the crushing weight of the rocks had not killed the Elf, undoubtedly he would suffocate.
"Legolas!" Aragorn shouted, his voice driven. He slammed a palm into a fallen stone buttress. "Can you hear me?!"
There was no response in the silence that followed, although all held their breaths in anticipation. Finally Gandalf approached. "Stay back," he ordered vehemently. The men glanced at one another, but quickly obeyed, retreating behind the massive form of the old wizard. Gandalf stepped to the wall and laid a flat palm against it. He was silent a moment, sensing the weight of the rocks, their position, and their size. Then he offered his huge staff to Frodo. "Hold this, young Baggins, if you would." The small Hobbit timidly accepted the rod. Its size dwarfed him.
The old man closed his eyes briefly and licked his lips. Then he suddenly raised his arms, his soiled gray robe wavering with the motion. Loud, ancient words of a strange and strong melody rolled from his tongue, echoing in the hollow and dark cavern. The last of the utterances rose to a shout, and he thrust his hands forward. Light exploded, and he raised his fingers to the ceiling.
For a moment, time seemed suspended, as if waiting on bated breath. Then the rocks grumbled and groaned. Another explosion rammed into them with a gust of foul air, and Aragorn ripped away, guarding his face with his hands. When the force faded and he looked back, he saw that the spell had lifted the wall into the darkness above. The rocks were suspended by intangible threads about six feet above the ground, the pull of gravity yearning to snap the structures back down with crushing force. He gaped a moment, amazed and alarmed.
Gandalf grunted, "Hurry, Aragorn. I cannot hold this long!"
The young king scrambled forward, climbing over the rocks they had displaced and ducking under the rubble. Boromir started to follow, but Gimli held him back. "It will do no good to have three buried where there once was one!" the Dwarf asserted, and his logic restrained Boromir, although the man's face was tight with indignant concern and helplessness.
Aragorn stumbled beneath the rocks. There was little light, but what seeped through was sufficient, for that which he sought was easy enough to find.
"Legolas," he gasped, clambering close to the Elf's fallen form. Legolas laid prone and unconscious, one heavy black block crushing his left arm and chest. Aragorn's fear grew, but he swallowed his trepidation as he heaved the rock from his friend's body. Gently but urgently, he lifted Legolas. Ducking now, he tucked the Elf tightly against his chest and fled, his heart thundering with each shaky step.
He emerged after what likened to an eternity to both himself and those waiting outside. Gandalf let loose a cry and dropped tired arms heavily. The ceiling and walls collapsed once more with a spray of rock shards and dust and a deafening cacophony. No one observed the destruction this time, however. All attention was given to Aragorn as the ranger stumbled away from the fallen entrance.
No words were shared but what was needed was understood. Boromir ran before him and fell to his knees, pushing aside dry skeletons, old, cobweb infested armor, and other debris. Clearing a spot, he ripped his own damp, woolen cloak from his shoulders and covered the dirty cave floor with it. "Lay him flat," Gandalf instructed, "carefully." Gently, Aragorn knelt and set Legolas' limp body upon the cape, holding his back up as Boromir worked quickly to unbuckle the leather straps securing the archer's quiver and knives to his back. Once they removed the apparatus, Aragorn tenderly lowered the Elf's upper body to the ground. Gandalf pushed through the anxious Hobbits to crouch beside the king. "The light, Frodo," he ordered gently. The meek Hobbit stepped closer, tipping the glowing staff in their direction. Soft light spread over the area.
Legolas did not look well. His face was pale and dirty, his eyes sealed tightly shut. A laceration on his temple bled profusely, the bright red covering the left of his face and matting in his blonde hair. His pallor was strikingly pale, even for an Elf. Blood leaked from the corner of his mouth. Aragorn shook his head, his immense concern for his close friend evident on his filthy face. "Gandalf…" he breathed quietly, helplessly.
The wizard laid a large, wrinkled hand on the Elf's brow and leaned his ear close to his ashen lips. All watched intently with sweaty palms and pounding hearts. "He still draws breath," Gandalf declared, his voice exhausted and wracked with his age. "But it is weak."
Aragorn then set at the ties of Legolas' green tunic, his fingers fumbling as he ripped each open. His breath caught in his throat. At his lower left chest wet blood had seeped through the white fabric of his undershirt. The stain was the size of his hand. Glancing at Gandalf, he cautiously pulled the fabric free from the Elf's ripped trousers. He winced. A deep wound was the source of the blood, which ran in a great river down the side of his chest and his stomach. Around the area and on the opposite side of his breast, dark bruises were forming, contrasting starkly with the white of his skin.
Gandalf peered at the wound. Aragorn was thankful for his steady hands and will. "Sam, find the bandages," the ranger declared, glancing back at the scared Hobbit. Sam faltered for only a moment, then knelt and dove into the bags Merry and Pippin had shed.
Gandalf shook his head despondently. "They will prove little use, I'm afraid," he said quietly, fingering the gash. "He is bleeding inside."
Boromir closed his eyes and lowered his head. Merry glanced between the ranger and the wizard, his eyes wide and teary. "What does that mean?" he stammered. "Does that mean he'll die?"
"No!" Aragorn looked at the Istar frantically. "There must be something we can do!" he shouted desperately.
Gandalf ripped the cuff off of his own robe. He pressed the cloth over the wound tightly. "We must slow the bleeding," the wizard declared, his eyes alive, "if Legolas is to have any chance!"
The next minutes were long and filled with silent and frenzied work. Blood soaked cloths were traded for clean replacements. Whispered words were shared, and concerns uttered. Gimli watched the others work stoically, his face stern and serious with the gravity of the situation. Boromir stood, facing the caves of Moria beyond at watch, yet his senses were acutely centered on the scene behind them. Sam sniffled, sobbing softly. Both Merry and Pippin regarded the spectacle with a drop of interest and a river of fear. "Bring the light closer, Frodo, please," Gandalf said quietly. The Hobbit was quick to do as he was instructed, his innocent eyes glued to Legolas' pale face. He knelt beside Aragorn, who was pressing another scrap of cloth heavily over the bleeding injury. Gently the Hobbit took the Elf's hand and gave it a small squeeze. Gandalf offered the stricken creature a tender, reassuring smile that Aragorn hoped would ward away the anguish, if only momentarily. "Worry not, young Frodo. I have known this Elf for more years than you can imagine, and I can tell you that he will not easily give up the fight."
The words did alleviate the tension. Frodo cracked a small grin.
Gandalf pulled the cloth away from the seeping wound. "It seems to have lessened," he murmured, peering closely. Aragorn lifted his hand away, and Frodo looked intently. Gandalf leaned back. "I think we can wrap it now," he stated simply, glancing at the Elf's face. His own broke in relief. "Ah, he awakes!"
Aragorn's eyes ripped to the face of his friend. True enough, Legolas' long dark lashes fluttered against his pale skin. A grimace crept to his face, twisting his countenance. Then he opened his eyes. At first, they seemed to focus upon nothing, but gradually lucidity crawled into his gaze. A lucidity accompanied by pain. He opened his mouth to speak, but his voice would not come.
"Save your strength, Legolas," Aragorn said gently, his face grave.
But the Elf would not easily be so subdued. He licked his lips. "What… what has happened?" His voice was weak and laden with exhaustion.
"Merry," Gandalf said as Sam approached with the bandages, "bring some water."
"Do you not remember, my friend?" asked Aragorn, laying his clean hand on the prince's brow. He glanced down at the angry injury as Gandalf began to wrap it with the linen bandages. The Elf winced. Merry approached with a flask of water, which Aragorn received with quiet gratitude. Uncorking it, he slowly poured the cold contents into his friend's cracked lips.
Legolas suddenly rose, choking. His deep cough startled those around him; it was so unlike an Elf to express such a sign of weakness or disease. Aragorn was quick to support his shoulders as he leaned up gasping. Bloody water was dripping from his lips. After a few torturous moments, the vicious paroxysm subsided, leaving the wounded Elf wheezing, fresh blood running down his chin. Aragorn tenderly wiped his face and looked helplessly at Gandalf. "I…" Legolas moaned, blinking his eyes rapidly. "I feel it… inside…"
"You are very ill, Master Elf," Gimli said from his stance behind Gandalf. "Do not exert yourself."
Boromir turned then. His concern was evident on his face. The air stank of death and decay. This was no place to stop. With the noise they had made, any demon that lurked about these caves by now had been surely alerted to their presence. "Gandalf," he said quietly, "we cannot stay here. This place screams of danger."
The wizard finished his ministrations upon the chest wound. "I fear we have no choice, son of Gondor, for to move him now would be unwise." He shook his head and closed his eyes. This was certainly unfortunate. "His chest is badly damaged. He still bleeds within. His left hand appears severely sprained. He needs rest above all."
"Rest will do little for that, Gandalf," Boromir answered grimly.
"For an Elf, rest will be enough to ward away the grasp of death," Gandalf amended.
Aragorn sighed, understanding the dire situation. The choices gnawed at him, but he found none that appeased all his concerns. To stay seemed utterly ludicrous. The mines of Moria were rumored to be crawling with demons and monsters that had never been struck by the light of the sun. They grew in number, obviously having a force enough to slaughter the Dwarven guards that once stood post at the now destroyed entrance, whose corpses littered this tomb. But if moving meant Legolas' life, it seemed equally ridiculous to even consider it. The prince of Mirkwood, though ages older than himself, had always been something of a brash and innocent younger brother to him. It was nearly comical, considering Legolas had seen more, done more, and faced more peril than Aragorn likely ever would. They had been friends for many years, ever since Aragorn had come to live among the Elves of Rivendell. The two had deep connection they did not often display to others, a trust between brothers forged in play and battle. And Arwen… How she would ache if Legolas did not return from this journey. He touched the silver necklace he hid beneath his clothing at the thought of her, as though her parting gift to him held a soft comfort all its own. Both Legolas and Arwen represented the dying generation of Elvish life that found love and light in the woods and pastures of Middle Earth. Where their parents and older siblings longed for the sea, they still thrived among the trees. Although destiny and heritage demanded that he direct his life to higher purposes, he found he could not abandon the good company of Rivendell. He would sacrifice his life for those he held dear.
But could he sacrifice the success of the Fellowship?
Legolas was part of the Fellowship as well, though, and to let him suffer was not an option.
The Elf seemed to be slipping away into sleep. Aragorn feared how deep it might be. "Leave me…" he whispered, his lips barely moving with the words. "I will catch up. Do… do not trouble yourselves…" His eyelids fluttered, but he swallowed. "I… I just need…"
"Nay, dear friend," Aragorn quietly declared, "do not be absurd. You are no trouble." Legolas' rasping breath grew quiet as his eyes slipped shut. "Just rest now. Get your strength back, Legolas."
Once he was sure the Elf was resting comfortably, he stood slowly. Gandalf replaced the bloodied shirt over the Elf's chest, the bandages already stained red. Aragorn turned his attention to the others. "We shall make camp here. I suggest rest; the road ahead will be difficult. I will watch over Legolas, but I implore others to watch over us."
Gimli nodded. "You have my eyes tonight, son of Arathorn."
Boromir seemed hesitant, but finally nodded. "Mine as well."
Aragorn gave a small but grave smile. "Good. Merry and Pippin, please prepare a meal." The Hobbits' down expressions began to fade at the thought of a warm, delicious dinner, and they dug through the supplies with zeal in search of the pots, pans, and food. Aragorn felt a bit relieved as they began to bicker quietly, even involving the meek Sam in their warm argument. It served to lift the gloomy darkness, both emotionally and physically, from their company.
Hours then passed without incident. Boromir and Sam together had cleaned away a large area, pushing ancient corpses aside for the light of life. Sausages, bread, and ale had been eagerly consumed by all aside from Aragorn, Frodo, and Gandalf, each too consumed with worry, guilt, or thought to put much energy into eating. A small fire shed welcome, golden light. Boromir had been hesitant to maintain it, afraid that it might attract beasts. Aragorn had sympathized with his concerns, but after feeling the chill of Legolas' skin, agreed with Gimli that it was needed. The cold, rank air was slowly pushed aside by the smell of pipe smoke, the aroma of good food, and camaraderie. Exhausted, Merry, Pippin, and Sam retired to a rocky bed made only a bit more habitable by the heat of the fire and blankets. Sam had tried to convince Frodo to sleep as well, but the introspective and mellow Hobbit refused with a small smile. Gimli as well had propped himself up against the cave wall and closed his eyes.
The snoring of the Hobbits seemed loud but welcomed in the ominous silence that had descended. Aragorn glanced around the camp, noting the peaceful expressions on the faces of the small creatures. He envied their contentment. The fire was growing low, and he threw on another piece of the kindling from the supplies. Thankfully, the wood had not gotten wet from the incident in the lake that at present seemed so far past.
Gandalf was perched beside him on the cold floor, sitting cross-legged. Aragorn gave the contemplative wizard a short look before returning his gaze to the lapping flames. "Boromir was right," he said softly after a moment, breaking the other's reverie. "This place does scream of danger, though it is the silence which is most disturbing."
Gandalf nodded, puffing gently on his pipe. "The mines of Moria are home to many a ghoul and goblin. I hope our path will take us far from their habitats," the old man stated.
Aragorn regarded him. "Do you… know the road we must take through here?"
An empty moment. Then the old man removed his hat and smoothed the great mass of salt and pepper hair. His brow furrowed. Then his eyes narrowed again and he gave Aragorn a serious look. "I pray my memory will serve us well enough, son of Arathorn, for bearing an injured man will slow us, and we cannot leave him behind."
Aragorn turned to look at Legolas. Frodo knelt beside the Elf, gently washing the blood from the wound at his temple and from his hair, which in the black shadows of the cave, seemed more silver than blond. The expression on the young Hobbit's face was one of much despair and guilt. The Elf himself looked to be resting peacefully, covered in the lion's share of the quilts, his face turned to the side. Frodo was watching him as though at any moment he might shatter.
His spirits sank. "Gandalf," he began, his voice deflated, "you know as well as I that without the light of the sun and the air of the outdoors, an Elf is as weakened as any other by wounds of the flesh. Perhaps even more so." Aragorn sighed. It hurt to say that, to admit it to himself that this problem was more dire and dangerous than he wanted to believe. But only in Gandalf's confidence would he let his doubts and fears show. "This cave will do him no good. I… I worry he will not recover."
Gandalf watched the Hobbit and the Elf. Frodo stroked the hair compassionately from Legolas' brow, his free hand wrapped in the prince's own. "Elves are resilient, my friend. He will heal, albeit slowly. He will heal."
Aragorn tried to take faith in the wizard's easy words, but found it to be an alluring trap. They were only at the beginning of this nightmarish trek through this hellish tomb. He wondered if he had the strength to do what was needed. He had promised Frodo his protection; he would not go back on his word. The flight would be terrifying and dangerous. It would be a great trial even if they were to be ignored by the hungry hands of the dark. He hoped this would be the last of their troubles.
But ignorant hope was often only folly, and nothing could be that simple.
There was no way to tell the passage of night into day within the enveloping darkness, but Aragorn managed to track the path of time in his mind. The silence seemed infinite; quite a few hours went by without talk. Much of the night he spent beside Legolas, watching the Elf as he lay unconscious and oblivious to the world around him. The trance was a deep one, for Elves, as he had often witnessed, slept with their eyes open, ever mindful of their surroundings. Hours had slipped away, and he had remained still. Aragorn found it disconcerting to see the Elf's brilliant blue eyes that seemed to glow of their own accord sealed from the world. Only when they were very exhausted, very troubled, or very ill did Elves ever hide the light of their eyes.
He had not passed into dream that night, constantly guarding the Fellowship. Not long after his private words with Gandalf, he had convinced Frodo to retire by simply reminding the compassionate Hobbit that the following days would be a grueling and strenuous event. To both provide Legolas with the care he would need and successfully travel through this vicious and hateful place they would all require strength and endurance. The logic and Frodo's own weariness left no room to question, he laid next to Sam under a gray blanket. Aragorn had then assumed Frodo's vigil beside the fallen archer. Gandalf had slipped away into sleep or deep contemplation, lying upon his side near the weak fire. At some point in time Boromir and Gimli had silently exchanged the watch for sleep. Though the ache of his own body lulled him to rest as well, he ignored it. This was no place to lower his guard; the cold, foul, stale air reeked of peril.
"Aragorn," came soft words from behind him. He turned to see Boromir, his eyes still hazy with the remnants of a dream, approach. The son of Gondor scrubbed a hand down his face over days of prickly stubble. "How is he?"
The king looked down upon his charge. "He has not awakened," he declared quietly. His tone was depressed. "But he breathes easier."
Boromir breathed a long sigh. They were silent a moment and the cave seemed to growl quietly. "We must move, Aragorn. Lingering here will only result in disaster."
Aragorn exhaled slowly and closed his eyes, feeling trouble weigh his heart and fear and anxiety crush his soul. He tried to will the power to chase away this darkness that gripped him. Grimy hands rubbed the ache from his brow. "You tell me nothing that does not already trouble me, my friend," he stated. Then he dropped his hands into his lap, his sword on the ground beside him. "Indecision fills me," he admitted.
"Let me stay with Legolas. If you lead Frodo and the others on now, you have a greater chance of escaping this dungeon. I will wait until the Elf regains strength enough to travel and then catch you up," the other offered, pride and strength evident behind the suggestion.
Aragorn watched his comrade's jaw tighten vehemently. The idea had merit, but not enough. "I mean no disrespect, Boromir, but you will never be able to find your way through this maze. Gandalf's memory is our only advantage in this dungeon." He sighed. "And Legolas' keen senses will be no use here, when he does regain them." Boromir's face fell, but there was no spite in his gaze. "No, my friend, to separate the Fellowship now will turn a grim situation darker."
A slow moment passed between them. Boromir declared finally, "You are right, of course, son of Arathorn. My sword follows your lead."
A small smile crept to Aragorn's filthy face. He was glad then for Boromir's allegiance and loyalty. He grasped the other's arm thankfully. "I am honored, my friend."
There was a stirring ahead. The Hobbits were rising, grumbling and yawning. Merry pinched Pippin and chastised him for some hidden stupidity, which was returned with an insult. Sam dutifully went about folding the blankets behind the bickering. Frodo caught Aragorn's gaze after he wiped the sleep from his own eyes. He stepped closer, almost tentatively. "Is Legolas alright?" he asked immediately, his voice echoing in the dark.
"He sleeps still, Frodo," Aragorn replied. He rose from his former sitting position, stretching tired muscles. "If you are hungry, eat now. We will need to move quickly."
There was a grumble and then a snort. Armor clanked upon itself as another stepped closer. "A Dwarf has no need for such pleasantries," Gimli rumbled, "but since you have offered, it would be rude to refuse."
Merry laughed. "The way you hide behind custom, Master Dwarf. You are as hungry as we; you cannot deny!"
The sound of their jovial bickering lightened the dark mood. Frodo approached, his wide blue eyes observing Legolas. Then he turned to Gandalf. The wizard still lay upon his side. Frodo gently shook his shoulder. "Gandalf," he prompted softly. When that failed to rouse the slumbering Istar, his grip became more insistent. "Gandalf!"
The wizard came to abruptly. "Confound it!" he gasped, snorting and sitting up. "Just when I finally - oh, Frodo. For a moment I thought I had spent another night with Bilbo, listening to his incessant rambling and complaining…" Such a statement brought a grin to Frodo's pale face, at which the wizard smiled himself. The old man stood gingerly and winced, the crack of joints loud, and groaned again. Hands at his lower back, he ambled closer to the others. "How does Legolas fare this morning, son of Arathorn?"
Aragorn did not answer, for the wizard stepped closer and then crouched at the Elf's side. Fingers knobbed and knotted with time sought a pulse upon the prince's pale neck. Then he leaned back. "What say you, Gandalf?" Boromir inquired, folding his arms over his chest. "Is he well?"
The wizard rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "That, son of Gondor, only he can tell us. We best let him wake when he is ready. His body will rouse itself when it has had time enough to heal."
Boromir glanced at Aragorn. The king sensed his companion's doubts. "Gandalf, we cannot wait. This place grows darker with every minute we tarry," he declared quietly. "The trek will be slow and arduous. If we hesitate now, it may mean success later."
Gandalf looked to Aragorn. His face grew waxen and weary, but he nodded. "What you say is true, my friend." He gave a long breath. "In such times, when contemplation delivers us no answers, we can only do what we believe is best." He nodded. "Boromir, ready the others."
The man affirmed the order and then stepped back to the chatting Hobbits. Aragorn glanced at Gandalf and knelt once more at Legolas' side. He grasped the Elf's limp hand in his own, his other pressed against his friend's brow. "Legolas," he prodded. It did nothing to wake him, so deep his sleep. Not easily dissuaded and now feeling the pressure of the waning hour, Aragorn squeezed the Elf's fingers and gently patted his cheek. "Wake, Legolas." When his friend's eyelids fluttered, the king cracked a small grin. "You cannot sleep forever, dear friend, even though at the moment the thought allures even me."
Legolas slowly opened his eyes, the blue orbs within misty. His breathing grew deep, and he was not composed enough to keep the wince from his face. He blinked a few times, but then he seemed to focus on the figure above him. "Ara… Aragorn?" he whispered softly, his voice dry and hoarse.
"You have given us quite a scare, Legolas," Gandalf declared, smiling gently at the injured prince.
The Elf licked his lips and closed his eyes briefly. "For that, I am sorry, Mithrandir," responded he quietly.
"No apologies are necessary," Aragorn amended. Frodo had fetched a flask of water of his own intuition, and offered it to the man. The ranger received it. "Can you sit? Here is water to lessen the rasp of your throat."
Legolas tightened his grip on Aragorn's hand and grimaced. With an uncharacteristic groan, the Elf righted himself. Frodo pulled the meddlesome blankets away and Gandalf grasped Legolas' shoulder tenderly and offered his support. The effort left him gasping, his injured hand held close to his chest. Once he was steady, Aragorn offered him the uncorked flask, which he accepted gingerly in his good hand. Slowly he gratefully drank the water.
"Mister Legolas! Mister Legolas!" The volume of Sam's shouts made Aragorn wince, but he let it pass. The Hobbits raced towards their fallen friend, jovial relief plain on their innocent faces.
"Oh, praise be, Legolas, sir!"
"I told you he would not leave us, Took, did I not?!" Merry exclaimed happily, elbowing his cousin in the ribs.
Gimli's smile was broad. They all knew that Legolas' injury had bothered the Dwarf more than he had let on. "How do you feel, Master Elf?" he asked loudly, his accent rolling thick from his tongue.
The Elf wavered a moment, as if overwhelmed by the attention. Then a small smile crawled to his pale face. "Better, now," he said simply, genuinely. Aragorn did not miss his hand shaking.
Boromir clasped both Merry and Pippin on the shoulder. "Give him some air, friends. Let us not forget our duties." He pulled the two back to the packs they had been charged with readying.
Aragorn immediately knew that their time was little. "Let us have a look at your wounds," he told the Elf, whose pale complexion still worried him, "for we must move."
Frodo stood to help Legolas shrug from his green tunic. Just then a monstrous bang rocked through the cavern. Rocks were jostled free and fell to the floor loudly. Pippin gave a yelp and stumbled. When the quake stopped, there was a great roar that sliced through the murky and oppressive silence, stabbing all with immutable fear. Breaths were held frightfully in the moments that followed, each waiting for an attack to flash like lightning from the black around them.
When nothing came, silent urgency overcame them all. Merry, Pippin, and Boromir were quick to pack the rest of the gear. Sam scooped up the blankets left and stuffed them into his bag. The fire was stomped out and its ashes spread and hidden.
"You must stand," Aragorn instructed his friend, desperation in his voice borne from the rush. Frodo took the flask back from the Elf as the king strapped his sword upon his belt.
Gandalf shook his head as he waved the light of his staff forward. "It will only tear his wounds, Aragorn!" he declared, but the king ignored him.
Legolas weakly shook his head as Aragorn tried to help him to his feet. The movement only awarded him with pain, from which he cried out. "My body is of no use to me," he moaned despondently. "You must go on ahead!"
"No!" Frodo gasped. He was there on Legolas' other side, grabbing gently the Elf's good hand. "No one will be left, least of all you!"
The assertion was resolute and it screamed hope. The others surged forward with quick feet. "Lead them on, Gandalf!" Aragorn ordered, meeting the wizard's gaze. The other regarded him confidently, and then nodded curtly. His demands that the group follow him quickly were silently obeyed.
"Take his weapons, Boromir," Aragorn said, lifting the quiver and bow and offering them to the passing warrior. Boromir grabbed them from his outstretched hand before ushering the lingering Sam ahead.
Aragorn knelt beside the Elf, who was bent over, his sprained hand tucked to his lower left chest. Blood had seeped into his tunic. He was wheezing, sweat beading upon his pained face. "Have strength, Legolas," Frodo whispered on a rushed breath. Then Aragorn draped one of the Elf's arms over his neck and shoulders. Frodo wrapped his hand around the Elf's waist, careful of his open wounds and bruises. Legolas let out another cry of misery, clenching his eyes shut and gritting his teeth.
The cave shook again, and the inhuman howl grew louder and more violent. Aragorn did not look behind him as he stepped forward. Frodo did the same, leading their wounded friend. Legolas stumbled as they jogged, gasping. Aragorn's heart thundered as he saw his friend's agony. Fresh blood dripped from beneath his tunic, splattering to the cave floor. "I… I cannot," the Elf moaned in despair and anguish. He fell to his knees with a cry, pulling down his friends. "I am so sorry!" he whimpered weakly, leaning forward, his arm wrapped tight around his chest.
"Frodo," Aragorn said, motioning that the Hobbit should release their charge. The worried, small creature did, backing away as the cavern shook in rage. Looping an arm beneath the Elf's knees and another about his shoulders, Aragorn quickly but carefully lifted him and rose to his feet. He did not falter. The weight was not unbearable, though his body ached with the strain. "Run!"
He waited until the Hobbit heeded his orders and sprinted up the stony stairs into the darkness. Holding Legolas' straining form against his chest tighter, the king followed him into the abyss.
Hours later, they were deep inside the cave. The march was slow and strenuous, for the road was dark, treacherous and forbidding. The Hobbits stumbled as they climbed barefoot upon steep embankments. The stout Dwarf grunted from behind them, pushing them up gently while trying to maintain his own footing. Gandalf stood at the lead, his glowing staff shining in the endless black like a beacon. Boromir was not far behind him, his hand forever protectively clenched at the hilt of his blade. Finally, in the rear, Aragorn trudged. Legolas' unconscious body was still cradled in his arms. He had not again awakened and his forehead was feverish.
After clearing the cave entrance, they had stopped briefly when it seemed safe. There Gandalf had examined the Elf's wounds. The blood had seemed worse than it actually was. Much to Aragorn's relief, Gandalf's words the previous night had been right, and the Elf was healing. Still, he did not again regain his senses and Gandalf thought it best to simply let him sleep.
They walked in silence for quite some time. The dark gloom of their surroundings seemed too much even for Merry and Pippin's bantering, for they were grim and quiet. No attempt was made at idle palaver, the forlorn mood too heavy for light chatter. Happiness truly did seem out of place in this horrible tomb. After walking some distance, Aragorn's arms grew weary, and he traded his burden to Boromir only at the other's insistence. Then they continued, forever forward, at least, in Gandalf's recollection of forward.
Time passed so slowly. There was no light in this dungeon, and the air was rank, foul, and stale. It almost hurt to breathe, as if when the poison was inside it stomped out light and life. They did not waver in their determination and no thoughts were wasted on despair. Their only choice was to move onward. Knowing that made resolution easier to have and maintain. They would all see the light of the sun again and smell the freshness of the air outside.
Sometime before what Aragorn assumed to be midday, Legolas awoke again. This time his eyes were clearer. The fever seemed to have abated somewhat, sweat collecting on the prince's temples. The sight of their fallen companion once more aware brought light to their hearts. The Elf insisted that he not be carried, that he could walk on his own now. Gandalf was hesitant but conceded with a small reassuring grin. He knew Legolas' injury would greatly retard him and thus the group, but Elvish pride would not be denied and it heartened the old wizard to see his old friend's mirth and strength returning.
And so they continued, and the chatter seemed to resume. Gandalf directed them through the endless caves. If he had doubts as to the path, they did not register on his face and for that Aragorn was glad. It would do no good to the teetering morale of the group if they were to learn they were lost. Again he walked at the rear, his senses always trained acutely behind him, straining for foul warnings. Ahead of him limped Legolas, leaning somewhat on the shoulder of Boromir, the man still bearing the Elf's weapons. His step was a bit unsure, and he was spending all his strength to keep up. Aragorn did not let his concern for his dear friend show, although it gnawed at his heart. He had known Legolas for many years. The Elf, like much of his race, held such a deep but silent pride. Never arrogant but always resolute, the king had seen many an Elf refuse aid on account of appearance.
Frodo walked on Legolas' other side, his face open and his worry evident. He said nothing, only acting quickly to steady the tall Elf when his balance tipped. The Ringbearer seemed relieved now, joining in the conversation with his friends lightheartedly. Gimli poked fun at Legolas, joking at the sight of a clumsy, stumbling Elf. Legolas returned his jests with warm jeers of his own. Aragorn did not know if the Dwarf had merely suspended their more vicious bickering out of respect for Legolas' condition, but whatever the cause, it was certainly pleasant to hear the two address each other with respect and concern rather than bitterness and spite. Their anger and dislike of each other, rooted in ancient prejudices and more recent transgressions on the parts of their fathers, had become quite bothersome these weeks past. Boromir had seemed relieved as well as he smiled and teased both the Dwarf and the Elf, one hand gently grasping Legolas' arm. Merry and Pippin's loud voices filled the cave as they sang an ancient Shire tune, pulling the reluctant Sam into their frivolity. Aragorn shushed them when their voices grew too loud but smiled at Gandalf in spite of himself.
The chatter died as the day wore on and hearts grew heavy with weariness. The oppressive conditions weighed down upon them, crushing out the jovial moods. Talk was replaced with heavy breathing and the steady strike of feet against rock and dirt. The road stretched on through the dark and dreary, and it seemed as though it would never end.
"Aragorn," Gimli said quietly and abruptly, coming to walk beside the king. The ranger turned to him, glancing down at the stout warrior. "We should rest. The Elf grows weary." Aragorn halted a moment as they came up an incline and looked behind. Frodo met his gaze as he grasped Legolas' unwounded hand, helping the staggering Elf upon the uneven terrain. The prince was winded, his blonde hair hanging limply upon his shoulders, his face uncharacteristically sweaty and flushed.
Aragorn turned to Gandalf. The wizard stood atop the ridge, looking about quizzically. "What say you, Gandalf, to a brief respite?" he asked, resting his palm against the hilt of blade. Boromir, Merry, and Pippin came to stand beside him, the Hobbits breathing heavily.
Gandalf's analytical gaze fell to the king and then focused. After a silent moment, with all eyes of the Fellowship upon him, he sighed. "Now is a good a time as any, I suppose," he grumbled slowly, looking confused and apologetic. "I have no memory of this place."
Not long after they all sat. Boromir had used little more of their precious kindling to produce a fire, which gratefully chased away the wet chill. Gimli, his eyes closed, slouched against a crevice. Merry and Pippin leaned against two stones. "Are we lost?" one whispered.
"I don't know," the other answered in hushed but worried tones. "I don't think so."
"But he said-"
Frodo and Gandalf were quietly talking, their words low and private. Aragorn glanced towards them a moment, and then followed Frodo's worried gaze downward. There in the shadows lurked the beast that had trailed them for hours, Gollum. The ranger had paid little attention to the pathetic creature; he had been stripped of whatever morality he might have once had by both the power of the cursed Ring and the torture to which Sauron's forces had subjected him. Gollum was little more than a harmless shadow, a formless and weak demon. Wide, serpent-like green eyes flicked open and shut in the meager light. Feeling nothing for Gollum's selfish degradation, he turned to those gathered about the fire.
"Come, Master Elf, let us have a look at your injuries," said Boromir, kneeling beside the prince of Mirkwood.
Legolas appeared utterly exhausted but managed a weak, albeit a bit frustrated, grin. "You worry much, friend, and for that, I am grateful. Still, your concern is better placed elsewhere, for my toil is insignificant compared to that of the Fellowship," he responded. One arm was still protectively wrapped about his weak side.
Aragorn stepped closer and dropped to sit upon the large rock where Legolas was also resting. "You are part of that Fellowship as well, Legolas, and your strength becomes ours. Put your pride aside," he admonished gently, "and let us care for your hurts."
They were silent a moment, the crackle and pop of the fire filling the void. Then the Elf prince sighed and nodded. Nimble, elegant fingers untied the draws of his tunic. With a grimace that his stoic composure could not hide, he slid the garment off. Then Aragorn had him lift his other shirt, exposing the soiled bandages wrapped about his chest. Slowly, so as not to aggravate it, he pulled them from the angry wound. "Fresh bandages, Boromir, and water." The other went to dig into their packs in search of the requested items.
Aragorn inspected the injury. It was warm to his touch and tenderly bruised, but the bleeding had stopped long ago, leaving only red caked around the severed skin. No matter how often he witnessed it, the healing powers of Elves still served to amaze him. The wound would have crippled a mortal. Had he been among the trees of his home woods, Aragorn was sure the fair Elf would have felt little if any discomfort. "It fares better, my friend." Taking the water from Boromir, the king wet a spare bandage and wiped the dried blood away.
Legolas sucked in a harsh breath, undoubtedly from the contact of the cold, damp linen against the open sore. "I still am torn inside," he announced softly after a moment, swallowing uncomfortably. "I fear I will not overcome that until we are rid of this place."
"This dungeon…" Boromir began. He shook his head, watching as the king examined the Elf's bruised ribs. "I find it unbelievable that the Dwarves can thrive in such a wretched environment."
"It is not ours to question the habitats of others," Aragorn chastised with no heat. He gave Legolas a slow grin as he again wrapped the injury in clean cloth. "For, though even I believe the forests of Greenwood beautiful, I cannot see them for anything but trees."
The Elf chuckled gently and then dropped his tunic again, seeing the king finished in his ministrations. "As you have many times told me, my friend. Many places of Middle Earth have a unique beauty that oft takes the eye of its own children to appreciate." Legolas drank slowly from the flask Boromir offered him, bowing his head slightly. "Just as you see the forest as only trees, I fail to find anything but stone your great white city of Minas Tirith, even though to both of you it stands in only beauty and majesty."
"You speak eloquently, son of Thranduil," Boromir complimented, "although I never thought I would see an Elf grace our ways with understanding."
The mirth slipped from Legolas' pale, narrow face. "Times have changed, Boromir, and none of us can afford to hide behind ignorance and prejudice."
Aragorn took his sprained hand gently in his own. Gandalf had previously wrapped it in protective linens, which the king now unwound from the wrist and fingers. "You have grown wise, Legolas. Your father would be proud."
The comment did not bode well with the Elf, who winced from both the pain as the ranger tested the joints of his hand and the words' private sting. "My father…" he whispered softly, looking away, his eyes narrowing in what the others assumed to be anger. "He lives in the past, Aragorn. He leads our people further and further from this world."
The ranger regarded his friend a moment. Only a few times had he ever met the King of Mirkwood, Thranduil. Thranduil seemed a harsh, shrewd, and arrogant creature, too world-weary to easily accommodate his values and loyalties to contemporary mindsets. He was surrounded by his own wealth, comforts, and wine. Very rarely did Legolas ever speak of him, and when he did, the same resentment that presently harbored within his eyes was visible. Aragorn sensed a growing estrangement between Thranduil and his son. Before the fateful council meeting in Rivendell, he had found the young prince sitting upon a high branch of one of the great trees, singing a song of frustration, the dialect of Quenya so ancient that even he could not completely understand the lyrics. Legolas had divulged not what troubled him, only that his father had begrudgingly dispatched him to Lord Elrond's palace as a "mere messenger". They had not parted on amiable terms. Although the Elf had accompanied them to nobly aid in their cause as well as protect his closest friend, Aragorn suspected that deep inside him Legolas was glad to be free of his father's smothering Elvish narcissism.
However, he also suspected that Thranduil cared much more for his son than he let show. His isolationist mindset seemed callous, but it was more rooted in a need to see his kingdom and all that remained of his family protected. Aragorn watched Legolas' silent anguish with knowing eyes. "Your father loves and respects you, Legolas," he quietly said in Sindarin, drawing his friend's attention. "Though at times you doubt, he does."
The Elf held the man's gaze as two friends often did, sharing a silent understanding. Then the prince nodded and answered in kind. "I know, Aragorn. Thank you." He offered his friend a whimsical grin. "You have always been wiser than I. And mark this moment. Were it not for my sad state, I would never have admitted it."
Aragorn smiled at that. Returning to Westron, the ranger looked to the confused Boromir, for the man's ignorance of the Elvish tongue had left him baffled. "The fire burns low, son of Gondor." Boromir nodded and moved to place more wood upon the blaze. Then Aragorn grasped Legolas' injured hand once more. "Can you return the grip, friend?"
Legolas looked hesitant. The ranger observed the muscles of his jaw clenching involuntarily as he struggled to do just that. His fingers were weak and hardly tightened about Aragorn's. After a moment, the Elf grunted and dropped his hand away, clearly frustrated and indignant. The ranger sighed slowly. "It is alright," he comforted. "It has only been a mere day."
"I should not be such a hindrance," Legolas muttered disdainfully, staring at the useless hand into his lap. Nothing was more damaging to a warrior's pride than the loss of his utility, and Legolas was nothing if not a warrior.
Boromir clasped a strong grip on the Elf's narrow shoulder. "No use in paining over what you cannot control," he said. Aragorn picked up the fallen linen and began to rewrap the sprain, the tight bandage providing support for the weakened joints and muscles.
"With my hand as such, I will be no use to you as a fighter, much less an archer," Legolas announced, smoldering and obviously angry with himself.
The ranger gave his friend a smile before standing. "The strength will return to your fingers, my friend, and you will again amaze me with your skill. For now, you must give the injury time to heal. Strenuous use of that hand will only damage it more, and if enough, it may not be undone even by the power of Elvish healing."
Legolas seemed disheartened by the words, but only nodded after a moment, lowering his head. Boromir came to stand behind him and then helped him shrug into his tunic once more. "Worry not, Master Elf. Though you are handy with a bow, I believe myself more than adequate with a sword and Gimli the same with an axe. We will work ourselves harder to account for your absence in times of peril."
The man's words seemed to hearten the despondent Elf, and he offered the other a grateful nod. Aragorn watched the exchange and he felt worry like black mud cover his heart. He hoped it would not come to such a dire situation. The road ahead, though, was long and dangerous, and it was foolish to yearn for the impossible.
Gandalf suddenly gave a grunt of surprise, turning from his conversation with Frodo. "Oh! It's that way!" he exclaimed almost matter-of-factly, turning his head to face a narrow passage to their left.
Merry smiled and leaned up, removing his pipe from his mouth. "He's remembered," he remarked, relief in his voice.
"No," Gandalf corrected, gingerly stepping down, his gray cloak blending with falling shadows. "The air does not smell so foul down here," he announced, his voice echoing through the cavern. "If in doubt, Meriadoc, always follow your nose."
The statement brought a smile to even Legolas' melancholic face, and the Elf gingerly rose. Boromir's quick hand steadied him as he wavered. But he stepped forward on his own, the grace and elegance barely evident in his stride but slowly returning. Aragorn watched him climb his way up to the Hobbits and follow them into the darkness.
Boromir stomped out the fire, spreading the ashes with his boot, before hefting his pack. "Perhaps a wizard's mind does not work in so mysterious a way," he off-handedly commented, clapping Aragorn on the arm as he passed.
The ranger gave one cursory glance behind him before following the Fellowship deeper into Moria.
Days passed as they traveled. The murk and gloom either began to abate or they grew accustomed to it, for it no longer twisted them in despair or warded hope from their hearts. They descended and climbed, navigating over harsh terrain and unfamiliar trails. Few words were shared beyond the random comment or concern, though Gimli often at hours a time would regale massive tales of Dwarven history and might. Aragorn knew the small creature embellished his stories with pride for his race, but he said nothing and let himself be entertained when the Dwarf spoke. Gimli was quite the good story-teller surprisingly.
Merry and Pippin filled the void when the silence became too deep and the son of Glóin was quiet, chatting nonchalantly about the Shire or some old folk tale that had happened upon their thoughts. Sam often joked with them when the melancholy threatened. Frodo was silent and introspective but of late had commonly adopted such an air, as if the press of the Ring's curse always was near to closing about his innocence and crushing it. His quiet nature both heartened and worried his companions. The carefree love of only a few months prior was forever gone from him, and his friends inside wept for its loss.
Gandalf was silent and steady. At times he seemed to lose his bearing, but never long enough to cause concern. His lead did not falter, but Aragorn sensed an ill aura from him. His momentary hesitation at a fork or bend was less due to confusion and more to terror, as though the old Istar knew that, deep within Moria, greater a danger than they had yet faced waited. Such fears did the ranger little good, though, for if such a menace truly existed there would be no escaping its confrontation. Still it was hard to cast the inevitable apprehension aside. Boromir at least seemed a rock, strong and impermeable to despair, his jaw firm and his step resolute. He was always the first to lead the group into a new cave, his strength admirable and courage adamant. Aragorn was fortunate that the other had such an unending reserve of nerve and valor, for at times he found his own wavering within.
Most of his worry was centered on the son of Thranduil, for though Legolas kept pace with them now, Aragorn knew he was exerting all his energy to do both that and mask his weariness. The Elf shunned their care after the first night and had not since spoken of his injury other than to appease the other's curiosity as to his well-being. Aragorn did not find his actions at all surprising. Hobbits, Dwarves, and most men knew little of Elvish endurance and thus were constantly expressing their concern; had this been anywhere else, he would not think to question Legolas' stamina for fear of insulting him. However, deep below the mountain, in this dark and rank place, that which healed the spirit and flesh of wood Elves was separated from Legolas, and he was undoubtedly suffering for it no matter how hard he strove to mask it. Aragorn saw the signs the others missed. Legolas' feet, though now quick and light again, grew tired and heavy when he thought all eyes were directed elsewhere. At times his gaze was distant and dazed, as if he was lost without the song of the trees beckoning him. He said little, withdrawn, commenting only when he was addressed. When they rested, he slept the same as they, with his eyes closed, surely betraying the pains of his body and his heart.
The son of Arathorn understood what was ailing his friend. He had been grievously wounded, and without the love of light and life deep in this tomb, he was withering. And the ranger's heart quaked in fear and concern.
Even so, he said nothing for fear of demeaning Legolas and worrying the others. Gandalf surely had noticed what so bothered him, he supposed, but the wizard as well kept his anxieties, if they existed at all, to himself. They continued on.
Finally they reached the sanctuary they sought.
A long tunnel stretched forward and they walked silently in a single line, the sound of feet against stone echoing behind them as the descended ancient stairs. Gandalf muttered to himself ahead, stepping slowly and cautiously. Aragorn, at the rear, watched as the reflection from his light staff on the rock walls surrounding them faded. For the first time in nearly four days, the illumination that lead them struck not a wall but an emptiness that stretched all around them.
"Behold," the wizard said as the Fellowship emerged from the caves, "the great realm of the Dwarven city of Dwarrowdelf."
And the great cavern unfolded before them. All stopped a moment and hardship was forgotten for simple admiration and wonderment, for endless lanes of smooth stone road stretched into the black beyond. The roof of the cave was too far above for sight to detect, and blackness dipped down from its fathomless height like curtains of a starless midnight. Great gray stone pillars, smooth and monstrous, rose like ancient soldiers, bearing the weight of the ceiling above. There were a countless number of these buttresses, extending from the small entrance like rows of crop, the perfection of the pattern at once awesome and dizzying. It was an architectural feat not easily matched, and the Fellowship stood for an endless moment and marveled. Even Gimli, son of Glóin and kindred to the Dwarves that made a home of Dwarrowdelf, gawked at the impressive sight.
Sam shook his head. "Well, there's an eye-opener, ain't no mistake."
Though eyes were directed at the impressive expanse, they began to walk, passing each ornate pair of pillars with lingering steps. None had the gall to speak, as if too engrossed in the dark majesty of their surroundings. Footsteps did not echo, the walls upon which the sound should reverberate too far in the distance and draped by blackness.
Eventually they reached the middle. There was another stone archway, marked by Dwarf writing. Gray light spilled from inside the room, and Gimli gasped for around them bodies, debris, and carnage littered the stone floor. The Dwarf jogged forward, abandoning the others in shock. Gandalf called a warning to him, but Gimli let it hang in the stale air unheeded as he charged to the room. The others tarried only a moment before following. As they neared, the source of the pale light became clear.
The room was a stone chamber of sorts. One solitary window was high overhead on the far wall, allowing the sun's rays to shoot down and encase a tomb situated grimly at the area's center. Dust was thick in the air, as well as the smell of death and fear. All around the room was destruction, corpses decayed to nothing but bones and infested with spider webs, broken weapons and wooden furnishings, the signs of a struggle long ago lost. It was more than obvious what had happened.
Gimli stared shock at the stone grave before him, his eyes wide in disbelief and his jaw limp. He collapsed to his knees. "No," he moaned in desperate grief, cutting into all of their hearts. "No!" Then his proud form wracked with sobs. The light had finally washed upon them, chasing away the darkness that had enveloped them for four days and nights, but the blessing was mournful and pale.
Gandalf approached slowly, his step leaden. Upon the tomb he read the words of the inscription. "Here lies Barlin, son of Fundin." Gimli's cries grew deeper. "And Lord of Moria." The Hobbits passed tentatively, wincing at the sound of their companion in such deep sorrow. When the Dwarf's helmeted head dropped against the stone grave with a clank, Gandalf removed his high hat and released a slow, forlorn breath. Aragorn watched the scene with a heavy heart. This was not what he had expected. "He is dead, then. It is as I feared."
The sobs of the Dwarf were replaced by a mournful lament, the rough words of his native tongue deep. Aragorn cringed inside at the sound as he watched Gandalf grow interested at some object in the hands of a skeleton, the remnants of a Dwarven beard still clinging to a bony jaw. As the wizard knelt to lift it, handing his hat and staff to a nearby Pippin, the ranger recognized it to be an old book, the papers within sick with dust and rot, the binding failing. Papers cluttered to the floor as he opened it. Only by blowing away the dust could the words be seen.
Legolas suddenly stepped up beside him. The Elf's face was pale and forlorn, but taut in worry and anxiety as he glanced scantily about before meeting his gaze. Aragorn recognized the expression and knew his friend's worries before he even spoke them in a hushed tone. "We must move on," he urged quietly and quickly. "We cannot linger."
The ranger knew not what to say to that, but had not the chance to speak if he had, for Gandalf had begun to read. "They have taken the bridge and the second hall…" Boromir stepped closer, his heart obviously aching at Gimli's pained countenance, and he lowered a comforting hand to the Dwarf's mailed shoulder. "We have barred the gates but cannot hold them for long. The ground shakes; drums… drums in the deep." The old wizard turned the blood-spotted page, dust exploding into the air. Legolas was restless at Aragorn's side. "We cannot get out," he continued quietly, solemnly. "A shadow moves in the dark. We cannot get out." The last words were no more than a feverish scribble. Gandalf looked up and met Aragorn's gaze. "They are coming."
Then suddenly came a great cacophony of noise.
Aragorn jumped and looked to the other end of the room, where his eyes just barely caught the form of the old skeleton as it slipped and tumbled down a well, upon the side of which it had eternally rested. He held his breath then, listening as a chain rattled and then yanked the heavy bucket into the black depths also. An echo of crashes loudly resounded as the rubble fell, smacking into the walls of the well and tumbling into the deep. The minutes seemed hours as the racket continued. Finally it ceased.
Pippin looked sheepishly guilty as he withdrew the inquisitive fingers that had caused the mess. He winced as one last, loud clang interrupted the silence. Then it was still once more. All senses were strained to detect threat. Aragorn glanced at Legolas, knowing if such a menace approached, the Elf would surely be the first to perceive it. Although he was still listless, Legolas' eyes relaxed. Boromir had also been studying the archer. At seeing this, the warrior of Gondor sighed in audible relief.
Slowly the wizard closed the heavy book and set it aside. Gandalf turned to face the Hobbit responsible, who seemed as though he was about to ashamedly bolt under the wizard's harsh glare. "Fool of a Took! Throw yourself in next time and rid us of your stupidity!" he snapped, snatching his possessions from the lad's hands. Pippin recoiled, opening his mouth to defend himself, but then closing it and bowing his head.
The repose was fleeting, though, for then came a rumble of distant movement. At first it was soft, but as it repeated it grew louder, rhythmic, like drums pounding in the mines below. High-pitched screaming filled the air, faint but terrifying, amplifying as the sound traveled up through the hollowed, old well that led to the deep.
Breaths grew loud and rushed in fear. Aragorn turned, lifting the torch he bore to the archway behind them. "Frodo," came Sam's quivering voice, tearing their attention back to the room.
Ashen, the Hobbit drew his short sword Sting from the sheath at his waist. Before their wide and frightful eyes, the metal glowed a calm and surreal blue. Legolas stiffened, the Elf's eyes narrowing, as the hideous shouting grew louder. "Orcs!"
Boromir quickly stepped past the two friends, charging to the wood doors of the archway that had long been shoved aside. As he reached them, two black arrows hurdled forth like lightning and buried themselves with a thud into the rotting wood, barely an inch from his shocked face.
They were under attack.
Aragorn glanced around, his heart thundering. "Get back!" he yelled to the terrified Hobbits. "Stay close to Gandalf!" Ripping around, he dropped his flaming torch to the stone floor and charged to the doors, where Boromir was struggling to pull the heavy wood shut. Vicious snarls and howls, these deeper and more monstrous, threatened from beyond the meager blockade.
Boromir was breathing heavily. He shook his head as he leaned his weight into the old doors to keep them shut. "They have a cave troll," he declared almost whimsically, but the matter-of-factness of his tone did not cover his own panic.
They would need something to secure the weakened doors. With great urgency, Legolas tossed large axes to Boromir wordlessly, lifting the heavy weapons with one hand, his other, the weaker, clenched about his bow. The men worked to shove the shafts of the weapons into the wood, wedging the doors tighter shut and hopefully providing some protection. The Hobbits watched fearfully as the three worked. Gandalf, standing before them, dropped his hat and drew his long sword with a metallic ring. The Hobbits hesitated only a moment before doing the same, the four pressed together with their sword blades raised, Frodo's glowing violently.
Gimli leapt upon his cousin's stone tomb with a cry, his face angry and taut, raising his great Dwarven axe. His eyes burned in vengeance. "Let them come!" beckoned he, watching as Legolas, Aragorn, and Boromir stood shoulder to shoulder before the door. "There is one Dwarf yet in Moria who still draws breath!"
The door rattled and shook as the evil forces came upon it. The wood splintered and cried in the strain, bending and snapping. Aragorn drew his own bow as Legolas took aim at the grimy hands punching through the old wood. Only for a moment could he concentrate on anything else, but he felt the Elf's body quiver beside him. Though Legolas' face was resolute in attention, his weak arm was shaking as he held the bow taut. The ranger felt concern and trepidation coil in his stomach as he nocked his own arrow and forced his attention on the beasts poking their way through the door. It was clear the prince of Mirkwood was not yet ready for such a strenuous exertion as battle. If he faltered, it could mean his life. Aragorn swore to himself then that he would not allow that to happen to his dear, stubborn friend.
Despite his shivering frame, Legolas' arrow flew true and straight, and it sunk deep into one of the monsters outside. The Elf clenched his hand tighter about the arch of his weapon and drew another arrow quickly. Heartened by this, Aragorn cast his worries aside and let his own arrow snap forward. Another screech indicated the weapon met its mark. Legolas fired again a breath later, but it was in vain, for the door exploded with a shower of wood, dust, and dirt, and the Orc army swarmed inside with a wretched scream.
The Fellowship scattered.
Aragorn dropped his bow and drew his sword, the sleek metal singing as it exited the scabbard and glinting dangerously in the pale light. He let loose a deep battle cry, imploring his ancestors to grant him skill and luck during the fight, and charged into the fray.
Instinct directed his actions. He abandoned contemplation and reservation, and moved with his sword, swinging it as though it was an extension of himself. Raw talent honed by years of experience guided him against the slovenly Orcs, and he slapped away their sloppy jabs and attacks with their spears and swords. His feet carried him with elegance as he feinted and returned, his sword meeting little resistance as it slid between the ribs of one beast, and then he spun to face an attacker at his rear, ripping the tip free and slicing the assailant's head from its grimy neck with a cry. Black, brackish blood that reeked of foul things spilled over him and the shine of his blade, but he paid no heed, knocking away the dented shield of another Orc before ending its life with a quick thrust.
He turned and saw Boromir step back and then charge forward, his sword raised in attack, his glistening shield held protectively before his chest. He cut down the demons surrounding him with one fell swoop. Aragorn helplessly watched as a Orc took advantage of the son of Gondor's diverted senses. But the monster rushing from behind with a splintered axe screeched and then fell, an arrow protruding from his shattered skull. Boromir turned briefly to cast a grateful glance toward Legolas, who stood on the other side of the room. Fear pulsed through Aragorn. "Legolas!" he cried out desperately.
The Elf then quickly pivoted, slamming a long, white Elvish knife into the belly of another monster before it managed to drive its spear into him from behind. Aragorn felt his heart pound at the Elf's retarded reflexes but could not linger more than a moment on the thought, for more Orcs were already gathering around him.
There was a great grumble beyond. Aragorn barely had the time to lift his head before the archway exploded in great spray of dust. A monster appeared, forcing its hulking body through the tiny entrance. Its hideous, snub-nosed face was opened in a massive howl that frightened them all. The Orc that held the chain about its neck like a leash did not move fast enough to avoid the slam of its feet against the floor as it neared. The creature was rank, raising monstrous arms threateningly, a blood lust clear in yellow, beady eyes. Saliva dripped from blunted teeth and gray lips.
Legolas was quick to unleash a shot upon the beast, but though the arrow sank deep into its shoulder, the creature hardly staggered, growling and snorting. Sam could only stare at the giant troll in shock and fear, but managed to scurry between its fat legs, screaming, before the massive hammer it slammed at him could crush him. Then he ran to the end of the room, and Aragorn could see him no longer.
Gimli shouted and hurled a fallen axe at the foul creature from atop his cousin's tomb. The blade met its mark, but it served only to infuriate it more, and the hammer careened toward the stout warrior. Only a few spare inches saved Gimli as he flung himself to the ground beside, the head of the gigantic weapon smashing the stone grave into rubble. Then it became a struggle to avoid the enraged creature's massive swings, the small Dwarf ducking and rolling as the vile weapon struck hapless Orcs in its arc and sent them flying with a squeal. Aragorn rounded on another attacker absently, watching the cave troll as it staggered after Gimli.
Two arrows launched simultaneously suddenly stabbed into the beast's neck with a loud thunk of metal tearing through thick skin. The ranger kicked more Orcs away, Gandalf's swinging long sword and whirling staff not far from his own weapon, and looked to the archer. Legolas' moves were languid as his knives sang, the lines of his lean body elegant as he fended off the Orcs that had found their way to his vantage point. The cave troll, spotting a new prey to torment, swung its chain like a whip at the Elf upon the ledge. Quick reflexes brought Legolas down to hug the ground, avoiding the whiz of the air and metal. Frustrated, the beast grumbled and snarled and snapped the chain at him again and again, but Legolas side-stepped and it struck only stone, the force behind the blow disintegrating the ledge into dust. The nimble Elf, much to Aragorn's relief, was simply too quick for the retarded beast, despite whatever injury slowed him. The last time the troll brandished the chain against the Elf prince, the links tightly came to wrap around the remnants of pillar beside Legolas.
Vehemence glinted in Legolas' blue and narrowed eyes, and he rapidly slammed his foot at the tangled knot the chain had become to keep it still. Aragorn stepped forward, opening his mouth to protest what he knew the Elf was planning, but his words were tardy and with swift precision Legolas' quick feet carried him along the large, metal links and unto the broad shoulders of the beast. The troll screamed in anger, jerking and flailing at the light being atop him and the strangling pull of the chain about its neck. Aragorn smiled slightly at his friend's quick thinking. Breaking through scaly, thick skin had decreased the power of his shot when he had fired from a distance. By bringing himself closer to such a vulnerable spot, the archer could be sure his arrows sunk deep into vital flesh. So the Elf drew back on the bow only seconds later, strong legs maintaining his balance upon the shifting troll, and fired.
At that moment, the troll howled and turned, destroying Legolas' aim. The arrow split as it struck the tough skull of the beast, and the broken shaft was flung haphazardly to the side.
The Elf grunted in frustration. However futile, his attack did not go unnoticed. Howling like a demon, the beast flared and reared, desperate to tip the prince from its shoulders. Legolas gasped and fell, losing his steady stance and slipping. "Legolas!" Aragorn cried again, but it was too late. The Elf hit the ground hard on his left side and cried out. He lay there a moment, propped on his right elbow, his bow falling from limp fingers, wheezing once more. The beast rounded on his hapless form. The king, panic pulsing his heart, leapt forward, furiously shoving Orcs aside with blade and hand.
"Hey!" came a shout from the far corner of the room, where rubble was piled high. Pippin heaved a dagger at the beast; Merry threw rocks. Frodo stood behind them, his cheeks white yet vehement. "Over here!"
Their distraction proved adequate, and though Aragorn was relieved to the monster divert its attention from his weakened friend, his worry was now beating for the Hobbit and his friends. They were no match for a monster of this caliber! But the Orcs swarmed again, and he could not reach them. The hulking troll thundered towards the small creatures, and, as if suddenly realizing what they had done, they scattered and sought refuge in the ruin.
Aragorn fought to see them, but the battle demanded his attention as he stabbed at another Orc charging him, poising to strike with a mace. In the corner of his eye he saw the troll crush his hammer into the ground with a rumble, separating the band of Hobbits. "Frodo!" he cried, cursing the foul Orcs that separated him from his friends. The mere seconds they detained him felt like an eternity, and panic pushed him into a furious fight of fist and sword. Frodo had scrambled to a nearby pillar and pressed his compact form to it, hiding in the shadow and behind the concealing stone, and Aragorn could see him no more. His sword smacked and slid against the brittle blades of the Orcs. Over their slimy and disfigured, hunched forms he saw the troll creep around the pillar and his ward move fearfully, his feet ever one step ahead in the sick game of cat and mouse. In Aragorn's moment of distraction, an Orc slashed his arm. He felt only a sting as he slammed against the wall and kicked them away.
The beast roared in fury. Aragorn could barely hear it above the rush of his heart and breath. Then came a desperate cry. "Aragorn!" The Orcs pressed him against the cold, slimy surface behind him and he fought desperately to rid himself of them. Frodo was in danger! "Aragorn!"
Finally, in frustration and sheer terror, he pulled away, damp hair falling over his brow. "Frodo!" he shouted, charging forward, grasping a long spear from whence it had fallen. The troll had grasped the Hobbit's leg to restrain him, the hammer lifted overhead and poised to strike. The king's heart screamed and his soul shivered as he flew. Over and over again, like a chant, he promised himself that he would not let Frodo, his responsibility, his charge, and his friend, die a senseless death!
With a cry, he launched himself at the beast. A quick slash of Frodo's short sword at the beefy hand about his foot made in the creature's distraction served to free him, and the Hobbit crawled away. Sword in one hand, spear in the other, the heir of Isildur faced the beast.
It growled and snapped at him, towering over his body, but he would not be deterred by the immensity of his foe. Swiping his blade in front of him, the ranger forced the beast to stumble back. Then he hefted the spear. Come, you vile devil… The beast snarled and charged. He lifted the spear as it neared and the blade cut deep into its chest. Black blood drooled from the wound, and he grunted, digging the heels of his feet into the ground and shoving the head of the weapon into its body deeper. It raised its arms and screamed deeply, shaking the cavern. In its weak moment, Merry and Pippin hurled rocks and stones at it. They bounced harmlessly from its skin. Then it countered.
Like a battering ram its fist slammed into him, faster than he could prevent. Pain flowered over his exhausted body and he was flung back. A strange sensation of spinning weightlessness assailed him, and he could not breathe. He heard a cry and wondered if it was his own as his body then collided into an unforgiving and cold surface. He felt himself falling and then he knew no more.
A great clamor sliced through Aragorn's daze. In the thunderous vacuum of the pounding of his heart, he could not make sense of the words he heard or the things he felt. His mind felt severed from his body. Though he knew that he must rise, that he in a foolish moment of weakness had left Frodo to face great peril alone and defenseless, his worn and pained limbs would not heed his commands. So he there lay in a stupor, desperate to move and see but finding he could not. The eternity that grew from the mere moments he dawdled in the space between dream and wake angered him.
Then the ground shook, jostling him to consciousness and he leaned up with a start. Fear pulsed through him then as a thousand senseless thoughts stampeded through his stricken mind. Cold sweat prickled his skin. To his left he saw the beast fall, spilling Pippin from its shoulders as it did, the Fellowship surrounding it with weapons still apprehensively raised. But he found he could not care for that now.
He had failed.
There in the corner, lying face down in the dirt and dust, was Frodo. The king's heart stopped in strict disbelief and then pounded again in frenzied fear and guilt. He scrambled over, ignoring his own aches and wounds. The dark of Frodo's cape flowed out around him like a sea of midnight, a shroud of death. The vicious spear that he himself had wielded against the troll was now protruding from the Hobbit's shoulder. Aragorn felt tears sting his eyes but blinked them away, reaching a shaking hand to the body before him. "Oh, no…" he breathed, shaking his head mindlessly. Denial filled him, accompanied by guilt and anger. How could such a brave and kind creature meet his end in such a horrible place? How could he have let this happen? Oh, but for the weakness of his heart! For the despair of this world that such a thing could come to pass! Had all their struggles been for naught? He closed his eyes against his pain as he grasped the Hobbit's still form and turned him.
Yet it was not so.
Frodo lifted himself of his own volition under the guidance of the ranger's hand. The Hobbit groaned, grimacing and breathing quite heavily, but breathing still! Aragorn regarded what he saw with wide eyes that dared not to believe or hope. The spear fell from the Hobbit's person as he righted himself. Aragorn was quick to support the winded and terrified Hobbit, glancing at his companions.
Sam's face was ashen and stiff in sorrow, but fell into a weak shudder of relief as he stumbled joyously forward. "He's alive," he declared, his voice betraying his terror, grief, and now elation. Gandalf sighed in relief.
Aragorn turned back to the Hobbit that leaned against him, his grip on the other's shoulder sure and proud. Frodo was gasping for breath, his hand coming to rest against his heart. "I'm alright," he gasped, glancing between Sam and the ranger, his eyes wide and unbelieving at his own fortune. "I'm not hurt."
Aragorn released a shaking breath, not understanding but fearful to question, as if the blessing that had been awarded them would suddenly be snatched back for their insolence. But his wonder and stupefaction would not be so easily cast aside. "You should be dead," he breathed. "That spear would have skewered a wild boar!"
Gandalf tentatively staggered closer, his own eyes reclaiming a bit of their characteristic mirth. "I think there's more to this Hobbit than meets the eye," offered the wizard, a slow grin twisting old lips.
The others turned back to their miraculously revived friend and watched with shock as Frodo pulled open the white cloth of his tunic. There, below the concealing clothes, was an armor of glittering opal scales and silver lining that snugly encased his vulnerable body. It shined like the greatest treasure in the murky light. Sam reached forward to touch it, surprise evident on his plain face.
His friends looked on in awe. Gimli eyes widened. "Mithril," he said quietly in shock, for the strong, protective alloy that blocked even the jaws of a Dragon was a rare and beautiful thing that he, as a Dwarf, had only occasionally beheld. The stout warrior's gaze met that of the Hobbit's. "You are full of surprises, Master Baggins!"
Weariness and relief struck them all for both the safety of themselves and their friends. Pounding hearts slowed, tense muscles drooping as the strength was sapped from weary limbs, rushed breaths quieting. Boromir approached, wiping blood from a cut upon his hand. Frodo grasped Aragorn as they both stood. The ranger himself grimaced, his battered body riveted with pain. Frodo's grip was strong and his face open with worry. "How fare you, Aragorn?" asked Boromir as the man sheathed his blade.
The king let a long sigh leave him. "I am well enough. You, son of Gondor?"
"Alive and unscathed." He glanced about the weary group, as if analyzing each for signs of weakness or injury. Merry and Pippin seemed bruised and dirty but well, though the experience had left them shaken. Gimli stood resolute, leaning upon his axe. Gandalf's relief over Frodo's safety was still evident upon his long, bearded face, but he was not wounded. Sam slowly rose to his feet, tears glistening upon his cheeks. Boromir's face cracked. "Where is the Elf?"
Cold terror washed over Aragorn, and it was followed by the sickest sense of a memory momentarily forgotten. Again, such a foul plight to see Legolas missing! This time he feared they would not be so fortunate to save him, for fate rarely twice intervened on the behalf of the careless!
Rapidly his eyes scanned their surroundings and he charged forward, praying his friend was not lying amongst the corpses, both old and new, strewn about. But that was not so, for the blonde Elf stood facing the remains of the entrance. So strong was Aragorn's relief that it nearly fell him as he sprinted towards his friend. "Legolas," he said urgently. The Elf did not turn to face him, his hands at his side, his body still. A stiff silence followed that was filled with a strange but beautiful melancholic sound that seemed starkly misplaced. The ranger felt something inside him hurt in realization.
Legolas was singing. The melody was sad and ancient, the words filled with a strange peace. Aragorn recognized it immediately, though he had only heard it a scant few times before. Its forlorn grace was unforgettable.
A lament for a passing soul.
The Elf quietly finished his song then as Aragorn came to stand before him. When he did, he saw the horror the prince had sought to quietly hide from them. He had been critically wounded, but this disastrous event would not be so easily recoverable. The entire right of his stature was covered in slick red, his once green tunic turned a sick brown by the stain. Blood poured endlessly from a deep injury, the laceration in his shoulder violent and menacing. The king could only watch numbly a moment as the blood rushed from the gaping hole in a torrent. His heart was pumping his life mindlessly away.
Aragorn knew not what to say in that instance, so taken with consuming fright and distress. Blind rage and guilt swirled within him. Had his silent oath before meant nothing? So taken with Frodo's struggle, he had brushed aside the dangerous threat looming over his injured friend. He cursed himself. "Legolas…" he whispered weakly, laying a dirtied hand against the Elf's fair cheek.
Legolas was unnaturally pale, all the glow that so often graced his countenance replaced by a waning struggle for life. He opened his eyes then at the touch, and they were filled with the sadness of one who knows the wound he has so unluckily finally received to be mortal. Such a thought was all the more devastating to a creature that was to live forever in the splendor of Middle Earth's bounty.
Clear tears slid from his weakened eyes. "Aragorn," he whispered. There was fear in the meek tone. Though the lament was meant to comfort the fatally wounded, Legolas' heart was obviously still quivering in desperation for life. "I am to die here, after all."
"No!" the king cried, furious with himself, and he turned back to his stunned companions. "Quick! A tourniquet! Something, for he bleeds his life away!"
As chance often did, it forsook them again and more screeching from beyond filled the cavern. Aragorn looked behind him at the dissonance, feeling his soul quake. He damned himself again and the abominable course of things. Gandalf stepped forward quickly and the others followed him. "We have not the time now! We must hurry, for it will not be long before darker things that Orcs sense our presence! To the bridge of Khazad-dûm!"
A great panic went through the group. Gimli ripped his own Dwarven sash from his waist, the orange cloth dirtied, and offered it to Aragorn. "Bind the wound with this, son of Arathorn!" he ordered before prodding the Hobbits to the door after Gandalf.
Aragorn took the cloth with a cut nod. Boromir appeared at Legolas' other side, his expression one of tormented frenzy. "Steady now, Legolas," stated he as Aragorn quickly wrapped the large sash about the furiously bleeding wound. He tied the swatch tightly around it, hoping to staunch the flow.
Legolas screamed in agony, his knees suddenly refusing to support his weight any longer. Only Boromir's gentle grip kept him from stumbling. The Elf glanced to his dearest friend. "Aragorn," he said through clenched teeth. With blood splattered hands he wiped the fresh tears from his cheeks, smearing red gore on his pale and fair countenance. "Do not let me fall, for I will not have the strength to rise again."
The king grasped the Elf's face firmly between his hands. He could see his friend's will departing him. "If you fall," he said softly in Elvish, "I will carry you." They stood still then, sharing each other's pain, knowing each other's heart. Legolas did not have to speak for the king to understand him. Greater concerns should take precedence, and his life now was inconsequential. Inevitably the wound would soon be mortal and Aragorn read the unspoken thoughts swirling in the Elf's eyes. He would no longer care for himself. He would stress himself beyond the limits of his strength and endurance and separate from the pain for the sake of the Fellowship. For the sake of one. And he was asking Aragorn to do the same.
However, the king was not so ready to judge the importance of a life. To do that would make him no better than the evil against which he fought.
Boromir turned and ran, pushing the wide-eyed Frodo and Sam from whence they stood gawking at the entrance. "Hurry, Aragorn! Legolas!" the warrior shouted as he grabbed a fallen torch. The desperation in the other's voice was all it took to return the ranger to the present. He turned, about to push Legolas' weakened form into fleeing, but the Elf had already starting running, drawing his bow once more with his left hand and quickly trading it to his right. The ranger wasted not a breath more in hesitation before sprinting after the prince of Mirkwood.
Gandalf's light led them onward, into the great cavern. It had suddenly become a dangerous race against the perils of the unknown dark, and they forced the last ounce of energy into their flying pace as they faced the last leg of the horrible journey. All around them was screeching and howling as shadows moved in the dark. A great calamity of falling feet echoed through the cave. They reached the central road and ran harder. Now the swirling black around was taking form, and the Orcs were swarming like insects. They climbed down the pillars through holes in the ceiling, descending the stone in mass hordes like spiders. All around the army gathered, closing them in, till they could go no further.
The Fellowship backed into itself as the Orcs circled around them. The army seemed to stretch infinitely in all directions, hiding in the black but the screams were distant enough to suggest an immense size. Aragorn could only see what Gandalf's light illuminated, but that alone was enough to worry him. They were completely surrounded and there would be no chance to escape. The other end of the road seemed so far. Would this nightmare never end?
All around the demons were tightly packed, their gruesome faces alive with the promise of a bloody feast. They hissed and screeched, causing the Hobbits to wince fearfully, and poked at the group with their swords and spears. Aragorn clenched his hands tighter about the warm hilt of his blade, his quick eyes turning to any Orc that ventured too close. Legolas had taken aim, though holding the posture was a struggle for him, his right hand slick with his own blood. Gimli let out a howl of frustration at the grim situation.
Abruptly there came a low rumble, a guttural roar that deafened them. Gandalf turned to its source, the wizard's face growing pale and fearful. As the echo faded, the Orcs shrieked in what could only be terror, frantically scattering then as quickly as they had come. When they left the sphere of light surrounding the group, fleeing to the dark places whence they had surfaced, their laughter and cries grew distant and quieter. Another vicious snort reverberated through the cavern, and a hellish orange light appeared at one end.
Aragorn felt no relief to assuage his horror for whatever had chased away the Orcs was terrible enough to drain the blood from Gandalf's face. The fiery light grew brighter, closer, and another snarling growl issued from it. Legolas' aim shifted from one fleeing Orc to another as they ran, but he slowly lowered his bow as if in realization that what approached would not be felled by simple arrows. Frodo's face was white. The sound of the small creature's winded gasping was seemed amplified a thousand times in the sudden and eerie quiet.
Gandalf was deeply solemn, almost frightened. Boromir's eyes were darting from the wizard to the menace ahead. "What is this new devilry?" he asked, trepidation in his voice.
The group was silent save for the whisper of unknown words on the old man's breath. Glances were shared but little comfort was found, for it was clear from Gandalf's sad reluctance and the creature's own vile and ominous presence that a greater danger than they had ever before faced had found them in the dark of Moria.
Gandalf's stringy gray hair fell before his ancient eyes as he grimly declared, "A balrog." The Hobbits gasped, standing closer to one another. Aragorn saw Legolas stiffen, the Elf's breath viciously shallow. He looked ahead and witnessed the vile bright light of oranges, yellows, and red come slowly closer. "A demon of the ancient world." For a moment, no one spoke. No one moved. The strength to breathe even evaded them, as the horrible grindings of massive feet against stone resounded. Gandalf looked small and weak. "This foe is beyond any of you," he stated simply, gravely, wearily. Then he ripped around abruptly. "Run!"
And so they did in a flurry of terror and panic. Towards the exit beyond they fled, charging forward by the desperation of knowing no other alternative existed to them. Aragorn reach the dark wall and stopped, breathing heavily. He ushered the others through, glancing at Gandalf. "Quickly!" the old wizard gasped, pushing a hesitant Frodo ahead after the other Hobbits.
Aragorn turned. A sudden wave of heat slammed against him; breathing the air seemed to sear his lungs. He stumbled down the stairs and looked up as Boromir yelped and reeled. His torch tumbled into the deep recesses below as he stood on the cusp, teetering with his arms pin-wheeling as he fought to maintain his balance. Legolas was quick to act, though, and wrapped his arms tightly about the man's torso from behind. As the Hobbits collided together, halting just mere steps from certain death, Legolas fell back, dragging Boromir from the dangerous ledge to the safety of the ground. Aragorn winced as the Elf cried out, unable obviously to stifle the pain as the son of Gondor fell heavily upon him, crushing his abused and bleeding body into the dirt. He quickly stepped forward to help as Boromir scrambled to right himself and free his wounded friend, but Gandalf's grasp restrained him. "Gandalf," he gasped as he looked to the wizard, winded.
The old man grabbed his shoulder. Sweat glistened upon his aged face, his eyes tense and terrified. "Lead them on, Aragorn!" He glanced to the others, and then back to the Istar. Lead them on? What sort of hellish demon had they encountered that the only choice afforded them was a frantic retreat? The wizard looked beyond. "The bridge is near," he declared. Hot sweat stung his eyes as he followed Gandalf's gaze. There, to their left and quite some distance below, hiding the black shadows and red haze, was a large stone bridge. The path led over the swirling abyss of fire and black. Aragorn looked back and hesitated. It seemed still so far away, the descending path narrow and treacherous. The ancient stone might not support strenuous use. There would have to be another option. They would have to find another way!
Aragorn stood back up, resolutely gripping his blade. Seeing the ranger's defiance, Gandalf pushed him down. "Do as I say!" he demanded, frustrated at Aragorn's hesitation. The ranger returned the shove with a surprised and angered glance. "Swords are no more use here!"
He gave no more thought to the matter then, trusting Gandalf's wisdom. If this was the only course, they would face it bravely and he would not allow his worry to weaken him. "Go!" he hollered to the paralyzed group. Then the whole cavern shook and quivered, vibrating beneath the thundering feet of the Fellowship. Rock and stone shook free and fell, crashing to the massive staircase they must traverse.
Aragorn pushed the group forward, feeling the sickening heat caress his back. Legolas quickly cut up to Boromir ahead, nimbly jumping from one stone flight of steep stairs to the other below. He staggered as he landed, his left hand involuntarily coming to grasp the gushing wound in his shoulder. But his weak moment hardly slowed his quick feet as he ran down the stairs. The Hobbits were unsure, their steps frantic and light as they descended. The path was narrow and unfathomable depths, lighted only by bloody flames, surrounded the stairs; a misplaced foot might result in lost balance and certain death. Gimli was not far behind them, huffing and puffing.
Ahead there was a gap in the road. It was quite large, big enough to pose a significant risk in jumping across. Aragorn looked down and felt dizzy by the endless shadows and fire below them. There was no way to know how deep the chasm might be, but the fall was undoubtedly long enough for one to make final peace his soul before mortally striking the ground.
The Fellowship halted at the gap. Legolas took a deep breath to steady himself and leapt, his strong legs propelling him across the hole, his long blond hair flying. They all watched speechlessly as he jumped, each paralyzed in fear that the wounded Elf, still the most agile of the group, would not reach the other side. But no more than a breath later, the prince of Mirkwood's feet struck the steps of the other side.
Legolas staggered before he turned. When he did face them, Aragorn grimaced. Even in the ruddy light of the massive cave, the ranger could see the blood pouring from beneath the cloth binding the Elf's shoulder. But he refused to falter. The cave shook again, and he held out his hand. "Gandalf!" he shouted, gesturing that the wizard follow.
Gandalf glanced back only once as the cave shook. The heat had nearly grown unbearable, and the ancient entrance behind them cracked with strain, rocks tumbling down. Then he jumped across with grunt of effort. Legolas grabbed him as he reached the other side, groaning in pain. The wizard opened his mouth to express concern for the Elf, but an echoing whiz of sliced air interrupted him.
Arrows flew from the distant ledges surrounding them. One struck the ragged edge of rock, snapping sharply as it propelled into the darkness. Immediately after another shot rammed into the step below the Hobbits' feet, causing them to jump back in alarm. The archer Orcs sniping from the ledge howled gleefully.
A rain of arrows poured over them. Boromir shielded Merry and Pippin, grunting as the deadly weapons narrowly missed them. Legolas' entire body quivered in an agonizing strain as he took aim quickly and shot. Though the arrow soared in blackness, the satisfying cry of death answered, and the body of a demon tumbled into the recesses below. The Elf's next shot, though, flew wild, missing its mark, and he groaned, dropping his blood soaked arm and ducking as the enemy fired again.
Aragorn took up his own bow then, rapidly scanning the ledge for targets and firing instinctively. "Merry! Pippin!" Boromir shouted as he wrapped each arm around a Hobbit. The fearful creatures clung to the man with all their might as he crossed the gap, shouting in flight. As their feet departed, as if the force onto it placed by Boromir's strong legs was too great, the stairs upon which they had stood cracked and crumbled. The rock broke away, plummeting into the blackness below.
Gandalf and Legolas stood ready to receive them on the other side. The Elf turned again once they were steady and grabbed another arrow from his depleting quiver. As arrows whizzed by, he returned a shot of his own, killing another malicious archer. After firing, he wavered on his feet. Aragorn watched thunderstruck as the Elf nearly stumbled, only steadied by Gandalf's strong hand upon his shoulder. The cave shook again, and the gap had only grown wider.
They had no time to hesitate.
"Sam," the king said to the small creature. Although the Hobbit looked terrified, he gave no struggle as Aragorn grabbed him and catapulted him weightlessly to the other side into Boromir's open arms. Then the king turned to Gimli.
The stout warrior held a restraining palm to the ranger's advances and shook his head. "Nobody tosses a Dwarf," he stated simply and proudly. Eyeing the gap, he bounced once or twice on his knees to gain power before heaving himself across the hole. Aragorn's breath caught in his throat as Gimli's booted feet struck only the tip of the opposite ledge. Gimli reeled backwards. But Legolas' ever-quick reflexes persevered despite his blood-loss, and he snatched the falling Dwarf by his abundant and thick facial whiskers. "Not the beard!" Gimli cried, wincing as they both struggled to pull him up. With their combined strength, Gimli was hauled up and safely over.
Aragorn hardly had time to be relieved, though, for more of the walkway crumbled and disappeared beneath his feet. "Frodo!" he shouted, pushing the Hobbit back as the supportive stone collapsed and fell. Frodo tipped as Aragorn shoved him away, the steps breaking in large slabs. There was suddenly nothing beneath his feet and he collapsed, his heart pounding and hands flailing in panic. Thankfully, his fingers grasped a step above, and, bearing in his teeth in strained snarl, he managed to pull his dangling lower body up upon what remained.
Everything was ablaze with the wretched fire of the demon, and the cavern quivered and shook as if in fear. Aragorn scrambled to his feet, Frodo standing shakily beside him. As the unstable walkway shook, the king wrapped his fist the back of Frodo's cloak. "Steady," he gasped. Frodo's face was ashen in terror as he bent and twisted his body to retain his balance upon the shaking stairs.
Aragorn looked up and met Gandalf's helpless gaze. The gap that separated them now was far too large to jump. The king felt bile burn in the back of his throat, sweat rolling into his eyes and plastering his dark hair to his brow. What were they to do now?
"Hold on!" the wizard shouted, and then the world quaked again. The howls and snarls of the beast echoed around them as it charged the crumbling entrance, shaking great rock structures free from both the archway and the ceiling. With crushing force they crashed into the path behind them, severing their section from the rear. The power of it shook them, and Aragorn fought to keep both himself and Frodo balanced, knowing that once misplaced lean might send them to their doom. Now the steps beneath their feet were nothing more than an island in a sea of black and fire, supported by only an old and crumbling pillar.
Frodo gasped, unshed tears in his eyes, as a horrible whine resounded. Crumbling stone fell from the weakening support all around it, and the lower rocks groaned with the pressure from the weight above. The whole structure was coming free!
Forever it seemed to teeter, spilling them backwards then forwards. Aragorn gritted his teeth, every muscle in his body taut with anxious fear, as he pushed Frodo's quaking body back and forth to accommodate for the shifting ground beneath them. Finally fortune smiled upon them, and the front section of the pillar withered away, the rock snapping and pulverizing under the strain. The stairs lurched and shortened the gap. "Lean forward!" he ordered Frodo and the Hobbit was all too anxious to comply, tipping towards their friends in hopes of displacing the weight on the wobbling and precarious structure enough to force it to fall forward.
Legolas stood at the edge of the other side, leaning out as far as he could, deep fear for his friend evident on his young, bloodied face. "Come on," he beckoned as they slowly were pitched closer, stretching his arms out. Everything hung still, and no one dared to breath. But their weight finally become too much to the quivering pillar, and the stairs with a load groan moved forward, bridging the gap. Aragorn wasted no time, pushing Frodo into Boromir's open embrace, leaping himself in to Legolas'. The Elf stumbled but did not fall, his arms wrapping momentarily around his friend as Aragorn struggled to regain his balance. Great quaking relief rushed over Aragorn's body like a chill, but it did not distract him enough to ignore his friend's plight. In that moment, the king felt the slick blood that covered the Elf and the shaking of the prince's body. He could hear the deep wheeze that had become Legolas' once soft breath. The son of Thranduil smelled of blood, fear, and pain. The shadow of death was creeping about his eyes.
Aragorn did not have time, though, to say anything, for the Fellowship was already running, Legolas pulling him down the steps after glancing back at the now collapsing stairs only once. They had narrowly escaped; the pillar snapped free from its supports, sending the stairs tipping to the side and crashing down into the bottomless black. As they flew down the rest of the steep descent, the sounds of crashing rocks echoing in their ears, Aragorn allowed himself the smallest bit of euphoria.
No one had the breath to speak as the group tore past stone and rock, finally reaching the narrow ledge that immediately led to the bridge. Aragorn pushed ahead, praying that Frodo and his friends would keep their courage. Hoping that Boromir and Gimli would remain proud and strong. Imploring that Gandalf would know the way. Wishing that life enough still burned within Legolas' heart to carry him to the end of this never-ending nightmare. Most of all, though, he whispered a soft plead that he be granted the will to protect them all.
They reach a great hall and turned hard. There were flames burning at the rear of the hall, bright and furious. Their acrid stench and oppressive heat made the already grievous struggle for breath only harder, and Aragorn gasped. Frodo was choking. Gandalf came to an abrupt stop, his frantic eyes glancing ahead then behind. "Over the bridge!" he bellowed as Boromir ushered Merry and Pippin along, the Hobbits staggering and breathless. Gimli, Sam, and Frodo thundered past. Lastly he and Legolas ran by the Istar, the Elf skidding to his knees behind Aragorn but then stumbling back to shaky feet. "Fly!"
The fire and shadow took a ghastly form. Gandalf looked up, his eyes dreading, as from the maelstrom of heat and horror emerged the vicious demon. It towered over him, a great devil with a monstrous body as black as night that bled red fire. The heat stole strength and courage, and the wizard recoiled when the creature lowered its horned head. Eyes of fire were menacingly centered upon Gandalf, burning in hellish rage. It tipped its head slightly before roaring, flames burning from deep within its throat. A foul wave of terrible heat scorched them.
Aragorn felt his heart stop in alarm and dread. Was this the evil that the Dwarves had accidentally awakened? Was this the scourge that served to strike horror into the hearts of the strongest of wizards? The last danger that faced them would be the worst of them all.
Gandalf turned then, his old face wound tightly in desperation and panic. The expression was enough to break Aragorn from his stupor and he grabbed Legolas' arm, pushing the Elf to the bridge. The demon howled, its fiery foot slamming into the stone ground. It pursued them, the flames of hell reaching from behind to forever hold them in its agonizing grasp.
Ahead the Fellowship ran, feet thundering loudly upon the narrow, stone plank that separated them from salvation. Aragorn swallowed the pounding of his heart as he ran, his thoughts fleeing him. The world was dark, vicious, and blurry, and he could no longer hear the vile roar and steps of their attacker. In that instant, he could no longer wonder what was to become of them, as he had for days during their nightmarish trek through Moria. He could not concentrate of his love, Arwen's soft kiss and comforting presence lost to him as he ran. His heart became a vacuum, a void of panic and terror and grief.
He blinked tears from his eyes and gulped. Ahead Legolas slowed, wobbling on his feet, swaying deliriously close to the edge. The trail of blood stopped abruptly as the Elf collapsed, his feet tipping him from the bridge. "Legolas!" Aragorn screamed. Panic surged and he leapt forward.
His hand latched around the falling Elf's wrist. He blinked and gasped, anchoring his toes into the dirty stone as his body was yanked forward with the weight. Terror churned in his stomach as he grunted, struggling to lift his friend's dangling body back to the secure strength of the bridge. But Legolas' blood-covered wrist provided him no secure grip, and the Elf was dragged down by the demons of the black another inch. Aragorn's fingers tightened painfully about his friend's. "Legolas!" he cried in desperation, his voice harsh in fright. "Do not give up now! Legolas!"
The Elf slowly opened his eyes. The blue orbs within were glassy, empty. A painful breath fled his white lips as he opened them, as if wishing to speak. But he could say nothing. Aragorn shook his head desperately, his wrist crying out in pain as all of Legolas' weight was placed upon it. The bridge was too narrow; he could not afford to lose the grip his other hand had upon the stone for fear of letting them both fall into the abyss. The slick and wet fingers slid further from his own. He was losing his grip. He choked on tears. "Legolas," he harshly whispered, his eyes wide and terrified. "Please… "
Suddenly another hand reached down and grabbed the Elf. Shocked, Aragorn twisted around and looked up. Gandalf grunted, reaching down far to secure his grasp. "Pull!" he ordered in a tight tone, and they both leaned back, struggling to lift Legolas' limp body back over the edge. Aragorn grabbed the Elf's other arm as he fought with all his strength, his body crying in abuse. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the king pulled the Elf into his arms and hugged him close. Great waves of debilitating relief assuaged his despair as he felt the weight of his dear friend's form against his own and he breathed a painful sigh of gratitude that Legolas had once again been spared from death and his own heart from torment.
Gandalf struggled to his feet, raising his staff. "Go, now! Quickly! Take him, Aragorn!"
Aragorn hesitated no longer. With a grunt and energy borne from desperation, he climbed to his feet. His head was reeling, but he ignored his discomfort as he lifted the unconscious and bleeding Legolas into his arms. Tucking his burden tightly to his chest, he turned and ran.
It was not until he had reached the other side that he looked back. Boromir came to stand beside him, one arm around a gasping Frodo. The precious moments they had used to save Legolas had been costly indeed, for now Gandalf stood alone, facing the demon from the deep.
The ranger he knew that it was his duty to aid the old man. That responsibility demanded that he hand the fallen Legolas to Boromir and charge back onto the bridge to stand beside his comrade. But something inside him would not let him. Something inside shook in great waves of numbing depressing. It was already too late, and Aragorn could do nothing more than helplessly observe the ensuing fight in his weakness.
The old wizard stood resolutely, eyeing the massive fiend with cold power and unwavering will. His great robe ripped about in the great pulses of heat as the creature loomed before him, one blistering leg standing upon the narrow bridge. "You cannot pass!" Gandalf shouted to it.
"Gandalf!" Frodo cried in desperation, his eyes wide and terrified.
The beast stood erect, a great blaze pouring brightly from its body. Gandalf narrowed his eyes, bowing his head but not lowering his gaze. "I am a servant to the secret fire," he said quietly, the words nearly inaudible to this companions, "wielder of the flame of Anor." He raised his glowing staff then into the darkness. The light grew brighter, as if drawing power from the black around it, the hiss of energy becoming louder and louder still. "The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn!" he exclaimed.
The beast was not intimidated by the wizard's words, though, and lifted a great and vicious blade of flame and evil overhead before slamming it down towards its foe. The sword never met its target, though, as it crashed heavily into a globe of the purest light, which deflected its power with an explosion of air and a shower of fire.
Aragorn hardly felt the weight of Legolas in his numb arms as he watched, thunderstruck. Gandalf lurched and cried out, but remained strong as the beast reared back.
The balrog howled again, spitting lava against its foe. "Go back to the shadow," Gandalf hissed angrily. Placing another heavy step upon the crumbling bridge, the demon drew closer to the wizard, its sword now a long and vicious whip of inferno.
"You shall not pass!" The wizard drew his sword and staff together overhead and them slammed them both into the bridge below with a burst of white light.
Slowly the balrog hesitated, but the faltering lasted only but a mere breath before it charged closer. Gandalf moved not from its path, his fortitude unfathomable, his courage stupendous. Just as the massive beast ripped the whip around to strike down the wizard, a great cracking resounded.
Aragorn could scarce believe his eyes. The bridge beneath the heavy and huge monster snapped away, stone faltering as though wood. Down it plummeted, falling at immeasurable speeds into the dark below. Without its support, the monstrous demon tumbled as will, its furious scream trailing into the blackness, the fires fading into nothing.
For a moment, all was still.
Then Gandalf gasped, wrinkling his nose, and turned from the edge.
But this relief was too early met, and in a last act of evil, the burning whip snapped up from the void to wrap tightly about the wizard's foot. It yanked the Istar down before releasing him, but the damage had been done, and Gandalf fell from the narrow ledge with a cry of pain and shock.
Frodo's face snapped in desperation and he jumped forward. Boromir slammed his arm before the Hobbit to stop his futile run, restraining him. "No, no!"
The wizard grasped the edge of the ragged rock, his large, old, kind fingers scrambling to find strength in their hold. His sad, open eyes found Aragorn's as he peered over the rock. His hands slid down another disastrous few inches and the wizard winced in pain. "Fly, you fools!" he gasped. Then his grip failed him, and he fell into the black.
Frodo shook his head, tears running in a great, dirty river from his eyes. "No!" he wailed, struggling against Boromir's grasp.
Time and motion seemed to slow then for the heir of Isildur, and he could only watch the ledge where once his dear companion and loyal, wise friend had clung to existence, as if hoping beyond sensibility that Gandalf might somehow return and rise again. But there was nothing but black and blood. Frodo's screams and cries fell to his deaf ears as he stood, paralyzed, the horrible image of the wizard's defeat replaying constantly and sadistically in his numb mind. Then Boromir shouted to him, snapping his desolate daze, and he turned. He loathed leaving, but what choice was there now?
Around him arrows clanked against rock, spilling dust and dirt into his eyes, but he was oblivious to it. His heart was dead and still in his chest as he staggered up the steps. He turned to look back only once, the despair of his friends somehow distant in this vacuum. Then he ran, feeling worthless and useless.
There was light ahead and fresh air slammed against him. He winced, staggering as he followed the others around a turn. No one looked back as they ran. No one spoke. Finally they emerged, and the light of the sun rained brilliantly down upon them. The air smelled so wonderful and cool that the simple act of breathing nearly felled them. A great field of gray rocks spread out before them as they staggered into the outside world, the smallest hints of grass and moss covering the slate stone and poking through cracks. Great rocky hills spread out before them, reaching upward as if yearning to touch the white clouds of the sky. The bluffs stretched to the horizon where they became painted with a deep blue haze. They had reached the other side of the mountain.
They were finally free.
Aragorn felt no elation despite the joy the outside brought to his famished senses. He swallowed the lump in his throat uncomfortably as the Fellowship collapsed. Sam sank to the rocks, silently sobbing, great tears rolling down pale and dirtied cheeks as he buried them into his hands. Upon another stone sat Merry, his arms wrapped about the crying form of his cousin. Gimli shouted in anger and disbelief, but Aragorn was numb to the words. Boromir wrapped his arm around the Dwarf tightly, brotherly, so they might bear their sorrow together.
The ranger continued a few steps, trapped in a soundless and thoughtless void. His heart screamed that he should deny the finality of it, that what he had seen could not have possibly come to pass. Gandalf the Gray, the wisest and strongest of the Istar, slain in Moria. How could such a disaster, such a crushing mistake, have happened? How could he have allowed it? He had been so pathetic and cowardly to allow Gandalf to stand alone against the balrog! And now they would all suffer for his weakness!
After only a breath, his mind regained control of his faculties, battling anguish with logic. He felt his body again, felt stiffness and cold and bruises and pain, and the weight in his arms. A new sort of panic clenched him from within, and he knelt suddenly.
"Legolas…" he whispered softly as he laid the limp form of his friend upon the cold rocks. The Elf did not respond, his face ghastly pale. Aragorn shook his head in denial, his shaking hands pulling the blood-soaked yellow sash from the wound. It still spilled blood. How could it continue to bleed so heavily? For the pain of his heart, he knew not how such a horrible thing had happened, only that the suffering brought upon the Fellowship, upon his friends and comrades, had been the work of his own weakness. The ebb and flow of Legolas' life washed against his fingers. Tears building in his eyes, Aragorn cupped bloody hands upon the Elf's face. "Legolas, open your eyes," he ordered, breathing heavily. When the prince failed to heed him, he grew frantic. "Legolas! Open your eyes and see the sun! Breathe the air! We have escaped the dark, my friend. Do not go easily into your own!"
There was a sniffling beside him, and he looked up. Frodo's tear-stained cheeks glistened in the daylight. He saw the plea in the Hobbit's eyes, a wish for the anguish to end, imploring that the king somehow restore the Fellowship. Nothing would bring Gandalf back to them to guide Frodo as he once had with warm words of wisdom, and Legolas' was slipping to the terrifying shadow not often faced by his kind. Aragorn knew deep inside he was powerless to stop or remedy it. However, the fading innocence of Frodo's gaze and his own refusal to accept it spurted energy into his heavy heart. "Legolas, please. You cannot give in now! Not after coming so far!"
Boromir stepped closer, his boots scratching against the stone. The man shook his head, the wind raking at this sandy hair. Unshed tears shone in his eyes. "He is gone, Aragorn."
"No!" the king snapped. He refused to think such vile thoughts. There was hope yet! There had to be! If he could only find it and hold it close. This was now what he must protect! "Legolas," he said desperately. The Elf's flesh had grown cold, and Aragorn could not see any movement of his chest in breathing. It was as if his light had fled his dying body, leaving only a limp husk, a shadow that was fading from the world. "Quick, Boromir! Fresh cloth! Something to bind the injury; it stills bleeds horrendously!"
But Boromir did not move towards the packs. He stepped forward only and grasped Aragorn's shoulder. "There is nothing more we can do for him," the man reminded his companion gently. "Even if we could bind the wound, he has bled his life away."
Furious, Aragorn shook away from Boromir. "Coward," he hissed spitefully. "I will not let him go into the shadows! The evil of Moria shall not take two from us!"
Boromir grabbed Aragorn roughly and pulled him to his feet. They stared one another down a moment, vehement grief and anger in each gaze, both gasping. The Hobbits and Gimli watched, shocked and disturbed, desolated. "You cannot save him, Aragorn! By nightfall these hills will be swarming with Orcs! We must not tarry!"
Aragorn pushed him away, but he could not force back the painful logic of the words. He collapsed to his knees at Legolas' side once more, staring at his body through blurry eyes, intently searching for movement: the flutter of an eyelash, the intake of breath, the shifting of limbs. Nothing but an eerie and decimating stillness met his gaze. The light was gone from the Elf, stolen by the black of the deep and the devilry of the enemy. Even though he had returned Legolas to the beauty of nature, the light could not be restored. His suffering was for naught. There was nothing to be done.
The realization broke his heart, and something inside the king began to throb in agony. The tears broke free as he collected Legolas' limp form in his arms. He held the Elf tightly to his chest, cradling the broken body as though it were the most precious of all gifts. He looked down to Elf's face. The expression was not one of peace, but rather of pain and fear. His heart wept for the toil of his friend. "I will not let you give up," he gasped in Elvish. "Hear my voice, Legolas, and come back to us. It is not your time! Death shall never come to you, my friend, not while I have breath left to fight. Hear this, and return to this world!"
His words fell to deaf ears. The wind whistled by them, brushing cold fingers through his hair and the blond locks that fell over his arms. The greatest of silences endured, one wrought with loss and despair. There was no absolution. Perhaps there never would be one. Gandalf, their leader and wise companion, gone into the black of Moria. Legolas, the noble and strong Elf whose quick mind and sharp skills had saved them all from peril, deathly still in the embrace of his closest friend. Never had Aragorn ever believed that his Elven friend would meet his end before his own mortality struck him. Never had such a ludicrous thought tormented him. Where was the justice in this horrible irony? What could be said to Thranduil, king of Mirkwood, of his son's loss? How could he explain this failure to Arwen and Lord Elrond? A great pit of black guilt, rage, and sorrow swirled within him, sucking him down, drowning him. Where would he find peace?
No more came to him. There was nothing to be said. His fingers swept down the Elf's bloody cheek, and he pressed his lips to his brow. Salty tears touched his tongue as he softly set Legolas' limp body to the rocks. Shaking in over-whelming grief and anger, he stood and turned his back to the group. He did not want them to know his sorrow or see his weakness.
The silence endured. He felt movement behind him. Frodo came to kneel beside Legolas then. The Hobbit was pale with misery, his woe sucking the light from his eyes and the color from his face. Sobbing, he grasped the Elf's blood-covered hand between his own.
He heard Boromir's quiet voice beside him. The tone was laden with heartache and an unwelcome understanding. "You could not save them all, Aragorn." The words were true but did little to comfort the throbbing misery inside. The statement only amplified his hurt and undoubtedly the others', hanging in the air like painful lie. He said nothing, his tears tasting bitter and cold. Then, once more, it was still.
For the longest time the emptiness continued, swallowing them and their hearts into a void of agony. Two gone for the sake of the Ring. Two lost for the safety of one. Time shed meaning, Boromir's urgency before all but forgotten in the moment of angry loss. No one had the strength to move.
The sun shone down upon them, breaking through the cold cloud-cover and warding away the chill. A gentle, warm breeze drifted by, and upon it was a whisper of distant leaves, a calling of the woods. Aragorn smelled the forest, a crisp, clean scent that lifted the murk from his mind and the mud from his heart. It reminded him of Rivendell, and of Arwen. It reminded him of Mirkwood, and of Legolas. He felt the light of life unexpectedly swell and ebb around him, and he let himself go in its embrace for only a moment as it washed away the tears and the blood from his soul.
There was a sharp breath from behind. "Aragorn?" At first, he failed to hear the shaking voice of Frodo. When it came again, the fascinated desperation in the tone was enough to snap him from his wistful memory. "Aragorn!"
He turned suddenly and felt his heart stop.
Frodo looked at him, his blue gaze depthless. Then he returned his eyes downward toward Legolas. The Elf's long fingers had grasped Frodo's hand, returning the affectionate grip. Shock paralyzed him a moment, but elation ripped his body into motion, and he skidded to his knees beside them.
Almost afraid to hope, he analyzed Legolas' bruised and bloody face. The Elf did not open his eyes, but a glow was beginning to crawl back to his cheeks, warding away the pallor of death. The king lowered his head to Legolas' lips. He felt the rush of breath against his skin, however faint, and his heart cried in disbelief. "He breathes!" he gasped, unable to control the shaking of his voice. In elation, he laid a palm over the center of the Elf's chest. There, weak and thready, was a beat. There was a beat!
"Boromir," Aragorn snapped suddenly, "find cloth, water. All is not yet lost!"
This time the man did not counter as he scrambled to find the requested items. Merry and Pippin cheered in jubilation, caught between sobbing and laughing as they pranced gleefully on the rocks. Gimli released a long sigh and fell backwards less than gracefully, sitting with a loud clank that betrayed his relief. Sam sniffled as he slowly approached. Frodo looked to him, one hand still grasping Legolas', the other coming to hold Sam's.
Aragorn sighed and felt some of the pain leave him. A great exhaustion wracked him, but he knew he could not sleep. He owed it to the fallen to amend his mistakes by sacrificing the self for the good of those around him. There was much yet to be done. The woods of Lothlórien would be a sanctuary, and they were yet a far walk. It was the only place they could now go, for its borders were well-protected. There they could care for their wounds and recoup their strength. A dark threat pushed at the back of his mind. Boromir was right; the Orcs would of course find them here. They would have to fly once more. He could not rest yet.
Boromir returned, and they set to work once again bandaging their Elven comrade. They labored quickly under the warm sun with the wind caressing them. And when they were finished, Aragorn closed his eyes for a moment and simply felt. Laying his palm on Legolas' brow, he whispered an Elvish blessing to the breeze. "Thank you."
Moria had not defeated them. Gandalf would have been proud.