Disclaimer: AU Story. Why don't I own Lord of the Rings? *sigh* Well, until maybe the Tolkien family takes pity on me, I do not own any of the characters or places mentioned in this story. Please don't sue me! I know I am cruel to them but I swear I will try to save them. Hope you enjoy!

Rosie: Yay! I hope this last one grips you till the last second.

Eriks-lil-rocker: I did explain at one chapter about Mez and Pip's rope. I have made a lorra mistakes but then again, as shirebound suggested, this has become an AU story. I am just using this briefly for the benefit of the story. Hope you like the way it goes!

Tiggivon: Wow. I am so touched! You reviewed every chapter for me. Thank you!! So happy that you enjoyed this story!

Shirebound: I only really update so quickly now because of my reviewers and because of so many other great stories. I get inspired by everyone! Especially you. Nasty old, talented old author.

Elf of Rivendell: I- um- I- WAAAAAH! I am the epitome of evil, dammit!

Lil*bee: Wow, you're so sweet! Hope you liked the fight. I wanted to cut out most of the gore but there was some slicing and hacking. Huggles to you!

So, folks, it comes to this. You've encouraged me right till the very end and here with tears in my eyes *points at eyes* See, I'm crying, I am! *sniffles* Thank you for being there for me and being great reviewers. A lot of you gave me ideas and kept the story going. (You know I came up with the idea for poison in the car and I sat upright and went 'Bleurggy!') Thank you all of you. 200 reviews! Well, farewell. It's been great. Now- I shall finish Lost in Moria. No more cliffhangers- I promise.

~ Chapter Twenty-three ~

The orcs thinned out until the last three were herded into a corner and run through. They could not risk having any messengers. Aragorn limped across to where Sam had fallen against the wall. He helped the dazed hobbit to his feet.

"Sam," he started, "Sam, are you hurt?"

"No- but- but Mister Frodo!"

"Did you see it, Aragorn?" Legolas cried, running forward, "Did you see what happened?"

"No, I only- Legolas. Legolas take Sam away. Do not let the hobbits see," the ranger fell down to the body stretched out on the floor. He crawled across and dragged Frodo's limp form out from under an orc. He was half- unconscious, still reliving the battle.

"Sam, no, Sam," he said weakly. His eyes flickered open and focused blearily on Aragorn. He frowned. "Aragorn?"

"Yes, yes, it's over now. We are all safe."

"No, but- Balin! Where is he?" Frodo tensed and struggled to sit himself up. He was gazing around, searching for the dwarf among the bodies. He spotted him, face down, the spear protruding from under him. "Balin! Balin!" he cried, tumbling from Aragorn's arms. The ranger watched in confusion as the hobbit stumbled towards the inert figure on the floor. With a trembling hand, Frodo rolled Balin up to face him. There was blood everywhere and Frodo clapped a hand to his mouth. He felt Aragorn touch his shoulder.

"Frodo, you do not have to see this."

The hobbit spun round and buried his face in the ranger's tunic, hands clutching at him, trying to shut out all the darkness of the world.

"He saved me, Aragorn," he murmured, "Balin took the spear when it should have taken me."

Aragorn rocked the hobbit back and forth, cradling him in his arms. Legolas came across, leaving Sam with his companions. He knelt down opposite his friend, placing a gentle hand on Frodo's back. The Ringbearer turned, his blue eyes shining with sadness.

"Oh, Legolas," he whispered, "It's all so unfair. Balin saved my life. He had the courage to come back and after all that- after everything- he saved me. The world is a dark and terrible place, Legolas!"

He broke down into fresh floods of tears. Aragorn held him close, trying to imagine what it felt like to carry such a heavy burden. How would you feel if so many were in so much peril because of you? How would you feel when you saw so many die for your sake? Legolas' soft voice wound its way to him, reaching into both his own heart and Frodo's.

"The world is dark, Frodo. It is filled now with evil, fearful things. But there is so much worth fighting for. There are hundreds on your side, Frodo. And though many succumb to that evil, remember that there are also those who return from it. Balin had the strength to come back. And you helped that. You brought someone into the light once more. You brought back memories for him. Reminded him of who he truly was. He has died a hero, Frodo. And now he will always live on. We will never forget him."

All three of them sat in mourning for a while; their heads bowed in homage to the dwarf that lay before them. But now, when Frodo rose to his feet, he could see the peace on Balin's face. The gentle knowledge in his eyes. But he could not bear to look too long at that face. It hurt him too much to see. But then he heard a noise. Aragorn's head snapped upright and he too jumped to his feet. It was a drumbeat. And voices. Screaming of orcs. The Fellowship all looked to Gandalf. The wizard raised a hand to the East door and cried,

"Now! Now is the last chance. Run for it! To the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm!"

They fled into another part of Dwarrowdelf but darker this time- not lit so brightly with Gandalf's staff. Pillars loomed up on all sides, crowding in on them, bearing down on the company. There were angry screeches of orcs and others following them- chasing them down into the earth. They ran down flights of stairs but had to stop when Frodo fell once more.

"I will hold the door!" cried Gandalf, "Go on! Swords are no more use here!"

Aragorn tried to protest but the wizard pushed him down, ordering him to lead the Fellowship on. They ran along a passageway, fleeing the sound of the drums. Their hollow voices calling out; doom doom. There was a rumbling far behind them and Gandalf was returned to them, weary and leaning heavily on his staff.

"The doors will hold for a while. But I am spent. We must stop for a while."

While Aragorn saw to the wizard, the hobbits crowded round Frodo, trying to comfort him. He was dry of all tears and sat in stolid silence, going over and over the same episode in his mind. He felt Sam grip his hand tightly.

"Mister Frodo, I've got to ask," he said. He lowered his head, frowning, scolding himself. "I know it's wrong to ask you. After all you've been through but I know I'll never get up the courage to ask again. But- why did he do it? I can't understand it. Oh, I'm sorry, Mister Frodo. No, I'm being silly. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring it back to you again."

He put his arms round his master and hugged him tight. Frodo gripped his arm as he felt a lump rise in his throat.

"He knew, Sam," he said, his voice cracking. He had said this partly to Sam but mainly to himself. A terrible thought had come to him.

Sam longed to ask what Frodo meant but he kept his mouth shut and refused to speak of it further. Merry and Pippin put their arms round their cousin too and for a long time, none of them spoke. At last, Boromir said that they must move on and the nine companions rose to their feet. Legolas came to Frodo's side and they ran together for some time. They fell to the back where Legolas turned to him and said softly,

"Frodo, I really wish to help you. Maybe you can just get the thoughts off your mind. I know there is something. It does not do to dwell on the evils you have faced."

"There is something I would like to tell you," Frodo said after a pause, " I would prefer the others did not know. But, Legolas-" He stopped briefly to undo the top button of his shirt, revealing the mithril shirt underneath. The elf reached out and put a finger to it, touching it with awe. Frodo's voice rose slightly as he started running again.

"It is mithril. And Balin knew about it. Balin knew and he- he sacrificed himself for me. We could have taken him out of the mines. But he knew, Legolas, knew that he did not have to do it! But he did!"

He felt the cold tears on his cheeks. The weight of the Ring suddenly seemed immense and the distance of the journey stretched out before him, long and perilous. He cried and cried until he was utterly worn out. The elf bundled him into his arms and ran with him for the rest of the way. The world is such a cruel, dark place, Frodo thought again as he drifted in and out of his nightmares. He ached from weeping. All that sorrow bore down on him.

"Frodo," Legolas' voice came to him- as if calling from far away-, "We shall never know why he did what he did. Maybe it was from guilt. Maybe from grief. Or maybe he put aside everything so you were not harmed. But he knew who he was. Balin was himself again. He saved my life, Frodo. And he sacrificed himself for you. He was a hero. He was the real Balin then. You saved his life. Took him from the darkness and returned him to what he truly was. Often you shall grieve him, Frodo. You will feel it pressing down on you. As if nothing else matters any more. But Balin would not want you to pity him or weep for him. He wanted more than anything to be remember. So we shall. The world shall sing out Balin's name again! And wherever he stands now, watching you, he will be content."

Frodo slept. So wearied from battle, pain and grief. And in his dream, he saw Balin standing in the mithril chamber, everywhere lit up with bright lights. And there were dwarves there, applauding him, cheering his name. Frodo was clapping too, smiling like he thought he never could again. And Balin came over to embrace him.

"This is Frodo Baggins, everyone!" he announced to the crowd. "The nephew to our old friend, Bilbo!"

Legolas watched the hobbit rest and he found Sam's eyes on him. He looked up and their eyes met in solemn comfort. They both knew what it felt like to lose someone. They had come so close to losing Frodo. And together, they made a silent pact never to lose him again.

~* End *~