Disclaimer: Based on Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, under license to New Line Productions. This is a non-commercial work.

For Want of Mithril

by Lizardbeth

"You should be dead. That spear could have skewered a wild boar" -- Aragorn to Frodo, in the Tomb of Balin

To Legolas, the sound of Frodo's gasp was entirely too loud, though it was across the chamber, on the other side of a dozen orcs. He whirled, darting beneath the guard of the orc to his left and slashing its throat, and looked to the corner. The pillar blocked his view of Frodo, but the look of stunned horror on Merry and Pippin's faces was enough to know something terrible had happened.

As one, the two hobbits leaped onto the cave troll's head and began to stab it with their short swords, yelling wordlessly. The troll reached up and found one, Legolas wasn't sure which, and flung him to the ground.

Gandalf too froze a moment, before he renewed his assault on the cave troll. Gimli, at his side, wielded his axe but to little effect.

Noting that Boromir was dispatching the last orc, Legolas resheathed his knives and unshouldered his bow. His fingers took a split-second to find one of his few arrows left, and he drew. He watched and waited. In all the lore of his people, the cave troll's brain was one of its few weaknesses, which was why he had tried firing at it at point blank range. But clearly the skull was too thick -- so he would try another angle.

Staying away from the troll's flailing arms, the elf waited for the perfect shot. Then he loosed.

He knew the shot was good as it left his bow. The arrow streaked upward, straight through the troll's gaping maw, and back and upward through the soft tissue at the throat. The cave troll reached for the arrow, its eyes full of simple surprise, and it fell over dead, shattering into stone when it impacted.

For a moment, the tomb was silent. Most of the fellowship was gathered around the stone fragments of the troll, but Aragorn and Sam were at the back, gathered around Frodo. The hobbit had fallen on his stomach and lay unmoving.

With his elven senses, Legolas knew at once that Frodo was dead.

"Frodo!" Sam cried in despair.

Aragorn turned him over gently. The spear had broken at the haft, but it had gone through the small hobbit. There was little blood. Frodo's blue eyes were clear and seemed surprised.

The fellowship looked at one another in despair.

Frodo had fallen. The quest was over very nearly before it had begun.

The other hobbits ran over to them, crying his name, and Aragorn's hand moved gently through Frodo's hair, pillowing Frodo's head on his knee. Gandalf sat heavily on a tumbled chunk of stone.

In that moment of stillness, Legolas lifted his head as he felt the ground tremble faintly beneath his feet. A hot sulfurous breeze stirred his hair with its unseen fingers. He heard the scrabbling of claws on stone from the hall outside, but that did not fill him with the same dread as the fell spirit he could sense rising from deep in the earth. "Gandalf," he called softly.

Gandalf's head and shoulders were bowed and he did not move.

In the great hall outside, he heard the cries and skittering of uncountable orcs, moving in on them. He could see the flickerings of their eyes past the shattered doorway, but as yet none were moving to attack.

The orcs were fleeing something else, something much worse.

Legolas moved closer and put a hand on Gandalf's shoulder, and murmured in Sindarin, "Mithrandir, we must go. I feel the shadow moving nearer"

Gandalf nodded and agreed hoarsely, "Yes." He straightened painfully. "Who shall bear the ring now?"

Aragorn's eyes were shadowed. "You must, Gandalf."

"No," Gandalf used his staff and levelled himself to his feet, with Legolas' hand under his elbow as support. "I can not take it."

"Then Legolas," Aragorn suggested, glancing at his friend over the bent heads of the grieving hobbits. "The ring should call an elf least of us."

Legolas could see the ring on its chain still at Frodo's throat, and see the unmarked gold in the dimness. But it was not just a ring. To his senses the gold did not shine, but instead seemed to sit in a pool of shadow. He had no idea what inky darkness like that might do to him. Though no elf of the high kindred had ever served evil willingly, he was not certain that his will would be enough to prevail.

He glanced, troubled, at Gandalf. The wizard reluctantly nodded. "The ring will fight your dominion, Legolas," he warned and his eyes went to Aragorn, Boromir, and Gimli who were watching grimly. "The ring's whispers will likely grow stronger, because it will not wish to be carried by an elf. Be on your guard. But we must hurry."

Legolas hurried over, kneeling beside Aragorn. "May you find peace in the garden of Lorien in the undying lands, Frodo Bagginshe murmured, "Namarië."

Then gingerly he reached for the ring. His hand hadn't even touched it, when his whole body seemed to freeze with pain and his vision filled with the image of a great fiery Eye.

"By the Ainur!" He flinched back, panting, and his gaze met Aragorn's. "I am not welcome."

"Perhaps by the chain?" Aragorn suggested and carefully removed it from the fallen hobbit's neck. Holding the ring by the chain, he hesitated as though listening to something unheard then thrust it into Legolas' grip. "Take it."

Quickly, Legolas put the chain over his head. When the ring struck his chest, it was as though a slender blade iced straight into his heart. His hands tightened to fists and he pressed them against the stone floor, closing his eyes and murmuring in prayer, "Elentari, onno thal nin. Tiro nin."

The pain eased and he opened his eyes to find everyone's gaze on him, but he looked at the hobbits', their eyes streaming with tears. "We must go, Sam," he murmured. "Evil worse than a cave troll approaches."

Sam shook his head, but with Merry and Pippin's help he stumbled to his feet.

Aragorn unbuckled Sting from Frodo's waist and handed to Sam who clutched it. "He would want you to keep it, Sam." He wrapped Frodo's cloak around the fallen hobbit and stood. "That is all we can do for him. We have to go." He frowned down at Legolas, who still knelt on the floor. "Are you all right?"

"I have been better," Legolas admitted and forced himself to his feet, feeling unusually weak and heavy, as though the ring were pulling at him toward the earth. Aragorn's hand steadied him.

"Hurry!" Gandalf called. "Durin's Bane approaches. We must make the bridge of Khazâd-dûm."

They ran. The great hall was deserted, but there was a fell shadow of fire at the far end that seemed to grow brighter. Legolas could hear the chittering and scampering of goblins all around, hiding in the floor and the ceiling, terrified of what was coming.

He could not catch his breath suddenly, as if the ring were a great weight pressing on his chest. He stumbled, and Aragorn was there, with a hand under his elbow.

"Come on, my friend," he coaxed, but his eyes were worried.

Legolas sent back a grim smile and continued to run. He had no other choice.

They ran through the great doors at the end and Legolas saw Boromir's arms desperately churning, trying to keep his balance where the stairs abruptly disintegrated into a chasm. The elf put on a burst of speed down the steps and yanked the human backward to safety.

The immense chamber was a rabbit warren of steps and bridges above a chasm that seemed endless. It was impressive construction, no doubt thousands of years old.

"The bridge is close," Gandalf pointed with his staff. Legolas could see the bridge of Khazâd-dûm, the only spanning of this deep well, far below and to his left. "Hurry."

As the group started down the steps, Legolas could feel what Gandalf did as well, the trembling in the ground and the hot sulfurous breeze, and more, the chill of evil touching his spirit.

What kind of foolish people built no railings on steps above a chasm? Legolas wondered as he raced down the winding side steps. Even elves had safety railings in their buildings, and they walked a lot more lightly than dwarves.

They came to a gap in the path and Legolas leaped across without hesitation. But the ring on the chain around his neck swung as it should not have and his foot slipped. He lost his balance and his second step went right off the edge.

"Legolas!" someone shouted.

The nothingness beneath him flashed through his mind and he whirled, desperately reaching for the edge of the stone. His arms impacted painfully, and his fingers clawed at the stone, sliding and finding no purchase. There was nothing beneath him, no way to catch himself as his weight pulled him down to eternity. Slipping ... Stopped. He caught himself by his fingertips on the edge, stilling himself from swinging.

Ordinarily, he could have pulled himself up easily. But now he felt heavy -- too heavy, to risk shifting his grip on the stone. The ring around his neck dragged at him, seeking to fall into the chasm.

No, curse you, Sauron, I will not let you win. Very slightly, he moved his fingers wider apart, to prepare to pull himself up. The edge loosened and he froze, absolutely still, but his heart was pounding.

"A little help!" he called, his voice rather tight and hoarse.

He heard boots land on the stone above him and shortly he saw Aragorn's face above him. "Thought I'd lost you, elf," he muttered, grim worried eyes on him. "You have to be more careful." He reached down and grasped Legolas' forearm tightly. Legolas released his grip with that hand, turning his wrist to seize Aragorn's arm. Then it was a simple matter to get back to his feet.

Boromir jumped across. Then Gandalf all but threw the hobbits across, and Aragorn and Legolas caught them. He did the same with Gimli, over his protests. The ground trembled and Gandalf cast a look back.

The heat and light of the fire was drawing near.

"Gandalf, hurry," Aragorn gestured.

The wizard leaped, and Aragorn and Legolas caught him. Legolas felt something strange at the touch of Gandalf's hand that he had never felt before.

It hummed into him with the intensity of the air after a storm, a recognition between Gandalf and himself. No, he reconsidered with a glance into the wizard's suddenly astonished blue eyes. Not himself and the wizard. Between the great ring on its chain and --

"Narya," he whispered. Cirdan's ring. The Ring of Fire. Gandalf was wearing it. It was somehow disguised so that it couldn't be seen, but the One Ring recognized one of its own. What was the wizard doing with one of the Elven rings? How dare he carry it?

A great slab of stone fell from above and slammed into the part of the stairs they had just left, and the sound jolted Legolas out of his anger.

The Ring. By the Valar, it was the ring, already working its poison.

Gandalf's wise eyes met his and he nodded in understanding. His hand gently squeezed Legolas' shoulder. "We must go, son of Thranduil."

Aragorn was ahead of them, as the two immortals continued down the steps. The shaking grew worse as the stench and the heat drew nearer. Legolas looked down toward the bridge, at the brightening of the light.


Terror sprouted in his chest like frost covering the autumn forest. Balrog. One of Morgoth's greatest weapons of the First Age, and second only to Sauron in power. Balrogs had slain Fëanor, maker of the Silmarils, and many of the other greatest elves who ever lived. Durin's Bane.

They weren't going to make it.

Because of him, his stumble, the Balrog was going to get to the bridge first. They were all going to die, unless he did something. He was the only one who could reach the bridge in time. All he had to do was hold the creature long enough for the others to cross. Hold it with what? he asked himself, feeling a twinge of hysteria. His arrows and knives?

No, he realized. Those were not his only weapons. Thoughtlessly his hand rose to clasp the ring. But this time, it did not burn him, but merely seemed warm.

The memory flashed of that moment back in the council when Boromir had suggested using the weapon of the enemy against him and his own words denying that possibility. Well, time would now prove whether he had been wiser then or now.

If he was to die, so be it, but he would not take his friends with him. He had failed once already to protect Frodo, and he would not fail again.

Fleetly as the mountain wind, he began to run, racing past the hobbits and the dwarf and sliding around Boromir, to overtake the lead.

Gandalf yelled, "Legolas! NO!"

But he did not heed the call. Indeed he could not. The fellowship had only one chance to live and that was if he reached the bottom of the steps before the Balrog did.

The steps ended at a vast stone platform, with a towering archway before him and the great bridge behind him. A great hot wind blew back his hair as the archway filled with fire-light, at once bright and yet full of shadow as well.

Now that he had taken his stand, his fear eased. His fingers did not tremble as he removed the ring from the chain. His gaze sought the entrance, waiting with elven patience, but as yet his eyes could not penetrate the fire and smoke and shadow beyond the door that heralded the demon.

He grew calmer, centering himself, as if about to make a difficult shot with his bow. There was nothing beyond this moment.

Folly or wisdom, it was now the only path.

The flames stirred in the archway and the demon emerged. A form of shadow and flame, three times taller than Legolas, with the barest hint of legs and arms and great horned head, the Balrog wielded a whip of fire that curled and struck over his head.

Legolas slid the ring on his finger.

The world changed. The fire vanished and turned white, as though he stood in a fog. The very stone of the walls and floor seemed to disappear. He felt power, a strong current flowing through him like a fast river. With it he felt he could do anything.

He saw the Balrog before him -- a creature of purest shadow with red fiery eyes -- but he also saw beyond the Balrog, through it, and to the great dark tower standing beside a mountain of fire. Barad-dûr. He felt as though if he turned his head he could see everywhere -- and suddenly it happened, his vision skipped and shifted, above a vast sea of green broken by a ridge of dark mountains that he suddenly realized were the mountains of Mirkwood. He could see everything.

The Balrog stalked forward, and drew his attention again.

Legolas held up the ring and the Balrog stopped. The words he needed came from out of nowhere. "By this power, I command you. By this power, I bind you."

The Balrog opened its great maw and growled, but it did not move.

Legolas continued to hold up the ring to keep it at bay, but he began to realize something was wrong. He could wield it, but it was fighting him too. Beneath the flowing power of the ring, there was pain. At first it was just a burn on his finger that travelled deep inside, but it grew. It was as though each moment he used the ring was another small cut, each one nothing alone, but all of them together hurt and bled.

But in this other wraith-place, he had no clear idea of time. Could not know whether the others had crossed the bridge yet. He had to wait.

The Balrog took a single step forward, before Legolas raised his hand higher and the ring cast its shadow outward. "By this power, you do as I bid. You will stop."

Again the Balrog stopped, clearly chafing under the power of the ring that held it. But it was not going to be held much longer. Legolas knew it, and no doubt the Balrog knew it as well.

He had to hold as long as he could. Even while the power coursing through him tore at his spirit, he had to hold on.

Please, blessed Valar, give me strength to do what I must do, he prayed.

The Great Eye of Fire was suddenly there, staring down at him. Fear clutched him in sharp claws and he very nearly ripped off the ring at that moment to escape its baleful gaze. But he had to wait.

He had a sense of surprise and then vast terrible amusement. And the whisper came to him, through the ring ... Come to me, my newest servant ... sit at my right hand, prince of the Firstborn... feel all the power that once was yours before the jealousy of the great ones stole it away ...

Legolas could not have spoken aloud but with all his heart, he rejected what Sauron offered. I am not your servant.

Sauron laughed, a sound that cut him like the blade of a sword. You serve me even now, little Firstborn. Your secrets are now mine. Your soul is mine.

NEVER! He tried to stand tall, rejecting all that he heard, all that he felt. Pain was nothing. I am Eldarin, I am your enemy. I will destroy you.

The response came as a freezing hiss. Reject me, and I will scatter your spirit beyond the void so utterly that not even Ilúvatar Himself could find you and bring your spirit to Aman.

His soul quailed at the threat. Never to go to the Undying Lands? To be trapped in the void beyond the embrace of Arda?

The whisper continued, softer now and seductive. But it does not have to be that way, prince of the Firstborn. Serve me, and you shall know power and strength. Avenge all that you have lost. Take the power I offer. Men and Dwarves shall fall before you like a twig before a storm...

He couldn't breathe, couldn't think. Fear crushed him beneath its weight. But still he held on to the one great truth -- never had any of the Eldar served Morgoth or his servants willingly. He could not give in to this.

No. He refused again, shaking. No.

Sauron's whisper and the ring had no verbal reply, but they had a response.

The Dark Power rose through him, unstoppable. His strength was nothing, his will was nothing. Both shredded instantly and were gone.

And there was only pain.

When Legolas ran past him on the endless stair, Aragorn had not understood why. Even when the elf raced ahead of all the fellowship with enviable fleetness, Aragorn had thought it was only because Legolas was concerned about another gap in the stairs.

Aragorn was on the landing above, only one length of stair remaining, when Legolas ran out across the floor to stand in front of a stone archway leading back into the depths of Moria. Aragorn was not the only one to stop, amazed by the view below.

The archway glowed as if with the light of a thousand torches. Legolas planted himself before it, facing the arch with a defiant air.

"What is he doing?" Boromir's astonished voice came up to him and Aragorn wondered the same thing.

"Something foolish," Gandalf muttered and then ordered more loudly. "Keep going!"

It was hard to watch the steps and Legolas but he did, dreading what he would see.

When the creature emerged, Aragorn felt a shuddering horror at its power, but a far more immediate fear for Legolas who was standing in its path.

He had known, Aragorn realized. Legolas has known the demon would reach the bridge first.

"To the bridge!" Gandalf yelled at Boromir who had reached the bottom of the steps. With visible reluctance, the heir of Denethor of Gondor started for the bridge, well behind Legolas.

Aragorn squinted, in the light, trying to make out what Legolas was doing. He clearly wasn't intending to shoot at it, since his bow remained over his shoulder. Both knives were sheathed, not that either was likely to do much harm to the demon. But Legolas was doing something.

The Ring. The elf was putting on the ring.

Aragorn braced himself for Legolas to vanish as Frodo had done back in the Prancing Pony, but that was not what happened. Instead, Legolas became more visible. He glowed with a pure silvery radiance, like the moon. Aragorn's jaw dropped in wonder, as he realized this was what elves truly looked like. For the first time in his whole life spent among them, he truly understood that they were more than just a little different looking from Men.

The elf held up his ringed hand in a gesture to stop, and shouted something. Aragorn didn't know the language, though it sounded harsh compared to Westron or the elvish tongues, so he wasn't sure what it meant but it was clearly a command.

The demon stopped moving, his whip of fire curling idly against the floor. It stared balefully back at Legolas but seemed frozen.

"Go," Gandalf ordered again. "To the bridge!"

The halflings started running for the bridge, their steps slowing to glance back at the towering fiery being and the smaller but bright elf confronting him. Gimli followed behind, pushing at them when they delayed. They started across the bridge.

Aragorn began to follow when he realized something had changed with Legolas. He still held the ring high and he still glowed, but the silvery light seemed to have dimmed. And though he still stood tensely on the balls of his feet, now he swayed. His other hand gathered into a tight fist.

"Legolas, take it off!" Gandalf shouted, but the elf didn't seem to hear. "Legolas!" Nearly to himself, he muttered, "The child will destroy himself."

Child? Aragorn nearly demanded in surprise, but pushed it away for more important things. He had to help his friend.

Gandalf caught his sleeve when the Man would've passed to go to Legolas. "Aragorn, do not touch the Ring. You must get him across the bridge. Don't look back."

Aragorn looked into those wise blue eyes and knew that something terrible was about to happen, but like Gandalf he knew there was no other choice. Nodding reluctantly, Aragorn nodded once and made ready to move.

Ominous gray shadows appeared in the aura around Legolas, and his hand seemed swallowed in shadow. The demon took a step forward and his flame whip rose high again, but Legolas shouted at it again forcing it still. But he was losing control, that much even Aragorn could tell.

"GO!" Gandalf commanded and the two ran for their friend. Legolas was trembling now, and from this angle Aragorn could see his face was drawn with strain. His eyes were wide open and shone a brilliant, unearthly sapphire blue, but they were fixed blankly, seeing nothing in this world.

"Legolas!" Aragorn yelled. "Legolas, take it off!"

Not quite there yet, Aragorn watched in horror as the gray in his aura widened and darkened. The light dimmed and dimmed, until it winked out altogether.

Legolas began to scream. It was a terrible, nightmarish sound of agony beyond physical pain, and Aragorn knew it would haunt him the rest of his days. No being should ever be in such torment. He didn't stop screaming even when Aragorn threw his arms around the elf and began to drag him backward toward the bridge. Touching him was like plunging his hand into an icy river but Aragorn grimly held on. There was something not right about holding him, like trying to hold the winter wind..

Gandalf had drawn his sword and confronted Durin's Bane with the end of his staff glowing brilliantly. He moved back as well, covering Legolas and Aragorn's retreat.

The creature's whip descended, but seemed to strike a crystal ball around Gandalf that protected him from the blow.

Gandalf would have to take care of himself for a moment, Aragorn decided. He turned and, more than half carrying Legolas, rushed toward the far end of the bridge where the others waited. Legolas did not stop screaming, sustaining a high pitched cry of agony.

"Boromir!" he called to the other man. "Get them out of here!"

Boromir nodded and began rounding up the hobbits and Gimli and pushing them up the steps and toward freedom.

Aragorn stumbled to his knees, Legolas draped across his lap still screaming. It had to be the ring that was causing him such pain. If he could get it off... Aragorn lifted the elf's left hand. "By Elbereth!" he whispered in horror, his voice lost in the noise of the crackling fires and roars of the demon and Gandalf's words challenging him.

Though the ring still shone golden, the finger wearing it was blackened as though roasted by an intense fire. And that burning was clearly spreading up his hand. The ring had to come off. But he didn't have time to do it here. The screaming tapered to a soft keening moan that was even more wrenching to hear.

He glanced at Gandalf who stood at the very middle of the bridge, the demon looming above him.

"You shall not pass!" Gandalf shouted at it and brought his staff down onto the bridge. Light flared like lightning through the stone but that was all that seemed to have happened. Gandalf began to scoot backward toward Aragorn, who gathered up Legolas as much as he could and prepared to run for it.

Aragorn could sense the demon's contempt as it moved forward, whip snapping all around.

It was utterly surprised when the bridge shattered beneath it. For just a timeless moment, baleful eyes stared straight at Aragorn -- no, at Legolas -- and then it fell.

Gandalf relaxed and turned to face Aragorn with a satisfied expression. That was why he never saw the fire-whip curl out of the depths and grab him by the ankle.

"Gandalf!" Aragorn yelled, half to his feet.

The wizard crashed to the floor and began sliding toward the edge. His hands clawed at the stone, but could find nothing to stop his inexorable fall.

The others behind him screamed out the wizard's name, but it was to Aragorn that Gandalf looked. Deliberately the wizard glanced at Legolas and then back up to meet Aragorn's eyes. And even over the sound of the elf's suffering, Aragorn could clearly hear him whisper, "Fly, you fools."

Then, his fingers slipped and he was gone.

"Gandalf!" Aragorn's grief was overwhelming. He'd known the wizard since he was born and his loss, on top of Frodo's so recently, was a blow.

The first goblin arrow, clinking on the stone near him, made him stir and he realized the danger wasn't over. The dead would have to fend for themselves -- he had to care for the living.

He took firmer hold of Legolas across his shoulders and began to haul him to the steps as goblin arrows began to fall like bitter tears.

They came out of the mountain into afternoon sunlight that felt like a blessing after all the darkness they'd endured.

The rest of the fellowship gathered around as the ranger laid down his burden gently. Legolas had stopped making any sound, but his eyes were still that ethereal glowing sapphire.

"What's wrong with him?" Boromir asked.

"Is he going to die?" Pippin asked, tears in his eyes.

"I don't know. But the ring has to come off." Aragorn took his gloves out of his coat pockets and put them on so he wouldn't touch the ring. He started to very gently try to ease it off. But the ring had bonded to the burnt flesh and refused to move.

He pulled his dagger and started gently poking beneath the plain gold band. Merry turned away and was noisily sick.

Aragorn concentrated on his task, knowing that the foulness would spread up Legolas' arm and kill him if the ring was not removed.

Sam swallowed hard. "How come -- how come he's not invisible?"

"Because elves are already more spirit than flesh by nature," Aragorn answered as gently as he could, while still working to free the ring. But there was only one way, he feared. He asked, "Sam, if you would hand me Sting for a moment? That's the purest blade we have."

Sam started. "You're going -- you mean to --" he stammered but handed the long knife to Aragorn, who nodded.

"Cut it off," Boromir finished with a grim voice. "Is there no other way?"

Aragorn shook his head. "The poison is spreading and the ring refuses to move. I'll need cloth to bind the wound."

"I'll get it," Boromir offered and knelt beside his pack.

"Everyone, stand away," Aragorn ordered. "I don't know what will happen."

Sting's blade was, thankfully, not glowing, but it did shine in the slanted sunlight as Aragorn poised it over Legolas' middle finger of his left hand. At least it wasn't his pulling hand.

My ancestor cut the One Ring from Sauron's hand defeating him, Aragorn realized and his stomach rolled queasily, and now I must cut the same ring from Legolas. Will this destroy him as well?

Having no way to answer that, he decided he could hesitate no longer. He brought the blade down.

Like a coal that retained the shape of the wood but then crumbled to ash at the merest touch, Legolas' finger disintegrated. There was no blood. The ring clanked on the stone beneath it.

Legolas let out a sigh and was still. The eerie blue vanished from his eyes, and his lids closed. But his skin was stark white and cold as stone when Aragorn touched him. At least his heart was still beating, though weakly, and he was breathing.

He bound the other fingers, which were streaked with an innner darkness, together with the cloth Boromir handed him then, hoping that when they reached Lothlórien Galadriel might be able to help.

"And what of the ring?" Gimli demanded pointing to where the gold winked in the sun.

Aragorn hesitated. He heard vague whispers that wanted him to take it. And if that's what the ring wanted it was absolutely what he should not do. Gathering his will, he opened the carrying chain and slid the ring back on it and then the chain around the elf's neck. "Legolas is still the Ringbearer until we are told otherwise. Come, we must hurry to Lothlórien before night falls. They are his only hope."

It was a somber and heart-sick group that trooped toward the golden haze just visible in the valley. Aragorn carried Legolas across his shoulders, finding the elf a light burden physically, but all the rest was very heavy. One Ringbearer and the wizard lost, and the second Ringbearer near death. The fellowship had failed before getting halfway to their destination.

All that long afternoon, Legolas did not stir or make a sound. He just lay like a limp sack of ice and Aragorn kept a hand on one of his wrists at all times to make sure his heart was continuing to beat. He feared at every step to touch that cold wrist and discover it had stopped.

Please, he glanced up at Eärendil, the first star in the sky of the late twilight, help him. Don't let him die.

It was full dark by the time they arrived at the valley wood of Lothlórien. Aragorn had Sam draw Sting again, just to make sure there were no orcs close by. He was afraid that they would come pouring out of Moria at dusk, but so far it seemed they would reach the border first. No orc would dare to cross into Lothlórien.

"Are you sure I can't take him for a little while?" Boromir offered again, as he had every few hours of their journey.

Instead of answering as he had before that the elf weighed practically nothing, Aragorn shook his head. "He is my friend, Boromir. I've known him since my youth. And so, no, I can't let him go."

Both reasons were true, but neither was the entire truth. Aragorn did not entirely trust Boromir to have the ring in his grasp and not take it for himself. He hoped that Legolas' trouble had acted as a sort of warning for the younger man as it had for him, but he was not certain enough to let him carry Legolas and the ring.

Boromir nodded and stepped back to keep watch on the shorter members of the company. They stepped under the first eaves of the forest and Aragorn recalled with sorrow how eager Legolas had been to see the golden wood. The elf had hoped their journey would take them to Lothlórien, even though the original plan had not been to go over the mountains so far north. Now Legolas was going to the beautiful forest he had wanted to see, but on the brink of death.

When they had passed about half a league and Aragorn was nearly certain they were being watched, he stopped and called in Sindarin, "I am Aragorn. I beg aid for my companions."

There was a soft sound in the night and suddenly the company was surrounded by elves carrying torches and drawn bows. "Aragorn of Rivendell, you come with strange companions," said one fair, and rather haughty elf with a hard glance at Gimli.

Aragorn recognized him. They didn't have time for the usual elf hostility to strangers. "Haldir, please. This is Legolas, son of Thranduil. He needs Lady Galadriel's help desperately. He's dying."

Haldir lowered his bow and reached across to touch Legolas' cheek, hanging down by Aragorn's shoulder. He immediately snatched his hand back. "There is little time. Follow me." He turned quickly and gave orders to his company to take Legolas from Aragorn and carry him.

Aragorn didn't want to relinquish his friend, but he was weary and they still had miles left to travel to the city. The elves quickly formed a stretcher with a cloak, lashings and two long poles and Aragorn laid his burden gently on it, tucking Legolas' cloak around him for extra warmth. The elf was so still he looked as though he had already passed on. His breathing was barely perceptible and his eyes were closed. His skin had taken on a transluscent quality in the past few hours, as though he were turning into marble.

As the group moved deeper in the forest, the air warmed. Despite winter embracing the world, the weather was always perfect in Lothlórien. Past the outskirts, they began to enter the forest of the great mellyrn. The forest was beautiful, and Aragorn found himself in awe every time he was there. The huge silver trunks of the trees and their sprawling roots rose like towers crowned with golden leaves. Many of the elves lived in structures grown from the trees above and lights sparkled high in the branches like closer stars. Ordinarily the company would have climbed one of the spiral staircases to reach the homes above. .

But tonight, their escorts guided them along the path to the hill of Cerin Amroth, which was bare of trees so that one could see all the way to the stars above. Small golden and white flowers dotted the grass of the hill, their soft perfume scenting the air. Many torches lit a group of elves who were waiting. Among them one in particular drew the eye, an elven woman with long golden hair and a beautiful fair face that belied her age. It was difficult to believe that she was not just Arwen's grandmother, but that she was far older than Elrond as well. Yet in her eyes was the wisdom of her long life, plus the power and knowledge of the only elf yet remaining in Middle-Earth who had lived in Valinor.

Lady Galadriel.

At her side, stood silver-haired Celeborn, her husband, and a handful of their people, most of whom Aragorn recognized from his past visits. Aragorn was faintly amused to see the others of the company staring at her, Gimli with his mouth open.

The elves carried Legolas to lay at her feet. She glanced down at him and her expression tightened in concern. She looked up again at Aragorn. "His condition is most grave. We will speak after I have helped him."

"And you will tell us how this occurred," Celeborn added, more severely. "How nine were sent from Rivendell and only seven arrive, and my kinsman nearly lost to death."

"But not now," she said. "Haldir, escort our guests to where they may rest. They have had a most difficult journey and are weary with sorrow."

The rest of the fellowship numbly turned to follow the elf. But instead of going along the others, Aragorn stepped forward. "Please, Lady Galadriel, I would like to stay."

Her blue eyes, clear and depthless, met his and after a moment she nodded. "Sometimes a friend may call and be heard. Stay and watch as you wish, Estel. But do not interfere unless asked."

He nodded and watched as she knelt beside Legolas. She unbound the damaged hand, handling it tenderly. "He is lost," she murmured. "His spirit is wounded, and a Shadow lies upon his heart."

She poured from a ewer of water brought to her into a shallow silver bowl she set on the ground. Dipping a soft cloth into the water, she began to bathe Legolas' injured hand, murmuring in Quenya. Aragorn knew it was a prayer to Varda, calling upon her to light Legolas' path back to himself and extinguish the darkness that had taken root in him. She also called to Legolas himself to come to the light.

Time passed, and in his weariness, the murmur of her voice and the torchlight seemed to smear together into a haze. If he had not been already kneeling on the ground, he might have fallen, and it was a hard struggle not to fall asleep.

But her voice called him back to alertness. "Estel, kneel with me." He moved forward, across Legolas from her. She had laid Legolas hands on his chest -- the foul darkness had gone, leaving his four-fingers palely white against the dark green of his tunic. But he still looked ill and barely moved to breathe.

"He is still lost," she reported softly. "You must help me call him. Put your hand upon his," she ordered and he did so. Legolas' hands were cold as stone to his touch. Hers, in contrast, atop his were warm and soft. Together they called his name, and with her touch on him, he could sense some of the strength of that call, reaching out to wherever Legolas' spirit had flown.

"Legolas, please," Aragorn whispered, praying that by some grace Legolas would hear him. "Come back to the light. Don't let go, my friend, please don't let go."

"Legolas, son of Thranduil," Galadriel called more forcefully, "Legolas, son of Losril, come to the light."

"Please, Legolas," Aragorn pleaded.

He felt Legolas' hand twitch beneath his, and he didn't think it was his imagination that the elf's skin seemed warmer.

"Yes, that's it," Aragorn coaxed. "Come on back. Open your eyes, and talk to me. Come on, Legolas."

He didn't exactly open his eyes, but he took easier breaths and his sleep now seemed more natural.

Galadriel bound his damaged hand again, winding a soft white bandage around the fingers and palm. "I have done all that I can. Now it is his choice."

They waited then, Aragorn with his friend's undamaged hand resting in his. The other elves slowly drifted away, to sleep or to gather in the trees to prepare for the coming of day. Soon only Galadriel remained, kneeling on the grass beside Legolas and Aragorn.

First light touched the sky in the east slowly extinguishing the stars, as the dome of the air slowly turned a muzzy dark green and then blue.

At the coming of the dawn, the sun's rays slipped past the great trees to light the crown of the hill and shone on Legolas. Slowly, more natural color blossomed in his skin, until he was his original fair self, not transluscent marble.

His lips parted and he took a longer, fuller breath. Under Aragorn's hand, the elf's fingers twitched.

Aragorn leaned forward. "Legolas? Can you hear me? Come on back, now."

The elf's eyes opened. He clearly did not know where he was or perhaps, even who he was. The confusion was easy enough to read in his face, giving way to terror and and anguish.

"It's Aragorn," the human murmured, trying to ease him. "You're going to be all right, Legolas. Just rest for now, my friend."

Legolas was looking at him, yet didn't seem to see him at all. Aragorn remained still and kept holding the elf's his hand. "It's all right," he repeated. "You're safe."

The elf pulled his hand free and lifted it to touch his throat. He found the ring, and he fell asleep, clutching his hand around it.

Concerned, Aragorn eased back on his haunches and looked to Galadriel for an explanation.

She was watching Legolas with great sorrow in her eyes.

"He is bound to the ring," she said softly. "I could not break that binding, for only the ring's power ties him to life. Should anyone take the ring from him, he will die."

Aragorn opened his mouth to protest, then shut it again when another possibility struck him. "And if the ring's destroyed?"

A bird high in the trees trilled joyously to greet the dawn. Aragorn became aware of the soft warm breeze tugging at his hair as he waited for her answer. It was a beautiful morning that did nothing to ease the anxiety churning in Aragorn's insides.

She spoke at last. "He will die."

"No," Aragorn shook his head, stubbornly denying what she was saying. "No, that can't be. There has to be another way. You can't be saying that no matter what happens, he's going to die."

"There is one last possibility," she murmured. "He may surrender to the power of the ring."

"And become a wraith?" Aragorn demanded, and his voice cracked. She couldn't be telling him this. This was impossible, that a creature of such grace and light as Legolas, could fall to evil.

"No," she answered, and Aragorn felt a moment of hope, which was soon dashed when she glanced at him. In her ageless eyes was the knowledge of the terrible doom that Legolas faced. "No. If he surrenders to the ring, darkness will overcome his spirit and will leave an opening for Sauron to inhabit his flesh. Legolas will become the Dark Lord."

Above, a cloud passed between them and the sun, putting the hilltop in shadow. For a moment all was silent, even the birds made no noise. The breeze turned chill.

Aragorn thought desperately of something to say, horrified by her words. No, it was impossible. Legolas would never give in to the ring. Never. Especially if he knew that it would bring back Sauron, and it would be his own hand reaching out to crush Middle-Earth. "No..."

More to herself, she continued, "And again Sauron will return to the fair form he once had when he seduced and deceived us into doing his will, even as he plotted our destruction. Few could stand against Annatar."

"But he didn't take over Bilbo or Frodo, or even Gollum," Aragorn pointed out, objecting, thinking he had found a hole in her assumption. "And Gollum had the ring for five hundred years and more."

She laid her hand against Legolas' cheek, and tucked his cloak more securely around him. "Sauron did not know Halflings existed in the last age, so they are not bound into the ring. That is why they are so resistant to its evil. But elves are bound to it -- not as strongly as Men or Dwarves, but still we are bound."

He thought about what she was saying, and then shook his head adamantly. "No. I can't believe Legolas would allow it. He must have resisted, or the ring wouldn't have tried to destroy him." Aragorn gestured to the bandaged hand.

"True. He has done great honor to his house and shown strength of spirit I would not have guessed. And yet... " she trailed off, troubled.

Aragorn knew that if Galadriel was worried, it boded ill for the future.

She rose fluidly to her feet. "He will sleep at least through the day, perhaps for several days. The sunlight will help him fight the lingering call of the darkness. Rest yourself as well, Estel. We must soon make hard choices."

With those ominous words, Galadriel moved away, her hair shining like a river of gold down her back.

Aragorn watched her go and turned his eyes back to Legolas.

This couldn't be happening. How could it all have gone so wrong?

First Frodo was killed by a cave troll, because Aragorn had failed to protect him. Then Gandalf had fallen into a pit with a Balrog.

And now Legolas was doomed to premature death, because of Aragorn. All because he had suggested Legolas be the new ringbearer.

I should never have come on this quest. Did I truly think that Sauron would fall easily, just because I decided to claim what Isildur lost?

One of the hobbits should've been the new bearer after Frodo. But he hadn't trusted them -- not their intelligence or their courage. But he had trusted Legolas to be able to carry the burden which he ought to carry himself, but was too afraid.

And now Legolas was going to pay the price for his weakness.


Impenetrable, lightless.

There were no stars. He felt an unquenchable grief that the stars were gone. Somehow it seemed to be his fault and he couldn't bear the thought.

But there was a star, he realized after a time. It was far away, a mere pinprick against the night, but shone with a bright silvery gleam. The light beckoned him nearer, offering comfort, and he wanted to find it.

But fear held him where he was. What if he went to find it and then it went out too? He couldn't destroy the last star. Better that he should stay here and look at it, than risk losing the only light in the darkness.

At first he thought there was only the sound of wind, somewhere far away, then the sound became a voice. Distant as a bell atop a mountain, the voice called to him and was easily ignored. But the voice grew in strength and became commanding, and yet sweetly beautiful.


Yes, that was his name. He remembered. And with his name, other memories flooded back. Of confronting the demon of the deep, wearing the One Ring, hearing the words of Sauron, and feeling his spirit shatter. His mind shied away from memories of the last and tried to huddle in on itself, away from the agony.

The voice came again. "Tullo na in-galad, Legolas. Tullo na in-galad."

He responded automatically to the command at first -- somehow moving toward the light, so that it was nearer and brighter, filling the emptiness around him. But then he hesitated, struck sharply by fear that he could extinguish this light. If he came to the light, as the voice demanded, he could destroy it. He would destroy it.

The Two Trees were no more. The Silmarils were all gone, except for the light of Eärendil. This light was precious, and so fragile. So, so delicate.

He was touched by Shadow now. Better to remain here and not stain the last light in the world.

Two days passed while Legolas slept on Cerin Amroth. Aragorn spent as much time as he could with his friend, interrupted only by sleeping and eating with the other members of the company. He also told the elven leaders all that had happened since the fellowship's departure from Rivendell, especially of Moria. It was difficult to tell the story, but in the end he felt a little better.

The peace and beauty of the golden wood seemed to be easing the sharp grief of the others, as it was for him. The hobbits were quiet, but no longer cried over Frodo and Gandalf's deaths. Instead they seemed to have focused all their hope on Legolas, and would often keep Aragorn company on the hill. Gimli was more reserved, less comfortable in this elven refuge, but he too seemed to be relaxing as time passed. He also was developing unmistakable signs of awe for Galadriel, which made Aragorn smile inwardly. Boromir was the only one who remained somewhat anxious -- worried over Legolas, but also over the fate of Gondor while they remained in the peaceful forest.

Alone at sunset, Aragorn rose from beside Legolas when he noticed both Galadriel and Celeborn approaching. His stomach sank when he realized that their faces had a remote cast -- it was an expression he had seen on Elrond's face quite often as a boy, and always indicated that some strong concern was beneath it. They had come to some decision.

Galadriel nodded as if in answer to the thought, her blue eyes meeting his brielfy. She moved to Legolas, and sank down beside him.

"I have spoken with Elrond," she said, without preamble. He was momentarily struck by the knowledge that she could do so over long distances, but then mentally shrugged it away as unimportant.

"What did he say?" Aragorn asked.

"Legolas must choose his own path," she answered. "We are agreed. To do otherwise would be to make us as evil as what we fight."

Aragorn felt his jaw drop. "You were thinking -- you planned to --?" he couldn't finish the question aloud. They had considered killing Legolas, out of fear for what he could become. Neither of their expressions changed, but Galadriel gently brushed Legolas' cheek with her fingers.

"We cannot murder one of our own," Celeborn said. "Though it is perhaps the least risky of the choices facing us."

"Yet I wonder if it is not also the choice desired by the ring," Galadriel murmured, looking to the ring lying innocently at Legolas' throat. "It could not have expected being borne by one of the Tareldar, and no doubt would prefer one easier to corrupt. I know that Legolas will fight to the last -- what I cannot see is whether his end will be Orodruin, or Barad-dûr." With her hand resting on Legolas' forehead, her voice softened to a whisper and her eyes closed to mere slits, staring into Legolas' immobile face. "Even now, he refuses to come to the light because he fears tainting it. But he is strong and soon will come back to us."

For a few minutes the elven lords and Aragorn sat in silence as the dusk deepened through the forest and the lights began to sparkle high in the trees above. Twilight turned to darkness along the ground, as the sky blazed with color and then began to slowly dim.

Aragorn doubted it was coincidence that at the moment when Eärendil was the only star in the sky, Legolas heaved a sudden deep breath and his eyes flew open.

Unerringly, his gaze found Galadriel's. He was perfectly lucid now, and from the look on his face, he remembered everything. And in fact, he seemed to know what choices faced him, given the desolation in his eyes.

"Non amarthanen," Legolas whispered. I am doomed.

Then his eyes welled with tears, and as Galadriel enfolded him against her, he collapsed into great racking sobs of anguish.

She began to murmur soft, soothing words to the stricken elf-prince, stroking his hair as she must have with her daughter, many years ago. Aragorn couldn't make out what she was saying, and shortly Celeborn drew him away to leave them in peace.

"Tomorrow, I will dispatch a messenger to Thranduil," the elf-lord said. "He should know what trials his son faces. You may enclose something if you wish."

Aragorn thought of Thranduil's reaction and inwardly winced. Thranduil dearly loved his only child, and he would be heart-broken by this news. There were no words Aragorn could think of that could possibly ease the king's sorrow, but he felt he had to try. "I will. Thank you."

Celeborn continued, "In the morning, we shall hold a council, after Legolas gives my lady his choice."

Aragorn nodded his understanding. They had said that they would leave the choice to Legolas, whether to continue to bear the ring to Mount Doom, knowing that the ring might swallow him, or to pass it to another, in full awareness that it would mean his death.

Celeborn started away, but Aragorn called him back. "My lord?" The silver-blond elf-lord turned back, eyebrow raised. "Do you think -- do you believe Legolas can do this?"

Celeborn did him the favor of seriously considering the question before answering. "My kinsman has not been truly tested. And yet, he has the strength of his forefathers as he proved. If I did not believe he could succeed, I would not have let him wake."

The human could find nothing to say in response to the chillingly practical words. He managed a nod and this time let Celeborn walk away.

Legolas followed Galadriel through the trees, moving south, and then down some ancient stone steps into a hollow. There was a spring and small pool cut in the wall that half-encircled the little glade.

Roughly in the center was a stone-carved basin on a pedestal. In silence, Legolas watched her as she dipped a silver ewer into the pool and then moved to pour that water into the basin.

Power shimmered in the air, and he knew that she was using Nenya, the ring of water, that sat on her hand as it had for four thousand years. He could feel her ring, a pulsing awareness in his own blood. He was more aware of the ring on its heavy chain around his own neck, and unthinking his hand lifted to grasp it before he lowered it again.

He had not needed her to tell him that his life was now bound into the ring. He could feel its dark claws hooked into his spirit, and at the same time, he knew that they were the only thing which held him together. But the boundaries were clear -- light from dark, night from day, with no gray between.

He knew it would not last. He had not needed Galadriel to tell him that either. Gray would overcome the light, and then darkness overcome the gray. At which time he would cease to be Legolas of the Eldar and become something as evil, if not worse, than a Nazgûl.

He looked at his other hand, bandaged in linen and yet clearly not whole. Strangely enough, when he flexed his fingers, he seemed to also feel the middle one as well, though it was not there. But there was no pain, at least not from his hand.

When she was finished, she moved away. "Do you wish to look in the Mirror, Legolas?"

He stayed where he was. "I know my fate, lady."

"Do you?" she challenged gently. "Then you are wiser than even the Valar."

He made no reply.

"If you wish to preserve your self and your life, only one option remains," she said in a sympathetic, yet inexorable voice. "You must take the ring to Orodruin and cast it in the fire. It may be that doing so will be your death, and yet I cannot see for certain. The Mirror may reveal what may come to you more clearly. Or perhaps not. The Mirror shows what it wills."

"And if I should see that I fail?" he demanded, his calm as brittle as frost. "If I should see myself in the iron crown with Úlairi at my feet?"

She replied, unshaken. "Then you will see why you must not fail."

He did not want to do this. But he acceded to her wish and stepped up the pedestal. For a moment, the water was clear. Empty as any water should be, and reflecting only the stars above.

Then clouds drifted across the surface and when they parted, he saw an image of his companions, sleeping beneath the trees. Four small forms, and two men -- all that remained of the fellowship.

Dizzyingly swift, the image changed, and he saw his father, in full armor, in the midst of battle. The dead and dying, elves and men and orcs alike, littered the field and blood-soaked mud splashed everything. Before he could cry out in dismay, the image shifted again.

A tall human form, cloaked all in white and gripping a white staff, walked along a forest path. The head was bent, so Legolas could not see his face, but he knew who it was and his heart seethed with hatred. Saruman the Betrayer. He longed to reach through the water, lock his hand around that throat, and squeeze the life from him --

"Do not touch the water," Galadriel's warning jerked him back from the rage, and shaken, he straightened away from the surface.

The images then changed again and again, in rapid sequence, so that he could scarcely identify some of them: more battle, mostly men and horses, but orcs too, Orthanc, great trees, a ringwraith riding some fell beast upon the air and landing it atop the Tower of Ecthelion as the banner of the White Tree burned...

Then... lastly ...

The water became as dark and depthless as a night sky without stars.

The pitiless Eye formed in the water, ringed by flame, and yet the central slit a bottomless chasm. The ring tumbled free of his shirt and hung over the water, pulling him down, weighing heavily on his neck. The Eye roved, seeking him. Seized by terror for what had happened last time, Legolas stumbled back.

He missed the step and fell backward from the pedestal to land gracelessly on the grass.

While he panted, recovering, she drew nearer. "I know what it is you saw," she said. "For it was also in my mind."

"All in darkness," he murmured. "My father and my people in war."

"A messenger rides north tomorrow for him to beware the east and the south. But I do not doubt he knows Dol Guldur stirs already."

"He does." Legolas clasped his knees and rested his head on them. "I should be there," he whispered. "The ring should not have come to me."

"But it did come to you, Legolas, and therefore you were meant to have it. Only you can bear this burden."

"I could give it one of the halflings," he suggested.

"You could," she agreed, "Though we have no certainty that they could succeed and you would perish for nothing. But if you destroy the ring, it may be that you will survive to take ship to the west. Or perhaps, by Elbereth's grace, it may be that you will be restored. But you must choose, Legolas."

He knew she offered him crumbs of hope, and slim fare though they were, it was all he had so he clutched them deep in his heart.

She drew near and laid a hand on the top of his head. "Rest now. No one will come here tonight. I will bring you to the council in the morning, and you may greet your friends."

He glanced up at the star Eärendil, which shone so brightly that it cast his shadow on the grass.

Watch over me, he prayed to the elven lord and the Valar above, Give me strength to do what I must do.

Aragorn woke early the next morning, after a night of troubled dreams. He had not been able to visit Legolas, whom Galadriel had taken off somewhere else, leaving Cerin Amroth bare in the moonlight.

This was the morning of the council, when the fellowship's future would be decided.

The six mortal members of fellowship slowly climbed the winding stair of one of the great mallorn trees. Sunlight filtered through the leaves and branches, casting a golden haze in the air. Just when he thought the hobbits might not be able to climb another step with their much shorter legs, the stair ended and opened onto a wooden platform built in the confluence of three great trunks of the trees. Delicate arches and railings ringed the platform, hung with climbing roses and golden elanor. The far end of the platform rose a few steps and then up to roofed chamber, whose diaphanous curtains billowed in the sweet breeze.

The elves were already there, waiting for them. Nine chairs had been set into a circle with Legolas sitting between Galadriel and Celeborn.

Instead of his usual green hunting clothes, Legolas wore a silver tunic and white pants. His expression was remote, practically carved from stone. He looked very much the part of the elven prince. And yet, there was something more. His already fair face was nearly the same color as his pants, making his eyes look a very deep blue but hollow in a thinner face. He was awake, but not fully well.

"Legolas!" the hobbits cried in delight and started to run toward him. Their steps faltered when they realized he was neither smiling, nor rising to greet them. Aragorn felt a chill, as a vision passed before his eyes of Legolas growing thinner and paler until nothing remained.

The ring hung as a flash of gold against his chest.

But the elf forced a smile, with visible effort. His gaze moved from one to another of the company, and when those eyes met Aragorn's, Aragorn had to keep a tight rein on himself to keep from flinching away. The once merry elf who had run with him through the forest of Mirkwood years ago was gone, replaced by an elf who carried the fate of Middle-Earth.

"I am glad to see you," Legolas said, "all of you. I am sorry I was not able to be with you. But I am better now and we have much to discuss."

Galadriel gestured to the chairs. "Be seated." They did so, Aragorn on Galadriel's other side as the only one comfortable to sit beside her. "The fellowship is broken," she declared. "Each of you must now decide again whether to go on, stay here, or go back. First, the Ringbearer must decide."

She looked to Legolas, who grasped the arms of his chair. His left hand was still bandaged, Aragorn noticed, but it did not seem to hurt him.

"I will go on," he said. Aragorn let out a breath he had not known he was holding. At least Legolas was refusing to give up.

Legolas continued. "The ring must be destroyed. But I do not ask any of you to come with me." He looked at Sam, Merry, and Pippin, who were sitting across from him. "You came along because of Frodo, but he is lost to us. There is no reason for you to continue."

Pippin and Merry were sort of nodding along with him, but Sam looked pensive. The lad was not a deep thinker, but Aragorn knew that he was both very loyal and saw to the heart of a problem.

His curly head shook once in the negative. "I promised Gandalf I wouldn't leave him. He meant Master Frodo, I know, but I reckon he could have meant any ringbearer too."

Only then did Legolas' expression soften and he leaned forward. "Sam -- "

"I know it'll be dangerous," Sam interrupted. "But Lord Elrond said that all of Middle-Earth was in danger if the ring isn't destroyed. That means the Shire, too. I feel I should help. If you'll let me."

Legolas hesitated and a small, genuine, yet sad smile touched his lips. "Of course, Sam. If that is what you wish." He looked to Gimli, who sat beside Sam. "And you, Master Dwarf?"

Gimli cleared his throat. "I never thought I'd follow an elf," he muttered gruffly. "But where you go, I go, Master Elf. You'll not be rid of me so easily."

"I welcome your company," Legolas said with a touch of the graciousness of his father's court. Gimli muttered into his beard. "Boromir?"

"My path remains bent toward Minas Tirith," he answered. "As long as our journey takes us that way, I follow you."

Legolas inclined his head. "Merry?"

Merry and Pippin exchanged a glance and the hobbit answered, "We want to see it through," Merry answered. "For Frodo." Pippin nodded vigorously at his side.

"Aye," he added, "Frodo would see it done, and so will we. Though I think we'll be more burden than help."

"No," Legolas corrected gently. "I will need your help, small dear friends. Your songs and laughter will keep the darkness at bay a little while longer." They blushed and seemed flattered, though they didn't understand that Legolas meant exactly what he said.

Then the elf's gaze found Aragorn and there was really no need for words, but Aragorn said them anyway. "I failed to protect Frodo. I will not fail you, my friend. I swear it."

Galadriel rose, and the rest rose with her in respect. "Then the seven are resolved on this course?" They all nodded, some more resolutely than others. "Good. Tomorrow at dawn you will take three of our boats and continue on your journey, down the Anduin. For today and tonight, take your rest." She touched Legolas' arm. "Will you join us this evening for Orbelain song?"

"I will, my lady," he nodded his head.

She and Celeborn took their leave, leaving the remnants of the fellowship in silence.

"We're glad you're okay," Sam offered, shyly.

"Me, too, you stupid elf," Aragorn muttered and clasped Legolas in an anxious embrace, before pulling back to shake him slightly. "Don't ever do that again! I thought for sure you were gone." Then he decided he'd better ease up, as Legolas already looked as if a straw placed wrongly on his shoulders might break him in half.

So Aragorn shook his head in mock horror and added, "Leaving me stuck telling your father. He would kill me. Slowly."

Legolas was startled into a smile. "With great attention to detail."

"So just don't do it again, and we'll avoid all that unpleasantness, all right?" He clasped Legolas on the shoulder, and after the atmosphere lightened, Legolas got the others to speaking about what they had been doing in Lothlórien, which they were eager to share. The hobbits asked questions about strange elvish customs, which Legolas answered with enthusiasm and much patience.

Later, on the forest floor, when it was time for the hobbits' sword lessons from Boromir, Aragorn spied Legolas picking up his bow from the pile of gear. He held it in his grip, at first gingerly, then more firmly when he realized he could.

He pulled his last arrow from the quiver, fit it to the string and whirled, firing all in one motion. The arrow flew with typical range and speed, burying itself in the silver bark of one of the mallorn trees across the clearing.

Not being sure if the spot was where Legolas had aimed or not, Aragorn kept silent, watching him. But Legolas smiled and some undefined tension in him seemed to ease, and Aragorn knew it was all right.

Trading his bow to the other hand, he held up his left and waggled his fingers. "The grip is not as firm, but I can compensate," he announced.

"Too bad the target was over there," Aragorn teased, waving a hand to the opposite side.

The elf just gave him a look, shouldered the bow, then went to pull his arrow from the tree.

On the way back, his footsteps paused and his head came up as though hearing something. Aragorn tensed, well used to Legolas' keener senses, though he couldn't imagine how any danger had penetrated this far into Lothlórien. He strayed toward his sword which lay beside his bedroll, listening intently. He heard nothing.

"Legolas! What is it?" he hissed. But the elf didn't answer.

Instead he began to methodically break his arrow in half and then half again, into smaller and smaller pieces, his hands bone white with strain. When the shaft was just tiny fragments, he flung them to the ground and shuddered. He took a deep breath and his gaze met Aragorn's. "It was nothing."

Aragorn nodded, accepting the reassurance, though he didn't believe it was true. Legolas turned to watch the hobbits, and Aragorn watched him, hurting for his friend. The danger Legolas had heard was silent and nothing any of them could help him fight.

Aragorn grasped the hilt of his sword. I swear by all the Powers that I will help Legolas put right Isildur's mistake. I will see him to Mount Doom, whatever the cost.

But he had the cold feeling that they had to hurry. Legolas did not have much time. As the shadow had crept into Mirkwood, so too was the ring sending its creepers and evil mists into Legolas, preparing the way for deeper darkness to fall over him.

Tomorrow the second half of the fellowship's journey to Mordor would begin. Toward the land of Shadow. Toward Legolas' doom.

The elf's death would be Middle-Earth's salvation.

Standing at the foot of the great golden mellyrn and grieving for his friend, and Gandalf and Frodo too, Aragorn couldn't help but think that something had gone terribly wrong. This was not how it was supposed to be.

Yet it was the way things were, and the only thing he could do -- as a Ranger, as the foster son of Elrond, and as the heir of Elendil -- was to continue the fight right up to the last breath in his body. Legolas would do the same.

But for the first time, Aragorn considered that it might not be enough.

(continued in Broken Fellowship 2: Light of the Most Beloved Star)