Title: Fall of a Friend

Series: Book of Days (basically, it's a series of missing moments.  Little scenes between Aragorn and Legolas that will take place throughout the trilogy – please read author's note (2) for more info.)

Author: Erika (firedrake88@yahoo.com)

Rating: PG

Summary: Legolas mourns Aragorn's fall and remembers times past.

Time Frame: Takes place after Aragorn falls over the cliff in TTT.

Spoilers: For TTT (and if anyone reading this hasn't seen it yet – what are you waiting for??)

Category: Angst, H/C, what else?  Oh yeah, POV.

Disclaimers: It would make me the happiest person in the world to be able to truthfully say that Aragorn and Legolas belong to me, but alas, it is not so.  I make no money from this, and it is written (against my will) for entertainment purposes only.

Feedback: Both positive feedback and constructive criticism are greatly appreciated and will be cherished!

Archive:  Please ask and send me a link to your site so that I can check it out. =D

Author's Note:  (1) It's been a few years since I last read the LOTR in its entirety so these missing moments are basically based on the movies.  I apologize in advance if I contradict anything that's stated in the books; any mistakes are purely accidental. (2) So far, this series consists of the following stories:  A Light in the Darkness (not yet posted), The Comfort of Listening, There is Always Hope, and Fall of a Friend.

Very Special and Heartfelt Thanks to: Cassia, my friend, you're the greatest in the whole world!  Thanks for putting up with all my annoying questions and thanks for all your help. =)

Things enclosed in || ||'s are ||memories||
Things enclosed in // //'s are //flashbacks within memories//


Fall of a Friend

Legolas:

I leapt easily to my feet and surveyed my surroundings.  The battle was over.  Many had been killed or wounded but the orcs were finished and their carcasses lay strewn across the landscape alongside those of the men who had fallen.  An unfortunate, costly battle to be sure, but the women and children had escaped unharmed and would reach Helm's Deep with no further danger to their lives.  Our purpose was accomplished.

King Theoden had survived, as well as Gimli and Ara…

I frowned.  Where was Aragorn?  I could not find him within the scope of my vision.  Surely he had not been seriously wounded?  Surely he did not lie among the dead?  The mere thought was enough to claim my heart in a terrible worry that caused my chest to ache sharply with its every quickened beat.  What fate could have befallen him?

Treading softly over beaten and blood-stained grass, I quickly left behind the fowl smelling orc that I had last slain and set about finding my friend.  If he had suffered injury then his wound would need to be tended.  If he had fallen… No.  I refused to give further voice to that fear.  Aragorn was alive.  He had to be.

"Aragorn?" I called loudly, my voice tinged with a touch of fright.

Gimli, having no doubt come to realize what I had, echoed my cry.  "Aragorn?"

"Aragorn!?" My slightly desperate shout attracted the attention of the surviving men but much to my disappointment and growing alarm, my friend did not appear.

Following an instinct I could not name, I led Gimli to a fallen orc that lay dying near the edge of a cliff.  At first I passed the fowl creature to look down at the rapidly rushing waters of the river that lay at the base of the precipice.  Only when it began to laugh did I turn around to watch it.

Gimli raised his ax to the orc's neck and angrily hissed, "Tell me what happened to him and I shall ease your passing!"

The creature's taunting laugh was broken up by weak coughs and soft wheezes of pain.   When it answered its voice was proud, "He is dead.  He took a little tumble over the cliff!"

A flash of anger filled me, burning hot and quick.  Swelling and growing, it swarmed to my head in a fierce pounding of denial.  No!  That could not possibly be true!  How dare the vile creature lie!  How dare it taunt us!  How dare it take pleasure in our obvious fear and worry!

Driven by rage and dread, I drew close to the creature and ground out harshly, "You lie!"

My words were greeted by an evil grin and more sadistic laughter, this time quieter and awash with the agony of a fatal wound.  It would soon be dead.  So much the better.  It was no concern of mine.  I wanted only to find Aragorn and see with my own eyes that he was alive.  And he was alive.

I began to pull back from the orc but something nagged at me and I paused.  My instincts had driven me here and I found I could not ignore them.  With a sweeping gaze I studied the creature once more.  This time my eyes caught upon something that stole the breath from my lungs and turned my anger and fear to a dreadful terror.

My heart pounded against my chest.  Impelled by a horror greater than any I had ever felt during battle it sought to thrash its way free.  For a moment I heard no sound save its drumming, which filled my ears and seemed to vibrate through me.  Then a painful lump rose up in my throat and I shook my head, gainsaying what I beheld.

No.  It could not be.

But it was.

There, in the creature's filthy hand, lay the sparkling Evenstar that the Lady Arwen had gifted to Aragorn as a symbol of her love and her willingness to bind herself to him. 

Just as the orc took its last breath, I pulled the pendant from its grasp and looked down at it in sorrow and denial.  A gift such as this did not idly fall.  Even if it had, Aragorn would never have left the Evenstar behind.  It was the most precious thing he owned.  It must have been ripped from him.  Ripped from him by the very creature that claimed he had fallen over the cliff.

No.  No, no, no.  It could not be true.  It could not be true!  He could not be…dead

Gripping the Evenstar tightly, I returned to the edge of the cliff.  He was nowhere in sight but I refused to believe it possible that he was gone.  Aragorn was a strong and capable warrior.  He had seen many battles, been wounded and strayed close to the abyss of death more times than I cared to remember, and had always survived when even I doubted his ability to do so.  He was not dead now!   Somehow, he was alive!  He would swim with the current until he found his way to shore.  I had only to follow the river and I would find him, undoubtedly wounded but alive.

I closed my eyes and bowed my head.  Denial could only fight against reason for so long before the latter claimed victory.  The precipice was by no means inordinately large but it was not a height that a man could fall and easily live.  If he had survived the impact he would have been knocked unconscious and drowned in the unforgiving waters.  Even Aragorn could not have overcome such perils. 

He was gone.

For a moment no other thought came to me.  He was gone.  As desperately as I tried to flee them, those words filtered into every corner of my mind.  There was no way to escape them.  He was gone.  I could not deny them, could not deny their meaning.  He was gone.  It was too horrible to grasp.  He was gone.  It did not seem real.  It did not seem possible.  Facing the truth had never been so painful.

He was gone.

In a flood of ever increasing desperation, I realized what that would mean.  I would never see him again.  It was beyond what I was willing to comprehend.  My breath caught in my throat when I tried to imagine it.  He had been a tremendous comfort to me since the day when he had first bestowed upon me the gift of his friendship.  When distraught, it had been he who I turned to for consolation, knowing he would not judge me for showing him weaknesses that I entrusted to no other.   When captured and tortured by orcs, it had been he who had risked his life to save me.  When hopelessness threatened to overwhelm me and I could find no solace in nature, it had been the light of our friendship that reminded me of what it was we fought for.  Without ever realizing it, he had been the most precious friend I could ever have hoped to have.  Who would I turn to now?

I would never have another friend such as Aragorn.

I had known of his mortality since before the forging of our friendship and had prepared myself to watch him grow old and whither away over time.  The length of his mortal life had promised only a short while together to begin with but I had never expected to lose him so abruptly.  I had thought to have more time.  Instead, his life had been cut short.  Our friendship had been cut short.  He had been ripped from me.

My heart burned as if it was being eaten away by a slow working venom and a great shadow filled my soul.  A grief so powerful enclosed me in its grasp that I knew it would be harbored within my heart through all the days of eternity and long after its searing edge had had faded to regret and sorrow.  Eventually, the anguish of his passing would diminish and I would find peace in his remembrance, but at the moment it did not seem possible.  Right now, the grief was deep enough for me to doubt that it would ever fade.

I blinked back the tears that threatened to spill from my eyes.  There would be time to shed them later.  I had to find his body…

"Get the wounded on horses.  The wolves of Isengard will return.  Leave the dead." I turned to see Theoden at my side.  No doubt he had learned of Aragorn's fate.

Horror filled me.  Surely he did not mean to leave Aragorn's body behind?  Aragorn had fought bravely and with great honor.  A warrior of his skill would never again walk this earth.  Not only had he been heir to the throne of Gondor…he had been my friend.  He deserved more than to drift in this river until water rotted away all traces of the man he had once been.  He deserved a fitting burial.

I swallowed thickly.   

Yes, he deserved more but we could not give it to him.  We could not linger, I knew.  We had to reach Helm's Deep before we were found by another troop of bloodthirsty orcs.  We had not the time to collect the bodies of the fallen and it would take even longer to find my friend's.  As much as it pierced my heart, Aragorn would be left behind.  There was no other choice.

Theoden caught my gaze, his eyes full of sympathy.  With a gentle hand, he gripped my shoulder in comfort for a few silent moments before turning away to see to his men.  It was a kind gesture but it could not soothe my aching heart.  Nothing could.

I peered back down at the river and prepared to bid a final farewell to Estel.  It would be empty though, and devoid of meaning for I knew he would not hear it.  No, I would not have even that small comfort.  Was it too much to ask that I be granted the opportunity to say goodbye to him and have him say goodbye in return?

"You will never be forgotten, Aragorn, son of Arathorn."  My voice broke and the stinging of tears once again threatened to blur my vision.  Closing my eyes tightly, I struggled to hold them in for I knew that once I let them fall I would not be able to stop weeping until sheer exhaustion claimed me.  I refused to be seen so vulnerable.  I had only trusted one person to watch over me in such a state and he was gone now and forever.  "I will never forget you," I whispered then, in my own tongue and it tones so soft that none but I could hear.  "Namárië…may your spirit forever soar."

Indeed, I reflected, I never could forget him.  As an elf I carried each memory within me as vividly as if it was still playing out before me.  For the rest of time, I would hold every moment we had ever spent together close to my heart for those recollections were all I had left of him.  They were more precious to me than any possession I owned and I would cling to them through the throws of my grief for him.

Now, as I stood and gazed down to where Aragorn had fallen, I thought back to when I had first been blessed with his friendship.  It was a memory of grief and despair, but also of sweetness and joy.

||I pulled Endanlel's limp body down from the horse and cradled him against me protectively.  It had been long since he had last strayed into consciousness and now that I could gaze upon him fully I saw, to my horror, that his face held a deathly pale, bluish tint.  His entire body was drenched in sweat and the bandage I had fashioned from the torn shards of his cloak was soaked through with blood. 

Gently, I pressed a hand to his forehead.  He was burning with fever.

Dread quickened the pace of my heart.  Upon defeating the last of our enemies I had quickly bandaged his wound and rushed him to Rivendell, the nearest safe harbor.  I had been so concerned with simply getting him here that I had never stopped to consider that he might be beyond saving.  Now, I could not prevent that cold apprehension from creeping over me.  What if he perished?

Shaking my head, I pushed those thoughts from my mind as best I could.  I had not brought him to Rivendell on a mere whim of my own conjuring; I had brought him here because Lord Elrond was the best healer among all of my people.  Surely he would be able to save the rapidly ebbing life of my protégé.  That was my hope and I clung to it fiercely.

Holding Endanlel to me, I rushed through the great gates of Rivendell.  "Lord Elrond!  Lord Elrond!" I yelled frantically, my voice carrying through the halls of Imladris to draw forth many of my kin.  "Lord Elrond!"

A few others kindly took up my call and Lord Elrond soon appeared at my side.  It took him but a moment to assess the situation and soon I felt the weakened young elf being lifted from my arms.

"Prince Legolas, son of King Thranduil, tell me what happened," he ordered crisply as he turned to carry Endanlel up a long flight of winding stairs.

Following at his heels, I responded shortly, "We were ambushed by orcs."  He did not need to know more than that and even if he demanded it I doubted I could bring myself to speak of my failure.  "Endanlel was wounded."

When Lord Elrond reached the top of the narrow stairway he rushed into a nearby room and placed the now convulsing Endanlel on a large, tauntingly comfortable bed.  Then he turned to address several elves that had followed us up.  "Bring healing herbs and medicine, quickly!" he ordered and they left the room, presumably to do as he bid.

With rapid efficiency, he stripped my charge of his tunic and undid the makeshift bandage that I had tightly wound about his belly.  I flinched and gasped when the wound was revealed.  The twin gashes – a testament to the brutality of orcs – were more ghastly than I remembered.  Instead of remaining two separate injuries, they had become infected and merged into one.  Trails of blood mingled with sweat to run down the sides of his frail body.  The skin surrounding the wound was nearly black in color and the venom seemed to be spreading like a tumor before my eyes, eating away at his flesh.  Eating away at his life.

The dagger had been poisoned.

I swallowed.  I had never seen a warrior wounded thusly and survive.  Indeed, many had fallen to lesser foes.  Endanlel was but a youth, he did not have a trained fighter's strength.  What if even Lord Elrond could not save him?  Endanlel's death was a concept too painful to grasp, too horrible to even imagine.  He had entrusted himself to my care and in a flash of blind stupidity I had betrayed that trust.  I had failed him.  If he died, I did not think I could stand it. 

No.  Lord Elrond would return him to health.  I had to believe that.

An elf-maiden swiftly darted through the doorway, her entrance marked only by the stirring of cool air against me.  Stopping at Lord Elrond's side, she deposited several pouches on a small counter next to the bed and awaited further instruction.

Lord Elrond began to inspect the wound with gentle touches of palm and fingers, lifting his head every few moments to carefully observe Endanlel's reactions.  Though unconscious and with his eyes closed, the youth whimpered in soft protest at each probing pressure test, flinching and fretfully shying away from the contact.

The quiet sounds of discomfort might as well have been agonized screams of terror for they mercilessly pierced my heart, sparking the guilt they found harbored there and kindling it to a burning flame that continued to grow until I felt it would consume me.  I could not stand this.  Could not stand it because I knew this was entirely my fault.  My fault.  He was here because of me.

Taking an involuntary half step backwards, I wrenched my eyes away from the festering wound and did not allow myself to look back.  It was sickening and evoked a sense of despair within me that I did not care to feel.  Not when I knew I was to blame.  I tried to also ignore the plaintive sounds that emanated from his trembling lips but they punctured me like flashes of bitter pain, making me shudder in shame for my folly.

No.  I could not do this.  I could not see him this way.  I could not hear him this way.  I could not be anywhere near him while he was this way.  I simply could not bear it.  I had to leave.  I had to get away.  I could not stay.  My guilt would not allow it.

"Legolas," Lord Elrond's voice broke through my thoughts.

I looked up to see him regarding me thoughtfully, his gaze gentle.  "I would not have you see this," he murmured, "I will call you in as soon as I have finished."

Gratitude swelled within me.  Lord Elrond had felt my turmoil and had provided the means by which I could momentarily escape the guilt that hounded me.  Even though I knew the images and sounds of my weakened friend would echo in my mind no matter how fiercely I fought or fled them, I would be free of the suffocation that choked me here.

"Very well," I agreed, quickly leaving the room and closing the door behind me.  Stopping just beyond it, I stepped to the side and turned so that my back was facing the wall.  Then I leaned against its unyielding surface and let myself slide to the floor.  Drawing my legs up, I hugged them against my chest and rested my forehead on my knees.

There was nothing for me to do but wait.

Lord Elrond would save him.  Lord Elrond would bring him back.  He would live to yet again go hunting in the woods with me.  He would live.  Yes, live.  Those thoughts, and ones of similar makings, became a mantra that I repeated over and over again in my mind whilst I waited in the oppressing silence of uncertainty.

Time passed in a haze.

Countless hours later, the door creaked open.  I raised my head to watch the elf-maiden slowly descend the spiraling staircase and disappear from my sight.  Then I felt the soft touch of robes against my skin and turned to see Lord Elrond looming over me.

Before I had time to move, and much to my surprise, he knelt by my side and laid a gentle hand on my shoulder.  His expression held more sadness than I had ever before seen reflected on it and though I did not allow myself to register the thought, I already knew what he had come to tell me.  "I am sorry, young Legolas.  There is nothing more that I can do.  His wound is beyond my skill to heal."

His words came as blows to my heart and I scarcely could believe that I had heard them.  No!  Endanlel could not die!  Lord Elrond had to heal him!  Lord Elrond had to save him!  My guilt already consumed me; I could not live knowing I held the blame for his downfall!  Lord Elrond had to do something! He could not give up!  He could not give up!

My denial quickly turned to a heated anger and before I was even aware of what I was doing, I spoke, "You cannot relent!  You must do something!  You must try!" My words held more grief than anger and were spat out in accusation and desperate entreaty.  However, even in the speaking of them I knew it was futile.  He would die.  And I was to blame.

The hand on my shoulder tightened.  Lord Elrond did not speak.

Slowly, the fury drained from my blood and I sagged forward.  All my energy seemed to seep from me as my own physical exhaustion finally caught up with me.  How could this be happening?  How could his life be the price I had to pay for one thoughtless error?  Could I live with myself, knowing I was responsible? "Forgive me, Lord Elrond.  I know that you…" I murmured lifelessly, leaning into the comfort of his touch.

"He hasn't long to live," Lord Elrond whispered, his words soft and mild, "Go to him if you wish, but I warn you that he will not regain consciousness."

Lord Elrond drew back and stood.  When it became apparent that I had not the energy to move, he took hold of my hands and drew me to my feet.  Then, with more tenderness than his sometimes cold manner indicated he possessed, he led me back into the room and sat me down upon what would soon be my charge's deathbed.

Almost loath to see the ghostly body of Endanlel, I had shut my eyes upon entering the room.  I did not open them again until I heard Lord Elrond leave and shut the door.  Then, though unwilling as I was to gaze upon features set cold by approaching death, I forced myself to look.  I did not want my last glimpse of his infected wound to be my final memory of him. 

Something close to relief flooded me when my first tentative gaze fell upon Endanlel and I saw that Lord Elrond had pulled up the blankets to cover all but his face and arms.  That meant I could not see his wound, a kindness for which I was more than grateful.

What struck me first was how diminutive he looked.  He had nearly reached the age of maturity, yet the way Lord Elrond had bundled him up made him appear to be little more than a child, dwarfed in a bed too large for him.  He was not a child though.  Nor was he an adult.  He was still so young.  Too young to die.  He had never even been given the opportunity to live.  Aye, even by the reckoning of Men he had been robbed of his life.  And it was I who had robbed him.  It was my fault that Endanlel, born to a race of immortals, would never see the dawn of his twentieth spring.  For an elf, that was unthinkable.

I cringed as I observed him.  He looked sickly.  All pigmentation had fled his skin and his face was that of a phantom.  So different from the boundless joy that had constantly filled his features, he wore now only a mask of helpless fear.  Even in unconsciousness, I could see the terror that had filled him the moment the fatal blows had struck.  That horror was there because of me.  He would not lay here dying if I had but done my duty.

Trembling, I took one of his hands in mine and held it to my chest.  His fingers were cold against my skin and I could practically feel his life fading.  The warmth, the incredible energy that had filled his every moment of existence, could no longer be felt thrumming through his veins.  He was still alive and yet for all the world his body seemed more a shell to me than anything else.  Lord Elrond was right, he would soon die.  I would never even be given the chance to apologize, to beg for forgiveness which I did not deserve.

There was an ancient custom among my people.  When one of our kin was struck down in battle or slowly faded away from the sufferance of a broken heart, a companion would remain with him during the last moments of his life.  It was not so much to offer comfort as it was to stand guard and protect the fallen.  That way the elf would be able to pass peacefully, completely in tune with the beauty of nature and life.

Though Endanlel was unconscious and would not have been disrupted by anything here in Rivendell even if he were aware, I would have been pleased to perform the ritual for him, to stand guard over his body.  It was, however, not an honor that I was worthy of partaking in.  How could I be, when it was my folly that had seen him slain?

Indeed, it was a dishonor to Endanlel for me to remain.  He deserved more than to fade while in the company of the one that held the blame for his death.  Still, I had to stay.  Though being in his presence choked and oppressed me with guilt, I could not go.  I could not go for the same reason that I felt myself inadequate of staying.  I was responsible for this.  Knowing that, how could I leave him to die alone?

So I stayed.  I stayed for what seemed like several eternities but in reality was little more than a few minutes.  I stayed and listened as his breathing grew gradually more shallow and less frequent.  I stayed and watched as he passed from life so quietly that at first I did not realize when the slow rising and falling of his chest ceased.  I stayed until it dawned on me that I could no longer feel the weak pulse of his heart beating against my quivering fingers.  I stayed until I knew him to be gone.

Then, I fled.

I fled, knowing that I could not escape the demons that haunted me but also knowing myself unable to remain in that room that housed Endanlel's body.  Again, I needed to get away.  I needed to get away from those innocent features that unwittingly taunted me with thoughts of guilt and betrayal, needed to get out of walls that captured and seemed to magnify my despair, needed to find some measure of comfort though I knew I did not deserve it.

I did not know where I was going.  When I threw open the door to Endanlel's room and bolted as if my very life depended on speed, my only coherent thought was of finding a place in which I could contemplate my guilt in solitude, away from pitying eyes that would find shame in my weakness.  Away from everything that would remind me of what I had done.

Blindly, I ran down spiraling stairs, through supposedly welcoming gates, and out past the horse that I had thoughtlessly let untethered.  I ran so quickly that colors blurred to dizzying streaks of blue and green in my vision and all I could hear was the beating of my heart and the wheezing of my breath.  I ran until sheer exhaustion caused my feet to catch upon brambles that brought me crashing to the ground with a strangled cry of alarm.

The hard pain of my fall was akin to a splash of stingingly cold water against my face.  It reached through the confused tumble of my thoughts and shoved some coherence upon me.

Forcing myself to catch my breath, I lifted my face from the ground so that I could rest my weight on my arms and take a good look at my surroundings.  Amidst a sea of beautiful trees, I was ungracefully sprawled across crumbled leaves and cold muck.  Clutching at yielding sludge, I sunk my fingers down into it until I found ground firm enough to use as leverage.  Then I stumbled to my feet and appraised my unkempt state.  I was filthy, with my skin and clothes covered in trickling spatterings of mud, but I did not care.  I was too overwhelmed with emotion to give any thought to vanity, or to the shame of my sheer loss of control.

Torn between the claws of grief and guilt, I trembled in utter despair.  Now that Endanlel was gone, it suddenly struck me how much he had actually meant to me.  At first he had been little more than a burden, a traveling companion I was unwillingly saddled with.  Then I had surprised myself by growing fond of him and enjoying the time we spent together.  Only now did I realize I had begun to care for him as a friend.

That revelation did not come easy.  It only served to make my anguish more acute, more gnawing.  Not only had I carelessly let fall a young man who had placed his trust in my hands, I had let fall someone who, in time, no doubt would have become more than just a traveling companion, more than just a protégé.  The connection between us had been there, weak and fledgling, but I now understood that it would have grown to a friendship that would have bound us together as brothers.  That knowledge seared me.

By the Valar, what had I done?  What had I done?

I didn't want to know.  I didn't want to think of it.  I didn't want to feel this misery.  It was cowardly, I knew.  To run from these emotions lacked all pretense of courage, yet I could no more stand these thoughts than I could bear to be in Endanlel's death chamber.  It simply hurt too much.  I had to distract myself.  But how?  How could I?  How could I not think of something so…

I stiffened, suddenly sensing that I was being watched.  Only moments later, the crunching of leaves and twigs confirmed that I was not alone and spurred me to action.  With despair giving way to adrenaline, my instincts had me pulling my bow up and drawing an arrow to it before I even thought to do so.  Then, with deadly intent, I spun around to face the intruder.

I faltered at what I saw, for I found myself facing not an enemy, not an elf, but a young man.  A young man whom I had not seen in perhaps fifteen years but who I would instantly have recognized even if he had not been Rivendell's only human son.  He had the same large blue eyes, the same tousled shoulder-length dark hair, and the same quiet manner that I remembered so well from my last visit to his home.  Though now tempered behind the weight of thoughts not borne by the child I had once known, his gaze even held the same spark of fascination, the same wonder that had driven him to learn as much as he could from everyone he could.

There were differences though.  The passing years had lent strength to his sobriety and the glowing innocence of childhood had faded, leaving only the naivety of inexperience.  Instead of the awe that he had once appraised me with, his sharp eyes held worries, grief, and wisdom that they had before lacked.  The budding curiosity had grown to keen intelligence and wit.  He was no little boy anymore.

Physically, he had also changed.  Despite his uncommonly graceful bearing, the slightly stubbled beard that now covered his face further proved that he was no elf.  He was also now taller and broader than me.  His muscled form spoke of strength and agility and behind his gentle appearance I knew a deadly fighter lay concealed.

Momentarily forgetting my woes, I found myself wondering if he remembered the first archery lessons I had given him when he was little more than four years old.  Curiously enough, I wanted him to.

Appearing only slightly alarmed when he found the tip of an arrow poised only inches from his face, he came to an immediate halt and raised his hands to show that he was unarmed and intended me no harm.  "I meant not to startle you," he murmured apologetically, his voice as soft as his manner, "forgive me."

Nodding in acknowledgment, I lowered my weapon and returned the arrow to its satchel.

"And I meant not to alarm you, Estel," I responded quietly, my voice an all too evident gateway to the misery I felt.  "I should be less easy to provoke so close to a safe haven such as Rivendell."

Estel let his hands fall to his sides.  Though he did not seem surprised by the use of his name, he nonetheless said, "It appears you have me at a disadvantage."

A strange sense of disappointment filled me.  He did not remember me, then.  For some reason, I felt a touch of sadness at the thought.  Why should that matter to me?  "I am Legolas, son of Thranduil," I informed him, striving to keep my thoughts focused on him and not the source of my suffering.

"Greetings, Legolas," he nodded and stepped forward until he was standing just in front of me, "I have long wished to see the forests of your home."

"Greetings, Estel," I returned the salutation, slightly pleased that where others might have bowed or paid me other such unnecessary respects, he had merely nodded.  "The beauty of Mirkwood is marred by darkness.  There are few places that remain untouched by it and it is my fear that those too will suffer spoiling."

Estel regarded me thoughtfully, studying my disheveled state with a level of scrutiny that should have made me feel uncomfortable but somehow only intrigued me.  Intrigued me just as everything else about him did.  "More than fear hangs on your heart," he observed softly, raising his gaze to examine the depths of my eyes.

Not trusting myself to say something that in any way related to Endanlel, I simply nodded.  Estel brought me a gift I desperately needed and I clung to it, not willing to lose my footing and fall back into the painful whirling vortex of guilt and shame.  Somehow his presence comforted me.  It was strange, but he seemed to dull the edge of my pain, seemed to soothe my heart.  Somehow, he was able to cut through the dark shroud of my distress and distract me.  I wanted to know why.

I fought the wave of despair that soon swelled once more within me, but it was of no use.  My emotions were in a state of sheer havoc and steered the train of my thoughts against my will.  As I watched this young man, I could not help but compare him to Endanlel.  He was, after all, of the same age.  Perhaps a little older.  Perhaps a little younger.  Though limited by the vise of mortality, he had many long years before him.  Many long years in which to enjoy the beauty that was life.  Years which Endanlel should have had as well.  Years which would have been but the beginning of my dead companion's existence.

Tears pooled in my eyes as my thoughts inevitably returned to my failure.  It seemed there was no escape from my despair.  I held no hope of finding peace if even the image of a human youth dark of hair and eyes could remind me so painfully of Endanlel, who had sported features paler than my own.  Was there nothing I could do to not feel this way?

The stinging against my eyes and the tightening of my throat was an abrupt and painful reminder of my state.  Suddenly, I was all too aware of the mud that still saturated my clothes, causing them to cling to my skin like mantels of shame.  The slithering trails of mud that trickled down my face were like bitter shards of ice against the growing flush of my cheeks.  Even the oozing of earth-stained water from the ends of my hair branded me with disgrace.

I had thought myself alone before but now…  A flash of anxiety filled my heart.  Had he seen me?  Had he seen my weakness when I fled?  My disgrace when I lay sprawled in the mud?  We elves were a race proud of our elegant aloofness, our ability to not allow our emotions to rule us.  To be seen so openly vulnerable was mortifying yet somehow it seemed doubly worse with this man.  It was important – though I could not begin to fathom why – that Estel not think me lost and helpless.

And what else could he think me now?  What else could he think when he saw me thusly bedraggled?

Humiliated, I turned away from Estel.  I did not wish for him to see me like this.  Desperately, I tried to calm my churning emotions.  I would not cry.  I could not cry.  I would not be an object of pity and shame.  I was stronger than this.

"Your cries drew me forth when you arrived at Rivendell.  I also witnessed your departure," he whispered as he came to stand before me, apparently not content in allowing me to conceal myself from his ever appraising eyes.

I wanted to hide but his deep gaze caught my own and held me rooted in place.  Through blurred vision, I studied it.  There was such kindness in his eyes.  Such understanding.  Without words, they told me that I would not be judged.  I could do or say anything and he would offer only his support.  I could show him this weakness and he would not think worse of me for it.  He would accept me as I was, both the faults and the strengths, the successes and the failures.  Thus was the compassion of this man.

I was awed and again, comforted.

I was a stranger to him and yet his ardent blue eyes were filled with nothing but concern.  He remembered me not and still he cared.  Cared enough to be here with me when so many others would have discretely left me to grieve alone, as befitted the ways of my people for it was considered distasteful to suffer such a grievous loss of control.  The thought that enough good still existed in this world that a man would seek to soothe a stranger was a beacon of light to me.  Warming my heart by more than I thought possible at a moment such as this, it gave me enough clarity of thought to process his words.

The compassionate concern which filled the depths of his eyes, as well as the soothing tenor of his voice that somehow, against all reason, found a way to touch my heart, prevented me from feeling annoyed as a sudden revelation dawned in me.

"You followed me?" I questioned, surprising myself by not being surprised.

He had witnessed the entire episode, then.  Though I felt that I should have been even more embarrassed, I instead felt my humiliation fading.  In the face of such open acceptance, I found it difficult to maintain.  Estel's caring was a balm to those tumultuous emotions, having settled a fragile peace over the raging inferno of my thoughts.

Estel broke eye contact to look down at the ground. For the first time I noticed how incredibly nervous he was.  Despite what his reserved, thoughtful, self-assured manner indicated, the signs of his uneasiness were obvious now that I examined him more closely.  The constant shifting of his weight from foot to foot was barely noticeable, as was the anxious fiddling of his fingers with the sleeves of his tunic, but it made him the picture of disquietude.

"It-it is rare that I see an elf so distraught," his voice was lower than a whisper and I strained to hear it.  "Your people have a natural luminance about them but yours has faded.  It…pains me to see you this distressed.  When I followed you here, I meant nothing more than to try and comfort you…"  He blushed slightly and let his words trail into silence.

I frowned as I studied him.  He was clearly uncertain but it struck me how hesitantly hopefully he sounded.  He truly wanted to help me.  This was more than a kind man's attempt to ease a stranger's suffering as I had mistakenly thought only moments earlier.  It was both that and something else.  It was that he was drawn to me, just as I was to him.

When I did not respond, Estel continued, "I realize that we do not know each other, yet I know that sharing the company of another can be of comfort when solitude does not yield the peace you seek."  He spared me a long enough glance to realize I did not intend to speak.  Then, with even more apprehension, he added, "If-if I have overstepped my bounds then I am sorry and I beg your forgiveness for this intrusion on your privacy.  If you want me to leave you have but to say so."

I had sought solitude to escape my grief and guilt but now that I had his company, I could not bring myself to send him away.  Though had I been approached by Lord Elrond, who I had known since childhood, or even my father, I would surely have rebuffed them.  I could not explain it, but something endeared him to me.  Something made me want to learn more about him.  Something made me want to earn his affection and give mine in return.  Something made it impossible for me to bid him leave.

What was more than that, this young man – this child, really – had the ability to ease my hurt.

In the face of what was surely an oppressively uncomfortable silence, Estel took my lack of response as a wish for seclusion and prepared to make a tactful retreat.  "I am sorry."  Without lifting his gaze he let his shoulders sag slightly, nodded once, and slowly turned back towards Rivendell.  He was resigned but also clearly disappointed and afraid that he had offended me.

Why?  I wondered.  Why did he care?  Why did I? What did fate mean my drawing this heir of kings and me together?

"Estel," I called after him softly, "wait."

The young man turned to face me but did not lift his eyes.  He expected a rebuke of some sort.  He did not realize how grateful, very grateful, I was for such honest, heartfelt concern.

"Please look at me," I requested in a semi-choked voice, wondering why, despite everything I was feeling, it still pained me to see him this anxious.

His nervous gaze met my aggrieved one.  I could tell that he wanted to say something, to perhaps again ask for my pardon or even request my permission to remain, but he restrained himself and awaited my words.

"I…I would like you to stay."  I tried to accompany my admission with a reassuring smile but found myself unable to form one.  I could not, my guilt and grief were too great.

Estel's joy was quiet.  A barely audible sigh of relief reached my ears and with this exhalation of breath he lost the sharp edges of his apprehension.   Though his eyes practically lit up with gratitude he said nothing, merely solemnly nodded once in acceptance of my words.  Then, after thoughtfully studying me again, he purposefully returned to his position before me and murmured, "I will speak with you, listen to you, or simply be with you."  The words were voiced simply but behind them was the enforcing strength of a vow.  He truly meant what he said.

Hearing that determination to help me left me utterly speechless for longer than I would have liked.  Then, fumbling for words, I struggled to express how grateful I was for this, how very much I appreciated his concern and compassion.  I wanted him to know how deeply he had touched me.  But in the end no words could have ever been enough and when I opened my mouth all I could say was; "Thank you."

It was enough.  More than enough, judging by the expressive smile that swept over is face and the warmth that filled his voice.  "You're welcome," was his only response but his eyes said more.  They said he had heard the words I had left unspoken due to a sheer lack of ability to express myself properly and that he understood and appreciated my gratitude.  They said that he was well aware of how hard this was for me but that everything would be all right, even if I couldn't believe that at a moment such as this.

And I couldn't, but with Estel here I thought that someday I might.

"I have not the skill of my father…," he smiled a bit shyly and then added, "…Elrond," as if he thought I might not know to whom he referred, "but I have learned much from him regarding herbs and medicine.  Will you allow me to tend to your wound?"

At my puzzled frown he reached forward and touched my forehead, gently probing until I felt a sharp flash of pain that made my head pound and my vision darken so that the soft tones of Estel's figure were indistinguishable from the bright greens of the forest.  Then, when struck by a nauseating wave of dizziness, I found myself dangerously wavering on my feet.

Disoriented and unable to regain my balance, I might have very likely collapsed or passed out had Estel not tightly gripped my shoulders and eased me down to the ground with a gentle tug of his arms.

"Easy, Legolas," Estel soothed mildly as he firmly massaged my shoulders to alleviate the tension in my body.  "Simply breathe deeply and the discomfort will fade."

Struggling to do as he said, I forced myself to slow my breathing back down to a relaxing, even pace.  As soon as the surprising agony had dulled to a pulsating sting across my brow the lightheadedness also released its hold on me, allowing the world to stand still once more, at least on the outside.

Curiously, I very softly touched the same area that he had and found that there was a reasonably deep gash just over my left eyebrow.  It was by no means very serious but it did cause me a good deal of discomfort and the blood on my fingers told me it needed treatment.

"Better?" Estel questioned, genuine concern etched in his voice.

I was confused.  I did not remember being hurt.  How could I not have taken note of such a wound before?  It was obviously a battle wound but the only fight I had been in was one I did not care to remember and one when there had been no opportunity for such an injury to occur.  Or had there been?  I was unsure.  Even then, the entire sequence had been a blur.  When I thought of it now, my mind was flooded with chaotic images of pain and terror, memories of horror and anguish.  All of which tumbled about in a tormented whirlwind of agitation, all of which were of Endanlel and my failure.

Yet among the frenzied jumble of piercing recollections I remembered…pain?  Yes, there had been pain.  A brutal pain that had been my one moment of clarity amongst a storm of disarray.  It had come just after…just after Endanlel…after he had…after… No, oh no…no.  I couldn't even think it.  Couldn't put words to the fragmented visions, couldn't arrange them in any order that would tell what had occurred.  I couldn't remember what had happened without feeling like my soul would simply crumble to pieces until only lifeless dust remained to be tossed about in an eternal tempest.

How would I ever survive this?

"Legolas?" the young man prompted me and I realized I had never responded.

I opened my mouth to say 'Yes' but a choked sob escaped my lips instead.  The storm of disjointed memories had left my control in tatters and I struggled urgently to bury the turmoil before it could completely rip me apart and force me to feel emotions for which I was unprepared.

Soon I found myself shaking from the effort it took to not succumb to my despair but I did not realize I wept until gentle fingers brushed warm droplets of liquid from my face.  "I have lived among your people my entire life and yet I have seen so few elves cry.  It always fills me with great sorrow when I do.  Yet with you I find that sadness infinitely more bitter," he smiled sadly, "I do so wish I could ease your turmoil."

Estel's words lacked all censure and before I could blush or think of regretting my show of weakness his kind voice again touched my ears, "There is no shame in feeling."

I glanced up to look at the crouching man and again searched his eyes.  Upon finding that my uncontrolled display had not erased his promise to not judge or ridicule me, I allowed myself to believe him.  He had seen my weakness and it did not disgust him.  That was enough for me.

A few more tears escaped to trail down my cheeks but even the blurring of my vision did not break our locked gaze.  After a short while of staring into his warm blue eyes and seeing their kindness I was able to gain dominion over the stinging brutality of my emotions, at least for the time being.

I nodded, as if to tell him I was all right, even though I knew the despair would only continue to grow until I had not the strength or will to keep it from overwhelming me.  It was only a matter of time.  The question was by what degree that amount of time would lengthen while I was in Estel's presence.

Giving my shoulders one last squeeze, Estel also nodded.  Then he smiled sweetly as he removed a small flask of water from a pouch that was bound to his waist.  Moments later he also procured a soft white cloth and proceeded to cover two of his fingers with it so that he could dab them in the water and swirl them around a bit.

Though I had never given him permission to tend to my wound, he raised his hand to my face and began wiping away the blood and grime that marred the gash. 

At that same moment, he started to speak.  I immediately recognized his words as the beginning of a very ancient and well-known tale among my kin.  Though I had heard it many times throughout my life I was struck by his telling of it.  He did not alter the story itself but by adding small elaborations and changing the pitch and tone of his voice to match the characters and settings, he was able to weave a picture in my mind that showed me what his words depicted.  So magical was this ability that his words faded and it was almost as if I was watching the tale as it took place and not listening to a thousand-year-old recounting of it.

When the story drew to a close I realized, to my shock, that Estel was returning the flask and cloth to the pouch attached to his belt.  He had cleaned and bandaged the wound all while keeping me diverted from the pain with his magnificent rendition of a story I had never once enjoyed, until now.

Estel laughed at my surprise and said, "Though my healing skills are poor in comparison I think my ability to distract my patients far surpasses that of my father."

I continued to stare at him silently.  He had kept me distracted from my physical and emotional pain.  Not once during his story had I thought of Endanlel.  Not once had I thought of what I had done.  For a time I had had the escape I had been searching for and I did not want to let go of that temporary serenity now.  It was for that reason that I found myself begging for him to continue.  "Please," I said, "tell me another story."

The young man seemed surprised and slightly taken aback as he realized the true nature of my request.  With a shake of his head, he replied firmly, "You will not defeat this pain by refusing to feel it, Legolas."

My heart sank.  His level of insight into my thoughts and feelings was impressive but I began to wish that he could not read me quite so clearly.  I did not want to feel, for to feel would means submitting to emotions so terrible I was sure they would tear me to shreds.  It was too agonizing, how could I not take an opportunity for mindless rest when I came upon one?  How could I not want distraction from my inner turmoil?

This time when I spoke my tone was almost pleading, "I know that, but I also know that this is not something I can feel right now.  If I let these thoughts reign I fear they will destroy me…I am not ready.  Please, Estel."  I left unsaid the fact that I did not think I ever would be ready, that I did not think I ever would want to face my despair.  Instead, I added another plea, "Please help me…as you said you would."

Estel looked as if he would continue to protest but then his eyes met mine in an appraising gaze.  After a few moments of silence he seemed to find what he was searching for and he sighed in resignation.  "Have you any preference for the tale?"

I shook my head and then murmured, "Thank you, Estel."

He nodded.  Then, with staggering skill, his words lifted me away from this world and into one long ago forgotten, except for in songs and stories passed down through the ages.  For hours, we sat facing each other as he wove a magical veil over my eyes, one that allowed me to see what I wished and to ignore what I preferred to forget.  However, upon the conclusion of his last tale the veil frayed to pieces, as all such veils do, leaving me to face my inner demons once more.

"The hour grows late," Estel explained when I lifted my questioning eyes to his, "we should return to Rivendell before darkness falls."

For a moment I considered beseeching another story from him but even without thinking I realized he was right.  Dusk had already descended over the land and if we lingered much longer darkness would soon follow.  Besides, he had already given me, a complete stranger, more than I ever could have asked.  He had given me the gift of peace, if but for a few hours.

I was grateful when, as we walked back to the safe-haven, Estel continued to speak.  Though he did not begin another story he did tell me of his beloved brothers and of the fair Lady Arwen, who seemed to have captured his heart.  He also spoke of Lord Elrond, to whom he said he owed his life for having taken him in as his son, and of Rivendell, his beautiful home.

He spoke until we had walked through the halls of Rivendell and reached the entrance of a large and comfortable room which he explained would be mine for the duration of my stay.  It was, conveniently and non-coincidentally, located very near his own quarters, which he took great pains to point out to me even as he apologized for not being able to remain at my side any longer.  Apparently Lord Elrond had expressed wishes to speak with him and he could not be left forgotten.

"Please do forgive me," Estel repeated himself, "I am sorry.  My father is not one to be kept waiting.  I hope you understand."

The young man was again very clearly worried that he had incurred my anger and his anxiety drove me to fill my words with kind reassurances, "Estel, you have nothing for which to apologize.  You have done more for me than you can possibly imagine and I am forever in your debt.  Please free your heart from worry and go to your father."

A hesitant nod met my request and as the young man turned to leave he said, "If you wish to speak of your troubles, or of anything at all, feel free to call on me.  I shall find you tomorrow morning to see how you fare."

With that honest vow, Estel left me standing at the door of my room, alone and afraid of the powerful emotions I held inside me.

~~~~~~~~~~

I stared at the darkness in despair.  I couldn't sleep.  As much as I wanted to – needed to – I couldn't stop thinking, couldn't stop feeling.  The obscurity in my room wasn't nearly thick enough to erase the image of Endanlel from my mind and the longer it hounded me, the more restless my memories became.

Every recollection that flashed through my mind was an added spear through my heart, each so painful that it made my entire body ache with grief.  Everything I saw was of Endanlel.  When I inhaled it was Endanlel's eyes clouding over with tears that haunted my sight.  When I exhaled it was Endanlel clinging to me in terror as we rode to Rivendell.  When I closed my eyes it was the plaintive sounds of Endanlel gasping hoarsely, coughing, wheezing, whimpering… When I opened them again, it was Endanlel's weakening grip on me as his strength failed.

Throughout all those tumbling images, it was Endanlel's last words that I always heard…

//"Legolas, it hurts so much…Legolas, please…"//

He had been begging me for help, begging me to ease his pain.  Begging me for comfort because he was scared of death.  Begging for anything that would make him feel better.  Begging because he had trusted me.  And I…I hadn't even answered the plea.  It had pained me too much, shattered me too deeply, to hear the despair in his voice.  I hadn't known how to tell him there was nothing I could do to ease his pain.  I hadn't known how to tell him that there was no comfort I could give.  So, with tears threatening to spill from my eyes, I had let him slip away from me without even making him more comfortable. 

By the Valar…could I have played a greater part in his death without being the one to plunge the dagger into him?  I mutely asked the question to the encompassing depths of darkness that gripped the room and received no response, not even a whispering waver in the silence.  It was of no consequence though.  I already knew the unspoken answer.  It condemned me.

My thoughts were that of a tumultuous sea, tossing and turning and always crashing down on themselves again.

//"Legolas, it hurts so much…Legolas, please…"//

Endanlel crying… Endanlel gasping… Endanlel scared… Endanlel in pain… Endanlel clinging desperately… Endanlel, Endanlel, Endanlel…

//"Legolas, it hurts so much…Legolas, please…"//

Crying… Gasping… Scared… In pain… Clinging desperately…

//"Legolas, it hurts so much…Legolas, please…"//

Endanlel…

//"Legolas, it hurts so much…Legolas, please…"//

No! No…

Shaking uncontrollably, I sat up in bed.  My breath was coming as fast as if I had run for countless days without rest.  My heart was beating so quickly that the sound it made was more a hum than it was a drumming.  Everything hurt a terrible, lonely, persistent pain that made my chest tighten around my already throbbing heart.

This was torture, I couldn't stand it!  I couldn't stand to be alone here!  I needed…I needed to speak with Estel.  Estel would comfort him.  Estel would find a way to make me feel better.  Estel…Estel would not judge me when I confessed the egregious crime I had committed.  For confess it I must.  Keeping it bottled inside me was like trying to contain a storm in a satchel.  Useless.  If I had any hope of surviving this I needed the relief that baring my thoughts would bring.

 //"If you wish to speak of your troubles, or of anything at all, feel free to call on me."//        

Yes, I would go to Estel.

~~~~~

The passage lay in complete darkness.  Save the flickering glow of the lantern I carried, everything was cast in shadow.  Though I easily could have found my way without the light I could stand to be in obscurity no longer.  For darkness equaled despair and I needed the small comfort of this little light against the moonless night.

Therefore it was with a lantern in one hand and my misery in another that I found myself standing in front of Estel's closed door, knocking first lightly and then with more force when he did not immediately answer.

I could hear nothing but silence within.

No.  He had to answer.   I couldn't go back…

I knocked still louder, suddenly fearful that I would awake all who slept in the rooms of this corridor save Estel.  Then, just when I was ready to enter without permission, my ears picked up the soft sounds of footsteps as he padded across the room.

After a short pause, the door swung open to reveal Estel.  A single glance made my heart freeze.  Dressed in crumpled elven bedclothes that seemed strangely too large for him, he stood as if he would fall.  Indeed, he supported himself against the doorframe as if was the only thing that would keep him on his feet.  'Tired' did not begin to describe him.  His haggard face was framed by a tangled mass of disheveled locks of hair and even his beard was mussed up and fuzzy.  Clearly confused and slightly disoriented, he stared groggily at me from beneath halfway-lidded eyes that were glazed over with a sheen of liquid. 

He was half asleep.

The young man blinked several times and seemed to make an effort to shake himself to wakefulness.  "Legolas?" the question came on the exhalation of a barely-stifled yawn and even knowing that it was my name he uttered, I barely understood it.

I was mortified.  What was I doing?  It was the middle of the night.  Why hadn't I thought of that?  I hadn't been able to sleep but that was no reason to disturb this young man who had spent the better part of an entire day telling me stories to ease my heart.   Why had I awoken him?  He was obviously exhausted and I acted as if I had some right to expect his comfort, though we were not friends and…

"Legolas?" Estel was definitely more alert now but his voice still carried the gruff edges of fatigue.

Shaking my head, I prepared to leave.  "I'm sorry," I stuttered out an apology, "I…I wasn't thinking…I simply…I…"  Sighing, I took a deep breath and repeated what appeared to be the only words I could say without faltering.  "I'm sorry."  Then, needing to make a quick retreat, I turned back towards my room, wondering if the darkness there was thick enough to swallow me whole so that I would never have to face Estel, or anything else, ever again.

Estel may have been extremely sleepy but his reflexes were still surprisingly quick.  No sooner had I taken one step in the direction of the emotional prison of my room than a hand shot out and grabbed my forearm.

Forcefully turning me back towards him, Estel touched my forearms, the pressure of his hands a comforting show of tenderness, "I said that you could come, did I not?" he asked, his voice soft as always.

Still feeling like a thrice-damned fool, I nodded reluctantly.

Estel smiled reassuringly and rubbed my shoulders a little, "The offer still stands."

Again, I shook my head.  I could not take advantage of his kindness.  He had done enough for me already.  I would just leave and allow him to return to bed.  Just because I would spend the rest of the night awake was no reason to condemn Estel to the same fate.  "No…I did not mean to wake you… I…"

"You are distressed.  I wish to help you," he interrupted kindly, "Please, come in."

Without awaiting my answer, which in all likelihood would have been another protest, he grasped my free hand and tugged me stubbornly into his room.  As soon as I was inside he quickly shut the door behind me as if he was afraid that I would bolt.

I probably would have.

Taking the lantern from my still-trembling fingers, Estel crossed the room and set it on a small table by his bed.  After a few seconds of fumbling, he lit another light, one that illuminated most of his room.

My eyes fell on his large bed.  The sheets and covers were tangled up in a bundle at the center of the mattress and the pillow was nearly falling off the left edge of the bed.  I sighed at the sight.  What had I been thinking, coming here in the middle of the night?

Tiredly rubbing his eyes, the young man sat down upon his bed and signaled for me to sit next to him, which I uneasily did.  I still felt as if I shouldn't be here.  Yet… his presence seemed to have already been of comfort to me.  I was uneasy due to my ill-though idea of coming here, but…the edge of my desperation had fled sometime between the leaving of my room and the entering of his.  It was strange that he could have such a calming effect on me.

"Did you sleep at all?" he questioned softly, sounding immensely concerned.  It made me wonder if my appearance was as terrible as my current emotional state.

I shook my head mutely.

Sympathy flooded his sky-deep eyes and he again reached out to squeeze my shoulder briefly.  "Have you eaten anything since it happened?"

"Eaten…?" I echoed distantly.  "Food?"

Amusement sparkled on his face and laced his voice when he replied, "Yes, of course food."  However, the mirth quickly faded as he perceived that the blankness of my face was a direct mirror to that in my mind.

"How long as it been since you had something to eat, Legolas?" the tender, but very real worry in his voice made my heart clench.  I hated to worry him so much and yet…I could not bring myself to leave now that I was here.  Yes, it had been terrible of me to come to him at such a late hour – despite what he said – but…no, I couldn't be alone right now.  Not when I knew how willing Estel was to help me.

Shrugging half-heartedly, I replied, "I have no recollection of eating since before…before…"  I had meant to say, '…since before the orc ambush' but the great pain in my heart stopped me.  I had come here to speak of what had happened to Endanlel but now that I was here…I was not sure I could bring myself to do it.  It was not that I was afraid he would turn from me in disgust – his previous actions had already proven he would react otherwise – but…would I be able to tell the story?  Would I be able to say anything without completely breaking down?

The concern in the expressive dark sea-beryl eyes of the young man deepened.  I wished I could erase it but I knew that to do that I must show signs of coping with my grief, of finding my way again.  How was I to do that when I felt lost amidst an uncontrollable tempest in the middle of a nameless sea?

"Even an elf must eat, Legolas," Estel reminded me.  Without awaiting my reply he leaned over to the nightstand, opened one of the drawers, and pulled out a plate and a few slices of bread wrapped in large green leaves.  Then, smiling a bit sheepishly, he explained, "I sometimes get hungry in the middle of the night.  Here," he handed me the procured items, "eat."

Eat?  He expected me to eat?  How could I eat?  How could I do anything?  Would Endanlel ever again get to experience the pleasure of feasting on his favorite meal?  Would Endanlel ever get to experience the pleasures of anything life had to offer?  How could I, then, knowing his death was my fault?  How could I do anything?  I was immobilized by this grief and guilt.  I did not want to eat.  I did not want to do anything except find an escape from my personal perdition.

I stared down at the food in silence, wondering if I could force myself to have some simply to satisfy Estel's worry for me.  The thought of it made me sick, made my stomach – nay, my entire body – turn in disgust.  Yet…after all Estel had done for me I owed him that much.

Picking up a piece of bread, I brought it to my parched lips and took a small bite.  It was horrible.  My misery seemed to have bled into its every grain, making it dry and tasteless for me.  However, seeing how intently Estel was watching me, I stopped myself from gagging on it and instead ate more.

"Did you, perhaps, want to speak with me about something in particular?" Estel prodded, clearly trying to coax me into speaking of what had occurred.

I swallowed.  He had offered me the opening I needed.  Could I take it?  All I had to do was open my mouth and tell him about my walk through the woods, tell him how I had felt something amiss and rushed back just in time to see Endanlel…to see…and then how I had ignored his plea for comforting and…and…

But how could I tell him that?  How could I explain it to him when I could not stand to even think of it?  How could I put into words what burned and scarred my soul?  And would it truly make me feel better to confess to this young man I didn't even know?  Would it truly, at least in part, ease my despair?  I had often heard that a burden shared was one more easily borne but now I found it difficult to believe.  How could anything ever make me feel better?

I looked up from the plate of food and found Estel studying me expectantly, awaiting some sort of answer.  "Yes…but…I don't know if I can.  Just…be with me now?"  I implored weakly, finding my voice.  It would have been easier, perhaps, to simply say 'No', but I knew I could not have brought myself to lie to this unbelievably kind young man, who no doubt would have seen my deception.  Not in the face of the sympathy and caring he so readily showered me with.

Estel did not speak.  He didn't have to.  The sad smile which flickered over his lips was answer enough to my plea.

This time I did not even attempt to verbally thank him.  I simply took his hand and threaded our fingers together.  I knew he would also have no need for the words to be uttered.

His thumb rubbed small circles over the back of my palm in response, showing me he indeed understood.

For a while a peace fell between us but then he spoke and I felt the world fall out from under me.  "Legolas, please," I heard between the suddenly loud thuds of my heart, "Legolas, it hurts so much…Legolas, please."

I dropped the bread I held and reeled back as if struck.  Why was he saying that?  I hadn't told him yet, how could he know?  Why was he doing this to me?  Why did he wish to cause me pain?  Why…?  No.  No, he could not have said that.  He hadn't said that.  He had said something similar, or I had imagined it entirely.  He hadn't said that!

In the end it did not matter what words had or hadn't been spoken.  I had heard them and this time I was too weak to fend off the guilt, grief, and despair that pummeled into me in wave after wave of agony.  It was finally over.

Finally, I could delay the inevitable no longer.  Finally, there was nowhere else to run or hide.  Finally, my will to keep the shattered images of Endanlel from taking form was lost.  Finally, they all fell into place, fell into a sequence that I wanted to tear from the recesses of my mind for it damned me, utterly and irrevocably damned me.

//What the first warning was, I did not know.  Perhaps it was the sudden chill in the evening breeze.  Perhaps it was the flickering darkness that settled over the forest just a little too early.  Perhaps it was the abrupt silence of the twittering birds and the scurrying animals.  Perhaps it was the ominous whisperings of the wise and ancient trees.  Or perhaps it was simply a feeling of dread that was born inside me, clutching at my heart with fingers of ice.

Whatever it was, it came too late. 

My desperate sprint back to the campsite was begun only moments before the soul-shattering scream of my name broke the stillness of the wood.  Echoing in my ears, it filled me with a sense of unshakable fear.

He was under attack!

The cry quickened the pace of my footfalls but I had wandered long and far and a never-ending field of trees lay between my charge and me.  I was too far away!  I would never make it in time!  The thought caused an anxious pain to envelop my chest, one that mercilessly increased in magnitude with my every quickened breath.  What if he was killed?

What if it was already too late?

Pushing myself to the limits of my endurance, I ran even faster.  Faster than I ever thought possible. 

I needed no enemy horn to foretell of the dangers that lay ahead, a sick certainty in my gut told me all I needed to know.  A wayward band of orcs.  No doubt they had happened upon the young one and attacked immediately upon finding him alone.  How many were there?  Ten? Fifty? One hundred?  It almost did not matter.  Endanlel was not skilled enough to hold them off.

That was why he had been entrusted to me.

Again, I forced myself to race faster.  I could not let him down.  I had to make it before it was too late.

My heartbeat pounded in my ears like an irregular drum, drowning out all other sounds and setting a surreal feel to my mad sprit.  I was aware of the passage of time only in the silences that stretched between the vibrating thuds, everything else was a blur.  All my thoughts, all my feelings, were focused on only one thing.  Saving Endanlel.  Nothing else mattered.  For that reason, a moment that should have seemingly expanded into forever passed in but an instant.

The next thing I was aware of was charging into the small clearing to see countless orc bodies scattered across the ground with long elven arrows sticking out of them and feeling for one moment, for one brief moment, a spark of hope.  And then it was gone.  Erased by the very next thing I saw.

Endanlel.

Endanlel, huddled on the ground with his back against a tree and his bow laying discarded beside him.  Endanlel, cringing back and crying out in pain as the orc that towered over him savagely yanked a bloody dagger from the sheath of my charge's belly.  Endanlel, screaming in agony as that very same dagger was plunged back into his stomach and again pulled free.  Endanlel, with tears streaming down his face.

Endanlel!

Pain.  A sudden brutal flash of searing pain hit me as a before unseen orc struck me across the face with a clawed paw, bringing me out of my disgusted trance.  Better said, it freed me from one to send me directly into another.  This one motivated by the coalescing of fury and despair as they joined forces to seize my body in a trembling, sightless rage.

Without pause, without thought, without reason, I shot arrow after arrow after arrow at the approaching orcs that seemed to poor out of the forest like hoards of ants.  Advancing, retreated, lunging, blocking, I fought as if overcome with a savage need to utterly destroy my enemy, down to the very last fowl creature.  And I did.  I maimed and killed until not one of them was left breathing.

Only then did the madness leave me.  Only then was I able to see that what I had thought was an army of orcs was but a band of no more than thirty.  Only then did I drop my weapons and go rushing to Endanlel's side.  Endanlel, who was small and joyous and so terribly kind.  Endanlel, who was now trembling and clutching at his midsection in a vain attempt to ease the pain.

Falling to my knees, I pulled the young one's body up into my lap and touched his tear stained cheek with shaking fingers.  I found it damp with sweat and trails of pained sorrow.  The frown that ceased his face and the tight clenching of his closed eyes made him look utterly terrified.  It broke my heart; it broke my spirit to see him this way.

I was desperate to get some sort of reaction from him.  Something to show me he still had the will and strength to live.  Something to show me that I had not completely failed, that he would not die.

"Endanlel!" My cry was urgent and upon receiving no response I gently gripped him by the shoulders and attempted to shake him back to awareness.  "Endanlel, please!"

A soft groan and then the fluttering of veiled eyelids greeted my strained efforts.  "Legolas…" he said, my name but a whisper of air against his trembling lips.  "Legolas, are you injured?"

I fought back the tears.  How could it be that he lay here thusly injured and still inquired after my wellbeing?  Especially when I could so clearly see the fear that filled his grey eyes?  He was scared not because he lacked strength and courage, but because as an immortal he did not know how to deal with the prospect of death.

"No, Endanlel, I am not injured," I assured him as I carefully slipped his tunic over his head so that I could examine his wound more clearly.

"Good," he gasped out on a violent eruption of painful coughs that shook his entire body.

"Shh…" I soothed as he wheezed in agony, "do not speak."

One look at his wound told me there was little I could do.  I would clean and bandage it but beyond that my skills were useless.  He needed the attention of someone more learned than I and he needed it before the passing of time robbed him of all his strength.

"It seems as if your wish to see Rivendell will be granted," I whispered to him, striving to keep my voice firm and cheerful, "for it is there that I must take you to recover from this wound."

Endanlel smiled weakly, his eyes shining despite the fact that they remained unfocused and glazed.  "I-I'm afraid I lack the strength to ride, I…shall trust you to…carry me…" 

It pierced me sharply to hear this declaration of confidence.  It was undoubtedly my fault that he was wounded.  I had failed in my vow to protect him.  I couldn't fail him yet again by letting him die.  I had to redeem myself.  I had to get him to Rivendell.  I had to get him to Lord Elrond, whose skill far surpassed my own.  I had no hope of saving him myself but Lord Elrond might.

Yes, Lord Elrond could and would save him.  I would not let myself think any different.  Could not let myself think any different.

~~~~~

With fingers that trembled more than the windswept branches of the swaying trees, I quickly set about cleaning away as much of the rapidly seeping blood as I could.  Even though I was as gentle as was conceivably possible, there was unfortunately no way to proceed without causing the young one more pain than that which he already felt.  In the end all I could do was try and ignore the protesting sounds he was making for I feared he did not have the time to idly wait while I searched for the herbs that would dim his perceptions.

It was by far the most difficult task I had ever set myself upon but by focusing solely on bandaging the wound I was able to bar the whimpers of pain from my mind – at least until they were followed by a pleading voice which I could not ignore or fathom a response to.

"Legolas, it hurts so much…" he murmured, his tone alone enough to cause me unbelievable pain, "Legolas, please…"

I was trying to unwind the roll of Mirkwood bandages I had retrieved from my pack but my fingers suddenly refused to cooperate.  How was it possible for a simple plea to cause me so much heartache?  How was it possible for his words to physically hurt with such intensity that it was as if he had plunged a sword through my stomach?  How was it possible to feel such sadness?

Closing my eyes because I couldn't bear to meet his gaze, I struggled desperately to come up with some sort of response.  Some sort of comfort.  But I couldn't.  I couldn't look at him and say that he would have to endure the pain because there wasn't enough time for anything but the stark necessities of ensuring his survival.  I couldn't look at him and say those words because it would break me to be so cruel.  I couldn't even look at him and offer comfort because after hearing such a hopeless supplication I felt that much more responsible for this, felt that much more responsible for playing the part of a fool and jeopardizing his life.

He had shredded my soul with his overwhelming fear but the very pain his fragile voice caused me would allow me to do nothing for him.  Nothing at all.  Not even hold his hand. //

"Legolas!" Estel's anxious voice brought me back to the present before the painful clutches of my memories could drag me into yet another vicious cycle of ever repeating thoughts.  Yet when he again exclaimed my name I knew that though it was enough to keep me grounded in reality, there was nothing he could do to stop the tide of my emotions.

I was shaking, shaking with such intensity that the tremors which wracked my body had the force of convulsions.  Tearing through me without pause or mercy they made it nearly impossible for me to breathe and I soon found myself gasping wildly for air as I rocked back and forth in a desperate and futile attempt to calm myself.

My skin was drenched in a cold layer of sweat.  All I could feel was the pounding of my terrified heart.  All I could hear was my own wheezing.  All I could see were flickering shadows of hopelessness, which only slowly faded to normal vision.  I did not even realize Estel had me firmly gripped by the shoulders until one of his hands drifted up to tenderly stroke my hair in what would have been a comforting manner had I been calm enough to register the touch more than fleetingly

I also soon realized that Estel was speaking.  I could not make out the words over the heaving of my breath but I recognized the soothing tenor and picked up enough to know that he was alternatively switching between elvish and the common tongue, searching for any and all reassurances that might reach me.

Seeking some sort of anchor that would keep me tethered while in the clutches of this storm-swept sea, I tore his hand from my shoulder and instead interlaced our fingers so that I could cling to him for comfort.  Cling to him with the strength of a drowning man grasping the driftwood that was his only chance for survival.

Even though the discomfort of my blunt nails brutally digging into his skin was as obvious as the widening of his eyes and the furrowing of his brow, Estel did not attempt to loosen my grip.  Even though his skin grew red from lack of blood flow, he did not pull his hand back.  He simply continued to card his fingers through my hair and murmur quiet platitudes.

I became aware, then, that I was finally able to understand what he was saying.  Either because my sudden clutching of his hand had pulled him closer or because my breathing had calmed enough for me to hear, his words became clear to me.  "It's all right," he was saying, "it will be all right."

I froze.

All right?  All right?  How could he say that it was 'all right'!? How could he say that it would ever be 'all right'!?  Nothing was 'all right'!  Endanlel was dead!  That wasn't 'all right'!  I had failed him!  That wasn't 'all right'!  It wasn't 'all right'!  It would never be 'all right'!

Cold fury gripped me. 

Cold fury which was a harsh merging of rage towards myself, towards the orcs, towards Lord Elrond, towards fate or destiny or whatever one might wish to call it, and even towards – heaven help me – Endanlel.  Finding and combining forces with my despair, it came coursing through my veins upon hearing those pretentious words that Estel so innocently voiced.  And it was only that innocence and well-meant desire to comfort that turned my frightful fusion of ire and anguish away from him and instead unleashed it on the barriers that had guarded the truth, destroying what had before made it so very difficult for me to confess what I had been an accessory to.

"It is not all right!" the abrupt yell of resounding words flew from my lips so quickly that it gave me no pause or peace between my anger and my outburst to be fully aware of what I was saying.  It was almost as if I was floating above my body, not hearing my admissions until after I had already spoken them.

"It's my fault!  He-he was twenty, nay, not even twenty, and now he's dead and it's my fault!" I spat out on the uneven exhalations of my still too-rapid breaths, not able to keep the disgust or self-loathing from marring my speech.  "Do you know what I told him before we left Mirkwood?  Do you know what I said to him?"

Estel did not respond to the trembling rage of my explosion, he merely continued to smooth my hair with gentle touches while he waited for me to say what I had to say, what I needed to say.

"I told him that Mirkwood was no longer safe, that it would be best to travel through the Misty Mountains so that he could better learn to defend himself before returning home!  I told him I would teach him to survive.  Instead, I led him right into the midst of mongering orcs!"  My head was spinning, pulsing and thudding in pain.  I could barely think but I could not stop my words anymore than I could hold water in an open fingered hand.  "He was my protégé and he trusted me!  He trusted me and I got him killed!  He followed me without question because he looked up to me, because he thought me wise!"  I choked on an uncontrollable bout of sardonic laughter, viciously amused at the irony of my own unstable words.

Looking pained, the young man attempted to soothe me with a tender caress against my forehead but I pulled away, shaking.  I did not deserve…this.  I did not deserve his comfort.  I did not deserve for him to care so deeply for my well being.  I did not deserve any of the things he so easily gave me.  Yet even though my self-hatred told me to release his hand, told me to run back to my room where I could suffer my dues, I still couldn't do it…still couldn't let go of that one last connection to stability.

"Wise?" I scoffed and then continued on, my every word coming faster and angrier than the last, "Wise? Yes, I suppose that that one would surely think that after thousands of years I would have acquired at least some wisdom but it is obviously not so.  If I was wise he wouldn't be dead, if I was wise I wouldn't have been so fatally foolish! If-if-if I had used even a small amount of my training and knowledge…in-in-instead of allowing myself to become distracted then he would be here!  He would still be alive!  If I hadn't let myself be lulled into a false sense of security then none of this would have happened!  But I didn't do any of what I was supposed to do!"  I was gasping for breath, having spoken too many words on too little air, but I did not care, did not care that my voice was breaking, that my tone was rasping.  None of that mattered.  Even Estel preparing to respond could not stop my torrent of ire.

"I was so…overjoyed at being within a forest again that I didn't think to be on the lookout for foes!  I didn't think to not leave him alone…defenseless and alone…in-in a pitiful clearing where he was as obvious as the sun in the sky!  And why?  Why did I just leave him to die when all I needed to do was open my eyesand mind to know – to sense – the evil that filled the forest?  Because I needed solitude among the trees, because my heart yearned to return home, because I was being selfish!  I could have saved him but instead I failed!"

Finally giving in to the demands of my body, I fell silent.  My ragged breathing was so rapid and uncontrolled that I feared I would shatter; I could literally feel the blood being pumped through me in tandem with the pounding protest of a heart that would not stop hurting, would not stop spewing out anger and hatred.  When I spoke again, my tone was weak and exhausted, as if I no longer had the energy to voice my rage with the level of derisive emotion I felt.  "What foolishness drove me to leave him alone and unprotected?"

Estel tipped my bowed head up with the touch of his thumb against my chin.  He looked uncertain and I suddenly perceived that he was at a loss as to how to help, at a loss as to what to say and what to do.  I wanted to tell him that there was nothing he could do, that he had already done everything possible, that I had committed a crime for which I deserved no redemption, but I couldn't force gentle words past the self-directed fury inside me. 

"I-I wish…I wish I could tell you when you will stop hurting, when you will stop feeling this guilt and despair.  I-I wish I could tell you that this pain will disappear like the last steaks of night giving way to dawn.  But I can't," his spoke so gently that his voice was a stark contrast to my previous tone, "I can only tell you that eventually you will not feel the turmoil you feel now.  Day by day, the agony will fade until you are left with only a tender ache in your heart that you shall carry with you throughout all the days of eternity, as a remembrance of your companion.  But until that morning when you awake to realize that you no longer suffer, all I can offer is someone to be with."

I wanted to believe him.  Oh, how I wanted to believe him so badly.  I wanted to believe that I would not always feel this way, I wanted to believe that things would get better and that I could endure this horrible despondency until they did, but I knew it was not so.  No matter how surely he spoke the words, no matter how kind his intent, he simply did not understand.  This was not a matter of witnessing the fall of a friend.  This was a matter of having neglected my duty to protect Endanlel, of having been careless enough to let him die.  That difference changed everything for whereas I knew my grief would fade, my guilt never would.

"No," my voice was barely audible, "you are wrong.  I thank you, but you do not understand."

"I do understand," he countered resolutely, "I do not pretend to know how you feel, Legolas, but I understand that you believe that your friend's death is your fault and I understand that it is that belief that torments you so.  I understand that that belief is not true and that…"

If before I had been furious, now I was seething.

My again increasing bile was quick to manifest itself in a false display of energy and before I could stop myself, before I could calm the flash that had sparked inside me, I was talking again.  Screaming and yelling again.  Screaming and yelling at the person who had provoked my anger but who was not on the receiving end of it.  I was not angry with him.  I was angry with myself.  He was simply a willing outlet for that rage.

"No!" I about roared, immediately regretting it when the young man started in surprise but unable to contain myself, "No, you do not understand!  I do not believe that it is my fault, I know it!  At times like these danger lurks everywhere!  I know that now, I knew it before he was killed.  And even knowing that, knowing that he had no hope of defending himself against any sort of aggressive attack, I still thoughtlessly abandoned him!  That makes it my fault!  No matter what you say, his death is my fault!

"Do you have any idea what it is like to know that?  To know that you are responsible for the loss of a life?  Do you have any idea what it's like to know that you are responsible for a living person's fall?  For the destruction of any and all good he might have brought to this world, including the gift of his children?  Do you?"

Estel attempted to answer but I kept yelling.  Without pause for rest or breath, I kept screaming.  Only now I was so far gone, so overtaken by anger and despair, that I did not know what I was saying.  I could hear the wrath in my tone but I could not discern the words.  Overlapping in my mind, bleeding together in a whitewash of meaningless garble, they continued as background noise as all perception of the outside world dimmed to the joining of my hand with Estel's.  For countless suspended minutes in time, it seemed to be the only thing, aside from my anguish, that was real.

Then the moment faded.  I let my gaze fall to the plate of bread on my lap and was temporarily overcome by an enormous desire to seize it and throw it against the floor, watch it explode against the hard tiles and break apart like the pieces of my soul.  I almost did, too.  Almost took it as another outlet to my anger but just as my fingers were inching towards it, I was pulled partially back to reality by the abrupt release of my hand, followed shortly by the painful grasping of my shoulders.

Dazedly, I looked back up at Estel just as he started to almost violently shake me, his fingers carving more brutally into my skin with every passing second.  "Legolas!" he was yelling my name over and over again, his tone frighteningly desperate, "Damn it, answer me!"

Sweet Elbereth, he sounded so worried.  Just how deeply into a stupor had a strayed?  When had I stopped yelling?  For how long had I remained unresponsive?  Why did it matter?  Why did any of this matter?  Why did anything matter when I felt this way?  Distantly, I wondered if this was what it felt like to have a broken heart.  How long would I live if it was that that I suffered from?  My people could die from despair, after all.  Was it possible that this daze, this trance, was my response to the approaching arms of death?  As horrible as it seemed, the thought of my passing was almost a relief.

"LEGOLAS!" his franticness tore through me.

I could ignore the urgency in his call no longer and I finally let him shake me back into full awareness.  Meeting his worry-darkened indigo eyes, I stammered "Y-yes?"

The sheer relief that lighted his face was enough to make my heart contract.  "Thank the Valar," he murmured, "I feared you were fading."

I let my gaze fall.  He had thought it too, then.  The admission made me want to comfort him, made me want to assure him that I would indeed be 'all right', but such words did not exist within me for they were not true.  I doubted I could live with this despair.  I doubted I could endure it much longer.

"Legolas," he said my name calmly now, but with an edge of firmness, "Look at me."  When I did not reply or comply, he shook me again – rather harshly – and repeated the command, "Look at me." 

The roughness of his words made him sound angry and this time I did as he bid.  Despite it all, despite my wretched state, for some reason I could not stand the thought of having incurred the young one's ire.

Estel nodded once.  "Listen to me," he said then, his tone still gruff, "listen to my words."

I swallowed and forced myself to say something, "Speak, then."

"It. Was. Not. Your. Fault."  His words came exceedingly slowly and were each emphasized by another shake of my body through his still-too-tight grip of my shoulders, "You neither held the weapon that took his life nor invited the one who did."

Not allowing myself to dwell on what he was saying, I instead unsteadily whispered, "Y-you're hurting me."

Remorse shadowed his eyes but he did not release me, loosen his grip, or even stop shaking me.  This time when he spoke I knew he truly was annoyed, "Listen to me," he repeated forcefully, "Whether you can believe it or not, this is something you must hear.  It. Was. Not. Your. Fault."  Again, he spoke slowly, taking the time to enunciate every vowel and consonant, as if doing so would imprint the idea in my mind, would make me accept what I knew to be a falsehood.

I said nothing.  I feared that to speak would mean to lose control of my anger again and I did not think I had the strength to yell out even one more syllable.  Estel, however, was agonizingly stubborn.  He repeated those words over and over again until finally I could stand to hear the blaring lie no longer.  "Stop it!" I entreated desperately, trying to shrink back from him but being thwarted by his exceptional strength and relentlessness.

Why?  Why was he doing this?  I had thought he wanted to help me.  Didn't he realize how much this hurt?  Didn't he know that these words – these words meant to heal – were as sharp as the dagger that had taken Endanlel's life?  Didn't he know that saying it wasn't my fault only reinforced the brutality of the knowledge that it was my fault?

"No," he shook his head, "No.  I will not stop.  I wish I didn't have to hurt you, but I will if that is what it takes to help you.  It. Was. Not. Your. Fault."

"Yes it was."  The whisper was as faint as the light of a flickering candle, but somehow he heard it.

"No.  No, it was not.  Legolas, you had but recently crossed the Misty Mountains.  You thought yourself out of danger for the simple reason that orcs have never advanced so far before.  How far were you from Rivendell when he was wounded?  How far, Legolas?"

I shook my head.  Why did it matter?  What difference did it make?  "I was…four hours away…by my father's fastest horse…" Four hours?  Four hours?  Had it truly only been four?  It had seemed like a millennia.

"You would agree, then, that you were reasonably close to Rivendell?" he pressed.

I nodded, not wishing to speak anymore, only wishing for the pain to stop, for the guilt to leave me be.

"Rivendell and its surrounding areas are considered to be safe."  He had lost his gruffness but none of his emphatic force.  "Why, then, would you suspect that orcs were in the forest, Legolas?  It is true that times have turned dark but not so dark that Rivendell is no longer deemed secure.  You said it yourself."

His eyes – the shimmering depths to his soul – held mine as securely as his hands did my shoulders.  I could not look away.  "What?"  When had I said that?

"When I first approached you and you drew your bow against me.  You said that you 'Should be less easy to provoke so close to a safe haven such as Rivendell.'  If you had been in Mirkwood, or in any place where danger is as irrefutable as the dwindling of light, you would have been more careful.  You would have kept closer guard.  You hold no blame for not being divine, for not suspecting that peril could skulk in a place that you never found to be perilous before."  Estel, who had stopped shaking me only moments before, resumed his previous actions as he again threw words at me that were as damaging as any weapons in existence, "It. Was. Not. Your. Fault."

It was offensive.  It was offensive to pretend that I had not been to blame.  Somehow, it cheated Endanlel.  His death had already been without value, I would not add insult to that by claiming I was innocent.  "But," I murmured brokenly, "If I had stayed with him I could have protected him…I could have saved him…"

The young man's gaze darkened, "You know this how?  Have elves become prophetic as well as ethereal?" Though the words seemed mocking, there was no trace of sarcasm in his tone.  "I think not.  You cannot see into the intricacies of fate any better than I can.  The guilt you carry is a needless burden.  Fate is not yours to mold.  How do you know what would have happened if things had occurred differently?  Do you claim to see all ends?  To know the outcome of every altered variable?  If you had remained with him then perhaps you would both lie dead now.  Or perhaps it would be you that he'd be crying for?"

"Or perhaps," I returned icily, "we would both still live."

"Perhaps," he agreed, finally releasing me. "The point, Legolas, is that you will never know.  You cannot torment yourself with 'What ifs' for they will tear you apart.  Endanlel's death was not your fault," he whispered in tones so soft and steady that they carried within them more potency than a shriek.

"Endanlel," I echoed forlornly as I sagged forward against Estel.  Endanlel.  Upon hearing and speaking his name for the first time since his death, I crumbled.   I simply crumbled.  It was as if everything that had been holding me together fell apart in that moment, giving free reign to the tears that instantly blurred my vision.  Trailing down my cheeks in a flood of warmth, they carried away with them the anger and hatred that had burned so bitterly inside me, leaving instead infinite sadness and allowing me to release in sorrow what I had before unleashed in ire.

Minute tremors seized my body.  Endanlel was dead.  For the first time it did not seem so important how he had died or whose fault it had been.  He was dead – that was what mattered.  Endanlel – who had warmed my heart with his kindness and who had won my caring so subtly that I had not realized until after his passing how much he had captured me, how important he had truly been to me – was gone.  He was gone, and with him I had lost the closest thing in this world that I had ever had to a friend.

With that thought, the last traces of coherency abandoned me.

I couldn't think anymore, all I could do was cry.  Cry for Endanlel, cry for the life that had been lost, cry for the future that had been erased, and cry for the friendship that would have been.  Cry for the grief, guilt, and sorrow, for the senseless meaninglessness of it all, and for so many other emotions that I could not even begin to fathom but nonetheless formed part of the storm inside me.  Cry until I felt I could cry no longer and yet still hold tears within me, still find energy and despair enough to let fall the helpless liquid beads of sadness.  Yes, all I could do now was cry.

Between that flow of tears I was aware only of the occasional scattered, fragmented sensation.  The insistent tugging of hands against my arms… The fluffy softness of a pillow against my moistened cheek… The billowy folds of a blanket being draw over me… The tender warmth of Estel's presence next to me…  The comforting hands rubbing my back…

Then, there were the sounds…

As an acute counterpoint to my explosion of anger, my weeping was quiet, subdued, only barely touching my ears.  Just as powerful and raw but always muffled enough to hear Estel's hushed whispering as he ceaselessly offered me the words I needed to hear, "It was not your fault," he soothed, "You are not alone, I am here with you.  Someday, I promise it will be better."  And always, always, the constant sound of his breathing…

I thought, as I shuddered and wept from this sadness, that perhaps I would cry myself to sleep.  I thought that perhaps this release of grief would rob me of my last bit of energy, which I had been clinging to since the attack.  I thought I would finally find temporary peace.  However, as the tears continued to fall, first in a rush as great as that of a waterfall, and then in the trickling way of a brook, I could feel myself regaining rational thought, re-entering the world of full awareness.

I was not sure how much time had passed.  I was not sure how long I had wept or when complete silence had swept over the room.  I was not sure, even, if it was still the same day upon which Endanlel had died.  I knew only that I was here, with Estel, and that for now, things were better.  Not by much, not by as much as for me to say that I was 'all right', but by enough.   Enough for me to know that the tears and rage and misery had not been in vain, that some sort of amorphous weight had been lifted from my heart.  The weight of fearing I wouldn't overcome this.

I had let myself fall into the storm.  I had felt the anger, the self-hate, the grief, and the despair.  I had felt it all, and I had endured it.  Though all those emotions were still present in magnitude within me – though I still had a great deal of healing to do – I no longer felt as if I would break from them.  I no longer felt as if I would die from them.  It was not a full journey to health, but it was a beginning.

So, as my tears dried to glistening crystals caught between my eyelashes, and I could once more see clearly through the darkness, I began feeling the need to speak of who Endanlel had been and how he had died.  I began wishing I could see something more than the fear on his face and hear more than the phantoms of the pleading words he had spoken.  I began wishing I could remember happier times, speak of fond memories.

"Estel," I reached forward towards the peacefully resting man who lay next to me, gently taking his hand in mine and frowning sadly at the red soars that stained the skin.  I had hurt him, and he had let me because he thought it would help, help me heal.  How could such kindness exist within one person?

Estel's eyes fluttered open and after a moment of disorientation he hastily blinked away the moisture that clouded them.  "Yes?" he questioned sleepily, his eyes already drifting halfway shut again.

Mortified, I blushed furiously.  By the Valar, was I a fool!  I had not thought him to be asleep!  I had thought him to simply be reposing!  If I had known he had been sleeping I never would have awoken him again!  And of course he had been asleep…why else would he have stopped speaking his words of comfort?  Why else would he have had his eyes closed?

"I-I…meant not to disturb your dreams.  I thought you awake, please forgive me," I stammered hastily.

Doing his best to keep his eyes open and focused on me, he smiled.  "You…are forgiven.  Wh…what was it you…wan…wanted?"

"I wanted to tell you of Endanlel," I replied bashfully, "but I can wait until the morrow.  Please…go back to sleep."

"No…no…s-it's all right…tell me…tell me now," he squeezed my hand in reassurance.  "I'll listen."

"Are you certain?" Did his heart know no bounds?

"Hmmm…" he mumbled affirmatively, apparently now exhausted beyond coherent speech as he struggled to keep his eyes even partially open.

Well, if he was certain…

"A little shy of a year ago my father ordered me to take on Endanlel as my protégé," I began hesitantly, knowing I was speaking more to myself than to the young man beside me.  "Before Endanlel, the time I did not give to defending the borders of my land was spent in solitude amongst the trees, immersed in their eternal beauty.  My father never understood that I was happy alone.  He thought that by forcing me to spend time with another, whose personality so vastly differed from my own, I would learn the joys of friendship.  He was right…"

Suddenly, I smiled.  Actually smiled.  Estel had fallen back asleep.  I doubted, in fact, that he had heard more than the first few words of my tale.  It mattered not, though.  He had given me the gift of his companionship and it had helped see me through what would no doubt end up being the most tumultuous time of my recovery – the time when I doubted I would live to see a recovery.  For that he had earned my eternal caring, compassion, and devotion for I recognized the true worth of his friendship.  It was priceless.

Lifting his hand to my lips I pressed a kiss to his palm, "You have a kind heart, Estel."  ||

"Legolas," Gimli's voice was gruff and filled with sadness.  First touching only the edges of my consciousness and then growing more persistent, it dragged me back to the present, back to the burning melancholy of my loss.  "Come, laddie, there are wounded that must be tended to before we can depart."

For the sake of kindness, I tried to answer, tried to look at Gimli and say something, but I couldn't.  I couldn't do more than stand there and gaze at what would become Aragorn's final resting place.  I couldn't look away from the endless cascading waves that had already taken his body to the obscure, murky depths of a watery grave.  And even though in only pained me further – increasing the vividness of what I had lost – I couldn't stop thinking about the thoughtfulness with which Aragorn had treated me after Endanlel's death, about the things that had drawn me to him in friendship.

Friendship.

A friendship had been a blessing. 

Aragorn held…had held…an almost inconceivable warmth and benevolence, a gentle kindness that went beyond any thought of recompense and cared only to help.  I had never encountered another who gave of himself so fully, who would simply be with a person.  Be with a person and be whatever he was required to be, whether it was tender and soothing or harsh and unrelenting.  And he had been both those things with me and countless others, when I had needed him to be.

Though Aragorn would have protested the fact – and often had – I would not have survived Endanlel's death if not for him.  It had been his constant presence, on the good days and the bad, that had given me something to cling to.  He had always been there for me, without fail.  In the weeks – the months – following my protégé's death he had done so much for me.  When, in the middle of a seemingly unrelated conversation, I would simply start to cry, Aragorn would stop whatever he was doing to soothe me.  Sometimes he would hold my hands, or rub my back, or stroke my hair, and still others he would just sit with me and that would be enough because I knew he cared.

There was one particular occasion that I remembered with the utmost vividness.  Early one morning I had been helping Aragorn improve his archery technique, as I had done so many years earlier – before he had ever developed a 'technique'.  Only it had reminded me not of our time together when he was a child but of another lesson, with another person.  Another person whose memory had come creeping, unbidden and wrought with sadness.  Like so many other times, it had brought tears to my eyes.  Tears I couldn't stop.

Seeing them, Aragorn had reacted instantly – gently and discretely leading me away into the privacy of the wood.  So discretely that none had noticed the wetness of my cheeks because he had known the ways of my people – had known how much it would shame me –  and had taken so much care to shield me from their eyes.  Then, upon ushering me away he had hesitated momentarily, in an uncustomarily awkward fashion, before proceeding to wrap me in a tender embrace.

Tense from an endearing nervousness that had stemmed from fearing he would offend me with such an intimate act, he had remained stiff and uneasy until I had responded in kind, murmuring a quiet 'thank you' as I loosely fitted my arms around him.  Relaxing with a sigh of relief, Aragorn had then held me in silent support while I allowed my bout of emotions to run their course.  After the last of my tears had dried, my friend had released me, smiled in reassurance, and led me back to Rivendell where I had spent the rest of the day helping him shoot arrows.

It was always the gentleness he had expressed in those moments that I would remember above all others.  It was that gentleness that speared my heart now.  It showed me what I had lost.

Yes, my friendship with Aragorn had been a blessing.  It was an idea I knew I should cling to, own, and truly feel.  But I couldn't.  It was true, but right now the thought only increased my gloom.  It would be a long time before I could think of the sweet times we had shared together without thinking of the horrible bitterness that this moment held now.  That time would come though.  I knew it would.  I simply could not feel it.

"Legolas…" the dwarf sounded worried at my irresponsiveness.

Tearing my gaze away from the river below, I turned sad eyes to my friend.

Gimli's gaze was aggrieved and carried within it a heavy weight, but when he saw my own blinding grief his eyes softened and turned sympathetic.  "There will be time to mourn him later, Legolas."  He pressed a hand to my forearm, squeezed reassuringly, and then turned and walked away.

After a few moments of silence, I followed him with tears in my eyes.

~~~~~~~~~~

Our arrival at Helm's Deep was greeted by a flurry of activity that barely seeped through my consciousness but brought with it a touch of surprise.  We had arrived already?  How could that be?  I-I did not remember riding for so long.  I remembered thoughtlessly trailing behind Gimli as he found and ushered me to the most severely wounded of the men.  I remembered quickly cleaning and bandaging their wounds and then helping them to mount their horses so that they could ride ahead. 

I remembered allowing myself to become lost in the work, remembered rushing to treat as many men as possible so that I could fill my thoughts with concern for their wellbeing rather than…Aragorn's fall.  I remembered mounting my own horse but…but I did not remember the actual journey to Helm's Deep.

In fact, I remembered nothing at all from the time I had spurred my horse on to the time when I had first heard the relieved voices of King Theoden's men, raised in joy.  It was as if, having experienced first denial and then impossible sadness, my mind had turned…numb.  It was as if, bereft and aggrieved, I had simply shut down.  Unable to think or feel, I had blanked, registering only shock.

Shock.

I felt so empty…

"Legolas…Legolas…dismount and I shall care for your steed," Gimli's voice held more gentle concern in it than I had thought possible and, only half aware of what I was doing, I let my unfocused gaze fall to his face.

It was then that I noticed that I was the only remaining member of the party still left mounted.  How long had I been sitting upon this horse, unaware of all that occurred around me?

I nodded.  Or perhaps I didn't.  I truly was not aware enough to be certain.  I knew only that I had meant to nod before slipping elegantly to the floor and handing the reigns to my worried friend.

"Legol…" Gimli tried to utter my name but his voice dwindled into a pensive thoughtfulness.  I knew he wanted to comfort me.  He wanted to be able to make me feel better, but in the end all he said was, "Go and find a quiet place to rest and think, my elf friend.  I shall handle matters with King Theoden and call upon you when your presence is needed."  Perhaps he realized that my grief was so great that no words could ever form even a paltry balm for it.  Or perhaps he simply did not know what to say.  Whatever the case, I was grateful.

"Thank you," I whispered, doubtlessly too softly for him to have heard, and then went in search of solitude, quietly and stealthily darting through the crowd of frightened and worried men and women.

I was completely unaware of the passage of time as I wandered through Helm's Deep, having once more sunk back into a haze of thoughtless disembodiment, but after what might have been an eternity of searching I found a room vacant of people.  It was a small storage facility, filled with large crates of supplies – most likely weapons – but there was just enough room for me to slip between the boxes and slump down to the floor.

It was there, hidden from sight, that I could finally allow myself to cry.  It was there that I could allow myself to feel the extent of my grief.  Grief that, unmarred by the trappings of guilt, was greater than that which had ensnared me after the death of Endanlel.  Grief that was so overwhelming that I wondered what it was to feel joy.  For joy did not exist within me.  Not even in the smallest quantity, not even in the memory of the friendship I had shared with Aragorn.  All I felt was pain.  When I breathed, it seemed to replace the air I inhaled with sorrow.

Aragorn was gone.  The dearest friend I had ever had in all the long years of my life, had fallen and there was nothing I could do to contain that heartache, no way I could force myself to go find King Theoden and try to counsel him on his next course of action, no way I could do my duty.  So I cried.  I cried until my throat was raw and my eyes were sore.  I cried until I could cry no longer.  Then, I slept.  It was all I could do.

~~~~~~~~~~

I awoke with a new sense of purpose.   One forged from tears of grief and that seemed to take shape even as my eyes focused on the bleak surroundings of the storage room.  I would fight.  I would fight alongside King Theoden, his men, and Gimli.  I would fight for Rohan, for Gondor, for all of Middle Earth.  I would fight for Aragorn's memory.  I would fight until we had victory, or until death claimed me.  I would fight because I was still needed, because it was what Aragorn would have wanted, because I would not let myself become undone by the death of one man, no matter how dear to me he had been.  I was not, after all, a child to be coddled through every hurt.  I was stronger than that.  I was a warrior.  Aragorn had always trusted me to keep my head in times of danger.  I was in danger now.  We all were.  I would grieve for him – silently – but even as I did, I would fight.

It was with that resolution that I wiped the tears from my face, cleaned my hair, rearranged my garments, and went in search of Gimli.  I found, upon walking for but a short while, that I had not wandered long after all.  The entrance through which we had ridden was just a few halls down.  Still filled with countless people, it seemed to once more be the source of great excitement for, even as I returned, a commotion swept through everyone.

Even though I could not hope to see through the crowd, my keen ears picked up various distinct exclamations among what was otherwise a distorted garble of noise.

"He's alive!" a woman said joyously, her cry echoed by countless others.

What?  Alive?  Was it possible?  Could it be…Aragorn?

Besieged by a wave of myriad emotions, including a hopeful fear that pained my heart, I slipped through the swarm of men.  Please, I thought desperately, Please, sweet Elbereth, let it be him…  Please.  It was all I could think as I was overtaken by a daze of a very different nature than the one that had claimed me after Aragorn's fall over the cliff.  This one was a daze of disbelieving joy that he might possibly be alive, and fear that it wouldn't be true.  It would be an unimaginable blow to hope – even for an instant – that I had not lost him and then to find that I indeed had.

"Where is he!?" Gimli's voice suddenly drowned out all others as I struggled to make my way to a place where I could see if it Aragorn had truly survived.  "Where is he?? Get out of the way, I'm gonna kill him!"  Then, there was a pause that nearly made my heart stop.  "You are the luckiest, the cunningest, and the most reckless man I ever knew!  Bless you, laddie!"

I froze.  By the Valar…it was true.  He was alive!! It didn't seem possible, but it was true!  He was ALIVE!  The joy was so overpowering that I could not move.  I could only stand there, waiting for him to appear so that I could see with my own eyes that he had not perished, that by some miracle of the Valar he had made it.  Made it.  Alive.

He was alive!  I practically trembled from the knowledge.

I could have laughed and wept, but I did neither.  I stood rooted to the floor as the crowd around me thinned and Aragorn came walking towards me.  Steady in his gait, even in his breathing, seemingly lacking any serious injury and…with his clothes covered in mud and his hair a tangled disarray – as always – and…he looked…terrible.  Terrible and alive!  Had I been able to move I would have leapt across the room and embraced him – most likely scaring at least forty years of life out of him – but instead I composed myself and waited. 

He was preoccupied, alive, worried, alive, and though I stood directly in front of him, he had not noticed me.           Completely oblivious to the obstruction I formed in his path, Aragorn nearly walked into me.  It wasn't until he was less than a foot away from me that he came to an abrupt stop, pulled back slightly, and looked up to see who blocked his way.

Meeting his very alert gaze, I wondered what I could say.  I wanted to tell him how ecstatic I was that he had survived and make sure that he knew how much his friendship meant to me, but I could not find words adequate enough to express myself.  Instead, I filled my eyes with all the joy I was feeling, hoping he would see it, and settled for teasing him.

"Le ab-dollen (you're late)," I announced, mirth lacing my tone.

Aragorn's brow furrowed slightly and his eyes widened in surprise.  He seemed slightly taken aback by my greeting – or lack thereof – and obviously did not understand.  I found myself wondering how long it would take him to remember the occasion from which I was pulling those words, found myself wondering if he would realize he had spoken them to me many years earlier in an intriguingly similar situation.

Trying to keep myself from smiling, I decided to give him another small clue.  Human memory was, after all, something akin to pathetic.  So I made a small show of looking him over – as if I hadn't already noticed that he seemed to have clawed his way out of a grave – and then added, "You look terrible."  He had also said those same words to me.

At first Aragorn's glance was blank, but then his eyes sparked and he gave me half a nod and grinned, chuckling slightly as he caught my gist.  With a firm hand he grasped my shoulder, squeezing to tell me, without words, how glad he was to see me.  Then he took the time to study me, trying to discern – as he always did – the nature of my emotions.

Swiftly, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the Evenstar.  I did not want him to know, right now, how distressed I had been.  He was obviously concerned in regards to something and I would not have him worrying for me as well.  So, without giving him time to see the last traces of grief in my eyes, I raised the Lady Arwen's gift slightly into the air until I caught his attention.  Then I gently dropped it into his extended palm and watched him look down at it in surprise, opening his loose fist to gaze upon it more closely.

When Aragorn looked up at me it was with a mix of surprise and immense gratitude.  He had thought the Evenstar lost and now that it was returned to him had not the words to express how much it meant to him.  I, of course, already knew.  He had spent so many hours telling me of his love for her that it was impossible for me not to know how deeply thankful he was that I had kept safe the one thing he had left of her.

"Diola lle (thank you)," he said simply, his voice thick and carrying a wealth of emotions within it.

I smiled in return.

I was so glad that he was alive!

Aragorn quickly fastened the pendant so that it once more hung just over his heart.  "Come, Legolas," he said, motioning me to walk with him, "I must speak with the King."

My eyes instantly fell to a gash in Aragorn's right shoulder.  I suddenly felt an intense desire to make sure he was as uninjured as he seemed.  How could he have fallen so far and not been more seriously hurt?  Was he weaker than he seemed? "Allow me to tend to your wound first," I requested, hoping he wouldn't detect the pleading note in my voice, wouldn't realize that I was so relieved he was alive that I would allow nothing to chance that miracle.  The wound, after all, could be infected.  I needed to make sure he was all right.

Aragorn brusquely shook his head, "We have not the time.  There is something of great importance that I must tell–"  He stopped short when he caught my gaze, his voice abruptly cutting off into silence.  A slight frown furrowed his brow as he cocked his head perplexedly.  "You may bandage the wound after I speak to him," he offered, more gently now.  He had obviously noticed something in my voice or manner that had told him of the worry that lay behind my relief.

Though the concern I felt for his health was not in the least bit funny, I answered in a joking manner, "Nay my friend.  Methinks it would be better to do so now.  If you entered the King's hall thusly bedraggled you would undoubtedly be mistaken for an Uruk-hai and slain."

"I suppose it is of no consequence that my appearance did not deceive your eyes?" Aragorn answered in an equally jesting way even as his eyes seemed to bore through me, trying to figure out why I was clinging to this request.

"That is simply because I am more familiar with your death-defying antics," I replied without missing a beat.

Aragorn, however, was not so quick to counter.  Instead, he remained silent as he searched my eyes for the secrets to what I was thinking.  As always, he found them.  "Not familiar enough, apparently," he spoke very softly, very kindly.  "I am all right, Legolas," he assured me, once more gripping my shoulder, this time in reassurance.

"Please, Aragorn," I almost begged, knowing that if he refused again I would have no choice but to wait.

After another few moments of studying me intently, Aragorn nodded.  "Very well, but please be quick about it."

Flashing him a grateful smile that in no way compared to the growing relief inside me, I led him back to a room that had apparently been converted into some sort of small treatment center.  I had seen it on my return to the main entrance of Helm's Deep and it was filled with all sorts of herbs, medicines, and bandages.

~~~~~

My hands trembled as I carefully applied a healing save to the bandage I was preparing for Aragorn.  I couldn't help it.  He was alive.  I had examined his wound and it was indeed minor.  By some grace of the Valar, he had survived the fall almost unharmed.  I was so happy it…hurt.  He was alive and he would be all right.  I couldn't stop thinking that.  I couldn't stop remembering all the times we had shared together and thinking that now we had the chance to create more memories, more ties to bind us in a friendship that was more akin to brotherhood.

A gentle thumb touched my cheek, brushing away the tear of joy I hadn't even realized I had shed.  Then, a warm hand covered both of mine, stilling their movement.  "You cry for me?" he murmured, already knowing the answer.

I nodded as a few more stray tears escaped to trial down my face. "The tears I cry now are but a shadow of those which they follow."

Aragorn continued to tenderly wipe the droplets away, "Please do not weep," he requested, his tone of voice alone enough to tell me how much he hated the idea of having caused me so much grief.

"You have always said not to be ashamed of my emotions," I reminded him with a shaky smile as I blinked away some of my tears and then looked up to see the tears that stood in his own eyes.  It obviously touched him to see how very much I cared for him.

"Aye, but I would not be the cause of your distress," he squeezed my hands.

Smiling, I realized his mistake.  "Then be at ease, son of Gondor, for these tears are of joy and not sorrow."

Aragorn glanced down at our hands.  When he looked up again I could see by the darkening of his glistening eyes that he now understood the extent of the turmoil I had endured only hours earlier.

"You truly thought me dead?"  He posed it as a question even though he had already seen the answer in my eyes, in my tears, in the way my hands trembled.

I nodded anyway and at my response he sighed and pulled me into an embrace.

Immediately, I slid my arms around his back and rested my head against his shoulder.  I felt like a child, being held this way, but I did not care.  Next to my father, Aragorn was the only person in all of Middle Earth that I loved and even though Aragorn's urgency to speak with the King told me we were in immanent danger, I was, for the moment, content.

"I am sorry for worrying you," he whispered, "Díheno nin, mellonen (forgive me, my friend)."

"There is nothing to forgive," I assured him, smiling, "Thank you for living.  Thank you for not making me lose you."

Aragorn responded by tightening his arms and stroking my back a little.  In the wake of a peaceful silence we both pulled back to grip each other's shoulders.  "Are you well?" he questioned, concern lighting his now dry eyes.

Wiping away the last of my tears, I again nodded.  "Yes, Aragorn.  Thank you."  Holding him had reassured me – had shown me beyond any shadow of a doubt that he was indeed all right.

"Then you'll forgive me but I truly must speak with King Theoden."  Giving my shoulders one last squeeze, he turned to leave the treatment room.

For a moment I considered protesting and having him stay until I finished bandaging his wound but then I thought better of it.  The cut was minor.  What truly mattered was that he had lived – lived to see another day, lived for there to be another opportunity for me to treat his injury, and lived to give us the chance to fight along side each other yet again.

Quickly, I followed him from the room and into King Theoden's chamber.  There was work to be done.

THE END