Disclaimer: I, Raven Nightstrider, fanfiction author, am in no way affiliated with J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien Enterprises or any of the publishing companies for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I do not have their permission to write this fiction based on Professor Tolkien's work; nor do I claim ownership rights to any of his characters and creations. This fanfiction was written purely for creative expression and for others to enjoy.

Redleaf by Raven Nightstrider

Part Two: Silver

The stink of slaughter lay thick and heavy in his nostrils, even he who had hacked and slashed his through countless skirmishes with Dol Guldur's sorties; even he who had been caught in the very center of the Battle of the Hornburg. Bloody and dire had been the situation in the Pelennor when they had arrived, and great had been the carnage of that clash.

Grievous too had been the losses. Many heroes of the Gondorrim and Rohirrim had fallen, and a savage blow had been dealt to the numbers of the Dúnedain, not the least of which was Aragorn's old brother-in-arms, Halbarad the standard-bearer. Many tears had been shed for blood that dark day, by Men of Gondor and Rohan alike, bereft of their lords in the course of a single day, and he grimly thought that many more would be wept over this day.

However, Gimli had no time to fret about the collective losses of this bittersweet victory. Panic broke through his eternal weariness as he scampered through the killing fields, scouring piles of bloodied corpses for what felt like leagues, deafening his ears to the moans and cries of the dying.

The most zealous of the Easterlings and Haradrim had been dealt with in the dust of the battle's climax. Even now Gandalf was astride his old friend Gwaihir, leading the Eagles south in a desperate search for the Halflings, lest they had possibly survived the rage of Orodruin. Even a distance away, Gimli heard Shadowfax whinnying in questioning displeasure as though wishing to know whither his friend and master had gone. Aragorn had made his way up to the tiny slag-hill where the Standard of Gondor was planted and now leaned heavily on his sword before it, worn and sickened beyond emotion. All the orcs and trolls and slaves of Mordor had been vanquished in the madness following Sauron's final fall. And buried somewhere beneath their carcasses, he knew, lay Peregrin Took.

A valiant little fool of a Took, that creature! He had seen that idiotic, thrice-blessed hobbit go down beneath the troll-chieftain he'd slain by his own hand. Gimli could not bear the thought of Pippin laid low by anything, much less a stinking troll; he couldn't imagine that fiery little Knight of Gondor extinguished. Oh, he had suffered far too much to rescue him and Merry from the clutches of Saruman—Two hundred leagues, through fen and forest, battle and death, he had ranted himself. No son of Durin would allow such troublesome toil to go to waste like this!… And in spite of everything, he'd grown to love the hobbits, he really had. Both of them had grown on him and done much to lift his spirit, which of late had been markedly dour indeed. He couldn't let anything happen to them: Merry had already given him enough of a fright at the Pelennor to last him for a life-age or two of the Eldar, and now—

Curse Mahal, where is that brat? Gimli thought furiously. When I find him, I'll cut him a head shorter! Blasted thing, always running about and falling into scrapes he has no business putting his wooly foot into! He had better not add himself to my count, or Legolas would accuse me of—

Gimli swore loudly as he ran. All this time and just now he realized that he'd lost track of the Elf as well. The moment they were forced to unhorse and fight properly, the seething tide of enemies had swept everyone apart. Only now could he spot familiar faces again, yet he could not remember the exact position of the hobbit when he had fallen. He could not permit himself to do so, and yet the Dwarf was beginning to despair of ever finding Pippin in this sea of—


He'd been so busy fretting within himself that he'd almost forgotten to properly scan the masses of the slain. But underneath what must have been the hundredth troll, he would have sworn he'd spotted…

"Hail, Master Dwarf!"

Shamefully caught off guard by the rasped greeting, Gimli whirled full circle before discerning the direction of the voice, reflexively lifting his weapon. He was struck by the image of a tall Man in Gondorian raiment, gauntleted hand still raised, but the other leaning heavily on a scarred, bloodstained broadsword.

The Dwarf dropped his axe with a dull clang and rushed forward, catching the swordsman and bracing him by the soldiers just as he collapsed forward.

Gimli's heart seized with dreading recognition. "Beregond?"

The Captain of the Guard lifted his tired head, revealing a bloody lump blossoming from his forehead under his helmet. "Well met, friend Gimli," he scratched out with the tiniest of grim smiles.

Gimli had no time to waste on pity for the clearly exhausted soldier. "The hobbit? Pippin? And Legolas? Have you seen aught of them?!" he half bellowed into Beregond's face, trying to ignore the wince of pain drawing on the other's hardened features.

"I… I saw him," he said slowly, struggling to straighten so as not to burden the Dwarf, but Gimli held him firm. "He… he saved my life."

"Who?!" roared Gimli, though he already knew the answer. It was all he could do to keep from shaking his hapless comrade in agitation.

"The… perian…"

Weakly, Beregond lifted his head and gave it the smallest of jerks to the left behind him. "B-back there. I fell… and he saved me. Slew the troll. He had… fallen beneath it when I regained my senses. I… am sorry."

Craning his thick neck until he nearly sprained it, Gimli's breath caught when he saw the very carcass he had purposed to investigate. Great Mahal! He turned back to Beregond, who had been struggling to rise, and gripped his shoulders even harder.

"Does he yet live? Do you know? And what of Legolas? Speak!" he ordered when the Man hesitated.

"I know not the answers to any of these," said he, breathing heavily. "I am sorry."

Forgetting his Dwarven courtesy, Gimli all but dropped Beregond as he sprinted ahead, his feet flying at but half the pace of his mind. Curse him, curse them both! He cannot be dead, he cannot be dead! By Durin's axe and my mother's beard, I shall never forgive him! "I shall never forgive him," he cried aloud, "if—"

All thought stopped. Gimli's hoarse voice dropped away as his heart hurled itself against his chest and fell still. He was sure he saw something protruding from under the troll's enormous leg; dark, very dirty and slightly bloodied. Not daring to breathe out of both fear and the troll's stench, he gingerly crouched before the object—it looked like flesh—to examine it. Now he could clearly make out individual toes and the grit-filled grooves of toughened skin.

A bare foot. His breath returned in gasping pants as his heart began to race again. What manner of creature would march into battle without any form of footwear besides orcs and trolls, to which this foot certainly did not belong? Gimli knew there was no need to confirm his suspicions further, but fear and paralyzing denial drove his hand to push the foot down. His stumpy fingers caught on soft, wooly, sandy-brown hair.

Oh Mahal, NO! Gimli choked down a howl of anguish, his hands shaking. The troll's stink shot a spike of ire and desperation through his heart. Perhaps—just maybe!—Pippin was indeed alive, and the troll had not smothered him—yet. With that Gimli got up and set his shoulder against the creature's scaly bulk, heaving with all his might.

It was incredibly difficult—the troll was nearly twice Gimli's size—but it was not for naught that Dwarves were renowned for sturdiness. At length, with a great cry of exertion and pure impatience, he gave one final shove and the carcass rolled over, hitting the dusty earth with a huge thud.

The ground rattled beneath Gimli's feet and he was forced to sit down, wheezing and lamenting his sore upper body. By Mahal, that thing was heavy, and it stank abominably. But… His stomach and heart twisted as he remembered what now lay exposed to prying eyes beside him.

Steeling his will with a long sigh, Gimli straightened and turned to face reality. But no matter how much he readied himself, the sight struck his heart where it hurt most.

Pippin lay sprawled unceremoniously in the dirt, his eyes tightly shut beneath the awkward Gondorian helmet, his tunic and mail in total disarray. A small trickle of drying blood cut down his chin. In his right hand he still clutched the Barrow-blade, the flowing Númenórean runes still faintly glowing through black blood.

Deep within Gimli's tough Dwarven spirit, something began to crack. Out of all the Fellowship Pippin had undoubtedly been the liveliest, and more often than not exhibited the least intelligence as well. But now, here was nothing. His lithe body, still small despite having grown quite tall for one of his folk, was limp and pliant as the Dwarf scooped him into his arms. Even through his gloves, the hobbit felt cold.

In his years, Gimli son of Glóin had lived through many battles and held many a dead or dying comrade in his arms. He was almost hardened to it by now, but this time, something was painfully different. "I've been through too much," he whispered, his voice quavering. "I've battled and suffered too much for you to get yourself killed like this, Peregrin Took. You owe me your life… and yet that score is long settled. Well, now I have another score to deal with you!" His voice rose, cracking with wrath and grief. "Once again I suffer on your account! You cannot die like this, Pippin, you fool! I will not stand for it!"

In blind fury he shook the hobbit by the shoulders, his heart breaking as he watched Pippin's head loll about helplessly. "Curse you and all your kind, DO YOU HEAR ME?!" he screamed at unhearing ears. "I CANNOT!"

No response. No breath. Gimli pressed his ear against Pippin's chest, but beneath the cold steel rings, the hobbit's great heart was silent.

Stop fooling yourself, idiot. He's gone.

From hard-learned experience, Gimli knew better than to get his hopes up and remain locked in denial. So even as hope flared in his heart—Merry had given him an almighty scare ten days ago, but he was healing; Faramir and Éowyn had both been believed dead, yet against the odds had begun to recover—Gimli was left to accept what could only be the cold truth.

Tenderly he removed Pippin's helmet and held him close, stroking his sweat-dampened hair as the landscape blurred into grey mourning. "Do not make me suffer again, you fool of a Took," he moaned, his voice breaking. "Why must you burden me like this?"

The tears began to flow. Fiery Pippin was gone, just like that.

Gimli heard himself break into a slow, sorrowful song of mourning in his own tongue, weeping as he did so. He barely knew what he was singing. He couldn't get his mind off of the fact that Pippin was gone, gone, gone…

He didn't know what drove him to look up. But he did, even as he rocked Pippin's body back and forth with a gentleness that a bystander would have found astonishing for his race. But he no longer felt Pippin's weight, or his own hurts, or anything. He was numbed to all but the cold shock rattling through his veins.

A tall shape had arisen from the carnage, stoop-shouldered with weariness and the burden in its arms. The veil of tears slowly fell away, revealing the figure's green and white garb of Rohan. Though Gimli thought he might faintly recognize the soldier, he cared not. He only had eyes for the burden.

A body. Clad in no visible armor, but in simple gear of green and brown, with hints of a vast dark stain on the chest. Flashes of a pale face. An empty leather quiver strapped to his back. Gimli vainly tried to convince himself otherwise and might have succeeded, but for the unmistakable flaxen sheet of hair.

The King! a voice called from the same direction. I must find the King of Gondor!

Legolas Greenleaf. So he, too, had fallen. Gimli felt powerless to do aught but accept. Not only had he lost the hobbit he had fretted so much over, but also the closest, unlikeliest friend he had ever had. No more of the barbs and jests, or those mad contests, or the songs and tales. No more laughter. Nothing. An immortal life, gone, lost to Mandos and the ages. The battle was won—the war was won—Middle-earth was saved, but he could only feel a sense of deep loss… of everything he loved.

Gimli buried his face into Pippin's curls and began to cry in earnest.

To say the least, the King of Gondor was exhausted beyond his wits. The day had been murderously trying, and he would rather not think about what more was sure to follow. Right now he wanted nothing more than to lie down somewhere and sleep, perhaps for an eternity—and forget all his sorrows and toils. Forget the fields of dead he stood amongst, those who had fallen, the battle just won, the crippling destiny that lay ahead. Right now, he wanted to simply rest.

Instead he found himself dragging his feet round and round the slag-hill, shutting himself off to the world as he fretted without end. Gandalf had departed with Gwaihir, Landroval and Meneldor not more than thirty minutes ago, though to him they seemed to stretch into tortured hours. The Maia had been visibly beset with terrified anxiety—the emotion that Aragorn suddenly identified as the driving force behind his infernal pacing, regardless of his inclination to collapse. A single thought of Frodo or Sam would strike his heart and feed his voracious fit of insomniac worry. He would have given his life for Frodo—had he not told him so?

The duties of the King could wait for their due time. All he could focus on was the welfare of the hobbits. When Mithrandir returned with them—he simply set aside the possibility that they had been engulfed in Orodruin's final wrath, even as his heart spiked with fear—their wounds and hurts would be grievous at best. Aragorn knew only too well how fraught with danger all ways into Mordor were, and Faramir's tale of his encounter at Henneth Annûn had been nothing short of perturbing. That they had met Gollum was ill news already; knowing that he was their guide into Mordor, in close proximity to the Ring, was worse; but Gollum was leading them not to the Morannon but to Cirith Ungol! Sauron's fall was proof that at least one of the hobbits had made it alive to Sammath Naur with the Ring, but Elbereth knew what they had suffered through on the way! If they were still alive—No, they are still alive; surely the Valar would not be so heartless—the fumes of the volcano would fill their lungs with an unspeakable number of poisons. They would surely need the care of a healer… And if Strider the Dúnadan knew anything about Mordor, he knew that that healer would have to be him.

The hands of the king are the hands of a healer.

So said an old woman of the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith, Gandalf had told him; and many echoes of it he had heard throughout the city. It was true, disciple of Master Elrond as he had been in his youth. He almost refused to consider that it was the king they needed—a throwback to his days as a skulking Ranger in the wild—but nonetheless Frodo and Sam would need all his skills to save them. They needed him.

Begging Manwë that his Wizard and Eagles be swift, Aragorn left his well-worn track around the hill, pausing only to adjust his loose grip on his sword and glance back at the standard of Arwen. No breeze stirred it as it hung limply from its staff; but comfort he took in the sight of the cunningly wrought banner even as he was stung by a pang of grief for Halbarad, and a violent longing for the presence of its maker tore at him. Arwen… Arwen nín! Arwen vanimelda…

Clutching Andúril tightly in his right hand, Aragorn strode off in which direction he knew not, to what purpose he cared not to know. Adrenaline continued to swirl in his blood, unable to decide whether to rise or drain. He wanted to fall over and break into a dead run all at once. In mad restlessness he tore away the mental barriers, channeling his frustration into an assessment of his surroundings.


Death was omnipresent here. Corpses, corpses and more corpses were spread for what seemed like leagues in all directions, all the way up to the crumbled ruins of the Black Gate. Slowly the overpowering stench crept into his awareness, and he was seized by a very unkingly desire to retch. However, he was quick to recognize that the situation could have been far worse. Some minutes ago the rest of the most militant Men of Rhûn and Harad had been dealt with; their more craven comrades were being rounded up and put under guard. Amongst the dead he could see many a man and horse still standing. From what he could gather, it seemed that at least three quarters of his army had survived. It was a miracle… one that would have been impossible without—

No! Do not think of them yet.

The moans and cries of the wounded and dying echoed over the plain. Plenty of healers had accompanied the army from Minas Tirith and would be able to aid at least some of them… but sooner or later they would need to set up camp. Wards and tents would have to be raised, and the living would eventually need to eat. The day had already been murderously exhausting, and they would all need a place to rest—himself included, if last of all. He would still need to see to Frodo and Sam; they would need a tent to themselves to properly—

Or perhaps they will not—

Do NOT think of it! he commanded himself; Deal with it when the time comes! He could not allow himself to rest and run away from need, yet he was approaching the end of his wits. At the end he was left to stand there and absorb the feeble sunlight breaking on the Desolation; the piteous wails of the wounded.

One such lament aroused his anxiety—it was indeed a lament, a Dwarven hymn sung in a hoarse voice, one that cracked and shuddered at irregular intervals.

Gimli! Within a few strides south he had located the Dwarf, and a cold echo rang through his heart at what he found. Gimli wept openly as he cradled a small, pitiful bundle of a soldier. Aragorn hesitated for a bare moment before stepping forward to peer closer. Had he been considerably younger, he would have regretted it as his stomach dropped. The bloodied body belonged to none other than Master Peregrin Took. The hobbit appeared frighteningly lifeless.

Dread seeped through Aragorn as he knelt beside Gimli, gently putting his fingers to Pippin's pale forehead. Cold. No…

"Gimli…" It was indeed a rare occasion that Aragorn could think of nothing to say. For the first time that day, sorrow began to well up in his chest. The slow, but steady dwindling of the Fellowship, right up to Parth Galen, had not failed to take its toll on Aragorn. From that rueful moment on the Dwarven bridge he had shouldered the responsibility of leading and protecting the others. Even after the return of Gandalf, it was a burden he found difficult to relinquish. Although he had grown wise enough to avoid blaming himself for that which eluded his hand, Boromir's death and the subsequent breaking of the Fellowship still haunted him. Now he had given Pippin a chance to prove his considerable valor—which, judging from his still-smoking blade, he undoubtedly had—and yet the hobbit had paid the ultimate price.

"Dead, dead, dead," the Dwarf suddenly caterwauled, oblivious to Aragorn's hand on his shoulder; "he's dead, they both are! Gone! They're dead, both lost, may Mahal pity and avenge me! May he tear Sauron limb from limb, wherever he is!" Bitterly he spat out a torrent of scalding curses in his own tongue, but otherwise was strangely lethargic; as though he wished to visit his wrath upon someone but had irrevocably wearied of killing.

He turned slowly to a stunned Aragorn, tears dripping into his beard from a stricken, swarthy face. "Why, Aragorn?" he whispered hoarsely. "Why must I feel as though I have lost everything, even in victory?"

They…? "Gimli, what—"

"My lord Aragorn!" a voice suddenly cried over Gimli as the latter howled abruptly and resumed bawling into Pippin's hair. Aragorn felt as though his world was slipping like sand through his hands and disintegrating into complete chaos. His heart pounded at the voice's urgency, which sounded strained and yet familiar.

Aragorn wrenched his gaze away from Gimli and Pippin to glance up, searching south for a shadow of a face in his mind. He knew that voice, somehow…

"Quickly, my lord, I beg you!" it called again. "It is the Black Shadow!"

He finally connected the voice with a name and face, just as steely apprehension and dread awakened his nerves. The Black Shadow! He had been all too aware of the Nazgûl throughout the course of the battle; while Sauron could no longer touch their victims, one stabbed by their fell blades still had little hope…

Even as Aragorn was strongly tempted to remain here and comfort Gimli, or see whether Pippin was truly beyond aid, he rose and gave Gimli's shoulder a quick squeeze before making his way south. He knew that the Black Breath was worse, far worse, and required his direct attention. Aragorn shivered slightly—he possessed more than his share of evil memories and tales to remind him of that.

"Estel!" cried a new voice—one of the sons of Elrond. His brothers. Aragorn sheathed his sword with one fluid motion and picked up the pace dramatically, his heart hammering. Had one of them fallen under the sword of a Ringwraith? The other would know enough of their father's craft to begin alleviating the problem, but both were better skilled at wielding weapons than healing hurts; they still needed him. The thought of losing either Elladan or Elrohir—tired as he was, he was not about to let that happen.

"There you are at last!" yet another voice clamored just as Aragorn came within sight. There were three—no, four. Three hazy figures stood in the distance, one of them leaning upon another for support. The third was carrying the last man and came running toward him, stumbling with weariness as he shifted his grip on the burden.

The sons of Elrond. Éomer. And Legolas.

Aragorn finally broke into a sprint to meet them. It was Legolas in Éomer's arms, limp as a bundle of linen—a position Aragorn had never seen him in since departing from Imladris. The Black Breath. As far as he was aware, the Elven bowman had staved it off in his homeland for at least five hundred years, if not more; yet it was here, on the Black Land's doorstep, that it had at last brought him down.

The former Ranger slowed to a brisk trot. He was numb as he reached them, a fact he readily exploited as he pushed aside his own sentiments to examine the situation. Nonetheless his breath did not come easily as Éomer deposited the immobile Elf at his feet before plunking to his knees in a rather less-than-dignified fashion, panting.

"How did this happen?" Aragorn asked tonelessly, not even glancing up as he quickly got to his knees and bent over Legolas. Immediately recalling the tale of Imrahil regarding Éowyn's brush with death, the first thing he did was to wipe some blood off of a patch on his vambrace and hold it over the Elf's bloodless lips. He was fairly sure he could still sense a fëa within him; and sure enough when he lifted his arm he could discern a very faint mist on the metal.

Aragorn released the breath he didn't know he'd been holding. Legolas was alive.

The King of the Mark let out a long, shivering sigh; at the top of his peripheral vision Aragorn thought he caught a shudder. "T'was a dwimmerlaik, lord. I did not see it, but it happened just before the rest fled. It looked as though he had tried to fight it off, but…"

Although he tried to listen, the Dúnadan quickly realized that he would have to ask Éomer to regale the events again—long after this was over. In his ears the other king's voice quickly faded into an unintelligible murmur. While his face remained set, inwardly he winced at the visible damage, knowing that worse lay underneath. A darkening patch of blood spread over the left side of Legolas's chest, apparently centered on one of his ribs. A carefully-conducted closer inspection revealed the actual puncture in the hardened leather vest, from which a tiny bright red thread still trickled.

The background babble of voices, which had quickly grown threefold, now slowly trailed off and ceased. Aragorn quickly looked over the rest of the archer. The already fair skin on his face and neck had receded to the color of virgin snow. In addition to the vile stab wound he had sustained numerous minor cuts on his arms and legs, at least two of which had yet to stop bleeding even with the rapid healing rate of the Firstborn. While unsurprised, Aragorn still found it troubling that Legolas's eyes were tightly shut; an attribute only natural to a seriously ill or injured Elf. His face was drawn, his matted hair fanning out beneath his head, giving him the appearance of an angelic spirit sliding into a nightmare.

"The weapon?" Aragorn asked.

"Pardon, lord, but—"

"A longsword," someone cut in shortly. Suddenly recognizing the soft Rivendell accent he had grown up with, Aragorn finally removed his gaze from his patient and glanced up at the onlookers. The first thing that caught his eye was a shredded tunic, dark blue and silver underneath the stripes of gore. He followed it upward until he found the stormy grey eyes glaring at the ground.

The Elven-garbed warrior looked up and met his eyes, his expression failing to soften. Elladan. After over fourscore years, Aragorn could tell by the way his eyes more closely resembled Elrond's. "It was a longsword of the Úlairi—morgul, or dipped in sorcerous poison at the very least. Their dark steel is already deadly, but only—"

Éomer regained enough wind to interrupt him. "'Tis sorcery of the Dark Lord himself, no less! That is no ordinary blade to cause such cold in him as…" He trailed off, closing his eyes as he wiped his forehead with an arm.

Yanking off a glove, Aragorn gingerly reached out to touch Legolas's hand, wincing as the latter moaned softly. Éomer was correct: it was deathly cold. A shiver ran through his own arm, bringing back flashes of memory—Éowyn, Merry. Frodo. If he had had even the slightest doubts of the weapon before, they were all expelled in an instant. Aragorn gritted his teeth. If a morgul weapon were indeed the source of this devilry, Legolas ran the risk of… He wanted to lose as little time as possible.

"We must move quickly," he said tightly. "There is much work to be done and few minutes to waste." He reached across to lay a reassuring hand on Éomer's shoulder. "Can you take him somewhere safe? I need to find Imrahil and begin setting up camp. Elladan, start giving orders to collect the wounded. Elrohir…" He doubtfully surveyed the ugly slash on the other twin's thigh. "Can you stand?"

The latter got to his feet with a sigh and a wince, accepting a supporting hand from his brother. "I can, but I will not be able to walk fast or far without support. I fear I will be of little use to you as an errand-runner, Aragorn," Elrohir replied ruefully. The Peredhel's grey eyes carried fear and trepidation that Aragorn could safely claim to have never seen in eighty years, and to him they seemed almost haunted. They only gained that look when in conversation Elrohir heard a mention of Arathorn, or Celebrían.

A million scrambled thoughts raced through Aragorn's mind. The dead could be carted and buried later, but the wounded still needed to be cared for—including Legolas, Elrohir and hopefully Pippin as well. Then there were the prisoners to consider; they would have to be put under guard, fed and sheltered. He had to learn of Prince Imrahil's fate and find him—he had last seen him just before the fall of Barad-dûr on the other hill, but both had leapt into the fray and charged against the last desperate Men of Rhûn and Harad immediately after; anything could have happened in that chaos. Then he dearly wished to seek the counsel of Gandalf… who had flown south, looking for—

"Look!" a voice shouted suddenly. Scores of others followed: some wailed in horror, dreading the return of the Nazgûl or even dragons or other new foes. But most cried out in amazement and joy. Look there! Hearken! They have returned! It's the White Wizard! The Eagles are returning! Gandalf is back!

"Gandalf!" breathed Aragorn, his heart suddenly palpitating. Bracing a hand against the ground, he turned his gaze skyward in time with many of the Host on the Morannon. The north wind was quickly driving the cloud cover east, shredding it; in the growing sunlight wheeled three dark shapes high overhead. With an air of tightly controlled haste they began to spiral downward. As they cautiously lowered, the patterns of white and brown feathers became more visible and Aragorn could hear scattered sighs of relief rising from the soldiers of Rohan and Gondor around him.

A Valar! Two of the three great birds had their talons curled over what looked like a child's body each. Aragorn's throat caught. So Mithrandir had found them! It could not be anything else! If the Eagles had been able to even approach the hobbits, then they surely had not been touched and devoured by the dying rage of Mount Doom. Mithrandir would surely bring them back alive… or dead.

Aragorn unconsciously clenched a fist, his other hand drifting toward Andúril's hilt. Hope and dread rose in him and battled ferociously for supremacy over his heart. Be they living or dead, Gandalf had brought back Frodo and Samwise from the edge of hell to be honored at last for their deed. He knew it would be very long, anxious work on his part and on the part of many others to heal their numerous hurts, and that the hobbits might still pass away to whatever fate awaited them despite his own efforts; but Strider far preferred such a prospect to the one of burying them here. This day had already been bittersweet, and he could not stand for the idea of Sauron making one last strike at them by claiming the lives of the two greatest hobbits to grace Middle-earth.

Around him, soldiers were scuttling out of the way. The slow, steady thrumming of great wings forced Aragorn to refocus: the Eagles seemed to be landing almost in his direction. And yes, they indeed carried the forlorn bodies of the hobbits. He scrambled to his feet and clumsily ran over to them, hardly daring to breathe.

"Elessar!" cried a great, yet weary voice. Gandalf swung his legs off of Gwaihir's back, leaping off a good few feet from the ground. At the same time Meneldor and Landroval gently set down the ragged forms of Frodo and Sam. Aragorn rushed to them, only to be caught by Gandalf.

The Maia's clear, glassy eyes stared straight into his own, boring into him the gravity of the situation. "These Halflings need your help, Aragorn," he said. He quickly silenced Aragorn's questions before continuing, "They have done a deed greater than many generations of Men can hope to accomplish. But they have journeyed far and are grievously hurt, and they cannot heal without your ministrations."

Aragorn nodded silently. In over sixty years of friendship with the Wizard, he had long learned better than to ask useless questions of him. Frodo and Sam were alive. And they needed him now more than ever.

Gandalf released his shoulders. With more calm but no less urgency, Aragorn set aside his joy and strode to the hobbits as Landroval and Meneldor lifted away, kneeling swiftly at Sam's side. This time, with the aid of a staunch sense of duty, he succeeded in forcing down his emotions inside and out. Nonetheless it was difficult: both of them looked altogether wretched. The cuts, scratches, lacerations and burns on each of them were too numerous to count. They both appeared pale and shrunken from their once well-fed and healthy appearance, but Frodo looked decidedly worse: clothed in naught but a grey Elven-cloak and rope, he more resembled a skeletal corpse than a living being. His right hand was caked with dried blood, which seemed to have flowed from a raw stump where his third finger should have been. But from his face, despite the pain and anguish still drawing upon it, flickered hints of peace that he had not seen in Frodo since Lothlórien; indeed, not since his stay at Rivendell.

Aragorn leaned closer and almost recoiled. Evil lingered upon these two like clouds of foul smoke. It felt like the Black Breath, and yet something else; he had never encountered it before, but he knew by instinct and common logic that it would be equally fatal, if not worse. If minutes could not be wasted for—Ai Elbereth, there are still Legolas and Peregrin to fret over!—then Frodo and Sam had even less to lose.

He looked up at the approaching Éomer, who stopped and stood ready for orders. In his worry Aragorn nearly forgot to be grateful to this more-than-capable son of Éomund for offering to take the reins. He simply nodded.

The King of Rohan reciprocated the gesture before turning to bellow orders. "Send scouts to seek a campground! Have men gather the wounded, and keep them away from those foul pools!" he barked as footmen scurried to obey. "Keep the prisoners under guard! Get scouts to look for camp, quickly!"

Gandalf knelt and slowly, reverently brought up Frodo in his arms. Holding his heart in one piece by sheer force of will, Aragorn watched, then picked up a battered Sam. The hobbit felt disturbingly light of weight. While his injuries were less grave in comparison to Frodo, he still needed much in the way of healing. He had a flashback to the meeting at The Prancing Pony and the camp under Weathertop, and nearly smiled at the irony. Sam hadn't trusted him back then; now his very life depended on none other than Strider the Ranger. The brief flash of mirth faded. Not only did he owe it to Sam; he was the only one who could do it. Aragorn looked down into Sam's bruised, bloodied, slumbering face, starkly reminded of just how helpless this hobbit was now. "Trust me, Master Sam," he whispered. "I won't let you down."

"Aragorn," a soft voice spoke up behind him. He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and turned to face Elladan's serious eyes. "I will go to look for Imrahil," he said quietly. "If I cannot find him, I will help Éomer command in his stead."

"I would be indebted to you if you would assist Éomer whether you find Imrahil or not," Aragorn admitted. "But what of Elrohir?"

"I've already tied up the wound. I asked him the same thing, but he insists he will be well for the time being."

He decided to trust their judgment and nodded. "Hannon le."

With a short nod and a sympathetic glance at the hobbits, Elladan departed. Aragorn glanced at Gandalf, who was watching Elladan when something else within his line of sight seemed to abruptly divert his attention. The King almost cringed—in all the fuss over Frodo and Sam, he hadn't gotten around to telling Mithrandir about Legolas or Pippin. He would turn his attentions to these two, they being the closest to death's door, but trepidations about the Black Breath nagged at his mind.

"So…" Gandalf murmured heavily beside him, gazing at the body of Legolas, "It seems that our Company may continue to break. A bittersweet day this would be, then, that even after his utter defeat the Dark Lord would continue to visit tragedy upon the Free Peoples."

"Mithrandir." The Wizard turned to Aragorn's terse voice, leveling him with a frown of mixed concern and impatience. "Legolas lives. I saw to him myself. However, Éomer and my brothers say that he was cut down by a Nazgûl… with a morgul sword. There is no way to retrieve the weapon now, and no way that Sauron can claim him, but should there be a splinter in him I fear the consequences. …Gimli also believes that Peregrin is dead, though it may not be so," he tacked on tentatively.

Alarm and worry flashed through Gandalf's eyes at the mention of the Ringwraith; at Pippin's name they clouded with what might have amounted to devastation in a lesser being. The Wizard shut his eyes and shook his head, unconsciously holding Frodo closer. "Come, Elessar," he beckoned, striding away from the Black Gate with the Halfling in tow. "We are fortunate that your brothers and Éomer, and hopefully Imrahil as well, are well capable for the ordering of camp and such matters. We have much work to do, and very little time."

Shifting his grip on Sam, Aragorn swallowed the urge to fall the ground and groan as uncharacteristic despair threatened to tide him over once again. Indeed, there was so much to be done, with the horrible possibility that they had not enough time to save them all. The day had already gone on long enough and now promised to become a mixture of great glory and complete wretchedness.

I do believe this Company can never be made whole again.

Gandalf heaved a long sigh and rubbed his eyes. From its inception he had been aware that the tale of the Nine Companions would likely end in tragedy, whatever the outcome of the war and his own long efforts. Now he himself had been lost and returned, one was a month dead and four lay gravely wounded in the healers' wards. While he still insisted that they all had a chance of survival—very good ones, as long as Aragorn was able to hold up—he knew that it was going to be touch and go for a long time.

Usually Gandalf the Wizard was quite sure of everything he did. But now as he reflected on the profuse thanks he had given Gwaihir and the Eagles before their departure, he was beginning to feel that it might not have been adequate. By the time the first tent had at last been pitched, Frodo had nearly passed beyond aid; Samwise was not much better. The darkness of Mordor lay heavily on them both, in addition to their numerous physical wounds and conditions such as serious dehydration. Aragorn had already worked on them for several hours and the Maia found his anxiety thus lessened, but only by small measures. The hobbits would need much more than a few hours to heal and recuperate from their month of travel and toil. Merely a month! he thought with some degree of amazement. Hardly thirty days to accomplish so much and incur such hurt. However they came to be, these Halflings are a hardier folk than they would ever care to seem. It should not be long before Elves and Men will cease to underestimate this remarkable race.

His heart weighed heavily in his chest. Aragorn had finally left Frodo and Sam to the care of others for awhile as he had briefly gone out to check on Peregrin. Even with a profession as dark and dangerous as his own, Gandalf had much pity and little envy for Aragorn, upon whom so many cares and responsibilities now rested. He had been told that Gimli, hardly able to stand upright for grief, had brought Pippin in about an hour ago, and that some very pregnant moments had elapsed before another healer confirmed that the hobbit was indeed alive. Gandalf had left Pippin's side only a few minutes ago and was now standing just outside the tent, brooding. The hobbit had a twisted leg, a fractured sword-arm and several broken ribs, and he had nearly been asphyxiated beneath the troll's carcass. He would most likely survive, but it would be some time before he would be up and about resuming his antics again. Yet another charge laid on Aragorn's hands, and mine, he thought dismally, remembering his own similar words to Pippin following the Battle of the Pelennor. But now it is not the battle that hangs in the balance, but their own lives.

Just a minute ago Gimli had departed after recounting his tale to Gandalf, mumbling that he wished to be let alone. The Dwarf was calm now, if numb and uncertain. There was little that Gandalf could do for him, but he was sure that Gimli would be able to pull through the situation. According to him, a troll had collapsed on Pippin but he could not glean many specific details from the story. The last one to have seen the hobbit alive and conscious, Gimli said, was Beregond, the former Captain of the Guard in Minas Tirith. Following his role in saving Faramir's life, the Wizard thought quite highly of this man. Eventually he would wish to speak with him, but there were more important matters to attend to before learning the full truth behind Pippin's injuries. Namely, Frodo and Samwise—and Legolas son of Thranduil.

It would probably be a while before Aragorn came to him; as they all worried most for the hobbits, the King and the others decided to trust Legolas's strong body and spirit to stave off the darkness for the moment. But eventually he would need help for certain—and both Gandalf and Aragorn knew that it was beyond the skill of all present to deal with a morgul splinter, if indeed Legolas now possessed one.

But at least he knew how to determine that much, even without all the skills of Elrond Halfelven. He picked up his staff and strode off to another of the three wards. As much as Frodo remained his chief worry, Gandalf decided to see to the archer himself.

Groans and cries filled the air as the White Wizard crossed through the long tent. At least fifty men lay under this canvas; he recalled that Aragorn had ordered only those most seriously injured be brought in to the wards. Unfortunately, all four of the fallen Companions met this criterion quite well. These men, however, had a hope of survival, if only with the aid of healers. Most of the Host, he gathered, had sustained some mild to moderate wounds that the less-experienced healers could take care of outside the wards. At least they were camped well away from the festering stink of the immediate area of the Black Gate, thanks in no small part to the able scouts of Éomer. But even with the wholesome scent of athelas permeating the air, already this place reeked of blood, scant medicines and suffering. He and many others would be glad to remove themselves from the Desolation as soon as they were able.

Legolas lay on a blanket near the end of one of the rows, towards the far side of the tent. Gandalf approached him immediately, needing less than a second to pick him out amongst the bodies of Men from Rohan and Gondor. He frowned slightly: the various healers moving about, even though they had their hands full with the other soldiers, appeared reluctant to approach the Elf. So many years had passed since Gondor had had anything to do with the Eldar that they now regarded the Elves with fearful superstition, and the Rohirrim were even worse. Gandalf doubted it was worth the time to persuade them of their error: even with all their skills, there was little that these men would be able to do for a victim of the Ringwraiths.

He set his staff upon the ground and knelt down beside Legolas. Someone, he was glad to see, had taken the initiative to clean and dress the cuts on his arms; but nothing was done about his chest wound. That was all for the better, as bandages there would have had to be undone to examine the damage.

Gently Gandalf laid a hand on Legolas's forehead. It was cold and clammy to the touch. In the dim light of the ward his skin had paled to the point of bloodless, and his breathing was very shallow and ragged. The Wizard's bushy brows furrowed. The Black Breath indeed lay heavy upon him. He leaned closer and found a spot of drying blood on the Elf's left temple, from a small nick near his ear. A trickle of fresh blood flowed from the corner of his mouth; next to his head a dark stain spread on the blanket. Gandalf's jaw tightened: this was an ill sign. For the first time that day he began to fear that Legolas might indeed leave them for the Halls of Mandos. No, Thranduilion: I do not believe it is your time yet.

About to peel the Elf's vest and tunic aside to examine the wound, Gandalf found himself interrupted by a nervous clearing of the throat behind him. Scowling, he straightened and turned to face a middle-aged Gondorian leech he vaguely recognized from Minas Tirith, who initially appeared suspicious but quickly cowed under Gandalf's fierce gaze.

"Yes?" growled the Wizard.

"B-begging your pardon, sir," stammered the medic, "b-but should not the healers be tending to the wounded? For surely your…" He seemed at a loss as for how exactly to address Gandalf the White. "Well, surely you must have more pressing issues to attend to…?"

"Indeed I do, and this is one of them!" Gandalf snapped. He would have thundered it were it not for the quietude necessary in a place of the sick. "And if it should only be the healers who ought to concern themselves with the wounded and dying, why then have those healers done so little for this wounded man, be he of the race of Man or Elf?"

The leech opened his mouth to argue, but any attempt at a protest withered under Gandalf's formidable glare. He was left to babble incoherently for some moments before regaining his composure and stating, "I fear there is little we can do ourselves, sir. Some time ago he began coughing up blood, and it would seem to me that he is afflicted with the Bl—"

"With the Black Shadow, and possibly more," Gandalf interrupted with some impatience. These Healers of Gondor were competent and did much for that nation's welfare, but at times he found them exceedingly confusticating; at the very least this man wasted far less time on half-understood lore than the herb-master of the Houses of Healing. "But you are correct: there is little that you would be able to do. There is little, perhaps, that even I or the Lord Elfstone would be able to do, if what I fear is true. But that is exactly why I am here—to make sure whether my fears are correct or needless."

"I-if you please, er, sir… I can—"

"—you can quickly fetch a leaf or two of athelas—kingsfoil," he snarled at the man's clueless expression, "if any can be spared… unless you would have a very good idea of how to mitigate the Black Breath or a morgul wound of the Nazgûl."

The healer actually blanched. "The Black Shadow is nigh on untreatable!" He shook his head sadly. "Many a soldier in recent months was brought into the Houses for that very ailment, only to have him fall into darkness and die before the setting of the sun. But…" Understanding seemed to dawn on his wrinkled, weathered face. "The Lord Elfstone was able to cure the Lord Faramir, and the Lady Éowyn and even the perian. Perhaps this Elf, then, has hope of living."

"Perhaps," murmured Gandalf. "Now if you would—"

"Of course, sir. The kingsfoil. Of course." And with that the leech scurried away.

Shaking his head but feeling somewhat grateful nonetheless, Gandalf turned back to Legolas. With great care he pulled back the hard leather vest and the bloodsoaked tunic, wiping away the blood with a cloth he requested from another of the leeches to expose the clammy flesh on the left side of his chest—and the wound itself.

The stab was about three inches long. At the bottom inch—apparently the entry point—it was a clean cut, but the remainder had a more ragged appearance as though the Wraith had dragged his sword out upwards. Gently he probed a little deeper, fully aware of a hiss and a groan from the yet-unconscious Elf. The wound, strangely, was shallower than he expected even for an airborne strike; at no time could he recall reports of any of the Nine dismounting. At the bottom it was fairly deep, but suddenly became shallower directly above the first stab. From the direction and the depth of the cut going upwards, it looked like the sword had been yanked out… almost as if the sword's master had intended to run Legolas through, but then hastily withdrew the weapon as something else attracted his attention. Gandalf frowned thoughtfully. He would be interested in knowing exactly how this happened.

He could sense darkness flowing out of the wound, which was to be expected for any morgul stab—but he was growing certain that a fragment of the morgul sword could have been left behind. Recalling many years of experience, up to and including Frodo's arrival at Rivendell just last October, he knew that only time would exhibit its sure symptoms. But what he could be assured of, judging from the placement and depth of the wound as well as the coughed-up blood, was that Legolas's left lung had been pierced. This, at least, would soon require attention.

Abruptly Legolas gasped. Gandalf started, then scowled deeply as the Elf's face twisted, as though in the vague pain of a nightmare; he then began to murmur in the Grey tongue in his dark sleep. The speech was often unclear, although Gandalf could make out something about his sisters, Pippin, the Necromancer, and the pits of Dol Guldur; but ever his ravings returned to darkness and shadow.

At length he fell still again. Gandalf took the Elf's slender, chilly hand in his own and stroked it with his thumb, thinking deeply. Aragorn might be able to call him back from the shadow, but even if the tiniest of morgul shards were trapped in his flesh, the only proper way to heal him was to remove it. Evil's power did not vanish from steel with the fall of its master. Aragorn was quite correct in that Sauron, now utterly vanquished, could not touch him—yet still he could wreak vile mischief in the form of a morgul wound unattended. Were Legolas's heart touched by a splinter—which could still damage his already punctured lung as it worked its way inwards—he would almost certainly pass into the Unseen. Not living on both sides like Glorfindel, not a wraith under any Dark Lord's dominion; but a wraith nonetheless. A Houseless One.

There some speech just outside the tent; then he sensed someone entering. Gandalf did not bother to look up. Good—he is here. Hopefully he will have a better idea of what to make of this.

"I thought you were taking too long and decided to see for myself what I could do about him," he answered before the question was begun.

Aragorn blew some air out of the corner of his mouth as he sat beside Gandalf—a funny little quirk of his that the Wizard had discovered early in their friendship. "Peregrin's injuries turned out to be worse than I had predicted," he said simply. "For a moment I feared one of his lungs had been punctured, but thankfully it was not so."

"And to our misfortune it is so for Legolas, or so it would seem," Gandalf replied, gesturing at the wound and the blood.

Aragorn took a turn examining the wound; he straightened with a grimace. "What you say is true. Perhaps that could be alleviated if we were at the Houses of Healing; but alas, we are not. We can only trust to his own strength to repair the damage, for I deem that the wound to his lung is not so deep that it would doom him for certain."

"He was raving somewhat before you came in," Gandalf said quietly, contemplating the archer with a dark look. He found himself wishing for his pipe; tobacco often helped to clarify his thoughts. "Little of it was coherent or even discernible. He spoke mostly of the Necromancer, and some about his sisters… It would also seem that he witnessed the fall of Peregrin."

At that moment the leech reappeared with three leaves of athelas and a small pot of steaming water. "Your pardon, lords," he said, "but our supplies of this leaf are limited. These are all I can spare."

Aragorn faced him; Gandalf was quite sure that he was leveling the man with a steely look, of which he himself had been on the receiving end more than once. He suppressed a chuckle at the memory. "These leaves must be used sparingly for all but the darkest of hurts, dealt by evil itself and its lieutenants," Aragorn said sternly. "And were the healers not instructed to gather kingsfoil from the countryside?"

The medic shrank just slightly but otherwise did an admirable job of holding his ground. "They were indeed, and we gathered as much as we could in the time that we had. But I heard some voicing doubts over the usefulness of such a task."

The White Wizard received a very ignoble urge to roll his eyes. "Then rumor of the cures of the Steward's son, the shieldmaiden and the Halfling were slower to travel than I had conjectured, or the details thereof."

Aragorn ignored both comments. "Please make it known that athelas does not have cure-all properties and thus must be used sparingly. It is very instrumental in recalling victims of evil from the Shadow, as well as the cleansing of wounds and some rejuvenation of the spirit; but it cannot be used for everything."

"Yes, milord." The healer gave him the leaves and water, and hurried off.

The Ranger shook his head. "Would that Lord Elrond were here," he muttered. "I could perhaps send for Elladan, but I doubt he could be of much aid in such matters as these. I would believe that a shard is trapped in the wound, but I have not the skill to extract it."

He bruised the leaves and cast them into the pot. Gandalf imbibed a whiff of the herb's cleansing scent, somewhat alleviating his need for smoke. The Elf began to moan and murmur again, but quickly he fell back into relative peace. For a time he watched Aragorn bathe and clean Legolas's wound in silence, then gave Aragorn's shoulder a squeeze before departing and leaving him to his work.

He encountered Éomer King just outside the ward's entrance. The horseman appeared to have been hovering outside for some time, and his look was anxious.

"Does he fare well?" he asked. "How does Legolas fare?"

Gandalf smiled sadly at him. "He will live, for now," he replied. "It will be long and nervous work, however. You appear to have some special concern for him, son of Éomund."

"I do so. I saw the wraith speeding away, leaving him wounded in its wake. He looked to be on the threshold of death when I brought him to Aragorn."

Gandalf looked sharply at him. Now, for some answers! "You saw the attack?"

Éomer looked grim. "I did not see the moment the foul wraith pounced upon him." He pronounced foul wraith as though spitting out a poisonous seed, and a shadow of bitterness entered upon his countenance. Gandalf felt a stab of pity for the man's losses on the account of the Nazgûl. "But I did see it depart, and I found Legolas badly hurt. I had to defend him from the orcs when they threatened to overrun us in their madness and distress, but when I later came to him he was unconscious. He appeared dead to me and I nearly despaired, but I remembered the case of my sister and took him to seek the lord Aragorn."

This gave Gandalf some background information, but not enough—and little that was new to him. "Hmm. Is there anything else you would be able to tell me?"

"Not I," admitted Éomer, "but perhaps the sons of Elrond may be of greater assistance to you in this matter. I will lead you to them."

The sons of Elrond! Gandalf raised his eyebrows for a moment. He recalled now that they had been near Legolas when he had returned from Orodruin, but he had taken no notice at the time. So they were also involved in it. This may make for an intriguing tale indeed, which I believe Aragorn may want to know in time.

With that he followed Éomer's long strides away from the wards, in the directions of the tents of the Captains. As they approached Gandalf was pleased to see Imrahil departing from one of them, looking whole if tired and limping slightly, and hailed him as he passed. The Prince of Dol Amroth was equally gladdened to see the White Wizard, and for a moment they had a few earnest words about the course of the battle, the ordering of camp and other such matters. Imrahil had been aware of the Nazgûl, he revealed, but had known nothing of the attack on Legolas and was greatly troubled to hear of it. His worry was lessened when he learned of Aragorn's involvement, and voiced his confidence that the heir of Isildur would see him through.

Taking his leave of Imrahil, Gandalf came to one of the Captains' tents. He briefly heard Éomer's sonorous voice, then another voice Elven-fair courteously invited him in.

True to Éomer's word, there he found Elladan and Elrohir, twin sons of Elrond. The latter was seated upon the ground, wincing occasionally as the former bandaged his thigh. For all the long years Gandalf had known them, they had always been like that—cooperating and supporting each other, despite the rare occasional quarrel.

Elladan finished with the bandage and quickly rinsed his hands before rising to greet him. "Mae govannen, Mithrandir," he said seriously, taking the Maia's hand in his own. "We would be honored to have you join us. Éomer told us you wished to have a discussion."

"So I do," he concurred. They glanced at Éomer, who was making to leave them to what he clearly thought was a private conversation. "Éomer King," Gandalf beckoned, "please, remain with us if you are able. There are some questions I should still like to ask of you."

With some slight reservation Éomer agreed, taking a seat next to Elrohir. Privately Gandalf was grateful that the Man of Rohan seemed a great deal more at ease in the presence of the Halfelves and than he would have expected. Whatever may have caused this along the way, Éomer is wise to trust in the sons of Elrond. Perhaps he will be more willing to have doings with Elves and foreignersin general, then. This will probably guide him well in his ruling days over the Mark.

When they were all seated, Gandalf got to the point as quickly as he could with the necessary protocol among these men of power and prestige. "My lords, many injuries have been sustained this day, not the least of which were inflicted upon members of the Company of the Ring. But I have been told that you were all present at the time that Legolas Thranduilion was attacked and overcome by one of the Nazgûl. The Lord Aragorn and I have since examined him, and our findings are strange. I hope that you may recall the events of the attack itself and therefore may be able to help us shed light upon the unknown."

He noted several small reactions during his little speech. All three of them had adopted dour expressions and appeared to be reaching into dark memories at his words; he believed he would not be too far off in guessing that they were remembering days and events prior to the one he was describing. Éomer, however, showed more anger and bitterness; the ageless faces of the Elrondionnath were shadowed by that graceful sorrow and regret that only those of Elven blood could bear.

After a period of silence, Elladan spoke first. "As I recall, the Wraith descended shortly before the fall of Barad-dûr. I heard the wings of the foul beast and saw it bear down upon him from behind. I believe I shouted in warning, but Legolas had already seen his peril and dived out of the way. He had no chance to get up… the Nazgûl was too quick to circle back."

Éomer shivered. "We all knew of the dwimmerlaik's approach—I could feel its hateful cold."

Elladan went on: "Even had we no other foes to keep us occupied, I believe I rightly guess that there was no way any of us could immediately come to his aid. Elrohir and I had spent all of our arrows and had had to resort to our knives and swords. Legolas was also using his knives at the time; one of them fell as he was driven to the ground."

Gandalf nodded thoughtfully, recalling Gimli's account of Legolas's deed on the Anduin. "That is well. For even had you been able to shoot at the steed and bring it down to earth, the Wraith would have been on his feet and would have remained on the battlefield when his companions heard the summons of Sauron and fled to Mount Doom. Then perhaps Legolas might have evaded him; but it is also likely that the Wraith would have successfully overborne and slain him in the end. But let us not twiddle our thumbs over might-have-beens! The tale has yet to be completed."

Elrohir took up the story. "I saw it come back at him, and feared for his doom. When the Nazgûl reached him at last he seemed to freeze. Then perhaps in desperation he held up his knife against the sword of Minas Morgul, but it did little… The sword slipped past it and smote him."

The Peredhel paused. Gandalf waited with stretching patience.

"The Men of Harad rose up against us at that point," Elladan said softly. "I was distracted by them and needed to fight them off. But at some point I heard him call the name of Elbereth."

The name of Elbereth. He was quite aware of how deadly and hateful that holy title was to the ears of the Nazgûl, the servants of darkness. So perhaps this may be the actual cause for the Wraith to pull out his weapon so abruptly—

"It was at the moment the Eagles arrived. All nine of the Nazgûl fled before their faces in the direction of Mount Doom. I saw the Wraith pull the sword out of him, even as he turned his steed and rushed away." It was Elrohir who spoke slowly.

Gandalf quickly cut in: "But were you close enough to him that you could actually see the blade? Did it cut him further as it was pulled out? Was it notched or broken in any way?"

The three before him traded glances. Then Elladan ruefully shook his head. "No, we were not. I saw the point was painted with blood, but I could not discern any break or notch in its line. In any case, a tide of Men and Uruks threatened to overwhelm us at that very point. It was some time before…"

With a stab of annoyance Gandalf wondered why the Peredhel's voice had dropped off. The latter appeared to be waiting for someone else to continue, judging by the meaningful glances he seemed to be throwing at his brother.

With some reluctance Elrohir spoke. "He was shrieking from the pain and looked on the brink of giving in. I… came to him when I was able; Éomer here took over for me. I spoke to him in Sindarin and tried to comfort him, although there was little I could truly do. He grabbed me and kept begging me to help him resist."

Gandalf studied him. Elrohir had closed his eyes briefly, but when he opened them again the Wizard could clearly see that they were tinged with regret, and that he was indeed revisiting an evil scene out of the past. Perhaps he thinks of Arathorn. "That is well," he said again. "I believe you have done just that, Elrohir. Legolas is a seasoned soldier of Mirkwood and experienced in clashes with the Nazgûl; but he is yet young for his kind, although he may sometimes forget that, and has never sustained a black wound such as this. His spirit is strong, but he needed the aid of your strength and wisdom gained over the passage of time."

"His remaining knife, the one which had tried to block the advance of the sword, was smoldering some and it looked as though a small part of the edge had melted. This, I gathered, was where it had been touched by the morgul blade. The noise seemed to be hurting his ears and he tried to cover them, nearly stabbing himself. I had to pry the knife out of his hand, but he gripped it so that it was nearly fused to him. It was then that he opened his eyes and saw me, but I do not believe he recognized my face or voice."

So that would explain the cut on his temple. But I still know little of the nature of the wound and the existence of a splinter. Were I able to confirm it now, we could spare Legolas much pain.

Elrohir's voice was heavy."I believe he remained conscious right up until the fall of Barad-dûr. He had been raving continuously that he needed to see it happen before his death… I do not know if he intended to live past that moment. He slipped away right afterwards."

Another pause, and then, "As you know, the orcs and thralls of Sauron went mad when his defeat released them from his control. We would have been overwhelmed but for Éomer's warning. A group of them had already sensed the weakness of Legolas and had purposed to pounce on him, but in the fall of Barad-dûr they nearly overran us. I had to get my sword and leave Legolas to help Elladan fight them off, no matter how reluctant I may have been to do so."

"It was then that he managed to get himself injured," Elladan said with something of a scowl, gesturing at the reddening bandage on his brother's thigh. "It was fortunate for him that Éomer joined us then." He followed this with a nod of acknowledgement and thanks to the horseman.

Once again the Wizard had to interrupt. "He had several wounds on his arms and legs, though none so threatening as the one dealt by the sword of the Nazgûl. Did any of the orcs or other enemy reach him at this time? Do you recall if he may have been wounded by any others?"

"Absolutely not." Éomer's response was quite earnest, even forceful. "We formed a ring of blades around him: I and Elrohir with our swords, Elladan with his knives. We let none pass them… we made sure that none lived to come within reach of Legolas."

Gandalf took note of the way Éomer's eyes darkened; his fist was clenched, and his jaw tightened visibly. I suppose I cannot expect less. After the grief the Nazgûl have brought to his family—slaying his king and uncle, more of a father to him; and nearly taking the life of his valiant sister—he would protect their victims with a special vengeance. Then if Éomer and the others slew any who threatened Legolas as he lay defenseless, he must have sustained the cuts earlier in the battle. I just hope they are not poisoned, for if he fell under a spell akin to the sickness of Faramir, then our hope for him would be greatly diminished.

Another pall of silence descended over them as each man withdrew into his own thoughts for a time. At length the Wizard felt obliged to clear his throat. "Is there any more you would wish to tell?"

"By the time the chaos had calmed and our foes were vanquished," Éomer said uneasily, "I came back to him. He seemed dead at first, and recalled to my mind the face of my dear cousin Théodred, who was slain at the Fords of Isen." His bright eyes were dimmed with the memory of sorrow. "But as I have already told you before bringing you hither, I remembered the healing of Éowyn and took up the body of Legolas to bring him to Aragorn, and seek his counsel. But now I fear I have nothing more to tell you that would be new to your knowledge."

"Nor I," Elrohir muttered. Elladan nodded in grim concurrence.

For a while Gandalf sat deep in thought, pondering the information. He then rose. "Thank you, my lords, for your time and consideration. I must now consider your words and in time repeat them to the Lord Aragorn."

After the exchange of some congenial words of farewell, Gandalf retrieved his staff and exited the tent, leaving the horseman and Halfelves within. For a while he wandered to and fro between the tents in the waning twilight, glowering all the way. Now the full story has been told, he thought. Some of the anomalies of his injuries are explained. Yet no information has been brought to light regarding the matter of the shard… Only time can truly tell if we do not wish to fatally harm Legolas in our search for a splinter. But whichever path we take now, it will lead him to great pain and sorrow.

There was still much to be done. Eventually Aragorn—and Gimli—would want to hear Beregond's account of the fall of Peregrin, although as far as he could tell the hobbit was not in mortal danger. And Frodo and Samwise ever lingered on his mind. He wanted to get back to them as soon as he was able, but there were still some crucial riddles to be solved. We sought painless ways, and still we have few answers.

Gandalf stopped to reach for his pipe. He needed a very long smoke.

Reviewer Responses

kiss316: Lots of despair indeed; I just hope it wasn't too heavy and dragged down on the story. Thanks very much for your compliments on the language; I did somewhat have Tolkien's storytelling mode in mind (particularly for the Gandalf section) and hoped to have it fluctuate according to each character. (Plug: Thundera Tiger, FFN ID# 12399, is a master at this sort of language manipulation; check out her stories for truly great examples.) Remember, I owe you all a very fast update this time around! ;)

Akino Ame: Great to hear from you again! CourtTV may be a bit of a modern analogy, but after giving it some thought it actually fits pretty well. The Gimli sections had me worried at first, and I sincerely appreciate your feedback on them. Dwarven psychology is pretty hard to work with at times. Once again, thank you!

Alexa: The wounded members of the Fellowship were separated due to space constraints and the varying degrees of their hurts—given the severity of Frodo's and Sam's wounds, I would think that Aragorn would want to keep them in a separate space until they are well on their way to recovery. (For the record, in the third section Gandalf starts out in front of the ward where Pippin is located.) As for your hopes for Legolas, see the note on the bottom. :) Thanks again for your continued support.

Blue Lily: This is indeed my first fanfiction in the Tolkienverse (I have a couple of earlier ones from an anime fandom). I agree with wanting to see Legolas hurt; that's one of the major reasons I wrote this to begin with. ;) As Elberethia pointed out to me long before I finally posted this chapter, you can find a spot in one of the original drafts of Fellowship where Professor Tolkien actually did give Legolas an injury; it's somewhere in The Treason of Isengard (History of Middle-earth, Vol 5). Hope you like it and thanks for the support!

Rhys: Glad to see you again, and once again, thanks for the excellent compliments! Regarding your POV question, it was really a combination of deliberate and accidental. I wanted to be able to distinguish the characters' personalitiesthrough the language (see Thundera Tiger plug above) and it looks like I've done a decent enough job. :) And I don't think we'll have a cliffhanger next chapter—or not much of one, anyway. ;)

Thanks also to AM, Deana, viggomaniac (smack on the wrist noted!) and Cosmic Castaway for your ongoing support.

Many thanks for your patience during the long wait, and I beg your forgiveness for failing to deliver on my promised due date. As per usual, author's liner notes, comments and excuses can be found on my LiveJournal, which can be accessed through my bio page. They will be uploaded a day late for reasons I can't quite explain here; sorry for any inconvenience.

Coming up: We return to our poor stricken Elf as he begins a long road to recovery. Unfortunately, a potentially hazardous morgul scar will become only one entry on a lengthy list of cares and worries.

As per usual, reviews are greatly appreciatedconstructive critiques most of all, although flames greatly amuse me as well. ;)

Until our paths cross again,