Not even the wood-elf's quick reflexes could save him, as the worm tuned its head sideways at the last second, so the huge open maw could encircle Legolas around the middle. The worm swept him off of his feet. The elf had only a second to drop his bow on the ground before the leathery body of the creature splashed head first into the dark water on the other side of the path from whence it had come, taking Legolas with it.
Just before it disappeared, Aragorn threw his sword at the creature, hitting it in the rear section of its body.
A second later and Andúril vanished into the swampy water along with Legolas and the worm-like beast.
Gimli screamed Legolas's name.
The water bubbled and foamed, and then all was still and quiet. The only visible sign that anything out of the ordinary had happened were the rapidly disappearing ripples that had spread out from the creature's plunge.
In absolute shock, Aragorn's legs failed him, and he sank like a stone to the ground.
"We have to do something. We have to go after him." Gimli's voice was small, not at all like his usual blustery gruffness. It was obvious that he was also in shock.
Aragorn put his hand on the dwarf's arm. The move was a silent gesture of defeat. He wanted to say that going after Legolas was a fruitless task that would not bring the elf back and would succeed only in getting themselves killed, but no words would come.
Gimli turned and stared out into the greenish-black water. For the dwarf, it was almost unbearable to have his elven friend swept away right in front of him before he could do anything. His ax fell from his nerveless fingers. "I...I didn't react," he chided himself in disbelief. "I should have done something."
Aragorn turned to look at Gimli. "It all happened so fast there was nothing to be done."
"You managed to throw your sword at the horrible thing. I could have done as much with my ax," Gimli replied miserably.
"Well, you see how much good it did. Don't start blaming yourself, Gimli. None of us had any idea anything like this would happen. Even Legolas wasn't able to react quickly enough to defend himself." Aragorn visibly flinched at the memory of the look of horror on the elf's face just before the worm took him under.
The stout miner said no more, but continued to blame himself. Maybe his ax and Aragorn's sword together could have stunned the creature - could have done something to save their friend.
Gimli sat down next to the ranger. "How are we going to tell his father and Lord Elrond?"
"I'll do it," Aragorn said woodenly. Since he couldn't reverse what had happened, it was the least he could do. He felt, right or wrong, that the pain he would have to go through in telling them was somehow deserved.
He was the leader. Yet, he hadn't been able to protect Boromir. He hadn't been able to protect Merry and Pippin. And now he had to add Legolas to the list of those he had failed. What a mistake Gandalf had made in handing leadership of the Fellowship over to him. Some leader he turned out to be. And he was supposed to lead the people of Gondor by becoming their king? It was laughable.
"We'll both tell them," Gimli said firmly, leaving no room for Aragorn to argue, so the man simply nodded. Gimli's guilt was every bit as strong as the ranger's.
Reluctantly, and with deep sadness, Aragorn said, "We still have a mission to complete. We have lost Legolas, but hopefully we can still save Merry and Pippin." The thought that that might not be true was firmly shoved aside.
Aragorn picked up Legolas's bow and stared at it. Despite it's beauty and fine elven craftsmanship, it looked pitifully lonely without it's owner. It was a painful reminder of what the ranger had lost, but there was no thought of abandoning his friend's prized possession in this Valar-forsaken place. He was determined that if he survived this war, he would give it to Legolas's father.
As the ranger and the dwarf forced themselves to their feet, Aragorn put the bow on his back, and then he and Gimli slowly moved ahead. Their steps were slow and made with great reluctance. Neither had the heart to look back at the spot where they had last seen the elf. It was a horrible sight they would rather wipe from their memory.
Behind them the water was now perfectly calm and smooth, leaving behind no sign of the tragedy that had just occurred.
Aragorn couldn't help thinking of Andúril, now lost somewhere in the swamp. It's loss didn't begin to compare with the loss of Legolas, of course, yet the blade meant a great deal to him, and he keenly felt it's absence.
All he had now was his dagger, the small knife he carried in his right boot, and his hunting bow. Those weapons, along with Gimli's ax, would have to be enough for now.
As the reforged Narsil, sword of Elendil, Andúril was an irreplaceable part of Aragorn's heritage, but he still hoped to find another sword. Rescuing the hobbits without one might not be possible. He tried not to think about the fact that trying to rescue them without Legolas might not be possible, either.
x x x x x
The two forlorn survivors did their best to continue along the path, but they were weighed down by grief, and that made the going tough.
Aragorn's head was down, and Gimli was dragging one foot ahead of the other behind the much taller man, so neither saw the form that was lying across the path until Aragorn almost tripped over it. He stared down at it in surprise.
When Aragorn stopped, Gimli moved around to the front, thinking the man no longer wanted to take the lead.
Gimli saw what it was that had halted the ranger and stopped in his tracks. The figure he stared at was covered in what looked like soggy, dead grass and tendrils of unrecognizable vegetation. Despite the matted look of it, there was no mistaking the golden hair that fanned out over the mossy path. "Legolas?" the dwarf asked in stunned disbelief.
Aragorn was on his knees beside Legolas in an instant. He turned him over on his back, pulling the elf's wet hair away from his pale face. He felt at Legolas's neck for a pulse and, much to his immense relief, found one. He leaned closer to the elf's ear. "Legolas, can you hear me?"
Both man and dwarf held their breaths until finally Legolas's eyes blinked several times.
"Is it really you, lad?" Gimli inquired, not sure if the reappearance of their friend was a miracle or some cruel trick being perpetrated on them.
"Aye, Gimli. It is really me," Legolas replied softly.
The elf tried to sit up but was held down by Aragorn's firm hands.
"Not so fast, my friend. Let me check you first," Aragorn, the healer, told the elf. He didn't give Legolas time to argue before he reached out and began unfastening the archer's tunic and pulling his silk under tunic up, revealing one line of bruises across his chest and another line right above his hips.
Aragorn pressed the two areas as gently as he could. He didn't see Legolas clenching his teeth. "I imagine those bruises feel none too good, but amazingly no broken ribs. The skin is intact, as well. Roll over and let me look at your back."
When the elf carefully turned over to rest lightly on his sore stomach, Aragorn saw no more damage than he had found on the front. He was relieved it wasn't worse. "You'll live," he pronounced.
Legolas rolled back over and a satisfied Aragorn helped the elf to his feet.
Gimli smiled at the good news, then asked, "How did you get free of that thing?"
"I want to hear the answer to that myself?" The ranger inquired, just as curious as Gimli.
Legolas refastened his clothing and then gave both of his friends a small grin. "I did not have time to get out of its way, so I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and did not try to fight what was happening.
"The creature began to settle on the bottom. It was trying to maneuver me around so it could swallow me, but I began ripping at its head with both of my knives. And I kept on until, thank the Valar, it spit me out. Once free, I did not know if the worm still lived, so I swam as hard as I could, when finally I came to this path. I did not see either of you, and I became dizzy, so I lay down. I must have passed out, because I do not remember anything else until you woke me."
"Your eyes were closed. We thought you dead," Aragorn whispered with obvious grief in his voice. "Seeing you taken like that was horrifying."
Legolas gripped the ranger's arm but did not speak. He didn't trust his voice right then. His throat had tightened up at the thought of how easily it could have been Aragorn or Gimli that the monster took.
Misreading Legolas's silence, Aragorn became alarmed and looked the archer straight in the eye. "Are you all right?" When Legolas nodded, the ranger said, "Are you sure? You tend to deny serious injuries, if you think you can successfully hide them." His gaze dared the elf to tell him anything but the truth.
Swallowing to moisten his throat, Legolas said, "I am sure. I sustained no injuries other than the bruises you have already seen." He held his arms out. "See? No blood? No crooked bones, indicating breakage."
When Aragorn continued to stare at him, Legolas realized that he had better admit to some sort of complaint, or the healer in Aragorn would not be satisfied. "I am sore." He didn't intend on explaining further.
Gimli came to his rescue somewhat. "I would think so, after what that beast did to you."
"No need for worry, Gimli." Legolas looked at Aragorn and added, "Either of you. I truly am all right."
Aragorn gave the elf a spontaneous embrace, being careful to avoid hurting him. He was grateful beyond words for Legolas's safe return.
Gimli followed suit and gave the elf a brief but heartfelt hug.
Legolas was almost overcome at the display of affection from his friends. He smiled and nodded to them, but hoping they didn't see the mist that appeared in his eyes.
Knowing Legolas all too well, Aragorn backed off from further questioning. He knew that was all he was going to get out of the elf as far as a damage assessment was concerned, but he intended to watch his friend for any sign that there was more to the elf's injuries than black and blue marks.
The blond elf then began to pull the wet, rotting vegetation that remained in his hair and on his clothing. He wrinkled his nose at the foul odor of it.
Now that the scare and the tension were over, Gimli put both hands on his hips. "Leave it to a flighty elf to be so concerned with his appearance that he grooms himself in the middle of a horrid swamp after escaping the jaws of a monster."
"One must always try to look one's best, no matter the situation," Legolas remarked in his haughtiest tone, though there was a twinkle in his eyes. He enjoyed the teasing he shared with Gimli, but in all seriousness, he knew how incredibly lucky he had been.
"We must leave this place and find our hobbit friends," the elf stated, dismissing any further concern on his behalf. "But first, I have something I think you will want." He was looking directly at Aragorn, who looked decidedly puzzled at those words.
Legolas reached down under a pile of the water-logged vegetation, pulled out a sword and handed it to Aragorn.
"Andúril!" the ranger exclaimed happily. "How did you get this? The last I saw of it, it was embedded near the hind end of that creature and went underwater with it."
"It grazed me, as I swam past it. I couldn't see anything down there, so I just pushed at it with my hand, worried it might be another creature of some sort. Imagine my surprise when I felt the hilt of a sword. I knew it had to be yours." Legolas's voice softened, as he said, "I know that you lost it trying to save me."
"Aye," Gimli said. "He threw it at the beast just before it disappeared underwater. I should have done as much."
"No, no, Gimli. Do not blame yourself. I am safe now, and that is all that matters."
"Aye, it is," Gimli argued, gripping the elf's arm. He knew that arguing about blame would be a fruitless endeavor. But he vowed to pay the elf back.
When Legolas looked at Aragorn, the ranger had a huge grin on his face. Thinking there was more than just the ranger's happiness to have him back, the elf frowned. "What?"
Aragorn nodded down toward his hands. In them was the elf's bow.
With much the same reaction Aragorn had to get his sword back, Legolas smiled broadly and took the prized bow lovingly into his own hands. "Thank you, Estel."
Trying not to be overcome with the emotion of the moment, Gimli got them back on track. "How are we gong to get out of here, when someone doesn't intend for us to leave?" the miner then asked.
Aragorn looked as far ahead as his vision would allow. "Where there's a will, there's a way. We have the will. Now we just have to find the way."
x x x x x
It took another two hours, but when the three friends saw the path begin to turn upward and disappear into the black cloud, they were sure they had finally reached the end of their ordeal. However, someone or something had other plans.
Across the path only a few yards from their goal, Legolas, Aragorn and Gimli saw thick, twisted vines drop down from the overhanging branches of the trees along both sides of the dry strip of ground they stood on and form a curtain that completely blocked them.
Dumfounded, the dwarf asked, "Now what?" Confusion soon gave way to anger.
Gimli rushed forward, ax swinging. A warning of possible danger died on Aragorn's lips, as the bearded miner began to hack at the vines.
After several minutes, it became clear that Gimli's efforts didn't seem to be making any headway.
It looked to both Legolas and Aragorn that for every vine Gimli cut, another one snaked its way down to take its place. The man was beginning to get concerned, so he stepped forward and added Andúril to Gimli's ax, followed quickly by Legolas's two flashing long knives.
Suddenly, another curtain of vines dropped down on the hunters. In seconds, all three were covered and pulled to the ground by the heavy mass.
"Get off me, you..." Gimli growled, a he fought vehemently to get loose from the thick cords.
The vines then began tightening around them.
Thrashing legs and flailing arms worked desperately to push the vines off of them. The huge pile moved in waves, as the people underneath fought for freedom.
Legolas and Aragorn had vines around their necks, and the breath was slowly being squeezed out of them. Both were struggling in vain to keep themselves from becoming victims of the suffocating fibers.
They were near unconsciousness, when Gimli managed to free his right arm, which held his ax. He chopped furiously until he was able to sit up. Seeing what was happening to his friends, he swung the sharp blade and cut the vines around his friends' necks first and then those that had encircled their bodies. "Lads, are you two all right?" the worried dwarf asked.
The first to squirm loose from the bulk of the vines was Legolas, throwing off the last of those that were covering him. He sat up, gasping for air. Now he had a sore neck to add to his painful bruises.
He looked over and was relieved to see that Aragorn had worked himself loose, as well.
"How many more things are going to try and stop us?" Gimli grumbled, as he got to his feet. "I dare you," the irate dwarf challenged, shaking his fist in the air.
It took a moment longer, but soon Legolas and Aragorn had gained their feet and were watching Gimli. He was so furious, there was no thought of laughing at the pose he now presented.
"Remind me not to cross that dwarf," the elf said dryly.
Aragorn nodded, "If you remind me of the same thing."
"There's the way out!" Gimli yelled, as he pointed to the place where the path rose up out of the cloud. "Let's discuss this outside before something else happens."
A few minutes later, The Three Hunters were walking out into the fresh air of early evening.
"We beat them, or it, or whatever," Gimli declared. "We found the way."
"And so we did," the ranger agreed.
Meanwhile, Legolas was staring up into the twilight sky. He watched as one star after another began to make its appearance, twinkling in the far-off expanse of the darkening heavens. There was pure joy on his fair face.
"I have never been through anything like that in all my life," the dwarf declared, still visibly upset by the day's experiences. "And I never want to again." He turned to look pointedly at Legolas, as he added, "I've had enough of green things for a very long time."
The elf regarded his friend with a sympathetic expression. "I do not care to revisit such a place as this again, either, Master Dwarf. That kind of greenery is not meant for elves to enjoy."
"Glad to hear it. I would be truly worried that that experience with the worm had addled your brain, if you said you liked that place, because it was green!"
Smiling, Aragorn gave Legolas a few more moments to savor the beauty of the stars he loved so much. He wanted Gimli to calm down a bit more and put memories of the swamp behind him. As for himself, he just plain wanted to fill his lungs with fresh air.
Soon, the ranger called for all of them to resume their search for Merry and Pippin.