Note: Sorry about the long wait: it's been another rough week. Nonetheless I hope you enjoy what I have to offer!

Chapter LVIII: The Depths of the Earth

On the afternoon of the sixth day after his arrival, Aragorn was again sitting bundled before the fire. His right foot was resting upon the cushioned stool with a cool compress wrapped about the still-swollen ankle. He had done it much mischief beyond the original injury, which had been quite serious enough. Walking on had been an act of desperation, and that perhaps excused the foolhardiness of it, but between that strain and the jarring the limb had received in his frantic encounter with the cats he had certainly torn more sinews than could be healed with a few days' rest. Like the deep unseen injuries in his flank, this hurt would be slow to mend.

The claw-wounds at least were healing well enough. They no longer wept their colourless fluid, and the bandages could now be changed once a day. The edges had begun to itch, and this irritation wore upon his nerves more than he would have felt possible. As for the spider-bite, it was now little more than a florid red mark scoring his shoulder. In that he had indeed been fortunate. Even now the memory of that perilous moment sent his hands trembling at the thought of what might have been. Gollum's betrayal and too-well-timed intervention in the skirmish had very nearly proved fatal.

Yet all these hurts he might have borne with greater grace had his body not been so weakened by the ceaseless strain and deprivation of his northward journey. Wounds mended more slowly, and organs were more reluctant to heal in one worn down by famine and exhaustion. Even now his nose still trickled its thin dark blood, the flesh within dry and prone to cracking because his body lacked the nutrients necessary to keep it protected. The same complaint troubled his lungs, rattling with fluid whenever he drew a deep breath. He had tried time and again to cough, that he might clear the troublesome exudate before it brewed disease, but his efforts were dry and unproductive. There was no strength within him to spare in the production of phlegm.

With nothing else to occupy his time, he passed many hours brooding over his journey and wondering wearily what he might have done to keep himself from sinking to such a pitiful state. Linger longer in Lórien? Impossible: for surely Gollum would have escaped, or pursuit found them. Hunt more carefully in Eastemnet or along the borders of Fangorn? Perhaps, but he would likely have fared little better than he had and there had been no time to spare. And even if he had affected some change earlier in his travels, the good of it would have been lost in Gladden's depths. Upon reflection it was then that the journey had gone so dreadfully awry. If only he had not fallen through the ice, had kept hold of his pack, had not placed upon his constitution the terrible burden of thawing a frozen body and keeping it thawed, he might have conserved his strength and used the energy squandered in barest survival to keep from starvation. Yet try though he might he could not think how he might have managed to keep that catastrophe from striking. There, as in the encounter with the spider, his hateful captive had proved his downfall.

Yet in the end he had survived, and he had every hope of recovering. Certainly the Elven healers intended that he should. Seldom in his travels had he found such dedicated caretakers; only in Imladris had he been given care more tender and more skilled. Though they had little experience with extremes of privation, their care of his wounds was exemplary and they were eager to learn. Helegond had taken a great interest in the question of diet, and had the steward following Aragorn's instructions devoutly. He took small quantities of broth or milk frequently, and this morning he had managed a few mouthfuls of bland porridge before the first stirrings of nausea had prompted him to halt. His head no longer ached so persistently and his hands were recovering something of their old steadiness. How long it would take to restore his full strength or to fill out the worrisome chasms between his lower ribs he could not say, but he was certainly set upon the right road.

A knock at the door came fast upon the thought that it was nearly time to feed again, and Aragorn bade the visitor enter. Expecting Galion, the steward, or one of his assistants, he was startled and discomfited to see first a velvet sleeve and then a belt of beaten gold and the glimmer of emeralds as King Thranduil himself came through the doorway, bearing a silver tray and smiling courteously.

'Your Majesty,' Aragorn said breathlessly, shifting to grip the arms of the chair that he might lift himself onto his good leg to greet his host. Swiftly Thranduil set down his burden upon the table and moved to press a restraining hand to the Ranger's shoulder.

'Peace, Dúnadan: do not rise for me,' he said. As Aragorn eased back into his almost-comfortable position under this command the Elven-king drew up the other chair and sat. 'I trust my folk have given you the care and courtesy that is your due?'

'Indeed they have,' said Aragorn. 'I thank you: every consideration has been extended to me.'

'I have brought you your supper,' said Thranduil, looking at the tray and frowning. Upon it was set an ornate bowl filled with strained broth, and a small dish bearing a thin slice of unadorned bread. 'It is humble fare; my steward tells me it is what you have requested? I had hoped you would avail yourself of all the hospitality of my realm.'

'I shall be glad to do so, lord, when I am able,' said Aragorn. 'I fear my stomach would be ill-suited to richer provender at present.' Hesitantly he added; 'The healers will have told you that I will not be fit to depart for some time?'

'Do not think of departing!' said Thranduil with a dismissive flick of his hand. 'I would have you tarry as long as you wish. It is not often that I may play host to the Heir of Elendil, and it is my pleasure to do so now. Pray do not let me keep you from your meal, but if you will permit me I would sit and talk with you while you eat.'

Aragorn could scarcely refuse this request, though it was with some trepidation that he inclined his head in assent. His hands still had their moments of unsteadiness, and he had not yet managed to feed himself without some minor mishap. Nor could he very well ask the lord of the land to haul him, chair and all, to the table. Instead he twisted in his seat, breathing into the pain in his right side, and drew the tray into his lap. He balanced it carefully, holding it with his left hand. With his right he picked up the silver spoon with its shaft headed by a cast acorn.

'I see that your possessions have been brought to you,' said Thranduil, looking at the pegs by the foot of the bed, from one of which hung Sigbeorn's cloak. It, along with the satchel that Eira had given him, had been returned to Aragorn that morning, having been thoroughly laundered. By the wondrous skill of the Elven fullers the stench of Gollum had been removed from the garment, and the bloodstains on both were reduced to faint shadows. 'We shall have to see about getting you fitted for new clothing when you are able to stand for the tailor. We cannot have you eternally clad in an ill-fitting night robe.'

'Thank you,' murmured Aragorn as he swallowed his first mouthful of broth. He was relieved to have the offer unsolicited, for he had not been quite certain how best to broach the subject. 'I am afraid I will also need new boots, though it may be some time before my foot is ready to take measurements.'

He glanced down at his toes with their ugly, slow-healing sores, and wished that he had tugged the blanket to cover them when the Elven-king entered. Studiously he turned back to his bowl.

'So I noticed,' said Thranduil. 'It is remarkable that you were able to walk at all. How far did you come upon a twisted leg?'

'I was waylaid by a spider not far past the stream,' said Aragorn. 'My prisoner betrayed me, or I would not have fallen. You must bide your soldiers be vigilant, lord: Gollum is not to be trusted, not even for a moment. I was wrong to rely upon his warning, for all that he had proved in earnest in the past. Do not let the guards underestimate him.'

'We are careful of prisoners nowadays,' Thranduil assured him with a wry smile. 'I promise that he has no hope of escaping from his cell.'

'See that he does not,' said Aragorn. 'I would not relish the thought of hunting him again, and I doubt that I could contrive to catch him a second time.'

For a little while there was quiet, an amiable hush during which Aragorn continued slowly and methodically to eat. He left the bread alone and focused upon the broth, which was savoury and warm and seemed to strengthen him with each spoonful. His hands had not yet shown signs of shaking, and he had so far managed not to spill upon himself. At last Thranduil, who had been watching the embers thoughtfully, spoke again.

'I came to ask you for an account of your journey,' he said. 'Your skill in the wilderness and your hardihood in the face of adversity are celebrated by all who know you, and yet you came stumbling to my door at the very border of your strength. Behind that surely lies a bitter struggle and a strange tale.'

'A bitter struggle, aye,' said Aragorn; 'but the tale has little value in the telling. I walked a hard road swiftly, accompanied by a dangerous wretch who strove to thwart me at any opportunity, and I did so with little opportunity for rest. I met misfortune in your woods, and was wounded. There is nothing more to it than that.'

'Where did you find him at last?' asked Thranduil. 'In the empty lands north of Gladden, perhaps? The winter has been a hard one, and you would have found little game in that country.'

The urge to laugh, long and bitterly, seized Aragorn for a moment. Instead he shook his head wearily. 'I took him on the borders of the Dead Marshes, as night fell upon the sixth day of coirë. Through the Emyn Muil I drove him, and swam Anduin. I feared pursuit, for I believe he was held captive by the Enemy and then permitted to escape upon some ill errand thwarted by his capture. Thus I took a westerly road. I passed through the eaves of Lothlórien, and Lord Celeborn promised to send missives to Gandalf telling him the creature had at last been found. I crossed Anduin again at Carrock, and rested two nights with Grimbeorn's folk. They did much to aid me and to set me out upon my last road clothed and provisioned. Had I not allowed myself to be led to the spider I might have reached your gates in a better state.'

Thranduil was frowning, his fair brow furrowed as he reckoned. 'But surely that is a journey of many hundreds of miles,' he said.

'Near to nine hundred, by my reckoning,' sighed Aragorn. It felt as though every one of those miles had been wrung out of his flesh in anguish. He dipped the spoon again and sipped at the broth. So many long roads he had travelled in his lifetime; yet of all those this last seemed longest and most trying. Even the perils of the last weeks of the hunt seemed insipid and easily borne by comparison.

'And that you have accomplished in fifty days, burdened as you were by that wretch and short of rest and provisions?' asked the Elven-king. He shook his head in wonder. 'In your place I think I should boast of the feat, Dúnadan.'

Aragorn looked at the monarch, sitting with earnest respect upon his face and admiration in his eyes, and he felt only weariness. What was there to boast of? He had dragged himself and his captive through empty countries and barren places, driven by fear of pursuit that had never found them – and indeed might never have been made at all. He had taken a broad detour that doubled his road, because he had feared to pass too near to Dol Guldur. He had done without rest because he had no other choice: he had been obliged to guard Gollum day and night, or risk a strangling death. He had failed to mount a successful interrogation of his charge; he had failed even to keep himself from starvation. He had laid aside other labours and other responsibilities for this, and he still did not know whether his efforts would bear any useful fruit. This was no feat worthy of song or story, but a quiet and ugly struggle for supremacy and survival – a battle of attrition that he had won at last, but only barely. He had no cause to boast.

At a loss as to what he might say to gently disabuse his host of the notion that he had made some great victory, Aragorn turned his eyes back to the tray. He set down the spoon and broke off a corner of the slice of bread. As he raised it to his lips he paused, staring down at the bony hand that held it. The chilblains and broken blisters were still raw and livid, here and there trickling transparent ichor over veins that stood out starkly blue beneath pale flesh. The waxy residue of Eira's salve was caught in the cracks and fissures in his chapped skin. His nails were long and ragged, torn at the edges and marred by the black arcs of grime trapped deep beneath them. There was dirt ground into his palm and dirt in the webs between his fingers – dirt and dried blood and traces of Gollum's foulness. Sudden shame flared within him, and his face burned with mortification that the majestic King of Mirkwood should see him eating with such filthy hands.

He let the bread fall to the tray and instinctively tucked his fist away beneath it, hiding the offending appendage. He curled the tips of his left fingers under as well, unable to release his hold on the tray.

'Have you finished?' asked Thranduil kindly. At Aragorn's mute nod he took away the dish and the Ranger was able to tuck his left hand under a fold of his robe. 'Shall I help you back to bed? Surely you must be weary.'

'Thank you, no,' said Aragorn, rather hoarsely. He struggled to smile but did not quite succeed. 'I shall sit up a while longer, I think.'

'Very well.' Thranduil rose and looked down for a moment at his bedraggled guest, pensive. 'I shall tell the healers to come to you when they are able. I wish you a peaceful night, Aragorn son of Arathorn. I shall visit again if I may.'

'I would be honoured.' Courtly politeness at least had not deserted him and Aragorn inclined his head in an approximation of a bow. 'I thank you for your company, lord, and for the shelter of your palace.'

'To that you are welcome,' said Thranduil. He picked up the tray and went to the door, pausing to look back with a strange glint in his eye. He looked at once searching and oddly nostalgic. Then the moment passed and he smiled once more. 'Sleep well,' he said, and he was gone.

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Aragorn waited until the quiet footfalls moved off and faded away. Then he tugged the blanket from his lap and flung it over the arm of his chair. Cautiously he lifted his right leg so that the towel slid off of his ankle. He lowered his foot to the floor so that it just skimmed the stone, and planted its partner firmly. Gripping the chair for leverage, he set his teeth and hoisted himself, unsteadily and not without pain, onto his left foot. He held fast to the back of the chair and took a shuffling half-hop that brought him near enough to plant his palm against the hot wall behind which the flue drew upon the fire. Using it as his crutch he hobbled to the corner by the door where the wash-basin stood. The water in the pitcher was cool, but he had neither the will nor the energy to go back to the fire to warm it. He poured out a generous measure into the bowl and, leaning with his right shoulder braced against the wall and his bad foot tucked up, he took a scoop of soft soap from the jar and set about cleaning his hands.

He scrubbed like a madman, scarcely feeling the sting of the open sores and caring nothing for the fresh cracks that opened or the fissures that deepened as he lathered his hands. Cupped fingers brought up a dram of water and he worked all the more vigorously. There was a small brass curette sitting next to a prettily carved comb, and he used this to dig beneath his nails, scooping out the filth and old blood and shed skin. He rinsed his hands in the bowl and, dissatisfied with the result, began again. By the time he had finished, the water was black and many of the abrasions on his hands were weeping thin bright tendrils of blood. He dried them carefully, leaving pink stains upon the towel, and stood canted and breathless, too exhausted to face the journey back to his chair.

He looked down at the pallid skin, roughened and cracked by weeks in the cold and marred with bright blossoms of irritation where he had scrubbed too hard, but clean at last. All at once he was aware of the unwashed state of the rest of his body. The healers had been diligent about cleaning around his wounds, and they had bathed his face many times throughout the days of fever. But his hair was matted with dried blood and fragments of old cobweb, and his body itched under a layer of grime and dead skin, and he stank. He was not so vile by far as he had been upon his arrival in Lothlórien, for then he had borne with him the putrescence of some of the most foul and loathsome places in Middle-earth, but he was far from clean. As if seized by a madness he felt driven to wash, whether he had the strength or no. He reached for the laces of his robe and tugged at them. Dimly he knew that he would never manage a proper wash like this, standing over a basin with half a pitcher of fresh water left, but he did not care. He had to try.

So intent was he upon removing the robe that he did not hear the door open. He scarcely heard the puzzled voice calling his name, nor the exhalation of relief when the intruder spied him at last in the corner behind the door. He had just managed to slide the garment off of his shoulders when a gentle hand fell upon his bared left arm. It was Lethril.

'Lord Aragorn?' she said, her voice soft but tinged with concern. 'What are you doing away from your chair? You ought not run the risk falling upon your foot again.'

He looked at her, at the worried green eyes and the innocent puzzlement within them, and he came back to his reason. 'I wanted to wash,' he said quietly, inadequately. He felt suddenly like a small child caught at something very foolish. Unable to explain himself he added simply; 'I am dirty.'

Her expression softened a little. 'That is only to be expected, fresh out of the wild,' she soothed. 'You will be well enough to have a proper bath in a few days. Come and sit, and we will see what may be done to make you more comfortable.'

Had he been in the care of his foster-father in Rivendell, Aragorn would have protested. He would have begged to have a tub and hot water brought to the room that he might wash; he would have felt able to explain how vile and uncouth he felt now that he was well enough to be aware of his state. Indeed, he might not have even needed to explain, so well did Master Elrond know him and understand the workings of his heart. But here he could not argue. Hauling water was weary work, and the small room had little space to accommodate a tub. He could not place such an imposition upon his well-meaning hosts. No more could he give voice to his misery, lest they should think he found their care wanting. So he leaned upon the maiden's shoulder and let her draw him back to the chair.

She brought the pitcher to warm on the hearth, and then wetted a cloth and lathered one corner with soap. Gently she blotted at the worst of the grime on his chest and arms, wiping away streaks of blood and sweat. She scrubbed beneath his arms and ran a fresh cloth down his legs, then washed his feet with care, avoiding the sores so that she should not hurt him. Then she took the comb from the washstand and set to work on his hair, gently working loose the tangles. The worst of the knots and the clumps of spider-silk she snipped away, and now and again she dabbed at his hair with the towel to loosen mats of blood or dirt. This labour was a slow one, and Aragorn found himself half-dozing beneath her patient fingers, but at last she was finished. Then she took up a brush with long bristles and worked it through his oily tresses, putting them straight and pressing down so that the brush scraped the dead flakes from his scalp. It was a comforting feeling, a cleansing feeling; not half the relief of a proper washing, but enough to dispel the last of his anxious mania.

'Thank you,' he murmured drowsily as she set aside the brush and helped him back into his robe. 'That is much better; thank you.'

Lethril was knotting the fouled towels into a bundle now, and she smiled serenely up at him. 'As soon as you're strong enough you can go and have a proper bath,' she promised again. 'I know it must be a hard thing to do without.'

For a moment he was taken by the urge to explain himself; to tell her that though he could bear his dirtiness well enough in the wild, as a necessary discomfort of wandering, among civilized people it became swiftly intolerable. But he was weary and sick at heart, and he did not know if he would be able to make her understand. Again a terrible loneliness assailed him, and he closed his eyes against the pain within.

Taking the motion for mere weariness, the lady arose and went to turn back the bedclothes. Aragorn let her lead him the few steps across the room, and settle him upon the soft mattress. She brought him water and he drank, and then turned upon his side so as not to put pressure on his battered flank. With his face to the wall he was spared the labour of guarding his expression, and he stared for a long while at the dancing shadows on the stone.

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As it turned out, Aragorn did not have to wait three days for a proper bath. The following morning Helegond came bearing his breakfast and a gift: the crutches for which he had been measured days ago. They were carved of oak branches, lovingly shaped and embellished with twining vines and leaves and acorns etched into the wood. Pegged crossbars were set for his hands to grasp, and the cradles were covered in pads of soft sheepskin so they would not bruise his ribs. The wood had been smoothed and polished like glass, and it had been rubbed with linseed oil so that it was dark and glossy. Beautiful as well as strong, they were the epitome of Elven workmanship.

With Helegond's help Aragorn rose from bed, and tucked one crutch beneath each arm. With his right leg lifted behind him he took one swinging step and then another. The motion placed some faint strain upon his right flank and the shoulder blade where the lynx had torn deep into the flesh, but these discomforts were bearable – and nothing to the relief of being able to move under his own power. When he had finished his milk and half the slice of bread brought for him, Aragorn dared to raise the question of a bath.

From the healer's pensive expression it was clear that Lethril had not discussed the matter with her colleague. That was all to the good, thought Aragorn, for if she had not then Helegond would not be swayed by her judgement that three days' rest was needed before he could undertake the exertion. He made an effort to sit straighter in his chair, and to look as fit as he was able.

'It would give you an opportunity to test the crutches properly,' said Helegond thoughtfully, looking over his patient with a discerning eye. 'But are you certain you are up to the journey? The baths are some distance from this cavern.'

Vainglorious pledges of strength might have served his agenda better, but Aragorn could not ply a falsehood. 'I do not know,' he said. 'I believe I can manage it, for the relief of being clean at last, but it is possible that I am yet too weak. Nevertheless I should like to try.'

Helegond made an uncertain sound and resumed his study of the Ranger's face. 'Certainly cleanliness is a balm for the spirit in addition to being healthful for the body,' he said; 'and while you bathed we might have the room made fresh for you. The wounds on your back are still open, but the scabs have held for two days now and they could stand to be washed. My chief concern is that you will strain the injuries amid your viscera with the exertion of the journey.'

'I can strain them no more now than I did in the days after my fall,' reasoned Aragorn. 'I am no longer showing blood, and the pain is much improved. A hot soak will do the bruised muscles no harm, either.'

'True,' Helegond allowed. He ran a thoughtful hand along his jaw. 'Would you object to my constant attendance?' he asked. 'If you should swoon or drift off to sleep you might drown if left alone.'

Aragorn felt a flare of hope. 'I would not,' he said. 'I would be glad of your company.'

'Then let us try it,' said Helegond. 'But if you grow too weary you must tell me, and we shall halt and I shall send for a litter to bear you back to bed.'

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The journey to the bathing caverns was not a long one, but it was wearisome. Aragorn had not realized how stiff and sore even his uninjured muscles were after so long abed. His left leg was reluctant to carry him, and the crutches put a strain upon his arms. Even his right leg ached with the effort of holding his crooked calf and dangling foot. Nevertheless he persevered, and was ushered at last into a chamber lit with many torches. A great hearth was set in the centre of the room, vented above by a hooded chimney. An attendant stirred up the embers as they entered, and the heat flared. A second grate was set in the wall, beneath a bronze cistern in which water was heated. There were tubs about the width of an apple-barrel upon the polished floor, and stools to sit upon while one washed. Soap and cloths and the other accoutrements of bathing occupied neat shelves, and there was a trough carved along one wall to bear the used water away.

Helegond helped Aragorn out of his robe, and the Ranger managed to remove his body linen unaided. With one crutch to lean on and the healer's arm to grip he sat upon one of the low stools, his injured leg stretched out before him. The Elf untied the bandages across his back and about his forearm, and naked at last Aragorn was able to set about washing himself. The tub was too small to sit in, even if he did not need to keep his right ankle free from strain, but the hot water with which the attendant filled it was a blessing. Slowly and methodically Aragorn worked, scouring and scrubbing and rinsing. Soon enough the water was dark, and it was changed for fresh. Helegond washed his back, mindful of the slowly mending wounds, and then insisted upon undertaking the chore of cleaning the Ranger's hair.

'It is too much labour for your arms, and you might so easily break the crust upon your shoulder blade,' he said. 'And the spider-bite may be closed, but a good tug would tear it open afresh and then you will have a scar.'

Aragorn cared little for one more scar, but it was a relief to be spared the exertion of scrubbing his scalp. The healer worked soap through the dark hair, rinsed it thoroughly, and then began again. This time a lather was raised. Now and again the slender fingers snagged amid the wet locks, tugging at the roots, and Aragorn was grateful that Lethril had brushed out the worst of the tangles the night before. At last the chore was done, and the bathing attendant brought a large ewer to pour over Aragorn's body, rinsing away the last of the soap. It was a delightful feeling to be clean at last, but Aragorn was breathless and tired from the efforts, and he could not imagine why the healer had feared he might fall asleep, much less drown.

'We shall leave the crutches, I think,' said Helegond, offering his arms to help Aragorn stand. 'They might so easily slip upon a wet patch and send you tumbling.'

Bemused, Aragorn hoisted himself onto his good leg, leaning heavily against the healer. His body was wet and his shoulder left a damp patch on Helegond's tunic, but the Elf seemed unconcerned. Slowly and with the same practiced care he used when leading his charge from bed to chair and back, he helped Aragorn across the room to an archway leading deeper into the caves. In his eagerness to wash Aragorn had not noticed it before, and it was with some uncertainty that he let himself be led away from his crutches and his clothing and into a larger cavern beyond the first.

The air was hot and humid here, and the torches flickered and sputtered. There was no scent of charcoal smoke, and no hearth for a fire, but the chamber was far warmer than the one they had left. The gooseflesh that had begun to rise on the Ranger's wet skin receded and his rattling lungs breathed more easily in the moist atmosphere. The room was devoid of furniture and at first Aragorn wondered at its purpose, but then he heard the low gurgling of water and followed the tendrils of steam to a rock-pool set in the floor against one wall. Its sides had been shaped and smoothed by Elven hands, but it was clearly a natural formation. The water within it was milky, scented faintly of salt and the timeless minerals of the earth. Now and then a bubble rose to the placid surface and burst in a shimmer of brilliance. Wonder and delight rose in Aragorn's heart. It was a hot-spring, heated by the fires of the earth itself, tamed within this cave and bent to the use of the folk of the forest.

He hobbled towards it, leaning heavily on Helegond's patient arm. The healer guided him to a place where steps had been carved, curling around the side of the pool. Kicking off his soft shoes, the Elf stepped into the water and held out both hands to help Aragorn descend. He did so unsteadily but eagerly, feeling the heat first upon his left toes, and then into his foot and up his leg, reaching the swollen flesh of his right ankle in a wave of blessed comfort. Awkwardly he lowered himself onto the next step, passing Helegond where he stood with the water lapping at his calves. There was a ledge in the side of the pool, smoothly carved into the shape of a bench, and Aragorn eased himself onto it, feeling the hot water rise to cover his stomach and his ribs, finally slipping over the crest of his shoulder blades. He stretched his long legs out before him and tilted his head back to rest upon the rim of the pool. Before he could stop himself, he let out a low moan of piteous pleasure.

Helegond smiled, mounting the few steps he had taken and rising out of the pool. He rounded behind Aragorn and settled himself on the floor with his back to the wall. The fingers of his left hand played in the water two armspans from his patient. 'A balm for tired muscles and a comfort for the spirit,' he said.

'Yes,' Aragorn breathed, unable to say more. The water was stinging in the sores upon his hands and feet and sending prickles of startled discomfort from the wounds across his back, but he did not care. The wondrous warmth and the gentle weight of it upon his strained limbs was the most delicious sensation he could have imagined. It tickled in the strands of his sparse beard and he thought distantly that he would have to see about shaving. For the moment, however, he was content merely to lounge here, languishing in utter decadence and delight.

He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath enriched with the steam rising from the water, and he felt his cares wash away. Yes, he thought; he might indeed drift off to sleep if he were careless. But under the watchful eyes of his guardian he lingered happily in waking dreams, leaden limbs made buoyant by the water as it soaked the aches from his body and laved his weary spirit.

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When at last he reached his bed, now turned and fluffed and made with clean bedclothes, Aragorn was far gone in his exhaustion. The soporific effect of the long hot bath was coupled with the effort of bearing himself back to his chamber. He had roused himself sufficiently upon leaving the pool to shave before a brass mirror in the washing-cavern, and had managed to escape with only three nicks of the well-honed blade provided him. Now, as he sank off the crutches and onto the mattress he wondered whether he might have been wiser to wait for another day to undertake that labour. He was almost too weary to keep from falling asleep where he sat, head bowed over his lap. Only the persistent throbbing from his flank kept him from sliding away entirely. It seemed that the crutches did not only work his arms, but all the muscles of his chest and side. The black bruises and the outraged organs beneath were protesting with a low throbbing misery. But he was clean at last, truly and utterly clean, and as Helegond helped him to ease onto his left side and his smooth cheek brushed the pillowslip he knew that he could have made no other choice. Almost he wished to weep in relief at the feel of clean cloth upon clean skin and the gentle weight of the fragrant blankets across his shoulder. Instead he let his mind slip away.

He slept long and deep, untroubled for once by dreams of Gollum. Indeed he did not seem to dream at all until there came a clatter of a door in the darkness and the sound of lithe feet scurrying on stone. There were bootfalls also, heavy and firm and strangely determined. Out of the gloom, muffled but indignant, came a protesting Elven voice.

'You cannot go in there. His Majesty's guest abides within. I have my orders from the healers: he is not to be disturbed. He is resting! Lord Aragorn is resting!'

And another voice, brisk and irate and utterly intractable: 'Nonsense. Lord Aragorn will wish to see me at once, and more to the point I wish to see him. Now stand aside and let me past, or I shall surely roast you!'

Then with a bang the chamber door flew open and Aragorn realized that he was not dreaming at all.