#20: Flash

Aragorn threw the dagger before he really processed the scene. It was early morning, and the rest of the Fellowship was catching up on some much-needed sleep. He slipped through the forest, sure that he was the only awake in this misty half-world of darkness before dawn.

So he threw the knife, because of that flash of brown he saw slipping between the trees. He would have sworn on his life it was a deer, but deer don't scream like that when you hit them.

The scream woke up the Fellowship, and they were armed and running in the direction of it in time to see Aragorn kneeling over Sam who had a knife sticking out of his belly.

.***.

A miserable day was dawning, and the sun reflecting a million diamonds off the dew drops of the grass forced Aragorn out of his brooding. It was the fourth day since Gandalf's death. Four days, and he still could not reconcile the fact in his mind. Gandalf had been a fixation in his life since childhood, like a particularly comforting book or a favorite sometimes-hiding place. A place to go to when things started to look bleak, something he'd thought would be around forever until it wasn't.

The members of the Fellowship were reacting in different ways, and on some level Aragorn knew that it would just take time and patience to truly put Gandalf's death behind them. Patience he had, but time…here in the depths of the wilderness, he could almost forget that he was not the leader of the group in charge of changing the course of history.

Though the Fellowship was trying to be stoic about their grief - even Legolas, who'd known Gandalf the longest, centuries longer than Aragorn, even the little hobbits, to whom Gandalf had been something of a novelty, flitting into their lives at random intervals like a favorite uncle, always bearing gifts and stories – it was the circumstances that made the sudden death all the worse.

They'd escaped remarkably unscathed from their first real battle. Yes, Frodo's front was one big bruise. Yes, the gash in Boromir's side would probably be a scar for the rest of his life. Yes, Gimli had broken three fingers on an orc's helm, but it could have been worse, so much worse.

In the rising hour of the sun, Aragorn knew that he had to boost morale somehow. A difficult thing, since they were all hundreds of miles from their homes, since they had to keep on the move. And then he spotted his hunting knife.

Sam was surprisingly capable of concocting enticing meals out of very few provisions, but even his vast knowledge of how to stretch food to make it last couldn't work its magic when they lost most of their provisions in the Mines. They'd spent the last few days eating herbs and berries, and a good hearty meal of dried pork or venison could do wonders on everyone's moods.

So Aragorn made sure that Boromir was up for the last watch, the two hours before they had to pack up and ship out, and then he slipped into the woods, moving with stealth he'd learned from his elvish brothers.

Every step brought out new wonders in the forest. Here was a blue bird guarding her nest. There, a badger peeking blearily out of his hole. And up ahead, the soft crunching of leaves under the paws of a fox.

Aragorn loved hunting, always had. He let himself think about nothing at all, just stare around at the forest, blade or bow lax in his hand, and when he saw that flash, the brown movement of a deer, he would move with speed that belayed the fact that he was Dúnedain.

He had walked for less than five minutes, his pace slow, his breathing even and easy, taking in the cold morning air, when he saw that flash and threw.

It never occurred to him that it may not be a deer or wolf or bear, that it may be a sentient being, that it may be one of the people he'd been trying to lead.

But that cry – deer don't make that noise, nor wolves, nor bears. It was full of pain, but more than that, it was full of surprise. And Aragorn ran forward, heart beating fast, unable to really process this because he couldn't have hurt Samwise Gamgee, that would be impossible.

Somehow (and later, Aragorn would find that these next few minutes were a blur, fuzzy like reality becomes after a good blow to the head, or the heart) he picked up the tiny being (and what he does remember is eyes so wide and surprised and confused that Aragorn felt his heart break at the sight of them) and ran, ran back to the clearing and the camp and the comfort of a fire.

Everyone woke when their leader tumbled into their camp. Legolas jumped nimbly to his feet, the half-sleep of elves being suspended for this crisis; Gimli yelled and, with surprising agility, unsheathed his ax and pointed it at the thing that had woken him from his slumber; Boromir, who'd been on watch, merely stood and took the bleeding body from Aragorn's arms. Sam was the largest of the hobbits, but he still weighed no more than the child. It didn't occur to Aragorn what Boromir was doing, taking this slight weight, until the words of his oldest friend began making it through the frantic haze his mind was stuck in.

"Estel? Are you alright? You're bleeding, mellon. Please, let me care for you."

"I am uninjured." Aragorn ground out, looking with disbelief at the unmoving body of Sam. Had the Halfling died in his arms?

"Were you attacked?" Gimli asked innocently. He didn't know, couldn't have known what had happened in the forest, was craning his neck to see if Aragorn had inadvertently led anyone to their camp, but the Ranger still felt a sting of guilt at this question.

"No. I was hunting and thought I saw a deer…it was Sam." He waited for the others to berate him, to distrust him, but all he saw when he looked into their eyes was understanding. Every one of them had gone hunting before, and every one of them had heard the horror stories of friend hitting friend with an arrow, a knife, because they'd gotten separated and that flash of movement that heralded the appearance of the game was no different than the flash of a man, or elf, or hobbit.

Merry had gotten down on all fours and was taking off Sam's pack. Why had the Halfling taken his pack into the forest? Why had he been in there in the first place? Aragorn's mind wasn't working correctly, couldn't process what was happening right in front of him (which was strange, because he'd been though wars, because he was the man who kept his head even when everything went wrong.)

Legolas's comforting hand on his shoulder, the warm weight of it, was all that anchored him to the world. That, and the scarlet blood that was blooming from the too-large wound in Sam's side. On an adult human or elf, the stab of a knife would be agonizing, would cause damage, but if it hit where Aragorn's had hit, it was not usually fatal.

This wound, though, on a being of Sam's size…it could go either way.

"Oh, Sam." Aragorn cut his eyes to Frodo, who had peered inside Sam's pack only to find two large rabbits there. So Sam had had the same thought as Aragorn, had slipped out in the early hours of the morning to find some meat. Somehow, that made it worse.

"Estel, you are the best healer I know." Legolas spoke in elvish, and the sound of the beautiful language of his childhood finally made Aragorn shake himself into motion.

He spoke quickly to Pippin, the smallest and therefore the fastest, since he could slip with enviable ease under the branches of even the shortest trees. The old Ranger needed athelas, alfirin, lissuin, uilos…he explained hurriedly what each looked like, realizing as he did that the best person for this job was spilling blood like priceless rubies onto the cold earth.

Once Pippin took off, disappearing into the forest with the practiced ease of one used to running from authority, Aragorn set to work. Bandages, hot water, a needle flicked over a flame, and the whole time Aragorn was mumbling all the prayers he knew, because words have power, especially elvish words, and he wouldn't leave anything to chance anymore.

"Strider," The name tripping quietly from a hobbit's lips made Aragorn flinch, and he looked up blearily from his handiwork. Sam would live. He would be in great pain, and would move slowly, but he would live.

"Strider," Frodo began again, "Please eat something." He proffered a bowl and the sight of the rabbit that Sam had caught made Aragorn physically and violently ill.

He stood up, breathing through his nose, and went over to the edge of the clearing, trying to find some way to get the balance back in his mind. He looked over his shoulder at the Fellowship he was expected to lead, at that Ring, dangling from Frodo's neck.

And suddenly he felt cold, very cold, because suddenly he wasn't sure of anything – of his hunting abilities, or his leadership abilities, or whether they'd be able to complete this quest at all. Suddenly, the future seemed grey, murky.

All that Aragorn could think of at that moment was the scream he'd heard when the knife was driven into Sam's belly. He would be atoning for that scream for the rest of his life.

.***.

Not exactly a happy note to end on, but this is the end. Thanks to everyone for reading it, double thanks to those who dropped us a line.
-Gandalf