Lost & Found
Helms Deep – afternoon of the day after the battle
For just a moment, it seemed to the dwarf, as the man appeared between the great, battered doors hanging askew on their hinges, the boisterous noise in the dining hall of Helm Hammerhand ceased. And like a crystal drop of water hanging for an eternity from a stalactite back in those caves deep behind the walls of the Hornberg, the moment stretched into time without end.
A tankard banged the table, followed by another and another, sweeping away the moment of complete and utter silence in a noisome clatter, above which arose a chanting chorus, "Aragorn! Aragorn! Aragorn!"
The dwarf's keen eye caught the fleeting tremble in the man's stance, the moment of awe chased by fear in the grey eyes, the powerful desire to turn from the moment as though he truly was nothing more than one of the ragged band of northern rangers he claimed as kin.
And then Aragorn raised his hand, and perhaps for the first time, laid claim to his destiny, albeit with subtle diplomacy. "It is my hope I will always be able to count on the aid of the Eorlingas, as well as come to their aid."
"Hear, hear!" The Third Marshall of the Riddermark rose, tankard held high. "To allies and friends! May our alliance never again be sundered by foulness!" Éomer shouted above the cheering throng.
None in the hall but the dwarf caught the continued hesitancy of the man, poised still for flight on the threshold. He thought it could still go either way, until Aragorn, stern eyes raking the benches and shadows, accepted the tankard thrust into his hands by the nearest Rohirrim, inclining his head with an unconscious regality. And the dwarf saw again, the tensing of the muscles in neck and shoulders as the urge to flee was beaten back by force of will alone.
Aragorn drained the tankard and lifted it over his head. "To victory! To Rohan!"
"To victory!" the crowd roared. "To Rohan." The echo rolled around the stone room like thunder over Carahadras.
With quiet satisfaction, the dwarf puffed on his pipe. He caught the man's eye, noting the query and the quick frown before Aragorn turned resolutely to the table of riders just inside the door. Gimli saw, too, an impatience tightly reined in the assayed easy stance Aragorn adopted as he moved among the tables of men exchanging verbal banter with the Rohirrim.
If there was a certain smugness in the dwarf as he watched the scene unfold, he was careful to keep it from his face. The Dúnadan's heritage was stamped upon the man so clearly it shone forth like a beacon in these failing times. It was whispered already among the Eorlingas, the heir of Elendil was come at last to reunite the races of Men. Aragorn's nobility of spirit would have these men flocking to his banner when he chose to raise it.
"Gimli," Aragorn greeted, finally reaching the dwarf's table.
"Aragorn." Gimli returned the nod. It was not chance that brought the man last to this table. Always duty before pleasure, though the ranger did not appear to be on an errand that would end in indulgence of any kind. Gimli lifted his tankard and indulged a bit extra on Aragorn's behalf.
A good-natured argument ensued around the table as to suitable candidates among the Rohirrim to challenge the ranger to a drinking contest. He was, after all, not a king yet. Aragorn allowed it to continue for a few moments before breaking into the conversation with a tactful, "Gentlemen, would that this night's pastime could be so merry, but the nature of my business in the hall precludes further imbibing. I came seeking Master Gimli." With a smile, and that slight inclination of the head that dismissed as it assuaged, his gaze turned again to the dwarf. "I have been looking for Legolas. Have you seen him?"
So that was what had thinned the man's interminable patience; the elf had a penchant for disappearing just when you needed him. Probably wandering amongst the forbidden trees. "Last I saw him, he was flirting with the White Lady." Gimli drew on his pipe, rolling the weed around in his mouth the better to craft the silver smoke ring he wafted in Aragorn's direction.
A dark eyebrow quirked inquisitively as the ranger waved it away and steepled his fingertips on the tabletop, lowering his voice as he leaned closer to the dwarf. "The White Lady, you say."
Almost, the man smirked, though it was more a crinkling of eyes than mouth. So fleeting was the expression, Gimli was not sure he believed the evidence of his own eyes.
"Did he seem … strange … at all, to you?" the ranger inquired in an undertone.
"Aye," the dwarf said around the pipe stem. "But no more than usual." Well aware the ranger's calm façade cloaked a harassed anxiety, Gimli exchanged pipe for tankard, swallowing a great quaff of ale. He was as drunk as his axe had been on the blood of Orcs, and not yet ready to give up the comfortable place he'd earned here in the hall. Especially if it involved the elf, whom, he knew, was perfectly capable of looking after himself. "Sit down, Aragorn. Take a load off. I'd wager a barrel of ale you haven't sat down since your posterior parted from your horse this morning."
"Then you would lose, my friend, as I have been sitting for the better part of the afternoon."
"Stitching, I suppose."
Aragorn inclined his head. "Why was Legolas with Éowyn?"
"She was binding his hand. Why do you ask?"
Naturally, Aragorn's next words punctured the beatific alcoholic haze, raising the fine hairs on the back of the dwarf's neck.
"He was not himself when we parted, but I was distracted and did not pursue it, and now he has disappeared as if into thin air."
"Disappeared? That is impossible." Gimli thumped the tankard back down on the table, swiping foam from his braided mustache with the back of his hand. "It is not so great a fortress that one can be swallowed up in its vastness." Harrumphing in a manner befitting the wizard, he belched, knocked his pipe out on a round of stone set before him and folded his hands on the table, looking askance at the ranger. "He cannot have disappeared."
"Well, I cannot find him." Aragorn straightened, crossing his arms over his chest.
"Have you checked our rooms? Maybe he has finally had the good sense to rest."
"I have. He is not there. And I have been searching this last hour and more." Aragorn glanced up the table that had universally quieted in reaction to his lowered voice. "We ride soon, with Gandalf, to Isengard."
"Likely then, he will appear as we make ready to leave." The dwarf resettled on the bench, pleased that he would not have to bestir himself to track down the archer.
"Did you tell him of the plan?"
"Nay. I did not know of the plan until this moment. Did you not tell him?"
A fleeting look of exasperation narrowed the man's eyes. He was extremely good at mastering his annoyance, the dwarf noted once again. He had marked it previously, in the man's dealings with the other members of the fellowship as well.
"If I could not find him, how do you imagine I could have told him?" the ranger responded levelly, though the words issued forth from a tight jaw.
"Do you desire aid in seeking the elf, my lord?" a rider asked tentatively, pushing back his tankard as if to rise. "Master Gimli is wounded; there are those here who would be glad of an opportunity to be of assistance."
Aragorn shook his head. "I thank you, but no." He knew well the elf's innate need for solitude and under any other circumstances would have respected the withdrawal. But a niggling unease had inserted itself like a sliver under a fingernail, the agitation growing in his mind until he had left off his work among the wounded and gone in search of his friend.
"I see you are determined to find him," the dwarf declared, planting both hands firmly on the table and levering himself up. "Come then. I will relinquish the delights of the hall on your behalf, Aragorn. Though do we find the elf hale and hearty, I will have more than a few curses to pour into his pointy ears."
"As will I," Aragorn agreed, though lacking the dwarf's conviction.
"Do not worry your head, ranger. If the likes of you may fall off a cliff and return from the dead, what harm could an elf come to inside the keep?"
The ranger only grunted.
They split, retracing the ground Aragorn had already covered in hopes he'd merely missed the elf in his own circling, and met again on the pillared porch of the deserted rotunda above the keep's causeway.
Concerned now as well, Gimli growled, "He would not have left the keep without telling one of us." He wove his fingers through his beard, plucking at the braids fretfully. "Though he was much taken with those trees on yonder plain. Surely he would not have gone alone among them?"
"I think not," Aragorn replied tersely. "I do not believe he would have ignored Gandalf's warning to stay clear of the Hurons. Perhaps he has gone into the caves? It is the only place we have not looked."
"Unlikely," the dwarf declared. "I do not see how he endures his home, given his dislike of anything below ground. I have observed, however, he is capable of making himself nearly invisible when he desires, perhaps we have just overlooked him somewhere."
"The fact that he is not singing worries me greatly, Gimli."
"Aye, I, too, feel the void. It does not bode well."
Aragorn sighed. "Then let us go together again, perhaps two pairs of eyes will discern what darkness conceals."
"Do ya think we should enlist the aid of others now?" Gimli inquired gruffly.
"He would not thank us for descending a troop of Rohirrim upon him; though I suppose we could solicit Gandalf's help."
"An excellent idea. Mayhap he will be easier to find as well."
The wizard was not easier to find, as it turned out, and Gandalf, unaware of the search in progress, was first to stumble over the elf, though quite by accident.
Seeking a chamber where he might pace and think aloud as was his wont, the old man had challenged the tower's steep stairway, huffing and puffing his way to the top where opened the round cavity that gave access to the horn of Helm Hammerhand. Moon and star light filtering through the wide openings lit the room tolerably well and in his perturbation, Gandalf did not see, or even sense, the presence of another tucked in among the haphazard stacks of firewood and battle detritus stored around the edges of the room. His mind was fully engaged with how to confront the traitor, Saruman, on the morrow; one did not just ask for a wizard's staff and expect compliance.
Muttering snatches of spells and incantations, Gandalf's robes swept repeatedly over booted toes as he paced. The unlit staff thumped and thudded with each quick step, patterning the thick layer of scuffed dust as if with arcane signs and symbols as the wizard turned ever within the confines of the small room.
It was the thump and thud of staff and measured footsteps that drew the elf from the deep reverie he'd sought among the paths of his forest home.
Startled by the sudden awareness in the room with him, Gandalf whirled, half expecting to encounter the lidless eye of Saruman's palantir. A word lit the staff, flooding the round space with bright white light, causing the equally startled elf to throw up an arm, the action ripping a half-stifled cry from his throat as the back of his head slammed into the wall.
"Legolas?" Gandalf dimmed the light, instantly cloaking the slumped elf in ragged shadows. He bent forward, leaning to flick back the Lorien cloak pulled close around the drawn up knees. "You are injured." There was surprise in the concerned voice, followed quickly by a torrent of questions. "When did you take this wound? And how is it you have not sought help for it? Are you spelled?" The wizard used the staff to lower himself to his knees in front of the archer.
The bright head was angled awkwardly, barely supported by the weight of his forehead sagging against his knees. A bloody bandage encircled the palm of the right hand, trapped between knees and chest, cradled in the crib of his left forearm
"Legolas!" the wizard repeated sharply. "I need you present. Leave off the dream paths and come back to yourself." Brightening the light of the staff again before laying it aside, he did not wait for a response, but slid the injured hand from its protective crib, quickly peeling back the rigidly stiff bandage. "An Orc blade," he breathed at the sight of the ugly, serrated cut, "so you are poisoned too."
The elf neither moved, nor spoke, though it must have hurt to have the hand jostled. Sighing, Gandalf returned it carefully to its point of origin.
"I suppose I should not scold you for acting thus under the circumstances, but not seeking aid was foolish in the extreme," he scolded anyway, though clearly his audience wasn't listening. "And what am I to do with you now? I cannot leave you here alone, nor summon help without doing so. You are worse than the hobbits, Master Elf."
The wizard sat back on his heels. "Legolas," he said again, suffusing his voice with entreaty this time. "You must wake." He waited as he had waited for the Mearas at the edge of the forest just days ago; patiently and with full faith the elf would respond to his call.
A minute passed … two .. and then three. The elf did not stir. Gandalf began muttering imprecations under his breath. The son of Thranduil had been harder to tame than the Mearas and still did not respond well to any but the lightest of rein.
He leaned forward again, sliding a hand under the stubborn chin, tilting the fair face to the light. The muttered imprecations became full-fledged curses. "Do not try to hide from me, foolish child. It will be no easier if you make me follow you into the dream…paths…" Gandalf trailed off, running his fingers over the bright, braided hair, questing further, beneath cloak and shirt, for the blood beat at the juncture of throat and neck. A sluggish, sullen pulse fluttered against his fingertips.
"It is no wonder your father despairs of you," the wizard murmured, discovering a rapidly swelling bump beneath the joined warrior's braids just as the muffled sounds of debate, overlaid by tramping feet, reached his ears.
Gandalf half-snorted. "It is good you are so dear to Yavanna, else you would not have reached the vast age you have. Count yourself thrice blessed to be saved, yet again, from my tender ministrations."
A turning in the stairs clarified the voices.
""…cannot be in the tower. I have made this trip twice without finding him."
"Did you check the parapet? You know he sometimes takes the fancy that he is a bird and can fly if he falls when he runs along walls." And then, huskily, "Did you check over the parapet?"
"I would know if he'd thrown himself off the Deeping Wall," came the irritated reply. "I do not feel the loss of his spirit, only his song."
"Well, that's good to know," the dwarf's deep voice rumbled. "There's light, Aragorn! Someone at least is here and may have seen him come and go!"
Gimli leapt into the room as though a dozen Uruk-hai might be hidden round the walls, lantern held high, battle cry at the ready. It died on his lips, turning instead into a roar of fright. "What is this? What have you done to him, wizard?" He flung himself across the room and onto his knees before the elf, catching a bit of the wizard's robe as he landed.
Nearly on his heels, the ranger swung around the thick stone opening. "Legolas!" The grey eyes swept over the elf in disbelief. "Gandalf?" Aragorn stilled on the threshold. "I was here not half an hour ago and encountered neither of you. How is this? It takes nearly that time to mount these stairs."
Harrumphing a disgusted sigh, Gandalf collected his staff and levered himself to his feet. "Likely we passed as ships in the night in one of Théoden's dank, dark passage ways." He had crossed Aragorn's path, but had been too preoccupied to engage the ranger in conversation and thus had passed by as little more than a brush of air, hidden from the man's mortal sight. "This one," he prodded the elf's grey-cloaked knee, bushy eyebrows raised by way of explanation, "must have been here when I arrived, but apparently did not wish to be found. These cloaks conceal more than just flesh."
"Aragorn, get over here," the dwarf thundered, mindlessly lifting a knee as the wizard jerked irritably at the hem of his trapped robe. "What's the matter with him?" The lantern clanged against the stone floor, its light wavering briefly as oil and wick sloshed. "He was fine just a few hours ago. What happened?" Gimli twisted to glower up at the towering figure in white. "What did you do to him?" he repeated angrily.
"Gimli," Aragorn cautioned, canting his head and widening his eyes at the dwarf as he dropped to one knee beside him. "How came you to find him, Gandalf? We've been hunting for nearly an hour, and I, as long again, before that."
"I was neither looking for him, nor desirous of his company. I wished to be alone with my cogitations. I thought him deep in reverie when first I sensed his presence, just moments before the pair of you barged in. Whether the waking jolted his senses, or the poison—
"Poison?" Gimli interrupted wrathfully. "How is he poisoned?"
"—has taken a deeper hold, I could not say," Gandalf continued with a scowl. "As you see, he is unconscious now, but that may be because he knocked his head against the wall when he did wake. Rather hard, I'm afraid. He has taken a wound in his hand; from an Orc blade it appears."
"Head? Hand? Which is it?" A low moan slipped from the elf as Gimli reached to bracelet the slender steel of the archer's wrist. Perplexed, he darted a sideways glance at the ranger as he uncovered the injury. "This does not appear serious; look, it is already closed over. How did he hit his head?"
Aragorn took the wrist, manipulating it gently toward the light of the staff.
"When he woke, however briefly, he knocked his head against the wall! Very hard," Gandalf repeated with asperity. "Though I don't see why that would hurt him, hard-headed as he is," he muttered under his breath, adding aloud again, "We were both startled."
"An elf, startled?" Gimli demanded. "How was that accomplished?" Shuffling forward on his knees, the dwarf lifted the elf's head with a tenderness lost only on Legolas.
"I have told you, Master Gimli, he was likely deep in reverie. Perhaps in an effort to aid the healing process," the wizard harrumphed again. "Aragorn, there is a large contusion forming under all that mass of hair."
"An orc blade," the ranger confirmed, tracing a jagged crimson line diagonally across the palm he held open. "It is nearly impossible to prevent infection in a poisoned wound." He raised troubled eyes to the wizard briefly. "Why did he not come to me for aid?"
"Why indeed?" Gandalf echoed. "We must ride within the hour if we are to make it past the fords tonight."
"We will be ready."
"If the elf is not fit, he must remain."
The ranger did not turn his head, but his quiet voice belied the wizard's command, his words falling like a heavy stone into a deep well. "I will not leave him."
Gandalf, turning to leave, stilled as if a troll caught out at sunrise. The ancient spirit that was Olórin flamed inside the shell of humanity and the piercing blue gaze turned back to the ranger with thoughtful regard.
Even Gimli felt the crackling tautness of the air between the ranger and the wizard.
"You cannot afford to spend yourself in healing him, mortal," was all the old man said before turning again to shuffle through the door.
Eyes wide, Gimli's head swiveled from the empty doorway to the ranger beside him. "You can do that?"
"Enough," Aragorn replied, stripping off the fingerless glove he habitually wore on his sword hand.
"Enough what?" the dwarf demanded. "Enough pissing in the dark? Enough hiding? Enough what, ranger?"
"Enough to get him on his horse." Aragorn's lips twitched in amusement as he glanced sidelong at his companion. "Though, you may have to keep him there, Master Dwarf."
"Aye." Gimli maneuvered the plaint head between his hands carefully back down on the drawn up knees. "I can do that." He sat back on his stout heels, arms dangling over his own knees.
"I will need some things – water, hot if at all possible, cloth for bandaging, my pack, if you please." Aragorn returned his appraisal to the unconscious elf. "And blankets. We have very little time to get him on his feet. Find someone to help you, that is a lot to carry.
"Blankets?" Gimli echoed. "I thought elves did not feel cold as a rule," he observed as he pushed himself to his feet. He had marveled that the elf had worn no cloak, even in the deep snow over the Pass of Caradhras. He'd thought too, the Lorien cloak was worn more as a badge of honor – and apparently for concealment – than for warmth.
"You are correct; as a rule, they do not experience temperature extremes as we mortals do, but they are not immune to the effects of illness. Swiftly, Gimli; Gandalf will suffer no delay in his departure. We must be ready. And you will need his light to traverse the stairs."
Catching the urgency in the ranger's voice, the dwarf spun on his heels, jumped up and trotted for the door. "Not to worry, Aragorn, I am a natural sprinter; I will be back before you know I'm gone." The tail of the Naugrim's grey cloak whipped around the corner, snapping in the dwarf-born breeze.
Aragorn sighed, lowering his other knee to the floor. "I would have some answers from you as well, mellon nîn. What strange malevolence drove you to reject my aid? What other hurts have you suffered in silence? And why, pray tell, did you seek to vanish so completely?" Carefully, he laid the lacerated palm back in the elf's lap, and mindful of the wizard's warning, slid his hands into the curtain of pale hair spread over the grey-cloaked shoulders. Immediately his fingers shaped a lump nearly the size of the knob on his sword pommel, portending a headache on the magnitude of the Bay of Belfalas.
The ranger sat back on his heels. He'd had little sleep in the last three days, waged an exhausting battle throughout the previous night, and then spent several hours among the wounded working frantically to keep up with the overwhelming flood of patients. His own reserves were low and the wizard had the right of it; he could not afford to expend himself completely. He too had to be on a horse in under an hour and there would be no dwarf to keep him on Brego.
He took a moment to center, and as his foster father had taught him, reached down to ground himself on the hewn floor, opening his senses to the taproot of power vibrating through the natural stone rooted deep in the earth. Like a wick soaking oil, he drew on the earth energy to rekindle his own. It thrummed pleasantly along his nerve endings, soothing the weary aches deep in muscle and bone, driving out the overmastering fatigue that bore down like a black cloud of Mordor upon his spirits. Aragorn breathed deeply. And opened his eyes.
Haste was a relentless task master.
Once more he crouched beside his companion, this time sliding a hand inside cloak and shirt to rest at the top of Legolas' spine. With a deft maneuver, he slipped the other hand between the elf's chest and drawn up knees, to rest over the breastbone, where he could monitor both lungs and heartbeat.
Aragorn let the weight of his heavy hands become acquainted again with the measure and flow of autonomic systems. This was familiar territory, this body and soul connection to the elf an extension, merely, of the emotional bond they shared. He let himself sink down fluidly, deep into the core of the banked fire of his identity, to fan the flame of the one gift he had never been required to hide.
Submerging his thoughts in the Silvan's mother tongue, he began to call the elf's name over and over in his mind, gently, quietly, so as not to alarm or startle, but with authority.
A faint tremble passed through limbs stiff with disuse, a stirring that quickened even as the healer quickened the heartbeat, urging the rhythm to a steadier pace as he traced the path of the poison flowing through sluggishly pulsing veins. He found the effect diluted already, more a shadow than a malignant presence, making it easier to further attenuate the poison's injurious faculties. The knot on the back of the head was a little more difficult, requiring a finessing of blood vessels the size of threads, in addition to repairs to bruised brain tissue. Fortunately with the elf, it did not require the actual work of knitting on a cellular level, merely the soothing of tattered nerve endings that knew well the messages needed to be sent in order to affect the knitting and mending on their own.
The hand he left alone. No use squandering energy when the wound would have to be reopened and cleansed – a thing he might better have done before drawing the wood elf back to consciousness.
Haste was relentless task master, he thought again, bleakly.
Hard on the heels of the thought, dark eyes opened wide, blinked lazily once, and slid closed again. Aragorn withdrew his hands, half hoping the elf might remain in this in-between state until Gimli was back and he could properly address the sliced hand.
"What … ill-wind blows … now?" Legolas croaked, dragging his left arm to his knees in order to bury his face in the crook of an elbow, blocking the feeble lantern light.
"I could ask you the same."
At the tone, the elf slit an eye open assessingly. "You are angry."
The ranger shifted back slightly and brought forward an ankle, leaning to cross his arms on top of the knee. "Say rather … disappointed."
Legolas jerked as if he'd been slapped.
"Legolas," Aragorn began, recognizing the instant withdrawal. "I'm sorry if I sounded like your father." He had neither the desire, nor the will, to challenge the wizard outright, and he had no time to coax and cajole. But he would not leave the elf behind. Plans changed from moment to moment; who knew what they might encounter at Orthanc and where their path would lead from there. He did not want to journey on without both his remaining companions. "Between us, Gimli and I have spent the past two hours hunting for you. If you'd come to me immediately, I would not have wasted all that time."
Marshalling a bit of the energy slowly trickling back, Legolas lifted his head. "It is a trifling wound, Aragorn. "
"It is poisoned, infected as well now, and will have to be reopened and stitched. It will not be pleasant. What happened? How did you receive a wound such as this? It appears you grasped a blade bare-handed? Why did you not tell me?"
"Why do you hunt me?"
Aragorn debated the wisdom of answering rather than pursuing questions Legolas was avoiding. "Gandalf bids us ride with him to Isengard. He wishes to leave tonight. Within the hour."
"Go without me."
"No," Aragorn said flatly.
"I am of no use to you."
"I will not go without you."
"Aragorn, my head pounds as though Gimli is inside it tempering his axe on his anvil. If I move I am likely to lose what little I've eaten today and you wish to slice open my hand again. It will take a feat nearly equal to the retrieving of a silmaril to get me on a horse, let alone keep me there."
"I've lined up a dwarf for that job."
The elf sighed. "Do I appear amused?"
"Not even slightly," Aragorn admitted readily.
"Good. Because I am not. Go away and leave me alone. I'll be fine by morning."
"That, my friend, is as unlikely as frost in Haradwaith."
Legolas leaned his head back against the wall, very carefully. It was growing too heavy to hold up. "Do you not trust me?"
"Of course I do."
"Yet not enough to know my own need?"
"It is a simple yay or nay, Aragorn."
"I have trusted you every day for months now, with more than just my life, I've trusted you with the lives of every member of the fellowship. And we do not have time for this."
"But you do not trust me with my own."
It took a moment for Aragorn to realize the response had been framed as a statement rather than a question. "Legolas—" he began again, too tired to try and trace the roots of an argument gone so wrong so fast.
The elf twitched a shoulder, jaw hardening again. "It is a difficult thing to have to justify every move one makes."
"I do not –"
"Know you're doing it?" The elf's left hand shot up in a tellingly familial gesture. Aragorn had been on the receiving end of it from Thranduil once or twice as well. "I had Éowyn cleanse and bind my hand. Shortly thereafter, I came up here to get away from … everything." There had been so many mortals, so much raw emotion blanketing the keep, Legolas had felt half stifled, unable to breathe. "I suppose I should have at least considered the blade had been poisoned. But it happened so near the end of the battle, it never occurred to me." He shifted uncomfortably, registering new aches, and lifted his wounded hand back to his chest. It was beginning to throb, again, in time with his heartbeat.
"I had no warning; the lightheadedness nearly felled me with the first wave." He did not bother to add he'd been standing on the Deeping Wall at the time. "A moment later, I thought I had been immersed in the Anduin. The sun was full on me and I could not feel a single ray of warmth. I knew it was not life threatening, that it would pass with time. So I crawled in here, wrapped up in the cloak and retreated to the dream paths."
Legolas opened his eyes again. "Was I to know we would not be allowed at least one night to rest before Gandalf is driving us, again, like one of Rohan's herds?" Weary as he was, he had been careful to keep any emotion from his voice, imparting facts only. The tone changed as he queried, "Now will you tell me why you do not trust me with my own life?"
Aragorn shifted uncomfortably as well, though not from physical pain. He had not thought on it overmuch, and would be hard pressed to put his feelings into words. "I did not understand completely," he began slowly. "And I am sorry, Legolas. It is not that I do not trust you unconditionally, I do. But it frightens me, the way you throw yourself at life and death with equal abandon."
"I but follow in the footsteps of my liege lord," the elf said, amused despite himself.
The grey eyes narrowed and one eyebrow rose. "I do not fear death, but I have at least a healthy regard for it."
"So speaks the man who led the charge into the very teeth of the enemy in the ravine."
"That is my heritage."
"And those of us who would see that destiny fulfilled must wait upon the walls while you accomplish it by yourself?"
A faint smile twitched the corners of the stern mouth. "I would not have you wait upon the walls tonight. I would have you with me to face Saruman."
The elf snorted inelegantly. "Neatly turned, mellon nîn."
Aragorn was silent for a moment, the not-quite smile softening the harsh line of the lantern jaw. "Never would I purposely raise the spectre of your father between us." He spread his hands in a gesture denoting both contrition and appeal. "It was thoughtless, no matter my fear. Will you pardon my transgression?"
Legolas eyed Isildur's heir thoughtfully. "You will do it again."
"A likely prediction," Aragorn acknowledged, bowing his head. "I am mortal, after all. I long ago learned I cannot hope for the perfection of your race."
"And I sense you will not be satisfied with needling ere you lance this wound."
The lingering smile deepened until dimples engraved the lean cheeks. "It appears I have accomplished something, you are already much better than when I entered this room." Aragorn leaned forward, touching the backs of his fingers to a cheek beginning to show color across the high cheekbones. He sat back, pleased. "I expect, should I ever mount a throne, it will be with a dwarf, an elf, and I sincerely hope, several hobbits by my side. Though if it be in Gondor, you will have to be arrayed on the steps. Legolas, I cannot do this without you. Moreover, I do not want to."
On a sigh, Legolas lifted a hand to the back of his head. "Then I suppose we must make our own attempt to snatch a silmaril from Morgoth's crown. I do not remember hitting my head, yet it is tender though there is no evidence."
"Gandalf says you knocked yourself out when the two of you startled one another."
The elf huffed, unwilling to admit anyone could have startled him that badly. Nor did he remember the wizard's presence in the room. "Gandalf?"
"I believe he returns with Gimli now. It was he who found you here, though he was not looking for you."
"I am sorry, too, Aragorn. I did not intend to cause distress."
"Gimli was more distressed than I," Aragorn postulated airily, rising to move to the door. "He was worried you had fallen from the parapet. You would be doing me a favor if you let him fuss over you until he's gotten it out of his system," he said over his shoulder.
"Aragorn!" Legolas hissed as the light brightened beyond the doorway.
The ranger glanced back, feigning incredulity. "Is it not true he is comforted by ordering you about? To rest, or eat, or sleep?"
"True or not—" Legolas got no further as the dwarf barreled into the room, whooping delightedly.
"You're awake, laddie! See Gandalf! No lasting harm done! I told you he had a hard head!"
"Did you now, Master Dwarf? I rather thought it was I who mentioned his hard head." Gandalf stepped back quickly as water slopped over the edge of the lidded kettle Gimli nearly dropped in his haste to reach the elf.
A water skin slid off the dwarf's shoulder and blankets tumbled to the floor around them as he dropped, beaming, to his knees in front of his riding companion.
"You look horrible," he appraised critically, unconsciously echoing the elf. "I hope you feel better than you look. Gandalf is determined we ride this night for Isengard. He wants to reach the fords. I promised Aragorn I'd keep you on that great beast of a horse, if he can get you on it. Can you do that? You scared us a mite, elf. Aragorn was sure you'd dropped off the Deeping Wall."
"Breathe, Gimli," Legolas suggested, unable to hold back a smile.
Aragorn's face split in a wide grin. Gimli threw back his head and laughed heartily as his heart squeezed with relief. Even the wizard could not repress a responsive beam of pleasure. The elf's smile took folks that way.
"Here then, you're cold still, I can feel it. Sit forward so I can wrap this blanket around you," Gimli urged.
Legolas, obedient despite the flashing cut of dark eyes up at the smugly pleased ranger, leaned forward, allowing the dwarf to scoop his hair out of the way and snug the blanket around his shoulders. Clasping it with his good hand, he leaned back again, surprised at the immediate perception of warmth it engendered. He had not realized just how chilled he had become.
"Gandalf," the dwarf instructed, "you must spell the water hot again. It's likely cooled too much to be effective for what Aragorn will need. Where is his pack?"
"May I?" Aragorn inquired, holding up the pack Gandalf had handed him.
"No, you may not." The dwarf scooted back on his knees to snatch at the dangling pack. "Give me that. I will set things out whilst you poke and prod at the wound again. We hurried as much as we could, but we haven't much time."
"Théoden awaits our departure," the wizard relayed, obligingly tipping his staff toward the kettle so the lid began immediately to rattle over boiling water.
Aragorn seated himself so he could rest the elf's arm across his knee, positioning both the lantern and Gandalf, with his staff, for maximum effect. "Gimli, hold his wrist. Why don't you tell us how this happened," he invited, unsheathing the knife on his belt.
A hiss through tightly clenched teeth as that knife sliced flesh like butter was his immediate answer. A putrid gout of black gore erupted as if the elf cupped a tiny volcano in the palm of his hand.
Hurriedly the dwarf upended the boiling kettle over the hand Aragorn forced open again, drenching the ranger's breeches and the floor around them. "You will need to swab it as well. Good, now let it bleed while I ready thread. Do not let him close his fingers over it."
Aragorn bent swiftly with needle and thread. Now that it was cleansed and more accessible, he poured healing into the wound with abandon, until the wizard touched his shoulder lightly, slowing the spill to a mere trickle, knowing it would have to be enough. Brego was of the Mearas, he would have to trust to his horse, again, to keep him in his saddle ere the night was over.
"How did this happen, Legolas?" he repeated.
"Was it when that Uruk came near to spitting you?" Gimli asked, feeling a deep trembling starting to roll through the elf, though his breathing remained steady enough.
"Aye. I lost a knife and so reached to block by gripping the flat of the blade as I sliced off his head with the other. I forgot to drop it though. It bit me when the arm jerked reflexively as the head parted company with the shoulders." Legolas braced his left arm on his knee and his head in his hand. His vision was starting to blur. "Can you hasten? It begins to be very uncomfortable."
"That's elf-speak for it hurts like torture, Aragorn," Gimli interpreted grimly. "Why aren't you done yet?"
"Because it was a deep cut, there were muscles and tendons that needed mending before I could close it again." Aragorn set the last stitch with a relieved sigh. "I doubt you will be able to draw any bow for a day or two, but leave the Lorien bow alone until the stitches are out. Gimli, the pot of salve." He dug two fingers into the smelly pot smacked into his hand, smeared it liberally over his neat handiwork and began wrapping a length of cloth in a figure eight around the palm. "Keep it dry, use it as little as possible, and if you attempt to remove the stitches on your own, your ears will no longer be pointy."
Legolas blinked at him.
"They do not deceive you." Aragorn tied off and tucked in the ends of the bandage. "And you will find me every night and get this cleansed and rewrapped; sooner if necessary."
"Aye, he will," Gimli replied for the elf.
"Now for that silmaril. Gimli, get his other elbow." Aragorn shoved anything remotely resembling medical supplies in his pack will-you-nil-you and slung it over his shoulder. "Gandalf, we'll need you to go first to light the way. It's likely black as midnight on those stairs by now."
"What about the kettle?" Gimli grunted, wedging himself in beside the elf as Aragorn moved to support the right side.
"Someone will find it. Leave the lantern as well, it will burn itself out. No, Legolas, keep the blanket."
His knees, the elf discovered, had been too long bent, they did not want to straighten. The spiraling stairs were a nightmare, the walls expanding and contracting with the same throbbing rhythm as his head. The shadows thrown by the wizard's staff danced across his vision until he thought he was going to be sick down the back of Gandalf's robe.
"Aragorn—" Legolas listed toward the shorter dwarf as his knees buckled.
"Rest a moment, lad." Gimli took the elf's weight, sliding down so they were both sitting on a stone step.
Legolas immediately bent in half, wrapping his good hand around his ankles, though he kept the other raised well above his heart.
"No," Gandalf snapped as the ranger bent over the raggedly panting elf. "You have nothing left to give, Aragorn. Do not be foolish."
Aragorn sank down on the step on the other side of Legolas. "Gandalf, must we ride for Isengard tonight? We are all exhausted. You must be too." He eyed the bristling white wizard wearily. "What is the hurry?"
"Yes, I am weary too." Gandalf curled both hands around his staff and leaned heavily upon it. "But there is a wizard there who must be corralled before he does further damage. And, if I am correct, a pair hobbits."
"Hobbits! Merry and Pippin are at Isengard?" Gimli jumped to his feet. "Why did you not tell us so before? Come Legolas! Surely that news must instill great good cheer! No doubt it will get us to the bottom of the stairs!"
"I wish to arrive before Mordor, so as to give Saruman a choice," Gandalf continued as if uninterrupted. "His knowledge could be a great boon to our cause, Aragorn."
"He will not give it willingly."
"That remains to be seen. But we will know nothing if we arrive too late." The wizard slid his hands down the staff so he bent over directly in front of the elf. "Come Legolas, give me your hand. Aragorn needs you and I need Aragorn."
"And we all need the dwarf," Gimli grumbled.
"Aye, we all need the dwarf." Legolas raised his left hand to Gandalf, expecting to be drawn to his unsteady feet. "And the hobbits."
Surprisingly, a potent flow of warmth spread quickly from his hand through the rest of his body, very different from Aragorn's radiating healing energy. Though it further soothed the pounding headache and eased the throbbing of his hand, like lembas, it also bestowed physical refreshment in a singularly unique way. Legolas sat up straighter.
"I am very sure Aragorn would rather put you to bed than on a horse, but it is to horse we must if we are to accomplish our mission." Gandalf lifted his hand and Legolas rose with it.
"Why did you not just do that before?" Gimli demanded, reaching as if to steady Legolas, only to find he did not need to.
Gandalf shot the dwarf an inscrutable look. "It was not necessary before, Master Gimli. Now it is. Look at me," he commanded the elf standing on the stair above him. He searched the dark eyes intently and nodded. "It will do. I have no doubt once upon it, you would conquer a warg if necessary, though perhaps not tonight. Come, my friends. The sooner we are off, the sooner we may all rest." Gandalf swung about, lifted his staff much like he had in Moria, piercing the gloom with its bright rays, and resumed the descent.
The trio behind followed without further demur.