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While the Ring Went South...: 7. January 3, 3019 (Night)
Dusk had fallen and with thick clouds covering the sky, the darkness of night was swift in its arrival. Cold winds off the mountains whistled through the trees, and the sound of a raging river flooding its banks echoed in the valleys at the foot of the towering mountains. Rain continued to pound the earth with no sign of slowing its relentless onslaught.
Coughing up water and spitting mud, Boromir raised his dripping head and groaned, ultimately deciding it was better to lie still than to move. With muddled thoughts, he began a self-inventory, running through what bumps and bruises he could feel before moving on to possibly more serious injuries. He had two lumps on the back of his head and his knee felt as though it had been severely wrenched. A throbbing in his lower back informed him that his spine was out of alignment and the palm of his left hand was robbed raw where he had clung stubbornly to his shield before the force of the water bore him away.
Still, all these were but minor concerns. What disturbed him more was a feeling that he was short of breath and the sharp stinging in his right side. Broken ribs, he decided grimly. And if I do not take care, they will puncture the lung. Once bound tightly, the ribs would trouble him little, but until such time, he would have to watch his movements carefully. Thankfully, nothing else seemed to be broken, and his mind was clear enough that he did not fear a concussion.
Rolling gingerly to his left side, he tried to conjure up his last few moments of consciousness. The water had hit them hard, and before he truly knew what was happening, he’d been struggling for his life. He remembered the hard jolt to his shoulder when his shield snagged itself between two trees, and he remembered hanging on to the leather straps for what seemed like time without end. But the river had been too strong. He’d been carried away, struggling against the current that dragged him beneath the water’s surface. He’d surfaced once or twice, just long enough each time to steal a breath of air, and then he would be dragged under again. But all the while, he’d managed to keep his wits and he’d continued to strive for the banks, though in truth his sense of direction became clouded.
He remembered being knocked into a large tree and pinned there by the force of the flood. He could remember grasping the great trunk and shinnying up its length until he again could hold his head above the rushing waters. His grip had begun to slip, but before he was dragged downstream, he was able to catch sight of the western bank and push off the groaning tree. More trees and rocks awaited his crashing form before he could drag himself clear of the water, yet somehow he managed it. Once safely clear of the river, he’d collapsed like a dead thing, and to all the world he might as well have been dead. It was only now that he summoned the strength to stir, and he was currently rethinking this new policy, pondering the merits of lying still a while longer.
But the cold breeze that stole across his shivering body convinced him otherwise. If he did not find shelter and warmth soon, he would not last more than a few hours. He had seen the greatest soldiers succumb to the cold during night battles along the Anduin. A wet warrior in chill weather was a dead warrior, and Boromir was not about to let an act of nature claim his life. When he went, he intended to die by the sword, defending Minas Tirith from the grasp of the Nameless One.
With cautious movements, Boromir managed to rise to his knees. His back cried out in protest and his fractured ribs sent spasms of pain along his right side, but he endured it and held his ground, determined that he would not sink back into the mud like one of Sauron’s foul creations. When the pain had passed enough for him to collect himself, he worked on rising to his feet. This was a bit more of a challenge, and his knee wobbled traitorously beneath him. The injury to his leg was worse than he’d originally believed, but it was still not debilitating. Nothing a strong brace could not repair. Eventually achieving a standing position of sorts, he swayed dangerously and closed his eyes as a sensation of vertigo took him. Reaching out and leaning against a tree, he shuddered and waited for the dizziness to pass.
It never really did pass, but after a few minutes, it went down in intensity. Deciding he would have to settle for this, Boromir opened his eyes and looked about. It was night now, the clouds still loomed overhead, and the rain continued to pour. He did not know this country as Aragorn and Gandalf did, and he realized that if he set out in the wrong direction, he could be lost for weeks. Only it would not be weeks because the cold and wet would finish him first. But how was he to know which direction was the right one?
And then the solution came to him, as pure and simple as the blossoming of a flower amidst a field of despair. "The river," he murmured quietly, relieved and yet disgusted with himself for not having seen it earlier. The river was a path he could follow. Tracing it back upstream, he would eventually return to the day’s campsite. It was the most logical course of action for him at the moment since he had very little idea of his whereabouts and no idea of where the other campsite was located. Aragorn and Legolas had been the two to go on ahead with the rest of the group while he had kept watch on Bill and the baggage. In truth, the river was his only choice and his only chance.
Pushing off of his tree and shoving down feelings of nausea from his stomach, Boromir put one shaking foot in front of the other and began the long trudge upstream through muck and mud. His injured knee protested loudly, his back complained ceaselessly, his stomach informed him that he had swallowed far too much river water, his ribs continued to rob him of breath, his skinned hand throbbed slightly, his head pounded greatly, and to top it all off, he was now shivering violently.
"What I need now is Aragorn’s Warg," Boromir said to no one in particular, stopping for a brief rest and shaking with cold. "It would be the perfect way to put a permanent end to this night."
But the Warg did not appear and Boromir continued to trudge onward, not knowing how far the river had dragged him or what he would do once he found the former campsite. If no one was there, he did not think he retained enough muscle control to build a fire even if he could find dry tinder amidst all this rain. His trembling hands were numb and if he were forced to defend himself, he did not think he would be able to hold his sword. But he had few options available to him, so through the mud he pressed. And all the while, the cold breeze flowed over and around his body, chilling him further and further.
After a mile or so of this seemingly endless upstream wandering, Boromir wondered if he should cry out. It would bring down any enemy spies, but it might also bring his companions. He was beginning to feel a sleepy haze creep over his mind, and some distant part of his brain had immediately identified it as a sign that he needed help and he needed it soon.
This was confirmed when he suddenly realized that his eyes were closed. Opening them quickly, he found that he had somehow ended up on the ground. Had he fallen? He did not remember falling. Had he sat down? He didn’t remember that either. He wondered if he should get up and try again, but he was so tired. So very tired. And it was bitterly cold. Why not wait a bit? He was sure to warm up again once he received some much needed rest.
In the back of his mind, an annoying little voice started ordering him to stand and keep moving. It was quite insistent and ignoring it was not really an option, but neither was obeying it. He didn’t have the strength to stand and his limbs had conspired against him. They would not obey his commands.
A numbing cold swept over him, he continued to shiver violently, but the sleepy haze was back. What thoughts he could manage were clouded and uncertain. The clamoring voice in the back of his mind gradually died down, and Boromir finally allowed his eyes to slide shut, too exhausted and too frozen to care what the consequences of this might be.
* * * *
Gandalf watched the growing darkness over the land and eyed the flame that Gimli was nurturing, silently marveling at the ability of the dwarf to maintain a steady fire with only wet wood to work with. But at the same time, his instincts cried out against it, predicting the arrival of countless enemies should the fire be allowed to continue. He reminded himself that this was out of necessity and that when they found the others, they would be in desperate need of warmth. If it is a choice between countless enemies or three dead companions, I would choose the countless enemies and save the companions, Gandalf told himself firmly. He truly believed this, but his instincts refused to listen to the voice of reason and loyalty, continuing to protest the warm flame that was steadily growing larger under Gimli’s expert care.
The hobbits had arranged every spare blanket and cloak around the fire, and steam was rising as the fire’s warmth began to dry the garments. The fabric was so thoroughly soaked with water that it was doubtful that it would dry completely before the garments would be needed. But at least they would be warm, and at least they would be drier than whatever Aragorn, Boromir, and Legolas were currently using for a cloak.
The wizard sighed, hoping that those three could be found quickly. If they were not, he did not think they would be able to last the night. Legolas might, for as an elf he had a much higher tolerance for cold, but if he had been injured by the flood, this tolerance would go down while his body relegated energy to the healing process. And there was the continuing weather to consider. It was cold, everything was drenched with water, bitter winds were whispering through the woods, and it was still raining. Even an elf might have a difficult time keeping his body heat in the face of both cold and wet. And as for a man…
They all know basic survival techniques, Gandalf reassured himself. They know to keep moving, to avoid sleep, to find somewhere with as much shelter as possible. But even as he said this, he knew that a mind affected by the cold did not think clearly. Even basic survival techniques would be difficult to remember for an injured, frozen, weary traveler.
But none of this could be helped now. They had to focus on what could be done and go about achieving that. Glancing once more over the camp, Gandalf nodded. They could do little more here and it was time for some of them to go. "Sam, start a stew or a tea over the fire. It should be as hot as you can make it and still be able to drink it. If Aragorn, Boromir, or Legolas come back while I am gone, wrap them in blankets, place them near the fire, and get as much hot fluids into them as you can."
"Are you going to search for them alone?" Gimli asked, his brow furrowing with concern.
For answer, Gandalf turned to Merry and Pippin. "Come, you two. You shall accompany me. Bring spare blankets and cloaks. They need not be the driest, for under this rain, they will not stay dry for long," he added as the two hobbits obediently got to their feet.
"I was enjoying the fire," Pippin muttered beneath his breath.
"I thought you were the elf," Merry ribbed. "Elves never complain."
Gimli snorted at this. "Elves complain much, my dear hobbit. You have just never taken the time to listen."
"What would you know of elves?" Merry asked, gathering a pile of cloaks together. "The most you can do is harass them."
Gimli shrugged, caring little about the accusation. It was accurate enough, and the dwarf saw no shame in this. "I know enough of them, young hobbit. And as for complaints, it is in his glance, his manner, the tone of his voice…listen closely and you will find that our elf is ever at odds with those around him."
"Let us be off," Gandalf said, interrupting the conversation. "Remember what I have told you," he said, looking at Frodo, Sam, and Gimli. "If they return on their own, they will be cold, wet, and probably incoherent. You must care for them quickly and promptly. They must be kept warm, and if possible, they must be kept awake."
"Have no fear on their account," Gimli promised. "They will find safety here."
Gandalf nodded, hoping that this would be the case and that he, Merry, and Pippin would not be forced to bring all three of them back to the campsite. He doubted they would be able to accomplish the latter in time to save them all. "Farewell, then. Stay alert, all of you. The fire may draw our friends, but it will draw other things, too." And with that, he turned and strode into the darkness. Merry and Pippin followed quickly.
"Just like Gandalf to part with that kind of remark," Sam said, placing a kettle of water over the fire for heating. Gimli chuckled quietly in response, but Frodo said nothing. A strange feeling was growing over him—a feeling of awareness and malice. Gandalf was right. In spite of the rain, the fire was drawing other things.
* * * *
Legolas groaned and shivered, feeling as though a blanket of ice encased his body. Pulled from dark dreams into an even darker night, he blinked his eyes and wondered at his blurred vision. Was that normal?
Slowly, his vision began to clear. Shadows hovered over his shaking form and a bitter wind tousled his wet hair. His leg hurt, as did his left wrist. He tried to remember how he had injured himself, but his mind was not cooperating and wished to sink back into unconscious bliss. Deciding that this was probably for the best, Legolas allowed it, feeling his body relax in response.
"No, Legolas, I won’t let you do that. You must get up! I can’t support both of us."
Who kept speaking to him? Didn’t they know that he needed rest? With growing annoyance, the elf summoned his mind back from the comfortable world of dreams and into the harsher world of reality. He tried to speak, to tell whoever was there to leave him be, but he found he could not form words. He could not hold his shaking jaw still.
"Awaken! I was taught that elves are the superior beings. Don’t let that be wrong. You must get up!"
Something was shaking his arm and his throbbing wrist slapped painfully against his frozen body. Struggling for greater awareness, Legolas tried to pull away or strike back—he didn’t know which of the two he could manage or even which of the two he eventually attempted—but found himself groaning at the effort it took to even manage a faint, ineffectual tug.
"That’s right, Legolas, fight me. You can do it. I am but a mortal. Show me your superior elven strength and stamina. Rise!"
Rise? For what purpose? Had he possessed the energy, Legolas would have shaken his head in disbelief. He was frozen, tired, and injured. What good would standing do him? Beyond that, he didn’t think he could stand. Better to lie here quietly while—
"Legolas! Legolas, Mirkwood is under attack! Your father and brothers need you. The orcs are almost upon them!"
That got his attention. Legolas felt rage flare through him, bringing with it the fiery heat of anger and granting him strength from some hidden reserve. Transferring that strength to his uninjured right arm, he pushed himself up, coughing as he did so and feeling the soreness of his lungs in the strength of his coughs.
"That’s right, Legolas, you must rise. Your bow is needed."
Closing his eyes and concentrating all his attention inward, the elf mustered his waning energy, and with halting effort, he got to his knees. Someone was holding him now, steadying him as he swayed and continued to cough. It felt as though he had inhaled a lake. When had that happened?
"Just a bit more, my friend. On your feet. On your feet and then you can rest."
No, he could not rest. Not when Mirkwood was under attack. Who was this being that commanded him to rise? He was not an elf. What was his purpose in Mirkwood? Did he bring danger to the kingdom? With a final effort, Legolas surged to his feet, staggering and swaying immediately. His companion pressed him against a tree for balance, and leaning his head forward against the dark pine, Legolas made a rather disconcerting discovery.
This was not Mirkwood.
He blinked slowly, wondering what new trick and danger threatened. Turning his head, he frowned and then focused on a concerned face that hovered but inches from his own. "Aragorn?"
The Ranger sighed and a flicker of relief flashed briefly in his dark eyes. "You worried me, Legolas. When I first found you, you would not respond."
"You…you were the one who…we are not in Mirkwood." It was certainly not his best response, but his muddled brain was so confused that he could not form a more coherent answer.
Concern crept back into Aragorn’s eyes and he studied the elven prince closely. "Do you know where we are? Do you remember what happened?"
Turning around so that his back rested against the pine, Legolas closed his eyes and thought. "South of Imladris," he finally murmured, his memories returning slowly. "We were hit by a flooding river."
"Thank the Valar," Aragorn murmured. His sharp eyes studied the pale elf, making use of what little light filtered through the dark clouds overhead. "Are you able to travel? We must find the rest of the Fellowship."
Legolas nodded, opening his eyes and pushing off the tree trunk. "Where shall we go?"
"Their campsite," Aragorn answered. "I believe I know where we are, and our destination is not more than a mile or so away. Can you manage it?"
"Of course," the elf answered, annoyed at his chattering teeth. He took one step forward and instantly fell, his left thigh refusing to support him. Aragorn tried to catch him, but the Ranger was exhausted enough that even the slight weight of the elf threw them both off balance and into the mud.
"I take that as a no," Aragorn said, pushing himself out of the clinging muck. He looked over at Legolas who was struggling to get back to a sitting position and quickly noticed the expression of pain on the elf’s face. "You are injured."
"No more so than you," Legolas returned. Despite the chills that racked his body, he had not failed to notice that the Ranger kept clutching the back of his head as though it pained him.
"My own discomfort will not interfere with traveling," Aragorn informed him, moving next to the elf and stopping him from further attempts to rise. "What ails you?"
"Left leg and left wrist," Legolas confessed, realizing that Aragorn would not allow him to move until he had been examined. "I believe the wrist is sprained. I do not know what troubles the leg."
He watched while his arm was lifted and then winced slightly as Aragorn’s probing fingers examined the questionable wrist. "In this, you are correct. Nothing is broken," the Ranger said, his soft voice blending with the sound of constant rain. "It is badly sprained, though. When we return, I shall fashion a brace for it." He glanced at the elf, dark eyes meeting gray ones. "You may find that drawing your bow will be uncomfortable."
Legolas looked away and attempted to shrug, but he was shaking too hard for any movement to be discernable as anything other than shivers. "It will heal soon. Elves recover quickly."
"And for that you are lucky," Aragorn said. "Lie back down, Legolas. Hold still and let me move you."
Legolas closed his eyes and sank into the mud, barely noticing it since he was already soaked through to the bone. He relaxed his muscles and allowed Aragorn to push him onto his right side. Gentle hands touched his leg and the elf could not hold back a sharp hiss of pain. Aragorn paused for a moment, giving Legolas a chance to collect himself.
The elf nodded, his eyes shut tight as he prepared for another onslaught of pain. Aragorn began the exam again, starting with the thigh and moving down to the calf, pressing gently and grimacing every time Legolas caught his breath. The elf did not cry out again, but it was clear that with every touch, he was in pain.
"I do not think it is as bad as it seems, but the cold makes it worse," Aragorn eventually said. "Your leg is rubbed raw from top to bottom. There is severe bruising around the thigh and the muscle is probably pulled. In addition to that, it is stiff with cold and swelling has caused it to tighten. It is currently a painful, bruised knot, and I am not surprised you fell when you put your weight upon it. I do not think you will be able to use your left leg for walking until that muscle is given a chance to warm up and loosen."
"So tell me, Aragorn, should I then wait here until summer returns and warms the muscle?" Legolas asked, unable to hold his sarcasm and bitterness back.
"No, you should not," the Ranger replied, checking his own tongue as he realized the shame Legolas felt in the injury. "You would slow our journey considerably, though I doubt not but the hobbits would be grateful for the rest." Aragorn glanced around, running options through his mind, and then came to a decision. "Come, Legolas. You were able to stand once. Let us see if you can do it again."
The elf sighed, a sound so soft that the Ranger’s sharp ears were barely able to catch it, and then he began to lumber awkwardly to his feet. Aragorn hastened to help him and after a few stumbles, Legolas was upright once more and leaning heavily on Aragorn for support. "If you truly wish me to travel," Legolas said, closing his eyes and turning his head away, "I fear I will need help."
"Then you shall have it," Aragorn said gently, understanding that it was not in the elf’s nature to ask for assistance. "Come. Lean on me and we shall travel these dark forests. It is better, in any case, that two should walk together instead of one alone."
Legolas made no answer to this but doggedly started forward, staggering every time his left leg was asked to hold even some of his own body weight. Aragorn tried to take as much strain off the elf as he could, but he was also tired. In silence they walked, and eventually, the Ranger was leaning on the elf almost as much as the elf was leaning against him.
"We cannot go much further," Legolas whispered at length, shaking his head as an unnatural need for sleep crept over his mind. "The cold and wet will have us ere long."
"We cannot give up, my friend," Aragorn said, forcing them to continue. "We have perhaps half a mile to go."
"It is half a mile too long," Legolas murmured, sinking toward the ground. Aragorn tightened his grip on the elf and roughly pulled him back up, but his strength was ebbing and if Legolas went down again, the Ranger did not think he would be able to hold him.
"Not now," Aragorn said firmly. "Not now and not ever. We push on. I did not think you were one to surrender."
"I am not," Legolas answered, a trace of anger in his voice. "But against the impossible…" The elf trailed off and began to fall once more. Aragorn tried to brace against this, but he had little energy left and ultimately ended up on the ground with the shivering elven prince.
To his growing horror, the elf made no answer.
Trying to hold his shaking hands steady, for the cold had nearly claimed him as well, Aragorn turned the elf over and began slapping his face, hoping desperately to elicit some kind of response. "Legolas!" he cried, not carrying what enemies he might bring down upon them. "Legolas, you must awaken!"
But this time, the elf was beyond hearing. In walking to this point, he had pushed himself as far as he could be pushed, and now his body was shutting down. Aragorn cursed loudly and looked about, knowing there was none around to help him but desperate to save his friend. And that’s when he saw it.
He had not been able to see it before, for from a standing position, low branches blocked the view, but from the ground, it burned brightly in the darkness. It was a beacon he could follow, a light against the shadows that surrounded him. The cold he had fought off for so long seemed to recede, and the flickering, dazzling sight before him called cheerfully, beckoning him onward. It reached for him, calmed him, healed him, and promised that greater healing awaited him if he would but follow its light. It was beautiful. It was glorious. It was hope unlooked for.
It was a campfire.
* * * *
Together, Frodo and Gimli surged to their feet, the dwarf seizing his axe should it be needed. Both watched Sam as he stared out into the darkness, his sensitive ears registering heavy footfalls and haggard breath.
"Can you tell who or what?" Frodo asked, joining his friend on the edge of the campfire’s light and braving the pouring rain.
"Not yet, sir," Sam answered, moving further out. "But I think it’s hurt. It’s moving slowly and it doesn’t sound well."
"But you don’t know if it’s Aragorn, Boromir, or Legolas?" Frodo pressed. Sam shook his head.
"If it is, they’ll be needing our help," Gimli said. He took his axe in both hands and glanced at the hobbits. "Wait here. I’ll meet it out there before it can draw closer. And if it is one of our missing companions, all the better for then I can help him."
"What if it isn’t?" Frodo asked as Gimli strode forward with all the confidence of a mountain dwarf.
"Then we shall find out soon enough," he called back, disappearing into the night.
Once beyond the glowing campfire, he paused and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. For a dwarf, he had unusually keen vision in the dark. While he would never challenge the eyes of an elf or even a hobbit, his night vision had served him well in the past and continued to do so now. And as his eyes adjusted, he began to make out a dark form partially obscured by the trees. As Sam had said, it appeared hurt and was moving with painstaking slowness. Sensing there was no danger, Gimli hurried forward and gasped when the figure’s face looked up at him.
The Ranger’s voice was but a shadow of its normally powerful baritone. His entire body shook violently against the cold that seeped through his drenched clothes and slowed his feeble movements.
"Come," Gimli said, wasting no time. Shoving his axe into his belt, he planted his sturdy dwarf legs and hauled Aragorn over his shoulder, staggering beneath the weight of the heavy man but managing to stay upright. "We have a campfire waiting and hot soup. Dry clothes and warmth are what you need."
"Legolas…" Aragorn moaned, struggling slightly.
"The elf is not here," Gimli answered briskly, feeling slighted that Aragorn had mistaken him for the tree-loving, arrow-shooting prince. "Don’t move. You make this more difficult."
The Ranger groaned pitifully and seemed to go limp. Fearing for his wellbeing, Gimli hastened back as quickly as the slippery mud, the rain, and the weight of the man would allow him. The campfire glowed brightly and before long, he could make out the silhouettes of the hobbits as they awaited his return.
"It’s Strider!" Sam cried out when Gimli drew near.
"Hurry," Gimli ordered. "Sam, get the soup. Frodo, make a place for him by the fire where he can rest. Get the driest blankets and cloaks and make a bed. We must warm him quickly."
The hobbits sprang into action with a speed that surprised the dwarf. By the time he’d managed to get Aragorn next to the fire, a bed of the driest and warmest blankets had been prepared, heated cloaks were waiting, and Sam had ready a mug of the soup.
With Frodo’s help, Gimli lowered Aragorn into the waiting blankets. Together they wrestled him out of his water-soaked shirt and tossed it next to the fire where it could dry. "Wrap the cloaks around him," Gimli instructed. "Wrap them as tightly as you can. Here, let’s move him closer to the fire. Sam, see if you can get some of that soup into him."
"Legolas," Aragorn suddenly groaned as they were maneuvering him about.
"Always the elf," Gimli groused.
"Legolas isn’t here," Frodo said, ignoring the dwarf. "Don’t worry, though. Gandalf will find him."
"No. No, not here. Out there."
Frodo frowned and stopped Sam as he came forward with the soup. "What do you mean?" he asked Aragorn. "Do you know where he is?"
"Left him," the Ranger answered dimly, still not fully aware of his surroundings. "Left him to find help. He can’t move."
"They must have been traveling together," Frodo realized.
"We have to go get him!" Sam exclaimed, almost dropping the soup.
"We can’t leave the camp and we can’t leave Aragorn," Gimli broke in, hoping to calm the hobbits with words of reason. "The packs and blankets must be watched. Legolas will probably make it in on his own."
"And if he doesn’t?" Frodo challenged. The hobbit still had a strong sense of uneasiness as though something waited just beyond the firelight. If Legolas was as weak as Aragorn had implied, the elf would be no match for whatever enemy awaited them. Frodo was surprised that the Ranger had survived the journey. "The two of you can stay," Frodo stated, standing up and loosening Sting in its scabbard. "I’m going to look for him."
"Absolutely not!" Gimli protested, also standing. "None of us should be wandering in that rain and darkness alone, least of all you. If we lose you, we lose the quest!"
"But we can’t abandon him," Frodo shot back, his eyes hardening with resolve.
Gimli stood silent for a moment. He looked at Aragorn who was reflexively swallowing the soup as Sam spoon-fed him, he looked at Sam who was watching Gimli and Frodo carefully when he wasn’t feeding Aragorn, and he looked at Frodo who seemed prepared to dash off into danger and shadow without a second thought. "I’ll go," the dwarf said at length. "Keep your swords ready and try to keep Aragorn awake. If he is aware enough, he will help defend you if danger draws near."
"You’re certain?" Frodo asked, his eyes unsure and suspicious. "We are speaking of Legolas."
"You would accuse me of murder?!"
Frodo stepped back, aware that he had gravely insulted the dwarf. "I just thought that maybe you’d feel more comfortable if someone else went."
Relaxing slightly but with anger still glinting in his eyes, Gimli shook his head. "I am a dwarf," he said proudly. "We do not leave a companion to die, even if that companion is an elf." Pulling his axe back out, he turned and started into the darkness. "Stay alert and stay safe," he called over his shoulder just before he vanished into the surrounding gloom.
* * * *
Gandalf leaned wearily on his staff and tipped his head, watching as water poured from his dripping hat. In the company of Merry and Pippin, he’d journeyed back to the original flooded camp and they were now following the river downstream, hoping to discover baggage, food, or missing companions. To show for their efforts, they had acquired two extra blankets drenched with water, some bruised apples, and one of Sam’s spare shirts.
It was not encouraging.
The wizard was vaguely aware of Merry and Pippin as they searched the underbrush around him, enduring the ongoing rain without complaint. But as the night dragged on and they still found no sign of Aragorn, Boromir, or Legolas, the hobbits were slowly becoming frustrated while Gandalf simply became colder. But if he was cold, then the group swept away by the river would be nearly frozen. He kept this thought foremost in his mind and doggedly continued the search, knowing that if the missing three were not found this night, it would probably be too late for them. Even now, time was growing scarce.
The search continued vainly, the rain poured down miserably, and the wind blew relentlessly. Gandalf shook his head as he considered the course of events. The Fellowship had expected orcs, trolls, wolves, capture, torture, and death, but here was something none of them had anticipated. Who would have thought that two of the best warriors from the Race of Man along with the elven prince of Mirkwood would have been lost to a flooding river in a rainstorm?
Not lost yet, Gandalf corrected himself, using his staff to pull himself through the thick mud. There is yet hope, though it may grow dim. There is always hope.
Unfortunately, he did not think he convince the weary hobbits of this. To their credit, they were still silent in their misery but Gandalf read in their eyes and their faces that they were giving up. There had been no definitive sign that Aragorn, Boromir, or Legolas was near, and the dark and cold were beginning to tell on their spirits. They longed for firelight and warmth, and it was not to be had out here in the rain. But they could not abandon their companions to certain death. Merry and Pippin understood this, else they would not still be out here, but it was still a difficult chore.
And then Merry gave a great shout. Gandalf nearly jumped out of his boots in surprise and was almost bowled over when Pippin came charging into him. "He’s found something!" the young Took exclaimed. "Merry’s found something!"
Gandalf had figured that much out for himself, but he was grateful that Pippin seemed to have leaped out of the consuming bowls of melancholy. Following the hobbit quickly, it was not long before he caught sight of Merry hunched over something.
"It’s Boromir," Merry whispered, looking up as Gandalf drew near. "He’s still breathing, but he’s cold and I can’t get him to wake up."
Kneeling swiftly by the warrior’s side, Gandalf checked his vital signs and grimaced. They did not have much time. "Roll him onto his back," the wizard ordered quickly, taking a water skin and murmuring soft words of incantation. The water within the carrier began to swirl and mix, building in heat and energy. "Raise his head," Gandalf instructed.
"What are you doing?" Pippin asked, alarmed at Boromir’s pallor and lack of response.
"If we are fortunate, I am saving his life," Gandalf answered brusquely. With care and caution, he began pouring the warm liquid into Boromir’s mouth. He sighed with relief when the man swallowed in reflex, and so the wizard continued the process. When most of the water was gone, Gandalf shouldered the skin and stepped behind Boromir where the hobbits were propping him up. "Let us move him into a sitting position. With luck, he will awaken soon."
"And without luck?" Pippin wondered.
"Without luck, he will have to remain here," Gandalf said quietly.
The hobbits sat in silence for a bit, pondering what that might mean, and then Boromir coughed suddenly. Moving to support him as he began to sway, the hobbits braced themselves against his back while Gandalf stepped into the man’s field of vision, grasping his shoulder and hoping that Boromir would regain consciousness soon.
Fortunately for all of them, Gandalf’s hopes were realized. Boromir’s eyes fluttered open slowly and he groaned, one hand instinctively flying to his side. Listening to his breathing, Gandalf realized that something was off about it and immediately suspected broken ribs. That will make this more difficult.
"Mithrandir?" Boromir murmured, trying to fix his wandering gaze on the vague blur before his face.
"You must come with us," Gandalf said firmly in a voice that even Elrond would fear to contend. "You must somehow rise and walk. Can you do this, son of Gondor?"
Boromir seemed to straighten and a sparkle of resolve and defiance lit his eyes glazed. "I shall not fall to this. Let us go."
The task of actually getting Boromir to his feet was not as easy as the man seemed to think it would be. He was the heaviest member of the Fellowship even though Aragorn was the tallest and it was no small feat for one old wizard and two small hobbits to help this staggering warrior burdened with sopping cloak and large sword to his feet. But somehow, after several tries and several muddy failures, Boromir was up. His right knee trembled and jerked, but he was up.
"Now what?" Merry asked.
Gandalf had been thinking the same thing. Boromir might be standing, but he was not truly awake and was bound to lapse back into unconsciousness soon. The heated water touched with a hint of energy would do much for him, but it would not be enough. Reluctantly, aware that the use of power would draw the attention of unwanted eyes, Gandalf put a hand on Boromir’s shoulder and began to whisper. It seemed as though a soft halo of light surrounded the warrior, and the man’s eyes closed as he was surrounded by bliss.
"Did you heal him?" Pippin asked.
"Such power is not in me, I fear," Gandalf answered. "I have put him into a trance. He will make it back to camp now, but who can say whether or not the strain will kill him. Still, I do not see another way."
"So should we go back or keep looking?" Merry asked. "Aragorn and Legolas are still out there."
Gandalf sighed and looked at Boromir. "Dawn is but several hours away. And Boromir is in need of immediate assistance. If the others have not found their way back, I fear we can do nothing to help them now except perhaps by finding their remains in the morning." The wizard closed his eyes briefly and then quickly composed himself. "Come. We must return swiftly to camp and see that Boromir is given true warmth and nourishment, for without it, we may not have even reached him in time."
* * * *
Of all things to be looking for in the middle of a storm, I am looking for an elf! Gimli shook his head at the irony of it all and willed his legs to travel faster. He was not at ease with leaving the hobbits alone in the camp, but there had been no other way short of physical restraint to keep Frodo from dashing off alone. The dwarf fought off a shiver and hastened his swift jog. The rain drummed against him and the slight breezes were bitterly cold, but he tried to ignore them. He had a purpose to this journey and the sooner he accomplished that purpose, the sooner he could return to the fire and the hobbits.
He’d reached the area where he’d found Aragorn and discovered that there was some luck left in Middle Earth. The muddy ground clearly showed the prints of Aragorn’s halting progress toward the campfire. He had but to follow these footsteps to find the elf. The task was simple enough, but Gimli was aware of a few key problems. For all he knew, Aragorn and Legolas might have been swept to the other side of the river. If that was the case and Aragorn had crossed the river in returning to camp, Gimli would be forced to cross the river to search for the elf. The prospect was not exactly thrilling. There was also the possibility that Aragorn had been hallucinating and Legolas had never been with him. Gimli had seen that occasionally in dwarves who were rescued from extreme cold. The mind was a strange thing and played tricks when the weather turned bitter. Or there was the possibility that the tracks might vanish further on where the ground became rocky. If that happened, the dwarf did not know what he would do. He had no desire to search the woods blindly for a lost elf, especially at night and in the rain.
So far, though, there was a clear trail of tracks, it did not lead across the river, and he had not gone far enough to believe that Aragorn had hallucinated the entire thing. But another problem was slowly taking shape in Gimli’s mind. What would he do when he found Legolas? The elf did not trust him, and accepting help from the dwarf would be difficult at best, impossible at worse. Gimli really couldn’t blame Legolas, for if their situations were reversed, he would feel the same. In fact, he was unsure of his own feelings regarding lending the elf his aid. This was, after all, the same elf that had insulted him, insulted his father, nailed him to a tree, stolen his pipe, filled his pack with rocks, and soaked him with Pippin’s water skin. Why shouldn’t he be made to suffer a little more?
Gimli quickly shook his head. His thoughts were running along dangerous lines, and perhaps Frodo had been right to doubt him. He was uncomfortable with retrieving the elf, but he could not, in good faith, have sent the hobbits! Beyond the dangers of the forest, they would have faced the additional problem of transportation. As strong-hearted as they might be, they lacked strength of limb and they would not have been able to support Legolas on the journey home.
Concentrate, the dwarf ordered silently. Concentrate on the task. Schooling his mind, Gimli continued to follow Aragorn’s tracks in the dark night. They were now more difficult to see and the rain that ran off his head was not making things easier. But he pressed on, calling on the legendary endurance and tenacity of the dwarves. He had taken a mission upon himself and he would not rest until he was clearly convinced that Legolas was beyond his reach.
So intent was he on the footprints that he did not see the mound before him and tripped roughly, landing with a splash in the puddles. Spitting muddy water, Gimli turned and cursed, but then he froze. Somewhere in his mind, something clicked. He had not tripped on a log or a tree root. His foot had connected with something soft and yielding. Almost afraid to look, he glanced back and saw, lying motionless on the ground, the frozen figure of the elf.
Gimli hastened to his feet and moved to the elf’s side, frowning as he did so. Aragorn had been shivering violently when he’d been found, but Legolas lay completely still. Kneeling beside Legolas, Gimli turned him onto his back and shook his shoulder gently.
Legolas did not stir.
The dwarf cursed again, and at that point, something strange happened. All contempt for the being who’d nailed his beard to a tree in the early morning vanished. Legolas’s still face, taut with pain and cold, stroke a chord with Gimli, and he felt a strange sensation of sorrow and loss. Sorrow for the changing of the world and loss for the elves who even now were fleeing Middle Earth. It was a strange emotion and one that the dwarf quickly thrust down, but it left its mark in his mind. A concern he’d never thought to feel for an elf arose in the heart of the dwarf. The Eldar were vanishing. He could not let Middle Earth lose Legolas. Beyond that, this was no ordinary elf, or so he reasoned, seeking for a way to logically explain his sudden anxiety. Despite their continuing animosity, this was an elf who’d been his companion now for almost two weeks. They might not be friends, but they were both members of the Fellowship and both protectors of the Ring-bearer. Duty and dwarven custom demanded that Gimli look after his injured comrade. And so cloaking himself with the garb of duty and custom, Gimli tried again to wake the elf.
The prince did not so much as twitch. His frown deepening, Gimli shook Legolas harder and tried to think of something that might rouse him from his cold-induced stupor.
"Legolas, it is the dwarf. If you do not rise, I will be forced to slip pipe-weed into your food for the next three days. And that bow? Firewood unless you speak up. Legolas, I am laughing at your fall from the other day. Legolas! Would you have a dwarf survive the journey while you perish here in the mud? We have yet to even reach the mountains!"
But no matter what the dwarf said or what insults he created, the elf remained as still as stone. He was still breathing—Gimli had checked that first—but he was completely unresponsive to any outside stimuli. Realizing that Legolas was probably only moments away from dying of exposure, Gimli took off his own cloak, wrapped it around the elf with more care than he thought himself capable of, and hauled Legolas over his shoulder.
"Come then, Master Elf. Since you cannot move yourself, I will do it for you," Gimli said, turning and jogging back toward the camp. Legolas was much easier to carry than Aragorn had been, for he weighed significantly less. "Do not think that I will forget this moment in the near future," the dwarf continued, making conversation with himself as he sloshed through the muddy terrain. "Your life is in my hands, Legolas, and when you recover, you will owe me much. We will see how you repay this." Gimli smiled to himself. An uncomfortable duty had just turned into a rather sly form of payback for the arrow in the beard. The possibilities were endless.
Dangling over Gimli’s shoulder, Legolas suddenly groaned and shuddered, and the dwarf was reminded that the elf was still in danger. In order to enjoy the fruits of his labors, Gimli would have to make certain that Legolas recovered. There was still much to be done, not least of which was getting back to camp and getting the elf warmed up. Summoning the inborn strength of a dwarf, Gimli quickened his pace and hurried on.
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