32. Beyond Boundaries
Having lived most of his life in the Wilds—and therefore having lived most of his life in constant danger—Aragorn knew well just how powerful the feelings of relief and perceived safety could be. He also knew that these feelings were extremely dangerous, for they tended to lull one into a sense of security when sometimes such security did not exist. As a result, Aragorn had learned to guard against relief and to view feelings of safety with a certain amount of suspicion. Still, it was hard to maintain his wariness when his head was pounding in time to the beat of his heart and his broken arm seemed to have developed a pulse of its own. Shock and exhaustion were also setting in, and as he reached the Gondorrim and Rohirrim camp, Aragorn almost allowed relief to wash over his caution.
But Ranger instincts came into play before relief could gain the upper hand, and though weariness threatened to drag him to the ground, Aragorn swept his eyes over the encampment, making note of anything that seemed out of place or unusual. Guards were rushing to greet them, their faces startled and fearful as their eyes came to rest upon the king of Gondor. Their reaction came as no great surprise, for if Eomer, Budari, and Arabano were any examples, he probably looked as though he had just fought a Nazgûl and lost. Still, Eomer could have given me a warning of some kind, he mused with a glance toward the king of Rohan, who was rubbing his head as though it pained him.
The sharp cry caused Aragorn to turn a little too suddenly, and the onslaught of pain in his head almost took him to the ground. He recovered quickly but not quickly enough for the Lotessa tribesman he was supporting, who cried out weakly at the abrupt movement. Cursing his own weakness, Aragorn waved one of his guards over and passed off his wounded charge, making a mental note to personally examine the man later in lieu of a proper apology.
"Sire, are you—"
"I am well, Imhran," Aragorn interrupted his captain, looking about for Eomer. He quickly spied the king of Rohan speaking with his own men, and as though sensing his gaze, Eomer looked up and nodded, signaling that he would join Aragorn shortly.
"Honored one, we must move your camp into the safety of the buildings, for the sake of the wounded if for no other reason," a voice murmured behind him.
"We will do so at the earliest possibility, Budari," Aragorn answered, glancing over his shoulder at the leader of Lotessa. "But there are things that must be seen to first. If you wish to facilitate the process, choose a building that would be defensible and settle your men within it. We will join you shortly."
"Do not tarry, for the sun is rising and the day grows warmer," Budari warned before calling to his men in his own tongue and moving away.
"Explanations will be forthcoming," Aragorn interrupted, turning his attention back to the captain of his guard. "But first I would hear your report. Have the scouts that were sent to observe the camps about Haradhur returned?"
"All from Gondor are present," Imhran answered, the slight frustration in his voice indicating that he still had many questions. "I cannot answer for the Rohirrim, though."
"We will let the Rohirrim answer for themselves, then," Aragorn said. "What say the scouts, or have you had time enough to listen to them?"
"All returned when the fires awoke in the desert," Imhran answered, "and since then, I have done nothing but question them. The mood of the city is foul, but at the moment, their anger is directed outward rather than inward. They have not yet sought to attack the camp, but it is only a matter of time before they do, sire."
"I am aware of the danger," Aragorn said. "What have you learned from the reports of the scouts? What connections to Khurintu were found?"
"I fear they found nothing, sire," Imhran said. "But we were given only half the night in which to search, for we returned quickly upon seeing the fire. Sire, the Rohirrim are saying that these blasts are similar to the fire used against them in the siege of Helm’s Deep."
"Orthanc Fire," Aragorn confirmed quietly. "It was used to destroy Lotessa’s camp and the camp of the Soltari tribe, as well. How many fires did you witness?"
"Two in the west and a third in the east, sire. Our best guesses place the location as the camp of Portu," Imhran said. "But sire, how can this be? It was my understanding that Orthanc Fire was a device of Saruman."
"It would seem we underestimated the resources of our enemies," Aragorn murmured. He was silent for a moment and then shook himself, turning a keen gaze upon Imhran. "The Lotessa tribe has requested sanctuary within our camp, and I have agreed. Their men are to be given every courtesy and their wounded are to be cared for. Additionally, we shall be breaking camp and moving into the buildings so as to take advantage of available water and cooler temperatures. With the addition of Lotessa’s hale men, such a location should be defensible. Have some of your company see to moving camp. Enlist the Rohirrim’s aid when it comes to moving the horses and finding suitable arrangements for them. Have others assist with the survivors of the Lotessa tribe. All those that remain shall stand guard."
"I shall see it done, my king," Imhran promised, saluting quickly. "Have you any other commands?"
"King Elessar, Arhelm and the riders we sent into the desert have not returned."
Aragorn blinked and Imhran jerked slightly, both surprised by Eomer’s arrival. Holding up a hand to indicate that Imhran should stay for a moment, Aragorn looked toward the other king "You have received no word of them?"
"None. Moreover, some of the Rohirrim were upon the eastern side of the city awaiting their return and witnessed Orthanc Fire rising from Portu’s encampment. They returned to report this, but two still linger upon the outskirts."
"They are not safe there," Aragorn murmured. "We were not assaulted in the streets because we walked with Lotessa. They have not that protection, nor will the riders that have yet to return from the desert." Aragorn cursed and shook his head, ignoring the sudden escalation in headache that this caused. "Imhran, ere you carry out your orders, find Budari and bid him meet with me. Then see to the men."
Eomer watched silently as Imhran bowed in response to these commands and left before speaking again. "Aragorn, it could be that Arhelm and his men have found Legolas and Gimli. If they did, they would have waited until an opportunity arose for escape."
Aragorn frowned. "I thought they were under orders to observe and send back word only."
"They were under orders to observe, send back word, and act if there was a possibility that they might free our friends."
Aragorn sighed and shook his head. He remembered well his own years among the Rohirrim when he’d served beneath Thengel, and he knew that even the slightest chance of success would be reason enough to act. The Rohirrim had a talent for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, but sometimes their leaps of faith into the arms of fate earned them a rather rude awakening. Bold actions were not always successful, and in the desert, failure was usually rewarded with death. I should have sent my own men, save that we had need of Rohan’s swift horses. "Would they wait so long as to risk being caught by the sun?" Aragorn asked, hoping that the Rohirrim had learned prudence in the years since Thengel, though given some of their actions in the War of the Ring, he rather doubted it.
Eomer frowned, his lips pursing with thought. "Arhelm would wait as long as possible and perhaps even a little longer. He will his press his men and his horses as hard as they can be pressed. And he would certainly attack if given the opportunity to free Legolas and Gimli, which would further delay them."
"In other words, Arhelm and his men may or may not be injured, they may or may not be coming back with the rising of the sun, and they may or may not be bringing with them two beings that most of Haradhur considers abominations." Aragorn grimaced and gave Eomer a look of exasperation. "How is it that your people have survived for so long?"
"Fortune favors the bold," came the somewhat indignant answer.
"And the foolish, too, or so I am told," Aragorn sighed as he absently rubbed the splint upon his left arm, his mind churning. "There is also the chance that Arhelm has found nothing, correct?"
"That would account for a delay as well," Eomer said with a nod. "If he and his men lost Dashnir’s tribe or if naught of note happened, Arhelm would wait in the desert in the hopes that something might present itself. And he would put off his return until the last possible moment."
"So we have no idea what to expect when Arhelm comes back, and we have no idea when to expect him," Aragorn concluded grimly.
"Nay, but I thought to inform you that he had not returned so that we might take the necessary precautions. He and his men will need a guard of some sort so they might pass through the city, and if they do have Legolas and Gimli with them, they will need even more protection."
"Honored ones, your captain said you wished to speak with me."
How is it that everyone is moving so silently today!? Aragorn demanded even as he firmly stifled his surprise at Budari’s presence. He decided that injuries were probably dulling his senses, which would be a normal symptom of shock but it could hardly be afforded at a time like this. "We do," he said aloud, turning slightly so that Budari and Eomer were both included in the conversation. "Some of our riders have yet to return from the desert, and we would beg a favor of your tribesmen that are still hale."
"You wish your men to have an escort to the camp," Budari guessed. "A wise precaution, honored ones. I shall see what men can be spared. At which of the city gates should they wait?"
"The eastern gate," Eomer answered. "They will come in with the sun directly behind them."
"Then I shall make arrangements to have my men meet them. How many do you think will be needful?"
"Your judgement would serve better than our own," Aragorn admitted reluctantly. "I have been in the desert before, but I have never seen a city so filled with suspicion and turmoil. Would a few of your warriors be enough to prevent an outcry, or would more be needed?"
"It would depend upon your own men," Budari said, fixing Aragorn with a shrewd gaze. "Would I be correct in assuming that these riders were sent after your missing elf and dwarf?"
"What of it?" Eomer challenged.
"The elf and dwarf will not easily be allowed into the city. Such a task might well prove to be impossible. But if only men and horses seek entry, I suspect that only a few men should be needed as escort."
Aragorn hesitated and looked toward Eomer, but the king of Rohan seemed to be at a loss. Going back over all he knew of the Khurintu tribe as well as all that had happened, Aragorn eventually sighed. "They will not have Legolas and Gimli with them. It will be only the men."
Budari watched Aragorn closely for a moment as though sensing his uncertainty, but then he nodded and stepped back. "Then I bid you farewell for the present, honored ones, while I send men forth to meet your returning riders. But I counsel that we meet again soon, for there is much to discuss. Khurintu will return soon to make their claim upon the desert. We must be ready."
"And we shall be," Aragorn answered. "My thanks for the escort you are providing."
"The need for thanks shall be determined when they have accomplished their mission," Budari said, inclining his head and then moving away.
"You think Arhelm has not found Legolas and Gimli?" Eomer asked quietly, a slight note of challenge entering his voice.
"I think it extremely unlikely, and in light of the odds we now face, it would be best to keep more men here. Khurintu has planned their moves too well to afford losing prisoners now. We are several steps behind their game and until we can begin to break free of the pattern they are forcing us to follow, we will be unable to deal them any serious blows. The risk of attack upon this camp is greater than the possibility that Arhelm has succeeded in liberating our friends." Aragorn sighed and looked at the king of Rohan. "I have played this game of odds many times before. It is never pleasant, but it is necessary. My apologies if I caused offense."
Eomer was silent for a moment before shaking his head. "I felt that our abilities as Rohirrim have been slighted. My apologies in return. I see now that such was not your intent."
"If nothing else, this trip has given us much to think about," Aragorn offered.
"Much indeed," Eomer agreed quietly. "Some things, though, are more pertinent than others. What can we make of the fact that Khurintu targeted the Soltari and Portu tribes with Orthanc Fire? And what of our suspicions concerning Umbar? Beyond that, I am also curious as to how Khurintu came by the knowledge of how to create Orthanc Fire."
"As am I," Aragorn said. "Unfortunately, I doubt we will learn such a thing unless we can convince Asbad or Dashnir to inform us. The chances of that happening are rather slim."
"Yet the knowledge could be important," Eomer pointed out. "If Khurintu knows the secret to Orthanc fire, then it is possible that Umbar also knows. And such knowledge would be dangerous in their hands. Somehow, this information has been loosed, and until we know how, it is possible that a number of groups can now create Orthanc Fire."
"We cannot deal with this problem now, Eomer," Aragorn said. "You are right. Something or someone has managed to slip information past the guard of the Ents and we may very well face an even greater threat than what is currently posed by Khurintu. Yet Khurintu’s threat is dangerous enough, and we must concentrate on that before moving on to other things."
"Meaning Khurintu’s next step," Eomer said.
"And for that, I fear we shall once again have to rely upon the expertise of the Haradrim," Aragorn sighed. "It is not so much what Khurintu will do but rather when. Timing is the problem. And we must learn why Soltari and Portu were attacked. I suspect the Portu tribe simply knew too much and was eliminated in order to hide information, but Soltari is another matter. I do not see how Khurintu could view them as a threat, yet Soltari obviously posed a danger of some kind. And if Khurintu feared them enough to destroy them, we must learn whatever secrets they possessed."
"How could Soltari threaten Khurintu, then?" Eomer murmured. "We suspect that Khurintu will use Legolas and Gimli as proof of their power over abominations. They will be seen as fulfilling the will of the Iluh. And they shall rally the desert against us. They have destroyed our allies in Lotessa, making us too weak to meet them in the desert. Whatever confrontation they plan, it will happen near the city where all can witness it. How would Soltari pose a threat to these plans?"
"Soltari knew that Asbad was the Destroyer," Aragorn said. "But they would have never shared this knowledge with the Khurintu tribe. Khesva is too cautious for that. The Khurintu tribe should have had no reason for attacking them."
"Unless someone betrayed the Soltari tribe," Eomer said, his eyes flashing as though remembering more personal betrayals within the state of Rohan. "Perhaps someone who visited the Khurintu camp during the day."
"Someone like Fastahn," Aragorn murmured, his brow furrowing. "As Soltari’s agent in the city, he would have had both means and opportunity to betray his tribe. But we lack a motive."
"It seems that treachery runs thick in this land," Eomer said. "Perhaps the motive is as simple as power."
"This matter must undergo further investigation, and it must be done soon," Aragorn said. Categorizing Fastahn as a suspect felt right, but there were still too many unanswered questions for him to view this latest theory as anything more than speculation. "We shall have to once again ask Budari to send forth his own men, for we cannot risk our own guards in the city now. And doubtless Khurintu intended this to be so."
"Then let us seek him out and request that information be gathered," Eomer said. "And I would also see you moved inside. The sun is growing warm, and I still wish to examine your wrist. We do not know yet if it is broken or simply sprained."
Aragorn sighed and then nodded, surrendering to the other’s request for the moment. "You could bear further examination yourself," he said as Eomer led the way toward one of the buildings.
"I doubt it not, but you are privileged to be first," the king of Rohan answered firmly.
"And how came you by this conclusion?" Aragorn challenged.
Eomer smiled, though his smile was sadly lacking in real mirth. "Because I have heard many times that Gondor is first in all things. I see no reason for that to change now."
In spite of himself, Aragorn chuckled quietly at this and shook his head. "My thanks, Eomer," he said quietly, appreciating the other’s forced attempt at levity.
"You are welcome, Aragorn," Eomer answered. "And now come. I meant what I said earlier. The sun is growing warm, and it is best to withdraw from its glare."
As the first rays of the morning sun brushed across his skin in cruel parody of a caress, Legolas shivered and attempted to rise. His shoulder throbbed fiercely and his limbs shook from exhaustion, but somehow, despite these things, Legolas managed to get to his knees. It was a rather noteworthy accomplishment that had succeeded in stealing his breath, which did not bode well for future actions. Pausing to collect his scattered thoughts as well as to restore a rather shaky sense of balance, Legolas looked around and winced at what he saw.
Gimli lay sprawled in the sand several feet away, unmoving and seemingly unconscious. He lived, for Legolas could see the rise and fall of his chest. But his breathing seemed shallow and difficult, and his skin was a sickly gray in color. The horse they had stolen lay slightly behind the elf, her black eyes vacant and staring. Judging from her position, Legolas suspected that the sudden fall had broken her neck. The arrow had brought her down. Their own momentum had done the rest. The three of them were surrounded by a sea of sand. Far away to the south was a shadow that might indicate the presence of darker rocks, but it was difficult to judge distance in this flat terrain, particularly since Legolas was unused to working with limited sight. The sun was also beginning to play tricks, and the air shimmered slightly, further obscuring vision.
With a grimace and a sense that time was flowing swiftly now, Legolas started to rise to his feet, but he stopped as pain ripped down the left side of his back. Realizing that he would have to deal with his own injury before seeing to anything else, Legolas sank back to his knees and cursed softly. He had not lied to the dwarf when he had said the injury was merely a flesh wound, but it was still a great inconvenience and one that he could not afford right now. Steeling himself, Legolas reached back with his right arm, groping about until he discovered the arrow’s shaft. The head had struck his shoulder blade and was not buried deeply, but pulling the bolt would hurt, nonetheless. Gritting his teeth and closing his eyes, Legolas loosed a long breath of air as his hand closed around the smooth shaft. Not allowing himself to think about what he was doing, he jerked his arm back, ripping the arrow free and crying out weakly in spite of his efforts to stay silent. For a moment, the world spun wildly around him, and Legolas braced himself, hissing sharply and willing his mind to stay focused. He could not lose consciousness now or he would never wake up. The sun would see to that. His hands clenching into fists and the shaft in his right hand snapping beneath the strain of his fight, Legolas willed himself away from the tempting void in the back of his mind. And after a few painful moments, the darkness receded, and Legolas was able to open his eyes again.
Mustering what little strength remained to him, the elf took a deep breath and staggered to his feet. He first moved to the dead mare, kneeling and allowing one hand to brush against her neck. A pang of guilt stabbed his heart, and he bowed his head, murmuring quiet words of thanks to the horse that had given her live for the two friends. Time was of the essence and he could feel the sun’s rays growing in strength, but Legolas could not quite bring himself to leave without at least giving the mare this shallow acknowledgement of respect for her deeds. She had carried them as far as she was able, and for her sacrifice, Legolas was grateful.
Lingering for a moment more, Legolas eventually shuddered and moved back, his eyes searching for saddlebags or anything that might prove useful. But fortune seemed to be working against him; the two water skins he found had split open, their contents emptied onto the sand. And that was all. He found no food and no weapons. With a quiet murmur of despair, Legolas rubbed his head and squeezed his eyes shut. He did not know how he was going to save either himself or the dwarf from this situation, but somehow, he would. He had driven the mare to her death for Gimli’s sake, and he was not going to allow her sacrifice to be a vain one. Once again summoning his waning strength, Legolas regained his feet. Turning his back on the horse, he pushed all feelings of guilt and sorrow from his mind, much as he had when he’d commanded her to ride on regardless of her injury. They were not yet out of danger, and they had to move on quickly.
Making his way to Gimli’s side, Legolas knelt and ran gentle hands over the dwarf’s head, checking for injuries and ignoring the pull in his shoulder as his own wound protested the movements. "Gimli?" he called, cringing at the raging temperature he felt beneath the skin. The dwarf’s fever was even higher, but Legolas had no means to bring it down to safer levels. "Gimli?" he tried again.
A slight moan was his only response. Trying to ignore the fear that slowly wormed its way into his heart, Legolas ran his hands down Gimli’s arms and over his chest, searching for breaks that might have been caused by the fall from the horse. Every now and then he would call the dwarf’s name, but if he received any answer at all, it was in the form of a quiet groan. This was certainly not a comfort to the elf, and by the time Legolas’s hands reached Gimli’s wounded leg, his panic had fanned itself into a raging fire. This blaze became an inferno when he discovered that the stab wound on Gimli’s thigh had split open and was bleeding profusely. The thought occurred to him that perhaps this would drain the infection, but Gimli’s pallor coupled with the moisture the dwarf had lost during the night immediately came to mind. Gimli could not lose any more fluids.
Wasting no time, Legolas shed his tunic and tried to ignore the throbbing pain in his left shoulder. Quickly and efficiently, he ripped away the sleeves, and armed now with what would have to pass as bandages, he bent over Gimli’s injured leg. One sleeve he wrapped tightly about the wound itself, grimacing at the slight whimper of pain that his actions caused as well as the fact that he was unable to offer comfort to his friend. The other sleeve he wrapped higher upon the dwarf’s thigh, drawing it gently against a pressure point that Aragorn had once shown him so as to slow the flow of blood to the dwarf’s leg. He made this second bandage rather loose, for he knew that too much pressure could stop circulation altogether and possibly kill the leg. But he could think of no other way to stave the bleeding. It was an act of desperation carried out with a touch of common sense, and Legolas prayed that it would work.
Having finished this, the elf looked toward the eastern horizon—noting with despair the progress of the sun—and then turned back to the dwarf. His quick examination had revealed that the dwarf could be moved. Indeed, moving Gimli was the only way to keep them both alive. Neither would survive the day unsheltered from the sun. Both were too weak, and both had lost too much water. Yet the act of moving itself…that was another matter.
Legolas knew his limits, and he knew he was fast approaching them. He was weak, dizzy, exhausted, and injured. He had carried Gimli for much of the night, and he had endured the previous day in the confines of scalding tent. He was shadowed by ú-glîr and he was not completely certain that he could find shelter in this wasteland. There was a shadow to the south that might be the volcanic rocks he had seen earlier, but he could not be certain of this. Moreover, his vision as beginning to tunnel, and he knew that this would only grow worse as the day wore on. He needed water, rest, and medical attention. None of which I am likely to find by sitting here, Legolas told himself sharply, attempting to redirect his wayward thoughts.
With a firm shake of his head, the elf slid his arms beneath Gimli and lifted. His left shoulder cried out sharply in protest, and Legolas grimaced before freezing, a new thought entering his mind. Somehow managing to get to his feet, he began shifting Gimli so that his injured shoulder was actually taking more of the dwarf’s weight. Concentrate on the pain, he told himself, recalling an incident that had happened many years ago in Mirkwood. A large party of archers led by Legolas’s older brother Taerorn had been beset by Orcs. Though the elves defeated the attackers, their victory was not without cost. They had been far to the south—within sight of Dol Guldur, actually—and many were wounded. Legolas had been one of the fortunate elves on that trip, for he had received no injury. Taerorn, however, had been severely hurt, and there were times on the long journey home when they had feared they would lose him. But when it seemed that Taerorn could go no further, he had done something that shocked them all. He had taken his knife, and before any could stop him, he had cut open the palm of his left hand, opening and closing the hand so that blood flowed freely. It had become a throbbing, infected wound that required several weeks of treatment after reaching home, but Taerorn would claim afterwards that this self-inflicted wound had saved his life. Legolas had never truly understood this—at the time, they had all assumed Taerorn to be delirious with fever—but now, the youngest son of Thranduil had a very different perspective. He felt that he knew exactly why Taerorn had done what he did, for he was about to do something very similar. He was going to turn all of his focus onto the pain, ignoring the other complaints of his body as he put one foot ahead of the other.
Feeling his shoulder wound tear slightly at the strain he was placing upon it, Legolas smiled grimly and started walking in what he hoped was the correct direction. If Taerorn was right, then his body would continue to move long after his mind was convinced that it could not go any further. And remembering his brother’s condition and their endless journey home from the fastness of southern Mirkwood, Legolas was willing to believe this. He had to believe. If he did not believe, there was no hope, and if there was no hope, he should give up now, lie down, and accept the coming of death.
It was ironic, really. When he began this escape attempt, he’d harbored no hope whatsoever. His idea of success had been a quick death for both himself and the dwarf. He did not understand the Haradric language, but as an elf—even though shadowed—he could pick up nuances contained within speech that were hidden from other beings. And through these hints and clues, he had come to understand that he was to be separated from Gimli. Legolas’s instincts warned that separation meant execution for the dwarf, and so he had decided then that if it was Gimli’s fate to die, he would join his friend in that fate. And perhaps in this way he could foil some of Khurintu’s plans. They had been keeping them both alive for a reason. Death might set things back for Asbad and Dashnir. He had reflected once that Gimli might not approve of such a plan, but Gimli had been in no condition to approve or disapprove of anything.
And then Legolas had seen the black powder. A bag of it on one of the horses had been torn, and he had seen the streaks of powder upon the animal’s fine coat. This had sparked a series of fragmented ideas in the elf’s mind, and the beginnings of an escape plan that did not end in death had begun to form. It was still a plan with limited potential, but it certainly offered a greater opportunity than his initial plan. The chance of victory was even greater when coupled with the fact that the shadow of ú-glîr was spreading over the men and dulling their senses. Even Asbad had seemed troubled, something Legolas had decided to test. And so the elf had acted, recklessly running one horse to the ground and killing two other horses outright because upon their backs they carried the powder that would produce Orthanc Fire. Legolas did not know how many others he had killed, nor did he care. All that mattered now was reaching safety.
Moisture upon his face suddenly caught Legolas’s attention, and his mind snapped back to reality. He was sweating, and then sun was rising even higher in the sky. Stopping for breath and readjusting his hold on Gimli, the elf glanced down at his feet and blinked to find that his legs were shaking grievously. Exhaustion was creeping upon him, and the dwarf’s dragging weight in his arms was pulling him off balance, requiring that his back compensate for the change to his center of gravity. It was an effort he did not have the energy to make, and Legolas found himself stumbling forward.
Good, he told himself, his thoughts tinged with desperation. Use the weight. Let it pull you forward. And direct your mind back to the pain. Think only of the pain in shoulder. Feel it throb. Feel it ache. Walk in time to that pounding. Walk in time to the beating of your heart. Forward now. Forward. Faster. Feel your heart pound. Run. Run, you fool, or you will share the fate of your horse!
And so Legolas ran, his gait awkward and stumbling while his mental promptings and the constant pain from his shoulder acted as a source of energy. His staggering feet wove a twisting trail in the desert sand, but he was too caught up in his own world to notice. And had he stopped to notice, he would have probably collapsed. His lungs burned and his throat was on fire. Pressure behind his eyes was making it difficult to see. His tongue had swollen from thirst, and perspiration trickled down his neck and his back, salting the arrow wound and making it throb all the more. And Legolas needed all the distraction he could get, for he had reached his limits and was moving past them. His entire focus became the pain in his shoulder, and he took no measures to lessen that pain. It occupied his mind to the extent that he did not hear the pleas and complaints issued him by his failing body. He did not know how long he ran. He lost all sense of time and space. He did not see where his feet took him. He forgot the weight in his arms. He was alone in a world that pounded his senses with exquisite agony, blinding them to anything that might stand in his way.
And then his foot struck something hard that did not shift beneath him as the sand did.
Startled back into reality, Legolas almost lost consciousness as he once more became aware of burning heat and glaring light. His limbs trembled, threatening to collapse beneath him. His head pounded, his heart raced, and his lungs screamed. But all these things were forgotten as the elf stared in wonder at the sight before him.
He had done it.
He had reached the rocks.
Yet just as quickly as elation hit him, it died. Staring at the rugged outcroppings and the jagged pathways that led into the heart of these dark rocks, Legolas realized he had just exchanged one set of problems for another. The glistening black surfaces were absorbing the sun’s heat, and the elf could feel the fiery blast sweeping outward, hitting him even upon the outskirts. In some ways, this area was be even deadlier than the open sand.
Watching the air waver above the volcanic ground, the elf felt his heart sink as he berated himself for not anticipating this. He should have known! The black slopes of the Ephel Duath did the same thing during the height of summer. But Legolas’s fraying mind had not looked far enough ahead to foresee this development. Had he been conscious, Gimli would have certainly expected to find such a thing. A dwarf was always looking ahead when matters of the earth were concerned. But Legolas was not a dwarf, and despite Gimli’s best efforts, he would never be able to think like a dwarf. He had not seen this coming, and now that he faced it, he did not know what to do about it. To venture into the rocks without a clear destination was nothing less than suicide.
But then, so is remaining in the desert, Legolas thought despairingly, glancing behind him at the sea of sand. Our only chance is to trust the hand of fate and move forward. The idea of trusting fate brought forth a rather insane laugh from the back of the elf’s mind. But if Gimli was to have any chance at all, there was no other choice. They had run out of both options and time. And Legolas was nearly out of strength.
Closing his eyes, the elf murmured a brief plea to Elbereth for her assistance, and then he started forward. This time, he could not afford to concentrate upon the pain in his shoulder, for he needed to be aware of his surroundings. He needed to find shelter and he needed to find it quickly. He was only beginning the journey into the rocks, but already he could feel the heat from their black surfaces burning through the soles of his shoes. For the first time in his life, Legolas paused to think that perhaps mortals did have the right idea in fashioning their thick, clumsy boots. Such boots would be a much better means of protection for his feet.
But there was nothing he could do about that now, and so Legolas stoically continued, feeling his energy drain from him with every step. He knew instinctively that if he went down, he would not be able to rise again. He knew that if he stopped to rest, he would not be able to start again. Any halt in his progress at this point in time would be the last thing he ever did, and so despite his stumbling feet and shaking legs, he continued his desperate search for a cave. A cave! he thought wryly, a bit of maniacal humor entering his thoughts again. To think that it has come to this where I, an elf, should be longing for a cave! Ai, Gimli, my father was right. You have changed me so much that I am beyond the capacity for rational thinking!
And as he finished this thought, Legolas fell.
He did not know what caused his fall. He did not know if he tripped or if weariness finally conquered him. All he knew was that he was suddenly flying toward the ground. Using the last bits of faltering strength, Legolas turned, shielding Gimli from the impact and positioning his right shoulder to absorb the brunt of their weight. And much to his surprise and discomfort, the maneuver worked.
Legolas had no strength left to cry out, but he did gasp in pain as he crashed onto the burning surface of the rocks. The gasp left him desperate for air, which caused him to inhale sharply. This action came with another set of consequences, and he found himself choking upon the heated air as it scorched its way into his lungs. And as the desert sun continued to beat down upon him, an overwhelming sense of shame and failure filled his mind. He was defeated. He could go no further. At his side, he felt Gimli shudder, perhaps sensing the inevitable. Placing a hand upon the dwarf’s brow, he whispered a broken apology through cracked lips that hungered for any semblance of moisture. The surrounding world blazed white as Legolas’s senses failed him, and as a last act of defiance, the elf turned his head away from the sun, not allowing its fiery gaze to witness his death.
It was then that fortune finally decided to pity him.
Through dimming eyes, Legolas saw what looked to be a shaded place, hidden from the sun by an overhanging cliff. The thought entered his mind that if he could reach the shadows, he might be able to lose himself in unconsciousness before the heat took him completely. Legolas did not know why this would be a better way to die, but he found himself strangely drawn toward the darkness. And as his mind continued to unravel in the heat, he became unable to ignore this sudden prompting to seek the shade.
Somehow, he managed to take Gimli in his arms again and rise to his feet. He did not know where he found the strength to do this. Possibly it was the last he had to offer. His muscles were cramping and his entire body was shaking, but he stayed upright and he staggered toward the enticing shadows. And as he neared them, he felt a stroke of cool air upon his cheeks.
Gimli, perhaps, would have recognized this flow of cooler air for what it was, but Legolas only knew that it was comfort. He followed this stream of relief, not caring where it would lead. He closed his eyes in sweet ecstasy, feeling the chill brush against his face and stir tendrils of golden hair matted by sweat and exertion. He stumbled into darkness, reaching the shadows, and still he walked. The cool air beckoned him onward, and on the verge of collapse, he followed it until a surge of instinct suddenly bid him stop and open his eyes. And what he saw would forever remain emblazoned on his memory as an eternal symbol of hope.
He had found a cave.
With a choking sob, Legolas stumbled toward the entrance, pausing for a moment as his mind reeled at the thought of salvation. Readjusting Gimli in trembling arms that were moments away from losing all strength, he stepped further into the darkness and stopped, waiting for his eyes to grow accustomed to the lack of light. This took longer than it should have taken under normal circumstances, but Legolas barely noted the delay for something along the back wall of the small cavern—and it was small, barely half the size of Meduseld’s main hall in Edoras—caught the elf’s undivided attention. There was a wavering glimmer reflecting the tiny slivers of light that graced the dark cave. At first Legolas was certain that his mind had succumbed to his trials and was playing a cruel game. But as he focused upon this glimmer, he eventually realized that it was no trick, and tears unbidden filled his eyes. Exhaustion forgotten, Legolas raced toward the back of the cavern and fell to his knees, heedless of the sharp rocks beneath him. Laying Gimli flat upon the ground beside him, the elf flung himself forward and wept unashamedly with joy as he dunked his head into a pool of water.
The cold liquid received him with welcoming arms and began to drain the heat from his body. It soothed his parched throat and roused his wayward mind. It caressed his brow and soaked into the top of his tunic as he all but submerged his upper body. The shock of this sudden temperature change made him shiver, and Aragorn might have warned him to take care. But Legolas was beyond caution. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he finally lifted his head from the water, mixing with the cool droplets that now trailed down his hair and over his face.
His body clamored for more water, and Legolas readily obeyed its demands, once again lowering his head to drink. His entire being exalted in his relief, and the ashes of hope flared back to life within his heart. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew he was not yet free from danger. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew that Gimli still lay perilously close to death. He knew that the Khurintu tribe would not easily forgive him for what he had done. He knew there would be pursuit come sunset, and he knew that he needed to return to Haradhur, for Aragorn and Eomer would be in danger. He knew that an attempt to find the city might well prove impossible, for he was not certain of his location. He knew that he could not carry the dwarf another night, and he knew that Gimli would not be able to move himself for quite some time. But even as these doubts began to nag him, Legolas pushed them aside. For the moment, he was lost in an impossible realm of bliss as he sated his thirst and splashed water over his face and onto the back of his neck. For the moment, there was hope.
And for the moment, that was enough.