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Disclaimer: the characters and setting of Middle-earth are the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and are the property of his estate. I do not have permission to use them and am making no monetary profit from this story. It is written for entertainment only.
Author's Notes: thanks once again to the Lisette the Resilient for her beta efforts.
To See A World by Nightwing
Chapter Thirty: Hold On
Legolas skidded to a stop beside the great oak and dropped to his knees. Reaching out, he groped over the base of the tree and the snow beneath it, feeling frantically until his hands brushed up against the rough fabric of the ranger's cloak. "Aragorn! Did the wolves attack you? Are you wounded?"
The man did not answer, and Legolas' heart quailed at the silence. Aragorn was lying curled on his side, his arms crossed and hugged tightly to his body. Legolas sought his friend's face. A muffler was pulled up over his mouth and nose, and the elf yanked the fabric aside and pressed his fingers under Aragorn's nostrils. "Oh Valar… please…" he whispered.
Detecting a slight movement of breath against his hand, Legolas squeezed his eyes closed in relief. Quickly pulling his cloak over his head, he wrapped it around the ranger's shoulders and pulled the hood snugly over his matted hair, adding what warmth he could as he struggled to pull Aragorn up. "Aragorn, you must not sleep! It will be your death if you do. Aragorn!"
Legolas wrapped his arms around the ranger and hauled him into a seated position. Aragorn's body instantly slumped like a rag doll, but he moaned softly, and Legolas took this as a sign that the man was not entirely removed from the conscious world. Thus encouraged, he shook him. "Come, Aragorn. You must wake." Reaching, the elf sought to hold Aragorn's hands and found them to be tucked under his armpits. Legolas pulled them out, but immediately upon touching them he withdrew with a horrified gasp. The ranger's ungloved fingers were cold and stiffened, crusted with dried blood. "Oh, Estel…" Legolas whispered brokenly. He reached for the hands again, and for a moment pressed them gently between his own.
The smell of the man's blood was strong. The wolves must have bitten him, but how many times, and how badly? The elf longed to investigate his friend's body, concerned that Aragorn might be bleeding dangerously, but the cold was of much greater concern. He must be taken to shelter and warmed immediately.
Crouched over the ranger and trying to pull him up, Legolas suddenly paused and raised his head. He gasped as he listened to the dead silence of the forest. Rhosgernroch! Ai, where was she? The fight with the wolves must have frightened her, but if she had fled, both he and Aragorn were doomed.
Easing Aragorn to the ground, Legolas jumped to his feet and called out for her. He heard nothing in response, and swallowed hard against the sudden dryness of his throat as he began singing softly into the night. For a few minutes all was quiet, then he heard her draw near. Hesitant and frightened, the old mare picked her way past the bodies of the wolves and thrust her soft nose into the elf's chest, blowing softly. The elf leaned into her, his legs suddenly gone weak and shaking, and he wrapped his arms around her neck. "Hannon-le, hannon-le," he whispered. Praising her effusively, he continued to embrace her as his fingers worked to free the rolled blanket tied to her back. Then, bidding her to stay close, he crouched again beside the injured man.
Dragging Aragorn upright once more, the elf wrapped the heavy blanket around him. He pressed his forehead against his friend's and cradled his face between his hands. "Aragorn, I am here. Wake now! You must speak. I've come to take you home, but you must speak to me now!"
He felt the ranger shudder, and the man's head jerked against his hands. He moaned again. Shifting behind him, Legolas pushed his arms under Aragorn's and started to lift, gritting his teeth as his wounded shoulder protested. "Come. I will carry you to Rhosgernroch. She waits to take us to the cabin."
As the elf began to raise Aragorn he heard the sudden rattle of metal, and the ranger cried out softly. "What?" the startled elf gasped. "What is it?" He dropped back to the ground and quickly felt over the ranger's left leg, but found nothing. Then he moved to the right, and his hands collided with metal, heavy and painfully cold. His fingers raced over the trap and tracked the chain that anchored the ranger to the tree. "Oh no… No!"
In an instant Legolas knew that this trap was the same kind that had killed the old man. He closed his eyes as a frightening thought flashed through his mind: and so they have found us at last.
Aragorn groaned, twisting in his arms, and the elf tightened his grip on his friend's shoulders. The ranger was in pain, and Legolas felt his fear burn away under a hot torrent of anger. Who would do such a thing? What cowards, to lay a trap for a man and abandon him to a slow and agonizing death! The cruelty of the act seared the elf's heart as he thought of the torment his dear friend had endured this night. He pressed his lips against the ranger's brow as tears stung his eyes. "Courage, Aragorn. I will get you out now."
His hands trembled as he felt over the trap, taking note of its configuration and strength. It was clamped viciously over Aragorn's right ankle, and the boot was torn. Legolas prodded, seeking the best spot to work his fingers into the thing. He did not pause to search for the gloves he had thrown down when the battle with the wolves had begun, though he knew his hands would need the protection. He was too frightened to risk the time.
Aragorn whimpered as Legolas forced his fingers into either side of the injured ankle and wrapped them around the trap. "This will hurt," the elf told his friend in a firm voice. "Hold on. Scream if you must, but do not hinder me. You must keep still, and not fight me. Do you understand?"
There was no response. Adjusting his hold on the freezing metal, the elf bowed his head. He knew he must not falter once he had begun and allow the trap to renew its grip on Aragorn's leg. It had to be done quickly, and in one attempt. For a moment he concentrated on himself, feeling the power of elven vitality honed through centuries of training and discipline. Through the heated rush of blood he felt the unyielding structure of bone, the energy of sinew and muscle in his arms, and the strength of his hands as he tightened his grip on the trap. The rage, hot and controlled, fired through his body and added its heat to what already burned. Dismissing the throbbing pain of his injured shoulder as nothing more than a trifle, he turned his face toward the injured man and nodded.
"Now, Aragorn," he said, and began to pull.
The grey spirits had hurt him. Frightened and bewildered, he lay still, having no strength to do anything else, and the sound of their snarls echoed round him, their gleaming yellow eyes staring into his own. He cried out softly as he felt the sharp pain of their knives. He did not know why they did this to him, and he felt a vague concern that he must have done something to displease them. But the fear soon washed away on another wave of fatigue, and he closed his eyes once more, trying to appease the demons and not give voice to his pain should their knives fall again. He would give himself over to them. Perhaps this was some final trial he was meant to endure, and if he did well, he would be permitted to enter into the great mystery. And perhaps beyond it there would be comfort for him at last, and an easing of his pain.
He heard a shout then, and with an effort he cracked his swollen eyelids open once more. Another being had come, softly lit and golden against the dark night, and to his blurry gaze it seemed this new spirit did battle with the grey ones. They raced away to engage it, and a fierce but brief struggle ensued. His eyes widened as he watched from his position on the ground, his face half-buried in snow. The bright being shone with a rare beauty that took his breath, and it leapt and fought with amazing speed. One of the grey demons knocked it to the ground, and he found himself hoping desperately that the golden one would be the victor. Surely this one would be more kind.
Had he slept again? He did not remember the golden one coming to him, but it had, and he found himself gazing with blurred awe into a face of heartbreaking perfection. As it knelt beside him he tried to smile at the beautiful being, feeling certain that this must be one of the lesser gods come for him at last, but the creature did not return the smile. Its clear eyes, wide and brilliant blue, never met his own, and it spoke urgently to him in a voice lovely to hear but not gentle. It demanded that he speak.
He moved his lips and tried, but he had lost all control over his ability to respond. He lay still, eyes brimming with relief, and let the beautiful one prepare him for the journey. It hugged him and wrapped him in a blanket, and it kissed him. He closed his eyes again, certain that he was safe now, and he sighed deeply. With calm acceptance, he readied himself for death.
Jolted out of his reverie by a searing pain in his foot, he screamed. Ai, he had thought that agony was past! Why did the beautiful one hurt him now? Had he not tried his best to show his love and gratitude to it? He struck out clumsily, and his arm jerked and slammed against the golden being. It responded by shouting at him to hold still, and he stopped his feeble struggles and obeyed. He dared not defy the commanding tone in the melodic voice, though he was frightened. He lay, punctuating the night with his whimpers, and watched helplessly, wondering why a being so radiant would want to cause him such terrible suffering. He lay, his body shaking violently as the pain in his foot grew and shot horrific spikes of agony along the length of his leg, and he stared at the ethereal creature as it tortured him.
To his surprise, it appeared to be enduring pain as well. Suddenly the beautiful face fractured into an expression of agony, and the being moaned softly as it slowly leaned its head back until he could see only its white throat, the pulse leaping strongly beneath glowing skin. The tendons in its neck stood out, the muscles around the jaw knotted and quivered, and then the being lowered its head once more and turned it to the side, and he saw that the eyes were tightly clenched before the golden fall of hair swept down to veil them. The being's breath grew ragged, and it choked on its gasps.
His eyes widened as they settled on the golden one's shoulder, and he realized that it was blood-soaked. Raising his head, he followed its trembling arms down and saw that its hands ran scarlet. Suddenly it threw its head back and screamed, and he echoed it as something ripped with terrible force over his foot, sending a new blaze of hot agony through him. He fell back, panting and sickened, and the being cried out again. A sharp metallic snap rang in his ears, and then a weight collapsed against him, warm and shaking, and he listened to the gasped words uttered between small sounds of pain. "I am sorry… sorry I hurt you, mellon-nin. I… am so sorry…"
Somehow he managed to raise his head. The beautiful being lay across him, shuddering, and blood dripped from its hands. The pale face was turned toward him, the star-filled eyes brilliant in the darkness. Aragorn smiled and reached out with one of his own mangled hands to caress the curtain of golden hair.
"Legolas…" he whispered.
Once Aragorn was free of the trap, the elf wasted no time in getting him onto the horse. He swung himself up behind the ranger, wrapped his arms around the heavily bundled figure, and bade Rhosgernroch to return to the cabin with all haste. He permitted her to choose her own path, knowing she would pick the straightest way, and the old mare responded with enthusiasm if not great speed, more than happy to leave that place of blood and fear behind her. The forest was heavily wooded for the most part, and she moved from a trot to a slow canter and back again as she was able.
Legolas paid little attention to the route she chose, leaving everything to her entirely. All his attention was on Aragorn, and he struggled to hold the injured man upright while maintaining his own balance as the mare turned this way and that, at times faltering when she briefly lost her footing in the deep snow. The ranger had not spoken again though the elf continued to urge him to do so, desperate to prevent him from sinking into the depthless sleep that he knew beckoned with a near irresistible power that was both seductive and fatal.
After a time the mare began to labor up a low hill, and Legolas realized with a quick lightening of his heart they must have moved beyond the apple orchard. He shifted his weight back as Rhosgernroch began descending the other side, helping her maintain her balance as she stumbled and slid on the snowy slope. Keeping up a stream of words and song to hold Aragorn's attention, Legolas broke off only when the mare suddenly increased her speed to a laborious gallop, and he knew they had reached clear land at last- the meadow near the lake. Her gait was not smooth, and he gripped hard with his legs, clinging tightly to the ranger as he thought about what he would do once they finally gained the safety of the cabin.
Though no healer himself, Legolas knew what it was to stand at the bedside of elves that had been caught out in the savage storms of winter. He had watched the healers of Mirkwood at their work, and he hoped he remembered enough to be of aid to the ranger. Serious as Aragorn's injuries undoubtedly were, the cold that had infiltrated his body was the greater danger. The man would have to be warmed, but carefully, with gentle handling and as little shock as possible.
Raising his head as the faint smell of wood-smoke came to him, Legolas recalled that he had thought to bank the fire well before leaving the cottage. Some glowing coals would still remain, and he hoped he would not have too much of a struggle to get the flames leaping in the hearth once more.
Rhosgernroch was trotting again, weaving through the trees, and then she was in the clearing and slowing to a stop before the doorway of the barn. Blowing hard, she lowered her head as the elf slid from her back, pulling Aragorn down with him. "Wait a moment for me, old girl," Legolas said to her, and rushed with his burden to the cottage. Bursting through the door, he quickly laid the man on the bed and ran out again. Finding the old mare already in her stall, he threw a warm blanket over her and fastened it awkwardly under her belly with his injured hands. Frightened to leave Aragorn even for a few brief moments, he worked as quickly as he could to reward the old mare for her loyalty and her help, for she had saved two lives this night. There was no time for a rub-down, but he promised Rhosgernroch that he would return as soon as possible to care for her needs. He permitted her to drink but a little water, and then raced back to the cabin, shrugged out of his quiver, and knelt beside the bed.
"Aragorn!" he shouted as he reached for his friend. "Do not sleep!" The man did not respond, and Legolas pressed his fingertips against the side of the man's throat. The pulse was there, slow and somewhat erratic. "I will not lose you now, mellon-nin. Stay with me!"
Aragorn stirred slightly, and the elf felt the ranger's head roll against his arm. Legolas quickly turned to the hearth, continuing to call out as he worked to get the fire going. His hands hurt fiercely as he gathered kindling from the basket on the floor, laid them over the coals and blew gently on them, waiting to hear the crackling that would tell him that the flames had begun to come to life. He added a few more small pieces, then rose and shoved the table aside. Moving to the foot of the bed, he hooked his forearms under the wooden frame and dragged it around until it lay fully before the fireplace, exposing Aragorn to as much of the heat as possible. Sensing that the small fire was ready for more fuel, Legolas crawled across the bed and added several larger pieces of wood. The area before the bed gradually began to grow warmer, and Legolas turned his attention again to Aragorn.
Carefully unwrapping the blanket, he laid it aside and pulled the cloaks and muffler off. The ranger's clothing was cold and wet, and Legolas struggled with the fastenings, working as quickly as he could to strip the garments away. It was not fast enough, and with a growl of frustration he spun away, crawled across the floor and located his quiver. He yanked one of his knives from it. Gasping as he curled his maimed fingers around the hilt, he pulled up on the man's coat with his other hand and slid the tip of the blade under it, slicing through the heavy fabric. He cut through the shirt as well and worked his way down each arm, ripping and tearing, not wanting to add to the man's pain by trying to pull the sleeves over his injured hands. Once the garments had been laid open he pulled Aragorn up, trying not to jostle him too much, dragged the clothes off the bed and eased him back again. The bare skin of Aragorn's torso was terribly cold. Legolas scrambled over the bed and added two large logs to the fire, listening as the flames grew stronger and the heat began to bathe his face.
He cut Aragorn's leggings away, but when his hands came up against the ranger's boots he froze, suddenly filled with uncertainty. What to do with the foot that had been caught? Doubtless it was terribly injured and swollen, perhaps even broken. Should he try to remove the boot? His thoughts raced as he pulled the other one off and flung it over his shoulder to land with a thud somewhere behind him. He decided against touching the injured foot for now, fearing to cause more pain.
The fire was roaring. Legolas gently turned the ranger onto his side, facing the warmth of the hearth, and demanded again that Aragorn speak. But the ranger could not be roused, and when the elf pressed his hands gently against Aragorn's cold skin his concern mounted. The fire was not enough.
Legolas cast his mind back to Mirkwood, and the healing rooms deep within his father's vast network of caves. What more had the healers done for those that had been caught out in winter storms? They had given the impaired elves warmed fluids to drink, but Aragorn was too deeply affected to swallow properly. A gentle sponge bath with warm water was sometimes employed, but Legolas feared the time it would take him to fetch and heat water from the river would be too long. What else could he do?
His memory shifted again, and suddenly settled on a story his brother Thendras had told him long ago. When Legolas was an elfling, Thendras had been out on patrol with several other warriors, and a fierce winter storm had come upon them seemingly from nowhere. Battered by a howling wind that ripped their shouts from their lips before they could be heard and dazed by a thick snowfall that made visibility nearly impossible, the small company of elves was hard pressed to stay together and find shelter. It was some time before they stumbled into the protection of a cave, and once there, they discovered that one of the warriors had become separated from them in the confusion. He was found hours later, near death, pressed into the hollow of a tree. Thendras and the others had carried their injured companion to the cave and settled there to wait out the remainder of the storm. They had no fire, and no means to make one. The only warmth available to save the life of their friend had been that of their own bodies, and this they willingly gave. Stripping their clothing off, they lay on either side of the frozen elf, huddling close and covering up with their cloaks, and by the time the storm had abated he was recovered enough to make the return journey.
Heedless of his bleeding hands and wounded shoulder, Legolas tore the clothing from his body and slid into the bed behind Aragorn. He reached for the blanket and drew it over them both. Curling tightly against the ranger, he wrapped his arms around him, setting his teeth against the discomfort as Aragorn's cold skin pressed against his own. The heat from the fire quickly penetrated the front of the quilt, and the elf began to sing again as he continued the struggle, fighting to keep his friend from drifting into death.
To be continued…
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