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While the Ring Went South...: 9. January 4, 3019 (Night)
His first forays in returning to the conscious world were met with limited success and a great deal of pain. It was as though the Fell Winter of 2911* had returned and brought with it the fearsome blizzards that had very nearly starved the elves out of Mirkwood. Legolas clearly remembered one bitterly cold night when he had sought shelter beneath an old pine tree with five other elves. By morning, only half of that scouting party remained in the realm of the living, and they would have all perished had not Thranduil’s search teams found them shortly after sunrise. Wondering if this was a repeat of that tragic event and whether or not he had been rescued again or left to waste away, Legolas tried for the fifth time to open his eyes.
Once more, he encountered failure. He simply did not have the energy or the strength to acknowledge the outside world. But his mind was becoming more alert. As he continued to struggle against the grasp of darkness, fuzzy memories started to surface. He could dimly remember Aragorn’s furious voice commanding him to rise, and he remembered his own inability to comply with that request as well as his rather embarrassing lack of will to even make the attempt. He also seemed to have a vague recollection of Gimli shouting something at him, but that made no sense and he dismissed it as a bizarre nightmare of the unconscious world.
Once again he rallied against the darkness, mustering his strength and energy, but still, he could not seem to get his eyes open. Yet he was making progress. He was fairly certain of that. His fogged senses were slowly returning and his elven ears had begun to pick up sounds. He heard voices, faint and distant as though they hailed from far away, but Legolas suspected this was not the case and that the obstacle in clearly discerning the spoken word lay with him rather than with his surroundings.
Touch was the next sense to recover, and along with it came taste. Something hot slid into the elf’s mouth, and then warm soup was trickling down his throat. A heat in his stomach indicated that this had been going on for quite some time but that he was only now becoming aware of it. So I have been rescued, Legolas decided, feeling his need to return to consciousness abate slightly with this knowledge. But how? Aragorn was as weary as I was. He could not have carried me back to camp, and I wonder if he had the strength to even arrive on his own. And what if the Dúnadan left my side to seek for help and was not found when I was? Concern for his friend quickly rekindled the elf’s desire to open his eyes, and he resumed his struggles, this time making better progress as his body continued to warm.
Now he could feel the presence of heated blankets around his shivering form, and he could also feel rough hands chafing his arms, restoring circulation and providing heat through friction. A faint smell of pipe-weed and pony caught his nose just ere more hot soup slipped into his mouth, and he mentally smiled. Well met, Samwise, he thought with a touch of gratitude and warmth for the hobbit who showed a fascination for the Eldar at the same time that he retained his innocence and his rustic habits.
The hands that rubbed his arms stopped for a moment and then came a faint touch at his throat, feeling for a pulse. Since he was still not up to opening his eyes or responding in any way to his rescuers, Legolas decided to concentrate on learning upon whom he was propped. The hands were callused and large but the prince could sense a subtle and infinite skill within them. They seemed almost elvish in that respect. There was also a faint smell of pipe-weed and…wood? Ah, Mithrandir, Legolas realized. It would appear that I at least am in good hands. But what of Aragorn? And I saw naught of Boromir after the flood!
His inability to communicate with those around him was moving beyond the point of annoyance and becoming a severe source of frustration. He was not used to being shut away, whether by stone walls or physical inability. He was an elf, and the elves had been the first to use the spoken word. They had always been able to converse with others, and the fact that Legolas now couldn’t was distressing. He needed to be able to communicate. Not that the elf sought to monopolize all conversation. Quite the contrary, in fact. He was very content to listen and offer his opinion only when it was requested. But the ability to speak…he needed to know that he could speak if he wished to. It was ingrained in his nature. It was an essential part of his makeup and his personality, and if he did not manage to either open his eyes or speak within the very near future, he felt that he would go mad.
"I think he is waking."
Legolas had guessed rightly. That was Gandalf, and now he heard the stirring of other bodies. Someone’s hand slid across his brow, and judging from its size and its feel, he decided it belonged to Sam. The sound of a popping spine off to his right sent a wave of relief through Legolas. Aragorn! So he was also found. The elf smiled mentally at his method of identification, but it was true that whenever the Ranger stretched, his back always seemed to crack slightly. It was something Legolas had learned when they’d hunted spiders together in Mirkwood. On watch late one night, a stretching Aragorn had jolted the elf from sleep because his popping spine sounded remarkably like the creaking of a carapace.
A muted grumble caught his attention next and it took him a moment to label the voice as being Boromir’s. It sounded more distant than the others’ voices and Legolas wondered at this, but at least he had now accounted for everyone who had been swept away in the flashflood.
Everything within the elf froze. It was a small consolation that the other members of the Fellowship also seemed surprised by this new voice, for he could dimly hear their gasps and mutterings. Unfortunately, this also meant that he had probably not imagined what had just happened.
"Legolas, can you answer me?"
There it was again! What was the dwarf up to this time? He was doing a remarkable job of feigning concern, but Legolas was not about to fall for it. Whatever Gimli planned to get out of the elf’s misfortune, he would not get the satisfaction of having fooled the prince. Legolas was far too wise for this simple game, and his opinion of the dwarf’s intelligence dropped dramatically.
"Come, Legolas, you spoke when I was dragging you in out of the rain. I would think that you can speak now that the rain has stopped."
Dragging me in out of the rain?! Legolas felt his brow furrow, an accomplishment that should have been viewed with triumphant, but the elf was too busy trying to figure out what Gimli had meant. Surely he does not…he can’t have…who found me? Attempts to open his eyes were now born of a desperate need to disprove a dangerous idea that was taking shape in the elf’s mind. And driven by a nearly hysterical fear, Legolas finally managed it.
Reluctant, heavy lids lifted from foggy gray eyes that were immediately captured by a pair of deep-set eyes so dark they were almost black. For a moment, nothing happened. Neither dared move, and Legolas suddenly realized that he had never actually looked Gimli in the eyes before. They’d had staring contests, of course, but during such times, Legolas had been blinded by the need to win and had not taken the time to process what he saw. But now…something in those dark eyes intrigued him. There was strength there and a deep courage springing from a soul as complex as his own. Then the eyes blinked and turned away, and the moment vanished, lost in the cold night air that was slowly overtaking the campsite.
"Good evening to you, Legolas," Gandalf said behind the elf, shifting Legolas down onto the ground next to the fire so that he was no longer propped against the wizard. "How do you feel?"
I will not ask what happened. I will not ask what happened. I will not—"What happened?" Curse the Valar!
"The river swept you, Aragorn, and Boromir downstream," the wizard explained, turning dark eyes on Gimli as though suddenly suspicious of something. "Aragorn was able to travel to camp, but you were not so fortunate. Gimli found you later and brought you in."
"You were long in recovering, Master Elf," Gimli added, his eyes twinkling with the knowledge that Legolas was now in his debt. "But it is a relief to see that you are now awake and conscious. I despaired of ever hearing your voice again when I carried you through the dark, the rain, the cold, and the mud."
I knew I should not have asked what happened. "You have my…thanks, Gimli," Legolas said hesitantly, wondering exactly what was going to happen next. The dwarf beamed at him, and Legolas received the overwhelming impression that Gimli was thoroughly enjoying this. The elf shifted uncomfortably, wishing vainly for the strength to rise so that he might put some distance between himself and the gloating dwarf. "What of Boromir?" he asked. He had already heard the man and knew he was within the camp, but he hoped to turn the conversation toward something else with the inquiry. "Did you find him?"
"Merry, Pippin, and I found Boromir," Gandalf answered, turning and signaling to someone who was beyond the elf’s field of vision. "More soup, Samwise. He is still shivering."
Legolas glanced down at his body and discovered—much to his amazement—that Gandalf was right. He was shivering. And now that he considered it, he did feel quite cold. But he could sense his elven healing abilities already kicking in, and he doubted not that he would be able to stand and move about on his own within the next few hours.
"It’s good to see you up, Mr. Legolas," a hobbit’s voice called, pulling the elf’s attention away from introspection. "I was worried about feeding you when you were asleep, but Gandalf said it was necessary and I—"
"Have no fear, Sam," Legolas said with a slight smile. "I am certain that care was taken, and I thank you for your service." Legolas was actually secretly appalled by the idea that he’d been spoon-fed, but if such a thing had been needed, then it had been needed. And the elf was grateful that Sam had been the one to undertake the task. The gardener was not a warrior by any stretch of the imagination, and it seemed easier to admit weakness to one already vulnerable rather than admitting it to one with comparable skills in battle.
"Well, you’re welcome," Sam said, surprised by the gratitude. "It wasn’t difficult and I don’t want you to be thinking that it was any trouble, but—"
"Sam? The soup?" Gandalf broke in.
"Right," the hobbit said, trying to readjust his train of thought. "Anyway, this should be much easier now with you being awake and all. We’ll just find something you can prop your head against and—"
"I think I shall be able to manage this on my own," Legolas interrupted. He would accept help up to a point, but he was not about to endure a conscious force-feeding from a hobbit, especially if it was to be witnessed by a dwarf. "If you would set the bowl down, I shall be happy to partake of your soup."
Sam and Gandalf exchanged dubious looks above the elf’s head and Legolas felt a flash of irritation. Gimli’s slight smile further fueled the elf’s temper and he was casting about his still-hazy brain for something scathing to say when Aragorn stepped into view. "Legolas, if I remember correctly, your wrist is sprained. Would you allow me to examine it?"
"You are supposed to be resting," Gandalf pointed out, sending the Ranger a dark look.
"Boromir is resting enough for both of us," Aragorn replied, glancing at a large pile of blankets on the other side of the fire. Legolas saw the mound move slightly as if in response and then it went still again. "Legolas?" The elf turned back as the Ranger addressed him. "If you would raise your arm…"
The prince sighed, knowing from experience that Aragorn could not be gainsaid once he set his mind on something. And if he were honest with himself, the Ranger’s inspection would probably bring him a measure of comfort. It would be reassuring to know that his wrist was merely sprained and not broken, something about which he was not entirely certain. Eventually nodding, Legolas tried to lift his left arm, but to his surprise and shame, his attempts went nowhere. Confused, the elf studied the traitorous arm, mentally willing it to rise and wincing when the only response was an increase in the shivers that already shook him.
Aragorn smiled slightly and knelt next to the elf. "You see, my friend? You have very little strength, and what strength you have is negated by the trembling of your limbs. Now let us aid you. If it is any consolation, I endured this several hours ago." The ranger turned away and motioned Sam forward.
Legolas narrowed his eyes, a protest forming on his lips, but Gandalf beat him to it. "Aragorn, it is my intention to travel again tonight. It will do us no good if you topple over just ere our departure."
"And what good is an archer if he cannot pull back his own bow?" Aragorn returned, picking up the elf’s shaking wrist and probing gently, searching for possible breaks.
"There are others here who are quite capable of—"
"But there are none here with my skills or qualifications," the Ranger interrupted.
"If I may say something…" Legolas broke in.
"No," Gandalf and Aragorn returned in unison.
"Mr. Legolas, I don’t think you’re going to convince them of anything," Sam advised, taking a position near the elf’s head. "Now, we need to prop you against something so your head is upright and—"
"Allow me to assist you both," Gimli volunteered, moving behind the elf.
Legolas squeezed his eyes shut, wishing he would suddenly find himself whisked away onto a trackless path in Mirkwood where his only concerns were Wargs and Orcs. But such was not to be the case, and he opened his eyes to discover that the situation remained as it was. Gandalf and Aragorn were facing off over his chest, Sam was offering him a spoonful of hot broth, and Gimli was now holding his head up. He wondered when Merry, Pippin, and Frodo would appear to join the circus, and while they were at it, they might as well wake Boromir and drag him into the chaos. It would be just as productive as whatever it was they were doing now.
As if on cue, three hobbit faces appeared from behind Sam, their curious eyes examining Legolas and evaluating his condition. "Didn’t I tell you that he’d wake up?" Pippin asked, looking at Merry.
"No, I believe that’s what I told you," Merry returned.
"How are you feeling?" Frodo asked, ignoring the other two.
This is not happening, Legolas told himself firmly, closing his eyes and trying to ignore the outside world. But his elven senses were regaining their sharpness and he was acutely aware of the fact that he was surrounded by everyone in the Fellowship with the exception of Boromir and Bill.
Still holding the elf’s arm, Aragorn felt him shift restlessly and realized just how crowded it was beginning to be. He cast a significant look at Gandalf who also realized what was happening and decided a change in tactics was called for. "Frodo, Merry, Pippin, see what you can do about gathering some dry firewood. Gimli, prop the elf’s head against his pack and let us prepare a meal of more sustenance for the rest of us. Sam, you are charged with feeding Legolas. Aragorn, at least take some rest once you are finished here."
"And what of me?" Legolas demanded, now thoroughly disgusted with his own condition as well as the attentions of others. "I remind you that I am perfectly capable of hearing you even should you decide to speak around me rather than to me."
Muscles in the wizard’s face twitched as he tried to keep back a smile. The elf was reacting almost exactly as Boromir and Aragorn had, and in spite of the situation, it was quite amusing. "Recover," Gandalf managed to say without chuckling. "And rest. If you are able, we will move by midnight."
"If I am able?!"
"Eat," Aragorn ordered, taking Sam’s spoon and shoving it into the elf’s mouth.
* * * *
The sun shone brightly over Hobbiton, and cheerful voices called out to one another as the resident hobbits began the market day, gathering in the town center to set up booths and to sample others’ wares. A warm breeze lifted the hair along the back of Pippin’s neck and he sighed, marveling at how good it felt to be comfortable and dry. He wondered a bit at that, trying to remember when he had been otherwise, but the past didn’t seem to exist, and in truth, he couldn’t even recall why he was in Hobbiton. Shouldn’t he have been in the Great Smials digging through some forgotten room after ancient artifacts or looking for hidden doors that would take him to greater treasures and possible adventures?
The breeze brushed against his skin again, but this time it was no longer warm. There was an icy chill to it, and it seemed to him that the sky was beginning to cloud. The voices around him changed from happy and cheerful to tense and concerned, nor did they sound like hobbits. It was as if the voices contained the weight of ages and the fears of all free peoples of Middle Earth.
Merry? Pippin looked around for his friend, but he could not find him. The landscape was beginning to blur and the colors ran together as do the colors of a painting that is tipped upward when it is not yet dry. Faces faded from view and the bustling village of Hobbiton became a wash of gray, lost in a sudden gush of rain that burst from the dark clouds. The sun disappeared, and without it, all warmth vanished.
He was being shaken violently and he feared an earthquake had come. Pippin could only remember one earthquake and it had been enough for him. He’d raced from the Great Smials along with the majority of the Took family and together they’d fought to maintain their balance while the world around them heaved and shuddered. Bilbo Baggins claimed that a larger earthquake had once hit the Shire, but that had been long before Pippin’s birth, and Pippin found it difficult to believe that an earthquake could be any greater than the one he’d survived.
With a jolt and a gasp, Pippin suddenly bolted upright, wrapping his hands around whatever force was shaking him. Thrown off balance by his sudden movements, a hobbit toppled forward and knocked them both into a drying patch of mud. Blinking his eyes and wiping his face, Pippin looked around and remembered where he was. He was somewhere south of Imladris, he was wet and cold, and he had just been roused from a very soothing dream.
"You needn’t shout," Pippin said crossly, getting to his feet and offering Merry a hand up.
"You wouldn’t wake up," Merry returned, ignoring the other hobbit’s assistance and getting to his feet under his own power. "And what was all that about throwing us both into a mud puddle?"
"You startled me," Pippin said, feeling that the fault was Merry’s and if anyone should feel guilty about throwing anyone else into a mud puddle, it should be the Brandybuck. "And why did you need to wake me up anyway?"
"Don’t blame me, blame Gandalf," Merry answered. "He told me to wake you up so we could start moving. Bill is already loaded and almost everyone is ready to move."
Pippin frowned and glanced up at the sky. The clouds were thin and he could dimly make out a few stars, but he could not see enough to make any reasonable guess as to what time it was. "How long have I been asleep?"
Merry shrugged. "Only a few hours. It’s just after midnight, at least that’s what Sam thinks, and things didn’t settle down until well after nightfall."
"So we really are traveling?" Pippin asked, letting his eyes wander over the camp. Gimli was pulling on his own pack, Sam was making a valiant attempt at freeing Bill’s mane of cockleburs, Gandalf stood quietly on the perimeter with his eyes trained on the surrounding wood, Boromir was fastening his cloak about his neck and a tight brace was now wrapped around his knee, Frodo was burying the last ashes of the fire, Legolas was pacing with a slight limp in his left leg, and Aragorn was watching him critically. "I didn’t think they’d recover that quickly," Pippin admitted.
"I didn’t either, but Gandalf was right. Boromir woke up not long after you fell asleep, and from the way he acted, you couldn’t tell he’d been swept down a river. Not long after that, Legolas was telling both Strider and Sam to leave him alone and he kept threatening to take off the brace that Strider had made for his wrist. That’s when Strider started telling him that he’d never heal if he kept that up. So then Legolas said something in Elvish and they had a pretty loud argument for a while, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying and Frodo said they were talking to quickly for him to translate."
"But everything is okay now?"
"More or less, I think," Merry said. "After Legolas started walking around, Strider backed off, but he kept a close eye on him. In fact, he’s still watching him. And then Gimli…" Merry trailed off and looked over at the dwarf. "Gimli asked Legolas if he would shake out his cloak and I thought Legolas was going to nail the dwarf to a tree again. But instead, he got this strange look on his face and went ahead and did it."
Pippin blinked. "Legolas did what? Are you sure?"
"I saw it with my own eyes," Merry insisted. "He shook out the cloak and then he threw it at Gimli and walked away. He wasn’t happy, but…it was strange, Pippin."
"He owes Gimli his life," a voice said behind the hobbits. Frodo walked forward, hitching his pack higher on his shoulders and watching both the elf and the dwarf. "Gimli saved his life yesterday and Legolas owes him for it. Elves have strict customs about life-debts, probably because they’re immortal and life is very precious to them. But anyway, until Legolas repays Gimli somehow, he…I don’t know if I really understand it, but I think it’s kind of like servitude. Only it really isn’t servitude because it doesn’t extend that far."
"So Legolas has to do Gimli favors once in a while?" Merry guessed.
Frodo nodded. "Something like that. It’s actually a little more complex, but that’s the basic idea."
"Didn’t I tell you that Gimli would win?" Pippin said.
Merry scowled. "We haven’t reached the end of the journey yet. And as far as verbal spars go, Legolas is still leagues ahead of Gimli."
"But this beats all verbal wars!" Pippin protested. "This is the ultimate insult and trumps anything Legolas has ever said."
Merry started to argue, but a clearing throat interrupted him and he turned with the other hobbits toward Gandalf. The wizard was surveying the camp with furrowed brows and a strong sense of disapproval. Seeing that he had everyone’s attention, Gandalf lifted his staff and slung his light pack over his shoulder. "I believe it is time to depart."
With a sigh, Pippin quickly found his own pack and hefted it onto his back. He wondered how Sam managed to travel with all the pots and pans he was toting about. He’d lifted Sam’s pack once and had been astonished at its weight. More than that, it was unwieldy. He was surprised that Sam hadn’t gone bouncing down a cliff when the early part of the journey had forced them to do some climbing.
"Master Elf? My axe is on the other side of the camp. Would you fetch it for me?"
Pippin blinked and turned. Was this what Merry had been talking about? Quickly locating both elf and dwarf, he watched with curiosity. Legolas was standing completely still, facing the forest and ignoring the stares that were now being directed his way. Gimli appeared far too casual and blithely hitched his pack up higher on his shoulders. He approached the elf expectantly, but before he could take more than a few steps, Legolas whirled and stalked to the other side of the camp. Picking the axe up and wincing slightly as he was forced to bend his left leg to do this, Legolas hefted it experimentally. His narrowed eyes darted toward the dwarf and then he focused on the axe’s blade as he traced a thoughtful hand over it. Moving back to Gimli, he offered the weapon to him—blade first—and sniffed.
"It is not of elvish make. The balance is off."
Gimli raised an eyebrow at this and stared at the proffered axe. "It is customary to exchange weapons with the haft, not the blade."
"Is it?" There was a challenging ring in the elf’s voice and Pippin felt a shiver race down his spine.
An exasperated sigh then caught the hobbit’s attention and he watched Aragorn walk over, yank the axe from Legolas’s hands, and shove it at Gimli. After sending dark glares at both of them, the Ranger turned away and started into the woods. "There is a crossing we might use," he called over his shoulder. "And I would advise we take it now ere more rains come and the river rises even higher."
"Still think Legolas is winning?" Pippin whispered to Merry, setting out after the rapidly departing Ranger.
"The journey isn’t over yet," Merry returned.
* * * *
"What’s out there, Gandalf? It was here last night, too. What is it?"
The wizard blinked in surprise and looked down, finding that Frodo now walked at his side. This was something new. Fording the stream had not been as easy as Aragorn had anticipated, and Sam had taken a rather nasty dunking. Had he not been holding Bill’s halter at the time, the dunking might have been transformed into disaster, but as it was, he’d come away sopping wet with only a bump on the head to show for it. Frodo had been at his side since then, offering silent support and a steadying shoulder whenever the other hobbit stumbled because of his shivers. They would need to build a fire when they stopped for the day to keep Sam warm, and that was not more than an hour away. So why was Frodo up here now?
Rather than speculating on the subject, Gandalf decided to do the logical thing and simply asked. "How is Sam and why are you no longer watching him?"
"Merry and Pippin volunteered to take over," Frodo answered. "Sam kept complaining about the fact that he was supposed to be looking after me rather than the other way around, and we were all getting a little tired of his gripes. But don’t change the subject," he added, his voice taking on an authoritative tone. It was a mark of his burden and new responsibility that he could do this, for Gandalf remembered a far more submissive, carefree hobbit. "Something is following us and its intentions are not for the best," Frodo continued, sending piercing glances into the surrounding wood. "What is it? And why can’t everyone sense it?"
"It is something that has been following us for some time, now," the wizard eventually answered, choosing his words with care. "We would have seen to this matter earlier, but circumstances conspired against us."
"The flood, you mean," Frodo guessed. "Whatever hunts us is something you’ll need warriors to take care of."
"Precisely," Gandalf said, impressed with the young hobbit’s insight. His trials had forced his mind open and he now saw with a clearer eye. "But if all goes well, I believe that the watches during the day will see an end to this menace. Boromir, Aragorn, and Legolas will have recovered sufficiently by then that we may lure this creature into revealing itself and so destroy it."
The hobbit nodded. "That sounds good, but you still haven’t answered my questions. What is it and why can I feel it when some of the others can’t?"
The wizard looked over his shoulder at the rest of the company. Aragorn was directly behind Gandalf and Frodo, but he didn’t seem to be paying attention to their conversation. His keen eyes were fastened on the forest to either side of them, and one hand rested on Anduril’s hilt. There could be no doubt but that he sensed the Warg. Behind him, Gimli tromped forward with what appeared to be careless ease, seeming to trust that others would sound an alarm should anything threaten their safety. Gandalf knew this to be an illusion, for as a tried warrior, the dwarf was quite aware of his surroundings, but his stance and manner were far more relaxed than the stance and manner of Aragorn. Behind Gimli came Merry, Pippin, Sam, and Bill. Sam was shivering while Merry and Pippin talked ceaselessly to him, comforting the poor hobbit and reassuring him that they would rest soon. None of them appeared to be concerned with their surroundings and even Bill seemed fairly light of heart. Behind them came Boromir, looking just as alert as Aragorn and perhaps even more ill at ease. Was he starting to sense the Warg now as well? As edgy as he was, it was quite possible. And behind him came Legolas, bringing up the last of the line and scouring the woods with piercing elven eyes. His bow was in his hands, and he would stop occasionally to listen.
"Those who have hunted the servants of the Dark Lord can sense our current menace," Gandalf eventually said. "And those who have hunted similar creatures are particularly attuned to this one. As for you, Frodo, that which you bear grants you a measure of new insight. You are beginning to sense when evil approaches, for as we journey further south, your burden will become more powerful."
Frodo was quiet for a moment and then shivered slightly. "So that’s why Sam, Merry, and Pippin can’t tell something’s out there. I wondered for a while if it was just me, but then everyone else seemed to be a little more cautious. And then when it came to our camp in the afternoon and the rest of you took notice…" The hobbit trailed off, suddenly aware that he was more or less speaking his thoughts aloud. "All right, Gandalf," he said, switching gears. "You’ve told me why I can sense it, and I guess I understand that. But you’ve still left one question open. What exactly am I sensing?"
"Evil in what form?" Frodo pressed.
Gandalf smiled and chuckled slightly. They were fortunate to have such a Ring-bearer as Frodo. His tenacity would serve him well in this quest. "It is a Warg, Frodo. A wolf specially bred to serve the Enemy and work with the Orcs who dwell in the mountains."
"A Warg?" Frodo asked, paling a bit.
"A single Warg," Gandalf said. "For now, he is without companions, but we must act quickly before he signals his pack, if indeed he has one. There has been some debate as to his exact nature. But whether he works alone or scouts for a greater darkness, he will not be allowed to continue past tomorrow."
"Oh." Frodo fell quiet, not certain what he could say in response to that, and then he winced and cast a glance over his shoulder. "Gandalf, I know we’ve already been delayed, but Sam is…well, I think that’s the second time he’s stumbled in as many minutes."
The wizard looked back and grimaced slightly. There was still at least a full hour before dawn, but Frodo was right. Sam was beginning to shiver violently, and it would be best if he was warmed now. And beyond that, it wouldn’t hurt to let Legolas and Boromir have a break. Neither had said a word of complaint, but there were signs that their injuries were serving as impediments to travel. The elf’s limp was almost completely gone, but he seemed a bit unsteady as though his leg still pained him. Elven healing or no, the pulled muscle in his thigh would be swollen for several days and it would be wise to let it a rest. And Boromir’s knee was wrenched badly. Aragorn’s brace made it possible for the man to walk and Sam had managed to coax some pain-killing tea into him before they’d set out for the night, but the tea would have worn off several hours ago and in order to heal, the leg really needed to lie still.
"We will stop here for the day," Gandalf announced, gesturing to a small thicket off to the side of their trail.
There was a flash of surprise in Aragorn’s eyes at this announcement, but he looked over his shoulder at the rest of the Fellowship and nodded quickly in understanding. "We’ll need a fire," he said quietly, jerking his head in the direction of Sam and then closing his eyes as his residual headache from the flood protested loudly. There were still times, especially in the darkness, when he seemed to see two of everything.
"Agreed," Gandalf said. "Merry, Pippin, and Gimli, the three of you will see to gathering dry firewood."
The two hobbits gave obligatory sighs at having been tasked with a chore, dropped their packs on the ground, stretched slightly, and then disappeared into the underbrush to hunt for firewood that had not been soaked by the previous days’ rainstorm. Frodo went back to take Bill from Sam who was now so cold he did not seem to know what was happening. Aragorn guided the shivering hobbit toward the thicket while stripping him of his wet cloak. Gandalf moved after them and then stopped, sensing tension behind him.
Gimli was rocking back and forth on his feet and throwing a measuring look at Legolas. The elf was gazing quietly into the surrounding forest and doing his best to ignore the dwarf. Gimli eventually cleared his throat and took his pack off his broad shoulders.
"You know," he began, speaking slowly and deliberately, "I fear all this wet and cold has created an ache in my bones. And it didn’t help that I was carrying a certain elf about earlier today. But I suppose that someone other than the hobbits will have to find firewood, for they can’t bring back enough on their own. But who could be trusted to go other than myself?" The dwarf clasped his hands together and lifted them high above his head, stretching out his back and shoulders. "Legolas?"
"You wish me to gather firewood?" The elf’s voice was curt and soft, and it sent shivers down Gandalf’s spine. He’d once heard Glorfindel use that tone just before relieving an attacking troll of its head.
"If you would," Gimli answered, apparently oblivious to the rising tide of wrath in his comrade. "Of course, you are in no way obligated. I did bring this chill upon myself by searching for you in the rain and the mud."
Legolas tensed and Gandalf took an involuntary step toward them, fearful that Gimli had pushed the elf too far. But his actions were unnecessary for the prince of Mirkwood quickly bridled his emotions. Gracing the dwarf with a deadly elven glare, Legolas dropped his own pack and disappeared into the forest, moving silently and with catlike grace. Gandalf made a mental note to watch for the elf’s return. Gimli might find himself in danger.
"I judged him too harshly," Gimli said, stroking his beard thoughtfully and casually strolling by Gandalf. "He’s really quite a considerate elf."
Gandalf sighed. It had been his hope that Gimli and Legolas could put aside their differences, but it seemed that the flood and the subsequent rescue were only making things worse. It would be interesting to see if elf and dwarf could work together when it came time to hunt the Warg. As the hobbits say, I suppose we will have to dig that hole when we come to it, the old wizard thought with a shake of his head. But at the moment, I’m willing to throw both Legolas and Gimli to the Warg as a peace offering if it means this tension will end. And with this last rather macabre thought, Gandalf followed the others into the thicket and tried to figure out a way to tell Sam that Bill needed to be staked far away from camp during the day.
*By hobbit reckoning, this was the Fell Winter of 1311.
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