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Disclaimer: Still not mine.
Note: Parts of this chapter are very quote-heavy, but where possible, I wanted to preserve the original story, since the events in my own are so closely tied to it.
The road now turned south and went quickly downwards, running out from between the arms of the dale. Merry jogged along in the middle as the Company hurried along, strung out in a long line along the ancient road. Some way below the mere they came on a deep well of water, clear as crystal, from which a freshet fell over a stone lip and ran glistening and gurgling down a steep rocky channel.
'Here is the spring from which the Silverlode rises," said Gimli, who jogged to his left. "Do not drink of it! It is icy cold." Merry turned his head toward the voice and felt a stab of envy at the dwarf's endurance. Surely his own legs weren't so much shorter than a dwarf's? Besides, thirsty though he was, the decision to stop for a drink did not lie with him. Did Gimli really think he would heedlessly veer off and start lapping it up?
"Soon it becomes a swift river, and it gathers water from many other mountain-streams," said Aragorn, from the front. "Our road leads beside it for many miles. For I shall take you by the road that Gandalf chose, and first I hope to come to the woods where the Silverlode flows into the Great River—out yonder." They looked as he pointed, and before them they could see the stream leaping down to the trough of a valley, and then running on and away into the lower lands, until it was lost in a golden haze.
"The woods of Lothlórien!" said Legolas from his place beside Aragorn, though it was more of a gasp. He was breathing heavily from the brisk pace required of them. It seemed to Merry that there was more he wanted to say as he gazed longingly Southward, but hadn't the energy. Lothlórien. He'd heard the name spoken before—by Aragorn and Gandalf, even Legolas. It was obviously their destination, but Merry wished someone would take the time to tell them exactly what it was and who exactly lived there.
His thoughts turned back to Legolas. Elves were certainly hardy folk, though they did not look it. The elf was tall and lithe, to be sure, but how he had managed to press on, and at such a speed, Merry did not know. When they'd departed Rivendell, he had certainly doubted Legolas' prowess in battle. Even when he'd seen him in action, he still hadn't been quite convinced until the fight had come too close for bow or arrow. Seeing the elf fight with a blade had been a fearsome thing to behold. Legolas had struck fast and fierce—almost like a viper, sure of each movement, his fighting no less deadly for its grace.
Strider had been leading at an almost jog for some time now. The pace was fast, too fast for shorter hobbit legs, anyway. Merry suspected it would have been far more difficult to keep up if the man hadn't slowed for Legolas' sake, though his concession barely eased Merry's difficulty. At other points in their journey, Merry had often found himself quite irritated and annoyed by this tendency to forget that hobbits could not so easily keep pace with their taller friends. What made the point even more irksome was how, when they did remember, the others persisted in treating them as children. They really could not have it both ways. The concepts were both entirely incongruent, and Merry had to confess to himself that for a long while now, he'd been nursing a sullen anger at it all. Perhaps at Bilbo for finding the blasted ring in the first place. And at Gandalf, too, for not safeguarding it better and relieving the hobbits of the responsibility, though he understood better now why.
Now that anger also held a shade of guilt. Gandalf may have treated them as incompetent fools, but reflectively, Merry supposed he had had several more millennia of experience than even Legolas, and if anyone had that right, he supposed the Gray Wizard did-and he had defended them bravely, with his very life. Though Strider had perhaps overtaken him on time spent with him and his kin, Gandalf was far more acquainted with the weaknesses and habits of hobbits. But, Merry thought fiercely, being of small stature and requiring more than a man's average amount of meals did not make one a child. Nor did an appreciation for lazy spring days—but these thoughts weren't helpful. Merry bowed his head and jogged on, hearing only his quick breaths and the pounding of his feet on the road. They'd come to be with Frodo, and with Frodo he would stay, though the adventure had long lost its appeal. Truthfully, it had lost its appeal somewhere between the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs, though he had hoped fervently the worst of the danger had been at Weathertop. Moria had proven him wrong. Whatever that creature had been, it had terrified even the merry elf, and had certainly made the Nazgûl seem a friendlier foe. He shuddered.
The steep decline of the road as it made its way to the lowlands gave haste to their steps, and aside from an occasional missing stone or one that had been displaced, their way was smooth enough. After a bit, he raised his eyes again and watched the spring tripping along beside the worn road. It was such a peaceful reminder of the Shire on a sunny day that Merry nearly wept with homesickness. His feet felt heavy, and not a little sore from the terrain and their fast pace. He'd had stitch stabbing in his side for several minutes now.
Merry looked behind for Frodo and Sam and frowned. They were lagging behind. It wasn't safe for them to fall so far back. At his right, Pippin mirrored his action, and his frown. His younger cousin might have barely escaped his tweenage years, but he was a true adult and not nearly as foolhardy as he might appear, the incident with the rock in the mines notwithstanding.
Ahead Aragorn still hovered on Legolas' left, and Boromir was on his right, either man ready to step in at a moment's notice and support him, but from what little Merry could see, so far the bandages still stood out a stark white and the elf went forward under his own power. Perhaps with Legolas holding his own, the wound was not so dire. It was worry for Sam and Frodo that was foremost in his mind. They'd yet to be tended, nor had they complained. But he could not forget the gut-clenching horror of seeing Frodo hurled against the wall, half skewered. He had to take a deep breath and swallow hard at the bile that suddenly burned his throat. Frodo was not dead, he reminded himself. How, he couldn't say, but that mattered very little. What mattered was that he'd not been killed before their very eyes.
"I wish we had time to give them a good look over." Pippin murmured softly, less out of breath than Merry.
"When we can. It's miraculous, but nothing as dire as it appeared." His cousin gave him a dark look and shuddered.
With each step, it seemed Frodo and Sam fell further and further behind. Merry supposed it was stubborn pride that kept them from saying something. Hobbits could be just as prideful as an elf or dwarf when it came to revealing weaknesses—except for where food was concerned, maybe. More likely, though, it was worry for their companion that was keeping them silent. As long as Legolas kept going, so would those two, he suspected. He looked up again at the sound of an uneven footstep sliding against the road and saw Aragorn catch the elf by the elbow as he stumbled.
Legolas cried out at the sudden jerk, though it was choked off and muffled some by the distance. After the fight in Moria, seeing the elf anything less than graceful, fierce, and sure-footed was alarming. After a moment of staring, he realized why the elf was being so stubborn about making it on his own. If his left arm was over Aragorn's shoulder, it stretched the wound, and if his right arm was over Boromir's shoulder, the most natural place for the man to hold onto him was too near the wound. The elf straightened after a moment, and on they continued at the same brisk speed. Thinking again of Frodo and Sam, Merry frowned suddenly, and revised his assessment of the situation. Aragorn must be very worried indeed to have failed to set a rearguard, or else he expected no further attack until nightfall.
After they had gone on a little ways, Merry glanced behind again. To his dismay, he found that Frodo and Sam had lagged so far behind that they were close to being out of sight entirely. He stopped dead in his tracks and dropped his pack to the ground, alerting others that something was amiss. He could hear Pippin following directly behind him as he rushed backward, retracing their path. Mercifully, he didn't have to go far, and when he reached them, he could see that Frodo was gasping for breath, more so than Merry's huffing and puffing from exertion. Sam was sagging listlessly against him.
"'s okay," the gardener murmured when he perceived they had come, "Jus' a bit dizzy, is all." He shivered, even in the shining sun, and Merry took in their pale faces with growing concern. Perhaps he and Pippin had given in a bit too hastily to their relief. Guilt came again, and he wished he'd spoken up sooner, for their sakes.
Boots sounded on the road behind him as Pippin supported Frodo, and in a moment Aragorn swept past him and knelt in front of the two hobbits. Boromir had retreated also. Looking behind him now, Merry could see Legolas standing in place, hunched slightly at the waist, and watching from ahead. Gimli had paused next to Merry's discarded pack and looked torn between coming to see about the hobbits or making sure someone stayed near the elf.
"I am sorry, Frodo!" Aragorn was saying, concern in his voice. "So much has happened this day and we have such need of haste, that I have forgotten that you were hurt; and Sam too. You should have spoken. We have done nothing to ease you, as we ought, though all the orcs of Moria were after us. Come now! A little further on there is a place where we can rest for a little. There I will do what I can for you. Come, Boromir! We will carry them."
Merry nodded in satisfaction and went to retrieve his pack. Frodo and Sam would now be taken care of. He and Pippin would look help after Legolas. The elf looked at them in some amusement as they approached. "Have you come to be my nursemaids, now?" His voice held a forced merriment that did not match his eyes. Merry could see at once why Aragorn had been so distracted. Up close, the elf was haggard and pale, his eyes were bright, but with pain instead of laughter. With each step there was a low moan of which, the hobbit suspected, the elf was entirely unaware. The bandages, at least, were mostly dry, though the end of the black shaft that peaked out from the middle was disconcerting indeed, especially with the elf pretending nothing was amiss.
"You look awful, laddie," Gimli whispered as he joined them. It was the first time Merry had heard any affection in the dwarf's usual jibe.
They trudged on, Legolas steadying himself from time to time with a hand on their shoulders. Merry noted with some satisfaction that this arrangement was a better one than before, so long as the elf could support his own weight.
Soon afterward they came upon another stream that ran down from the west, and joined its bubbling water with the hurrying Silverlode. Together they plunged over a fall of green-hued stone, and foamed down into a dell. Merry and Pippin slowed to a stop alongside Legolas and peered down. Dusk would soon be upon them, and they could scarce afford a further delay, but they could go no further without rest, and Frodo and Sam were in desperate need of tending. He glanced up at Legolas, who was trembling from the exertion of remaining upright.
Presently, Aragorn joined them, Frodo on his back like an uncle would carry a little nephew. "Do not look so forlorn, Merry, we will rest soon. Here we will leave the road and follow the stream into Lothlórien from the north. I had thought to rest here and continue on the road, but delayed as we are, I think it would be best if we left the road entirely. Continuing beside it in the woods will be more defensible."
So this was the place Strider had mentioned. Merry looked at him in disbelief. "You cannot mean for us all to climb down there."
"I'm afraid I do. This is the last place until we have reached the plains where we can safely leave the road, and we are all weary." He looked at Legolas grimly, and said, "You and Merry stay here and rest, mellon nîn. When the fire is built we will help you down."
My friend. Those two words Merry knew well. Where Legolas was concerned, Aragorn didn't seem to ever bestow the title in Westron.
A flicker of embarrassment crossed the elf's face, but he merely nodded. "Tend the hobbit's first," Legolas waved the man away. "They have waited long enough."
"Nothing is yet quite so dire. See to them. I will rest while you do." Merry suspected that what the elf did not say was that he could not actually make it down to the dale without resting first.
Legolas sought out a lone tree not far from the road, as had been his custom since they had set out, and all but collapsed against it. Merry stood and watched as the others climbed down the embankment. It was steep and quite precarious, more mountainside than hill, really just a pile of mossy green rocks. The men had to take great care not to fall with Sam and Frodo, who were nervous enough about the climb down that they had roused considerably. Merry sucked in a sudden breath as Boromir lost his footing, sliding several feet and flailing out with his free hand before he at last found purchase on a larger stone that was sturdily wedged into the embankment wall. Several disturbed stones continued on to the bottom. The man adjusted Sam's weight and regained his balance before continuing onward much more carefully, but the incident had left Merry with a growing concern. Legolas would have a difficult time with the climb down.
Gimli did not appear to be the least bit amused at the man's abilities. He looked heavenward and huffed a bit, muttering to himself every time someone slipped or tried to step on a wobbly rock. He was the last to descend, and unlike the others, turned to hug the rocks that jutted out here and there. He scrambled down the stones with an agility that could only belong to a dwarf. Not a pebble had been disturbed. Merry's eyes narrowed thoughtfully, a promising idea unveiling in his mind. He made a note to ask Gimli to advise Legolas when it can time for them to rejoin the others. Neither man would be able to balance and carry the elf to the bottom, nor there was any room to stand beside him and support his weight, but a dwarf would know which stones were true. Legolas would only have to set aside some of his pride and allow himself to be helped by a dwarf. Merry grimaced. No, that was unlikely—but if Gimli helped Strider, and Strider helped Legolas… Merry grinned. Problem solved.
At last the Company reached the valley floor. About them stood fir-trees, short and bent. "Merry! There's whortleberry shrubs to last for days down here!" Pippin called up with excitement.
Merry could not suppress a grin, and his stomach rumbled in agreement. "No need to shout, Pip, the sound carries just fine!"
"Then we will need to be cautious!" Boromir warned darkly. "But gather some up—it has been many hours since our last meal, and we are all in need of some sustenance."
At the bottom, Merry could see a level space through which the stream flowed noisily over shining pebbles. It was not nearly five hours after noon, and they had come only a few miles from the Gates. Sunset was quickly approaching and Merry wished they were all already resting comfortably down below, or better yet in this Lothlórien where they headed.
"We'll be needing a fire." Gimli suggested gruffly.
"Heat some water, too," Aragorn agreed.
Boromir joined the dwarf in gathering loose twigs and branches for a small fire while Pippin retrieved a small pot from Sam's pack and went to collect water from the stream. Merry gave a small chuckle that, even injured, the gardener would not part with his pots. Perhaps soon they would be able to persuade him to part with just a few of the items he had hoarded.
By the time Pip returned, a small fire crackled merrily. Duty discharged, the hungry young hobbit began fast filling up his cloak with copious amounts whortleberries. Merry rolled his eyes, it would be forever stained and the impish behavior would only support the others' ideas that he was still a child.
"Good luck, Sam!" Aragorn's voice drifted up from below and Merry turned his attention from his berry-picking cousin to the man tending Frodo and Sam. The man was holding the gardener's blond hair out of the way with one hand, while probing at an awful looking gash with the other. Had Aragorn not just made an exclamation of relief, Merry would have been very concerned, indeed. Sam's floppy hair had hidden a wound that looked ugly and grievous indeed. "Many have received worse than this in payment for the slaying of their first orc. The cut is not poisoned, as the wounds of orc-blades too often are. It should heal well when I have tended it. Bathe it when Gimli has heated water."
Merry's eyes flashed to Legolas. The elf was observing the scene below in silence, his face drawn with pain, unaware of Merry's gaze on him. Was he so lucky, or was poison weakening his body even now? Surely even elves were susceptible to that? Merry sighed; he really needed to learn some optimism. He'd always been bit of a dark cloud among his kin, but he'd been proven right far too many times to change the habit now.
Strider opened his pouch and drew something out. "They are dry, and some of their virtue has gone," he was saying, "but here I have still some of the leaves of athelas that I gathered near Weathertop. Crush one in the water, and wash the wound clean, and I will bind it." He passed the delicate herb over to Gimli to be put into the water. "Now it is your turn, Frodo!"
"I am all right. All I needed was some food and a little rest." Merry's eyebrows disappeared into his curly mop of hair as Frodo clutched his coat closed rather prudishly. Now this was interesting.
"No!" said Aragorn. "We must have a look and see what the hammer and the anvil have done to you. I still marvel that you are alive at all." Gently he stripped off Frodo's old jacket and worn tunic, and gave a gasp of wonder. Then he laughed. Merry blinked as a shimmering silver coat of mail was revealed. Carefully the man took it off and held it up, and the gems on it glittered like stars, and the sound of the shaken rings was like the tinkle of rain in a pool.
Merry's jaw dropped in utter astonishment.
"Look, my friends!" Strider called. "Here's a pretty hobbit-skin to wrap an elven-princeling in! If it were known that hobbits had such hides, all the hunters of Middle-earth would be riding to the Shire."
"And all the arrows of all the hunters in the world would be in vain," said Gimli, gazing over in wonder from his place tending the fire. "It is mithril-coat. Mithril! I have never seen or heard tell of one so fair. Is this the coat that Gandalf spoke of? Then he undervalued it. But it was well given!"
"I have often wondered what you and Bilbo were doing, so close in his little room," called down Merry. "Bless the old hobbit! I love him more than ever. I hope we get a chance of telling him about it."
His mirth died when he looked back to share a smile with Legolas and saw that the elf had barely noticed the exchange. The frown that appeared only deepened when he turned his attention back downward and laid eyes on the dark and blackened bruise on Frodo's right side and breast. It must be quite severe indeed if it could be seen so clearly from this distance.
While the others set the food ready, Aragorn bathed the hurts with water in which athelas was steeped. The pungent fragrance filled the dell, and Merry felt all the hurts of the day fade away. He looked at Legolas and saw that he, too, was resting easier, walking in dreams. The lines of pain had faded from his face, and his open eyes gazed into nothingness. Merry wasn't sure he'd ever get used to the strange way elves slept, but strange or not he was glad the elf was able to rest.
Pippin scrambled back up and, after depositing a small pile of whortleberries in front of Legolas, plopped down next to Merry. The both of them hungrily munched on the berries and sipped some water, but the elf's portion remained untouched. For the moment, though, Merry was content. He would take the rest that was offered. The sweet aroma of the athelas wafted up to him and soothed his spirit, and he felt a trace of optimism return for the first time in a fortnight.
To be continued...
As always, any feedback is welcome and appreciated.
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