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Unlucky

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For some time Frodo and Sam managed to keep up with the others; but Aragorn was leading them at a great pace, and after a while they lagged.  They had eaten nothing since the early morning.  Sam's cut was burning like fire, and his head felt light.  In spite of the shining sun the wind seemed chilled after the warm darkness of Moria.  He shivered and pulled the hood of his cloak a little tighter to keep the wind off his sore head, concentrating on following the backs of Frodo's heels.  His poor master was breathing hard, like it hurt him, and no wonder after being struck by that great horrible orc.  It was hard to walk straight here.  The ground was full of small stones, and hard, dry tussocks of grass.  Sam wished he could go more carefully.  He was making too much noise.

Frodo stopped of a sudden, and it was all that Sam could manage not to stumble into him.  He looked up, blinking, and saw Strider and Boromir running towards them.  Strider looked worried;  Sam wondered how badly Frodo was hurt to make Strider worry so.

**

Aragorn looked from one small pale face to the other, berating himself.  "I'm sorry, Frodo," he cried.  "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."  The very lack of response from either hobbit made his fears grow.  "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."  He did not like to be so careless of the hobbit's dignity, but he judged that neither Frodo nor Sam were in any state to protest.  Indeed Frodo rested his head against Aragorn's shoulder and clung to his coat, whispering thanks between harsh breaths.

Boromir gathered up Sam, but after a moment put him down again and stripped off the little gardener's pack, slinging it back onto one shoulder before picking up Sam again and resting him on the opposite hip.  As they caught up to the others he let the pack slip down his arm to his hand.  "Gimli," he said.  "Can you carry Sam's pack?"

"I'll help!" Pippin offered eagerly, tugging at the straps.  His face changed as the weight nearly overset him.  "What have you got in here, Sam?  Rocks?"

Sam didn't answer  and Frodo twisted in Aragorn's arms, turning his head to look at his servant.  "Sam?" he said, and his voice cracked with effort.

Sam stirred on Boromir's shoulder, "I'm all right, Mr. Frodo," he said sleepily.  "Just cold."  Boromir shook his head and met Aragorn's eyes over the top of Sam's head, shaping the words "He's hot," with his mouth.

Aragorn frowned and considered best how to proceed.  There was no cover here, and nothing with which to make a fire.  It was best to go on, but he could send ahead.  "Legolas, a league onward another stream joins the Silverlode and they make a little waterfall together.  At the bottom of the fall is a fir wood, and then a clearing where we can stop and tend our injured.  Go ahead to build a fire and heat water for us.  And be careful."

"You'll need these," Gimli said, extracting two of Sam's cooking pots from the top of the pack.  Legolas took them and nodded to the party.  "All will be in readiness when you come," he promised, and darted away.

"Here, give me his blankets," said Boromir to Gimli, "that will lighten the load a little more."

"You should feel it, Merry," said Pippin, who in helping Gimli had missed Boromir's words to Aragorn.  "I think it weighs as much as I do.  I didn't know Sam was that strong."

"He will need that strength," Aragorn said grimly.  "Wounds from orc-blades are too often poisoned."  The young hobbits looked so stricken at his words that he gentled his face and voice to reassure them.  "I have dealt with such wounds before, many times.  And I have athelas still, which I gathered near Weathertop.  Do not let your fears slow your footsteps."

"Right," said Merry, gathering his younger cousin by the arm.  "Come on, Pip.  Sam and Frodo will be fine once Strider gets a proper look at them.  And maybe we can have a bite to eat, then, too."

"Oh, I'd like that," Pippin said, letting his cousin lead him after Legolas. 

********

Boromir's arms were aching and his back was sore but he followed after Aragorn as readily as tired feet would allow him, wondering at the Ranger's still steady pace.  In Rivendell he had asked many questions about Isildur's heir, and many had been answered, but still he had carried more questions in his heart.  And now he had a new question which was its own answer.  How could a man nearly the age of Boromir's father carry not only Frodo, but Frodo's pack as well as his own?  A broken blade might last to be reforged without the strength of blood to go with it.  But Aragorn, son of Arathorn had strength.  Boromir had seen him in battle now against warg and orc, and his heart was glad.  Denethor his father would be hard pressed to deny  the worth of so doughty a warrior, no matter how much he had lingered in the libraries of  Rivendell.  And Faramir his brother would love such a king, so strong of arms, and learned too.

He shifted his burden, and Sam squeaked, stuffing his knuckles into his mouth to muffle the protest.  Boromir slowed.  "Easy, Sam Gamgee.  Only a little farther now."  He could see the glitter of sunlight on the stream Aragorn had mentioned half a mile before him, and the tops of firs behind the fall of land just beyond.

"Sorry, sir," Sam gasped.  "It's just it feels like the top of my head is coming off, and I wish it would."   Sam's face was pale under the tan, and rivulets of blood had worked out from under his hood, smearing his cheek.

"What is it?" Aragorn had paused too, and Frodo was alert in his arms.  The Ringbearer's color was better, and he was breathing easier, but his eyes were worried as he stared at Sam.

"The pace jars him," Boromir said.  "How much farther beyond the stream?"

"Not a quarter mile," Aragorn said.  "If the land were level we could see the fire now."

Boromir turned his gaze back up the mountain, but the sun was still bright, and there was no sign of pursuit.  "Go on ahead and see to Frodo, and Sam and I will follow.  Even if we go slower now we won't be many minutes behind you."

Aragorn smiled and nodded and the approbation warmed Boromir's heart as it might not have before the mines.  "Keep him awake, Boromir, if you can," Aragorn said.  "Pippin, you stay with them, to be a runner at need.  Merry, Gimli, come with me."  He set off, and if anything he was going faster and Merry and Gimli were running hard.

Pippin drew his sword while he waited for Boromir to settle Sam again.  "Don't worry, Sam," he said staunchly.  "I'll protect you."

Sam smiled fondly at the young hobbit.  "I'm sure you will, Mr. Pippin," he said, leaning his head on Boromir's shoulder.  "But mind the rabbits."

Boromir was alarmed, but Pippin laughed.  "Now I know you'll be all right, Sam,"  he said.

"Rabbits?" asked Boromir. 

"You tell him, Sam," Pippin said, "since Strider wants you to stay awake."

Sam's eyes were fever bright, but he opened them obediently.  "Well, sir, it was the summer before Mr. Bilbo's party, and I'd been a-haying at Farmer Cotton's with my brothers," he said drowsily as Boromir's long legs took them forward.  "And after supper my old Gaffer remembered that he'd been called away before he'd finished weeding Mr. Bilbo's vegetables and gone and left his trowel and all out where the dew would fall on it.  And I said I'd go and fetch them, and finish the weeding since it was near the solstice and there was still light."

"But he fell asleep in the potatoes," Pippin contributed, when Sam hesitated longer than was comfortable.

"I did," Sam confirmed.  "I was that tired."  He was tired now, and fighting sleep, but he kept his eyes open.

 "And Merry and I were visiting Frodo and Uncle Bilbo, and I couldn't sleep," Pippin went on.  "They'd made me take a nap after the ride from Buckland.  I was only ten, you know.  So I went outside when I was meant to be in bed and I found Sam.  And he was so tired I didn't want to wake him up, so I sat down and dug a hole with the Gaffer's trowel, because he never let me play with it.  Isn't that right, Sam?"

"It wasn't meant for playing, Pippin-lad," Sam said.  "And didn't I give you one of your own my next birthday?"

"Yes, but the Gaffer's was big and heavy and sharp.  And I needed it," Pippin winked up at Boromir, "because as I was sitting there, I heard something in the dark.  Something eating."

"Something eating?" Boromir asked, although he could guess the end of the tale by now.  It was keeping Sam awake, and more alert than he'd been, and Boromir thanked Pippin's cleverness in bringing it up.

"Oh, yes.  Trolls crunching bones, I thought, after listening to Uncle Bilbo's tales all evening.  I wanted to run back to the hole, but I couldn't leave Sam."

"So he gives a yell, and charges into the lettuce, waving that old trowel around like it was Sting from over the mantelpiece.  Woke up all the neighbors he did.  And all for rabbits."  Sam chuckled and then winced and closed his eyes.

"Well, I wasn't all that much bigger than they were, then, so it was a fair fight.  And they didn't come back, did they," Pippin pointed out.  "Not for a few nights, anyway."

"Nevertheless it was valiant of you, to dare a foe at such a young age," Boromir said, thinking how small the hobbits were, and how much smaller they must have been as children if even rabbits seemed large.  "I will sleep better when you are on watch, Master Took, and guarding us from the perils of the night."

Pippin blushed happily.  "It was only rabbits," he said.

"Wish they was all rabbits," Sam muttered, turning his face to hide it from the light.

Legolas came to meet them as the forded the stream, and took Sam from Boromir, leading them lightly down through the fir wood to the dell where Aragorn was carefully scooping water from the pot and laving it over Frodo's bruised sides.  A pungent, fresh scent filled the air, easing somehow the aches of the body.  Boromir and Pippin sat by the fire while Legolas settled Sam onto a bed of fresh cut fir branches and Aragorn wrapped soft padding over Frodo's hurts.

He picked up the glittering corslet that he had left by Frodo's side.  "The mail is marvelously light.  Put it on again, if you can bear it.  My heart is glad to know that you have such a coat.  Do not lay it aside, even in sleep, unless fortune brings you where you are safe for a while; and that will seldom chance while your quest lasts."

Sam blinked where he lay, trying to see Frodo through a heat haze.  "Isn't that Mr. Bilbo's coat, what was in the Mathom house?" he asked.   

Frodo would have got up to go to him, if Aragorn would have allowed it.  "Yes, Sam.  Bilbo gave it to me in Rivendell.  And I wish he'd had a helm for you while he was at it."

"Don't know as I would have said yes then, but I might now," Sam's voice trailed off and he shifted uncomfortably.  "Can't I sleep yet, Mr. Strider?"

Aragorn signaled to Merry to help Frodo back into the mithril coat and shifted over to Sam.   "Let me see your eyes first," he commanded.  Then he moved back the hood of Sam's cloak to examine the wound.  It was not deep, but it was ugly, and the edges of it were swollen and angry.  Fresh blood and pus oozed out as the wool was pulled away.  "It is as I feared.  Orcs do not clean the filth from their swords, and some has been left in the wound.  I shall have to open it and clean it all out, Sam, and cut away some of your hair."

Sam didn't flinch.  He'd seen hurts go sour before, though never his own, nor this quickly.  "Thought you might," he mumbled.  "There's scissors in my pack, on the left near the needle and thread.  And soap's on the right."

"No wonder it weighs so much," Pippin said to Gimli, "he's got half the Shire in there."

Strider's hands were gentle, but Sam's head was very sore, and he had to bite hard on a folded bit of blanket to keep from shouting as the Ranger washed his head first with soap, and then with the athelas-water.  The second washing soothed away much of the pain, however, and Sam was able to sit up and take a bite of bread and some tea while Strider ate and the others put out the fire and hastily hid all other signs of their halt.  He would have liked to help, but Aragorn forbade it.   "Three days rest you should have, Samwise Gamgee, were it in my power to give them to you."

"I don't mean to be a burden to you," Sam said.  Boromir, coming to take Sam's cup and stow it away overheard and bent down to place a hand on Sam's shoulder.   "Your pack is a greater burden than you are, Master Gamgee, and we are fortunate that Gimli has the strength of his kind to carry it a little longer.  Do not fret at being tended for your wound.  You fought well there under the mountain."

Sam blushed and looked down.  "I should have ducked faster," he said.

"And next time you will," Strider assured him.  "A burned hand teaches well."

"The sun will be behind the mountains soon," Boromir observed.  "And true dark will follow soon after.  Whence from here, Aragorn, and how far?"

"We go to Lothlorien, and if we were all unhurt it would take us three hours yet, just to reach the eaves of the wood,"  Aragorn replied.  "Five leagues beyond that is the Gate, but we will not reach that safety tonight, although we must go as deep into the forest as our legs are still able to carry us."

Boromir stood irresolute,  "Is there no other way?" he asked in a low voice.

"What other fairer way would you desire?" asked Aragorn.

"A plain road, though it led through a hedge of swords," said Boromir.  "By strange paths this company has been led, and so far to evil fortune.  Against my will we passed under the shades of Moria, to our loss.  And now we must enter the Golden Wood, you say.  But of that perilous land we have heard in Gondor, and it is said that few come out who once go in, and of that few none have escaped unscathed."

"Say not unscathed, but if you say unchanged, then maybe you will speak the truth," said Aragorn.  "But lore wanes in Gondor, Boromir, if in the city of those who once were wise they now speak evil of Lothlorien.   It would be folly indeed to go back to Moria Gate, or swim the Great River, or climb the trackless mountains when we can find healing for our companions and sanctuary from our pursuers in the Golden Wood."

"I will follow where you lead," Boromir said.  "But it is perilous."

"Perilous indeed," said Aragorn.  "Fair and perilous; but only evil need fear it, or those who bring some evil with them."  Sam looked over to Frodo, who was helping Merry set the turves into the firepit. 

"Do you think they'll want us then, Mr. Strider?" he asked softly once Boromir had moved away.  "With the evil we're bringing?"

"The Lord and Lady of the Galadhrim will understand, Sam," Aragorn told him. "We bring the hope of Middle Earth."

******

Chapter Text

Frodo's bruises troubled him little, once Aragorn had tended them, and he was able to go at a fair pace down the mountain, once Merry and Pippin between them had taken the heaviest things from his pack.  But Sam's head was still tender, and he was borne by Aragorn and Boromir and Legolas in turn.  He found that even to be carried so was tiring, and his protests faded into soft murmurs within the first hour.  They had not gone far before the sun sank behind the western heights and great shadows came down the mountain-sides.  Frodo hadn't considered this aspect of mountains before and he looked out onto the light which lingered on the dim lands of plain and wood to the east and wondered when true sunset would come. 

Too soon it fell, and the short dusk of winter after it, and still Aragorn pressed them forward.  Just once he let them rest, while he brewed the last leaf of athelas and bathed Sam's head once more.  Then on they went into the night, with the Silverlode tumbling always on their left.  Frodo unsheathed Sting, but the blade was dark, and the only light on it was starlight.  And yet Frodo felt that they were followed, and paused often to look back over his shoulder.  Once he thought he saw the gleam of two distant eyes, but he could not be certain, for they slipped aside and vanished.

"What is it?" Gimli asked, falling back to walk beside Frodo.

"I don't know," answered Frodo.  "I thought I heard something, and I thought I saw a light – like eyes.  I have often thought so, since we first entered Moria."

Gimli halted and stooped to the ground.  "I hear nothing but the speech of plant and stone," he said.  "Come, let us hurry, the others have got too far ahead."

Frodo hastened his footsteps, glad to have Gimli's night eyes there with him.  "I'm sorry about your cousin," he said, once they'd reached the corner of the road and could see the others like shadows on the road ahead once more.  "Did you manage not to lose the book?  The one that Gandalf –" his voice faltered, but he went on.  "The one that Gandalf read to us?"

"I did," Gimli answered gruffly, and then as if he thought better of the short answer, went on to say.  "I would not toss aside knowledge that was gained at such a cost, and Dain will have it someday, as Gandalf wished, if I live to bring it to him." 

Frodo looked down at the small shadows that were his cousins, and the shape that was Sam, draped across Aragorn's shoulder.  "I begin to doubt that any of us will live to see the end of this, Gimli," he said.  "Not if even Gandalf could not stand against the Shadow."

*****

It was full night when they came to the eaves of the wood, and the stars that glittered above them in a cold sky had gone more than half their nightly course.  No moon was there yet, for he was waning fast, and would not rise above the eastern lands till just before the dawn; but even the starlight was enough to show a hint of gold in the leaves above straight trunks of silver-grey.  Legolas stopped to take Sam from Aragorn.  The hobbit had fallen into a fitful sleep, and he didn't fully waken, but only huddled deeper into the shelter of the bundle of blankets.  But Legolas breathed deeply of the chill wind that came up the valley and set the golden leaves to rustling like the susurrus of a poplar grove.  "Lothlorien, Lothlorien," he sighed.  "Alas that it is winter."

"Lothlorien!" said Aragorn, easing his back.  "Glad I am to hear again the wind in the trees!  But we are still a little more than five leagues from the Gates, and we can go but a little further.  Let us hope that the virtue of the Elves will keep us tonight from the peril that comes behind."

"If Elves indeed still dwell here in the darkening world," said Gimli.

"It is long indeed since any of my own folk journeyed hither back to the land whence we wandered in ages long ago," said Legolas, "but in Rivendell they say that Lorien is not yet deserted, for there is a secret power here that hold evil from the land.  Nevertheless its folk are seldom seen, and maybe they dwell now deep in the woods and far from the northern border."

"Indeed deep in the woods they dwell," said Aragorn, and sighed as if some memory stirred in him.  "We must fend for ourselves tonight.  Go on a little way, Legolas, until the trees are deep enough to hide the sight of the mountains, and then we will turn aside from the path and seek a place to rest in."

So Legolas led them along the path by the river, a little more than a mile, until they came to another stream tumbling swiftly down from the west.  Its splashing told them of a fall in the shadows on their right, before they came to the dark hurrying waters that ran across their road and joined the Silverlode in a swirl of dim pools among the roots of trees.

"Here is Nimrodel!" said Legolas, halting by the bank.  "Wake up, Sam, for of this stream my people still sing songs, and its waters are said to bring healing to the weary."

"What kind of songs?" asked Sam, dragging himself from his dozing as Legolas set him on his feet.  He swayed and Frodo and Merry came up to steady him as they watched Legolas climb down the deep-cloven bank.

"Songs of the rainbow by the falls," said Legolas, reaching back for Sam and lifting him down until the cool water ran soft over his toes, and then laving his hot face with a handful at a time.  "And of the golden flowers that floated in the foam.  There was a bridge once, but it is gone.  Still, it is no matter.  The water is not deep.  Even Pippin can wade across."  

And each of the company, as they waded out into the cold stream felt the clean touch of it wash away the stain of weariness and travel, and they reached the southern shore refreshed.  And there they thought to stop a little, and eat a bite where they could listen to the music of the falls.  For music it was, as if a voice were mingled with the sound of the water. 

"Do you hear the voice of Nimrodel, the maiden who lived by this stream long ago?"  Legolas asked, after even Pippin had fallen silent in order to listen more closely. 

"I think…" Frodo began, but Sam, who had fallen into a doze, chose that moment to snore, and the company found themselves laughing, as they would not have guessed they could laugh again so soon.  But Aragorn reached over to touch Sam's face, and found it too warm for his liking.  "Sing to us of Nimrodel when we have found shelter for the night, my friend," he told Legolas.  "We should not linger here."

"But where will we find shelter?" Merry asked.  "Are there houses here in the woods, like Elrond's house?"

"Nay, the Galadhrim dwell in Lorien," said Legolas, getting to his feet once more.  "They do not delve, nor build in stone.  The Tree People, they are, and of old it was their custom to live high in the great trees that grow deep in the forest."

"And even in these later days dwelling in the trees might be safer than sitting on the ground," said Gimli, looking thoughtfully up at the branches overhead. 

Pippin shuddered.  "I can't imagine sleeping in a tree," he said.  "What if you fell out?"

"Then you shall dig a hole, Master hobbit, if you think the orcs will let you sleep in it," Gimli said.  "But whither shall we go?"

"Come," said Legolas, "we will follow Nimrodel and see what shelter we can find beside her, above or below." 

And so they set upwards along the mountain stream, and Frodo stayed by Aragorn who had taken Sam in his arms.  "How are you feeling, Frodo?" Aragorn asked, and Frodo considered before he answered. 

"I could go a little farther tonight, if I must," he said. "The water helped that much.  But I hope not to.  How is Sam?  Is he supposed to sleep this much?"

"He heals as he sleeps," said Aragorn.  "But the athelas leaves I had were old, and without their full virtue; we will  have to be careful of him and watch the night.  His fever is returning."

"Are you certain?" Frodo asked, surprised at finding himself a little frightened at the prospect.  Never in all his life had he seen Sam taken sick, except over a surfeit of ale and that but once. 

"I am," said Aragorn.  "But do not give up hope!  We are but a day's walk from Caras Galadhon, and there there are many wise healers, and beds of good herbs growing.  And Sam is young and strong;  it will take a sour wound far more than a day to fell him."

"Daro!" said a voice out of the darkness, and Legolas, who had been ready to try to climb one of the tall trees turned to the company and said, "Stand still!  Do not move or speak!"

And then the voice spoke again, and Frodo could understand little, for the language was not like the Elvish he had learned from Bilbo and in Rivendell.  Still, Legolas seemed to know it well, and after a few minutes conversation he reassured the company.  "They want me to climb up with Frodo; for they seem to have had some tidings of him and of our journey.  The others they ask to wait a little, and to keep watch at the foot of the tree, until they decide what is to be done."

"No," said Frodo.  "No, I will not leave Sam.  Aragorn can go with you, since he has been here before, and they will know him." 

Legolas spoke to the Elves in the tree again, and a ladder came tumbling down, and down the ladder came a tall fair elf with a bag, who asked a question.  Aragorn answered him in his own tongue, and the elf came and took Sam from the Ranger.  "This is Orophin," said Aragorn quickly, before Frodo could protest.  "He does not speak the Common tongue, but he knows something of wounds.  Let him look at Sam while I go above, but have a care for the light!"

"What's happening?" Sam cried out, still half asleep, as Orophin set him down upon a fallen log.

Frodo went quickly to him.  "It's all right, Sam," he said.  "We've found some Elves, and they are going to see what they can do for your head."

"Oh, Mr. Frodo," said Sam, "do they have to?  It's sore enough as it is."

"I'm afraid so, Sam.  Here, sit up a little."  Frodo propped his servant up and felt his shivering.  "Here, Merry, Pip, see if you can block the wind a little."

"He can lean on this," said Gimli, coming with the young hobbits and putting Sam's pack beside him.  Orophin looked at Gimli in the dark and said a word that Frodo did not know, but Sam protested fretfully.  "There's no call for bad names, now."

Orophin apologized, or at least it sounded like an apology, and his hand went to his heart and out, as Elves did when giving a courtesy.  He began to work the bandage off of Sam, and Frodo set down his sword and took Sam's hot dry hand in his own that he might squeeze it against the pain.  "I didn't realize you'd learned so much Elvish, Sam," he said, to distract Sam from the examination.  "What did he say?"

"I don't what it means, Mr. Frodo," Sam said, wincing, "not in words, but what a cook says when an entire cake plate hits the floor and the cake on it can't be nothing  as is a compliment.  Ow!"

Orophin apologized again, but signaled to the companions to shield Sam as he drew out a small covered lantern.  Its silver light dazzled their eyes as he aimed it briefly on Sam's injury, but they heard him draw his breath between his teeth.  He shut the lantern quickly and set it aside, delving quickly into his bag and murmuring the names of herbs as he chose among them.

"That doesn't sound good," Pippin said.

"It doesn't look too good either," said Merry, who had been in a position to see the blood caked dark in Sam's hair. 

"I couldn't see," said Pippin, nervously.  "All I could see was the light.  I'm still seeing it, when I blink, only fainter, and lower."

Merry frowned and looked down, and saw Frodo's blade outlined in blue flickers of light at his cousin's feet.  "Look at Sting!"

Frodo exclaimed and caught up the sword again,  "Orcs!" he cried, and repeated it in the Elvish he knew for Orophin's sake.  "They're coming."

Chapter Text

The companions all strained their ears, listening hard over the rustle of the wind in the leaves and the music of the stream beside them.    Sam closed his eyes as he picked up the distant mutter of voices.  Those weren't rabbits.

"Quickly," whispered Boromir.  "Up the ladder.  We may be hidden before they find us.  And in any case there is no other refuge we can defend."  He caught Pippin by the collar and set him bodily on the rungs, and Pippin was startled, but scrambled upwards.   "You next, Merry."

"Wait," said Merry,  "what about Sam?  How will he get up there?"

"I'll have to climb, Master Merry, because I won't be able to fight" said Sam, trying to free himself of the blankets.  "Go on, Mister Frodo and I'll follow."  The stranger Elf caught him by the shoulder and pressed a flask into his hands, motioning for him to drink.  Sam drank, and the bright sweet tang filled his mouth like daylight after night.  Its taste was like and yet unlike the cordial of Imladris, which Gandalf had given them on the mountain; Sam swallowed his mouthful, and tried to return the flask, but Orophin wanted him to drink again of the strong brew. He shook his head and wished he hadn't. "More'n that and I'll be dizzy," he told the elf, and Orophin smiled as if he understood and tucked the flask into Sam's tunic.

Frodo took Sam's elbow and steered him to the ladder.  "Go on up, Sam," he commanded, and up Sam went, as if the Gaffer had him by the ear, for Frodo was clearly in no mood for arguments.  His head was spinning, and the wind was cold, biting hard through his clothes where he had sweated in the blankets; but the friendly heat of the liquor surged through him, pressing back the unkind heat from the wound in his head, and he had no farther to look than one rung at a time. 

Frodo followed behind, wishing that Sam could go faster, but grateful that he could go at all.  Below him he could feel Gimli and Boromir holding the ladder steadier, but still it swayed with each step he or the others took.  Merry had already reached the lowest branches, but Sam had fifteen more feet to go, and the ladder had been made for the long legs of Elves, not the shorter legs of hobbits.  His foot missed a rung, and he slipped, catching himself only at the last moment.  He clung to the ladder, wrapping his arm through one side of it to keep from slipping farther and knocking Frodo off as well.

"Sam, are you all right?" Frodo said, and Sam made the mistake of looking down.  He closed his eyes hastily, and shut his mouth to keep his stomach inside.   "Just hold on," Frodo ordered, and Sam felt his master climb up behind, and wrap his arms around so that Sam was held safe against the ladder.  He wanted to apologize for being a nuisance, but the sickness in his throat would not allow it.

"Easy, Sam-lad," Frodo said, "You won't fall.  A few more rungs and you can rest."

"It's no worse than picking apples at home," Sam told himself, and reached blindly upwards until his hand found the next rung.  With Frodo guiding him he climbed a few more feet, but he was glad to hear Strider's voice call down from above.

"Hold on to Sam, Frodo, and we will pull you both up with the ladder.  It will go faster."  Aragorn braced himself on one of the lowest branches.  Upwards he hauled, and Legolas and two more Elves as fair as Orophin were also helping and in a moment both hobbits were perched on one of the lower branches, while Aragorn let the ladder fall again.  Frodo didn't see Merry, but Pippin waved from where he crouched on a branch a little above and to one side before turning to speak to someone on the far side of the trunk. 

Never had Frodo imagined such trees.  Four of them grew here, in a cluster by the stream, with their branches interweaving, and those branches began higher than most trees that had finished growing in the Shire.  Already they were thirty feet already above the ground. Each branch grew straight out from the stem before turning gracefully upwards and flowering; and where the largest and oldest of them met the stem they were almost broad enough for two hobbits to go abreast, if they were careful.  Frodo steered his injured companion to the crotch of stem and branch and made him sit.  Sam sat, grateful for support that did not sway beneath him.

"I am Haldir," said one of the elves, busily nocking an arrow into his bow as he nodded to them.  "This is my brother Rumil.  Stay you here and keep hidden until we climb to the talan."

Sam grimaced.  "There's more climbing?" he asked, but Frodo hushed him and lay on his belly over the broad branch, looking down to see what was happening to the others.

Boromir was coming first and already a third of the way up, when dark figures began to swarm into view.  Gimli dropped Sam's pack and blankets and turned with Orophin to face the orcs, drawing out his great axe.  The elf said something as he tossed out the little lantern he had used to view Sam's wound; the cover came off, and bright silver light flooded the area, blinding the orcs and sending them cringing into shadows.  It was too late.  One of them had loosed an arrow, and it struck Orophin, cutting the strap that held his bag on his shoulder.  He went down.

Gimli dropped Sam's pack and the blankets and swung out his axe, turning to stand and face the enemy; Boromir dropped back to the ground, readying his shield, and sweeping out his long blade.  Orophin was trying to stand, but his left arm hung limply at his side and the bolt was in him.  He drew a fair, thin blade and put his back to the tree.

Haldir's bow sang, and Legolas's and even Aragorn had strung his hunting bow. "BarukKhazad!  Khazad ai-menu!" cried Gimli, and Boromir "Gondor!" and some of the orcs backed away, but others chattered in their own harsh tongue, and ventured forward.  But all that came into the light were cut down, by axe and blade and arrow, and Frodo's hopes rose until he heard the beating of a drum from the north by the river and the shouts of a still greater host.  Rumil knelt, calling down in his own tongue and Orophin stumbled towards the ladder, but he could not climb.

"Gimli!" Legolas shouted down.  "Bring him up!  Bring him up if you have the strength!"

"A dwarf always has the strength!" Gimli replied joyfully, parting a goblin from its head.  "Boromir, give us time!"

And Boromir put his great horn to his lips and blew, as he had when they had departed Rivendell, and the call was bright and strong.  The echoes came back from all around and gave heart to the defenders.  Frodo found himself on his feet, and Sting in his hand, but the orcs fell back, gibbering. 

Gimli put Orophin on his back and began to climb, and Boromir came after.  Before they reached the branches one of the goblins tried to follow, but the arrows of Legolas and Aragorn made it think again.  As soon as Boromir and Gimli came level with the others, Rumil began to draw up the lower part of ladder; it was soon out of the goblins' reach.

"Keep going, Gimli!"  Aragorn ordered.  "Let us get the wounded up to the talan.  Every orc in the mountains will have heard that horncry."

"They had found us already, or I would have heeded Elrond's warning," Boromir said.  "But the need is dire, and if your friends live not too far distant, perhaps they have heard the note as well.  It is not a great hope, but a little, for if we do not get help soon, the orcs will overcome their uncertainty."

"The horn was heard," Aragorn said.  "But it will take time for help to arrive.  We must try to hold out until morning." 

"I have only three arrows left," said Legolas to the Galadhrim.  "We began this day with a battle."

"There are more above," Haldir said.  "They are long for your bow, but they will do."

"I'll fetch them," Sam said, trying to get to his feet.  "I'm good for nowt else."

"You will not!" said Frodo, pushing him back down again.  "You're hurt, Samwise Gamgee, and if anything is to be fetched above then I shall go for it."

"You're hurt too, Frodo," Pippin reminded him.  "Trade places with me and I shall do the fetching.  I'm faster than you!"

"I would, if I knew how you got there," Frodo said, eyeing the distance to Pippin's branch with dismay.   The bark of the tree was smooth and gray, and he did not see any handholds.

"Oh, Strider fetched me up here," Pippin said. "I forgot."

"Catch the ladder when I swing it to you," Boromir told Pippin.  "Then Frodo can come to you, and you can go on up."

"But what about Sam?" Frodo asked, sheathing Sting and preparing to climb.

"Better for him to wait until Pippin isn't shaking the  ladder," said Aragorn.  "Go now, and warn us if you see movement on the ground or in the trees."

As soon as Pippin was sure that Frodo was securely on his branch, he put his feet on the ladder and let it swing, scrambling upwards as pertly as a squirrel.  Frodo watched him go, and wondered how much higher the elves kept their house, or talanif that was what it was called.  He could not see it; the branches were in the way.   He crept outward from the trunk, to get a better view, and far away, forty feet or more, he thought he saw the shadow of a shape that was not leaf or branch blocking the stars. 

The song of a bow brought his mind back to his task.  He looked down, but none of the defenders had fired, and it was not until a second arrow flew into the light at the base of the tree that he realized that the orcs were trying to put out the elvish lantern.  Their aim was poor, or the light interfered with it.  Three or four attempts came nowhere near at all.  But in the edges of the light there were shadows, running between the trees.   Sting gleamed brightly in Frodo's hand. 

Aragorn came up beside him, looking out over the night.  "How do your bruises feel?" he asked softly. 

"I'm trying not to think of them," Frodo answered.  "How many orcs do you think there are?"

Aragorn smiled, a little. "I'm trying not to think of them," he echoed Frodo's words, but then answered more seriously.  "Perhaps a hundred.  But more may come, to answer the drums."  He rested a hand for a moment on Frodo's shoulder.  "When Pippin comes back you should climb with Sam to the talan.  Keep Gimli with you there, where there is room for him to swing his axe.  I will send Merry and Pippin to you.  Draw up the ladder.  Legolas and the others will keep anything from climbing this tree and Boromir and I will try to keep the goblins from crossing from the other trees, but we cannot guard every level, and there must you make your last defense.  These Moria orcs are shy of the light, and will not fight past dawn, I hope; but they must not take the Ring."

Frodo felt for his burden, and found it safe under his shirt.  "How long till morning, Aragorn?"

"Three hours, no more," Aragorn said.  "The moon should rise soon, and be our friend in this.  But if morning comes and you are without guides, remember this – you must follow the Silverlode south, until you find a place to cross or the Elves find you and bring you across.  On the far bank continue south till you come to a tall hill and from there bear southeast and you will find Caras Galadhon.  Although I do not doubt that you will be found before you ever go so far."

Chapter Text

Frodo shivered under Aragorn's hand.  "Do not speak so," he said.  "I have lost one guide already this day.  I do not wish to lose another."

"Nor do I mean you to," Aragorn said.  "But none of the maps which you or Merry studied in Imladris show the Golden Wood in any detail, and it is an easy place to become confused if you stray from the River.  The quest must not fail, Frodo, no matter how many of the Fellowship might falter along the way."

Frodo watched the ground with stinging eyes, and spoke even more softly so that  none but Aragorn might hear.  "What if it does fail, Aragorn?  You said we lost all hope with Gandalf.  Is there any reason left to even try?"

"But we have not lost the certainty of what will happen if we do not try,"  Aragorn said, and would have said more if not just then had Merry whistled softly from the far side of the tree.

"Aragorn!  I think they're coming!"

*********

Pippin had soon reached the talan (or flet as such things were also called.)  He was hoping for a house, and walls to hide behind, but what he found was nothing of the kind – just a flat platform nestled amid the topmost branches of the tree, with a screen fastened loosely on one side to deflect the wind.  Gimli was already there, winding a bandage around Orophin's shoulder.   The arrow that had hit him lay on the platform.  It was the only arrow Pippin could see.

"That's one," he said, picking it up.  Even an Orc arrow was better than none. "Have you seen any arrows?  Legolas needs them."

"I've not had time to look," Gimli told him, and addressed the question to Orophin in the Elvish he had learned reluctantly as a child.  It was not well phrased, and he knew it, but perhaps the sight of Pippin dancing with impatience with an arrow in his hand made the matter clear, for Orophin pointed to the southern edge of the flet.

There Pippin found large covered baskets set down into wells that had been carved right into the wood of the platform; the middle one held, among other things, fletching tools and arrows both finished and awaiting feathers.  The arrows were four feet long and Pippin wondered how he could ever manage to climb down the ladder carrying such awkward things before his eye lit on a coil of rope.   It was slender stuff, gray and almost glowing in the starlight, and soft on the hands, but still it seemed strong enough to Pippin for his needs.

"Here, Gimli," he said, bundling the finished arrows together in haste.  "Lower these down on the rope, and I'll climb alongside and make sure they don't catch on anything or spill out."

"I can take them," Gimli offered, picking up his axe and sliding it into his belt.

But, "No," said Pippin, for the rope had reminded him of Sam, whom he'd often seen bundling garden stakes in the fall.  Sam had a different knot for almost any occasion, learned on visits to his Uncle Andy, which he'd been pleased to demonstrate for the younger hobbits who visited Frodo at Bag End.  It had been Sam who had first taught Pippin how to make a knot that would hold and yet come free when it was properly asked.  "Sam's wanted a rope ever since we left Rivendell," Pippin said, remembering Sam's mutterings.  "And now he needs one, if he's to climb the rest of the way up here.  But I'm not strong enough alone to hold the line and steady him if he slips again." 

"Very well," Gimli agreed.  "But return as quickly as you can.  I've a mind to deal with more of those orcs."

*******

Pippin was welcomed back to the lower branches by the sounds of fighting.  A dozen orcs had climbed into the next tree over and made a sally across the branches, only to be driven back by the defenders.  Aragorn and Rumil had ventured out onto the branches with blades, while Legolas and Haldir shot from where they stood.  Even Merry was on his feet, and there was blood on his sword.  Boromir stood braced over Sam. He and Frodo still were able to keep watch on the ground below, for the fighting had not yet reached that side of the tree; Sam was watching for Pippin, and holding the coiled end of the rope ladder in his lap.

"Arrows, Mr. Legolas," he called, as Pippin reached him.  "Pass us your quiver."  But Legolas came, leaping lightly from branch to branch.

"Give me a third of the arrows, and I will give the rest to the others," he said, as he shed his quiver and handed it to Pippin and Sam.  Then he turned to Boromir.  "Haldir thinks you should go with the Halflings, Boromir.  This is not the best ground for your sword."

"This is no ground at all," said Boromir ruefully, for his boots were uncertain on the curve of the branch.  "But if Aragorn will spare me his bow I can still be of use here below.  My brother is the better bowman, yet I can hit my mark."

"There are  more orcs than arrows, and some of them may get past us.  Someone must watch the middle heights.  And I do not think we will stay below for long.  Knife work will be easier where the tree is narrower."  Legolas took hold of the ladder and swung it towards Frodo, still above them.  "Frodo, start climbing!  The others will follow!"

"I'll go with Sam," Frodo protested.

"He'll be all right," Pippin said.  "I've got a rope for him, and Gimli's got the other end."

"Then send him up!" 

So Pippin tied the rope around Sam and Sam climbed.  Frodo joined him on the ladder as soon as he was able, and Pippin and Boromir behind them both.  Legolas then took the end of the ladder and brought it around to Merry's side of the tree.

"Pull the ladder up behind," he told Merry.  "Do not let the orcs cut it and leave you stranded above."

"What about leaving you stranded below?" Merry thought, but he did not protest, and started upwards, hoping with all his heart that he might be as sure-footed as the Elves in this tall tree, or better, that the Orcs were not.

******

Sam was dizzy and exhausted by the time he reached the platform, and Gimli had to haul him the last part of the way, and he lay where he was left, panting with the effort.  Spots danced in front of his eyes, whether he closed them or no; he didn't protest as the others picked him up and set him next to Orophin and wrapped him in furs, indeed he was scarcely aware of anything but the pain in his head and the bite of the wind.  He wanted desperately to sleep, and dared not, knowing that Frodo was in danger.

Frodo surveyed the platform with dismay.  There was nothing to keep anyone from falling over the edges of it, except for the few branches that extended from the crown of the tree and held it in its place.  The orcs might come from any side, or up through the hole in the center where Gimli and Merry and Pippin were drawing up the ladder.  Boromir had remained ten feet below, in the hopes of discouraging their pursuers, but Frodo doubted he could stop them all.  There were several orcs in the next tree over, and a few already in this one, clinging to it with their claws, and scoring deep into the wood with spikes attached to their iron shoes as they clambered from branch to branch.  Sting was bright in his hand.

Looking out through a space on the south side Frodo could see all the valley of the Silverlode.  The forest stretched across it, and he wondered about their road, finding the long dark line which marked the river.  And as he gazed the gibbous moon began to rise from the mists in the distant east.  Orange as a melon it was, with all the haze between, and slow to draw away from the clinging horizon; but as the world turned under it the mists were pulled away, and silver light began to flow down the moon's face and wash away the stains.

"Frodo! Look out!"  The orcs had come.  Gimli was shouting in his own language, his axe flashing in the new light.  Merry knelt by the edge of the platform, slicing at claws and heads when they showed.  Pippin had found something to throw.  The sweet smell of broken apples came to Frodo like something out of a dream as he stepped between Sam and a looming shadow.

But something was happening.  The light from the moon was still growing brighter.  The orc hesitated; Frodo struck it and it stumbled back, falling to its knees, staring past him.

He wondered why, and turned.  The light was silver, but the treetops of the valley were gold as a fallow field.  And where the dark line of the river ran he saw a great luminosity coming out of the south.  It was silver, like moonlight reflected from the water, and it followed the course of the river, increasing swiftly as it flowed upstream.  Frodo had never seen anything like it, and he wondered if the Silverlode were named because the moon always mirrored from it so, but when the light reached the stream of Nimrodel it turned, and followed the smaller stream up until all the forest around was lit as brilliantly as morning.

The orcs howled and tried to hide from the light, but the defenders felt new strength come to them, and struck out all the harder.  By the time the moon was a quarter of its way to zenith, none of the attackers remained nearby, and Frodo had Gimli let down the ladder, so that Aragorn and Boromir and the Elves could climb up to join them. 

Chapter Text

Merry volunteered to go down and keep watch, in case the orcs decided to brave the light and return.  Pippin rummaged through the baskets, finding sweet breads and cheese and more apples, which he divided carefully out into even shares.  Gimli cleared away the bodies, tossing them down to be burned when it was safe to do so.

Frodo helped Sam sit up so that he could take a look at his wound while the chance offered.  It needed cleaning; Orophin had not had time to bind it again before the Orcs came.  Nor was the injured Elf in much better case.  Gimli's hasty binding had stopped his bleeding, but Frodo could see the pain in his eyes and he could not use his arm at all.  Frodo gave them each a mouthful of water and wondered what next he should do to ease them.  He was glad to see Aragorn and Boromir arrive at the flet, and alarmed to see bright blood on Aragorn's boot.  "Strider!  Are you all right?" 

"I was hit by an arrow – a glancing blow," said Aragorn.  "It is not deep."

"Legolas and Rumil have stayed below to retrieve arrows," Boromir said, untying the rope from around Aragorn's waist.  "I'll go and help Haldir.  He was struck as well."

"What about the others?" Frodo asked, giving his shoulder to Aragorn for the few steps across the talan to Sam and Orophin.   "Are they all right?"

"So far as I know," Aragorn said.  "Haldir is not badly hurt, but it is a long climb.  And here above?  How did you fare?" 

"We're all right," Pippin said, coming over to help.  "I found some food and wine.  Do you suppose anyone would be mad if we had some?"  He had belatedly remembered that the food belonged to others, and brushed guiltily at the crumbs on his shirt.

Aragorn smiled and addressed the question to Orophin, who nodded and murmured a few sleepy words.  "He says we should eat our fill," Aragorn reported.  "There is more food stored nearby."

"Oh, wonderful!" said Pippin.  "I'm ready for breakfast."

"Is it morning already?" Sam thought. "It don't look like morning."  He blinked in the strange reflected light, torn between weariness, and the certainty that he should be doing more than sitting still while others worked.  But the pain in his head was as close as his heartbeat, and his strength lay beyond it; he could not reach so far.  It seemed to him that the song of the waterfall so far below was echoing louder, and words were in the music of it, urging him to sleep a little; but he did not want to sleep until he knew why the light had come and how badly Strider had been hurt and if Frodo were all right and how did the Elves grow trees so tall.  His Gaffer would be right interested in such great trees when he got home.  He put his forehead against his knees and tried to think how best to stay awake. 

Something bumped in his pocket, and he drew it out, confused at first to find a silver flask, and then remembering that Orophin had put it in his care.  There was little enough of the cordial in it yet – more than enough to keep Sam awake, and just enough to let him sleep without pain, he guessed.  But it wasn't his, and there were others hurt, and tired too.  He sloshed the flask a little, trying to estimate.  It might go as far as a bit for each of them, if they drank carefully.   Orophin had wanted him to drink more, he remembered.  'Just a sip then, and I'll give it back to him," he thought, and put the flask to his lips, careful to let only the few drops fall on his tongue.  Warmth came to him again, and if it did not go so far this time, at least it let him ignore the pain.  He turned carefully to the Elf at his side, and nudged him awake, offering the flask.  To his surprise, Orophin took a proper drink and pressed the flask back on Sam, signaling him to finish it off.  Sam looked at the flask uncertainly, but he didn't truly want to argue.  He drank. 

Frodo noticed Sam and Orophin moving and sitting up straighter and breathed a little easier on their accounts.  He really should have spent more time at Rivendell learning how to tend wounds.  Fortunately, Aragorn had not taken a serious injury.  If the arrowhead had been an inch lower it might have been deflected by the top of his boot, and half an inch to the side and it would have missed him entirely.  He had a long ragged cut below the level of the knee on the outside of his leg, easily cleaned and bound if awkward to see.  Frodo helped him tie the bandage. 

"Do you think the arrow was poisoned?" he wondered aloud. 

"We'll know by dawn," Aragorn said.  "But the wound does not burn, so it is doubtful."   He stood and tested his weight on the leg, and seemed satisfied.  "Thanks to the Lady, we may not have to fight again before then."

"What Lady is that?" Frodo asked.  "Did she make the river shine with the moonlight?

"She is the Lady Galadriel," Haldir answered climbing through the hole at the center of the flet.   His left hand was wrapped in his cloak, and he seemed surprised to find Gimli at the other end of the rope which was tied around his waist.  He nodded warily to the Dwarf, and released himself from the rope, crossing quickly to Orophin and exchanging a few words with his brother before turning to Aragorn and Frodo.  "She sent out her power, farther than she has in many long years, and I have no doubt that Lord Celeborn has already dispatched more assistance to reinforce the northern marches.  I do not think the remaining orcs will dare her light unless they are driven into a fury.  Scattered as they are, even if one of them should try to lead he will have difficulty.  By the time they regroup we should have help from the Sun."

"Maybe we should go while we can," Boromir joined the conference, and Gimli with him.  It was getting crowded on the platform, and with unspoken accord, they sat in a loose circle.  Only Pippin stayed on his feet, distributing food.  "The troop of orcs we fought wasn't a tithe of what might follow, and even a frightened orc might send fire arrows into a tree, if he knows which tree to aim for."

"There is the matter of healing herbs as well," Aragorn said.  "Unless Orophin has more here than were in the bag he lost below."  He nodded at Sam, who had accepted some bread from Pippin, but wasn't eating it.  "The sooner we come to a place where we might safely rest, the better for our hurts."

"So I think also," said Haldir.  "I have some of the ways of healing, but there are sentinels on the other side of Celebrant who are more skilled.  But I pray you listen, for I am troubled.  We had heard rumors of your coming, for the messengers of Elrond passed by Lorien on their way home up the Dimrill Stair, but the details were not given.  Hobbits, we were warned of – although we had not heard of you or your kin for many years," he nodded to Frodo.  "And you, Aragorn are known and have the Lady's favor.  Legolas is kinsman; he and Aragorn can vouch for the Man of Gondor.  But no word was given that I should allow a Dwarf to enter Lothlorien."

Gimli snorted.  "I should have known."

"But Elrond himself chose Gimli to come with us, that all the free peoples of the world should be represented," protested Frodo.  "He is from the Lonely Mountain, and one of Dain's trusty people.  We will not go on without him, for he is brave and faithful."

"His courage I have seen," Haldir said.  "And I do not doubt his faith, for without his strength my brother would be dead."  He turned to Gimli.  "But not since Durin's Day has a Dwarf beheld the trees of the Naith of Lorien.  Such dealings we have had with your folk have been always careful, and made outside our borders.  This I can and will do, if you will allow it.   I will take you across the river, and there blindfold you and lead you to Caras Galadhon by smooth paths, and so keep all your company together."

"I like this not," growled Gimli.  "I am no prisoner, no beggar or spy, to be thus handled.  My folk have never had dealings with any of the servants of the Enemy, and I am no more likely to betray you than Legolas, or any other of our company."

"Still, it is our law," said Haldir.  "I am not the master of the law and cannot set it aside.  Indeed, were it not for the messages from Rivendell I would not dare take you across Celebrant without first sending word ahead."

"This is folly," said Gimli angrily.  "I would go forward free, or go back to seek my own land, where I am known to be true to my word, or perish in the wilderness."

"Folly indeed," said Haldir.  "Indeed in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all who still oppose him.  Yet so little faith and trust do we now find the world beyond Lothlorien that we dare not by our own trust endanger our land.  We live in an island amid many perils, and our hands are more often on the bowstring than upon the harp.  I would not send you away to die, but rather bring you to safety, and vouch for you before the Lord Celeborn."

"It is hard to thus single out one of the Company," said Aragorn.  "We shall all go blindfold if Gimli must, even Legolas, if you will agree that our hands stay free, and we may all unbind our eyes if the enemy comes upon us."

"Once we are across the Celebrant, the inner sentries will guard us," Haldir said.  "I do not think any Orcs shall pass them, but I will gladly agree to your terms if Gimli will do so."

Gimli laughed suddenly.  "A merry troop of fools we shall look!  Will you lead us on a string, like many blind beggars with one dog?  Nay, t'would slow us too much, and we already are slowed by those we will have to carry.  But I shall claim amends for every fall or stubbed toe, if you do not lead me well," he warned.

"I will lead you well,"  Haldir promised, much relieved.

"And if Legolas should be mirthful, he shall join me," Gimli said to Aragorn.  "I will not go a step forward while the subject of mockery." 

"So I shall tell him," Aragorn said, gravely.  "And so it shall be true for any of the company whose manners do not meet your courtesy in this."

"I'm too tired to be mirthful," Pippin said.  "Can't we please rest a while before we go on?  It would be good for Sam, don't you think Frodo?  He's too sleepy to eat."

Sam stirred, and blinked owlishly at Pippin.  "Don' wan' eat," he said thickly.  "Too much work."

"Sam!" Frodo exclaimed.  "You're drunk!"

Chapter Text

Sam started to shake his head, and then caught it between both hands.  "I'm not drunk," he said very carefully.  "I just don't hurt.  Much."  But his cheeks were flushed, and the smile of reassurance he gave his master more than a little lopsided.  Aragorn reached over and checked his forehead and cheeks by touch, frowning.

Orophin spoke up then, and Haldir answered him in their own tongue. Frodo saw the tension leave Aragorn's shoulders as the two Elves conversed, and leaned over to ask, "What are they saying?"

"Orophin has dosed Sam with a kind of liqueur, so he is a little drunk, but only a little, and the pain will stay at bay for a while.  More importantly the drink will stay his fever for a few hours, and by then we should have reached another healer," Aragorn answered, leaning back again.  "He'll be all right, Frodo."

"A liqueur? Is it like the stuff that Gandalf gave us on Caradhras?" Pippin had overheard.  He was feeling better, with food and a little wine, but the prospect of staying awake was still daunting to him.

"Gandalf?" Haldir repeated, surprised.  "Mithrandir was with you?"

Frodo couldn't answer.  Memory had struck him like an arrow from the dark.  Sam started to cry, and Pippin knelt to give him a hug, berating himself for reminding everyone. 

Aragorn was the first of them to find words.  "He was our guide, and our leader. But he fell."

"Fell?"  Haldir exclaimed.  "How?  Where?"

"At the Bridge of Khazad-Dum," said Gimli, in a low voice, with the dread of the memory bright in his eyes.  "Into the unmeasured depths of the abyss.  The pass was closed to us, by storm and malice, so we passed through Moria.  There by the Chamber of Mazarbul the Orcs came upon us, and we fought and fled, but when we reached the bridge we were overtaken.  The drums of the Orcs had summoned Durin's Bane.  Gandalf stood against it, broke the bridge, and cast it down, but in its spite it pulled him in after, and he was lost."

"Durin's Bane? Balrog!"  Haldir was on his feet, his face bone-white in the moonlight.  "You bring a Balrog on your heels?"

"Had it followed we would already know," Aragorn reassured him.  "Nay, nay, Gandalf prevented that at least.  Neither Legolas nor I would have risked the Golden Wood did we think that worse than orcs pursued us."

"We will not stay to find out," Haldir said grimly.  "We go.  Now.  And pray that the protection of the Lady is strong enough."

"But Merry, and Legolas, and your friend," Pippin protested. "They haven't eaten anything yet!" 

"Then they shall go hungry!" Haldir said so fiercely that Pippin stepped back, tears starting in his eyes.  

Aragorn rose to his feet, "Do not let your fear govern you!" he commanded, his mien high and grim, and his hand on the pommel of Anduril.  "Already this day I have fallen into that error, and I shall not do so again.  We have wounded we must tend before we go, yourself among them.  Haste will not serve us so well as the strength to go on.  Pippin, Boromir, relieve the watch and send them here to eat or take the food to them.  We will join you as soon as we may." 

Pippin scrambled to obey, but Boromir stood by Aragorn and waited, braced for battle.  Haldir looked long into Aragorn's eyes, and the silence grew, brittle and dangerous.  Frodo felt a pang of pity for Orophin, who could have understood but one word and that the worst, when he saw the wounded Elf's eyes flicker uncertainly from his brother to the Ranger.  "We bring danger with us whatever Aragorn says," he thought, "even if it is only the Shadow, making us a threat to any who might be our allies in a better time."  He tried to think of a way to break the stalemate, of words that might yet allow them all to reach a better refuge, if only for a day and a night.  He was so tired!

And then Sam spoke up, chanting words he had heard but twice before. 

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire has woken,

A light from the shadows we bring;

Renewed is the blade that was broken;

The crownless again shall be king.

Haldir glared at Sam, but Sam smiled back and waved, well pleased with himself for remembering Bilbo's poem.  And the Marchwarden's fear-born anger, meeting no resistance, washed away as suddenly as it had flowed and he gave a small smile to the hobbit before turning again to the Dunedan with a reluctant nod.  "Very well, Aragorn, son of Arathorn.  We shall take the time to prepare.  But we must not tarry long."

"Nor shall we," Aragorn promised, much relieved.  "Gimli, please gather together such supplies as Haldir thinks we may require.  Frodo, will you help me tend the wounded?"  He glanced at Boromir, who met his eyes with a nod of acknowledgement before taking himself off down the ladder after Pippin.

In spite of their haste, and Haldir's misgivings, it took some time to prepare to depart.  Legolas, Merry and Rumil all had a chance to eat a little breakfast.  Sam might have been able to manage the ladder, if someone steadied him, but Orophin could not, even after Aragorn had tended him, and Haldir's own wound was painful for climbing.  He sent Rumil to the flet in the next tree, to retrieve a contrivance of pulley wheels so that they could use a rope to lower packs and injured, for all were tired, and even Gimli's dwarven strength was not without limits.

In their turns, the two Elves and Aragorn rode down with a foot in a loop of the rope. Sam they lowered in one of the large supply baskets, and Frodo with him; to keep the basket steadier, and because Sam was nearly asleep.  He roused a little when they reached the ground, though, and Merry brought the kettle filled with water from the stream. 

"Here, Sam," he said.  "Let's clean your face and you'll feel better.  Frodo, go and wash up by the waterfall."  Merry's own face and hands and feet showed the signs of his ablutions, and in spite of the orc-blood spattered on his weskit, he seemed to have recovered his spirits.  "Really, it helps.  I'll stay with Sam."   So Frodo went toward the music of the waterfall, and found there a small pool all aglow, as if the moon were caught beneath its waters.  Above the waterfall the spray hung in the air, and a rainbow was there gleaming like jewels against the night sky.  Nothing in Frodo's memory matched the beauty of it and he stood for a moment, breathing the sweet clean mist, before climbing down the steep bank to put his feet in the water.

Aragorn was already there, stripping water out of his hair with both hands.  "Thank Nimrodel for strength returned!" the Dunedan sighed.  "I can go a little longer, now." 

"But how far do we have to go?" Frodo wondered, cupping a handful of water and moonlight in his hand and letting it fall in bright chains between his fingers.  The very shadows on his heart were driven back somehow, and yet he knew that he would have to sleep and soon, to truly find his strength again.

"It depends on how Haldir takes us," Aragorn said.  "If we follow the road, we have fifteen miles to go, until we reach the crossing of the Celebrant at the Gates.  But since we go with the Galadhrim, we may find a place to cross sooner.  Once across the river I think we will find a place to rest before too long."   He waited while Frodo waded into the edge of the pool to wash hands and face, watching the opposite side of the stream.  But no orc disturbed them, and Frodo only remembered the need for haste when Gimli and Boromir came in their turn.  

Sam was sitting up when they got back to the tree, and fractious with the discovery that the orcs had kicked open his pack and strewn the contents in the leaves.  "Look at these poor taters!" he exclaimed, displaying the smashed ruins.  "And I was saving them and all for a treat when we got out of the dark.  The salt pork's ground into mud, and what they've done to my herbs..." 

"Well at least you won't have to carry so much," Pippin said cheerfully, bringing an armful of retrieved goods to be restored to the pack.  "How many handkerchiefs did you bring, anyway?"

"Enough to make up for the ones you didn't," Merry retorted.  "Here, Sam.  I've found your hat.  That will cushion your head a little, once I've turned these straps out of it.  What are they for?  Oh."  He fell silent as the shape of the pony halter untangled into familiarity. 

Aragorn gently took hat and halter from Merry and knelt by Sam.  Sam reached out and touched the supple leather with one hand.  "I didn't want to leave it to be found," he said.  "Not where it might lead something as was following us.  But I don't suppose as I need it now."

"It can go with us a little farther," Aragorn said, putting the halter into the pack with the other things, passing the whole thing to Merry and Pippin and indicating that they should finish finding what they could.  He smiled down at Sam.  "I haven't thanked you yet, for coming to my defense above."

Sam was confused for a moment by the change of subject, but then he remembered and blushed.  "I'm not sure I got the words right," he admitted.

"You did well enough, Sam," Frodo reassured him, willing to aid Aragorn in distracting Sam from old griefs.  "Bilbo would be proud of you."

"I miss him," Sam said, simply. "I miss his singing.  I miss his songs."

Frodo put an arm around Sam's shoulders for a careful hug.  A good washing had brought Sam to wakefulness, but his eyes were still clouded with the liqueur and deferred pain.  Melancholy and music were each a half step aside, Frodo thought, and hugged Sam a little harder.  "How can you miss Bilbo's songs when you've got them all in your head?" he teased, smiling at the memory of Sam teaching Pippin-lad a kitchen song over and over as they shelled peas on the steps of Bag End.

Sam brightened.  "I do haven't I?" he said, as if he'd never thought of it before.  "Or a good many at least."  He grimaced as Aragorn eased the soft felt hat over his bandages.  "Too bad as he doesn't have any songs about having a sore head."

"I'm surprised," Aragorn said dryly.  "He certainly has a few about how to get one." 

Sam snickered, and Frodo surprised himself by laughing.  "What about the pancake song, Sam?  Isn't that for sore heads?"

"Well it is and it isn't," Sam said.  "Seeing as how the one singing it isn't the one as wants to sleep a bit more.  But I didn't learn that from Mr. Bilbo.   My Gaffer taught it to us after a hard night at the Green Dragon."

"I'd like to hear it," Aragorn said, surveying their companions.  Merry and Pippin were tying closed Sam's much depleted pack, Boromir and Gimli were back from the stream,  Legolas and Rumil had finished securing the ladder in the branches and were coiling the rope that they'd used instead,  Haldir had Orophin upright, leaning against one of the trees, and was tense with impatience.  "Come, Sam," he said.  "You can sing it to me on the way."