The Lost Leader

by Varda

'Aragorn! Come back!'

The voice was just audible above the sound of the stream. Aragorn had crossed it at a run, the long wolf's stride that had earned him his name carrying him through the bright cold shallows and up the rocky bank on the other side. All about on the hillside were great pavements of hewn stone, all that was left of the great Stair leading down from the Dimrill Gate.

Aragorn stopped reluctantly and looked back. The company were strung out across the mountainside, struggling over the broken ground, climbing through gaps in the gorse and beds of heather. On the other side of the stream stood Legolas, not even winded but hesitating to follow. Seeing Aragorn looking back he pointed at the straggling band and said;

'Aragorn! You must stop!'

'What does it matter if they drop with tiredness?' thought Aragorn savagely to himself. 'What does anything matter now?' Before his eyes was always the sight of Gandalf's fall in Moria. Even the vision of the Balrog held no horror like to that for Aragorn. Now his mind was empty, he could not even think. What had Gandalf foreseen for this hour? And what would he do in Gandalf's place? A cold sense of despair overtook him. He wanted to run on, not look back. He was not hurrying towards anything now, just fleeing the past.

On the far side of the river the younger hobbits had reached the water's edge and without asking leave they threw themselves down to drink after the hot parched dark of Moria. Boromir came up to them breathless but had not the heart to order them up on their feet again. He looked inquiringly towards Aragorn; he could keep up, but the hobbits were another matter, they had little strength left.

'Aragorn!' he shouted

'Frodo's fallen behind, he's hurt' Legolas looked back and with his keen eyes picked out Sam and Frodo struggling over the rough ground. Frodo was moving slowly and painfully and Sam was staggering. The Elf ran back to them at once.

Legolas had to school himself to remember these folk were not as tireless as he was, not as invulnerable. But now with Mithrandir gone it was an especial effort to remember. Elves never slept, but sometimes they regained their strength by journeying through passages and spheres of thought built up over the ages they had lived. Or slipped into the world of their own people's memory and recreated their courage and energy by means of those ancient beauties. Now Legolas, his spirit dimmed by Gandalf's fall, wished to retreat into his inner world of light, but it was not permitted; he had a care to see to these mortals he had sworn to Elrond, the great lord revered by all Elves, to protect.

And had there been no oath, Legolas would still have had a care for them. Elves rarely gave love to mortals, they were gone so soon and were so fragile, but Legolas had done so and already his heart was hurt. Having no death of his own, he feared theirs.

He ran back to where Frodo and Sam were. It was some distance. As he came up to them Sam gave up and sat down heavily on a rock. Frodo kept on, but his breath was coming in wheezing gasps. Legolas took his arm with concern. He had to be careful, hobbits were strange creatures to him, he could never gauge their strength, only that it was so much less than his own. He feared to hurt them. Frodo looked up at him.

'I'll be all right, if I can just rest a little...' but as he spoke he slid down onto the rock beside Sam, drawing shallow and painful breaths.

Aragorn ran up. Looking at Frodo he felt remorse; thinking only of his own pain he had forgotten Frodo's.

'I'm sorry, Frodo' he said.

'I forgot you were hurt. Forgive me.'

Frodo only shook his head but Aragorn, as if suddenly making a decision turned and shouted to Gimli.

'Gimli, make a fire! We'll halt here for a while' he looked over at the two younger hobbits. Pippin had drunk his fill but was still lying on the ground as if struck down. Merry was sitting wearily beside him on a rock gazing ahead down the valley.

'and get those two lazy hobbits to help you!' The two curly heads were raised together and Merry and Pippin got up hastily and followed Gimli in search of fuel.

Aragorn turned to Frodo

'Perhaps something can be done to ease your hurts, Frodo'

Frodo shook his head but Aragorn insisted.

'That was a cruel blow, even though the mithril shirt turned the point aside.' Helped by Aragorn Frodo unwillingly took off his jacket and shirt. The mithril coat sparkled in the cold mountain sunshine. Gimli looked up from preparing the fire, came over and ran his hand over it with a sigh.

Beneath the mithril coat Frodo wore a soft shirt of fine leather. The tip of the lance had driven the links of mail through this into Frodo's skin. The marks were clear to be seen, with a great red-purple bruise across his chest and side. He was breathing now with difficulty. Aragorn thought of the fierce pace he had forced on the company and rebuked himself silently. Sitting back he fished in his pack and taking out a piece of cloth unfolded it carefully.

'This is the athelas Sam and I gathered at Weathertop' he said to Frodo 'it is no longer fresh but it might help ease the pain.'

Gimli and the young hobbits had got a small fire going and had heated some water in a pan taken from the pack of a drowsy and uncaring Sam. Aragorn bent over the steaming water and threw five dried leaves into it.

At once a fragrant smell lifted into the air. Everyone who smelt it felt refreshed. Aragorn soaked a piece of cloth in the water and as gently as his hard hands would permit bathed Frodo's wound. Almost at once he breathed more easily.

'Is there any hope now, Aragorn?' asked Frodo. Aragorn without looking up answered bitterly;

'No hope, not now' With Gandalf gone? No hope any more.

'But if there's no hope...' protested Frodo.

'Forget hope!' said Aragorn without meeting Frodo's eyes.

'There is always vengeance!'

Frodo did not answer. He looked down at Aragorn, now binding a soft pad against his side. His brows were drawn together in concentration. Frodo noticed that his own hands were torn and scratched from gripping the stone step of the broken stairs in Moria. But he did not save any of the athelas for himself. Vengeance is not for you, thought Frodo. You will remember yourself, and Gandalf, before too long, I can see. In fact, Frodo could see only too clearly. He instinctively put a hand to the chain around his neck that carried the Ring. Aragorn looked up at the movement;

'I am not hurting you, Frodo?' Frodo shook his head. He felt great sadness. He could ask no more of Aragorn, add no more to his burden. If only he knew what Gandalf had intended to do! But whatever would carry Frodo on, it would not be vengeance.

'If you can bear the weight, put the mithril coat back on' said Aragorn, standing up.

'It was a brave and happy chance that you were wearing it.' Frodo felt relief flood through his bruised body. Helped by Aragorn he shrugged his clothes back on.

'Will you see to Sam?' asked Frodo anxiously.

Sam had a cut from an orc sword on his head. He had hardly felt it in the heat of battle but now it burned like fire and he was dizzy and light-headed. Aragorn gently examined it, Sam wincing and screwing up his eyes.

'It is a clean cut, Sam' Aragorn said encouragingly. 'These orc blades are often poisoned.' Sam's eyes widened with horror. Aragorn laughed. 'But not this time'. He bathed the wound with the athelas and Sam at once felt the pain ease. He sat beside Frodo and watched Merry and Pippin carefully in case they mishandled his pans.

'We will rest here for a while' said Aragorn, looking at the hobbits.

'But we must reach the woods of LothlÛrien before nightfall'

'Do we have to go that way?' asked Boromir. Aragorn looked at him in surprise.

'There is no other way. Why do you ask?'

'It is said that there is great evil in LothlÛrien' replied Boromir.

'Not unless a man bring it there himself' answered Aragorn sharply.

'But what knowledge you might bring away from there, only you can know what that is, good or evil.'

Boromir was silent. Aragorn looked in his face and thought he saw fear, but that was not like the man. Before he could speak again Legolas hurried up to them.

'Alas,we must not tarry!'

Boromir and Aragorn looked up in alarm.

'Why?'

'We are pursued!'

Far away, on the white rocky slopes that were all that was left of the Dimrill Stair that once led down from the gates of Moria, Legolas had seen tiny specks, moving along the trail they had followed. Only an Elf could have seen them; neither Boromir nor Aragorn could see anything when Legolas tried to point them out with his bow.

'But orcs do not travel in daylight!' said Aragorn, as if to himself. It was still bright, a late winter afternoon. A moon like a ghostly ship half sunk in a blue sea rode low over the mountains. The green valley of LÛrien seemed very far away.

'Aragorn, in Moria there were more than just orcs following us.' said Legolas.

Aragorn knew it was true; orcs, half-goblins, things only glimpsed but not seen fully. Perhaps these things had mastered the ability to travel in the light, or had been given it by some dread power..Gandalf had said something like that to Elrond. Legolas's face was fierce.

'We must go at once!'

Hastily they threw water on the fire and gathered up their packs and weapons, once more hunted. Merry and Pippin helped a still slow and sore Sam to pack his gear again. Aragorn helped Frodo to his feet and they started down the mountain again. Frodo walked much more easily, but let himself be helped for a little distance until he felt stronger. Tired and sore as he was he felt concern for Aragorn; he saw as if for the first time how hard-won were all his victories. He brushed away his own self-pity.

In front Aragorn had leaped up onto a high rock to spy out their route. The dark head, streaked with grey, was raised like a hawk watchful for prey or some great wolf leading its pack.

'Follow me!'