Legolas and Gimli hastened anxiously to their friend's side.
"Has he fainted?" Gimli asked worriedly.
Aragorn's eyes briefly flickered open." Care for the Hobbits," he murmured so softly that even Legolas' sharp hearing could only just make out the words. "My friends, I shall miss you. Tell Arwen that I …"
"No more of that, you can tell her yourself when you see her." Legolas chided gently though he looked alarmed at the implication of the words.
"Help me move him on to one of the pallets!" Legolas instructed Gimli.
The weight of the armour he wore made lifting him almost, so they half dragged, half carried Aragorn to the empty pallet next to Pippin while Sam watched in horror.
Legolas furrowed his brow looking increasingly anxious "His pulse is very weak. Maybe he is wounded? Help me remove his armour. Gimli" he said." He will breathe more easily and we can see then if he is injured."
It was no easy task to remove the coat of mail, as Aragorn was too weak to lift his arms to help them. To their horror, they discovered that beneath it, instead of the usual quilted jerkin that warriors wore for protection, Aragorn wore only a thin shirt, which was soaked in blood.
"I am no healer. I need to fetch help!" Legolas cried and ran outside the tent. The battle had almost ceased and men were bringing injured comrades to the healers. He recognised one of Prince Imrahil's men leaving a tent where he had obviously left a wounded comrade.
"Will you fetch the sons of Elrond and Mithrandir?" he asked." The Lord Aragorn needs to see them urgently."
"I will go with all haste and find them." the man replied and leaping astride his horse, he rode off.
Legolas went back inside the tent. Aragorn was lying where they had left him, while Gimli was giving water to the Hobbits.
Legolas eased his friend into a sitting position, trying to ease his laboured breathing "I have summoned help." he told Aragorn". While we wait, I shall tend you as best I can."
Gimli, after a final reassuring word to Sam came to assist Legolas and together they gently removed Aragorn's shirt, a slow and painful process as the blood had adhered the fabric to his skin. He felt limp as a rag doll in their arms but apart from twitching slightly when they pulled the fabric free from the flesh made no protest.
Legolas and Gimli were both battle hardened warriors but they winced when Aragorn's injuries were finally revealed. The Orc spears had left great spreading bruises across his chest and on left his side was an ugly looking wound, where a fragment of some spear or arrow had penetrated the mail and was embedded in the flesh.
More bruises disfigured his back while his arms and shoulders were covered with bleeding gashes. Some looked like older wounds which had broken open again.
"However did he manage to stay on his feet in battle and then tend the Hobbits?" Gimli mused.
They laid Aragorn down again upon the pallet. His eyes were open but he was looking straight through them as if they were not there
He smiled faintly and murmured "Mother, Halbarad?"
Fearing he was slipping beyond their reach, Legolas sprinkled cold water on his face and shook him to try and rouse him. He was puzzled for although Aragorn's injuries were severe, they were not life threatening as far as he could tell.
From what he knew of humans, he ha' seen many who had survived far worse unless of course the bruises covered some more sinister hurt within. He slapped his friend's face and was relieved when Aragorn gave a low moan.
At that moment, the sons of Elrond entered the tent and rushed towards the prostrate Aragorn.
Elladan laid a hand on his brow while Elrohir took his hand. Their fair Elven faces were grave.
"What ails him?" Legolas asked anxiously.
"His life force is ebbing away." Elrohir said sadly. "Alas for our foster brother! There is nothing we can do to aid him!"
"I thought you Elves claimed to know the arts of healing!" Gimli burst out." Surely you can tend his wounds and heal him!"
"The wounds are but cracked ribs, bruises and gashes," said Elladan "It is not they that are taking our foster brother's life. He is dying because has given too much of his life force away and has but a few hours to live, I fear! His hurts lie beyond our skills."
"He healed many after the battle of Pellenor Fields and took no hurt from it." Legolas protested.
"He was not then suffering these hurts." Elladan said." One such as he can only give strength when he has it to spare and over these last days, he has had little rest, known much grief, and taken many hurts. No mortal man could endure that."
"Why aren't you at least binding his wounds rather than talking so much?" Gimli protested angrily.
"I fear it would be of little use and only cause him more pain," said Elrohir ' It is best to let him be at peace. We will send soft pillows and blankets for him and the little ones."
Gimli looked about to explode with fury when they realised Gandalf had entered and heard most of the conversation. Ignoring the others, he hastened to Aragorn's side.
"Alas, my friend, you overestimated your strength and now pay a terrible price!" he lamented
Legolas shook his head sadly.
"He knew the price but chose freely to sacrifice himself," he said. "Would that I could have prevented this!"
"Can you not use your powers to help Aragorn?" Gimli pleaded." His friends need him, especially the Hobbits .All of Middle Earth needs him if the West is to be rebuilt!"
"It is not permitted that I should change the will of the Valar!"
"That is nor fair!" raged Gimli "He is dying because of his compassion for the Hobbits! It is evil should be punished, not good!"
"I know of the law of the Valar," said Legolas," But this too cruel!"
"Such love and self sacrifice deserves reward." Gandalf said sadly, remembering how he had pressed his friend to heal Faramir after the battle of Pellenor fields instead of insisting that he rest. He went to Aragorn's bedside and laid his hand on the sick man's brow. "However all hope is not lost while he yet lives."
Legolas wondered if he imagined it but Aragorn seemed to breathe more easily at the Wizard's touch and when Gandalf took the injured man's hand, the limp fingers seemed to tighten round it.
"I cannot change what is to be." said Gandalf, "Yet advice I can give you. Move them all swiftly from this foul air, which will surely kill them and take them to the sweet air of Ithilien. There they may yet find healing. As for Aragorn, tend his wounds, stay by his side and do all you can to restore his life force. Now let me see how the Hobbits are! Elrohir and Elladan go and fetch some supplies and make arrangements for the journey to Ithilien. "
"Should we not first tell the Captains what has befallen Aragorn?" asked Elrohir.
"Say nothing yet, there is time enough for them to know .Let them still hope, while Hope yet remains. " Gandalf replied firmly." If anyone should ask, tell them he is resting now before accompanying the Hobbits to Ithilien."
The twins came and stood before Aragorn and made a gesture of blessing according to their custom.
"Farewell, dear brother!" They cried and tears glistened in their eyes as they left.
"We've killed him, haven't we, Mister Gandalf?" Sam asked in horror as the wizard approached his bedside. Frodo and Pippin still lay motionless, either unconscious or sleeping.
"He is still alive, Master Samwise." Gandalf replied. He gently lifted Sam and turned him so that he could see Aragorn's battered body. The Hobbit started to weep at the pitiable sight.
Gimli was about to protest when Gandalf's words silenced him.
"Remember this, Samwise, whatever happens. It was Sauron and his minions who caused him these cruel hurts and not you!"
The wizard gave Sam a drink and laid him down again waiting until he fell into an uneasy sleep, before going to stand by Frodo's bedside, where he stood looking grave.
Legolas has started bathing Aragorn's face and has he felt the burning skin cried out." Alas, he has a fever, he is getting worse! Should we not call a skilled healer from amongst the Gondorians?"
To his surprise, Gandalf smiled.
"That is good news, my friend," he said." His body is obviously starting to fight against his hurts. He needs the care only his friends can give, as not even the most skilled healer can change the will of the Valar. Now tend his wounds and do not abandon Hope. You watched while he tended the Hobbits so you know what you must do.
I will send a wagon with swift horses and a trusty driver to take you to Ithilien as soon as his wounds are bound. I must stay here for now, so I leave his fate and that of Middle Earth in your hands, Legolas and Gimli son of Gloin! I trust you not to fail! We will meet again ere many days have passed."
He glided from the tent leaving an anxious Legolas and Gimli staring after him.
Gimli sighed and shook his head." Why do Wizards always leave when you need them?" he complained." Come Master Elf, we will tend our friend as best we can."
They finished undressing Aragorn and found a deep gash below his right knee, many more bruises, and several broken toes to add to his other injuries. They then carefully bathed him and wrapped him in a blanket. Legolas realised what he must do next and was not looking forward to it.
A servant had brought the supplies they needed so there was no reason to delay further.
Legolas knelt beside his friend as his delicate Elvish fingers carefully probed the flesh in Aragorn's side where the fragment of arrowhead was embedded; hoping he could remove it with his hands but the task was hopeless.
The skin looked red and inflamed and felt hot to the touch. Infection was already setting in and there was no time to lose. As an archer, Legolas had pulled arrows before, including those he had shot himself in the foot with when learning to shoot, many hundred years before but unlike this, they had always been a shaft to get hold of. This was different, especially as Aragorn had not been wearing a silk shirt, which would have prevented the arrow tearing the flesh.
"Stay with him." He told Gimli .He took the sharpest of his knives and went out to where some of the men had a campfire burning. Plunging the knife deep in the flame, he waited until it glowed white hot and then stood for a few moments allowing it cool.
He went back inside to where Gimli, already prepared for what was going to happen was holding Aragorn down on the bed. Legolas had hoped his friend would be unconscious for the painful procedure but Aragorn's eyes were open and he was looking straight at him.
"I am sorry Mellon Nin," he murmured.
" It must be done, just do it quickly!" the man whispered.
Taking a deep breath and forcing himself to hold his hand steady, Legolas cut into the flesh and prised the sharp fragment from his friend's side, steeling himself against the agony he knew Aragorn must be feeling.
The King bit his lip but was unable to hold back a scream of pain as the knife slice though his tender flesh.
The procedure mercifully took only a few moments as the arrowhead was not embedded too deeply but it felt like an eternity.
Gimli quickly worked to staunch the bleeding while Legolas cleaned the wound with a herbal tincture and bound a pad of soft cloth against it. Aragorn made no further sound. His eyes flickered as if he were fighting to remain conscious.
"It is not an Orc weapon," said Legolas with relief as he examined it." I think it was part of a Southeron arrow and they are not poisoned."
The friends next cleaned and bound the gashes. The one across Aragorn's left shoulder was deepest but Legolas decided against trying to stitch it, as it appeared to be several days old and was already healing, as was the gash on his leg, though both started to bleed again when they were cleansed. The other wounds once cleaned appeared merely superficial much to their relief.
Then deciding that the treatment Aragorn had used for Pippin would benefit him too, they applied cold compresses to his bruised chest, back and side.
Gimli lifted Aragorn while Legolas firmly bound his ribs. They then wrapped him in one of the soft blankets that the sons of Elrond had sent and placed a pillow under his head as they gently laid him down on the pallet.
Gimli patted his Aragorn's hand and felt encouraged when the slender fingers pressed his own. His placed both his hands over the man's, chafing them and trying to will his strength into him while wishing he had the power to do so.
Frodo groaned from the other side of the tent and Legolas hastened to his side as he screamed, "You can't have it, let me go!"
Legolas tried to calm the delirious Hobbit as he thrashed weakly on the pallet. Wondering if the supplies they had been brought contained anything to reduce a fever, he asked Gimli to fetch the pack.
As the Dwarf let go of Aragorn's hands, the man's breathing became more ragged and what little colour he had drained from his face.
Preoccupied with giving Frodo a herbal drink to reduce his fever, it took Legolas and Gimli a few minutes before they realised what was happening.
Abandoning Frodo, they raced to Aragorn's bedside. He gave a loud choking gasp and then appeared to breathe no more.
Legolas raised his head and shoulders and shook Aragorn vigorously while Gimli threw cold water on his face. As that produced no response, the Elf forced his own breath into his friend and vigorously rubbed his chest.
After a few moments, they were rewarded by a spluttering breath.
Legolas sank to his knees on the floor and grabbed Aragorn's hand while Gimli almost wept with relief.
"That must have been what Gandalf meant," the Dwarf said." We must keep hold of his hand but how, as we have to tend the Hobbits too? How I wish I had spent as much time learning the arts of healing as the arts of war!"
"I could help." Sam's voice surprised them until they realised he must have been awakened by the commotion and seen all that happened.
"If you move me near him, I can hold his hand." the gardener said, his voice still cracked from the effects of prolonged dehydration." Then you can look after Mister Frodo and Master Pippin too."
Legolas and Gimli exchanged anxious glances as they pondered the offer.
"That would help," Legolas said." Thank you, Sam"
"It's too dangerous!" Gimli protested, "You haven't enough strength to spare, Master Hobbit!"
"You do not have Aragorn's powers, neither do I, nor Sam for that matter. " Legolas reasoned. We' have suffered no ill effects from clasping Aragorn's hand, so there is no reason that Sam would do so either."
"I want to help." Sam insisted.
"But you injured your hands in the Black Land. It would cause you pain." Gimli said, torn between the desire to save Aragorn and spare Sam pain.
"It doesn't hurt now, well not much since Mister Strider bandaged it." Sam said." And I'm sure he is hurting more than I am!"
At that moment, Frodo groaned more loudly and started thrashing his limbs in a fevered delirium. His foot caught Pippin's bruised side rousing him back to consciousness.
"Merry, where are you? It hurts so much. Help me! I can't breathe! Strider!" he whimpered.
Gimli hesitated no longer and lifting Sam, carried him over to the pallet next to Aragorn. He tried to stretch out his hand towards the man but lacked the strength to reach him. Looking very apprehensive, the Dwarf moved the man's and the Hobbit's hands together until the small fingers curled round the large ones.
Legolas slowly let go of Aragorn's other hand, fearful once he did that the man would stop breathing again but much to his relief he continued to take laboured breaths.
Gimli meanwhile was trying to hold Frodo down and get him to swallow some water but Frodo kept screaming, "It's mine, Gollum, no!" while Pippin continued to cry out for both Merry and Aragorn.
Weak and exhausted, Frodo collapsed back into unconsciousness.
Pippin had now spotted Aragorn lying on the pallet opposite.
"What happened?" he whispered.
"He was badly wounded in the battle. We did not realise it until he fainted." Gimli explained with a warning glance to Legolas and Sam, trying not to burden Pippin with the knowledge that Aragorn might well have sacrificed his life to save him.
Pippin looked distressed enough with what they did tell him. "No!" he cried ", Merry and Lady Eowyn and Faramir all badly hurt. And Lord Denethor, Boromir and King Theoden dead. We've lost so many of our friends."
He started to sob which caused him to flinch with pain from his injured ribs.
Legolas rummaged through the supplies they had been sent and found some herbs to ease pain and fever. He mixed them in water for Pippin and Frodo, wishing he had Aragorn's skills. He could only guess the correct amount and gave the Hobbits the same amount as one would a human child.
Carefully, he lifted Pippin's head and raised the cup to the young Hobbit's lips. Pippin grimaced at the bitter taste but swallowed obediently. Frodo's drink, he left until he woke again, though from his condition he wondered if he ever would.
A servant called to them from outside the tent. Gimli went to answer the summons.
"My lords, everything is prepared for you and the sick Halflings to travel to Ithilien. "the servant said. "Mithrandir also commanded that the Lord Aragorn's horse be brought though he is travelling inside the wagon to tend the Halflings. We have prepared the roomiest wagon with the swiftest horses. A skilled driver will take you. Mithrandir has told him not to disturb the Ring bearers on any account."
The wagon had been brought almost to the flap of the tent much to Gimli's relief. He went back inside the tent to tell Legolas to prepare for the journey.
They were relieved it was growing dark so they could smuggle Aragorn inside without the rest of the camp noticing.
Legolas sprang inside the wagon and found it contained four pallets heaped with pillows and blankets.
While the driver was harnessing the horses, Legolas and Gimli carried Aragorn inside and Gimli stayed with him leaving Legolas to carry the Hobbits.
He brought Sam out first and said to him in a low voice.
"I want you to promise me something, Sam. Please don't ever tell Pippin that Aragorn collapsed while tending him. He would not wish Pippin to carry any guilt should he…"His voice trailed off unable to finish.
" I won't tell but you're an Elf, Mister Legolas .You know how to save him surely?" Sam replied.
Legolas turned away unable to face the trusting look in Sam's eyes. "Thank you Sam." The Elf managed a wan smile "Now I shall lay you beside him so you can hold his hand again. Rub it too if you have the strength. We will do all we can to save him."
The Elf settled Sam in the wagon alongside Aragorn and once certain that Sam was clasping the stricken man's hand took Gimli with him to collect Frodo and Pippin.
They laid Pippin the other side of Aragorn cushioning them both with plenty of pillows to prevent further damage to their injured ribs.
Frodo they placed the other side, where Sam could see him and settled themselves for what boded to be an arduous journey.