Journey to Ithilien
Legolas told the driver they were ready to leave and the wagon moved off westwards towards Ithilien.
Pippin cried out pitifully as the movement jolted his ribs. Aragorn made no sound of distress but twisted his fingers more tightly around Sam's. The gardener grimaced at the pressure on his raw palm but made no sound of protest.
"Why didn't Gandalf return to least to wish us well?" Gimli complained.
"I think he dared not." Legolas answered sadly.
"Dared not?" The Dwarf sounded incredulous.
"I believe he feared if he saw his friends again while so stricken, he would be tempted to break the rules of his order and intervene." Legolas explained.
"And so he should!" Gimli retorted, "The best of Middle Earth lie here suffering in need of aid far beyond our skills!"
"Peace, Gimli!" Legolas cautioned, fearful he would upset the Hobbits." You underestimate the skill of we Elves," he added with a confidence he did not feel. How he wished he had spent more time learning from the healers at his father's Court instead of concentrating on practising the arts of war. He had been trained to tend minor injuries received in battle but had paid little heed preferring to leave the wounded to those skilled in healing.
While Gimli bathed the feverish Frodo's face, Legolas started to rub Aragorn's feet, hoping to rouse him but the man seemed unaware of his presence.
He looked up and saw Pippin watching him with a worried expression.
"What truly ails him, Legolas?" he asked, struggling painfully to breathe." I too was wounded in battle yet I didn't see such fear in your eyes. I know Strider is of far greater value than I, yet it seems more than that that troubles you."
Full of remorse, Gimli hastened to his side.
"Never say that again, Pippin!" he chided." We are especially worried about Aragorn as he is so weary and Middle Earth's fate still rests upon his shoulders. Sauron is defeated but the people are leaderless. We are tending him best we can and hoping he can feel our need in our touch and it will hearten him."
Legolas listened uncomfortably then hastened to change the subject fearful of the direction the conversation was taking. He propped another pillow under Pippin's head to ease his breathing and remarked.
"You need fresh compresses on your bruises, Pippin." he said." They will no longer be cold enough to reduce the swellings."
Pippin groaned as the blankets were drawn back from his battered body and the now warm cloths removed.
Gimli dipped them in a tub of cold water and wrung them out then handed them to Legolas who in turn laid them across Pippin's tender flesh. The cold seared his bruised skin and he started to shiver violently.
Legolas wished he had a healer's eye to deduce whether the bruises were improving at all. He was only thankful that Sam was unable to see the extent of Pippin's injuries with Aragorn lying between them. As for poor Frodo, he was too far gone with fever to be aware of anything. Not for the first time, he feared Mithrandir had overestimated their skills.
Gimli caught his eye as if reading his thoughts while Pippin moaned under his ministrations.
"You're doing it exactly as Aragorn did, Master Elf." he commented reassuringly "For once I don't think a Dwarf could do better!"
Legolas smiled faintly.
"I'll hold Strider's hand too, then." said Pippin." I want to help. He's always been so kind to us. Help me, Gimli!" He stretched out a small and shaky hand as he spoke.
The Dwarf took it and guided it to the man's but this time there was no response to both Hobbit and Dwarf's dismay.
"We'd better change Aragorn's compresses too." he said, at a loss what to do next" I suppose that is what he would do himself."
Gimli pulled the blanket off the wounded man and sighed. If the bruises had looked bad before, now they appeared far worse, great spreading patches of red, blue, and purple concentrated on his left side and now spreading across his entire body leaving only a few patches of uninjured flesh visible. The stark whiteness of the bandages where they were not stained with blood, only served to make the bruises look worse.
Pippin, seeing his friend and protector's injuries for the first time gulped and fought back a wave of nausea. He was reminded of an incident from his childhood which had had lain buried deep for twenty years or more
The young Pippin had been put to bed early one winter evening but had been awakened by loud voices outside his room. He was used to the Thain, his father having visitors but these particular voices sounded agitated unlike those of the usual guests who came to eat and discuss the affairs of the Shire, so he had crept out of bed and down the hallway to the living room. The door was slightly open and he had peered inside.
There on the couch, lay Hobbiton's miller, partly divested of his clothing and surrounded by the local healer, the Thain and several servants carrying towels, bandages and bowls of hot water.
One of the servants moved aside and he could see the Miller's body was covered in bruises and cuts. He overheard the healer saying something about him being beaten up and his father was promising to catch the ruffians.
Just then Pippin's sister, Pearl had noticed him standing in the doorway and had hustled him back to bed.
He remembered then asking her who had hurt the Miller and her terse reply "Some of the big people."
'If we still had a king, wouldn't he protect us and keep the big people out of the shire? 'he had asked.
"We've not had a king in over a thousand years nor are ever like to again." She had replied as she bundled him back into his room and firmly shut the door.
Pippin's sheltered existence had been shaken by the experience as he could not understand why anyone should want to hurt anyone else but as no one had ever mentioned it again in his hearing, he soon pushed the memory to the back of his mind where it had stayed until now.
Maybe he would tell Strider if he recovered, when he recovered he corrected himself feeling very near to tears. He had never realised the big folk could bruise as badly as Hobbits.
But then wasn't Strider the long lost King? Yet, surely a king would be invulnerable, not lying beside him badly wounded? Apart from being much taller and not having hairy feet, he wasn't all that much different from a Hobbit.
He had always thought a king would be powerful, frightening, and invincible, sitting on a golden throne wearing a crown. Yet, this was Strider, the man who'd always been kind to him and protected him on their travels. Now that was how he imagined a king to be, a protector and Strider was certainly that. He clasped the limp hand more tightly as he fought back the tears.
Gimli tried to turn Pippin's head away.
"Don't look, Master Pippin, it will only upset you! Just keep holding his hand."
He wanted to obey the Dwarf but couldn't tear his eyes away. It was bad enough that Boromir had fallen but surely not Strider too?
Legolas placed the last compress on Aragorn's leg and pulled the blankets around him again, shaking his head as the man started to shiver violently.
"I fear the fever grows worse. He is burning then freezing." he said sadly.
Gimli grabbed an extra blanket and tucked it round the man whose shivering gradually lessened, though Pippin still thought his hand felt cold and clammy. He rubbed his small fingers across the man's large palm remembering sadly, how strong the same hand had felt when he had clasped it in the Houses of Healing but a few days before.
Tears threatened to choke him and he struggled not cough without success and the pain tore through him like a knife. If only he could breathe properly!
Gimli was instantly beside him trying to calm his panic.
"Easy now, Master Pippin. The air will soon get better, just stay calm!"
It was too much to bear. He lapsed into a merciful unconsciousness.
Gimli anxiously checked he was still breathing.
"How much more can these poor Hobbits endure?" he mused sadly, as he tucked the blankets more closely round him.
Sam still clung grimly to Aragorn's hand and tried to think of anything save the plight of his unconscious friends. He had refused to give up hope in Mordor and it had briefly seemed that his hope was rewarded when he had awoken with Strider bending over him, but now it seemed those hopes were all in vain after all. The grim and all too real prospect that Frodo, Pippin, and Strider might all die was unbearable to him and he tried to distract himself by thinking of the Shire.
It would be spring now, so fresh and green and the blossom would be out and the birds would be singing as they nested in the woods and gardens. This time last year, he had helped Farmer Cotton plant his potatoes and the farmer's daughter Rosie had brought him a mug of cider when the work was finished. Their hands had touched briefly, when she had handed it to him and he had looked in her eyes and thought her, the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.
The next day, he had walked with her and her brothers down by the river and he had thought of asking her to dance with him at Mister Pippin's party the following week, but he was too shy. Now he wished he had spoken and told her how special she was.
The wagon came to a juddering halt as the driver rested the horses. Legolas and Gimli got out to stretch their legs and then kindled a fire to cook some stew for themselves and broth for the Hobbits. They also boiled water to mix infusions of willow bark tea to ease their patients' pain and fever and spooned it down their throats as best they could.
The next two days stretched out as a seemingly endless nightmare of monotony and pain made easier only by the fact that each mile they travelled away from Mordor meant fresher cleaner air.
To Pippin, the journey meant ever increasing pain in his ribs and head as the motion of the wagon jostled them. He slept fitfully and just wished they could be still and something, anything would ease the pain as the willow bark had little effect. The jolting aggravated his wounds and he started to burn with fever
Sam lay mainly wakeful and troubled, watching his friends suffer but too weak now even to lift his hand unless Legolas or Gimli helped him. However, he kept drinking the water and broth he was offered and Legolas and Gimli dared hope that he at least might survive.
Frodo's fever continued to rage unabated and he cried out constantly as if trying to ward off some unseen enemy.
Aragorn burned with fever but hardly moved at all nor cried out and Legolas had to struggle to force him awake sufficiently to swallow water and herbal brews.
Only once did he open his eyes and trying vainly to focus on the faces swimming before him, he whispered.
"How are the Hobbits?"
"They live still." Legolas said gravely." How do you fare?"
But Aragorn was unconscious again before he could reply.