The King is Dead
They reached Ithilien by the morning of the third day and the driver halted the wagon in a fair glade where a stream flowed alongside a grassy meadow surrounded by groves of trees just coming into full leaf.
Legolas stumbled from the wagon, stiff after the long journey and took deep breaths of the sweet air, rejoicing to be in the open again. As an Elf he hated being confined inside, be it a wagon or a palace.
He stood for a few moments just enjoying being in the fresh air and surrounded by trees and open sky before rather reluctantly rejoining Gimli.
The Dwarf was kneeling beside Aragorn and frantically rubbing the man's hands.
"He grows worse." Gimli said bitterly. "The Wizard's words of hope were false!"
"Let us carry him outside," suggested the Elf. "Maybe the sweet air, the fresh grass and birds' joyous song will revive him .The driver is occupied watering the horses, so now is a good time."
Gimli grunted but nevertheless helped the Elf to carefully carry Aragorn from the wagon. They laid him behind some trees out of sight of the driver and placed the Hobbits on either side of him.
Sam continued to clutch Aragorn's large hand in his small one, though it was doubtful the man was aware of his presence.
There was much to carry, tents, blankets, food, weapons, cooking pots and healing supplies.
The wagon was almost empty when they heard the thunder of hoof beats in the distance.
Gimli rushed protectively to Aragorn's side while Legolas grabbed his bow and strung an arrow, anticipating some fleeing rider from the enemy or maybe the vanguard of a fresh attack.
Gimli struggled to protect Aragorn while brandishing his axe ready to defend him with his life if need be.
The driver stayed by the horses evidently poised to mount one and flee from the approaching danger.
"To think we have come all this way only to be slaughtered now!" groaned Gimli
"We shall fight and give our lives if need be for Aragorn and the Hobbits." Legolas replied, poised with his bow. "Stop! Who are you and what is your errand?" the Elf shouted as a lone horseman came into view.
"Put down your weapons! I come in peace!" a familiar voice answered.
To their amazement, Eomer, King of Rohan, his mane of blonde hair blowing in the breeze galloped up alongside them.
Legolas and Gimli sighed with relief and lowered their weapons,
Leaping from his horse and seeing the astonishment on their faces, he hastily explained his errand.
" Gandalf bade me come." he told them "He wishes for tidings of how you fare and bade me send the driver of your wagon on to Minas Tirith to tell the city of our victory and fetch my sister, the Lady Eowyn and the Hobbit, Meriadoc to join us here once they be recovered sufficiently in health."
Legolas still looked baffled.
"A worthy errand, my Lord." he replied, "Yet it surprises me that Mithrandir should send a King to deliver it?"
Eomer's expression darkened
"I noticed the Lord Aragorn was gone." he replied "When I pressed the Wizard hard for tidings, he told me he was sore wounded and I was troubled how my brother in arms fared. "
He then noticed the blanket shrouded form whom Gimli knelt beside and rushed over and pulled the cover from around Aragorn's head.
For a moment, he gazed at the pale features of the king of Gondor and then threw himself down beside him, clasping the still form in his arms.
Legolas and Gimli stepped back alarmed at the sheer force of his grief.
"No!" he cried, "This cannot be, my brother king, the saviour of my sister, my friend! You cannot leave us now!" he cried, as he looked on Aragorn's pain and fever-ravaged features.
Turning to Legolas and Gimli he asked.
How did this happen? He did not fall in battle as I saw him afterwards and he seemed unscathed."
Legolas carried the Hobbits one by one further into to the shelter of the trees leaving Gimli to explain.
"He pushed himself too hard, or so Gandalf and the sons of Elrond tell us now," he explained. "Within a week, he fought two battles, healed the sick, rode the fearsome paths of the dead, looked in that accursed stone of wizardry and then gave all his strength to the little ones here, despite being sore wounded and weary. His noble heart could take no more. The Wizard bade us bring him here but I fear it is only to bury him."
Gimli's tone showed the bitterness and anguish he felt.
"Then let him rest forever here in this meadow, as a king out of legend so that no man knows whether he will return or not!" cried Eomer his noble features stricken with grief.
Legolas returned at that moment.
"We cannot give up hope while he yet lives." he insisted." Let us send the driver back now and then place Aragorn by the Hobbits while we make camp. Maybe the trees will bring him comforting words. We must pitch the tents and dig pits for cooking and latrines."
"I will gladly aid you make camp and tend Aragorn" said Eomer.
They carried Aragorn and gently laid him down alongside Sam and Pippin, who now grasped the man's hands again. Pippin hardly seemed to know what he was doing as his fever rose but he stretched out his hand and seemed calmed when it met Aragorn's larger one though he murmured "Merry!" as he clasped it.
With Eomer's help, the camp was quickly prepared and the three returned to tending the sick.
Gimli coaxed water and then broth down the Hobbits while Legolas and Eomer turned their attention to Aragorn. They moved him a few feet away from the others, better to attend to him.
When the blankets were pulled back, the King of Rohan gasped at the sight of the bruised and battered body of his friend and fellow king.
"Let us heat water and bathe him. Maybe it will ease him?" he suggested as Legolas started unwrapping the bandages.
To the Elf's keen eye, the wounds looked neither better nor worse apart from the wound in his side, which was hard and swollen and felt hot to the touch, compared with his otherwise cold and clammy flesh.
"This wound needs draining but I have not the skills." Eomer said sadly. "One slip of the knife could damage some vital organ."
"Nor have I." Legolas replied, shaking his head." Maybe if he were not so weak, but it was difficult enough to get the arrow out without cutting too deep."
They bathed Aragorn in silence as he lay pale, still and unmoving beneath their touch. It seemed more like laying out the dead than bathing the living. Only the slight rise and fall of his laboured breathing gave any indication that he yet lived.
Eomer desperately chafed Aragorn's hands and feet and even shook him gently but he did not stir.
"Keep on fighting, do not let go, my friend!" he pleaded but Aragorn gave no sign of having heard him.
Overhead, the sun shone brightly as if mocking their dark forebodings of the death of a King. Two ravens sat perched on the highest tree, dark silhouettes against the blue sky Suddenly they flew down scattering the songbirds, which scattered and flew away in fear. The ravens circled overhead and then returned to their perch as if waiting expectantly for something.
Eomer looked up at them and cursed, "Fly home ye ravens!" he cried, "But you will find your Master no longer awaits your tidings!"
His proud head then bowed with grief as his eyes filled with tears.
Legolas, wishing to spare the bluff king of Rohan any embarrassment went back to the Hobbits.
"Who is that man?" Sam asked.
"Eomer, King of Rohan, the Lord of the Mark." The Elf answered.
"A real king!" Sam gasped.
"Yes, and when Pippin's fever breaks he will tell you that Merry is sworn to his service." Legolas told him." Much has happened while you and Frodo were in Mordor."
This all seemed too much for Sam to digest so he changed the subject.
"How is Mister Strider getting on?" he asked.
Legolas looked down unable to meet his hopeful look.
"Not well, I fear." he replied." The fever no longer consumes him but now he lies still and cold as death."
"When Hobbit babes have that kind of sickness, we undress them and lie them in the sun and let its rays warm their skin. Not that that would help a man, I don't suppose. Poor Mister Strider!" Sam started to cry softly.
"Did any of the babes recover?" Legolas asked, curiously.
"Many did." Sam replied." The healers said the combination of sunlight and fresh air on their skin revived them. Many more survived the aftermath of a fever in the warmer months because we could lie them in the sun."
Without another word Legolas ran back to where Aragorn was lying, cradled on Eomer's lap.
"Come, move him into the sun!" he ordered.
Eomer looked puzzled but complied and helped him carry the man to the meadow where they laid him on the soft grass. The spring sunshine was warm and gentle, bathing the field in a soft glow.
Legolas unwrapped the blankets from Aragorn's still form, just leaving one under him and then started to unwind the bandages. The discarded blankets felt as damp and clammy as the man's skin.
"Whatever are you doing?" asked Eomer aghast.
Gimli ran towards them equally horrified." Have you lost your wits Master Elf? "he raged.
"Sam told me it was an old Hobbit remedy that cured their sick babes. I thought it worth trying." Legolas explained.
"I didn't mean for you to try it out on Strider," wailed Sam aghast. "It seems rather undignified!"
"He's not a babe but a grown man and a King too!" Gimli retorted.
"It is not fitting to leave a King naked in a field!" Eomer raged. "If he is dying, let him join his forefathers with dignity!"
"Who will know save we?" Legolas replied, undeterred as Elves viewed such matters differently." We have tried all we know and nothing has roused him, he just grows weaker. Maybe the sun will revive him. If not, we will dress him in royal garments and bury him in this fair place."
"Elves!" Gimli snorted." Be sure not to let one near me when I'm dying! I dread to think what Aragorn would say to all this, he would be mortified!"
For once Legolas had no retort for the Dwarf. Instead he wandered in desolation round the flowery meadow, gathering white and yellow spring blossoms and plaiting together with some laurel branches them in a circlet, which he placed on Aragorn's head. He then silently braided the man's hair in Elvish fashion.
Struggling to control his emotions, Gimli moved aside after a few moments." I'd better care for the Hobbits." he choked and walked towards the trees before anyone could see him weeping.
Legolas and Eomer positioned themselves either side of Aragorn, each clasping one of the man's hands, the other poised to ward off any insects that might touch his wounds.
"Let us keep vigil," said Legolas.
"Should we not make one more attempt to revive him?" Eomer said almost pleadingly.
Legolas shook his head.
"We have tried all we can and must now accept the will of the Valar." He replied, "Bitter though it may be, who are we to question their designs? "
Eomer clutched the limp hand, noting the calloused skin and the countless abrasions, yet it seemed he held the most noble thing on Middle Earth and a tear fell on it unbidden as he thought how that same hand had clasped his in comradeship on the battlefield and later recalled his sister to the light.
"We should fetch his sword." Eomer said. "He is a mighty warrior and to die with sword in hand will ensure he feasts joyfully with his ancestors.
"Not yet, we should wait. We should bring the Elessar to him first." The Elf replied.
Aragorn neither moved nor stirred. Roheryn came and nuzzled him and a butterfly landed on his chest and stayed perched over his heart for a few moments before flying away. The gentle spring breeze blew through his dark hair.
His breathing grew shallower and Legolas felt it was a sign the King would soon depart beyond the circles of the world.
He nodded to Eomer.
"It's time to fetch his sword and the Elessar." He rose to his feet.
Gimli who had been watching while tending the Hobbits saw the look on Legolas' face, and came to join him, carrying Sam in his arms.
They argued as they came.
"There's no need for you to have to watch this, Sam."
"But I want to, Strider is my friend too. I must say goodbye!"
Legolas returned with Anduril and the Elessar, the sword he placed by Aragorn's hand, and the green stone by his head, and then he resumed his former position, kneeling by his head and clasping the man's hand.
He took off his cloak and looked about to cover his friend with it but the look in Legolas' eyes prevented him.
They knelt in silent homage to their friend.
Eomer suddenly rose and went to where his horse was tethered and rummaged in the saddlebags.
A few moments later, he returned with a small jar and uncorked the lid.
Inside was a sweet smelling oil.
He looked down at sorrowfully at Aragorn whose cruelly wounded body seemed like a scar upon the fair meadow and glared at Legolas for exposing his friend to such indignity.
Then kneeling and bowing his head, he applied a few drops to Aragorn's head, hands feet, and breast.
"If you must die, friend, die as an anointed King!" he said, his voice choked with tears.
Gimli had laid Sam down and he reached out and together they grasped Aragorn's wrist.
Sam started to cry and soon was joined by the others. The tears of Hobbit, man, Dwarf and Elf fell on Aragorn's face as they mourned a beloved friend and the noblest man on Middle Earth, as they knelt in silent homage to their friend.
A cloud passed across the face of the sun and the ravens gave a hoarse cry in the gloom.