A/N: Thank you all so much for all the reviews for the last chapter. I appreciate every one of them, as I always do. You are the greatest fans, and believe me I know how fortunate I am to have such faithful readers. Even my disagreeable plot bunny agrees with me on that point. :o)
Aragorn wasn't sure how long he had been sitting in the tiny shelter, watching over Legolas. He had fought off the lure of drifting off into the oblivion of much-needed rest.
Worry had been the strongest motivation for remaining alert. He stared at Legolas so hard, reassured each time the elf's chest rose and fell. The relief at seeing that small movement was tempered by the fear that each time the elf exhaled, he might not inhale the next breath.
Aragorn blinked, finally realizing that looking away was not a sign of disloyalty or a lack of intense concern. He knew intellectually that such an idea was ridiculous. But, his heart was harder to convince, especially since he had been the one responsible for this whole debacle.
Hadn't he been the one to drag Legolas in to the ruined tower to begin with? Again, on an intellectual level, he knew no one had ever been able to make Legolas do what he didn't want to do. That didn't assuage his guilt any, since he had always known that loyalty and a strong sense of brotherly love would, more often than not, drive the elf to follow him into adventures that were less than intelligent choices.
Now, once again, Legolas was paying the price for another questionable idea the man had come up with.
He thought back to the time he had insisted they cross troll territory to get back to Imladris more quickly. And, of course, there was the time he wanted to go investigate the rumors that Black Mountain had reawakened. Legolas had suffered quite badly that time, almost dying more than once.
Aragorn jerked out of his thoughts when he heard his name called softly.
He was on his knees down beside his friend in an instant. "Legolas?"
After looking around him, Legolas said, "Estel, what happened?" It was evident that they weren't where they had been the last time he had been conscious. "Where are we?"
Aragorn clenched his teeth. He could tell the elf's eyes were slightly unfocused, but he also knew how incredibly perceptive Legolas was, being able to discern moods, even when he couldn't see his subject very clearly.
"We made it out of that huge hole, and we're now in a sheltered area on the downside of the cliff top."
"And the snake?"
"I last saw it trying to get up out of the depression. All I saw was it's head, but nothing since then, so I don't know if the creature made it out or not. I'm thinking, th9ugh, that it would have found us by now, if it had. Maybe, it finally froze where it was, and we've seen the last of it."
"That would be nice," was Legolas's only comment.
"You don't sound as if you believe that."
"I have my doubts."
"So do I. That thing was too relentless to give up very easily. But, maybe we can get too far away for it to catch up wit us, if it does get over the top of that wall.
"How do you feel?" the man asked, suddenly changing to the subject that was most on his mind.
"I am fine," the elf answered. The words were familiar ones and came easily to his lips from long years of using them.
Aragorn's scoff-tinged remark was just as familiar. "Of course, you are." Putting the seriousness in his voice that was much more true to his feelings, he said, "Truth, Legolas." Then he asked again, "How do you feel?"
Knowing that attempting to insist he was fine now was not a viable option, the archer said, "I hurt. But," he hastily added, "I will be fine, Estel. For real. I just need to throw off the infection, so my body can begin to heal itself."
"Easier said than done, my friend," commented the healer side of the man. "But, if anyone can do it, you can. I've seen you come from much farther away." The term 'away' referred to the elf coming much too close to fading.
"I have nothing left to heal your wounds or even help with the pain." His somber tone reflected his genuine sorrow at that fact.
"My body may be a bit weak right now, but it will mend. The pain I can tolerate until then."
"You will never admit to anything less, will you?" There was a question at the end, but the ranger, shaking his head, was really making a statement. In truth, he was glad that, at times like these, the elf was too stubborn to give up.
"It does no good to do so, Estel. It is what it is and it will be what it will be." Legolas smiled, a small sparkle coming into his eyes.
"Lucky for you I was raised understanding the riddles of elfkind."
Legolas laughed and then winced, as he did so, bringing the ranger closer to him in a vain attempt to ease his friend's discomfort.
Practicality, able to be kept at bay for a while, now reared it's head, forcing Aragorn to say, "We need to leave before the snake finds us. You also need to reach my father." He knew it would be many days until they reached his foster father, but there was little hope, with the intensity of his wounds, that Legolas would be completely well by then.
"I'm sorry, Legolas. I know you would feel better staying here and resting." All Aragorn could do was shrug.
"Do not apologize, Estel. You are right. We must go. I can make it to safety." He thought about telling the ranger not to worry, but that was a waste of time.
Legolas hoped that his words of assurance would not turn out to be false bravado. Sometimes that bluff was all right to make, but he was certain this was not one of those times. Their lives were at stake from a more formidable foe than a horde of beatable orcs, creatures they had faced and defeated too many times to count. Not to mention that his wounds were hardly dismissible, something that rankled him, as it always did.
Summoning all the strength he had, Legolas, with Aragorn's considerable help, made it to his feet. He stood, swaying more than a little, but soon gained the majority of his balance.
The two friends made their way from the little shelter down the mountainside. The lower they got, the less snow there was that they had to navigate.
It was as hard a trip as any they had made for a long time, but eventually they reached the relatively level ground at the foot of the mountain's foothills.
Looking back over his shoulder, Aragorn couldn't believe that he and Legolas had actually made it.
Legolas proved not to be as weak as the ranger had expected him to be, which was no doubt the reason they had managed to get as far as they had. Elven strength never ceased to amaze him.
When Legolas also turned to look back, Aragorn asked, "Do you see any sign of the snake?"
"No. I do not see it nor any trail in the snow but our own. That is odd, since it has to be aware that we have left the mountain."
"Perhaps it's dead," the ranger replied, his tone leaving no doubt that that was exactly what he hoped had happened.. "It wasn't used to the cold, so it makes sense that it wouldn't be able to survive up there for long, although it was so relentless, I was beginning to wonder how hardy it would prove to be."
Turning back, Aragorn said, "You need to rest." It sounded like a command.
"Only a moment. I do not like stopping out here in the open. That serpent could surprise us still."
Thankful that Legolas was willing to stop, for a while at least, Aragorn gently set his friend down and gratefully sat down beside him. Both were facing the mountain in case the snake should make an appearance.
After a few moments of complete silence, while they each recovered some of their strength, Aragorn suddenly said, "Why do I always seem to get us into these messes?" His voice was low and full of regret.
"You are curious and want to know everything that you can about the world and those that inhabit it. There is no shame in that."
"You are as curious about everything as I am, yet you only get into trouble when I lead you into it."
Legolas laughed quite loudly. The sound was musical but full of derision.
"You evidently have not talked to my father regarding my misspent youth. He could tell you some tales about me getting into trouble that would curl your toes. He often mentions that he is surprised I made it to my majority."
Aragorn also laughed, though the meaning behind it was very different. Seriously, he asked, "Why do you do it?"
Legolas furrowed his brows in confusion. "Do what?"
"Continue to come with me, when you are usually the one that suffers from my arrogance."
Legolas reached out and gripped the ranger's arm. "Estel, you are one of the least arrogant people I know."
"How I wish that were true. I am arrogant, because I always think I can do things I shouldn't and get through them without a scratch, for myself or anyone else with me, which is usually you. And, it never seems to work out that way."
"You are feeling guilty again, human. That is not a becoming trait for a confident ranger, nor even a true one."
Aragorn did not argue with that. He knew that doing so would only go on and on without resolution. Legolas would never agree with him on that subject. He never did.
After another five minutes of silence, Aragorn finally said, "We should be going. I would like to make the forest before dark."
Seeing the elf's face at mention of the forest, Aragorn firmly stated, "They will forgive you."
Legolas didn't comment. He was both looking forward to and yet dreading reaching that forest. He would have to apologize to the remaining trees for the carnage caused by the snake, a snake he had led amongst them. They would have every reason not to forgive him, nor even to allow him and Aragorn to enter their midst.
The air was crisper than when they had first passed this way, yet it was as if the intense cold had not yet touched this little forest, for most of the trees still had their leaves, though it was obvious they were beginning to take on the colors of Fall.
Legolas approached with a trepidation that was a completely foreign feeling for him. How would they greet him? Would they - could they - really absolve him of the guilt he felt?
Not only did the trees forgive the elf, after he had sought out the eldest one to offer his heartfelt apology, but they all offered him the solace that his troubled soul needed.
Aragorn knelt nearby, as Legolas knelt in front of the old oak, touching it with his forehead and both open palms. His eyes were closed. Gradually a look of peace settled over his face.
The ranger both heard and saw the leaves above him begin to quiver. It wasn't long before the rustling spread to every tree still standing in the forest. It was a joyous sound that had the elf smiling.
Aragorn's heart filled with joy to see the elf's reaction, and he, too, smiled.
The two friends spent a peaceful night of much-needed, restful sleep among the trees, knowing that they would alert Legolas if danger approached.
The next morning, both elf and ranger were greatly refreshed.
Legolas's fever had broken before dawn and his wounds were beginning to heal. It appeared that the lecture that Lord Elrond was sure to give both of them would not be quite so harsh, especially since neither elf nor ranger planned on telling the elf lord the full extent of what had happened.
The elven prince bid the trees farewell, telling them that he hoped to revisit them one day.
Not long after Legolas and Aragorn left the wood, they were greeted by their horses, who had been faithfully waiting for their masters' return. It was a happy reunion, to say the least.
The little party left the small wood behind them, as they continued on their way toward family and friends in Imladris.
Days later, as they neared the hidden valley that sheltered the elven realm of Lord Elrond Peredhil, there was no doubt in their minds that the snake had perished on the mountain. There had been no evidence the creature had followed them, so it was believed that no longer would it be free to harm anyone else.
The snake was soon forgotten, as home beckoned the weary travelers.
Back on the mountain, at the bottom of the cliff, lay the shattered remains of the giant snake.
The extreme cold had numbed It's body enough to prevent It's muscles from working properly. Extreme hunger had sapped It's strength. Combined, those two facts rendered It incapable of climbing out of the mountain depression.
After much trying, It had finally lost It's grip on the cliff top and fallen.
The snake was dead.
What no one knew, what no one could possibly have known, was that deep in a crevice, sheltered from the extreme weather and looking very much like the boulders that surrounded it, lay a giant egg.
Well, that was quite an adventure, wasn't it? I managed to get our guys home safely. The plot bunny had a fit, as you might imagine, so I had to let him get the last laugh with a twist ending. And no, there will not be a sequel involving a baby snake. What happens next is entirely up to each of you. :o)
Thanks to everyone that hung on for this entire crazy ride. As I said before, you are all much appreciated.
Thanks, Tinu, for answering a question that gave me an idea. I think you can guess what it was. ;o)