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A Fairy Tale, Middle-Earth style

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Friends in Small Places

I Killed Him by StarLight


Crime and Punishment

Disclaimer: Not mine and never will be. I just love playing with them.

Summary: What is the punishment for killing a friend? Dungeons, death – or something worse?

Rated: K+





I killed him.

He was my friend. He was dear to me. Very dear. And yet, I caused his death. I murdered him. And by this act, I have caused the doom of us all.

I still hear the screams of denial coming from behind me. I still see his wise blue eyes, boring into us, warning us. Begging us to run away and leave him to die. Leave him to the fate that I have brought upon him.

It is I who did it. I, and my actions alone. I betrayed him. It was only my foolishness, my thrice cursed stupidity! He was right. I should have thrown myself into that well.

Pippin!”

He is gone now. Gone beyond the circles of this world, where we cannot reach him. I can never tell him how sorry I am. How I wish I had thrown myself into that well, how I wish I had been eaten by the Watcher, so that it would have never come to that.

Pippin!”

But it is too late now. He left, and he left me here alone. Alone with my grief and my guilt. Nay, not alone. Merry is still with me, good old Merry, and he never blames me although I deserve all the blame. Neither do the rest of our company. And yet, I want them to blame me. I want them to shout at me, to tell me what a fool I am, what a piece of scum I am, and how I have destroyed everything that we have fought for. For I deserve nothing less.

Pippin! Wake up!”

The Hobbit slowly opened his eyes and looked up groggily. Strider’s face was above him, eyebrows drawn together with worry. “This was but a dream, Pippin. All is well. All is well now.”

Pippin frowned in confusion, worry, and perhaps newfound hope. “Gandalf…” he started timidly. “Is he… is he…”

The Ranger sighed and averted his gaze. “I fear this was not a dream, my friend. He is gone.” His voice was barely audible at the last words.

I killed him,” the Hobbit muttered quietly, more to himself than to anyone else.

Strider looked up uncomprehending. “What did you say, Pippin?”

I killed him,” Pippin repeated, louder this time, and his voice was dry and hollow. “I am a murderer.” His small body was shaking all over, and his eyes were wide and scared.

Killed whom?” Aragorn asked, and the Hobbit pulled away, as if trying to hide, to sink deep into the grass and disappear from this world. “Tell me, Pippin. Whom did you kill?”

Gandalf,” he whispered and he could no longer keep the bitter tears from rolling down his dirtied cheeks.

The Ranger stared at him in surprise. “What do you mean? It is the Balrog who killed Gandalf.” His voice was soft. The pain was still too fresh, too raw, and he could not relive this memory without feeling his own tears rise, trying to choke him.

No, I did it!” Pippin screamed, pouring out all his guilt and anger that had built up until now, as if a dam had suddenly broken, releasing the water all at once. “I did it! It was not the Balrog, it was me! Me! I threw down that rock! I awoke the orcs, and they awoke the Balrog! That nightmarish creature would have never followed us if not for my stupidity! And I…” Pippin paused to swallow his tears and suddenly looked very small, “I only wanted to take a look…”

Curiosity is not a crime, Pippin,” Aragorn said gently.

No,” the Hobbit agreed, his voice low and bitter. “But murder is.”

The Ranger sighed and sat down on the grass, his eyes darting worriedly over the rest of his companions. They all needed their rest, and he preferred to deal with this himself. Merry was curled up on the grass, with his back turned to them. Gimli was snoring softly, his head rested on a rock – how he could feel comfortable in that position, Aragorn could never understand. Frodo was stirring in his sleep, his hand often going towards his chest, his fingers trembling slightly. Sam was not far from his master and he seemed vigilant even in sleep – as if he would wake up at any time should he sense any danger. Boromir looked tense in his sleep as well, and Aragorn sadly shook his head when he noticed that the Steward’s fingers were curled around the handle of his dagger. The man could not find peace in Lothlórien and his mistrust of the Elves allowed him no rest. Even Legolas was asleep, his eyes wide open and fixed at the distant stars. This was the first time the Elf slept in days – the first time after Gandalf’s fall.

You are no murderer, Pippin,” Aragorn said slowly. “You did not mean to cause harm. Besides, we do not know if the noise you made awoke the orcs and the Balrog. Perhaps the Balrog would have found us anyway. I hesitated to go into Moria because I sensed that Gandalf was in danger there. Perhaps this was meant to happen and nothing you have done or failed to do would have changed it.”

Do not try to comfort me, Strider,” the Hobbit snapped. “I know what I have done and I deserve to suffer!”

I know how you feel, my friend,” Aragorn said. “But you must see that-” He suddenly stopped as Pippin glared at him angrily.

You know how I feel? How dare you! You have never hurt someone you care about! You know nothing, Strider! Nothing! Nothing!” Pippin stopped his angry tirade and looked at the Ranger regretfully. His rage was directed towards himself and he had no right to turn it at the man who was only trying to help him. To his surprise, Aragorn shook his head, smiling sadly.

Oh, but I do, my friend,” he said with a tired sigh. “I do.”

It was the Hobbit’s turn to be surprised. “You know how it feels to cause the death of a dear friend?” He blinked in shock when Strider nodded. “Who- whom have you killed?” He was almost afraid to ask.

Aragorn said nothing. Instead, he slowly turned his head and to Pippin’s puzzlement his eyes rested on the sleeping form of the golden-haired Elf. But how was that possible? Legolas was surely alive!

-:-

(thirty years earlier)

-:-

Legolas nervously played with the fork, not seeing the food on his plate. The cool metal against his fingers did little to soothe his worries, and the bright eyes darted unseeing over the table and everyone present. The clatter of plates was heard as the servants arrived to serve the next dish, but the sound did not reach his keen ears.

Legolas!”

The Elf blinked and looked at his father in surprise. Thranduil rarely raised his voice at him, especially without a reason, and the King’s behaviour confused him.

My Lord?”

I asked you a question, my son,” the King continued in a softer voice. “Several times.”

The younger Elf blushed slightly and looked away. “Forgive me, father. I fear my mind was elsewhere. What did you ask?”

Thranduil frowned, somewhat worried. “I asked you where your guest was. Why did he not come to lunch or dinner?”

Legolas sighed and looked down. This was exactly where his mind had been. “A messenger pigeon arrived from Imladris this morning,” he said softly. “He carried a letter for Aragorn, bearing the seal of Lord Elrond. Aragorn took it and left, and I have not seen him ever since.”

The King nodded in understanding. “And you are worried that the message bears ill news?” This was the most likely explanation, Thranduil thought. The Ranger had arrived in Mirkwood a fortnight ago after spending many years in the wilderness, away from any Elven realm, only briefly visiting the Rangers about a year ago. He planned to next travel to Rivendell and then south to The Angle, to talk to Elrond and his mother, before leaving once again. There was still much he had to do and see, and he was not ready to allow himself a long rest to spend time with family and his old friends. Still, he had not seen Legolas in a dozen years, and for a human this was a long time, or so Thranduil had been told. Therefore, the man had chosen to stay in Mirkwood for a while, but was planning to leave in a few days at most. He had immediately sent news to Rivendell, informing them of his whereabouts and that he would arrive soon. During his stay, the man had not missed a meal unless he had been away with Legolas, inspecting the border patrols. All in all, the King had noticed that the Ranger rarely missed an opportunity to spend time with the young prince, fully aware that their time together was drawing short. This made his absence even more surprising.

Go and seek him then,” the King said. “It will make your heart lighter.”

Legolas’s face seemed to brighten up all of a sudden. As a prince, he was not expected to miss any formal gatherings. This dinner, at which some ambassadors from Lake Town were present, counted as such, and so he was reluctant to leave against his lord’s will. “Thank you, father,” he said, beaming, and walked out of the room as fast as it could be considered proper for a prince.

Legolas walked, or rather ran, to the guest quarters and then stopped, standing hesitantly in front of the room where Aragorn was staying. He raised his hand and his long fingers curled up into a loose fist, and after a brief moment of uncertainty the Elf softly knocked on the wooden door. There was no response and Legolas knocked again, louder this time. Nothing. Perhaps Aragorn was somewhere else. Legolas was about to turn back and walk away, when something, some dull pain in his chest, made him stay. With a shaking hand he held the iron knob and slowly turned it, letting the heavy door slid open.

What he saw made the blood in his veins turn into burning ice.

Aragorn was sitting on the edge of the bed, his eyes staring forward unseeing. They were dry, but were red-rimmed and blood-shot, and in the light of the candle Legolas could see the reflections of salty tear-tracks down the pale face. The man was still as a statue, barely breathing, his chest moving up and down almost imperceptibly. He looked as if he had not moved from this position in hours.

Down on the floor laid a yellowish piece of parchment. It was not crumbled and rather looked as if it had been barely touched. But it was not carefully lain down either – it rather looked as if it had fallen – slipped from the frozen fingers of a listless hand.

Legolas waited for a moment, hoping that his friend would give some sign to indicate that he had noticed his presence. The man did not move, and he ventured a step forward. “Aragorn…” he started timidly.

The man did not react and he tried to swallow the lump in his throat. “Estel, mellon nín,” he whispered and sat on the edge of the bed, slowly laying his palm over his friend’s forearm. “Please… what is it?”

The only response he received was a sharp intake of breath, almost a sob. Legolas tried to suppress his growing panic and bent down, lifting the parchment and gently placing it on his knees. “May I?” he asked softly, his gaze drifting towards the letter.

Aragorn did not respond, and he paused, hesitating. He glanced over the neat handwriting without reading the words, eager to find the answer to this horror, and at the same time reluctant to see something that might not be meant for his eyes.

She is dead.”

The words were so sudden, so unexpected, so desperate, so empty and yet so filled with emotion, that Legolas almost jumped. He whirled around, wide eyes boring into the man. “Who… who is dead Estel?” He asked, his throat going dry. And then understanding hit him. “Your mother?” He whispered.

She was not meant to die,” Aragorn said quietly, still staring forward. “Not now, not yet. For one of the Dúnedain she was still young. It was the worries and cares of this world that made her grow old so quickly, and I fear it was my absence that caused her much grief. I should have visited her more often, I should have stayed with her longer, I should have… I…”

Legolas only tightened his grip of the man’s arm, listening silently. His heart ached both for the gentle and wise Lady Gilraen, whom he had met several times, and for his friend’s pain.

Last time we met, about a year ago, she foretold this. She knew it. She told me that this was our last parting, but I refused to believe it. This growing darkness was too much for her to bear, she said. But what if… what if there is light beyond all this darkness that now threatens to engulf us, Legolas? I… I wanted her to see it. I wanted her to see the light again…”

The Elf wrapped his arm around Aragorn’s shoulders, which have started to shake slightly. He bent slightly, his forehead almost touching the man’s. “She saw her light, Estel,” he said. “You were her light, her happiness. Perhaps her life was filled with darkness and pain, but there were also beauty, and hope, and light. You gave her that, my friend.”

And yet, I saw her so rarely,” Aragorn said bitterly. “I knew that I was her only joy, and I did not do everything in my power to be with her as much as possible. I could have given her more joy, more light, but I did not. And now – now I stopped here to stay with you instead of continuing to Eriador. And I forgot her last words to me, I forgot her pain and fear. Maybe if I had continued on, if I had arrived on time…”

You could not have saved her, Aragorn,” the Elf said sadly.

The man sighed. “Perhaps you are right. And yet I… I…” Aragorn bent forward and buried his face in his hands. “Legolas, I have never before lost someone so close to me.”

The Elf smiled sadly – his friend suddenly looked so young. He rose from the bed and knelt on the floor in front of the man, gently pulling his hands away from his face. “I have,” he said softly. “And I can speak from experience. The pain is strong now, but it will fade in time. Day after day will pass, and you will begin to understand that your loved one has had a long and a happy live, and you will learn to cherish the happy memories and remember her with a smile.”

A long life?” Aragorn muttered bitterly. “Her life was not long, Legolas. Not for one with her blood. She was merely twenty-four years older than me. Twenty-four! If I leave you in twenty-four years, would you say that my time has come and I have had a long and a happy life?”

Do not speak like that, Estel,” the Elf pleaded. “You are strong. You will face the darkness and survive it. Forgive me – I was wrong to say that her life was long, but no matter how short, she had had her happy times. I am certain you have joyous memories with her and I know that one day you will learn to remember them and push away the pain.”

I have to ask for forgiveness, my friend,” Aragorn said and pulled himself on the bed, tiredly resting his head against a pillow. “You are right, of course. I fear I am blinded by my grief and do not know of what I speak.”

All is well, Aragorn,” The Elf said and stood up from the floor. “Try to rest now.”

I cannot,” the man said. “I have to see her. I need to talk to her. I know I will be too late to see the body before… before they bury her, but I have to go to her grave. I need this, Legolas.”

I know,” the Elf said. “Please, try to sleep. I will make sure there is a horse prepared for you tomorrow morning, and I will pack some food and supplies for the road. Go to sleep, I will take care of everything.”

No,” Aragorn said suddenly and sat up, looking at the dark window, as if seeing it for the first time. “How long have I stood here, before you arrived? Night has fallen already! I can wait no more. I have to see her, Legolas. See her as soon as I can. I feel as if there is something burning inside my chest, and it hurts, ai how it hurts! Only talking to her will make it go away! I have to leave now!”

Now?” Legolas shook his head. “Traveling in Mirkwood at night is madness, and you know it. There is no need to hurry. As you said it yourself, there is no way you can arrive before she is buried. And the grave will always be there, even if you are a day or two late. And I ask you to wait only several hours, until the Sun rises.”

I cannot wait,” Aragorn said, slightly raising his voice. “Legolas, you must understand. Even if I stay here, I will not be able to rest.”

I do not ask you to rest, if you cannot do it,” Legolas said. “I only ask you to stay safe. Stay here for the night and leave at dawn. When next night falls, find a safe shelter and stay there. These woods are no place to wander around at night.”

I have traveled in Mirkwood at night before,” Aragorn said and stood up. “And I have survived it.”

This was twelve years ago!” Legolas suddenly cried, his voice laden with frustration and some strange pain that had just now been awoken. “Twelve years ago – my home was a safer place then, although still darker than most realms in Middle-earth. But the darkness is growing, Aragorn, every year, every month! More vile creatures come and multiply! They are like a plaque upon the once fair woods! Once I also walked around at night without an escort, but now I would fear doing so!” He sat on the floor, feeling suddenly tired. “My home is not what it once was, my friend. And it is getting worse. I do not know if I will see my woods green and fair again.”

Aragorn sat next to him, regretful that his words had caused painful memories. The grief at that night was more than enough for everyone – there was no need for more. “I do not know either,” he admitted. “But I will do everything in my power to push this darkness away.”

You can start fulfilling that promise by staying alive,” Legolas suggested softly. “If you go out all alone this night, I have little hope that I will see you again. The orcs are more than they used to be, and the spiders – the spiders have grown bolder. They feared attacking our patrols once, but not anymore. They have grown in number as well, and I can swear they have grown bigger.”

Bigger?” Aragorn muttered in disbelief. He had seen those spiders once, many years ago, when he had traveled with Legolas and several other warriors. They had come across some spiders and have dealt with them after a brief fight. No one had been bitten, so the man was unaware of the precise effects of their poison, but the memories of those enormous beasts still made his heart beat faster. “How can they be bigger?”

Leave now and I promise you will find out,” Legolas said sadly. “But you will not live long to keep the memory.”

Aragorn stood silent for a moment. Then he walked to the wall and rested his forehead against the cold stony surface. “I know I must sound like a madman, Legolas, but I have to go. I need it. If I stay here, my heart will burst. I know it is hard for you to understand, but I ask of you, do not stand in my way. I will leave whether you like it or not, and I do not wish to part with angry words. My heart is filled with too much grief, and it can hold no more.”

I wish to cause you no more pain,” Legolas said, “but I also wish you to stay alive long enough to let the grief abate. Please, mellon nín, is there no way you can stay until dawn? The foul creatures are bolder at night and these woods will be safer when the Sun graces the treetops with her bright rays. Let us wait only for a few more hours. I will stay with you and we will wait together.”

You offer me more kindness than I deserve, my friend,” the man said. “But I fear it is as I told you already – I cannot wait. I will travel with care, I promise. Forgive me, I do not wish to cause you worry. I am certain we will meet again.”

Legolas was quiet for a while, thoughtfully regarding his friend. Then he looked around the room and there seemed to be a dull pain passing across his face. “Very well,” he said at length. “I will have all necessary supplies prepared immediately. We will leave within half an hour.”

Good,” Aragorn said. “I would be unable to wait any-” Suddenly he realized what Legolas had said and stared at the Elf, wondering if he had misheard the words. “We?”

I believe that if we travel together, we will be safer than if you travel by yourself. I will not lie to you – the road is still dangerous, but I will do everything in my power to keep us safe from those dangers. Unfortunately, I cannot come all the way with you – I have my duties here and my father will require my return, but I can ride with you as far as the Misty Mountains and see you safely out of Mirkwood.”

Aragorn was about to protest, but the quiet determination in his friend’s bright eyes stopped him. He knew that Legolas would come, not matter what he would say. He stared at the Elf silently, their eyes locked in wordless communication. Finally, Aragorn nodded. “As you wish,” he said quietly. The Elf smiled slightly and made his way to the door. “Legolas-”, the man called, and he turned back with a question in his gaze. “Thank you.”

-:-

Dark clouds had gathered over the woods hours ago, and the rain was falling in large, heavy drops. Tap. Tap. Tap. Like bitter tears they rolled down and hit the ground, as if the sky itself was crying, mourning all the pain and sorrow it witnessed. Often a bright bolt of lightning pierced the darkness and the thunder that followed would make everyone shudder and thank everything they believed in that they were at home, with a solid roof above their heads and away from the elements.

And yet, two companions had chosen to travel through the woods despite the horrid weather. They made their way slowly, the hoofs of their unfortunate horses sinking into the muddy ground at each step. As the wind blew mercilessly, their wet bodies shivered even though one of them was not bothered by the cold. A tree was hit by lighting and fell in front of them, and the horses jumped back at the last moment. They barely paid it any attention and continued forward. It was not the first storm they had survived together, and it would not be the last.

Surprisingly, the frightful rain seemed to be working in their favour. Even the creatures of the night seemed to be reluctant to venture out of their lairs in that weather, and the two friends continued undisturbed. The road was far from pleasant, but they would have readily chosen the cold and pouring rain to orcs and spiders.

The two rode in silence until one of the steeds, a young white mare, stopped in her tracks still as a statue. Aragorn turned back and saw the Elf, bent forward and whispering something into his horse’s ear. Legolas straightened up and looked around worriedly. “Something is wrong,” he said quietly. “I fear we are not alone anymore.”

The Ranger stared at the trees, his keen eyes trying in vain to pierce the darkness. “No men or orcs would venture out in such weather,” he said. “Perhaps-” Before he could finish his thought, a blood-freezing screech tore the silence. A large black body flew from the thick canopy, collided with Aragorn and sent him falling off the horse. The man’s body impacted painfully with the ground, which, although softened by the rain, was still abounding in sharp rocks. He looked up and to see the dark sting of the monstrous spider, ready to sink into his neck. And then there above him was Legolas, a knife in his hand, ready to strike. The man would have let go of his fear, trustingly leaving his life in his friend’s hands, if not for the second spider. The frightful beast was on a lower branch, right behind Legolas, prepared to trust its glistening sting into the fair prince’s back.

Legolas! Behind you!” The man cried, his eyes wide in horror. Why was Legolas not turning back?

The Elf was well aware why Aragorn would have cried a warning – it meant that there was a second spider behind him, ready to strike. But he was also well aware that he did not have enough time to kill both spiders before either he or his friend was bitten.

No!” A shout of despair left Aragorn’s lips as he watched the short knife leave Legolas’s hand, fly through the air, and find its place in the back of the gigantic spider looming above him. At the same instant, the second spider thrust its sting forward and the golden-haired Elf fell down with a strangled cry, his face sinking into the mud.

All that took place within a fraction of a second, but it played as if in slow motion before the man’s wide eyes. With a cry, Aragorn pushed the wriggling spider away and finished him with a thrust of his blade. Then he quickly slew the second spider, which was still busy pulling its sting out of Legolas’s back. The Ranger fell panting next to the creature, but immediately rose and moved to the Elf’s side. He pulled Legolas out of the mud and turned him gently, staring in horror at the wide blue eyes.

Legolas’s eyes were wide open, staring and unblinking, glazed over with some strange haze. But he was not lost in the realms of Elven sleep. He had gone away, further away, where no mortal man could ever reach him again. The skin, normally pale, was now deathly white, like freshly fallen snow. The usually pink lips were now bluish-black. The mouth was slightly open, and there was a strange, black substance at one of the corners.

Aragorn froze when the full impact of what he had seen stroke him. There had been deadly poison on the spider’s sting, which had acted surprisingly fast. The Elven prince was beyond any help now.

Legolas was dead.

The man’s hands started trembling, slightly at first, and then his entire body started to shake so violently that his breath came in shorts, ragged gasps. He could feel his heart pounding loudly against his chest, and he was surprised that it did not burst open. Sweat beaded on his skin in spite of the cold rain pouring above him.

Legolas…” his voice was soft and strangled, as if someone was pressing his throat. “Legolas…” he whispered and shook the Elf gently, like a little boy whose parents have been slain by orcs, and he shakes them urgently, trying to wake them up. “Legolas!” The truth was slowly sinking in. The Elf was dead. There was no one to answer his call. “No, no, no, no, no!” He shook his head in violent denial, as if he could deny fate, deny life and death. “No, it is not true, it cannot be!”

A red haze seemed to fall in front of his eyes, clouding his vision. As if in a dream, he rose and kicked the dead spider, and kicked it again, and again, an anguished cry leaving his lips at every move. Soon he collapsed next to the gruesome remains of the beast and hit it with his clenched fist, over and over again, until he was ready to collapse with exhaustion. Tears were rolling down his face, falling down and mixing with the raindrops.

The rain intensified. The sky itself was mourning this unthinkable, meaningless loss.

To lose his mother and his friend on the same day was too much for his tortured heart. He fell to the ground, burying his head in his hands, praying to the Valar to take away his mind, to leave him a madman with no recollection of this world. Nothing else could wash the pain away, not even the rain, which was now pouring so hard that he had the feeling that it goes through skin and bone and penetrates the depths of his soul.

His eyes, wide and shining like a wild animal’s, found one more time the body of the dead spider. He raised a shaking hand to strike it once again, but his fist froze in the air and fell down listlessly. For he knew that it was not the spider who had killed his friend.

It was him.

Had Legolas not warned him of all the dangers? Had the Elf not told him how perilous it was? Had he not done everything in his power to dissuade him from leaving? And had Aragorn done anything to stop his friend from following him?

The man sobbed, realizing the bitter truth. “I killed him,” he whispered in horror, and as he spoke the words aloud, they sounded even more true. “I killed him,” he repeated, strangely riveted to the terrible thought. “I killed him! I killed him! I killed him!” He cried, face turned to the clouds above, his tears mingled with the rain.

It should have been me! Me! Not him! Me! It is all my doing! I led him to his death! I-” his angry tirade suddenly stopped, and he knelt by his friend, gently brushing a golden strand of hair away from the deadly pale face. Only minutes ago this face had been so full of life, those cheeks had been pale crimson, and now it was as white as the foam at the top of the waves of the Sea. “I did this to you, Legolas,” he said softly. “Trice cursed I am to have brought this upon you! I had better never been born at all!”

He looked widely around, hoping that a band of orcs will come out of the woods and put an end to his miserable existence. Or perhaps there were more spiders hidden among the dark trees. Why did they stay hidden? Did they not see that he was no threat to them? He was only waiting, waiting to be killed, and the more painful death they had in store for him, the better. He deserved it. He deserved it all. He had killed his friend, had led him without a second thought to the merciless claws of sure death. Now he deserved to be punished and would welcome any punishment the woods might have in store for him.

What are you waiting for?” He cried angrily, staring at the dark forest. “Kill me! Come! Kill me! I am ready!”

He spread his arms to the sides and turned his chest towards the dark trees, as if inviting any orcs to shoot at him. “Kill me! Kill me, your cowards! End this!”

His throat was raw from all the screaming, and a violent coughing fit interrupted his cries. When it was over, his body was shaking with shock and he listlessly fell on his knees.

Kill me,” he said softly. “Please.”

But there was no one to hear his pleas. The rain had made all orcs hide inside their caves, and even the spiders were rare. There was no one to come out and put an end to this torment.

I am so sorry, Legolas,” he whispered. “So sorry. You should have left me die. I deserved nothing less.”

A bold of lightning pierced the darkness and a horrific sound shook the woods. One ancient oak, taller that most trees around it, keeled over and slowly fell to the ground, crashing everything on its way. Aragorn ran to the fallen tree and placed his hands against the rough bark. “Why did you strike this innocent tree and not me?” He asked angrily, turning his gaze to the skies. “Strike me! Strike me! I beg you!”

But the skies were merciless and refused to strike the desperate human. The man was shaking from grief, exhaustion, cold, and perhaps the onset of some madness. “Can you not see?” He asked weakly. “I am a murderer! I killed him! I killed Legolas! I deserve to die! Give me no mercy! Destroy me!”

Shaking, the Ranger crawled back to Legolas. He took off his coat and wrapped it around the body, exposing himself even more on the rain and cold. Then he collapsed next to the Elf, sinking into the mud. The cold wind blew once again, making his soaked body shiver. The rain fell as strong as ever, but all he could do was lie down and wait for some wild beast to tear him into pieces, or for the lightning to strike him, or, for what seemed most probable, for some disease to settle into his mortal body and slowly destroy it, while thirst and hunger helped.

My son-”

Mother?”

What are you doing, child? Lying on the cold ground, with the rain pouring above you. You will catch a cold if you do not move soon.”

I want to die, mother.”

Why?”

Because I am a murderer. I killed Legolas and now I deserve my punishment. I want to join you.”

Your time has not yet come,” Gilraen said. Her sad face grew paler, almost transparent, as if she was about to disappear.

Wait! Please, do not leave! I need to talk to you!”

Do not waste your breath, child. Do you not see? I am not real. I am a vision born of your feverish mind. No matter what you say, I will not hear you. If you want me to hear, you must come to my grave and speak your heart.”

The vision faded, and Aragorn remained, lying shivering on the ground. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew that he was running a fever and that all those shadows and screams around him were not real. Or perhaps they were – perhaps he was surrounded by pain and grief beyond his imagination and the fever was only diluting the horrors.

Where was he? How had he gotten here? Where was the darkness that surrounded him coming from? There was only one thing he remembered.

Legolas is dead. I killed him. I have to be punished.

What would his mother and Legolas say if they could see him now, lying on the ground under the cold rain, waiting for the beasts and other creatures of the forest destroy him? And what did it matter? They were not here now, and never would be. Neither his mother, nor Legolas, would ever see him again. They were gone. Why did he have to worry about what they would say, seeing him like that?

Bright shapes surrounded by darkness were all around him. Hot fire was burning inside his chest, making breathing hard. The freezing drops falling from above could not cool his burning body – they could only hurt. Tap. Tap. Tap. They were falling, burying him beneath them. Ragged cough tore his lungs, but he had no strength to curl into himself to lessen the pain, no strength to move. How many minutes, hours, days he had lain like this, he could not know.

Somewhere in his muddled mind, he expected a vision of Legolas to come after his mother’s. And it did. The vision came and chastised him for lying in the cold as he had thought it would. It was speaking more, but the pounding in his head did not let him understand it.

Leave me be,” he whispered weakly. His breath was coming in short, pained gasps, making speaking hard. “You are… dead. Not… real. You are… not real. I will not… listen… to you.”

Dead?” The vision’s brow furrowed in confusion, but Aragorn could see none of that through the red haze in front of his eyes. “Oh, Estel, your fool! Of course I am not dead! The spider’s poison is not meant to kill, they like their food alive and fresh. Once they sting someone, the victim is paralyzed and looks much like dead, but if the spider does not eat him, in few hours, perhaps a day, he will be as good as new! I thought a healer would recognize if an Elf is dead or alive.” But then Legolas knew that Aragorn was unable to recognize anything anymore. He was burning with fever, his eyes were glazed, his body was shaking, and his breathing was strained, interrupted by violent coughs. The Elf was sure that the ill Ranger had understood nothing of his last words.

My friend, what have you done to yourself?” He asked sadly, trying to lift the man. The rain had stopped at last, but this was of little help. He had no dry clothes or blankets left to try to warm the shivering Ranger. All the trees were wet as well and it was impossible to find wood to build a fire.

Killed… Legolas,” the man wheezed. “Must… die…”

The Elf cupped his friend’s face in his hands and looked into the unfocused eyes. “Aragorn, I am alive. I am here. Yes, the spider tried to kill me, but it is dead now, thanks to you.”

No… not spider,” the man said. “It was... me. I... killed Legolas. I killed... him.”

Estel, you are hallucinating,” the Elf said gently, horrified by his friend’s words. “I am here. You have never killed me.”

I made him... come with me,” Aragorn said and the rest of his words were lost in a violent coughing fit. The Elf looked at him uncomprehending, and then he understood. He understood all that has transpired in his friend’s mind.

Quickly, he pulled the human closer to himself to give him as much warmth as possible, and looked around wildly. The Ranger had to be brought to safety, and fast. The horses were gone without a trace, and Legolas wondered what had made the loyal steeds leave them. Perhaps it was something that Aragorn had said or done. Looking at the human’s current condition, the Elf did not wish to imagine what his friend had done before finally collapsing to the ground.

He would have to do without horses then. Legolas closed his eyes and took a deep breath to fight the wave of dizziness that assaulted him. Effects of the spider poison still lingered, but he hoped that he would be strong enough for both of them. Aragorn had to be brought back to Thranduil’s Halls, where he could recover. The human would travel to his mother’s grave only after he was strong enough, and Legolas would accompany him no matter what his father might say. But the Elf was sure that his father would understand.

The Sun had risen hours ago, but little light penetrated the dark canopy. Legolas hoped that they would meet no danger on their way for he was not strong enough to face it. He was prepared to go, when Aragorn stirred slightly in his arms.

I... killed him,” he murmured, unseeing, not hearing, lost in another world. “I killed... Legolas. I must be punished. I must... die.”

The Elf froze in horror and stared at the man’s face. “Guilty or not, my friend,” he said softly, “you have already inflicted upon yourself a punishment worse than death. The pain I see in your eyes is worse than the pain any villain should suffer for any crime.”

He held the man closer and lifted him off the ground. The Ranger coughed weakly and then, for a moment, his eyes seemed to clear. He stared at the Elf in confusion, his eyes wide like that of a child waking up from a nightmare. “Legolas?” He asked, not daring to hope.

The Elf smiled. “Yes, mellon nín. I have not left you.”

The man buried his face in his friend’s chest, letting the soft fabric of the wet tunic absorb his quiet sobs.

-:-

(thirty years later)

-:-

Pippin raised his face, wet with tears, to meet the Ranger’s gaze. “Oh, Strider,” he said, shaken, “you are right – perhaps you know how I feel. And yet your story is different from mine – you judgement was clouded by pain, while I threw this rock into the well out of pure curiosity.”

Curiosity is not always a bad thing, Pippin,” Aragorn said. “It often drives us forward and helps us discover new words.”

Perhaps sometimes it does,” Pippin agreed. “But this time it led to the death of a dear friend. It is easy for you to forgive yourself because Legolas is alive, but Gandalf is dead and is never coming back.” The Hobbit sniffed miserably. “I can never forgive myself, no matter what you say.”

I know, Pippin. It took me a long time to forgive myself, and Legolas helped me a lot.”

What did he say to you?” The Hobbit asked, hoping that the Elf’s words would bring him solace too.

He said that it could not be my fault that he was hurt – I had done all I could to help him and save him. If there was any fault at all, it was the spider’s for wanting to hurt him. Or perhaps it was Sauron’s and his minions’ who resided in Dol Guldur for spreading darkness through Mirkwood. Or perhaps the fault was Morgoth’s for creating evil in the first place. But it was never mine. I disagreed and said that it was me who made him face this evil, but he only smiled at said, ‘You assume much, human, if you think that you can control my choices. It was me, not you, who decided that I would be out in the woods that night. Nothing you could have said would have changed my mind. I bear the responsibility for being there on that night alone.’ And I knew that he was right – even if my actions made him wander through the woods at night, it was his choice and not mine.”

But this is not true about Gandalf!” Pippin protested. “He did not choose to face the Balrog – I forced this choice upon him by throwing that stone and stirring the orcs, who awoke that horrible creature!”

We do not know that for sure,” Aragorn said. “I believe it was our presence in the Mines that awoke the orcs and the Balrog, but most probably it had nothing to do with your stone. Forget your fears and doubts, Peregrin - Gandalf’s death was not of your doing. Do not punish yourself for a crime you have never committed.”

Are you telling me to forget him, Strider?” The Hobbit cried, tears streaming down his face. “Are you telling me not to grieve for him? He was my friend. My friend!”

I am not telling you not to grieve,” Aragorn said. “On the contrary. I am only telling you to push away your guilt, so that all that is left in your heart is the pure grief for a friend, not tainted by guilt or anger. You must remember Gandalf, but you must also know that he did not leave us because of you. I am certain that there is a reason why he left us, but even those wiser than me cannot tell what it is.”

Pippin nodded miserably and looked at the Ranger. He gasped when he noticed that Strider’s grey eyes were filled with tears. “You and Gandalf were close friends?” He said softly. “You knew him much better than I did. Is it not so?”

Yes, Pippin, this is true,” Aragorn admitted and blinked, keeping his tears from falling. “I knew him very well.”

The Hobbit pulled himself closer to the Ranger and buried his face into the man’s tunic, his small body shaken by quiet sobs.

-:-

(forty-five days later)

-:-

Pippin entered the tent silently and hesitantly looked at the bed. Frodo was still very pale and his breathing seemed too quick for one sleeping, but the mute horror that had twisted his features the first time Pippin had seen his cousin was gone. “How is he?” He asked softly.

He is recovering,” the White Wizard replied. “Most of his physical wounds will be healed soon.”

Pippin gulped – he did not like something in the Wizard’s voice. “Gandalf,” he started hesitantly. “Since you returned to us, I wanted to talk to you. Until now other troubles occupied your mind, but now that all is over, I believe it is time to talk.”

What do you wish to talk about, young Took?” Gandalf asked.

The Hobbit looked around nervously. “Perhaps we should go out. I do not wish to disturb Frodo.”

The Wizard smiled at Pippin’s frightened face and followed him outside. The Hobbit was looking at the ground, unwilling to meet Gandalf’s piercing gaze.

I wanted to apologize,” he finally said.

What do you wish to apologize for, Peregrin?”

I...” Pippin closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I killed you. I am sorry. I am so sorry, Gandalf.”

The Wizard raised an eyebrow. “Now, young Peregrin, you are making two very interesting claims here. First, you claim that I am dead, which is indeed an interesting statement, considering that I am standing in front of you right now and talking. The second claim you are making is that you are able to kill an Istar. Very few of the powerful ones can make such a claim – the Balrog tried and failed. And yet, here you are, saying that you can kill me and have already done so. Please, explain your point young Took for I fear it is too deep and wise for a simple Wizard like me to understand.”

Pippin blushed. “Gandalf, I... this is not what I meant... I mean... I mean I caused your fall into that abyss. I threw the rock into that well, it alerted the orcs, and all that awoke the Balrog! I am sorry Gandalf – I felt some strange attraction to that well. I do not know why. I wanted to know how deep it was. It was foolish, I know.”

What is foolish is to believe that your rock has caused it all. There were forces at play in Moria that are beyond your understanding, young Hobbit. Think about this now – what would have happened if I had never fallen into that abyss? I would have remained Gandalf the Grey. My power would not have been enough to help Théoden King fight Saruman. He would have remained lost in darkness, and we would have been deprived of Rohan’s help in the War. The War would have been lost. Middle-earth would have fallen into darkness. Now Pippin, you say that it is your rock that had caused my fall into the abyss. If this is correct, it would mean that your foolish stone has saved Middle-earth. Does that sound likely to you?”

But Gandalf, this is unthinkable!” Pippin agreed. “Of course this is not possible!”

It is precisely as unthinkable as your theory that your stone has caused my death,” the Wizard said. “Can you not see that?”

The Hobbit was thoughtful for a moment, and then slowly nodded. “You are right, Gandalf. I am sorry. It was foolish to assume that my actions could have such a great impact.”

All is well, my boy,” Gandalf said with a gentle smile. “You have a good heart and it gave you more grief that you deserved. But why do you linger here? Is it not time for second breakfast?”

It is!” The Hobbit agreed readily. “I will leave you now, Gandalf. Please, call me if Frodo awakes.” Suddenly he frowned in thought and his gaze met the Wizard’s. “Gandalf?”

Yes, my lad?”

Do you think that... maybe... perhaps... it might be possible that my rock has saved Middle-earth?”

The Wizard laughed. “I would say this is highly unlikely.”

I know, but yet... still... maybe it is not impossible.”

Very highly unlikely,” Gandalf amended.

Still, not impossible!” Pippin said happily. Then he turned around and disappeared among the tents, humming ‘I saved Middle-earth, I saved Middle-earth’ with a strange melody.

Gandalf shook his head in amusement and walked back, quietly entering Frodo’s tent. His gaze moved from the sleeping Hobbit to the man sitting on the edge of the bed.

Let the lad have some joy,” Aragorn said with a sad smile. “Your supposed death and his belief that it had been his doing caused him much pain. More than he could bear.”

A Hobbit’s heart is big,” the Wizard said. “It carries great capacity for joy and sorrow.”

And yet, the pain of killing a friend could be too much for anyone.”

Gandalf looked at him carefully. “And how would you know this, Aragorn?”

The Ranger, who would very soon become a King, shrugged. “It is not difficult to imagine.”

The Wizard shook his head slightly. “So it has nothing to do with a long-past experience in Mirkwood, involving spiders and poison?”

Aragorn paled. “How do you know this?”

Legolas told me everything when I passed through Mirkwood not long after it happened. He was worried.”

Then his worries had been in vain,” Aragorn said. “I recovered quickly.”

Did you really?” Gandalf asked, his voice not completely devoid of doubt.

The man sighed. “One never completely recovers from a murder, Gandalf. I have killed many men in my life, and this had never stopped haunting me. While I was serving Gondor, I often led attacks against the Corsairs. How many lives have I destroyed, how many families have I broken!” Aragorn stood up and started pacing around the bed. “I did it to protect Gondor, to serve my people. We always labelled the Corsairs as ‘evil’, as ‘a thread’. And yet, surely many of them had wives and children, mothers and fathers, waiting for them to return. Who am I to decide that the children of Gondor had more right to have their fathers return safely home then those poor children in Umbar? I know that it was the Corsairs who threatened the peace and our safety, I know that what I did was right, but still I will never forget any of those deaths. I had killed many times – many, many times. I believed I was used to it and would be able to deal with anything. Yet, when I believed that my foolish actions had led to Legolas’s death, the pain was so much stronger. To kill a friend is different from killing an enemy. I later realized that I was not responsible for what happened, but at the time I was not thinking clearly and the truth was hard to see. I believe it was the same with Pippin. I was greatly worried about him, and I hope he will recover.”

Pippin is stronger than he seems,” Gandalf said, sounding certain of his words. “He will recover.” His gaze then moved to the tent’s entrance, where Gimli had just appeared. The Dwarf looked at the sleeping Hobbit in concern, a frown marring his brow.

Frodo is recovering, Gimli,” the Wizard said.

Good,” the Dwarf replied with a quick nod. “I am glad.” But his frown did not go away. It seemed as if he was angry at something, but what could anger the noble being now that the War was over?

What is the matter, Master Dwarf?” Aragorn asked.

It is the darn Hobbit!” Gimli suddenly snapped. “If he does not stop singing ‘I saved Middle-earth’ any time soon, he will have to talk to my axe! This is torture! It is even worse than Legolas’s songs!”

Is that so?” Aragorn’s eyes were wide in mock horror. “This says a lot, friend Gimli!”

Of course it does!” The Dwarf agreed readily. “I am glad that someone finally agrees with me! I have always known that you are a sensible lad, Aragorn!” He declared happily and left the tent, murmuring that the Elf should hear that.

Gandalf and Aragorn exchanged a glance. “I believe Pippin has recovered completely,” the Ranger said.

True,” Gandalf said, his smile brighter than the dawn. “I believe he has.”

-:-:-:- The End -:-:-:-

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