His lips upon mine were the only warmth and comfort in my narrow world of cold and pain. That is what I remember.
Aragorn was not a happy Ranger. Normally, he didn't mind a spot of rain during a hike through the woods, but it had been pouring down heavily since just after they left Mathlin, and showed no signs of letting up. Trudging heavily through the mud, he cursed his decision to leave at just that time, cursed his notion of leaving the horses behind for the brief and well-marked journey to Belmark and back, cursed his heavy cloak for sopping up the downpour instead of deflecting it, cursed everything about this loathsome side-trip, in fact. Well, almost everything. As his fellow traveller broke into another Elven marching song, daring him with a merry glance to join in and break his foul mood, Aragorn blessed the Valar once again for Legolas, friend and boon companion.
When they finished their triumphant chorus, Aragorn remarked, "I hope Gimli had the good sense to stay in Mathlin."
"He said his business would take but an hour; he would follow close behind," Legolas replied. "But truly he could not be blamed for lingering until the worst is over." Legolas had perversely refused to wear his hood, and his blonde hair hung in sodden hanks around his face and shoulders. But the streaming water could only enhance the symmetry and fairness of his face. It lightened Aragorn's heart just to look at him.
The Elf eyed the swollen river dubiously. It was only about forty paces across, but the water ran fast and at least knee-deep at the centre of the ford. "We can cross if we are careful," he concluded. They scrambled down the steep bank.
Legolas drew a spare bowstring from his quiver and tied one end firmly around his right wrist. Smiling briefly in approval, Aragorn fastened the other end around his left. They stepped carefully out on to the flat, slippery rocks. About a third of the way across the stream, Legolas hesitated in alarm, listening.
"Back! Now!" he shouted, and tugged urgently on their life-line.
It was too late. As they scrambled for shore an enormous wall of water rushed around the corner of the stream, overflowing and tearing at the weakened banks. Aragorn lost his footing and fell face-first into the river, hands instinctively going to his head to protect against the battering of the rocks and branches carried by the swirling water.
Pushing himself to his knees, he first saw a massive boulder that had fallen just upstream from him, and then, with great relief, his friend's golden head emerging from the water in between. The boulder, he realized, was deflecting the worst of the debris and the current from them. He reached a hand to Legolas, meaning to help him to his feet. The broken bowstring dangled from his wrist.
Legolas' face was tight with pain. "My leg is trapped," he informed Aragorn between quickened breaths. And the huge rock, which had seemed so benign a moment ago, now became Aragorn's greatest enemy. He knelt for a moment beside Legolas, feeling under the water for the base of the thing, trying to budge it one way or the other. But it was solidly in place, and Legolas' leg up to the knee just as solidly wedged underneath.
"Is it broken?" he asked.
The Elf shook his head. "I do not know. Maybe. Probably."
Aragorn swallowed hard. "Hold tight where you are," he told his friend. "I will move the rock. It may hurt." He flung himself recklessly out into the current and heaved his whole weight against the boulder from one side. It did not move. Legolas added what little aid he could from his awkward angle. Still it did not move.
I have known for many years, of course, that he cares for me, and would buy my life with his own. But his distress at my predicament startled me nonetheless.
Ten minutes later, Aragorn pounded his fist fruitlessly against the obdurate boulder, and turned his face away so that Legolas would not see the tears of frustration mingling on his face with the relentless rain. He had tried to shift the rock from every angle; he had used captured branches in an attempt to lever it, however briefly, from its base; he had strained every muscle to the breaking point, and nearly lost himself several times to the treacherous current, and still Legolas was trapped.
"You must leave me here and go for help," said Legolas, calmly. The leg had numbed a little.
Aragorn turned to him. "I cannot do that," he replied. "The water is still rising." Indeed, in those ten minutes, the water had climbed from Legolas' chest to just beneath his chin. At that rate, it would be scant minutes more until he was submerged and drowned.
"I am good at holding my breath," claimed Legolas.
"The nearest village in any direction is an hour away, as you know. And you are an Elf, not a fish," responded Aragorn hoarsely.
"What would you have us do, then?"
"This, to begin," Aragorn said, stripping off his own cloak and untying Legolas' so it no longer half-floated at his shoulders. He folded them up together into a pad, and thrust them underwater and under Legolas, giving him an easier seat and gaining them a precious inch against the rising river. More was not possible because of the angle at which the Elf was trapped.
Kneeling behind his friend, Aragorn wordlessly offered himself to lean against, and Legolas rested his head back with a sigh of relief. The strain of holding himself up against the movement of the water had begun to tell.
"Now we must invent a way for you to breathe if the water should continue to rise," said Aragorn. He tugged the quiver from Legolas' shoulder and held it in front of both of them. "Is there anything long and hollow in there?"
Legolas brought his hands up to rummage. "The quiver itself is too large around, and besides it is made of rushes," he said, thinking aloud. "The arrow shafts are all solid." He pulled out a handful of assorted vials, small boxes and tools, but none were of any practical use. "Ah!" he exclaimed. The arrow he retrieved looked special: there was engraving on the metal head and the plumes were bright. The long slim shaft was protected with a cylinder of some light material; Legolas had it off in a second. The quiver floated away, but neither gave it a second thought.
Aragorn fingered the hollow object with mingled hope and concern. It was the right shape, but it was only stiffened cloth. "Perchance you should try it now," he suggested.
Legolas nodded and put the tube to his lips. Then, as his friend reluctantly moved a little away, he dropped his head backwards into the river. He sputtered to the surface mere seconds later. As they had feared, the arrow-covering had collapsed.
Aragorn noticed with near panic that even when the Elf was sitting fully upright, the water was now lapping at his lower lip. He moved to Legolas' back again, wrapping his own chilly arms around the chillier torso, as if he could somehow stave off the murderous waters with his own body.
"The rain is much lighter now," said Legolas. "Perhaps the river will not rise any higher, and I will not get the chance to prove to you how good I am at holding my breath." Aragorn's only response to the forced gaiety was to lean his cheek against the pale face that was now tilted back on his shoulder to escape the river.
"When you can no longer reach the air, I will bring it to you," he promised. Legolas gave him a look of trust that came near to breaking his heart.
From Estel's shoulder I could see the trees, and I bade them farewell, just in case.
For what could have been the hundredth, or the thousandth, or the millionth time, Aragorn surfaced, gasped a quick breath for himself, filled his lungs more slowly and deeply as he watched the bubbles rising to the surface, then plunged down to push the new air past Legolas' lips. At first he had been able to do it with relative ease, from his knees, through only a few inches of water. Now, however, he had to stand to breathe, and then grope his way back down through the murky current to hold Legolas' head steady as he bent his own to it. At some point, his other hand had been seized by one of Legolas', and, inconvenient as it might be, neither let go for an instant.
I have never felt so helpless, so utterly dependent upon another. But I was not afraid, because that other was Estel.
They had discovered a rhythm early on, a way to make it work. They quickly found the angle that sealed the air best, Aragorn's mouth wider than Legolas', noses crushed against each other's face; they found out how long it took to pass the air between them, and how to break apart without either taking in water. Legolas was calm and receptive to Aragorn's signals, and Aragorn stopped worrying so much about the long pauses between breaths as he realized that Legolas did indeed have much longer wind than he did.
Now Aragorn was beginning to worry again, however. Every so often, Legolas was losing the rhythm of their breaths, and panicky bubbling would escape around their joined mouths or, worse yet, he would start to jerk and flail beneath the water as Aragorn stood to breathe again. Even through the dim water, Aragorn could see upon each successive trip that the Elf's eyes were glazing a little more, and that despite his best efforts, Legolas would soon lose consciousness. If that happened... Aragorn refused to contemplate it, mechanically plunging yet again below the water. The rain had stopped, and the river had to go down again. Had to. Perhaps it had already started.
This time, Legolas' head was lolling as Aragorn found it, and instead of the gentleness he had used so far, he clamped his mouth roughly over the Elf's and gripped the back of his neck hard. The startled gasp with which Legolas drew in breath told Aragorn he had nearly been gone this time.
For all the times I have been in battle, I have never truly had a moment when I was convinced that I might die; that I might never see the Undying Lands. Not till that bleak underwater world began to fade before me. Then I realized what it is to have a mortal span wherein all important things must be done, and all important things must be said. At that moment, I resolved that if I survived this, I would speak with him. I would tell him.
Wild thoughts of running for his sword, which lay not ten feet away on the bank where he had pitched it, and then slicing off Legolas' leg to save his life, ran through Aragorn's mind, though he knew it would only be a quicker and more painful way to end it. He rose despairingly to the surface yet again.
A gruff shout drew his attention to the most welcome sight he had ever seen. Gimli hopped neatly off one of the horses and quickly tethered them both before plunging boldly neck-deep into the stream. All was clearly not well with Aragorn, and that was enough for him.
Aragorn dipped beneath the water to breathe with Legolas yet again. When he surfaced, Gimli was next to him, immersed to the ears, horrified.
"Shallowest over here," Aragorn gasped, indicating one side of the boulder. He forced himself to release Legolas' hand and, beckoning the dwarf to help him, hurled his weight once more against the rock. Gimli was there in an instant, shoving with all his might, and at last, with a groan of protest, the boulder rolled over and splashed deeper into the river.
With a loud cry, Aragorn bent and lifted his precious burden carefully to the surface. After a few heart-stopping seconds, Legolas coughed, choked out a small stream of water, gave a brief whimper of pain, then lapsed again into merciful unconsciousness.
Aragorn would later say that he remembered nothing of what followed: of the rough splint they fashioned, and the difficult business of getting Legolas into his arms on the horse; of the too long ride that followed, and their eventual arrival at the Mathlin Inn; of Legolas' waking and his drowsy dismissal of the need for a healer, saying his leg felt better already. The clammy chill of Legolas' skin when they drew him from the water, and the hot tears upon his own face when Legolas drew his first clear breath: that was what Aragorn remembered.
I woke up for the second time that evening to find myself in a comfortable bed with a pair of arms wrapped possessively around my chest and a warm, slightly snoring presence behind me. Gimli kept vigil in a chair by the bed, and I smiled at him and said softly, "Hello."
"Hello yourself, lad. How are you faring?"
"Much better." I glanced down at the hands crossing my chest and added mischievously, "If I could but breathe..."
He chortled softly. "Good luck to you, Elf. He latched on to you the minute we got you out of the river, held on like grim death all the way to the inn, and I barely managed to get him off you long enough to get you both out of your wet clothes and into sleeping shifts."
I realized that the painfully short but warm flannel garment I wore was likely from Gimli's own pack, and marvelled again at the good-heartedness of the dwarf. "You saved my life," I said. "I thank you most heartily for that."
He shrugged. "That is what comrades-in-arms do," he said. He pondered for a moment, as if unsure of whether to go on. "That, however" - he indicated Estel's tightly crossed arms - "is no mere comradeship."
"I know," I said, and I could tell from his changing expression that he read the joy in my eyes and understood it. I put my hand over one of Estel's.
"Ah well" he muttered, a little embarrassed. "That'll be all right then." He got up and patted my shoulder. "Sleep well, laddie." And he left us alone.
I lay still for a long time, savouring the feeling of belonging. But eventually, I turned in Estel's arms, rousing him from sleep as I did. He gave me a drowsy grin.
"How's the leg?"
"Barely a twinge. Should be able to put weight on it tomorrow."
"Elves. So insufferably wonderful."
"Not half as wonderful as some humans. You were astonishing."
Mortified, he took refuge in a joke. "You'll do anything to get me to wash my hair, won't you?"
Not letting him get away with it, I shifted forward till my forehead rested against his. He didn't seem to mind. I brought a daring hand to caress the side of his face. After a brief intake of breath, he didn't seem to mind that either.
"There's something you could do for me," I said. He pushed a strand of hair out of my face.
"Drink of water? Another blanket?" he asked.
"No," I said. He smiled, and I realized he knew what I would ask.
"Share breath with me again?"
Sweetly and at length, we did.
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Breath of Life by surreysmum
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Table of Contents
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Story notes: Beta: Namarie120, who cheerfully threw the wriggling bunny back in my lap