Change One Thing, See What Happens

Doomed to Live

10. Meetings and Partings

Eastemnet, February 30th, 3019 (afternoon)

Boromir stood panting, hand braced against one knee, blinking away sweat that trickled into his eyes. He would have cursed both his lack of stamina and Legolas' insistence that they divert from the Orc-track and scale this particular hill, but he had not enough air left to do so. His lungs burned, his wounds stung from sweat soaking the bandages and the strain of many days' travel across Rohan; and their prey was farther ahead than ever.

At least they had made it this far together. Throughout the four days that lay behind them, Boromir had more than once pleaded with his companions to go ahead and not wait for him to recover from spells of dizziness or from muscles cramped with fatigue. Instead, whenever he had been overcome with weariness, Legolas and Gimli had insisted he lay down for a short rest, had offered him lembas and water and patiently waited for his meagre strength to return. The guilt and failure that always gnawed at him had made those enforced rests impossibly hard to endure. Yet he had had no other choice but to swallow his pride, accept his companions' aid and move on as soon as he could.

Boromir sighed as he slowly regained his breath. At least the effort of climbing the hill - it was smooth and bare and stood by itself, most northerly of the downs - was rewarded with a wide view. Though the afternoon sun was barely visible behind the layers of mist and cloud that had risen from the Wold throughout the day, Boromir could make out the dark smudge of a huge forest in the distance. He knew that the southernmost peaks of the Misty Mountains lay there as well, but they were invisible to his mortal eyes. Invisible as well was any sign of their quarry.

"Your eyes are keenest, Legolas." Boromir turned to the Elf who stood still as a statue, gazing into the distance. "What do you see?"

"A large group of riders approaches fast; one hundred and five, yellow of hair and bearing bright spears."

"Riders of Rohan," Boromir murmured, and for the first time in days something akin to hope lifted his spirit. He strained his eyes to make out the horsemen in the distance, but upon the grey and formless landscape he could only discern the broad swath of trampled grass left by the passing orc-horde. "Keen indeed are the eyes of the Elves, for I can see naught."

"They come riding down the orc-trail," Legolas replied. "Less than three leagues away. They will be here within an hour."

"And the Orcs?" Gimli asked. "Where are they?"

"I cannot tell. They seem to have vanished from sight," Legolas said with a soft sigh, his eyes distant. "But smoke rises from the edge of the forest, from a huge, smoldering pile. It is certainly no forest fire and too large for a camp fire."

Though he had known all along that they stood little chance to ever catch up with their prey, the real hopelessness of their quest, the knowledge that they had truly failed their friends hit Boromir hard that very moment. He dropped his gaze and stared at the ground to compose himself. Taking a few deep breaths, he summoned determination and banished all thoughts about their friends' fate firmly to the back of his awareness. He would not believe Aragorn and the Hobbits dead until he had seen their cold corpses.

"Our hunt might have failed," he said, his voice grim. "Mayhap others have succeeded. Let us greet those riders and hear their tidings."

To his surprise, his companions seemed rather hesitant. Gimli's brow was wrinkled by a frown, and Legolas looked troubled. "Is this a wise choice?" the Elf asked. "Did not Mithrandir question the loyalty of Rohan?"

Boromir could not quite suppress a snort. "Not all who are wary of Mithrandir's counsel are counted among our enemies. My father, the Steward of Gondor, is not too fond of Mithrandir's meddlings either."

Legolas merely cocked his head at Boromir's words. At length he admitted, "Little do I know about this land and the Men who dwell here."

"I have crossed this land less than a year ago," Boromir said, unwilling to give in to his companions' reservations. "They welcomed me as a friend, gave me provisions and even a horse for my journey to Imladris. I have no reason to doubt their loyalty."

"Then I will follow your counsel," Legolas said after some contemplation, "and bow to your judgement."

Down the northern slope they went and halted a little above the hill's foot. There they sat down upon the faded grass, wrapping their elven cloaks about them to ward off the damp chill that had descended upon the land along with the mist.

They did not have to wait long. A grin spread across Boromir's face as he could make out the tall figure of the foremost rider and the crest of a white horsetail flowing from his helm. Ignoring the wary looks of his companions, Boromir rose, threw back his cloak and called, "Hail Éomer, son of Éomund! What tidings from the North?"

After a moment's hesitation, the foremost rider raised his spear, and, with a speed and skill that never failed to astonish Boromir, the entire group checked their steeds and came to a stop. Boromir made his way down the last few yards of the hill-slope, Gimli and Legolas close behind. As they approached, the leading horseman leapt off his horse and gave his spear into the hands of another rider who had dismounted as well.

"Boromir, son of Denethor," he called. "Too long has it been since I last saw you, and this is the place I least expected to meet you again."

"And it is good to see you, too, Éomer," Boromir said with a laugh as he stepped up to clasp Éomer's outstretched arm in a warrior's greeting.

"Had you not hailed me, I would not have seen you. And I hardly recognised you," Éomer said while he let his eyes roam over Boromir and his companions. "Strange are your garments and strange your companions. " His gaze came to rest upon the arm Boromir still wore in a sling. "And you are wounded."

"But not seriously so. My wounds are but a painful nuisance and healing well," Boromir replied. He could not quite keep the mirth out of his voice: seeing Éomer standing there before him, in flesh and blood, a man he knew from what seemed another lifetime, was like coming home unexpectedly. Recalling his manners, he turned to Gimli. "This, Éomer, is Gimli, son of Glóin, a Dwarf from Erebor. You would not want to meet the sharp end of his axe. And this," he turned to Legolas, "is Legolas, son of Thranduil, an Elf from distant Mirkwood. He is one of the most skillful archers I have ever met."

"You went to find the answer to a dream and return in the company of legends." Éomer looked at the Elf and Dwarf in awe. "Yet when your horse returned to us, we feared you lost. Alas, that we are in haste, for you must have quite a tale to tell. And I would like to know how you came by those strange garments. Are they of elvish make?"

"I hope we will find the time for you to hear our tale in full," Boromir said. "For now, know that I found Imladris and set out for my home in a company of nine. We passed through the mountains and through the elven realm of Lothlórien, where we were given these cloaks."

Éomer looked at them with renewed wonder, but his eyes hardened. "Is there indeed a Lady in the Golden Wood, as old tales tell?" he asked. "Few escape her nets, they say. These are strange days!" His voice turned cold and his eyes narrowed. "If she let you go, she has turned your hearts, maybe." He turned a hard stare suddenly upon Legolas and Gimli.

Gimli stepped forward and planted his feet firmly apart. His hand gripped the handle of his axe, and his dark eyes flashed. "Let me warn you against foolish words, horsemaster," he growled. "You speak evil of that which is fair beyond the reach of your thought, and only little wit can excuse you."

Éomer's eyes blazed, and his men murmured angrily, and urged their horses closer. Boromir felt Legolas stiffen beside him. "Peace, Gimli!" he said, hoping the irate Dwarf would not take offence at what he was about to say next. "As you can see, Éomer, she did turn our hearts, indeed, or at least the heart of our Dwarf." His words held a levity he did not quite feel. "Or have you heard of a Dwarf defending the honour of an Elf?"

Éomer's wariness did not leave him, and his close scrutiny made Boromir feel more than a little wary himself. Gone was the feeling of familiarity, and he wondered how seamlessly their friendly talk had turned to the worse. "Éomer!" he tried once more, hoping to make the other see sense. "We passed through her realm and were treated as guests should be treated: kindly and with honour. The Lady of the Golden Wood does hold a power that no other Elf I have met on my journey can match. I was against entering the Golden Woods myself, yes, and will not deny that I still cannot fully understand her ways. Yet we were neither ensnared nor threatened in any way, but given shelter, provisions, gifts and such counsel as she could give."

But what she had seen in his thoughts, Boromir did not say.

Éomer remained doubtful, but at length he spoke. "I would believe you, Boromir of Gondor, for the sake of the old alliance between our realms, but I know not whether I can still trust you."

"The Men of Minas Tirith are true to their word!" Boromir all but snapped, fighting hard to restrain his anger, though he was glad for it, for it repelled the nagging feeling of guilt. "And none can change that, neither Elf, Wizard, Man, Dwarf or even the forces of the Black Land! But what about you, Éomer, son of Éomund? Whom do you serve? Can I still trust you?"

"What is the meaning of this, Boromir?" Éomer asked, eyes narrowed, an edge to his voice that cut like a knife. The angry murmur among his men became louder.

"I mean to know whether you are friend or foe of the Enemy. Rumour has it that Rohan pays tribute to the Dark Lord in Mordor."

"I serve only the Lord of the Mark, Théoden King, son of Thengel, as you should know!" Éomer snapped back. "We do not serve the Power of the Black Land, but neither are we yet at open war with him. But there is trouble now on all our borders; we are threatened. And you would do well to tell me what you are doing in our land."

"Peace, my lord Éomer, Boromir," Legolas spoke for the first time, and all eyes were upon him at once. "Let us not fall for lies and rumour spread by the Enemy. I, for one, am willing to believe that Rohan does not serve the Dark Lord." He fixed Éomer with his intense gaze that few mortals could endure, as if challenging the other to defy his words. "As for our purpose in your fair land: we are hunting Orcs."

"I admit to knowing little about your people, Master Elf," Éomer replied, ignoring the amused whispers that spread among his riders. "But you seem to know little of Orcs, if you go hunting them in this fashion. They were swift and well-armed, and they were many. You would have changed from hunters to prey, if ever you had overtaken them."

"I have hunted Orcs since your forefathers were young," Legolas replied, and Boromir marvelled at the calmness the Elf kept in his voice, for he himself was still seething with barely suppressed anger. "We do not hunt them in this fashion out of choice: they took captive three of our friends."

Éomer looked the Elf up and down with a mix of awe and puzzlement on his face. "These are indeed strange days," he muttered. "But now I would hear your tale in full." He turned his attention back to Boromir.

"This is neither the time nor the place to speak openly of all I learnt on my journey north, Éomer," Boromir said in as calm a voice as he could muster. "But open war lies before us, before all the free peoples of Middle-earth. Now that you know of our need, I ask for your help, or at least for tidings. What can you tell us of the Orc-host that held captive our friends?"

"That you need not pursue them further," Éomer said. To Boromir's eyes he seemed weary. "The Orcs are destroyed. One of my scouts was almost killed by them when they came down out of the East Wall. But he warned me, three days ago at nightfall. He reported that some Orcs bore the white badges of Saruman. So suspecting what I most fear, a league between Orthanc and the Dark Tower, I led forth my éored, men of my own household; and we reached the Orcs yesterday at noon, on the borders of the Entwood. There we surrounded them, and gave battle. Fifteen of my men I lost, and twelve horses alas! For the Orcs were greater in number than we counted on. Others joined them, coming out of the East across the Great River: their trail is plain to see a little north of this spot. And others, too, came out of the forest. Great Orcs, who also bore the White Hand of Isengard: that kind is stronger and more fell than all others."

Éomer squared his shoulders, and there was pride in his gaze. "Nonetheless we put an end to them."

"And our friends?" Boromir asked, though he already feared the answer.

"We found none but Orcs."

"But that is strange indeed," Boromir said. "Did you search the slain? Were there no bodies other than those of orc-kind? Two of our friends would be small. Only children to your eyes, unshod but clad in grey. The third was a man, tall and lean, taller even than I am. Dark-haired and grey-eyed, and he was wounded: he took a sword-cut to the shoulder."

"There was no man, and neither were there Dwarves or children," Éomer replied. "We counted all the slain and despoiled them, and then we piled the carcases and burned them, as is our custom. The ashes are smoking still."

"We do not speak of Dwarves or children," Gimli said. "They were Hobbits."

"Hobbits?" Éomer asked. "And what may they be? It is a strange name."

"A strange name for a strange folk," Gimli answered. "But these were very dear to us."

"You know of the words that sent me north," Boromir added. "They spoke of the Halfling. These Hobbits are Halflings."

"Halflings!" Éomer laughed, but he could not quite keep the astonishment out of his voice. "Halflings! But they are only a little people in old songs and children's tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?"

"I thought they were but legends as well," Boromir said simply. "But I learnt my share about legends. And as Gimli said, they are very dear to us."

A rider approached Éomer and spoke urgently to him in his own tongue. Éomer looked pensive, then nodded, and gave a short reply. The rider returned to his waiting comrades and spoke a few words. Soon they drew off and left Éomer alone with the three companions.

"Time is pressing," Éomer said. "But you have not told all. Will you not now speak more fully of your errand, so that I may judge what to do?"

"We set out from Imladris many weeks ago," Boromir said. "To our company belonged Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Isildur's heir and bearer of the Sword that was Broken and is forged anew. His errand was to go to Minas Tirith with me, to aid our people in the war against the Enemy. But the rest of our company had other business. Of that I dare not speak now. Mithrandir, or Gandalf the Grey, as he was named in the North, was our leader."

"Gandalf!" Éomer exclaimed. "Gandalf Greyhame is known in the Mark: but he no longer holds the favour of Théoden King, so be cautious when you mention his name. He has been a guest in this land many times in the memory of men, coming at will, after a season, or after many years. He is ever the herald of strange events: a bringer of evil, some now say."

Boromir could only nod at those words; too familiar were the complaints about Mithrandir's unpredictable appearances. He swallowed down a sudden pain, a longing for the white walls and solemn halls of his home, and the well-known voice of his father that filled them. But it was Éomer's voice that reached his ears, and Boromir forced himself to listen. "... Until last summer we counted Saruman our friend, but Gandalf came then and warned us that sudden war was preparing in Isengard. And once more his counsel proved just. Saruman has since claimed lordship over all this land, and there has been strife between us for many months. He has taken Orcs into his service, and Wolf-riders, and evil Men, and he has closed the Gap against us, so that we are likely to be beset both east and west. But Théoden did not listen to Gandalf's warning."

"Mithrandir will give warnings no more," Boromir said. "He fell into darkness in the Mines of Moria."

"That is heavy tidings!"

Silence followed the revelation, only broken by the sigh of the soft breeze coming from the north-east. Boromir again felt a grief he had not deemed possible only weeks ago. How this journey had changed him. Next to him, Legolas and Gimli stood still.

At length, he cleared his throat. The Enemy would strike regardless of their grief. "Aragorn led us after Mithrandir fell. After we left Lothlórien, we followed the Great River until Parth Galen and the falls of Rauros. There we were attacked by the same Orcs whom you destroyed. There the sword of Elendil and its bearer fell into the hands of the Enemy."

"I take it that this Aragorn was a worthy man."

"Aye, that he is," Boromir paused. "He is one of the best swordsmen I have ever met and a valiant comrade at that. Alas, he is not invincible. I proved to be his undoing." Back was that overwhelming sense of failure, shame and guilt that ever hovered on the brink of his awareness.

The warmth of a hand placed upon his back brought him back to the present, and he became aware that Gimli spoke to him. "This is no more your fault than it is mine, or the Elf's. But all those could-have-beens and would-have-beens will neither help him nor us but distract us all. Alas, five days of pursuit in vain-"

"Five days?" Éomer said, raising an eyebrow in astonishment. "You have left the falls of Rauros but five days ago and have come this far on foot?"

"We had no other choice," Boromir said.

"Forty leagues and five in five days, and injured at that! 'Tis a deed that should be sung in many a hall. Hardy are the men of Gondor! And the Elves and Dwarves," Éomer added hastily with a wary glance at Gimli.

Boromir sighed. With memories of Aragorn's desperate fight newly awakened, he did not feel like he deserved Éomer's praise. But this was neither the time nor the place to recount that part of his tale in full, and Boromir was relieved when Éomer spoke again, unaware of his unease.

"But now, Boromir, what would you have me do! I must return in haste to Théoden. I rode north without the king's leave, and in my absence his house is left with little guard. It is true that we are not yet at open war with the Black Land, and there are some, close to the king's ear, that speak craven counsels; but war is coming. We shall not forsake our old alliance with Gondor, and while they fight we shall aid them."

"Then help us find our friends," Boromir said.

"I am sorry, Boromir, but you will not find your friends on the North-borders, and I cannot spare a company on such a hopeless quest. We have been too long away. We are needed south and west."

"Yet our friends are not behind. We found a clear token not far from the East Wall that one at least of them was still alive there," Legolas spoke. "But between the wall and the downs we have found no other trace of them, and no trail has turned aside, this way or that, unless my eyes betrayed me."

"Then what do you think has become of them?"

"Who can tell?" Boromir said. "They may have been slain and burned among the Orcs; but that you say cannot be, and I refuse to believe that they are dead. I can only think that they were carried off into the forest before the battle, even before you encircled the Orcs. Can you swear that none escaped your net in such a way?"

"I would swear that no Orc escaped after we sighted them," said Éomer. "But we did not reach the forest-eaves before them, and they awaited us in numbers. Yet no living thing broke through our ring once it was closed. What happened before that, I cannot tell."

"Then we have need of haste all the more," Boromir said, "for their peril is more dire than ever."

"And what would you do should you find them and the Orcs that carried them away?" Éomer asked. "You are wounded, Boromir, and must be weary. Will you not come with me to the king's house? There are spare horses as you see. In Edoras you can rest, and once you are healed there is much work for your sword to do, if you will aid us ere you return home. The Captain of Gondor would be a strength indeed to the Sons of Eorl in this evil tide. There is battle even now upon the Westemnet, and I fear that it may go ill for us. We could also find a use for Gimli's axe and the bow of Legolas, if they will pardon my rash words concerning the Lady of the Wood. I spoke only as do all men in my land, and I would gladly learn better. Do I hope in vain that you have been sent to me for a help in doubt and need?"

"I am willing to forgive your foolish words, for now," Gimli said, "and my axe desires to cleave some more Orc-heads, yet we cannot desert our friends while hope remains."

"And I am not free to do all as I would," Éomer said as if in apology. "It is against our law to let strangers wander at will in our land, until the king himself shall give them leave, and more strict is the command in these days of peril."

"But I am no stranger!" Boromir said heatedly, "and I vouch for my companions."

A hand on his arm prevented him from saying more. "Éomer is right, Boromir," Legolas said softly. "You are wounded and weary. Why do you not ride with him to his home and seek rest there and speak for Gimli and me before his King. If Éomer would lend us horses, we would stand an even better chance of finding our friends and freeing them ..."

Éomer fell silent for a moment, then he spoke. "We all have need of haste," he said. "My company chafes to be away, and every hour lessens your hope. This is my choice. Come with me, Boromir, and speak to Théoden King. Mayhap he will heed your advice where he refuses to hear mine." He turned to Legolas and Gimli. "To you I will give horses, and I only ask that when your quest is achieved, or is proved vain, you return with the horses over the Entwade to Meduseld, the high house in Edoras where Théoden now sits. For I would much desire to see that axe and bow wielded against our foes."

"I will come, Éomer," Boromir said with a sigh. If he could aid their friends by enabling Legolas and Gimli to move unhindered and with greater speed, then he would not stand in their way. Turning, he made to follow Éomer to where his riders waited, fighting disappointment.

Éomer's orders that spare horses were to be given to the Elf and Dwarf were met with many dark and doubtful glances; but only one of his riders dared to speak openly.

"It may be well enough for the Captain of Gondor," he said, "but who has heard of a horse of the Mark being given to a Dwarf?"

"No one," said Gimli. "And do not trouble: no one will ever hear of it. I would sooner walk than sit on the back of any beast so great."

"But you must ride now, or our friends are truly lost!" Boromir said.

"Come, you shall sit behind me, friend Gimli," Legolas said. "Then all will be well, and you need neither borrow a horse nor be troubled by one." To everyone's relief, Gimli agreed.

A great dark-grey horse was brought to Boromir, and the rider who led it helped him mount. "Hasufel is his name," said Éomer. "May he bear you well and to better fortune than Gárulf, his late master!"

A smaller and lighter horse, but restive and fiery, was brought to Legolas. Éomer introduced him as Arod. Legolas asked the Riders to take off saddle and rein. "I need them not," he said, and leaped lightly up, and to everyone's wonder Arod was tame and willing beneath him, moving here and there with but a spoken word: such was the elvish way with all good beasts. Gimli was lifted up behind his friend, and he clung to him, not much more at ease than Sam Gamgee in a boat.

"Farewell, and may you find what you seek!" Éomer cried. "Return with what speed you may, so that we can ride to battle together."

"We will come when we may, but we will come," Legolas said.

"The matter of the Lady Galadriel lies still between us, after all," Gimli said. "I have yet to teach you gentle speech."

"We shall see," Éomer said. "So many strange things have chanced that to learn the praise of a fair lady under the loving strokes of a Dwarf's axe will seem no great wonder. Farewell!"

"Farewell, my friends," Boromir said at last, his eyes wistful. "Ride with all speed." There was more he wished to say, but words failed him, and Éomer already sat astride his horse. With one last glance at the strange sight of the Elf and Dwarf on the saddle-less horse, he turned to follow Éomer.

***

And so they parted. Very swift were the horses of Rohan. When after a little while Gimli looked back, Boromir and the company of riders were but small specks in the distance, and the land around them became once more devoid of any living thing. Gimli sighed. So now it was just the two of them, all that was left of the Fellowship: an Elf and a Dwarf.

And stuck on the same cursed horse at that, Gimli thought as an unpredictable leap of said horse flung him forward, straight into Legolas' back, so that he had to tighten his hold upon the Elf's waist in order to maintain his seat.

"There is no need to crush me," Legolas said over his shoulder, mirth in his voice. "Arod will not let you fall."

Gimli gave a grunt to tide over his embarrassment. "I believe you no more than I trust that horse. He just tried to toss me!"

The wind blew Legolas' clear laughter to Gimli's ears, and the vastness of the empty land became at once less oppressive. "He merely leapt over a small hollow in the ground. Had he tried to toss you, he would have succeeded."

"I may be but a Dwarf and no rider, but he will not get rid of me so easily."

"You bounce upon his back like some ill-fastened piece of baggage," Legolas replied. "Were he as ill-tempered as you, he would throw you with but a single buck."

"Pah! He would not dare!"

"Shall I ask it of him?"

"Don't try my patience, Elf!" Gimli growled.

"There would be no need to try your patience. Arod is a clever beast and your request is easy enough to explain."

"It would slow us down."

"Maybe, but not significantly so. I would explain your desire to Arod, he would buck, you would fall, I would help you back up and we could be on our way within the blink of an eye."

"I never said that I wished to be thrown."

"But you did challenge Arod's willingness to bear you."

"I did challenge Arod's willingness to not throw me."

For a brief moment, Gimli wondered whether he had indeed managed to drive the Elf to the point where he was at a loss of words. But then he noticed Legolas' stiffened posture and the way he gazed ahead. They had come to the borders of the Entwash, and even Gimli could make out the trail of which Éomer had spoken, coming down from the East out of the Wold.

But already the light was fading. Arod slowed his pace. Where the trails met, the horse came to a stop and Legolas leapt lightly off his back, leaving Gimli at the beast's mercy. Arod moved away from the trail, lowered his head and began to pluck off the rich, green grass that grew in abundance where it had not been trampled by the passing Orcs. Gimli swallowed nervously. Arod seemed completely oblivious of his presence, and the ground was still so very far away. He looked around frantically in search for Legolas and found him, to his great relief, not far away, stooped low to better examine the ground.

Before long, Legolas returned and leapt upon Arod's back without further explanation. The horse sped forward again, following the eastward trail, while Legolas' eyes were fixed upon the ground. After a short while, the Elf again dismounted, studied the footprints, walked ahead some ways and to either side of the trail. Gimli thought he saw him shake his head, but in the deepening dusk all colours had vanished, and the Elf seemed to have melted into the greying landscape.

Beneath him, Arod shifted, and Gimli grasped his mane uneasily. But Arod had no mischief in mind. He raised his head and pricked his ears: Legolas returned from his investigations.

"They did not come along this trail," Legolas said as soon as he was within hearing range. "It leads towards the main trail, and I could not discern any sign of feet going the other way, back towards Anduin."

"Then let us not waste precious time but follow the other trail," Gimli said as Legolas mounted again.

The Elf merely shook his head. "It will be fully dark ere long," he said, turning so that he could fully face Gimli. "Even my eyes are not keen enough to make out a Hobbit's footprint or a cast-away token in the night."

"If that is what we are looking for and not just corpses," Gimli muttered darkly as Arod turned around, heading back towards the main trail and the Entwash.

***

They rested for the night a short distance from the broad swath of churned earth, where the ground fell towards the river. The night was cold, the grass damp, and Gimli slept fitfully, though he had taken first watch and had been bone weary as he had lain down after waking Legolas.

The horse they had let roam freely, though Gimli doubted his willingness to stay. But in the absence of rope they had had no other choice, and Legolas had assured him that Arod would not abandon them. And indeed he did not. Throughout the cold hours of his watch, Gimli had heard him, munching lush grass a little way upstream. As Gimli woke with the return of light, the horse stood next to Legolas, allowing the Elf to caress his huge head.

Gimli shook his head at the sight. Elves and horses, he thought. The strangest creatures imaginable, and I am stuck with both!

Yet the growing light reminded him of their duty towards their missing friends and the time they had already wasted. After a frugal meal of lembas and water, they were off again, and Gimli found himself once more at Legolas' and Arod's mercy.

For several hours they followed the trail upstream, Legolas' eyes fixed upon the ground all the while. Even though the Elf dismounted from time to time, they found no trace of their quarry. Gimli could not quite rid himself of the fear that they would miss a sign, for the landscape swept by fast, and keen though Legolas' eyes were, hundreds of Orc-feet and the hooves of many horses had turned the ground upside down, covering every other track.

Yet what choice did they have? If they were to study every bent blade of grass, they would be busy until the changing of the world. Their horse's speed, keen elven eyes and luck would have to do, though Gimli did not relish the amount of luck they would need to find their friends in this vast land.

Mid-morning found them at the edge of Fangorn forest at last. The trees proved a dark and menacing barrier that Gimli did not wish to breach. The very air seemed thick and stifling, and not only due to the stench of charred flesh that still hung heavily about the cooling pile of burnt Orcs. But the stench was not the only sign of recent battle. Where the river came streaming out from the edge of the wood, there was a mound covered with fresh-cut turves and surrounded by fifteen spears. And before the cooling remains of the Rider's bonfire sat the head of an Uruk-hai upon a spear stuck into the ground, its shattered helm still showing the badge of the White Hand, a sight that filled Gimli with grim satisfaction.

Legolas dismounted and helped Gimli off the horse as well. "Now, where do we start?" Gimli asked as soon as his feet touched solid ground.

"What about that knoll over there?" Legolas suggested, pointing towards a single rise not three furlongs away from the forest's edge. "I can see the remains of a camp up there. It seems as if the Orcs rested there, for the Riders stayed near the river, over there."

Gimli followed Legolas' outstretched arm with his eyes but could discern little that would prove the Elf's point. Yet he saw no reason to doubt Legolas' words, so he turned towards the knoll with a weary sigh.

That the Orcs had camped on top of the knoll, as Legolas had claimed, became obvious as soon as they reached that place. The ground was littered with abandoned packs, refuse, discarded weapons and bits of armoury, all crudely fashioned. Yet signs of their friends they found none, at least not at a first glance around.

"Nothing," Gimli sighed. "'Tis as I feared: they are gone."

"I would have never thought that Dwarves fall prey to despair so easily."

"Pah! I do not despair," Gimli replied with a growl. "Just look around: Nothing but Orc-refuse, Orc-carcasses, and a bleak land devoid of life."

"Think, my friend!" Legolas said. "If you were an Orc-horde-"

"Legolas!"

"... and you had prisoners and were resting upon this lovely hill-top," Legolas went on undaunted. "Where would you keep your prisoners?"

"Stupid question!" Gimli growled. "In the middle of the camp, of course."

"Well, Orcs are stupid creatures. Hence we will begin our investigations in the middle of their camp."

From the middle of the knoll they soon spotted a small stretch of ground that was not littered with refuse, and there they found at long last the signs they had longed to find for days. There, before them upon the hard and dry ground lay pieces of a crudely-fashioned yet sturdy rope. The knots were still in place, but the rope itself had been cut. The cuts were ragged as if someone with a dull blade had severed the bonds, or someone in great haste.

Gimli looked at Legolas, who knelt upon the ground, running his fingers over the crude bonds absentmindedly. "What make you of these?" Gimli asked.

"I do not know," Legolas replied cautiously and put the piece of rope back upon the ground, next to the others. Looking up to meet Gimli's eyes, he said, "I dare not raise false hope, but our friends seem to have managed to free themselves."

"And what cause have you to make such a claim?"

"The sheer amount of rope that has been cut. That is far more than if the Orcs had merely severed leg-bonds to allow their prisoners to walk."

Gimli nodded by way of an answer. "But where are they now?"

Legolas rose to his feet in one fluid motion. "Whither would you go, my friend, if you had just freed yourself?"

Gimli looked around. The open land provided little shelter, safe for the forest and the shrubs and bushes that grew along the river. "Since no one in his right mind would enter the forest," he said with a pointed glance at his friend, "I would think they would have made for the river."

Next to him, the Elf straightened, turning his keen eyes towards the stream. For a long while he said nothing, just watched. Then, without further words, he broke into a run, not waiting for Gimli to catch up. Only when he reached the thicket of bramble that lined the river's edge did he stop. Gimli's heart caught in his throat as he reached Legolas a short while later and beheld the grey cloth that had caught in the branches, torn and bloodied, a forgotten banner, the remnant of a lost battle that fluttered in the chill easterly wind.

***

To be continued ...

*******
A/N: Large parts of the dialogue (and some fragments of the description) are taken more or less verbatim from Tolkien. The original sections in question are:
- "It was a round hill smooth and bare, standing by itself, the most northerly of the downs."
- "'Yes,' said Legolas, 'there are one hundred and five. Yellow is their hair, and bright are their spears. Their leader is very tall.'"
- " A little above the hill's foot they halted, and wrapping their cloaks about them, they sat huddled together upon the faded grass."
- The largest part is taken from "'What news from the North, Riders of Rohan?' [...] Before long they came to the borders of the Entwash, and there they met the other trail of which Éomer had spoken, coming down from the East out of the Wold."
- "Upon a stake in the middle was set a great goblin head; upon its shattered helm the white badge could still be seen. Further away, not far from the river, where it came streaming out from the edge of the wood, there was a mound. It was newly raised: the raw earth was covered with fresh-cut turves: about it were planted fifteen spears."
All quotes are from The Two Towers: The Riders of Rohan.

My special thanks go to Lyllyn for patiently answering all my medical questions. Another big 'Thank you' goes to Timmy for spotting an inconsistency in the previous chapter (fortunately one that could be easily fixed). And three cheers for Amanda for the tremendous beta job she did. This chapter would not make much sense without her!

This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

In Challenges

Story Information

Author: fliewatuet

Status: Beta

Completion: Work in Progress

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 05/14/05

Original Post: 01/14/03

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