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Unto the ending of the world: 11. Vigilance
Elrohir watched the Grey Company ride off westwards and quickly disappear out of sight behind a dense grey curtain of rain. Halbarad and his men should have a speedy journey home. And then the news would come to Rivendell, though it might well not be more than confirmation of what had already been perceived. Elrohir shuddered at the thought. Elladan looked at him questioningly.
"I was thinking of Father," Elrohir replied, not adding "and Arwen." Neither he nor Elladan had much hope that they would see their sister alive after she heard of Aragorn's death. The letter they had written, which Halbarad now carried with him, was not much of a farewell, and it might already be too late even now, but it was all they could do.
Their own road was not as clear as that of the Grey Company, and they would have to proceed much more warily. While they were all familiar with at least parts of their route, they had no news about what they might encounter along the way.
Elladan and Elrohir had already taken their leave of the Lady Éowyn; they now waited until she and Elfhelm were done talking to Erkenbrand and the Rider who had been chosen to accompany him, Wídfara, a man of the Wold. Soon the Lord of the Westfold turned his horse around to join the rest of the travellers, while the Queen and the marshal rode back towards Edoras.
Erkenbrand led the way as their little group rode north, Wídfara alongside him, the others following. Elrohir noted the nervous glances Wídfara cast at his unusual travelling companions. He hoped the Rider would settle down somewhat in the following days. Erkenbrand might well be as ill at ease, but if so, the older man hid it much better.
They encountered no others all that day, except for some small herds of horses, which they passed by with a casual wave from Erkenbrand at the herdsmen. Elladan was surprised that there were any herds out here, as he had understood that all had been called further west when Anórien and the Wold had come under attack. Wídfara explained that the first herds had returned to the plains the day after the Riders' return from Gondor. Even if there might still be enemies about, the herdsmen considered the new grass of spring worth the risk.
Wídfara seemed better at ease after Elladan's question, and for much of the rest of the day the two rode together. From what Elrohir could hear of their conversation, they spent most of that time discussing horses, a topic on which his brother should be able to match the enthusiasm of a man of Rohan. Neither Legolas nor Gimli said much, and Erkenbrand seemed to prefer the company of his own thoughts.
That night they camped in the middle of the empty plain. Elrohir would share guard duties with Elladan and Legolas, letting those who needed more sleep rest. It was a cold camp, for even if the effort of a campfire had been worth it in the rain that still poured down, Erkenbrand and Wídfara both had spoken against it. A fire would be visible for miles, and there might be stray bands of Orcs even this far west.
Despite the cold and damp, Elrohir fell asleep quickly. Legolas woke him halfway through the night, whispering that all was well before lying down for a few hours of rest. The wind had shifted to the north, and it had stopped raining. The sky was still overcast, and no stars could be seen, but Elrohir suspected they might yet see the Sun the next day.
Elrohir thought on the results of what they had discussed with the Queen of Rohan. In addition to Rohan being allied closely with the Dúnedain and Rivendell, it would definitely be welcome if Rohan and Lothlórien could combine their efforts. Together, the two might hang on to Anduin's western shore in the north for far longer than if they stood alone. The only thing that worried him was that he seemed to be the only one who was still concerned with even a minimum of secrecy about the One Ring. At least there had been no further mention of the Three.
Perhaps staying silent about the One no longer mattered, even if the knowledge that the Enemy held his Ring again would be more than enough reason to despair for many. Yet too much secrecy was not good either, for that would breed mistrust between allies when the truth came out. Elrohir knew he could only wait to see what came of this. Decisions had been made, and consequences could but follow. Suddenly, he wondered; what if, like Gandalf, either Elrond or Galadriel had been taken through their Ring when Sauron regained the One? Should that be so, they were riding to their own doom, and that of the West. With a shiver, he repressed the thought, but not before he saw that Elladan was awake, watching him.
Once all were awake, they set off again, choosing to ride longer hours rather than setting a fast pace. While the Gondorian horses were good enough, Elrohir knew they were no match for Erkenbrand's and Wídfara's steeds, and he spared a brief moment of regret for their own horses that they had left behind in Minas Tirith, and which had undoubtedly ended up torn apart by Orcs.
Before noon, most of the clouds had cleared, and they rode in bright sunshine until the southern edge of Fangorn came into view halfway through the afternoon. Suddenly, Elladan, who was some distance ahead, halted and dismounted, crouching to take a closer look at something on the ground. Elrohir urged his horse to greater speed, at the same time scanning the plain and the edge of the forest ahead for anything that could be amiss. He stopped some paces away as Elladan held up his hand. Joining his brother on foot, Elrohir immediately saw the tracks that ran from west to east. "Wargs. A large pack."
Elladan nodded in agreement. "Long gone, though. I sense nothing nearby."
By now the others had caught up with them, and Elladan gestured them back also to keep them from trampling the trail.
"Wargs?" Wídfara asked. "Where did they go?"
"East," replied Elladan.
"There should be no herds there," Erkenbrand interrupted, looking relieved.
"Should we go after them?" asked Wídfara.
"The trail is old, two days or more," said Elrohir, taking a closer look, "And were we to catch up with them, we are but six, and we carry no spears. Nor can we afford the time a Warg hunt would cost. I fear we must let them go." The others reluctantly agreed.
As Elrohir was about to get back on his horse, Legolas caught his arm and pointed towards the edge of the forest. Elrohir looked, at first seeing nothing out of the ordinary, until he realised that what he had taken for a tree could only be an Ent. He tried not to gape in amazement. It was one thing to have learned the Ents were taking part in events, it was another to encounter one.
"He only just appeared," the Elf said. "But I think we have been watched for some time."
"We should go over to greet him," Elladan said eagerly. All agreed, Gimli and Wídfara somewhat reluctantly, and they set off for the edge of the forest.
"It is Fangorn himself," Legolas said as they came closer. "I wonder why he is here rather than at Isengard?"
The Ent came over to greet them. "Have you come to visit my forest as you said you would, Master Elf?" Treebeard said, giving all members of their group a searching look, letting his gaze linger longest on Elrohir and Elladan.
"Alas, no," replied Legolas, "I must return north without visiting your woods."
"Hoom, north you say? Then be wary, for there are many Orcs beyond the forest, though not as many as there could have been. Where are you headed?" the Ent asked.
"Lothlórien," replied Elladan.
"Hoo, hm! I doubt you can reach it, for the foul vermin are all around that fair wood. An army came over the River some days ago, too many for the Ents to stop before they turned towards Laurelindórenan."
Elrohir cast an alarmed look at his brother. Even if Lothlórien yet stood, this news bode ill. With days of travel still ahead, they could only hope the defence of their grandparents' realm would hold.
Elladan asked Treebeard, "Not as many as there could have been?"
There was a grim light in the Ent's dark eyes as he looked at Elladan. "The Ents have not been idle. Two weeks ago, from over the River there came a great inrush of Orc vermin into the Wold. We stopped them before they could get further into Rohan. Not many escaped us, and most of those drowned in the River. Since then, we have kept them from returning to attack again, and that was well for you, for had we not, you would not have ridden this far, if indeed you could have set off."
Erkenbrand spoke now. "Rohan is in your debt, both for this and for your aid in Isengard, and it shall not be forgotten in Edoras."
"Not while your kingdom lasts, you mean; but it will have to last long indeed before it will seem long to Ents," said Treebeard.
"That is true," Elladan replied, "Yet we now face the end of all kingdoms and of the Ents, too, if all do not work together."
"Hm, hoom, the news from the south is not good then, I take it," said the Ent.
"Indeed not," Elladan said, "Minas Tirith has fallen. This is only the beginning of Sauron's War and he will not rest until he has all lands under his dominion."
Treebeard remained silent for some time, standing quietly until he shook himself with a rustling as of leaves in the wind, and asked, "Gandalf – where is he? – spoke to me of a secret hope. If you know of what I speak, can you tell me what has come of that? And what news of the two young hobbits?"
Legolas now spoke. "Alas, the hope you speak of has failed, and Sauron now holds his Ring again. Merry and Pippin are both well. Gandalf has ridden off, we know not where to, and it troubles us, for his manner before he left was strange."
Elrohir feared Legolas might accidentally bring up Gandalf's Ring, and spoke quickly, ignoring the Elf's irritated glance at the interruption, "Treebeard, do you know where exactly the Orcs are?"
"No, only that there are none in the forest. Your road will be safe until you cross Limlight; beyond that I do not know. There will be Huorns coming from Isengard, to harry the Enemy's army if it is driven back from Laurelindórenan. No Orcs shall return to his dark home across Anduin again. Yet your journey will be more dangerous even if you do not meet any of them, for the Huorns when roused will not wait to find out that you are not Orcs should you encounter them."
Elrohir feared the Ent was only too right with that warning, and noted the concern on his companions' faces. "How long do we have?" he asked.
"Still several days, and I will not let the Huorns go too far north, so though you need not rush, you should not delay long either," replied Treebeard. "Now if you will excuse me, I myself do need to hurry – a most un-Entish thing to do, but it cannot be helped. There are Wargs upon the Wold. You may rest here tonight, and take fallen branches from the forest floor for a campfire, and you can journey under the eaves of the forest tomorrow. The trees know you, and no harm will come to you from them."
"At least Lothlórien still stands," said Gimli, after the Ent had gone. He had remained silent through the conversation with Treebeard.
"Yes, but will it still do so when we get there?" asked Legolas.
Elrohir said nothing. He wanted to dwell longer on the wonder of meeting an Ent; he regretted there had not been more time to speak with the ancient tree-herder, and wished they could have met in a time of peace. Instead, in his mind he saw the massive forces that had been fielded against Minas Tirith, and he wondered how Lothlórien could resist such an army, especially if Galadriel could not use her Ring. The Elves of Lórien would fight fiercely to defend their home, but would it be enough? He cast a quick glance at Elladan, who sat on the edge of the clearing where their camp was, knowing his brother shared his fear. He wished they could reach Lothlórien faster. Now he truly understood Halbarad's desire for speed on the journey through Gondor, and just as Halbarad had come to admit, he too knew that they could not travel any faster than they already were. Certainly, if the land between Limlight and Lórien was crawling with Orcs, they did not want to exhaust their horses before they got that far. To have the animals fresh enough to outrun Orcs, or Wargs, could well come to mean the difference between life and death.
The next day dawned clear and cold. First, they rode in the open, though near to the edge of the forest. Elrohir rode with his brother for much of the morning, warily watching the edge of the Wold on their right, fearing to hear the howling of Wargs on their trail. Around noon the wind started to carry a faint hint of burning, and their tension heightened, though Elrohir was certain it was not Fangorn's woods that were on fire. The smell was too faint, and he was sure the trees around them would react if there was a fire anywhere near. Was it Lothlórien that burned? Though they were a fair distance away still, smoke could easily carry that far on the wind. The horses were nervous too, spooking at the slightest disturbance. They found themselves edging closer towards the trees, and Erkenbrand and Wídfara rode with their bows in hand.
Elrohir had hoped they would reach the northern edge of the trees that day, but they were still well inside the forest's boundary by the time they stopped for the night. The air still bore a hint of smoke, and their camp that night was cold again. As he reluctantly chewed on a piece of dried meat and the last of the bread they had brought from Edoras, Elrohir doubted they would be secure enough to allow a campfire again until they reached Lothlórien.
The camp was silent as well as cold, as all were occupied with their own thoughts. Elrohir found himself recalling the times he and his brother had travelled with Aragorn, just the three of them or in the company of other Rangers. Still alert for the sound of Wargs on the hunt, it was not surprising that he remembered Aragorn's first Warg kill. Aragorn had been seventeen, and while a certain amount of luck was involved, it had still been a great achievement for one so young. Of course, afterwards he and Elladan had soon enough grown tired of days of boyish boasts about the hunt. Elrohir sadly shook his head at the memory and got up to take his turn on watch.
Though the night was silent, Elrohir imagined that he could hear the rustling and creaking of marching Huorns in the south. His imagination was getting the better of him, he knew, and it was probably time to wake Elladan and get some sleep before he truly started jumping at shadows. Elladan was grumpy at being woken early, but that was better than raising an alarm over nothing.
Elrohir fell asleep almost immediately and was last to wake up the next day. The morning started shrouded in mist, which did not clear until they reached the edge of the forest just before noon. They paused before leaving the shelter of the trees.
"What is the terrain like beyond this point?" asked Erkenbrand.
"Mostly as you see now, open grassland and thickets of trees," Elladan replied.
"There will be little shelter from hostile eyes," Elrohir added, "so we must hope that we do not encounter any Orcs. If we do, we should run rather than fight if at all possible. It is more important that we get to Lothlórien than that we reduce the Enemy's army by thirty or forty Orcs." All agreed, though none of them liked the idea of running from what enemies they might encounter.
They made good progress that afternoon, finding no trace yet of Orcs, though they heard Wargs in the distance several times. Close to dusk, Wídfara and Elladan, who had been scouting ahead, came back.
"There are about three hundred Orcs camped about three miles from here. No sign of Wargs," Elladan said.
"Then we should rest here tonight," Elrohir responded. "It is too late in the day. We cannot risk going on past them when it is already nearly dark.
"Perhaps we should keep a double watch with the enemy so near?" Erkenbrand suggested.
Elrohir agreed and took the first watch together with Erkenbrand, using the opportunity to observe the man more closely. He had been intrigued by how calmly Erkenbrand had taken the news that Sauron had his Ring back, and had since reached the conclusion that there was very little that would shake this man's calm demeanour. He already knew the Lord of the Westfold as a bold and canny man, but still wondered why he had put himself forward to come with them to Lothlórien. Erkenbrand did not strike him as the kind to be led by fey dreams of Elves, and most Rohirrim feared the Golden Wood rather than feel curiosity about it.
Near the end of their watch, Elrohir suddenly heard a great confusion of shouting and other noise to the north, and he was instantly alert. In the light of the nearly full Moon, he noticed that Erkenbrand too had heard it, and was now looking at him.
"I think the Orcs are on the move," Elrohir whispered.
"Can you make out where they are heading?" Erkenbrand asked, speaking just as softly.
"Not yet, not with certainty, but I do not believe they are heading this way," he replied.
The others had woken up as well, and all sat waiting until it was clear that the Orcs were not coming in their direction. Elrohir went to sleep then as Legolas and Gimli took over the watch.
They warily moved north in the morning, finding that the Orcs had indeed broken camp and were heading east. Elrohir thought they were close to halfway across the plain; if their luck held, they should reach the eaves of Lothlórien well before dark that day.
Throughout the day they had to be careful to avoid small groups of Orcs heading south and east. Elrohir suspected this meant that the attack Treebeard had told them about had been repelled, and Lórien still stood. At one point they found the arrow-riddled carcass of one of the flying beasts the Nazgûl used, though Elrohir did not sense a Ringwraith in their vicinity. Had the Wraith been slain, or merely driven off?
By mid afternoon they were nearing their destination and it became clear that, even if the attack Fangorn had told them about had been beaten back, great damage had been done. Where the southern bank of the Silverlode had been covered in trees, only blackened stumps remained, and it looked to Elrohir as if the burned area continued for some distance on the other shore of the river as well. He could clearly smell it now too, an unpleasant, acrid smell that seemed to cling to everything. He exchanged a distressed look with Elladan as they moved closer.
"What now?" Elladan asked. "It is about three miles without cover from here to the river. The only chance I see is to make a break for it and hope the Orcs are not expecting anyone to charge through from the south."
"But we cannot cross the river here, not with horses. We should try further west." Elrohir objected.
"We should not leave our horses behind," said Wídfara, with Erkenbrand nodding in agreement.
"There is at least one group of defenders on this shore that I can see," Elladan pointed out. "If we can get to them, we should be out of trouble."
Elrohir suspected it would not be so easy, not when Lórien had been under attack so recently. Despite his optimistic words, it would seem that Elladan shared at least some of his concerns, as his brother now turned to the others, warning especially the two men of Rohan not to make any move that could be seen as threatening once they reached the Elves.
Hopefully the warning would be enough. Elrohir knew it was warranted, and he hoped they were not about to ride to their accidental deaths at the hands of the defenders of Lothlórien. Still, he could see no other way than a headlong charge to get past the last Orcs.
Almost immediately, Elrohir gave the command to ride. It looked as if they were going to make it through unchallenged, but they were not even halfway across when shouts of alarm went up from the closest Orcs. The ones that saw them soonest were too far away to do more than shoot a few hastily-aimed arrows. As the arrows landed far short, Elrohir looked ahead again. The Elves had also seen them and were now raising their bows. Had this charge been a mistake? No, the bows were not aimed at them, but at the Wargs racing towards them.
If the Warg riders reached them, they would single out one or two of their party and try to take them down or drive them back towards the other Orcs, to be slaughtered within sight of the safety of Lórien. Elrohir urged his horse to go faster yet, and somehow the animal found the speed he asked for. Elladan was ahead, and would certainly reach the protection of the Lórien Elves in time. The others? Elrohir risked a backward glance. Erkenbrand and Wídfara were close behind, and were even gaining on him. They too would make it. Legolas and Gimli were too far behind, their horse faltering under its double load.
Three would stand a better chance than two; Elrohir slowed down and was about to ride back, when Wídfara came up from behind him. The Rider had his bow already drawn, and now sped towards the Elf and the Dwarf. He shot as soon as the Wargs were in range, and though his first arrow fell short, the second and third hit both the first Warg and the Orc riding it.
The remaining pursuers quickly fell back to outside the range of Wídfara's horse bow, and with Elladan and Erkenbrand waiting until they caught up again, they approached Lothlórien together. Elrohir could see the Elves clearly, and noticed several familiar faces among them. He repressed a twinge of apprehension as the Lórien longbows remained resolutely aimed at them. They had been allowed to come this close, they must have been recognised. Surely they would not be slain without challenge or warning?
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