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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 11. Encounters
Gimli was roused from his sleep by someone shaking him, and such was the tension of the preceding days that he instantly lashed out with the back of his fist. He hit air, which was perhaps fortunate, for as he rolled to his feet in a crouch, dark eyes fierce, he saw Aragorn kneeling nearby.
The Ranger had one hand on the ground behind him to support his sudden recoil, and his expression was a mixture of surprise, alarm, and amusement for such a vicious wakening. Beyond him, Legolas looked on with a slight smile, which eased Gimli's chagrin appreciably. Anything to begin this day with less pain than the last!
"Your pardon," the Dwarf muttered nevertheless as he straightened. Aragorn rose smoothly, shaking his head, and a smile played at the corners of his mouth.
"I think I shall let Legolas wake you tomorrow," he replied. "His reflexes are better than mine."
"You were not struck," the Elf pointed out. "I fear that if he knew I was to wake him, he might take aim rather than flailing blindly!"
"And if you cannot trouble yourself to duck a punch, then you shall deserve your bruises," Gimli retorted, pulling his pack onto his back just as the sun cleared the horizon. "Shall we tarry here longer?"
"Nay, for the road calls us ever onward," the Ranger said, instantly sobering. "Eat as you run – we have much ground to recover."
And so the three hunters took up the trail again. The vast, rolling plains of Rohan spread before them, and as the sun rose, its beams touched upon the beads of dew clinging to the grass and set them afire with a radiant, rainbow splendor. It was as if the fields of the Riddermark were covered in diamond dust, even as legendary Tirion, and the sky above was pale and cloudless as only a late winter's morn can be. Over the glittering green sward they ran, small figures between the vast emptiness of earth and sky.
So intent were they upon finding some trace of the hobbits amid the confusion of the Orcs' trampling, that the companions were almost heedless of the beauty, though even Aragorn could see nothing to help them. Yet sight is not all, and that sense of void, of utter isolation crowned with fragile and incomprehensible glory, touched on their thoughts, troubling their hearts as they held to their course with single-minded determination. Sometimes it waxed greater, and at other times that sense of absence was too ethereal to make itself known as such among the myriad stimuli of a morning's hard run; but it remained ever constant, present in their most unconscious thoughts, and its effects were not insensible.
Running in Aragorn's wake, the Dwarf bared his teeth, feeling his joints stiff from the nighttime chill. The prospect of another day on the hunt was not encouraging, but he thought of Merry and Pippin, driven to exhaustion and beyond by the cruel whips of the Orcs, and let his wrath fuel his legs. A Dwarf's fine sense of vengeance is unflagging in pursuit of its object, and for Glóin's son honor—To say nothing of friendship!—would be satisfied only when that thirst for retribution was quenched in blood.
Dark were his thoughts beneath the bright sun, and as the miles stretched into leagues, and the leagues themselves seemed to grow ever longer, he threw the full weight of his will against exhaustion and struggled along, wishing just once for some of the height that his companions had. For if in the morning he had managed two strides for every one of Aragorn's, by the time the afternoon arrived, the proportion had risen to four to one, and Gimli was wondering whether Rangers ever in fact grew weary.
But that was not the reason that he dropped to the rear of their short line. For though he tired of the grueling pace, still, he could maintain it at need and had not yet reached the point of desperation. Not so Legolas, he suspected, for the Elf had fallen steadily back as the day progressed. And if Gimli had thought Elves other-worldly—even to the point of fault—he had never thought to see one who was wholly absent from his surroundings. Yet as they ran, the Dwarf had watched Legolas retreat from his initial weary good humor into a state not unlike that of a somnambulant, which was the more eerie for the fact that Elves routinely slept with their eyes wide open.
To Gimli's mind, Legolas spent too much time wandering in that elvish dreamland, and he was certain that such blank-faced preoccupation boded ill. Even in their brief pauses, the Elf had barely put two words together, opting to sit with his knees drawn up and his head bowed over them. Aragorn had spoken to the Elf in his native Sindarin during those rest periods, and had received uncharacteristically terse answers each time. But short of force, the Elf would not be restrained from continuing the hunt, and he would not be "coddled" (as he put it): thus when Aragorn returned to the chase, he was ever but a step behind.
But concern is not the same as coddling, Gimli thought, and I should hope that he realizes that. Alas, I fear that such nuances escape him at the moment. That was why the Dwarf had let himself fall to the end of the line, to be certain that he could keep an eye on Thranduil's stubborn son, and prevent disaster should it strike from that quarter.
For though Legolas held his place in line, there seemed to the Dwarf's discerning eye a certain disharmony, a subtle disequilibrium to the Elf's movements that was unsettling. Never before have I seen Legolas take a misstep, and it is not that he stumbles or staggers as we go, but…! Gimli scowled in concentration, then shook his head sharply. I cannot put it into words, yet there is something wrong in the way that he moves now. Folly, perhaps, to think that anyone could move cleanly with such an injury, and yet I cannot accept that this is normal, even for so strange a being as an Elf!
As the sun began to set, they came at last to the remains of an orcish campsite, and as Aragorn, weary but determined, began an exhaustive search of the ground, Gimli took the opportunity to sit down. Another few hours, perhaps, and we shall be forced to halt once more. Forced! The Dwarf heaved a large sigh at that. Even a Dwarf of the Lonely Mountain can scarce endure this march! And what of Legolas?
In the half-light, the Elf sat some small distance away, legs crossed and hands laid palms up upon his knees. His face was drawn and his attention, as it had been since early that morning, was focused inward. Or perhaps trapped, Gimli thought uneasily. He did not know how to stir his friend from this grievous state, nor whether it would be wise to try. I fear I still know little enough of Elves. Perhaps it is always thus when an Elf is hurt; perhaps Legolas needs his isolation to heal. But instinct continued to yammer at him, until, with a quick grimace, the Dwarf promised himself that he would seek Aragorn's counsel later that evening. Only mildly appeased, the voice of doubt ceased to babble, but it trailed wordless anxiety through Gimli's mind incessantly.
After a quarter of an hour, the Ranger loped over to join his companions, casting a sharp glance at Legolas ere he, too, lowered himself to the ground with a slight grimace.
"There is nothing to be seen, is there?" Gimli demanded in a low voice, and wondered why he tortured himself by asking. If there were anything of note, we would know it by now. Yet he felt compelled to ask, perhaps in the hopes of drawing the Elf out of his dark dreams.
"I fear not," Aragorn replied, and the very neutrality of his voice was suspect, hinting at his own unreasonable disappointment. "Cavalry passed through this place earlier, and I would guess that the Orcs must by now be well aware of pursuit. How it shall end, I cannot say, but in another two days, we shall reach Fangorn, and tracking shall become more difficult. An Elf's eyes will aid us greatly there, however this ends," he added.
Legolas blinked at that, apparently having realized that he was called upon to speak, or at least acknowledge his companions. And despite the growing darkness, Gimli did not miss the confused weariness that passed over the Elf's fair face: just a flash of emotion, but enough to threaten his composure, for the prince hung his head quickly and seemed to gather himself ere he looked up again.
"Much may happen in two days," the Elf murmured.
"It may," Aragorn responded, pausing an instant, ere he suddenly switched to Sindarin once again, seeming to ask a question. "Ranach khim, Legolas?"
"I am well enough. There is no point in asking before we halt for the night," Legolas replied, refusing the other's efforts to engage him in his own tongue. At least I now know what Aragorn said, Gimli thought, wondering at the Elf's refusal to let himself be treated this day, when he had been willing enough yesterday. Why suffer unnecessarily? But Aragorn simply nodded and rose once more.
"Then let us use these hours well ere we rest!" Gimli's soft groan was lost in the wind as the three companions wearily pressed forward once more.
Stars sprawled overhead, studding the inky darkness, and the last glow of the pale crescent moon disappeared over the horizon. A breeze stirred, rushing across the plains to flow over the three companions, who had at last surrendered the day's hunt. Aragorn shivered in spite of himself, and paced quietly to warm himself. In truth, he would have liked nothing more than to collapse and sleep until dawn, but he had drawn the first watch that night, and discomfort all aside, his thoughts were too unsettled at the moment for him to rest.
And the others are more weary than I, he thought, stretching to ease tired muscles as he looked over at his companions. Elf and Dwarf were both asleep, and Gimli was huddled beneath his cloak with his hood drawn up for warmth. Aragorn could readily sympathize, for his clothes, after three days of running, were damp and clammy with his own sweat and the dew of the night did nothing to ease the pervasive chill.
Still, there was much to be grateful for on that account. Thus far, the weather had been unusually mild for February, but the Ranger remembered all too well the misery of winter in Rohan. With or without snow, the windstorms upon the plains can brew quite suddenly, and then let the unwary traveler despair! Such storms, unimpeded upon the flats, gathered strength and speed the likes of which no one accustomed to Eriador's more hilly terrain could possibly imagine. The sharp, cold night breezes were hard enough to endure, but Aragorn did not relish the prospect of shepherding his friends through a windstorm.
Nevertheless, weather was the least of his concerns at the moment. Although there was no sign of either poison or infection, Legolas's wound still bled, for constant exertion would not allow it to begin to close. The bandages and salve helped to stop that flow, but as the hours wore on, such measures were increasingly less effective. And though it was not perilously deep, still, the cut was hardly shallow either, and the Elf was in constant pain as torn, abused muscles strained to bear weight and command movement that further damaged the tissues. The healer in Aragorn hated the thought of asking more of the Elf, but he knew also that Legolas was better able to bear up to such injury than either a Man or a Dwarf; to be perfectly honest, the Elf stood not yet in any real danger, physically. Had either he or Gimli been so wounded, they would certainly have fared worse, and been at greater risk of it festering.
So we may in some sense count Legolas's misfortune as good luck, after a fashion,, the Ranger thought humorlessly. At least they could continue together, and Aragorn need not worry overmuch about Legolas's physical recovery – that was a matter of time and proper rest of an injured body, frankly. It was not the arrow-wound that worried him at this point, but wounds of another sort that might in the end – which might not be so far distant – prove as crippling to heart and mind as a dagger to the lungs would cripple a man if it did not kill him. What would count as a death-blow to the spirit – that he did not know, perhaps could not, but he thought again of Moria, and of Arwen's face in the lamplight, and felt chilled.
As he stood in silent contemplation of the darkened land, he heard the distinctive sound of a Dwarf waking. For wounded or no, Legolas's movements were nearly noiseless, and the Ranger wondered what had roused Gimli from his rest a full four hours ere his watch began. But he said nothing, waiting for the Dwarf to approach, and sure enough, Gloín's son came to stand at his side.
"You should rest, my friend," Aragorn advised softly.
"I intend to," the Dwarf replied, "But I may not do so yet, for there is something I would ask you."
"About Legolas, I guess," the Ranger replied.
"I wished to be certain he was asleep ere we spoke," said Gimli, in tacit acknowledgement of his intuition. "All this day I have watched him, and yesterday as well, and I like not what I see, Aragorn. Discomfort and weariness have we all a share in; a short temper I might expect and understand; but this… this sleep-walking—that I cannot fathom!" The Dwarf shook his head in the darkness and sighed. "Tell me truly, what ails him? Is his wound more serious than you have said previously?"
"It is painful, and to set bone or stitches in that area of the body is difficult under the best of circumstances in the Wild," Aragorn said.
"Which, of course, these are not," Gimli hurried past the obvious, unwilling to let the Ranger side-track his inquiry. For though he doubted Aragorn would lie to him, the Man had a talent for misdirection that he had honed over the long decades of furtive service; if the news was ill, he might well try to keep it to himself for a time if not pressed hard for it. "But you know I mean otherwise than that. He walks like a ghost, Aragorn. I would not see him become one in truth!"
For awhile, there came no reply, which did little to ease Gimli's heart; clearly the Ranger was seeking the best way to say what must be said, and that worried him. Finally, though, Aragorn said, "The Eldar race is able to endure much hardship without wavering, and Legolas will endure for longer than either a Man or a Dwarf would. But I cannot close the wound, or prevent him from bleeding, Gimli, and though of itself the injury is not dangerous, our chase and exhaustion make it harder to bear. And I fear there are other peculiarities of Elves that must be watched."
"Such as?" Gimli demanded, impatiently.
At that, Aragorn sighed, glancing over his shoulder at the sleeping Elf, as if to reassure himself that Legolas slept still. "Think of the first time you were wounded in battle, Gimli, and recall the shock of that feeling. Do you remember how it was in the days afterward, seeing in that wound your own death waiting for you all untimely?"
Gimli's brows raised in consternation, then scowled into the darkness. "Aragorn," he murmured quietly, "do you tell me Legolas has never been wounded in battle before? I find that hard to believe. And even were it so, how is this then an elvish peculiarity? We have all of us tasted that fear and come through it in far less time, I might add. Tell me not that this comes of elvish longevity!"
"It does not, but then, I had not come to the peculiarities of Elves yet," Aragorn replied then, and Gimli grunted.
"My apologies. Say on," the Dwarf urged.
"The Eldar affect the land in which they live, as you will have noticed in Lórien and Rivendell, and if ever you visit Legolas in Mirkwood, you shall feel something of the power of the Elves at work in that realm as well. Everything that comes under their influence is subject to their shaping, in one way or another. We ourselves are changed by their presence, as I warned in Lothlórien," he said.
"But that bond between an Elf and his surroundings in turn lays him open to the land in ways mortals find hard to see or fathom: for the Elves are bound to Arda, and to all that is in it, much more strongly than is a Dwarf, and certainly more so than a Man or a hobbit." Aragorn gave an eloquent shrug. "While Middle-earth endures, so shall they, and they draw strength from it. In the beginning, when Arda was unstained, the Eldar were at the height of their powers."
"But what has this to do with Legolas's state?"
"Mayhap much. Middle-earth wanes, and so the Elves are lessened. And an Elf who is injured is dealt a wound on two levels, to body and soul. Legolas is young, born late into a world much weakened, and that is not without effect. Wounded, he suffers the unravelling of the cuiniant more easily, more acutely than one older than he might."
"The unravelling of what again?" Gimli asked, scowling at the Sindarin interjection.
"It is an elvish word for which I have no ready translation, I fear, for Men have no need of it," Aragorn replied, and fell silent a moment. After some thoughtful consideration, he continued slowly, "I would say it is the unity of Legolas that is threatened, and an Elf unaccustomed to such disruption is in peril. Even as Men fear the loss of their lives, and taste in injuries received their own mortality, an Elf fears the loss of his integrity. If there were others of his kind with us, then Legolas might find great comfort in their presence and advice, but alas! He must face this alone."
Gimli pursed his lips in the darkness, considering this startling information, and after a long moment, he shook his head. "I fear I do not understand all of this. Can you not help him, since you are familiar with his condition?"
"I have tried to speak with him a few times this day, but he will not hear me. And but that he is alone among mortals, I would not presume to speak of such matters, for I am but a Man and my knowledge comes of observation and 'book-learning,' as they say in the Shire," Aragorn said heavily.
"Then is there naught that we can do for him?"
"If our presence and such encouragement as we are able to provide are not enough, then we can do little more than to stand by him."
"And watch him deteriorate?"
"Say not so, for he may find his own way through such divisions," the Ranger responded. "And in the mean time, do not lose hope. Even as Men and Dwarves have learned to overcome their fears, Legolas will learn to overcome this."
Gimli grunted, then startled himself by yawning hugely. "Well," he sighed tiredly, "I still cannot say that I understand this, but I shall do as you advise and hope nonetheless. Elves!" With that last exasperated, worried complaint, the Dwarf returned to his patch of grass and lay down again, huddling beneath his cloak. Sleep descended almost instantly, burying thought in layers of warm, soothing oblivion, and he knew no more.
Aragorn stood silently watching him, and his heart was troubled. Well indeed that Gimli learns more of Elves if he wishes to pursue this friendship, but I cannot tell him all. For though what he had said was true enough, he feared that there was more to it than that, and that the Darkness under which they now lay had much more to do with Legolas's suffering than aught else. Legolas, after all, is no unblooded lad, however young his people may account him, he mused. He knows well enough how to handle himself when wounded. But if the Song of the World sings now of inescapable Darkness... That might well make of any wound a danger beyond the hurt it could do to a body, and especially if Legolas could hear that Song clearly enough to understand its portent. He thought again of Arwen, saw her horror in his mind's eye, and knew he would not be the one to confront Legolas with the truth. Not when it cost so much.
But did he keep his silence in vain? Had the Elf yet perceived the deadly veil of malice that Aragorn had wakened to in Moria? Was that what his present daze meant? The Ranger did not know. But he is an Elf, and so I doubt not that this evil affects him, though perhaps he does not recognize yet either its source or its extent. And Gimli yet has no inkling, I think.
He sighed softly, turning his eyes heavenward, to where the Evening Star blazed brightly above the horizon. How is it with you this night, my love? he wondered, and wondered whether he would ever have her answer.
Red rose the sun and dawn's light bled onto the plain as the three companions arose once more to toil. Silently they resumed their chase, and this time Gimli made certain to remain close at Legolas's back while the day lasted, however hard that labor. For though he knew not why, anticipation of a strange and dreadful sort murmured and sang in his blood, seeming to have kindled with the rising of the sun.
Thus did the long hours pass, and with them the plains: in the distance and growing ever larger, gentle, green-clad hills rose up, casting stark shadows upon the flat lands. The Orcs' trail seemed to curve about in order to pass right before their feet, then cut sharply back to the north for the forest eaves which showed now as a dark line upon the horizon.
And at intervals along the path, there were bodies: Orcs fallen in their tracks with goose-feathered arrows protruding from their backs.
"I knew not that the horse lords had bowmen," Gimli muttered, panting.
"Archery is an art among them, but on the field, the Rohirrim prefer their lances," Aragorn replied, squatting beside the body of a slain Orc as he gazed intently at the marks upon the ground. "Alas, I fear that if the riders did not bring this pack to heel, then there is no chance that we shall! We are more than a day behind them." He rose silently, glancing north after the trail ere he turned to the down at whose base they stood. "Come, let us go up and see what may be seen."
Single file as ever, Man, Elf and Dwarf climbed wearily to the crown of the hill. To Gimli's eyes, Legolas seemed unchanged from the day before: distant and pained, and he showed none of his usual enthusiasm for the prospect of climbing up to the heights. Indeed, he fairly trudged, if such a word could be used of an Elf. When at last they stood wearily at the top of the hill, they gazed out over the wide lands of Rohan, following the Orc trail as it ran north to the forest. And as they gazed, Gimli became aware that there were small figures moving upon it.
"Aragorn!" He pointed downward, and received a thoughtful nod in response.
"Riders," the Ranger said laconically. "A large company, and one that shall perhaps give us news of our quarry."
"Is that all that they shall give us?" the Dwarf asked, feeling at the curved edge of his double-bladed axe. Not that Gimli knew much of the Men of Rohan, but in principle he distrusted a people who worked so closely with such willful and dangerous beasts as horses.
"If we are careful, we shall have little to fear," the Ranger responded. "Well, we should not wait here in any case. Come, then!" And with that, they left the hill, though Gimli had to touch Legolas's arm and tug gently to rouse the Elf from his seeming-stupor. With a shake of his fair head and a slight frown, the Elf trailed along after Gimli, silent and grim. When they reached the foot of the hill, the three companions paused and on unspoken agreement, they settled themselves upon the grass, more than willing to rest from their day's labors.
"You are certain that these horse lords can be trusted?" Gimli asked after an uncomfortable few minutes of dead silence. "Did not Gandalf report that they pay the Dark Lord with horses?"
"Gandalf repeated only the rumor that Gwaihir had heard," Aragorn corrected. "And I doubt not that it is just that: a rumor, and an ill one. Boromir thought it nonsense, and I believe him, for I have spent some years among them. There are few things that the Rohirrim would less willingly part with than their steeds, even their lives. A fierce people, and a stubborn one, but honorable—I should think, Gimli, that a Dwarf would grow swiftly to love them."
"Hmmph!" the Dwarf grunted, but he nodded thoughtfully after a moment. "But will they learn to love a Dwarf? And what of Elves?"
"If they are wise, they shall leave us be," Legolas spoke suddenly, startling both his companions. "One does not touch the darkness!"
"What mean you by that?" Gimli asked, frowning, and to judge by Aragorn's intent gaze, he was not alone in his wonderment. But the Elf blinked and shook his head once more, seeming to emerge somewhat from his shell, and a look of muddled confusion crossed his face once again, as though he knew not what he had said. "Legolas?"
Turning his head to gaze at the Dwarf, the Prince of Mirkwood sighed softly. "Yes?"
"You… naught," Gimli replied heavily, dropping the subject. "It was but an ill-timed question, pay it no mind." Then, seeking desperately to prevent a retreat into that staring silence, he asked instead and quickly, "What think you of the Rohirrim, or have Thranduil's folk had any dealings with them?"
"Once, some time ago," Legolas replied, softly. "There was battle upon Calenardhon, and things went ill for Gondor. But when the Éorlingas came, the Elves of Mirkwood helped to drive the invaders from the plains."
"That was long ago indeed, my friend," Aragorn said, and seeing Gimli's skeptical look, added, "Cirion was the twelfth steward when the Éorlingas first came to our aid, and afterward, by their oaths, was Rohan created out of Gondor. Boromir's father, Denethor, is the twenty-sixth in the direct line of descent."
"Long ago indeed!" Gimli muttered, and Legolas gave a slight smile, though his eyes were distant.
"Not so very long, for I remember it," he said.
"And so also would Daín's grandfather, yet we say not that that was a short while ago, for all that it is within four generations!" Gimli retorted.
"Hush! Listen!" Aragorn interjected, and the two fell silent. For a time, the Dwarf strained his ears, but soon enough, the muted thunder of approaching cavalry came even to him. Legolas for once seemed quite intent, and the Dwarf wondered at that.
Does he, too, distrust them in spite of Aragorn's reassurances? If so, at least he has still a care for his life! That might be a good sign, but Gimli had little attention to spare for the Elf, focused as he was upon the figures that swept over the plain, following the Orc trail south. Despite his absolute faith in their guide, he felt his muscles tense as that company bore down upon them, and he darted a surreptitious glance at Aragorn. Of the three of them, he alone seemed unconcerned for their safety, though there was in his keen eyes a sharp glitter that bespoke a fine-honed focus.
And well he might need it! In a blur of motion and sound, the Riders of Rohan flew by, silver and grey, gold and green as the sun glinted off of hair and hauberk, and glossy grey steeds. The thought of all of those trampling hooves did nothing to ease the Dwarf's tension, but he held his peace and his place, 'til of a sudden Aragorn stood and called out in a strange tongue to the last of the riders.
Cries floated back, rippling up that line to the head, and with a startling suddenness, the entire formation bent, swinging back about to surround the three companions in a moving circle of lances and iron-shod hooves. At last, the war-horses, obedient to their masters' command, halted, and Elf and Dwarf sat ill at ease before the lance points of the Rohirrim, watching as one of the riders detached himself from the press.
Tall he was, and from the crest of his helm flowed a white horse tail. Blue eyes the color of an autumn sky glinted as he considered the strangers, and his hair hung in two long braids down his back. After a moment, he spoke, using the same tongue that Aragorn had at first, but then quickly switching to Westron:
"Who are you, who walk in Rohan without the king's leave?"
"Strider I am called," said Aragorn. "Beside me are Gimli the Dwarf, Gloín's son, from the far kingdom of Erebor; and Legolas, prince of the elven realm of Mirkwood. And we walk without the king's leave, for we knew not that it was needed. But who asks?"
"Then you are late come to Rohan," the rider replied, fixing his hard stare upon the Ranger. "This past six-month have we required all to present themselves at Edoras for judgment. As for my name, I am Éomer, son of Éomund, and stand as the Third Marshal of the Mark. But whence came you, and how is it that you appear thus, seemingly from the earth? For we did not mark you as we rode, and I would have sworn an oath that naught that goes upon our fields could escape a Rider's attention."
"From the North are we come, and you marked us not for we go with the favor of the Lady of the Golden Woods." At that, murmurs sprang up, and Gimli stiffened, eyes darting about as he picked up the fear and ill-feeling contained in those whispered words. Beside him, Legolas seemed to recoil, but otherwise neither spoke nor moved.
Whether Éomer marked such reactions, Gimli did not know, but after a moment's consideration, the rider tossed his spear to a comrade and leapt down from his perch.
Drawing his sword, he advanced 'til Aragorn stood within easy reach. The Ranger did not flinch, nor move a muscle, only gazed back with equanimity, and even Gimli sensed the contest of their wills. But it was brief, and seemed born of wary curiosity rather than of animosity, and so the Dwarf remained still, waiting. At last, Éomer removed his helm, tucking it beneath one arm, and Gimli frowned thoughtfully, for the Third Marshal was younger than he had thought, now that he could see his face clearly.
"The Lady of the Golden Woods? So she exists in truth and not only in fables! Strange are the tales of that place… and strange, too, are your words and bearing, 'Strider,' for such a name is not meant for such a man, not if I be any judge of character." He bent his gaze upon the other, searchingly, then demanded: "How come you to associate yourself with the net-weavers and sorcerers of Dwimordene?" At that, Gimli felt a growl rise within him, hearing the suspicious note in the other's voice as he spoke of the Lady Galadriel and her folk.
But Aragorn answered calmly, "That is a long tale, but for your peace of mind, we mean no harm to any of Rohan's folk or beasts. We come rather in pursuit of a common foe: the Orcs whose trail you return upon took captive two of my friends, and we do but seek redress, and the return of those whom we love."
"That company was eighty strong," Éomer said, with a shake of his head. "They would not have feared so few, and you would have died ere ever you set eyes upon your friends—and that if you were fortunate! But we have slain the Orcs, and among them there are no others to be seen." That last was uttered in a harder tone of voice, and the Marshal's eyes narrowed. "Unless they are wizards themselves, then I must doubt your tale. Or perhaps there is more witchery at work? Come, tell me truly who you are, and whom you serve!"
"Isildur's Heir speaks no lies, Third Marshal," said Aragorn softly, and an excited, incredulous buzz of whispers sprang up instantly at his words. But he continued as if oblivious to them, speaking without ever taking his eyes from Éomer's face. And as he spoke, it seemed almost as if his voice cast a spell over the men, for they fell utterly silent as his voice gained in intensity and power. Elf and Dwarf stared up at their friend in wonder, for to them it seemed almost as if they had never known Aragorn before, so great was the change in him.
"Aragorn, son of Arathorn of the House of Elendil am I! I serve no man, but the servants of Sauron I pursue into whatever land they may go." With a flash, Andúril appeared in his hand, and bright gleamed that blade, as the Ranger continued, "Narsil was this blade called of old, and with the ending of this age, it has been reforged, as was foretold in ancient times. Now you are answered, Éomer, Marshal of the Riddermark, so declare yourself swiftly: where do you stand? At my side against orcish depredations, or will you stand against those who are Rohan's friends, and so serve the Enemy's purposes?"
There was a profound silence as all struggled to come to grips with these words, and no few looks cast wonderingly Êomer's way for the challenge in them, but Legolas the Elf caught his breath as he gazed at Aragorn. Almost elvish seemed Arathorn's son in that moment, and no part the rough and worried Ranger; indeed, to the Elf, caught within the snare of a shadow he could not escape, a clear light seemed to radiate from the other, if only briefly ere that fire was hidden once more.
Éomer, for his part, stood very still, as one who feels himself poised on a precipice and knows not yet which way to incline. But under the pressure of Aragorn's bright gaze, the Third Marshal bowed his head, stepping back almost involuntarily. As if that movement had broken the spell, another bout of murmurs erupted, all in a flurry of disbelieving, awe-struck Rohirric that neither Gimli nor Legolas could fathom. Their companion said naught, and if he understood the confused mass of voices, he did not let it show, remaining focused upon Éomer. At length, the Marshal held up a hand for silence, and spoke a few sharp words to his men, who ceased to speak quite suddenly.
"Strange words, my lord, but no stranger than others that I have heard of late," he said into the silence. The Man of Rohan bent his clear eyes upon Aragorn once more, then darted a swift glance at Gimli and Legolas ere he spoke once more, rapidly and sharply, in his own tongue, addressing the rider to whom he had given his spear. The man nodded, though he cast dark looks at Elf and Dwarf, and a doubtful one at Aragorn ere he and the others retired some four horse-lengths to sit upon the path.
Turning back to the companions, the Marshal jammed his sword, point first, into the earth and set the helm over the pommel. "Some things I would not speak of before my men," said he. "And though I would trust you, Aragorn, there are still many dark questions to be asked. Chief among them would be whence comes the horn that you bear?"
"You know Boromir of Minas Tirith, I see," Aragorn replied.
"I know of him, and I have seen him before," Éomer responded grimly. "And I know the history of that horn, so I ask again: how came you by it?" And Gimli, hearing the doubt in the other's voice, bristled on his friend's behalf.
"Not through murder, as you suspect," the Ranger replied with a tight smile. "But you guess correctly that Boromir is no more. The Orcs whom you have lately battled slew him beneath Tol Brandir."
Éomer sucked in a hissing breath at that and shook his fair head. "Ill news indeed! And I fear that those of Minas Tirith will grieve to receive it. Yet if the heir of Denethor traveled with you, then how came you to escape the Orcs?"
"As I said, the Orcs took captive two of our friends, and that seemed to be their objective for they broke away once they had them in hand. Boromir it was who bought our lives by destroying the archers, leaving us free to follow once the remaining Orcs were dealt with."
"Why should the Orcs wish to take two members of your party and leave the rest alive?"
"Now you touch upon matters that I may not speak of here, for there is no time to explain them," Aragorn replied.
At which, Éomer shook his head and grimaced, sighing heavily. "And again, I would believe you, for there is in your voice and face that which bespeaks honesty. But I may not break the law on such faith as is built upon ten minutes' acquaintance. If you will not come with me now, then it is the sword and that I would not see!"
"Nor would I," Aragorn responded. "But I may not abandon my quest while the slightest hope remains for our friends."
"But your hope has failed, for as I said, there were none but Orcs among the slain!"
"None that your eyes could see, for our friends wear the raiment of Lórien, even as we do. If you missed us upon the plains, beneath a bright sun, it is unlikely that you would have seen either of my friends under the dark eaves of Fangorn, were they in fact present. And that at least remains to be discovered."
"Sorcery again," the Marshal muttered. "It casts all into doubt once more!" He sighed. "I am sorry, Aragorn, for truly, I would trust you! But I am not my own master, for I serve Théoden King, and the law of the land requires me to take all strangers with me to Edoras."
"Then we are at an impasse, for I may not abandon my quest until it is proved quite fruitless."
"And I may not permit you to go free!"
"Stubborn indeed!" Gimli muttered, attracting a puzzled, somewhat suspicious look from Éomer. Quirking a heavy brow, the Dwarf demanded, "Is there indeed aught that would convince you to trust us?"
"I can think of nothing, short of your presence in Edoras."
"Then you shall have it!" As one, Aragorn, Gimli, and Éomer turned to stare at Legolas, who had risen and spoke at last. The Elf's glance darted swiftly from Gimli's face to Aragorn's, and went thence to settle upon Éomer. "If you were to have a hostage as a pledge of our conduct, would that be enough?"
"Legolas, are you daft!?" Gimli hissed, astonished and alarmed by this unexpected turn. Aragorn said naught, but gazed hard at the Elf.
"We tread the path of necessity," the elven prince replied simply, without looking away from the Marshal. "Come, Éomer of Rohan, what say you? Would my presence be sufficient to convince your king of our good faith?"
"It may… in any case, it would convince me. And if the king shares not my opinion, still, Aragorn and Gimli may have time enough to satisfy themselves that indeed their quest is finished." The Marshal glanced at Aragorn, seeming to ask what his thoughts were in this matter.
But before Aragorn could speak his mind, Gimli rounded fiercely on the Ranger and demanded, "Say not that you agree with this–this madness!"
"The Rohirrim have not the habit of mistreating those who stay beneath their roofs," Éomer interjected with some asperity. "It is in your hands to better or worsen his fate."
"And what mean you by that?" Gimli snapped, as Éomer laid his hand upon the hilts of his sword, seeming to suggest that the Dwarf would do well to say no further. At the same time, Legolas laid a hand upon his friend's shoulder, gripping hard in warning.
"Peace, Gimli!" the Elf said softly. "What choice have we? And though you have been careful to say nothing in the days since Boromir's death, I know well that I am of little use to you as I am. You shall not miss me, and at least thus I shall serve some purpose other than to slow you and give you cause to worry at night. Even when you believe me to be asleep!" the Elf said, which caused Gimli to dart a furtive, somewhat embarrassed glance at Aragorn, who spread his hands slightly as if to acknowledge that he, too, had been fooled. Elf and Dwarf stood gazing at each other, and Gimli's dark eyes were black with concern.
But Legolas only smiled slightly and shook his head, seeming to achieve a measure of much needed peace with that gesture and decision.
With a final squeeze, the Elf let fall his hand from Gimli's shoulder and stepped to one side, joining Éomer. "Good hunting!" he wished him, and then, turning to Aragorn, added, "Have an eye on the Dwarf. I fear that he may hurt himself!"
"You—!" Gimli managed that much ere words failed him, and it helped not at all that both Éomer and Aragorn were all too clearly amused by his reaction.
"Come to Edoras as soon as you may," Éomer said, addressing first the Ranger and then his irate dwarven companion. "And if I cannot of myself condone it, at least I may speed your journey, for we have spare horses. Alas! Our victory was not without cost!"
"I am no rider," Gimli growled, and graciously forbore to add that even were he, he would rather have shaved his beard than accept a horse from Rohan when it held Legolas captive. Even if the mad Elf is agreeable to this scheme!
"Then you shall ride behind me," Aragorn replied firmly, ending the matter. "If nothing else, Gimli, a speedier journey will see Legolas released sooner." Which logic was difficult, if not impossible, to refute, but the Dwarf did not have to like it. Nevertheless, when Éomer had a horse, Hasufel, brought to them, he but glowered as Aragorn swung easily up into the saddle, ere Gimli grudgingly allowed himself be boosted onto the horse behind him.
"Fare well for a time, then," Éomer said, raising a hand in farewell. "May you find what you seek!"
"You have my thanks, Éomer," Aragorn replied. "Until Edoras!" At a word from the Ranger, the horse turned from the riders and sped away, carrying Ranger and Dwarf with him. Turning back, Gimli was astonished to see how swiftly the beast ran, for soon he could not even make out Legolas standing at Éomer's side.
If only it will run so fast on the return journey, I may yet grow to like horses. Or at least a horse! the Dwarf thought, gritting his teeth as he clung to Aragorn's waist.
The afternoon passed and the miles fell away, and as the sun began to set, the forest eaves loomed tall and darkly forbidding before them. Aragorn spurred Hasufel on over a low rise, and the horse snorted, tossing its head as the scent of burnt wood and flesh filled the air.
As they broke through the brush and into a clearing, the Ranger brought his mount to a halt, guiding the horse by subtle pressure of his knees to turn round so he could get a clear look at the surrounding space. Smoke rose still from the ashes that lay cooling upon the earth, and grim weapons were piled carefully upon the ground. The last rays of the sun shone dully through gaps in the leafy canopy, and Gimli, who was at home in the deep and closed places of the earth, felt almost claustrophobically aware of the trees that grew close-pressed all about them. Indeed, they seemed to bend inward, as if to trap the brash mortals, and the Dwarf shuddered. Aragorn murmured something in Sindarin that sounded for all the world like a prayer, and shook his dark head as he dismounted, warily surveying the woods.
An owl cried out mournfully as the sun set, and then took to wing, a shadow streaking through the dimly defined branches. All about them, the harsh caws of the crows were heard, and the air was laden with the smell of battle and death.
Thus did Fangorn Forest welcome its guests, and it was with uneasy hearts that Aragorn and Gimli settled themselves for a night beneath the trees.
* Ranach khim, Legolas?: Do you still wander, Legolas?
**cuiniant: 'life-bridge'. Trying to suggest the idea of body and soul being held together so as to support life.
I get my Sindarin from Ardalambion (put that into yahoo's search engine): good stuff, even if I doubt I'm doing this properly, even with such short sentences and words.
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