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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 12. The Forest for the Trees
Nightfall found the forest silent – silent, and chill, save where two figures huddled about a little flame.
"It will be a cold night with so feeble a flame!" Aragorn glanced up at that muttered complaint, and he shook his head at the obvious suggestion contained therein.
"No colder than others we have passed without light at all. The answer is still 'no,'" the Ranger countered, and wisely did not smile at the glower the Dwarf turned on him. From the moment they had arrived in Fangorn, the age-old dwarven prejudice against woodlands had reared its head, and the other's agitation would have been amusing but that Aragorn, too, was aware of a knot of dread in the pit of his stomach. He knew not precisely whence it came, but having survived the wilds of Eriador, Gondor, and Harad, he was not about to dismiss that feeling out of hand.
And I have heard too many strange tales of this forest for my peace of mind, he admitted. Were it not for Celeborn's words at their parting from Lórien, perhaps he might have given them less credence, but Aragorn could never doubt what he felt now: There is something disquieting about Fangorn, though I know not what!
That was why he had forbidden the Dwarf to set his axe to any tree, and insisted upon the laborious and occasionally disgusting task of collecting fuel from the charnel fires of the Rohirrim. Gimli had grumbled against the restriction quite vocally—indeed, though they sat now before a fire, the Dwarf would, ever and anon, 'suggest' that they seek more abundant fuel for the night—but the Ranger paid such complaints little heed and refused to let them needle him, knowing full well the reasons for the other's black discontent. Since their parting with Legolas and Éomer, the Dwarf's temper had been grim indeed, which tended to make for an uneasy companionship. But Aragorn had known enough Dwarves to recognize the signs of one deeply worried on a friend's behalf, and so he was willing to accept at least some of the other's censure for his own part in the breaking of their trio.
In truth, however, Legolas's offer, once made, could hardly have been overruled; it certainly could not have been retracted. That still would not have kept Aragorn from intervening, if only to warn, had he had less faith in Éomer and the Rohirrim, but there had been also in Legolas's voice a sense of relief and need beneath his determination that had stilled what cautions he might have made.
He needed to feel useful—to regain his balance, in all senses of the word. Well do I know that feeling, Aragorn thought, heaving an inward sigh. Every Ranger who walked the Wild came eventually to a moment and a place where his will to continue in what seemed a hopeless task was tested, and the worst testing came sometimes in strange guises. Some survived such; others did not. Aragorn was of two minds as to his own moment in Moria of late, for not since Morgoth's day, perhaps, had the Free Peoples of Middle-earth faced so terrible a fate and trial as this broken Song. May you find in your captivity purpose enough to see you healed in body and mind, my friend, he wished Legolas, therefore.
A creak, as of wood shifting, instantly drew the Ranger's attention from absent friends to the surrounding trees, and Gimli, too, glanced about uneasily, scowling. But there came no further alarm, and Dwarf and Man relaxed slightly.
"You have been among these horse lords, Aragorn," Gimli said suddenly in a low voice. "Tell me, did Éomer speak true, that the Rohirrim do not harm their captives?"
"Legolas has the least to fear of the three of us," Aragorn said, frankly. "For his presence will be read as submission to the law of the land, as well as the guarantor of our honesty. But in any case, the Rohirrim are not cruel captors. They will hold him unharmed in Edoras, unless he harms one of the king's subjects, or we do ourselves."
Gimli grunted. "Such fine-honed points of honor!" he growled. "Can you be certain that they remain unblunted after so long an absence on your part and so hard a year on theirs?"
"All things change in Middle-earth," Aragorn admitted. "Still, I cannot see the Rohirrim allowing so old a custom to fade all in a day. It has been long since I rode with them, but I have passed through Rohan several times, and most recently just ere September of last year. Times were hard and fear was rampant, but other, less venerable tradition still lived, so I would guess that this one does as well. All of which aside, Éomer seems to me honest: I do not believe he would lie, even to save himself, and that does not surprise me, given his father."
"Hmmph!" Gimli snorted, but ere he could answer, there came again a rustling, scraping noise, as of something large and unwary moving, sounded just then, and Aragorn looked sharply left, hand going swiftly to the hilt of Andúril. For the sound continued on, and for some moments, then fell suddenly silent. On edge, the Ranger continued to gaze intently into the deep shadows, but he could see nothing and even his quick ears heard naught but the usual night sounds of a forest. Still suspicious but unable to find any immediate cause for his own alarm, he turned slowly back to the fire, and to Gimli, who relaxed only when Aragorn did.
"Cursed trees!" the Dwarf muttered. "I shall never understand what that Elf sees in them." A pause, followed by: "Why did he do it, Aragorn?" "I know not what put it into his head, but Legolas spoke truly: we had no choice, for Éomer had none."
"And you trust Éomer because you knew his father?"
"Even though the son has done naught to earn that trust?"
"Perhaps I should have said, I trust that Éomund's example and teaching were not wasted. Beyond that, Éomer is the cousin of Théodred, the king's only son, and all that I know and have heard tell of the heir to Rohan's throne tells me that he would not befriend one unworthy of friendship."
"But all of this is hear-say," Gimli said through clenched teeth.
"As was the story of Gandalf, and that of Frodo, Bilbo, Legolas, Elrond, Boromir and your father at the council," Aragorn countered, raising his brows. "At some point, one must yield to one's own judgment in matters of trust and belief. I–"
A crackle, a harsh caw and the sound of madly flapping wings, as of a flight of doves or crows startled from cover broke out, and this time Aragorn did stand, advancing a few paces toward the trees with Andúril drawn and ready in his hand.
Gimli marked where the Ranger's left hand strayed, toward the small of his back where another blade was strapped, and he reached for his axe. But an eerie feeling crept over him as his fingers touched the wood, and of a sudden, the Dwarf felt irresistibly warned against the notion of taking his weapon to hand. He knew not why, for it was hardly a reasonable feeling when danger seemed to threaten, but he obeyed the impulse, waiting until Aragorn, once again frustrated by the opaque darkness, returned to the flame-lit circle and seated himself.
"Think you that this will continue all night?" he asked, unhappily.
"I know not," Aragorn replied, setting Andúril down unsheathed at his side. "Fangorn is a strange place whose secrets are untold. Once, forests such as this stretched the length of Eriador, and Elves and Men likely knew quite well what perils and wonders they contained. But in these days of forgetfulness, who can say what lies at the heart of Fangorn? Even Celeborn knows not, and he wandered the forests of Beleriand ere that land was broken and drowned."
"Some things are not meant to be known, perhaps," Gimli mused darkly, eyes flicking to the looming trees on either side. "Perhaps not." Dwarf and Man fell silent, listening to the sigh of the wind in the tree tops, and the occasional hoot of an owl. Hasufel snorted and swished his long tail, seeming alert but as yet unafraid, which Aragorn counted a good sign. The steeds of Rohan were bred for endurance but also for intelligence, and they were aware of many things that a Man might miss. So long as the great war-horse remained calm, likely there was little to be concerned about.
But horses do not count the unknown as dangerous, the Ranger mused. And whether Gimli speaks truly or not, there are some things I would prefer never to know…
"Cursed trees," Gimli muttered then. A pause, then: "Though the orcs lie dead, something in this forest likes us not. Aragorn, how for Legolas if we cannot come to Edoras, as we promised?"
Aragorn, who had been avoiding that point, in light of his companion's mood, hoping to be gone and well on the way to the court of the king ere the question could be raised, was careful not to let dismay show. He was therefore quick enough to answer, and as circumspect as he dared:
"When I served, a hostage who gave no offense and did no harm would be kept. He might have been ransomed him to his father, even, if his compatriots did not reclaim him, and no harm came to any of the Éorlingas by their hands."
Gimli stared at him a moment, ere he shook his head and growled: "A fine, Rangerly walkabout! What of today, Aragorn? What will they do if this damnable forest takes us?"
So for circumspection! 'Twas an ill-fated endeavor, no doubt, Aragorn told himself, but sighed inwardly. Dwarves I have known, and I know them to be a tenacious folk, but if ever I thought to see one so troubled over the fate of an Elf, then let lightning strike! Forced to it, he admitted honestly:
"I do not know." Gimli cursed softly under his breath. "He is well enough tonight," the Ranger continued, seeking to calm the other.
"Tomorrow will tell. Gimli – "
"He's ransoming us! While I've breath in me, I will not fail to honor such a pledge, but in this place, who can guarantee that either of us will see daylight, or come again from these eaves?" Gimli looked up at the trees pressed close about, and shuddered, ere pinioning Aragorn with a dark and wrathful eye. "Something there is here that would drink the very life out of us. I do not fear death, but confound it, there is no peace in it since the daft Elf has put himself at the mercy of these Riders!"
Aragorn raised a brow at that. "Peace in death is a rare gift in this world—will you hold Legolas to answer if it comes not to you?"
"He should not have done it. We should not have let him do it!"
"We have covered this ground before: there was no choice. What would you have done? Won all of our deaths on the spears of the Rohirrim, and perhaps Merry's and Pippin's as well?" Aragorn demanded, and pressed on in the face of mounting dwarven anger to argue: "Moreover, you know he suffered, that he was not the equal of the hunt. That had he come here with us, he would have been more a hindrance than a help—mayhap even a danger, if indeed whatever moves in this night wishes us ill. Why, then, contest him?"
"I would have my eye upon him."
"Then you should have stayed with him," Aragorn said bluntly, dispensing with tact to add, ere Gimli could find words or blows to answer with: "But instead you honored his judgment, and for that, Merry and Pippin may yet be grateful. Be content! Or," he said, on sudden impulse, "if you find his wisdom still lacking when we come to Edoras, then claim your satisfaction for his having followed it and relieve him of whatever limb best pleases!"
There followed a long silence, as Gimli stared at him, apparently having lost his tongue, and Aragorn gazed back in resolute challenge, wondering which way matters would tip now.
But just when he had begun to fear that he might have misjudged his answer, Gimli began to laugh–a deep, basso chuckle that grew to such proportions that the Dwarf's whole frame shook with it. "Dúrin's… beard…! Relieve him... of what pleases! Hoya!" he gasped helplessly, and Aragorn, watching, had to bite his lip against sympathetic reaction, for though well-versed in methods for bolstering flagging spirits, he had not anticipated that a barbed jibe born of an instant's desperation would have such a… dramatic… effect. Likely it was but the sudden release of tension built over days—weeks, rather!—of hard and fear-filled travel, but still, it was welcome. At length, Gimli managed to contain himself and drew a deep, steadying breath. "Relieve him of whatever best pleases," he repeated, laughter still in his voice, and concluded, "Aye, that would be just!" He shook his head and snorted, which caused Hasufel to prick up his ears as if in appreciation. Possessed once more of himself, Gimli said then: "Your pardon, Aragorn, for my temper is not for you, but for this—" a gesture that encompassed at once the forest and, beyond that, the death throes of the Third Age "—and our own helplessness before it." "I know, else I would have spoken sooner," Aragorn answered, with a real if weary smile. "And given that my temper is only little better than yours, I fear my words would have been harsh!" Gimli sobered instantly, peering closely at the Man who sat across from him, and after a moment, he said, "No doubt. A long and hard hunt you have led these past days, my friend. Why do you not rest?" And since, despite his mistrust of the woods, that suggestion seemed the best he had heard in days, Aragorn answered: "If you will take the first watch, I shall not waste the time." "Then sleep! Laughter restores the soul, and even the body somewhat. A few hours of guard duty shall not seem such a chore now," Gimli said, standing and stretching ere he tugged his hood up against the cold. "Thank you," the Ranger sighed softly, and indeed, wasted no time at all. Within a few minutes, he slept soundly.
Gimli gazed down at the other for a time, considering this stranger who had come to assume such a large place in his life, and who yet remained something of an enigma.
There are times when I think him too elvish for his own good, and others when I marvel at him for what I suppose must be Boromir's elusive 'humanity,' the Dwarf thought. Today, I have seen him as a king uncrowned who yet has a power over any other that I have known, but never did I think that he had enough dwarven blood in him to make me laugh so. Shaking his head, Gimli turned to face the woods, as unease sank its teeth once more into him.
What manner of creature lurks beyond the firelight? he wondered. The strange noises that had disrupted their conversation thrice now were unlike any that he was accustomed to hear in a natural setting. Short of a lightning storm, or the pines that burst upon the heights of Erebor in the depths of winter, that is, he reflected, musing on the matter. But it is not so cold as that, and there is not a cloud in the sky.
With a glower and feeling uncomfortably vulnerable in the darkness, Gimli kicked another wood chip into the fire and watched the flames lick higher. Andúril gleamed bright, seeming made of flame itself as it reflected the ruddy light, and that stark reminder of their danger pulled the Dwarf's thoughts back to his odd unwillingness to handle his axe.
What stopped me at that moment? And why? he wondered. If something were to approach, would I be able to protect us both? No sooner had he thought it than he dismissed the doubt. Of course he would, for it was ridiculous to think that he would permit any harm to come to either himself or Aragorn based on some vague fear of his own weapon. And it is quiet now. Perhaps it was nothing…?
But 'nothing' rarely caused in a Ranger the almost skittish distrust that Aragorn had shown earlier, and Gimli drummed his fingers on his wide belt, pacing to take the edge off of his unease. Minutes slipped by, and if anything menacing roamed in the darkness, it gave no sign of its presence as the stars spun out their course overhead. Indeed, Gimli began to relax somewhat, to think that it was his own fearful concern for Legolas and weariness that made of present apprehensions more than they were.
Which was why he almost missed it when it appeared. Behind him, Hasufel nickered softly, attracting his attention, and stamped, shaking his great head, ears twitching. Unfamiliar with the language of horses, Gimli eyed the beast skeptically, wondering what that meant, when movement caught his eye. Turning sharply to his left, he stared at the shadows, which seemed somehow to have grown thicker. Thicker… and the air was stiflingly heavy of a sudden, laden with must and earth it seemed. Still, the Dwarf frowned, for he saw naught… "Tûrg Mahalu!" Gimli hissed, forgetting himself, but only for an instant. Then: "Aragorn!" In a flurry of motion, the Ranger roused, reflexively grasping the hilt of his sword as he sprang to his feet. But then he stilled, gazing about with wide wonder and no small alarm. For all about them the woods groaned and creaked, and though the darkness seemed to dim even their fire, still, he could see huge shapes moving in the shadows. Tall as trolls, and taller, even, they seemed to sway and glide through the night.
Aragorn felt a shiver run down his back, struck by the feeling of unseen eyes watching him. Hasufel's frightened whinnies echoed in his ears, yet had no power to stir him in the face of this migration of who knew what creatures. How long the two of them stood there, watching in mute awe and fear, neither knew. But when at last the sounds faded into the distance and the air seemed to clear a bit, Aragorn pressed his left hand over his eyes, struggling to accept what he had seen—whatever it might have been!—and wishing vainly that his thoughts did not feel quite so muddled by fatigue. Hasufel's complaints eventually roused him, and he sheathed Andúril and went over to where the horse stood. Speaking soothing Rohirric in a low voice, he stroked the animal's neck and glanced over at Gimli, who was shaking his head in disbelief.
"What was it, do you think?" the Dwarf asked, hoarsely. "I cannot hazard even a guess," Aragorn confessed, and sighed softly. "One thing is certain, I shall sleep no more tonight!" "Nor I," Gimli declared. "A plague upon this accursed place!" he muttered, tossing another bough onto the fire for good measure. Then he sat down before the tree, where Aragorn had been earlier, so that he could at least feel that he had something solid at his back as he watched the darkness. Once Hasufel had calmed—due in no small part to the encouragement of the few carrots that Aragorn had unearthed in the horse's saddlebags—the Ranger settled at his companion's side. The shade grew deep, but though naught else disturbed the night, they watched the forest and did not sleep.
Morning sun kissed a hobbit's cheek, and Meriadoc Brandybuck stirred, tensing. Opening his eyes to mere slits, he searched his surroundings, expecting to see naught but Orcs. But instead, he saw the walls of a cave, and heard the rush and bubble of a stream, and there were no other creatures about. Unless it were a hobbit, for beside him lay Pippin, still curled up asleep and snoring faintly.
Wellinghall! Merry thought, and let out a sigh of relief as he sat up. Yesterday, they had still been among the Orcs, and he had difficulty accepting that he was free now, such was the power and horror of that memory. The hours of running had dragged on and on, 'til Merry had grown numb—numb to pain, numb to exhaustion, and he had moved only because if ever he stopped, he knew not whether he was alive or dead. When the riders had surrounded the Orcs in the forest, Merry had been beyond caring, almost, and but for the noise and clamor, he would have missed the battle entirely. As it was, we almost smothered, Pippin and I, Merry recalled. For one of their captors had been cut down by an arrow, and his body had fallen upon the two of them, shielding them from hooves and swords and such like, but also threatening to crush the breath from them. And I shouldn't have liked to die coughing bits of filthy orc hair. I think that, more than anything, let me wriggle out from under the brute, bound as I was!
He and Pippin had managed to writhe their awkward way into some bushes, where they had, against all odds, fallen asleep while the battle raged, and the Rohirrim had performed their funeral rites. When they had awakened, the battleground had been quite silent, and the scent of burnt bodies had filled the air as the two hobbits had once more wormed their way forward, seeking now a weapon with which to cut their bonds.
As hunts went, Merry had known better, and he shivered slightly at the memory. What a sight that was, that little space in the woods! I wish I could forget it! Granted, it had been somewhat gratifying to see Uglúk's head on a pole, but Merry decided he could have lived out his days peacefully without ever having seen the body of any living creature displayed in pieces for his appraisal. "Just keep moving," Pippin had encouraged him when Merry's wriggling efforts had ceased in horror. "Never mind the scenery, and don't think of what we're lying on, just keep going!"
And so they had slithered and inched their way forward, groping for freedom. They never had found that blade—their bonds had been too tight, the weapons of their enemies too far distant, but in the end, it had not mattered. For just as the hobbits had reached the point of desperation, a sound like a deep horn had startled them, and the most extraordinary creature had appeared upon the field:
"Hoom… what have we here? Two snakes? Two worms? What indeed?" A large, splay fingered hand had scooped each of the hobbits up and held them, amazed, before the face of a great, tree-like creature. Which was how they had eventually come to be striding through the forest, resting upon the shoulders of the strange being, who had called himself "Treebeard" and promised them shelter at someplace called "Wellinghall"... "And now we are here!" Merry said aloud, marveling at the fact. Beside him, a snort issued forth. "So we are, but must you announce it to the world? Some of us were sleeping," Pippin yawned as he woke, and then smiled to show that he meant naught by his complaints. "Good morning, cousin! Did you sleep well?" "Better than I have in a long while, thank you," Merry replied. "An Ent's hall is better than an orc's camp any day!" Both hobbits were silent awhile, gripped once more by the dread of those awful days on the march. And Merry looked about at the trees, trees everwhere, as far as he could see, and wondered aloud: "Do you think that we shall be able to find a way across Rohan to… to wherever it is that we must go?" "Who knows? Treebeard might help us there," Pippin replied. "But honestly, I don't know what we shall do next." "I just hope that the others are all right," Merry said somewhat anxiously. "Me too," Pippin said, hesitating ere he sighed and added, "Probably, though, they're dead. You saw all of those orcs! How could anyone escape them? We shall have to look to do our part without them, I suppose… whatever 'our part' might be, now that Frodo and Sam are gone too! I don't know whether it will amount to anything in the end, but I suppose we must try, if only to honor their memory." And Merry, listening to his friend's gloomy words, cocked his head at him, scrutinizing the other's face intently. "You have changed, Pippin, you know that?" "Well, so have you!" Pippin replied, looking away uncomfortably. "We all have, but you… it's different with you," Merry insisted. "You've grown… sterner, I would say. More gloomy at times, and more thoughtful." He paused, then said, "I think it suits you in a way. Even if I could do without your saying that Strider and the lot of them are dead now!" "I guess I've seen a few things since Moria, that is all," said the other with a tiny shrug. "That doesn't leave much room for jokes and the like. I don't know, Merry, whether I shall ever laugh the way I once did!" He shook his head, then looked up determinedly. "Well, let's not dwell on it. Let's see a bit more of this place!" With that, the hobbits scrambled off of the great table on which they had slept and poked about the grounds of Wellinghall. There were few wrought-items—none, in fact, save the jars of water and a ladle and cups—but somehow, that seemed to fit perfectly, and the hobbits felt themselves quite at home in fact. After so many days without a roof over their heads, perhaps almost anything would have done, but there was something comfortable about Treebeard's home.
As if it was made for him, and he for it, Merry thought. Like hobbits to a hobbit hole! He and Pippin were watching a caterpillar work its way up the stem of a long shoot at the base of a tree when a great hou-um! sounded, announcing the arrival the old Ent. Treebeard strode up with a speed that struck Merry as remarkably out of place in a creature whose motto was "Don't be hasty!" But the Ent seemed in good enough humor. "Well, my fine fellows, I see you are awake at last! Did you sleep long?" "Yes, and quite well, thank you," Merry replied. "And you, Treebeard? Have you been gone for long?" "Hmmm… no, not for long. Not, that is, for an Ent. Even a century is hardly long to us!" Treebeard replied, going to one of the jars and dipping himself some water. "But perhaps to you folk, it would seem long, for I have been up and about since before the sun rose, for I had much to think about and to do." "Where did you go, then?" Pippin asked, breaking out a wafer of waybread that, miraculously, had not been crushed. "Back to the battlefield where I found you, for I wished to think, and to think about dark things, and for that I often need… hmmm… encouragement. Is that the word? It is best to see what one thinks of, in any case. But I left not long after you fell asleep, and well that I did, for it is much work to summon an entmoot." "An entmoot? What is that?" Merry asked, frowning. "A gathering of Ents, no more and no less. Such a thing has not happened in recent years, for we seldom have reason to come together like that. We shepherds have our own flocks and our own concerns to tend to, we do. And some may not leave their charges, for that is not safe. Huorns are not always good, and they are wild, often. Indeed, it was difficult to keep them in check last night, and I fear that were it not for my presence, and that of Bregalad, they might have harmed the strangers." "Strangers? What strangers? Where?" Pippin asked. For though Fangorn forest was vast and marvelous, he could not quite imagine anyone wanting to come there purely for pleasure. "I do not know, for they were not my concern. Some kind of Men, they seemed to me, and no threat. No, I paid them but little heed, for it is Isengard and Saruman that concern me now. I have seen his creatures of late, and I know well their sign: white hand and black field. All the… the…that which you smaller folk bear for protection against blows, which is round, often… or not… hide and wood and metal…." "Shield?" Merry suggested after a moment. "Ah, yes! Shield, that it is. Yes, the shields that were left behind have all that same mark." "Really?" Pippin perked up at this. "I thought the Mordor orcs had disappeared, but I couldn't really be sure. So it was only the Isengarders who faced the Riders!" "But what does that mean?" Merry asked, and got a shrug for an answer. "That the Mordor orcs didn't fancy following old Uglúk down to ruin? I don't know, but it strikes me as odd, that's all. I'd have thought that orcs, being such contentious folk, wouldn't pass on a fight if there was any chance of winning it." "Maybe they figured they couldn't win, then," Merry replied. "Rude of them, not to share that thought. I would've liked to have been told, so I wouldn't have worried so much about our eventual emancipation!" "Well, that is a mystery for another time," Treebeard said. "In the meantime, we shall have to do something about these Isengarders. They have troubled us more than once before, and laid waste to trees in many places. Wanton, hateful, axe-bearing, blood-scented… um… well, you understand. Horrible creatures that they are, we shall not stand for it. Something must be done! And so tomorrow, we shall away to the entmoot, and put to the others the fate of Orthanc!" In that ringing declaration burned a century's worth of slow-built wrath, and the hobbits glanced at each other in some alarm and no little awe.
Whatever it is that Treebeard plans, I should not want to be in Orthanc when he sets the wheels turning, Merry thought with a slight shiver. But I have a feeling that I'll be there in any case, for all the good that I'll be. I'm sure it will be a great… something… but I feel as though I could do without greatness of any sort. I'd give anything to go home and sit before the river and let the day just wear away! But I'll not see the Shire again….
Thought ground then to an awkward halt, and Merry frowned. He had been thinking that it would be long ere he returned home, but his thoughts seemed to have bent somehow, and he wondered at the horrible finality to that last idea. Surely not never… only for a long while. I must be catching Pippin's mood of late! Or else I'm still in an… orcish… frame of mind, I suppose. Yes, that's it. That's surely it… ! But doubt had settled on his heart, and bury it deep though he might, he could not forget it.
Tûrg Mahalu: An attempted bit of Dwarvish, "Mahal's (Aulë's) beard!" Seemed appropriate. ;-) I love Ardalambion!
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