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While the Ring Went South...: 13. January 7, 3019
"We were watched."
Aragorn sighed and looked at Legolas, reading much of the elf’s mood from his tense stance and the way he kept glancing back at the trail they’d followed to reach this campsite. Rather than forcing the hobbits and the pony through the marsh—and had we done so, we would probably still be floundering in it—the Fellowship had elected to take the straighter route despite Legolas’s warnings. It was a risk and Aragorn knew well that an elf’s senses were rarely wrong, yet they’d truly had no choice. Their food supplies were beginning to run low and they could not afford to make a large loop solely for the sake of avoiding a place of darkness. But Legolas was right. They had been watched.
"Do you sense any following us?" Gandalf asked, leaning against his staff and looking back down the trail. His dark eyes seemed ageless this morning, and there was great depth in them as they penetrated the shadows beneath the trees.
"Nay, not yet. All is silent. But our passage was marked and noted for any who would inquire of our whereabouts," the elf said, his face grim. "Those who wish to pursue us will not be hard-pressed to find our trail."
"Then we shall have to proceed with great caution." Gandalf shook his head and then turned around, walking toward the other side of camp and moving around the various pieces of baggage that had been dropped.
Sensing somehow that his presence at Gandalf’s side was expected, Aragorn followed and reached for his pipe, feeling the need for a good smoke. The Ranger’s role as a mediator between Legolas and Gimli was straining his friendship with the elf, and the decision to take a more direct albeit darker route rather than trudge through a swamp was not helping matters either. Striking a quick flame as he sat by Gandalf’s side, Aragorn lit his pipe and turned sharp eyes upon the camp, watching the unpacking with a somewhat detached academic interest.
"Aragorn, would you watch with me this morning?"
The Ranger frowned, catching a strange note in the wizard’s voice, but he nodded, knowing that explanations would be forthcoming in their own time. "Of course. How shall we arrange the other watches?"
"Boromir and Gimli shall take them," Gandalf answered quietly. "After passing through an area of such darkness, it would be well if warriors rather than hobbits watched the camp this day. I suspect Legolas will also join them, for he is wary of our surroundings. It will be difficult for him to sleep."
"I am not hard of hearing," Legolas said testily from the other side of camp where he was now helping Sam unload breakfast as well as watching the trail. "If you have words to say to me, I would that you speak them directly to me rather than about me in secret conversation."
Aragorn sighed and rubbed his head. The elf was not in a good mood this morning. "Peace, Legolas. We meant no disrespect and spoke no secrets."
"Then if you spoke no secrets, would you tell the rest of us what you have been discussing over there?" Boromir asked, apparently sharing Legolas’s ill humor.
"The watches," Gandalf answered, and in his voice was an edge of irritation. It seemed that the bad mood was contagious. "Gimli and Boromir, would you accept the last two watches of this day while Aragorn and I take the first two?"
"Of course," Gimli answered, casually inspecting the blade of his axe. "Do you want the third or the last watch, Master Boromir?"
"The last," Boromir answered. "I have not been sleeping well late in the day and I doubt I shall be able to fall asleep again if I take the third watch."
Gimli nodded. "Then the last watch is yours. Is there aught else we should know?"
"Is there aught else you are capable of comprehending?" Legolas muttered, pulling the last pack off of Bill. Unfortunately, his words carried in the still morning air and Gimli overheard the remark. A shadow seemed to pass over his face and he took an angry step toward the elf, but Aragorn chose that moment to step between them, catching the dwarf’s shoulder in a firm grip before any harm could come of this.
"If the matter of the watches is settled, I suggest we eat and then get what rest we can," Aragorn said, directing a hard glare at Gimli. "We shall have need of it, for we may be watched." Fire flashed in the dwarf’s dark eyes, but he nodded and moved away. With half of the quarreling pair taken care of, the Ranger next directed his attention to Gimli’s counterpart and pinned Legolas with stony eyes. For his part, the elf met the man’s demanding gaze with the look of an offended prince, and Aragorn sighed, recognizing this particular expression.
"Breakfast is ready," Sam announced, interrupting the war of wills between elf and man.
Legolas shot Aragorn a smile of triumph, but Aragorn shook his head darkly. "This is not finished," he whispered, knowing the elf’s sharp hearing would be able to catch his muttered words. "We shall speak of this again."
Legolas’s eyes narrowed slightly at that, but he made no response and instead strode toward the center of camp where Sam had assembled the morning’s meal. With a feeling of rapidly growing frustration, Aragorn started after him but suddenly found himself checked by a hand on his shoulder. Surprised, the Ranger glanced back and found himself looking into the dark eyes of the wizard.
"For now, let him be," Gandalf murmured. "We have more important things to consider other than their pointless feud."
"Their pointless feud is a danger to the quest," Aragorn pointed out, his face twisting with confusion.
"It is, but there are new dangers to be addressed. In light of Legolas’s warnings about being watched, I have reconsidered our course. The path over Caradhras will be watched."
"We knew that ere we ever set out from Rivendell," the Ranger answered, eyeing Gandalf and attempting to discern the reason for this hushed conversation. "All ways south shall be watched, some more than others. I do not like our current path, but for this Fellowship, there is no other way unless we wish to dare the Gap of Rohan."
"There is yet another way that has not been discussed," Gandalf said. "The thought occurred to me while we were still in Rivendell, but it is a dark way and I have been reluctant to speak of it with anyone save Elrond. Yet if the watchfulness of these woods continues to grow, I fear we shall be forced to take this darker road."
Lost for a moment, Aragorn stared blankly at the wizard until Gandalf’s suggestion suddenly hit him likes a swinging sack of troll loot. "You cannot mean Moria!" Aragorn hissed, feeling as though the faint sunlight that had managed to make it through the thick cloud cover died at the mention of the fell name.
"It does give us a direct path to Lothlórien."
"And to death!"
"Not necessarily. And this way is unexpected. The spies and scouts sent to track us will be unable to follow."
The Ranger shook his head in disbelief. "You would risk traversing the darkness of Moria’s caverns rather than climbing through the Redhorn Gate?"
"We shall be exposed to many unfriendly eyes upon the open passes of the mountains," Gandalf pointed out. "At the moment, we have kept our secrecy well, but that secrecy may not hold past Caradhras if we elect to go that way. If possible, we must reach Lothlórien without detection."
"It would also be well if we lived to reach Lothlórien," Aragorn protested. A strange feeling was rising into his stomach and flashes of foreboding were entering his mind. He could say nothing with certainty at this point, but the very mention of Moria filled his heart with dread. It was not dread specifically for the Fellowship, the Ring-bearer, or even for himself, but grave danger lay in the ancient dwarven kingdom. And should they enter, not all would emerge unscathed. And if my feelings are any judge, some of us might not emerge at all.
"Mr. Gandalf? Strider? Are you coming?"
The interruption prevented Gandalf from responding to Aragorn, and he seemed to decide that such a response would do him no good anyway. After only a moment of hesitation, the wizard turned and nodded at Sam. "I fear if we do not come now, Peregrin and Meriadoc shall finish off our breakfast for us."
"We would never eat your food, Gandalf!" Pippin protested with a rather guilty look upon his face.
"See that you keep that vow, young hobbit," Gandalf growled with a twinkle in his eye and a conspiratorial wink at Aragorn. "For an angry wizard is not a sight you wish to behold, and a wizard without food can be prone to sudden attacks of fury."
"That is not entirely untrue, either," Aragorn murmured with a slight smile.
Gandalf snorted. "Perhaps not, which is why I shall now take what breakfast is provided. But I would speak with you further on this, Aragorn. We must be certain of our path ere we venture on to it."
Aragorn nodded reluctantly and dutifully followed the wizard over to the main group, but a shadow had fallen over his mind now and it would not be easily shaken. Doom, it seemed to whisper, and the Ranger shivered. His eyes strayed to the mountains, wreathed in cloud and darkness, and he shivered again. The peaks kept their secrets wrapped in thick shadows, and no clear images came with the now overpowering sense of foreboding. But the foreboding was still there, vague as it was, and such warnings were not to be taken lightly for one of the line of Elendil. And on the edge of awareness, so faint that it could have easily been mistaken for a trick of the imagination, Aragorn fancied he heard drums…
* * * *
Waiting with absolute silence in the top of a tall tree, Legolas closed his eyes and allowed his elven senses to drift into the surrounding area, listening to the song of Ilúvatar as plants and trees whispered to one another. The sky was still overcast, but Legolas could feel the sun above the clouds and he marked its progress as he scouted the area around the camp. Something was amiss, but he could not quite put his finger on what that something was. The previous night’s journey through a dark wood had put his senses on edge and it was quite possible that he was overreacting. It would not be the first time that such a thing had happened, yet it was better to be overly cautious than not cautious enough.
Finding nothing to alarm him in the immediate vicinity, Legolas opened his eyes and slipped down the tree onto the ground, watching the surrounding foliage for any sign of movement. He felt as though he was being watched, but he could not say what was watching him or where the watcher was located. It was rather frustrating for the elf as he was used to being acutely aware of each and every detail in his surroundings, but now he was up against a force he had never encountered before. The Fellowship was regarded with a cold menace, of that much he was certain. Yet no move was being plotted against them. No action was being taken. It was strange, and this strangeness did not bode well with the elf.
With his bow in one hand, Legolas made his way forward, calculating the easiest route back to camp and guessing at the path that evil would most likely choose if an attack were mounted. We should have taken our chances in the marsh, the elf sighed, glancing over his shoulder in the general direction of camp. Aragorn had been right, though. The pony would have been hard-pressed, they would have been forced to carry the hobbits for part of the way, and with these factors slowing them down, they might have ended up camping in the marsh rather than in the thicket where their camp currently lay. And who knows how they would have gotten Gimli through the swamp. Though it would have been interesting to watch, Legolas added to himself with a small smile.
A snapping twig to his right suddenly arrested his thoughts and he turned quickly, but it was only a large squirrel scampering a little too far out on a tree limb. Focus, Legolas told himself sternly with a shake of his heads. Redirecting his attention and firmly disciplining his thoughts, the prince of Mirkwood started to backtrack on the Fellowship’s trail. He moved as a silent shadow, gliding along the path with an inborn grace and agility that the best mortal forester could only envy. All senses were primed and alert for the slightest disruption in the peace and stillness of the forest. Legolas had been a scout and a warrior in his father’s service for centuries, and those centuries of experience now served him well as he searched for the elusive danger that haunted the footsteps of the Fellowship. He was able to track each and every sound, catalogue and identify each scurry of fury feet within the underbrush, and sense the hearts of the trees in this section of the forest. Yet for all his abilities, his sense of foreboding continued to grow but he continued to have no luck in uncovering the cause of his growing alarm.
Legolas was several miles away from the camp when he finally stopped, unable to find anything that would validate his feelings. In some ways, his current sense of malice was very much like the feelings he received whenever he ventured far enough to the south that he could behold Dol Guldur. The dark fortress where Sauron, the Necromancer, had once dwelled,was still an abode of great evil even in the absence of its master. There was always an air of wary watchfulness around the tower as well as a sense of latent evil lying in wait to strike at the first opportunity.
But this current forest was not Mirkwood, he was nowhere near Dol Guldur, and the ancient elven stronghold of Hollin was now only a night’s march away. These dark feelings should not be present, yet try as he might, Legolas could not rid himself of them. Something dangerous was watching them. And yet that something seemed content merely to watch.
I suppose I should be thankful for this reprieve, Legolas sighed mentally. And yet this unnerves me in ways that even a Warg does not. For what reason does this evil wait? Shall it come upon us unexpected in some unprotected place? Is it waiting for us to grow unwary? Is it a scout only, watching from a distance and informing more dangerous enemies of our presence?
The elf didn’t know, and the lack of knowledge disturbed him. Something about this place felt wrong. It was not the feel of a Warg, for such a presence could not be mistaken by one who had hunted for centuries in the Warg-infested forests of Mirkwood. And so far as Legolas could tell, this was not the feel of the dreaded Nine. He’d encountered one or two of them when Sauron still dwelt in Dol Guldur, and he was fairly certain he would recognize the peculiar feeling of dread and inevitability that they inspired. There had been no reports of spiders in this land, the hearts and intents of the trees were harmless enough, and save for the sense of hidden evil, all seemed peaceful.
Legolas folded his arms, leaned back against a convenient tree, and sighed. It appeared his search would yield nothing, and in light of this, it was probably best if he returned to the camp and took what sleep he could. Turning keen elven eyes skyward, Legolas quickly traced the patterns in the clouds and learned the speed and direction of the wind. If the current trend continued, the sky might actually clear by morning. It would be a welcome change for the hobbits, but it would also increase the company’s visibility. Legolas shook his head. There was little he could do about the weather save to report it, but they would have to take extra care in choosing a location for camp on the morrow, even if they did pass the borders of Hollin.
With this final thought, the elf turned and began making his way back to the others. He stayed alert and watchful, but there was still naught to be seen nor aught to be heard. It seemed as though the entire forest lay waiting for a storm, but this storm would be no natural phenomenon. His eyes narrowing as he traveled, Legolas tried once again to determine what it was that was setting off his senses, but as before, he came up empty-handed. Deciding that whatever it was would have to wait until it manifested itself more fully, Legolas strung his bow over his shoulder and started on the last mile before camp at a quick jog.
Strangely enough, the amount of tension in the air seemed to increase the closer he came to the rest of the Fellowship. Coming to a stop and frowning, Legolas pondered the signs and pursed his lips. Taking his bow back out and allowing his free hand to stray to the haft of his silver-hafted knife, the elf began running toward the camp, carefully staying in the shadows and silencing the sound of his light footfalls. There was no sound coming from direction of the Fellowship, and at the very least, Legolas expected to hear Aragorn and Gandalf speaking quietly. With his heart in his throat and the fear that somehow he’d missed the true danger and it had come upon the others in his absence, Legolas burst through the trees and into the thicket.
Aragorn looked up at his sudden arrival, surprise clearly written in his eyes. Gandalf flicked a puzzled glance in his general direction and continued to puff away on his pipe. The elf stopped, turning first to Aragorn, who seemed to have been pacing, and then to Gandalf, who was propped against a large boulder.
"Legolas?" Aragorn asked.
With a shake of his head, Legolas dropped his hand away from his knife and slung his bow over his shoulder. "I thought I felt something amiss. My apologies. I did not mean to startle you."
"You are forgiven, of course." Aragorn stopped and glanced warily at Gandalf, but the wizard shook his head. With a curt nod, the Ranger turned back to the elf and attempted to assume a casual air. "Did you find aught of interest in the woods?"
They have been arguing, Legolas realized, wondering what other surprises he might find today. He could name only a handful of people accounted wise that would argue with Gandalf. Aragorn was among them, but he did not dare that road often. "The woods are silent," the elf finally said in answer to the Ranger’s question. "Yet I cannot shake a feeling of ill intent. As I said earlier this morning, our presence was marked and we are still watched. But I could not uncover the source of my feelings, nor could I find any sign of spies. It is strange, and I am troubled."
"Perhaps we should have braved the swamp," Aragorn murmured.
"Sometimes the darker road is necessary," Gandalf said quietly. Aragorn sent him a sharp look, but the wizard did not meet his eyes, instead concentrating on blowing a rather complex smoke ring.
They would not be arguing over our last choice of paths, Legolas mused. Neither of them is one to dwell over what is past and gone. But what is this concerning a darker road? Curiosity was beginning to get the better of him, but Legolas was a prince and as a prince he had learned by experience that some secrets were best revealed at a later date. Deciding this was probably the case, the elf shoved his innate desire to know into the back of his mind. "The weather may change tomorrow," he mentioned, moving to his own pack and pulling out a thick cloak. "If I have read the signs aright, the clouds shall lift by morning."
At this news, Aragorn sighed and rubbed his eyes while Gandalf’s brow raised with interest. "You are certain of this?" the wizard asked.
Legolas frowned. "As I remember words spoken earlier, none that go about on two legs is a master of the weather. I am certain of nothing. However, I am fairly confident that if the wind stays constant we shall see the sunrise tomorrow."
Gandalf nodded, Aragorn sighed, and Legolas once again wondered what they had been arguing about. But it was not for him to enter into their discussion, and elves, above all other races, were not ones to involve themselves in the dealings of others. This trait was possessed to a lesser extent in Legolas because of his youth, but elven isolationism was still a part of his makeup. Wrapping the cloak around himself, he picked up his bow from where he had propped it against a stump and headed back into the forest.
"Where are you going?" Aragorn asked.
"By your leave, I think I shall sleep further up the trail this day," Legolas answered. "You may then continue your discussion without fear of listening ears, and I shall ensure that evil does not stray too close to us. I will not be but a mile away if you wish to scout later today." And I will be absent for Gimli’s turn on guard, the elf added silently to himself.
"I shall find you during the last watch, then," Aragorn said. "Stay safe, my friend. I also feel this shadow."
"Look to your sword, son of Arathorn," Legolas answered as he slipped into the underbrush. "I fear we shall need it ere we reach the other side of the mountains."
* * * *
Despite Legolas’s fears, the day passed quietly enough and even dinner was served without incident. Night was falling now and preparations were being made to start the journey again. At least, Sam assumed night was falling since it was getting progressively darker, but it was difficult to tell because the clouds were thick across the sky. Legolas had commented earlier on how the cloud cover resembled camp when everyone with the exception of Boromir and the elf began smoking. Sam supposed there was no help for that and even less help for Legolas, but maybe they could offer Boromir a pipe sometime in the near future…
Speaking of smoking, the scent of pipe-weed caught Sam’s attention and he turned to see who was indulging, for it was almost time to leave and most had already put away their pipes. His eyes scanning the group, he eventually stopped on Gimli and blinked. The dwarf had his pipe in hand and was puffing away contentedly, looking as though he had not a care in the world. Strange. Didn’t Mr. Gandalf just say as how we were about to head off? I wonder why he chose now to take a bit of a break. About then, Sam noticed something else concerning Gimli that seemed rather puzzling. The dwarf’s eyes kept surreptitiously straying to a point just the other side of Sam. Curious, the hobbit turned to see what had caught the dwarf’s attention and he immediately sighed.
Legolas. He should have known the dwarf would be watching Legolas. Still, Gimli hadn’t actually done anything, and maybe he was just on guard for an elven attack or prank. In any case, it didn’t hurt to think positively for a change. Maybe tonight would be different.
At this thought, a cynical little voice in the back of Sam’s head started laughing uproariously.
The wind suddenly came up cold and bitter as it bore its way through heavy layers of clothing. So much for the warmth, Sam sighed. He shivered and gathered himself more fully into a protective crouch, wrapping his cloak tightly around his shuddering body. At the same time, he thought he caught a snicker from Gimli. Wondering what was afoot and whether or not it had anything to do with the fact that Strider was mumbling something uncomplimentary beneath his breath, the hobbit debated about looking. His Gaffer had always preached about the value of ignorance, but Sam was unusually curious for a Gamgee and after a bit of internal debate, he decided to risk it.
Lifting his head out of his warmth-conserving crouch, Sam quickly met with a rather strange sight. Gimli was sucking his pipe in earnest and sending up a steady stream of smoke in the process. Sam couldn’t help but wonder at this strange waste of pipe-weed. Why was he doing that? What good could that— Oh. Sam sighed and shook his head. The wind was carrying the smoke trail directly into the face of Legolas.
Legolas was doing his best to ignore it, and though it was obviously affecting him, the elf was doing a commendable job. But as the smoke continued to drift his way, his control began to slip. He didn’t turn his head or step out of the way, but he did close his eyes and his jaw tightened slightly. Sam had the sudden impression that the normally unflappable elf was counting to ten.
"Why doesn’t he just move?"
Sam glanced over at Pippin who was also watching the tableau unfold. "Because if he moves, he loses," Sam whispered back, surprising himself with his insight. "That’s just what Gimli wants him to do, but he won’t do it."
"But elves hate smoking," Pippin hissed. "They can’t stand it."
Sam nodded. "That’s why Gimli’s doing it. He knows Legolas hates it. But it’s like I said before—if Legolas moves, then Gimli wins."
Merry nudged Pippin with an elbow. "Didn’t I tell you that Legolas would win?"
"We’re not done yet," Pippin returned.
By now, everyone in the Fellowship had become aware of what was happening, but no one could tactfully do or say anything about it. Gimli could easily deny the fact that he was intentionally puffing smoke in Legolas’s direction, and Legolas could just as easily say that he hadn’t noticed a thing. And it was clear that as long as the wind blew, the dwarf would puff on his pipe and the elf would stand there in stoic silence. Sam sat back and narrowed his eyes. The feud between the elf and dwarf had changed slightly, but Sam was uncertain as to the exact nature of the change. Aragorn had spoken to both of them, and since then, they had not been so confrontational. But that did not mean their slights and insults stopped. Far from it. But when something happened, at least they had not come to open blows. Still, it would be nice if someone could step in now and try to set things right…
Almost as though cued by Sam’s thoughts, someone did step in. Not surprisingly, it was Aragorn, and Sam found himself marveling at the Ranger’s display of cunning and ingenuity. Without saying a word to either elf or dwarf, he casually moved between the two, effectively disrupting Gimli’s smoke stream and providing a shield for Legolas.
"One for the elf," Merry whispered. "Gimli loses."
"Your eyes must be faulty," Pippin responded scornfully. "Legolas had to be saved by Aragorn. Gimli wins."
"What Age are you from?" Merry shot back. "Gimli failed to make him move. The dwarf loses and the Legolas wins."
"It’s a draw," Sam said with a glance at Aragorn who was doing his best to look like he was completely unaware that he stood between sworn enemies. "If anyone wins, Strider does."
"No," Frodo murmured, his voice so low that the other hobbits had difficulty hearing him. "If anyone wins, it is the Enemy that makes such fools of us."
Behind Gandalf, Boromir abruptly stood and swung his shield up behind him. "Will we tarry here all night?" he asked. "The sun has fallen. Is it not time we move?"
"It is time we move," Gandalf replied. It seemed to Sam that the wizard was distracted and not just by the antics of elf and dwarf, but before the hobbit could get any further with that thought, Gandalf shook off whatever mood had fallen over him and got to his feet. "Come. By tonight, we must try to reach the borders of Hollin. There are still leagues ahead of us."
Exactly what I need to hear, Sam sighed. Why can’t the next stop ever be just beyond that second tree? With a tired shake of his head, the hobbit hitched his pack up on his shoulders, took Bill by the halter, and started off the others as they set out on their journey once more.
* * * *
Drawing his tattered cloak tighter over his shoulders, Gandalf shivered and glanced at the sky, watching the clouds closely. "The wind from the north is cold, Aragorn," the old wizard noted.
"So it is," Aragorn replied, his face unreadable as he scanned the surrounding brush with the practiced wariness of a Ranger.
"It will be colder still in a few days when we begin to climb."
"So it will be."
"If Legolas is correct about the weather, and I feel that he is, we shall be highly visible.
"So we shall."
Gandalf sighed and rolled his eyes. He should have seen this coming, though he doubted he could have done anything to prevent it. When Aragorn did not wish to speak of something, he simple did not speak, confining himself to short, concise answers and saying little else. It worked beautifully when dealing with simple men such as Barliman Butterbur, and strangely enough, it also seemed to work when dealing with wiser beings. Even Elrond had yet to devise a way of effectively and consistently breaking through Aragorn’s wall of silence.
The two stood some distance away from the others, waiting in the dark night while Gimli struggled to untangle his chain mail from a thorn bush. It had "accidentally" snagged on some of the thicker branches and was now taking the skills of all four hobbits to free. Legolas stood a safely neutral distance away and appeared appropriately concerned, though laughter danced across his face when he thought no one was looking. Boromir was looking on with the air of one who has suffered much and will probably not be willing to suffer much more. Gandalf grimaced and turned his attention back to Aragorn, deciding to move straight to the point and see if he could force the man to words.
"We may avoid many of these problems by taking an alternate route. There is still—"
"I know," the Ranger interrupted. "But I beg you, do not speak of it. This Fellowship may be split asunder at the very mention of the name."
"We must decide which direction to turn within a few days time," the wizard warned, leaning against his staff as another cold breeze swept by them.
"Perhaps fate will smile upon us." Aragorn did not sound overly optimistic.
"Perhaps. But perhaps it will not. Fate has not often favored us, as you know well, Aragorn."
"No, it has not," the Ranger murmured. He fell silent again, his dark gray eyes troubled, and Gandalf feared he would be unable to rouse him back to words. But Aragorn then shook his head and turned to the wizard, his face unreadable. "Gandalf, I do not wish to argue this with you. I honor your wisdom and heed your council, as have I ever, yet my heart warns against the darker course. There is something in those depths…it does not bode well. I feel there are grave consequences in choosing Moria as a path."
"You will not even consider it as an option?"
"Reluctantly will I do so, and only at your insistence."
Gandalf grunted and decided to let the conversation go at that. In truth, he also favored the mountain passes, though the Fellowship would be highly visible to the spies of the Enemy. Still, it was a more certain course than the path that led beneath the mountains. And yet…
"We will not make Hollin by morning," Aragorn murmured, more to himself than to the wizard at his side. "Already we have lost valuable time, and the hobbits are weary."
"The night is still young. We may reach it yet."
"Do those two not realize the seriousness of what we do?"
It was not hard to figure out to whom Aragorn referred. "They realize," Gandalf answered quietly, watching as the hobbits drew lots and Pippin lost. The disgruntled Took muttered words of protest and then crawled beneath the thorn bush, grunting with every scratch and working quickly to finish freeing Gimli’s chain mail. "It is why they are still with us. We will need them, Aragorn. All of them. But the Enemy’s reach is long. For countless years has he managed to keep the elves and dwarves estranged. Why should this change when we set out to destroy the only thing that will ultimately defeat him?"
"My sight does not reach as far as yours," Aragorn said quietly. "I am more concerned with our present condition. And I see now a dwarf and an elf more intent on playing practical jokes than on destroying the Enemy of all that is good. Nor do they realize when these pranks cross the line from annoyance to danger."
"Much of what they do they cannot help but do," Gandalf said. Pippin was now crawling out from beneath the brush, picking at thorns in his skin and complaining loudly to any who would listen. "The elves have seen only malice on the part of the dwarves. The dwarves have seen only contempt on the part of the elves. Centuries of hatred cannot be set aside, no matter how grave the matter. Think of the Council of Elrond. Even there, Glóin could not restrain himself."
"You speak wisely as ever, Gandalf," Aragorn sighed.
"Let us hope that my wisdom holds," the wizard warned, looking out at their path as Gimli finally shook himself completely free. "And I still feel that the darker way must be included in our debates."
"I suppose that all options should be included in our debates," Aragorn answered as the rest of the Company moved to join them. "But there are some that, to me, seem far better than others."
"And to me as well. But something warns me against Caradhras. I sense malice there, and a cold regard for us. We must be prepared to choose a different way should the mountains prove closed to us."
"And we shall be prepared should that time come. But let us not speak of it yet, I pray you! For now, allow our path to take us where it will. And who knows? Perhaps the choice has already been made."
* * * *
Six…seven…eight… By the Valar, do I travel with children?
Boromir instinctively ducked as pebbles nine and ten descended from above to smack Legolas in the head. The first few had missed their mark, but the last of the barrage had proven surprisingly accurate.
Lore in Gondor speaks of elves and dwarves with tones of great respect, but these two have yet to do anything worthy of honor.
Well, that wasn’t exactly true. Legolas had been the one to kill the second Warg two nights ago, and he and Aragorn had shown themselves to be a deadly team in tracking and hunting the first Warg. And Gimli’s skill with the axe and sharp senses had saved Merry and Pippin when they were attacked. Yes, both elf and dwarf seemed capable warriors, but once the danger had passed and the Company had enjoyed a temporary peace…
Boromir watched as Legolas suddenly bent down and hefted a rather large rock in his hand. Turning it over, he examined it as though curious as to its design and history. After a while, enduring three more pebbles from the assailant behind Boromir, the elf casually tossed the rock over his shoulder. Boromir noted that the toss was a rather forceful toss and watched it as it sailed overhead until…
Gimli’s muted cursings were soft, but it seemed that Legolas heard them, for his shoulders stiffened as though trying to hold back laughter.
"Legolas? Would you confer with me a moment?"
Hearing the Ranger’s voice with a degree of relief, Boromir hoped Aragorn had developed a ploy for keeping the two apart. The animosity was beginning to wear on Denethor’s son, though he had to admit that if Gimli had not put pipe-weed in the elf’s water so many nights ago and caused the Fellowship to divide, Aragorn might not have seen the tracks of the Warg. Still, there had to be another way to track a Warg without involving the childish antics of an elf and dwarf who should know better. Boromir wondered how Aragorn had so much patience in the matter.
Boromir risked a swift glance backwards and watched as the Ranger and the elf held a quick consultation. Though he was clearly frustrated by their continuing pranks, Aragorn seemed to understand both Gimli and Legolas. How was it that a man could know so much about either race? Aragorn had probably traveled much, but in Boromir’s mind, it was perilous to deal directly with either the dwarves or the elves. The dwarves delved too deeply, loved too passionately, and angered too quickly. And the elves…anything immortal with powers or senses beyond that of a man was to be feared and avoided.
Boromir looked back again. Legolas was nodding at something Aragorn had said and was speaking quietly in return. Then the elf turned and vanished into the darkness, disappearing so quickly it was as though he had never been there. That was another thing Boromir couldn’t understand. Legolas was a prince, a son of King Thranduil in Mirkwood. He was a younger son, yes, but he was still royalty and as such he was accorded honor and respect, even by those of Rivendell. Yet when Aragorn spoke, Legolas immediately listened. He held the Ranger in high regard and heeded his words. What manner of man could command such respect from an elven prince? Who was Aragorn? Elrond had spoken of Isildur’s heir, but Boromir had dismissed those words at the time, believing the line of kings to be a thing of the past and a lost dream of the elves.
Besides, if any group had a right to the throne, it would be the line of the stewards who kept and preserved Gondor for years uncounted after the death of the last king. As a young boy, Boromir had spoken to his father Denethor concerning the throne and the stewards, and if he was honest with himself, Boromir still had yearnings for kingship. Who was this Ranger of the north to think that he could claim what had been protected for centuries by the valiance and courage of the stewards? But then again, if the line of Elendil had survived and Aragorn truly was heir to the throne…and if Andúril truly was Narsil reforged…
Boromir started and turned to see the object of his thoughts watching him intently. Aragorn looked as though he knew—or at least guessed—much of Boromir’s thoughts, but the Ranger said nothing to deny or confirm this.
"The others draw ahead, Boromir. Shall we follow?"
Denethor’s son nodded quickly, chagrined at the thought that Aragorn had caught him by surprise. Such was the not the way for warriors of Gondor, but of late, Boromir’s thoughts had drifted far and wide. So much was happening so quickly. He journeyed in the company of elf, dwarf, and halflings. A man claiming to be Isildur’s heir conferred and counseled with the mysterious Mithrandir. The Ring, long thought to have perished from the world, gnawed at his thoughts and made him doubt the advice of Elrond HalfElven. What fate led him down this course and where would it take him?
"You look as one who seeks counsel," Aragorn said as they moved to rejoin the group. "Is there aught I can do?"
"My thoughts are my own," Boromir answered sharply. His tone was harsher than he intended, and he marveled at himself. "That is…I have much on my mind that does not concern the Company," he quickly explained, seeing Aragorn’s look. "I would not wish to burden you with my troubles."
Aragorn seemed to accept this and did not pursue the matter, though Boromir thought he could detect a flash of bridled curiosity and a hint of suspicion in the other man’s eyes. "I have sent Legolas behind us," the Ranger offered by way of conversation. "I feel we are being observed again, but I can not find the source. Perhaps elven eyes will succeed where the eyes of man are foiled. We will cross a stream in an hour or so. Legolas plans to meet us there. He will probably reach it long before we do and might scout ahead as well."
"You seem to know much of elves," Boromir found himself saying. "Have you lived among them often?"
A small smile eased its way onto Aragorn’s rugged features. "I have."
Boromir waited for Aragorn to continue, but the Ranger was silent. Sensing that Aragorn would say nothing else on the subject, Boromir decided to try a more specific track. "What of Legolas? You seem to know much of him."
"We knew each other before this Fellowship was formed," Aragorn said. "I gave Gollum into the keeping of his father’s guards, and Legolas and the scouts under his command aided me when we first sought the creature. We journeyed together for a while and have hunted spiders in the southern forests of his father’s kingdom."
"And I gather you also know Mithrandir well?"
"I doubt if any but Lord Elrond and the Lady Galadriel know him well," Aragorn answered quietly. "He and I have been friends for some time, but I cannot say much more than that."
"Yet he told you of the Ring long before he told any other," Boromir pointed out, unable to keep a note of suspicion from his voice.
The Ranger shrugged. "There was a need to seek for Gollum, and how should one persuade another to walk in perilous country save the other knows the reason for the journey? I was told by necessity. Had there been another way, Gandalf would have surely held his peace. The matter of the Ring is a perilous matter indeed. The fewer who know of it, the safer are those who still defy the shadow."
Who are you? Boromir was very tempted to simply ask. He doubted the answer would be to his liking if Aragorn even deigned to give him one, and yet his curiosity continued to grow. Who was this man who held the secrets of wizards, the respect of the elves, and the alleged sword of Isildur, forged anew? And what did he mean for the future of Gondor?
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