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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 20. Dust to Dust
Cold wind swept over the plains, bearing with it dark clouds. Chill, humid air, wet with the promise of rain, brought out the scent of churned earth and sweet grass, mixing with the dust of the ages. The land lay still under a pregnant silence, save for the creak and groan of wood and the rustle of leafy hair. Pippin shivered in his cloak but leaned forward from his perch on Bregalad's shoulders, braving the cold and breezy currents. Pointless to ask how soon they would arrive, for the Ent's answer had not varied since their abrupt departure from Fangorn: "Soon enough, my hobbits, quite soon enough!" Soon, the young Took thought, wondering once again whether they did right. Two days ago, Bregalad had predicted that tonight they would move for Isengard, and he and Merry had been prepared to wait out the delay. But no sooner had he spoken, it seemed, than a great uproar had sounded, as if every Ent at the Entmoot had howled.
"What is it? What does that mean?" Merry had asked, alarmed, but Bregalad had simply laughed again, though Pippin had thought he detected a note of surprise in that trumpeted amusement.
"'Tis a sign that even Ents grow hasty! Come, my little ones, we go now! To Isengard!" And so they had. All that afternoon the Ents had marched ceaselessly, and if either hobbit had wondered how so few Ents could possibly assault the tower that had held even Gandalf captive, they soon realized that the Ents were not alone. In droves—Or rather, groves! Pippin thought—the trees of Fangorn forest followed, uprooting themselves casually to shake the earth from their roots and march along behind in a seemingly endless line. Hoots and calls, songs sung in the voices of woodwinds had spurred them on at first, but as they had approached the Isen, the Ents had grown silent… grimly silent. And as they had drawn nigh to the circle of Isengard, the forest's march had halted quite suddenly on some unspoken signal. It took little wit to understand why, as masses of orcs and Men had marched by in a long, winding column.
"Where do they go, do you think?" Pippin had whispered to Bregalad, and then had had to clutch tightly at the Ent's hair as Bregalad shrugged, nearly dislodging Merry and Pippin in the process.
"I know not. It shall not matter, though, for I shall follow them whithersoever they go. I, and my flocks for the memory of lost trees and springs!"
"What about Saruman?"
"That is our business tonight, but fear not! We had spoken of this earlier, in the Entmoot. Once Isengard is finished, we shall move south again."
Pippin shivered again, but this time not because of the wind, but at the memory of the destruction of that stony circle. Old Man Willow was terrifying enough! he thought. But he never moved. I wonder whether he might not be one those sleeping Ents—a Huorn, like these others. It was not a pleasant thought, if it were so, but for the moment, it helped to keep his mind from the coming confrontation. For Isengard was drowned, and the Watchwood stood guard under Treebeard's tireless old eyes, and so Bregalad and a number of the younger Ents, whose flocks stood nearest the borders of the forest and so had suffered the worst depredations of the orcs, moved now to collect their proper revenge.
And we go with them, Merry and I! Pippin drew a deep breath, feeling a spark of wrath cut through his dread. Though we may not be much use at all, we go, for we, too, have a grievance with the orcs! And because we may not linger with Treebeard forever. It was an odd feeling, that certainty that they must move on—at once urgent, so that it suffused Pippin's very being, and yet it was a wrench as well, for of all races, hobbits were a most settled sort of folk. I could never be like Strider, Pippin decided. Yet I think what I feel now must be a little like what he feels. You can see it in him. I saw it when we first set out together, but I never understood it 'til now. That was enough to draw yet a third shiver from the young hobbit, who had never looked to understand what stirred the heart and soul of a Man like Aragorn.
"Look Pip!" Merry, too, leaned forward, pointing to a reddish glow on the horizon. "Fire!"
"I see it!" Pippin replied, glancing up at Bregalad's face. In the darkness, it was difficult to see much, but he thought that the Ent seemed eager, which was a most unusual expression on one of that deliberate and patient species.
"Aye, fire. The fires of war," Bregalad rumbled. "There lie the homes of the Men of this land, who are named "Rohirrim," and thither are we bound. We shall reach them soon."
Merry and Pippin exchanged another look, but this time, Merry's face showed pale and grim, without any of the wry skepticism that had previously greeted such remarks. Soon. What sort of Men are they, I wonder? Vaguely, he recalled that Boromir had thought highly of the Rohirrim, and Aragorn as well, apparently. But Rivendell seemed so very distant, a tale out of another lifetime, even, and Pippin felt a thrill of anxious concern run through him once more. Boromir and Strider, Legolas and Gimli… Sam and Frodo! Where are they now? Or are they dead?
The Ent-host marched onward, and soon indeed, Edoras's ruined gates loomed before them.
Aragorn swore softly as the hinges on the door rattled in their casings, and the casings themselves bent. "Retreat!" he hollered up into the stairwell, and then wisely stood back as men came clattering down, sprinting with near reckless haste to abandon the tower. In truth, he had expected to be forced back far earlier, but some of the men had had nearly full quivers, having been in the vanguard most of the long way back from the gates, and the door had proved more resistant than foreseen. Still, it would be very close indeed, as another blow actually dented the metal of the door, and several of the archers flinched at the noise. "Keep moving!" Aragorn snapped at them, half-shoving a cluster of men out the other side of the tower. "Go! Draw your swords!" That, as he drew Andúril by way of example. Another blow, and one of the hinge casings broke, just as the last few men darted down the stairs.
"Last man down!" cried one of them, giving Aragorn a sharp nod. Together, the two dashed after the rest of the company, the line of archers sprinting for their lives towards the southern walls. One more flight of stairs awaited them, and then an empty cross-street, carefully cordoned off, that would intersect the main road along which the ground forces would eventually retreat, assuming that they survived so long. To judge by the lines of burning neighborhoods, Aragorn suspected that few would make it so far. And those few may not have the strength to withdraw to the keep! In fact, he could make out but one, beleaguered circle of defenders, perhaps a quarter mile from the gates. The flames showed them up, and Aragorn grimaced as he realized that they were surrounded. Which means that we know not what might wait for us before those gates! And if we know not…
A Ranger learned the meaning of haste early on, and Aragorn made use of it now, slipping between men to reach the head of the line just as they began to take the stairs. "Eorlingas to me! Be ready!" Down they went, hurrying along the cross-street, and the Ranger gripped Andúril hard. If the enemy were wise, there would be a small company waiting just out of bow-shot, waiting to warn of the approach of anyone from the keep. And beyond them …
"What is that?" Legolas's voice sounded sharply, and Théoden, Háma, and Éowyn all turned to stare at the Elf. Théoden had joined them some time ago, the old king standing sad and silent as he watched his city burn. Éowyn stood beside him, and to his credit, he had taken but a look at his niece and said nothing, only laid a hand upon her shoulder and squeezed tightly. Then he, like the other three, had turned his attention to the fight below, watching it wind closer and closer as time and Saruman's treachery wore away at their defenses. Now though, he stared at the Elf, and his blue eyes were intent in the torch-light.
"Legolas?" he asked.
"There, by the gates… I had not looked there before, but now I see it! Something large moves in the night," the prince of Mirkwood replied, leaning forward on a parapet. "I know not what it is, though. I should say trolls of some sort, and yet… " He shook his head.
"Trolls?" Háma demanded with weary incredulity, squinting into the night, cursing the smoke and darkness.
"I should be flattered Saruman thinks so much of us!" Théoden sighed softly.
"Are you certain of this?" Éowyn asked sharply from beyond her uncle.
"Nay, my lady, I am not. The reason of my mind tells me it must be trolls, for I know of nothing else that they could be, yet my heart says otherwise. There is… a darkness there… yet 'tis different from Saruman's spells. I can say no more, however," Legolas added, sounding disappointed. "It moves swiftly though. Look!" As the four watched, the large, shadowy line approached, moving at an incredible pace and advancing on the hindmost ranks of the Isengarders. If they are trolls, then the Isengarders shall move aside to let them pass, the Elf thought. And yet… why would trolls come so late? In but a few hours, the sun shall rise, and unless Saruman has found a way to do for trolls what he has done for his orcs, they shall perish!
The rear lines of the enemy were turning towards the approaching host, and as the prince watched, the entire formation seemed to ripple, as the hindmost ranks surged forward. The Elf could pick out Dunlendings and orcs scrambling desperately, shoving at their comrades… and then it was as if a cloud passed over them, one that even an Elf's eyes could not pierce. "Elbereth Gilthoniel…" he murmured, awe-struck. Even as he gazed, something else caught his attention, though from much closer at hand. "Aragorn!"
"What say you now?" Théoden demanded.
"Aragorn! Look, his company comes not to the keep but turns! He must have realized that the enemy had passed the last unit. I think he goes now to try to join the others, rather than retreat with the enemy on his heels. Yes, he makes for the ring of defenders." Beside him, Háma uttered an oath, while Éowyn's eyes turned once more back to the flame-lit square. In the mean time, the shadowy host was pressing forward in earnest, and Legolas closed his eyes, tasting of that veiling darkness, wondering at it. 'Tis not Saruman's work… nay, 'Tis no wizard's crafting, I think, but the rage of a wounded creature… "Such hate…"
He was scarcely aware of having spoken aloud until Théoden's words startled him. "Such hate indeed! But it seems to me that it is for the orcs and our enemies more than for us," the old man replied, and there was a measure of new life to his voice as resolution entered it.
"Come!" he cried then, and all along the battlements, men looked up towards their king. "Let us take such chances as fortune offers! Forth, Eorlingas!" Háma followed immediately, and all around the heights, the cry was taken up. Soon, it echoed all about the keep, but Legolas remained where he was an instant, held in place by the confusing events below. And then his eyes went to Éowyn, who, but for her recent question, had stood silently by for so long. No word she spoke, but she returned that look briefly, defiantly, and then followed her king and uncle down the steps. With a shake of his head, Legolas went swiftly after her, feeling hope flicker, ghost-like, in his heart.
"Help comes! Lord Ælric to us!" The cry went up from the southern arc of their circle, and Éomer, glancing back, was in time to see the collision as a roar of Rohirrim voices broke out on that side. Éomer's men staggered back as the orcs and Dunlendings were fairly thrust into their midst by the newcomers. There was a moment of shock but it was quickly covered over as the reinforcements swarmed over their displaced enemies, dispatching them with all the fervor of the walking dead. In the mean time, the northern arc was steadily being pushed back, bending as pikes were broken and their foes moved in closer. At least he could move the line back a bit, now…
"Éomer!" The Third Marshal cursed softly as he turned his attention to the newcomers once more and saw Aragorn standing there. "Hold your line!"
"If we move now, we may be able to come a little closer to the walls!" Éomer replied, gesturing to the struggling shield-wall. Aragorn shook his head, glanced about, and his mouth tightened.
"We cannot retreat!" the Ranger replied, and then quickly turned his attention to the men he had brought with him. "Spread out! Wythláf, take the north arc. Spread out!" Men hastened to obey, distributing themselves about the four quarters of the circle, though the north and south claimed more men than the east and west, which faced much narrower alleyways. And then, ere Éomer could question why, Aragorn added, "They are on our heels! And the others who wait for those in the keep to emerge come now in our wake!" Even as he spoke, fierce cries from the south indicated the arrival of the enemy, and Éomer cursed, coughing as he inhaled a lungful of smoke. "Where is Gimli?" the Dúnadan demanded.
"At your service," the Dwarf's voice sounded as he stepped suddenly from behind Éomer, and the Marshal startled badly. Gimli and Aragorn shared a significant look, but it was too brief for Éomer to fathom its meaning. Nevertheless, it inspired a nod as the Ranger laid a hand on the Dwarf's shoulder as if in gratitude. "Where is Legolas?" Gimli asked, voicing the question that Éomer had been about to submit.
"I sent him and the vanguard back to the keep, as planned. But I could not lead the rest back with the enemy waiting for the gates to open," Aragorn replied, shifting his gaze from the Dwarf to the Marshal. "From a standing start, we could not break through again, not with these on our backs," the Ranger nodded at the howling masses attacking the northern line.
"Well then," Éomer replied, and that was all. What else is there to say? the Third Marshal thought bitterly, turning back to watch as the line, even with Aragorn's reinforcements, began once more to bend… to buckle, really. The other did not question his silence, and on unspoken agreement, the two captains split up once more, going back to their respective posts: Éomer to the northern circuit, and Aragorn to the southern, there to urge the men on, determined to hold out as long as possible. To Éomer's surprise, the Dwarf stayed at his side rather than joining his friend, but the Third Marshal had no chance to question that decision.
A knot of Uruk-hai clawed their way over two of the guard, and even as Éomer stepped into the breach, another group of orcs brought down the man beside him, overwhelming him even as those behind him struggled to plug the gap with their bodies, to drag their comrade out from under the murderous knives of their enemies even while holding the line intact. Gimli joined the fray with a guttural shout in his own strange tongue, but the ranks before them surged, like a wave striking the shore. Éomer staggered back and cried out in pain when an orcish fist struck the gash on his cheek as the orc in question was bodily propelled over the Marshal's shoulder.
Unable to resist the sudden crush of bodies, the north arc of the circle was driven back. Men tripped on corpses, friend and foe alike, and were thrust back despite all efforts to resist. But those who were forced to retreat were fortunate: their fellows were simply buried under the writhing masses of orcs and Dunlendings, who, not content to overbear the Rohirrim, were climbing over each other. Some part of Éomer's mind found time to wonder at that, for it seemed almost as if they themselves sought escape….
An orc leapt for him, springing from the backs of two faltering comrades, and Éomer slashed blindly, but retreated nonetheless 'til he collided with someone else. Friend or foe, he could not tell, but the other seemed just as hard-pressed, for neither spared the time to strike back with a dagger or even an elbow. For a moment, he braced himself against the other's back and raised his sword, but it was as if he fought the sea. Through the haze of smoke and ash, the orcs and Dunlendings came rushing over the piles of their own dead, rising like a wave, screaming incoherently as they came.
One of them hit Éomer squarely in the chest, and the weight and shock were irresistible. With a cry, the Third Marshal went down as others landed atop him, crushing the air from his lungs. Pain lanced through him as he shoved desperately at the others, but his arms were pinned almost immediately. Sound dwindled, and a feeling of numbness spread throughout his body even as he vainly gasped for air. This is what it is to die… The thought occurred, and was torn away from him in a faltering heartbeat.
And then something happened. A jolt or a spasm seemed to pass through him, and Éomer twitched as a second blow seemed to land. Then a third, as sound seemed to return with such intensity that he winced and automatically made as if to cover his ears. To his surprise, he found that he could… just as he was flung aside like a rag doll, along with a number of others. The Third Marshal landed hard, but the shock of it started him breathing again, at least, and he gasped painfully as he lurched to all fours like a stricken beast. Muzzily, he wiped strands of hair from his face and tried to focus his eyes. Am I blind? he wondered, feeling a sudden thrill of panic at the thought, for he could not see. There was blood smeared on his face, but though he knew his eyes were open, all seemed dark about him.
Screams of terror punctuated the darkness, and there sounded now a creaking and groaning, as of tortured ships at harbor in a storm. Dust and earth scent filled his nostrils, mingling suffocatingly with the acrid stench of smoke, and Éomer sneezed violently at the same time that a coughing fit took him. A blood-curdling shriek came from somewhere to his left, seeming quite close, and the Third Marshal jerked, crawling forward now in search of a weapon. For 'twas no Man that made that sound, but an orc. Or something worse! Éomer thought, seeking blindly in the shadows. When he found naught, he cursed, staggering to his feet though every bone and muscle seemed to scream protest.
"Éomer!" A voice in the darkness, sharp and distorted with constrained fear, reached him, and he heard now other cries in Rohirric. A few Dunlending voices stole through the thickened air, and others that were clearly orcish filled the air. "Éomer!"
"Ara…gorn?" the Third Marshal wheezed painfully, swearing to himself as his voice failed in the end.
"Éomer?" Dazedly, Éomer began to make his way towards that voice, hoping at least to find one other who might have some better sense of what was happening. At least I begin to be able to see somewhat in this shadow! Nevertheless, he had not gone far ere he stumbled against something hard and tall, rough… wooden … A tree? Éomer blinked and squinted up uncertainly into the shadows. Just then, hoarse, guttural cries sounded behind him, and Éomer, cursing, turned as three or four vaguely orcish shapes moved towards him. And for the first time in his life, he simply froze. Still stunned and confused, he did not think to reach for the daggers at his belt, nor even to move; perhaps a part of him could not quite accept that he yet lived. But whatever the reasons, Éomer stared as the orcs flew towards him… and then the tree at his back lurched. At the same time, a fourth shape appeared from his right, and despite the darkness, he saw the glitter of firelight play off of a scything blade. And a hoarse voice bellowed:
"Move, you fool of a Man!" Gimli, Glóin's son, snapped with no patience whatsoever as he took the first orc. That tone cut through the confusion clouding his mind, and Éomer's hand went swiftly for the dagger he suddenly remembered that he had. But ere ever he could use it, the tree seemed to sway, and long, leafy branches dipped. Éomer ducked under one, but felt sharp-edged leaves rake across his face and the back of the hand he flung up to shield himself. A moan, like timber about to crack beneath a strong wind, filled the air, and an orc landed dead at his feet. Other moans and hoots sounded, and there was more creaking as several of the trees shifted, and of a sudden, Éomer could taste free air again. Still laden with smoke and blood it was, but lighter nonetheless as reddish light illuminated what had been an enclosed space.
The Third Marshal snarled then as more orcs appeared, apparently having been driven to this point by the shifting of the trees. Flinging out an arm, he let the edge of his blade scrape along an orc's throat, then spun to ram the dagger into a the chest of a second. That gave him double-vision and such a splitting headache that he missed the next orc completely, collapsing to his knees with his back to his enemy. It likely saved his life, for he felt the wind of his foe's swift passage, and as he looked up once more, he saw the orc stumble past him and into range of Gimli the Dwarf. But even as the Dwarf whirled to strike at the foul creature, the tree moved once more, and Éomer cried out in wordless warning.
The orc shrieked, leaping left and ducking as Gimli, cursing, tried to follow. Mayhap had he not been so weary already, it would not have happened. But the Dwarf had been overwhelmed by the same wave of bodies that Éomer had, and earlier at that. Only his smaller stature had let him find space enough to breathe 'til he had been unexpectedly rescued. Still, though formidable enough against the orcs, his control was fraying, and he swung too wide, unable to fight the momentum. The blade glanced off of the orc's armor and buried itself instead in the tree's trunk. A horrible blast of sound—like the shrill of a flute, yet far louder, deeper, and overlaid with an incredible dissonance that might otherwise have been harmony—went up, and Gimli was swept off of his feet by an arm-like branch. The Dwarf hit a second tree, bounced off of it, and landed with a thud on the ground, there to lie motionless as Éomer clambered to his feet and staggered towards him.
Falling to his knees once more, he laid a hand over the Dwarf's heart, but it is difficult to feel anything through a corselet. "Gimli! Gimli? Speak if you can!" Éomer felt a shiver run through him as something rumbled behind him, like a drum, almost, and he turned to stare up at the tree that stood over him. At the trees, rather, for he realized that he was surrounded of a sudden. "Béma… " Awe-struck, incredulous, he stared up, slack-jawed, and waited for the blow to come.
Yet it never did. A deep-voiced trumpeting sounded insistently close at hand, and the trees seemed to shudder, swaying back like reeds in a storm. For no reason that he could comprehend, they retreated, leaving him alone with Gimli as, at last, the rain began to fall.
When he had felt the shield wall break, felt someone driven against his back, Aragorn had known he had but one choice: to move forward or perish, though the way forward was a gauntlet of grim swords and knives, all thirsting for his blood. But wonder of wonders, even as he plunged ahead into the ranks of the enemy with such men as had wits enough to follow, the orcs and Dunlendings retreated, crying out in terror. Whatever they saw, the Ranger wasted no time turning to stare, but pressed forward swiftly in an effort to out-race the masses at his back. Friend and foe alike had run, seeking to avoid whatever new terror stalked their ranks, or else to avoid being crushed.
And so they had met Théoden's forces, streaming out of the keep on an Elf's hope and desperation. The Isengarders, caught between the hammer and anvil, had not known which way to turn, and for the first time that night, Aragorn had found himself in control of the battle. Turning once more, he and his ragged band of survivors had met the rest of Saruman's army as it streamed towards the Rohirrim ranks. And behind them had come the tall-standing shadows, their creaking advance punctuated by screams. Aragorn had seen bodies flung aside with reckless abandon, and what happened to those who fell under the shadow, he knew not. For a time, he dared not distract himself with the riddle, for there were still orcs and Dunlendings aplenty to subdue.
But in the end, he and the others stood at the edge of the square where he and Éomer had thought to die, and stared at the woods. Beside him, Théoden murmured something under his breath ere he managed, "How is this possible? What are they?"
"Is it some trickery? Some elvish spell?" asked another rider.
"Nay," Legolas had replied, stepping forward to gaze intently at the trees. "Nay, this is no work of elvish craft! They are real… real, and they speak of ages uncounted. Can you not hear it? Do you not smell it?" the elven prince demanded, turning to let his green gaze sweep over the ranks of stunned, fearful Men. "Aragorn?"
"Valar… " The Ranger's eyes narrowed as he stalked forward then, struck suddenly by the musty, earthen scent, and memory found a swift match. That smell, and the creaking and wailing… A dark and bewildering night it had been beneath the boughs of… "Fangorn!" he breathed, and shot Legolas a look of sudden comprehension. "Did not Celeborn warn us?"
"So he did," Legolas replied, a note of awe in his voice.
"Ents," Aragorn murmured.
"Ents are naught but children's tales!" Háma exclaimed, frowning.
"Indeed, for Men are naught but children to Elves, and so we say not Ents, but Onodrim," Legolas replied as he began to drift towards the trees despite the horrible cries that still sounded from beneath the eaves. But in amidst the cries of orcs and Dunlendings, there were Rohirric cries as well, and slowly, the foremost ranks of Théoden's host began to follow the Elf.
"Is it wise to dare this copse?" Aragorn asked quietly.
"I know not," the Elf replied softly, but did not slow his advance. "But many are the Men trapped there, though it seems to me that their voices remain constant, whereas the orcish cries diminish in strength and number. Yet surely we may not abandon them! Many may be hurt, or confused…" And although all of this was quite true, Aragorn knew that it was not Men that concerned one Legolas son of Thranduil. Nevertheless, he said only:
"True enough. But I think not all need enter these woods. Go ahead, I shall find you in a moment." Pausing, then, he turned and went quickly to Théoden.
"What news?" the king asked.
"None, save that I think it best that most of the men remain here, and only those with some experience of a forest enter. We cannot afford panic beneath these eaves."
"Then your numbers shall be few, for ours is not a forested land," the king replied, frowning as he signaled a halt to the Rohirrim. Staring at the trees a moment, Théoden seemed to consider somewhat ere he turned to cock a snowy brow at the Ranger. "What know you of this wood?"
"Little, but that it is not wise to injure it in any way. There is a great power in Fangorn, and if these are Ents, as seems the only explanation, then even Legolas is out of his depth, sire, for he is young among his kind," Aragorn said, and refrained from adding that even Celeborn of Doriath might not have met an Ent since the fall of Beleriand.
"Yet some, perhaps many, of my people remain caught in it," the king shook his head. "We may not leave them to wander lost. Forest-craft we lack, but there are those here who can keep a clear head and know their direction even in a blind night on the plains. These I shall take, and be cautious of the trees!"
"As you will it, my king," Aragorn bowed his acquiescence.
"Go then, and see whom you may find while we follow more slowly."
"Aye, my lord." As the Ranger hurried away, he heard Théoden raise his voice to address the Rohirrim, though he heeded the speech but little, mind already focused on the trees, and on Éomer. Legolas was already gone ahead of him, and to track an Elf was a nearly impossible task, so he dismissed the notion. Surely I can trust the prince of Mirkwood to find his own way in a forest! Éomer, though… if he lives, he shall be only little less lost than I! So he thought, and hoped indeed that the Third Marshal lived, for if he did not… Then the House of Eorl is fallen, and we shall have lost another to this Darkness. It was a grim thought, and it spurred him onward, propelling him into the woods.
The moment he crossed the line of shadow beneath the trees, the world of Edoras seemed to fade, to recede before the memory of wilder times and places. Aragorn paused a moment, letting the feel of this space wash over him 'til senses overwhelmed with the novelty of it all ceased to tingle and cringe with every new stimulus. Nevertheless, he made certain to grip the hilt of a dagger rather than of Andúril, for fear that he might hit something unintentionally with the sword's greater reach.
"Éomer? Gimli?" he called into the darkness, then moved quickly aside as a tree drifted past. Out of curiosity, he knelt and picked up one of the displaced cobblestones, turning it in his hands. It was too dark for even a Ranger's eyes to make out much detail, but his fingers found the grooves, and he shook his head. "Trees," he muttered, tossing the rock aside as he rose once more. "Gimli? Éomer, hierest thu mé?"
No answer but the groan of stressed wood and rain on the treetops… and the cries and calls of the lost. Still, he pressed on, aiming northwest, guessing that Éomer might be near their last position ere the circle had collapsed. He tried calling to the others that he could hear, but it seemed that they could not hear him. Cursing softly, he was about to turn his course due west after what seemed to him a larger group of Rohirrim when suddenly he heard his name called. Or rather, one of his names:
"Who calls…?" His voice trailed off as he turned to behold two small figures dashing towards him in the gloom. Impossible! So said reason, even as wonder deeper than the wells of time struck him to the core. Standing stiff as a tree himself, unable to move, he watched as Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took came hurtling towards him, laughing with relief at the sight of him. And then just as they reached him, he felt his knees unlock. Sinking to the ground, he swayed slightly as an armful of hobbit crashed into him, and he felt his breath catch hard.
"You're safe!" Merry kept saying over and over into his ear, and Pippin clutched him tight.
"Safe? We thought you were dead!" he finally managed, easing back out of their embrace a bit so he could look at each of them. "Gimli and Legolas and I… we believed you were dead!"
"We did, too, for awhile," Pippin admitted, and then gave Strider an oddly solemn stare. "What about Sam and Frodo? And Boromir?"
Which brought them round again to painful memories, and Aragorn shook his head in swift decision. "No time for news yet. We must find the others and see them safely out of this place," said he as he rose.
"Oh, I wouldn't worry too much. Bregalad says that the trees only care about the orcs and others of Saruman's foul brood. If the men stay where they are, or at least don't hurt the trees, the Huorns will move on and leave them alone ere the night is done," Merry replied.
"These here," Pippin gestured about to the swaying trees. "Not really Ents, but not asleep either. Bregalad and some of the others are keeping watch, and they're doing all they can to make certain that nothing happens to the Men of Rohan. These are Rohirrim, I take it?"
"They are. I fear, though, that they are not familiar with forests at all. Best we seek them, for I would not have anyone, Ent or Man or Huorn, hurt over a mistake," Aragorn replied, feeling a sense of grim foreboding pulse through him. Glancing down once more at the hobbits, he added, "I fear I left Pippin's dagger in an orc earlier, but here is yours, Merry. You may need it yet."
Merry accepted his Barrow-blade with a soft snort, as if of amazement, and he nodded his thanks up at the tall Man. "Thank you. I never did think to see this again. Well, shall we?"
"Let us go!"
Legolas ducked gracefully beneath a low-hanging branch, trailing his fingers along the bark of the tree. Sensuous, the feel of that wood beneath his palm, and the Elf sighed softly. Were it not for their wrath, their pain and hatred, he could have listened to their voices for an eternity without ever tiring of them. Even Mirkwood is not thus! There, the trees dream diffusely, glad with the passing of seasons. Like children they are, but these… Ah, now I begin to understand the grief of the Sindar of Doriath!
But he could not tarry long in such thoughts, for he had a task to attend to and a friend to find. For of one thing he was certain: Gimli would not appreciate Fangorn's wonders, not without an interpreter. And Legolas began to grow once more uneasy, for now that he felt he had the measure of the shadow of Fangorn, he grew more conscious of the pulse of Darkness once more. Once more… or has it ever truly withdrawn? Saruman's crafting, I thought it, and that seems to me still correct. Yet… yet at the same time, ought it not to lighten, now that his army and puppet are defeated? The bad moments he had had on the heights, as he and Aragorn had retreated in the face of their enemies came back to him, and he wondered at that sudden resurgence of weakness. Even now, he could feel it hunting him, and only an effort of will and the need to find Gimli and Éomer kept it at bay. Once he had the opportunity, he knew he would need to rest. Yet faced with such Darkness, I fear to dream too deeply, for I remember well my nightmares!
Pausing a moment, the prince of Mirkwood considered his surroundings. As he had charged with Théoden and the forces of the inner keep, he had not known where Gimli and Éomer might have been in all of the confusion. Aragorn, though, would have a better idea of where to look, and so Legolas closed his eyes, listening. Elvish ears soon picked through the competing voices of trees, orcs, Dunlendings, Rohirrim, and the steady beat of rain to distinguish a familiar voice…
West! Blinking his eyes open once more, he called out, "Aragorn!" And after a moment, a sharp, high-pitched whistle came back at him, causing the Elf to smile slightly for the other's sense of the moment. Pursing his lips, he whistled the appropriate call back and headed towards the sound.
It took perhaps ten minutes and quite a few whistle-calls for the pair to find each other, but when at last Legolas caught sight of the Ranger, he called out once more, "Aragorn! Where—" And then stopped dead as Merry and Pippin smiled up at him. "But… you…" he stammered in a most un-elvish manner, staring wide-eyed. Neither Aragorn nor Gimli had said aught of the hobbits since their return from Fangorn. In all fairness, there had been little time for tales, but the Elf had sensed a deliberate avoidance of the issue, and the hobbits' conspicuous absence had been answer enough to any question that he might have asked. Now though…
"You thought we were dead, yes, we know. 'Twas not as if we didn't fear the same of you!" Pippin replied, filling in the awkward pauses. Beyond them, Legolas sensed the glow of Aragorn's almost painful relief and he knew that the Dúnadan was smiling as the prince knelt down to stare (almost) at eye-level at the two hobbits.
Aragorn, indeed, was smiling as he watched this latest reunion, but his quick ears caught sound of yet another call, one that seemed oddly close at hand. Cocking his head, he listened intently, and after but a moment, it came again. "Aragorn?"
"Éomer?" Glancing back once at the Elf and hobbits, the Ranger decided that they would do well enough alone for a short time, and left them to themselves as he hurried off towards the sound of his name. And indeed, the other was quite close, although the trees about him seemed unusually active, shifting about and forcing Aragorn to turn out of his way several times to avoid them.
At last, though, he ducked around a stand of them and came to a small clearing of sorts, lit but dimly by fire light. We must be close to the edge of the forest… or to an edge, I suppose! Huddled at the center was Éomer, the Third Marshal looking dazed and in pain, and Aragorn's eyes narrowed at the bleary look that Éomund's son cast up at him. Concussion, perhaps… or just a bad blow to the head… And then his eyes went to the figure that lay at his side.
"Valar!" he fairly spat as he came quickly to kneel across from Éomer. "Has he moved?" Does he even breathe? Gimli…
"Nay… nay, Aragorn," Éomer caught his wrist as the Ranger reached to examine the Dwarf, and his second 'nay' was less an answer than a command. Haggard, exhausted blue eyes met his, and Aragorn felt something in him cringe before the certainty in them. For Éomer was a warrior, and he had seen friends and comrades fall to the enemy: he knew death when he looked upon it.
"'Twas an accident… he tried to help me, but struck one of the trees and it…" The younger man closed his eyes, gritting his teeth as if against pain. "He could not have felt much: the impact broke his back in two places. There was naught to be done for him. There is naught you can do for him now," Éomer concluded, opening his eyes once more to gaze pityingly at Aragorn. The Ranger lowered his eyes, feeling the darkness press close about him as his relief evaporated in a heartbeat, to be replaced with grief. "I am sorry beyond words, my friend. If I could have prevented it… if I had had my wits about me… I am sorry!"
A Sindarin curse startled him, but Aragorn could not muster more than a resigned look over his shoulder to see Legolas standing there, apparently having followed him. The hobbits trailed after him, and he saw the dread question in their faces. Desperately, the Ranger wished he could reassure them, but he could say nothing, only stare. Legolas, though, had no need to question, for he knew: it was written in his face and a horror filled those green eyes such as Aragorn had never thought to see.
The Elf came slowly forward, eyes fixed on the body, and he dropped to his knees beside the Dúnadan. Deft fingers reached out to trace the contours of the still face, then withdrew as the prince set his hands precisely upon his thighs and bowed his head. "Legolas," Aragorn murmured softly, aching for the other's loss even as he mourned his own. No response came, and the Ranger gently touched the Elf's shoulder. "Legolas…"
A shiver ran through the other's frame, and with a suddenness that shocked them all, the Elf threw his head back and keened. Of all the races of Arda, no others had voices to match an Elf's, and the Men flinched back from the sound. In after years, it would be remembered, for some friendships are not forgetten though hope fade to ashes. High, yet not shrill, Legolas's lament pierced the night, and the haunting beauty of a prince's grief was the more powerful for the agony that inspired that awful descant. Above the trees it floated, and Men stood still, fearful, wondering; even the few surviving orcs cowered, and the Huorns rocked in concert. All Edoras heard that cry, and the rain fell down like tears.
And into the Silence, there came a Note. One Note…
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