14. A Fine Line
Merry wondered how long he and Legolas had been wandering. The cave system they navigated—or tried to navigate—might easily pass as a giant labyrinth with the ability to confound and confuse even a stout dwarf like Gimli, to say nothing of a hobbit from the Shire and an elf from the forests. During one of their few hushed conversations, Legolas had even admitted to Merry that they’d traced two complete circles immediately following their initial venture out of the cell, but the hobbit had no idea how Legolas had been able to tell. To him, all the cave walls were beginning to look the same, and the only difference from one area to the next was the different dance of the fire in the wall sconces. Yet Legolas had assured Merry that he was mentally mapping their course and now had a fairly good idea of the cave’s layout around their prison cell. For the last hour or so—the hobbit had begun to lose track of time as everything continued to look the same—the elf had promised him that they were making significant progress.
Which means what? Merry wondered, watching Legolas wearily as the elf slid cautiously around a corner and checked to see if there were guards about. Since leaving their cell, neither elf nor hobbit had seen or heard any sign of Orcs or the Mouth of Sauron, and this was beginning to set Merry on edge. Legolas might believe that they were making significant progress, but what if they were only significantly progressing their way straight into a trap? I suppose the fact that we’re walking into it with our eyes open is something, Merry decided. But a trap is still a trap, and I don’t want to be put back in that cell again.
A light touch on the hobbit’s shoulder drew his attention back to the present, and he looked up as Legolas nodded slightly, the signal that meant the way was clear for now. But watching the elf closely, Merry was beginning to detect a vague uneasiness in the prince’s gray eyes. It had taken quite a while to notice it, but as they continued to travel and also continued to meet no resistance, Merry became more and more certain that Legolas even more unnerved by this than he was. Their listening stops had become longer and more frequent, turning corners was becoming a far more cautious process, and the elf’s hands kept straying to his back as though searching for his bow and quiver. These were interesting signs that Merry had noticed over the course of their wanderings, and he found them to be a series of fascinating insights into the elf’s mind. But this was neither the time nor the place to be musing about such things, and the hobbit firmly shook his head free of superfluous thoughts as he followed Legolas into their new hallway.
At last, Merry saw definitive signs of change. There was no doubt in his mind that this was new and promising territory. Countless smaller tunnels branched away from this particular hall, and the hall itself was half again as wide as all their previous tunnels. There were also more torches lining the walls, and the arch of the ceiling overhead was so high as to be beyond the light of the flames. Merry looked hopefully at Legolas, and the elf nodded in response, though his eyes were cautious. Dropping down to one knee, he beckoned Merry close and leaned over to whisper quietly in the hobbit’s ear.
"If my reckoning is correct—and I pray that it is—we are not far from the entrance of these foul caves. This tunnel appears to be a main thoroughfare, and it should take us outside. But here we must be especially cautious. I know not why we have met with no guard, and I fear what they may have in store for us. Yet whatever the consequences be, we can ill afford to ignore any chance of escape."
"We’ll make it through," Merry hissed back, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt. A strange reluctance was coming over him at the prospect of braving this corridor, but he knew not from whence this feeling came.
"Together," Legolas promised, placing a hand on the hobbit’s shoulder and squeezing quickly. "Together we shall flee this place."
Merry nodded and the elf smiled, but the smile did not exactly transmit confidence. To the hobbit’s observant eyes, it seemed strained and forced as though the elf was wearing a mask to cover his true feelings. At this thought, Merry’s hope began to die, but he mustered his brightest return smile and Legolas seemed satisfied. Rising, the elf turned and they began inching their way down the hall.
By now, Merry was used to the tedious process that Legolas had insisted they use while traversing these dark caves, but that didn’t mean he enjoyed it. Though he easily understood the reasoning behind their extreme caution, it was still a frustrating procedure. Elf and hobbit would walk forward for a few minutes and then pause to listen. This took another minute or so and then they would move again. Whenever they came to an off-shooting tunnel, they would stop until Legolas was certain that the way was clear. They moved quickly when they did move, but the periods of waiting seemed to stretch so long that Merry occasionally wondered if they were truly moving anywhere at all. At this rate, it might well take them several years to find the entrance.
So lost in thought was the hobbit that he didn’t see Legolas stop in front of him, and he ran full into the back of the elf. Staggering backwards with a slight grunt, he was about to send the prince a dark glare when a hand clapped over his mouth and he was shoved up against the wall.
"Do not make a sound," Legolas breathed, his voice so quiet that Merry could barely make out the words. Not daring to even move, the hobbit held completely still, wondering what could have triggered the elf’s acute senses. Legolas still had him pinned to the wall and his hand had not released the hobbit’s mouth, but Merry didn’t struggle. After a long minute of waiting, Legolas relaxed marginally and let the hobbit down.
"What happened?" Merry asked, making his voice as soft and quiet as possible.
"We are not alone," Legolas whispered, his large, gray eyes searching the caverns around them. "We are being watched."
"Orcs?" Merry wondered fearfully, his own eyes wide as he tried to pierce the tunnel’s dark shadows.
"I know not, though I suspect it is so. In any case, the watchers hold naught but malice for us. And yet our progress is unhindered. They are content merely to watch." Legolas fell silent, his eyes narrow and his jaw tight. "I like this not, Merry," he murmured at length. "They have planned something, and by pursuing our course, we but oblige them."
"But what else can we do?"
"Naught, but we must further increase our caution. Something dark and fell is intended, and we are to be the unfortunate recipients."
Merry could have easily figured that out on his own—in fact, he already had—but he didn’t tell Legolas that. The elf was on pins and needles, and the hobbit felt a flash of pity for him. The fact that they were still in the caves couldn’t be helping, and Legolas seemed to be far more sensitive to this darkness than his hobbit companion was. "So what happens next?" Merry asked. "Can we lose them?"
The elf grimaced and slowly shook his head. "I know not how to lose them when I know not who or what observes us. But we cannot tarry here, that much is certain." Legolas lifted his head and closed his eyes, holding perfectly still for some time, and Merry began to wonder if Legolas had forgotten what he’d just said about not tarrying. But just before the hobbit could remind him of his words, Legolas opened his eyes and turned. "I smell fresh air."
"Fresh air?" Merry echoed hopefully. "That means we’re close. We’re very close."
"Hush," Legolas hissed, suddenly moving into a crouch. "The enemy is drawing closer. I feel him, yet I cannot see him." The prince’s eyes narrowed, and his breathing seemed to become rapid. "I fear, Merry, that we have exhausted what time we may have been given."
"Then let’s go!" Merry urged. "Let’s move out before they move in."
The elf sighed and shook his head. "It may already be too late, but we must take what chances fate and fortune grant us. Come, Merry. Run!"
Legolas took off down the corridor, caution now thrown to the wind. Rather surprised with this abrupt change in tactics, Merry’s heart began to sink even as he raced after the elf’s fleeting form. If Legolas saw no more use for caution, they were in trouble. But at the same time, Merry realized there was nothing he could do about it, and so he pumped his legs faster and tried to keep up.
Skidding around a corner, a shaft of sunlight suddenly caught Merry’s eyes and hope flared brightly within him. It was day outside! They might still be able to escape! Tears of joy filled his eyes, and at that moment, the hobbit decided he had never seen anything more beautiful than the beams of sunlight shining through the entrance to the caves. His eyes could not see anything beyond the cave itself as the light was too bright for that, but he could see the light and that was enough. With a sob of relief, he surged forward, almost stumbling in his haste to escape the caverns of the Orcs.
But his joy was short-lived, for not more than a few seconds after seeing the light of the outside world, a sudden wave of fear and nausea swept through the hobbit. He stumbled and fell, recoiling from the brightness of day as darkness swept over his mind and forced him back. He heard Legolas cry out and curse bitterly, but Merry didn’t have time to worry about the elf or even answer him. He was facing a realm of shadows within his own mind, and he was losing the battle to maintain control. Where had this sudden darkness come from?! His thoughts had been his own a moment ago, yet now…
With a pitiful whimper, Merry tried to force himself forward toward the light, but his body refused to respond. Phantom pain beat down upon him as the darkness called to mind the now-healed tortures of the Orcs, and a strange fear of leaving the cave and betraying the darkness caused the hobbit to cower back against the wall.
"Legolas?" he hissed, clutching at his head as throbbing agony exploded behind his eyes.
"Run, Merry! By the Valar, run!"
The hobbit managed to look over at the elf, who was sprawled on the floor much as the hobbit was. "What is happening to us? Why can’t we leave?"
"Try. You must try," Legolas growled, pushing himself off the ground and turning his head toward the sunlight. But even as he did so, he cried out and shuddered, sinking back and covering his eyes.
"A worthy attempt, my friends. A very worthy attempt. But alas, it was ultimately doomed to fail."
Merry froze, his heart nearly stopping as he recognized that voice. Raising his eyes, he shivered as he looked into the madness of the soul now known as the Mouth of Sauron. He tried to speak, to spit, to scream, to run, to do anything! But his traitorous body seemed unable to respond, and he lay there helpless before the man who was no longer quite a man.
"What did you do?" Legolas rasped as he struggled to move away from the creature of darkness.
"I? I did nothing. It was you who did it, elfling," the man answered, his voice quiet and far too confident for Merry’s liking. "It was you who invited the darkness into your soul. You allowed it to heal you. You gave it space in your mind for it to right what your brethren the Orcs set wrong."
"Shadows have no claim over me," Legolas declared harshly, making one final attempt to lunge forward but falling heavily to the ground as soon as he raised himself off the floor.
"Don’t they? We shall see. Oh yes, we shall soon see. Now, let us return you and your small friend to the deeper caverns where the light of day shall not torment you so. I have many more lessons yet to teach you, and time presses on."
With a last desperate effort, Merry threw himself forward, hoping to somehow flee this place. But even as he moved, his legs collapsed beneath him and his mind screamed in terror at the darkness that threatened to consume him should he take one more step. Crying out in frustration, Merry beat his fist upon the ground, desperate for the will to move, but it did not come. Instead, he felt the cold hands of Orcs upon his arms, and he was lifted into the air and turned around. The light of day faded behind him and with it faded the hope in his heart. Before long, all was darkness.
* * * *
And I believed that keeping all the councilors in Minas Tirith happy was a chore, Aragorn sighed. The king of Gondor was straddling the limb of a large tree while bracing Elladan’s head and shoulders. At the same time, Elladan’s twin was driving himself mad with worry. It was a rather unique situation, and had the circumstances been different, Aragorn might have found it vastly amusing.
Shortly following the Orcs’ retreat, Elladan had collapsed and the elves had pulled him up into the trees. Trailing after them, Aragorn had attempted to rouse his foster brother but had met with no success. Neither had he met with any success as far as his efforts went to calm Elrohir. To add to the problem, Gimli was still on the ground and demanding that they continue to follow the trail of the Orcs. Interestingly enough, these demands were being echoed by Thranduil, though both the king of Mirkwood and the dwarf refused to acknowledge that at the moment they were of very similar minds.
But fortunately for Aragorn, Thranduil and Gimli seemed to have disappeared for the time being, leaving the king of Gondor alone with the twins. Aragorn wasn’t sure where the two had gone, but so long as there were no sounds of battle, he could safely assume that Thranduil and Gimli had parted ways and were not seeking to kill one another. That was one less thing for Aragorn to worry about, but this brief reprieve was beginning to seem like less and less of a blessing as Elrohir became more and more of a problem. The anxious son of Elrond was turning into a difficulty bigger than the one presented by having both Gimli and Thranduil on the same search team.
"Elrohir, leave off your pacing!" Aragorn finally exclaimed, unable to take any more brotherly worry. He held the same fear himself, but he was not allowing it to drive him from branch to branch in a most unseemly display of impatience. Elves did not pace, and Elrohir’s visible anxiety was only escalating the feeling of fear and uncertainty in Aragorn.
Looking up when his name was called, Elrohir blinked, glanced about in confusion as though unaware that he had been pacing, and eventually sighed. "My apologies, Estel. I fear I am not currently myself."
"Understandable," Aragorn answered, biting back a rather scathing retort with effort. "But please try to contain your pacing to a single branch, or even two if one will not serve."
"I shall try to cease pacing altogether," Elrohir promised, moving behind Aragorn and bending over the king so as to better inspect his twin brother. "How does he fare?"
"I believe he shall regain consciousness soon, for he seems to be stirring slightly. But as for what consciousness means, I cannot say. His collapse was sudden, though not entirely unexpected. He was showing signs of this even before the Orcs attacked."
"My brother always was too perceptive for his own good," Elrohir sighed. "I fear such a close study of the shadow upon the ground was more than he could bear." The half-elf fell silent, but he remained a steady presence over Aragorn’s shoulder. Aragorn wondered if this was an improvement over the pacing.
"Perhaps you should speak with your captains," the king suggested at length. "Mayhap they have some insight into the battle that we have not considered."
"And by that, you mean I should leave you alone and find something that will occupy my time," Elrohir retorted. "I am not a fool, Estel. I can see through your words, and beyond that, I know you too well for you to lie to me."
"Then if you know me as well as you say, you will also know that I am uncomfortable with you hovering over my shoulder. Allow me some room to breathe, and show your brother the same courtesy!"
Elrohir made a sound that could have been a laugh and stepped back, hopping onto a limb above Aragorn and moving until he was directly over Elladan. "Once again, my apologies. I realize that I am being difficult, yet I know not what else to do. I have already spoken to the captains, we cannot follow the trail until Elladan recovers or you leave off tending him, and Gimli and Thranduil have disappeared which means no one must act as a buffer between them. I have nothing to occupy my time."
"I understand your problem," Aragorn answered. "But that still gives you no pressing cause to stare over my shoulder at your brother."
"I am no longer staring over your shoulder at my brother," Elrohir said. "I trust this position will be suitable for you?"
"So long as you do not start pacing again."
Elrohir smiled and nodded, turning his eyes to Elladan’s face and watching his brother closely. "This alters the situation, Estel," he said after a quiet minute or two. "Given the effects of the darkness upon Elladan, he cannot be allowed to stay here for any great length of time. And I doubt that we can allow him to merely watch the search from the trees, for you know that he will wish to involve himself in whatever goes forth upon the ground."
"You speak truly, Elrohir," Aragorn sighed, having already considered the problem. "I fear our only viable option is to send him back to Rivendell. How that is to be accomplished, though, is something I cannot fathom. He will not go willingly."
"Then let us give him greater excuse to take his leave," Elrohir suggested. "Not all are necessary upon this search, even if the Orcs attack again. We suffered no casualties from the last assault and can easily spare some of the scouts and guards. Let us say that we are establishing a search rotation. Some shall retire and spend the night in Rivendell while others continue the hunt. Then the two parties shall make an exchange come morning. In this way, Estel, even you might find sleep, for having received rest, Elladan should be able to trail the Orcs for a time without suffering too greatly and you may retire."
"A good idea," Aragorn said, nodding thoughtfully. "But whom shall we send back to Rivendell? None here will wish to go."
"If nothing else, I suggest we separate Gimli and Thranduil," Elrohir said, lowering his voice and glancing about the trees for the king of Mirkwood. "We can ill afford to have both of them in the party. If they are not attacking one another, they are raising the tension within the group. They are too close to the situation for objective thought, and though they are more than entitled to participate in the search, it would be safer if they did so separately."
"And for those same reasons, the hobbits should also be sent back," Aragorn added. "Or Pippin, at least, and Sam has his family to think of. But I am curious, Elrohir, as to how we shall convince either Thranduil or Gimli that they need to retire and return to Rivendell for the night."
"Ah, but we shall not be doing the convincing. That task falls to you, dear brother."
Aragorn blinked and stared at the half-elf. "Somewhere in the course of this conversation, I believe you have left me behind. Explain to me why I shall be the one doing the convincing."
"Because I shall be focusing my arguments on Elladan. You are then tasked with selecting others to accompany him. Elves and your own men are easy enough, for they are at our command. But Gimli, Pippin, and Sam…that is another matter. And if I were you, Estel, I would not speak to Thranduil concerning this. I do not think he likes you."
Aragorn rolled his eyes and shook his head. "My thanks for the insight. I might never have discovered that on my own."
"You are welcome, of course."
Aragorn’s ensuing search for a suitable response to Elrohir’s elven smugness was interrupted by a groan from Elladan as he started to stir. Bending over his foster brother, Aragorn lightly patted his cheek and called to him. "Elladan? Elladan, it is time to wake."
Elladan murmured something too quiet for even elven ears and began to move restlessly, prompting Aragorn to capture his arms while Elrohir jumped down and took hold of his feet lest their brother fall from the tree.
"Elladan!" Elrohir called. "Come, my brother, open your eyes. The darkness is below you now. You need not fear it."
With another groan, Elladan ceased his struggles and the lids of his eyes began to flutter. After a breathless moment, bright, blue eyes opened and the oldest son of Elrond glanced about. Aragorn released his grip on Elladan’s arms, though he kept one hand on his shoulder should his support be needed. Elrohir moved back and watched intently, waiting for a sign that his brother was well.
"What happened?" Elladan eventually asked, blinking rapidly as though trying to clear his vision.
"We were beset by Orcs and then you collapsed," Aragorn answered gently. "Do you remember aught?"
"I…I remember the Orcs," Elladan murmured, closing his eyes. "And then the darkness seemed to grow. There were whispers of…of turning back and shunning the light of day. Whispers of how one could not leave the caverns."
Elrohir frowned and looked questioningly at Aragorn, but the king of Gondor could only shrug in response. With a slight grimace of concern, Elrohir leaped onto a branch above and indicated that Aragorn should move back. With a nod, Aragorn obliged and eased away from Elladan, enabling Elrohir to leap down directly behind his brother.
"Come, Elladan, let us see if you can stand. And then there are things about which we must speak. Estel and I have discussed the possibility of a rotation for the searchers."
Seeing that he was no longer needed, Aragorn turned around and moved to the trunk of the tree, climbing down it cautiously. Much of his childhood had been spent in the trees of Imladris, but even with this to back him, Aragorn had not an elf’s skill in the heights and care was required. He had fallen too many times and endured too many jibes from watching elves to not know that.
At length he was back on the ground, and he winced as the shadows swirled to greet him. He’d heard Orophin offer to take the hobbits and Gimli up into the trees while they regrouped after the attack, but Gimli had refused while Merry and Pippin elected to stay with the dwarf for the time being. Aragorn supposed such a thing was only to be expected. Even Legolas had never managed to coax Gimli into a tree after they’d left Lórien, though certainly not for want of trying.
"Are we ready to move forward again?"
Speaking of Gimli… Aragorn closed his eyes, attempted to achieve a state of mind that would be conducive to persuasion, and eventually gave up when the darkness around him continued to cloud his thoughts. Deciding he would have to do without, he turned to the dwarf and braced himself. "Soon, my friend, but I fear that not all of us shall be moving forward together."
"An advance party," Gimli said with an immediate nod, his eyes flashing with fury. "I shall join. Let the Orcs who attacked our group know the fury of a dwarven axe. There shall be none of them left to weary and slow our search."
"No, we are not sending out an advance party," Aragorn said, glancing around for the hobbits. Spotting them a few yards away, he beckoned them over and wondered if Elrohir would trade duties with him. It might be easier after all to convince Elladan to go back than it would be to convince Gimli.
"How is Elladan?" Sam asked.
"He is recovering, but I fear the darkness is taking a great toll upon his mind. His time spent in it while striving to understand and comprehend its secrets has dealt him a grievous blow, and he must be sent back to Rivendell for a bit so that he might recover. Elrohir and I believe he should stay the night and then return in the morning, relieving myself and those with me. In this way, we will be better rested when we come upon the lair of these foul creatures."
As he had spoken, Aragorn’s eyes had kept straying to Gimli’s face, watching for signs of a reaction. And Gimli had not failed to give him one. The dwarf’s eyes were hard as steel, his face was tinged with red as fury began to build within him, and his hands were clenched so tightly around the haft of his axe that his knuckles had turned white. "I am not going back."
"You want us to go back?" Pippin suddenly questioned, looking as though the conversation had escaped him entirely. "But you just said that Elladan was the one who needed to rest."
"We all need to rest, Pippin," Aragorn explained. "The search cannot be abandoned and we must be ready to repel any further attacks, but I do not think we are near the Orcs’ lair yet, for it would be folly for them to linger so close to Rivendell even with this cloak of darkness to protect them. As such, we do not need our full force in attendance, for we are not likely to encounter any group of enemies greater than the one we so recently defeated. And since not all of us are needed here, it seems only prudent that some should seek rest while it can be obtained."
"I am not going back," Gimli repeated, his voice hard and uncompromising.
"Elladan needs to return," Aragorn continued, ignoring Gimli for the moment and focusing his words on the hobbits in the hopes that they might understand. "Half of the elves shall return with him. I will stay to follow the trail, and Elrohir will stay to command the forces along with Thranduil. You three, on the other hand, should return to Rivendell for the night and then join me again in the morning."
"You may command the forces of Gondor, Aragorn, but you do not command me," Gimli growled. The dwarf was visibly livid with the idea that he might abandon the search for Legolas and Merry, and his face was turning a rather strange shade of red. Not that Aragorn blamed him, for he knew his own reluctance would probably get in the way come morning when Elladan returned. With a shake of his head, the king of Gondor sighed and turned his attention back to Gimli, attempting to gather rationale that the dwarf would understand.
"If you do not rest now, Master Dwarf, then you will need rest later. And later may be the time when Legolas’s escape is at hand. I would not have you—"
"I will take my own counsel in matters relating to my health," the dwarf snapped. "And I say that I am perfectly capable of continuing the search."
"Gimli, I implore you not to argue this," Aragorn sighed. "It is doubtful that we shall get far tonight, and a weary axe is no weapon against evil. We will need you rested. And if you require further reasons, my friend, tempers are running high. Your presence is not helping, particularly where a certain elven king is concerned."
"If the elves cannot tolerate the presence of a dwarf, that is not my concern. I have allowed for their inadequacies throughout this search, and I see no reason why they cannot make room for a dwarf who is ready to avenge the capture of his friends."
"Gimli!" Aragorn said sharply with a glance upward to see which elven ears might be hearkening to this conversation. "Gimli, listen to me very carefully. You are not needed here. And not only are you not needed but you make the situation worse. It is difficult enough to follow a trail hidden by darkness. We do not need the distractions that dissension and internal arguments will provide."
A tense silence fell, and king and dwarf stared at one another for several long minutes, striving for a dominance of wills and finding that neither could gain against the other. Aragorn dimly sensed Pippin and Sam backing away as though fearful of being caught in a fight. And perhaps they are not wrong to fear such a fight, for Gimli’s hands are upon his axe and I seem to be clutching Andúril, Aragorn realized, wondering if the darkness that swirled about them might not be responsible for this sudden breakdown in a rather strong friendship. With effort, the king released his sword and forced himself to relax his stance, watching Gimli closely and challenging the dwarf to do the same.
Fortunately for Aragorn, the gamble paid off. Gimli suddenly blinked and passed a hand over his eyes as though waking from a deep sleep. His axe clattered to the ground where it was immediately seized upon by tendrils of darkness and hidden from sight. Gimli and Aragorn watched together with a mixture of fascination and horror as the cloud appeared to become violent as though it was angry. For a moment it seemed that it had formed into something tangible and solid, capable of dealing physical blows. And then it dissipated, returning to its former state.
"My apologies," Gimli murmured, starting to bend over and retrieve the axe but hesitating before his hand could submerge itself in the darkness. "I had not realized the danger."
"You see now?" Aragorn questioned gently, still rattled by the incident. "Valar, even I am affected. This is why we must begin to rotate the searchers. It would be folly if we were to all stay."
"I do not wish to abandon the hunt," Gimli muttered, but his voice was now uncertain.
"None do," Aragorn assured him. "And you do not abandon the hunt, for others carry on in your absence. You merely take a much needed break and return refreshed with your strength ready should it be needed. Gimli, you can better help Legolas by resting now. We will not find him tonight, nor is it likely that we shall find him tomorrow. The search goes too slowly for that, and my heart tells me that the lair of these foul creatures is still far away. Rest, son of Glóin. And if you do it not for yourself, then do it for your friends."
There was a long silence during which Gimli looked away out into the darkness. Aragorn waited tensely, hoping that his words could convince the stubborn dwarf and wondering if Elrohir was finding Elladan to be this difficult.
At length, Gimli shuddered and nodded slightly. "If you counsel rest, far be it from me to dispute your wisdom," the dwarf said quietly.
Aragorn snorted. "You have disputed my wisdom often in the past, Master Dwarf."
"The council of a man is sometimes strange to the mind of a dwarf," Gimli answered with a shrug and a slight smile. Bending over, he hastily retrieved his axe and straightened quickly. "When do we depart back to Rivendell?"
"Now wait a minute," Pippin interrupted. "You might be going back, but that doesn’t mean that I am."
Aragorn released a silent groan and turned to the hobbit. He had expected problems with Gimli, but he hadn’t expected Pippin to also refuse returning. "As a knight of Gondor, Peregrin Took, you are technically bound to—"
"Don’t!" Pippin interrupted, his eyes flashing. "Don’t even think about ordering me back. Even you can’t do that. Merry needs me and I—"
"Merry needs you with your wits intact, or as intact as they ever are," Sam broke in unexpectedly. "I’m going back to see Rosie and make sure all is well with her. You’re going back to make sure you don’t crack like a nut."
Pippin blinked and Gimli stepped to his side, placing a hand on the young hobbit’s shoulder. "If I can take a moment to rest, you can also take a moment," the dwarf said. "And we will return at dawn to continue the hunt. Tomorrow will be soon enough for us, my friend."
Pippin’s face went through a variety of expressions, most of which Aragorn couldn’t even begin to decipher, and then the hobbit nodded reluctantly. "Just for tonight, though," he said. "And only because we’re still so far away. But this search better get faster or you’ll all have to answer to me."
At any other time, the hobbit’s statement might have been highly amusing. But at the moment, with the situation what it was, Aragorn saw no humor and he solemnly nodded in answer to Pippin’s threat. "I shall do everything in my power to see that Merry and Legolas are found quickly. Have no fear of that, Master Peregrin. They are my friends as well."
"I know," Pippin sighed. "And I’m sorry, but—"
"Peace," Aragorn assured him. "All is forgiven." The king of Gondor flashed the hobbit a reassuring smile and then stepped back, glancing once into the trees. "Gather what things you brought with you and prepare to depart. You shall start back once Elladan is able to travel."
"He is able now," a voice called down, and Elrohir dropped into view, followed by Elladan, who looked less than pleased at this turn of events. "I have also divided the elven forces and spoken briefly with King Thranduil. Those that were selected to return are prepared." Elrohir then looked expectantly at Elladan, who sighed and shook his head.
"This goes against the yearnings of my heart," he muttered. "But since it seems you have all conspired against me, I have little choice. Take care, Estel. This darkness affects even you."
"I shall watch myself," Aragorn promised.
"And I shall also watch him," Elrohir added. "Now, it is time for you to take your leave of us, brother. Or must I escort you back into safer lands?"
Elladan glared at his twin, but there was weary acceptance in his face and he quickly turned away. "Come," he said, addressing his words to elves in the trees as well as Gimli, Pippin, and Sam upon the ground. "I wish to make the Ford by nightfall and so ensure that this foolish division serves at least some purpose."
"I think you had the more difficult task," Aragorn murmured to Elrohir as the company moved off, with Elladan staying low enough in the trees that Gimli, Pippin, and Sam could follow his movements.
"The decision was ill to receive, but I overheard part of your discussion and I would dispute that observation," Elrohir returned, leaping out of the tree so that he stood next to his foster brother. "Elladan is stubborn, but I believe Gimli is worse."
"To say nothing of Pippin," Aragorn added.
A clearing throat above caught their attention, and both looked up as the stately form of King Thranduil revealed itself. "Are we prepared yet to continue the search, Elrohir?"
Elrohir sighed and looked over at Aragorn. Aragorn nodded slightly and turned away, moving toward the area where they had last sensed the trail. He could hear Elrohir answering the king of Mirkwood, but he blocked their voices from his mind. Thranduil was not going to be pleased that their search now relied almost exclusively on Aragorn’s judgement. But Elrohir was reluctant to drop his mental shields and expose himself to the darkness as was necessary to do in order to sense the trail, and all other elves felt likewise. Aragorn and Elladan had been alone in tracking the Orcs, and now it was solely up to Aragorn. Perhaps now is the time to show Thranduil the worth of a mortal, Aragorn mused quietly, placing a hand upon a tree and preparing to brace himself. Or perhaps now is simply a time to ignore him. And with this final thought, Aragorn cleared his mind and lowered the guards that had been in place ever since he was a child in Rivendell.
Shadows and evil, as tangible as any physical shape, swept toward him and Aragorn stood his mental ground, preparing for their attack. This task did not become easier as time went on, but at least it became more of a routine and the initial fear in facing such darkness had died away. Aragorn grunted as the first wave of shadow slammed into his mind, and he squeezed his eyes shut as he willed it to part around him, separating the darkness much as the darkness wished to separate him. This was not unlike the battle he had fought with Sauron over the palantír, but fortunately the evil he now faced was not quite as focused as Sauron’s powers had been. It was for this reason and this reason alone that Aragorn was able to stand against it time and time again.
The second wave of shadow had now reached him, and he parted it as he had done with the first wave, sweeping it away from his mind. Before the third wave could gather itself together for another attack, Aragorn reached within himself and willed the might of Númenor and the powers of his lineage to strike first, creating a light in the darkness where before there had been none. And for a brief moment, ere the shadows could coalesce and obscure reality, the trail of the Orcs became visible.
Slamming his shields up again and shutting himself off from the mists of darkness, Aragorn took a deep breath and opened his eyes.
Aragorn nodded slightly and felt himself braced by strong hands as Elrohir moved to better support him. "Southeast," he murmured, turning his head in the direction of the Orc’s trail. "For perhaps two miles, it runs straight with no sign of turning. We may follow it that far before checking it again."
"I will send the other elves ahead while you recover," Elrohir answered. "Will you be able to endure this on your own for the rest of the night?"
"I must," Aragorn sighed, rubbing his head. "What other choice have we?"
"None, but we need not move so quickly if you have need of rest."
"I may have need of rest, but what needs press upon Legolas and Merry? Nay, Elrohir, their plight is far worse than mine shall ever be. We must make haste, or I fear it will be too late."
"Then lean upon me, Estel, if you insist on this course," Elrohir ordered, pulling Aragorn’s arm over his broad shoulders and locking his own arm around the king’s waist. Too tired to put up a sustained protest and knowing he would need all of his resources for the next confrontation with the darkness, Aragorn reluctantly allowed Elrohir’s assistance. Thus together, half-elf and king, they moved forward through clinging shadows as night drew its cover over all.
Author’s Notes: Once again, HUGE thanks go out to all the reviewers, but this time I would like to highlight a few special thanks. One goes out to Jocelyn for her nominations. Another goes out to Ithilien, who keeps me going on this story by sheer enthusiasm alone. I don’t think this chapter would have been done this quickly without her help. Also Mari, who now returns to the review boards with the usual novel-length reviews that are SO helpful. I’ve missed you! Also to Nimue, who has revealed that the Mouth of Sauron’s real name is actually Ted. ;) And finally, Elaine, who dissects every story and sends her comments to me via email.
And thanks go out to everyone else. I wish I had time to respond to each of you personally, but sadly, that’s just not possible. Anyway, thanks again and I hope you enjoy this latest chapter!!!
Also, for those wondering, "Fear No Darkness" happens five years after the War of the Ring, while "Land of Light and Shadows" takes place seven years after it. And the two stories are loosely joined, something that will become more evident in later chapters. But reading one is by no means a requirement for reading the other!
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.