5. The Eve of the Shadow
His back to the rest of the company, Legolas watched the moon weave a glowing path across the waves as they swirled and rolled, dancing an endless dance to an ageless song. With very little effort, the elf could imagine them lapping against the sides of a gray ship, teasing it into deeper waters and sending it onward to a land without death. The sea called to him and his heart leaped to respond. It filled his mind, captured his soul, and whispered forgotten words in his ear. The rest of the world dimmed and paled in contrast to its vastness. Middle Earth was as a tiny grain of sand, caught helplessly in the ocean that controlled and mastered all. Nothing mattered but the sea. It was everything. It was starlight and moonlight. It was forests and deserts. It was life and death. In the end, the eternal sea was all that stood against time. If he could but catch a tiny piece of its infinite glory, Legolas felt that his existence would be complete. Come, it seemed to whisper. Come and partake.
A shadow momentarily blocked the splendor and grandeur of the ocean and Legolas moved to the side, feeling a sting of irritation but just as quickly losing that feeling to the roaring surf. The sea took in all emotions, great and small. They were pounded into the rocks until all that remained was a blissful numbness. Feelings were nothing to the sea. It cared not for the plans or schemes of men. It existed only as it had always existed. It was a bridge between two worlds, yet neither world could claim it as its own. All lay helpless before its power, and before all it reared in majesty and might. Rush after rush of wave slammed into the rocky beach, wearing away at the land and exulting in its supreme mastery. For it was the master. The bold might cross it, the brave might dare it, and the foolish might fight it, but in the end, it was the sea that made all decisions.
The shadow came again, and again Legolas moved to step aside. But this time, something prevented him. Some hold other than the sea gripped his body and he stood completely still for a moment, wondering what other force in the world would dare oppose the ocean that claimed his attention to the exclusion of all else. Then this new hold intensified and a shiver of pain coursed through his body. But pain should be consumed by the sea. Why would he be feeling it? He had given himself to the ocean, allowed it to enfold his mind in wave after wave of swirling blue. All pain should be swallowed, devoured, washed away.
Voices now intruded, different from the sea. In a way, they were louder than the endless calling of the waves, and since he could no longer see the great ocean, they were also more compelling. They were taking him away from his sanctuary. They were denying him the infinite waters that eased all weariness and laid to rest all fears. A rush of anger surged through the elf, as powerful as the surf that forever pounded the stubborn shore. He blinked his eyes and focused on the shadow before him, intent on discovering its secrets and banishing it from his mind. But the moment he did so, the shadow resolved itself into a concerned face.
Aragorn’s hesitant whisper brought the elf firmly back into reality and the man’s already paralyzing, painful grip on his friend’s shoulders tightened as Legolas swayed, suffering from the stress of transfer from one world to another. The elf locked his knees and closed his eyes, waiting impatiently for a sense of equilibrium to return. When at last he could stand on his own, Aragorn relaxed his hold though he did not release the elf.
"You have been worrying us, my friend," Aragorn said quietly. "Gimli could not rouse you and took me aside just before I was to give the order to ride."
Legolas wondered what had happened to his power of speech, for it seemed he could not answer Aragorn. He stood there as one in shock, staring mutely and blinking dumbly.
"Legolas?" The concern was back in Aragorn’s voice and his dark eyes searched the elf’s bright gray eyes. "Legolas, can you answer me?"
That was Gimli’s voice, and the elf belatedly realized that the dwarf had been standing at his elbow for the entire time but that he was only now aware of it. With a shake of his head, Legolas glanced at Gimli and tried desperately to form some kind of coherent thought.
Eomer’s warning hiss from behind Legolas caused Aragorn’s eyes to narrow, and Gondor’s king worked harder on trying to break through the elf’s trance. "Focus, my friend," he whispered hurriedly. "You must focus or we lose the edge. Do you understand me? Can you at least nod?"
Closing his eyes, Legolas nodded. Aragorn’s hands squeezed his shoulders briefly and then he was released. For a moment, the elf felt lost and adrift. Then someone clamped onto his forearm and turned him resolutely away from the rushing of the waves. "This way," Gimli growled softly, watching Dashnir closely. It would not do for Legolas to show such an obvious weakness, for it would most certainly be exploited in some way. "Try to look more alert if that is possible. Faensul is waiting and you only need mount him. He will follow Aragorn’s Arnor and Eomer’s Shade when we set off."
Say something! Legolas screamed at himself. He felt helpless and lost, unable to speak or utter thoughts aloud. The sea seemed to have stolen his voice and refused to return it. It was coming very close to stealing his soul.
"You were doing well for a while, my friend," Gimli continued. It sounded as though he spoke only to hear the sound of his voice. He probably thought Legolas was lost in the sea again and only moving because of his hold on the elf’s arm. "I thought we would set off in good time, but I forgot to watch you and when I glanced behind to speak, you were no longer there," the dwarf was saying. "We led Faensul from his stall, and you seemed aware enough then, but I should have realized what was happening. You had that look, yet my hopes were too high to see it for what it was. I am sorry, Legolas. I have failed you in this, for I promised to be your constant companion until we were further from the sea. It seems I have not done my duty, and now you have no knowledge of your surroundings. Eomer suggested leaving you here, but Aragorn was against that. He seemed to think that the longer you stayed, the harder it would be for us to bring you back. I agreed with him then, and I agree with him even more now. Even if you do not come with us into Harad, we must at least send you home where there are things to occupy your mind."
"I will not leave you," Legolas said quietly, recovering the use of his voice. The elf felt Gimli jump in surprise through the hold on his arm. "In Ithilien or in the desert, the problem is the same. Here, though, I can see the object of my desire. Your pardon, please, Gimli. I did not mean to cause you worry."
The dwarf glanced around, noticed they were relatively alone, released the elf, and turned on him. His eyes flashed with barely concealed anger and he set his fists on his hips, beard bristling as he jerked his chin at his friend. "What did you think you were doing?" he demanded, keeping his voice low for fear of being overheard by the Haradrim. "You must know how dangerous that is. And to make things worse, we have an appearance to maintain before these delegates."
"I am aware of that," Legolas sighed. "But I do not know what happened. I remember leaving the castle but after that…" The elf trailed off with a small shrug. "I am sorry. I wish I could have better kept my mind and my attention where it belonged."
"Aragorn almost gave the order to ride," Gimli said sternly. "Did you know that? And if he had, what would they have thought at your blatant dismissal of his authority?"
"What of it, Gimli?" Legolas asked, weariness filling his voice. "Once caught, there was naught I could do. I did not even know where I stood until a few moments ago. I apologize again, but in truth, I fear I have little control over my actions at the present."
"Then we shall have to remedy that," Gimli growled, turning away and stalking toward Faensul. Behind him, Legolas smiled slightly and whistled. Faensul jerked his head toward the elf, shook his head, and trotted over. The large, white head came down and butted itself against the elf’s chest. Legolas laughed quietly and stroked the silky mane, watching Gimli out of the corner of his eye as the dwarf scowled, turned around, and stalked back to the elf.
"Is there something the matter?" Legolas asked innocently.
"Nothing unless it be an elf who keeps secrets from his friends," Gimli harrumphed. He glared at Faensul who favored him with a snort and a stomp of his right foreleg. "You could have done that yesterday evening," the dwarf suddenly said.
"Pardon?" Legolas asked, moving aside so that he could aid Gimli in mounting.
"You wandered away, giving the excuse that you were looking for Faensul when a mere whistle would have brought him to your side. Is that not so?" the dwarf asked, jumping into the air as the elf pushed him onto the stallion’s back.
Legolas sighed and grimaced as he sprang onto the horse before Gimli. "I had need of thought," he said at length, directing Faensul toward the head of the company where Aragorn and Eomer were watching.
"You could have said so."
"Would you have believed me?"
"No," Gimli snorted. "And I do not believe you now. Did you take thought or did you simply wander?"
"You know me too well, son of Gloin," Legolas murmured. "In truth, I wandered. I did not find Faensul. He found me. Were it not for him, you might have been forced to leave me on the plain between Gondor and Dol Amroth." Legolas pulled Faensul to a stop on Aragorn’s left and tried to ignore the searching glances of both Eomer and Aragorn. "Is all in readiness?" he asked.
"All has been in readiness for some time," Aragorn said slowly, watching Legolas closely to judge his reaction. "Eomer’s men have stalled by rearranging the baggage on the rider-less horses, but I fear your actions have been observed by some of the Haradrim."
"How long shall we be nigh unto the sea?" Gimli asked before Legolas could respond to this.
"Two days, I fear," Isildur’s heir responded. "We must retrace some of our steps through Lebennin and Belfalas, but then we will turn more northward. At the end of the third night, we will cross Anduin at Pelargir and then follow the traditional Harad road. It leads away from the sea and after four more days, we shall reach Haradhur."
"Then what was the business of reaching a lake before sunrise?" Gimli demanded.
"I spoke of Lake Supt," Aragorn said. "And my meaning was that we should reach Lake Supt ere sunrise of the fourth night. The Haradrim do not measure the traveling time in lands with water. To them, a week or a month journeying through fair Lebennin would be the same. When they travel, they measure time by the distance between lakes and wells, and that distance becomes a day. From Pelargir to Lake Supt is a hard day’s ride, for a mile or so after leaving Anduin, there is no more water."
"I fear that the more I learn of these people, the less I understand them," Eomer murmured.
"How shall the riding be ordered?" Legolas asked, attempting to look as though the conversation commanded his full attention. In truth, the crash of the waves against the shore was beginning to grow loud again.
"We four shall ride at the head of the Haradrim," Aragorn said. "The Rohirrim shall form a left flank behind the delegates and my guard shall form a right flank."
"They will be surrounded," Eomer summarized. "But we show them no disrespect by placing ourselves in their midst."
"And at their mercy," Gimli warned.
"True enough," Aragorn allowed. "And we must all be on our guard." He said this last bit with a hard look at Legolas. The elf glanced away, unwilling to meet his eyes. Aragorn sighed. "Legolas, I don’t claim to fully understand your—"
"Don’t." The elf’s voice was harsh and clipped and Gimli stiffened to hear it. Perhaps because of the dwarf’s reaction, Legolas softened his tone as he continued, but it was still firm and uncompromising. "I have already told Gimli that I neither desire nor need your pity. Leave it be." Seeing the look on Aragorn’s face, Legolas offered the barest of smiles and dropped his voice to a whisper. "Please, my liege."
Gondor’s king returned the smile and placed a hand on the elf’s shoulder. "Remember that we are your friends, Legolas," he said. "If ever you have a need, we will be there." Then spurring his horse forward, he cast his eyes back to the towering structure of Dol Amroth. He raised his hand, and high on the turrets, the figure or Prince Imrahil returned the gesture. A horn sounded in farewell and at that note, Aragorn shouted aloud. Rohan and Gondor surged forward, driving the startled Haradrim before them. And so they passed into the night, racing along the coast of the sea and navigating by moonlight in a world of shadows.
* * * *
Dashnir had never failed to be amazed by the amount of water the northern lands possessed. More amazing still was the fact that it all seemed to be taken for granted. Almost three weeks ago, though it was difficult to measure time when the distances between places of water were so short, he had crossed the Anduin River on the barges manned by the men of Pelargir. He had been astonished then, and he was astonished now. There were no methods for saving the water. Men wandered about the shores of the river dripping wet, taking no means to preserve the water that clung to their clothes. Had they behaved so in Harad, most of the tribes would have killed them. But here, it was completely acceptable. The horses were allowed to drink their fill, some of the men kicked and splashed water at one another, and the river was allowed to flow unchecked, eventually spilling out into the vastness of the salty sea.
Their third night on the road was coming to an end, and Aragorn was arranging barges so that they might cross Anduin. It had been an interesting three nights, if nothing else, and Dashnir was still of several minds concerning the individuals they escorted. Some of his first impressions had been right. The men of Gondor were far more serious than the men of Rohan. They had a solemn countenance and though they would smile and jest, there was an underlying feel of nobility and honor that could not be forsaken even in times of ease. The Rohirrim, by contrast, were serious at need, but they laughed and talked often, even while riding. They were warriors, but they were also light of heart, taking life as it was dealt and trusting that fate would lead them down the paths they were meant to follow. The men of Rohan were also clearly the better horsemen. And their horses were far superior to any Dashnir had ever seen. The Rohirrim were constantly reining them in so that they would not pass the rest of the company.
But for specific individuals, Dashnir still had great uncertainty. Eomer, in particular, was a great puzzle. He joined with his men in merriment and singing, but he also bore the mantle of a king and sometimes would take on the solemnity of Gondor. He was very young to be the leader of a nation and it showed somewhat in his mannerisms, but his eyes were keen and he commanded his men well with a curious mixture of authority and camaraderie. There was nothing his men wouldn’t do for him or he for them. He was a seasoned warrior of many campaigns and he knew the value of caution, yet at times he seemed too bold or too rash. He chafed under Aragorn’s authority at the same time he worshiped it. And he was suspicious. This Dashnir found particularly interesting because his initial impression of Eomer suggested that he was a man who easily gave his trust to another. That feeling had not changed, but Eomer had yet to indicate that he had any sort of trust in the Haradrim.
And then there was Aragorn. Dashnir felt he had a good idea of King Elessar’s personality, but he needed more. The man was complex and Dashnir had barely scratched the surface. He was cunning and wise, strong and capable, learned and intelligent, and beneath it all was a sea of great power that he could unleash in a single glance that left one trembling in fear. His men were completely and totally loyal to him, obeying every wish and every whim unquestioningly. Even Dashnir could feel the pull of this man’s charisma. His flashing eyes were dark pools containing a wealth of knowledge, his soft voice had the ability to silence all surrounding conversation, and his bearing was nothing less than that of a venerable king who has ruled well for many years and will continue to do so. He was not a young man, but neither was he old. At times he seemed ageless, and at these times was he most to be feared for it seemed his hidden power swelled just beneath the surface, threatening to break forth and strike down his enemies with a great wrath.
Dashnir sighed. Never in his life had he felt so short of information. He was a perceptive man and a descendent of an ancient lineage that had always served him well. Always had he been able to interpret the moods of the men around them with exactness, knowing their strengths and weaknesses and having also the knowledge needed to exploit those weaknesses. But now he floundered, feeling as though he walked on the edge of a dream. The information he needed hovered just beyond his reach, yet the harder he strove to get at it, the further away it drifted.
The sound of sharp splashes caught his attention and he turned his head as a large white horse thundered past. That would be Faensul, Legolas’s mount. As proud, tall, and fleet of foot as Eomer’s own Shade, he was a magnificent, willful creature who wandered free of saddle and harness. No man could touch him and he seemed to consider himself above all around him, but at the command of Legolas, he became submissive and obedient. At the moment, though, Dashnir could not see the elf and Faensul was thoroughly enjoying himself as he frolicked and leaped in the water.
"Truly a beautiful animal," a voice said just behind Dashnir.
With a sharp gasp, Dashnir turned and reached for the short blade that hung beneath his flowing robes. He relaxed slightly when he saw King Eomer standing behind him, but his guard went up as well. Aragorn had spoken with Dashnir occasionally, but Eomer had yet to seek him out for conversation. "Truly it is," he answered, folding his arms across his chest.
"Elven horses are the only known rivals to the Mearas, and it thrills me to see one so high-spirited," Eomer continued as though musing to himself. "Almost I am reminded of Shadowfax."
Dashnir rapidly searched his mind for a reference to the term Mearas but found nothing. He debated about asking for an explanation, weighing the potential risk of being seen as weak versus the chance at drawing Eomer into further conversation and gaining a friend of sorts. He eventually decided to hazard it. "I am afraid I am not familiar with the word Mearas. Could you expound upon that?"
"Certainly," Eomer said, nodding his head slightly though his eyes continued to follow Faensul’s antics. "The Mearas are the greatest of the free horses, and they are only bred and born in the green hills of Rohan. My own stallion, Shade, is currently their chief. They are proud horses, and it is said they understand the speech of men. The greatest of the Mearas in recent times was Shadowfax, but alas, he is no more to be found in Middle Earth. Elven horses like Faensul are descended from the same great stallion that sired the Mearas. He was Nahar, the first horse to enter the world of Middle Earth. Oromë, the Valar’s huntsman, was his rider, and it is said that in need they could travel as swiftly as the eagles fly."
Dashnir nodded at this information, cataloguing it away and marking it for further analysis. "Stories of your horses have reached the ears of even those in Harad," he said. "But we did not know the history behind such animals."
"Very few still do," Eomer said quietly. He sneaked a peak at Dashnir out of the corner of his eyes as though evaluating the other. "What do you here by the water? The barges are almost set and we shall cross the river soon."
"I came to have a moment of thought," Dashnir answered, marking the other’s youth in the directness of the question. "And also to see the river before we cross it. We have no such things in Harad, as you will soon discover."
"What is your source of water, then?"
Yes, Eomer was young and eager for information, unaware of what advertising his ignorance might mean for his standing with others. Dashnir smiled slightly, feeling he had a better hold on this man now. "Wells, mostly," he said. "There are also some hidden lakes. King Elessar spoke of one the other night. Lake Supt it is called, and it will be the first such lake we come to after entering the desert. We will reach it ere sunrise if we push the horses."
"Sunrise tomorrow, correct?"
Dashnir nodded, remembering that the concepts of travel time was slightly different here in the north where water was in abundance. "And what of yourself, King Eomer? What brings you to the water’s edge?"
"I heard splashing and looked to see what it was," Eomer answered, nodding toward Faensul who was moving farther away from the shore. The water was up around his back now and he seemed to be debating the merits of continuing his journey.
A soft grunt and an expression in a strange tongue caught Dashnir’s attention and he looked to see the dwarf—Gimli, his mind supplied—coming toward them. Here was another puzzle. This short creature had a fiery temper with a fuse to match his height, and he was brash and bold to a fault. But beneath it all, Dashnir could feel a strong sense of honor and a deep loyalty. He was at a loss to explain the dwarf no matter how much he observed him, and with every revelation and insight into his personality came yet another puzzle.
"Do you come from Aragorn, Gimli?" Eomer asked, also noticing the dwarf. "Are there tidings on the progress down the bank?"
"The barges are almost prepared for the first group," Gimli reported, watching Faensul with distaste. "Will we have to ride once we reach the opposite shore?"
"Perhaps a few more miles," Eomer answered. "Why do you ask?"
"I do not wish for a wet seat."
The king of the Rohirrim burst into laughter and looked back out to Faensul. "I had not thought of that. Perhaps you should seek Legolas and have him call the stallion in."
"I do not need the elf to command a horse," Gimli grumped irritably, stalking to the water’s edge. "Faensul!"
Out in the river, the white steed looked back and whinnied, almost as though taunting those who called him. With a deliberation that seemed comically human, he turned his back on the riverbank and started moving further away. Dashnir watched in amazed bemusement, thinking that maybe even the horse should be evaluated as a potential rival.
Musical laughter behind Dashnir startled him, and for the second time that night, he swung around to see who had taken him by surprise. The elf, he observed grimly. My last and perhaps my most baffling puzzle.
"Legolas! Call your horse," Gimli ordered.
"He is safe enough out there," the elf answered with another laugh. "I should think you would welcome a chance to be rid of him for all the complaining you do."
"I fear that Gimli does not relish the prospect of a wet seat," Eomer supplied with a small smile.
"Ah." Legolas grinned and stepped forward, putting two fingers to his mouth. A high-pitched whistle came forth, and at its sound, Faensul immediately turned back to the bank and rushed forward, sending water flying as he did so. "King Elessar sends word that the barges are ready," Legolas added as Faensul trotted up onto the bank and gave himself a good shake, thoroughly soaking Gimli in the process.
It is not just one, it is the pair, Dashnir decided, watching the dwarf furiously berate the elf for not having better control of his horse. They are a quandary I cannot even begin to unravel. Different as night and day, they are forever at one another’s throats. And yet they are friends, or so it seems for all the time they spend together. But then, perhaps I am not the only one baffled by this, he concluded with a glance at Eomer. The horse lord was also watching the two with a mixture of amusement and confusion, but it was the kind of confusion that comes after one accepts the impossibility of deciphering a situation. Perhaps that was the key to understanding the elf and the dwarf. They had to be accepted rather than analyzed.
"Come," Eomer said, interrupting Legolas who was saying something about dripping cave formations and dwarven beards. "We should not keep Aragorn waiting." And with that, Eomer turned and walked away, heading toward the landing where they would board the barges. With a shake of his head, Dashnir followed, still attempting to unravel four very strange personalities.
* * * *
"He does not like us," Gimli murmured, watching Dashnir’s form disappear into the darkness on the riverbank.
"He does not understand us," Legolas said. "And from there stems his dislike, or so I think."
"He is a man," Gimli snorted. "How could he expect to understand an elf or a dwarf?"
"I do not think he is the sort of man who usually finds himself at a loss for understanding," the elf said slowly, frowning as his keen eyes continued to follow Dashnir’s progress. Faensul nickered behind him and Legolas unconsciously placed a hand behind the horse’s ears, stroking gently. "In some ways, he resembles Aragorn. I feel it in his glance. He has a perception that most men do not, but he is still blind to us, and that unsettles him."
"Well, he unsettles me," Gimli said with a shiver. "I like not his looks, nor do I like his companions. These Haradrim, they are dour men who smile at nothing and make little conversation."
"What would you have them say to you?"
The dwarf scowled and started moving forward, sensing more than seeing Legolas as he moved forward with him. "I do not desire any particulars," Gimli said at length. "But must every answer to a question be terse and angry?"
"Perhaps that is the way of things in their country," Legolas said, his eyes narrowing as he watched Dashnir step aside and begin a hushed conversation with Garat, a member of the Warra tribe. Khurintu, Dashnir’s tribe, and Warra were both warlike tribes, or so Aragorn had told them the previous day, and they had little patience for negotiations or compromises. To them, strength and force were to be respected above other qualities, and diplomatic talks mattered little to them. Legolas wondered what they spoke of, but their hushed conversation was too low for even the elf’s sharp hearing to make out. He caught only snatches of talk, and then only enough to realize they were speaking in their own tongue. He might have been able to catch the general feel of the conversation had he been able to hear it better, but as it was, he could not.
Gimli sighed. "Nothing."
The elf raised an eyebrow and looked down at the dwarf. "Your voice says otherwise."
"I wondered if you might be thinking of something you ought not to think about," the dwarf attempted to explain.
Legolas laughed quietly and shook his head. "I fear, my friend, that the sea is a constant for me. But it is not overpowering as it was yesterday or the day before. We draw further from it now, and I am better able to retain my concentration."
"Do you speak truly when you say it is a constant?" Gimli wondered.
The elf nodded sadly. "It is not always in my thoughts, but it is forever in my heart. It is…a longing. At times it is more distant, but it is forever there, tainting whatever I might be feeling. And when I sleep…" The elf trailed off and looked away south, trying to decide how to put his thoughts into words. "When I sleep it is foremost in my dreams. It calls me, Gimli. I know not how else to explain it. It is a distant voice that I hear. I can ignore it for a while, but as time moves forward, it grows louder. And when we are nigh unto the sea, the voice is as a deafening shout."
"I do not understand this longing, as you put it," Gimli said, watching the elf through concerned eyes. "But if there is any way for me to help, I am more than willing. You have but to ask."
"I know it and I am grateful," Legolas assured his friend. "Have no concern for me, Gimli. The elven people have always been touched by sadness of some kind, and always we have endured. It is nothing. Come. I would travel on the first barge with Aragorn." And without waiting for a response or acknowledgement from the dwarf, Legolas hurried forward. Faensul snorted and picked up his pace, following in the elf’s footsteps. Gimli was left to follow as best he could, all the while mumbling derisively about long-legged elves and their ignorance of other’s shortcomings.
* * * *
With all the thoroughness of a fine craftsman, Eomer checked and rechecked the ropes on the barges. Aragorn waited patiently, knowing that Eomer would never consent to cross until he had assured himself that his horses would be safe. Holding the reins of his own horse Arnor as well as Eomer’s horse Shade, Aragorn glanced about and tried to fix in his mind the position of those around him.
The Rohirrim were grouped together, which was not unusual, and they were singing softly. Aragorn began translating the song and noted it was a song of Eorl, as many of their songs were. It was a rather bittersweet melody but a beautiful one nonetheless, and the powerful voices of the Rohirrim could give the elves a challenge as far as harmonizing went.
As for Aragorn’s own men, they were more spread out and some of them were talking with members of the Harad delegation. They were wary, but they were seeking for ways to better know those with whom they dealt. Aragorn smiled slightly at the differences between Gondor and Rohan. They were differences that dated back to the founding of the two kingdoms. The Riders of the Mark were content to let life sweep them in whatsoever direction fate chose, and they trusted to fate that they would endure both hardships and joy. The men of Gondor had very little trust in fate and sought to control it somewhat by learning more of their situation and so altering the course of destiny. Aragorn had no idea which of these two philosophies was best, but it was interesting to see them at work.
Speaking of different philosophies, he caught sight of Legolas and Gimli walking toward him. As usual, they were deep in conversation with one another and seemingly unaware of the outside world. If ever there was a pair of completely opposite and yet completely loyal friends, this was certainly it. Their opinions differed on practically everything, and yet that was part of what drew them together. The chance for a good argument was something that neither elf nor dwarf would willingly pass up, and in their friendship, both had found an intellectual equal capable of defending a different opinion. And as both the elves and dwarves as civilizations had stagnated somewhat and become set in their views, an opportunity to debate a new take on life was an exciting thrill for Gimli and Legolas.
"I see no reason why you should not devote your cloak to the cause. Surely you would not have me catch pneumonia from the cold I will endure by sitting on a wet seat."
"Do all dwarves complain so much or am I merely unfortunate to have you for a companion? A mile or so on a damp seat will do you no harm and I see no reason to shed my cloak so that you might sit on it."
Catching sight of Faensul’s dripping mane, Aragorn swiftly realized what Legolas and Gimli were discussing. Trust those two to turn a simple thing like a wet horse into a full-blown debate! Aragorn’s slight smile widened when Faensul stepped up the pace, trotted next to Gimli, and thoroughly shook himself. The dwarf cried out in surprise and Legolas laughed, calling Faensul over and stroking the great stallion’s neck.
"Do you still wish for my cloak or will it do you any good now?"
"I wish for that horse’s hide and your head to go along with it."
Faensul snorted and snapped his tail briskly at that remark, almost challenging the dwarf to attack him. Legolas laid a calming hand on the stallion’s back and whispered something in the horse’s ear. Faensul shook his head and whinnied in response.
"Are we ready to leave yet?" Gimli asked, and Aragorn could have sworn there was a plaintive whine in the dwarf’s voice.
"Eomer is anxious that the barges be secure in the event that the horses panic," Aragorn answered, looking toward the riverbank. The king of Rohan seemed to be finishing his inspection, and Aragorn hoped that he was satisfied. They had delayed too long already.
After a few more moments, Eomer drifted in Aragorn’s direction, still surveying the barges as one who is forced by necessity to place his faith in something untrustworthy. "They should serve us," he said at length, reaching Aragorn’s side. "But I would have us cross slowly with as few on these crafts as time will permit."
"We cannot spend the bulk of the morning crossing Anduin," Aragorn reminded him, casting a glance toward the east where the sky was beginning to lighten.
"I know, but I would not have use lose horses in the crossing."
"If you are concerned, we shall send the baggage horses first," Aragorn suggested. "Perhaps watching them will relieve you of your fears."
"Perhaps." Eomer did not sound convinced.
Pursing his lips in thought, Aragorn glanced to his left for Legolas. The elf was watching the river with all the fascination of a child in springtime, and behind him, Gimli was watching the prince with all the concern of a parent who likes not his child’s actions. Hiding a smile, Aragorn shook his head. "Legolas?"
Slightly startled, the elf managed to drag his head away from the flowing water. "Yes?"
"Would you consent to ride with the horses on the barges? It will require several trips across the river, but I think you might have a calming effect on the animals. There will be less chance that they shall panic if you are there to assist them."
"Certainly," the elf replied. "It will be my pleasure to help."
"Thank you," Eomer sighed with a grateful look for both Legolas and Aragorn. "Well, since all is in readiness, I will summon the baggage horses."
"And I shall order the crossing," Aragorn said. "Two barges shall travel at once. One shall be for the horses and the other shall be for the men. With the horses we will send one man plus Legolas. It should be sufficient."
"Let us hope so," Eomer murmured, turning and walking toward the Rohirrim.
"He seems troubled," Gimli observed, dodging a spray of water as Faensul raced to the water’s edge and began splashing. "Is there aught we can do?"
"He fears for his horses," Aragorn explained with a slight smile. "Long have the men of Gondor taken steeds across the river in this fashion where there are no bridges, but I fear it is a new thing for the Rohirrim."
"Do they swim their horses then?" the dwarf asked.
"If need be, but Anduin is greater than the rivers in Rohan. It would be folly to cross in that way here. The middle is too swift and deep for safety’s sake."
"I believe Faensul would like to attempt it," Legolas said softly, a smile playing upon his lips as he watched his horse frolic in the foam. "But I yield to your wisdom, and the barges will carry him across. If nothing else, he may speak with the other horses and assure them of their safety. Tol, Faensul," he suddenly called to his stallion. "Enni!"
With a reluctant snort, the horse left off playing in the water and plodded out of the river toward the elf.
"He is as drawn to water as you are," Gimli observed with a grumble.
"At least both he and I bathe regularly," the elf said with a sidelong look at the dwarf. Gimli spluttered indignantly for a moment while Legolas laughed and Aragorn shook his head. "My apologies, friend," Legolas said, still laughing. "Will you ride the barges with me?"
"And spend more time with this demon you call a horse?" the dwarf demanded. Faensul looked at Gimli, snorted, and then thundered toward him. Startled and alarmed, Gimli tried to race away, but Faensul was soon upon him, shaking vigorously and drenching the unfortunate dwarf.
The sounds of laughter came to his ears as Faensul circled about him in semblance of a victory lap, and Gimli gritted his teeth to hear even Aragorn chuckling quietly. "Perhaps this is a sign of affection," Legolas said in between gasps for air as his mirth got the better of him.
"Perhaps this is a sign that you should better control your animal," Gimli growled, stalking away. Faensul neighed indignantly and tossed his head up. "And as for you," Gimli said with a glare at the horse, "someday I will drape you over my favorite chair in the Glittering Caves."
"We are ready for departure, Aragorn," Eomer suddenly called.
"I am taking the first barge over with the men," Gimli declared, stomping down to the riverbank. "And if that horse so much as comes near me in the meantime, Legolas, I fear you shall find yourself short a mount."
"And so shall you," Legolas called back, moving to the barges where some of the horses were already being loaded with a great deal of coaxing. Seeing the frustration of Pelargir’s men in trying to lead the horses onto the barges, the elf stepped forward to the first animal and spoke quietly, laying a gentle hand on its shoulder. The horse shook his head and then walked forward onto the rocking barge as though he had never been concerned about the prospect.
"Elves," Gimli said to Aragorn in disgust, boarding his own barge. "This shall be a long trip."
"It would be all the longer if he were not here with you," Aragorn replied. Gimli grumbled something as an answer and the king smiled. And to me, this journey would be far too long if I did not have both of you for company.
* * * *
It was nearly midmorning before the crossing was completed. The men were over long before the horses, for despite Legolas’s best efforts, there were some animals that panicked and one actually broke through the ropes and boards on the barge and landed in the river. Legolas had jumped in after him and guided him to shore, but the minute the elf had left the barge, the other horses had begun to panic. They were held back by Arhelm, Eomer’s second-in-command, who had been riding the rafts with Legolas, but the event had been a trying capstone to an already stressful morning. Eventually, though, all were on the opposite bank and journeying away from Anduin. They stopped a few miles from the river where a tributary stream ran. And beyond that, even Gimli’s dim eyes could see fields of sand beginning to stretch out beneath the rising sun.
"Behold Harad," Aragorn said at the dwarf’s side while the men began to set up camp behind them. "Tomorrow, we shall enter a dangerous land. We must ride hard during the night to reach Lake Supt before the sun catches us in the open."
Listening to the sound of Aragorn’s voice, the dwarf furrowed his brow and gave the other a studying look. "You suspect something," Gimli said. "You suspect some deception among our escorts."
"They have many hidden secrets," Aragorn said somewhat evasively. "I think some of those secrets might concern us."
"When shall those secrets be revealed?"
"By me or by them?"
Aragorn sighed. "I would speak with both you and Legolas before we ride tonight. And I would share some of my suspicions then. But as for the Haradrim, I have no working timeline for their agenda. It may be tomorrow or a week from now. Currently, I have no way to tell. But you are right. I do suspect that something is underway."
"Well, know that the elf and I stand behind you," Gimli pledged, watching as the distant sand caught and reflected the morning sun. A land of light it seemed from here, but it was also dark, containing a shadow of ill will that Gimli could sense even from afar. "Whatever awaits you in that desert, we are with you."
Aragorn put his hand on the dwarf’s shoulder and squeezed it slightly, a silent gesture of thanks and camaraderie. "Come," he said. "We must rest for we have far to journey. And we shall have need of all our strength in the days to come." And with a final glance at the desert that awaited their coming, he turned on it and walked back to the camp where Eomer, Legolas, and the others had nearly finished preparations for the day’s camp. After a moment’s hesitation, Gimli followed him. Aragorn was right. There was a sense of foreboding that darkened the skies above and it seemed to find its origins in Harad. Starting tomorrow, they would need every ounce of strength they could muster, and it would be best to start with a good day’s sleep now.
"We shall be ready for you," Gimli murmured to whatever evil force might be listening. "We shall be ready for you, and you will regret ever crossing us."
Tol, Faensul. Enni! —Come, Faensul. To me!
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.