The wounds of Aragorn's body were healing.
His head still ached from the blow that had felled him on Amon Hen, but the nausea had ceased. Bruises darkened the back of his body, from shoulder blades to calves. And the sharp pain on the side of his chest told of ribs bruised, probably cracked. Any incautious breath or turn reminded him of the recent ordeal. He knew the pain of his body would soon dull and fade, for he had seen its like before. And the other, deeper wounds? He would not think of those now. Time enough, he told himself, when the other captives were found. He stretched, reveling- despite the fierce jolt of pain- in unbound hands, and came to his feet.
Gimli lay sleeping. Legolas stood against a tree, watching the dawn over the hills. Legolas turned toward him, and smiled. "It is good to see you on your feet."
"Yes." He hesitated. "I am in your debt, and that of Gimli." He looked around the small camp, and then back. "How long has it been?" he asked Legolas.
"It is a full day we have rested here. How is it with you now?"
"Well enough. I will travel today, if not as fast as I wish." Aragorn looked somber. "There is a group of orcs ahead of the ones that you attacked. That is the larger host which carried off Merry and Pippin. Boromir fell defending them. Alas! I came too late to save him, and when their rearguard came upon me, I had to leave him as he was."
"He lies there no longer. Gimli and I arrayed him as was fitting, and laid him in a boat, and let Rauros and the Anduin take him to the sea."
Aragorn was silent a moment and his face was etched with grief. When he looked up again he said, "I believe Frodo escaped and set off for Mordor. I do not know the whereabouts of Sam, but I fear the worst."
"That fear I can relieve," Legolas replied, "for the footprints of two hobbits were where the missing boat had been moored, and Sam's pack was not on the shore with the others. From all the signs, Sam followed Frodo into the black lands. But you give me hope of Merry and Pippin. We had thought to find you and the young hobbits together. When we did not, I had grieved to think them dead, and I rejoice to know myself wrong."
"And I am glad to hear your news of Sam." Aragorn replied. "As to Merry and Pippin, they were alive when captured, and although the orcs have little enough care of their captives, they may live still. We must start after them."
Legolas nodded and went to Gimli, touching his shoulder to wake him. After a hasty meal they gathered up what gear they had, and Legolas took from the pile on the ground a scabbarded blade.
"My sword? I can scarce believe it!" Aragorn cried.
"The orcs like not the feel of that which the elves have made. They cast away all such. You will be glad of that, for they left these also." Legolas held out a hand, and there was his knife with elvish runes on the blade, and, on a broken chain, the token of Arwen Evenstar. Aragorn looked long at the jewel, then wordlessly put it into the small cloth bag on the leather belt, both borrowed from Legolas. The silence was awkward at first, as they packed up camp.
Legolas led them back to where they had departed from the orc trail. "There are the two groups now, both ahead of us. There were few left of the group that took you captive. I do not know if they have joined the others."
Aragorn took his accustomed place at the front, seeking signs of passage as the thinning forest gave way first to scrub and then to occasional patches of grass on the dry and stony hills. The others followed his lead, allowing him to set the pace as the companions made toward the ridge marking the end of Emyn Muil.
Legolas spied the shapes first, at the foot of the slope that began the Western ridge. "Look!" Under the lowering sun, several orcs lay, sprawled lifeless on the ground. "Are there friends about? Folk who hunt orcs would be welcome allies."
Aragorn shook his head. "I do not think that these died at the hands of any friends of ours. See, here are orcs from their rearguard; I have seen this one before. And their blades are stained with orc-blood. I think they caught up to the larger band, and were slain in a quarrel with the others. But I find no sign of the hobbits here."
Gimli pointed to the "S" rune on the shield of one slain orc who bore also the mark of a white hand. "We saw these signs on some orcs at Amon Hen. I guessed then that "S" stood for Sauron. If so, why did they not cross the Anduin?"
"Sauron does not use white," Aragorn replied, "nor has he used the elf runes since he revealed himself as the enemy of the elves, a long age ago." Aragorn searched the ground around the bodies for several feet. "Many footsteps, a large group of orcs, continued on West," he said thoughtfully. "I fear that the "S" is for the traitor Saruman, and that they make for Isengard." He pointed to faint marks disturbing the scattered tufts of coarse grass. "We can follow the trail for a few hours and perhaps cross the ridge while there is yet light for tracking." They set off once more in pursuit. Aragorn did not say that one of the dead orcs was Gorbaz; and that he was sorry to find him dead, for he had thought to slay that one himself; but relieved also that he need not fear the heat of his own vengeance.
The three hunters had descended from the escarpment that formed the East Wall of Rohan when Aragorn declared it too dark to continue. His pace had already slowed some way back, during the descent down a steep ravine, and his face now was pale and drawn. When he asked Gimli to wake him for the second watch, the dwarf gruffly told him to go to sleep and be glad that Legolas wasn't by the fire to hear his foolishness. He smiled, and protest died on his lips; he well knew that bravado could put all that remained of the fellowship at risk. He slept.
They rose at dawn and saw before them the plains of Rohan, covered with sweet, thick, grass, and smelling of growth and the promise of spring.
Legolas breathed deeply. "The green smell! It lifts my heart, more than sleep or food."
"And the long grass lifts my heart as well," Aragorn added, "for it makes the orcs easier to track on this flat plain. We can run faster without struggling through the stony hills. Let us go!" This day Aragorn could set as fast a pace as Gimli could keep.
To the others, Aragorn seemed driven and grim, grudging himself any rest. As he ran he could not keep his thoughts away from the young hobbits. His heart was chilled by images of Merry and Pippin being abused even as he had been. And, he thought guiltily, he had gotten off lightly, having been released after a single night of torment by only one of the foul band. Would worse befall his young friends? Could they survive such an attack by creatures so much larger than themselves? Each time he thought of them, still in pain and peril while he was free, he found his feet running faster while his heart pounded within his chest and his stomach clenched.
"Stay. Do not follow!" he cried, and ran along a small offshoot of the trampled path. He reached among the matted blades of grass and held aloft a shining green leaf shape, wrought of precious metal.
"An elven brooch!" Gimli exclaimed.
"Yes," Aragorn said, "and here are the footprints of a hobbit. Pippin's, I think, from their size. Whatever has befallen them, Pippin at least is alive, and has the strength to run and the wits to leave a token. It is clear this was cast away from the trail, for any who might follow to find."
"Let us hope he did not pay too dearly for his boldness," said Legolas.
"So we must hope. Let us run!" said Aragorn, and sprang forward. He was heartened to know the young hobbit alive, but concerned for what would come of Pippin's brave deed. And... what of Merry? Was he in like health? Aragorn now grudged every moment that kept him from discovering the hobbits, and avenging himself upon any who may have harmed them. Ever the fear of what ill treatment they might receive at the hands of the orcs burned within him. Surely Saruman would have forbidden his minions to harm such potentially valuable prizes? He prayed it was so.
The orc-trail they followed now turned Northwest toward the Entwash, glittering in the distance. They neared the river as the sun sank, and they stopped to take counsel of their course.
"It is a hard choice," Aragorn said, as each ate a wafer of lembas. "We may go on in the dark and risk losing the trail, or we may rest the night here, and chance that the orcs may get further ahead, to the peril of our friends."
"Surely the orcs must rest as well?" asked Gimli.
"They will not stop at night," Legolas replied, "and I fear we may lose any chance to overtake them."
"Yet now I must rest to run the better on the morrow. It burns my heart to stop while Merry and Pippin are captive, but even the strongest of the dwarves must sleep," said Gimli.
"So be it," said Aragorn at last, with some regret. "We will not run in the dark, and chance going astray. I deem it the greater risk to find at daybreak that we must search again for the trail."
They took a cold night's rest, which permitted Aragorn and Gimli only fitful sleep as Legolas kept watch. In the grey dawn they began their third day of pursuit, nearing the river and the dark forest beyond. Searching ahead, Aragorn saw the blur of motion that only Legolas' elven sight could separate into tall riders on proud horses.
"There are one hundred and five of them. They bear bright spears, and there are three horses with empty saddles," Legolas said. "I do not see the hobbits among them," he added sadly.
Aragorn's breath left him with a sigh, and he closed his eyes briefly. "We will await them here," he said.