3. Rohan and Return
The Riders wheeled and encircled the companions, and the three stood pressed together in the center of a ring of spears. The leader rode closer yet to them, and his spear-point came to rest little more than six inches from Aragorn's breast, yet Aragorn did not move. And none but Aragorn knew the effort it took to keep himself still, and his hand from the sword at his side; though Legolas may have guessed.
"Who are you, who crosses the Riddermark?" the Rider holding the leveled spear asked brusquely.
"I am called Strider. I am hunting orcs."
"Why should you track orcs across our land?" the Rider demanded.
"The orcs of whom I speak hold two of my friends prisoner. I believe they go to Isengard," Aragorn replied steadily. "And what name shall I give to he who leads this éored?"
The Rider looked at him with some wonder. "I am Éomer son of Éomund, and Third Marshall of the Riddermark. These are men of my household. It is clear you know somewhat of our land. But I do not know you, and you have yet to give me a right name!"
"I have come out of Imladris, as it was called in past ages. I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn, the heir of Isildur, son of Elendil who sailed from Númenor." He stood stern and resolute, his bearing that of the kings of old. Wisdom and strength shone from his face, such that before him, Éomer and his riders felt as young boys playing at soldier. And Legolas looked at him in wonder for his majesty, and grieved for the pain that lay upon him.
Awe was written upon the face of Éomer. "Imladris! Lord, it is as if you sprang from a legend! For Boromir of Gondor sought that land, sent by dark visions and dreams. Did he come there? Do you know aught of him?"
"Yes," said Aragorn with sorrow in his eyes. "We traveled in company from Imladris through the perils of Moria and then on from the land of Lórien to Rauros. He was a man brave and valiant, but he fell there, slain by the orcs we pursue."
"That is ill news for Gondor, and for all who stand with them!" said Éomer, dismayed. A murmur ran through the riders massed about him. "But you need pursue the orcs no more, for we slew all in battle at the edge of the forest two days ago, and the ashes of their carcasses lie smoking still."
"And saw you none among them that were like to children of your kind?" Gimli asked, concerned. So high only," he held his hand at his chin, "beardless and barefoot?"
"There were none but orcs that we found, some smaller, as those we have seen in the past, and some larger and more fell which bore the white hand. But there were no dwarves or boys among them," Éomer answered.
"Our friends were halflings," said Gimli.
"Halflings! In our land halflings are figures from old tales, and do not walk the green earth."
"These halflings do indeed walk the earth, and we know one at least lived and walked on the plains beneath the East Wall, for we found a token, and his footprints," added Aragorn. "And I have seen no sign that any took a path away from that of the orc-band."
"This is most strange, for we saw them not."
"Yet you saw us only because I called out to you, and they were likewise garbed. Perhaps they escaped your riders in the night. My duty is to seek them."
"But it is the law of Théoden, King of Rohan, that no stranger may come into the Mark save by his leave. You must come before him ere you continue," Eomer said.
Aragorn looked at him directly, and his voice was not cold, yet none doubted the steel within. "I will not leave my companions to an evil fate while I yet have strength to search. They may be in need, or wandering about the forest, lost." And then he spoke a tongue that Gimli and Legolas knew not. "Éomer, Éomund's son, I have been in this land, years ago, and ridden with an éored, and fought Rohan's enemies. What justice is the law of the Mark if it would ask that I abandon my friends, maybe to their death?"
Éomer, hearing the tongue of Rohan, was abashed. He said, "I do not know how to choose, which choice would be for good or ill. I follow the King's law, but maybe it will not matter much now to my fate, or that of the Riddermark, which I shall choose. For the times are dark, and the counsel given to the King darker still, to my mind. And as I think Saruman has friends that do not dwell in Isengard, so perhaps Rohan may have friends, not all of whom dwell in Gondor." He straightened. "Very well. I will aid you, for though my life or fate may so be determined, yet I see no brighter hope than that you may bring, Lord. For indeed we have need of such! Seek your friends. Come then after to Edoras with your sword, and Gimli with his axe and Legolas with his bow; and I think it likely that we shall need your weapons raised alongside the sons of Eorl in battle before long."
He gestured to another rider, and bid horses be brought for the travelers. "Here are Arod and Hasufel, and... "
Gimli looked at the great horses, and planted his feet obstinately. "I will not ride. I prefer my own two feet to any beast with four."
"Come," said Legolas with a smile, "do not trouble yourself, we shall ride together. One horse shall bear us both, and we will go more swiftly than any of us could afoot."
Gimli was ill at ease, but suffered himself to be lifted to sit behind the Elf, and he clung there nervously. But Legolas sat easy, and the horse was quiet and biddable beneath his hands, and the companions rode on to follow the trail left by the Riders.
The travelers came to the edge of the forest, and unable to find signs of what they sought in the dark, they made camp and set watch. The last watch fell to Gimli and he shivered in the early morning cold by the scant fire. The forest before him seemed looming and ominous, the air heavy with foreboding, so that he was glad to see the dawn, and to have his companions awake beside him. As Aragorn searched the ground for any trace of the hobbits, the three hunters saw suddenly appear from among the trees a man bent with age, and in ragged grey robes. What manner of creature was this, so silent that not even Legolas could hear his footsteps? Gimli grasped his axe and cried, "There is something uncanny here, to escape the sharp eyes and keen ears of an elf!" Legolas had strung his bow, and fitted an arrow to the string, and Aragorn loosened his sword in its scabbard. Yet within his heart was not fear, but rather the hush that awaits some momentous event.
They watched intently as the old man approached, face shadowed by the hood he wore. "What do you seek, father?" asked Aragorn.
The figure now stood straight and tall and imposing; and when the grey rags parted, flashes of white gleamed from him. "An elf, a dwarf and a man...What do you here, I wonder?" he asked as he walked toward them. "But then, perhaps I know some of your tale already." His hood fell back, and his gaze was like a blade, cutting to the heart of them. As Gimli raised his axe, and Aragorn gripped his sword, the grey rags of the wanderer fell away and he raised his staff and seemed clothed in the living light. When he smiled, there was no longer a question who stood before them. Out of all expectation, beyond all hope, Gandalf had returned.
He was revealed as a being of light, briefly shining with radiance and raw power that burned in their eyes before he cloaked himself again. And though the light was veiled, there shimmered still about him a brightness and an air of power, and there was wisdom in his eyes.
"Gandalf! This cannot be!" Aragorn said with disbelief in his voice. Legolas let fall his bow, and Gimli dropped to his knees in awe.
"How is it that you return to us? How did you escape from the abyss and the Balrog?" asked Gimli.
"And how came you here now?" Aragorn asked.
"I cannot tell you all now, not if we had thrice the time to tarry," Gandalf said. "It was long that we fought, and the memory is very evil. I was marked by fire and and by ice, by darkness and by shadow, and wearied beyond words at the long chase and battle. In the end I prevailed and my enemy was cast down, and I wandered out of all knowledge of the world for a time. At last I was returned, and bid to abide until my task is done. In Lórien I was healed of my hurts, and clad in white, and now I am not Gandalf the Grey whom you knew, but Gandalf the White." He was silent for a moment, musing. "There is more, but the fuller tale must keep, for we must ride to Edoras swiftly. War will be upon us soon, and we must act while we may. Come!" He turned then, and gave a clear whistle and soon they heard the sound of hoofbeats. A great horse galloped toward the forest, his coat glimmering in the morning sun, and his head proud and fair. He slowed, and then trotted to where Gandalf stood, and whinnied.
"But what of Merry and Pippin? I fear greatly for them, in the hands of the orcs. Those foul folk delight in cruelty and torment of their captives. Tell us news of them!" Aragorn urged.
Gandalf's eyes upon him were wise and compassionate. "You need have no fear for the hobbits, unless it is a fear that they will wish to tell too long a tale when next you meet them," Gandalf laughed. "They are in the care of Treebeard among the ents of Fanghorn, and he will let no harm come to them." Legolas and Aragorn looked amazed, and Gimli was puzzled.
Aragorn asked, "Then the old legends about the shepherds of trees are true, they live still?"
"Yes indeed, they dwell as ever in the forest. The hobbits have brought tidings that roused the ents, and the ents will rouse the forest. But what they will do with their wrath, I do not know. I do not think they yet know either. But for Merry and Pippin, their road lies not with ours for a time; they have a different part to play. But be comforted, for they are well, and took no hurt."
Aragorn was comforted, and some of his dread left him. He had had dark fears of what might have happened to his friends, visions of finding their battered bodies, cruelly tortured. He had despaired that the hobbits, so much less able to withstand, had been left to face that which he had escaped. Legolas and Gimli, equally heartened by these tidings, mounted and prepared to ride to Edoras.
As they rode Gandalf fell silent for a time, then turned his piercing gaze on Aragorn. "I see that the shadow has touched you also," he said.
Aragorn fixed his eyes ahead. "You see truly. Would that I could be renewed and sent back whole as you have been."
"You must find your own way to healing, but I doubt not that you will."
Gandalf said no more of this, and Aragorn was content to have silence on the matter.
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.