29. Where Many Paths And Errands Meet
Where Many Paths and Errands Meet
Gimli did not know whether to bless or curse their sudden change of fortune. Night was falling on the third day since he and Aragorn had forded the Limlight and parted from Legolas and Merry. The Man and the Dwarf stood on a sweep of faded grass, and beside them the Elven horse trembled—on three hooves. His right forefoot was curled upward, and the beast snorted with pain.
Aragorn dropped to one knee beside their steed.
"Easy, easy," he murmured in Sindarin. The horse jerked backward a pace. "Let me see it, Tôrroch*…"
Gimli reached up and pulled their bags loose, carefully swinging them out to avoid the injured horse's limb and placing them on the ground. Clearly they were not going to be riding again any time soon.
And thus the Dwarf's dilemma. He disliked horses—all Dwarves did, choosing to ride, on the rare occasions that they felt it was necessary, on sturdy ponies. I would rather walk a thousand leagues than perch upon such a massive beast… The horse of Lothlorien would, as expected, accept no tack save a slender rope bridle with no bit and a folded blanket. No saddle, no stirrups. Elvish-fashion… It was well enough for tall, long-limbed Aragorn to ride in this manner, for the man was raised to it. But for stubby-legged Gimli, bouncing behind the Ranger without stirrups for hundreds of miles, clutching at the man's waist, struggling to maintain his balance, unable to see a thing… My pride—not to mention my ass, and all that is near it—has taken a mighty battering, he grumbled inwardly.
But how far did they have yet to travel? They had circled the great Forest of Fangorn and crossed the Entwash last evening, continuing through the northern edge of the sector of Rohan Aragorn had named the Westemnet. The southernmost peaks of the Misty Mountains hovered above and to their right all afternoon, and the distant summits of the White Mountains to the south edged ever closer. Gimli could not guess how many leagues remained to the Gap of Rohan, leagues we shall now have to cross on foot… Nor was it clear what, exactly, Aragorn planned to do once they reached the Gap. When it came to it, the Dwarf found that he did not dislike horses so much after all. Gimli cursed under his breath. By Mahal! I know not whether to grin or groan…
Aragorn straightened. "Gimli, my pack, if you will…" He had placed one hand flat against the horse's flank and was stroking the beast lightly, to calm it. The horse's injured forefoot was cradled gently in the healer's right hand.
Gimli winced slightly with stiffness as he tried to hurry forward with the man's pack. Aragorn caught the expression, and a flicker of amusement came and went on his face. The Dwarf apparently noticed.
"I'd not laugh if I were you, Longshanks," Gimli growled. "Not if you value your spare clothing…" He swung the pack in a circle by its straps, and with a snarl that barely hid a grin he threatened to spin it into the twilight.
"Give it here, Stump-legs…" Aragorn's smile was as fierce as a wolf's. "…if you value your head! The Elfstone is in that pack, and if you drop it, I just might lose my temper…"
"Oho, his Lady's trinket!" Gimli stopped whirling the pack and began shaking it, listening for the clink of metal. Aragorn glared. The Dwarf rolled his eyes, grunted and handed the pack to him.
"So," he said gruffly, "Are you a healer of beasts, too?"
"Perhaps," the man said dryly as he searched his pack with his free hand while he supported the horse's hoof. "He took a thorn into the frog. I have withdrawn it, but this type of wound is quite painful—much like a splinter beneath a fingernail." He held out a tin box. "If you would open this…"
Gimli grunted again and did as he was asked. A pungent scent came forth, of cleansing yarrow, calming willow bark, and something the Dwarf did not recognize. Some Elvish concoction… A thick unguent, steeped with the herbs, had been packed into the covered box. Aragorn carefully let the horse's foot come to rest on his bent knee, and he began to rub the unguent over the wound. The horse snorted anxiously, then held still as the lotion began to soothe his hurt.
"We shall not ask you to bear us for a while," Aragorn said quietly in Sindarin. He looked up at Gimli. "We must walk, for now."
The Dwarf nodded. "Good. A chance to regain the feeling in my nether places." The night rang with Aragorn's answering laughter.
* * *
Gimli woke at dawn to the sight of his companion standing against the slanting light, gazing East. The Dwarf rolled to his side and groaned. He sat up. Frowning, he looked about their small encampment. The horse was gone.
"Where the devil…" he grumbled as he regained his feet.
Aragorn turned toward him. His face was stern.
"He is on his way home, through Fangorn and north to Lothorien," he said quietly. "The horse's injury would have prevented us from riding for several days. I judged that by the time he could be of service to us again, we should no longer need him. As we promised, I released him."
Gimli brushed last year's grass off his shirt. "Then you plan to walk to the Gap, and from there, by whatever paths your visions and dreams dictate, all the way to Minas Tirith, or beyond?"
The man smiled slowly. "No. I plan to run."
Gimli's arms crossed over his broad chest. "A race, is it?" He grinned crookedly. "Do not expect that those long legs of yours guarantee victory in such a contest. Long after you—or any Man—will drop to the ground from weariness, one of Durin's Folk shall still be moving forward. I might be slower than you, but the race does not necessarily belong to the swiftest."
"Well I know it," Aragorn replied. "But there is no need for a contest. We both must arrive at the end of this phase of our journey with sufficient strength for… Well, for whatever awaits us."
Gimli nodded, thinking of the long series of battles he had foreseen in the Mirror, one more desperate than the next. "Aye, and for all that lies beyond that..." he muttered sourly.
"Fear not, for if I know my kinsman, Halbarad, he will have brought my horse, Roheryn, with him, and a finer steed you shall not soon see. We will ride again, soon enough. But first," Aragorn laughed, "Your nether parts must have time to recover!"
Soon they set out westward, the man setting the pace and Gimli following behind. It was well, Aragorn thought, that they were now on foot: lower to the ground and, he hoped, less conspicuous. The treeless plains offered nothing but low folds of land to conceal them. He felt eyes searching for anything that moved: malevolent, fiercely intelligent eyes, and a brilliant, calculating mind behind them. As they sped forward, Aragorn struggled to shrug off the oppressive sense of evil that hung to their right and above.
He glanced up toward the peaks as the end of the Mountains of Mist dwindled and opened into twisting valleys. He had never visited Isengard, but he had studied enough maps in Rivendell to know it, for under Elrond's tutelage he had memorized every feature of the ancient realms of Gondor and Arnor. The Tower of Orthanc stood, tall and black, in the midst of a clefted vale. A circle of thick walls, a gate of iron and, from what Gandalf reported, a grim fortress filled with Orcs and Wargs now surrounded what had once been a citadel of learning and wisdom.
High above in the surrounding peaks, the springs of the sparkling Isen spilled down, surging swiftly in a trough of stone that carried it through the valley and beyond the high walls of the fortress. Soon the river crossed a rocky shelf of land, dividing into two shallow arms that surrounded a central island with a low knoll. Then the river turned westward, falling swiftly once more. Beyond the Fords, the churning Isen was uncrossable for many leagues. The main, well-paved road from the gate of Isengard into Rohan—and of old, all the way to Minas Anor--followed the river to the Fords on the west. Upon the east side, at any place besides the Fords themselves, the plains tumbled steeply into the river valley.
And beyond the Isen, the Gap, he thought. The distance from the westward edge of Fangorn Forest to the Fords of Isen was perhaps fifteen leagues. The furthest extent of the broad opening between the Mountains of Mist and the White Mountains was another ten leagues beyond the river. And we left the last trees of Fangorn yestereve, before the horse was lamed. If we press on in haste today, we will reach the Isen tonight. But will Halbarad…and whoever comes with him… have already passed by? He might well have received Gandalf's summons weeks ago… How will we find one another in these vast lands… and once I find him, whence shall I go? His visions in the Lady's Mirror had only told him he must find his kin and go south, and that the road to intercept the Corsair invaders appeared hemmed in with foes. What route? Which way is the swiftest?
He had no answer but to keep on, striding forward in a steady pace, focusing on his breath, drawing inward deeply and releasing once for every eight footfalls—in, left, right, left, out, left, right, left--as his Elvish step-brothers had taught him long ago. His eyes darted down and up, back and forth, searching the uneven turf for hidden obstacles that might trip him, to the horizon ahead and on either side for any sign of movement. He heard the grunting breath of the Dwarf at his back, and the wind in the grass, and his own blood pulsing in his veins…and nothing else.
The day slowly passed from morning into noontide, and still they ran. Smoke hung low on the plains, and Aragorn's throat felt raw. They paused in mid-afternoon. The Dwarf drew the short blade of dried grass and stood watch while the Man lay on his back, his arm flung across his eyes, and slept for forty short minutes; then they reversed their positions. When Aragorn reached for Gimli's shoulder to waken him, Gloin's son opened his brown eyes and sat up, fully awake. They shared a wafer of lembas and a skin of water, and by three hours past noon they were running again.
They saw no one and heard nothing but the West Wind. The smoke thickened, and even Gimli could sense the tension in the air and the threatening force of will that seemed to emanate from above. A red fireball sank into the brown haze before them, and as the final hour of daylight came, so did the far-off murmur of thudding hooves. The horsemen of Rohan were on the move. Battle was near. Both of them could feel it, and by every sign they could read, they were running directly toward it.
Aragorn lessened his pace for a moment and fell back to run beside Gimli.
"We drop soon to the Fords," he panted. "We are north of the main road that leads from the river. Have a care, for from the east the land falls quickly, and the way is rocky."
Gimli nodded. The Dwarf's plaited hair, beard and shirt were soaked through with sweat. He removed his cloak and stuffed it into his pack.
"This smoke…" he huffed. "Something's up… Toward what do we run?"
"I know not," Aragorn replied. "It is odd. We should have seen an éored—a patrol of their horsemen—by now. The Rohirrim are cautious of strangers, even in times of peace…"
"Maybe they are…occupied…"
"Indeed," Aragorn muttered. "The question is, with what?"
Gimli sniffed the fouled air. "Nothing friendly, I suspect…"
They ran onward and soon reached a lip of the grasslands. Suddenly the valley of the Isen spread out below them. Smoke gathered like a thick band of fog. Aragorn halted for his companion to catch up and peered downward. A flurry of movement caught his eye, and he stiffened, frowning.
Gimli appeared at his side. "What see you?" he panted.
"Horses," Aragorn murmured.
"We are in the Horselands, after all…"
"Listen!" he whispered. Gimli cupped an ear. Faintly he heard whinnying, and what sounded like screams. "Horses running in fear," Aragorn said. "They are under attack. The Rohirrim never leave their herds unguarded, unless…" He turned to look at his companion. "I have led us into the thick of it. Saruman's attack upon Rohan has begun!"
Before he took another step, Gimli grasped his arm.
"Rohan may be under attack, but…" Aragorn gazed down at him. Gimli scowled upward. "…your errand is a greater one, and will take you far beyond this land. Is this your battle, Aragorn?"
The man's face was grim as he raised his sight to the west, beyond the fierce fighting below them. "Our paths have brought us here," he said slowly. "And Gandalf's hints seemed to direct me toward Rohan, to thwart Saruman… Yet, I see your reasoning, my friend. My ultimate goal is far away, and my duty lies elsewhere... Ah!" he cried. "I had no doubt of the way before me, dread though the journey would have been, until Lothlorien! Would that I had the Lady's Mirror now for guidance, or Gandalf's wisdom…" He frowned, looking down at his clenched fists. "As I have neither, I must rely on my own small wisdom, and weigh for myself… rather, for we two, who remain, of the Nine Walkers." His sharp glance fell on Gimli. "What say you, Gloin's son?"
The Dwarf of Erebor drummed his fingertips on the head of the axe in his belt. "If it were but myself alone, I would not hesitate to join the fray," he said. "Any chance to put this well-honed blade to the necks of a few Orcs…" He looked up. "But you are Isildur's Heir, and your destiny is far above my own. It is for your safety, Aragorn, that I pause…"
Aragorn sniffed. "Yet Isildur's Heir has many leagues and many foes between him and the claiming of what comes with that title. I led us here to find my kinsmen. If the Rangers of the Grey Company are anywhere to be found, they are on the other side of this river… And there is but one place to cross it." His lip curled in a half-smile. "Well, I have come full circle. I said it best, a moment ago: I've led us into the thick of it. What say you now?"
"What are we waiting for?" Gimli growled as he loosened his axe.
They wove back and forth down the eastern bank, dropping quickly into the shadowed evening. The harsh smoke caught in their throats, and soon the sounds of battle were obvious: the terrified cries of horses, the shouts of men and the screeching of Orcs. The Fords opened into view.
A scene of chaos and carnage spread before them. On the eastern bank men stood in a double circle, spears and swords outward, protecting a large herd of rearing, frightened horses. From the north a phalanx of Uruks assailed them with volleys of arrows and sudden lunging attacks. Other horses ran loose, chased by Orcs riding huge wolves. Everywhere lay the bodies of men and horses, limbs askew, blood splattered. As Aragorn watched in horror, a wolf-rider caught a chestnut stallion. The Orc leaped to the side and howled in glee as the wolf tore the horse's belly open. The horse tumbled, screaming, to the ground, and the wolf ripped the stallion's hindquarters. The Orc yanked on the wolf's spiked collar and dragged it back from feasting. He mounted the snarling beast and spurred it onward in pursuit of another victim, leaving the chestnut writhing in agony.
Aragorn unsheathed Andûril and ran down the final slope toward the riverbank. With the Dwarf on his heels he sped toward the Uruks.
"Elendil!" he cried.
Gimli roared. "Khâzad! Khâzad!"
The Uruk nearest to Aragorn turned in surprise at the flash of a brilliant sword. It was the last sight he saw before the Flame of the West sank into his midsection. In one movement Aragorn yanked the sword loose and swung into the neck of another Uruk, cleaving the creature's thick head from its shoulders.
Behind him Gimli's axe swept toward a wolf-rider that bore down upon them, and an Orc head and a fountain of wolf-blood spun into the air. Again and again the axe and the great sword glittered and made contact, as scythes through grain. The line of Uruks wavered. The defending men of Rohan surged outward with a roar, and the fighting ceased for a few moments as the enemy pulled back in disarray.
"Who are you?" a young Rider shouted, as he found himself beside Aragorn.
"Two friends from the North, one who once served the King of the Mark, and gladly does so again!" the Ranger replied in Rohirrhic.
The brief pause ended as Aragorn, Gimli and and the Rider stood shoulder to shoulder against the renewed attack of the Uruks bearing the mark of Saruman: the White Hand of Isengard. The air rang with the grating of metal on metal, snarls and shouts, and screams of the wounded and dying. The final rays of the sun stained their faces red. The battle continued as the light faded.
An Uruk lay convulsing in death throes at Aragorn's feet when the attackers pulled back once more. Gimli leaned on his axe, his chest heaving.
"They retreat again… Yet something tells me this is not finished…"
"Indeed," Aragorn said, his breath heavy. "They regroup, only to attack in greater force, I fear…"
The Rider appeared at Aragorn's left side. "Friend, I've never seen such swordwork," he said. "Nor such skill with an axe! I thank you both for arriving in our hour of need, unlooked for but welcome! Who are you?"
"I am called Strider, and am of the Northern Dúnedain… This is Gimli, Gloin's son, of Erebor, at your service," he said in the Rider's own tongue, indicating the Dwarf, who nodded with a bow. Aragorn spoke urgently. "Is this your main force?"
"Nay," the man said. "We were but three éored on this bank. The Marshalls had word of Orc troops amassing before the gate of Isengard, and hoped to scatter them before they were full prepared. We were to retreat here, to guard the spare herds. But it was a ruse! The enemy's numbers were far greater than was suspected, and the cavalry were nearly overrun. None expected an attack of such force. More than half our men are dead or scattered, driven off in the first wave of mounted Dunlendings—curse the White Wizard! The Hillmen keep few horses. Saruman must have supplied them with steeds. My Lord the Prince holds the eyot upon the Fords' center…"
"Aye! And the greater host of foes comes down the west side, where Grimbold holds the main road…"
Aragorn smiled. "Grimbold! I served with him, in times past! He is a doughty warrior. Who is your commander here, upon the east?"
The young man's face was stern. "That task has fallen to me. Marhwini I am named, and I was lieutenant under Léod, captain of my éored. Léod is dead, as are Fréalaf and Éofor, captains of the other éored. It seems they made especial effort to slay all in command… "He paused, and looked at Aragorn with sudden alarm. "Prince Théodred!" he said hoarsely.
As they turned west to peer into the gloom and smoke, the distant sounds of battle reached them: the clang of sword on sword, men shouting, and the rising note of a horn.
"The Prince's call!" cried Marhwini. "They pull back from this bank, only to strengthen the attack upon Théoden's Heir!" Marhwini turned his anguished, sweat-streaked face toward Aragorn. "Friend, my men and I cannot abandon our duty here, to guard the herds. But your mighty sword and axe are sorely needed to the west! Théodred is calm-headed and valiant, beloved by all, and on his shoulders rides our hope… Even more, since my Lord the King has fallen under… has taken ill… Surely the cunning Wizard knows this—he has his spies, all too close to the throne!" He clasped Aragorn's arm. "Will you go to him? Will you help us turn aside this onslaught whose purpose is to cut into the heart of the Mark?"
Aragorn glanced at Gimli; the Dwarf nodded. "We will do what we can," he said. "Have you a token I can give the Prince, as proof that I am sent by his commander in the east?"
Marhwini smiled. "No better proofs have I than your mighty sword, Strider of the North, and your axe, my Lord Dwarf! Put those to use as you have here, and Théodred will welcome you to the Mark!"
Aragorn and Gimli sped away. Even as they reached the river and began splashing across its stony bed, the sounds of a renewed attack of the Uruks came at their backs. They did not look behind, but rushed onward.
"The island is in the midst of the stream," Aragorn said as he steered them upriver. "If Théodred is not yet surrounded, we might join the ranks of the Rohirrim that way…"
"And if they encircle him, we'll have to cut a path through," Gimli muttered.
The stream deepened as they waded northward. The pall of smoke hung low to the water. The clamor of war came from all sides now, but the loudest din was in front of them. Flickering torches hovered in the night, and the harsh calls of maurading Orcs grew fiercer.
Four Orcs splashed through the water, just ahead and to their right. They were intent on moving northward and noticed nothing behind them.
Aragorn signaled to his companion; they marked their targets. Gimli chose two squat Mountain Orcs armed with broad axes and wearing heavy mail, leaving an archer and a tall Uruk bearing a scimitar to the Ranger. Moving quickly yet quietly they approached their foes and struck without warning. In minutes the Isen ran black.
"Let's keep onward," Gimli grunted, as he rinsed blood from his axe-blade. "This water's tainted."
The din of battle grew with every step. Firelight flickered through smoke. The two travelers reached the eyot and clambered up the short, steep bank. Before them was a many-layered wall of shadows: broad shoulders, helmeted heads and thick legs. The Orcs brandished their weapons northward; beyond them, somewhere in the twilight, the Prince of Rohan was besieged.
As they approached, Gimli thought of their seven other Companions, now scattered like so many leaves by the winds of war. Like as not, he thought sourly, he would never see any of them again. It was little more than I expected, when I joined this Company… He glanced to his right. Aragorn crept forward, Andûril poised, its shimmer momentarily hidden in darkness. The Dwarf had a grim smile on his face that no one could see. Well, if we two are all that's left to fight, so be it. So--let's to it, and be on with it…
It took the Dúnedain and Dwarf-warrior thirty desperate, Orc-bloodied minutes to cut their way through the wall of foes that separated them from Théodred. Aragorn's dark green tunic was black, and his face was slimed; Gimli's mailshirt and plaited beard were caked with gore. The Prince's personal guard might well have taken them for Dunlendings, or even Orcs, had they not witnessed the ferocity and skill of their fighting against the enemies of Rohan. Indeed, their sudden appearance in the field of battle, silver blade flashing and axe singing through the ranks of the enemy, brought forth a surge of energy from among the Rohirrhim.
The besieging attack from Isengard was broken; the bodies of great Uruks littered the eyot of the Isen. A guardsman standing nearby spoke.
"Hail, Orc-Avenger!" he called. "I know not whence you came nor why, but your blade…and your short friend's axe… were most welcome." The man sheathed his sword and extended a begrimed hand to Aragorn as he stepped around the body of a dead Orc.
Aragorn grasped the man's hand and smiled. "I've been called many names in my day. 'Orc-Avenger' is a title I would accept with pride… But such an honor must be shared by you, and by the rest of your company!"
The guard grinned and slapped the Dûnedain on his shoulder. "Harmund of the Eastfold I am named, and I serve Théodred, Prince of the Mark and Heir to the throne of Rohan. Come, friend and give your birth-name to my Lord …"
He nodded to the north, to the base of a low knoll of rock not ten yeards away. There, in the fickering light of a covered lantern stood a man whose greater height and somewhat darker plaits and beard contrasted with the surrounding Rohirrhim. He wore a steel mailshirt worked with a design of silver and bronze, and the standard of the royal House of Eorl, a rearing white stallion on a field of green, fluttered nearby. Men crowded about him, some leaning inward to catch their Lord's speech, others alert and on guard, weapons at the ready.
Harmund approached where Théodred stood, listening intently to news from east and west.
"Grimbold holds the west bank still, Lord…"
"…but the line has broken on the east, my Prince. They were swept away, by riders on woves…"
"Dead, sire, and Fréalaf and Éofor as well…"
The Prince of Rohan's fair face grew grim as he clutched the hilts of his sword tightly. "And the herds?"
"Some scattered…" The man's voice grew hoarse. "Others butchered…"
"We wll be revenged… But this night is yet young, and the White Sorcerer is not finished with us…"
Harmund stepped forward. "Lord Prince, I bring two strangers, valiant warriors both, who appeared from nowhere in the hottest moment of the fray to come to our aid…"
Théodred's turned toward them. He signaled for the lantern to be brought forward, and he scrutinized their filthy faces and begrimed garments. Aragorn bowed his head and placed his clenched fist on his breast, in the manner of the Rohirrhim.
"I am called Strider, of the North, and with me is Gimli, son of Glóin, Dwarf of Erebor, far to the East…"
"With sword and axe, they killed more than a dozen Orcs between them, Lord Théodred," Harmund said.
"'Strider'?" Théodred frowned with suspicion. "What strange sort of name is that? You are 'called,' you say… He who will not say his given birth-name mayhap has something to hide, whether he be skilled with blade or no. All those who kill Orcs are not friends of the Mark. Tell me your true name, stranger, and what brought you here, to this place deep inside the bounds of Rohan, so far from the Northlands, on this particular night of doom?
The Dûnedain met his inquisitive gaze. "I am no foe of the Mark, Lord, and if your Commander on the west bank, Grimbold, were here, he would vouch for me, for I served at his side in days past," he said sternly. "But my true name is one I deem it unwise to say aloud in this place so near to The Wizard's Vale, on this night of doom—for indeed, I would hide that knowledge from the White Sorcerer, for a short time longer. For Saruman serves Mordor now, and I say with no small pride that I am counted high among those whom the Dark Lord would call foes. I shall speak my true name to your ear, and to yours alone."
Théodred's brow rose in surprise at the forwardness of the stranger's request. His chief guardsman stepped forward, his dagger drawn and pointing toward Aragorn.
"Stay back, my Prince, do not allow him near you! This one is too brazen! Stranger—Strider, or whatever you are called—hold your place, or you shall feel the bite of this blade!"
The guardsmen of the Prince of Rohan closed ranks about their Lord, and a bristling wall of drawn swords, spearpoints and arrows soon encircled Aragorn and Gimli. The Dwarf snarled and grasped the haft of his axe; but Aragorn gestured sharply to him.
"Prince Théodred," he said, "I pose no threat to you." He held his hands up, palms out and at his sides. "If you would allow me to approach, I will do so with hands behind my back…" Slowly, he lowered his hands and brought them around behind him. He met Théodred's appraising eye steadily. "Have your man bind me, if you will…"
The sound of Gimli's indrawn breath was loud in the silence that followed. Théodred stared back at Aragorn for a long moment. Then, he gave a brief nod.
"Approach, Strider of the North. It will not be necessary to bind you…" His guardsman hissed. "Fréma, stand aside!" the Prince snapped. "I see no lie in his eyes. I would hear his name, and why he will not speak it aloud."
The men of Rohan parted, and Aragorn stepped forward, his hands clasped loosely behind him. Gimli followed cautiously, ready to strike at any Horse-Man who showed the least sign of aggression. Aragorn leaned in and brought his lips near to the ear of the Prince. Théodred frowned, then his eyes flew open as he gazed at Aragorn.
"My father is the son of a King and of a princess: Morwen, noblewoman of Gondor. Doth your name—and your father's name--signify what my sire's mother taught me?"
Aragorn drew himself to his full height, and the men near them marveled; for Théodred was the tallest man in the realm, and this stranger garbed in a travel-worn, blood-caked tunic and a stained cloak stood taller.
"It does, Prince Théodred, son of Théoden, son of Thengel—the King of Rohan whom I served, four decades ago…" Men nearby murmured in amazement, and not a few with scoffs of disbelief. The Dûnedain ignored them and went on, his voice quiet but full of power. "All my foresires have been so named, in an unbroken line from father to son that reaches…" He paused. "…That reaches beyond the shores of these lands."
He flung back the cloak, and in one movement, drew his ancient sword, newly remade. Andûril glittered in the lantern-light. The guards of the Prince surged forward again, weapons drawn. But Théodred gestured them back, all the while not taking his eyes off the face of the man from the North.
"None here know my true name but you, sire--and my friend and companion, Gloin's son of Erebor," Aragorn said with a nod toward Gimli. "But soon, all ears shall hear it, for in this hour of doom, I have come to claim all that is mine by right, and to fulfill those tasks that are mine by duty." His flashing eyes softened. "But this night, my duty calls me here, to your side, Théodred-Prince." He sheathed his sword and proferred his hand. "I stand beside you against the assault of Isengard, for your enemy and mine are one and the same."
Théodred stared at the hand reaching toward him—for by long tradition, no man in the Mark had the right to reach first toward the King or his Heir. Then he looked up, and his handsome features were made more so by his smile. He reached out and gripped Aragorn firmly.
"We stand together, friend," he said, and the men of hs guard visibly relaxed. "I deem a long tale could be told of what strange fortune brings one such as you out of the mists of legend, to this place, on this night, and with none in attendance save a Dwarf—mighty warrior though he be…"
Aragorn glanced at Gimli, who, though he could not understand the rich rolling language of the Rohirrhim, caught enough by gesture to realize the two tall men were speaking about him. The Dwarf snarled.
"Can these Horse-Men not speak any tongue but their own?"
Both men laughed. Théodred responded first—in Westron.
"They can, Master Dwarf… at least some of them can! Welcome, Gloin's son of Erebor, companion of…Strider. Undoubtedly another long and strange tale would explain your journey from your home far to the east and north. But such tales must wait. Fréma, offer our guests a skin of water, at least…"
But even as Theodred spoke, shouts of men and the smash of steel on steel began again. The Prince spun and faced northward, from whence the renewed attack came. He leapt to the top of a stone, swept his horn from his belt to his lips, and sounded it.
"To me, to me, Eorlingas! To me!"
The renewed onslaught of the army of Saruman was even fiercer than before. Grim tall creatures—crossbred Orc-men--rushed toward them from the darkness. They were clad in heavy black mail and steel helmets, and wielded double-headed, long-hafted axes. Again and again they drove inward, and soon surrounded the Rohirrhim. Théodred and his guard slowly gave way, moving back and up onto the low crest of the stony knoll in the center of the eyot. The night rang with the clang of steel, battle cries and snarls, and with screams and shrieks of the dying.
Théodred's guardsmen, hand-picked from throughout the realm for his personal éored, were sworn to shield their Lord with their lives, and all too many fell fulfilling their oath that night. Soon, but thirty remained; and with them was Aragorn. On his right was Fréma, chief of the Prince's éored, and on his left was Gimli of Erebor. They stood as a wall, and behind them was the Heir of the throne of Rohan. But as yet another knight of the Mark fell to the axes of Isengard, Théodred came forward to stand between Fréma and Aragorn.
"We stand together, or not at all," he cried. "Let our fates be as one!"
The attackers lunged forward again, and though the defence was swift and deadly, and one Orc-man after another was slain, two more would leap over the dead body. All too soon, the éored of Theodred was reduced to two dozen.
My choice was ill, Aragorn thought as he swung his blade into the neck of yet another attacker. Gimli was right, to doubt this path. Théodred was meant to be a great King, yet if I fall here in his defence, all that I have prepared for, all that I have desired, will come to naught… And if I do not live to fulfill the task revealed to me in the Lady's Garden, will Gondor fall to Umbar? Will the Bearer of our hope fail, if the Eye is not drawn outward, diverted from his true peril?....
The Dwarf swung his axe, and shattered the double-headed one of the snarling creature before him. With his next swing the Orc-man crumpled.
Gimli growled. "Look sharp!" he warned, but there was no need, for Aragorn's grim thoughts were forgotten as the sword of the Dûnedain found another mark.
"Would that I might see her, one last time…" Aragorn sighed under his breath; for their foes were closing in, and he felt their doom approaching. Every moment of their attention and every ounce of their strenth was required to keep the advancing wave of foes at bay.
Their attackers seemed intent on Theodred and those immediately guarding him. Marwhini was right, Aragorn thought. Saruman seeks to cut down the heart of the Mark… But not only the Heir to Rohan's throne was imperiled; for the Orc-men seemed to know that the tall, grey-cloaked, dark haired warrior was their chief impediment, and that the stout Dwarf beside him was a shield. The attack suddenly focused from left and right on Aragorn and Gimli, and the Dunedain and the son of Gloin were hard beset. The air was sharp with the sound of swinging metal and the scent of fresh blood.
Then, just as two axe-men converged at once on Aragorn, the foremost froze in mid-swing, his axe raised; and then he pitched forward to the ground. The second fell to Anduril's honed edge—but Aragorn leapt over his latest victim and with a swift kick he flipped the first attacker onto his back. Between the steel plates of the creature's helm, a grey-shafted arrow protruded. Though the light was dim, he could see that two of its feathers were blue, and the third was golden yellow.
Aragorn cried out in joy as he grasped the arrow and yanked it free. "I'd know it anywhere… Elladan! Brother, I am here! Here!"
And then, from the darkness, another axe fell, and the blood of the line of Elros spilled into the night.
* Tôrroch: horse-brother
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.