A Bit of Rope: 31. Happenstance and Strategy

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31. Happenstance and Strategy

Happenstance and Strategy

            I have missed them, surely… Legolas sat upon the horse of Lothlorien, gazing north. The long shadows of sunset flowed out from the living wall of Fangorn to his left.  He searched the plains between the slow ripple of deep Anduin and the sparkle of shallow Limlight with the keen sight of the Eldar. Nothing moved but the waving, faded grasses of last summer, tinged with green hints of spring to come.

            He had left Merry with the Ents that morning. At dawn he had spied what he was certain was a roving band of Orcs pounding the turf, invading Rohan from the southeast. For off to his right a company of horsemen seemed on a course to intercept them. But that was not his fight, he mused. Aragorn, he thought. I must find Aragorn…and the Dwarf.  He rode swiftly around the curve of the great forest. He expected that at any moment he would see a lone horse burdened with two riders coming toward him.

            But the plains were empty. Nothing met him but the wind. They have passed by already … Aragorn had rode more quickly than the Elf would have believed possible, with that thick-limbed, heavy Dwarf dangling at his waist. As daylight dwindled, he sniffed, and scowled. Legolas had to admit he was, in all likelihood, riding in the wrong direction.

            "Well, my lady," he said to the mare, "if it please you, we shall reverse our course yet again." The horse snorted and shook her mane, pausing before responding to the Elf-Prince's commands to stamp the turf and gaze longingly northward. "Come, lazy one. The grass is, at least, forgiving upon the hoof, and the air is pleasant… and I must beg your assistance for a while longer, afore you return to the Golden Wood." He pressed in with his heels and dragged her head in the opposite direction. The mare twisted her neck and gazed at him with one deep brown eye and snorted again. Then she shook herself and with a soft nicker, she sprang forward, galloping southward into the evening.

            An Elf's hearing is also more acute than any mortal's. In the midst of night, as the horse cantered easily by starlight, distant sounds came to Legolas. Metal scraping on metal; shouts and screams of men; and hideous voices of Orcs. He focused on a blur at the horizon. Flickering torches moved to and fro: carried, he saw, by men on horseback—men with flaxen hair worn in plaits, carrying spears, riding about a swarming knot of thick-armed, squat creatures. The men had the advantage of their mounts, but the Orcs outnumbered them, three to one. The siege of the Orc-encampment was thin. And some of the yrchh are man-height, and armed with great bows…

          Legolas reached around to his back as he rode. Out came the great bow of the Galadhrim; without pausing, he assembled and strung it. Next came an arrow: one of his own. A dark green shaft, fletched with the stiff tail feathers of the ghostly grey woodland owl, and armed with a steel point, sharp as Aragorn's blade. He had twenty-three more just like it. Two dozen lost in Moria… He had replaced them with the slightly longer arrows of Lothlorien, made of silvery mellyrn-wood with white feathers, but he preferred the heavier bolts of Mirkwood. He prodded the mare to a swifter pace.

            Eomer, Marshall of Rohan, circled at the edge of torchlight around the knot of Orcs. He and his men had chased this pack north and east, away from their intended track into the heart of the Mark. Curse the White Wizard! These beasts are his, I would swear to it…And they are joined by other foul creatures, invading from the Black Land to the East… He saw a lone brown horse galloping, apparently riderless, from the corner of his eye. He thought little of it, save to briefly wonder which of his men had fallen to an Orc-dart. Odd that the mount does not flee the battle… His attention was then fully occupied as a phalanx of huge Uruks broke through the encircling Riders with a coarse yell and thundered outward. The line of Rohirrhim faltered. He spurred his horse toward the gap.

            "Eorlingas!" he cried. "Do not let them escape!"

            Just then, Gárulf, the rider immediately before him, was pierced through the neck by a black-shafted arrow, and his mount, Hasufel, screamed and reared. Eomer's steed side-stepped and stumbled, and the Marshall was thrown, his helm flying loose as he crashed to the ground. Stunned, Eomer sat up in time to see a pair of great Uruks bearing the White Hand of Isengard on their black tunics closing in on him. His head whirling, the man managed to find his feet and raise his sword. Yet things might well have gone ill for him, had chance not brought a stranger to his land.

            To his amazement, the Uruks jerked and tumbled face-forward to the ground, one after the other in swift succession. Quivering shafts protruded from each, dead center at the base of their thick skulls. The man's eyes widened as the bare-backed horse he had taken for riderless appeared in the torchlight, a slender, bright-eyed warrior astride her with another arrow already set to string. One, two—other darts flew and another pair of Orcs, small mountain-goblins, gasped their final breaths and fell.

            His head still ringing, Eomer caught his horse's bridle and swung into the saddle to join in the fray, now at full force. He shouted.

            "Leave not a single invader standing! Death to the foes of the Mark!"

            "Death!" his men replied, and the men of Rohan began singing a battle song, as was their way.

            One voice rose above the rest, a strange and beautiful voice singing fiercely in a stranger tongue, and the men of Rohan stared in awe. But the Orcs hearts quailed to hear it, for they knew the sound of that voice, and knew their doom was in the eerie and ancient music

            When the stars began to fade, and the eastern horizon was grey with the hope of dawn, the battle was over. The fighting had lasted seven straight hours.

            Eomer slid from the saddle and leaned against his horse's flank wearily. He gazed about, taking stock. Every Orc lay dead. So also did fifteen of the men of Eomer's éored, and a dozen horses. Eothain, his second, approached.

           "Lord," he said, with a quaver in his hoarse voice. Eomer looked at him in surprise, for the man's face was drawn with fear. "The stranger, who appeared at the height of the fray… He is… he is…"

           Eothain had no more need to explain, for the stranger stood beside him, seeming, to the men of Rohan, to have materialized from the slight mist that rose from the turf in the growing light. The second in command gasped and fell back, his mouth agape and his eyes wide.

          But Eomer stepped forward, and clasping his clenched fist to his chest, he nodded once.

          "Hail, stranger," he said in his own language, for thus was the custom of the Riddermark. "I deem you are of the Olden Race, those we name the Dwimmerfolk. None such as you have been seen in our lands in years beyond count. Yet my thanks, for the trueness of your bowshot—for as surely as you stand before me, out of legend come, you saved my life!"

          Legolas Thranduiluin bowed toward the young Marshall, keeping his eye upon Eomer's face and doing his best to politely ignore the anxious murmurs of the gathering crowd of men.

          "Greetings, friend," he said in Westron. "I am named Legolas Greenleaf, and I come from Mirkwood the Great, east of the river Anduin. Are there any among you who can speak the Common Tongue?"

          "Aye, I am able," Eomer replied in Westron. "And again, I bid you welcome, and thanks for the aid you have brought us. Yet in these days of hazard, it is our law that none save those who speak our tongue, or hail from Gondor, our allies to the south, are allowed within our borders." He frowned. "Though laws, however just, cannot account for all contingencies," he muttered in a low voice. He looked the Elf in the eye, and held his gaze, though he felt a shiver run down his back as he beheld the many centuries that lay hid in the fair and unreadable face. "I am named Eomer, Eomund's son, and I am the Third Marshall of the Mark and the sister-son of the King. How came it to be, friend Legolas, that you appeared in the hour of our need? Why came you over the Great River into the fields of the Riddermark? And what path did you intend to follow hence?"

          "My journey from my homeland has been long and strange," the Elf replied. "Chance brought me here, this night—if chance it was, and not design unknowable." The murmuring of the men grew louder, as those who understood the Common Tongue translated for their fellows. They are so young, these men—like children… ""My path hence is my own to make, and my reasons my own to keep. But this I will say: I seek a friend—two friends—who are, I believe, abroad in your lands. A man, of the Northern kin of your allies in Gondor, and a Dwarf, from lands east of my own…"

          Eothain drew near to his captain's ear and muttered loudly. "Trust him not, Eomer, for he is of the Dwimmerfolk, and as any child can tell you no good ever came of contact with the Old Ones…"

          "Peace, Eothain," Eomer said sharply. "What little I know of Elves has come to me not out of children's tales, but from this night just passed--and I have seen proof enough to know whether my trust is deserved." He turned to Legolas. "We stand in the farthest north and east corner of the Mark. The friends whom you seek may travel in Rohan, but how will you find them? Our fields are broad, rolling from the Great River to the banks of far-off Isen, and south to the White Peaks. One might search a year and never find what he sought…"

          "'Tis true, Marshall Eomer, but does not the Gap named for your lands lie just beyond the banks of the Isen?"

          "It does…"

          Legolas bowed. "That is where I intend to seek, for my friend said he would go that way, in his turn to seek for others riding from the far north to his aid. And so, sire, I will take my leave of you and hasten west…"

          "No need to take your leave!" Eomer cried with a grin. Suddenly he felt an urgent wish that this mysterious stranger not be parted from his company—not yet. "Our path and yours are the same, for those who make war on our lands are thickest at the river Isen, and our duty calls us to that very place!" He reached forward and extended his open hand toward the Elf. "We ride together, friend Legolas of the mighty forest of Mirkwood!"

          Legolas hesitated for a moment, then a slow smile creased his face, and he grasped the man's hand firmly. It appears I have joined another fellowship, of sorts, he thought, and an even more unlikely one than the first...

* * *

            "If I didn't know better," Halbarad said dryly, "I might accuse you of being unfaithful to your betrothed..."

            Aragorn's head jerked toward him, a dark scowl on his face. "What in Arda!… How dare you…."

            "…although the new object of your affections outweighs you at least five-fold, outruns you by a factor of three, and is significantly handsomer than you." Halbarad's eyes twinkled. "Smells better, too…"

            His friend's sudden wrath died and a grin played on his lips. "Is it that obvious?" His lieutenant nodded with amusement. Aragorn laughed. "I admit it: I am besotted, though not without good reason! Shadowfax is truly a marvelous creature. I can hardly believe that he has finally allowed me to ride him. I've never experienced anything quite like it..." His smile faded. "Though it would bring me greater joy if his original rider were still among us, or if I had hope of seeing him again," he murmured.

            Halbarad and Aragorn sat together in the common room of Meduseld, on the morning of the fifth day since they had been reunited at the Fords of Isen. Aragorn had already been up, he knew, since dawn, to ride the stallion again. He had at last succeeded in taming him—no, in persuading the horse to accept him as a rider—the evening before. How, exactly, he had accomplished it, Halbarad did not know. He only knew that Elrond's sons had somehow been involved.

            No doubt they all spoke flawless Quenya to the beast, and convinced him they were friends of Gandalf's…

            The Ranger studied his Captain's drawn features as he picked at the food before him, The rare smile had come and gone quickly. In Halbarad's opinion, Aragorn had been pushing himself far too hard since he'd risen from his sickbed, not yet three days ago. The Dûnedan's every waking moment not spent in the fields chasing after a hot-tempered beast had been filled by strategy sessions with the Prince of Rohan and his advisors, accompanying Théodred to oversee preparations for the evacuation of Edoras to the shelter of Dunharrow, inspecting the Riders readying for war, and meeting with his own men of the North to fill them in on just how dark the days ahead would most likely be. But Halbarad had also watched his friend entering the private rooms of the aged King, unescorted by either Peredhil, and had seen the Lady Eowyn press his hand in gratitude. The lieutenant's jaw tightened. He risks too much…

            "By the way," he said quietly. "I consider it my duty to remind you of your promise not to attempt to counter the spell that the old King has fallen under…"

            Aragorn grunted and frowned. "Shadowing my every move now, are you?"

            "As you haven't the sense to care for yourself properly, someone must do it for you," his kinsman snapped.

            "Between you and Gimli, I might as well have nursemaids dogging my footsteps…"

            Halbarad shoved his own plate away and leaned forward, glaring into his Captain's stern face. "Listen to me, Aragorn!" he said, his voice hushed but firm. "You are pushing yourself too hard! You can't see that hideous wound—but I know you feel it, and how weak your sword arm still is. You must rest, and heal—and then we must go on. Rohan is now in the hands of a strong and capable ruler. Your work here is done. The road prophesied for you is out that door, and south. The only remaining question is, when do you plan to take it?"

             Aragorn's eyes closed and he sank back. He winced slightly as his wound pinched against the back of the chair, but he was silent. Halbarad wondered if he'd pushed too hard himself. At last, his Captain spoke.

            "Part of me knows you are right," he muttered. "But another part—more than one part, if you would know—cannot easily abandon Rohan to her fate against the armies of Isengard. Théodred is capable, but he is not yet forty, and he has not known a real war. It doesn't feel right… And something Gandalf said, the night before we parted…" He looked Halbarad in the eye, and his voice dropped. "I vowed to say nothing of what we discussed that concerned him, but he made no mention of the rest. His words still ring in my ears, as if he had just spoken them. He said, 'Gondor will soon be besieged from all sides, and Rohan's strength will be drawn off by the treachery of Saruman. Go there, and farther south, where none save you can succeed.'"

            "And what, exactly, do you think the old wizard thought you and a small company of Rangers, a pair of Elves and a Dwarf might do to save Rohan from Saruman and the armies of Orcs at his command?"

            "For that question I have no answer," Aragorn said moodily, as he toyed with his barely eaten breakfast. "But the time for a decision has come, for Théodred sends his people to the haven this very day, and his cavalry rides to the Fords as soon as Edoras is empty." He glanced up. "You need waste no more worries that I shall risk myself at the bedside of Théoden again. He is to be taken by cart to Dunharrow, this afternoon. His sister-daughter accompanies the ailing King."

          He pushed away from the table just as Elrohir and Elladan approached. They looked at the men curiously and glanced at one another, but said nothing.

          "And that reminds me," Aragorn said, to no one in particular. "We've all been invited to a ceremony that we ought not to miss."

            The tall men and the sons of Elrond met Gimli on his way into the common room. The Dwarf took one look at their faces and fell into line beside Halbarad.

            "Where are we off to now?" he muttered.

            "No idea," Halbarad grunted. Aragorn strode on in silence.

            They soon reached the great hall of Meduseld and entered through a side door. The golden chair stood empty, but standing before the throne of Rohan stood her Prince and King in all but name only. Nearly fifty noblemen and knights of Rohan had gathered. Hama stood at Théodred's right, holding the ancient blade, Herugrim. Kneeling before the Prince was Eowyn. She wore a belted mailshirt over her gown, and her golden hair was hid beneath a silver helm.

           The ceremony had already begun. Théodred's clear voice rang out.

            "And do you vow to protect the people of Rohan, to lead them and to guide them, in peace and in war?"

            "Aye, Lord Prince…"

            Her voice was lower in pitch than most women, Halbarad thought. And that mailshirt was made expressly for her. It fits her like a glove… His heart caught, for save for her golden hair the lady brought to mind his own daughter, far away: lithe, strong, and proud. She too, has learned to wield a sword…

            "To stand by King Théoden, and see to his comfort and his needs?"

            "Aye…"

            "To serve the Mark tirelessly, using all your wisdom and your strength…"

            "Aye…"

            "…and to remain faithful to the people of Rohan, in peace and in war, whatever may come to pass?"

            "I swear it, my Prince…"

            Théodred smiled and nodded. "I know you will, my dear cousin," he said softly. "You are as brave-hearted as any man, stronger than many, and more faithful than most." He turned to Hama, and took from him the sword his father had borne. He drew it from its gilded sheath and faced Eowyn once more.

            "Then by my power as Lord of the Mark in the name of King Théoden, I name thee, Eowyn Eomund-daughter, knight of Rohan." Deftly he dropped the tip of the sword to her shoulders, right, then left. She held her head proudly and did not flinch as the razor sharp blade brushed against the bare skin of her neck.

            Théodred sheathed Herugrim and handed it back to Hama; then he leaned forward. He took his cousin's hand and raised her up.

            "Behold!" he cried, "Here stands Eowyn, Rider and Knight of Rohan, Royal Lady of the House of Eorl, and whom I now proclaim ruler of the people of Edoras and the Mark in Harrowdale and the havens, and in all places where they now reside, until the King awakens…. or until another returns. Hail, Lady Eowyn!"

            The Prince stepped back with a smile, and the room erupted in cheers and applause. The newly knighted Lady stood directly before the throne and looked about at the faces turned toward her, all creased with broad smiles. Her cheeks had turned flame-red; but she stood tall and proud, and her face was stern.

            "A good choice," Aragorn said quietly. "She is a brave young woman."

            "Well, she is young, at least…" Halbarad muttered.

            They stepped forward to join the line of men of Rohan who came to pay their respects to the Lady. Halbarad did not hear the soft words that his Captain murmured to her, but he noted that Aragorn had tucked his left hand behind his waist, and his right still hung in the sling. When his turn came to greet Eowyn, the lieutenant found her brows drawn together in a confused frown. Of course… he did not take her hand… he hurt her feelings…

           On impulse, he reached out and clasped her hand between his own, and again his thoughts went to his daughter Faeleth, whom he'd left standing in the doorway of the home he'd shared with her in the Angle. His eldest son Halmir rode with him, and his youngest was posted with the Rangers at Tharbad; his wife had died of fever four winters past, when he was afield with the Ranger guard of the Shire. He pictured Faeleth alone, standing tall and steady to face who knew what evils that would descend on the shrunken settlements of the remnant of the northern Dûnedain. That she, too, would be capable of rule, were it to come to that, he had no doubt. His stern face softened with a smile.

          "Lady Eowyn, the honors bestowed on you this morning are well deserved. The people of Rohan are fortunate to have such a capable and courageous leader as you."

           Her hurt frown unknotted, and she turned her distracted gaze upon him. She read the kindness there, and saw no hint of the pity she had seen in his Captain's dark eyes. The humiliation that had stung her by the look upon the Lord Aragorn's face slowly faded. She graced him with a smile of sincere gratitude; for in Halbarad Dûnedan Eowyn suddenly saw the same measured concern mixed with admiration that she oft read in her cousin Théodred's eyes. Here, she realized, was another who might actually see her as she truly was. So few can see me… Eomer does not, nor Uncle… Most men cannot see beyond this maid's flesh that binds me to a narrow space upon which I cannot stretch nor breathe…

            "Lord Halbarad, I thank thee," she said softly. "For your gracious words, and for the deeds you undoubtedly did that saved my uncle-son, the Prince." She looked him in the eye, studying him for a moment. "I deem you to be a worthy leader in your own right, and one who might have ruled, had the fates of blood been altered."

            Halbarad bowed his head slightly. "But what is, is, and I am who I am, as are you, Lady. I serve the mightiest and most admirable Lord of this Age of the world, and do so all the more proudly knowing he is close kin." He leaned in close to her ear and whispered. "And know this, Lady: he gave his promise to another, twenty years before you were born to grace this land…" He straightened and dropped her hand. "If we meet not again, Lady Eowyn, remember that this Northern Ranger wishes you well, and long life."

            "The same upon you, sire," she said hoarsely.

            He glanced back as he walked away and saw her blank, unseeing stare as she nodded and murmured reflexively to the Peredhil, and to the Dwarf. They joined him as he waited on Aragorn, who stood two dozen feet away speaking in low tones to the Prince.

            "What on earth did you say to the Lady, Halbarad?" Elladan sniffed. "She was practically mute with shock…"

            One of Halbarad's brows rose. "My words were for her ears alone."

            Gimli smirked as he looked from one to the other. "Well, whatever it was, she was so distracted I doubt she even saw me… Looked right over my head."

            "And a good thing," Elrohir said dryly. "A glimpse of you, Master Gimli, and the fair maiden might have keeled over backward in a swoon, and spoilt the effect of the quaint ceremony…"

            Halbarad grunted. "Spoken like one who has a sister… but no daughter."

            "What, pray tell, does that mean?" Elrohir's usually placid face was flushed.

            "Just this: that 'maiden' has a heart as well as a fair form," he growled. "If you would bother to look… Oh, never mind…"

            The Elves glanced at one another, frowning. But Gimli nodded, his eyes fixed on Halbarad's.

            "So," he muttered. "You set her mind to rights…"

            "Someone had to," Halbarad replied. "It comes with the territory, as his second." He nodded toward Aragorn.

            "I suppose it might," the Dwarf said thoughtfully. "Stern duty, friend…"

            Halbarad sniffed. "At times…"

            Elrohir glared. "What in Arda are you two talking about?"

            "You truly do not see it?" Gimli snorted. "I had no idea Elves were so dull-witted…"

            Elrohir's face burned, and Elladan sputtered. "Dull-witted…!"

             "Aye," the Dwarf said. "You seem as oblivious as your step-brother…"

            "Oh, he's quite aware," Halbarad said softly. "It pains him greatly. It's just that he has no idea what to do about his effect on...well, on fair maidens…"

            "Ah," Elrohir said. "Now I understand…"

            "Indeed," Elladan murmured, as the Twain turned to gaze at the Lady of Rohan, standing tall and proud, her face impassive, as the next nobleman of the Mark came to greet her. "Obvious enough, once one knows to look… He bears the same burden as Arwen…"

            "Yes," Elrohir whispered. "They all fell for her, every one, from Arahael* onward… And she has been as distressed by it as you say he is… Until now, of course…"

            They all turned toward Aragorn, standing with the Prince.

            "A well-balanced match," Gimli said solemnly.

            "And, let us hope, a long-lasting one…" Elrohir breathed.

            As if he was suddenly aware of his friends' eyes on his back, Aragorn glanced toward the group staring at him. He reached out and clasped Théodred upon his shoulder, then turned and walked determinedly toward the watchers.

            "Here it comes…" Halbarad whispered. The Twain gazed at him with curiosity. Gimli's face was stony.

            Aragorn directed his words to his lieutenant. "I have made a decision," he said. "The Grey Company rides north with the Prince, to the defence of Rohan."

            Halbarad let out a frustrated sigh. Elladan frowned. "North? But Ada spoke of haste, little brother…"

            "Is this truly your concern, Aragorn?" Elrohir said. "You are Isildur's Heir first, and friend to the Prince of Rohan second…"

            Aragorn cut them off with a sharp glance. "I am more than aware of all the arguments for and against." He turned to Elladan. "Who knows what Elrond might say, were he here to assess this perilous situation himself? I have need of haste, indeed—but it will avail us little to come swiftly to Minas Tirith from the south only to meet Isengard's army arriving from the north and west. The fate of Rohan and the fate of Gondor are inextricably linked…" His eyes wandered back to Halbarad's. "…or so I judge it." He drew in and released a long breath. "And so, it seems, did Gandalf," he whispered. His voice rose. "We ride north."

            With no further argument, they followed their commander as he strode swiftly from the hall of Meduseld. Halbarad and Gimli brought up the rear.

            "For my part," the Dwarf growled, "such intricate strategems are above me. He leads, I follow. But this time I intend to watch his back more closely…"

            "As do I. But as for me," Halbarad muttered. "I also wonder how long he will be driven by guilt…or whatever it is he feels toward the wizard…"

* * *

            Merry yawned for the third time in as many minutes. I know it must appear the height of rudeness, but I can't help it! Their voices are like the murmur of the Brandywine at night… That sound faithfully sends me right to sleep…

            He dug his knuckles into his eyes and rubbed again. He sat on a boulder on the lip of a sunken dell, his legs swinging. His heels banged into the rock. Perhaps if I bash my feet on this stone, I'll stay awake for the pain… No, that wouldn't do. He needed his feet whole, for whatever lay ahead. He slipped to the ground and started his circuit of the dell again. Maybe marching carefully, avoiding stones and fallen logs in near-total darkness would keep him awake. The stars glinted above, and the waxing Moon peeked through the branches of the trees. Merry picked his slow way forward.

            Below him, nearly fifty Ents had gathered, in what Treebeard had named Entmoot: the gathering of the last of the Onodrim. Their tall forms swayed to and fro as great trees in the night wind—save that there was barely a breeze, and no wind had ever made such a sonorous, continuous rumble in any ordinary trees. To Merry, the gathered Ents appeared like a grey fog clinging to the bottom of the dell. He could just make out Treebeard and Quickbeam standing together in the center. Around them stood the rest of the Ents. Merry thought they looked like a slowly moving, very tall hedge. Their deep murmuring rose and fell, rose and fell.

           The Ents had arrived at this high green dell on the evening before last. At first it was astonishing to watch their varied figures: some gnarled, like giant oaks, some smooth-skinned, with twiggy, grey beards, and still others very tall, with thick dark hair and beards, like walking fir trees. The hobbit had waited, listening anxiously for any change in the murmuring voices, any hint that the creatures had come to a decision. But hour after hour passed. Midnight came and went, and dawn. The Sun rose past noon and set, and day came and went again, and nothing happened—nothing but the continuous muttering of the Ents.

           Merry was more miserable and lonely than ever before. At least while Treebeard and Quickbeam had been occupied traipsing about Fangorn in search of the scattered Ents, things had felt more lively. At least they'd been moving. At least they'd talked to him.

            But since Entmoot had begun, he'd been left alone nearly all of the time. Quickbeam had come to visit with him twice, and the old Ent had made sure that Merry had water to drink and a sheltered place to bed down at night. But mostly he was alone, with no company but his own worried imagination.

            Merry had never felt so fretful. He'd slept on the ground at the base of a tree—a real, deep-rooted tree—for two nights, wrapped in his soft Lothlorien cloak and a nice warm blanket from Rivendell. He was comfortable enough, and had dropped off quickly. But in the middle of each night he woke, startled, from a dream--no, from a nightmare. And he couldn't shake the image—identical in both dreams.

            Pippin was lost, lost and alone, in some vast endless grassland threaded by innumerable streams and intertwining paths. He was supposed to be with the others. Well, maybe they've separated at last, and Frodo and Sam and Gandalf have gone onward, eastward, but he is supposed to be with Boromir, isn't he? But the soldier of Gondor was nowhere in sight. Merry could see the frightened look on poor Pip's face as he struggled to keep running through the maze of grass and rivulets. Why is he running? Is something awful chasing him? He could almost hear his cousin's huffing breath as he hurried, could almost feel his racing, frantic heartbeat as he fought off his panic…

            "It's just a dream, you silly goose," Merry muttered to himself as he trudged on in the circle. "Pip's fine. Old Boromir wouldn't let him out of his sight, he's a reliable fellow…"

            But what if it was more than a dream? What if it was some sort of a warning? Frodo had troubling dreams, ominous dreams, Merry knew. Always had them, since he lived at Brandy Hall… Frodo had even had a few dreams since they'd begun this journey, way back in September last. He doesn't like to speak of it, but I know him, and that pinched, serious look he has in the morning, afterward… Merry hadn't had such dreams himself. But two identical dreams in a row… That was odd enough. Everything was different now. There were so many things he'd never done before, had never experienced before since they'd stepped through the Hedge and left the Shire all those months ago. Anything was possible.

            Maybe Pippin truly is lost and alone. Maybe he's gotten separated from the others. Merry could feel his own heart racing in panic now. Maybe they've all run into some terrible trouble, and Pippn's the only one to survive…

            The hobbit stopped abruptly. He held still, listening. The wind had picked up a bit, hissing through the trees above him. But that was the only sound. The night was suddenly quiet. He spun, staring down into the dell at the shadowed forms below.

            The Ents! They had stopped their rumbling talk. They were suddenly silent. Entmoot was over!

            Treebeard and Quickbeam were climbing toward him. The other Ents seemed to be filing slowly up and out the opposite side of the dell. Merry watched them, eyes wide. The Ents had gathered slowly, one by one, but now they were departing together. They look for all the world like a forest in motion.

            The Eldest of the Onodrim stood leaning over the hobbit, his deep green eyes unblinking.

            "Hrmmm…. Well, Master Merry," he said slowly, "Entmoot has come to an end. The Ents have made a decision." Treebeard stared at him intently.

           "Wh…what decision have you made?" Merry said, his voice quivering.

           The deep, ancient eyes seemed to burn with an inner fire. "We go to war, my young friend. We go to Isengard, and it may well be that we go to our deaths—to the end of the Onodrim. Will you go with us?"

            Merry swallowed hard.

            "Yes. Yes, of course I will."

* * *

           Grima slid from the back of the horse in exhaustion. He had ridden from Edoras with but two brief halts, and not a wink of sleep. It had not been safe to sleep, not while he was within the bounds of the Mark and in reach of Théodred's wrath. Of course, he would have had many hours lead on any the Prince might have sent from Meduseld to hunt for him or to spread lies to the Marshalls abroad in the field. But still; one need not take unnecessary chances. And so he had rode on, with no real rest and no food, only a skin of water, as fast as the horse could be flogged to carry him.

           He coughed and spat; the wad of spittle thudded into grey dust. It was his one regret, that no one remained behind to counter the stories that would now be spun about him: that he was nothing but a traitor, that he was Saruman's lackey, that he had tried to murder the King. None of it was true—not in his own mind. I tried to protect the King and the realm from destruction…  He had seen the forces the White Wizard had amassed, and knew that even all of Rohan's knights together had no chance of victory against such superior numbers and weaponry. To negotiate a suitable truce was be the Mark's only chance for survival. But the Prince's ego was too large to see the truth. Stubborn fools…

           He tossed the reins of his sweating horse to a nearby soldier and looked over his shoulder. The iron gate of Isengard had already clanged shut behind him, and the guards in the stone tunnel that pierced through the thick fortress wall were again at their places. More were above, pacing endlessly on the high and impregnable structure. He looked around. The fortress of Isengard was ten-fold greater than the greatest battlement of Rohan, the fortress of Helm's Deep, and far better made. And then there was the Tower itself—greater, even than the great walls that surrounded it, and made of stone so hard that no tool could score its gleaming black surface. Even if every last Rider and foot-soldier did not fall in the next encounter at the Fords, or the next after that… No one in all history has taken this place by force. No one. Rohan could not win. It was, quite simply, impossible.

            Grima thrust the image of Eowyn's fair face, twisted with loathing, out of his mind. His fists clenched as he began to stride quickly toward the Tower. In time, I could have made her understand… In time, her heart might have changed toward me… But not now.  Now she would always hate him. Oh, he would still have her, he knew. Saruman had promised it. But it wasn't the way he wanted it.

            He would have given just about anything for a meal, a bath and a bed. But he didn't dare. He knew Saruman would be waiting, as soon as word came to him that his spy in the court of Edoras had arrived… And even before word came. The Lord of Orthanc was nothing if not impatient.

            The door-warden nodded to him as he reached the top of the long stairway of the Tower of Orthanc. The massive black steel door ground slowly, opening a crack. Grima slipped inside. His eyes adjusted to the guttering torchlight flickering on the polished black walls. The interior guards regarded him without a word.

           "Is he…"

            "In his study," the guard grunted. "Go right up. Knew you were coming."

            As always, Grima shivered. Saruman always knew everything, even what happened far off. How he did it was a dark, frightening mystery. As he walked to the stairwell and started the long climb he was grateful that the White Wizard at least kept human soldiers for his gate-wardens and Tower guards. He'd had to get used to the swarms of Orcs in Isengard, as thick and as disgusting as flies on a dungheap. Especially those hideous Uruks. He hated the looks those unnatural monsters gave him—malevolent, sneering, and hungry

            The wizard's study was high in the Tower. Grima stood gasping in the stairwell until he could breathe properly. His heart finally slowed. He raised his fist, rapped on the door, and entered.

            Saruman stood at the open doorway to the balcony, gazing out into the night, where, Grima knew, troops of Orcs were assembling.

           "So." The voice was low, filled with icy rage. "Not only is the heir to Rohan's throne still alive, but he is now in command of the Mark. Just what sort of mess have you made of things, Worm?"

            Grima shivered again as the wizard finally turned and glared. Saruman's dark eyes burned into him, and the man felt every muscle stiffening with fear. He swallowed hard and tried not to cringe.

           He had but one task left to perform. For his country. For Rohan. For Eowyn. Somehow, he had to convince Saruman to control the uncontrollable Uruks, to keep them from razing the entire Mark to the ground and slaughtering every last man, woman and child.

            And by the look of fury on the White Wizard's face, he knew he was in for the battle of his life.

* A.N. Arahael was the first Dunedain chieftain's son to be raised in Rivendell, correcting an earlier version of this chapter.


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.

Story Information

Author: Aiwendiel

Status: General

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - Ring War

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 01/06/12

Original Post: 02/25/09

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Comments

WARNING! Comments may contain spoilers for a chapter or story. Read with caution.

A Bit of Rope

ziggy - 19 Oct 10 - 11:05 PM

Ch. 31: Happenstance and Strategy

Ah, Aiwendl, this just gets better and better. Not just an ambitious piece of work, but so beautifully and precisely written. I can forgive you the long wait for the length and depth of this superb chapter. I think you have caught Eowyn more accurately than anything else I have ever read - economic , accurate, detailed and still not overloading my imagination. And the story twists and winds intriguingly. I think too, the dream Merry has of Pippin is fabulously done- I felt real anxiety when I read it; it resembles such a real dream, that blind panic, not knowing, fear for another. And I am interested to see how Eomer and Legolas fit into this, has Legolas taken on the role of Gandalf in the Battle of Helm's Deep? I miss the friendship between Legolas and Gimli but you do Aragorn and Gimli so well. And of course Elrohir and Elladan are utterly gorgeously fabulous. (Sorry- fangurrrl swoon)

A Bit of Rope

Aiwendiel - 22 Oct 10 - 2:46 PM

Ch. 31: Happenstance and Strategy

Ziggy, thanks for the comments on Ch. 31, but ....err.... ummm... apologies in advance to your inner fangurrl..  Do you have a favorite between Elladan and Elrohir? I haven't picked which one yet, but... ummmm...  when the battle of Helm's Deep is over, ah....  one of them... well, take a deep breath and keep reading. It won't be in the next chapter (just posted) but the one after that. Just to warn you. (sorry! ) A

A Bit of Rope

Larner - 01 Nov 10 - 2:14 AM

Ch. 31: Happenstance and Strategy

Definitely a different story, with Eowyn warned away, Theodred alive, Theoden still under the power of Grima's machinations, and Merry separated too early from Pippin!


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