35. Spoils of Victory
Spoils of Victory
It was not as easy to pass through the trees as Legolas had made it seem. They all felt a press of seething anger about them as they rode along a narrow path that had opened for them. Deep muttering voices surrounded them. The trees seemed to lean inward, and even Shadowfax snorted nervously as he cantered through. When they emerged at last on the other side of the forest, every Dúnedain breathed a sigh of relief. Even Elrohir, with Gimli behind him once again, seemed glad to leave the Huorns behind.
Only Legolas, riding now upon a horse of one of the fallen Rangers, turned to gaze back. A tall Ent had stepped out and raised his long, many-fingered hand. The Elf waved in salute, and rode onward.
Late that night, the Grey Company halted far out upon the plains of the Westfold, having come nearly half the distance from the entrance to the Deeping Coomb to the Fords. They set a watch, but nothing disturbed the encampment through the night—until the hour before dawn.
Aragorn woke from sleep to a sudden noise. He sat up, and the others were soon roused. A howling wind was passing to the East, and with it, a flowing black stream of moving shapes. They stood and watched as the Huorns marched in their return journey to the secret places of Fangorn. Not one of them ever saw another of the mysterious Spirits of the Trees again.
Sleepless now, they broke camp early and with the dawn were riding north. The day was chill, and fog hung low over the river. Passing over the Fords from east to west, they glimpsed through the mists the evidence of the second, more terrible battle for control of the Isen, when the forces of Rohan were routed and pushed back. The retreating Rohirrhim had been forced to leave their dead unburied. Men and horses lay tangled with the corpses of their foes; the rising stench caught in their throats. Once across the river, their ride was easier, for the road to Isengard was paved and well maintained. It rose slowly toward the feet of the Misty Mountains; but instead of leaving the steams of the river valley behind, the fog thickened. The Grey Company rode upward as if into a cloud, their cloaks and hair glistening with clinging drops.
The feeble Sun, pale behind the mist, had risen halfway to noon when the Company cautiously approached the gate. Taking the final curve, they halted and sat on their horses in awe. Where once thick high walls of solid stone stood, now an enormous ring of broken rubble sprawled before them. The shape of the place could still be seen—a rampart here, the outline of a high window there. But the impregnable fortress of Angrenost was no more. A jumble of twisted black iron lay on the ground—the remains of what had once been a mighty gate. The fortress seemed empty, the cold wind whistling through the gaps. A half mile beyond the crushed walls, a tall black shape rose, its base obscured in the fog.
"What in Arda could do such damage?" Halbarad whispered as they paced their horses forward slowly.
"'If you wish to topple a wall of stone, drop an acorn nearby, and wait,'" Legolas said. "So said Mithrandir—but I did not truly understand his words until now…"
"This destruction appears greater than if a thousand of Saruman's blasting devices had been used against him," Aragorn murmured.
"Listen!" Gimli whispered. "What's that?"
Aragorn held his breath. He frowned. He heard two sounds. From far off and to their left came a deep rumbling that rose and fell, rose and fell. But from close at hand he heard the faint echo of music, mixed with scrapes and thuds. A piping voice was singing, and he caught snatches of familiar words.
Now far ahead the Road has gone
And I must follow it if I can…
He smiled and flicked the reins. Shadowfax trotted forward. "Meriadoc Brandybuck!" he called. "What sort of welcome is this? You have visitors—come out!"
They heard Oh! and a loud thump followed by Ouch! Then the slap of bare feet running on stairs.
"Half a minute! I'm coming!"
Aragorn, Legolas, Elrohir and Gimli slid from their horses as Merry emerged from the roofless tunnel that had once stood behind the iron gate of Isengard. The Peredhel stood back as the Hobbit raised both arms and ran toward them. Aragorn knelt on one knee as Merry crashed into him and embraced him.
"Strider! Oh, Strider," he cried. "I'm so glad to see you… and Gimli… Legolas! You're all right! I was so worried about all of you!"
"You were worried about us?" Aragorn laughed. "And all this time we three have been worrying for you, my young friend…"
"For me?" Merry scoffed. "Nonsense—there's no safer place in Middle Earth than with a crowd of friendly Ents guarding you! On the other hand, if they happen not to be your friends, well…" He grinned and gestured at the broken walls. "You can see for yourselves what can happen. But enough of that! I'm safe, and well, and desperate for news of all of you… But there's business to attend to, before all that—pleasant business!"
He stepped back from Aragorn's arms, smiling broadly. "It is so good to see all of you! I've missed you so…" He quickly wiped a hand across his eyes and blinked hard. "We knew you were coming—I mean, Treebeard knew, he'd had a message early this morning. He's up at the northern end, where the stream pierces the outer wall… Well, where it used to pierce the wall! Anyway, I was supposed to be on watch for you, and bring you along to meet him and the rest, and I've been tirelessly on duty, and here you catch me off guard for just a moment—but I'll have you know, I have an excellent reason! I'd just found the most remarkable treasure, and could use a hand getting it out, if one of you fine fellows can be troubled to help…" He frowned. "Why, Gimli! What happened to your leg?"
The three Companions looked down with faces creased with smiles.
Gimli gave a low whistle. "I'd forgotten how much—and how fast a Hobbit can talk! All in due time, my friend, the little tale of my broken bone can wait…"
Legolas bowed his head. "Might I be of assistance, Meriadoc?"
"Of course! Follow me," Merry said as he turned and reentered the broken tunnel. They heard more thumps and scrapes, and in a few minutes Merry emerged with Legolas behind him, carrying a wooden barrel. He placed it on the ground at Aragorn's feet, and the Ranger crouched down to examine it. He ran his fingers over the markings, which read 1417, Southfarthing in runes very familiar to him as those used by Hobbits of the Shire.
"How very strange…"
"I'll say! Queer and a bit frightening, if you ask me." Merry withdrew the knife from his belt and loosened the top of the barrel. The rich scent of well-cured pipeweed wafted forth. "But we can worry later about how this got here, in Saruman's door guards' storage chamber, of all places, and take advantage of our good fortune today! I don't know about the rest of you, but I've been out of leaf for so long I've forgotten what a pipe tastes like!"
The pipe-smokers among the Company soon filled their pouches, and the rest of the contents of the barrel of Longbottom Leaf were stowed in the Dúnedain's saddlebags. Merry was introduced to the rest of Aragorn's men, and they made ready to move on. The Hobbit gazed up at Shadowfax in awe.
"My goodness, Strider… What a horse! He's so…so tall!"
"Ride again with me, Meriadoc," Legolas said.
When all were mounted they continued the circuit of the outer wall of Isengard. The extent of the destruction was astonishing. The Ents had left nothing untouched; even the huge White Hand, carved of solid stone, which marked the entrance to the Gate-Road lay broken upon the ground. The rumbling voices grew louder as they rode north and veered east. Soon Aragorn saw a man-like figure in the mist—but taller and thicker than any Man or Elf, and bigger than any troll he had ever seen.
The mists parted, and the Grey Company saw a sight unknown since the First Age—a gathering of Ents, in the open, away from their forest hideaway. They stood on the bank of the sparkling Isen, and were piling stone on stone, diverting a portion of the river. When the visitors appeared, the Ents ceased their labor and looked up.
Aragorn quickly counted fourteen, and he marveled at the variety of their shapes and coloration, just like the many trees of Middle Earth. Yet the eyes they turned upon their visitors all had the same quality of enormous depth, and within that depth flickered bright flames of inquisitive wisdom and slow, steady regard. He rode forward on Shadowfax, and with a deep bow he met Treebeard himself.
The first—and last--meeting of the Eldest of the Onodrim and the Heir of Isildur was brief, but deeply satisfying for both. They spoke of the battles just fought at Helm's Deep and here at Isengard, of the pivotal role played by the Huorns, and the uncertainties to come.
Then Treebeard tilted his head down to speak in a low tone. "I understand… hrummm… that you are acquainted with my old friend, the Grey Wizard?"
Legolas had already told his Companions from the Fellowship how much Merry had revealed to the old Ent.
"I am indeed," Aragorn replied quietly. "Though undoubtedly I have known him for fewer years than you, Eldest, I also consider Gandalf to be an old, and a dear friend. I understand that you know where our mutual friend has gone, and why?"
"Hrummm… Yes… though we shall not speak of such things more openly here." He sighed, and the sound was like the creaking of branches in a windswept forest. "Alas, if only all Wizards had remained as true…" One of the Ent's thick grey brows rose. "Friendship may, at times, bring grief to our hearts as well as joy--as when a friend faces… hrummm..... difficulty. But that does not make it any less worthwhile. Let your heart be at peace, young Aragorn…."
The man looked up in surprise, for the old Ent seemed to have read his thoughts. Treebeard was gazing at him with sadness, but also with great kindness in his remarkable eyes.
"I see that you suffer, child, and that, at least in part, your sorrow is because you would have spared your old friend any… difficulty. But as he himself might have said... hrummm... recall why he came to these lands, and be at peace with his choice."
Treebeard peered for another long moment at Aragorn, whose face was now furrowed as he mused on the Ent's words. Then the Eldest spoke.
"Join us, friends, at yonder table where our young Merry has arranged for the finest of the bounty of Isengard to be brought for a feast… hrummm… And for the Ents, and any who have a thirst, nourishing draughts have been prepared…"
The Grey Company and the four members of the Fellowship then dismounted and joined their hosts at a banquet. Fruit and cheeses, cured meats and loaves of bread with tubs of honey lay upon the table. Merry had found all this, and more, in his exploration of the storehouses for the human soldiers of Isengard.
"Sadly, the casks of ale had all been broken in the destruction of the walls," he said. "But I managed to find a few untouched bottles of wine. I've tucked them away in my pack. Maybe tonight we can enjoy a sip together, along with a nice smoke, and really catch up on one another's stories…"
They all promised to do just that. Aragorn went in search of Halbarad. As he conferred with his lieutenant he noticed from the corner of his eye that Elrohir and Treebeard were speaking together. He wondered what it meant; but then forgot it as the feast came to a close. For the final toast each visitor was given a bowl of what seemed to be simply water. But at the first sip, the far-off scent of earth and root and budding branch came to their noses. As he drank his portion, Aragorn felt the draught course through him, rising like the sap of a tree from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. He breathed deeply and sighed in wonder, for the throbbing of his shoulder noticeably lessened.
He stepped forward, and with a deep bow he thanked their hosts. "Once the days of Darkness before us pass, and peace comes again to Middle Earth, let there ever be friendship between our folk, Eldest…"
Treebeard swayed back and forth as he looked down on the tall Ranger. "Ever is a long time, young Aragorn, even for an Ent… hrummm… The days of the Onodrim are waning, and the days of Men unfold. Yet, I thank you, and for our part, the Ents shall remember the friendship of the Dúnedain of the North… and of course, of the Youngest Race." He nodded toward Merry, his old eyes twinkling. "And now, my Lord, I'd guess you wish to see the great Tower. For, if old tales are true, the place long occupied by… hrummm…. by the traitor Saruman, who is no more, was once a stronghold of your ancestors."
"I greatly desire to see the Tower of Orthanc," Aragorn said. "There is not sufficient time to explore it at length, but if possible, I would enter it."
"Then come," Treebeard said, and he began to stride away at once. Then he paused, and looked back. "Merry!" he said with a smile. "I wonder if you'd like to walk with me, one last time?"
"Oh yes! Wait up, Treebeard, I'll be right there!"
The Ent reached down and lifted the Hobbit up, and with his round face beaming, Merry settled in on his shoulder. Treebeard set off walking south along a newly laid stone wall, behind which bubbled the waters of the stream. Six of the Ents came with him, Quickbeam at the fore. The rest mounted their horses again and followed, pacing carefully through a gap in the ruined wall.
Everywhere they looked, Ents were at work. Pillars and domes lay cracked on the ground; iron machines lay crushed like splintered wood. Anything built at the command of Saruman, it seemed, was being systematically dismantled. The waters re-routed from the main course of the river were being gathered into a deep pool. Quickbeam explained its purpose.
"The very ground of the Vale of the Isen was tainted by the Tree-Killer," he snorted. "Rhmmm… When every opening to his underground forges and dungeons are discovered and broken open, we shall drown the caverns and fill them with silt."
"Yes… hrummm… Then, perhaps, this place of Stone and Metal might welcome green and growing things once more," Treebeard said.
The Tower of Orthanc rose from the mist. Aragorn looked up in wonder, for it was greater by far than he had imagined. Four angular pillars, each large enough to be a tower itself, were merged at the base and rose to an unknown height; the top, where Gandalf had been held captive, was invisible in the clouds. Its shining black walls were almost untouched, only a few flecks and scratches near the bottom showed any evidence of the tremendous destruction that had occurred all about it. A guard of Ents stood at the base of a long stairway that led to intricately carved double doors. One of the doors was open, a large stone propped at its base.
Treebeard spoke. "That door is… hrummm… too tiny for an Ent," he said. "I thought to ask young Merry to enter… hrummm… But I thought better of it…"
Merry shivered as he looked up the long black stairway. "And though I'd have done it if you'd asked, Treebeard, I have to admit I'm glad you didn't. I'd just as soon stay out here, in the open, if no one minds..."
They decided that Aragorn, Halbarad, Elrohir and Indor would enter the Tower; Gimli, Legolas, Merry and the rest of the Dúnedain dismounted to wait with the Ents. Treebeard withdrew a pair of great black keys from a hidden pocket and presented them to Aragorn.
"We reached the Tower soon after… hrummm… the Wizard's demise," he rumbled. "His servants were fleeing in terror. We managed to stop a few long enough to learn what had happened, just inside the entrance… Quickbeam convinced the Door Warden…. hrummm… to surrender these." The Ent peered up at the door. "Alas, we were unable to… hrummm…. properly dispose of… hrummm… the remains. I set that stone in place, for air to move. However, the open door created a new problem. It was largely to prevent the entry of… hrummm… carrion-eaters that we set a guard…"
"I would have let the crows and wolves have him," Quickbeam snorted. "But Treebeard is wiser than I…"
"I recalled that he once was…. hrummm… something greater than that which he became," Treebeard muttered.
With no small amount of trepidation, Aragorn and the others ascended the great stairs of the Tower. He peered into the darkness beyond the door, fully expecting to be met with the scent of decay. But no stench assaulted them. With Halbarad's help he swung the great door open; it moved soundlessly, pivoting smoothly on its hinge.
They entered the large foyer that stood immediately behind the entrance. Aragorn forced himself to look about the room carefully, assessing its great size, noting the window slits above that allowed light to filter in, the doors leading away, the ornate furnishings and even the thick woolen rug that lay on the floor—all before he allowed himself to gaze down and to his left.
The floor near a table was stained dull red. In the middle of the sticky pool lay a jumble of white. But the fabric appeared almost empty. Silently, Aragorn walked forward, the others holding back. He looked more carefully. A tangle of white hair drew his eye. He sighed and shook his head.
Saruman's body had shriveled to a grey husk of ancient skin clinging to a skeleton. Elrohir appeared at his side.
"I never met him, in life," Aragorn said softly. "There is almost nothing left…"
"We met him many times," Elrohir whispered. "Elladan and I spoke of it once, how Curunir's presence disturbed us… It was as if his essence was of ice, or of cold iron. So unlike the kindling fire one feels with Mithrandir…"
Aragorn wondered if Gandalf knew. Had he felt the loss? Had Saruman's passing sent a ripple that was apparent even hundreds of miles away to his fellow Istar? He had no way of knowing that on the night of Saruman's murder, Gandalf was afloat in the fens of Wetwang, drifting in and out of fever. The Grey Wizard had been too focused on preserving his own strength to be aware of the disturbance that he otherwise would certainly have felt.
Halbarad spoke. "Indor, get some help and clear this out. Maybe the Ents can find it in their hearts to at least give this… this thing some sort of a burial." Indor blanched, but nodded and slipped out the door. Halbarad turned to his kinsman.
"Well? Any idea where to go next? We shouldn't linger here too long…"
Aragorn stepped into the center of the room and looked around again. This place was built by Númenoreans. They would lay it out with logic… He felt an odd sensation, as though he had been in this very room before--indeed, many times. It feels familiar... Three doors led out of the chamber. The one to the right was ajar, and beyond he saw what appeared to be a guard-chamber. He tried the left-hand door; the hall beyond it was narrow, with many smaller rooms and other hallways leading away, into the heart of the Tower's base.
He walked toward the one in the center, the widest, and opened it. At the end of a passageway a curving stair led up; dim light could be seen above. Yes--the stair follows the outer wall… the light is from windows... His instincts were certain.
The stairway rose in a long, slow spiral. At intervals they came to a landing; deep, glazed windows looked out on the ruins of Isengard, and they saw that they were rising well above the valley floor. But no doors appeared, and so they continued. Finally, when Aragorn estimated they must be at least ten stories or more above the level of the entrance, the stairway ended in a broad landing that turned toward the interior of the Tower. On the outer wall was set another window, and light streamed in. They faced a tall black door, its stone lintel carved with arrays of Stars, and the many phases of the Moon. The door was slightly ajar, as if someone had just left.
They entered what Aragorn at once surmised was Saruman's private study… Nay, the room made by my ancestors for the wise scholars for whom this place was built…It was circular, with five other doors* leading into adjoining chambers, and a wide, open balcony that looked south. The room was richly furnished, the walls hung with colorful tapestries that Aragorn recognized as having come from Khând and Harad. There were tables and cushioned chairs, thick rugs and silver lanterns upon stands. Curious instruments of gleaming metal and glass stood here and there, with intricate gears and knobs. Scrolls and books were scattered on the tables and atop a large desk, as if the brilliant scholar who worked here had been interrupted, intending to return to continue his studies at any moment.
Once again, Aragorn felt a deep sense of familiarity. He paced the perimeter of the room, going from doorway to doorway, exploring what might be hid behind them. Halbarad stood in the center, looking up at the domed ceiling painted deep blue with myriad golden stars, his mouth open in awe. Elrohir crossed to the ornate desk of lustrous wood. He ran his fingertips over its smooth surface.
"This wood…" he muttered. "I cannot believe he would do this…"
"What is it?" Aragorn said, turning to look.
Elrohir was scowling. "This desk is carved of mellryn wood! The Galadhrim would never allow a piece of furniture to be made of their precious trees. They would consider this a sacrilege! How could he get hold of this—and how could he have done this!"
"It is but one of many of his deeds about which one could ask such a question," Aragorn mused. "What this room brings to my mind is to wonder just what happened here, last July, when Gandalf arrived in Isengard as an unsuspecting guest, only to find himself a prisoner…"
"Aye," Halbarad said as he finally tore his eyes away from the beautiful ceiling, which was a precise replica of the night sky. "Since I heard that tale, what I've wondered is how in Arda Saruman actually convinced Gandalf to go up to the top of this place." He sniffed. "I've been at Gandalf's side in a skirmish or two, and I find it hard to imagine he went peacefully…"
Aragorn nodded as he continued. He tried each door. The first two were locked; behind the third was another stairway, this one narrow and leading down. The passage was dark as the steps plunged steeply. The air from the depths was dank and foul, as though the stair led to a dungeon. He frowned uneasily and stepped away. The fourth door led to a series of other rooms, clearly set aside as living quarters. The first chamber held a table set for a meal. Flies buzzed about the rotting fruit, and a pair of rats scurried away from the loaf of bread they'd claimed. He grimaced and left them to their plunder.
He approached the last door, which, as if by chance, had been left open a crack. Its top was round, and on the curved lintel above it was a faint carving. His heart thudded in his breast as he stared at it. A pair of glittering eyes stared back—stone eyes, that seemed to focus far away. He frowned again, and turned to gaze across the room. The opposite door, one that had been locked, was identical.
"This is it," he whispered.
Elrohir looked up from where he had been riffling through the papers on Saruman's desk, and Halbarad turned. They came forward and joined Aragorn. He pointed at the symbols.
"And there, on the door itself…" Elrohir muttered. A small, convex, perfectly round black stone bulged from the center. "Open it."
The door opened inward. Aragorn stepped forward into a small round chamber, lit by narrow high window slits. In the very center, a pedestal stood, covered by a black cloth of fine silk. The middle of the silk curved upward. He hesitated.
"Go on, Tóro-nin," Elrohir said in a hushed voice. "It is yours to claim."
"But the others… The Isil-Stone, in particular…"
"Remember the teachings you learned as a boy: this Stone was second only to the Master-Stone, at Osgiliath. The Seers and Scholars of Orthanc spoke to both Kingdoms, north and south. The Isil-Stone, if indeed it survived, was one of the lesser palantiri. If you control this one and use it cautiously, might not you use its power to your advantage?"
"Take it, Aragorn," Halbarad growled. "And then let's get out of here. This place is magnificent, but it freezes my blood…"
Aragorn nodded and stepped forward. He reached out, and for a moment thought to draw aside the cloth and gaze into the Palantir of Orthanc immediately. But he hesitated. Not yet… Not here… His hand fell. He grasped the round object and lifted it, wrapping the silk around and tying it. It was but some five inches in diameter, smaller than he imagined—but much heavier, as though it was made of solid lead. He swung his bag from his shoulder and placed the stone deep within. He eyed his lieutenant.
"We are finished here--for today."
They hurried through the main chamber and headed down the entry stairs. Aragorn felt a shudder pass through him, and he could not tell if it was the fell chill that clung to this place, or the power of the stone that he now carried in his pack. The pain in his shoulder, that had subsided, began to throb once more.
The entrance hall was now bright with light; both doors were propped wide open. The body of Saruman was gone, and the floor was gleaming wet where the Dúnedain had thoroughly washed it. Indor waited just outside.
"Thought we ought to clean the place a bit," he grinned. "You know—for times to come, when you'll be back and claim this place for good."
Aragorn hardly acknowledged him as he passed, his brows drawn together and his thoughts inward. Halbarad clapped Indor on his shoulder.
"Good work," he said quietly. "Gather the men; we're leaving."
Aragorn descended the stairway slowly. He felt the eyes of all his men and of his three companions staring at him. Even Treebeard's deep gaze was trained upon him. He struggled to shrug off the strange effect the Tower of Orthanc had had on him. He reached the bottom stair and bowed solemnly to the Eldest Ent.
"Master Treebeard," he said, "We shall now take our leave of Orthanc. Once again, I give my thanks for the brave actions of you and your people. May the Light of Sun and Star shine upon you…"
"My thanks to thee, young man," Treebeard said. "Alas, my heart says I shall not meet you children again, until, perhaps, the World is changed, and all who are parted are reunited. May your Roots grow deep, and Sun and Wind caress the crown of your head, Aragorn... "
Merry said goodbye to Quickbeam and to Treebeard, promising to look out for Entwives if he ever got back to the Shire. The Hobbit climbed up before Legolas, and Gimli again rode with Elrohir. They fell in line behind Aragorn astride Shadowfax, and the Grey Company departed from Isengard.
Aragorn heard Gimli just behind him.
"Merry Brandybuck, I have something to ask you…"
"How old are you, lad?"
"Why, what an odd question! I'm thirty-seven, but I thought you knew that…"
"So did I, but it makes no sense, so I had to ask again…"
"No sense? Whatever do you mean?"
"Just this: that if it were not impossible for a Hobbit of your age, I'd say that in the two weeks we've been parted, you've grown at least three inches!"
Aragorn turned. He had failed to notice, but now that he measured Merry's height against the chest of the Elf, he could see it was true. Though more than a dozen years beyond his tweens, when Hobbits reached their full height, Merry had grown several inches!
"Your eyes do not deceive you, Master Dwarf!" Legolas laughed. "Our young friend has been drinking the draughts of the Ents. Strange tales are told of their brews. Had we not rescued young Meriadoc, he might well have grown tall enough to ride a full-grown horse by himself!"
Merry blushed. "Oh, I hope not! Pippin would never forgive me!"
* * *
That night the Grey Company halted far out upon the windswept fields of the Westfold. The snow-crested peaks of the White Mountains gleamed before them in the light of a wavering Moon that slid in and out from behind tattered clouds.
Aragorn waited until all the others were asleep, and Elrohir's turn at the watch had come. Halbarad, carrying his pack and the tall cloth-wrapped staff, walked in front, pacing slowly until he found a suitable place upon the open plain. He halted in a hollow out of sight of the others, but where Elrohir could stand upon a low ridge and ensure that no one approached. The Dúnedain lieutenant quickly pitched a tent.
He opened the flap and Aragorn entered, followed by his kinsman. In a moment, a dim light diffused through the fabric of the tent. Elrohir turned his back and gazed out over the slumbering camp, several hundred feet away. His stepbrother had told him his plans, and he was determined to play his role of guardian.
No sound came from behind him. The wind hissed through the grass; far away the wail of a whippoorwill repeated again and again, answered by an even more distant call.
He felt the rawness of his grief all the more keenly here, as he stood alone in the darkness. He had so rarely been alone, and never, until that moment of searing pain in the cave, when his twin's fëa was ripped from him, had he truly understood what the word meant. How had his father borne the separation, through all the endless centuries? And Ada had only Elros…
Elrohir closed his eyes for a moment and breathed deeply in and out. The image of his sister came to his inner eye. She was asleep in her room in Imladris; the Moon shone on her pale cheek. But no—she stirred. Her eyes opened and he saw her breast heave as she sighed. A glittering tear welled up and rolled down her face. She knows. She feels it too, the great gaping hole where Elladan once was... He could but hope she was unable to read his thoughts—his memories, of the last sight of Elladan, of the images he could not erase from his mind—from so far away.
The waiting continued. Minutes passed; an hour. He heard the shift of cloth, a few whispered words… There—the ring of metal, of a sword unsheathed, perhaps? More muttering voices… a low groan… Silence.
He waited again, resisting the urge to turn and look. The Moon hid behind thick clouds. Night on the plains of Rohan was black, indeed. Then: footsteps. Heavier than Estel… Halbarad…
The lieutenant joined him on the crest of the low ridge, staring forward toward the encampment. Elrohir glanced at him. The man's face was grim and drawn.
"He sleeps now."
Halbarad nodded. "Aye, but at tremendous cost… He revealed himself as even I have never seen him." He swallowed hard. "There is a power in him that is deeper… older than that of the Edain. It was as if he allowed a glimpse of the blood in him that came from… from beyond this world." His voice fell to a whisper. "He showed him Andúril, and the standard… He took control of the Stone—wrenched it from him… He turned the Stone elsewhere, searching for something… I know not what he saw. He watched with great intensity for a long minute… and then… he nearly swooned. I made him lie down, and he was asleep at once."
Halbarad turned to gaze at the Peredhel at last. "When he wakes, you might want to give him another swallow of whatever concoction the Ents gave you. It certainly helped give him the strength for this struggle."
Elrohir's brow rose. "You are quite observant, Halbarad Dúnadan… or did he tell you himself?"
The man sniffed. "Him? Admit he is in horrific pain every waking moment, or that to merely draw his sword doubles his agony? Of course not. And yes, I am observant. I have to be."
Elrohir nodded. "I will do as you suggest."
Halbarad grunted. "What is the stuff, if I might ask?"
"Treebeard told me it was a healing draught of the Ents, excellent for galls, blights and cankers."
"That sounds about right…"
They both turned at the sound of the tent flap moving. Aragorn emerged and walked up the slope to where they stood. His face was hollow and his eyes sunken, but they burned with fierce brightness.
"Well. It has begun," he said. "The Umbarian fleet cast off this very night." He drew in a long breath and gazed south, to the White Mountains. "Let us hope that the Oathbreakers are ready to fulfill their vows at last. We shall need their help."
* I imagine six doors leading into Saruman's study: one, the stair from the main entrance; two, to his personal chambers for dining, bathing and sleeping; three, the stair that lead to the roof; four, the stair to the dungeons; five, the South-East Palantir chamber for communicating with Gondor (and Mordor); six, the North-West Palantir chamber for communicating with Arnor. And for any who are curious to read a version of what might have happened between Saruman and Gandalf in the Tower of Orthanc, I refer you to one of my other tales, "The Kindness of Strangers."
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