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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 10. Hunters in Rohan
All through the night, by the dim light of moon and stars, the three hunters made their slow way down the slopes. By common consent, Aragorn led, while Legolas and Gimli followed more slowly. Finally, as the moon began to ride low indeed in the sky, the land began to slope less steeply. The plains were near at hand.
"What think you, Legolas?" Gimli murmured in an undertone, trying to keep his voice down so as not to disturb Aragorn's thoughts. For the Ranger had gone ahead and was now scouring the area for sign of the trail: the ground was hard, and tumbled boulders, set in place by some ancient deluge or river, made it difficult to trace the movements of even the most heavy-footed wanderer. Gimli stood leaning against one of these boulders to ease the weight of his pack, which now contained half of Legolas's belongings as well, and gazed east at the as yet dawnless sky. "Whither have the Orcs fled?"
"I know not," came the soft response from where Legolas squatted amid the stones, seeming one of them himself. "Our way is rocky, and the light is dim – the night lies thick upon the land, and I – I think there is little to find, though mayhap Aragorn shall surprise us." This last being said swiftly, and Gimli narrowed his eyes, frowning at the other under cover of darkness.
That is not what he meant to say, he thought, but did not press the other. The climb had been hard upon the Elf, and he must surely be in pain, and have little care for any traces. And so Gimli merely grunted, growled:
"Aragorn is long on the hunt, I have heard. But I think your first thought is in the right: our enemies have seemed too well aware of us from the start. It is as if they chose this route for the very purpose of throwing us from their tracks, though they cannot know that we still live." "But my friend, we did not slay all who opposed us. Some escaped, and doubtless they have told their comrades that we yet breathe." Legolas sighed. Gimli scowled, silently cursing their foes. But there was nothing they could do to undo what was done, and frankly, even had Mahal himself granted them a return to times past, the Dwarf had his doubts about the wisdom of facing that lethal circle of blades again.
Which was an odd fear to have, considering that they were seeking just that in seeking Merry and Pippin. Beside him, Legolas let out a long, soft breath, and the Dwarf caught the glint of moonlight in the other's hair as the prince bowed his head.
"What is it?" he demanded.
"Nothing," Legolas replied, a little too distantly for Gimli's taste.
For his part, Legolas bit his lip and very slowly, very carefully rubbed at his right shoulder, resting his injured arm in his lap to ease the dreadful ache. Intent upon the chase, he had refused the hampering sling, though Aragorn had warned him that the injury would be troublesome. After the long hours of scaling and then descending the hills nigh to Tol Brandir, the Prince of Mirkwood was reaping the ill rewards of chance and choice: his shoulder and back throbbed steadily.
But the Elf had the endurance of the Eldar race, and beyond that, he had his pride. He would not complain unduly, and so as they waited, he took advantage of the delay to calm his spirit, to isolate the pain and set it, carefully enshrouded in layers of Elvish self-control, into a dark corner of his mind where he could ignore it for a time.
Yet it would not remain there, and he cursed his youth, for among Elves, he was young, and had not yet as great a mastery of himself as some others had. It vexed him, for he was not one to be felled easily, surely, and he thought he ought to suffer less from injury than he did. Yet pain intruded when it ought not to, and dimmed his senses so that he felt as though the dark were thicker than it ought to be.
'Tis naught but a scratch! he told himself, not for the first time, irritated by his own preoccupation with his misfortune.
"Legolas?" Gimli's voice jarred him out of his unhappy reverie.
"I said do you see aught at all in the night? If you are right that the Orcs know we live, they may wish to rectify their error, and Aragorn is intent upon the trail."
Legolas was silent for a time, listening to the land, but even as sight seemed dim, he felt as though there were a strange silence about them. He shook his head sharply. What is the matter with me? he wondered.
"It seems empty to me," he said at length. And aware despite his weariness and pain, and the strange weakness of his senses, of Gimli growing concerned, felt moved to add: "Truly, though, I wonder that you should ask my opinion in this matter. 'Tis dark as the earth. I should think a Dwarf, being closer to the ground and accustomed to darkness, would see better than an Elf tracks left among rocks. Or has weariness blurred your sight?"
As hoped, this immediately turned the Dwarf back on himself.
"I am no more weary than you!" Gimli objected, unobtrusively gliding away from the rock he had stood against. "Elves! Perhaps I am weary to ask of one a serious answer, for if a thing be not green, they cannot fathom it. Paint a forest red, and they would be at a loss indeed!"
Legolas smiled slightly, and opened his mouth to reply to that outrageous jibe when Aragorn called from some distance away: "Legolas! Gimli!"
Their own concerns forgotten in an instant, the two of them hastened to where their companion stood, Gimli wending his way among the boulders while Legolas, with a soft grunt happily lost on the Dwarf, sprang up onto a stone and then went swiftly from rock to rock. Shortly, both stood before (and in Legolas's case, above) the Ranger.
"You have found something?" Gimli demanded.
"Aye," Aragorn answered. "A poor trail it is, but it seems that the orcs paused here for a time. And see, they have left a token!" Their guide held up a dagger whose sheath gleamed softly in the moon- and starlight. Gimli, being a Dwarf, quickly placed the craftsmanship even in the dim light and sucked in a sharp breath, while Legolas reached down to take the knife from Aragorn's hands. Running long fingers over the damasked sheath, he turned troubled eyes on the Ranger ere he handed it back. "And what do you think has happened to the bearer of this blade?" he asked.
"That I cannot say, though I have seen no blood, orcish or otherwise," Aragorn replied. "What has happened to the mate of this dagger I also know not, but I would guess that this was not a welcome trophy: those who crafted them worked their hatred of all Mordor's creatures into the steel. To keep such a blade would be dangerous, and already they face a journey through enemy lands."
"And whither do go they now?" Gimli asked, clearly eager to continue with this new finding.
"Northwest, though it is too early to say whether they intend to reach the forest first or to try to cut directly across Rohan," Aragorn replied, turning his face towards the northern horizon. "In any case, they did not tarry long, and neither shall we. Come, let us go!"
So saying, he thrust the sheathed dagger into his belt just behind Andúril and then picked up the trail again, Legolas and Gimli following in his wake.
Down through the rock-strewn ravine they ran, weaving through the boulders, following a small rivulet until of a sudden, they emerged onto the green plains of Rohan just as the sun began to rise. There, the Orc trail grew once more prominent, trampling wantonly upon the short grass. "Now we may gain some ground!" Gimli said, with a note of fierce, eager determination in his deep voice. Aragorn said nothing, only gave a sharp nod and broke into a run, leaving the others to keep up with him as best they could. But for all his long stride, Dwarf and Elf remained ever on his heels, though Gimli had to toil the harder for his shorter stature. Hours they kept to the trail in swift pursuit, and grateful were they for the waybread of Lórien.
For while the sun followed its arc across the sky, they did not pause, though Gimli and Aragorn glanced often back at Legolas, who either did not notice or else ignored their concern. In either case, the Elf asked for nothing, and if he suffered, he did so in silence. The day wore on, and the trio continued their dogged chase, with Aragorn ever at the point. The Ranger's keen eyes scanned the trail, and, well-schooled in such chases, he interpreted the signs more or less habitually, while grief and worry and anger churned within his heart, spurring him onward. And as he ran, he began to notice that the path widened considerably, though in the confused mass of footprints, it was impossible to discern any reason for the change of formation.
It was late in the afternoon, and their shadows were lengthening behind them, when at last Aragorn called a halt. Gimli and Legolas, hoods drawn up and heads bowed to protect their eyes from the slanting shafts of sunlight, drew to a stop, Legolas a little unsteadily, and they looked up to see what the trouble was. It needed no second glance to discover the reason for the Ranger's grim command: before them, the trail branched into two separate paths, one holding course north northwest, the other breaking off sharply to the east.
Legolas, blinking sun and strange shadow from his eyes, glanced bewildered from the new trail to Gimli and thence to Aragorn, noting the taut, carefully expressionless mask that the latter wore to conceal his frustrated dread. Gimli was scowling fiercely as only a Dwarf could who had lost a friend to Mordor's malice and then run without rest through the night and most of the next day. For his part, the elven prince felt his heart sink, and the world, which had seemed to him strangely colorless all this day, seemed to fade into grey... "Which way shall we take?" Gimli's voice broke the spell, and Legolas forced himself back to the matter at hand, firmly quelling the pricklings of alarm. "Yonder eastward track, or the straight path north?" For awhile, Aragorn did not answer. Describing a brief circuit around the area just prior to the break in the path, he sought something – some clue, no matter how small or confused – to guide him, but at no point in his compass did he see anything but a mass of crossing and recrossing orc prints. Turning, he gazed after the northward path a ways, then sighted along the eastward one, but again, there were no clues within his long sight that might indicate which group had taken the hobbits with it. Or perhaps they split them up, and each company took a prisoner with it he thought, grimly. If that is so, then we are doomed indeed, unless Gondor's soldiery can save us to the east. For I have naught but instinct and conjecture to rely upon now, and neither is certain enough for me to decide wisely in this instance! "I fear that there is nothing to see that would guide us," said he reluctantly. "Orcs go heavily, and they have little discipline in a line. I cannot make out even a single print that might belong to something other than an orc." "But we cannot stop here! Surely there must be something," Gimli pressed, racking his mind and memory for anything that would serve them. But though he had faced his share of orcish raiding parties on trade-runs along the Iron Triangle that held Erebor linked to the Iron Hills and Dale, his own experience of orcs failed him in this instant, and he was forced to wait while Aragorn considered anew the possibilities. The Ranger frowned, bowing his head, and he stared down at the tracks, mind racing as he considered the awful choice. If I choose wrongly, then there shall be no opportunity to amend the error, he thought unhappily. And though sometimes I doubt me whether the hobbits have learned aught of the true nature and danger of this quest, still, they know too much, do Merry and Pippin. And they are my friends! Which fact only increased his anguish over the looming decision that had fallen unexpectedly into his lap. Ere this very hour, I would have said they were Isengard-bound, but now…? "There is no sign of a quarrel," said he, seeming to his companions to think aloud. "It is as if one group of orcs, and doubtless those of the Red Eye, simply left the company and pursued its own course homeward. If the Isengarders did not contest the parting, as seems evident, then I guess that they permitted it." "But what does such speculation mean?" Gimli demanded, chewing on his mustaches in nervous, frustrated impatience. "To me it says either that this was planned beforehand, or else that the Isengard commander retained control, and perhaps felt he did not need or want the orcs of Mordor to remain with his company. And if the latter is true, then that makes it likely that he kept control of the prisoners as well. For though it is not impossible that they have separated Merry and Pippin, I tend to doubt that any group of orcs would surrender a prize even – or perhaps especially! – to another company of orcs. Not short of explicit orders from a higher authority that both companies were bound to respect." "But we know not that they were not given such orders," Legolas replied, quietly. "No, we do not. But," said Aragorn, his grey eyes narrowing as he reasoned the matter, "recall Gandalf's tale. Saruman would not lightly surrender hobbits to Mordor, not ere he had seen them himself, and knew what they could tell. He would have instructed his company to ensure such did not occur, and see? The trail leading east is a smaller company, to judge by the two sets of tracks. Had the servants of Mordor insisted on taking the hobbits, it would not have been beyond the Isengard company to destroy them, and simply take the hobbits by force." "That seems a risk. Would not the Dark Lord wonder what had become of his orcs, had that happened?" Gimli asked. "Why should he? This is Rohan, a land that harbors no love for the orcs of Mordor over their raids of the horse herds," Aragorn argued. "East beyond these plains lies Anórien, where Gondor's border forces keep watch. The orcs of Mordor have lagged behind the Isengarders all this day. If they went missing, it would not be difficult to explain away. As for the orcs, it is not rare among them for quarrels and rivalry to divide them; rivalries among company commanders would not seem strange. If Saruman's orcs insisted – as well they could – upon keeping both Merry and Pippin, those of the Dark Lord might well bow to their strength and count upon their report to poison Saruman's reception. True treachery might not be so evident, or even were it, they might not contest it without the strength to enforce their will." "Then shall we continue northwards?" Gimli asked, reluctant to accept such reasoning, but unable to better it. And as it was not the Dwarvish custom to dwell overlong upon dead-ends, he looked now only for a decision to follow. "Yes," Aragorn said slowly. "Yes, we shall. We cannot in any case remain here." And so the matter was settled, and the three hunters sprang away again, continuing upon their northward course and none looked back.
By nightfall, they had covered another two leagues, and still they ran onward, driven by fear that would not abate. But even the hardiest of Rangers will tire eventually, and a wounded Elf and toiling Dwarf, too, must rest. Since the moon rose late, by unspoken accord, the three companions slowed and then came to a halt. Gimli sank to his haunches to relieve his aching back, and Legolas gritted his teeth against pain, for despite the salve that Aragorn had used, even soft bandages chafed. Sweat stang in the open cut, and injured muscle protested such use as he had put it to since yesterday. And perhaps it was the blood pounding in his head, perhaps it was simply weakness, but he felt unsteady, disoriented – as if thrown about in a strong wind among the treetops, and he dropped to one knee and stayed there, dizzied. "I think we can run no farther tonight," Aragorn said, voicing the thought that they all shared. Still, he stood gazing after the trail for a time ere he shook his head in seeming self-disgust and joined his companions upon the ground. As far as they had come, he knew that he had not reached his limits, not yet, and so his present weariness puzzled him. I am not truly tired, he thought, feeling nervous energy skitter along his nerves and flow like muted lightening in his veins. Not as I have been before, when it was bone-deep and inescapable. Fatigued, perhaps, is a better word, but even so… there is something unnatural in this! So he thought, but said nothing, unwilling to say too much and in ignorance, but seeing Legolas crouching upon the earth, his head bowed like a beaten horse, did nothing to soothe suspicion. Going then to the Elf, he unslung his pack and began seeking his satchel.
"We have come far today," he said, by way of placating princely elven dignity; "Let us see how my patch-work has fared!" But for a wonder – an uneasy, worrisome wonder – such placation was unnecessary. After a moment, Legolas wearily settled, and lifted a hand, acquiescing. The Ranger bit his tongue against comment, lest he worry Gimli as well, but if ever he had needed a sign that all was not well with Legolas, he had it and did not like it very well at all.
Does he see it? Feel it? Does he know what the Song of the World says now? he wondered, but would not ask. Some things were best left perhaps unknown...
While Aragorn examined the Elf, Gimli rose and stalked a few paces away, watching the darkness intently as he stretched. He doubted there was anything to be seen, for the plains were broad and level, and they had seen no sign of any living creature all that day. But habit was a powerful impetus in uncertain times, and the Dwarf felt himself in need of space to think.
For it bothered him more than he would have guessed that Legolad had been injured. Ridiculous to think that it would not – we are companions in this quest – but surely I ought to be more concerned for Merry and Pippin. Or Frodo and Samwise! Or Boromir, Mahal rest him! Yet though he was hardly squeamish, he would not look on Legolas while Aragorn tended him. There was something… wrong with the notion and reminder that Legolas could be as vulnerable as any of them.
Indecent, almost, the Dwarf decided. Yes, 'tis indecent! Not that Elves could not be wounded or killed – the long, deep feud between Elves and Dwarves had made that plain. That ancient enmity had shaped so many, Gimli not least of all. That he had once looked to pierce the other's remove and flay him to the quick, legacy of generations of anger, now shamed him, and the reminder that Legolas was vulnerable as all of them to such petty things as arrows was unwelcome. Bad enough to watch the other suffer through the hunt by day! And so he looked away, avoiding the light cast by the candle Aragorn had spared for his task, and waited for the Ranger to finish. Finally, Aragorn sighed and said, "Dawn is still many hours hence, and though I doubt we shall meet with any trouble this night, let us set the watch nonetheless." Gimli nodded, hearing the rustle of cloth as the Elf quickly pulled his shirt back on, and he rejoined his companions to settle the watch schedule. This they did by candlelight, according to ancient tradition: Aragorn snagged three blades of grass and held them in his fist while Legolas and Gimli drew, and then all compared them by candlelight. As luck would have it, the Dwarf lost. "Well, use my misfortune to your profit then!" he grumbled, reaching to snuff their little flame between thumb and forefinger, and then sighed. "Rest well, my friends." "Wake me in two hours, Gimli," Aragorn replied simply, wrapping himself in his cloak and pillowing his head on an arm. Almost immediately, he was unconscious, for a Ranger learned early to take what sleep he could find, where and when he could find the time for it. "Good night," said Legolas quietly, settling carefully on his side out of respect for his sore back. "Good night to you both," Gimli responded softly and set himself down a little ways distant, not truly displeased, despite his weariness, to take the first watch. There was, after all, nothing like a lonely stint of guard duty to spur reflection, and he felt a need of it as he seldom had in his life. Not that Gloín's son was unreflective, but usually he had so many other tasks to accomplish, and his mind was ever occupied with matters of craft. Worry was an unaccustomed bedfellow, and when it came calling, he was careful heed it. Not that he had ever thought, prior to this journey, to worry over an injured Elf or kidnapped hobbits. Or over the humanity of a Man, Gimli added with silent and troubled remorse, recalling Boromir's words to him in Lothlórien. He shuddered, haunted by the memory of the absolute self-revulsion that had crossed Boromir's face when the spell of the Ring had finally been broken by Frodo's horrified stare. No one should ever be made to face himself thus! Alas, Boromir, what darkness was within, that you fell so far and then paid so dearly for redemption? he wondered. Gimli was more accustomed to dealings with Men than was a Wood-Elf, and he had his suspicions on that account, but ultimately there were limits to his understanding of a man like Boromir. And though Boromir had been alive only hours ago, yesterday in fact, Gimli felt a sense of terrible remove from their departed friend. It was tragic, it was the fate of all things mortal, and the Dwarf cursed softly in the night. Time was wearing hard upon them all, and he feared what it might bring. Behind him, he heard Aragorn mutter something in his sleep and shift restlessly, but the Ranger did not wake. I wonder, he mused, what dreams visit him tonight? Boromir's death struck him hard, and that after Gandalf's death. Which meant that he would need to be mindful of their guide's mood, all the more so if Legolas were distracted. Though if he could not wholly compass even Boromir, how he should judge the Heir of Isildur, whose mood had admittedly been odd since Lórien, was beyond him. But no matter, they were bound together, and so he must somehow find a measure... Such were the mysteries that preoccupied the Dwarf's mind as the cold night hours crept slowly and silently by – indeed, the more slowly for the silence, which, after a while, began to weigh upon him as even darkness did not. Nothing stirs, he thought, wonderingly, and felt his hackles rise a bit. Nothing sounds. No beast, no bat, no tree – not that there are any here – no river's rush, nor even the rustle of grass in the wind. 'Tis more silent than the tomb! An ill-thought, that. Wishing vainly for dawn, the Dwarf stared out at the horizon, unable to pick the land from the sky, and he sent his prayer out into the night: Be well, Merry and Pippin! We come for you!
Running… always running, and yet never could he draw away from that which pursued him. From what surrounded him, in truth – Darkness! Darkness unrelieved and unending, a hungry night. From somewhere in that deadly shade, another called to him, called his name, desperate, frightened, falling away: "Aragorn!"
Who calls? Shadows swam dark between him and a dim outline of a figure, and the voice came as an eddy in that spreading night:
"Is your sight grown dim so soon? Then listen! My love, heed me and leave me not – Aragorn! Aragorn, do not lie down in the darkness! Aragorn!"
– Aragorn woke quite suddenly with Arwen's name on his lips, and he could feel his heart hammering against his ribcage in a panicky succession. Something retreated from his side, and the Ranger grasped the hilt of his sword as he sat bolt upright, tense and momentarily confused. "Aragorn?" Gimli's voice drifted worriedly out of the darkness, and after a second, the Ranger relaxed somewhat.
"Gimli," he breathed, releasing Andúril. "What is it?"
"Naught, but you are due for your watch, and I must get some sleep if I am to run tomorrow," the Dwarf responded in a low voice.
"Of course. Go ahead then, I've the watch in hand. Rest well," the Ranger said, pulling his cloak close about him as he rose. Gimli said nothing in response and after a few moments, he lay slumbering near Legolas, curled up on his side in the dim moonlight.
For his part, Aragorn stood watching the pair for a moment, then he exhaled slowly and turned away, troubled, for the dread of his dream lingered like an unwanted guest.
There is no foresight in this, he told himself, but for once, that brought him no comfort. Hindsight could be as painful, after all, if not worse, for there was no avoiding what had happened already. And since that is so, he told himself, think no more of it! Think of what is to come – of what must come, if there is to be any hope for any of us. Think how it must go with Merry and Pippin.
Unfortunately, there was little to think of in that regard. The hunt would unfold as it would, and on foot, against so many orcs, in Rohan, there were few choices for hunters to make. Either they would be spotted or they would not; either they would be able to steal the hobbits away or they would not. It depended upon the terrain, which alas, was against them in any endeavor, and especially in a close fight.
And so after a time, thought worked its way back to all that had transpired already, and as in dreams, so in memory, he found himself caught between the night of Moria and Lórien, between the dead and the dying.
Arwen... Longing welled up like a spring from the earth, was as swiftly rebuked. What good has that brought her? If you would do right by her, then since the Straight Path is now closed to her, find a way for her to live in this world!
A part of him knew well that such a task was beyond his power. The world was wider than one man's will, and the broken Song governed the destiny even of Elves and Powers – of all that lay within Arda's bounds, while between Arda and its beyond lay the realm of Mandos. Boromir had already crossed its threshold to join Gandalf among the shades, and who knew but that Merry and Pippin might soon join him, whatever one Aragorn son of Arathorn might do?
I doubt not that they will have run through this night, he thought, feeling his wrath smoulder. Alas, we cannot keep pace, and shall fall further behind unless the Orcs rest during the day. Wearily, Aragorn tilted his head back, gazing up at the distant stars, at the Swordsman. Ah, Boromir, can you see them from your new vantage point? Do you stand guard over them in the night!
So many a Ranger had prayed before him, calling on the lost to take up the Swordsman's watch, that someone keep the heedless and helpless when the Road stretched too long. He thought of Halbarad, who threatened to invoke every ghost he knew to be Menelvagor for him.
"You will come home," his cousin would say, as if he could command it. Would that it were so, cousin, for both our sakes, he thought fondly, missing him. It seemed of late he was doomed to miss many – Boromir, Gandalf, Merry, Pippin. Frodo and Sam. Halbarad. Arwen.
Arwen. She had troubled his dreams since Lórien, those he could recall, but rarely did he see her in them. He felt her mostly – a presence like a warm shadow always maddeningly just beyond sight or touch. And sometimes she spoke, and other times was silent, but this was the first time she had cried out to him in fear and warning.
Aragorn drew his cloak more closely about himself, though the chill that seized him came not from the night air. And his eye fell then upon the dim form of Legolas.
The Elf had suffered on this journey, though Aragorn allowed that he had come through it thus far. Still, if he read the other rightly, then the Prince of Mirkwood was not wholly unaware that something was badly amiss. Legolas might lack the years that Arwen had, but the keen senses of the Elves must in time come to see and recognize their plight. One wound would cover and yet allow for another, and Legolas must feel the injury done Arda, even if he did not yet understand it.
But so long as he did not, Aragorn would hold his peace, for what did such knowledge bring? Arwen looked back at him in horror in memory, and this time, he did shut his eyes and breathe deep against the rest of remembrance, against sorrow-laden love that nevertheless would not be denied no matter how untimely. A few moments he stood thus, ere shaking himself back to watchfulness, for he had an injured Elf to care for, and a deeply worried Dwarf, and four hobbits bound in different directions to keep ever in his thoughts.
And I have a watch to stand, and a course to consider, and I suppose that in spite of it all, I am not unhappy that it is thus. Strange contentment, if contentment it was, and perhaps it was no more than the knowledge that matters might still be worse, though a part of him which sounded suspiciously like Arwen knew better:
If we can do naught but follow, whithersoever the trail leads, we must trust that of our efforts, something shall be born, though we know not what.
Best, then, not to look too far ahead, nor behind – for the moment, they were here, and had yet the strength to continue on the hunt, and that, he thought, as he glanced over at his sleeping companions, would be enough for tomorrow. Legolas and Gimli slept on, oblivious to their guide's fierce, fond gaze.
But when, some hours later, Aragorn woke Legolas, the Elf greeted him with a slight and unexpected smile, just visible in the moonlight, and laid a hand upon his shoulder. A moment they stood thus, and then the Ranger retired, his spirits much improved. And through the cold night, he dreamt no more.
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