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Unto the ending of the world: 27. Sleep
June 28 – Midsummer's Day, 3019
The road at last...
Elrohir rushed to join his brother at the top of a low hill overlooking the road. Elladan was looking west, and turned south as Elrohir came up.
Elrohir also turned southward. I wish we did not have to choose where to stand.
We have made our choice. We left Lothlórien, Elladan replied sharply, then went on out loud, "If we find any Beornings, they may be willing to tell us what news they have, both of Wilderland and of the High Pass."
"They might even have word of Legolas and Gimli. And with luck, they still hold the pass." Elrohir did not pursue the other point. He could not shake the thought that their farewell to their grandparents had been final. He hoped he had kept that thought from his brother, but from the look Elladan gave him, he had not been successful.
"There is only one way we will find out," Elladan said.
"Shall we stop now and go on at dawn? The horses need to rest," Elrohir said. He was glad they had accepted Celeborn's offer of horses. The animals they had ridden from Gondor had not been bad, but they were not Elven-trained, and, perhaps more importantly, these horses had crossed the Misty Mountains several times already, and would be more reliable in the mountains.
Elladan agreed, adding, "If we reach the foothills tomorrow, we can start the crossing of the pass the day after."
"A week until we are home?" Elrohir asked as they went down the hill.
"If all goes well. I would like to be," Elladan answered.
Elladan took the first turn at guard and Elrohir was quickly asleep. He was annoyed to find that it was already close to dawn when his brother woke him.
"I was too restless to sleep," Elladan said, "And it is little hardship to stand a double watch."
"I know," Elrohir replied, "But you should not take on more than your share." He sighed at Elladan's silence.
"We must be off if we want to reach the foothills tonight," Elladan finally said.
Elrohir merely nodded, but as he went to refill their water-bottles from a nearby brook, he paused to put his hand on Elladan's shoulder. His brother smiled and returned the gesture.
Before they set off, they again went up the hill from where they had watched the previous day. A thin fog lay over the land towards the river, though not enough to obscure their view of the road. It would be a long time yet before Eärendil's star would be visible in the morning, yet Elrohir waited until he could see the first edge of the sun above the faraway darkness of Mirkwood before he turned west. The foothills and the lower slopes of the mountains seemed a solid mass of trees, and the Misty Mountains were but a wide smudge of dark grey on the horizon. Yet as he watched, a dash of pink-tinged white appeared along the edge of that dark mass; the first light of day had touched the highest tops.
"Dare we risk the road?" Elladan asked.
"Yes, at least for the first stretch," Elrohir replied.
"I am worried. The road is too quiet," Elladan said that night as they made their camp in a clearing about a mile from the road. Through a gap in the trees, the mountains were now clearly visible as a long row of high peaks; and beyond was their home.
"So am I. We should have seen some sign at least of the Beornings." Elrohir shook his head. "If they have lost the High Pass..."
"...we will find another path across the mountains," Elladan finished.
"I hope so. This night, I will stand guard," Elrohir said. Elladan nodded and was quickly gone to scout the area.
Elladan was away for about an hour. "There is a path nearby that looks as if it is made by Men, but no recent tracks," he reported when he returned.
"We may find the Beornings tomorrow," Elrohir said.
"Or Orcs," Elladan replied, before he lay down under the shelter of some low branches and was soon asleep.
As the moon sank towards the west, Elrohir watched the darkening sky. The evening was quiet; all he could hear were the soft noises their horses made in their sleep, a summer's night choir of crickets and frogs, small animals rustling about looking for food, the ghostly hoo-oo of an owl. He understood why Elladan had not woken him up the previous night; had he felt even slightly at ease, this watch would have been pleasant. Yet was this peace more than a mockery? Soon enough the Enemy would attack the North and the only peace would be that of death.
Elrohir looked west again. Arwen... Their father would need them now. Even if the High Pass was held by the Enemy, there were enough other paths across the mountains that they would not have to return to Lothlórien.
He stood up; it might clear these dark thoughts from his mind if he moved about. Just as Elrohir stepped into the deeper shadow of the tree under which Elladan slept, the night went suddenly quiet. His hand fell to his sword hilt and he listened for anything that could have disturbed the night animals. Nothing. No, wait...
A change in his brother's breathing betrayed that Elladan was awake. What is it?
I do not know. The forest went silent.
The sudden noise of the crickets resuming their chirping was enough to make both brothers jump, and they laughed nervously as they realised there was no immediate threat.
Then, just as Elrohir lifted his hand from his sword, he heard what he had feared to hear for days. Far away, yet still too close. Wolves. Towards the mountains.
"They are too far off to be hunting us," Elladan whispered.
"It may be just an ordinary pack, and not Wargs," Elrohir replied as he looked over at their horses. The wind was from the west, and were the wolves a danger, the horses would give warning soon enough. The animals were awake and must have heard the wolves too, but they were not overly alarmed. "Go back to sleep. Unless they come nearer, we are better off staying here than wandering around in the dark."
His brother followed his suggestion without a word. Elrohir sat down, though he longed to pace. Even if the night was peaceful again, that very peacefulness now felt threatening, ominous.
In the morning, they set off before the sun had even risen. Soon they were into the foothills, and the road rose and dipped through the hilly terrain, forcing them to slow to spare the horses and making it hard to see far. Around noon, they found a sheltered spot just in sight of the road; as it was Elladan's turn to fill the water-bottles, Elrohir would stay with the horses and watch the road.
There is a stream down here, Elladan said. And ripe raspberries. I will pick a few for our meal.
Elrohir smiled and shook his head. If Elladan was going to forage, he would be gone for some time; what his brother considered a few raspberries would feed them noon and night. Then his smile changed to a frown. Elladan had turned around and was coming back.
Orcs. We must go, was all Elladan said. Elrohir quickly picked up both their packs and mounted, waiting.
Elladan only paused to take his pack from Elrohir and hand him his water-bottle, before he mounted his own horse and directed the animal towards the road. A full troop. I almost walked into their camp.
Did they see you?" Elrohir asked. Elladan nudged his horse into a trot as soon as they reached the road.
I think not, Elladan answered, then spoke aloud as Elrohir caught up. "They did not give chase at least."
Elrohir almost believed that they had indeed escaped, when suddenly Elladan's horse swerved and stumbled, but kept going.
An arrow whistled by, barely missing his own horse, but before Elrohir could even look to find their attackers, he felt a sharp pain in his right arm. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he still managed to turn in the saddle to look back, but saw nothing.
Ride! It is nothing. The arrow only grazed my arm. He could feel it was more than that, but he would look at it once they were out of bow's reach – and hope there were no patrols waiting for them further along the road. Your horse?
Upset more than hurt. He can go on.
A few more arrows were loosed, but there were no further hits; if they made it to the next bend in the road, they would be out of range.
One, perhaps two archers. No more, Elladan concluded as they reached safety.
"At least for now," Elrohir said. "They will give chase."
"Let me look at your arm then," Elladan said, bringing his horse up close.
"There is no time; it can wait," Elrohir protested, but at an insistent gesture from Elladan he held out his arm.
Elladan took his belt knife and cut away the sleeve of his tunic. Elrohir inhaled sharply as his brother carefully felt around the arrow. "Just a graze?" Elladan asked, adding, "I will have to push the arrow through."
"Dressings are in my pack," Elrohir said, and waited as Elladan searched for them. Even though he made sure to look away as soon as his brother took hold of the arrow, he still almost fainted.
Steady, Elladan said as he snapped off the arrowhead, then pulled out the shaft also. The healer still brought low by the sight of his own blood? he teased gently as he put on the dressing, with Elrohir still looking away. Elrohir grimaced and nodded.
The way this is bleeding, they will have little trouble following our trail, and Wargs will spot us from miles away, Elrohir observed wryly once they were under way again, galloping hard rather than riding at a more sustainable trot. Both he and Elladan were now constantly looking over their shoulder, and well aware that they could not afford to spare the horses overmuch. At least it was still bright day, and the Orcs would be reluctant to march before dark, unless they had their quarry in sight.
For speed, I would keep to the road as long as possible, Elladan said.
Elrohir glanced at the sun. I agree, but we will have to decide on our path soon.
"It is another hour before we reach the northern road. We can rest the horses while we decide. I want another look at your arm as well. Is it troubling you now?"
"Not too badly," Elrohir replied. "About as sore as you would expect."
"It is unlikely the arrow was poisoned then," Elladan said, "Even so, I would rather have bathed the wound with athelas."
Elrohir looked down. "We have none left, as you well know." He turned towards Elladan again. "I doubt it is necessary. It is no more than an ordinary arrow wound."
"We must stop anyway, to give the horses a brief rest at least," Elladan said, "I may as well look then."
"There should be a river about half a mile to the north; we can let them drink there, and you can look at my arm again." It would not cost them too much time and would reassure his brother.
They were about to turn off the road, when Elrohir thought he saw something to the west. He stopped his horse, and looked again. Still miles away, and only intermittently visible between the trees lining the road, but... Elladan. Three horsemen. Beornings.
Elladan turned his horse around and came back. "Yes, I see them too."
Still on horseback, they waited by the side of the road until the riders were within hailing reach.
As soon as the men saw them, they pulled up their horses, and approached at a walk. All three had a tight grip on the long spears they carried. Both Elrohir and Elladan raised their right hand in token of peace, but the expressions on the faces of the strangers remained wary, and they lowered their spears but slowly.
"What brings two Elves here?" the foremost one called out, giving them a searching look.
"We are travelling towards the High Pass," Elladan said.
"The High Pass? You..." The Beorning was interrupted by the man next to him, who leaned over in his saddle and whispered something. He nodded at his companion, then asked, "Where are you headed beyond the mountains?"
"Rivendell," Elrohir replied after a brief hesitation.
The men conferred again, then the one who appeared to be their leader spoke, looking troubled, "I fear you will have to try another road. We are sending messengers there ourselves, but should you reach the house of Elrond Half-Elven, tell him we need his aid, for we cannot hold the High Pass much longer without it."
Elrohir exchanged a glance with Elladan before he answered. "We shall deliver your message. But... you say that the Beornings still hold the High Pass, yet you advise us to seek another road?"
"Yes," the Beorning responded. "We still defend the pass itself, but our enemies hold the approaches on both sides. I doubt you will be able to get past them."
"Yet you are here," Elladan said.
"We left before their reinforcements arrived. We are messengers, riding east to seek help. What news can you give us of that road?"
"Ill news, I fear. There is at least one large Orc band close behind us," Elladan said.
"That is ill indeed, and we cannot afford to lose time," the Beorning muttered, then addressed them again as he turned back towards the road, "But I thank you for the warning."
If the Enemy is attacking the High Pass in force, it is likely Rivendell is his next target, Elrohir thought.
And we are still in Wilderland, when we ought to be there! Elladan answered, and gestured Elrohir to silence as he spoke further to the messengers. Their leader confirmed that an Elf and a Dwarf travelling together had crossed the Anduin at the Old Ford two months earlier, but could offer no further news.
After well-wishes for the road were exchanged, they watched the Beornings ride east in silence, before they themselves turned and headed for the river and the north.
"Our path has been set for us already, it seems," Elladan broke the silence some time later, as he cleaned and rebandaged Elrohir's arm.
"Can we trust them or their warning?" Elrohir said.
"I think so, nor do we have much choice," Elladan replied. "We are already hunted."
"North it is then," Elrohir conceded. "We can take a short cut from here," he added. "It is only a few leagues across this vale until we encounter the northern road."
Elladan nodded as he ran a hand down his horse's leg. "And that will gain us enough time that we can walk the horses for a while. I would rather give them more rest, but..." He stopped and raised his hand, listening.
Elrohir heard it too; the raucous yells of Orcs on the hunt, still distant, yet too near. "We ride," he said, followed by a sharp curse as he used his wounded arm to pull himself up into the saddle.
In the dense forest, they could only proceed slowly, and it was close to dusk by the time they reached the path. The sounds of pursuit could still be heard behind them, and in the far distance they could hear Wargs too. The hunt was truly on now.
"We cannot rest," Elladan said. "If we stop, they will catch up."
"They will anyway," Elrohir replied, "We may outrun them on this road, but not in the mountains."
"Then what do you suggest?" Elladan asked. "We must cross soon, before we get too close to Goblin-town."
"They will expect that." Elrohir turned in the saddle, peering into the gloom behind them. "But we cannot go further north; it will take much too long to get back to Rivendell." Perhaps, with the Redhorn Pass blocked by avalanches and rockfalls, they should have gone through Rohan after all, but that too would have taken too long.
Now that they had reached the path, they could go faster, and it was not long before they could no longer hear their distant pursuers. After about an hour's riding in the dark, they dismounted again. They could not afford to stop, but walking would give the horses some rest.
"How is your arm?" Elladan asked.
"Painful, stiff," Elrohir replied. "Not too bad."
"Can you climb with it?"
Elrohir tensed his arm and tried how much movement he had without it hurting too badly. "Yes, I think so."
"Then we should attempt the first pass."
"The trail was made by Orcs. They will know every short cut and trap."
"That was over a thousand years ago; it has been out of use since we cleaned out the caves that opened on to it."
"And we cannot take the horses." Elrohir remembered the path clearly – it would be dangerous enough on foot. Even so, Elladan was right; they would have to take a chance if they were to make it across at all. "But I see no other choice either."
"If we release the horses before we start into the mountains, they have a good chance of making it back to Lothlórien," Elladan said.
"Their chances may be better than ours," Elrohir muttered. Elladan said nothing, and they continued through the night in silence.
As it grew light, the path started to turn west, and they found themselves at a sharp dip in the terrain. "We may as well let go the horses here and continue on foot," Elladan said. "It is no more than a mile or two to the path that leads to the pass."
"We should hide the saddles and headstalls," Elrohir said, after they had dismounted.
"I will take them up a tree," Elladan suggested, putting his words into action as soon as they had unsaddled the horses. It would be too much to hope for that the Orcs would follow the horses and miss their own trail, but at least the puzzle would give them a brief delay. While Elladan climbed the tree, Elrohir busied himself with rearranging their packs and checking how much food they had left.
"We will have to start on the lembas within a few days," he said as Elladan dropped back down to the ground for the last time.
"We have almost enough to make it home, and once we are on the other side of the mountains we should have opportunity to hunt or forage," Elladan said, before he turned and spoke softly to their horses. The animals dipped their heads in unison, as if they were acknowledging orders, then turned and slowly walked off, heading north. "They will turn back south later," Elladan said. "They know the Orcs are out there, and they will be careful."
"Time for us to be on our way as well," Elrohir said. They had not heard their pursuers for some time, yet they should not risk stopping too long. The mountain path would be hazardous, even without the Orcs on their heels. The day was already well past noon when Elladan spotted the turn that would take them further up. It was obvious the route had not been used or maintained for a long time; it was overgrown with grass and low tangles of brambles, and shrubs and small trees grew even on the path itself. In the distance Elrohir could see where an old rockfall had spilled over the path.
Using stout branches as staves, they made better speed than Elrohir had dared hope. Just before they reached the ancient rockfall, Elladan stopped to look around. "Look behind," he said, pointing down to where they had come from.
Far below, already in the shadow of the mountains, Elrohir recognised the place where they had set their horses loose. At first, he saw nothing to alarm him; then an Orc briefly moved from the deeper shadow of the trees.
"Half a day at most. I would have preferred a longer lead." Elrohir turned away, back towards their path. "They will gain overnight."
They walked on afternoon and evening, resisting the urge to keep looking over their shoulders. They would hear the Orcs long before they saw them. Close to dusk, a rumble in the distance had them even more on their guard.
"Rockfall," Elladan said. "Hopefully it has not blocked our path, but there is naught we can do about it. Shall we stop to eat, then go on through the night?"
Elrohir sat down quickly. If the path was blocked, they would have to climb to get around the obstruction, and while his arm could likely take the exertion, he did welcome the chance to rest.
"At least the Moon is nearly full, and we will have more light until he sets," Elladan said as they set off again after a quick meal of dried meat and a handful of berries.
"So will the Orcs," Elrohir observed sourly; Elladan's attempts at optimism started to grate on him. They walked on until the Moon had set, then rested briefly. They had to go slower now; Elrohir was starting to tire again, and he could sense his brother's fatigue as well
Was that the Orcs he heard behind them? Elrohir paused to listen more closely. Yes, it was. They are less than an hour behind. A howl in the distance. Warg.
No doubt passing messages to others, Elladan replied.
Before Elrohir had counted more than five heartbeats, the Warg's call was answered.
Ahead of us, Elrohir said.
And still hours until sunrise, Elladan replied, looking up at the sky. It was cold enough that Elrohir could see his breath escape in cloudy puffs against the bright stars above.
"We had best go on again," Elrohir said, "Not far now until we reach the first entrance to those caves. If I remember aright, the path should grow easier for some time once we are past there."
They soon reached the caves, and were about to pass them when Elrohir heard a shuffling noise. Elladan!
Yes. I hear it too. Orc.
More than one. Wait until they attack.
Before Elladan had moved ten paces past the mouth of the caves, three Orcs jumped out, no doubt thinking to rush him. Elladan spun around, drawing his sword before he had completed the turn, and the first Orc was dead. Elrohir had stepped forward as soon as the Orcs ran out of the cave, and his strike beheaded the second one. He cursed inwardly as the sweeping movement pulled at the wound in his arm, but kept from crying out in pain. The third Orc turned and ran back inside before either brother had a chance to strike at him.
"Let him go!" Elladan cried out as Elrohir was about to go after the Orc. "We do not have the time."
But he will betray our presence to our pursuers.
They already know we are here. Besides, we do not know how many more are in there.
Elrohir sighed, then winced as he wiped his sword on one of the dead Orcs' clothes. Elladan was immediately at his side. Your arm?
Leave it for now. We must go on.
Elladan reluctantly gave in, and they went on, now wary not just for the Orcs already in pursuit, but also for any others that might be lurking nearby. If those caves were in use again, there would be more than a mere three Orcs in them. The next part of the path was indeed easier; though there were patches of snow beside it, the path itself was clear. Even in the dark, and despite their weariness, they made good speed. Yet every time they heard their pursuers, the Orcs were closer.
They keep gaining on us.
Perhaps the day will bring counsel.
Perhaps... Elrohir glared at the mountainside that loomed over their path. It might look better in daylight, but in the pre-dawn gloom, all looked dreary and grey. At least the Warg howls that had trailed them throughout the night had stopped.
Not long now until the sun rises, Elladan went on. "With some luck we can regain the lead we lost."
"And if not?" Elrohir asked softly.
Elladan said nothing at first, but lowered his right hand to his sword, and pulled Elrohir into a tight embrace with his left. "We fight."
Elrohir nodded against his brother's shoulder. They would give a good accounting of themselves, but with them on foot and against Wargs as well as Orcs, the enemy had the advantage. "Come. We have to keep moving," he said as he broke their embrace.
There was a sharp bend ahead, and Elrohir tried to remember what came after as they approached it. There should be a fairly easy section first, followed by a steep climb towards the highest point of the pass.
Looking over his shoulder, Elrohir was relieved to see that the Orcs were not yet in sight. As he went forward again, he nearly ran into Elladan who had stopped abruptly upon reaching the turn in the path.
Elrohir did not know whether this was the rockfall they had heard the day before, but no more than a few hundred yards beyond their vantage point, the mountainside had collapsed, leaving a long gap in the path.
"Do you see any way across that?" he asked.
"Not from here," Elladan replied. "We could take a closer look, but I doubt we can get past the gap."
"Then what do we do?" Elrohir looked behind again. The Orcs were still not in sight, but it would not be long before they caught up.
Elladan was silent for a long time, first looking back as well, then taking a few steps forward as if that made a difference in what he saw. Finally he shook his head. "It is no good. Even if there is a way across, their archers can pick easily us off. We are trapped here. Unless..."
"Unless?" Elrohir asked when Elladan did not continue.
"If we go back to..." Elladan started.
"Go back?" Elrohir interrupted him.
"Yes. Back," Elladan almost snapped at him in reply, then went on more quietly, "Do you recall where there was only a narrow path a bit before? If we go down there, we can find our way around the rockfall lower down while the Orcs are still up here."
"What is to stop their archers from picking us off there too?" Elrohir asked, rubbing at his wounded arm. He remembered the passage his brother meant, but he did not see that it would give them a better chance to escape.
"Did you look over the edge?" Elladan asked, then continued as Elrohir shook his head in denial. "There is a ledge about twenty yards down that will shield us from view from the path."
Elrohir nodded, considering the idea; it might work. "Very well. We will try that."
"Then we must go back now," Elladan replied. Unless you think you cannot make the climb?
No, it should not be a problem.
"Stop. This is the place I meant," Elladan said after a few minutes, gesturing at the mountain below them. "If we can make it down to the bottom of the slope before they catch up..."
Elrohir quickly lowered himself over the edge of the path. Even getting to the ledge would not be easy, he thought once he put his weight on his wounded arm. He gritted his teeth against the pain and hoped he could keep it from his brother; he did not want to slow them down. There, the ledge... he breathed a sigh of relief.
The next section was just as steep, but there appeared to be enough holds for hands and feet. Further down, there was a rough scree slope, at a precarious angle and with many large boulders among the smaller rocks; but if they made it down that far unseen, they might once more have a chance to outrun the Orcs.
They were no more than ten yards down on the second part of the slope when Elrohir heard the Orcs above them. He glanced over to where Elladan clung to the rocks. If the Orcs would just run past...
At first, it seemed the Orcs fell for the deception, and continued on their way.
No. The Wargs know we were up there, Elladan said as there was a sharp yelp from above.
Soon, Elrohir could hear their enemies milling about on the path. The Wargs might have found their scent, they did not yet know where their prey had gone.
It may take a while before they think to look over the edge, Elladan observed from just above him.
They were nearly halfway down the steepest part now; only another thirty yards until they reached the scree. Elrohir looked up to where they had come from, just as a dozen Orcs dropped down over the ledge.
No archers yet, Elrohir thought, then pressed closer against the rock as a large rock clattered down past him.
Perhaps the first rock had been loosened by accident, but the Orcs still on the ledge now started throwing down more rocks. Luckily, the projectiles either bounced away harmlessly or struck near the Orcs already lower on the slope. The Orcs yelled up at their fellows at the top to stop. Amid jeering and catcalls they did, but they too now started down in pursuit of Elladan and Elrohir. At a quick count there were about forty Orcs, though at least the Wargs could not follow.
Elrohir could already see that the scree would be no easier than the first part of the slope, its treacherous surface liable to slip away underfoot. The first Orcs were not far behind. As Elrohir looked over at Elladan, his brother indicated that they should separate more, forcing the Orcs to spread out further as well. Elrohir slipped slightly as he moved to the side, a rivulet of pebbles clattering down the slope below him.
Careful. The slope is unstable, Elladan warned, then cursed as he overbalanced and nearly lost his footing. They both recovered quickly and continued on down, but the incident seemed to have encouraged the Orcs to resume their earlier barrage of rocks. The first rocks missed them by a wide margin, but the other Orcs soon followed suit and a hail of rocks and pebbles started to fall down.
As most rocks fell short, Elrohir wondered at the Orcs' aim, then realised that they were trying to disturb the slope enough to set off a rockslide. Even worse, it was working. Small streams of pebbles were running down the slope.
I see it too, Elladan said. Faster and more to the side! It is our only chance.
The surface was even worse further down, and in their haste they stumbled as much as ran. There were larger rocks coming down as well, and Elrohir did not dare risk even a brief glance behind to see where either his brother or the Orcs were.
Suddenly, the jeers and shouts from the Orcs turned to a confusion of screams, almost immediately drowned out by the clatter of falling rocks. Where was Elladan? Was his brother clear of the scree yet?
Elrohir slipped, further losing his balance at a sharp blow to his head.
In a reflex, he felt at his head. Blood; warm on his hand.
Grabbing at rocks, trying to slow, to stop
Tell Father I
... am with you ... not alone ...
NO! Do NOT stay with me. Let go!
Rocks striking arms, legs, back, chest, head
. . .
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