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Unto the ending of the world: 8. Escape
March 17 – 18, 3019
When the path up Mindolluin turned sharply right around an outcrop of rock, the light from the burning city behind Elrohir vanished. He blinked, waiting for the instant it took his eyes to adapt. Further ahead some men lit torches. They must at last have reached the point where they could no longer be seen from the city. Aside from the torches, the darkness was relieved only by the Moon sinking towards the horizon.
At the front of their group, he noticed Elladan handing his flask of miruvor to those behind him. Elrohir took a small sip from his own flask and passed it on ahead to the next in line, Hunthor. Between him and Elladan there would be just enough for all, and no more after that, but he reckoned they needed it now. He certainly did. And little wonder, he thought. After the last few days, it would be stranger had he not been weary. He shook his head sadly, and returned his attention to the path that would have been treacherous even in daylight.
After having to rely more than once on footholds in the rocks to get past gaps in the path, they now came to a place where the side of the mountain had been considered impassable by even the makers of this precarious path, and a series of short tunnels and stairs had been hewn out of the rockface. It surprised Elrohir that, with all Gondor's skill in building, more had not been done to improve this escape route, but the path was likely no more than an afterthought, and no one had truly believed that it might one day be needed. Or they had been more concerned about the possibility of attack from this direction and did not want to provide an easy route into Minas Tirith. It was after all not that long ago that Orcs were a serious threat in the White Mountains.
Slowly, silently, the long line of people wound its way up and down the path, and just as slowly, the first grey light of day appeared.
The light had come too late for some who had gone before. Elrohir looked down as he carefully crossed a narrow shoulder of icy rock with great drops to either side, and glimpsed a crumpled shape lying in the shadows near the bottom of the ravine.
By midmorning, the path became slightly less difficult, and not a moment too soon, judging from the way even the hardy Rangers were beginning to waver and stumble. He could now perhaps think about other things than where to place his next step; and there was much that needed consideration.
Reluctantly, Elrohir remembered the day Arathorn had died. The Orcs that ambushed them had been craftier than expected, and the Chieftain was dead almost before they realised their party was under attack. At the time, both he and his brother believed they were at fault for failing to spot the trap that killed their friend. Elrohir could not help but feel now that he had failed another friend, for neither his prowess as a warrior nor his skill as a healer had been enough to save Arathorn's son, though he knew also that even their father would not have been able to save their brother's life.
He thought back to Aragorn's last words. Arwen... These two loved each other so. Elrohir recalled when he had first heard about their troth-plight. His opposition to it had been almost as fierce as their father's; it had taken time, and, he thought ruefully, hard words from Arwen before he came to accept it. Elladan had done so much sooner, which had led to some argument between him and his twin as well.
Heavy-hearted, Elrohir turned his attention to the next section of the path. They had to climb a short distance as the path took them away from Mindolluin and across a ridge to a less steep slope, heading down again. There were still miles and hours to go before they would reach the hidden vale in Lossarnach where the path came out, or so he had been told. The expectation was that they would arrive around nightfall. He hoped that would give them a chance for at least some rest, hopefully even a full night's sleep, before starting the next part of their journey back north. Despite the sip of miruvor he had taken, he was still weary to the point of exhaustion.
Once they left the southern shoulder of Mindolluin behind, the path widened enough that two could walk side by side. Many of the Gondorians were using it as a chance to sit down and take some rest without blocking the path for those behind them. The Grey Company halted as well, but only to eat a bite, and then they quickly walked on again.
Elladan joined him soon after their brief rest, but beyond a greeting neither brother spoke. Weary as they were, there was some small comfort in merely walking together.
Some while later, when the path started to wind its way among grassy patches and low trees rather than bare rock and ice, Halbarad called for a longer halt, just as Elrohir started to wonder whether he would have to remind him not to push the men beyond their endurance. The Rangers sat down, clearly glad of the rest, while Halbarad walked around, occasionally joining one of the men to exchange a few words.
As he needed to talk to Legolas and Gimli, Elrohir walked over to where the two were sitting and joined them. "Are your plans still unchanged?" he asked.
Gimli nodded as Legolas replied, "Yes, we will journey with you into Wilderland. I do not know yet whether we will go as far as Lothlórien. If we can safely cross Anduin earlier, we should perhaps do so, and then go on east and return to our own lands."
"It may not be possible to cross south of Lórien. The Enemy is bound to have control over both shores," Elrohir said. "It would also take you too near Dol Guldur, even if you can."
"Not if we can cut across the Brown Lands and travel up the eastern side of Mirkwood," said Legolas.
"There is safety in staying together longer," Gimli said, "And we do not know the situation in Wilderland. We must delay choosing our road until we know more."
Legolas was only willing to concede that he would wait until their road became clearer, and Elrohir let it go; they were yet far from the time that a decision would have to be taken.
Elrohir walked over to where Halbarad was standing. The Ranger nodded at him, but did not speak at first. "How are the men doing?" Elrohir finally broke the silence.
"Well enough," replied Halbarad. "They are weary, but even the wounded have no trouble keeping up this pace. The Company will be in good shape to ride back north at speed. I only hope we will find horses within a day or so once we are in Lossarnach."
"Do you want me to take a look at those who were wounded?" Elrohir asked, knowing that one or two of the men would still benefit from his care. Halbarad nodded and walked away. Elrohir had not asked how Halbarad himself was doing. That was clear enough to see, and he did not think the Ranger would thank him for asking. For now, the best he could do would be to merely keep an eye on him. Elladan joined him, and from his speculative look at Halbarad, it was obvious his brother shared his concern.
"Should I speak to Halbarad?" Elladan asked.
Elrohir shook his head. "Let him be for now."
Elladan nodded, then looked at him sharply. "And you?"
"Need you ask?"
"No," Elladan replied, "But look after yourself as well, brother. Do not lose sight of your own sorrow against that of others."
Elrohir smiled wanly at his twin's concern, but said nothing. As he walked over to where the Rangers were sitting, Elladan following him, he contemplated the bitter irony that though the Grey Company had been through some hard battles, there had been no losses among them, and only a few wounded. But for the devastation of the loss they had suffered in Aragorn's death, he would have called them lucky.
It was already close to dark when they went on, and as he looked west, Elrohir noticed Eärendil's light shining through a gap in the clouds that had started gathering that afternoon. He stopped to look pensively at the Silmaril his grandfather had brought to Valinor two Ages before. There would be no sailing West to ask the Valar for help in this conflict. The World was round and they had no choice but to face their enemy alone. Still, he was glad of the reminder that there was always a chance of the unexpected happening; and Sauron, even with the Ring, was not as powerful as Morgoth. Elrohir sighed as he walked on; he had little hope that they could prevail. It started to drizzle soon after. About an hour later they reached the deep valley where all were to gather, and by then it was raining in earnest.
One in the livery of the Tower Guard directed them to an area where they could set up their camp, such as it was. At least there was enough firewood lying around, Elrohir saw, though he doubted it would burn in this rain. He resigned himself to a cold and wet night, though it did appear that not all were so inclined. He watched as Halmir attempted to coax a fire from some of the less damp wood he had collected. To the peredhel's surprise the young man succeeded, but as he looked round and saw Halbarad looking on, Elrohir remembered that he too had always had a knack for getting campfires started under difficult conditions. It would seem that his eldest son had inherited this useful skill.
Elrohir let his gaze linger on Halmir, wondering what Halbarad's son thought about the fact that he was now the Chieftain's heir. He doubted it had even sunk in yet through the grief for Aragorn.
Joining Legolas and Gimli, Elrohir settled near the fire. He hoped he would be able to sleep this night, for once they started the journey north, there would most likely be little rest. As he sat watching, Halbarad assigned sentry duties for the night and walked away from their camp after a short conversation with Elladan. Elrohir gave Elladan an inquiring glance as his brother sat down next to him.
"He is going to look for whoever is in command of this camp, and see if he can find out where we might have some chance of getting horses before Pelargir," Elladan said.
Elrohir nodded. "Hopefully sooner rather than later. We are losing valuable time with every day that we remain in Gondor."
They waited, watching as new groups came down from the mountains. Just before Halbarad returned, Elrohir saw the Steward come in with the hobbit Pippin in tow. He smiled to himself, pleased that the hobbit had made it, considering how difficult the path must have been for him.
As Halbarad came back, it was clear from his weary step and grim expression that he had not received a satisfactory answer. He sat down on the wet ground before speaking. "I have spoken to the Steward's son. He thinks there is a fair chance that we might be able to get horses somewhere along the road south here in Lossarnach, tomorrow or the day after."
"Is that all he could say?" Legolas asked.
"Yes," Halbarad replied. "And he was uncertain even of that. It seems most of the people of Lossarnach have retreated into the high valleys, and will be hard to find."
They fell silent again, until, just as their fire started to die down, Elrohir noticed Halbarad looking at him.
"Elrohir," Halbarad addressed him, then hesitated before he continued, "I may be presuming on our friendship, but I need to ask this." Elrohir waited. While Halbarad was often taciturn even for a Ranger, it was also rare for him not to speak what was on his mind when he felt the need.
Eventually Halbarad went on, "What is it like for you, befriending mortals? To know that in fifty or a hundred years you may be sitting just as companionably next to a man's grandson?" He paused as he held Elrohir's gaze and gestured at their campfire. "How do you see us? Brief flames that flicker up and are gone again, while you will still be here in a hundred years time, or a thousand?"
Elrohir noticed that Elladan and Legolas were listening closely as well. As he shook his head in denial at Halbarad's question, he remained silent for a while before replying. How to answer this? Finally, he said, "No. That is not how it is."
"Then how is it?" Halbarad continued relentlessly.
Elrohir took a deep breath, looking for the right way to express himself. "If anything, I find mortal friendships more, rather than less, valuable, perhaps because they are bound in time. When you stay away for a season, or a hundred, and pick up where you left off a century ago..."
"So, it is the intensity rather than the briefness of the flame?" Interrupting him, Halbarad looked close to anger. "A moment's brightness, and then on to the next? There is no picking up to be done with mortals."
"No! I am not putting this well, but that is not... perhaps you should not be asking me, but a full Elf." In frustration, Elrohir put his head in his hands, trying to order his thoughts.
Legolas stayed silent, seemingly irritated by the suggestion that he answer this, and Elrohir wondered why Halbarad had asked. It had of course to do with Aragorn, that much should be obvious. Did Halbarad perhaps question in some way his friendship... No, that was not it. What, then?
Unexpectedly, Elladan said, "This is about Gandalf, is it not?" From Halbarad's look, Elrohir knew his brother had guessed aright, and he cursed his own lack of insight.
"Before yesterday I would not have questioned the truth of his friendship for Aragorn," Elladan said, "But now... I do not know." Lowering his voice, he continued, "Remember, though, that he may be influenced by... you know."
"Of course, I do not know Mithrandir as well as you do," Legolas now spoke as well, "But his grief at least seemed genuine to me."
"I would have thought so too," Halbarad said, "But we all saw the same, and I for one do not know what to make of it. I would prefer to think that he was... influenced, as I find it hard to believe that his friendship was feigned all those years, yet who can know the mind of a wizard, a Maia?"
"I cannot," Elrohir shook his head. Halbarad nodded pensively in response and said no more.
Elrohir watched as the others fell asleep one by one. He found it difficult to find rest himself, his thoughts leaving him no peace. He did share some of Halbarad's doubts, even if he was more willing than the Ranger to ascribe most of Gandalf's odd behaviour to the influence of his Ring. Yet, while Elrohir had never seen reason to doubt Gandalf's actions or motivations, it could also not be denied that Aragorn had been useful to the wizard's goals, even if that did not necessarily negate his friendship, or the worthiness of those goals. Between that and the thoughts of death and mortality that had been on his mind over the last few days, Elrohir was not surprised that he found it hard to sleep, yet in the end he did manage.
Just before dawn, it stopped raining, and word was passed through the camp that all should be ready to set off on the journey south by the second hour after sunrise. There were still stragglers coming in from the mountains, but only a few more were expected and these would have to make their way south on their own.
As they left the valley and headed for the road to Pelargir, the Grey Company followed behind the knights of Dol Amroth. Elrohir chose to walk at the front of their group with Halbarad and Halmir, while Elladan was further back with Legolas and Gimli.
After an hour or so, their small group was joined by the Prince of Dol Amroth. As they knew of the death of the Prince's son Erchirion in the defence of the City from the talk of the men of Dol Amroth in front of them, the conversation first turned towards their respective losses. They heard that Erchirion had been badly wounded in the fight for the Third Circle and had stayed behind with others who could not have made it across Mindolluin, and some of their comrades who would not leave them, to make a last stand together with the rearguard of Imrahil's troops. At this, Elrohir winced as he briefly caught Halbarad's eye. Had Gandalf's killing of the Nazgûl not delayed the fall of Minas Tirith, one of them would have been among that group.
At Imrahil's question as to what would be the best way to send messengers north, Halbarad suggested, "There will usually be Rangers near Tharbad for messengers from Gondor to find. If not, they should ride further North along the Greenway, the old North Road, towards the village of Bree, or if necessary as far as Fornost Erain."
"Would it be possible to take a small ship up the Gwathló as far as Tharbad?" Imrahil asked.
"Yes, it should be. But if not, do not forget that the Paths of the Dead should be safe to use now," Elrohir joined in the conversation.
Imrahil replied, "At least if the Rohirrim are prepared to let us travel freely through Rohan at need, though I doubt not that they will." He turned to Halbarad again. "I note that your directions are for how your people can be contacted, rather than to where they are."
Halbarad nodded. "Our main settlements are hidden from the eyes of all, and should remain so for as long as possible. Messengers from Gondor would be taken there, but by safe routes that avoid the open road."
"A wise approach," Imrahil replied, before he went forward to the head of his own troops again. Elrohir looked after him pensively. He wondered whether Halbarad had yet decided what to do about the Corsair ships.
As the morning progressed, and Halbarad's frustration with the time they were losing grew, Elrohir fell back to walk with his brother. They walked on in silence through the empty forests, which slowly ran into equally deserted farmlands.
Early in the afternoon, as they crested the brow of a low hill, Elrohir realised that he could see a great road in the distance, and beyond that a hint of reflected light on water that must surely be the river Anduin. Elladan grabbed his arm to draw his attention and pointed south along the road. Elrohir looked and turned towards his brother. "Could that be Angbor of Lamedon with his soldiers?"
"It may well be," Elladan agreed. "Legolas, what do you think?" he called to the Elf, who had walked on.
Legolas now came back and confirmed their observation. It was not long before the most keen-eyed among the Gondorians also spotted the approaching army, and Elrohir watched as runners were sent towards the road. Halbarad stood next to him, watching impassively as several riders split from the mass of the army and rode towards the runners.
One of the riders continued towards the Minas Tirith column, the others returning to their own men. It did not take long before the lone rider reached the head of the column and dismounted, presumably to speak to the Steward. Word came back quickly through the line that they had indeed found Angbor and his men.
As more riders came towards them, Halbarad walked to where Denethor was talking with the first rider. In the throng of people ahead, Elrohir lost sight of him, and he had to settle for waiting. The column had halted fully by now, and many used the opportunity to take some rest, for they had been walking without pause since the morning.
It was well over two hours before Halbarad came back. From his bearing, Elrohir found it impossible to judge whether or not he had any news. The Ranger sat down in the middle of their group before announcing, "We have horses."
The men of the Grey Company looked up expectantly as Halbarad continued, "I talked to Angbor, and he is willing to let us have the horses and supplies we need, as he knows there will be no battle on this end of his march now and he can spare them."
Elrohir spoke. "That will not have pleased the Steward."
Halbarad shook his head. "The sooner we return North, the better, as far as he is concerned. No, he is displeased with Angbor, but not about horses."
Now Elladan, with a wry smile, said, "I would rather guess that the Steward's displeasure with the Lord of Lamedon is in connection with Angbor's unhesitating support of Aragorn."
"Indeed," Halbarad confirmed, and fell silent.
"But I doubt the Steward can afford to alienate any of the southern lords either," said Elrohir, catching Elladan's eye as his brother nodded pensively.
"Nor, in his current situation, can he complain overmuch about having four thousand men-at-arms at hand, no matter at whose command they originally marched," Elladan offered, malice noticeable in his tone.
"Do not enjoy the Steward's discomfort too much," Halbarad corrected him sharply. "Make no mistake. The North needs Gondor to stand strong and undivided, or we are lost all the sooner."
Elladan gave Halbarad an unreadable look. "You are right, of course." Silence fell over the group, until Elrohir asked Halbarad what he intended to do about the Corsair fleet.
"I have discussed it with Prince Imrahil," Halbarad replied, "And the law of Gondor agrees with that of the North. The ships are mine by right of inheritance and conquest. However, Imrahil also warned me that the Steward will be unwilling to let that fleet leave Gondor."
Elrohir nodded. "A thorny problem, though I do not expect that we will need them in the North, while they may well be needed here soon."
In the silence that followed, Elladan asked, "So, what is to be done then?"
Halbarad was silent long enough that Elrohir wondered if the Ranger would answer, then said to Elladan, "I doubt we will be able to crew them and sail them north in the near future, and I do not think we will be waived port fees at Pelargir. Therefore, while I have not given up title to the ships, and they can thus be recalled North should we need them, for now I have granted their use to the Steward for the defence of Gondor."
"And this was Imrahil's counsel?" Elladan then asked. "If so, I would say he..."
Halbarad interrupted him, "Elladan, I like it as little as you do, and I know Imrahil is not a disinterested party in this, but we have not the time to argue this with the Gondorians. And yes, it is a major gain for the Steward, but it also gains us some good will with the coastal lords who will benefit most from it. Nor do I see any other option. Maybe you do?"
"No." No one spoke while they waited for their horses and supplies to be brought to them.
It was not long before the Grey Company was ready to set off. The plan was to follow the road south as far as the Crossings of Erui and then ride west. Elrohir looked at the detailed maps Angbor had provided, and was certain that they should be able to cut at least half a day off their journey time by taking the lesser roads closer to the White Mountains, rather than following the main road past Linhir as they had done on their way towards Pelargir. They would then rejoin the great road near Ethring. Halbarad cast a quick glance at the maps and gave his agreement.
When Borlas asked if it was wise to take a short cut along an unknown route when they were in such haste, Elrohir replied that he was confident about their road, as his cuts, be they long or short, never went wrong. That earned him a comment from Halbarad that he had spent too much time among Rangers if he was now casting their own boasts back at them, and a round of laughter from the men. After, Elrohir wondered whether any of the Grey Company had seen Halbarad's wince at his own moment of levity. It had done the men good, though.
The Company rode on until well after sunset, Halbarad only calling a halt once it had become too dark to risk continuing with unfamiliar horses on equally unfamiliar ground. Elrohir reckoned they had nearly covered the thirty or so miles to the Erui.
As the Rangers made their camp, Elladan offered to take first watch, and Elrohir added that he would join his brother. They were still weary, but even so they were in better shape than the Dúnedain.
Elrohir sat gazing into the night, while Elladan walked the perimeter of the camp. Except for the soft sounds made by their horses, and the hooting of an owl in the distance, all was quiet. Elrohir let his thoughts return to the moments surrounding Aragorn's death. This was the first opportunity to step beyond his grief and examine closely what had happened. He had only just let go his awareness of his foster-brother's mind when he sensed the Enemy's presence, perhaps trying to ensnare Aragorn's soul before he had a chance to find the path to Mandos' Halls. Before Elrohir could even attempt to stop the attack, there had been someone else there, and Sauron retreated. It had happened fast, and all he had been able to make out with any certainty was that the Enemy's attempt had failed. Perhaps Elladan had seen more.
Immediately once Elladan returned and sat down beside him, Elrohir asked what his twin had felt. Elladan did not reply at once, but considered the question for some time. Finally, he nodded, and said, "I was not as near, but that is close to what I saw, except that the one who drove off the Enemy seemed familiar in some way, though at the same time I am certain he was unknown to me."
Though it would be wise to be wary of any who unexpectedly offered their assistance and not trust too soon, Elrohir knew they owed the stranger a great debt of gratitude. He and Elladan would not have been able to get Aragorn away from Sauron, not when he was fully in the spirit realm. What his foster-brother's soul would now be suffering at the hands of the Enemy… he shuddered, glad of Elladan's hand on his shoulder drawing him from that thought.
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