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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 9. The Road Goes Ever On
From the eaves of the woods came toiling three figures in the late light of the day: Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas walked slowly, burdened as they were by the body of their friend. Elf and Dwarf each had a grip on one side of the rough bier, while Aragorn supported the front end alone.
Gimli had argued somewhat over Legolas's participation, for despite his earlier words, it was clear that the Elf was in pain. But Legolas would not be gainsaid, and Aragorn, sensing that further talk over this matter would only lead to ill-feeling, had suggested the compromise. "For though we would not slight Boromir's memory, we have much need of haste," he argued. "Come, take the left side, Legolas, and Gimli stand to the right. There!"
So they had settled the issue, and now emerged from the shadowed woods onto the open bank and none could forbear to hold his breath, anticipating the worst, afraid to hope for good news lest they be dreadfully disappointed.
When they had come to their camp site, the companions gently set the bier down and gazed about. Aragorn stood silent an instant, following the hobbit prints with his eyes, remarking the scrapes that indicated the sliding passage of a hull into the water. Of a sudden, he strode swiftly to the remaining boats, glancing first at the baggage and then peering into the little craft. After a brief moment, to the surprise of his friends, he began to laugh softly, and there was in the quality of that laughter relief that bordered on pain, so deep did it cut.
"What is it?" Legolas called, for neither he nor Gimli were willing to risk marring any useful marks before Aragorn had had a chance to read them: they stood still by Boromir, leaving clear the slight depression where lay their gear. For answer, Aragorn grabbed the prow of one of the boats and tipped it to starboard, exposing the keel. Elf and Dwarf stared for a moment, then exchanged a look of profound, almost wearying, satisfaction as they saw the rents in the bottom.
"One would say that they wished to be certain we could not follow them!" Legolas laughed.
"Neither we, nor any other, less well-intentioned hunters. Frodo kept his wits about him, which gives me hope." The Ranger sighed softly, raising eyes noticeably brighter to gaze at his companions. "Well, they have crossed the river after all! For that at least, we may say that Boromir did not die in vain."
"What shall we do now, though? We have not the time to build a cairn," Gimli asked. "What is the custom of Gondor in such circumstances as these?"
"Were he in Minas Tirith, he would go to lie with his ancestors in the Houses of the Dead," Aragorn replied, and shook his head. "Else, the Gondorrim bury their fallen comrades together upon the field."
"But we have no shovels," Legolas frowned.
For a time, all three stood silent, considering the problem, but finally, Aragorn gave a soft grunt and sighed. "I can think of but one thing to do," he said reluctantly, seeming as one who likes not what need brings. "We have not the time to fell a tree for wood, but the boats will provide both setting and fuel. I would not have it thus, but that we have no other choice and I think Boromir would not wish us to tarry o'erlong on his behalf. At least there is a precedent: in the earliest days of the Third Age, after the Dagorlad, the dead lay hip deep in places. Rather than let time and the carrion beasts wreak their havoc, the survivors burned the bodies and scattered the ashes over the battlefield."
Legolas grimaced in distaste and Gimli, too, seemed unhappy with this solution, but neither spoke, for it was clear that there was nothing else that they could do. Aragorn glanced from one to the other, seeming to want to be certain that they were in agreement, ere he continued, "Before we send Boromir to his final rest, though, let us put all in readiness to depart. And I would see to you, Legolas, as well."
So, while Gimli hauled their baggage away from the boats and began to sort through their belongings, Aragorn took Legolas aside to tend to the other's injury. The mark showed dark and ugly against the Elf's pale skin, but he did not flinch as the Ranger examined him carefully. The arrow had opened a long gash down Legolas's back that ran over his shoulder blade and skittered at the end as the head had deflected off the quiver. Although no bone showed through the wound, Aragorn frowned, for such an injury, though not serious, would be slow to heal.
At least I see no sign of poison, Aragorn thought. And there has been time enough for all but the most sophisticated of them to show, so I shall not now worry over that at least! Aloud, he said, "Fortune walks with you, son of Thranduil, for the wound is clean and, given time and rest, should heal well enough."
"But? Come, Aragorn, tell me all! For your voice holds some reservation, and an Elf's ears are not easily deceived," Legolas prompted, turning his head to watch the other out of the corners of his eyes.
"But," Aragorn paused, acknowledging the other's perception, "a wound like this may not close quickly because of where it lies. Walking or running, the muscle beneath it will contract and break any stitches I might set; even breathing, if labored, may be enough to open the injury. And then there is the matter of straps and quivers. You would do well to move the latter to your hip, and Gimli and I will take as much of your baggage as we are able. In the mean time, I will do what I can, but I fear that until we reach a place of safety, where you may rest, this will give you trouble. Unless you remain behind…."
"Nay, I shall not!" Legolas replied firmly, laying to rest any hopes Aragorn might have entertained.
"Then be sure to tell us when your pain grows too great," the Ranger responded, rising. He took a few swift strides to where Gimli knelt, sifting the contents of their gear, and after a moment's surveillance, reached unerringly for a dark, well-worn sack that nestled among his belongings. Returning to the Elf's side, he took from it a small jar, a set of clean bandages, and a small vial. There came the sound of water splashing on the sandy ground, as Aragorn quickly washed the grime from his hands. Then Legolas hissed as the Ranger began to clean the wound.
"Time is short, and I fear I used the last of the athelas that I had tending to Sam after Moria," the Ranger said by way of apology. "But shadur will serve as well, though less gently! Deep in Harad, where fresh water is scarce and precious, and heat kills, they crush the chidah leaf and ferment the liquid. This they then use to cleanse wounds. One cannot drink it, 'tis so strong – the Haradrim value it for its medicinal use alone, and it is not difficult in the north to make something near to it for the same purposes."
"I thought that Harad was barren desert," the Elf said, surprised, welcoming the distraction of conversation.
"It depends upon the province. Many are very dry. But the chidah is a water-heavy plant, and there are many small seas scattered throughout Harad where it will grow, though I suppose 'lake' or even 'pond' might be a better word for such seas. They are as wells that lie too close to the surface of the earth, and so seep from the ground to form long, shallow pools. Oft one can tell somewhat of the soil to look at them, or to taste the water.
"The Haradrim hold such places dear, and say that different waters are cure different ills, much as we use different herbs for different maladies." The Ranger paused and set aside the vial, picking up the jar of salve instead. Gently, but swiftly nonetheless, he began to smear the clear, viscous stuff over the cut. "A fascinating place, Harad, but one I was glad to leave behind. I fear that this will be a nightly chore, Legolas," he added, winding clean bandages around the Elf's torso and then up cross-wise over his shoulder.
"So long as I am able to run the next day, I shall endure it," the elven prince replied easily enough, shrugging carefully to test the bandaging as he stood and snatched his tunic from the ground to examine the blood-stained tear in the fabric. With a slight grimace, the Elf folded it neatly and went to put it away, hunting through the piles that Gimli had made of his gear for a good minute ere he found what he needed. Whatever the salve that Aragorn had used, it seemed to have more properties than the Ranger had told, for Legolas felt the pain fade to an odd numbness as he pulled a fresh tunic on over his head.
Alas, without its distraction, other pains prick the sharper, the Elf thought, throwing his cloak about his shoulders and fastening the broach as he turned to stare at the bier, where Aragorn now knelt. He felt another presence at his side, and glanced down to where Gimli stood, gazing with no small concern at their human friends.
But after a moment, the Dwarf laid a hand on his arm, suggesting with that touch that they leave the Ranger what privacy they could. Legolas followed the other's lead, turning away. And while he waited, he took advantage of the moment to try to reconcile himself with what must come next. He knew well whereof Aragorn spoke, for there were among his father's people many who remembered the Dagorlad, but he could find no comfort in the idea of committing a dear friend to the fire. That Aragorn seemed troubled as well only unsettled him further, but there truly was no other choice, and the Elf grieved silently.
For we failed him, Gimli and I. We failed both of them: Aragorn no less than Boromir. I should have trusted Gimli's judgment better, and spoken with Aragorn ere we left Lothlórien. Alas, we shall never know now what might have been, had I done so! Behind him, he heard a soft sigh, and then Aragorn's voice, low and taut, reached him: "It is time. Gimli, if you would…."
With a nod, Gimli assented to the half-spoken request, and went to the Ranger's side. Stooping, the pair lifted the bier once more, and Man and Dwarf bore it to the boats. Carefully, they laid their fallen companion within one, and Legolas glided over to join them. He and Gimli stood silently, uncertain of themselves for neither were familiar with southern custom, or with that of Aragorn's people.
And so they said nothing, watching as Aragorn knelt once more to remove the great horn that Boromir kept ever at his side. Slinging it over one shoulder, he said, "If it be my fate and luck, I would return this to his family, for ere the Stewards ruled Gondor, this horn was a mark of their line. And I will do all I can to honor my promise, Boromir. Fare you well!"
With that he stood, and beckoning once more to Gimli, went to the other boat, which they hefted and set as a cover over the first, forming almost a coffin. A moment they stood still, while Gimli fumbled in his pouch for his tinderbox. No torch had they, but the boats caught quickly, and the flames began to lick along the edges, spreading with a marvelous swiftness to consume all. Dwarf and Man bowed their heads, though after but a brief space, Aragorn raised his eyes again, seeming unable to bear to look away.
For his part, Legolas found himself struck by an almost physical awe and horror, the like of which he had never before felt, and he staggered back, grasping blindly for his companions in a most unusual fit of discomposure, as the world seemed to dim before his eyes.
He felt Gimli catch his arm on one side, and Aragorn braced his shoulders from the other as the three of them retreated from the heat of the blaze. Distance did little to calm his chaotic emotions, but at least the movement and the feel of the others at his side bolstered him. Still, when he spoke, his words came in Sindarin, for it seemed Westron had abandoned him. At his side, he heard Aragorn translating, as if by rote habit, and their words blended with the roar of the flames:
"So even with Fëanor was it, that to ash all returns when the spirit is fled!"
Pippin woke in pain, and such was the noisome assault upon his senses that he retched violently. Perhaps fortunately, he had nothing in his stomach to vomit, for he doubted that the orc that carried him would have appreciated that overt sign of his discomfort. His head throbbed in time to the jarring strides, and he felt as though his arms were being wrenched from their sockets. All around him, harsh breathing and swift, heavy footfalls sounded, the rushed tempo broken only by the occasional orcish curse.
Where am I? And where am I being taken? he wondered miserably. Flashes of the battle in the woods returned to him, and he gritted his teeth, wishing he knew whether the others were even still alive. How could they be? There were so many orcs! And the arrows…! Thought of his friends lying among the foul orcs, unmourned and unburied, pulled a sob from his lips that turned swiftly to a gasp as his particular orc abruptly shouldered a companion hard. The impact rocked Pippin's head on his shoulders and the flurry of guttural, hateful orcish grated on his nerves like claws.
What are they on about? he wondered in spite of himself, his curiosity overcoming even the horror of his situation. Can they not just run? Why all this shoving and fighting? Or are they only happy when they're making each other miserable?
Such questions had no answers, he knew. So instead of trying to solve the riddles, Pippin craned his neck to search for Merry, but he could see nothing to fore over the orc's head, and he hadn't the freedom to twist about for a glimpse behind. To either side, he saw naught but the iron helms and hideous, snarling faces of more orcs. A pang of loss settled in his stomach, but he firmly tried to crush it.
After all, I should be glad, shouldn't I, that maybe Merry isn't here? That he's missing this journey? Maybe he slipped off into the woods, and is making his way home… wherever that lies now! So he told himself, but it was hard to feel good about anything in such circumstances. Still, he did try, and ere he let himself slip away into dark dreams once again, he spared a thought for Sam and Frodo, hopefully safely across the river. Safe! To think that I should call anything safe, and especially a walk into Mordor. But there you have it, they are safe… I hope!
With that, he slipped deeper into the recesses of his own mind, locked away in desperate memories of better days, forced down deeper and deeper by the pain that penetrated to the bone until oblivion claimed him.
The first inkling that Pippin had that anything had changed was the jarring impact with the ground. Groaning, he opened tired eyes to a forest of dirty, hard-muscled and iron-clad orc legs standing all about him.
Why have we stopped? The hobbit rolled onto his back and squinted at the sky, which was yet dark and gave no sign as to the time. His whole body ached, and his hands were numb from poor circulation, for the bonds were cruelly tight. Beside him, a soft moan sounded, and Pippin stiffened, glancing to his left to see Merry Brandybuck huddled on the ground beside him, looking as though he desperately wanted to be sick. "M-Merry? Are you all right?" he whispered hoarsely, afraid that his captors might hear.
"As right as I can be… I guess!" Merry managed after a moment, offering a pathetic smile. A dirty bandage was wrapped about his head, and he truly looked a bit dazed still. "And you?"
"Oh, I'm not so bad, myself," Pippin lied, making his voice as cheery as he could for the other's sake, though his heart sank. So he didn't get away after all!
"What about the others?"
"I don't know. The last I saw of them, they were fighting hard… I don't know… they may not have…." Just at that moment, an iron-shod foot kicked Pippin in the back, and the hobbit gasped, trying to roll away from the assault.
"All right, vermin, shut your wide traps and listen!" An orc loomed over them, his scarred face set in a hideous scowl as he grated, "No talking, no whining, and no trying to escape! You'll do what you're told and hop to it if you know what's good for you! Otherwise…."
"Ah, shut it, will you, you worthless goat!" came another harsh voice from near at hand. "You haven't got the guts for that sort of thing, even with orders! Bloody mountain folk got so much air between their ears it blows out their mouths every time they open 'em, but they couldn't take a tark on a moonless night!"
"Is that so, snaga?" the first orc hissed, and there came the ring of metal as a sword was drawn. "At least I didn't run all this way from Lugbúrz just ta take orders from an Isengarder that don't want nothing but these worthless half-grown slugs! They haven't got a bloody thing on them worth takin', 'less you count those pretty stickpins of theirs!"
"I thought the orders were no spoiling!" the second voice grew softer and smooth as silk in anticipation of a fight.
"I'm not one of your wretched kind, to balk at taking what's mine just because some higher up that can't even keep his own command tells me not to! Want me to show you one of those daggers?"
"That's enough!" a new voice interjected, and the hobbits squirmed round to stare, for of a sudden the two antagonists fell utterly silent, and there was a general sense of unease as a large orc stalked forward, glaring. "Put your play things away! And you," the orc made a quick swipe and grabbed something out of the first orc's fist. Merry gasped, for he recognized the dagger as his own, and such was the discomfiture of the orcs that no one thought to kick him for the sound.
"Are you brainless as well as spineless? Do you know what these are?!" With a hiss, he tossed the blade aside as if it burned, and he continued, "Those knives have killed your folk for generations, and you think you can carry one along in this troop? Not while I command!"
"And how long will that be, pray tell?" someone else demanded with surly temper.
"As long as the rest of you swine buckle down and keep your senses, because make no mistake: the horse boys will come riding for us, and you had best hope we don't leave you to them! Until we reach Isengard, we are all in danger here, but I won't come home empty-handed because a couple of worthless mountaineers don't know enough to leave well enough alone! Keep your hands to yourselves, and if I find out that either of those two is missing anything when we get to Isengard, you'll pay me in blood, understand?"
"And who is to say we shall go to Isengard, Uglúk?" yet another orcish voice rose, and Pippin shivered, for although it was softer, it was more malignant.
"That's what my orders say, and that's where I'm going, Grishnákh!" Uglúk snarled. "And any who know what's good for 'em'll follow straight off!"
"Is that so? And what are those orders worth? The work of some ragtag wizard, they are! I serve the Great Eye, I and all who hold with me. We know where the true power is, and I say we cross the river and return to Mordor with these two."
"Do as you like!" Uglúk sneered. "Stinking cowards, the lot of you! The Uruk-hai will see to this business, and as we took the prisoners, we'll bloody well keep right on taking 'em where we please. Off with you, if you're afraid, but tell the whiteskins hello! You'll not escape them, and you won't be able to take them alone."
There were some more curses and jostling, but none offered any further resistance for the moment. The gathering broke up a bit, and the hobbits, who had lain very still, listening, began to breathe again, sensing that the immediate danger was past. Merry closed his eyes wearily, and Pippin felt his spirits sink.
Isengard! He remembered it vaguely from the debates back in Rivendell, but in truth he knew not where it lay. Somewhere in the Gap of Rohan, wherever that is. And does that mean, then, that we are in Rohan now, since they speak of riders and horsemen? Likely it did, and for some reason, that bothered Pippin greatly, inciting in him a feeling of utter displacement.
We are lost, Merry and I! Baggage misplaced and misclaimed. I only wish Strider and the others would come for us. But I don't even know if they're alive. I suppose my best hope is that this Grishnákh fellow won't take kindly to Uglúk's arrogance, and start a fight. Maybe they'd kill each other off, these orcs. But given the threat of pursuit, that seemed unlikely, and the hobbit sighed softly in the darkness.
Ere long, the orcs began to muster again, and Pippin was torn from his reflections by a slap across the face and the growled command: "Get up!"
Cracking his eyes open, he saw Uglúk glaring down at him, and the orc drew a blade. For a moment, Pippin thought he meant to stab him, but the leader of the Uruk-hai only bent and cut the thongs binding his legs. "We've carried you far enough to get to the bottom of that blasted hill. Time you repaid us and learned to run yourself! Up, both of you!"
He turned his attention to Merry, dragging him to his feet and giving him a hard shove forward, shaking his head when the hobbit stumbled and collapsed. "Best you learn to use your legs, swine, because orders or no, I'll lick you with this whip if you don't keep up! All right, move! All of you! Run, if you serve the Eye, or so help me I'll give you to the horse boys with my thanks!"
Pippin staggered forward as the line began to move, and Merry struggled along at his side, both of them trying desperately to keep pace with their captors. White Hand and Red Eye, whatever their allegiance, the orcs ran swiftly and made no effort to keep a clean line. Indeed, Pippin had to swerve several times to avoid being crushed by orcs who were pushed out of place by their fellows, and Merry nearly collided with one once.
But gradually, in spite of his general misery, Pippin began to notice that the emblem of Mordor, the Red Eye, seemed to have disappeared from the ranks. He dared not try to look back, but it was certain that before him and to either side, there were no soldiers out of the Dark Land, and he wondered at that. Did they really leave? I would have thought that they would fight harder!
But for now, the mystery would have to wait, for he could spare no attention from the grueling march, and he grit his teeth and tried to shut his mind away from the agony. His breath came hard and ragged, all his muscles burned with exhaustion and pain, his vision swam and his head ached, and still, the road went on and on.
The miles fell away behind them, and as the night wore away, the orcs swept onward towards Fangorn Forest.
The hills were featureless under the darkened sky, for the moon above was but a sliver, shedding no light to guide them. Aragorn had known dark journeys before, and he did not worry over his ability to climb even this treacherous slope by feel alone, but he feared to lose the path of the orcs entirely. Already, it was difficult to read, and though he would have wagered his life that they were bound for Isengard, still, proof of that would have been welcome.
And there is also Gimli to think of, for he has not Legolas's eyes, nor my training, Aragorn reminded himself, glancing back over his shoulder for all the good that that did. It was too dark to see the Dwarf's silhouette, and only the sound of his breathing and the echoes of dislodged pebbles as they descended in his wake testified to his continued presence in their line. Behind and below him, Legolas brought up the rear in utter silence, and that too gave the Ranger cause for concern.
Ordinarily, he would not have feared for Legolas at all, given the Elf's inborn, sure-footed grace, but he knew well that the Prince of Mirkwood suffered. His reaction to the funeral pyre, which had left him as one dazed for some minutes, was all out of proportion. Certainly, Legolas had been at a loss to explain it, though he had insisted afterward that he was well enough.
Aragorn had no grounds to gainsay him, but he mistrusted that assurance beyond the obvious fact that the injury clearly pained Legolas, and resolved to watch him carefully in the days to come. As for the pain itself, that was only to be expected: they had not even bothered with a sling, knowing that soon enough they all would need use of their hands for this climb. Legolas had assured them that he would manage it, and indeed, he seemed to have found his way well enough while the daylight lasted, but as time wore on, his responses to their inquiries grew more curt. If he slipped now, no one would be able to help him, for they would not know anything was wrong until the Elf cried out in alarm. Turning his attention back to the path, Aragorn noted that the crest of the hill was not far above them, and hoped that no mishap would overtake them ere they reached it.
And I hope also that Merry and Pippin live still unscathed, the Ranger thought. It was, in some ways, a selfish hope, for so long as the hobbits lived, there was the risk that they might be made to speak of the Company's business, and that would be immediate disaster. Even should the three of them overtake their foes and somehow slip the hobbits free of their captors' claws, Aragorn knew full well that they could not hope to destroy all those who would have heard the tale from captives desperate for an end to torment.
Yet though a pair of bodies so early in the chase would likely mean that the Fellowship's secrets remained untold, Aragorn could not bring himself to hope for such an end. And in truth, the risk was likely less than fear made it.
For what orc would seek out hobbits, unless ordered to do so? And if someone should take care to give such orders, then he must know what Frodo carries. Saruman and the Dark Lord both know, yet I doubt me they wish their orcs to hear aught of the rings of power, he thought grimly as he pulled himself at last onto the top of the ridge. Likely enough, then, Pippin and Merry were safe until they reached Isengard.
Turning back along their path, he reached to give Gimli, who had managed to scramble onto the ledge beside him, a hand. Then both Man and Dwarf stood gazing down, hesitant, unwilling to offend Legolas with an offer of help, but worried nonetheless that their friend would not be able to manage the last part of the ascent. In the end, however, their fears proved groundless, for wounded or no, the Elf made his own way up the slope easily enough in spite of the hazards of the terrain.
When at last he stood beside them, Aragorn gave him a long look, ere he turned to gaze out over the flatlands that spread below them, dimly revealed in a pale light. "Behold Rohan," he said then. "Would that the moon gave more light, for we might then see much upon the fields."
"Whither shall we go?" Legolas asked, voice taut, whether with anxiety or strain, it was impossible to tell. "Shall we begin our descent now and in this place, or seek an easier path?"
"In one thing only may we trust an orc, and that is that he will find the swiftest way down from these heights," Aragorn said wryly. "Come! The trail leads yonder, and then plunges into the ravine."
"Is it wise to dare such a descent on so blind a night?" Gimli asked, and cast a significant glance at the Elf's back.
"You need not fear for my safety, Master Dwarf," Legolas replied, discerning his friend's silent concern nonetheless. "But I shall be annoyed if you turn an ankle and force me to carry you!" At which Gimli snorted, and Aragorn grinned in the darkness, shaking his head.
"Alas, I fear you must have taken a blow to the head in addition to an arrow to the back if you think I shall make any such careless error, Master Elf!" Gimli retorted, much relieved as well.
"Come then, since we are agreed," Aragorn said, intervening ere the banter could continue, though in truth he found much comfort in the swift repartees. So long as Legolas can turn an insult, he is safe to continue, I suppose. "The night is still young enough, and we have far to run ere sunrise."
"And with the sun, may there come also strength!" Gimli muttered. "It shall be a long chase."
"Aye, it shall," Aragorn replied. "But we shall not let it deter us, and after a long chase, vengeance is the sweeter, however short-lived!" To that, neither Elf nor Dwarf responded, but they followed him without hesitation.
As the night waned, and the dawnlight grew nearer, the three hunters wound their way towards the basin floor, knowing that there the race would begin in earnest.
And we dare not lose, the Ranger thought grimly, for let the hobbits pass the gates of Isengard, and we are undone! So ran captainly concern, which was a thing apart from a friend's wrath, and as cold calculation struggled to solve the problem of how to reclaim hostages in time, grief and anger lengthened his stride. At the least, he would look on the pair again, if only to assure them a better end than any orc or turncoat wizard would give them. Thus resolved, he pressed onward, and Man, Elf, and Dwarf passed swiftly through the night.
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