11. A Chance Meeting
Through the vast woods of Fangorn rode the twins of Thranduil. Each upon a horse of white, they traveled silently. Even the ancient trees about them, thick and gnarled with time and ivy, were still; rarely did a breeze penetrate the brush to caress the green leaves into singing. It was just as well, though, for words were not needed to convey the tension and yearning of the Elves. Long had they traveled under sun and moon, over the lands of Middle Earth. They had not stopped for rest, and meals had been consumed meagerly in transit. The forest knew of their weariness and their fears as easily as they knew each others, for this was an old and wise place, and its spirit, keen and comforting, was kin to the love of the Elves.
Aratadarion closed his eyes a moment and listened. His horse plodded onward, a bit behind his brothers, but he did not feel the slight dips and turns of the leafy brown forest floor. Weakly he touched it, but the quiet of the trees seemed to amplify the sensation, and with all his being he lurched forth inside and grabbed the strange sound. Then he cradled it quietly within, and winced at the agony and fear of the weak aura as it hurt his own heart through common blood. He opened his eyes once more and looked ahead. Legolas is in great pain, he declared quietly. The timid tone of his voice seemed so loud in the heavy silence.
I know, answered Astaldogald. Though he tried, the Elf could not mask his concern with arrogance, and a shudder crept to proud shoulders.
Aratadarion watched his twin in worry, prodding his mare forward with gentle hands. Do you suppose-
I know not, came the icy response, and Astaldogald shot Aratadarion a sharp glare before looking forward once more. Aratadarion grimaced, the expression shattering the usual peace of his slender face, and looked down. An odd anxiety had come between them, and with every mile they traveled further south it grew deeper and hungrier, devouring smile and song and leaving nothing but a void of humorless conversation and aching hearts. Aratadarion knew what was troubling his twin, for it was easy enough to discern. Even though more than two weeks had passed since they had left their home, Astaldogald still obviously bristled in memory of the sharp words of their father. His damaged ego and wounded heart would be slow to heal, and facing now this arduous trail and monstrous task would do little to mend his spirit. Rarely did the twins speak, for Astaldogald was content to wallow in his anger and sadness, and Aratadarion did not know how to comfort this brother.
Finding their path had not been difficult at all. On boats they had ventured down the Anduin, alternately rowing and resting, following the ancient trail to Lórien marked by Silvan Elves. There they had taken a brief respite. The Lady of the Golden Wood had been expecting their arrival, which did not surprise Aratadarion. A few occasions in the past, before Legolas had been born, the House of Thranduil had visited upon Galadriel and Celeborn during times of peace and war. Though now a distant memory, Aratadarion recalled being amazed at the great city of Lórien and her people. Mostly, though, the Lady of the Golden Wood had enthralled him, for Galadriel was both powerful and beautiful, her face infinitely wise yet ageless as the sun. Her gaze was at once piercing and powerful, yet gentle and calming. She knew much about men, Elves, and Dwarves, of good, evil, and the powers that direct the fate of the trees, the land, the air, and the woods, and she understood heart, soul, and mind with such ease that it was truly belittling to behold.
She sought their audience and the two weary travelers complied gratefully, hoping that she would direct their vigilant search. Indeed she did. With eyes that seemed weary with worry and toil, she told them many disturbing things. She spoke of the fall of Mithrandir into the shadows of Moria and the resting of the broken Fellowship within the borders of Caras Galadhon. Of their youngest brothers plight she said little, understanding that they knew better than she of his pain and clearly not wishing to aggravate the tenuous peace they had. Only she spoke of his capture by Sarumans deranged army of Uruk-hai, who were not threatened by light or life. They had taken him to Isengard and there he was held prisoner deep in Orthanc. The events surrounding the fall of Legolas were left unshared, and though Astaldogald sought answers, Aratadarion knew that the information they wished was not theirs to possess. Their duty was not to the world of men or to the Ring; theirs was to the safety of their kin. The introspective Elf knew that if fate should change their quest, the knowledge would come to them when appropriate. He did not doubt that they would find their way.
Thus refreshed, replenished, and blessed by the Lady Galadriel, they set out once more upon gifts of horses. That had been days before. Unspoken concerns intensified in Aratadarions heart as they rode now. For hours his worries had grown louder, as the forest of Fangorn became darker and deeper. Its voice had changed from a condoling whisper to a discomforting jabber, which grew more deafening the further they traveled. These woods were troublesome. He had wanted to avoid Fangorn, but it had clearly been the quickest route between Lórien and Isengard. The Elf prince was unnerved by these ancient, gnarled trees, for their spirit was strong and vociferous, and it called to him in a language he did not recognize. He glanced at his twin, but Astaldogalds eyes were distant and clearly preoccupied with private matters. He wondered if Astaldogald acutely sensed the eerie soul of this place as he did. It was not exactly a warning, but neither was it a welcome. Aratadarion sighed quietly. Calm he could not find, not with both the pain of his brother haunting his heart and this strange dissonance. He wished for nothing else than to be rid of Fangorn.
He then chastised himself. Yearning for the uncertain was definitely unwise! Though these lands left him unsettled, surely what was beyond held no relief. What were they to do, he wondered frightfully, when they reached Isengard? What would they find there? How could the two of them alone expect to contend with Sarumans forces? From Galadriels words it was easy to conclude that the fallen wizard had concocted a great, vile army. Without doubt it would stand between them and their captive brother. Aratadarion winced. Certainly they would fail! Though he despised himself for his pessimistic weakness, he could not help his thoughts. He was no good with a bow or sword. Unlike his brothers, he had no keen eyes for battle and his reflexes were sluggish. If a skirmish erupted, he would only be detrimental to Astaldogald. His father would have done better to send an Elf stronger than he!
But he said nothing of his concerns. Undoubtedly his twin, if he was not too engulfed by his own grievances, sensed his plight. Astaldogald had said nothing to assuage his pain. Thus Aratadarion was left to his own dismay about Fangorn and Isengard, and about Legolas. Truth be told, he was afraid of what had been forced upon his younger brother to make him so loudly and widely radiate his anguish. Legolas, if nothing else, was a proud Elf. Not often had he ever shown weakness or fear, at least before his brothers. Aratadarion could understand why, and no matter how he twisted it, he could not make the reason seem silly. To seem vulnerable before Astaldogald and Vardaithil, the former especially, would cast doubt onto Legolas attitudes. Weak in body meant weak in mind. Only this view did Legolas share with their father. Aratadarion remembered Legolas youth clearly. He had been an inquisitive child, interested at every minute detail of every tree and creature. Aratadarion had held a quiet connection with Legolas then, sharing with his brother the many things he had learned and the many things he wished to study. Legolas had been an avid listener. Even now Aratadarion could recall his younger siblings wide blue eyes, open with admiration and affection. As Legolas had grown, his beliefs began to diverge from those of his brothers, and the soft friendship Aratadarion had shared with him had faded as the division grew. It was then that the youngest son of Thranduil had developed this proud, secluded, strong air, and never again did he allow any of his brothers to detect his sorrow or pain. Distressed, Aratadarion lowered his head. In this he had always faulted himself. He had felt the estrangement festering long before any of the others chose to recognize it. Yet, he had done nothing, torn between the fierce loyalty he constantly held for his twin and the innocent affection he had for Legolas. Had he simply intervened then, before the arguments and hateful words! He could not imagine the way the present might be altered if he could somehow remedy this error of the past. Surely Legolas would not have so drastically turned from a loving child to an independent and cool Elf. Surely he would not have sought solace in the House of Elrond, in the confidence of a mortal. Surely his bitter heart would not have swayed him into participating in this foolish quest. Surely he would not have fallen!
The quiet cries grew louder in his mind, and Aratadarion sighed slowly. He doubted if Legolas would ever again regard him with those big, loving eyes. Friendship lost in a feud between kin was never easily regained.
The old trees swayed in an unexpected breeze, and the discomfort of his mind increased. His mount was skittish, stepping hesitantly, and he laid a comforting hand upon its neck. This strange feeling grows stronger, he murmured quietly to his twin ahead. Astaldogald slowed his own horse, which was as riled as well. Then he turned to regard his twin. These woods are most unusual, Aratadarion declared, suddenly feeling sheepish at Astaldogalds scrutinizing gaze.
You are simply too accustomed to the trees of Mirkwood, remarked the other a bit angrily. Calm your nerves.
The meek Elf dropped his gaze and said no more despite the swirling agitation within him. Vehemently he forced his thoughts elsewhere, away from the annoying premonitions vexing him. The pain and anxiety of his heart would not easily be brushed aside, though, and as they continued he succumbed again to it.
Hours passed quietly. Then ahead there came a noise. It was not a natural sound of the forest, though to any save an Elf it would appear no more than a rustle of a leaves against the wind and the crack of limb to limb. Aratadarion lifted his head and looked forward keenly, his eyes scanning the dark woods for the source of the sound. It seemed abnormal to his ears, as though made by a force greater than the breeze or simple creature. He reined in his horse and listened.
A great whoosh resounded behind him, and Aratadarion jumped in his saddle in fright and shock. The horse beneath him reared and instinctively he grasped the leather reins tighter to control the startled beast and maintain his seat. In the moment he floundered, his twin drew his long, white sword. This he held high in threat. Step forward and announce yourself, demanded Astaldogald in a deep voice, and do so quickly!
Aratadarion could scarce believe what he saw, for what emerged from the maze of trunk and limb behind them was neither man nor beast. It was a great hulking creature, taller than Elf. Its skin, if it could even be called that, was a strange grayish brown color and was mottled and marked like bark. Ancient eyes regarded them amusedly. Even more amazing than the appearance of such a being was what followed, breaking the silent moment with a deep rumble. Hoom! Elves, I think! My eyes do not deceive me in this! Elves! Hmm?
The twins shared a short look. Aratadarion had seen two ages of mysteries and magic, and never before had he come upon such an amazing creature. He thought quickly. Lore and myth abruptly became reality. Long ago his people had come to sing of this old and peculiar race in great ballads. They were the Ents, the tree people, beings of the ancient world, of original creation, and in this, kin to Elvenfolk. They were obscure, though, lost in the passage of millennia. Vaguely Aratadarion remembered a fable that spoke of the disappearance of the Ents into the weathered forests of Middle Earth. Never had he dreamed he would come across one!
Humph! came again the baritone grumble, and the Ent stepped closer with what could only be described as the creak of wood. Kindly lower your blade, and I shall ask you a question, for you travel in my forest! Good Elf folk! It has been many years since one of your kind as come to these lands hoom! Now, do tell, who are you and why have you come hence?
Aratadarion was too stunned to speak. He glanced at his twin. Though Astaldogald dropped his sword and returned it to its scabbard with a metallic ring, he clearly did not lower his guard. For a moment neither Elf spoke, both abruptly shocked and perplexed. Aratadarion wondered if his twin was remembering the same folklore. Then Astaldogald seemed to resign himself. I am Astaldogald of Mirkwood, he announced proudly, his face stern, and the other is my brother, Aratadarion.
Mirkwood, hmm? the Ent repeated. Then he laughed loudly. That was once a fine, old forest, it was! Tell me, Astaldogald of Mirkwood, how fares it? It has been long since I have left this place!
The twins again gave each other a curt and confused glance. It fares well enough, said Astaldogald tentatively. Come, I have honored your request. Can you not honor mine? It does perplex me to see an Ent, a creature thought to be more legend than substance, before me. What may we call you?
The Ent smiled, if Ents could do such a thing. Not only Elves, but Elf children no less! He gave a grumbling chuckle that, though sounding heavy and deep was unusually light-hearted, and it eased the horses and Aratadarion. Astaldogald seemed rather peeved at the remark about their age, his eyes narrowing, but he wisely chose for once to say nothing. Aratadarion prayed his twin would not anger the Ent. This old being radiated a warm, friendly shine, but he still loathed falling from its good graces. What may you call me? What may you, indeed! The Ent seemed to contemplate a moment with a most comical tip of its head. I have many names, you see. For two Elf children, I shall be Treebeard. Yes, Treebeard is a good name, hrum!
This time Astaldogald could not quell his indignity, and Aratadarion flinched as the harsh words fled his twins impetuous mouth. We are not children, Treebeard. Speak kindly, for you address two princes of the Kingdom of the Silvan Elves.
Another amused chuckle reverberated through the still forest. Elf princes! Hoom! Elf children! You are indeed a funny creature, Astaldogald of Mirkwood! Tell me of your father, the king, then. Mayhap once I might have known him.
Astaldogalds expression grew taut in annoyance. We do not have time for this. He then began to turn, directing his horse back upon their southerly course. Aratadarion winced at the sting in his twins arrogant tone and hesitated.
Hold your haste, Astaldogald of Mirkwood, and keep your peace! You must understand, hmm? It has been so long since I have met another, and the Ents here grow so tree-ish, you see. Tree-ish Ents! You would humor me, would you not, Elf prince? Tell me why you are so rushed, if nothing else! Hoom!
Aratadarion did not know what to say, if anything. He doubted it was wise at all to divulge the nature of their quest to such a strange creature. Though he found it unlikely that the Ents had allied themselves with Orthanc, it was not impossible and he did not know enough of them to cast the notion completely aside. Numbly he watched Astaldogald, imploring silently that his twin would have the intuition to make such a decision. Finally Astaldogald spoke. We travel to Isengard, he declared quietly, almost shamefully.
The reaction in Treebeard was immediate and astounding. The Ent seemed to recoil and Aratadarion thought he saw disgust flash in those great, earthy eyes. Isengard? Say no more, for I will have naught to do with you.
Astaldogald must have sensed the Ents disapproval as well, for he was quick to supplement more information to assuage the sudden tension. We are no friends to Saruman the White. He has taken captive our youngest brother.
Treebeard was silent a moment, as if digesting what they revealed. Then he let out a slow hoom, almost like a sigh. Aratadarion watched the queer creature intently. I see now why you rush. A quiet pain entered his voice. A great shadow has come to these lands. It is a sour thing that poisons the trees and the rivers. I have smelled it and tasted it. Hoom! It is a vile thing! The Ent seemed vexed and angered, as if this news of Legolas imprisonment was the final bit of bad fortune that he could tolerate. Tell me what you know of it, Elf princes. You must, you see, for I have had many occasions in the past to converse with Saruman the Wise. Then he was a kind and judicious creature, if not a bit arrogant and cunning. He knew much even in his youth, and this and more he many a time shared with me when he came upon my forest. What could be so evil as to twist logic into madness? What say you, Elf princes? What do you know of it?
The twins again shared a glance. What a strange meeting! Aratadarion swallowed uncomfortably, torn by his own curiosity and the press of time upon him. Surely, though, if this great and ancient creature wanted to speak to them, then nothing they might do could deter him, because the Ent was both powerful and intimidating. Astaldogald, despite his irritation, must have had a similar thought, for he began to explain. We know less than we would like. Our brother, Legolas, was intimately involved in the fight against this shadow of which you speak.
Legolas? mused the Ent. That is a fine Elf name! Legolas a gift to the trees, surely! The old trees of Mirkwood, fine friends were they The Ent trailed off, almost nostalgically, before sighing once more. Come, Elf princes, and sit. Rest your horses and your hearts. Inform me of everything, if you would.
They did so, Astaldogald, though wary and irked by the lost time, speaking freely of the dire circumstances come to Middle Earth. To the Ent they told what they had learned from Galadriel about the flight of the Ring to Mordor, about the cracking of its Fellowship, and about the fall of Mithrandir. Upon hearing this Treebeards eyes flashed in first anger and then sorrow. Gandalf lost? he repeated incredulously. Gandalf lost? Oh, but for all the good of Middle Earth such a thing should never come to pass!
We know not the circumstances of it, said Astaldogald. The nimble Elf sat upon a patch of mossy earth cross-legged. The Lady of the Golden Wood would not say what felled him.
The Ent glumly remarked, She is both wise and powerful. If she has seen it, it must be true! Hoom! Aratadarion bowed his head and closed his eyes. Such a great creature was Gandalf. A blasphemous curse this is! For many years we Ents have had occasion to speak with him. He was a kind Ent-friend!
As he was to the Kingdom of Mirkwood, Astaldogald added softly. Many an Elf has been eased by the intelligent words of Mithrandir. Aratadarion glanced upon his twin and saw something that not often appeared upon the other. His brother seemed almost crestfallen, as though he pained for a creature of different making. It was he who led the Nine Walkers. It was his strength that directed them. Our brother held him in the highest of esteems.
Yes, hmmm, yes, mused Treebeard, and I will not sit idly by any longer. The massive creature towered over the twins, his shadow dark and cool, and Aratadarion gazed upon him in awe. Ents have grown tree-ish, tree-ish, you see, and that is a bad thing. Hoom! Maybe this will be call enough to bring energy to ward away their lethargy!
Tree-ish? Aratadarion softly questioned. The Ent had mentioned it before, but the term was still shrouded in confusion.
The creature grinned. It was grotesquely fascinating sight. Ah, so the quiet Elf does speak! You are a meek one, Aratadarion of Mirkwood, but you are fair and compassionate. Gladly I will explain for you. We are old, we Ents, and many of us have grown weary of this world, hmm. Long ago, as you Elves sing, the Ent-wives disappeared. We searched everywhere, all across this land, for the Ent-wives, you see, but never again did we meet them. Since many of us have grown slow and rigid, tree-ish, hmm? Treebeards tone grew deep and tight. Saruman shall pay for what he has done to us. Breathe the air, Elf children? Hoom! What do you smell?
For a moment, Aratadarion did nothing but concentrate on his senses as he inhaled deeply. He shoved aside the worry and doubt clouding his mind, and in doing so, became aware of peculiar yet rank odor. His brow furrowed in confusion as he looked back to the Ent. The quiet breeze that picked its way through the maze of Fangorn held tidings of a rotten deed. It turned his stomach. Treebeard regarded him with knowing but angry eyes. Yes, little Elf. You sense what I speak. For many moons has that stench poisoned our forest. Saruman is contaminating all the lands of Isengard with his evil. Many tree-friends have died. I dare say some tree-ish Ents may have perished as well, but of that I cannot be sure.
What has he done? Astaldogald asked, his piercing gaze narrowed angrily. He too seemed unnerved by what he smelled. The Lady Galadriel spoke of a vicious army of man-Orcs that he bred.
That surely and more, Astaldogald of Mirkwood, stated Treebeard, for the winds are sour and the water is fetid. The corruption of his wisdom has spread to his lands, and this I cannot longer tolerate. The massive Ent again seemed to release a slow breath that smelled of moss and morning dew. When he exhaled, the force of it ruffled the twins hair. I thought before that I could ignore, hoom! What can one Ent do, after all? Even as one as old as I? But Gandalf lost and your brother imprisoned. An Elf child in such darkness! These treacheries I cannot overlook!
They were silent a moment, and the forest was alive in Treebeards anger. Limbs smacked against each other, and the leaves screamed. Aratadarion glanced at his brother, awed by the creature before them, and uncertain of what now lay before them. You would help us? he asked quietly and mildly, afraid that his words would prove false and that the Ent would be insulted by such a suggestion.
The great being gave a grave smile. That I will, Aratadarion of Mirkwood, for we share a common enemy. And it was the Elves after all that brought the gift of language to we Ents, hmm? The tree and the Elf are not so distant. Treebeard looked thoughtful, unhurried and certainly unconcerned. But first we must hold a meeting. Then the great creature waddled and began to walk back to where they had come.
A meeting? Astaldogald repeated incredulously, standing quickly. Aratadarion cringed inwardly at his twins irritated tone. He prayed the Ent would take no offense, for they would of course need assistance. They alone would never be able to defeat Sarumans forces within their black territory! Our brother weakens, and we cannot fail. Our father forbade it!
Hmm? Treebeard grunted, turning to face the impatient Elf. You certainly are a hasty Elf, Astaldogald of Mirkwood! He gave a hearty chuckle that sounded like acorns falling. Elves are fleet-footed, but we Ents are not, you see, and you cannot cure the poison of Isengard with simple brotherly affection. Astaldogald fumed but said nothing more, much to his twins relief. Legolas Elf child has the strength of the trees within him, and that is potent indeed. Now come, I will rally the others. In this they may again feel alive! Hrum hoom! Then he pivoted once more, and began to amble slowly, mumbling about tree-ish Ents and Ent-wives, the words becoming slurred and foreign.
Aratadarion looked to his twin. Astaldogald stood erect, his fist wrapped tightly about the reins of his mount. He looked stiff and angered, as though thoroughly vexed by this delay. He muttered something indiscernible through clenched teeth before pulling his horse to him and darkly stalking after the retreating form of the Ent. Aratadarion could not understand him. Surely he must care for Legolas; their blood was not yet so thin as to hold nothing but disgust and contempt. Yet his actions spoke not of love but of anger and annoyance, as though this task appointed to them was no greater than a mundane chore, as though he was fighting for their fathers approval and not for Legolas well being. The thought chilled Aratadarion, and in the cold wake came again their lost brothers soft pleas.
The fair Elf shuddered before steeling himself and following.
Things had not gone well for Aragorn. A week or so had passed since the battle upon the ruins of Helms Deep. It had seemed a great time, each day more sluggish than the last, and his patience was fraying. The ranger counted himself a tolerant and coolly mannered man, for tracking demanded serenity of heart and mind, and frustration hindered the senses. Years of practice had honed his skills, and he had grown to be the master of his temper. As the hours dragged onward infinitely and the army of Rohan lingered in a strange suspension of indecision, he felt that control fade. This wait he could not bear.
Truly this was exasperating. The reason for the delay was clear to the ranger. The army of Rohan was leaderless. When Théoden had fallen, they had lost their drive as well as their commander. He could sympathize with the situation. The confusion and chaos of the battle had left many lost and wounded. Worse still, Erkenbrand and Éomer were in contention over the direction of the troops. Théoden had died so suddenly and so unrepentantly that no provisions had been made to decide such an argument, and the feud was somewhat livid. Even this he could understand. Éomer was kin to the king, but relatively inexperienced in the ways of ruling. Erkenbrand was an imposing and powerful soldier as well as the lieges most trusted lord. This as well was a pivotal moment. A great choice faced the men of Rohan. From Helms Deep they might continue upon their attack and chase the Uruk-hai back to Isengard. This tactic was risky, for they did not know what dangers Isengard could house. They had not had the good fortune to defeat all the Uruk-hai; more would certainly guard Sarumans fortress. If they advanced, it could mean their destruction. Yet if they did not, a potentially serious victory would be lost. Beating Sarumans forces now would be an undeniable advantage.
In this two the lords of Rohan differed. Éomer insisted that they charge onward and finish what they had started. This would define the righteous stance of Rohan like nothing else could. The evil they faced was terrible, and it could not be allowed to endure. Aragorn suspected that Éomers respect for the ranger had as well factored into his stance. This at least heartened the heir of Isildur, and he felt a good ally in the Third Marshall of the Mark. Erkenbrand was of the opposite opinion. With the king murdered, their first duty was to the people of Rohan, not to their vengeful hearts. The only obvious option was to return to Edoras where Théoden could be properly mourned and a new king rightly crowned. As well, if they had significantly damaged the Uruk-hai army, another attack directed at the city was a likely retaliation. Without the soldiers of Rohan, the innocent people both in Edoras and hiding in the adjacent hills would be defenseless.
These were the stances of the lords, and they were like night and day. Neither was illogical and both were pressing. Since neither position could be dismissed, the army of Rohan remained in a state of hesitation. This more than anything bothered Aragorn. He could not interfere in the workings of Rohan; it was not his kingdom to command, and this decision, whatever it may be, would undoubtedly shape the fate of the nation of the Rohirrim. When the empty days had begun to press on his distressed heart, he found himself wishing firmly that he might have the gall to make the choice for them. Time wasted would not benefit Legolas.
Still they tarried and on this night the ranger sat under the stars. His eyes were blankly trained upon the lapping flames of the fire of their camp, watching numbly as it hungrily devoured the wood. Beside him sat Gimli. The Dwarfs face was dark, his great mass of hair and beard falling upon dirtied chain mail. He puffed contemplatively on his pipe, sending plumes of gray smoke bursting up before they were scattered from being by the breeze. It is calm tonight, the Dwarf declared quietly.
Aragorn looked up. The night was clear, the sky cloudless, and the light of countless stars created a breath taking mural of timeless beauty. For a moment he simply watched each twinkle. The air was clean, cool, and fresh. Days had swept the unpleasant aroma of death and fire from the fields and rocks. He breathed deeply and tried to relax. The stars offered him peace, but he could not take it.
He would not deny the reason for his rush. His heart bled with worry. What Boromir had told them was disturbing and relieving at once. If Saruman did not have the Ring, that meant Sam, wherever he may be, without a doubt now carried it. Though he worried for the Hobbit, he was glad that the Ring had, by some trick of fate, fallen into Sams dependable hands. It was a strange thing when he considered it. Frodos destiny was bound that Ring, it seemed. By searching for Sam, he was seeking the lost burden. How unusual the way things worked! A moment of treachery had scorned them, yet fate inevitably righted herself. With this thought Aragorns concern for Frodo abated. When the friends reunited, their strength would see the Ring to its destruction, for the bonds of brotherhood were a tough substance for even evil to break.
Where Boromirs news released him from his fear for Frodo, it greatly intensified the terror that plagued him for Legolas. Now the sick twist of fortune became clear to him. He grieved for the choice his dear friend had obviously made. Sacrifice made for the sake of many was often more painful than any other, and Legolas had offered himself to the dark willingly to protect Sam. It was achingly clear, and Aragorn felt every part of his being clench in agony. He had failed in what he had promised to both Legolas and Frodo. He had guarded neither, and both suffered. What a sad creature he was! All he could hope to do now was somehow free Legolas. The Uruk-hai would not be kind to the Elf. Saruman would surely torture him for the Rings location. The thought made the ranger grimace inwardly. He knew Legolas well. The Elf prince was noble and strong, but proud and stubborn. He would not easily submit. Aragorn could not bear to fathom the lengths to which Saruman might go to learn what he wanted. Still, there was some grotesque relief to be found in this. As long as Legolas held tightly to his secret, he was of value to them, and they would not kill him. As much as it pained him, he knew that a few weeks of torture, though vile and sickening, would not be enough to break an Elf, least of all one so powerful as Legolas. He would endure. And if Aragorn were fast enough, he would yet free his friend and repay a promise broken.
Still he said nothing to Gimlis comment. He knew in recent days he had become a cold, driving force, restless and short of temper. This he could not help; waiting here was madness to him!
Haldir stood beside them, his arms folded across his chest. His eyes were narrowed as he looked north. The serenity I think is a façade. Something is in the air. A great change is coming to the forest. I know no more of it, though, only that fighting it will be fruitless. The breeze brushed by them, blowing Haldirs pale hair gently. He turned and looked to Aragorn. You know what I would say, son of Arathorn, and I know you wish not to hear it.
The rangers jaw tightened but he did not answer. Indeed he did understand, all too well, in fact. The only of his companions that had had the bravery to question his decision to march to Isengard had been Haldir. The Elf was adamant in the task bestowed upon him by Galadriel, and he had vehemently reminded Aragorn that fate called him to duties in Minas Tirith. Legolas future, as he repeatedly stated, was not theirs to change. Aragorn had pointedly ignored him. Haldir was aggravating, but what truly irked the ranger was the truth behind the Lórien archers words. Galadriel had laid upon him a greater purpose, and that he was selfishly ignoring. His guilty and angry heart could not bear to hear Haldirs arrogant reprimands again.
Surprisingly it had been Gimli that had convinced him to wait for the decision of the army. After it became clear that the leaderless group would linger, it was the Dwarfs logic that stayed his panicked heart. They alone would never be able to infiltrate Isengard. As much as it angered Aragorn, to be successful they would need the support of the Rohan forces. Curse this vile helplessness!
He looks cold. Aragorn directed his attention to the concerned voice. Wrapped in blankets and sitting close to the fire were Merry and Pippin. The two small creatures sat huddled, each wearing an expression of forlorn exhaustion. They looked lost and hurt, the yellow light of the fire glowing in their crestfallen eyes. He knew clearly what troubled them. Boromirs return had stomped out their carefree banter. Their betrayer, without regard or reason, had reappeared and demanded redemption. It had almost become an unspoken law. No one spoke of Boromir. No one had confronted him. Aragorn dragged his gaze pointedly to where the traitor slept with his back to them. As it had been for days, Boromir kept his distance. A great wall had come up between them, dividing him from the Fellowship, and its bricks and stones were tough with festering hate and unshed tears. Once or twice, Aragorn had caught his wistful glances directed at the Hobbits. The man from Gondor was obviously searching for acceptance and forgiveness. Aragorn would not allow it.
Boromir was shivering. We should give him a blanket, declared Pippin. Aragorn gritted his teeth and looked away, hating himself for the sympathy he felt crawling back into his heart.
The Hobbit made to stand, but Merry was quick to grab his arm to stop him. No. The Hobbits open face was uncharacteristically taut and angry.
Pippin swallowed uncomfortably and glanced around the group. Hard expressions of anger met his eyes, and he sank back down slowly. After a silent moment, Pippin sheepishly lifted his gaze and met the rangers. The subject of which he wished to speak was clear, and Aragorn steeled himself with his anger. Quietly Pippin said, I dont understand how he could do such a thing.
Merry turned, snapping from a reverie to regard his cousin. His blank expression became angry. Dont even bother, Pip. Its not something thats worth understanding.
Hes not one of us anymore, Merry declared coolly. Aragorn did not miss the waver of the young ones voice. The ranger looked down. The words seemed rough and wrong, and it hurt to hear them, despite his anger.
Gimli grunted and then stood. The stout warrior dumped the ash of his pipe into the fire. Do not trouble yourself with guilt, young Master Took, rumbled the Dwarf. Harsh, beady eyes looked to the figure of Boromir. It is his to bear alone, and he will.
Pippin did not seem convinced, his inner conflict plain on his face. It mirrored Aragorns own heart. Then they grew quiet again. The army was still this night. The wounded had been moved into Hornburg, where they would be nursed safely. Corpses had been piled high and burned days ago, and the rocks and fields were now free from the debris of battle. The army lazed tiredly, still recovering from the strenuous fight. A shroud of exhaustion not easily lifted had descended upon them, and it was entirely disagreeable to Aragorns impatience.
The silence became unbearable. Then Pippins voice again shattered the quiet. Will you sing, Haldir? The Hobbit took a deep breath and looked upward. The skys pretty tonight, and I miss hearing a good song.
Frigidly the Lórien archer turned to the Hobbit. The ice of Haldirs glare caused Pippin to meekly shrink closer to his cousin. Elf songs are not a matter for request. Furthermore, given the state of things, a song would be most inappropriate.
Gimli grunted hotly. The tension between he and Haldir had not dissipated in this last week. Fool Elf, said the Dwarf, refilling his pipe. Legolas oft sang when the little ones asked it of him. Though I care not for such things, even I was moved by his clear and peaceful voice. Surely you could bring yourself to do the same.
Aragorn grinned feebly despite himself. Haldir bristled icily. I am not Legolas, Dwarf. I would ask you to remember that. Gimli huffed. He is a Silvan Elf, a woodland creature, and they are too taken by emotion. Their songs are silly and trite. I would not voice them.
Merry laughed. Would not or cannot, Haldir? You are a funny one! You are so selfless, cold, and composed! I doubt you could sing a merry tale like Legolas!
Mind yourself, little Hobbit. A strange thing happened, though. A bit of rose had colored Haldirs pale face. Even in the sparse illumination, it was visible. The Elf was blushing.
Pippin chuckled as well, his pain over Boromir before forgotten. You cant sing, can you? he asked incredulously. Haldir grunted and stepped away, folding his arms across his chest, and tightening his stature. An Elf that cant sing! Can you believe it?
Aragorn swallowed his laugh, sensing Haldirs discomfort. The others were giggling, and Gimli belted out a deep guffaw. Friends, do not poke fun of anothers shortcoming, he chided gently, and he found his tone surprisingly light.
It is no shortcoming! snapped Haldir, turning to face them. His face was becoming a deeper red, which only spurred more laughter from the group.
Gimli shook his head, Sing, then, you crazy Elf! Show us the minstrel you can be!
Haldir glowered a moment and all grew still. The fire cracked and popped, and the others regarded the Elf expectantly. Then, quietly, the Lórien Elf began to resignedly sing. The tune was meek and mellow. Merry and Pippin laughed harder at the Elfs quivering voice.
Hush, ordered Aragorn tenderly. Mirth had again found its way into the rangers eyes. Let us hear the Elf song.
And so they listened. Haldirs melody was uncertain, and his voice held none of the friendly enchantment that Legolas possessed. Yet the song was calming, the notes and lyrics as sweet and clean as the cool breeze, and it eased them all. Over the camp it sped, offering hearts a quiet release and minds a promising escape. Aragorn closed his eyes. For a moment at least, he could forget.
The sound of Haldirs voice lulled them. Had any of them paid their attention, they might have noticed the silent sobs wracking the distant body of Boromir. As it was, though, for the Fellowship, there was only the song of the Elf.
A decision was finally made, and action was taken. A day later Éomer and Erkenbrand reached a sort of compromise. The latter would remain at Helms Deep with the wounded and, with his forces, would bar any advance of the Uruk-hai towards Edoras. Éomer decided to press forward, leading what remained of King Théodens men to Isengard. With him gladly went Aragorn and his companions. Much to the rangers dismay, Boromir accompanied them as well. The silent and forlorn warrior refused to stay. Like a lost dog, he followed the Fellowship, trailing them in a desperately furious attempt to help them. He disgusted Aragorn.
On the dawn they left Helms Deep. For four days they marched. It was slower than Aragorn liked, for the army was weary and though diminished was still considerable. Moving so many armored, tired men was a slow and arduous task. Every moment needled the ranger. It was one more that Legolas spent suffering. It was one less he could use to free his friend. He was chained to his anger, to his worry, and to his anxiety. He was a slave to the time he felt slip away. The ranger was exhausted, emotionally and physically. The terror he felt for Legolas pounded in his heart, making him feel dizzy and sick. But he would not rest. Now was not the time.
So he pushed onward. Every step closer to Isengard tortured his mind with vicious and violent premonitions. The logic that he had but a few days prior forced himself to believe now seemed ridiculous. What did he know of Sarumans black ways? Surely the fallen wizard would know how to crush the will of an Elf! He imagined his poor friend, beaten and bruised, lost in the night. Legolas so thrived in the sun and woods; he would not retain his strength long in the black of Orthanc, and so many days had already passed. What if the Elf had been broken? Aragorn shuddered to consider it, but he could not stop himself. Saruman would waste no time hunting down Sam. And Legolas he would kill without second regard. The rangers panic was consuming. His expectations were so sinister and bleak that they crushed his soul like a vice, and he could do nothing to stop his worrying. It grew so intense that it hurt to think or breathe, and he wanted to run. It took all his will to stay in place.
He led Hasufel forward. The great horse sensed his rush, his feet light and quick. At Aragorns right sat Merry and Pippin upon the pony they had been given. Each was ashen and silent with the gravity of what lay before them. Beside them walked Arod with Haldir and Gimli mounting him. The emptiness was thick, the tension heavy and powerful. Each was anticipating the worst. Words were not shared. The mood was grave and somber. At Isengard they would face the Uruk-hai once more, and one way or another, this nightmare would conclude itself.
Boromir walked close to Éomer. His head was bowed, his lips compressed tightly into a thin line, his hand clenched tightly about his blades hilt. His face was a mystery, his expression unreadable and closed. Aragorn cursed him whenever the son of Gondor trespassed upon his sight or thought. If not for that mans sick corruption, Legolas would be safe! He will be yet, Aragorn assured himself strongly and angrily, for I will not fail in this!
Then they came to Isengard. It was not at all what they expected.
The once magical and imperial forests surrounding Orthanc were gone, razed to the ground, leaving gray earth scarred by drought and heat. The army stood upon a precipice overlooking the land below, astonished. Not only the destruction of the forest was disturbing. Littering the perimeter of Orthanc were bodies of Uruk-hai. The dry ground was washed in blood. For miles the carnage stretched, lining a path to the foot of the black and mighty tower. A last defense had obviously floundered at the base of the structure, for there a great pile of dead Orcs baking in the midday sun.
Stranger still was what circled Orthanc. A line of trees, thicker than a grove, remained around the base, as though surrounding and guarding it. It was a peculiar thing, these leave-less trunks, and it stunned the men.
We advance, called Éomer after a moment, yet carefully. Be on guard!
Aragorn dismounted gracefully and grabbed Hasufels reins and began to walk. The horse was a bit nervous as if unnerved by the surreal and bizarre scene. The ranger felt the same inside. As they walked, his inquisitive eyes scanned everything. So many Uruk-hai were dead. A veritable slaughter had occurred, but there were no signs of weapons or an army. What sort of force had done this? Uneasiness bubbled inside him like mud.
Seems like someone beat us to the catch, murmured a stupefied Pippin, his hands tightly wrapped in the reins of his mount. Merry smacked him across the back of the head, effectively silencing him.
The troops walked slowly and cautiously down the path, watchful of the bodies about them as though at any moment this seemingly destroyed enemy would rise from the dead to again threaten them. Weapons were held tightly, poised to strike. Aragorns stray hand clenched Andúrils warm hilt. Was this the state of things when you came hence, Boromir? demanded the ranger hotly.
Boromir shook his head, the blade of Gondor tightly clenched in his hands. Nay, said the warrior softly, his tone confused and exasperated. He did not look at Aragorn, his wary eyes centered upon the black tower. He seemed haunted. Their forces were great. It was here Saruman bred his army.
Ahead was a destroyed statue. For a moment Aragorn analyzed it, struggling to make sense of its strange forms. It was a white stone, but its tops were broken. Only when they passed could he see the ruined fragments. Long, narrow cylinders tipped red with blood. Fingertips. The white hand of Saruman. Some great force had smashed rock into dust.
The trees were near now. The army drew to a stop in shock. These were no trees at all, but creatures of some sort. They stood tall, looming over the soldiers, their skin rough and speckled. One turned slowly to face them and began to make a deep noise. The rumble shook through them and, startled, the army took up the defensive. Weapons were raised and arrows were notched on tight bowstrings. Aragorn felt his heart thunder in confused panic as he drew Andúril. What were these creatures?
The trees turned and neared. From their ranks then came a most peculiar thing. Two Elves stepped through them. Who are you?! demanded one of lighter complexion, his bow held ready to shoot. The other stayed behind, meekly clenching a long white sword.
Silence. Thoroughly perplexed, Aragorn quickly scanned them. Then his heart stopped. The colors of Mirkwood. Frantically he looked to their faces. Surely, it was so! His eyes did not deceive him! Son of Éomund, request of your men to stand down. This is no threat, the ranger declared quickly.
Éomer regarded him as though his was jesting, his face a bit vexed and very confused. It must have been a strange thing to him, Aragorn realized idly, for his new acquaintances seemed to meet lost comrades so often! But whatever he wanted to say was lost. Son of Arathorn, spoke the first Elf, recognition glinting his piercing eyes. The dangerous bow was slowly lowered. Strange indeed to meet you here. Our quests must be the same. He narrowed his icy eyes. Legolas is gone.
Cold terror washed over Aragorn, and the ranger felt he might collapse as his weak heart thundered in pain. Gone? A million questions stampeded through his dazed mind. Numbly his lips moved. It cannot be, he whispered despondently. Hot fury replaced the debilitating chill. He wanted to scream his frustration. We cannot be too late!
We are. Saruman has fled. A cold empty moment passed. The heavy, horrible fault lay upon him. Tell me, Estel, Astaldogald sneered, was it you that allowed our brother to fall into the shadow?
Silence. So many eyes were upon him. He felt Haldirs condescending gaze scrutinizing him as if to proclaim righteousness. Merry and Pippin, both dumbfounded and lost, imploring him with a wistful yearning to make things right. Boromirs glare, his corruption wretched and foul. Gimlis angry vengeance dug into him as the Dwarf watched him. The fierce and accusing glower of the Elf before him. So many eyes! Curse this all! He did not know any more than they what to do! I am no leader!
Rage flashed, burning him inside, and he shouted in frustration. His composure cracked. Andúril glinted in the midday sun, swinging in an arc of silver before coming to slam loudly into the cracked palm of the destroyed statue behind them. The blade sliced rock in his powerful fury, sliding in to the hilt.
The stillness was deafening. Shocked gazes surrounded him, crushing him, suffocating him. Aragorn clasped his hands tightly about the hilt of his blade and collapsed weakly against the rock. He could not fight anymore. The sun was so hot and he was so tired, so very worn. The failures of his heart and body became too much. How could they be too late? How could he have let this happen?! To be so close, to have within his reach the redemption he sought and then lose it Cold tears silently fled his eyes. I am so sorry, Legolas. I am so very sorry!
But he said nothing. His moment of weakness disappeared quickly and he released a slow breath. Stiffly Aragorn stood. He looked not to the others, at once ashamed and livid with anger. Andúril he yanked from the rock and slid back into his scabbard. A dark gash now marked the palm of the white hand.
Dusty fingers wiped the wetness from his cheeks, smearing dirt upon his face. Silently he turned and walked away. Let them wonder at his display, he decided bitterly. Let them do as they will. I care not. If fate will forsake me, then I shall forsake it!
Numbly they watched the dark ranger stalk away from them. So many concerned eyes, yet none that would understand! The shadow of a lost brother, the shade of a crushing guilt, clung to him like a ghost. With it, melding black into light and lies into truth, was the weight of his dark legacy. This was the heir of Isildur. This was the lost king of Gondor.
This was the last hope of men. Estel. A pitiful joke!
Aragorn did not look back. He needed to be alone.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.