With Hope and Without Hope: 14. Brief Freedom

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14. Brief Freedom

Gimli gladly suffered being taken down from the horse, anxious to put space between him and the beast and settle his feet on firm ground once more. Recalling Aragorn's words while in Rivendell on the affection the Rohirrim held for their horses, he withheld any comments revealing his own estimation of the animals.

Stretching his legs a bit, he walked quickly to keep pace with the longer legs of the men who escorted them, though he suspected they might consider it guarding. After all, Merry and he were regarded as trespassers here, and the king might have more interest in an explanation of their presence in Rohan than in a message of warning they could not prove. He questioned if any here would listen at all to a dwarf and a hobbit - a race of people the Rohirrim apparently had not believed truly existed. It did not bode well for the travelers.

They slowly ascended countless stairs to a building roofed in gold; in the twilight, Gimli could discern pillars adorned with elaborate devices. There was a beauty to the structure, one Gimli would rather see committed to stone, and he wondered how long such wooden construction could last.

The guards led them into a large narrow room where fires burned in a center pit as well as in a few sconces to the rear. Faint starlight shone through the windows high above. At the far end, amidst tapestry and color, an empty golden throne sat alone. A figure came through a doorway to the side of the throne, dressed in dark robes that heightened his pallor. The man's scowl did not ease Gimli's worries as to whether they would be heard, particularly if this man were the King of Rohan.

"What is this?" the man asked sharply.

"Grima," Ealward began. "We must bring these two before the king. We found them crossing the land without leave. But theirs is a remarkable tale, with news more noteworthy, if they are to be believed. It warrants a hearing by the king."

"News? What news is there we have not already heard? Who are these that they would have more knowledge than Saruman himself?" Grima turned to Gimli, his voice chilly. "What dealings need a dwarf with Rohan that he must enter without permission?"

Gimli's heart sunk. He began with a great disadvantage, and apparently the Rohirrim held no more affection for Dwarves than most Elves held. To make matters worse, it sounded as though the escaped prisoners had lost the race to Edoras. "Saruman! That is precisely of whom we must speak to the king. We were his prisoners in Isengard and now he has plans for Rohan."

A frightful smile crept over Grima's face. "Saruman indeed has plans for us, to win in battle against Sauron. Do you have a better cause than defeating Sauron?"

Gimli saw this man's manipulation but would not play the game. "All his plots are trickery! Orcs march here as we speak, prepared to descend on Edoras. We passed them on our way as we came with all the speed we could muster."

"The Orcs answer to Saruman. They will fight whomever Saruman orders them to fight," the pale man said carefully. He looked at them more closely. "You have yet to bring us news, dwarf, and you are still trespassers. Have you no more to say?"

Gimli fought to reign in his impatience. He had never excelled at diplomacy and he struggled now to keep his words civil. He wanted nothing more than to roar at this man, but such behavior would only get them expelled from Rohan - or worse. The Rohirrim had been deceived by Saruman. Gimli would simply have to make them see that. He cleared his throat and forced calm into his voice. "We were prisoners of Saruman for many days. Another prisoner overheard his schemes. He has misled you in some way, you can be certain. He makes arrangements with Sauron even as he plots to wage war on him. He is not to be trusted!"

The pale man's eyebrows rose. "Arrangements with Sauron? That could be interesting." The quiet voice suddenly burst. "If it were true! Lies! All of this!" He turned to Ealward. "There is no need to bring them to the king. Take them below to a cell."

Gimli opened his mouth, but nothing came out for a moment. Then he gave his last effort. "You must listen! Saruman will deceive you. He wishes to rule Rohan! He will do it if you let him!"

Another small smile appeared on Grima's face. He bent close to Gimli's face and said quietly. "And perhaps I will." And he stalked away.

Gaping, Gimli turned to Ealward. The warrior looked resigned, if reluctant, to follow his orders. How had it gone so horribly wrong? They had fled their prison, left their friends behind, for Rohan - only to have Rohan imprison them. Gimli looked to Merry with an apology on his face. Merry simply shook his head. They had no choice but to follow Ealward to their new prison.

(o)(o)(o)

Grima burst through the door, startling Éowyn as she prepared to take her uncle to the hall. "There is no need for the king to appear. The trespassers were full of deceit and trickery. They have been sent to a cell."

Éowyn stared at Grima for a few moments to discern where the deception lay, for with Grima there was always deception. The desire that crept into the man's eyes soon forced hers away, and she laid a hand on her uncle's arm. "Uncle, as Grima has seen to the visitors, would you like to return to bed?" The man nodded tiredly and turned without a word.

Once she saw the king resting comfortably, Éowyn decided a visit to the jails was in order. After witnessing the earlier manipulation of words and people, she was all the more convinced that she could rely on none to act on behalf of Rohan. She must do what she considered true and in Rohan's best interest.

Éowyn quietly found her way to the gloomy lower levels of Meduseld. Taking paths that assured none saw her other than the guard at the entrance to the jail, she considered the trespassers whom Grima had quickly decided were liars or traitors. Were they simply dangerous to Grima and Saruman? She would learn for herself how treacherous they were.

She sought out the guard Wilhelm. He often supported her endeavors, regardless of whether they abided by a new law of Grima. In truth, she was always certain of his aid, because it was offered not out of love for her, but love for Rohan. After explaining to Wilhelm the need for her visit and obtaining the key, Éowyn followed the dark corridor to the cell the guard had indicated. What she found was wholly unexpected: two small figures huddled in the dark. She thought them both dwarves, or perhaps a dwarf and a child, but then recalled the child in the king's court. There had been whisperings since Saruman's arrival of the holbytlan tales come alive. Could this be one? She stared at them both for a moment, as they slowly stood and angled their heads to see her through the barred window in the door. She freed a torch from the sconce on the wall behind her and approached the door with a deep breath. "You are those imprisoned for trespassing, is that so?"

The two looked at each other, clearly familiar enough to speak without words. The dwarf looked to her and nodded sharply. "Yes, that is the charge, though it was not the king who passed the judgment."

Éowyn met his sharp eyes, taking in his haggard appearance. "No," she said finally. "You had the pleasure of speaking with Wormtongue." She glanced at the guard at the end of the passage as she used the name by which some still took offense. "Whence do you hail?"

The two looked at each other again, more words passing she could not hear. "Pardon my directness, Lady," the dwarf said. "From this side of the door, there are few questions we may put. And yet I am compelled to answer your question with one of my own: Who sends a lady to a jail to interrogate prisoners?"

Éowyn held back a smile, realizing this dwarf would not be cowed by mere bars and guards. Perhaps he would be by status and nobility, as many others were. She would have the answers to her questions through whatever manner she must use. She decided to show a degree of trust and unlocked the door, stepping inside the musty cell. She left the wooden door open to the corridor.

By only the light from her torch, she saw a cell roughly crafted from stone and wood. The grit on the floor crunched under her feet, but the air was cool on her face. The one cot she could see may have been enough for the two to share. She frowned when she looked around the small space and saw not even a water jug.

"My name is Éowyn, daughter of Éomund and sister-daughter to the king. None sent me. I come with questions of my own, and you shall answer." She paused and eyed the two before her, now standing before the rude cot. Lowering her voice, she continued, "Your answers remain with me." She paused as they once more shared a look. "What are your names?"

"I am Gimli, son of Gloín, of the Lonely Mountain," he said, frowning with what appeared to be curiousity at Éowyn. He looked weary and drawn, as if he had been without food for some time. His face was dirty, but some of the smudges might have been bruises in the meager light.

"And I am Meriadoc Brandybuck of the Shire. But call me Merry, if you please."

"The Shire and the Lonely Mountain are a long journey from Rohan. What has brought you so far from home?"

The two shared another look, and Éowyn saw the tale of their journey was long and not without grief. Again, Gimli spoke. "We - we have traveled far, that is true. For a noble cause did we embark on our journey. Then, Orcs captured Merry and his cousin Pippin, and I with my two doughty friends raced after them day and night, for we would not rest until we had found them. That was how we came to be in Rohan."

Surely, that was not the entire tale. "And you rescued them, clearly, as Merry stands here with you, is that so?"

Gimli shook his head slowly as the holbytla named Merry shuffled his feet and looked about oddly. "No," he said quietly. "We were captured. The Orcs dragged us all to Isengard."

Éowyn's eyebrows rose. "To Isengard? I understand your appearance now." To Éowyn's dismay, she then spied the cuffs on Gimli's wrists as he crossed and uncrossed his arms. The tale of these two was undoubtedly great, Éowyn was now certain, and she was more doubtful than ever of Grima's cause for their imprisonment. "I cannot help but wonder how you escaped Saruman, for surely he held you there, no?"

"He did indeed, and our escape I owe all to Master Merry here. From Pippin he had learned of news we thought would be of great interest to Rohan, and so we made haste in our escape-"

"News of interest to Rohan? You must tell me this now!"

"Apparently, the news arrived ere we could. We made this journey to alert you to Saruman's plans for Rohan. But we were told Saruman is already here. We advised the pale man who met with us that Orcs were marching to Edoras, and he informed us that Rohan was aware of this. I warned him also of the deceit and trickery that were the mainstay of Saruman's schemes, but he seemed quite unconcerned." The dwarf narrowed his eyes. "Is this Grima someone you trust?"

Éowyn looked at the dwarf, then back at the doorway, as she toyed with how much to reveal. She looked at Gimli again and found less to mistrust there than she did above. "Not with a dog's piece of meat would I trust him," she said in a harsh whisper.

Gimli nodded, crossing his arms again. "As I gathered - and nearly what he said. When I told him of - eh, of Saruman's plans," the dwarf fidgeted again, clearly anxious over something, "he whispered that he might help him. I do not think this Grima has Rohan's best interests in mind." Merry again shuffled uncomfortably, and Gimli looked at him, either nervous or distracted. Suddenly narrowing his eyes, the dwarf grasped Merry's arm, but said nothing aloud.

Setting aside her curiosity over their nervousness, Éowyn decided to reveal a bit more in return for Gimli's honesty. "Wormtongue, as some call him, has only his own interests in mind. And lately they seem to agree with Saruman overmuch. What do you know of the man who accompanied him? Saruman tells that he is the heir to the throne of Gondor."

"Aragorn!" Merry spoke up suddenly. "So he did bring him! He is one of our friends we were forced to leave behind when we escaped. But he is under Saruman's spell, we think. At least, Pippin seemed to think so."

"Ah, this Pippin, your cousin?" she asked, and suddenly much more made sense to Éowyn. "He would appear much like you?"

"Eh, yes. Why?" A gleam of hope appeared in the round face.

"There was a holbytla with Saruman. I thought perhaps he was his servant."

"Pippin, dear Pip! He brought him too!" These words seemed to please the holbytla to no end, so that he nearly bounced. Éowyn came close to laughing at the incongruous sight of one so delighted in such a dreary place. She was quite sure such a smile had never graced this cell. To Gimli, Merry said, "That's good, I suppose. He's out of the Tower. Oh, Pippin!" He turned to Éowyn then. "Did he seem all right to you?"

Éowyn struggled to hold back a smile. "I suppose. From what I could see, he seemed well, though perhaps a bit taken aback. He looked very small. I think he felt small, too. As the others spoke in the Hall, his eyes darted about, taking everything in."

"Good ole Pip, still keeping a lookout for an escape."

"And Aragorn?" Gimli asked anxiously. Now his eyes darted about. The changed in his demeanor made Éowyn nervous as well. "How did he seem to you?"

"The man? Quiet, mostly," Éowyn said, setting aside her own anxiety that grew with the prisoners'. "In truth I saw little. I was performing other duties, but I found a view of the proceedings. He declared himself willing to fight for the wizard. Never once did he contradict Saruman. In all honesty, I considered him to be trusted as little as Saruman."

Merry suddenly pulled on Gimli's ragged sleeve, his eyes wide. "Gimli, I can't bear it any longer. Don't you feel it? It's stronger now. Is that not the same feeling as the other night? Could it be?"

Gimli looked at Merry, worry plain on his face. "Do you suppose one of them comes for Aragorn?"

Éowyn puzzled over who they were as she considered Merry's words. Of what feeling could he speak? Suddenly the nervousness that had built within her as they spoke came to her attention. More than simple anxiety, it was an urge to flee, to hide, a feeling of terror to which she was wholly unaccustomed. "Of what do you speak? Does some evil approach? Who comes for Aragorn?"

"Have you heard, Lady, tales of the Black Riders, Ringwraiths, the Nine Servants of Sauron?"

"Of course, but..." she trailed off. "One of the Servants of the Enemy has come to Edoras? Is this what you say?"

"I fear that is the case," Gimli said.

"It certainly feels that way to me," Merry added. "It's that roiling feeling in the stomach. There's nothing like it. We-" Merry glanced at Gimli before continuing, "We had a visit by one of them one night on our way here. For some reason, it didn't kill us. It got distracted and left."

Éowyn looked skeptically at Merry over his calm description of his close brush with Death, but before she could say a word, Gimli added, "Pippin told us that one of Saruman's possible strategies was to hand off Aragorn to Sauron. An army has been sent across Rohan to collect him. This Ringwraith might be part of that army, strange though it seems. I must admit I am uncertain what is happening."

Ringwraiths in Edoras, Éowyn thought. She wished to discredit the two prisoners, to disbelieve their tale, but they held too much information they freely shared. They knew of the approaching army, as well. With that, Éowyn made her decision. "Well, it is clear we are in danger, regardless of Sauron's schemes," Éowyn said.

"But Strider is most in danger!" Merry cried. "The Black Rider comes for him. I don't know what Saruman has done with him, but if we could ask it of you, Lady Éowyn, please find a safe place for Strider - Aragorn, that is. He may be about to follow Saruman into the trap this moment!"

Éowyn frowned. She had no wish to speak with either the man or the wizard. Aragorn clearly supported Saruman and was prepared to fight for him. Yet these two called Aragorn friend and were sure he was held against his will. Éowyn found herself wanting to trust these two small people, grimy and damaged as they were. "Perhaps I will try to speak with him. I will see then what he has to say."

"Remember that Saruman has the ears and eyes of a wizard," Gimli warned.

Éowyn gave a wry smile. "Just as Grima Wormtongue is another set of eyes and ears for him."

"Would it be possible," Merry asked, a pleading look on his face, "to find a way to get us out? We weren't quite fairly imprisoned, if you ask me." He had the good grace to look sheepish before adding, "And perhaps some food?"

Éowyn looked at him. "It is a hard reward to escape one prison to be thrown into another. But considering what you have told me and what new visitors we may have, you may be safer here than above. But have you not been fed?" When the two shook their heads, Éowyn continued. "Very well. Food and water shall be brought to you. I will see to that directly."

"I thank you, Lady Éowyn," Gimli rushed to add, "and if I may beg your indulgence once more, let me inform you that hobbits are voracious creatures. It would do well to bring as much food as you can muster!" Gimli smiled gently, and Éowyn, with raised eyebrow and a sharp nod to them both, left the prison, wondering at the strange creatures populating her world.

(o)(o)(o)

"Oh!" the woman said, startled as she rounded the corner and nearly bumped into Pippin. "Forgive me, I was lost in my thoughts and not attending to my surroundings." She paused, and seemed to look at him unusually closely. Pippin wondered who she was. "Do you have need of something?"

Pippin's mouth opened but at first no sound came forth. He tried again. "I - I only wanted some water," he said, hoping she would point him in the proper direction and continue on her way. Uncomfortable as he was in this strange house, he did not wish to catch anyone's notice. "Please, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-" he suddenly started in a rush.

"For what is your apology? You have asked for water. There is no crime in that," the woman said calmly. Pippin's unease uncoiled a bit. "Is it for drinking or some other need?"

"For cleaning a wound, Lady," he said quietly.

"Oh, are you injured? I was not informed. We have an infirmary. I can take-"

"There is no need," he said, seeing her interest sparked as he feared. "It - it is not a new injury. I only wish to wash it to keep it clean."

She scrutinized the hobbit. "What is your name?"

"Pippin," he said, reluctantly, and wished he knew what she was thinking. If he didn't know better, he would have thought she recognized his name.

"I am Lady Éowyn, sister-daughter to the king. Where is your injury?" she said carefully.

She was kin to the king! Of all those for him to meet in a corridor! "It isn't my injury, Lady Éowyn. I apologize; I didn't mean to mislead you. I -" he abandoned his attempt to excuse his behavior with a shrug.

"And whose injury is it then?" she asked expectantly.

"The man who traveled with us," he answered, focusing on avoiding Strider's name - any of them. "He has an injury to his leg. I have tended to it for days. I only wish to clean it with some fresh hot water one more day, just to be sure.

The woman apparently decided she had interrogated Pippin enough and led him in the direction from which she had come, which turned out to be a kitchen, and provided him with hot water. Then suddenly she said, "I will accompany you to your quarters."

Pippin's heart hammered with alarm at the suggestion. He didn't want her seeing Strider. And what if Saruman returned? He would certainly be angry. For what, Pippin couldn't say, but he was sure Saruman would find a reason to be cross. And if it wasn't Saruman, there was something else, something in the back of his mind telling him something worse was coming. "Em, he's, well, he's a bit out of sorts at the moment. It's somewhat hard to explain."

The Lady Éowyn was quiet, thinking long on Pippin's words. He realized he wasn't going to deter this woman from coming with him if she put her mind to it. He remembered seeing that look on his sister on occasion, and more often on his mother. There was no way around it when a hobbit-lass -or a woman, he supposed - got such a look. "Then you will simply have to show me."

Just as he thought. Pippin simply nodded without argument and led the way to their quarters. Upon entering the small room he shared with Strider, Pippin went to the man's bedside and lit a few candles. Strider had slipped back into his nightmares, for he jerked when Pippin touched him. Pippin called to him gently and reminded him of who he was and where they were, as he had done before. Receiving a blank stare, he decided to give the man time. Pippin sat Strider up and used the water Éowyn had given the hobbit to wash his wound. Suddenly, Strider spoke. "One of the Nine is come." Pippin's hand halted with Strider's words, and he recognized as soon as it was named what had been lingering in the darkness of his mind. Worse than Saruman indeed.

"Are you sure, Strider?" he asked, more to create conversation than for any doubt of the man's senses.

Strider raised his head and looked at Pippin as an answer. His clear, focused eyes made Pippin's heart surge, despite the news he announced. After a long minute, however, he seemed to lose some of the clarity he had gained. He frowned. "We shall surely never leave Orthanc now."

Disheartened, Pippin tried once more. "No, Strider. We've left Isengard. We are in Edoras. Try to remember. The long, long ride on the horses. And we spoke with the King of Rohan - at least, Saruman did." His voice grew small as his hope faltered. "Do you not remember?"

Strider looked at him, forlorn and hopeless. He closed his eyes, and when they opened, Pippin saw a bit more awareness within. "Forgive me, Pippin. I try to recall but it is all a clutter of memory. I remember... a blue sky, yes, I remember that. I recall seeing the Golden Hall from a distance. Yes, I remember now. It was a swift journey considering."

Pippin lost some of his sympathy with Strider's last statement. "Well, perhaps when you're on your own horse. Try riding while desperately grasping at the one before you so as not to fall off."

"That was not enjoyable, I take it?" he said, and rewarded Pippin with a ghost of a smile. Pippin shook his head vigorously.

Suddenly there was a voice from behind. Pippin had forgotten Lady Éowyn entirely. "Pippin, I apologize for interrupting, but I must ask a question."

Pippin looked at Strider, but he would find no counsel there. "Of course, Lady Éowyn. Strider, this is Lady Éowyn, sister-daughter to the king. Lady Éowyn, this is Strider. He is the one with the injury, as you have seen."

Lady Éowyn nodded to Strider, then turned back to Pippin. "Pippin, are you aware of Saruman's whereabouts at the moment?"

"I'm afraid not, Lady Éowyn. He left us in this room some hours ago."

She turned to Strider now, and Pippin could not fathom what she saw. "What do you know of the Nine, whom you say approach Edoras? How do you know of their arrival?"

Strider stared at her for a long time, and his haunted eyes did not scare her away. "I know only that they approach. I sense their presence. As do you."

Éowyn frowned but Pippin spoke before she could say more. "It's that sort of cold feeling that makes you forget what it is to be warm. That tells you a Black Rider is near. And it's possible that Saruman is meeting with whoever has come. He may be planning to pass Strider off to the Black Rider. I heard much of his plans when I served him in his Tower, but it wasn't clear that he truly meant to go through with this."

The woman looked as if she were going to say something but decided against it. She seemed less surprised than Pippin thought she ought to, considering what they had just told her. "If this Black Rider comes for Strider, you ought not to sit about waiting for it. I can show you a place safer than here, if you will come with me. Are you able?" she said, turning to Strider for her final question.

"There is no place safe from the Nazgûl," Strider said placidly, and Pippin thought his eyes looked a bit clearer than when he had arrived.

Strider appeared undecided, despite his statement. Pippin knew it was up to him to keep Strider safe, and so he considered the Lady's offer. If she took them somewhere Saruman could not find them as well, Strider would be protected from both. And then Pippin might avoid what he had dreaded since arriving in Edoras. He was sure Saruman would put his hands on that Stone again. His stomach turned at the thought. He feared that moment almost as much as the approaching Black Rider. "How do you know this place is safer?"

"It is a place where they will not look," she answered and went to the door as if that ended the matter. She looked back upon reaching the threshold. Pippin still felt skeptical, but decided it was worth the chance that they might escape both the Black Rider and Saruman. He looked to Strider. The man looked wary, but seemed to wait for Pippin's decision. It struck Pippin then how upside down the world had turned if the heir to the throne of Gondor looked to a hobbit - and Pippin, no less - for guidance. If only he knew how to put things right, to make Strider the man he was when they had left Rivendell, the man who would be King of Gondor. But of all those Strider could have by his side at such a time, he had only Pippin. Pippin could only do his best and hope it was enough. He held out his arm for Strider to lean on.

They moved slowly through the halls, allowing Strider to walk at his own pace, and eventually Pippin saw that they were descending to the lower levels of the building.

"Lady Éowyn," Pippin cried with a sense of betrayal when he saw the warden, "you bring us to the jail!"

"Precisely. They will not think to look here. At least not for some time yet. I am well aware that it leaves you with no escape. In the meantime, I can learn exactly what occurs above. If things go afoul, then I will find another place for you, one with a possible means of escape."

Strider looked at her intensely, then nodded to Pippin. Pippin still harbored suspicions, despite the sense of her plan. She hadn't tried to trick them in bringing them here, though, and that counted much for Pippin. He would have to trust her for now.

After gaining access to the jails once more, with only a glance askance at her companions from the guard, she told the two to be silent. Finding the cell she intended for them, she opened the door. "This is where you shall hide for now."

Upon opening the heavy wooden door, Pippin hesitantly led Strider into the darkness. To his surprise, the cell was already occupied. A greater shock came when he recognized the occupants. "Merry!" he cried, after he caught his breath.

"Pippin!" Merry looked just as shocked, but no worse for wear, otherwise.

Pippin ran to his cousin, and the two hobbits clutched each other so firmly, Pippin thought he might never breathe again.

"Meriadoc Brandybuck! How in all of Middle-earth did you end up here?" Pippin asked. "And when? And-"

"O! Pip!" Merry said, cutting off Pippin's questions. "Gimli and I climbed out of Orthanc. We climbed! Just wait until you hear our tale!"

"Gimli!" Pippin's attention was drawn to the dwarf and he tackled his friend, ending any response. "I thought never to see you again! I thought - I - well, you're here, and alive and well, somewhat, at least, by the look of it! Though I do hope they've fed you!"

Gimli grinned. "It is wonderful to see you as well, Pippin."

"I must hear all of this about climbing out of Orthanc."

"Aragorn!" Gimli cried, and moved to greet his friend. "How do you fare?"

Strider hesitated and glanced at Pippin before answering. "I am all right," he said stiffly.

"Here, Strider," Pippin said, and led him to an ancient-looking cot. "You should sit. Your leg still needs rest." He looked worriedly at Gimli and Merry as Strider sat, and considered how to explain all that had befallen him. "I told you, Merry, that Saruman had him under a spell. Well, it hasn't entirely worn off. He - well..." Pippin gave up his attempt and returned to Strider. "Strider?" he asked, taking his hand.

Strider looked at him, then at his surroundings. The Lady Éowyn then caught his attention, and he looked at her for a long moment before turning back to Pippin. "We were in Edoras, I recall," he said carefully. "The Lady Éowyn was to take us to a safe place because a Nazgûl approached."

Pippin frowned. "We are still in Edoras."

Strider looked warily at the stone cell walls. "Then where be we now? For this looks like nothing so much as the nightmare of the Stone."

Pippin's worry eased a bit, but he hated that Strider thought he was back in that horror. "But this is all quite real, Strider! The safe place turns out to be a jail, of all places," he added, looking about himself. "It does look a bit ghoulish. But as the Lady said, they won't think of looking here, not right away."

Strider nodded slowly. "So, tell me, could it be that the two I see behind you are real?"

Pippin smiled. "Yes, they are truly with us. Gimli and Merry are here!"

Strider looked at the two behind him as if for the first time, and his wary expression gave way to a broad smile. "This is a blessed thing!"

"Of course we are here!" said Merry and ran to Strider, hugging him. "I worried for you, up there in Saruman's hands."

Strider gave a wry smile, but said nothing.

Gimli trod over and patted the man's shoulder. "It is good to see you. Even if it is in a jail."

Strider sighed, bitterness tingeing his voice. "Yes, we are reduced to cowering underground in hiding from the Nazgûl." He shook his head. "I long for my sword and the chance to face both the Ringwraith and Saruman."

Strider's words alarmed Pippin. "Strider, it's better you stay here! As you said, you have no sword. And your leg is just healing. Please don't go up there!"

Strider sighed again. Pippin had to admit he looked better with every minute. "Do not fret, Pippin. I have no choice. I have had little choice in any matter for days..."

Suddenly, they looked above as one. The Black Rider was close. Pippin tried desperately to stand in place, though the urge to cower behind Strider was powerful. "Lady," Strider said, with more authority in his voice than Pippin had recently heard, "I advise that you see to the king. Make certain he is safe. We know not the true mission of the Enemy."

Éowyn nodded, and Gimli turned to her. "Lady Éowyn, eh, I should like to remind you, the scouts who brought us did not arrive, eh, alone. Do you know where they went with - them?"

Pippin wondered at the meaning of Gimli's cryptic words, and clearly so did Éowyn. But understanding soon came over her. "They are in the keeping of the king."

"Perhaps the king would allow them - or at least one of them - to return to its master."

The woman's eyes bore into Gimli's. "I am not sure that is wise. But I shall think on it."

(o)(o)(o)

Gandalf and Legolas drew within sight of the guards of the city of Edoras just after the moon had risen, pale and full. Only then did Gandalf slow their pace. Earlier that day, the Chief of the Mearas had answered Gandalf's call, and Shadowfax had borne them with the greatest speed over the fields of Rohan. Not even Gandalf's concern for Legolas had allowed the wizard to pause after he had given in to his need to arrive at Edoras. Their only detour had come when Gandalf had sighted a grove of trees he knew should not be, and he had slowed to circle it. Finding the dark path first struck by Orcs then by Ents, and recalling Treebeard's words on the Ents' intentions, Gandalf had guessed that the tree-herders had caught their quarry. Saruman no longer had his Orcs to do his work, whatever that might be. Since the marching Orcs had clearly traveled towards Rohan, Gandalf was certain he would find Saruman there. More than Saruman, his senses told him. His urgency flaring anew, he had returned to their path towards Edoras.

"Legolas, I fear I must ask now for my cloak." He looked at his friend apologetically, knowing it would leave the elf uncomfortably bare. Gandalf had been able to provide the elf with food but not with clothing, and he was forced to wear the tatters in which the Orcs had left him. Bereft of his tunic, Gandalf had offered him his cloak to wear while they rode, for the wind would have been painful to bear. "I feel the need for discretion in revealing my robes unnecessarily. King Théoden has long encountered me as Gandalf the Grey. With so many loyalties in question in this land, it would do me well to appear as he is accustomed to seeing me." He kept his thoughts on Saruman's whereabouts to himself, but the sense of another ill presence grew stronger.

Silent and still for a moment, eventually Legolas nodded. As Legolas removed the cloak, the wizard noticed that even in the dark, Legolas's wounds were evident. "I am certain the Rohirrim will provide you with a tunic." Legolas nodded but remained silent.

At the gate, the interrogation was particularly demanding, but they were given entrance in the end due to the long memory of the Rohirrim and the long if tumultuous friendship with Gandalf. By now, the ill feelings had blossomed into a Shadow over his mind and Gandalf knew what plagued Edoras. Just then Legolas shivered. "Do you feel a chill, Legolas?"

After a hesitation, he answered, "No, Mithrandir, I am not chilled."

"Then you feel it as well."

"Aye, the Shadow is come to Edoras. I fear one of the Nine is here."

Gandalf sighed. "It may be so. For what reason I cannot say. We shall learn soon enough."

Few dared the Shadow or the late hour to note their arrival as they approached the great hill of Meduseld. Those who did note them looked longer on their horse than the riders, though if there had been light enough to tell them that Mithrandir rode with an elf, they might have managed to tear their eyes from the horse. The look of fear was in the eyes of all he saw, and Gandalf thought it no coincidence that the Nine had come to Rohan when Saruman had. Gandalf contemplated the tumble Saruman had taken, from a wizard Gandalf had held in high esteem down lower than the basest man. The thought that Saruman might have dealings with the Nazgûl saddened Gandalf's heart. Had he already aligned himself with the forces of Darkness? Gandalf dearly hoped he was not too late.

As Shadowfax climbed the winding path that led to the Golden Hall, the moonlight allowed Gandalf to see, among the guards standing at the entrance, a young woman, stern of face, her golden hair flowing free, her white dress glowing. The wizard remembered then Éowyn, the sister-daughter of the King, and daughter of Éomund. She had grown into a lovely young lady, but it appeared that life had not been easy on her. Undoubtedly she felt the effect of the Shadow, but it was as if she willed it away, such was the hardness of her countenance. The guards felt the Shadow as well. It appeared that all those on the terrace of Meduseld had rooted themselves to their places to defy the urge to flee and hide.

Alighting from Shadowfax to ascend the stairs on foot, a small gasp from behind him drew Gandalf from his thoughts. Legolas looked upon the same lady Gandalf had been studying, but with a decidedly different glint in his eye.

"Is something wrong, Legolas?" Gandalf asked slowly.

"Are there Elves in Rohan?" Legolas asked as if not hearing Gandalf's question.

Gandalf frowned. "Not to my knowledge. In fact, I counsel you to tread carefully here. The Rohirrim hold Elves under much suspicion. They have not seen an elf in many a generation and know only what has passed down in legend. But... that was not your question, was it?" He glanced in the direction in which Legolas was staring and thought he understood. "She is a woman, Legolas." Gandalf said simply.

"A woman," he said thoughtfully, and Gandalf saw he did not understand. "Of Men. She - It is merely that - no woman -"

Gandalf tried desperately to suppress his laughter, to little success. "Has ever tongue-tied an elf in such a manner before, I am quite certain."

"You misunderstand me!" Legolas said sharply, to Gandalf's surprise, and he regretted his laughter. Legolas frowned, then looked up at him suddenly and said simply, "It is her hair."

Gandalf's eyebrows rose. "Her hair?"

"Yes," Legolas said calmly, as if he had explained everything satisfactorily. He returned his gaze to the woman they now approached. In a low voice only Gandalf and nearby elves could hear, he said, "It looks deserving of an elf-maid's head. I thought perhaps there were Elves residing in Rohan."

With Legolas's last words, they had reached the terrace, and Gandalf turned to the Rohirrim with a smile that was not returned. "Greetings, my Lady Éowyn, men of Rohan. It is difficult to provide proper welcome under the pall of the Shadow, and so I hold not this welcome against you." Gandalf bowed low to Éowyn with a small smile.

"Long indeed, Gandalf Greyhame," Éowyn said sternly. "Many wonder that you make an appearance only in the darkest of times. Some say you bring the darkness with you. Now, perhaps more will say so."

Gandalf frowned. He hoped the mood of the court was better than this woman's. "I know you have felt the approach of the Shadow. But I have traveled far by day and night to reach Edoras. In the light of day or dark of the Shadow, I must have speech with the King."

Éowyn responded, "We felt the approach of the Shadow, and we then witnessed its arrival. The Ringwraith swept in and entered Meduseld not long ago. Never has Edoras been trespassed by one of the Servants of the Enemy.

A guard stepped forward. "I am Hama, Doorward of Meduseld. Never did I leave my post, but I fear we were unable to halt his passage. You know well, Gandalf, the fear he puts in the hearts of Men. We - we could do nothing to stop him."

"It is well you did not try with all your might, for there is nothing you can do to stop one of the Nine, regardless of the fear or courage in your hearts. It is for that reason you live another day."

Éowyn stepped forward once more, her expression softened. "We have reason to believe that Saruman has entered the Golden Hall, where the Nazgûl entered, and speaks with him. For neither has left in some time."

Gandalf nodded sternly, taking in all they had told him and all he had guessed, and saw his path. He ignored the soft gasp he heard from beside him, certain Legolas smoldered with a need for vengeance upon hearing Saruman was in Edoras. "I ask you, Hama, if you can find it within you to remain here at the entrance to the Golden Hall. If by chance anyone attempts to enter, you must keep him out. It will likely save his life."

"Keeping a man out shall not be difficult, Gandalf."

"Where is the king?" Gandalf asked Éowyn suddenly.

"I have only now come from his quarters, after stationing guards outside his rooms."

"Well done. I must now see what sort of debate goes on within the walls of the Golden Hall."

"The king's law is that none enter the Hall armed," said Hama. "But I fear this is not a day for which the law was made."

Gandalf smiled. "You are wise, Hama." Only now did Gandalf turn to Legolas. It was then that they noticed. Gandalf saw the double take of the guards, and saw even Éowyn narrow her eyes at Legolas. Gandalf knew that Legolas did not miss their reactions and saw him observe the Lady of Rohan closely. The wizard decided not to wait and learn if they would bar him entrance.

"My Lady, my friend Legolas has been through many trials, as is plain to see. I have done all I can for him, but he is yet in need of proper care. If you would be so kind, your infirmary would be capable of tending to his outstanding hurts. A spare tunic would also be appreciated. Oh, and food as well. Orcs do not feed their prisoners." He kept his eyes on Éowyn's widening ones as she took in his words, ignoring Legolas's that were boring into him with reproach.

"Oh - but, of course, Gandalf, we shall do what we can." She turned to the elf, only a bit less hesitant than before. "Please, eh, Legolas, if you would follow me." Éowyn turned and led the way inside.

Only then did Gandalf turn to Legolas, but his eyes were already on the lady as he followed her into the Hall of Meduseld. Before crossing the threshold, however, the elf looked back, his grey eyes dark with so many emotions, Gandalf could read none of them. Inscrutable as ever, the elf was now in the hands of the Rohirrim's healers, and Gandalf hoped he had done right for him. While Legolas and Éowyn exited the vestibule through a side door, Gandalf left the guards to continue into the Golden Hall.

(o)(o)(o)


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.

Story Information

Author: docmon

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - Ring War

Genre: Action

Rating: General

Last Updated: 03/10/09

Original Post: 06/20/07

Go to With Hope and Without Hope overview

Comments

WARNING! Comments may contain spoilers for a chapter or story. Read with caution.

With Hope and Without Hope

Michelle - 04 Oct 08 - 3:09 PM

Ch. 14: Brief Freedom

Hi!

I've already spent two enjoyable evenings with this story, which I found on the MEFA-site. Being a fan of AUs and what-if scenarios I couldn't pass this one up! And since I'm a ranger girl as well, you won't see me complaining about all the drama you're subjecting poor Aragorn to:)

So, just a little note in between chapters, because chapter 14 seems to be messed up. The second half is one of the previous chapters.

With Hope and Without Hope

docmon - 05 Oct 08 - 7:25 AM

Ch. 14: Brief Freedom

Thanks for the heads up, Michelle! It's all fixed now.

Glad you're enjoying my treatment of Aragorn Wink, especially as a ranger girl! I'm especially glad to hear you found the story at the MEFA site!

Thanks for reading!


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