Conversation paused as Lord Elphir, Prince Imrahil’s oldest son, and the quartermaster emerged and approached the group of Rangers of Ithilien and the two Hobbits sitting near the King’s pavilion. Damrod, as temporary commander for the company, rose and straightened to attention. “My lord? Quartermaster?” he asked as he gave his salute. “How may we assist you?”
“We’ve been discussing the matter of supplies,” Lord Elphir began. “Much has been sent from the city and the storehouses of Lebennin along the river via the ships, but little in the way of greenstuffs. You know these lands best--do you think you can find newly sprung foodstuffs for the kitchens?”
The Men looked at one another and shrugged. “We could, I suppose,” Damrod answered, “if we were certain what we were looking for. We know a few things, of course; but are no experts at recognizing all edible plants in the wild.”
One of the Hobbits laughed. “Then you’ll need us--or at least one of us with you,” Samwise Gamgee said. “Us Hobbits knows food as grows in the wild.”
“That is true,” the Lord Aragorn Elessar stated as he emerged from his pavilion behind Lord Imrahil. “We ate far better on our journey because we had these with us.” He looked at the Hobbit with a critical eye. “Sam, would you mind going out with them and pointing out what greens would be best to gather? Then, when you are back you could perhaps advise the cooks how best to prepare it.”
Sam looked uncertainly at his companion, who smiled at him, although Frodo’s smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Go on, then, Sam--I’ll be well enough, you know, although I don’t think I’m quite up to going out foraging right now.”
“It’s just as I hate to leave you alone, Mr. Frodo, and you know better’n me what’s good in the wild. I mean to say, old Mr. Bilbo--he taught you well, all them tramps about the woods o’ the Shire, you know.”
“And I’ve taught you what you could learn from me. Between that and what you already know as a gardener, I suspect you’re far better qualified than I to guide these. Go on with you, then.”
“If you’re sure, Master,” Sam said. “Although I’ll admit as it’ll be good to be out of the camp for a time. Oftentimes it’s right confusin’ here.” He looked up at the sky. The west wind had been active all day, and for a time grey clouds would obscure the Sun, then blow off eastwards over the Ephel Dúath and then over what remained of what had been Mordor. “Although I’d be happier if’n it was sunnier, for it keeps lookin’ as if it thought to rain today.” He straightened. “Well, it’s not as if we wasn’t accustomed to movin’ about in all weathers, is it? And I do have my Lorien cloak back again. I’ll go and fetch it, and meet you Men back here as quick as I can. Can you all go and fetch some bags to carry what we find?”
At the agreement from the Men, Sam gave a nod to Strider, turned toward the glade where the enclosure stood where he and Frodo still slept, and hurried off as Damrod counted off three Men and sent them off with the quartermaster to his tents to fetch gathering bags. The King smiled after them, coming to stand over Frodo with his hand on the Hobbit’s head. “He’s a wonder, our beloved Lord Samwise,” Aragorn said softly.
“Yes,” agreed Frodo, looking after his friend.
“As are you, of course,” the King added, smiling down to meet Frodo’s eyes as the older Hobbit looked up at him. “I’m so grateful you chose to come back, Frodo. It is a joy to have you beside me now as I prepare for what is to come.”
At that moment one of those who stood guard at the edge of the camp toward the south approached. “My lord,” he said formally after making his salute, “one has been sent from the camp given over to the enemy wounded who would speak with you.”
Aragorn sighed and straightened. “Then I will come,” he said. He looked back at Frodo. “Rest well, tithen nín. It appears I must return to my new duties once again.” So saying he smiled fondly down at Frodo and then turned to follow the guard to the place where the messenger from the second camp waited.
Shortly after, the foragers gathered together near the south end of the camp, near the Road. “We come this way, my Master’n me,” Sam said, “stayin’ mostly to the west of the Road as we went south. I saw a good deal of herbs there as would be good for the cooks to have; and I suspect as we’ll find a good number of fiddleheads and such as’ll make a fine salad.” And with a nod at his companions the group turned to follow the King’s path southwards.
Once out of the camp they moved to the west side of the road, and Sam quickly found stands of bay and borage, the remains of a hedge of rosemary, and under the trees numbers of ferns just pushing up through the earth, tightly rolled heads indicating they were perfect for eating. He pointed out wild parsley and where the young dandelion greens were showing, allowed them to harvest one stand of mushrooms and forbade them to touch another, bringing one of those that he’d approved to compare to the other. “See as how the cap on this one is compared to that, and the skirt here?” he explained. “That one is poisonous, you see. Just let it lie--we don’t need any becomin’ ill from eatin’ the wrong sort.”
Then they found young stinging nettles, and he explained that even these, at this point, were edible and full of goodness. Now they knew more what to look for, they fanned out, all warned not to strip an area of all its edible plants that they might grow back again. And with nods all turned to their work.
Shortly, Sam found himself recognizing his surroundings, although it had changed much in the past month since he’d been here before, the clematis vines having grown longer and covering more of their surroundings, the sage having grown thicker, other plants having leafed out fully and flowers now shining in all directions. They were near the stone lip of the Man-made lake by which he, Frodo, and Gollum had rested briefly. He paused, remembering how much they’d appreciated the water, how they’d bathed and drunk freely, how they’d filled their bottles near the spring.
“Good memories?” The voice so near to his shoulder startled him, for he’d not been paying attention to the others, and Damrod was almost as quiet moving in the wilds as were Hobbits. “I’m sorry,” the Ranger said, instantly contrite.
“No--it’s well enough,” Sam answered him. “Was just memberin’ as how we stopped here for a time and rejoiced in the water. We found so little inside there, you know. To realize just the other side of the mountains was a green land filled with rivers and pools and such as this was at times a torture, there where we found only one small, oily spring and what was in the orcs’ cisterns. And the water in them cisterns was anythin’ but clean, mind you.”
“I’ve never been inside those lands,” the Man said. “I’d been told it was a dead place.”
“Not completely dead,” Sam sighed. “We found some plants what was green, but not a good number of them. They’re very large and have spines as you wouldn’t believe, a handspan long at the very least.” The Hobbit stretched and felt his spine pop. “This must of been a wonderful place in its day.”
“I’m told the lords of Ithilien had a formal hunting lodge near here where they entertained emissaries from other lands,” Damrod said. “This pool was probably filled with carp, or perhaps was used as a place to swim and bathe in the heat of the summer.”
Sam nodded, then turned to look at a great mat of clematis covered with great blue-purple stars. “Now, that’s beautiful,” he said, smiling. “When we was here afore the buds was just formin’. And those hadn’t started yet to grow,” he commented, stepping forward toward a stand of wild parsley plants growing near where a number of speckled lilies raised their blossoms. He was smiling as he reached forward to caress one of the flowers with his finger, then stopped, his face going white as he looked just beyond the clematis, at the scar of an old cooking fire.
“Master Samwise? Are you well?” Damrod asked as he came to stand just behind the Hobbit.
“I’d forgot that,” Sam said sadly, his voice soft, almost as if he were speaking to himself, looking on the tumble of blackened stones and partially burned firewood--but then Damrod realized not all the rounded shapes were stones; nor were all the straight ones charred sticks.
“The Valar protect us,” the Man breathed.
Sam slowly nodded his head. “Here the orcs had a feast, and it don’t appear as they was eatin’ deer or conies, does it?”
The Man shook his head. “No, it doesn’t. I’ll mark this site, and later I’ll bring Men here to fetch back what we find for proper burial. Perhaps we’ll be able to identify some of them.”
Aragorn came shortly before sunset to the clearing by the smaller river that fed into the Anduin to make his report. Sam was sitting on a low chair beside another that held Frodo; the other two Hobbits were seated on the fallen log that lay there while Gimli half-sat against a large stone, leaning forward slightly on his axe. Sam’s expression was guarded and rather thoughtful, while Frodo’s was sad and compassionate. The Man stood quietly, looking down at Sam for a moment before he spoke.
“I’m told you are the one who found the orcs’ firepit, Sam.”
The gardener slowly nodded his head. “I saw it afore,” he said softly, “when Mr. Frodo and me was followin’ Gollum. We’d stopped there near that pool with the stone lip about it, and had bathed and washed our clothes as we could, filled our bottles, drank some. I’d thought as perhaps we’d camp there for a time--and then I saw the old coals, and the bones. Those orcs--they’d been eatin’ Men, hadn’t they?”
Aragorn sank to the ground in front of where Frodo and Sam sat, where he could look almost levelly into their eyes. “Yes, Sam, they’d been eating Men. We found the remains of four individuals. I’d say they’d been there probably only about two weeks before you and Frodo traveled that way. In our search about the area we found some clothing and a few belongings. They were all Rangers of Ithilien, and it appears they belonged to a patrol of six scouts that had gone missing then, before you arrived. One of the Men, Raphion son of Raphergil of Anórien, had suffered a broken shoulder as a boy, and the place could be seen on the bones of one where the shoulder had mended long ago. Among the few belongings left by the orcs was a leather folder carrying the portrait of a woman, and Damrod identified it as having been carried by one known as Eldargil son of Rillion of Ringlo Vale. The portrait was that of his wife Lilien. We have not been able so far to decide which of the other four were found here, much less which were taken further. However, at least now definitive word can be sent to their families as to their fates. And so they will offer you thanks for aiding in finding the remains of these lost ones.”
He sighed. “We believe we have found where the patrol was assaulted, not far northeast of where the firepit was made. Four other firepits were found near the small lake, three more of them of orc origin, although they appear to have been eating more mundane fare, such as deer and rabbits and quail. Considering how the fourth was hidden, it appears to have been made by another party of Ranger scouts in the midst of the winter.”
Sam considered for a moment, then looked back to his friend’s eyes. “I must suppose others would of been as drawn to the stone lake as we was. I know we was findin’ our hearts and bodies eased, bein’ able to bathe there at the last, and surrounded by growth.”
Frodo’s eyes were sad. “I barely remember it at all,” he sighed, shaking his head. “Only there is a memory of ease in the midst of toil, a time when we might put away for the moment the horrors of the blasted lands before the Black Gate, and a realization that Sauron had not yet destroyed all as he would prefer to do. I remember the stewed rabbit--now. I remember the bird calls that were the signals between the Rangers, and the--the questioning by Captain Faramir, and then the discussion within the--the place of refuge on what would happen were the Ring to come to Minas Tirith. I remember the image the Ring showed to me--the vivid image--of Minas Tirith, first as I’ve learned it is, and then as a--as a travesty of itself, almost a skeleton of itself, facing Minas Morgul across the lands and the rubble of Osgiliath. When I stood on the road, seeing Minas Morgul as it was and saw it was even worse than my vision of it, the Ring was laughing in my mind, delighting that the reality was worse than my earlier imagining.” Frodo was shivering, and Sam put a steadying hand on his shoulder as Aragorn reached out to set one on his knee.
“The Uruk-hai that carried Merry and me through Rohan--they were telling us how they were going to treat us once their master was done with us--how they were going to cook us while we were yet alive. One of the Mordor orcs wanted the leaders of the Isengard Uruks to cut off our legs so they could eat them then--said we didn’t need them, after all.” Pippin shuddered as he finished speaking, and Merry looked away, his face almost grey.
Gimli looked at each of the four Hobbits in turn, his face stern as he thought of the horrors to which each had been subjected. “Sauron and Saruman,” he grunted in disgust. “The two of them deserved one another, I think. I’d certainly like to take my axe to Saruman and his folk right now.”
Frodo had gone quiet and closed his eyes, leaning his head back. He looked for the moment every one of his fifty years and perhaps a few more, a vertical line between his brows. “The Ring was always showing me pictures of death and destruction,” he murmured quietly. “Soldiers, men in brown trousers and cream-colored shirts--farmers, I think, a few sailors on ships, some dressed as the Rangers that were with Captain Faramir....” He straightened, his eyes opening, as if forcing himself to remember. His face was paler than usual, his eyes shadowed, but his brow furrowed in concentration. “Rangers,” he whispered. “Six Rangers, taken prisoner....”
“What is it?” Aragorn asked, peering closely at the Ringbearer.
“There were six Rangers taken, and four--slaughtered, by water and some vines, just starting to grow. The orcs started eating--a large number of orcs, and the two Men who--who were left over lay there, lay there in the grass, senseless--only one wasn’t senseless! His eyes opened, and he--he realized what was happening. The orcs thought they were senseless, so they ignored them, and the one managed--managed to put his arm around the other and silently dragged him away, toward the river. There was a place--a place in the bank where they could hide--he knew it! I remember urging him on in the vision, and the Ring didn’t like it, but It had to help him!” He straightened more, his face growing excited and intense. “It had to help him, Aragorn--the Ring had to help him! He escaped with his friend. He hid the both of them in a cleft by the River, and the orcs couldn’t get them! They finally left them there, trying to wall them in. They might be there still!”
“A cleft by the river,” Aragorn murmured, obviously racking his own memories. “A cleft by the river.” He shook his head, then looked up at Pippin. “Guardsman Peregrin,” he said, “go and fetch Captain Damrod.”
“Yes, Lord Aragorn,” Pippin replied saluting, his own eyes growing excited as he hurried off back toward the camp.
“We might be able to find them,” Aragorn said. “And if they remain in hiding there is always the chance joy may come out of the grief--if only for two families!”
Damrod arrived, heard the description given by Frodo, then stood, shaking his head. “Cleft by the river? There’s none there by the Anduin, not there west of the stone pool,” he said. “Now, there’s one north of there, along this tributary....” He stopped, sharing a look with his uncrowned King, who was already rising.
“Yes, I know the place,” Aragorn said, his eyes shining. “Come--let’s see if we can find them!”
Frodo was already on his own feet and hurrying eastward toward the road, Sam rising hastily to follow after, Merry and Gimli following immediately after Aragorn with Damrod. Twice Frodo stopped, as if still seeking to see again the vision granted him by the Ring. The second time Aragorn and Damrod pushed past him, and shortly they were at a place where the bank of the small river they followed rose abruptly and bushes grew thickly about the tumbled rocks--except some of the rocks weren’t as tumbled as others.
“Here,” Damrod said, then paused, thought, and whistled one of the bird calls Frodo and Sam remembered from the day they’d seen the ambush on the Southrons. He repeated it, then listened. There was a strange sound from behind the rocks. “Something’s in there,” he said.
He and Gimli went forward. Aragorn looked back at the Hobbits. “Merry,” he said, “would you go back to the camp and fetch my red healer’s bag? It’s in my pavilion, hanging on the armor stand.” Merry nodded, although he appeared a bit reluctant as he turned away. “And ask at least four more Men be sent with a couple of litters,” the Man added. Again a nod, and Merry sprinted off back toward the camp.
Damrod and Gimli between them were wrestling huge stones away from the bank, quickly revealing the cleft that Frodo had described. A small trickle of water flowed out from under the rocks down toward the small river.
Inside were two huddled shapes, one seated, leaning against the far wall, the other crouched protectively over him. Both held their hands over their eyes at the unaccustomed brightness. “Who are you?” demanded the crouched one in a hoarse whisper.
“Captain Damrod, and the Lord Aragorn Elessar and the Ringbearers--and a Dwarf,” Damrod replied. “We had thought all of you were lost!”
“Damrod?” repeated the crouched Man. “Captain Damrod? Is Captain Faramir’s troop here in Ithilien, then? We’ve been here--we’ve been here--it must be weeks! We have water, and I had waybread and even some jerked meats in my pockets, and we could reach greenstuffs up there,” he said, indicating where a number of plants grew on the bank on the upper margins of the cleft--sorrel and ferns, mostly. “But we couldn’t shift the stones, not after the orcs blocked up the opening. I think--I think they’d intended to come back and find us afterwards--use the cleft as a--as a larder for themselves, if you will.”
Damrod and Frodo were now entering the cleft. The seated Man murmured in a weak voice, “What are children doing here?”
“Not children,” Frodo assured him. “Periannath. We’re Hobbits of the Shire. Let’s get you out of here.”
“You’re certain--no orcs?” the seated one insisted.
“Not now, at least,” Damrod said soothingly. “Nor are we likely to see many, although our patrols have found a few hiding in the Ephel Dúath. But now that Sauron has been defeated we’re safe enough in our camps.”
“Sauron is defeated?” asked the crouched Man.
“Yes, several weeks back,” Damrod answered. “Barad-dur is cast down, and the Towers of the Teeth are no more. Sauron’s Ring was returned to the Fire, and Sauron is defeated at the last, and cannot rise again.” Between them he and Frodo put their arms about the seated Man and drew him out into the open, and Aragorn and Gimli between them took him up the bank to lie down on fresh grass. Sam and Pippin were now helping the other Man out.
Considering how long the two of them had remained captive in the cleft they were in surprisingly good shape, although one had a broken arm that had begun knitting crookedly, and the other could not stand as one leg had been hamstrung. Both had suffered blows to the head, but appeared to be much recovered from those.
Merry arrived soon after followed by six Men, Legolas, and Gandalf. Aragorn gave each a brief examination, then helped settle them to be carried back to the healers’ camp.
The news two lost Rangers had been found spread swiftly through the forces camped on the Fields of the Cormallen, and many were crowding into the healers’ tents to greet them and offer them their congratulations.
Late that evening Aragorn came into the enclosure where Frodo was already lying in his bed. As it appeared it might rain the roof had been suspended over the canvas walls, and a brazier had been lit at the foot of the two beds. Frodo searched the Man’s eyes as he drank down his evening draught. “They do well?” he asked after he’d drunk some water to wash away the taste of the draught.
Aragorn nodded. “Yes, they do very well, although it will take some weeks for them to recover and the fullness of the horror to dissipate,” he said. “We will rebreak the one’s arm once we have him back in the Houses of Healing, and there is a good chance he will be able to use it fully in time. But this long after the injury we can do nothing about the tendon at the back of the other’s ankle. He will need to use crutches or be seated perhaps in a chair. But they had enough in greens available to them that with what little food they had between them they did very well--far better than you and Sam did, I fear.”
Sam was just entering past the guard kept on the pavilion’s doorway carrying a small tray with cups of cider and squares of bread spread with butter. Seeing Aragorn he, too, searched the Man’s face, and then smiled his relief at the reassurance he saw reflected there. “They do well enough, then? Good!”
Aragorn nodded. “That they do. Now I need to look at your temple, Sam, and assure myself the bruise is indeed almost gone. Then you must have your draught....”
Weeks later, as Frodo was accompanying the King through the Houses of Healing, as they passed one doorway they were hailed from within. Frodo looked his question up at Aragorn’s eyes, and at Aragorn’s shrug they turned to enter in.
Neither of the two Men within the room appeared particularly familiar to Frodo, or at least not at first. Both were lean Men, their shoulders broad, their faces intelligent, both obviously nearly healed. “Lord Aragorn?” asked the one who leaned back against cushions with one leg outstretched, the other knee bent and raised. “Lord Frodo? We wished to thank both of you for finding and rescuing us, there in Ithilien.”
The other, his right arm in a sling tied close to his chest, smiled broadly. “My wife and his betrothed just left, or I’m certain they’d be embracing the both of you. Eldargil son of Rillion of Ringlo Vale, at the service of both of you ever, my lords.”
“You are Eldargil?” Frodo asked. “They found your wife’s picture, and assumed you were one--one of those....” He shook himself, unable to finish.
“They found that in my pack; but they’d not emptied my pockets, for which I’m grateful,” Eldargil assured him. “Garond and I were both senseless, or perhaps they’d have killed us first. Orcs prefer to shock their victims with descriptions of what they’re going to do before they kill them, you see. Raphion they’d killed as they ambushed us, and--and Laergil, I think. I could hear Belgariad and Gunthor screaming--screaming as they--as they did what they did to them. But as my eyes opened I felt as if there were two watching me, one glad at my plight, and the other horror-stricken. I could hear someone urging me to take Garond and escape while the--while the orcs were busy. The urging grew more intense, and finally I took my courage into both my hands, and I hooked my good arm about Garond’s chest and began dragging him back into the brush.
“They tracked us, but we made it to the cleft, and I had a long knife I’d managed to tuck into my belt as I slipped out of the orcs’ camp. I defended us from those who tried to enter the cleft, until they pulled off. Had they had any good spears with them perhaps they might have killed us, but these were archers and swordsmen, and bad ones at that. At last they blocked the entrance with the stones. I broke the blade of the knife trying to pry some of them apart, and at last even the hilt was of no use. I don’t know how much longer we might have remained alive if you hadn’t found us. How did you come to think where to look?”
Aragorn smiled, setting one hand on Frodo’s shoulder. “As you realized, there were two witnesses, one of them reluctant, to what was done to you and your fellows. The one had the memories awakened, and so we were able to find you out.”
And so it was, Iorhael, the voice commented in the back of Frodo’s mind, that the Enemy’s token, unwilling as It was, was forced to aid these two to escape.
But I have not that kind of strength! And I didn’t wear It!
No, but your will was sufficiently great It must allow your desire for their escape to strengthen the one of them to their joint need. And It could not cause the orcs to notice the escape until there was the chance for them to come to a safe haven. Yes, It worked against them as It could, and It put it into the heads of the Orcs to barricade them there. But It couldn’t fully hide the memory from you, not when It used that memory in your torment. You helped save two good Men, child. And that will for good helped you remain stronger against It that much longer. Rejoice, Iorhael.
Frodo sighed, then smiled tremulously at the two Men within the room, listening to the tale of their experiences here and their plans for the future with a feeling of fierce gladness.
And as he drew Frodo closer to him, that same gladness was shared by the King Elessar, the gladness that the will of the Ring had been so thwarted by this one he thought of as his small brother.