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20
Through Moor and Waste We Ride in Haste

"Need to look for somewhere to make camp, soon," Dirgon called to Rowanna as they trotted steadily over the short, dry grass which marked the northern reaches of the Eastemnet. "Light'll be going."

Rowanna nodded, grimacing as she surveyed the empty landscape before them. At this season the great sweep of land to the south of them should have been covered with horses recently brought out to spring pasture, the tents of the herders dotting the plains; yet ever since they left the Field of Celebrant behind them they had ridden through a land deserted, nothing moving but the grass, the only sound the whistling of the north wind at their backs. Rowanna shivered. What has happened in the Riddermark? Is it become a land of ghosts?

Tirnlaeg had proved a good guide; no word had come from Caras Galadhon to halt them, and as Haldir had promised, their second day's journey had brought them out of the Golden Wood by mid-afternoon, shortly after crossing the swift-flowing river that Tirnlaeg called Celebrant. "It is fast and cold, but it broadens and becomes shallower just before it flows into Anduin the Great," he told them. The horses waded it, while the Elves, to avoid burdening the beasts with extra riders, crossed easily on ropes thrown across from the far bank for them. A little upriver from the crossing Rowanna noticed a landing-stage with boats drawn up, the afternoon sunlight glinting on their gold and green paint.

"Go carefully," Tirnlaeg had warned them as they mounted up under Lórien's eaves. "The patrols of the southern borders have seen strange smoke and burning in the sky these last days, away towards Angrenost that you call Isengard; they fear something amiss in the land of the horse-lords..."

And so they had emerged from the trees; and then Lothlórien was gone, fading swiftly into a golden blur behind them as they waded the Limlight and crossed into the northern marches of Rohan. Rowanna had felt a quick surge of relief; but that reassurance slowly turned sour as they rode south for a day, then another. The Wold, to be sure, was a largely empty land at the best of times; but from its vantage they should have been able to see the distant movements of the great herds across the plains farther south, and yet the Eastemnet appeared silent and deserted. On that morning, the third day since they passed out of Lórien, had come the only sign of activity, and a sinister one; a great dark column of smoke away to the southwest, as Tirnlaeg had said, but which as far as they could tell had its source between them and Fangorn Forest, and which they had no intention of investigating more closely.

Dirgon reined in Edlyn and pointed. "Those rocks over there, see? Bit of shelter from the wind on the far side of them. Best we'll get tonight."

Rowanna nodded, and they trotted on towards the rocky outcrop lit up by the red rays of the setting sun. A few yards short of it, though, Edlyn stumbled and pulled up sharply. Dirgon clicked gently and tried to move the mare on, but she was clearly favouring her right foreleg. Dirgon muttered beneath his breath and dismounted, dropping his quiver from his shoulder as he did so.

"What is it?" called Rowanna, coming up alongside and leaning down from the saddle. "A stone?"

"Aye, I think so. Stand still, girl - " Dirgon was stooping over Edlyn's hoof, and the mare was huffing and shifting nervously, ears back. "I'm not going to hurt y-"

The last word was choked off in a gasp as, without warning, he keeled forward onto his face. Rowanna stared horrified at the wicked black knife-hilt protruding from his back.

Edlyn, after a moment of frantic dancing to avoid treading on the fallen Dirgon, whirled round and, stone-bruise or no bruise, took off back in the direction they had come. Rowanna, wrestling with the plunging Gelion, was on the point of launching herself from the saddle to get to Dirgon when she saw him struggle to push up on his forearms, raising a face horribly twisted in pain.

"No -" he gulped - "Too late. Go!" He choked, and a splatter of bright blood flew from his mouth; then he collapsed again and lay still.

Gelion snorted desperately and Rowanna, almost too late, caught a flurry of movement in the corner of her eye. The rocks! You fool - Then the pair of orcs, who had broken cover from the rocky outcrop just as the sun slid below the horizon, were on either side of them, slavering and hissing, trying to slash at Gelion's flanks. Gelion reared and struck out with his forefeet, driving them back for the seconds Rowanna needed to pull her knife from her belt; as the orcs closed again she lashed out blindly, heard a howl and felt something hot and stinking splash across her face.

"Iern, Gelion, iern!" The cry came out in Rohirric rather than Sindarin, but Gelion needed no command in any case; as Rowanna dug into his flanks and yelled, he took off like the wind. She had just enough presence of mind left to pull him around to the south before she let him have his head across the plain, away from the foul, shrieking terror behind them.

She had no idea, afterwards, how long she had galloped Gelion wildly southwards, and could only thank fortune that he had not caught a foot in a rabbit-hole or stumbled on a stone. It was the wheeling and diving of a bat in front of them that brought her back to herself and made her realise that the light was almost gone. I'll wind him - The ingrained training of a lifetime took over, and she let the horse come down to a canter and, eventually, to a trot. Turning in the saddle she saw no sign of life around them, orc or otherwise. I should have pulled up earlier and looked for Edlyn - but she always did run herself into the ground after a fright; she'll be halfway back to Lothlórien by now...

"Wh-what now, boy?" she asked, forcing the words out on a shaky breath. "Can we ride on in the dark? I do not much like the idea of stopping if there are more of those - things - out there!" Gelion whinnied at the diving bat, his nerves still on edge. Edoras, however, lay many leagues to the south; and in this emptied land she barely recognised, who knew how long they might ride before coming across a settlement or a herders' encampment? They trotted on for a while and she went on scanning the horizon, but could see no fire or light anywhere. "And it's no easy path as we go south, either, lad," she told Gelion, trying to calm herself with her habitual talking aloud to the horse. "For Edoras we need to follow the line of the Entwash until we turn westward where we strike the Snowbourn; but it's marshy going close to the river. I don't want to drown us both or lame you in the dark! I wish I knew just how far west we are..."

She was fighting down rising panic when, gazing south, something about the shape and nearness of the horizon tugged at her memory. "Hills... the Downs! Isn't there a line of downs somewhere towards the north marches of the Eastemnet? If we get up on the hills I might be able to make out a route - perhaps even spot a settlement... Come on, Gelion." She urged him back into a canter. "Let's get up there before it's too dark to see anything at all."

The humped darkness of the hills drew nearer, the only discernable shape in a world turned to empty grey. As they grew closer, Rowanna thought she saw movement against the sky. She frowned, shook her head, looked again. "There is something! Someone standing - oh, please, not more Orcs - " She was about to rein in and think of turning, fleeing again, when something stopped her; a shimmer, a faint radiance against the dark of the hill. Gelion's ears pricked and he nickered gently. She nudged him on; they drew nearer to the figure, there was something familiar about its stance - Then they were galloping again, her heart bursting with relief, as recognition broke in upon her: Not an Orc. Not a Man. An Elf.

***

Legolas stood motionless at the end of the line of downs, gazing north and west into the twilight. The wind was veering round eastwards, and the ragged clouds were clearing; the night would be cold. Feeling a strange stabbing in his hands, he looked down and realised he had been unwittingly clenching his fists till his nails bit his flesh. They are escaping us! Every hour we linger they draw further away, and Merry and Pippin... His usual ready stillness could not hold; he took a few paces, turned, returned, stared out across the darkening plain again. Be still, he tried to counsel himself. You have raced to rescue comrades from the darkness before now!

Yes, but...The thought which had lingered half-formed, unspoken, throughout their three days' chase forced itself to the forefront of his mind; If we lose our own folk, great though the grief is, we know we may meet again though it be many Ages away. I had never thought to know Mortals so dearly, and it is a different dread! They are in peril of torment and death, and we stand still...

He glanced back at the humped forms of Aragorn and Gimli, already deep in exhausted sleep where they had fallen. If we -

Do not reproach them with what they are, he reminded himself. Have they reproached you? That you looked on the... thing of terror and fire in Moria and could not get off one shot? That while you were knifing orcs below Amon Hen Boromir was slain and the little folk taken?

Something - movement, the shifting of a shadow in the corner of his eye - made him turn back to the north. Someone comes! A rider...

One galloping as if for his life, a league or so off, he saw. For a moment he considered waking Aragorn; but orcs did not ride horseback, so this could only be a Man, one of the Rohirrim. A lone rider - unlikely even to see them in the growing gloom - surely presented little threat.

The horseman slowed, but drew on closer to the Downs. Legolas frowned against the dying light. Are the Rohirrim not said to be as fair-headed as the Vanyar? This rider's hood had fallen back and the hair blowing around the face was -

Then in a moment he knew, and he was running, slithering wildly down the cropped grass of the hillside. As he reached the bottom of the hill, he heard a whinny, and saw the rider urge her mount to a gallop again across the last few score yards. She sees - yes - she knows!

Reaching the foot of the down, Rowanna reined in and made to dismount; but she was shaking violently, whether from cold or fear Legolas could not tell, and she half-collapsed out of the saddle so that he had to move swiftly to save her from falling. Clinging to his shoulders she gasped out raggedly:

"Legolas! Oh, Legolas, it is you - thank the heavens, I - "

"Steady, steady, I have you! What - "

"Orcs - orcs attacked us - oh Legolas, Dirgon, I think he's - he's - "

She burst into great, heaving sobs, and his arms tightened reflexively around her. He stroked her back and her hair, murmuring to her: "Hush, hush, all's well. Avo nallo, mellonen. Dortho dinen, dortho dinen..."

He went on crooning softly to her in his own tongue, rocking her, while automatically his eyes scanned the grey wastes behind her. Is she pursued?... But there was no sign of movement that he could make out. We have time to find out what in Elbereth's name she is doing here, at least!

Carefully, he put her away from him a little, practised eyes swiftly flickering up and down to examine her for injury. He wrinkled his nose at the stench rising from her garments, and even from her face, where black blood was spattered. "Is that all orc-blood, or is any of it yours?"

She shook her head, still shuddering as her sobs gradually died. "I'm - not - hurt..." He heaved a sigh of relief, and held her tighter.

"Then tell me - slowly! what happened?"

"Gelion - " Rowanna insisted unsteadily - "he's been galloped flat out , Legolas, he needs to cool down-"

"Then we'll walk him, and you can tell me all I need to know as we do it." He took the sweating horse's bridle in one hand, chirruping to him, and kept his other arm firmly around Rowanna's waist lest she collapse as he led the pair of them up the gradual slope. As they neared the crest of the down, Aragorn stirred and murmured something. "Sîdh, Aragorn," Legolas called softly, and the Ranger turned over without waking; he moved Rowanna and Gelion along the slope a little way, keeping below the crest. No need to disturb the exhausted sleepers, not yet; but Rowanna looked up and drew in a sharp breath.

"Aragorn? And - is that Gimli? But where are the others? The Hobbits? Boromir?"

"Later," he insisted; "we have the night before us. Have you a blanket for - Gelion, you said?" As she rummaged in one of the packs and handed the horse-blanket to him, he added smiling: "I promise to let you deal with the saddle!" and was rewarded with a shaky chuckle that told him both that she caught the jest and remembered, and that she truly had forgiven the past offence.

"For now," he went on once the saddle was off and piled with the packs, and they were walking the horse along the flank of the down, "what happened? And after that, what in the name of all the stars are you doing galloping across the plains of Rohan when I thought you safe in Imladris?" She told him in swift outline, seemingly calmer now with only the occasional sobbed breath: sighting the outcrop, the knife, the orcs erupting suddenly just as the sun set.

"They were downwind of us, of course, so the horses can't have smelt them until we stopped - and then Edlyn knew they were there, that's why she was so nervous, and-and then Dirgon..." She buried her face in Gelion's neck. Helpless, Legolas stroked her hair until the sobs subsided again. "I - I should not have left him! But - but he told me to go, and - I think it was too late..."

"I think, from what you say, he was dead before you left him," Legolas agreed gently, "and it was a swift death." So at least we must hope, he thought grimly. No need to point out that orcs would not scruple to eat man-flesh, dead or alive! Rowanna nodded, and made a short, bitter sound like a half-laugh, puzzling him. "What is it?"

"I just thought... do you remember, once in Rivendell, you told me in all seriousness that I should learn to use a bow, for the darkness might menace even my own land before all was done? Well, I did... all winter I practised with one of Elrond's armsmasters, and by the time we set off I thought I was a passable shot. But when the need was greatest I did not even have my bow strung! A fine warrior I would make!" She clicked to Gelion and they moved on a little further; then she turned to Legolas again as though struck by a new thought. "Will they follow?..."

"Orcs are not great trackers over open grassland, even at night," he reassured her as they walked the horse back around to their starting point, "and if you fled at the pace Gelion was making when I first spied you, they would probably have thought it not worth the pursuit. Only two - you are sure? And you had injured one?"

"I saw no more - and the rocks were not so large, there was little room for more to hide. I think I only caught one with the blade. But Legolas - what were they doing there?"

He ran his hands over the horse's hide, found it cool and dry enough, and gave him a comradely pat on the neck. "There, Gelion, go and take your fill of this good grass; your lady and I have much to speak of." Gelion snorted contentedly, wandered off a few paces and began to graze; Legolas shrugged off his cloak to spread on the dew-damp ground, and motioned to Rowanna to sit beside him, a little way from Aragorn's even breathing and Gimli's occasional snore.

"That," he said heavily as he turned back to her, "brings us to why Aragorn, and Gimli, and I are here. Merry and Pippin are captured by a great troop of orcs and Uruks of the White Hand, and we guess they are taking them to Isengard, to Saruman. Three days we have been in pursuit, since we were attacked at Parth Galen above the Falls of Rauros, and the Halflings taken. We think the orcs were quarrelling among themselves, for we found some of them slain on the first day of our chase; perhaps those you came across had fled - "

She interrupted in an urgent undertone: "Frodo and Samwise? And Boromir?"

"Frodo's journey has passed beyond our sight, but it goes on, as far as we can tell; Frodo and Sam escaped across Anduin into the Emyn Muil. Boromir..." He heard again Aragorn's voice lifted in mourning on the banks of Anduin, and felt the sorrow stab at him once more. "Boromir is dead. He fell below Amon Hen, defending Merry and Pippin."

"Dead..." She whispered it, and for a long moment she was silent. "I am sorry," he heard her murmur at last. "He must have fought bravely...."

"Nor do you yet know all. " For this too I must tell her, though it grieves me still almost beyond words! "Mithrandir - "

"Gandalf fell in Moria. I know."

For a moment he thought he had misheard her low tones. "You know? But how - "

"Dirgon and I - " He heard her gulp, but she gathered herself and went on, "we went through Lothlórien, just a few days ago. One of the border guards was appointed our guide along the eastern fences, and he told me that you too had passed through; that Gandalf was slain by - some 'great evil of the ancient world' -"

Shadow and flame rose up before his eyes; he tried to speak, felt his throat tighten, choked on the words. Unseeing, he heard Rowanna shift and turn, then felt the sudden warm pressure of her fingers on his wrists. "Legolas... Legolas? What was it?..."

"A Balrog of Morgoth." At last he got the words out, a hoarse whisper. "A fire-demon, ancient terror of my people. And terror it was, for my bow turned to lead in my hands; I could not shoot. Mithrandir went to the abyss, and we stood and watched, helpless as children!..." He could not go on; he looked away, biting furiously at his lip.

"This... demon," she said quietly, still holding his hands, "bested even Gandalf? Then why so angry at yourself for failing to conquer it?"

He looked back at her, surprised. She reads me like an open book! "How did -"

"I may never have learned in all my time in Rivendell to decipher Elven expressions," she retorted, and in the starlight he thought he saw a smile tug at the corners of her mouth, "but I am not deaf, Legolas, I can hear you reproaching yourself. What did you tell me once in the woods above the Last Homely House?... that you trusted the Powers knew how the song would end, even if you did not understand your part nor were certain that you were fitted to play it?..." She interlocked her fingers with his and held them tightly. "You are no coward."

Her murmured insistence comforted him; he felt her trust spreading like a warmth through his whole body, and smiled ruefully. "You are a better counsellor than I am to myself, mellonen; my thanks."

The light of the rising moon fell on her face as she sat back on her heels, and showed him the dark stains of the orc-blood dried across her cheeks. "We need to clean that foul stuff from you," he said softly. "The dew should be water enough..."

He dabbed a corner of his cloak in the wet grass until he had it damp, then lifted it to her face; she closed her eyes, heaved one deep contented breath and let him work. "Much better." He nodded, satisfied with his handiwork. "And I should have asked - are you hungry? We travel light, but I have lembas..."

"Do you need to ask? I am always hungry!"

As ever her throaty chuckle started laughter up within him; grinning, he reached for his pack and pulled out the leaf-wrapped waybread. "Have half a wafer of that - even you will need no more - and then, you need not think you can escape telling me; how on Middle-earth, when I thought you safe within Master Elrond's bounds, do you come to be risking your skin with Orcs two hundred leagues from Imladris?"

"I have to reach Edoras, and find my mother," she said hoarsely. "I fear she is in some great trouble or need, for I dreamed..." She told him all, and he listened in silence. "Do you think me foolish?" she concluded.

"No such thing," he shook his head. "How it is among most Men I know not, but Elladan told me that your race are foresighted; and my people do not lightly dismiss the visions that come in dreams."

Rowanna snorted. "True enough; like as not it will be my own folk who will think me mad, the more if I reach Edoras and find Mother safe and well!"

"If you find your mother hale," he challenged, "will you care what they say?"

"I cost a man his life today," she said sadly. "What if Dirgon died in vain on my account?"

A different dread, indeed... He had no answer for her, and could only reach to press her fingers in his turn. "Sleep now," he urged. "The night wears on, and whatever the morn brings, you will have many leagues ahead of you."

She nodded, drowsily, and moved to curl up on his cloak; fatigue must finally have caught up with her, for almost at once her breathing told him she had slipped into sleep. Looking up at the hard black sky a thought struck him, and he moved quietly up the hill to find Aragorn's pack and pull from it the Ranger's single light woollen blanket. He covered Rowanna carefully with it and sat back, gazing once more out over the plain. She would have me act as best I may and then go on, without regretting the choice...

Restless, he got up and paced a little way along the crest of the down. Aragorn has berated himself ever since Amon Hen for decisions gone amiss; but if I had not let the Gollum-creature escape in the first place, would anything have fallen out as it now has? Would Boromir yet live, and Merry and Pippin walk free?...

The Song holds more themes than you can know, he reminded himself. One thing is certain; without Gollum's loss you would not have come with the Company, would never even have gone to Imladris. You would not have walked among Mortals - do you regret that?...Turning, he looked around at the hunched forms of the Ranger and the Dwarf before at last his gaze rested on the sleeping Rowanna, her dark hair tumbling across her cheek, and he smiled. Never.

He turned his face to the sky again, and began to sing softly to the stars.

~~~

Author's Notes:

The uncharacteristic silence and emptiness of the Eastemnet at this point are noted by Aragorn as odd in TTT Book 3 Chapter 2, The Riders of Rohan.

Iern - run (Anglo-Saxon)

Avo nallo - "Do not cry"

Dortho dinen - lit. "Stay silent," (as far as I can find there's no attested way in Sindarin of saying "hush"!)

Sîdh - "Peace" (there doesn't appear to be an attested translation for "Sleep" either)


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