With a grunt of disgust, Uglúk shoved Lalaith hard to the ground. She fell, limp, like a doll, and hit the rough grassy earth, and there she lay, unfeeling, uncaring as the orc captain knelt at her feet and bound her ankles once again, to ensure that she did not escape. She was only glad to be granted this brief rest, however short it might be, and she lay still, and unmoving. The Hobbits, each in his turn, were flung to the ground beside her, landing with small thuds, and soft grunts as the air escaped their lungs. Merry fell nearest to her, and to her immense relief, was awake and alert, though his head was still caked with dried blood from days before.
All about them, the orcs were grumbling and gasping, clearly near the end of their strength. "We're not goin' no further, `til we've had a breather!" One of the nearest Uruks growled, gasping hard for breath.
"Get a fire going!" Uglúk ordered, and at his command, several orcs tromped into the dark shadows of the forest that ran alongside their camp.
Soon, the muted thump and crack of axes hacking at the limbs of the tall, gnarled trees that stood nearest her met her ears where she lay drinking in deep breaths.
The night was mercifully cool, and a thin, chilled mist crept from the darkness of the trees, cooling her dry, ragged lungs. Where was she? What forest was this? She was too weary to think. All she knew was that they had been running for far too long for her to know where she was anymore. She had not eaten in days, and her stomach was numb with hunger. Her side, where the cracked wooden shaft of the arrow still protruded, burned with a dull throbbing pain, and the back of her shoulder where she had been branded as an infant, ached as if it had been freshly seared with a heated iron.
"Lalaith." Merry muttered, almost too tired to move himself, "You alright?"
"Nion cuin." She gasped, not even bothering to lift her head from the ground. She got a mouthful of earth as she spoke, but she didn't care.
"Terribly sorry to hear it." Merry mumbled.
"Huh?" She groaned, lifting her head slightly, confused at Merry's reply, but then she managed a smile and let her head drop back heavily when she realized she had been speaking Elvish, and Merry had not understood.
"Merry!" Came Pippin's whispered voice nearby. "Lalaith!" Lalaith, listened, without bothering to lift her head, to the rustle and brush of the stiff dry grass as Pippin crawled near.
"I think," Merry said wearily, as the other Hobbit inched near, "we might have made a mistake leaving Rivendell, Pippin."
Lalaith could not help but laugh softly at this, though her body ached unmercifully, and the back of her shoulder throbbed and burned.
Beyond the harsh chopping and cracking of the orcish axes within the eaves of the forest, a low groan, deep and prolonged, followed by low resonant grumblings, began to roll eerily through the woods, as if something long unmoved for ages was at last creaking into motion. Lalaith lifted her head, her weariness all but forgotten, and saw that the Hobbits did the same. She shivered at the sound, for she had in all her years, never heard anything like it. The sound came rumbling from the deeper parts of the trees, farther back in the black shadows, beyond the edge of the forest where the orcs were hacking away at the trees' living branches. There were things alive in there, and moving. Though the orcs in their noise and business, had not noticed.
"What's making that noise?" Pippin asked softly, voicing Lalaith's yet unspoken question.
Raising himself up on his elbow as best he could with his bound hands, Merry gazed with wide eyes into the deep blackness of the forest, and murmured, "It's the trees."
"What?" Pippin whispered.
"Trees?" Lalaith added, and a shiver, though not unpleasant, trailed along her spine as a long forgotten memory skittered briefly through her mind, and vanished.
"Do you remember the Old Forest on the borders of Buckland?" Merry whispered, sudden intensity in his gaze. "Folk used to say there was something in the water that made the trees grow tall. And come alive."
"Alive?" Pippin and Lalaith whispered in unison.
"Trees that could whisper," Merry continued in a low awe filled voice, "talk to each other," he glanced at Lalaith and Pippin in turn, deep gravity in his eyes as he finished, "even move."
Lalaith drew a long breath into her lungs. There was something in what Merry was saying that sent another shiver along her skin. Though she'd lived for centuries longer than the Hobbits, she had never heard of such tales, and yet-,
"I'm starvin'." Grumbled one of the nearest uruks, interrupting her thoughts. "We ain't had nothin' but maggoty bread for three stinkin' days!"
"Yeah!" One of the smaller orcs agreed in a sneering, high pitched voice. It was a pale, skinny orc with huge pointed ears thrusting out of the sides of its head. "Why can't we have some meat?"
Its eyes came to rest on Lalaith and the Hobbits, and its mouth, set with sharp, wicked fangs pulled apart in a hideous grin
"What `bout them?" It sneered. "They're freshhh."
"They are not for eating." Uglúk growled threateningly, drawing near the pointed eared orc.
The little orc acted as if he had not even heard, and continued to stare hungrily at the small group of prisoners as it champed its teeth noisily together.
With an angry grunt, Uglúk reached down, and snatched a Hobbit in each hand, as well as the rope trailing away from Lalaith's bound hands, he dragged the Hobbits, each by an arm, away from the gathering crowd of hungry looking orcs, but Lalaith, who was granted no time to find her feet, found herself pulled roughly across the ground by her hands until Pippin snatched her by her elbow, and helped her scramble to her knees.
"What `bout the she-elf?" Another voice asked. The speaker was, Grishnákh and he eyed her with a look that made her stomach knot into a hard fist as he stepped forward from the crowd of scrawny, sniveling orcs. "You don't need her."
"'At'sss right." Lalaith recognized the voice of Gratbag wheezingly echoing Grishnákh. "Give usss jussst a little tassste of `er-,"
Without waiting for leave, Grishnákh added, "Oh, she looks tasty!" And started forward, the dark cave of his mouth smacking hungrily.
"Get back, scum!" Uglúk yelled, roughly shoving Grishnákh back into the line of small, hungry orcs as several of his larger uruks rushed with a growl to his side.
Fierce screeches and growls were exchanged between the two formed lines, and weapons were drawn.
"Carve `em all up!" Gratbag screeched.
"Just a mouthful!" Squealed the pointed eared orc, and drew its sword back, stepping forward, its sneering eyes fixed upon Lalaith.
Lalaith winced and ducked her head just as she heard Uglúk roar, "No!"
The air above her whistled sharply as a sword swung through, striking something suddenly, with a dull thunk. A moment later, something heavy and wet struck the elven cloak upon her back, and tumbled off onto the ground as nearby a hard thump, as of a body falling, rustled the grass.
Lalaith dared to look behind her at what had hit her, only to shudder and choke as her throat clenched tight at the sight of the severed head of the orc with the pointed ears stared unseeing, up at her, where it rested in the tall, dry grass.
"Looks like meat's back on the menu, boys." Uglúk crowed. The harsh rumble of orc voices answered him in a rough, deep throated cheer, and a crowd of orcs darted in, blocking her sight from the headless body of their comrade. Lalaith swallowed hard as the sound of tearing flesh and crunching bones assaulted her ears, and she realized they were eating their own dead.
A large uruk shoved passed her, harshly knocking her into the Hobbits as it rushed past them to get its share, leaving the small group of prisoners entirely forgotten in a tumbled heap upon the ground.
"Merry, Pippin!" She whispered excitedly, realizing there were no guards, and the attention of the orcs had turned suddenly away from them. "Let's go!"
The two Hobbits eagerly nodded their agreement, and the three of them started crawling slowly on their knees and elbows, through the tall yellow grass toward the shadowed eaves of the dark forest. Surely the orcs were too busy to notice them, Lalaith hoped within her mind. They would not realize they were gone until they were lost in the forest. Too busy they all were, eating their own-,
A foot slamming down onto Merry's back, crushing him to the ground, ended her hopeful thoughts of an easy escape.
She rolled to her back to look up into the faces of Grishnákh kneeling over them, still pinning Merry to the ground, and Gratbag who came behind him and stood over her, a long sword with a serrated edge coming to rest on her shoulder, its blade just touching the flesh of her throat. His eyes bore into hers, and she knew if she moved even slightly, Gratbag would not hesitate to slash her throat open.
"'Ello, ssshe-elfff." He hissed, the black cavity of his mouth peeling away to reveal his sharp, salivating fangs. Turning to Grishnákh who knelt over the two Hobbits, he squirted forth a high pitched, insane giggle and demanded, "Bite one o' `isss fingerss offf! Shhow `im how it feelsss!"
"I think I'll bite every one o' his fingers off." Grishnákh seethed, to which Gratbag released a hideous cackle.
"And what'll you do?" Grishnákh mocked, speaking now to Pippin. "Go on. Call for help. Squeal." He sneered and reached down, snatching Pippin's face, and lifting him partly up and off of the ground. "No one's gonna save you now."
No sooner had the words fallen from his mouth, but a fierce whistle came zooming out of the darkness, ending in a sudden thunk. Gratbag, to Lalaith's sudden surprise, dropped his sword with a wild high pitched squeal, and fell to the ground, grabbing furtively at his leg. Grishnákh barely had time to glance up and stare in dumb disbelief at the arrow protruding clear through Gratbag's thigh, when something heavy hit his back with a harsh thump, and Lalaith turned her surprise from Gratbag to Grishnákh, seeing the heavy bladed spearhead that had rammed itself through his chest.
Both orcs had fallen to the ground writhing, squealing in agony, no longer a danger to the three prisoners. But as the thundering approach of horse's hooves came rumbling in on the mass of orcs, Lalaith suddenly realized that a new danger was upon them. Men, mounted, and clad in armor Lalaith guessed to be that of the Rohirrim of whom she had heard tales, burst out of the darkness on two sides at once, their horses thundering into the midst of the orcs as spears and arrows flew thickly among the hoard. Swords and battle axes within the hands of the Men made quick work of those not struck down by the first volley, and suddenly the air about the three had become a melee of stamping horses' hooves, and screeching, panic stricken orcs, trying in vain to flee this way and that. In this darkness, the eyes of these Men would not be sharp enough pick out an Elf maiden and two Hobbits upon the ground, and the hooves of their trampling horses could cut their lives from them just as easily as the weapons of their enemies.
"Lalaith! Pippin!" Merry's voice cried from somewhere to her left, but the dancing, skittering feet of horses had separated her from her friends. Pippin had rolled some distance away, barely dodging the flailing hooves of a horse that had nearly come down upon his head, but she could see nothing else. Her eyes, darting about, looking for some sign of Merry, stopped upon seeing Gratbag's serrated knife lying upon the ground where he had dropped it. Somehow it had become wedged in a clump of grass, so that instead of laying flat as it should, the blade was facing upward.
Hopping to her knees, she knelt quickly over the blade, sawing at the thick rope that bound her hands. She allowed herself a quick smile as she felt the rope shredding and falling away. The cruel cutting teeth of the blade that she had feared moments before, proved usefully efficient, by making quick work of the tight, harsh rope, until at last, her hands, rough and raw though they were from being bound for so many days, were finally free, and she turned her attention quickly to her feet.
Uglúk had clearly not expected her to have her hands free, for the loop about her ankles was hastily done, and the knot loose. It was but a few seconds before her feet were free as well, and she scrambled quickly to her feet.
"Men of Rohan!" She cried, hoping to be heard above the din. But when an arrow plowed hard into the ground at her feet, sending up a spray of earth, she realized she could look for no help from these Men, allies though they were, for their mortal eyes could not distinguish her in this darkness from the orcs they had come to slay.
"Lalaith!" A cry, close at hand, came welcome to her ears, and she saw Merry with Pippin just behind, come scrambling together through the rush of screeching orcs, and the thump of horses' hooves toward her, their hands and feet free. Somehow they had gotten loose as well, she realized with a rush of joy and relief.
"Merry! Pippin! She cried breathlessly. Come, quickly! Into the trees!" She gestured wildly to them, and they darted gladly toward her. She hurried behind as they scampered toward the now welcome shadows of the forest.
But as the three dashed over the grass crushed by horses' hooves and splattered darkly with black orc bile, something from behind snatched her, pulling her to a sudden halt, and yanked her backward, almost off her feet. She turned in horror to see Gratbag, still alive, though he was stumbling heavily. His wounded leg was limp and dragging behind him, and it appeared that he had been struck a second time, for an arrow was pierced clear through his left shoulder, rendering his entire arm useless. It dangled limply at his side, but he had managed to hook his clawed right hand, short of one finger, into her empty quiver still upon her back. Grishnákh, too, though still pierced through with the hefty spear, was coming behind him in the darkness, creeping painfully along, like some horrific nightmare that refused to die.
"Your belt, belt!" Merry shrieked, as he and Pippin turned to see the terrifying reason for her delay.
Forcing her panic down, Lalaith grappled at the buckles that fastened the straps of her quiver across her chest. Slipping the belt straps loose, she flung them aside and stumbled out of his reach just as Grishnákh drew near and snatched the sharp, dirty nails of his hand at her, meaning to sink them into her leg. Gasping hard, she turned and dashed after the two Hobbits as behind her, Gratbag slammed the loose quiver to the ground and howled in rage.
The moans and shrieks of dying orcs and the pounding hooves of horses faded behind them, but still the three of them, gasping and breathless, sprinted on, ducking beneath overhanging branches, and scrambling over gnarled roots as the dark shadows of the forest closed in around them. And so rushed was their flight, that they did not notice two hunched figures, seething furiously, wounded and angry, limp heavily along the ground, unnoticed, away from the battle, and the dying remnants of their comrades as they melted after them into the shadows of the trees.
Thick clouds billowed low along the horizon, and a high white mist swept loftily across the sky. As the cool shroud of night began to draw back, allowing for the first slivers of sunlight to tinge the far edge of the world with color, a pink glow began to glimmer upon the clouds' drooping bellies. The light grew fierce and crimson as the coming sun began to blossom upward, swelling brighter, and illuminate the contours of the rock crusted plain across which the three Hunters ran with a harsh splash of blood colored light. And at last the sun itself lifted above the eastern rim of the world, a hard, red sphere, glowering through the thick misty haze.
"A red sun rises." Legolas murmured, pausing to turn and glance eastward as the others continued on. He studied the face of the angry, glaring sun as it climbed slowly into the blood red sky, and a sense of somber foreboding settled upon him as he quietly finished, "Blood has been spilled this night."
The red hue of the morning faded to gold and blue as the sun rose higher, burning away the distant mist, but his sense of apprehension did not fade. They were drawing closer to the orcs by the hour. The prints left by the passing hoard were fresher. Only hours lay between them now. But he could no longer see Lalaith's stumbling weary footprints among those left by the orcs. Had the feet of the horde simply crushed the signs of her passing, or had they at last decided she had grown too weary for them to drag along behind them any more? Such a question seared his heart. He would not allow himself to abandon the belief that she yet lived, though it seemed little more than a sliver of hope.
Ahead, now little more than a dark line of shadowy green in the distance, the forest of Fangorn stalked northwestward; still ten leagues away. Its further slopes faded into the distant blue and beyond there glimmering far away, flanked thickly by grey somber clouds, almost as if it floated upon them, sat tall Methedras, the last peak of the Misty Mountains. From out of the distant forest the Entwash flowed toward them, its stream deep and narrow, with deep cloven banks, and the orc trail turned towards it. Far and away at the edge of the thick dark green that was Fanghorn, rose a dark smoke as of a huge, smoldering fire, though Legolas could see no spark of flame, thin curling threads trailing upward into the sky.
As Aragorn, a step ahead of him, bent low to the ground studying the marks of the orcs' passing, a new noise interrupted Legolas' troubled thoughts. The vibrating drum as of many horses galloping nearer, came beating at them, shaking the very ground beneath their feet, from just over the next rise. It surprised him momentarily, for he had been so focused on the trail left by the orcs, that he had not seen them or felt the drum of their horses' hooves before now.
Aragorn too felt their approach and rose, casting a glance of concern at Legolas and Gimli. The riders who were swiftly drawing near, were most surely of Rohan, those whose lands they were now crossing. But whether they were indeed Rohirrim, the three Hunters did not yet know. And at Aragorn's beckoning, Legolas nodded, and the three dashed for the cover of a high rock to wait the coming of the riders and discover whether or not they were indeed friends.
The thundering beat of horses' hooves drew nigh to the rock beside which the three waited, and suddenly they swept up with a noise like thunder. The foremost galloped past, leading the great host behind him, a long line of mail-clad men upon swift horses, shining beneath the late morning sun.
Their horses were strong, proud looking creatures with straight, clean limbs. Their coats glistened, and their long manes and tails flowed in the wind. And their riders matched them well. Proud looking men they were, with pale flaxen hair that flowed from under their light helmets. Painted shields were slung across their cloaked backs and long swords were at their belts. In their hands were tall spears of ash, and among them, flowing outward in the air and catching the light of the sun, were banners marked with the colors of Rohan.
The host had all past, when Aragorn stood, and cried in a loud voice, "Riders of Rohan, what news from the Mark?"
With astonishing speed and skill, they checked their steeds, wheeled, and came charging round as Legolas stepped out to join Aragorn, Gimli coming behind him. Soon the three companions found themselves at the center of a tight ring of horsemen moving in a running circle, up the slope of the hill behind them and down, round and round them, with another circle beyond, both drawing ever inwards. Aragorn stood silent, and Legolas remained unmoving beside him with Gimli at his shoulder, wondering which way things would turn.
Without a word of command, the Riders halted, and a thicket of spears came to point at the companions. Then one rode forward, a tall man, taller than the rest, a spear within his hand, though as yet, he had not lowered it to bear on the three. From his helmet as a crest, a white horsetail flowed.
"What business," he demanded in a fierce and commanding tone, "does an Elf, a Man and a Dwarf have in the Riddermark?"
Silence passed. Legolas stared hard at this Man, the leader of these Riders. Beyond this ring that hemmed him in, somewhere on the vastness of the land between himself and Fangorn, Lalaith was waiting to be found. He had no time to banter words with this arrogant child.
"Speak quickly!" The Man demanded.
"Give me your name horse-master, and I shall give you mine." Spoke Gimli, his words casual, though they carried within them, a hint of a challenge.
The Man's proud eyes flashed with sudden anger as, without blinking or glancing away, he clapped his spear into the waiting fist of the rider beside him and dismounted, drawing, with challenging step, toward Gimli.
"I would cut off your head, Dwarf," he seethed through clenched teeth, "if it stood but a little higher from the ground."
Legolas had heard enough haughty threats from this whelp. Whipping an arrow from his quiver, he drew his string to his cheek. "You would be dead before your stroke fell." He seethed, heedless of the spear tips that thrust forward, and were now but scant inches from his head.
Immediately, he felt Aragorn's hand upon his bow firmly lowering his aim from the Man's unflinching face as Aragorn's disapproving eyes met his own. His fingers, with slow reluctance, eased off the string at Aragorn's glance, though his hard gaze did not cease to shoot darts at the Man.
"I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn." Aragorn said, stepping between Legolas and the Rider. "This is Gimli, son of Glóin, and Legolas, son of Thranduil of the Woodland Realm."
The Man's hard countenance did not bear any sign of acceptance with these words, at least not for Legolas, and neither did the anger in his own glare ease.
"We are friends of Rohan and of Théoden, your king." Aragorn continued, quietly yet insistently.
At these words, the first sign of softening came upon the Man's face. "Théoden no longer recognizes friend from foe." He said, the anger seeping from his voice. "Not even his own kin." He eased his helmet off his head, and the other riders took this as a sign to lift the points of their spears away from the three companions. "I am Éomer son of Éomund, and am called the Third Marshal of the Riddermark. Théoden King son of Thengel is my uncle."
These last words were spoken almost softly, and Legolas' angry gaze wavered.
"But Saruman has poisoned the mind of the king and claimed lordship over these lands." Glancing about himself and indicating to the other riders, Éomer continued, "My company are those loyal to Rohan. And for that, we are banished."
Drawing close to Aragorn, Éomer hissed, "The White Wizard is cunning. He walks here and there, they say," he continued, turning on Gimli, "as an old man hooded and cloaked." Éomer's gaze turned again upon Legolas, and his eyes, once again became edged with distrust which Legolas matched. "And everywhere, his spies slip past our nets."
"We are no spies." Aragorn insisted quietly. "We track a party of Uruk-hai westward across the plain. They have taken three of our friends captive."
For the first time, Éomer's proud sure gaze wavered. "The Uruks are destroyed. We slaughtered them during the night."
"But there were two Hobbits and an Elf-maid!" Gimli burst in anxiously. "Did you see an Elf and two Hobbits with them?"
"The Hobbits would be small. Only children to your eyes. And the maid was slender and golden haired, clad in men's garb." Aragorn said.
Éomer shifted his stance, his pensive expression sending an icy shard of fear into Legolas' heart. With a somber shake of his head, Éomer said, "We left none alive." Pointing to the tendrils of smoke Legolas had noted earlier, he said quietly, "We piled the carcasses and burned them."
These words fell as a crushing blow upon Legolas and he laid a hand heavily upon Gimli's shoulder as he felt his knees weaken under him.
"Dead?" Gimli muttered with a choke.
"No." Legolas seethed, anger suddenly overriding his grief. "You cannot say it." His eyes blazed as he surged forward, snatched Éomer by the scruff of his tunic and shook him. "You cannot say that your eyes are so dim that they cannot distinguish between the fairest of Elf-maidens and a vile orc! If she is dead, you have slain that which is fair beyond the reach of your thought, and only little wit could ever hope to excuse you!"
Aragorn once again stepped between the two, prying Legolas' hands away from Éomer, and forcefully shoving him backward. For a moment, Éomer's eyes blazed, and the spears of several of his companions were lowering to bear upon the Elf. But then the flame receded from Éomer's eyes and at a gesture, the spears were once again lifted away.
"She is-, your sister?" He asked, his brooding eyes bore now a reflective look.
"My betrothed." Legolas choked. He was barely aware of Gimli coming to stand near as the Dwarf clapped his arm in a consoling gesture.
"Though she is as a sister to me." Aragorn added, his eyes upon the ground.
"I am sorry." Éomer said in a voice which scarcely bore the proud, demanding tone it had before.
Glancing away, Éomer released a shrill whistle, and called, "Hasufel! Arod!" And lifted a beckoning hand to two riderless horses, still saddled and bridled, who approached at his command. The first of the horses, Hasufel, was a strong chested horse with a shining coat of dark copper. And the second, though smaller and lighter, was restive and quick footed with a coat of shimmering cream.
"May these horses bear you to better fortune than their former masters." Éomer murmured with a voice that lay heavy with regret as Arod drew near and nudged Legolas gently in the shoulder with his white, equine nose. Éomer nodded in parting. "Farewell."
Drawing his helmet once again upon his head, Éomer turned away, and with a swift motion, mounted his horse. "Look for your friends." He said, glancing down at the three companions. "But do not trust to hope." A bitter tone darkly tinged his words as he finished, "It has forsaken these lands."
Turning to his men he cried out, "We ride north!" And at that command, the mounted host moved away in a great flurry of dust and pounding hooves until they curved around a great hill of earth and rock, and were gone.
Nion cuin - I am alive.