"Plegh." Gimli hacked, spitting out the taste of the clotted oily orc blood that he touched to his tongue with his gloved finger. "Orc blood."
"So it is dead, as that other one we found." Aragorn murmured, his roving eyes casting away, and finding at last the rest of the second dead orc, not far from the blood splashed leaf. Its flattened remains were pressed messily into a great dent in the moist ground almost as if some massive being had crushed its full weight upon the orc.
"This is a good sign." Legolas breathed softly, the relief evident in his voice. "They are dead, and there are no signs that Lalaith or the Hobbits were injured."
"There are no signs of them at all." Gimli huffed nervously behind him as the three Hunters scrambled over a rough trail, and hoped over a narrow, trickling brook, Aragorn's eyes bent always toward the ground. "Lalaith's tracks clearly led away from that other dead orc, but then suddenly, poof!" Gimli's free hand flew upward to illustrate the unexplained disappearance of the Elf-maiden's footprints, before he continued with his overly loud chatter, "And the Hobbits' tracks disappeared right at that deep crater where it looked as if some tree had ripped its own roots out of the ground! Which of course would be complete nonsense."
"Be silent, Gimli." Legolas murmured gently, though he allowing an indulgent smile to touch his lips. The Dwarf was clearly out of place here in these trees, not at all in his environment, as Legolas was.
"Euh?" Gimli asked, his brows raising at Legolas' words. But he conceded without argument, and ceased his nervous rambling.
Legolas could feel the life in these trees, their age, and the anger that festered within their deep, wooden hearts. But now, with the demise of the orcs, he could not but feel hopeful that Lalaith was beyond danger, though, he admitted to himself, he was as baffled as Gimli was.
"These are strange tracks." Aragorn muttered, kneeling over a deep indentation upon the mossy ground. Another, similar print dented the moist earth several paces ahead. What sort of creature made such prints upon the ground? Legolas wondered to himself. And was it friend or foe?
"The air is so close in here." Gimli grunted from behind.
"This forest is old." Legolas said, lifting his head, and gazing up into the gnarled tree branches. "Very old. Full of memory." His brow knotted as he felt the twinge upon his heart as he had before, at the hurt and anger that existed within these trees as well. "And anger." He finished quietly.
A distant moan, slow and deep, rolled boomingly through the air about them, echoed on all sides by wooden groans, soft and low, and higher, resonant creaks. Gimli huffed at the deep echoing, and snatched up his ax as if expecting a sudden attack.
"The trees are speaking to each other." Legolas exclaimed as realization dawned, and spun to look back at the Dwarf who stood, bouncing nervously upon his heels, and glancing this way and that, his ax raised.
"Gimli!" Aragorn spoke before Legolas did, gesturing at the Dwarf to lower his weapon. "Lower your ax!"
With wide eyes, Gimli carefully obeyed, and slowly, the creaking, rumbling speech of the trees faded to silence.
The close, warm air cooled somewhat as the Hunters moved on along the trail, alone, but for the trees, until something touched Legolas' mind, a premonition of a new presence, and he paused, turning toward Aragorn, several paces head.
"Aragorn, something's out there." He hissed softly in Elvish, breaking into a swift jog, and darting a short distance beyond the ranger.
"What do you see?" Aragorn whispered, also in the soft tones of Elvish, as he came quietly behind him.
"The White Wizard approaches." Legolas murmured, speaking again the common tongue, and silently nodded to the side, letting his companions understand that their foe was drawing ever closer.
As a heat at his back, he could sense the wizard's presence now. It was just as Éomer had warned them. Saruman had come.
"Do not let him speak." Aragorn muttered softly. "He will put a spell on us."
Aragorn's sword whispered with a soft metallic rasp as he drew it partly from its sheath, and the soft leather of Gimli's gloves tightened about the haft of his ax. An arrow already nocked, Legolas silently ran his fingers along the fletchings until they rested against his bowstring of Lalaith's elven hair.
"We must be quick." Aragon warned, and Legolas, in silence waited for the command to strike down the traitorous wizard, putting an end to his treachery.
When Aragorn spun, his sword at the ready, Legolas followed, his shaft flying at the heart of the blindingly white figure behind them who stood above them upon a boulder, his straight white staff planted beside him. Gimli's throwing ax was already spinning through the air, but at a gesture from the figure's staff, the ax was sent plummeting away, as was Legolas' arrow. Aragorn's sword glowed red, and he dropped it, staggering back in surprise, shielding his eyes from the bright light emitting from the personage.
"You are tracking the footsteps of an Elf-maiden, and two young Hobbits." The Wizard spoke, his voice strangely difficult to distinguish, for it sounded familiar, though Legolas was uncertain how.
"Where are they?" Aragorn asked, his hand still shielding his eyes from the shining light. Even Legolas' elven eyes could not distinguish the figure's countenance in the blinding brilliance the Wizard cast off.
"They passed this way. Not long ago, in fact." The brilliant figure nodded. "They met someone they did not expect. Does that comfort you?"
"Who are you?" Aragorn demanded of the figure, and lifting his voice further, he cried, "Show yourself!"
Slowly, the wizard stepped forward. The light slowly receded from around him, though his robes and his hair remained light-washed. Legolas tightened his jaw as his countenance at last became clear.
Gandalf! But it could not be! They had all seen him fall into the abyss.
Casting a glance at Gimli, Legolas could see that the Dwarf's face was aghast, his bearded jaw slack.
"It cannot be." Murmured Aragorn, giving voice to their astonishment.
Yet it was.
Legolas remembered that day, the wound in Lalaith's shoulder still seeping blood as he dragged her away, weeping and struggling, as the orcs dashed from the shadows beyond the shattered bridge where they had all seen Gandalf fall.
And now, here he was, alive, before them, only Ilúvatar and the Valar knew how, for it could only have been by their grace that such a thing could be. Bowing his head in reverence at this humbling knowledge, Legolas lowered himself to one knee, and beside him, Gimli bowed low, his beard nearly sweeping the earth at his feet.
"You fell-," Aragorn hissed, the emotion thick within his voice, edging a step nearer to Gandalf.
"Through fire." Gandalf gently added. "And water." His voice grew deep as if at a memory he did not wish to recall. "From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak, I fought with the Balrog of Morgoth. Until at last I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountainside." Legolas lifted his head as Gandalf's voice grew softer. "Darkness took me," the Wizard continued, "and I strayed out of thought and time. Stars wheeled overhead, and every day was as long as a life age in the Earth. But it was not the end. I felt life in me again. I've been sent back. Until my task is done."
"Gandalf-," Aragorn murmured almost as if with the pleading of a child, and stepped to the wizard who had alighted down from the rock, and stood near to them now.
"Gandalf?" He queried, studying Aragorn's face with a questioning look for a moment, before he thoughtfully murmured, "Yes. That was what they used to call me." And to this, Aragorn slowly nodded. "Gandalf the Grey." Legolas slowly rose to his feet, tentatively stepping forward now, as a look of recognition came into the aged Wizard's eyes and Gandalf smiled with the old familiarity he had always possessed. "That was my name."
"Gandalf." Gimli beamed, his thick voice breaking as he spoke.
"I am Gandalf the White." He said, lifting his brows and glancing past Aragorn's shoulder, now straight into Legolas' eyes. "And I come back to you now at the turn of the tide."
Gesturing with his staff, he started in a brisk walk through the trees. "Come." He called back to the others behind him. "We shall speak as we go. Time is short."
With quick glances at each other, Legolas and the others complied, hurrying to match his swift pace.
"But come now!" Gandalf cried merrily over his shoulder. "Tell me of yourselves as we go. We are not moving so swiftly that you have no breath to tell me the tale of your journey."
At this, Aragorn took up the tale, and for a long while Gandalf said nothing and he asked no questions as the three followed him on a course leading toward the forest eaves. At last when Aragorn spoke of the death of Boromir and of his last journey upon the Great River, the old man sighed.
"You have not said all that you know or guess, Aragorn, my friend," he said quietly. "Poor Boromir! It was a sore trial for such a man: a warrior, and a lord of men. Galadriel told me that he was in peril. But he escaped in the end. I am glad. He died to save Lalaith, but in the end, she helped save him."
Gandalf paused and gave Legolas a searching glance as he said this.
"Is she well?" Legolas asked, taking Gandalf's pause as leave to speak. "Boromir said she was wounded."
"Indeed she was." Gandalf murmured. "But she is stronger than she seems. She is beyond the danger now, in the safekeeping of a very old friend of hers. One who knew her, even before you met her, Legolas Greenleaf." Gandalf placed a gentle hand on the Elf's shoulder as they walked. "It was not in vain that Boromir gave himself to save her and the Hobbits." At the furrowed brow of the Elf, Gandalf sighed, and his hand squeezed the Elf's shoulder gently. "Yes, I know. I suspected it from Elrond's Council. He loved her, too. In his way. From the time he met her, I would guess." Gandalf shrugged, "For myself, I am glad that she and the young Hobbits came with us, if only for Boromir's sake." Gandalf's hand fell lightly away, and he turned to face forward. The trees were not so thick here, and glad beams of sunlight speared here and there through the branches above them, lighting upon the ground. The edge of the forest was nearing. "But that is not the only part they have to play." He said softly as if to himself. "They were brought to Fangorn, and their coming was like the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche in the mountains. Even as we talk, I hear the first rumblings. Saruman had best not be caught away from home when the dam bursts!"
"In one thing you have not changed, dear friend," said Aragorn. "You still speak in riddles!"
"What? In riddles?" Gandalf huffed in mock offense. "No! For I was talking aloud to myself. A habit of the old. The long explanations needed by the young are wearying." He laughed, and the sound now seemed warm and kindly as the gleaming sunshine that grew ever brighter about them.
"I am no longer young even in the reckoning of Men in the Ancient Houses," said Aragorn. "Will you not open your mind more clearly to me?"
"What then should I say?" Asked Gandalf with a thoughtful look. "This in brief is how I see things at the moment, if you wish to have a piece of my mind as plain as possible. The Enemy, of course, has long known that the Ring is abroad, and that it is borne by a Hobbit. He knows now the number of our Company that set out from Rivendell, and he believes he knows the kind of each of us. But he does not yet perceive our purpose clearly. He does not know that Lalaith is the Vala child he tried to kill those many centuries ago, and that, for the moment, is good, for had he known, he would not have allowed his servants to let her live. He also supposes that we were all going to Minas Tirith, for that is what he would himself have done in our place. And according to his wisdom it would have been a heavy stroke against his power. Indeed he is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place. That we should wish to cast him down and have no one take his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. That we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not entered his darkest dream. In which no doubt you will see our good fortune and our hope. For imagining war, he has loosed war. If he had used all his power to guard Mordor, so that none could enter, and bent all his guile to the hunting of the Ring, then hope would have faded: Neither Ring nor bearer could have long eluded him. But now his eye gazes abroad rather than near at home; and mostly he looks to Gondor, toward Minas Tirith. Very soon his strength will fall upon it like a storm.
"He knows the messengers he sent to waylay the Company have failed again. They found not the Ring, nor have they captured any Hobbits. The Enemy has failed, so far. Thanks to Saruman, and his greed and haste. The Dark Lord in Mordor knows that two Hobbits were borne away toward Isengard against the will of his own servants, and now he fears and hates Isengard as well. Saruman does not yet know his own peril. There is much he does not know. He was so eager to lay his hands upon his prey, that he could not wait in Orthanc, and came forth to meet them. But he arrived too late. After his hoard had been slain by the Men of Rohan. He believed that all his orcs were slain on the field of battle; but he does not know whether they were bringing any prisoners or not. And he does not know of the Winged Messenger."
"Winged Messenger?" Legolas murmured, his mind darting back in time to the night on the Great River when they had battled the rapids of Sarn Gebir, when the night sky had been blotted by the evil shadow of some fearsome flying beast. "I shot at some foul beast of the air above Sarn Gebir with the bow of Lothlórien, and I felled him from the sky. What new terror is this?"
"One that you cannot slay with arrows," said Gandalf. "You only slew his steed, for the Rider was a Nazgûl, one of the nine who ride now upon winged steeds. Saruman does not know of this. Nor does he know of the Ring. He fears it may have been in the battle, and taken by the Rohirrim. What if Théoden, Lord of the Mark should come by it? That is the danger that he sees, and he has fled back to Isengard to send an assault on Rohan. And yet, there is another danger to Isengard which he does not see, close at hand. For he has forgotten Treebeard."
"Treebeard?" Legolas asked.
"A dweller of these forests." Gandalf returned with a sliver of a smile. "Slow to act in anger or calm, yet faithful of heart."
The Wizard chuckled aloud at a thought, and added, "Certainly not one to fling weapons at an old friend."
"We thought you were Saruman." Gimli muttered, and cleared his throat awkwardly.
"Indeed." Gandalf said cheerily, with a glance over his shoulder at the Dwarf. His eyes twinkled merrily. "I thought perhaps you had. You would not have been flinging axes and arrows at me, had you thought I was Lalaith." He sighed, and the sprightly tone of his voice faded. "Indeed I am Saruman, one might almost say. As he should have been. But of course, I cannot blame you for your welcome of me. How could I, when I have so often counseled my friends to suspect their own hands when dealing with the enemy? Bless you, Gimli, son of Glóin!"
"But Lalaith and the Hobbits!" Legolas broke in, impatiently. "We have come far seeking them, and you seem to know where they are. Where are they now?"
"Why, with Treebeard and the Ents," said Gandalf. "Have I not said so?"
"Ents?" Queried Aragorn.
"Ents," murmured Legolas thoughtfully. "I remember hearing a legend, long ago of the ancient Onodrim and their long sorrow. I was but a child then, and the legend already old. Even among the Elves they are naught but a memory. A young Elf, as Lalaith, may never have heard of them. I did not know that they walked yet in this world. But who is this Treebeard? The name is only a rendering of Fangorn in the Common Speech, yet you speak of him as if he were a person."
"And he is a friend?" piped in Gimli in a worried tone. "I thought Fangorn was dangerous."
"Ah, yes. Very dangerous!" Cried Gandalf. "And I am dangerous, as is Aragorn. And Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli. For you are dangerous yourself. Certainly the forest of Fangorn is perilous. But only to those who are too ready with fire and axes, who come, like the orcs, gnawing biting, hacking, burning! Yet Treebeard is wise and kindly nonetheless to those who merit his good will. And he will be kindly to the Hobbits, and to Lalaith. Especially Lalaith. For he made a promise to his mistress Yavanna centuries ago, concerning her." Gandalf smiled at the flicker of memory in Legolas' eyes. "Lalaith is safe with him. You know what I speak of, Prince of Mirkwood. For you looked with her into Galadriel's mirror, did you not?"
"I did." Legolas answered. "And my heart rests, knowing she is safe with him. But I still wish to hear how you were delivered from the mountaintop."
"Ah, yes." Gandalf nodded slowly. "Naked I was sent back, and I lay upon the mountaintop. The tower behind me was crumbled into dust, the ruined stair choked with burned and broken stone. I was alone, forgotten, without escape on the hard horn of the world. Faint to my ears came the gathered rumor of all lands: the springing and the dying, the song and the weeping, and the slow everlasting groan of burdened stone. And so at the last, Gwaihir the Windlord, my friend at need, who rescued me from the tower of Orthanc, found me again, and he took me up and bore me away to Lothlórien. For it was by the command of the Lady Galadriel that he come looking for me.
"Thus it was that I came to
Caras Galadhon and found you gone. I tarried there in the ageless time of that
land where days bring healing. Healing I found, and I was clothed in white.
Counsel I gave, and counsel took. And by and by I set out by strange roads to
find you, and messages I bring to some of you. To Aragorn I was bidden to say
`Where now are the Dúnedain, Elessar, Elessar?
Why do thy kinsfolk wander afar?
Near is the hour when the Lost should come forth,
And the Grey Company ride from the North.
But dark is the path appointed for thee:
The Dead watch the road that leads to the Sea.'
To Legolas she sent this word:
`Legolas Greenleaf long under
In joy thou hast lived. Beware of the Sea!
If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore,
Thy heart shall then rest in the forest no more.'"
Gandalf fell silent and sighed.
"Then she sent me no message?" Pleaded Gimli. His usually sonorous voice seemed sad.
"What was that?" Asked Gandalf glancing back. "Your pardon, Gimli! I was pondering the meaning of the messages. But indeed she sent word to you.
"'To Gimli son of Glóin,' she said, `give his Lady's greeting. Lockbearer, wherever thou goest my thought goes with thee. But have a care to lay thine axe to the right tree!'"
"Ah!" Crowed the Dwarf, and a bright sun seemed to suddenly rise in his dampened soul. "In happy hour you have returned to us, Gandalf!" He cried, springing along like a young calf. "Since Gandalf is not Saruman, let us find a head that is right to cleave!"
"That will not be far to seek, for Saruman, in his seeking for the Ring, means to march upon Rohan," said Gandalf. "One stage of your journey is over. Another begins. War has come to Rohan. We must ride to Edoras with all speed."
As he spoke, light appeared ahead, not the soft filtered light of the trees, but bolder, and soon the trees parted and gave way, and they stood again, upon the eaves of Fangorn, blinking in the warm, unfettered light of the plain.
Hasufel and Arod waited faithfully nearby, grazing. They lifted their heads, nickered in greeting, and came cantering to greet their new masters as they appeared from the trees. Arod trotted near, and nudged Legolas gently in the shoulder. The Elf smiled. He turned to the horse, and smoothed his hand against the white neck, returning the greeting before he turned toward Gandalf, who had stepped forward away from his companions as if he were seeking something.
Gandalf's aged eyes gazed distantly out over the rolling hills, as he sent forth a high, trilling whistle that vibrated long and shill over the waves of grass.
A moment passed as wind washed silently over the plain, and then across the grasses a glad equine laugh came echoing in return to Gandalf's call. And over a far knoll came galloping a horse, a great, silver stallion, running as smoothly as a swift stream. Kingly in its bearing, its neck lifted as its mane and tail flowed about it like proud banners.
"That is one of the Mearas," said Legolas, stepping forward to watch the horse's approach, his voice softened with awe, "unless my eyes are cheated by some spell."
Even as he spoke, the great horse came striding up the slope towards them; as he drew near, he checked his pace then trotting gently, he came toward Gandalf, with a soft whinny.
"Shadowfax." Gandalf said with a warm smile, to which the horse nodded its proud head, cantering near, and stopped before him.
"He is the lord of all horses," Gandalf nodded his head as at a dear friend, and stepped forward to stroke the horse's neck, "and has been my friend through many dangers."
With a smile, though with gravity in his eyes, Gandalf turned, and as if addressing Shadowfax and the other horses, he said, "We go at once to Meduseld, the hall of your master, Théoden."
The horses, in understanding, bobbed their heads. "Time presses, so with your leave, my friends, we will ride. We beg you to use all the speed that you can." And with these words, Gandalf gently grasped the horse's mane, and gracefully swung himself, unaided, to Shadowfax's back.
At this, Aragorn mounted Hasufel, and Legolas swung easily upon Arod's back, then leaning down, offered Gimli an arm as the Dwarf, hesitant again to mount the horse, nevertheless clasped the Elf's forearm. He hoisted himself heavily upon the horse's rump, swayed unsteadily, and quickly clamped his arms in a fierce grip around Legolas' midsection, clenching his friend's ribs in a tight vice.
Legolas rolled his eyes, but managed a tolerant smile before he turned and glanced once again into the shadows of Fangorn, and over the green tops of the trees toward the distant peak of Methedras. A shard of worry touched his heart, but then faded. As long as she was safe, that was what mattered.
"Im melin le, Lalaith nin." He murmured to the soft wind that danced about them, praying to the Valar that the thought of his heart would carry to hers. "No tirnen. A nautho o nin."
"To Edoras!" Gandalf cried, bringing Legolas mind back to his companions.
Leaning down, Legolas patted a hand against Arod's neck. "Noro, melon nin." He murmured gently. And at his soft command, Arod sprang forward. Shadowfax lept forward at a word from Gandalf, and with a gentle nudge into Hasufel's side, Aragorn urged his own mount into a run.
Amin melin le. - I love you.
No tirnen. - Be careful.
A nautho o nin. - And think of me.
Noro, melon nin. - Ride, my friend.