Legolas led us through the trees; I could tell from the light that we were headed south. Were they going to ransom her? I tried not to think of what they might do to her in Hardor or further South, for slavery was legal in those places, and who cared for the safety of a foreign slave, especially a female? Was she hurt? Was Rhylla? I glanced at Tamperion, whose face was a grim mask, his eyes glittering with fury, and knew my own expression mirrored his.
We were alternately walking the horses with trotting and cantering; at times, Rimbor roamed ahead. Suddenly we heard him bark, and hastened forward. I had suspected that we were paralleling the road, now we came out in a cleaning near a crossroad, and the dog was holding something light-colored in his mouth. Legolas leaned down and came up with it, handing it to me. “Do you recognize this, Lord Dalf?”
“A piece of bandage,” I said.
Seconds later, Rimbor was on his hind legs, nosing at me so he could drop another piece into my hand.
“Ah!” said the Elf in a pleased tone.
“You’re happy over a bandage?” Tamperion sounded offended. “She may be hurt—” His face twisted.
I leaned over and laid my other hand on his knee. “I know you’re frantic with worry, Tam, but think! There’s no blood on either of these little pads. She has always kept a few in her belt-pouch. So we know that at least one of them is well enough, with at least one free hand, to leave us a trail. Legolas?”
“We are a way behind them, but may still catch up,” he said, busily blazing a trail-sign on a tree for Beregond.
“Where does that road go?” I asked.
“The one we have been following goes south to Hardor; the intersecting one goes to Mordor by way of Cirith Ungol,” he said tightly. “They are heading south.”
Our eyes met. “We must catch them before they get to the border,” I said.
“If it can be done without foundering the horses, we will,” he agreed.
We rode until it grew too dark to see, having eaten some waybread from our saddlebags saddlebags as we rode — Caic shared with Tuor, getting small thanks for it or for the loan of his waterskin. I was unsurprised when Legolas stopped and dismounted. “We will have to wait until dawn to go on,” he said.
Tamperion sat, then sighed and dismounted.
Last still in his saddle was Tuor. “Ah—I see no inn,” he said.
“There are no inns on this side before Hardor,” I told him.
“But where will we sleep? What will we eat?”
“On the ground. It’s an adventure!” said Caic, then subsided at a withering glance from Tamperion. “I’m sorry, Tam, Lord Dalf.” He took a wobbly step, suppressing a grimace.
Tam said to him, “We were all lads once, Caic. To you, this trip is an adventure. It’s just a bit more than we all bargained for.”
“But I should have realized there might be stray bands wandering around,” I said. “Well, Tuor, are you going to sleep up there?”
He almost fell getting down, and held onto the pommel, gasping.
Caic said, “Lady Silma give me a pot of liniment for aches, Master Tuor. I’ll share it with you.”
“I have some as well,” I said (I had found it, unasked for, in my saddlebag that morning before I mounted, as well as when I took the earlier trip). “It has been a while since I spent so much time riding. A cold camp, Legolas?”
“A good idea,” the Elf agreed. “Orcs are not apt to backtrack, but Southrons can be unpredictable. Where there is one band, there may be others, although I have heard no intelligence of any since the Hosts moved from Cormallen. Aragorn Elessar will be horrified that we were so careless.”
“You speak of the King very familiarly, Master Elf,” said Tuor in a disapproving tone. Sweet Valar, were we saddled with a bigot as well as a hinderance?
“I have known him for a long time,” Legolas said tranquilly.
“What’s a cold camp?” asked Caic.
“Just that — no fire,” I told him as I loosened Agate’s girth and hobbled his front legs. By common consent, the others were doing the same, Caic again helping Tuor, who was oblivious. I knew why the boy was being so helpful; he was afraid I’d regret allowing him to come if he became a problem and so was on his best behavior. And because he no doubt has a kinder heart than I do.
“If there’s no fire, how will food be cooked?” asked Tuor.
“It won’t,” I said simply, and handed him some more waybread. “Here is some cheese, and some dried meat. Caic, do you have that fruit leather?”
“Yes, Lord Dalf.”
“It occurs to me that you may not have been introduced to all of us,” I said to the attorney. “May I present Prince Legolas Greenleaf Thranduilion, son of the King of Mirkwood’s Forest Realm and one of the King’s Companions. That is Tamperion, one of Lord Húrin’s most trusted messengers, and this is my assistant, Caic the Courageous.”
“I don’t see why you are in command,” he said, ignoring them.
That gave me pause, even while I tried to hold my temper. “I gladly give way to Legolas—“
“Prince Dalfinor is our leader because he has most reason for Lady Silma to be found safely,” the Noldo interrupted me, gazing down his nose at the hapless Man. “Besides being Ambassador Gimli Glóin’s Son’s assistant, and being charged with a mission by and for King Elessar, he is her friend and has many useful skills in our quest. I am her kinsman as well, for she is Peredhel. Know this, Tuor of Minas Anor: we will not stop until we find her. Here,” and he tossed him a folded cloth.
Tuor caught it and almost fell down. “What is it? And I am from Minas Tirith.”
“Minas Anor is the old name for your city,” Legolas told him. “We no longer need to guard against Sauron, so the original name shall be used again. It will remain the capitol of Gondor, while Annúminas will be restored to be the capitol of Arnor, and the King shall divide his time between the two.”
“Oh, is that why both Prince Faramir and Lord Halladan are to be Stewards?” Caic asked. After I nodded, he asked, “What is it, Master Tuor?”
“It seems to be velvet…a bag?”
In the semidarkness it had a silvery sheen.
Legolas said, “It will hold your belongings safely, and be easier and more convenient to carry them than that box. You can put the strap over your head and shoulder.”
“But these are official papers!” he objected.
“The box is damaged. If it rains, will not the documents be damaged as well? Besides, you are constantly almost dropping it or the reins, we may have to gallop, and the noise it makes bouncing on your saddle will alert them that we are in pursuit long before we catch up. You will change over, Master Tuor, or I will do it for you and carry them myself.” Clearly, by his tone, the Elf was losing his patience.
“Oh, no! I’m responsible for them!” he said, and hastily—if fussily—set about removing them from the box into the bag, which had pocket dividers. Legolas showed him how to secure its clasp, and positioned it for him, the strap slanting across his body, before picking up the box, making certain it was empty, and concealing it in the bushes. Tuor started to object and I shushed him.
“Sound travels far at night,” I said crossly. “If you don’t want your throat slit by an enemy, be silent! We shall watch in twos — Tamperion and Master Tuor, then Caic and myself.”
“The Elf doesn’t have to lose sleep?” asked Tuor in the censorious whine that made me long to hit him.
Before I could open my mouth, Legolas said in an amused tone, “Clearly you are not one of those Dúnedain who are familiar with other Kindreds, so I will tell you that Elves do not need more than three or four hours of rest at night. I shall be alert most of the time, and shall waken everyone when it is time to leave. Do not stand or pace about, but lie or sit quietly. Make certain that any movements or sounds are coming from upwind before you raise an alarm.”
“I’m not sure what you mean by upwind,” Caic ventured. Since I knew that Marfel and Severion had been talking about hunting just the day before, I surmised that he had realized that Tuor might not know and was asking on his behalf. The boy’s kindness put me to shame.
“You can feel the direction the wind is coming from,” Tamperion said. “If a noise comes from the opposite direction, a clink of metal for example, or a bad smel l—orcs always stink — then you might have reason to wake us. But don’t disturb us just out of uncertainty; we are all weary and need to rest.”
“Besides,” I added, “even though Rimbor is not a scent-hound, if he smells anything untoward, he will inform us.” I yawned. “Sleep well, companions.” Wrapping my cloak about me, I lay down, dug a stone out from under my left hip, and fell asleep.
I was roused from a dream of my lady smiling at me, her hands filled with flowers, by Tuor’s shaking me. Rimbor was growling softly. Caic was leaning over Tamperion.
The attorney’s whisper was sibilant in my ear, but I doubt anyone heard him two feet away. “Legolas has seen a small party of orcs coming towards us but over to the north.”
I squeezed his arm to indicate that I had heard and breathed into his ear, “Do as I say. Stay with Caic and the horses. We will be back soon.”
“If you don’t?” he whispered back, and to his credit, I caught the gleam of his belt-knife in his hand, and his voice was steady.
“Then follow the road back to Osgiliath and find a way across the river to the city,” I told him.
“I’ll keep the boy safe,” he muttered.
I suspected that Caic was saying the same thing to Tamperion, but didn’t quibble. With any luck, neither would need to test his courage. Taking up my axe, I put my hand on Rimbor’s ruff and whispered, “Find Legolas!”
We slipped from tree to tree in the faint moonlight, and when the dog dropped down, I crawled beside him, Tam following me, through some bushes.
Suddenly we heard behind us Tuor’s shout: “Justice!”
Leaping to my feet, I abandoned subterfuge and ran, shouting my own war cry, Legolas and Tam beside me.
The fight in the clearing was brief and bloody, and by the time it was over, we had killed all four of them, all Uruk-hai. Tamperion was lying still on the ground, unconscious from a blow, and Tuor, breathing hard, was holding a torch for Legolas to light. Caic came to my side, wide-eyed with excitement.
“Are you all right, Lord Dalf?’ the boy asked.
“Fine,” I answered. “And you?”
“I tripped,” he confessed. “But Master Tuor kep’ that big 'un from hurtin’ me. My thanks, Master.”
“You would’ve done the same for me,” Tuor replied, sounding more human than before.
“Thanks for raising the alarm,” Tam said. “How did they know to make a feint like that?”
“They didn’t,” Legolas replied, wiping his long knife on a cloak. “What I saw were two of the other kind, and I killed them; that’s what delayed me joining you.”
Tuor was bending over one of the largest orcs I have ever seen. “I made sure to only stun this one, Lord Dalf, in case you want to question him.” He was holding the tip of his knife at its throat.
Opening small venomous eyes, it glared at us. “I kill all.”
We gathered around. “Nay, the boot’s on the other foot,” I said. “Where are Lady Silma and her maid?”
“We ate well,” it leered, and with a sob, Tamperion slammed his club against its skull. Legolas pulled him back, or he would have pounded it into dust.
“Rhylla — Rhylla!” he gasped.
“You think the truth is in one such?” the Elven prince asked. “Either he never saw them, or he was lying. He knew he would not live. They don’t eat clothing, and we have found no other signs. Take heart, Tamperion!”
“We will search the area in the morning,” I said, “in case there are any clues. Caic, will you help me soothe the horses?”
“Yes, Lord Dalf.”
We moved them downwind of the bodies, and by the time they were calmed, the faint greyness of pre-dawn was creeping through the trees. Leaving Caic to kindle a small fire in a shallow fire-pit, the rest of us fanned out in a brief search. We gathered for plates of thin gruel and cups of tea.
Legolas summed it up. “No indications that Silma or Rhylla were with them.”
“But they were the same, or at least one of them was, as the ones who attacked us at the river,” Tuor said unexpectedly.
“How d’ you know?” Caic asked curiously.
“Having never seen an orc before, I paid attention to them,” he replied. “My associate Alvric asked me to be observant and tell him when I return of anything unusual I saw. The one Master Tamperion, ah, slew, had a series of bones fastened in his hair, unlike the rest.”
“Trophies,” Legolas said with a grimace. “Before you ask, Caic, finger-bones.”
I felt like swallowing hard myself, but only nodded.
Tuor added, “I looked at them just now, and none of them look…recent. All of them have a coating of dirt and what I assume are old bloodstains, as they are a rusty brown.”
“She was right!” I said, staring at him.
“Pardon, Lord Dalfinor?”
“Silma said you had unexpected depths and we should keep you close. I am glad we didn’t leave you behind after all. You have my thanks for looking after Caic.”
“We looked after each other, my lord,” he said with some dignity. “I am sorry I have not been…more useful. Such as I am was not meant for adventures and heroics, I fear.”
“At first glance, no one thought Hobbits could be heroes either, but look at our four,” Legolas said.
“I know little of the Halflings,” Tuor said.
Caic said eagerly, “I saw ‘em at the Houses of Healing. At first glance, they look like children, younger’n me, but I heared as they’re great fighters. Captain Peregrin saved Lord Faramir’s life, and killt a troll!”
“And Ser Meriadoc helped slay the Ringwraith,” Legolas added. “Frodo and Sam played the most dangerous part, and I hope that they will recover. Frodo especially has suffered for his courage and determination.”
“But they are out of children’s tales,” Tuor protested.
“So are Dwarves,” I said dryly. “And Ents, and even Elves, and orcs.”
A tinge of red crept into his cheeks, but he persisted, “Are these four Hobbits extraordinary of their kind?”
“Bilbo, Frodo’s cousin, was also a hero,” I pointed out. “The Great Burglar is greatly honoured by my people; without him, we would not have regained the Lonely Mountain, and think what might have happened if Sauron had managed to get the Ring from Gollum!”
We all shuddered, and I continued, “I have traveled several times through their homeland. The Shire may seem bucolic to some outsiders, and they have been very isolated for a long time, but I fancy that is ending. You can get the finest porcelains there, and leather such as you can scarcely imagine, not to mention fine wools and doubtless other items I have not yet seen. The caliber of their goods cannot be produced by simpletons. And don’t forget their pipeweed!”
Tuor looked thoughtful, but Tamperion, who had been very silent, moved restlessly. “Are we almost ready to depart?” he asked. “We still haven’t found ‘em!”
In short order we had removed all sign (except for the bodies) of our presence, and were on our way, traveling as before. This time there was no need to shush either Caic or Tuor, who was looking very pensive. Tamperion brought up the rear, often pausing to listen intently and then rejoining us; I traded places with him several times.
Rimbor announced a new discovery with a woof, bounding back to me with something else in his mouth. I dismounted, and he dropped something into my palm. I turned it in my hand with a sinking heart.
“What is it?” asked Tam.
“The pestle from Silma’s satchel,” I said unhappily.
A low whistle from Legolas alerted us; some distance away, he had found several corpses of more orcs, both common and Uruk-hai. “They had a fight here,” he said after asking us to stay where we were while he quartered the bloodstained ground. Rimbor was watching him, tongue lolling. “It looks as if they were all going to camp, and then an argument occurred. The orcs fought each other, and the Men slipped away.”
“Were Rhylla and the Lady with them?” Tam asked.
“I don’t know — yes, their tracks are intermingled with the Men’s, although they were also near two of the orcs….Ah, I see.” He stooped and picked up something from under a bush.
“What is it?” I called.
He held up a long strand of hair. “Part of Apple’s mane. I’m afraid they slaughtered him for food; I see parts of the tail over in those rocks, and his hooves and tack.”
“Slaughtered Apple?” gasped Caic in horror.
“Orcs will eat almost anything. It’s fortunate that we don’t have any of the Rohirrim with us, the way they feel about horses. But they left her tack and saddlebags, and we can take them with us.” He got another of the velvet bags from his saddlebag and a moment later tied it on the back of Caic’s saddle; I fastened her saddlebags and bedroll on Agate, trying not to let my hands shake. How was she faring, with nothing but her cloak and satchel? And where were she and Rhylla?
“What do we do now?” asked Tuor. His tone lacked the whining edge that had so bothered me before; he simply wanted information.
“Follow the Men,” said Tamperion promptly.
I said, “They slew some of their own number here. Did it look to you, Legolas, as if that trail leads to where we slew some orcs last night?”
“Aye, I have been backtracking them since we left our camp,” he said. “They are all accounted for, all but the Men. Rimbor can tell us which direction they’re going.”
“Can we go now?” Tam pleaded.
For answer, I remounted, and the rest copied me. Rimbor barked sharply, and ran ahead.
Late that afternoon, Legolas reined in. Ahead of us was an open space, and I realized that it was the junction of two roads. Tuor asked, “What is this place?”
“The Crossings,” the Elf replied. “There is the Harad road, and there is the road that leads to the Morgul Vale and Cirith Ungol.”
“Why do you hesitate?” Tam asked. “Why aren’t we riding south? They can go faster on the road!”
“That’s just it.” He frowned, perplexed. “They aren’t going south. They’re headed for Minas Morgul.”
I felt chilled by the news. Silma had longed for the day, probably long distant, when it ceased to be the city of the Tower of Dark Sorcery and became again the city of the Tower of the Rising Moon, the intellectual jewel of the realm as Minas Tirith was the governmental and mercantile center. She had described to me the location of each major building and district, as taught to her by her father, who had pored often over an old map of it handed down in their family. It was the Queen’s City of the Moon, she had told me, home of the brightest intellects, the finest artists and craftsmen, as well as guarding one of the few passes into Mordor.
But why were these Southrons not headed south?
We would soon be forced to camp nearby, as the light dimmed. Legolas worried that it might be a feint, and feared to miss the trail — especially since he had detected signs that they were trying to hide it. He was walking now, stooping often and sometimes casting about, and our progress slowed almost to a crawl.
After one such halt, he straightened and rubbed his chin thoughtfully as we waited.
“I’m a fool,” he said. “—You don’t need to tell your cousin that, Dalf!”
“What is it?” I asked.
“These Men aren’t Southrons.”
“Then what are they?” demanded Tam.
“Easterlings of some kind. Not Wainriders, for I’ve seen no sign of their wains. Possibly Sagath or Balchoth or some other tribe. They were all allied with Sauron. This band has led us in a wide arc—again— and are now headed north. See, we are paralleling the Ephel Dúath now. I wish Aragorn were here!”
“Because little is known about them, but he did travel into the East as well as into Far Harad at one time; he mentioned it one evening. I wish he had given us more details, but of course Sam wanted to know about oliphants, and then Pippin and Merry began arguing about Southron spices with him. I had wondered about the hoofprints I have been following, but thought it might be some Men from further south than Harad or even Khand.”
“There’re realms beyond Khand?” gasped Caic, eyes wide.
“Many,” Tuor said in an irritatingly superior tone.
“Are they paralleling the road, or riding on it?” I asked.
“Then let us do likewise, and move a bit faster,” I suggested.
Not an hour later, Rimbor broke into a run, dashing into the trees to our right, and began barking. I recognized that bark—it was his happy-to-see-you bark, as Silma called it.
Without a word, I urged Agate into a gallop, plunging past the others after him and ignoring their startled cries.
The tree-trunks gave way to a clearing, and sitting on the ground in the middle of it near a cookfire, laughing as Rimbor tried to lick her face, was Silma,a wooden spoon in one hand!
I leaped from Agate and ran to her, lifting her up and hugging her tightly. I held her away from me, asking, “Are you all right?”