Title: Bitten - Author: Legorfilinde, Dark Forest Singer - Rating: PG-13 - Summary: Aragorn must travel to distant Rhûn and what he finds there is much more than he could ever imagine. When he fails to return, it is left to Legolas to search for him and bring him home. But is he too late? - Spoilers: Some references to earlier works, Bait, Death of a Brother, Dragonrider, Hidden, or Fireside Tales might pop up now and again. - Disclaimer: I do not own anything that has to do with J.R.R. Tolkien's works, characters, stories, histories, or maps and am not being paid for this piece of fan fiction.
Strider sat alone in a shadowed back corner of the squalid tavern well away from the regular patrons and milling crowds. The dark and noisy interior of the hostelry was barely lit by the smoking torches spaced about the room at regular intervals. These flickering lights were bracketed to the smoke-stained wooden columns shouldering the cross-beamed ceiling above their heads and at this late hour, many had burned low or guttered out completely, casting lengthy shadows throughout the corners of the room. This pleased Strider for he did not wish to be seen or disturbed, yet his vigilant gaze traveled back and forth across the room keeping track of all who entered and all who left.
A wide, open fireplace set into the far wall of the tavern directly across from his secluded table blazed with heat and was responsible for the greater portion of light emanating from that side of the room. Most of the inn's customers were grouped about the fireplace trying to dry wet hands and faces and rain sodden clothes. Thin wisps of steam rose from their soggy garments as the heat from the flames slowly began to dry the damp clothing, but it also served to heighten the strong and distinctly human odors of sweat, urine and stale beer already present within the cramped and crowded room. Strider's nose crinkled as a particularly odious whiff wafted by his table and he grinned slightly as he imagined, had he been here, how his friend Legolas would react as the Elf's delicate and overly sensitive sense of smell was assaulted by this stench.
Strider soundlessly shifted in his seat and waved a hand in front of his face to stir the air aside and patiently went back to studying the assembled group of men and women inside the tavern. The hood of his heavy traveling cloak was pulled down over his eyes and nose and his bearded chin was barely visible as he puffed quietly upon his long-stemmed pipe. A half-filled mug of warm ale sat upon the table in front of him and to any that might happen to glance his way, he appeared to be either mildly intoxicated or dosing. Strider was neither and had not yet tasted the brew sitting before him. He had made an obvious display of sloshing half the beer onto the floor after the serving maid had left it for him, waving her away as though he would topple from the table and onto the floor at any moment. The harried woman had gladly left him, thankful that he had not asked her to clean up the mess or to get him another tankard of beer.
That had been several hours ago and now the tavern's clientele had thinned out somewhat. Strider's gaze swiftly turned to the door as an old man in a wet, mud-spattered grey robe and cloak entered the tavern and immediately engaged in conversation with the barkeep. The ranger kept his full attention steadily fixed upon the elderly gentleman and although he had been watching the grey wizard Gandalf since his arrival, he made no move to indicate that he recognized the Istari or that he wished the wizard to join him. Likewise, Gandalf had not even glanced in Strider's direction although he was well aware of the ranger's presence within the establishment.
Their conversation at an end, Gandalf nodded his thanks to the man behind the bar and turned to leave. As he did so, his head gave the barest inkling of a nod toward Strider; then he replaced his pointed grey hat upon his head and made his way to the door. Moments later he was gone. Strider made no move to follow but continued to puff idly at his pipe. Harsh, raised voices suddenly came from another corner of the tavern and shouted threats could be heard as several of the men set upon one another, fists flying and tables scraped noisily across the floor as the others made room for the two combatants. The portly barkeep grabbed up his wooden club and charged around the corner of his bar, moving purposefully toward the battling malcontents. Once he had passed by the tables in front of Strider, the ranger quietly arose from his seat and tossed several small coins onto the greasy board alongside his mug of ale. Then he gracefully glided between the tables and chairs and headed for the door. His silent departure went unnoticed by those within the smoky room and without a backward glance he pulled the door open and slipped out into the black, rainy night. The sleeping town of Derry lay before him, dark and quiet.
The air outside was a welcome relief from the stuffy, stale closeness of the tavern, but the rain gave it a cool, dank heaviness that settled around Strider's head and shoulders like a misty film. The ranger sniffed several times, hoping dearly that he was not coming down with a cold or ague. He had no wish to be ill, especially now. He peered out from under the soggy hood of his cloak and his silver-eyed glance sought out any signs of movement along the muddy, rain-swollen lanes, and seeing none, he stepped off the stair leading to the tavern proper and melted into the darkness of the shadows alongside the building. Swiftly and silently he hurried through the alleys and side paths until he was near the town gate. Gandalf's rickety wagon was slowly squishing and creaking through the muck and slime of the main thoroughfare, laboring toward the small gatekeeper's abode.
As the wagon passed by Strider's hiding place, the ranger deftly leapt aboard the moving wagon and crouched down among the various crates, leather bags, and soggy packs that were crammed together in the back of the wagon. Carefully and quietly he made his way toward the front of the conveyance and upon reaching the boards forming the back of Gandalf's seat, he slid his back down along the wet wood and hastily drew his cloak up and over his knees and boots, covering them from view. He lowered his head onto his arms as they rested atop his knees. To any casual observer, he appeared to be nothing more than another one of the numerous bundles stuffed into the back of the wizard's small wagon.
He had only just settled his body into a slightly less painful position when the wagon jolted to a halt and he could hear the muffled voice of the sleepy gatekeeper.
"Leavin' at this hour, Master Gandalf? The road's not safe on a night like t'night."
"Aye, Rosdur, but I'm afraid I must," replied the wizard.
"Very well, then," the gatekeeper complied. "Hol' on 'til I get this gate open fer ye." Still only half awake, he stumbled forward, his small lantern held out before him as he made his way through the puddles and mud to the large wooden gate. The feeble light from his lamp cast a smudgy glow about his face as he clasped the heavy iron handle on the oaken door that served as the gateway to Derry. He pulled backward with all his strength and with a great deal of screeching and protesting of rusty hinges, the ponderous door slowly moved inward and the passage to the roadway ahead lay bare.
"Thar ye go, Master Gandalf," the elderly man nodded. "Safe journey t' ye then."
Gandalf tipped his pointed hat and smiled down at the gatekeeper. "Back to bed with you, Rosdur. I shall be fine."
The old man waved half-heartedly at the departing wagon and hunkered down against the steady, beating rainfall. Once the wizard's cart had cleared the entryway, he pushed the heavy gate closed and reset the latching bar, forcing it back down into place. Then he gathered up his well worn shawl more tightly about his ancient shoulders and hobbled back to his rooms as thoughts of his warm, cozy bed filled his mind; the wizard already forgotten.
Gandalf glanced back over his shoulder at the shuttered gate and receding township, then looked down into the darkness of the wagon's overloaded and cluttered bed. He chuckled slightly as he discerned a slight movement amid the boxes and chests and knowing that it was Strider, called softly.
"We are clear of the town."
Strider rose up slightly and brushed the hood of his cloak back away from his dripping hair and gazed up at the wizard. "What did you learn?"
The old Istari shook his head sadly. "Nothing of import, I'm afraid."
Strider frowned. "What of Saruman?"
"He has not seen them since he returned from the East," Gandalf replied. He glanced down at the ranger, then back to the dark and precarious roadway. "That was over two hundred and eleven years ago."
"Would he not tell you anything more of them?" Strider asked.
Gandalf shook his head. "When I pressed him for more information, he only confirmed what I already knew – he chose to return to the West and they did not."
Strider shifted his weight upon the wooden flooring of the wagon in a futile attempt to ease his aching backside; then succumbing to the inevitable, made a conscious effort to ignore the pain and stiffness in his legs and rear and looked back up at the wizard.
"What do you suppose happened to them?"
"No one knows…or will say," Gandalf answered as he pulled back on the reins and halted the wagon. When the cart stopped, he turned in his seat to better see the young ranger. "I need you to travel to Rhûn, my boy. You must learn firsthand if there is any trace yet left to be found of Alatar and Pallando. If there is even an outside chance that the Blue Wizards might still be alive and still dwell in the East, it is crucial that we take this gamble and attempt to persuade them to return to the West to aid us in this struggle."
Strider rubbed the rough stubble along his jaw with slow, thoughtful strokes. Finally his silver eyes turned back up to the wizard. "If no one has seen or heard of these wizards in over two hundred years perhaps they have left Arda and returned to the Valar. Or, if indeed they are still residing in the Land of Rhûn they may have already made their choice of allegiance."
"I greatly hope that is not the case, Strider; and that is why it is most imperative that you to make this journey. If the Blue Wizards were to join us in this fight against Sauron, it would be a great victory over Shadow and perhaps turn the tide in this battle against the Darkness of Mordor."
Strider nodded his head to the wizard. "You know I will do anything you ask of me, Gandalf. I shall leave at once."
The wizard's eyes shut briefly, an expression of great relief apparent upon his worn face, and then a slow smile spread across his wrinkled features. "Thank you, dear boy," he spoke softly. "I knew I could count on you to make this journey."
Strider rose stiffly and then placed both hands upon the edges of the cart and swung both his legs up and over the side of the wagon, landing lightly upon the muddy trail. He moved to the front of the cart and looked up at the wizard. "Where shall I meet you upon my return?"
Gandalf smiled enigmatically and laughed quietly. "Do not worry, my boy, I shall find you." And with that parting statement, he slapped the reins upon his horse's flanks and the animal struggled against the traces as it strained to pull the cart through the mud-clogged ruts in the roadway.
The wagon finally lurched forward, its wheels breaking free of the muck and Strider stepped back and off the path to allow the cart to pass by. He lifted a hand in farewell as the wizard rode past and into the darkness of the night. When he could no longer make out the Istari's form, he turned and jogged into the dark woods toward the hidden campsite where he had left his gear, supplies and horse while he ventured into the town. When he entered the camp he was greeted by Hodoer's low, rumbling nicker. He came up to the horse and gently rubbed the velvet soft nose. Hodoer's lip curled up, revealing large, white teeth and a tongue that lapped around the ranger's hand.
"I missed you too, boy," Strider chuckled as his hand reached up to scratch the animal's ears. "How would you like to go on a little trip?"
The stallion's head bobbed up and down several times and he snorted agreeably. Strider laughed as he swung the saddle over Hodoer's back and began cinching the girth. "I knew I could count on you, boy," he said as he pulled the strap tight and then ran his palm along the horse's flank.
Hodoer side-stepped lightly, eager to be away and the steed's constant shifting made it difficult for Strider to strap his meager gear onto the saddle, but eventually he managed to settle the horse enough to secure all of his possessions. Then he carefully went over the campsite and methodically cleared away any evidence of his tenure among the woods. Satisfied, he mounted Hodoer and together they headed northeast across the plains of East Emnet toward the Brown Lands.
The ride from Derry had been long and tedious, yet uneventful and the monotonous, dead landscape of the Brown Lands was starting to wear on the ranger's nerves and disposition. As the deep green of the trees and woodlands of southern Mirkwood gradually came into view, Strider's spirits lifted and he urged his horse to greater speed. Hodoer, too, sensed the trees and smelled the greenery and happily cantered to the forest edge. As they entered the sheltering canopy of the leaves, the air cooled perceptively and Strider felt a renewed vigor that the Brown Lands had all but sapped from his mind and body.
The ranger casually scanned the trees looking for any signs of an Elven border patrol, but could distinguish nothing within the dark, murky depths of the forest; only the eerie susurrations of the trees could be heard as they whispered among themselves. This portion of the woodland realm had long been marred by Shadow and was home to neither Elves nor Woodsmen, but as long as he kept to the edges of the eastern forests, Strider felt he would be safe enough until he reached the ancient Dwarf Path and eventually the Mountains of Mirkwood.
As he rode, he debated within his mind whether or not to stop at the Halls of the Elvenking or just continue eastward toward the River Running and eventually the Sea of Rhûn. Then he laughed quietly, knowing Legolas would never forgive him if he rode past Lasgalen and did not stop to visit, even if only for one day. And, too, he longed to see the Wood Elf again. It had been far too long between visits of late. It seemed they were parted for longer and longer periods of time now that he had begun his lonely journeys through the length and breadth of Middle Earth. Suddenly seeing Legolas again became more than just an idle thought and his heart yearned to see the Elven prince he had come to respect and value as a true friend and trusted companion.
Hodoer sensed this new urgency in his rider and slid into an easy loping gait. The trees quickly sped past to either side of them in a green-brown blur as they streaked northward through the forest. The horse skillfully covered the mossy ground underfoot and Strider left it to Hodoer to choose his own path through the woods, content to ride along without a guiding hand upon the reins. If they kept to this pace, he would be seeing the Mirkwood Prince in less than a month. A broad smile crept over his weather-worn face as he realized that it truly would be good to see Legolas again. But just a quickly the smile faded as this thoughts turned toward his true purpose in traveling through Mirkwood.
Although Gandalf had not sworn him to secrecy regarding this trip to the East, he knew that the wizard did not wish it widely known where he was going and why. Venturing into the Land of the Easterlings would be perilous enough and it would certainly be most prudent to have someone other than the Istari aware of his intended destination. Having Legolas at his back would truly ease his mind for he knew the Elf would be ever vigilant in the event that he did not return in a timely manner. A wry grin crept over his lips; convincing the Elf to remain behind was another matter altogether. As these conflicting thoughts and worries battled back and forth within his mind, he turned his attention once again to the forest ahead. The first leg of his journey was almost complete. All too soon he would be trekking into lands unknown and he was both eager to be off yet filled with a cautious trepidation concerning the task Gandalf had set before him. Hodoer whinnied loudly as if to echo his thoughts and Strider leaned forward over the horse's neck as they flew through the dark forestland, ever northward toward the home of the Wood Elves.