Part 1: The Plan

West beyond the plains, a will struggled. It grappled and shook, and at last shattered. Time and rightness could not have broke harder…

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"And woe to them, if we prove the swifter!" - so said Aragorn, TT, ch 1.

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Further east, afternoon sunlight fell on the Three Hunters. Onward north and west they ran, weary beyond reflection and strengthened solely by the will of their hearts – and even that was sinking as surely as the sun.

Aragorn's head was bent, his eyes sweeping the orc-trod path, littered with cast-offs. He slowed, thinking how changed the signs had become, and worried at his skill in reading them, but saying nothing. Gimli followed, bent, though not in search of signs. Legolas ran ahead of them both and summated a small hill. The Elf paused, cried aloud, and dropped. Keeping low, Aragorn and Gimli followed with a swiftness mingled with dread.

"What did you see?" asked Gimli, gulping air.

"The Orcs! You may see with your own eyes; they are no more than two leagues before us."

Gimli and Aragorn looked down the orc-trail, and indeed, there was a blur across the horizon and a glint of sun upon metal.

"This I do not understand," said Aragorn, his face and tone astonished. "Before I had reckoned their trail to be a day old, now since noon it turns fresh. What had slowed them, I cannot guess."

"Could they not merely be scouts? Or a party different from the first?" said Gimli.

"Nay," said Legolas. "This is too large a host to be scouts. They are over five score, and I see no track of a joining party."

"Then we must be more cautious," murmured Aragorn, and slipped back behind the hill. Scouts the Orcs may yet have, and the cloaks of Lórien could not shield against their arrows.

They sat on the grass and Aragorn said, "Now comes the time for the Three Hunters to plan. How do we save our friends? We cannot have run this race only to fail at its finish."

Legolas and Gimli remained silent for a time, as a small, chill wind flicked their faced and rippled the grass. None of them had given a rescue plan much thought, for truly, overtaking the Orcs had never seemed hopeful, not from the moment the pursuit began by Parth Galen. Moreover, it was to Aragorn they trusted for these things, for leadership; they had faith he would not lead them astray now.

"Perhaps we need to yet watch them so to find our chance," said Legolas.

"But every minute we hesitate, the young hobbits are doomed to more torment," rumbled Gimli, crushing a handful of dirt. "And every step brings them closer to Isengard."

Aragorn looked at them both. "Gimli is right: we haven't much time and their pace may quicken, yet Legolas speaks rightly as well: we cannot plan without observing them first. In truth, my friends, any plan seems folly to me. Yet we must trust to fate to guide us on." And Aragorn rose.

They continued their march over the plains, but with far more caution and slowness; scouts could be hidden anywhere. They dreaded most that the Orcs would outpace them again, however, this proved to be a groundless fear, and they had to pace themselves to keep little less than a league behind their quarry. But if they should be seen? Still it did not seem so. It felt like a will, once hardened against them, had vanished. No speech passed between them, for each pondered on how they could rescue their captive friends, every thought becoming more desperate than the last. That their friends were not alive was not an optional belief. They wondered, though, how likely it was that they would need to exchange their lives for the hobbits'.

In late evening, they noticed a slowing of the Orcs, and after the last red rays of sunset, the Orcs finally halted. They appeared to be making camp: surly unlike Orcs to rest in darkness and run in strong daylight!

The Hunters turned aside from the path, into a small outcrop of rock. There, they huddled together in their cloaks, nibbling on lembas, and debated.

"What we decide on must be done swiftly," said Aragorn. His face was drawn, as though fresh from painful reflections. "Our options are few. I propose, first, one of us approaches the camp near enough to spy on their layout. Until we know of it, the chance of contriving a successful plan is small."

"I will go," said Legolas. "It is little to say that you will be alerted if I fail."

The Elf rose and left with light feet; Aragorn and Gimli immediately lost sight of him under the elvish cloak in the dark night of a thin moon.

Breathlessly, they waited, jumpy at any sound issuing from the orc-camp. The star's march over the sky seemed to drag dreadfully, though by their reckoning, less than an hour passed before Legolas returned.

He threw back his hood and his face was grim. "I approached as close as I dared. Merry and Pippin are alive, for the Orcs debate over them. Guards circle the center, where, no doubt, they lie. There are many scores of separate tribes: north-goblins, Orcs of Mordor and the strange beasts of Isengard. They are much divided against each other, nigh to the edge of bloodshed. Not long will they rest; I believe we have this single chance to act."

"How!" cried Gimli. "I can only see our anguish ending in a mad death. My axe can slice just so few – what are we to scores of Orcs?"

"Be at ease, Gimli. We merely need a diversion," said Aragorn.

Legolas sat down and drew in the dirt, and the other two bent over, squinting in the dark. The Elf had made three circles, mingled with point-marks. "These," he pointed to the circles. "Are the sentries. I passed through the first two…"

Suddenly Aragorn laughed. It was short and dour, but Legolas and Gimli looked at him with wonder, for everything since Lórien had been so sorrowful. "I know our diversion," said Aragorn, musingly brushing his fingers over Legolas's chart. "Though it leaves no place for your axe, Gimli. Gandalf used it long ago on three trolls, and now it may be used again on three tribes of Orc…"

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Disclaimer: I own none of Mr. Tolkien's works, nor those of Mr. Jackson's, and neither do I intend to profit from them.

Note: On this silly thing, as ever, I appreciate comments of all sorts; if you can give me one critical (even scathing) I will be grateful – for grammar, plot, whatever.