With Hope and Without Hope
'Yes,' said Aragorn, 'we shall all need the endurance of Dwarves. But come! With hope or without hope we will follow the trail of our enemies. And woe to them, if we prove the swifter! We will make such a chase as shall be accounted a marvel among the Three Kindreds: Elves, Dwarves, and Men. Forth the Three Hunters!'
Chapter 1: Decision
As the three remaining members of the Fellowship scrambled over rocky slopes, the afternoon came back to Aragorn. The pain of Boromir's loss remained fresh, but he forced his thoughts to those he might yet save. Upon finding a boat missing from their camp, Aragorn was certain Frodo had gone on with his task and that Sam was with him. Once they had seen Boromir over the Falls of Rauros, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli had taken only the daggers they had found and arrows for Legolas's quiver, and then they had turned their hunt to Merry and Pippin in the hope that they still lived. Upon the winking of the first stars, the three had covered much rough terrain, climbing stony slopes only then to descend the sharp cliffs of the Emyn Muil.
They followed the Orcs' wide trail through land of dry rock and short turf all the next day. As the sun made its leisurely passage overhead, Aragorn related to Legolas and Gimli how he had failed to recognize all the Orcs they had slain. Some he knew to be of Mordor, some from the north, but others were strange to him. The three together concluded that these were likely sent by Saruman at Isengard. If this were so, the wizard knew then of their journey and purpose, and possibly much that had befallen them. They would need to take care on their path.
Long after the sun had slipped behind the spires of the Misty Mountains, the wide plains of Rohan flattened out before them. Earlier the grass had glinted silver with moonlight; now the setting moon stole even that last color from the land. Having run since the afternoon of the previous day, they halted their march to consider seriously the choice of continuing once more through the night or taking much needed rest.
"My own thoughts on the matter conflict. For I deem that you guess rightly," Gimli said. "The easiest way may be the Orcs' own trail, yet we cannot overtake them by following their path. And we need rest if we are to continue this chase."
"I agree," Aragorn said. "Unless we can match their speed, we cannot hope to reach them by following their steps, but my concern is that while we rest, their lead grows."
"If we find a shorter path and continue through the night, we may have a true chance to overtake them," Legolas said as he stared out over the cliffs into the gloom. "Is there another way that would have our paths cross sooner?"
Aragorn was silent for a time as his eyes passed over the grey plains rolling west. "The Orcs travel west towards the Entwash. My guess is that they will follow that river as it bends northward and then west to meet Fangorn Forest where they can find more shelter from the eyes of Rohan. If we travel more northwest, we shall save us some miles in the chase."
"But those saved miles are lost again if we rest," said Legolas.
"Or else those saved miles allow us the rest we need to continue," Gimli countered. "Then we do not lose so much time tomorrow."
"Nor do we gain any. We have agreed we cannot reach them if we continue thus."
"Do you forget the brooch? Not even you would have seen that in the darkness. What else might we miss?"
"Such a thing will not happen twice," Legolas said quietly. "They will be more vigilant now in their watches. Indeed they may have increased their pace."
"You both speak rightly. I know not the best way here," Aragorn said with a sigh. "I think that no longer am I best suited to make such hard choices. My decisions have gone ill in recent days."
"Yet we will follow your decision, as it will be the best we can do. I for one still trust your judgment," Legolas said.
"As do I," Gimli added. "You have not failed us yet."
Aragorn closed his eyes. The weight of this choice bore down on him, seeking to stoop his shoulders, slow his feet, and bring despair into his heart. Already they had felt an ill power delay their steps even as it gave speed to their enemies. Was this indecision more of that work?
If so, he would not succumb to it. He would not allow Saruman to keep them from their friends. And Saruman must not have the hobbits. He closed his eyes and felt his cloak billow as the wind passed over him, taking with it his indecision. "We must do all we may, as long as we may, for our friends. Things will turn foul if the hobbits fall into the hands of Saruman. I believe there is a chance we may catch them, if we change our path. But I fear rest will counter what we gain. And so my decision is to continue. We will lay our hopes with our lembas and the Valar for the strength to continue."
"For the hobbits, then," Gimli said, nodding, "I continue as long as I have strength." He rummaged into his pack for lembas, which he now surely needed, "If that is to be our path, let us go!"
Uglúk sent out his command to halt. Slowing to a walk, he listened as his order passed through the company of Orcs and watched the scouts return from their search for the Whiteskins. "What did you find?" he barked.
"Just the one scout, Uglúk. No other horsemen to see."
"You took care of him?"
Snaga grinned in response and held up an empty helmet. "Took care of him, well and good! He won't be talking to no one!"
Uglúk nodded. "You get a moment's breather for your work. Then we move again! Be ready!" Uglúk paced down the column as they halted the march, his ears alert for the inevitable grumbling that erupted once they had something other than marching to do. No matter what those Mordor rats thought, he was in charge. He'd prove that if he had to take every head. Then they'd see what their master said. He'd get these lads and the prisoners to Isengard if he had to kill every one of these rats.
The next day passed nearly wordlessly. Aragorn's ears were filled with the even rasp of their breathing, the rustle of the wind through the short grass of the plains, and the pounding of his feet on hard earth moving in quick time to the beat of his heart. The thin green line at the base of the Misty Mountains grew, expanding as Fangorn Forest drew closer. Miles passed ere the sun began her descent, and still they ran.
As they trudged into another nightfall, they finally came within bowshot of their prey. Soon they jogged alongside them. But still there was no sign of their friends. When the land began to undulate with the rolling downs dividing the plains from the forest and the sun's light had fled west, Aragorn's hope faltered. The new night would not help them to gain sight of the hobbits.
"There!" Legolas cried suddenly, crouching behind a new rise in the land. "It must be a hobbit! No Orc is bestowed with such a head of curls. It appears they are carried. An Orc unable to run would be left behind. It is a hobbit. I am certain of it!" Aragorn strained his eyes to see them amid the black silhouette of the Orc army, but with only a slim moon for light, even a Dúnadan could not see so far.
"Where?" Gimli asked. "Where are they? I have not elf-eyes to see in the dark! Tell me where!"
Legolas smiled, hope evident in his voice. "Near the rear of the column. There are many Orcs about them. I have some work ahead of me." Legolas trotted higher on the hill they used as cover, which separated them by sight and smell from the Orcs. Gimli and Aragorn ran lower, out of sight but in pace with Legolas and the army.
Their only hope was in separating the group that guarded the hobbits from the rest of the army. Only then could they think to attack. A desperate plan, Aragorn rued that they were without an alternative. Truthfully, there was much to regret about their situation. Nibbling on lembas bread, Aragorn once again debated the wisdom of his decision to run through the previous night. He had considered the path he believed the Orcs had taken, his familiarity with Orcs and their behavior, and his knowledge of the land across which the three had then run unceasingly. He had heard the arguments of his fellow warriors on the matter. After all those considerations, he had also taken a moment to listen to what his heart told him was best. Aragorn could now only trust he had chosen well, as they had indeed reached the column of Orcs, but uncertainty nagged at him. They would soon learn the consequences of their choice.
After Legolas found the opening he sought, he fired several arrows into the crowd of marching Orcs, striking their legs and so taking them down at once but keeping the cause unknown to those around them. Aragorn ran up the hill and was gratified to see the bodies on the ground trip up those behind them and cause an immediate halt to the rest of the troop. Those who fell on top of the stricken Orcs let them know their feelings on their fellows' clumsiness with their mouths and fists, unaware of the arrows stuck in their legs. A scuffle soon arose, which quickly evolved into a brawl.
But the group of Orcs that had halted their march and were now fighting among themselves was disappointingly large. Legolas had indeed separated the rear group from the rest of the column, but their numbers were still too great. Perhaps they would have to divide them again, Aragorn thought, and wondered for how long they could continue this plan. He reckoned Dwarves sturdy enough to keep up with Elves and suspected that Gimli would run till his legs were worn to stumps rather than let Legolas know he was weary. He hoped the dwarf had some will left for when his strength waned. They could not make an error now through impatience. They would only have one chance to perform their rescue.
By the time a large Orc arrived from further up the column to berate the lingering beasts, several were left on the ground not to rise again. The rest managed to re-form the line and continue the march, leaving behind those killed in the brawl. The large Orc remained with the stragglers to provide the encouragement needed to catch up with the rest of the army, supplied mostly by his whip.
The sun approached the eastern horizon and the Orc army continued. The three were forced to follow, though they were weary beyond imagining. Once more Legolas took aim at Orcs surrounding the hobbits. Not surprisingly, his shots had the same result. But now the large commander was nearby and looked into the grey predawn as the new brawl ensued. He narrowed his eyes in the direction of their protective hill and sent out a small group of Orcs to investigate. The three met them with their blades and cut them down before any could raise a defense or alarm.
"Legolas!" Aragorn whispered, wiping his blade clean of black blood in the grass. He had hoped to rid themselves of more Orcs than they had at this point. "We cannot continue in this manner! They will soon send too many for us to counter, and our strength wanes. We must decide on a new course of action."
Legolas looked to Aragorn, then Gimli. "There are still too many to fight, I agree, and my arrows do little to diminish those that yet stand between us and what we seek. I would persist for a time, though. Can you not go on?"
Gimli sighed heavily, and Aragorn prayed his weariness had not shortened his temper. The Dúnadan understood that the dwarf would go on as long as there was hope, from which he drew his strength. The elf had yet to realize that. "Aye, Legolas, I can go on, but how long? You might shoot through the new day and still we could not fight such numbers. Could we not fashion a smaller battle? Then we may yet have a chance."
Aragorn answered swiftly. "We must diminish the numbers that surround Merry and Pippin. It is our only hope of success. If we can create a smaller group to attack, then–"
Legolas looked behind him sharply. "I believe our choice has been made for us. Such a small group as you request now has been sent from the company to find us. They approach this hill, as you will soon hear. But their numbers are greater than the previous band. This will be more of a challenge."
Dwarf and man looked at each other, then to the elf, and gave a stern nod. They had no alternative but to face the coming battle. Leaving it to Legolas to give the sign that their prey was near, Aragorn pulled his blade free. They would vanquish these Orcs and all that followed. They must. They were the only hope for the hobbits.