Note: Had I really not updated this story in a YEAR? That can't be possible, right? Well the shitstorm that has been my life for the past ten months is falling back in place and now all that remains is to find a job so I don't go broke. Here's an update, though! I'm excited to be working on this story again and have the next chapter started as well. Hurray! :)

This is what I call a "business chapter" because I had to cover a bunch of important stuff. I should also mention, for those of you keeping a close eye on the facts, that I decided (apparently) that Theoden and Eomer did not go to Orthanc with the remaining Fellowship. They will all be meeting up at the Hornburg. Also, a few times and dates had to be shifted around, but from the end of this chapter on everything will be lined up as it should be.

Chapter Eleven

Emerald found herself almost forgetting they were in the middle of a war. The sun was warm but not merciless and fluffy white clouds idled across the sky. Emerald drifted throughout the line, finding enjoyable conversation with each member of the party, though Mithrandir was the least talkative of all. With others, though, anxiety was low and banter light.

It was in the early afternoon that the elves in the party noticed the distant sound of hooves. Legolas was the one to mention this to Aragorn, but as there was no immediate sign that the horses were headed in their direction, they continued on, though more cautiously. When at least it became clear that the riders meant to overtake them, the party stopped. Legolas, Aragorn, Gimli and Merry dismounted, drawing weapons. Hergest and Emerald were jostled to the back of the party, which she seemed more upset about than he. When she began to stand on the back of her horse, he grabbed her arm and held her down.

It was disconcerting to be approached like this in broad daylight and everyone held their breaths. As the riders drew closer still, just out of sight around a curve in hills, Aragorn called out to them,

"Halt! Who rides across Rohan in these days?"

"Rohan!" came the response. The riders were now fully in view and came to a stop only a few yards away. The man who had spoken dismounted and held his hand forward in a gesture of peace. Emerald took this as a sign that she could dismount and join the front. She stood behind Gimli and Merry and watched the man approach, his face hidden beneath a heavy black cloak.

"We seek the land of Rohan and have traveled many leagues for it," the man explained. When no one responded, the man continued, pushing his hood back "I am Halbarad Dunedain, Ranger of the North. We seek one Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and have been given word that he is here."

Aragorn surged forward and hugged the man, clearly recognizing him, and laughed, "You have found him. Well met, Halbarad!"

At almost the same time, Emerald spied two familiar rides and cried out, "Elladan! Elrohir! Fancy seeing you here!" She leapt forward and hugged them after they'd gracefully slid from their horses.

"Your mother would have a fit were she to see you right now," Elladan laughed, gingerly picking up the end of her grungy braid and surveying her rumpled, soiled dress.

"Mama! Is she-"

"She's fine. She actually visited Imladris only a short while ago and our father reassured her that you are in good hands. Your father, too, is doing well, though understandably they are anxious for your return home. You might send a message to them," Elrohir encouraged, giving her a brotherly scolding smile. Hergest, Tegryn and Beven had come forward to greet Elrond's sons, as well, while Emerald caught the end of the conversation between Aragorn and Halbarad. The rangers had somehow known Aragorn needed them and come to find him; there were thirty in all plus the sons of Elrond.

"Come then, let's continue. King Theoden will be glad to have you." Just like that, so quickly and effortlessly, the number of their party multipled. The improvement in Aragorn's mood at the arrival of his countrymen was palpable as everyone remounted and continued along the footpath. Emerald would have liked to ride with Elladan and Elrohir, but they had fallen into step with Aragorn and were obviously discussing something important, so instead she fell back to ride alongside the rangers and introduce herself.

Their confusion and amusement at her was also palpable.

As the afternoon bled into the evening, Emerald found herself again riding alongside Mithrandir. This time she managed to get him talking by commenting off-handedly, "I'm only glad you aren't as foreboding as those Blue Wizards."

"Ah, yes, what did you think of my absent brethren?" Mithrandir asked, equally as casually.

"They are very convinced that they're gaining power for the greater good, but I can't help but feel they're only wanting to expand their powers for their own good. I think they'll be 'independent,' as they called it, only until they master the arts they're interested in."

"What arts they interested in? I'm afraid it's been such a long time since I spoke with them."

"Since the meeting of the Maiar at Dunharrow? The very Dunharrow we're going to now . . ." Emerald realized, wondering how she could have forgotten already.

If Mithrandir was surprised by her, he no longer showed it, only smiled slightly and confirmed, "Yes, since then, though I saw your Ivorwen more recently than that. Until that meeting she was quite close with Radaghast. I visited you, just a little girl, with Ivorwen and Radaghast before-"

"So I did meet her!" Emerald cried, sitting bolt upright in her saddle. "I thought I might have. She was my governess' daughter. And Ivorwen's daughter was-"

"Yes," Mithrandir interrupted her. Behind them, she could feel Aragorn's eyes on her and so she said no more. Aragorn's heritage wasn't completely common knowledge, she remembered, and it wasn't her secret to tell.

Deciding to change the subject, she returned to his earlier question and replied, "They're interested in teleology, alchemy, things like that." Mithrandir thought this over, nodding as his eyes gazed far into the distance.

Leaning in, as though this would keep his words from reaching the ears of her Elven brothers, he suggested softly, "It sounds to me as though they have only discovered how to enhance or even draw out for the first time the natural talents, rather than to bestow them. How many of your party were touched by or possibly ingested a mysterious substance?"

"Ai, Valar," Emerald sighed dramatically. "I suppose this means Tegryn's stupidity is going to be enhanced."

"Hey!" he called from further back in the line.

"Don't eavesdrop!" she called back. He kicked his horse and raced toward the front of the line. She squealed and took off ahead, mounting a crest without a second thought and tearing down the sloped far side. Not until they got to the bottom did they stop and look across the field before them. Instantly the laughter died and smiles fell from their faces.

How hadn't they noticed the stink until now? A dozen large mounds of burning orc and uruk-hai bodies were scattered across the field, sending a wretch-worthy stench into the sky on thick plumes of smoke. The grass was flattened and caked with dark blood. The field was otherwise cleaned and surprisingly empty for such a large battle to have taken place only days before. At the far side of the field, nestled into the mountains, was the Hornsburg, Helm's Deep, an intimidating and still unconquered fortress.

Hergest paused between them, his eyes following theirs, his face a mixture of wonder and horror. Emerald felt her heart speed up and the color rush to her cheeks. Even Tegryn was wordless, unable to pull his eyes away from the nearest pile of corpses whose faces were frozen in a final pain as their bodies burned.

Legolas pulled his horse to Emerald's left, something of a grin on his fair features. Behind him Gimli was chuckling - chuckling!

The noise caught Emerald off-guard and she twisted to gape at the dwarf, asking, "You laugh?"

"We had a bit of a competition going, me and the lad, over who could kill the most." He shoved Legolas good-naturedly and teased, "I believe I won that one, didn't I now, Master Elf?"

"All right, Gimli," Legolas sighed. "I killed only forty-one to his forty-two -but I maintain the last one was a lucky kill on your part."

Emerald stared. When her eyes began to sting, she looked away and gazed across the battlefield again. The sight made her chest hurt. Here, easily seen, were the dead of the enemy, but how many friends had suffered a similar fate? She could almost imagine the horrible clashing of weapons - almost, but not quite, because she had never seen anything quite like it.

As the first tear rolled down her cheek, Alagedh had already shoved his horse between hers and Legolas'.

"She's never seen a battlefield before," he barked at Legolas and Gimli. "And off you go, bragging about death counts. Come on, Princess." He clicked his tongue for Emerald's horse to follow him as he strode forward. Emerald silently followed, but was unable to not look around as they picked their way across the field. If anyone felt uncomfortable in the wake of Alagedh's scolding, she wasn't aware of it and was secretly appreciative of the interference by her friend.

Great was her relief when they finally entered the stronghold. The entrance was crowded and dirty but didn't reek of death, and so Emerald felt herself relax. They dismounted and Beven offered his arm to his sister. She took it and was given one final glance of the fields before their party moved up through the streets to the central rooms.

King Theoden and Eomer were taking dinner but left the meal without hesitation to greet the returning party and the new arrivals. Without meaning to, the elves of the party stood on one side and the rangers on the other with Merry, Gimli, Mithrandir and Alagedh breaching the middle. It occurred to Emerald that between herself and her brothers, Elladan and Elrohir, and Legolas this was quite the gathering of young royal elves. King Theoden seemed to recognize this, or at least recognized the importance of Emerald. He gave a short, stiff bow to her - which was apparently surprising to everyone around because eyebrows raised at his behavior.

"My party is only passing through," she suddenly felt compelled to explain, realizing that she ought to speak for her own group. It was comfortable and easy to relax with Mithrandir and Aragorn at hand and allow them to take the reigns, but it was best she not forget that their parties were only temporarily together. She was still the somewhat absurd leader of their own small fellowship and she ought to act it. She ought to deserve the bow of this king of Rohan.

"We would of course be in your debt if you would allow us to rest a while here and again at your people's camp at Dunharrow."

"We would be honored," came the reply, but not from the king! At his elbow, his nephew Eomer had spoken out of turn. He cast a startled glance at King Theoden, as though surprised by his own voice.

Fortunately, and possibly surprisingly judging by the reactions of the rest in the room, King Theoden laughed, "As charmed rash youth has said before me, your party is welcome so long as you do not hinder our actions. I shall not question your motives or plans and request that you grant me the same favor." Emerald wasn't sure what all the pretense was for since she knew exactly what their plans were, but she thought maybe this was his way of both saving face and washing his hands of whatever business she was involved in. Fair enough.

Before turning his attention to the rangers, Theoden suggested, "Perhaps my nephew would wish to show your party to guest rooms where you might rest for the evening." The slight was obvious, as this was the job of servants, but Eomer didn't seem the least bothered. He motioned for the party to follow him and led the way down two hallways before introducing them to two rooms.

"I'm afraid space is at a premium," he apologized, referring to the small number of rooms.

"That's all right," Emerald assured him. "We're not so entitled that we can't share beds." Tegryn began laughing hysterically, earning scolding glances from several.

"If you'd like to wash up, we'll have more food brought out into the dining room, which is straight down this hall. We look forward to seeing you there, Princess." He bowed slightly, then quickly added, almost embarrased, "And Princes . . . and . . . guard."

"Yeah, yeah," Alaghed grunted, pushing open one of the doors and falling onto the bed.

Tegryn, Hergest and Emerald were shoved into one room, Alagedh and Beven into the other. Emerald was given the washroom first but ordered to hurry. She scrubbed her face and hands until they were pink and raw and tried to smooth out some of the worst wrinkles in her dress. There wasn't much to be done, though, and she emerged from the washroom looking almost as disheveled as when she'd entered it.

While Tegryn took his turn, Emerald pulled the book out. Under so many watchful eyes, she'd hardly been able to glance at it. Now the pages told her very little of immediate interest. Arwen had reforged Isildur's sword and sent it with her brothers - that explained the long wrapped object they'd been carrying. Saruman was unhappy and taking it out on Grima.

On Emerald's page, the only new words were, "That princess certainly is a charmer, isn't she?" She thought of Eomer overstepping his boundaries to welcome her and made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sigh. As if she had any interest in thinking about her effect on a young man right now!

She returned the book to her satchel and tucked this under the bed; Hergest didn't even give her actions a second glance, though he did pat her head lovingly when she threw herself backwards onto the bed. The ring on the chain she still wore around her neck was tossed by the momentum of her fall against her chin.

"Ouch," she pouted. So long had the ring hung about her neck that she generally forgot it was there. Now she pulled it up and looked into the depths. A forest was in view, alive, peaceful. No elves wandered past but a few birds flittered here and there. Emerald closed her eyes to imagine the forests but instead found her mind wandering back to the beaches of home. She then promptly fell asleep.

Emerald woke during the night, sitting bolt upright in the bed and looking around in a sort of dazed confusion until she got her bearings. Tegryn was passed out on the bed beside her, his arms and legs flung across as much of the space as he could manage. Hergest was sound asleep on a cot that stood against the wall beneath the window. The moonlight entering the room was bright and clear, allowing Emerald to find the lamp by the door and light it.

Taking it by the handle, she stepped into the hall, shutting the door just before her stomach began growling loudly. She hadn't eaten anything since mid-day and now sorely regretted that no one had woken her for supper. Quietly she went to the dining hall but there were only drinking men sitting by the fire and she didn't feel like making herself known to them.

Emerald returned to the entrance room but this was also empty. In a last ditch effort to find food, she decided to venture out and see if she could find a tavern or something. Her brothers were going to kill her for wandering off alone but she was so hungry! Pulling the hood of her cloak up and holding it closed in front of her, she stepped out the main doors and had made it down three steps before being spotted.

"Good evening, Princess, but where is it you're headed?" She spun to find Aragorn and Legolas standing to the side of the entrance.

She sighed - caught! - and confessed, "It appears I've slept through supper and am extremely hungry."

"So you're off to fish? Surely a princess wouldn't be venturing off by herself to seek out a tavern, unguarded and at this late hour!" It was Legolas who teased her this time, joining her on the same step.

"Oh, don't make such a fuss, and don't tease me so! I'm hungry enough to faint. If you haven't noticed, I'm somewhat wasting away."

"She does have a point," Legolas told Aragorn. "I spent a half hour talking to a twiggy tree today before I asked why she cut all her hair off and realized by the ensuing silence it couldn't possibly be the princess."

"You're a braver man than I, Legolas, to taunt a famished imp."

"Imp!" Emerald gasped. "And you!" she added, backhanding Legolas in the chest. He had the good grace to pretend like this hurt as he took her hand and tugged her back up the stairs.

With a sigh, Legolas conceded, "Come, I'll show you to the kitchen."

"But if no one is there?"

"Then we shall awake Eomer to cook for you. If he's willing to interrupt the king, I'm sure he won't mind the interruption to his sleep."

"You're in a fine mood tonight," Emerald huffed, pulling her hand away only to rest it in the crook of his elbow. The lamp was unnecessary: she knew Legolas could see quite well in the dark, a skill she'd never needed to develop until recently.

Fortunately, Eomer didn't need to be distubed. In the kitchen, a single maid was wiping down countertops when they entered. She gaped at the pair of them as Legolas asked if there might be any food the princess could have. The maid nodded dumbly and quickly retrieved some fruit, bread and some sort of cold soup.

"Do I just look awful?" Emerald whispered to Legolas. The maid went back to cleaning but continued to glance at them frequently over her shoulder. He gave her a confused look so she elaborated, "She keeps staring."

He gave a low laugh and insisted, "Probably you are the most beautiful thing she has ever seen and doesn't quite know what to do."

"Don't make fun," she sighed, giving him a look as she shoved a rather unladylike chunk of bread into her mouth.

"I wasn't making fun. You're an elf, remember, and a rather beautiful one at that-"

"Especially right now," she snorted. Her frizzy curls were probably making a horrendous halo around her head. She couldn't think about it too much.

"Indeed," he assured her, stealing a couple small berries from her plate. She couldn't understand the smile he gave her and so didn't bother trying. He wandered around the kitchen as she ate, then offered to escort her back to her room if she wished.

"The hobbits and Gimli are in the larger room down that hall. Everyone's sleeping on the floor. Your brothers should be grateful they were under the umbrella of your charms," Legolas explained. Within minutes they reached her room and she turned to say good night and ask him not to mention her late night attempt at flight to her brothers.

Even as Legolas opened his mouth to reply, shouting from down the hall reached their ears. Both abandoned good nights and ran back in the direction they'd come, then down the side hall to the room where their friends slept.

Or had slept. The room was fully awake now. Pippin sat on the floor, his eyes glazed over as Mithrandir roughly asked him demanding questions. Emerald quickly guessed what had happened. The Palantir lay on the floor beneath Mithrandir's cloak, its roundness identifiable even beneath the folds. Pippin was sweating and trembling as he tried to answer Mithrandir's questions. He'd spoken with Sauron directly.

Emerald didn't even know the Palantir had come with them. After Grima had thrown it out the window at her, she'd forgotten all about it. Now she scooped it up from the ground, taking care to keep it fully wrapped in the cloak. Mithrandir noticed but said nothing, just continued his interrogation of Pippin. After only a few minutes of questions, Mithrandir relaxed and announced to the room that Pippin hadn't said anything dangerous. Only now Sauron guessed he was the hobbit with the ring and that possibly he was in league with Saruman, since Suaron thought the Palantir was still in Orthanc.

"Yes, I insinuated to Sauron that Saruman was betraying him," Emerald admitted once Mithrandir had carried Pippin back to his bed. Merry sat by Pippin and patted his back sweetly. The small council now being held consisted of Emerald, Aragorn, Mithrandir, Gimli and Legolas, though a few rangers no doubt listened from around the room.

Mithrandir gave Emerald a startled look and pressed, "You've spoken with Sauron? Through the Palantir?"

"Not directly. The Blue Wizards sent me with a message to Saruman but . . . it contained information that I thought it best Saruman not have. They were communicating through the Palantir the whole time and so I was found out. Sauron was listening in when Saruman confronted me with the Blue Wizards watching. I pointed out that Saruman wouldn't remain loyal to Sauron long . . . I was talking about other powerful items, but I suppose if Sauron thinks he also has the ring . . ."

Mithrandir, to her surprise, smiled, "This is well and good, little one. We have tricked Sauron with your help. He now focuses on Orthanc and away from Frodo. We must use this confusion to our advantage."

"And what about the Palantir?" Legolas pressed. "It can't be safe for the princess to carry it around."

"The Palantir doesn't pose a danger to all. I find myself wondering if this Palantir is from the treasury of Elendil, set in Orthanc for safe-keeping by the Kings of Gondor," Aragorn mused, glancing at the bundle in Emerald's arms.

She understood and, holding it forward, announced, "Then I believe it belongs to you, Lord Aragorn." She even bobbed slightly in a small curtsy, feeling the official hand-off deserved some sort of pomp and circumstance, or as much as could be found in a dormitory in the middle of the night.

"Only be wary, Aragorn," Mithrandir warned. "Do not hasten to give away your identity before it is time. Keep this stone secret that none may accidentally come upon it."

"Of course," Aragorn nodded.

"As for myself, I believe Pippin and I shall leave now and make haste for Minis Tirith this very night. We must not wait for the enemy to untangle the threads. If what Lady Emerald has said is true and Sauron suspects treachery, he will be sending his messengers even now towards Orthanc." That Mithrandir had called her lady instead of princess was not overlooked and Emerald was delighted. It felt nice to be taken seriously, and princesses never were, but a lady was a force to be reckoned with.

Aragorn gathered Pippin up, blanket and all from his bed in the corner and carried him quickly after Mithrandir from the room. Emerald, Legolas, Gimli and Merry followed them down through the streets of the stronghold. So quick was Mithrandir's speed in preparing Shadowfax for departure that almost as soon as they set food in the stables Aragorn was handing Pippin up to Mithrandir.

Emerald quickly stood on her toes to plant a kiss on Pippin's hand and whisper, "Be brave, little hobbit. We shall meet again, I believe in my heart, but not for some tame. Stay safe, Ent Rider!" Pippin gave her a wan smile in return, the most he could muster, and called out for Merry. His dearest friend patted his hand and watched sadly after them as Shadowfax carried them out into the night.

She hadn't realized how quickly her heart had sped up, but now in the quiet stables, with Mithrandir and Pippin suddenly gone form the fort, Emerald felt tired again. The entire episode had taken only ten minutes or so, but the frantic energy made it feel so much longer.

"Someday the peace will last more than a day," she sighed as she followed Aragorn and the rest back through the streets.

Beside her, Merry asked, "Do you really think so?"

"Yes," she nodded. "Yes, I do. Especially if we have so many idiots willing to make a competition out of killing the enemy."

Gimli snorted in amusement as Legolas recalled himself and, with a small gasp at his own forgetfulness, offered, "Princess, I meant to apologize about that. It was not a suitable topic for discussion in front of a lady and though Gimli is the one who began it, I should have changed the topic to something more suitable for the senses of-"

"What you just said is much more offensive," she assured him which made even Merry crack a small smile. "As long as you have Gimli there to keep you safe, I suppose the competition is all right."

Legolas huffed, "I only lost by one! And I won the competition before that." Gimli laughed and patted Legolas' back comfortingly, which only made the elf grumble, "Now I have something to prove."

Emerald leaned against him just the slightest bit as they re-entered the central hall, just so that her arm and the back of her hand pressed against his, and insisted, "Just don't go getting yourself killed, is all I ask. You're not exactly dispensable." She was gone before he could figure out how to reply.

Gimli must have said something, or perhaps Aragorn did, but Emerald missed it. She had already rounded the corner with Merry to return to their rooms, leaving the three alone in the entrance hall. Gimli's laughter echoed after them, though, so certainly somebody had something amusing. Emerald always enjoyed amusing things but considered that maybe this once it was better if she didn't know.

She returned to her room and lay awake for some time, worrying about Pippin and Sam and Frodo. There was danger everywhere, but it was easier to have faith in the safety of her friends when they were close by. Eventually she fell asleep and dreamed of the forest.