The road that runs past Edoras cleaves to the White Mountains, running along beside them doggedly until they curve away to the southeast, past Helms Deep. It is a wide gravel lane, well maintained in most places.
As it went north, the land on either side of it changed. The endless steppes of Rohan receded into rolling plains aside the banks of the River Isen, and scattered stands of trees began to appear. On the right, Orthanc stuck up like a single jagged shard of onyx, its flanks still mottled black from the soot of the fires that had raged beneath it a decade ago.
Elden had no time to contemplate Isengard. The thunder of hooves was close at hand, and his steed was growing tired. The black stallion had caught his eye at a trading post just north of Helms Deep. Something about the way he looked at him with his big brown eyes cried out to him that he wanted more from life than to be a stock pony or carthorse. He had not protested when Elden had caused a distraction and untied him, leading him away in the confusion.
The Eorlingas had not given up, however. Even now they were less than half a league away; close enough to hear the stamp of their steeds. They had chased him since Edoras, and it was only through luck and a liberal dose of magic that he had managed to avoid being run down by them. Elden had taken something from the Lord Regent Hassel, something that he was desperate to retrieve. He could feel it bouncing against his chest upon its thin chain. He could simply slip it on and dismount, he doubted Hassel had told his men what the ring was for fear one of them would take it for themselves, but he didn't want to abandon the horse.
It had been faithful to him thus far, and had needed no urging to continue riding until nightfall. They had made good time, thundering across the Isen bridge just as the sun was setting. Soon Isenguard was hidden by the southern end of the Misty Mountains. By that time the stallion's flanks were heaving, and Elden was dead tired as well. He waited until they got to the peak of the next hill and cast around for a place to hide, settling on a stand of trees and brush that grew in the space between two folds of the landscape. He quickly went north and back, making a false trail that lead up towards the foothills. With any luck they would think he had gone up onto the rock and shale to try and loose their trackers.
He doubled back along this trail, widening it, before moving towards the valley. He dismounted, unsheathed the short sword at his belt, and used it as a machete to hack away a space for him and the horse to lie down. The blade gleamed in the moonlight. It was of elvish make, another prize from the Lord Regent's horde. A small creek ran through the middle of the undergrowth and down the valley to a pond at the bottom. There would be no time to erect a more permanent shelter, and it would attract too much attention anyway. He tied the stallion to a tree, giving it plenty of length to lie down with. Then he laid down a blanket and sprawled out on it, pulling the folds of his hooded traveling cloak around him. It was a drab green and marred with dust and dirt from the road, perfect camouflage.
Despite relative comfort and momentary security, he lay awake, watching the stars wheel in their slow, silent dance. His stomach burbled fitfully, but he wasn't in the mood for more stale bread. He wished dearly that he had some mutton, but there had been no opportunity to hunt. A slightly crooked bow was slung across his pack. It wasn't the finest craftsmanship in Middle Earth, but he had hewn it with his own two hands and he knew all of its minor eccentricities.
The wind whipped overhead, whistling in the crack between two hillocks. It sounded like the hills were singing. He couldn't remember falling asleep, but he must have, because it was still dark when he woke again.
Something was bothering the horse.
It was awake as well, its heavy breath misting in the night air, its hooves shifting the leaf litter. Elden crawled around to its muzzle and tried to soothe it. He could hear movement down by the stream, and he reached into his pocket and slipped the ring on. Instantly the grey rain curtain of the world fell back, belying the foundations of the earth. He could sense the sun just beneath the horizon, but it seemed pale and sickly. When he glanced towards the stream he could clearly see four goblins crouched beside it, piercing the algae film to take big, greedy gulps of the water. The ring caused their outlines to shift and shimmer, distorting their already hideous features.
Slowly, Elden reached over and retrieved his bow. From out of the quiver lashed to his pack he drew a single arrow. The head had three barbed blades, and the tail was fletched with hawk feathers. The string stretched back, taught. Elden selected his target carefully; the one closest to them, who was giving him a perfect side-view of his ugly skull.
He let the arrow fly with a hiss.
It struck the goblin right above its hairy, pointed ear, and the creature collapsed into the creek with a splash, dead before it hit the water. The three others stood in shock for a moment, and then turned tail and ran, tripping over roots and boulders. He waited a quarter of an hour or so, and then got up and walked softly over to the bank of the stream, his boots sinking into the mud slightly. He placed one heel against what was left of the creature's skull and prized his arrow from it. After it was put away in his quiver, he returned and hauled the body farther down the valley, to the edge of the tree line. The water was no good to drink anyway, but the smell of the corpse was already unpleasant. He imagined the ones who got away would be wishing he had killed them as well when the brackish water worked its way through their digestive tract.
The short bout of exercise did the trick, and as soon as he had lain down again he was asleep.
His dreams were dominated by vivid recollections of the pain in his wrists as he hung from the stockades in Edoras. It was night and all were asleep, including the guard assigned to watch him. His hands, already thin from hunger, had slipped through the holes in the wood like snakes. Not once did he consider fleeing the hold. Not yet.
His feet were clothed in rags, and they carried him silently down one empty lane and up the next, avoiding the infrequent watchman that trundled past, clutching at their shoulders and cursing the cold. Elden was heedless of the bitter wind. His hate kept him warm. Hatred of the Lord Regent, and the countless wrongs he had done him. The Regent's keep lay at the base of the great hill of Edoras. All around it had been built a multitude of new houses and stables, lodgings for the influx of refugees originally displaced by the wild men of the hills and Saruman's Uruk Hai.
Using a thatched roof nearby as a foothold, he scaled the tower, slipped into the Regent's bedchamber and stole the ring and sword from his dresser before departing with the ease and quiet of a wraith.
Except in his dream he didn't escape. When he swung his foot out of the tower, Edoras was ablaze, and the tower was collapsing into rubble with him inside of it.
The fire scorched the inside of his eyelids and he jerked awake. Golden sunlight was beaming down through the treetops, and the hills were alive with birdsong. He examined the underside of his wrist. The black mark of Mandos stared back, taunting him. But hadn't he taunted Mandos? Hadn't he tempted death on many occasions? There were only so many more times he could slip out of trouble before it caught up with him.
Ah well, he thought, best to press on and bugger the consequences. The end will come when it will come, and not a moment before.
Comforted by this knowledge, he climbed the ridge to look for a sign of his pursuers. He found none.