Aragorn and Gimli had passed the night in discomfort, for it had been very cold. The wind blew out of the north, bringing with it the chill of snow on the mountains, and there was little protection from its cold fingers atop the long slope where they had made their camp.
Dawn brought with it a change in the weather. An easterly wind blew away mist and shadow; clear light brightened a cloudless sky above them and revealed in sharp detail the vast expanse of the empty lands all around them -- empty of movement but for the grass tossing and bending in the breeze, empty of any other living creature, empty of their quarry.
Aragorn stood upon the crest of the hill, looking out across the grassy plains. This hill was the last in a long line of downs stretching northwestwards towards Fangorn Forest, beyond which lay the rough folds of the Wold of Rohan, and the last tall peaks of the Misty Mountains. The Forest could be seen easily from the hill, though its closest edge was still many leagues distant.
The Entwash flowed swiftly past the foot of the hill, and the trail of the Orcs was clearly visible beside its steep banks. Aragorn followed the trail with his eyes as it hugged the bank and turned towards the Forest, until it was lost in the shadowy distance, where even his keen sight could not discern wood from grassy plain.
"What do you see?" asked Gimli. "Is there any sign of our quarry?"
"No," replied Aragorn heavily. "There is no sign of the Orcs to be seen. I fear they will have reached the Forest by now; perhaps that was their goal all along, though it is not the straight road to Isengard. Once they are among the trees, it will be difficult to find them. And the closer they come to Isengard, the more difficult it will be to effect the escape of the captives. I do not yet know how that shall be accomplished; first we must overtake them."
Gimli's shoulders drooped in despair, but only for a moment.
"Still, follow we must," he asserted, his face set with determination. "It now seems folly to think we shall be of any use other than to die with the hobbits -- if that is our fate, then so be it! The trail is still clear; let us be after them! I am weary, but I will follow nonetheless. They have led us a merry chase through these hills, and I would not lose them now."
"Yes, we must follow," agreed Aragorn, but he made no move to do so. His eyes instead followed a course back along the trail whence they had come the day before, slowly retracing their steps as he gathered his thoughts and his strength. The sun was bright in his eyes as he gazed south and east into the distance, until his gaze reached the tumbled ridges of the Emyn Muil, now little more than a dark smudge against the sky on the eastern horizon.
His thoughts were ever drawn back to that place, where so much had happened in so short a time, to change their lives so drastically. Had it only been four days since he had watched the Fellowship dissolve before his eyes?
The fate of the two Halflings whom he followed was a constant concern to Aragorn, yet he did not forget those who had remained behind. What had become of them? Gandalf's fate he knew, and he still mourned that loss and what it had meant to him personally, as well as what it meant to the Company and the Quest. And Frodo -- how did Frodo fare in the wilderness, with only Sam beside him, and the Ring a heavy burden that would certainly grow more and more difficult to bear?
Was Legolas out there somewhere, following their trail, eager to rejoin the chase to rescue the captives they pursued? Or was he still at Boromir's side, caring for him in his need, waiting for someone to come to help him with the fallen warrior -- and perhaps waiting in vain?
Aragorn sighed a long heavy sigh.
Boromir! he cried silently. If only I could have remained with you! At least then I would know how you fare. Do you even still live?
Boromir watched the late morning sun glittering and dancing upon the water where the current flowed roughly in the middle of the lake. In spite of a restless night, he had been cheered by the attentions of Grithnir and Linhir; his wounds were freshly bandaged, his stomach was full, and his painful memories were soothed for the moment by Linhir's wise counsel. Boromir knew well it was not the end of his haunting despair, but for now he was content, and at peace.
The need to move, to be up and about his business, had been growing upon Boromir since he had felt the first lessening of pain. Several attempts in past days to walk on his own had resulted in disaster, as he had been felled by sickening dizziness after only a few steps. But he would not give up! That day was approaching when he must be strong enough to begin the journey towards home; he was preparing for that time by testing himself -- cautiously stretching his limbs at intervals throughout each day, until he could no longer bear the pain. Yet each day had brought with it a bit more strength, more endurance, and a little less pain.
Now he felt ready for more than just stretching.
Linhir caught Boromir's thoughtful eyeing of the staff laid close at hand, and smiled knowingly.
"You never were able to stay abed long, even when sorely wounded," he commented.
"Is it too soon to attempt more strenuous exercise, then?" frowned Boromir. "If not now, then when? I cannot lie here forever while my father and brother despair of my return!"
"Now, now!" laughed Linhir. "Do not grow angry with me; I approve! Your wounds will suffer no further harm if you go with care. But keep Grithnir with you, and do not stray too far from your place here; at the first sign of weakness or lightheadedness, turn back and rest. I do not wish to risk you falling, and reopening a wound."
"I shall go with care," Boromir agreed.
"Do you want a hand up, my Captain?" asked Grithnir hopefully.
Boromir hesitated, then nodded.
"There will be little point to the attempt if I waste all my energy in getting to my feet," he said ruefully. "I shall be glad of your assistance, Grithnir."
As Grithnir stooped beside him, Boromir lifted a cautionary hand.
"But once I am on my feet, keep your distance. I am done with hovering nursemaids!"
Grithnir met Linhir's amused glance over the top of Boromir's head, and grinned in response.
"As you wish, my Captain," he laughed. "No hovering -- but only on one condition."
"And that is -- ?" grumbled Boromir.
"That you let me decide when you will turn back to rest!"
Boromir frowned fiercely, then his face cleared and he laughed.
"As you wish, my friend," he promised, and held out his hand for the staff.
Denethor stepped back from the palantir, and with a flip of his wrist, replaced the covering cloth. For a long moment, he contemplated the rounded shape upon its plinth, his face grim and drawn; but he was not truly seeing what was before him, as his mind sorted and categorized the images revealed to him in the Stone.
It was a struggle to concentrate. He had mastered his grief for a time, that he might see and understand clearly what was to be learned from the Stone -- but what he had seen had only served to deepen his pain, which now threatened to overpower him. How he had need of his eldest son, his Captain-General! But Boromir was no longer there to serve as his father's sword for the battle and shield against the Enemy now moving against Gondor. One son remained to him, to take on the full burden of those duties, and Denethor wondered if that son would be up to the task.
"I am not Boromir, but I can still serve you, Father" -- Faramir's determined voice echoed in his mind.
"Yes," Denethor said aloud to the empty room. "Yes, you can serve me, Faramir. Indeed, you can serve me well."
His session with the palantir had shown Denethor much of what was happening in his realm, to aid him in his decisions; but one thing was there that was of immediate concern: once again, Haradrim from the South were on the move, marching to Mordor to swell the army amassing against Gondor and the West. It galled Denethor that these Men who were the enemies of his people should walk so freely within the bounds of his land, with no fear of reprisal from Gondor in her weakness. He clenched his fist in anger at the thought, and vowed it would not be so -- these Men would learn to their sorrow that their passage through Gondorian lands would be dearly bought -- and Faramir would be the instrument by which this lesson would be given.
Denethor swung away from the Stone of Seeing, and descended the Tower without a backwards glance.
Boromir stifled a groan as he reached to grasp the water flask Grithnir held out to him.
"I fear you should have called me back sooner, Grithnir," he complained. "I may have attempted too much this day."
"Why, this is a day to remember!" he laughed. "Boromir, Captain of Gondor, admits to being weary and sore!"
"It is easy enough to admit a truth that is plain for all to see," replied Boromir sternly, but he spoiled the rebuke with a smile that could not be hidden.
Boromir was pleased with how far he had been able to walk with the aid of his staff, though it had hardly been any distance at all. It had pained him greatly, causing his breath to catch in his throat and his legs to burn and tremble with weakness, yet he had forced himself to stay upright until Grithnir had drawn him gently but firmly back to his shelter.
"My Captain," said Grithnir after a moment. "Now that you are feeling better, might you tell us a tale or two of your journey? The men are most eager to hear of your quest... or, as much of it as you are free to tell."
"Indeed!" answered Boromir, pleased at the request. "There are a few tales I can tell which might interest you, and it would pass the time, while I recover my strength. Give me a moment more to catch my breath, and I shall begin -- with the tale of how I met Eomer of Rohan on the road to Edoras."
Aragorn cast one last glance at the distant hills. Then with a sigh he made to turn away; but a movement caught out of the corner of his eye arrested him in midstride. Turning back, he shaded his eyes with his hand and looked out over the Downs, searching for that which had drawn his attention.
Someone was coming swiftly across the plain, running, following the same trail they had followed themselves for so many days. At such a long distance, Aragorn could not clearly see the features of the one who followed, but it was not necessary to see his face -- the bright hair blowing out behind him, the familiar stride and form of the figure, were sufficient to reassure Aragorn.
"What is it?" asked Gimli sharply. He had grown worried at Aragorn's long silence, and had stepped forward to stand at his side. "What do you see?"
Aragorn turned to Gimli and his slow smile did much to ease the weariness in his face.
"It is Legolas," he replied with a sigh. "He is coming."
Gimli's eyes widened and he gave a great shout of joy, which suddenly died away into a mutter of concern.
"Boromir must no longer have need of him," the Dwarf said slowly. "But is it because he has been given into the hands of his people to be cared for -- or because he is beyond all aid, being dead?"
The same thought had occurred to Aragorn, even as he had felt his heart leap for joy at the sight of their Elf companion.
"I do not know the answer to that, my friend," he answered with a shake of his head. "But we shall know soon enough, whether it be for joy or for sorrow. Come, let us not tarry here when there is news of import to be heard. Let us go down and wait for him below on the plain."
Gimli needed no further urging, and together they descended the long grassy slope. With the hill at their backs and the Orc trail laid out before them along the banks of the river, they sat down side by side to await the coming of Legolas.