VI: The Golden Wood

For all that their hearts were heavy, the Fellowship traveled swiftly. After so long a separation from the light of day and the freshness of cool air, all but the elf found themselves keeping their heads down and their cloaks drawn close around them, overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the space above them. They scuttled over the open ground more than walked or ran, not paying much mind to where they were going, all but Aragorn and Boromir at the head of the column and Legolas bringing up its rear simply following the feet before them.

There was no talk. Each unhappy head was left to its own thoughts, to dull them as it could in the rhythm of the march. Yet if there had been the chatter of previous days, what would it have been composed of? Mithrandir was dead. The good, old, wise Mithrandir, their guide and counselor and dearest friend had fallen into fire and hideous shadow. Never more would he see them, or they him. In this time of darkness, with surely more yet to come, they were without him. For all the hobbits were unaware of much of the doings and happenings of the world, they knew that they were alone in a way that they had never had the courage to contemplate. They were many weeks' travel from the Shire, the good old Shire, and the one who had been their connection between there and here was gone.

And while each mind was left to think only on Mithrandir and the loss that had befallen them and all of Middle Earth, as they marched on as the day waned, teasing at the thoughts of each of the Company was the stranger. Stranger. That was a word loaded with meaning, was it not? And this stranger was a very strange stranger. A stranger who was stranger than most. Who was he? What was he? Where had he come from? What could he have been doing in Moria? And yet, none of these questions were as pressing as the one which most troubled the Fellowship as they continued on towards the wood. Who had sent him? A person didn't just turn up in the depths of Moria for no reason. One didn't go out for an afternoon stroll and suddenly find oneself dodging orcs in the darkness. The worrying thing was that whoever had sent him there had managed to time things very neatly so that the Fellowship would encounter him and take him along with them. And who could do that if not some powerful enemy?

A glooming darkness was beginning to set in when after long hours of the quick pace, the Company found themselves in a slowly thickening grove of trees, a precursor to the wood proper, the ground softening underfoot and the light dappling through foliage. That last in itself was something of a surprise to those who had not visited the wood before, namely Gimli, Boromir and the hobbits, as in the bleakness of winter the only kind of leaves they were accustomed to encounter were the spines of the evergreens. Harry remained too unconscious to be surprised by anything.

None spoke as they passed under the eaves in the failing grey light. All were weary, the hobbits the worse of all, barely able to support themselves, continually astonished that their legs kept moving one in front of the other, yet too delirious with fatigue and grief to stop them. They came to a stream, about a mile into the wood, and it was suddenly as if an unknown hand had thrown the cool water over their heads. As one the Company came back to themselves, and promptly shucked their burdens and half sat, half collapsed on the forest floor.

Aragorn spoke first.

'I am sorry, my friends. I have forgotten what we have all endured this day. I should not have kept us marching so long, and yet the heaviness in my heart bid all haste be made.'

'Do not trouble yourself,' said Legolas. 'The journey has done no harm, and how can any be sore and weary for long when they lie under the boughs of the mellyrn?'

Aragorn didn't reply for a moment, and then exclaimed, 'But Frodo!' He drew himself to where the hobbit lay spread out on the ground, his chest rising and falling deeply. 'Frodo, you were injured! Nay, you were all but skewered! And your friends not only did nothing to ease you, but carried on until night.'

Frodo smiled tiredly, and tried to say that he did not mind the march, and that he was not badly hurt at all, but was unable to find the breath to form the words. Aragorn stripped off the hobbit's jacket and tunic, and then took in a gasp of surprise which was let out as a soft laugh.

'Well, if that is not a pretty undertunic for a hobbit of the Shire, stitched by your good blacksmith! I shall cease to wonder that your kind is so long lived!'

'And yet only those with this good fortune!' cried Gimli, catching sight of the shining metal. 'For is not this mithril, and the very same that Bilbo wore those years ago? A gift the double in the giving, master hobbit, to be of such value, and such good purpose!'

Removing the mail shirt, there was a large bruise visible, which Aragorn bathed with water from the stream infused with athelas. Whether it was by the properties of the Elven water or the healing plant, Frodo felt the pain leave him, and all the Company were refreshed by the smells from the gently steaming pot.

A matter of a few feet away, the wholesome fragrance of the athelas reached Harry where he lay insensible. As he breathed the sweet fumes, his eyelids fluttered.

It was Boromir who noticed that the stranger was wakening. Having carried the slender form all the miles from Moria, and not having Aragorn's doctoring to occupy him, he had been contemplating his burden when he looked over to where the man lay and saw him rubbing his face with one hand as though trying to brush away fatigue.

Perhaps it was remiss of him, but he did not alert his fellows at once. He was inclined to think kindly of the stranger, though he could not say why that should be. When first he had set eyes on him he had seen him as a mere unfortunate soul, a fellow traveler in need of kind turn but not one to whom he had any great obligation. The suggestion that he be left to his own chance had shocked Boromir deeply, hence forth the care of this poor stranger had been a point of honour with him, one in which he would not fail to do what was befitting of a man of Gondor and of the House of the Steward. Yet he could still have done his duty by the man without any of the true concern he now felt for him. It should not have mattered that the elf clearly thought the man an enemy, except to warn Boromir himself against treachery.

But be his reasons what they may, he did not call at once to the Company to tell them of their new guest's wakefulness, but approached the man himself, quietly so as not to be threatening, though taking care not to appear as if from nowhere and startle him.

'Good e'en, friend,' he said in a kindly voice. 'You have been long away.'

The man looked back at him, his bright green eyes awake, but unfocused.

'Who are you?' he asked in that strange, unknowable tongue. 'Who are you? Where am I? Where have you taken me?'

Sensing the man's alarm, Boromir spoke soothingly, as he would have done to a startled horse or a nervous child.

'Peace, peace, friend. You would not do yourself injury?'

He smiled, and the man seemed to calm, though Boromir was unsure how far he was understood. And yet, it was not merely the lack of comprehension which troubled him; the man seemed unaware even of his surroundings, unable to sit upright, his head weaving slightly like a drunkard's. Looking carefully at his eyes, Boromir saw in the faint light that the pupils were of uneven size. He gently took the man's head in his hands, ignoring the childlike mewling that escaped the stranger as a symptom of his weakened condition, and began feeling the scalp for abrasions. As his fingers swept over the back of his head, they found a sticky clump of hair and blood.

Alarmed himself, Boromir called over his shoulder to the rest of the Company, 'Aragorn! Aragorn! Come swiftly, and bring the athelas! You must tend him!'

Aragorn immediately set down the bindings he had been strapping over the slice Sam had taken from an orc blade, and crossed the short distance to where Boromir sat by Harry's side.

'His head, Aragorn! The back of his head! All the day we carried him, so caught in our grief that we did not see what was before our eyes. We thought he was weakened from deprivation in the mines, we were content to carry him unconscious and untroublesome.' The last words he fairly spat in disgust.

Aragorn set to bathing the wound, delayed by the thickness of the man's black hair, cut short and spiking in every which way. By no understanding was it the worst of its kind he had seen, but as his fingers discovered cracks in the man's skull he winced at the truth in Boromir's words. He had kept Frodo and Sam labouring all the day behind him, yet he had carried this man through all that time and had not given him a single thought.

He washed and bathed the wound in water and athelas, and bound the man's head as he had done Sam's a moment before. Casting his eyes over the rest of his frame, he caught sight of a slash in the mysterious black coat the man wore. Gently removing the garment, he saw a nasty diagonal cut in his arm, ending just underneath the strange shortened sleeve of his shirt. It was no longer bleeding, but there was an unhealthy black tinge to the ragged edge which concerned Aragorn gravely. Filthy orcs and their poisoned blades had been known to kill the strongest men.

He bathed this in athelas also, but between the two wounds he knew it may not be enough. It was well that they were so close to aid.

'We shall delay here no longer,' he said grimly. 'We must reach the elves as swiftly as our feet will carry us thither.'

'Elves?' asked Boromir. 'I have heard tell of a sorceress who dwells within these woods, a great weaver of magic who ensnares all who dare enter.'

Legolas gave a snort of impatience. 'Mortals and their foolishness; bred of ignorance and suspicion that they will find the greed of their own hearts in all other creatures. The Lady is exceeding fair, and if she hath her own magic, it is put for better use than ensnaring idiot men.'

Gimli gave a rumble in his throat that indicated that he would fain disagree, or perhaps he meant to point out that idiot men aside, the 'Lady' could not feel kindly towards a dwarf such as he if she were elf-kind. But whatever his feeling, Aragorn silenced him with a look.

'The so-called sorceress of these woods is mother to Lord Elrond's lady wife over the sea, who is mother to Arwen Undomiel. We need fear no mischief from her.'

With the discussion ended, they crossed the stream, feeling its cool waters soothe their clad feet even as they walked. They continued on deeper into the wood, scanning the path before them in the darkness, aware of the orcs who would follow with the dying of the day.

Suddenly Gimli stopped walking at the head of the party. Boromir looked around to see what was the trouble, only to find himself facing an arrowhead aimed between his eyes notched in a bow held by a wood elf all glad in grey.

'Be still, mortal,' said the elf in slow Common Speech. 'What business have you in the Golden Wood?'