I, too, despaired at last, and I began my homeward journey. And then, by fortune, I came suddenly on what I sought: the marks of soft feet beside a muddy pool. But now the trail was fresh and swift, and it led not to Mordor but away.The Fellowship of the Ring, Ch. 2
Aragorn at last came north, weary after many leagues by foot. He rested along the banks of Anduin, still south of the Old Forest Road having just passed through the Gladden Fields where Isildur fell. Aragorn’s mind lingered on Isildur’s Bane and the fate of his kin as he crossed the Gladden. As he set up camp beneath a small grove, Gandalf’s words replayed in his mind: the wizard suspected his friend, the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins, had found Isildur’s Bane in Gollum’s cave. And so the wizard set himself and Aragorn out to search for the creature, Gollum, to question him about the ring he once possessed and so coveted.
As he made his way to the western bank of Anduin, gathering kindling along the way, Aragorn sang softly to himself; his thoughts strayed to Arwen Undomiel, of quiet and peaceful days wandering in Lothlorien. Aragorn longed for that haven after many years spent south and east. But as he walked near the water’s edge, amid pools and soft mud, the sight of soft footprints in the damp earth pulled him out of his reverie.
Stopping abruptly, he knelt down and examined the tracks. Bare feet made soft impressions in the earth, like elves walking upon snow. But no elf, or man, dwarf, or orc left such prints; rather haphazard they were once they reached the muddy pool nearby. A creature not walking, but crawling upon four limbs; hand prints he found there also.
Aragorn measured his steps so as to not disturb the trail; he knelt by the pool, where the tracks became harsh and deep, as if a powerful thrust had been made from the shore. Indeed, he noticed within the clear pool, upon the mud bottom, that something had violently reached beneath the water. An unnatural swath was cut into the mud. He began looking to the grass behind and around him, away from the pool, where the tracks then led.
A few paces from the pool, the soft prints reached the verdant forest floor, and he found there a heavy impression in the grass. The creature sat here for a time, and Aragorn now sat beside where it had once taken a moment—a moment to eat. For as he sat, Aragorn looked to his left and saw there a small, ravaged fish carcass; a brief meal, eaten raw and with great force. Bones lay about, and the head of the fish remained, staring into the distant canopy. Flies gathered about it and its rotting smell became suddenly apparent to him.
Aragorn then knew with confidence the creature whose trail he had just happened upon. For though he and Gandalf had labored separately for years, searching the wild lands for the creature Gollum, Aragorn had given up the quest for a time, with no sign of the creature’s trail. But, lo! here the creature dined, if such a word could be used to describe the way in which he consumed his catch.
Looking back toward the direction of his camp, Aragorn thought of the soft grass beneath him; the creaking of branches overhead; the soft wind in the leaves; his pipe in hand, a fine trail of smoke rising to the stars; the crackling of his fire, and a coney roasting there, slowly; its smell warming his heart and bringing forth eager complaints from his belly.
But he brushed the thoughts aside, returned to his camp and tied the kindling he gathered together, affixing it to his pack, for he would need it along the trail, and would not wish to waste time gathering more. He returned to the spot where Gollum sat and determined the creature passed by this place only two, maybe three days prior.
Looking around he found the soft tracks of the creature heading away north and west. Where Gollum aimed to go, Aragorn could only guess. He merely needed to keep the trail for as long as he could, following wherever the creature led, hoping to overtake him and bind him. Aragorn took one last look south, toward Lothlorien, and with a heavy heart he set out on Gollum’s trail, moving swiftly, quietly, and carefully, stooping as he walked so as to find the signs of Gollum along the way.
The trail which Aragorn followed led to the south and west. He did not know from which direction the creature came, but after a day and night, Aragorn returned almost to the Gladden, or Ninglor, as the elves called the short river that fed into Anduin. He had travelled it many times, by boat, and by foot, wading across its fords when moving north or south. The land to the west was fair and rolling, but gradually fell into the marshlands of the Gladden Fields.
Here Isildur met his doom, and having just passed through on his way north, Aragorn once again found himself near the fields. Aragorn could follow any trail or sign made by men, elves, dwarves, and especially orcs, with ease; but the creature Gollum, being both light of step, and weary of pursuers, made the task unusually difficult. At times Aragorn stopped, taking pause to examine the earth around him, looking for any sign of a crawling presence. A bent bough of a shrub, or grass flattened by feet and hands, signs that most would pass by unnoticed, but a ranger such as he, could see even in the dim light of morning.
As he searched for the direction the trail led, Aragorn guessed he had passed twenty leagues or more since he found the creature’s trail beside Anduin. His feet ached, and his limited remaining food rations he consumed during the night; enough to fuel him for another day, but soon, he would have to attend to his empty stomach.
The quiet woods offered little clue of the creature, or any others, but a few singing birds waking with the rising sun. Aragorn stood near to the river, and began to suspect that Gollum had forded the waters nearby. The trail could possibly end, or continue, in the waters. A clever waterman he knew Gollum to be, but whether he would take comfort in the waters for long, Aragorn doubted. So a quick fording it must have been, if at all he went south again.
Aragorn continued for a few paces more, turning to the left toward the river bank, coming upon it where one could easily step down and into the waters, and walking to and fro before the soft grass gave way to mud and light gravel, he saw more signs of Gollum’s passage. The creature indeed forded near here, and Aragorn had to do the same to pick up the trail again, now turning south.
The cool waters reached to his own waist, which meant Gollum had to swim the width, and the current would carry him east for a time before he reached the opposite bank. Aragorn waded ashore and knelt briefly, looking east and keeping an eye close on the bank for Gollum’s tracks. He found the trail again further east along the bank; Gollum scrambled out of the waters with tight hands pulling on the grass, and himself up the bank, avoiding crawling through the mud, but unable to disguise his passage to the Dunedan on his trail. Whether the creature knew he was being followed or not, he kept care to conceal his passage.
Aragorn’s pace quickened, turning right and into the trees with Anduin on his left, he ran for many leagues, confidently following the trail south until night began to fall. He slowed and kept the trail, but began to wander among the trees as he neared the marshland. Among the sounds of birds and beasts, he began to hear harsh voices on the air. Aragorn paused and put his shoulder to a tree, listening closely as the sound of arguments and gnashing of teeth came to him from ahead; he picked up the sound of axes striking wood, and the smell of a small fire.
Orcs he knew to be out near the eves of Mirkwood, but encountering them on the trail of Gollum, he felt could not be chance. He crept towards them slowly and silently, stepping so lightly he bent not a blade of grass. As he knelt behind a fallen tree, a familiar call reached him; a quiet chirping as if a bird spoke just before settling in for the night. But it was not the call of a bird, but a Dunedan signal. Aragorn looked around before answering the call himself, with two quiet chirps.
As if a shadow came to life, a man emerged from next to a tree, a few yards beyond to Aragorn’s right. In the dim light, he saw his green cloak and ragged shirt. The man approached Aragorn slowly, but not taking caution of his fellow ranger; he moved so as to not alert their enemy. When the ranger knelt beside Aragorn, he knew his face.
“My lord, Aragorn,” the ranger said, “I did not expect to find you in these parts.”
“Echador, it warms my heart to see one of our own. I have been near and far, and spent many of the past months alone,” Aragorn replied. “I follow a trail as we speak, but ahead appears a troop of orcs.”
“Not orcs,” Echador said, “but goblins from the Misty Mountains. I have tracked them for two days since I happened upon them.”
“Have you figured their purpose; what is their course?” Aragorn ran his hands over his unshaven face.
“I have overheard their vile arguments by day and night,” Echador said with contempt, “Indeed they follow a trail as you do, but what they seek, I do not yet know.”
“I believe our purposes have aligned, my friend,” Aragorn said. “These goblins must be searching for the same quarry as I: the creature Gollum.”
“Gollum?!” Echador said under his breath, then spat on the ground. “So you are looking for him at the wizard’s request, still?”
“His trail has been cold until just two or three days past,” Aragorn said. “I happened upon it along Anduin, less than one hundred leagues north.”
“No doubt these goblins are on his trail as well,” Echador said. “Shall we move around them?”
Aragorn thought for a moment. By the sound of it, even the goblins were prepared to leave the trail. There were undoubtedly more servants of the enemy abroad, and many would care not to increase their pace, without the whips of their masters near at-hand. But Aragorn knew that leaving a troops of goblins free to roam and seek the trail of Gollum would only hinder his own chances of overtaking the creature.
“I do not think we shall let your pursuit of them go to waste,” he told Echador. With that the ranger’s cold eyes seemed to catch the rising moonlight with excitement. “We shall overtake them and perhaps we can learn something from them about their own pursuit.”
The pair split and Echador took a position to Aragorn’s left. The goblins’ fire began glowing brightly, lighting the trees around where they sat. Aragorn could see that they numbered but six, and their small camp was surrounded by mangled limbs that they carelessly cut to pieces. Aragorn moved closer and put his back to a tree, just outside the fire’s light. The light from the fire prevented him from seeing where Echador stood, but Aragorn called to him again.
Aragorn slowly drew his sword and breathed slowly, heavily. With a flash, he leapt from the darkness, and cried, “Elendil!”
The goblins turned quickly, their eyes full of fear. Some scrambled for their notched and curved swords, others simply staggered back from Aragorn as he raged toward them. In a second he was among them, and cut down the first. As those who reached for their weapons stood, and drew, Echador emerged from the shadows without a cry, but stuck one of the goblins in the back, then dropping him. The goblin’s cry alerted the others, and they turned instinctively. They cried in fear as Aragorn’s sword flashed against the flames and cut down two more, with Echador felling the fourth.
The last two goblins panicked and one dropped his blade and began to flee. Aragorn threw a heavy shoulder into it, knocking the goblin to the dirt. Echador parried a blow from the last standing goblin and stuck him, finally, black blood staining the ranger’s sword as he pulled it from the goblin’s chest. He wiped the blade against his leather coat as he moved toward the fire, and Aragorn, who held the last goblin by the neck.
“Vile creature, what does your company seek so far from the safety of your mountains?” He growled. The goblin cowered and hid his face from the fury in Aragorn’s grey eyes. “Speak!”
The goblin shook and in a choking squeal, answered, “Hunters from Mordor. Seeking the creature Gollum. They ordered us to search the valley.”
“Hunters from Mordor, you say?” Echador said, matching Aragorn’s fury.
“Large uruks. They whipped us, and we ran along the Gladden until we came here. The trail is cold,” the goblin said.
“If the trail is cold, might the hunters return south?” Echador asked Aragorn.
“I suspect they will continue their search; but these were likely to return to the Misty Mountains without fear of punishment,” Aragorn replied. He turned back to the goblin, “Where did the hunters follow the trail?”
“They headed south, into the Gladden Fields,” the goblin squawked.
“Will you pursue them?” Echador asked.
“I would prefer to steer clear of them, for fear that such an encounter might throw me off the trail, and put too much distance between us and the creature,” Aragorn said, his mind searching for a course of action. The goblin nervously looked from one ranger to the other.
Aragorn grabbed the goblin’s mail and shook him to his feet, “Echador. Take this creature to Mirkwood. Thranduil and his people know I am abroad in these lands. They will welcome you. Let the king do what he will with servants of the enemy. Either that, or we dispatch him here and now, and I would prefer to get back to the trail.”
Echador took a length of rope from his bundle and began to roughly tie the goblin’s arms and hands. “I will let the Elven King know of your passage, and pass judgment on this creature.”
They left the goblin sitting on the ground as they stepped aside and spoke quietly. Aragorn drank from his waterskin and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
“It was good to see you, my friend. After delivering this prisoner to the Elven King, I trust you will remain vigilant in these lands. If servants of Mordor are abroad, danger may lurk anywhere.”
“I will stay alert and look to your coming, with the creature Gollum in tow,” Echador said, clapping Aragorn on the shoulder.
“If luck is on my side,” Aragorn said. “Now, time is against me. I must pick up the trail again. Farewell, Echador!”
With that, Aragorn quickly moved into the shadows and left Echador behind. As soon as he walked in the night, away from the light of the goblin’s fire, his heart began to sink again. After some difficulty in the dark, he managed to find Gollum’s trail again, but only briefly. For the creature moved south for many more leagues before reaching deep into Gladden Fields. Somewhere amid the marshes, where the waters of Gladden spilled into the great width of Anduin, the Gollum’s trail vanished. It is likely he found safe and quick passage along the river, clutching to a floating log, deftly swimming with the current.
Aragorn dismayed. Although he tracked the creature for many days, the trail leading into the Gladden Fields, where small streams, pools, islets, and many yellow irises filled the land, making a coherent path difficult to track. Aragorn would follow his lead, only to lose it in a rush, and among the irises that grew taller than even he. After passing across the marsh, in one direction, and then another, further south for two more days, he abandoned the search.
Surely the forces of Mordor suffered even more in finding the creature’s trail through the marsh. Aragorn spent the night on a small islet between two streams, smoking his pipe in the moonlight, which was bright enough to allow him to see a great distance in every direction. Finally, under the stars, he slept.