A thick fog hung about the knees of the mountains. The air was thick and damp as Aragorn and the scouts of Rohan moved through the rocky paths leading up through the bare foothills at Methedras’s feet. All was blanketed in bleak gray, from the clouds that hid the mountain above to the stones beneath their feet. A soft, misting rain soaked through them and Aragorn began to wonder if there was some purpose to the ill weather, for it already seemed to wear down his companions and he worried it may wash away signs of their quarry.
Aragorn was in the van and following behind him were stout men of Rohan, chief among them, Threol, who had insisted he follow Aragorn on the Wizard’s errand, in hopes of repaying the debt owed for Aragorn and Gandalf’s aid upon the islet. Threol was no skilled scout, being a greater captain and rider out in open battle, and so with him came riders with greater experience than he, and he deferred to their, and Aragorn’s judgment.
The six men had been on the hunt for two days, and encountered few signs of orcs near to the Wizard’s Vale. Now as the hills climbed higher against the mountains, the paths among them and clefts in the stone offered many places for orcs to move about, far enough from the vale and the plains beyond so as to not fear the sword or spear. Aragorn and the others grew uneasy as they climbed higher, searching the ground and the rocks about them for signs of Orcs’ passage.
“The hour is growing late, Thorongil,” Threol said, stumbling upon loose rocks beneath his boots. “Perhaps we should shift our focus to making camp?”
Aragorn realized that he had kept a quick pace, almost too quick for the men behind him to follow, for his long legs and intense focus on the earth had carried him further away from the group than he thought. He paused and looked back and Threol was nearest and his golden hair was wet and amess about his face. Though he hid it well, his armor weighed on him, and he regretted his choice to wear it on such a task. Coming behind him were four others, clad more in garb fitting a scout’s, green cloaks like the fair fields of Rohan, some with helms that covered half their faces, their own bright hair lying on their shoulders.
“Forgive me, Threol,” Aragorn said. “My mind was of a singular purpose and I did not reckon the passage of time. I would prefer to get out of this rain, if we may find a place in the stone to shelter us.”
“Let us rest a moment, you and I,” Threol said. He looked back at the four men who now stood together around them, drinking from their waterskins, “Eofor, Ordred, search the surround for a safe place to make camp,” he commanded.
Eofor and Ordred, weary but grim and silent, bowed their heads in response. They spoke softly together and departed into the rocky uplands. The other two men, Leod and Wigbald, stood guard and spoke together, leaving their lords to their own company. Threol sat with a heavy sigh on a boulder as Aragorn scanned the lands away to the south, a steep hillside of scree tumbling down to more uplands shrouded in grey mist and rain. Though his eyes were keen, Aragorn could not make out any signs of movement.
“Truly the Men of Gondor are hearty folk,” Threol said, taking a drink of water. “Though here among the hills I see you as a Ranger of your people, rather than a Captain, Thorongil.”
Aragorn turned and smiled, though he felt hesitant to speak freely, “Your insight is true, Threol. Indeed in my youth I spent many years in the wild.”
Threol laughed heartily, “In your youth? You look a young man, still, to me!”
“Indeed,” Aragorn blushed.
Then, though the wind and the light patter of rain filled the hills around them, they heard a cry and strange howl. Threol stood swiftly and Aragorn trained his ears, for the cry was a shout of a man in danger. Aragorn heard the whistle of arrows and he reached out to Threol and pulled him down, both men falling upon the ground as black orc arrows broke upon the rock around them. Leod and Wigbald sought cover, their swords drawn. They heard the clashing of swords and the cries of men and orcs echoing in the hills.
“Eofor and Ordred!” Aragorn cried out to Threol. Leod and Wigbald ran up and crouched beside Aragorn and Threol as they rose to their feet as well; no further arrows came.
“The arrows came from the uplands to the East,” Wigbald said, extending his sword in that direction.
“For now, we must find Eofor and Ordred,” Threol said. “I can still hear their calls!”
The four now moved through the rocks and footpaths among the boulders and rising slopes, but the echoes against the hills and the mountain made the search difficult. Aragorn kept his eyes on the ground, finding a trail of one of the men as they had departed to search for a safe haven to camp. He came upon a narrow pass between a high slope on his right and sharp, leaning rock on his left and it bent around back to the south and he came out into a small bowl among the surrounding hills to see Eofor and Ordred.
They were unharmed, but stood together as Ordred held out his spear toward a dark and crouched wolf. The wolf was poised to strike, and though Eofor and Ordred kept it at bay, they could not turn their backs. Aragorn drew his sword and cried out in a deep roar, springing from the narrow pass toward the wolf. It spun around in an instant, teeth bared and its hackles standing high. Ordred seized the opportunity and threw his spear, burying it in the beast’s side; the wolf curled and yelped, falling to its belly in its final throes.
“Are you alright?” Aragorn asked, sheathing Narsil and putting a hand on Eofor’s shoulder.
“We are unharmed, my lord,” Eofor said with relief. “It is a strange thing to see a wolf on its own.”
“Aye, we were sure the pack would encircle us, but none came,” Ordred added, retrieving his spear.
Aragorn knelt beside the slain animal, the rock and gray dust beneath it turning red. Threol and the others at last came to them, their faces red and their chests heaving, but they soon felt relief and greeted their countrymen gladly. Aragorn felt the dark fur of the wolf and noticed a strange sight at its neck. Its fur was bare in places, and as Aragorn ran his fingers deep to the skin, he could feel the signs of some wound around its neck. Aragorn’s face grew dim and twisted in thought as he stood.
“What do you look for?” Eofor asked.
“You were right to think it strange for a lone wolf to attack you,” Aragorn said. “It does not look to be a desperate creature, starved or mad. I fear that this wolf is not wild, but may be driven by orcs, or at least it had been once upon a time. Here, beneath its fur, there are signs of restraints, or some cruel collar of the orcs.”
“A hunting beast?” Threol asked.
“Perhaps,” Aragorn said. “The arrows that came upon us were a chance to wound or kill us unawares. No follow through suggests to me they then fled.”
“I regret that our search for a haven led us no further than this,” Eofor said.
“Nonsense, you are here with your lives,” Threol said. “Besides, with orc hunters and their beasts about, I do not think we will get a restful sleep. We must camp and keep watch diligently,” he looked up and around them.
“Eofor, Ordred, take rest, I will keep watch,” Aragorn said.
“As will I,” Threol added. “Wigbald, Leod, clear this beast so we will not have to rest near its stench.”
The two men dragged away the slain wolf, and Aragorn looked about with concern. Dark clouds shielded the moon and stars. The air was cool and damp, and he sensed a building dread upon it. He could also feel Threol’s eyes studying him, knowing that the captain held back a question, sure Aragorn would soon speak. As Wigbald and Leod returned, a gentle roll of thunder echoed in the mountains.
“I fear our roles are reversed,” Aragorn spoke at length.
“What do you mean?” Threol asked.
“The wolf and its masters; the hunters are now prey.”
The men of Rohan looked at one another, trading glances of fear and determination. Some clutched the hilts of their swords. Threol listened to the wind, but as it blew downward from Methedras, the thunder came with it, and little could be heard beyond. But Aragorn relied more upon his sense of the surrounding lands, the smell in the air, and knew that the lone wolf would not be the only adversary that night. He turned and the men gathered to him; he whispered to Threol.
“There are indeed more orcs and their hounds about,” he said. “We should not wait here to be besieged, though I believe our strength could withstand them.”
“What do you propose?” Threol asked.
“They would take a chance at one of us, out alone. We are here to find the creature Mugash, afterall. I will go and seek him out.”
The men shook their heads or stared at Threol and Aragorn in disbelief. This was folly, they knew, for a lone man in the dark among the broken hills would be easy prey. Threol shook his head adamantly.
“I cannot allow you to do this alone,” he said. “It is my duty to protect this company, and we will see the job done together.”
“So we shall, but we must turn our enemy’s confidence and lust against them,” Aragorn said. “Let me draw them out, so that you may leap upon them.”
“Do we know this orc captain is among these hunters?” Wigbald asked.
“No,” Threol said, “but we may draw him out, or discover his lair, should we take one of his ilk alive.”
Aragorn smiled and the others looked confident and nodded, gripping the hilts of their swords or hefting their spears now with boldness. Their captains had kindled a new fire in them, and they felt strong and sure.
Thunder rolled among the hills and rain fell once more on the shoulders of Aragorn and Threol as they stalked through the rocks, Threol’s eyes darting to and fro while Aragon sensed the faint smell on the air and followed the tracks of orc feet and their hounds. The tracks would be washed away in the rain, but though Threol saw little sign of them, Aragorn had the trail clear in his mind.
They had followed the trail for only a short while through broken lands of tumbling rocks and small footpaths between. Aragorn suddenly halted and listened, Threol stood anxious and cold, from the cool wind carrying rain from Methedras’ peak or a sense of impending doom, he could not tell. Aragorn heard them first: snarling and barking, their claws scraping upon rock. Threol looked up and behind them, seeing the orc hounds’ bright eyes in the gathering dark.
“Make a show of it,” Aragorn said softly.
“Hounds! Fly!” Threol cried, and the two broke like frightened prey.
They scrambled through the boulders, their feet slipping over loose gravel, down and away from the heights of the mountains. The frantic howls and scratches followed, chains rattled as orc voices joined the hateful storm behind them. But, suddenly they stopped, faced with a wall of rock and high boulders. Aragorn turned and Threol drew his sword.
The hounds bounded down and stalked closer, their fur dark and matted, their jowls foaming and teeth bared. Orc hunters emerged behind them, holding whips and chains, daggers at their waists. But it was then that a larger figure emerged from the dark, a larger pale orc; his ears were sharply pointed, and two sharp incisors protruded from his bottom lip. He wore a tattered cloth at his waist and bracers, stolen from men of Rohan, for they clearly held sigils of stallions, defaced by the orc’s claws and knives.
“At last we’ve cornered our prey,” the great orc snarled.
“Mugash, is it?” Threol asked defiantly.
The orc licked his purple lips, “Another horseman come to die. Where did your companions flee to?”
“Flee?” Aragorn asked, a knowing smile spreading across his face.
Then, Mugash knew and his eyes widened and his lips curled. Quickly he drew a sword and lunged toward them; the orc hounds followed. Whistling on the wind, arrows came at the orcs and their hounds were struck. Mugash paid no mind to the danger, but those behind him quaked and their eyes darted about. Aragorn drew Narsil and he and Threol stood shoulder-to-shoulder; Threol cried and met Mugash, blades crossing.
The orc’s strength was great and Threol staggered back as if a piece of the mountain itself had fallen upon him. Aragorn parried the orc’s blow that intended to slay Threol, but the orc’s free arm delivered a heavy blow that bent Aragorn; were it not for the intervention of Eofor, a decisive blow may have followed. Like a skilled man on his own land, Eofor swung a great lariat that caught Mugash around the throat. Eofor and Wigbald held the rope tight; Mugash raged and released a great howl, stumbling backward from Aragorn as the men pulled on him like a wild stallion.
Another lasso caught Mugash’s arm; Threol leapt up to disarm him, but the orc remained strong as a stone. As Threol held his attention, Aragorn sprang forth and delivered a cut to Mugash’s sword arm. Ordred and Leod held fast on the second rope and Mugash fell to one knee, howling and wrenching, but the rope tightened around his neck and he quickly faded to defeat, his dark sword falling to the ground.
Threol stood breathless and Aragorn sheathed Narsil quickly. Mugash spat at them and in his disgust, Threol stepped and delivered a harsh fist to the orc’s face, which at last put the fight to rest.