Aragorn and Gandalf had ridden for many days west along the road for there was no great urgency in their errand. It brought peace and comfort to Aragorn as they talked, and silently sat around a small fire beneath trees waving in the cool breezes of summer evenings. They smoked their pipes in contented silence as their horses grazed and mingled nearby. The darkness of the Morgul Vale and Thorongil’s guilt washed away, slowly, though Aragorn ever thought of Celador, Glamren, and the Men of Gondor. He felt more at home beneath the trees and sitting upon the grass than within the stone walls of Gondor. Aragorn wondered if it would ever feel like home, if such a day came.
They rode on through the vast grasslands of Rohan, of rolling hills and the wind whipping tall grasses like green waves of some inland sea. They watched great herds of horses run over the hills, manes and long-flowing tails white and brown in the wind like great banners of kings. Their backs were bright in the sun from the sweat of running free of the saddle. Gandalf knew the land well, and they left the road and rode among the grasses, passing small villages of thatched roofs and crossing the Snowbourne they came into the Westemnet.
“Such splendor, here, even with the land so free of trees,” Aragorn said.
“Indeed,” Gandalf replied as they rode gently through the plain with the road far to their left across the plain and the Misty Mountains rising in a haze ahead and to their right. “Edoras now lies yonder, due south of us,” Gandalf said. “There sits Thengel, son of Fengel, in the Golden Hall.”
“Why did we forsake the road and not go by that route?” Aragorn asked.
“Our errand does not yet lie that way,” Gandalf explained. “I did not steer us away from Edoras for any ill purpose. Quite the contrary, Thengel is a fair man, and much fairer than his father, for he is not quick to anger, nor does he wield his power for the sake of accumulating gold. Thengel is a reluctant ruler, I should say, for he did not lightly return to Rohan upon his father’s passing.”
“Where abroad did he live if not in the house of his father?” Aragorn asked.
“In Gondor, under the service of Turgon, father of Ecthelion! Turgon was a noble Steward, and Thengel served him well, for it was under Turgon that the Mountain of Fire erupted once again, and the Enemy declared himself. Thengel is of two lands, for he also loves Gondor, and his wife, Morwen Steelsheen, hails from Lossarnach.”
“Surely the bond between Rohan and Gondor is strengthened by his rule,” Aragorn said.
“Quite strong, yes,” Gandalf replied. “So, it is not out of fear that we ride now from Edoras. You shall be a strong ally for him, as you now are for Ecthelion.”
“So strong an ally that I would be sent away from him,” Aragorn said mournfully
“You were not sent away due to the Steward’s doubt of your courage or honor!” Gandalf replied. “Though I am sure Denethor planted some doubt in his father’s mind, our journey was largely at my behest, recall. I wish that you should learn more, and I hope, for you to one day counsel Ecthelion wisely.”
“Learn more of what?” Aragorn asked, but Gandalf said no more. Though they had become fast friends, Aragorn still sense between them a gap, one that could not easily be leapt over, for Gandalf’s mind was an immense well of concern and knowledge, deep in its wisdom. Aragorn resigned to let the wizard alone, for now, and he knew that the old man’s plan and meaning would become clearer to him soon.
Soft sheets of rain fell over the Gap of Rohan and Aragorn and Gandalf rode quietly, Aragorn’s head beneath a hood and his cloak pulled across his chest. They rode westward and the gently rolling land at last dipped into a wide, flat expanse with the Isen ahead, turning its way toward the sea. The river was broad and shallow, for the Fords of Isen were the only safe place to cross and they must ford the river before turning north again toward Isengard.
But quickly, over the rain, Aragorn and Gandalf heard men shouting on the wind, and the clashing of weapons. They quickened their pace and neared the Fords, seeing men upon the banks. The river flowed over smooth stones and split in two, surrounding an islet where men of Rohan stood, and Aragorn saw that some were mounted still, circling their horses around those on foot. On either side, scores of wild men shouted at the Rohirrim and clashed their weapons upon leather shields.
“Dunlendings!” Gandalf said. “Old hatreds run deep.”
“We shall ride them down and save the men upon the islet!” Aragorn said.
He spurred his horse forward and Gandalf followed. As they neared, it was clearer that several Rohirrim had fallen already, for there were bodies in the shallow river, pierced with spears or cut down by sword and axe. Blood mingled with the waters, and the knights upon the Islet tried desperately to fend off attacks as the Dunlendings charged across the river, a handful at a time to try and break through.
But the Rohirrim upon their steeds held them back, though the Dunlendings closed in tighter and tighter as the thought of a full charge, despite whatever losses they may suffer themselves. There were suddenly other shouts that echoed over those of the Dunlendings, and the men upon the eastern bank turned to see Aragorn and Gandalf riding hard toward them. Aragorn knew there was little he could do upon his horse, but drive the Dunlendings away, or split their numbers, since he could hardly wield the broken Narsil on horseback.
Aragorn led the way and the Dunlendings parted like the river itself at his coming. At least a dozen of them upon the eastern bank ran from his charge, and Gandalf followed close behind, and he wielded Glamdring, cutting through rain and blood as he reached out and smote two Dunlendings on his way. The water splashed around his steed as Aragorn rode into the river and wheeled around riding toward those on the western bank, and he rode so swiftly, there was hardly any counterattack from the Dunlendings. They fled from him and Gandalf, who followed behind to cut down the enemy as they fled Aragorn’s initial charge.
The Rohirrim upon the islet were emboldened and a captain among them cried out, and though they did not charge, they repelled the Dunlendings with greater courage, for before the arrival of Aragorn and Gandalf, their resolve waned and their defense was desperate. Aragorn and Gandalf at last turned and came to the Islet and dismounted, greeting the Rohirrim as the Dunlendings regrouped and rallied. They had lost merely a handful, and only two came to the aid of the Rohirrim, though they did not comprehend the strength of the two who had come.
“Hail, strangers! We are heartened by your aid,” said Threol, who appeared to be a captain among the Rohirrim.
“You may not know me, but I know Rohan. For it is I, Gandalf, who your people call Greyhame!” Gandalf said. “And this is my companion, Thorongil, a Captain from Gondor. We rode for Isengard, until we saw your plight.”
“Many thanks, Greyhame! I have heard of you,” Threol said. “I am Threol, and my company was escorting the King’s emissary.”
At that a dark hair man came up, still upon his horse, his hair matted to his head and face by the rain. He was dressed finer than the others, and was clearly no soldier. He wore a heavy, dark cloak around his shoulders. “Greetings, friends of Rohan,” he said. “I am Galmod, emissary of King Thengel.”
“Well met, Galmod,” said Aragorn. “Let us add to your defense, and we may drive away the enemy so that you may carry on with your business.”
“Your arrival has scattered them on both banks for but a moment,” Threol said, looking to the east.
The Dunlendings there were regrouped and upon the west, a handful remained, and among them was their chieftain. He stood ahead of the others, ankle-deep in the waters of the Isen. A white pelt lay across his shoulders, and a green hood over his head. His dark beard featured two braids and he carried a curved club, with spikes of bone upon the end, though he also carried a sword on his back. Those around him carried shields adorned with a boar sigil. As it was clear that no further aid was coming to the Rohirrim, the Dunland chieftain raised his hand and shouted in a coarse tongue and the men from both banks ran at the Islet.
The islet provided the Rohirrim with some defense, for it was surer footing for them than the stony river. It sloped upward into a promontory that stood over the small drop in the river. Upon his steed, Galmod waited there, for no attack could come from that side. The knights on horseback circled and Aragorn and Gandalf stood on foot with a handful of others. They were still outnumbered two-to-one.
Aragorn stood ready on the western edge of the islet and the Dunland chieftain charged forward, his warriors passing him by with greater fury. Aragorn and two Rohirrim beside him clashed with the Dunland warriors, and Aragorn parried the blow from a Dunland sword and slayed the bandit who wielded it. Dunlending warriors, their faces covered by pale masks, wielded spears and thrust at the knights on horseback, but the Rohirrim held firm, and though their steeds reared, they came down with heavy hoofs and their riders swung their swords to drive the enemy back.
The chieftain came at them at last, and as he wielded his club in his right hand, one of the Rohirrim soldiers challenged him. The chieftain’s fury was overwhelming, and the old hatreds between his people and the men of Rohan fueled his rage. He struck the scout with his club and unsheathed the heavy sword from his back and brought it down upon the Rohirrim, smiting through his helm and armor.
Aragorn turned and rushed to the chieftain, who now had to drop one of his weapons and shift his sword to his true hand. Aragorn threw his weight into the warrior, but the Dunlending was strong and his legs planted firm. With his free arm, the chieftain grabbed Aragorn by the cloak and readied to bring his sword down, but it met Narsil and wavered, and Aragorn pushed the sword back and swiftly drove his blade between the armor of the chieftain, who fell to his knees. At that moment, a spear was thrown and it impaled the chieftain through the back, and Aragorn looked up in amazement.
Threol wheeled his horse around as he reached for a sword tied to his saddle, and he smiled at Aragorn and unsheathing the sword he waved it in the air and his steed trotted forward and cut off a rush of Dunland berserkers who came at them from the east. Without their chieftain, it appeared the Dunlandings had lost their spirit, and the mounted knights of Rohan proved a stout deterrence, for the Dunlendings could not do more than skirmish with the men on foot, and attempt to frighten the steeds of Rohan.
At last, the remaining Dunlendings fled, and Threol and two other knights rode after them, driving them over the eastern hillocks. Then the Rohirrim stopped upon the crests of the hills and watched as the Dunlendings cursed their old enemies and fled further into the foothills that stood below the Misty Mountains.
Aragorn tended to a fallen rider as Threol returned. The Rohirrim company had lost only four and two others lay injured with little hope to mend their wounds, had Aragorn and Gandalf not arrived. The Men of Rohan saw that Aragorn was skilled in healing, and tending to the wounds of those who still lived and an unspoken fondness for this Captain of Gondor was kindled in Threol and his company.
“Rohan now owes you a debt, Thorongil,” Threol said. “And Greyhame, I’ve heard comes unlooked for, but always with purpose, and good tidings!”
“Good tidings, you say?” interrupted Galmod. “I fear this Dunlending attack speaks ill tidings, for they are emboldened, and it seems there will be need to strengthen our defense in the West.”
“Perhaps,” Gandalf said to Galmod. “But that is to be discussed in the Golden Hall. I wish to get out of this rain, and we shall all continue to Isengard, that being our shared destination.”
“It would be an honor to ride with you, Greyhame!” said Threol.
The company laid to rest the few who had fallen, building simply cairns upon the islet, and departed for Isengard, riding north along the western bank. They rode through another night and came into the Wizard’s Vale, through which the Isen flowed from its spring in the mountains. The valley was fair and green and the company rode beneath trees, filled with singing birds, now lively after the rain.
As they emerged from beneath the trees, there was a wide grass lawn that led up to the stone walls surrounding Orthanc, a great black tower of glistening stone. Aragorn gazed upon it, recalling the walls of Minas Tirith and how they shone in the morning sun, made of the same dark stone from a time now far removed. The ring wall of stone was open only at a single gate, with great doors of iron, and men stood guard there, and upon the walls.
“Halt! Who rides there?” one of the guards upon the wall shouted as the riders emerged from the trees.
Before the Men could speak, Gandalf sat straight in his saddle and called aloud, “It is I, Gandalf! A company of Men is with me, all seeking Saruman’s counsel.”
“Ho! Welcome Gandalf!” the guard said, pleased, for he knew Gandalf as a friend.
The iron gates opened silently, and the company rode through a tunnel hewn in the wall and out again into a fair green valley, a mile across, within the ring. Orthanc towered above them, but the Men of Rohan seemed not to gaze upon it with wonder, if they had become accustomed to its presence. But Aragorn again stared up at it, shielding his eyes from the sun. The Misty Mountains towered there beyond, too, their peaks and faces covered with little snow now in the late summer.
The riders followed pathways to stables near the foot of the tower, and relief washed over them, now, free of any danger, and safe to speak amongst themselves as friends. They knew the stores of Isengard well, and looked forward to a fine meal and ale later in the evening.
“Aragorn, Gandalf whispered as he and Aragorn stood beside their horses, alone. “There was much I wished to tell you before we arrived here, but our meeting with the men of Rohan demanded that I set those concerns aside, for I did not wish to speak openly among them, though they are friends.
“What about?” Aragorn asked, running his hand gently and comfortingly along the back of Gandalf’s steed, now free of its saddle.
“It is a tale too long to tell in full, here. But, it will do only to caution you in Saruman’s presence. His voice carries great power and men may be swayed to do its bidding, though the purpose may not be ill. Let us take care and do not speak so freely of things that have occurred in Gondor.”
“I shall try,” Aragorn said. And though Gandalf called Saruman a friend, still, Aragorn was unsure whether that was the full truth.
Saruman greeted them upon the steps, his flowing robes and long beard white, though the robes seemed to catch light within the folds and shimmer in many colors. He leaned on a staff, as Gandalf did, but Saruman’s was of dark, smooth stone, like the outer walls of Orthanc. He smiled at them and held out his hand in welcome.
“Gandalf, you have come with many friends,” he said warmly. “I expected Galmod of Rohan, but to see you and a companion of yours who I do not know is unexpected, but welcome.”
Gandalf bowed his head, “We come from Gondor, for there is news to be heard from that land. This is Thorongil, Captain in Ecthelion’s service.”
“Welcome, Thorongil, I look forward to hearing news of Gondor. Long has it been since I visited the White City. Many days and nights have I spent in his record halls and libraries, learning much of its lore and history.”
“It is an honor,” Aragorn said, bowing and putting his hand to his chest.
Saruman studied him, and Aragorn felt as if he were suddenly exposed and all was laid bare for those to see and know. His heart trembled under the gaze. The wizard smiled once more and looked beyond him to the men of Rohan who stood on the steps behind Gandalf and Aragorn.
“Come friends, you have endured much on the road. My wardens will care for your wounded, and surely you should like a meal and drink,” Saruman said, waving them all to follow him and he turned up the steps and entered the great iron doors that led into the main hall.
Inside the great hall, Saruman’s voice echoed. The walls were of the same black stone, and tapestries hung upon them. Saruman led them through and into other chambers, speaking as he walked, seemingly knowing all that had happened to them on the road and at the Fords.
“The men of Dunland are emboldened, I fear,” he said. “Power rising in the East once more, and it seems to spread, where old enemies recall their past feuds and seek to renew them.” Saruman’s voice carried and its rhythm was like a fair music and Aragorn felt himself lost in its melodies, as if he sat upon a fine, soft chair in Rivendell and a harp sang him to sleep.
“It would be wise if Thengel sought to repair such old divisions,” he continued. “Though, the clans themselves have many squabbles between them. A strong leader, for surely Thengel is, could bring them together.”
At last they reached a fair dining hall, with a long table of dark heavy wood in the center. The servants had placed food and wine enough for many men. The wizard bid Thorongil, Threol, Galmod, and their company to sit and eat, for Saruman said to them that he wished to speak with Gandalf alone. But Gandalf quickly protested.
“Forgive me, Saruman, but Thorongil and I have ridden together, and it was on his errand that we have come. Let us three speak together of things in Gondor, first.”
Saruman smiled, though he seemed it forced it upon his lips. He tapped his staff gently on the floor and his long eyebrows lowered as he looked at Gandalf disapprovingly behind a veil of kinship.
“So be it, let us speak in my parlor,” Saruman said at last.
He led them into his private ornate chamber, yet it was filled with books and scrolls. He sat in a tall chair and Gandalf and Aragorn sat, a small table between the three of them. Saruman leaned his staff against the table and sat back, intertwining his fingers.
“What is it you wish to speak of, Gandalf?” he asked.
“Thorongil has the tale, but I shall also relay some of it, for we have come to seek your knowledge on some matter of the East,” Gandalf replied.
“Ah, yes. I have traveled far thither, and seen many things, and men of strange places. What troubles you? Surely there has been no foray into Gondor from Easterlings?”
“None of great force,” Gandalf said dismissively, knowing Saruman sought to steer the conversation in his own way.
“So how is the defense of Ithilien? That land is the first line of defense, and Gondor holds it well, still?”
“Indeed,” Aragorn spoke. “I know several of the Captains there, my lord.”
“So from Ithilien do you come, Thorongil? What news can you tell me of its defenses?” Saruman asked Aragorn.
Aragorn again felt his mind adrift and he spoke at first without thought, “No, I do not call Ithilien home, but—” he caught himself suddenly and shifted in his chair. “Battles there have been, but not against Easterlings.”
“Yes, orcs and men of Harad have attacked Gondor of late,” Gandalf said looking at Aragorn. “But it is not these battles that we have come to speak of.”
“Greater danger than assaults upon Ithilien? Surely the Enemy could not be so powerful, yet?” Saruman continued, speaking to Aragorn and disregarding Gandalf. “Where have they pressed you?”
“At Cair Andros, and later Osgiliath,” Aragorn said. “I was at the defense of both. But the stranger tale is in Minas Tirith. It seems a dark plot was underway there, and sought to poison Ecthelion’s counsels.”
“A plot against the Steward, you say? Such internal strife has not been unheard of in Gondor. For ages ago there were many conflicts as men claimed rights to the vacant throne, and surely no such heir has attempted to make such a claim there. That line is long ended.”
Aragorn looked at Saruman strangely, and he felt as if his own voice wished to betray him, but Aragorn remembered Gandalf’s words and thought carefully. “No, I do not know of such a thing. It was one of Ecthelion’s lords that sought to betray him to the Enemy.”
“Ah, the Enemy promises power to many and ensnares them thusly,” Saruman said. “Surely there are men in Gondor weak enough to fall to his words and lies.”
“It was no man of Gondor,” Gandalf said. “Thorongil, and the Steward’s son, Denethor, discovered and rooted out the plot, though it was led by a strange figure, a man who called himself Ulchor.”
Saruman thought on this and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Ulchor. What did you discover of this man?” he asked Aragorn.
“He was known as Alcaron in Gondor, and was a high lord in the Steward’s service. But, upon his death, for I myself dealt the blow, some magic seemed to leave him that revealed himself. I have never seen such before.”
“The Enemy weaves many lies, even those that could deceive your eyes. Perhaps there was some such spell cast upon this Ulchor,” Saruman said. “The Enemy may send many servants out into the world who conceal themselves from others and seek to find their way into the counsels of kings and great lords.”
Aragorn shifted uncomfortably in his seat and both Gandalf and Saruman looked to him suddenly, but discreetly. Gandalf glanced back at Saruman, seeing him studying Aragorn closely. Suddenly, Gandalf intervened.
“It is a bold stroke to attempt such a plot,” he said. “The Enemy is certainly strengthened and seeking to extend his reach, since we drove him from Dol Guldur.”
“His power remains contained,” Saruman said dismissively. “But, there is ever need for allies and strength in free lands to also contain his servants. Orcs have grown more aggressive in the mountains. Why, even one band has come down from the foothills into my own valley.”
Gandalf looked to Aragorn as if sending him a silent warning. “It indeed seems something has stirred them in the Misty Mountains. Could it not be that the Enemy has stirred his followers there, searching for that which may deliver him all the lands of Middle-earth?”
“As I have said before, Gandalf, my friend. The One is lost to him, forever. For though it be not destroyed, as it is likely washed away into Belegaer, he can never again regain it. That is why we must seek to contain his followers.”
“What of this orc band,” Aragorn said, finding himself suddenly focused solely upon the idea of following orc tracks in the wild.
Saruman looked pleased at Aragorn’s interest, “Ah, yes, I only know that they are led by a captain who calls himself Mugash. It would be a danger to the Westemnet if they grew in number and this orc captain allowed to raid into the mark.”
“Perhaps Threol and Galmod would be interested to hear of this,” Aragorn said.
“Yes, indeed! For it is the reason that I called them hither,” said Saruman. “And by your eagerness, it seems that you could join them in this endeavor, as surely you have done your share already to stem the tide further south.”
“I have done what I could,” Aragorn said, and he felt a twinge of doubt as it bubbled to the surface.
“There is more you could do, for Gondor and for Rohan. A Captain of Gondor in Thengel’s service would certainly please the king, and could only strengthen the bonds between your fair lands,” Saruman said.
“It would be my honor, of course,” Aragorn replied, “Though it was not Ecthelion’s intent that I should stay.”
“Of course not, but I shall write to him. I will further look into the possible spells that this Ulchor wielded to deceive the Steward, he would be interested to know of such things, and whether danger remains in his counsel. But, I am sure he would be pleased to have you aid Thengel, his ally, in this time of need.”
Aragorn could not say by what force he was driven to accept Saruman’s wisdom, but he felt calm and assured of the wizard’s course of action. He felt compelled to seek this orc captain and the thought reminded him of hunting orcs with his brethren, Elladan and Elrohir. He missed them, and there seemed to be some semblance of comfort in this task, for it was far more familiar to him than defending the walls and commanding companies of men that he had done in Gondor.
Gandalf knew that Saruman had woven a subtle tale, one that appealed to Aragorn’s heart. For though Saruman knew little of Aragorn himself, it was clear to him that the man, Thorongil, was eager to hear of the orc threat, and drawn to such a task. Gandalf resolved that there was little harm in allowing Aragorn to hunt this Mugash, though as he looked to him across the table, he knew that he must expand upon his worry and tell his tale more in full to his young friend.