Novarwen caught Legolas’ eye and handed him the belt. His own eyes widened at the sight, but he only took the belt from her and went to show it to Aragorn. Novarwen was grateful that he didn’t ask her anything – she wasn’t so sure that her voice would work at the moment. She sat down on the ground, her mind numbed by the improbability of what she was asking it to believe. Merry and Pippin…dead. A thousand little images of them raced through her mind. They can never see sunlight or moonlight again, or the sky, or the grass, or their Shire… The last thought was too much for her, and she felt a tear fall lightly down her cheek.
A heavy hand was placed on her shoulder. Startled, Novarwen looked up and met the eyes of – of all people – Gimli. “None of us will hold it against you if you cry, lass,” the Dwarf said, his normally gravelly voice softer. His own eyes seemed a little wet. Novarwen swallowed hard and clasped Gimli’s hand, the touch saying all she couldn’t trust herself to say. He squeezed her shoulder, then withdrew, leaving her to her sorrow.
Nearby, she heard Aragorn’s voice. “A hobbit lay here,” he murmured. Novarwen looked up and, through tear-filled eyes, saw him trace a slight depression in the ground. “And another,” he added softly. Novarwen stood and walked over to the others, standing above Aragorn.
The Ranger caught his breath. “They crawled,” he whispered, his sharp eyes darting from one place to another, seeing things even the Elves’ eyes could not. Novarwen took a step forward, barely breathing. Aragorn’s growing, urgent excitement was contagious. “Their hands were bound.” He brushed aside a tuft of grass and lifted up something that made Novarwen catch her own breath – a rope, fraying at the ends as though – “Their bonds were cut!” Aragorn completed her thought for her. He stood up, taking long steps across the brown grass. “They ran -” He began to do the same, his eyes on the ground, and Novarwen, Legolas, and Gimli followed him. Novarwen’s heart was beating frantically in her chest. The hobbits cut their bonds – during the Rohirrim attack, when they wouldn’t be noticed? – and ran away. Could that possibly mean that they might still – may it please the Valar to let it be so – alive?
“The tracks lead away from the battle!” Aragorn shouted triumphantly. Novarwen felt like cheering. She felt as light as a feather, able to fly with the joy of the news. Then Aragorn stopped abruptly. Startled, Novarwen couldn’t stop in time, stepping on Legolas’ foot by accident. She looked at Aragorn, and her eyes widened. He was not looking at the ground any more. His eyes were focused ahead. “Into Fangorn Forest,” he added, his voice taking on a darkened tone.
“Fangorn!” Gimli murmured. “What madness drove them there?”
“We have to go in there,” Novarwen announced. The others looked at her in surprise. “If Merry and Pippin survived the battle, they might still even be in Fangorn! Eomer said they attacked last night. They probably are still in there! Maybe they’re even waiting for us to come for them!” She swallowed. They were not embracing the idea of heading into the forest. Novarwen cast a glance at it and had to admit that they had a point. If Merry and Pippin had not gone in, she would never contemplate setting a foot in it. She took a deep breath and looked steadily at them. They had to come with her, they just had to!
Aragorn settled it by nodding, his mouth in a grim line. “We will all go to seek our friends,” he said, in a tone that brooked no argument. Not only just a king, Aragorn had become their leader in his own right. Novarwen thanked the Valar that they had Aragorn to lead them, and followed him into Fangorn.
The trees were huge, moss-covered, draped in long, thick ropes of green moss and leaf. The leaves made a cover over the forest, letting in little light, and the ground was thick with moss and dark soil. “This forest is old,” Novarwen murmured almost reverently – no, very reverently. “Very old,” she added to herself, “and full of anger.” She reached out a hand to touch the ancient bark of one of the trees, thought better of touching this grandsire of trees, and drew her hand back. The leaves of the tree rustled, as if in agreement with her assessment of it. Then the tree itself began to creak, its branches moving slowly, ponderously, as though stiff with age. Gimli gripped his axe tightly.
“Gimli!” Aragorn hissed, apparently sharing Novarwen’s feeling that it would be somehow disrespectful to speak above a whisper in this forest. “Lower your axe!” The Dwarf’s mouth dropped into a startled O, and he brought his axe down. The trees quieted as soon as he did.
Legolas walked over to Aragorn, his face as grim as the Ranger’s own had been when he decided they would go into Fangorn. “Aragorn, nad no ennas!” he whispered. Novarwen couldn’t suppress a shiver – her brother had just said that something was out in the forest, and it didn’t look very good from the look on his face.
“Man cenich?” Aragorn asked, his eyes searching in the direction of Legolas’ gaze. “What did you see?”
The Elf fitted an arrow to his bow carefully. His eyes flicked behind them. “The White Wizard approaches,” he said, and no further words were needed to convey his meaning. Novarwen’s mind instantly leaped to Saruman. Aragorn looked much tenser and much more worried.
“Do not let him speak,” he warned, his hand tensing on his sword hilt. “He will put a spell on us.” Novarwen felt for her knife, fingering the hilt carefully. “We must be quick,” Aragorn added, breathing more heavily than he normally did. Then, “Now!” he cried, and Novarwen spun around and took only a moment to aim before flinging her knife at the burst of white light that suddenly shone behind them. To her shock – she never missed a knife throw, never! – the wizard deflected the knife easily and sent it flying back to sink neatly into the ground at her feet. Novarwen stared, astonished, at it, and at her companions, who were faring no better. Legolas’ arrow had been flung back at him, too, and Aragorn and Gimli had dropped their weapons. Novarwen shielded her eyes from the glare of the white light, wondering when Saruman had become so powerful.
“You are tracking two young hobbits,” he said in a calm voice. “They passed this way, the day before yesterday.” How does he know that? she wondered. How do we know if he’s telling the truth?
“Who are you?” Aragorn gasped, trying to peer through the light at the wizard’s face. “Show yourself!”
The light intensified, then faded away, revealing a face – oh, such a familiar face! Novarwen gasped and stumbled back a few steps, staring at the wizard she and her people had known as Mithrandir. “It cannot be!” Aragorn whispered. “Gandalf?” He nodded, and the shadow of the old, mischievous smile Novarwen had often seen directed at her touched his mouth and eyes. “But…” Aragorn stepped forward, staring at him. “You fell,” he tried, his eyes wide.
The smile fled. “Through fire,” Gandalf said, his eyes seeing things of the past, “and water. From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak, I fought him, the Balrog of Morgoth.” Novarwen listened, enraptured, as Gandalf told them of his battle with the Balrog, how the creature of fire and shadow had fallen, defeated, and how Gandalf himself had died. “But I have been sent back,” Mithrandir finished, “until my task is over.”
“Gandalf,” Aragorn whispered again, clasping his shoulder warmly.
“Gandalf…” the wizard said slowly, as if probing his mind for the name. “That was what they used to call me…Gandalf the Grey.” He looked up at them all and smiled. “I,” he said, “am Gandalf the White. And I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.” The words, although it was Gandalf who said them, still made Novarwen shiver slightly with apprehension.
A gray robe thrown over his brilliant white robes – although nothing could hide his pure-white hair – effectively hid Gandalf’s new status from all who didn’t know it – everyone in Middle-earth, apart from the four companions. His smooth white staff in his hand, the wizard stood on the plain on the other side of Fangorn and whistled. Novarwen looked at him, puzzled, but she understood the moment she felt the ground shake. Then a horse cleared the slight crest they stood on, and Novarwen gasped in awe. The horse was as white as Gandalf’s robes, huge and powerful and royal. His mane floated on the air like clouds in the sky. It lifted her spirits just to see him run. “That is one of the mearas,” Legolas whispered, “unless my eyes are cheated by some spell.”
“Shadowfax,” Gandalf murmured, his hand running gently down the horse’s white neck. “He is the king of horses.” With a smile that reminded Novarwen of Gandalf the Grey, he added, “And he has been my friend through many adventures.”
Then Novarwen saw a sight that took her mind instantly off Shadowfax, as glorious as he was. Galloping towards the five of them was a horse she knew immediately on sight. “Brethil!” she yelled in delight, racing to meet the horse who had taken her from Mirkwood to Rivendell. Brethil whickered happily, and Novarwen threw her arms around his neck and hugged him. When she turned back to her companions, a little embarrassed to be seen playing with her horse like a child, Gandalf was smiling. “But how -” she asked, the smile on her face becoming intense curiosity.
“The Lady Galadriel entrusted him to me when I came to her in Lothlorien,” Gandalf told her. “He showed up one day looking for you.”
Novarwen stared at Brethil, then hugged him again. “Oh, you disobedient, wonderful horse!” she whispered into his mane. He neighed tolerantly and licked her cheek.
“Novarwen, we have to move on,” Legolas reminded her. Novarwen sighed, then swung up onto Brethil’s back. Now I don’t have to ride double on Hasufel’s rump! she thought exultantly. One more reason to love Brethil, Gandalf, and Galadriel.
The others mounted up, Gimli grumbling a little about being the only one without a horse. Novarwen knew better – if Gimli was ever offered a horse of his own, the dwarf would turn it down flat and stay riding double, where at least he could hold on to someone. So she smiled at him teasingly and nudged Brethil gently with her knees, her hands entwined in his mane and her eyes turned ahead, to wherever Gandalf might lead them.