Lalaith shifted her weight within the saddle, and rolled her shoulders back, shaking her head at the weariness that threatened to numb her mind. The world for so long had been a whir, the trees of the wood they were galloping through, little more than blurred images in the faint light.
To her right, the mountains, jagged peaked and snow capped between swift glimpse through the trees, rolled slowly by, less of a blur than the ground beneath Hasufel’s hooves, and those of Shadowfax beside him. Gandalf upon his silver back seemed unwearied, and she sighed.
Pippin who had been sleeping in snatches for the past day and night was half dozing against Gandalf’s arm, and she couldn’t help but envy him. She had slept not at all, and even blessed with her Elven stamina, she was still growing stiff and light headed, from so long in the saddle. Though, she reminded herself, this was not nearly so arduous a trial as their forced trek across the plains of Rohan, when she and the Hobbits had been the captives of Saruman’s uruks. She was not running now, nor was she wounded. And she was grateful enough for that.
The trees broke for a moment, and the land sloped downward suddenly, a gentle rill to a shallow river, through which the horses clattered, casting up the water in foaming, sparking droplets, soaking the bellies of the horses, and splashing scattered drops up upon their clothes, and into their faces.
Pippin woke at this with a start and a small squawk, much like the cry of a startled goose. She glanced into Gandalf’s face at this, to see a spark of merriment light his eyes as they traded a glance.
“That was the Mering Stream, Lalaith!” Gandalf called out as the horses surged up the eastern bank. “Do you know where we are now?”
“We are passing through the Firien Wood. We have left the Eastfold of Rohan. And we are in the land of Anórien?” She cried back.
“Indeed!” He laughed aloud, his voice ringing with cheery merriment through the wind that whipped around them. “You’ve remembered your studies well, my dear! I shall have to remember to tell Elrond!”
She smiled at his humored tone, her heart lightening at the moment of cheer it brought.
“Where’s that?” Pippin chirped out. “Where are we Gandalf?”
“We’ve just passed into the realm of Gondor.” The wizard cried into the swift wind, in answer.
Gondor. And Minas Tirith their goal, was drawing closer. As was the harsh red glow beyond the far distant peaks, black and barren, the Ephel Dúath. It had been a low haze on the horizon when they had set out from Edoras. But now it was larger, a long ridge of black, beyond where she could see the constant angry glow of Orodruin glimmering off the heavy bellies of the angry black clouds that boiled eternally above that barren land. Somewhere in that vast, lifeless expanse, was Frodo. And Sam, with him. Somewhere. Alive, she prayed softly in her thoughts, and every moment taking them nearer to the fiery mountain. She had no choice but to believe it, that they were alive, and that the One Ring was still in Frodo’s possession. For she dared not believe anything else. Upon them, all the hopes of all the free people of Middle Earth precariously hung.
“Tall ships and tall kings
Three times three,
What brought them from the foundered land
Over the flowing sea?
Seven stars and seven stones
And one white tree.”
Turning her head, she glanced at Gandalf, singing now, his words coming clear to her ears through the rushing wind.
“What are you singing about Gandalf?” Pippin asked.
“I was just running over some of the Rhymes of Lore out loud.” Answered the wizard into the wind. “Hobbits, perhaps, have forgotten them.”
“No, not at all.” Pippin quipped. “But I’ve never heard that one. What is it about, the seven stars and seven stones?”
“About the palantiri, the seeing stones.” Lalaith cried in answer. “The stone you looked into was one of them. There were seven in the ancient days. Kept by the kings of old.”
“So they were not-,” Pippin struggled to glance over at her, jostling slightly from Shadowfax’s leaping strides. “They were not evil to begin with?”
At this, Gandalf laughed aloud. “Ah, no. The Noldor made them. But there is nothing that Sauron cannot twist to his evil purposes. Long ago, they were kept at Minas Anor, and Minas Ithil, the one kept at Orthanc it appears, has withstood the storms of time, hidden long from the rest of us, by Saruman, to his own downfall. Another one was kept under the Dome of Stars at Osgiliath. The other three were far away in the North.”
“Annúminas, and Amon Sûl, and Elendil’s stone was on the Tower Hills that look toward Mithlond.” Lalaith returned, to which Pippin glanced over at her, and lifted a brow, impressed. “So it is taught in my uncle’s house.” She finished with smile.
“Who knows now, where the lost stones of Arnor and Gondor now lie? But one other at least, Sauron captured.” Gandalf added into the wind. “The Ithil-stone, I think. For he took Minas Ithil long ago, and turned it evil. Minas Morgul it has become.
“That,” Gandalf continued, his voice growing hard in the wind that whipped ever about them, “is doubtless how Sauron tutored Saruman from afar, twisting him easily to his purposes, for Saruman already longed for more power than was his due, and was an easy victim for the Dark Lord to ensnare. Saruman’s fate, I fear, was sealed by his own selfishness. For even a wizard is not immune to the pull of evil. Even now, my own mind is tempted to test my will upon it, to see if I cannot wrench it from Sauron’s sight, and turn it where I would-, to look across the wide seas of water, and of time to Tirion the Fair, to behold the White Tree and the Golden in flower!” He smiled as Lalaith studied his wistful face that shook itself quickly, and returned to a sober calm. “But I dare not. For even now, I too, could fall under Sauron’s hold.”
“I wish I had known all this before.” Pippin grumbled. “I had no notion of what I was doing-,”
“Oh, yes you did!” Crowed Gandalf in a tone that made Lalaith smirk, and Pippin cringe. “You knew you were behaving wrongly and foolishly. Even were I to have told you all this before, you still would have done what you did. But the burned hand, for some, is often the best teacher. I do not doubt but that you have learned your lesson, now.”
“I have.” Pippin sighed in a voice that softened Lalaith’s heart, and brought a gentle expression to the wizard’s face. “Even if all the seven stones were laid out in front of me, I would close my eyes, and put my hands in my pockets.”
“Good!” Cried Gandalf, shooting a mischievous wink to Lalaith, which she grinned at. “That is what I hoped.”
On the horses galloped, tireless, both of them, Hasufel giving Shadowfax no cause to slow for him. And no surprise it was, for as Gandalf had told her, Hasufel had dwelt in Lórien for a time, under the gentle care of the Elves, feeding upon the rich grasses in the misty glades about Cerin Amroth. The strength of the Golden Wood was infused in his blood, and he was as one of the Mearas now. But why had they sent him back? Perhaps Grandmother had foreseen Lalaith’s need for him, and sent the faithful creature to her aide. Or-, Lalaith’s heart caught upon a beat at a thought that flickered and faded, unremembered from her thoughts. Perhaps, she thought, groping in vain for the remnants of the forgotten memory, another may have had a hand in Hasufel’s timely return?
Perhaps. She thought, and wondered on it long as the horses galloped beneath them, the earth under their thundering hooves an unending blur of grass and earth.