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Riding the Nightmare  by Budgielover

Disclaimer: The Lord of the Rings and all its characters and settings are the property of the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien, New Line Cinemas, and their licensees. These works were produced with admiration and respect, as fan fiction for entertainment purposes only, not for sale or profit. This story and all my others may be found on my website, http://budgielover.com.  My thanks to my dear Marigold for the beta.

Riding the Nightmare

Chapter One

Sam knew there was nothing he could do but he couldn’t sleep, even though the watch would alert them if anything came at the camp, and Sam trusted Merry with his life. And with Frodo’s life. Sam could see his master’s cousin now, if he squinted against the dim starlight and sliver of the new moon, the small form sitting knees-tucked-under-chin for warmth and enveloped in blankets. He’d chosen a perch on a large boulder, which afforded him a good view of the desolate landscape around the sleeping Fellowship, but Sam was sure that rock was right cold to sit on. Merry’s head turned alertly from side to side, tracking each night-twitter of birds or rustle in the bush, and Sam knew he had naught to fear.

No, lack of trust in the watch wasn’t what kept him awake. Beside him, protected against the cold night by all of his blankets (and two of Sam’s that Sam had slipped in when Frodo wasn’t looking), his master tossed in uneasy slumber, his breathing irregular and strained.

Frodo groaned in his sleep and Sam saw Merry’s head instantly pivot towards them, the faint light bleaching his bright hair silver-grey. Merry shifted as if he would rise, and Sam hastily pushed himself up on an elbow, letting the younger hobbit know he was awake. Neither could make out the other’s face in the dark but Sam’s unspoken reassurance was enough; Merry relaxed with a faint sigh, resuming his guard over them all.

Frodo murmured something and Sam leaned closer, wishing that Frodo would confide in him, as he used to. He had tried again that afternoon as he brought his master a plate of ‘taters and sausages and what greens he could find, hoping that Frodo would eat this time. Sam had done the best he could, sprinkling the food with a little wild parsley in an effort to make it look more appetizing. But Frodo had just glanced at the steaming plate and shook his head, silent and withdrawn. He’d hardly said more than two words together since … since they’d left Lothlórien behind them, and with it their last link with their leader and guide …and friend. Sam’s vision blurred and he dragged a corner of his blanket up to wipe his eyes. Gandalf, wailed a voice in Sam’s heart. He hushed that voice sternly – Mr. Frodo didn’t need Sam’s anguish to deal with, not with the load of grief and guilt he had already piled upon himself.

This time Sam had persisted, trying to manoeuvre the plate into Frodo’s hands. His master needed to eat, even if he didn’t feel like it. One can only refuse food for so long, and it had been too long – Frodo had climbed shakily out of the elven boat, walked inland the few steps to their camp, and sunk to the ground trembling and ashen-faced. He had dropped his pack and then rested against it, his face averted from the others. Legolas and Gimli had been watching him covertly, even as was Sam, and they started towards him in concern. But Aragorn, too, had been watching and he quickly shook his head at the Elf and the Dwarf. With worried glances between them, the two obeyed and did not approach Frodo.

Sam wished they had. Sam knew that Frodo would pull into himself like a snail, not spreading his grief to the others but also not allowing them to comfort him. Even Sam. That hurt, that did.

Frodo had done the same when old Mr. Bilbo left, but Sam and Mr. Merry had refused him the right to wall himself up in Bag End and brood. Mr. Merry had put an end to that; he had sent for young Master Peregrin, and the exuberant eleven-year old racing through the smial had kept all three of them too engaged to mourn the old hobbit’s absence. Sam, Merry and Pippin had made sure that a steady parade of friends and relatives tromped through the old hole (with the exception of the Sackville-Bagginses, of course), keeping Frodo so busy playing host that he could not immerse himself in melancholy.

That strategy wouldn’t work here, now. Instead of a great, loving circle of family and friends, there was only himself and his master’s cousins. Merry and Pippin had been unable to be much help these past few days since leaving Lothlorien, not that Sam faulted them. Pippin had been ill with a bad cold brought on by the cold and damp of the river, and Merry had been doing what he could for the lad, both of them making light of Pippin's illness in front of Frodo and the Big Folk so as not to cause any worry. The lad was nearly well now, thank goodness; the Wild was no place to fall ill, as they all had reason to know.

That left Legolas and Gimli and Aragorn and Boromir. Boromir. That was a jar of worms Sam didn’t want to open. It had been the Man that had carried Frodo, screaming hysterically, from the Bridge where Gandalf had fallen into shadow and darkness. The Man had been nothing but respectful since, but Sam found himself stiffening whenever the soldier of Gondor was close to Frodo, nervous and ready to defend his master – against what? One of their own Company? Against one of the Fellowship sworn to protect the Ring-bearer? Sam’s unease had increased each time he saw the Man’s eyes on Frodo, watching as his master struggled against weariness and pain and increasing despair.

Mixed in with Sam’s fear was simple exasperation. Frodo had looked at the carefully-prepared plate in Sam’s hands as if the food were something offensive. He had shaken his head wordlessly, turning away from it, and desperate, Sam had tried again.

“Have some food, Mr. Frodo. You’ve not eaten anything all day. You’re not sleeping, neither. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.” Frodo had not looked at him, just continued staring blankly into the gathering darkness. “Mr. Frodo!”

At last Frodo met his eyes, and Sam’s heart caught at the weariness and blank hopelessness he saw reflected in their brilliant depths. “I’m all right.”

“But you’re not. I’m here to help you.” Sam’s voice quivered, his grief suddenly bubbling to the surface. Down to his last resort, he tried the only thing he could think of that would sway Frodo. “I promised Gandalf that I would.” Silence stretched between them, then:

“You can’t help me, Sam. Not this time.” Frodo turned away from him, quiet dismissal in his tone. “Get some sleep.”

Sam had almost gone to Aragorn, to ask him to force Frodo to eat. Only the knowledge that Frodo would not forgive such an intrusion stopped him. Frodo had wrapped himself in his cloak and lain down in the blankets Sam had prepared for him, falling asleep long before the rest of the Company. At least he was sleeping peacefully. Or had been, until now.

Frodo moaned in his sleep again and the sound tore Sam’s heart. He leaned forward to peer into Frodo’s shadowed face but his master had his head turned to the side and the faint starlight did not illuminate the fine-boned features. Was Frodo having a nightmare? Should he wake him, then? If he did, would Frodo be angry at being robbed of what little sleep he had managed to snatch? Time was when Sam would never have feared he might be snapped at, but Frodo’s normally sweet temper was sore tried by the Quest and exhaustion, and his reaction was uncertain. Nevertheless, it was Frodo’s need for rest that kept Sam from waking him, not fear of being growled at.

Frodo was thrashing restlessly, and on his far side, Pippin muttered, “Leave off, Cousin,” and rolled a little farther away with a snore. Bless him, thought Sam, that tweenager could sleep through anything.

Sleep thoroughly abandoned now in his worry, Sam dragged himself all the way up and sat tailor-fashion, pulling his blankets around him. Merry immediately stood up on the boulder, peering at him. He waved a hand and the other hobbit settled, letting them be. The watch would be changing soon, Sam thought. Wasn’t Boromir next? Aragorn had assigned the watches after Frodo had fallen asleep, and with a long look at the Ring-bearer, had skipped over Frodo in the rotation. There would likely be words about that on the morrow, Sam thought dismally, then wondered if Frodo would even notice, the state he was in.

His master was so tired now. Sam had never seen him so tired, not even during those rough first few days after as the Company struggled out of Rivendell, marching during the night and resting wherever shelter from the biting wind could be found. He’d been tired then, but not ground down, not worn to the bone, exhausted beyond what a few good nights’ sleep and some nourishing food could restore. Sam was certain that Frodo shouldn’t be this tired, not after the rest they’d had in Lórien. Almost as soon as they had left the borders of that magical place, Frodo had become silent and withdrawn, his gaze turned inward, as if the need to keep himself moving required all of his strength.

Frodo turned on his left side with a gasp and Sam winced – even in sleep, that cursed wound pained him. Sam always managed to be close by when Aragorn insisted on examining Frodo’s shoulder, and had seen that the wound had closed completely, leaving a thin white scar on the pale skin. But it still hurt. Frodo’s face would go white and perspiration start from his brow when Aragorn gently rubbed the white cream Lord Elrond had given him into the scar, leaving it reddened and angry. It wouldn’t ever heal, and that arm and hand always seemed colder than the rest of Frodo’s body. Weaker, too. There was not time to give Frodo the rest he needed to completely recover his strength before the Quest had set out from Rivendell. And the time in Lothlórien hadn’t been near enough.

Frodo shifted onto his back, half-formed dream-words slipping from his lips. “No,” Sam heard him whisper. “No, I won’t. Never.” Sam leaned forward, and with the stars above Frodo now, he could see his master’s face shining with sweat, his features twisted with denial and pain. And oh – this was the worst – his hand was wrapped around that evil thing at his throat.

Ah no, not another nightmare. They were getting worse. Though Frodo would not speak of them, Sam knew they were getting worse. More than once he had been awakened by a flailing elbow in the ribs or a stifled cry as Frodo fought the images of his sleeping mind. Suddenly Frodo sat up and Sam nearly yelped in surprise. He glanced over at Pippin but the youngster had disappeared under his blankets and not even a wayward curl could be seen. Turning back to Frodo, Sam started to ask if he needed help, when the sight of Frodo’s face froze him into shocked silence.

Frodo’s eyes were open but there was no awareness there. His face was slack, hair hanging into his eyes but he made no move to push it away. Before Sam could understand what he was seeing, Frodo was climbing to his feet, moving with a slowness and loose-limbed deliberation that chilled Sam’s heart. His hand was clamped tightly around the Ring. Merry’s head turned again and he leaned forward, but Sam knew it was too dark for the hobbit to make out Frodo’s blank gaze. Sleepwalking, he is, Sam knew, and could not explain why the thought terrified him so.

Frodo stepped over his little cousin’s curled-up body without even looking at him. Pippin snuffled in his sleep but did not wake. Belatedly, Sam shot to his feet, tossing aside the blankets. What should he do? Oh stars, what should he do?

Sam’s hand hovered an inch above Frodo’s shoulder, but Sam let it fall unused to his side. You don’t never wake a sleepwalker sudden, his memory chanted at him. Where had he heard that? Something his mother had said, long ago, sitting with the other goodwives in the garden, gossiping and working on a quilt? Her treasured voice continued in his head, recalled by the memory. “Why, I heard that Tom Bracegirdle’s nephew took ‘ta sleepwalking, and his mam woke him up just before the lad fell in the pigsty. Threw the pig’s breakfast on him, she did. The poor lad took a nasty turn, an’ wasn’t right in the head for months. You don’t never wake a sleepwalker sudden.”  

Frodo lurched into motion, his usual inborn grace absent. He was walking toward the woods, away from camp. Sam’s frantic gaze sought out the watch to find Merry staring in their direction curiously. From his view, Sam realized, Merry could see only their shadowed forms – he would not realize that Frodo was walking in his sleep. Sam gulped a great lungful of air in preparation for a shout, and then almost choked himself when he swallowed it. Silence, they had said. Secrecy. They must pass down the Anduin unnoticed. And he mustn’t wake Frodo that way. Perhaps just calling his name softly would do it, or the lightest touch on his shoulder. Frodo would be mortified and probably angry if he roused the entire camp. Sam waved his arms frantically, sheer frustration for a moment overwhelming him. After a moment, Merry raised a hand and doubtfully waved back, clearly confused.

Frodo was already beyond the perimeter of camp, silent hobbit-feet carrying him past even the keen ears of the resting Elf. A few more steps and he would be lost in the shadow of the trees. There was no help for it. Sam caught up his sword and buckling the scabbard in place, vaulted over Pippin and followed.

* TBC *

 

Chapter Two    

Merry craned his neck, trying to see what Frodo and Sam were up to. Why would they be sneaking away from camp in the middle of the night? And what did Sam mean, waving his arms at him like that? Was he supposed to do something? He was on guard – he could not leave his post. All he could do was watch Frodo rise and walk into the woods and Sam follow after him, but disquiet stirred in his heart.   

Merry stood up on his toes, shifting his weight forward on the boulder to keep the pair in sight. If anyone had need to leave the camp, they were to tell the guard where they were going and how long they would be gone. Sam and Frodo knew that. Surely they hadn’t forgotten. What reason could they have for deliberately disobeying Aragorn’s order? Merry darted a quick glance over at the indistinct lump that was Aragorn and bit his lip in indecision. When he looked back, the two had disappeared into the darkness. It seemed foolish to shout and wake the camp over such a little thing. But why hadn’t they -

“All quiet, Merry?”

With a stifled yelp, Merry slid off the boulder, landing hard on his rear. A huge shadow loomed over him, and it was a moment before the startled hobbit could identify it as Boromir. The Man extended a hand down and pulled the hobbit up, and Merry clung to it for a moment, his heart racing.

“I am sorry,” Boromir whispered contritely. “Are you all right? I did not mean to frighten you – did you hurt yourself?”

“No, no, I’m all right,” Merry assured him breathlessly, rubbing his backside. “I didn’t notice you.” He grimaced self-depreciatingly. “Fine guard I am.”

In the dim starlight, Merry saw Boromir tilt his head and regard him quizzically. “I am to relieve you on watch. Is everything all right?”

Merry didn’t quite know the answer to that. He stared into the woods but could see nothing. His worry suddenly intensified – something was wrong here. Coming to a decision, he shook his head and scrambled up onto the boulder again, where standing, he was eye-to-eye with the soldier. “No. Boromir, I just saw Sam and Frodo leave camp.”

The Man glanced up at the stars. “It is hours until dawn. Where are they going?”

“I don’t know. The privy pit is the other direction. And Sam was waving his arms at me for some reason. Something’s wrong, Boromir. I know it is.”

The Man was silent for long moments, peering into the silent night. “I agree. The Ring-bearer should not be wandering about alone in the dark. Even if Sam goes with him. There might be orcs and other foul creatures in the area.”

Merry’s fear grew. “I’m going after them,” he muttered, and sat down on the rock in preparation for sliding off.

Boromir stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Let me go, Merry. If they are in trouble, I might be of greater use.”

The hobbit’s protest died on his lips. Boromir was right, of course. Merry had been practicing diligently with his sword but despite keeping his skin intact against the orcs that came against him in Moria, he held no illusions that he could best more than one enemy at a time. As humbling as it was to admit, this warrior could protect his cousin better than he.

Merry nodded and rose to his feet. “I’ll stay on watch.”  He pointed to the shadowy place between the trees where the two had entered the forest. “They went in there.”

Boromir nodded, and in a few steps, returned to catch up his great razor-edged battle shield. He checked his sword and the great horn that hung from his belt. Then following Merry’s pointing finger, he set off after Frodo and Sam.

Merry dug his toes into the stone and leaned forward, trying to keep Boromir in sight as long as possible. But once he entered the vegetation, his tall figure merged so quickly with the long shadows of the trees that his form was indistinguishable. Merry bit his lip and hummed to himself in frustration.

“Merry?”

This time Merry did yelp, and slid off the other side of the boulder. The Big People said hobbits moved quietly, he thought in the abstracted second before his already-tender rear hit the ground again, but he was going to suggest that all Rangers tie bells on themselves. Or at least quit sneaking up on him. “Ouch,” he groaned, managing to pack a world of resentment into that breathy exclamation.

Aragorn lifted him to his feet and dusted him off, hands tangling in his cloak. “What is going on here?” the Ranger asked. “Where are Frodo and Sam and Boromir?”

“Shush,” Merry begged, but it was already too late. A glance told him that Legolas was sitting up, his head turned in their direction. The Elf reached over and prodded Gimli. The Dwarf snorted then shot up in his bedroll, hands already seeking the haft of his battle-axe. Pippin slept on, oblivious.

Merry sighed and gave up on not waking the camp. “Frodo just got up and walked into the woods. Sam went after him. I don’t know where they were going – they didn’t say anything to me. Then Boromir came to relieve me on watch, and he went after them.”

“Boromir went after them?” Aragorn repeated. Merry winced as the Ranger’s hand tightened on his shoulder like a vise. Realizing that he was hurting the hobbit, the Ranger abruptly let go then sank to one knee to peer into his eyes.

“How long ago was this? Which direction did they go in? Did Frodo seem all right?”

Merry staggered a little under the barrage of questions. That undefined anxiety coiled tighter in the pit of his stomach. “It was not five minutes ago. They just got up and left. Sam was waving his arms at me for some reason – I know he was trying to tell me something but I have no idea what.”

Cloth rustled, and Legolas stood over them, his eyes more luminous than the stars. Puffing slightly, Gimli pulled up a moment later, his axe over his shoulder, dark eyes already scanning the night.

“We must go after them,” Legolas said softly.

Aragorn raised his gaze, startled at the Elf’s words. “You know?”

Legolas nodded. “I feel it in him. It is much stronger since we left Lothlórien. And I heard what occurred between you, there on the shoulders of Caradhras after Frodo lost his footing and rolled down the slope.”

“What did he say?” said Gimli at the same moment Merry said, “You feel what in whom?”

Legolas’ eyes drifted to both of them. “Boromir. The Ring is calling to him. He is falling into despair, and the Ring knows that. It wishes to abandon its Bearer, as that Bearer will not heed it, and seek one who will succumb to its false promises.”

Aragorn rose to his feet, his hands seeking his sword hilt. His keen gaze swept the darkness. “We must find them, and quickly. Which way did they go, Merry?”

Merry felt like he had been kicked between the eyes by one of his father’s ponies. He waved his hands uselessly, trying to order his thoughts. “Boromir … Boromir wouldn’t hurt Frodo. He’d die to protect him. He wouldn’t -”

“Merry!” The hobbit jumped under the lash in Aragorn’s voice. “Which way did they go?”

“That – that way.” He raised a shaking finger to point to the gap between the trees. For a moment, he was unable to identify the shadowy entrance to the forest, and broke out in a cold sweat as panic quivered through him. His finger wavered between two openings; both looked identical and he was unsure. Then his resolution firmed and Merry pointed to the gap on the right.

“Legolas, come with me. Gimli, stay and guard the hobbits.” Aragorn checked his great curved knife while the Elf caught up his bow and slung the quiver over his back. Merry watched numbly, hardly aware of the Dwarf’s gentle hand on his arm. Then both were gone, running as silently as a whisper in the grass, between the trees and out of sight.

“It will be all right, laddie,” Gimli rumbled comfortingly. “All a misunderstanding, no doubt. They’ll be back before we know it.”

“Merry?” All things come in threes, though Merry idiotically. At least I didn’t fall off the boulder this time. “Merry, what’s happening?” Pippin was sitting up in his bedroll, clutching the blankets to his chest. While Merry struggled to find words, his little cousin’s gaze roved over the empty bedrolls to the side of him. “Where are Frodo and Sam?” Pippin’s voice began to rise and Merry went to him quickly.

“Easy, lad,” murmured the Dwarf, but he did not relax his stance. 

“It’s all right, Pip,” Merry hastened to reassure the frightened tweenager. “We just had…” he trailed off, having no idea how to tell Pippin what he had just learned. And what Aragorn and Legolas feared. “We just had a bit of a misunderstanding,” he parroted Gimli’s words and heard the Dwarf’s deep grunt of laughter. “Frodo and Sam and Boromir went for a walk, and Aragorn didn’t think that was a good idea, so he and Legolas went after them.”

“In the middle of the night?” Those green eyes met his, and if Merry could not see their color in the faint light, he knew well that they narrowed in disbelief. Pippin cast off the blankets and scrambled up, then yipped and made a dive for them when the cold night air bit through his clothes. Merry helped him wrap up, scolding him to remember he had just been ill and didn't need another chill. Pippin rolled his eyes and draped several blankets around his cousin in return.

“All right,” Pippin said reasonably, now on his feet and wide-awake. “What is going on here?”

Merry stared at him blankly. Pippin awarded his cousin a look of disgust then turned to Gimli. “Gimli, I think Merry has been into that flask of yours. Not much else I know of can tie up his tongue. Now, will you tell me what I missed?”

Suddenly placed on the spot between the cousins, Gimli harrumphed to gain a moment’s thinking time.  Then with an apologetic glance at Merry, he said, “Aragorn fears that Boromir might do Frodo harm.”

Pippin’s mouth dropped open. “That’s ridiculous! Boromir would never hurt Frodo–“

“To gain the Enemy’s Ring?” The Dwarf’s voice was still soft, but the sorrow in it was unmistakable.

Pippin’s head dipped, and Merry knew it was to hide the quick shine of tears in his eyes. After a moment the curly head nodded jerkily. “He’s always watching Frodo. In the boats, I mean. Sometimes he paddles up right behind Aragorn, and his knuckles get so white on the paddle. We’ve tried speaking to him –“

“But he doesn’t hear us,” chimed in Merry softly. Pippin edged closer to his cousin and Merry draped a comforting arm over him. “He stares right over our heads like we’re not even there.”

Gimli nodded sagely. “Legolas and I have seen it. He has begun to despair, and the Ring feeds upon such. He is listening to its evil whispers.”

“They had an argument,” Pippin said softly, his eyes still downcast. “Boromir and Aragorn.” Merry looked at him, startled. Pippin was so rarely quiet that it was easy to forget how undetectable the tweenager could be when he wanted. “After dinner. They didn’t know I was behind them, in the rocks. I wasn’t eavesdropping, truly, “ he added hurriedly. They couldn't see the flush that rose to Pippin’s cheeks but Merry knew it was there, nonetheless. “I didn't want Frodo to see me taking the herbs you gathered for my cold, Merry.” Pippin paused and took in a deep breath, then said in a miserable rush of words, “Boromir accused Aragorn of trusting the Elves quickly enough. But not Men.”

Gimli did not know what to say that that. Before Lothlórien, he might have growled an agreement with Boromir. But so many things had changed for him in Caras Galadhon, so many fundamental beliefs of his life proved false. Still struggling with his own changed perceptions of his peoples’ traditional enemy, the Dwarf was silent. But his silence offered no help to the halflings, who were gazing at him wretchedly. “Come on, lads,” said the Dwarf in a gentle voice that would have astounded those who knew him, “let’s stir up the fire. They’ll be cold when they get back.”

The hobbits trailed after him to the fire pit, and started to clear the ash that Sam had heaped upon it to preserve the coals.

* * * 

“There,” Aragorn murmured, stooping to pick up the leaf that a boot had crushed. He knelt and placed his hand in the impression of a shod foot. “The hobbits do not leave such a clear trail. If Boromir were not following, I might not be able to track them.”

“If Boromir were not following, there would not be such need to track them,” returned Legolas, his voice tight and worried. Aragorn glanced up at him. “I saw your hand tighten on the hilt of your sword, Aragorn, there on the slopes of Caradhras. Even if Boromir and Frodo did not. You were ready to draw on him.”

Aragorn’s face tightened. “Yes. At that moment, I feared our Fellowship was broken. And we still had so far to go.”

“And now it may truly be broken,” the Elf whispered. “And we still have so far to go.”

* TBC * 

Chapter Three

Sam also was worrying about distance. Specifically, the distance his master was leading them from camp. Looking back, he could not see the flicker of the banked fire, the ash heaped over it to preserve the coals till morning, hoarding both light and heat. They were out of easy hailing distance now. If Sam shouted for help,no one would hear, unless Legolas was awake. And Sam knew that Legolas had taken the first watch, and upon turning it over to Merry, had fallen into a deep sleep. Legolas had still been asleep when he had followed Frodo from camp; Sam had been hoping that their movements would wake the Elf, but that had not happened. Most likely, he would not hear. No one would.

Frodo moved slowly but without hesitation, stepping over large rocks and around trees. He did not run into anything, so Sam decided that some part of his sleeping mind must be at least somewhat aware. He did not walk with his arms extended stiffly before him, as children played at sleepwalking, but moved almost naturally, one hand relaxed at his side, the other hand tight around the Ring. He moved with an odd, almost rolling gait. His eyes were open but they were oddly dull, flat, and completely empty of the quiet dignity and presence that customarily shone from the windows of Frodo’s soul.

A thin thread of silver glinted between the trees and Sam’s hopes rose. They were coming to a small stream, Sam saw, one of the many tiny tributaries of the great river Anduin. Surely Frodo would wake when he walked through the ice-cold water?

To Sam’s dismay, Frodo stepped neatly on a small rock in the middle of the stream, and in another stride was on the other side. So intent was Sam on following that his own foot slipped on the rock and down he went with a sizable splash into the snow-melt stream. Sam sputtered and panicked, floundering about in the water till he discovered it was hardly deep enough to come up to his wrist. He had fallen forward and the entire front of his body was soaked. Well, that ought to have woke him, Sam thought dismally as he scrambled out of the stream, trying to hold the freezing cloth of his shirt and breeches out from his body.

It had not. Frodo was disappearing into the deep shadow of a small grove of withered oaks, and Sam hurried to follow. Maybe he could just shake some of the icy water off on his master…  Would a few droplets in the face or back of his neck do the job? You don’t never wake a sleepwalker sudden, reminded his mam’s voice in his mind. Shivering, Sam stifled a groan and hurried after his master. Following Frodo into the deep shadows, Sam stopped dead.

Frodo stood in the center of a small glade, the pale light of the stars and the waning moon sufficient to stretch a shadow out behind him. A light breeze tugged at his cloak, stirred the unbrushed curls. Both hands now rested at his sides and his head tilted down, face relaxed and untroubled. His master had a more peaceful expression on his face than Sam remembered seeing in a long, long time. Long lashes shaded his eyes as Frodo stared vacantly at the ground. He looked like he had before Gandalf brought knowledge of the Ring into their lives, Sam thought, and destroyed their innocence.

Sam moved forward hesitantly. Could he call Frodo from sleep, gently, without alarming him? “Mr. Frodo, sir?” Sam whispered, his voice no louder than the breeze that played among the leaves. Frodo did not react. “Please, sir,” Sam pleaded softly. “Please wake up. It’s not safe here. We have ‘ta go back.”

Sam’s heart thudded when Frodo raised his head and looked at him. No … not at him. The blank eyes were staring past him, over his shoulder. For the first time, some expression showed on Frodo’s face. His brow furrowed and his mouth tightened, and a flicker of awareness chased across those terrifyingly empty eyes. But whatever power ruled him was too strong. Frodo’s face relaxed again, going slack, and Sam watched his eyes droop shut.

“Oh, sir, please, please wake up,” Sam murmured, hoping that his familiar voice would reassure his sleeping master and keep him from startlement. His mam's warning ripped across his mind again and he almost whimpered at his helplessness. There was no help for it; he would have to wake Frodo and pray there were no consequences.

Sam’s hand brushed the shoulder of Frodo’s cloak, when Frodo suddenly turned his head to the left, body stiffening. Sam dropped his hand, his gaze following Frodo’s empty stare. When he saw what had gathered and stood waiting at the edge of the clearing, Sam cried out in spite of himself. Stunned and horrified beyond coherent thought, he dropped to his knees and covered his eyes.

* * *

Boromir paused between the trees, drawn sword in his hand. Had that been a cry? The soldier was not the woodsman that the Elf or the Ranger were, and for a moment he wavered, uncertain. He had not been able to catch up to the hobbits; they slipped through the forest with a quietness and agility that amazed him. Twice he had overshot their trail and had to turn back, casting about and muttering to himself until he found it again. But he did not need to be versed in wood-lore to know not to shout for them in the dark silence of the sleeping forest. Such would only draw attention to him and to them, and such attention could well prove fatal.

The Elf had been uneasy, Boromir knew, those far-seeing eyes constantly scanning the riverbanks. Legolas had said nothing but Boromir had seen him in close converse with Aragorn, both of their expressions worried and apprehensive. He, too, felt a stillness and a sense of waiting in this untenanted land, the feeling of many eyes upon them. Hostile eyes.

Boromir growled under his breath, eyes scanning the trees. The darkness and shadows were deceptive – more than once he had thought he had overtaken Frodo and Sam, only to find what he had thought were the halflings was only a pair of bushes, or stunted tree. Had that cry been a night bird, or some hunting beast? If it were one of the hobbits, would not they call for help if they were in need?

He dared not take the risk that the cry he had heard was not one of the little folk. He slung his great battle-shield around to his arm and held it before him, and raced towards the sound as a second shriek rent the cold night air.

* * * 

Legolas paused mid-step, head lifting as if to scent the wind. Beside him, Aragorn frowned, his hand going to the great curved hunting knife at his belt. “Was that –“

“Yes,” said the Elf shortly. “Sam, I think.” They both broke into a run. Aragorn’s hand left his knife and fastened instead on the pommel of his sword.

* * * 

Boromir stumbled into the clearing, struggling to halt when he saw the hobbits in the center of the glade. He had come at a great pace, giving up on silence, and his crashing progress had long preceded him. But the hobbits had not moved, nor did they seem to be aware of him.

Sam knelt at Frodo’s side, sagging against the Ring-bearer. He seemed only half-conscious and did not raise his head to greet Boromir. Frodo stood above his friend, arms at his sides, looking neither at Sam nor at Boromir. Boromir’s shout of challenge died on his lips – something was very wrong here. Then something pale caught his eye, movement too quick to register, and Boromir whirled, shield coming up before his body and sword at the ready. His last thought, before his mind shut down, was that which stood before him was impossible.

It was but minutes later that Aragorn and Legolas burst through the perimeter of the quiet glade. They had come as silently as possible but their speed betrayed them - sticks had broken under booted feet and branches had whipped back into place with great rustles after being pushed aside. They held no hopes that their approach had gone unnoticed.

The two came to a stop, back to back, in the center of the little clearing. Legolas’ bow was in his hands and it swung rapidly from side to side, seeking a target. Starlight glinted off Aragorn’s great killing sword, held level and ready. Mortal and immortal eyes roved over the small space, examining each potential hiding place. Except for themselves, the glade was deserted.

“Are you sure –“ Aragorn whispered as best he could over his panting breaths.

Legolas nodded, not lowering his bow. “Yes. The cries came from here.”

With a final hard stare about him, Aragorn sheathed his sword.  “Do not move.  If luck is with us, we have not trampled over the ground that will tell us the tale of what occurred here.”

The Ranger looked about him, then sank to his haunches and placed his fingertips against the soft earth to balance himself. Legolas stood over him, keen eyes keeping watch.  Starlight reflected in his eyes, and they glowed luminescent almost like tiny moons. He eased his draw on the great bow but kept his arrow notched.

The Elf waited while Aragorn peered at the scuffed soil, touching the earth in places. Looking down, Legolas saw Aragorn’s fingers trace the outline of the imprint of a boot, where it partially overlapped the lighter print of a bare hobbit foot. The boot print strode over the bare print, dodging sideways then rejoining the hobbit prints. Two deep, rounded imprints in the earth … one of the hobbits had fallen heavily to his knees. The knee-prints were broad.  Sam, then… The other circled to his side and was pulling him – dragging him? Confused scuffles, then two distinct sets of hobbit feet. Both hobbit prints deepened then changed to a deeper print at the toes. They were fleeing. “Ah,” Legolas moaned softly, then dragged his eyes up to watch the shadows.

Half-crawling, Aragorn followed all three sets of prints to the edge of the clearing, stopping just before the trees. At the edge of the grass, the ground cleared before giving way to the forest. The Man rose after a long look at the tracks, dusting off his hands. He raised worried eyes to the Elf. “They were running, all three of them, from a standing start. Here Frodo stumbles … his are the smaller prints … and nearly falls. From the momentary deepening of Sam’s prints, I’d say Sam pulls him upright and pushes him into a run. Sam follows, behind Frodo.  And Boromir comes after them.”

Legolas was silent. Then, “Can you tell how long ago?”

Aragorn shook his head. “How long till Boromir came after, or if he followed immediately, I do not know. Ground water has begun to seep into all of the prints, but not one set more than another. At a guess, I would say we are not five minutes behind them.”

Legolas murmured softly in Elvish, a quiet lament.

Aragorn muttered agreement, the faint light sufficient to show Legolas the sorrow on the Man’s face. “There is nothing more to be learned here. They have a good head start. Let us go.”

Then they were striding into the trees, only to be halted by the Elf’s, “Wait! Look there!”

Aragorn pulled to a stop and turned around, “What do your elven eyes see?”  

“Aragorn, look here.” The Elf glided to a grouping of dark trees somewhat to the side of their path, their trunks no more than black pillars in the dark. Aragorn mastered his impatience and obeyed. Not far from where the prints led between two trees, faint light reflected from new gashes in the dark trunks, bleeding sap which glimmered under Legolas’ pointing finger. Cuts and slashes marred the trunks in several places, silent witnesses to a desperate battle.

“A sword, no doubt of it,” growled Aragorn.  “Too deep and too high to be Frodo’s or Sam’s.” He touched one of the gashes; it left a sweet-smelling gluey liquid on his fingers. “Why would Boromir attack the trees? And thrust so blindly? These sword-cuts near cover the trunks of the nearest trees… Here – and here also - he has even cut the sides.” Smaller branches and leaves littered the ground, torn and crushed. “It makes no sense. What was he fighting?”

“Or was he defending himself, and possibly the halflings?”

“Against what? Something that would not stand still to fight?” Aragorn knelt at the base of the most damaged trunk and again ran his fingers over the earth. Here, away from the center of the clearing, the trees threw too many shadows to see the earth. Sensitive fingers probed the soil, serving as his eyes.  “Slide-marks and scuffs … he was twisting, leaping, great violence in his movements. I do not understand this at all…”

“Bats?” asked Legolas. “Some sort of… What is that?” The Ranger glanced up to see the Elf’s starry eyes focused on something that glistened waist-high on one of the trunks.

Aragorn knew what it was before his fingers encountered the shining wetness. It glittered black in the starlight, a thick smear trailing little running droplets that merged with the wood and became lost in its grain. Praying he was wrong, he touched a finger to the tip of his tongue. Looking up, he confirmed what the Elf’s superior sight had already identified. “Blood,” he whispered softly. “Still warm.”

“Hobbit?” asked Legolas. “Or Man?”

“I cannot tell by taste,” retorted Aragorn, then grimaced an apology. The Elf nodded his head gracefully, accepting the unspoken words. 

“I fear for them, too, my friend,” answered Legolas gently and moved past him to peer into the forest.  While Aragorn was examining the blood, he had unstrung the great bow and slung it over his back. Its use was limited in the thick foliage and he had no arrows to lose in the underbrush.  His long, bone-handled knives were in his hands now, relaxed but ready. “Hurry,” Legolas urged. 

Aragorn again drew his sword and loosened the hunting knife in its sheath. The two plunged into the forest, abandoning in their haste all attempts at silence.

* TBC *

Chapter Four

Even at a flat-out run, the Wood-elf and the Ranger raced almost in silence. Legolas’ arrows rattled in his quiver and Aragorn’s leather clothing squeaked faintly, but few snaps of twigs beneath their feet or rustle of leaves betrayed them. On they ran in desperate silence, straining to hear any cry. But the dark forest echoed only silence.

“Legolas, look!” The Ranger’s harsh whisper brought the Elf to a skidding halt, sending up a flurry of decaying leaves. Legolas pivoted gracefully and knelt to peer at the shadowed earth. Aragorn crouched with his hands framing a patch of disturbed earth, leaning down so far that his hair almost trailed along the ground.

“What is it?  Is it the halflings and Boromir?”

Aragorn raked the soft earth with his fingertips, displacing a leaf that had drifted onto the dirt. “Here – and here. Scuffling marks of unshod feet. There – toes… Sam, I think – his feet are larger and broader than Frodo’s. It looks like a struggle…  See, his prints partially overlay Frodo’s, as if he was trying to push him back…” The Ranger crab-walked forward a few steps. Then he leaned down again, and ran his sensitive hands over the earth. “No…”

Legolas could see the boot-marks, too. Heavy boots, driven deep into the earth. Running. The marks passed the tracks of the hobbits’ feet and continued on for some way. Then stopped. They did not shorten in length till Boromir came to a halt – they simply disappeared between one stride and the next.

Aragorn had risen and was casting about, trying to use the moon’s faint light to illuminate the ground. But through he and Legolas both searched far in all directions, there was no more sign. Boromir and Frodo and Sam had simply vanished, and nowhere around them was any sign to tell what had become of them.

* * * 

“What do you mean ‘vanished’?” repeated Merry, struggling to understand. “People don’t just vanish. They don’t grow wings and fly. They don’t -”

“Merry,” said Aragorn sternly, and the hobbit fought to control his tongue and his rising alarm. Beside him, Pippin was silent but very pale, clinging tightly to his older cousin’s arm. Gimli was peering out into the darkness, his axe in his thick hands, as if he suspected ambush at any moment. The first faint hints of dawn had aided the hunt; the two trackers had spent hours searching where the Ring-bearer and his friend and their protector had disappeared. Protector … or pursuer? Aragorn refused to consider the implications of that second thought. Unable to find any indication at all of what had happened to them, Aragorn and Legolas had widened their search to include the surrounding wilds in every direction for almost half a league. Defeated, the two had then worked their way along the track back to camp, examining each booted or bare hobbit-print in meticulous detail.

They had found the place where Sam had fallen into the stream, and where Frodo had stepped out onto the opposite shore. The splash from the little gardener’s fall had dried, but the sandy soil of the small brook had been displaced and most of a handprint could be seen where Sam had pushed himself up. And in a straight line from that, the more narrow imprint of a hobbit-heel … Frodo stepping out onto the bank.

“He kept waving his arms and pointing at Frodo,” Merry was trying to explain. “And Frodo didn’t look at me or Sam or anyone; he just walked off into the forest.”  Merry paused, trying to understand both of his friends’ strange behavior. “Why would they act like that, Aragorn?”

The Ranger shook his head. “I have no idea, Merry. And why was Sam so silent? Surely if there were any danger, he would have roused the camp.”

“Unless in doing so, he would endanger Frodo … or us,” Legolas said slowly. 

“Endanger us?” growled Gimli. He waved the axe and the other members of the Fellowship took a prudent step backwards. “There’s nothing around us but whining mosquitoes and rabbits.”

“Now that you mention it,” said Aragorn thoughtfully, “don’t you think it odd that we have seen no larger animals or game for miles? Not even foxes.”

“No sign of wolves or bear or elk or deer … of any large creature,” mused Legolas. Unbidden, his slender hand strayed to the hilt of one of his long knives and rested there. “Why?”

“Why indeed?” murmured Aragorn. “The forest is rich with food for deer-kind. There are many wild grasses, brush, trees and leaves. This area should be teeming with wildlife.”

“Well, it’s not,” declared Merry. “And this isn’t finding Frodo and Sam and Boromir. Surely the most reasonable course of action is to return to where you lost their trail and look again in full daylight?”

“There is nothing that we would see in daylight that we missed in the darkness, Merry,” Aragorn returned, his frustration evident in his tone. “Do not forget, we have the eyes of an Elf with us. Their tracks just simply stopped.”

“That’s impossible,” said Pippin in a tiny voice, speaking for the first time since Aragorn and Legolas had returned. The others looked at him in silence.

* * * 

Awareness came slowly back to Sam. His throat hurt terribly, as if the inside of it had been rubbed with that sanded paper that Ted Sandyman produced at the Hobbiton mill. He gulped, and winced as fire ran over the abraded tissues.

His head hurt too, and his eyes. In fact, everything hurt. But there was something more important than his pain that was demanding his attention. When he remembered it, his eyes shot open and he clamped down on the cry already rising in his throat. Frodo!

His eyes were blurred, but sufficient to make out an enormous dark form looming above him and a smaller dark form lying close to him, within touching distance. Desperately, Sam gathered his arms underneath him and dragged himself over to the motionless form. Rough wool and chain mail met his fumbling fingers, and the stubbled harshness of a beard against his palms. Boromir… Sam’s fingers fumbled for the great pulse-point under the Man’s throat, and found it. He lived, then. But the beat was slow and sluggish, and Sam’s attempts to rouse him were unsuccessful. He and Boromir had been positioned at the base of a great standing stone, a black monolith set deep into the earth and rising above him like an ebony finger pointing to the sky. It surely weighed tons, and Sam could not imagine the might of Men or even Dwarves carrying it here and placing it in the center of this small clearing. Perhaps it had ridden one of the great ice-sheets that old Mr. Bilbo claimed had once covered the land, eons ago. The dear old hobbit told the most wonderful stories of Ice Giants riding the frozen waters like ponies, and making war on… Sam shook his head; he had to stay focused. In any case, it was blocking the sun and it was cold here in the shadow. 

Sam grasped the capped sleeves of Boromir’s surcoat and used them to pull himself up the Man’s body, leaning on the unconscious form to see over him. He blinked, struggling to clear his vision. The pale light of dawn suffused the small glade in which he and the Man had been placed, but Frodo was not within it.

Had been placed? Sam tried to order his panic and force reason upon his careening mind. They were not in the tiny meadow where he and Frodo had stopped, where …his mind shied away, like a spooked pony. He certainly would not have forgotten the great black stone standing above them. Yes, he and Boromir had been placed here, and his master had not. He turned back to the Man and for the first time noted how Boromir had been laid out. Oh, yes, thought Sam grimly, ‘laid out’ is the word, all right.  Like a corpseAnd me, too. Boromir lay on his back, legs straight and together, hands folded on his breast. His clothing had been straightened and the great cloak-clasp at his throat set evenly at the center of the broad chest. Sam had awakened in the same position, but he had been too busy dragging himself up to be aware of it. Like a corpse.

Sam tried to remember what had happened. He’d been following Mr. Frodo. Yes. Yes, he remembered doing that. His master was sleepwalking. Sam had been afraid to wake him, afraid of what the startlement might do to him. You don’t never wake a sleepwalker sudden. Yes, that’s right. There’d been a stream … Sam felt the front of his shirt; it was still damp. Then a little farther on, a still, deep glade. And … and … something purely awful. And for the life of him, Sam couldn’t remember what it was.

It was almighty cold. Sam shivered and drew his cloak tightly about him. Some persistent tugging managed to free enough of Boromir’s cloak to cover the Man somewhat. Sam could not hope to lift Boromir’s weight to free the cloak completely and cover the Man warmly enough. There was a dark slash across the inside of one of Boromir’s wrists, a long clean slice that had bled profusely. Sam examined it hesitantly, but the bleeding had stopped. Now, what could have done that? Gingerly, he pulled the sleeve closed over the wound and tied the cloth shut with a length of fabric torn from the hem of the Man’s embroidered surcoat. Then he tried again. “Mr. Boromir, sir, you got to wake up. Please, sir. Please!” Daring greatly, Sam lightly slapped Boromir’s face, first one cheek then the other. This elicited a faint groan, and encouraged, Sam slapped him harder. Me striking the heir o’ the Steward of Gondor, Sam thought. What would my Gaffer say?

“Boromir!” Sam abandoned the light slaps, and grasped the Man’s surcoat in both hands, giving him a hard shaking. Boromir’s chest lifted slightly from the cold earth and his eyelashes fluttered. Sam let him drop, and leaned down to bellow in one ear, “Mr. Boromir! Wake up!”

“Stop.”

Sam froze, still as a coney scenting the wolf. The command, cold and devoid of emotion, had come from behind him. He released Boromir and the Man sank back into unconsciousness with a sigh, his face once again going slack. Keeping one hand on the Man’s shoulder to steady himself and to feel the other’s presence, Sam turned around.

There was no one behind him. His gaze darted around the small clearing but only trees and low brush met his gaze, the rising sun beginning to slant through the remaining leaves and limn them in splendor. There was movement between them but nothing he could discern. “Come out!” he called, perversely glad that whomever had hailed him had not, in fact, come out. “Come out where I can see you!”

Soft laughter greeted this, derisive and mocking. Other voices joined the first, depreciatory voices, cruel and sneering. They came from all around him. He was surrounded. Sam’s heart began to beat faster. His hand checked his side and tightened on the hilt of his small sword. They hadn’t taken it. Why hadn’t they disarmed him? Boromir, too, still had his sword and his great shield, placed at his side in ceremonial grandeur. Sam almost drew his sword but stilled the motion. There had been too many voices to fight. He could not get himself killed – he had to find Frodo and somehow get his master and Boromir back to the others.

Sam rose to his feet shakily. His limbs felt numb and little tingles of returning blood were beginning to run through his legs. He ignored the sensations. “Where’s Mr. Frodo?” he shouted at the voices, hating how shrill his own sounded.

“Frodo,” several of the voices murmured. “Frodo… That is the Ring-bearer’s name?”

Sam’s heart sank. They had him, then. His last hope that Frodo had not been taken by them evaporated. They must have searched him, to know about the Ring. Frodo would never tell them that. Surreptitiously he tried nudging Boromir in the ribs with a heel but the soldier remained inert. 

“Be still,” ordered the first voice harshly. Sam complied, too frightened of what harm they might do to Boromir and Frodo if he disobeyed. “I asked you a question, halfling.”

Sam could see nothing to be gained by lying. And these folks might know if he was doing it. “Aye, sir. Mr. Frodo Baggins.” He’d give them that, but no more unless they demanded it.

“And the warrior? Who is he?”

Sam sighed. “This here is Boromir son of Denethor, heir to the Steward of Gondor.” Immediately he felt tension in the air. A great whispering passed around the glade, many voices. 

“The heir to the Steward of Gondor? The heir to the Steward?” No longer were the unseen voices cold and dispassionate. Suddenly the little space in which he and Boromir were placed seemed crowded, the focus of unseen regard. Sam shivered and pressed himself closer to the Man’s unmoving form, frightened without knowing why.

The first voice rose over the others, hissing, “Silence, all of you!” The other voices went still. It occurred to Sam that no birds greeted the rising sun in this little place. The forest was as silent as death. Then, “And you?”

“Me, sir?” For a heartbeat, Sam’s mind was totally blank. Then he almost squeaked, “Nobody, sir! Leastwise, I’m Sam Gamgee.”

“You are the Ring-bearer's bodyguard?”

If Sam hadn’t been half terrified out of his wits for his master, he would have chortled. “His gardener.”

There was a moment of silence then, then snarling laughter. Sam wanted to cringe at the cruelty in it. “Please,” he begged instead, “have you got my master? Please don’t hurt him. He’s had a cruel time.” Not orcs, Sam thought. Few orcs spoke the Common Speech, and those that did, did so in hissing, distorted fashion. Absolutely not Elves – neither voice nor speech was fair enough. And he could not imagine Elves acting thus. Dwarves or Men? Something else? He looked desperately from tree to tree but they had hidden themselves well; now he could not even see movement.

When the answer came, it seemed to Sam that almost there was respect in the reply. “We have no intention of harming the Ring-bearer, if he cooperates with us. That is not why we called him to us.”

“You called him…” Sam trailed off, struggling to understand. 

“We called him through his nightmares, through the torment visited upon him by that which he bears.” The voice turned grimmer, and for the first time, Sam heard the undercurrent of self-loathing that laced its every word. “We are … intimately acquainted with nightmares, you see.” With that, the owner of the voice stepped clear of the trees. Sam shoved his own fists into his mouth to keep from screaming. The only sound that escaped him was a small whimper as his wits fled in horror, and he slumped down senseless next to Boromir.

* TBC *

Chapter Five

For the second time, Samwise awoke to pain. Bright light stabbed into his eyes, burning its way all the way to the back of his brain. Sam groaned, then his heart seized as he remembered what had sent him into the darkness. Cold sweat broke out on his skin. Keep your head down, Sam, he thought. Maybe they won’t notice you’re awake.

Sam pried an eye open. Some time had passed; the sun had moved around the great stone and now he and Boromir lay exposed to its cold and brilliant rays. As near as he could tell, he lay where he had fallen. Next to him, Boromir breathed more easily, more deeply, but no signs of returning consciousness did he show. I’ve got to find Mr. Frodo and get him out o’ here, Sam thought. And Mr. Boromir, if I can. They can’t have taken us that far from the others. 

They didn’t have to, Sam decided upon reflection. They could call Frodo to them, and Sam would follow. Gandalf said not to leave him, the hobbit thought, and I don’t mean to. No matter where he goes. He had followed Frodo and Boromir had followed them both. Walked right into a trap, they had. Lambs led to the slaughter. Hastily, Sam shoved that image from his mind and slowly, carefully raised his head to look around.

In the bright daylight, the little clearing looked sad and forlorn. Sam saw that the trees here were stunted, many showing signs of disease. Small wonder. The gardener in him grieved for them, for the green, growing lives they should have had. When there was no response to his movement, Sam cautiously gathered his arms under him and pulled himself into a sitting position. Still nothing.

Right, then. Gathering his courage, Sam stood up and glared around him. They wouldn’t catch him that way twice. Here, in the sunlight, he was in his element and not in the dark misty world that was theirs. Sam had his courage firmly in hand now, and it wasn’t going to escape him again.

As his shadow fell across Boromir’s face, the Man groaned. Quickly, Sam knelt and shook the soldier’s shoulder. “Boromir? Mr. Boromir? Can you wake up, sir?”

Boromir groaned again, louder this time and with a definite note of pain. His face tightened and Sam moved his head so that it blocked the sun shining into the Man’s eyes. Slowly, as if hauling a great weight, Boromir’s eyes dragged themselves open.

Sam could have sobbed with relief. Instead he slid an arm under the soldier’s shoulders and helped him to sit up. “Where … what happened?” the Man managed, running a hand over the stubble on his face.

Sam sought at the Man’s side and came up with his water skin. In his hurry to follow his master, he hadn’t thought to catch up his own. Sam uncapped it and Boromir accepted a drink gratefully, then poured a little of the cool liquid into his hand and rubbed it over his forehead and eyes. Bringing up his arm pulled at the skin of his cut wrist and the soldier hissed, then examined the shallow slice blankly.

Sam waited until the Man’s eyes focused on him again. “Sam … Sam, are you all right?” Boromir said groggily. Briefly Sam considered the idea of slapping Boromir to full wakefulness, then decided against it.

“That I am, sir,” he replied. “Do you remember what happened last night?”

Boromir frowned.  “You and Frodo left camp. I followed you, to bring you back. None of us should wander about alone after dark, Sam…”

Sam chewed his lip against his impatience. “Aye, sir. I know it.  But I had to.  Mr. Frodo was sleepwalking, sir, and you don’t never wake a sleepwalker sudden.”

“No, you don’t…” murmured Boromir vaguely. Then his hand on the hobbit’s shoulder tightened like a vise, so hard that Sam bit back a cry. “Them,” the Man whispered, his unfocused eyes going wide with horror. “I saw -  I saw -”

“Me, too, sir,” Sam said. Both his hands tightened on the Man’s. “But they’re not here now. They’re not here. It’s just us.”

In a surge of movement, Boromir was on his feet, his hands on the hilt of his sheathed sword. Sam edged back warily, not entirely certain that the soldier was in full possession of his faculties. Boromir spun on his heel in place, frantic eyes darting among the sickly trees. His eyes widened as he beheld the great stone, then dismissed it as an unlikely threat. Only when he had completed the full circle did he relax, breathing heavily. When Sam saw the broad shoulders shudder and loosen, he dared to approach the Man.

"Mr. Boromir, sir…” Boromir’s gaze fastened on him, and Sam was careful to keep his voice low and calming. Even if his words could not be. “They’ve got Mr. Frodo.” Some of the fear faded from Boromir’s face as he heard Sam’s words, and his gaze sharpened. Encouraged, Sam continued, “He weren’t here when I woke up last night. I talked with … one o’ them. They said they weren’t going to hurt Mr. Frodo – that that wasn’t why they … they called him.”

Boromir knelt so that he could see eye-to-eye with the hobbit. “They called him?”  

Sam nodded vigorously, pleased that the Gondorian was coherent once more. “Through his nightmares. Mr. Frodo’s been having awful nightmares, sir, and they’ve got worse since … since we lost Gandalf.”

“Nightmares,” said Boromir softly, his gaze once again seeking among the dying trees. But the unreasoning fear in his eyes had faded and Sam was profoundly glad of that. “The nightmares of men.  Such an old tale … I never paid it much attention…”

“Sir…” there was one more thing Sam had to tell him. “They made me tell them who you and Mr. Frodo are.” The Man’s gaze narrowed on him and Sam hurried on, “I had to, sir. I didn’t know what they’d do to you if I didn’t.” After a moment, Boromir nodded. “I told ‘em you were heir to the Steward of Gondor, sir, and they got real excited.”

A strange smile twisted across Boromir’s face. “Oh, yes,” he murmured. “I could see that they would.” Abruptly he laughed but there was no humor in the sound. “Yet I am not the member of our Company whom they have sought for years uncounted. How ironic.”

Sam stared at him in puzzlement. Whatever the Man was on about, it wasn’t finding Frodo. He glanced up at the Sun, now almost overhead. “Sir, can we go now? It’s near midday, and we’ve got to find Mr. Frodo and get back to the others.”

“Yes, of course.” Boromir’s voice was crisp and his keen eyes focused at last. “We’ll find him, Sam.”  Then the Man hesitated and his voice dropped. “Do you … did they indicate that they knew … about it?”

Sam had been dreading that question, hoping the soldier wouldn’t ask. "I’m afraid so, sir,” he replied in an equally soft voice. “They called him… They called him…” Sam’s voice fell to a whisper, “…the Ring-bearer.” 

“Ah, no,” Boromir murmured, “Then we must find him without delay.” He kept his hand on Sam’s shoulder as they moved towards the circle of trees, waiting for the command to halt at every step. But no such command came. They reached the trees unmolested, and passed from that blighted place.

* * * 

“And I say again what I said last night,” Merry repeated in frustration, his voice growing shrill. “They didn’t just grow wings and fly!” No one had returned to sleep after being roused the previous night, and all of the mortal members of the Fellowship were showing their tension and weariness.

Despite the young hobbit’s assertion, the rising of the sun had not provided any more illumination to the confused trail left by their three missing ones. Despite careful searching by every remaining member of the Company, the tracks just – stopped. 

“Well, they did not walk!” retorted Aragorn. In a most uncharacteristic gesture, he struck the uncommunicative earth with a fist and rose from a crouch, still staring at the ground.

“Perhaps they did fly,” Legolas said softly. Aragorn whirled, an angry reply on his lips, when he saw the Elf’s expression. Raising his eyes, he followed Legolas’ thoughtful gaze. Above them, where the tracks ended, hung a broken branch. Next to it, another. And from this one glinted a single golden thread.

The Wood-elf was up the tree in a flash, long arms reaching out to capture the glimmering thread. But he did not immediately come down – instead, he reached out again and again, slender fingers gathering something that was unseen to the anxious watchers below. When he descended, his prizes clamped tightly in a fist, they crowed about him eagerly.

“What is it? What is it?” cried Pippin, unable to be still.

Legolas carefully opened his fist and Aragon plucked something from his palm. “The first is a thread,” he said, holding it up to catch the light. “Golden embroidery … this might have come from Boromir’s surcoat.” The others digested this in silence, looking from the thread to where it had been found, high above them. “And this…” All eyes returned to the Ranger. “Hair. Curling hairs, one dark, two sandy-blond.”

“Frodo and Sam?” whispered Merry. Next to him, Gimli leaned in closer to see, his dark eyes squinting.

Aragorn had been looking up at the trees. “There are scrapes against the bark, and fresh sap. Many of the smaller branches and twigs are also broken, as if they were pushed aside.”

“Are you saying something … some thing … swooped down and carried them off?” the Dwarf growled doubtfully. “All of them? In the dark? Without them making a sound?”

“Boromir fought,” said Aragorn slowly. “Remember the sword cuts Legolas and I showed you on the trees further back. And then he ran.”

“You showed us the dried blood, too,” Pippin chimed in, his voice trembling.

“We don’t know who’s it was, Pippin,” Merry said. “It may have belonged to the … whatever … that took them.” He hugged the tweenager briefly then turned to Aragorn. “Very well, we have a trail. So we follow?”

All eyes turned up to the treetops. Pippin voiced what was on each of their minds. “How?”

* * * 

Frodo sighed, dark eyebrows quirking together. The sun was beating against his closed lids. Oh, stars, he had overslept. Aragorn was going to be annoyed with him. He was probably holding up the whole Company, and they had a great distance to travel today. Odd that Sam hadn’t woken him…

Surprisingly, he felt well-rested. Frodo yawned and stretched luxuriously, savoring the unfamiliar feeling. That was probably why the Ranger had allowed him to sleep, knowing that Frodo’s rest had been troubled of late. Eyes still closed, he frowned. He had had a nightmare earlier in the night … something about being chased, hunted. So many of his dreams were about being pursued … or about Pippin or Merry or Sam being hurt, because of him. Because of what he carried. Unconsciously, his hand rose to his throat and sought the end of the silver chain around his neck, fingering the cold weight of his burden before dropping to his side again.

A shadow crossed his face and Frodo sighed again, knowing that they were waiting for him to get up. He could remember nothing after the nightmare, and was glad of that. Such awful dreams… He hoped that Aragorn would not seek to make up the time lost by demanding he eat in the boat.  When the small craft rocked or hit an eddy, he invariably  dropped his breakfast on himself, prompting a martyred sigh from Sam. Sam always felt he had to keep Frodo’s clothes looking respectable – just about an impossible task when one is trekking through the Wild. Or more recently, climbing in and out of boats…

Realizing that he was stalling, Frodo turned his head towards the shadow and smiled. “I’m awake, Sam,” he mumbled sleepily to the waiting presence. “Good morn-”

A moment later, a shrill shriek rent the air.

* TBC *

Chapter Six

“Did you hear that? Did you hear?” Boromir’s hand tightened on Sam’s shoulder, his hand bunching in the Lórien cloak and clamping hard on flesh and bone, almost lifting the poor hobbit off his feet.

“Aye, I did,” Sam gritted out. Boromir released him with a swift apology. Rubbing his shoulder, Sam pointed to the northeast. “Came from that direction. That was him, I know it was. I know his voice.” Sam did not add that he had never heard such terror in Frodo’s voice. Even when the Witch-king bore down upon him on Weathertop, Frodo had not cried out so. 

Boromir strode through the trees in the direction Sam had indicated, inhibited from breaking into a run by the thick foliage. Branches snatched at their cloaks, snagging their clothing, slowing them. Sam followed as best he could, hobbit-feet silent upon the forest floor. He was weary from lack of sleep and the sun burned in his eyes. He had not lost his feelings of apprehension and disquiet around the warrior, but such nebulous worries mattered little in light of Frodo’s need. Moving as swiftly as they could, they struggled towards the source of the cry.

* * *

“Did you hear that?” Legolas’ head had already pivoted towards the shriek even as Aragorn asked the question. The two were making slow progress – once they knew where to look, their only clues as to the direction of their lost ones’ abduction had been the occasional broken branch or scuff mark high on the bark. Twice Aragorn had spotted smears of blood in the trees, and they halted while Legolas climbed to examine them. The Elf’s efforts were wasted; they learned nothing more from the dry patches. The sun was climbing towards midday when they heard Frodo scream.

* * * 

“Come on, Gimli!”  Merry tightened his hold on the Dwarf’s burly arm and towed determinedly. Heedless in his resolve, the young hobbit did not allow sufficient leeway for Gimli to move and the Dwarf was dragged through a thick clump of prickle bushes. “Sorry! Sorry!” said Merry, not sounding it.

Dodging the bushes as he trailed behind them, Pippin stifled a giggle then tried to look innocent as Gimli cast him an annoyed glance over his shoulder. “Young hobbits,” the beleaguered Dwarf tried again, struggling to free his arm without hurting the halfling, “ I am quite sure that Aragorn’s saying ‘Stay here and wait for us’ does not mean, ‘Follow as soon as we are out of sight.’ Furthermore –“

“Stay close, Pippin,” Merry ordered, ignoring Gimli. “We don’t want to get separated.”

Then they heard their cousin scream.

* * *

All three parties converged on the tiny clearing more or less simultaneously, with Aragorn and Legolas arriving mere seconds before the others. When Boromir and Sam charged out into the glade, followed by Gimli and Merry and Pippin from another direction, they were treated to the sight of the Ranger and the Elf standing motionless, their weapons slack in their hands, their faces bloodless and frightfully blank.

“Aragorn!” Boromir barked, hearing his shout echoed by Gimli. “Don’t look at them! Don’t look!” A flash of movement behind the Dwarf caught his eyes, but there was no time to warn the hobbits. Merry and Pippin darted around Gimli and ran into the center of the clearing, their gaze solely and completely on the sprawled form of their cousin. For those brief seconds, nothing beyond Frodo’s unmoving form existed for them. They ran to their kin and flung themselves upon him, heads down and hands already searching for an injury that would account for such dreadful stillness.

“Frodo!  Frodo!” cried Pippin. “What’s wrong with him, Merry?”

Merry patted Frodo’s slack face but received nothing but a quirking of the dark brows in response. “He seems to be unconscious. Not hurt, not anywhere I can find. Not –“ Merry jerked violently as a hand clutched his shoulder.

“It’s just me, Mr. Merry,” Sam said, his mouth close to Merry’s ear. “You two need to listen to me. Right now!” In all the years Merry had known Sam, he had never heard that tone of voice from his friend. Merry started to tear his gaze away from Frodo when Sam unaccountably grabbed a handful of both Merry’s hair and Pippin’s, and pulled their heads down. “You need ‘ta listen right now, sirs.”

“Ow!” complained Pippin, trying to twist away. “Sam, you’re hurting me! What’s the matter with you?”

“Be still, Pip,” Merry said softly. 

Sam breathed in heavily and the other two realized he was trembling. “Thank you, Mr. Merry. Now you two listen to me right smart. I want you to look at Mr. Frodo. Just keep your eyes on him. Don’t raise your heads.”

“Sam,” said Merry very quietly, “what is happening?”

Sam took a deep breath and released the two curly heads. The cousins kept their faces obediently down turned. Pippin stared at his hands, gripping Frodo’s jacket. His own knuckles were dead white, bone straining underneath flesh, and with an effort, he released the soft cloth and stroked the velvet lapels straight again. Merry stared down at Frodo’s closed eyes, relieved to see a flicker of movement under the shuttered lids.

“You got ‘ta keep looking down because there’s something awful in the air above us,” Sam said softly. “Now it don’t seem they’re going to hurt us,” he rushed on when Merry twitched, “but you don’t want to look up. Head down, Pippin!”

Pippin almost snapped his neck rushing to obey. In the silence that followed, the youngster muttered a soft “ow…”

“What is it?” asked Merry, voice very controlled. Sam’s halting reply was diverted by Boromir’s arrival. The hobbits saw a shadow fall over them, the razor-sided battle shield distorting the familiar shape. They felt Boromir’s hands on their backs.

“Quick thinking, Sam,” said his familiar voice. Sam nodded. “We’ve had a little time to get used to them,” the soldier continued. “They’ve made no move to harm us, and have said that they will not, so long as Frodo cooperates with them.”

“The little ones are all right?” Legolas sank into a graceful crouch beside them and his slender hands examined Frodo’s still face. Frodo opened his mouth slightly and made a noise that sounded like, “wherrr?”

Boromir glanced sideways in surprise then dropped his eyes again. “You do not fear them?”

“I was startled, only,” Legolas replied. “The shades of Men hold no terror for Elves.”

“Ghosts!” squeaked Pippin.  

“Ghosts,” repeated Aragorn, and Pippin felt a gentle hand lain on the crown of his head. “They won’t hurt you, Pippin. Fear is their chief weapon, and you can control your fear. How is Frodo?”

“I think he fainted,” Legolas replied. “His heart beats strongly. He is coming back to us. No doubt it was a great shock.”

“No doubt,” Aragorn agreed. He took a deep breath and raised his head, looking around the small circle surrounding Frodo.  His gaze returned to Merry and Pippin, and he sighed. “I see you obeyed my instructions as well as you usually do. We are all here, then?”

“Where’s Gimli?” said Merry sharply. Moving very slowly, as if their limbs were bound, all those but Pippin dared to raise their eyes and look about them.

The Dwarf stood rooted where he had emerged from the trees, his hands clenched tight around his great battle-axe. Above his russet beard, his face was bloodless and his eyes… Those dark eyes stared above him in abject terror. 

Aragorn rose to his feet and walked carefully towards the Dwarf. “Gimli,” he said softly. “Gimli, my friend.” There was no response from the other. “Gimli,” said the Ranger again, slightly louder but still with great gentleness. “Son of Glóin, look at me.” Slowly, jerkily, Gimli’s eyes dropped from what hovered in the air above him to the Man. “Good,” encouraged Aragorn softly. “Look at me, my friend. They cannot harm you unless you permit it. They have no power over you.”

With great effort, Gimli swallowed. The others were relieved to see some sense return to the dark eyes. Gimli’s hands loosened on the deadly axe and it dropped unheeded to his side. “How … how do you know this?”

Aragorn moved forward and placed his hand on the Dwarf’s shoulder, squeezing it, forcing Gimli to feel his solid presence. “It is old lore –“

“That few but the one we seek would know, heir of Isildur,” came a cold, empty voice above them.

Aragorn froze, and an expression of pain crossed Gimli’s pale face. Hastily the Ranger removed his hand, giving the Dwarf an apologetic squeeze first. From where he watched with one hand spread protectively on Frodo’s chest, Sam thought how very strong the Man must be, for his grip to pain the armored and muscled Dwarf. Very deliberately, Aragorn raised his head slowly and looked at what drifted on the cold breeze above him. Gaining courage from the Ranger’s calmness, the others looked also.

In the bright sun, they appeared no more than tattered shreds of man-shaped memories, almost more sorrowful than terrifying. The light shimmered through them, illuminating a skeletal hand, the blank-eyed stare of a skull from which a few wisps of hair yet clung. Formed more of their memories of themselves than of actual substance, they were washed of all color, white and grey, shadowed with grief. Insubstantial swords and decaying spears were held loosely in their rotting hands, tattered, moth-eaten clothes splashed with faded blood from their death-wounds. All of them bore signs of death by great violence. They were altogether pathetic and horrifying. 

“What do you want with us?” Aragorn asked. “Why have you taken members of our Company?”

Abruptly Frodo twisted and he cried out. His eyes were open now, resembling blue china saucers, and sweat slicked his face. He heaved under Sam’s restraining hand and Sam and Merry caught him forcefully by the shoulders. “Hush, sir, hush. It’s all right. Nothing’s going ‘ta hurt you, sir,” Sam murmured softly. Faintly, Aragorn heard Merry add his reassurances to Sam’s, then Pippin’s soft, quavering voice.

A sigh passed through the assembled wraiths. They were perhaps twenty in number, though it was difficult to tell as they kept fading in and out of sight. Enough to lift and carry two small hobbits and one man made weak with fright. Enough to do their captives’ minds and their hearts true damage, if they chose. Aragorn waited patiently, wondering if he already knew the answer to the question he had asked them.

One moved forward of the others. This one seemed marginally more solid than the rest, as if the memory of what he had been was stronger within him. When he spoke, Aragorn recognized the empty voice that had greeted them upon first entering the glade. 

“We took the Ring-bearer…” Aragorn stiffened and the being paused, something like amusement flickering across the naked bones of his face. “Oh, yes, we know the small one bears a Ring of Power. It called to us … summoned us. It is altogether evil.” He stopped and it seemed to the living that a bright spark burned red in the empty eye sockets. “But it would avail us nothing to take it. We could not wield it. No, we do not want what the Ring-bearer carries. We took him and the others only to secure what we want.”

Behind him, Frodo had stilled, half-sitting, one hand clamped on Sam’s arm. Merry and Pippin crouched by his side, pressing themselves against him. The Ranger sorrowed to see Frodo’s other hand clenched tight around the Ring at his throat, and the hobbit’s eyes still wild and terrified.

Seeing Frodo cared for, Legolas left the others and glided to Aragorn’s side, studying the faded, floating figures with great interest. The one Aragorn was speaking to bore a horrific death-wound, a great slash across his abdomen that would surely have eviscerated him. Death would not have come immediately. Not for many hours. Shuddering, Aragorn resisted the urge to turn his head away. Instead, he stared into the blank eye sockets of the figure before him and asked, “What then do you want?”

“You.”

* TBC *

Chapter Seven

Behind him, Aragorn felt the others of the Fellowship stiffen. Legolas’ hands went to his knives, steel hissing as they cleared the leather sheaths. Gimli’s chain mail clinked as he swung the axe into fighting position. The Dwarf growled and Aragorn was glad, for it meant Gimli had overcome his fear enough to do battle. For all the use their knives and swords and battle-axes would be against such foes.

Aragorn said nothing, but old tales were running through his mind. His thoughts turned back to evenings spent in the Master of Rivendell’s study, the firelight flickering on Elrond’s elegant face as he told his sons tales of ancient days. A teenaged Aragorn would sip his cider while Elrohir and Elladan twirled their wineglasses idly as they listened, their smiling gaze on the intent boy. Elrond’s deep eyes would sparkle as the child listened and asked him questions about the legacy that he would someday inherit.

“What do you want of me?” Aragorn asked, though he thought he knew.

The hovering, insubstantial forms moved closer. The rest of the Company fell back, but Aragorn stood his ground. The one that had spoken before drifted down to stand before the Ranger, and as if some contact with the earth strengthened it, the figure firmed and naked bones took on the memory of flesh. Details could now be seen on the figure; faint splashes of color, a once noble, ravaged face, still proud even in death.

“You are the heir of Isildur. Of direct descent, unbroken, father to son?”

Aragorn inclined his head. “I am.”

A moan swept the assembled ghosts, the sound of a pain so deep that even as it horrified the Fellowship, it roused in them vast pity. This pain had known no salve, no lessening through the long years since these had passed from this life in such violence. “He has come,” they whispered. “At long last, the Heir has come.” Then their voices deepened, pleading and desperate. “Free us, lord. Free us.”

“Aragorn.” It was Boromir, his hand still on his useless sword. The Gondorian edged to the Ranger’s side, his face pale, his eyes on those who waited. “What are they talking about? How can you free them?”

“Quiet, Boromir.” Aragorn placed his hand on the soldier’s arm, and frowned as his touch encountered dried blood, small red flakes breaking free of slashed cloth and drifting to the ground. “What is this?”

Boromir shook his head, his eyes on their audience. “It is nothing. A cut, only. I … I lost myself in fear when I first saw them. When I was following Frodo and Sam. I drew my sword and … sought to attack them.” Boromir grimaced, color rising in his face. “I succeeded only in hacking up some innocent trees, and managing to cut myself.”

Aragorn gave him a twisted smile and Boromir summoned an answering scowl. The Ranger was glad to see that the man had regained enough control of himself to depreciate his panicked actions. Aragorn glanced behind him, checking on the location of all of the Company. The hobbits had Frodo on his feet, Sam’s sturdy shoulder under his arm. The Ring-bearer’s face was still white but color was returning to it. He seemed to take comfort from the others and they pressed close to him. Pippin’s arms were around Frodo’s waist and Merry was at his back, sword at the ready, bright blue eyes watching and weighing. Gimli and Legolas stood side by side, their expressions grim. 

Aragorn straightened his back and stood proudly before all of the eyes, living and dead, which gazed upon him. Wise and noble was his mien, and he wore royalty like a mantle across his broad shoulders. “I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and through my veins flows the blood of Isildur.” Then he drew a deep breath and recited in a clear, ringing voice:

Who shall call them from the grey twilight, the forgotten people?

The heir of him to whom the oath they swore.

From the North shall he come, need shall drive him:

he shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.”* 

     Boromir looked from the man and comrade in arms he thought he was beginning to know, then to the ghosts. “Isildur’s heir,” he murmured softly. “Then these…”

“Would be a contingent of the Oathbreakers, the Men of the Mountain who swore allegiance to Gondor in the beginning. When my forefather summoned them into battle against the Enemy, they refused. And so Isildur threw down their king and cursed them. Never would they find rest until their oath was fulfilled.”

The ghosts sighed, and the living saw that some of the dead wept. Their hearts were wrung in pity, and tears gathered in the eyes of more than one or two of them. To exist for ages in such shame and pain, denied peace, denied release, doomed to suffer until a curse was fulfilled ... it was unimaginable.

“How came you here?” Aragorn asked. “Why are you not with the other cursed ones in Erech?”

“We deserted,” the leader moaned. “When Isildur pronounced the curse upon us, we could not bear it and we fled. We ran, like cowards. We ran until we came to this little place, this woodland glade, and here we saw the great black standing stone before you. So like the one that Isildur brought from Númenor, upon which we swore our oaths to him. We stopped and decided to record our tale upon it, before scattering to the winds. But we…” the phantom stopped as another groan rose from his comrades. “We … we fought over what words were to be inscribed upon the stone, what justification for our desertion we could give. Angry words came to angry blows, and … we killed each other.”

“You what?”  This from Boromir, who stared at them as if he could not believe his ears.

“We killed each other, to a man. For us, Isildur’s curse came true very quickly.” Shame was written on the fleshless faces, shame and regret and sorrow. “We have been here ever since, unable to travel very far from the place where we died. Unable to find peace. We have been imprisoned in this glade, to await the coming of the one man in all of Middle-earth who has the power to free us and send us to our rest.”

“So that explains the blighted trees and dying green things,” Legolas murmured, compassion on his fair face. “No life could flourish in a place of such sorrow and shame.”

“Why did you take Frodo?” Merry’s clear, high voice startled them all and drew their gazes to the tight circle of hobbits. Merry’s eyes were on the ghosts, wary but unafraid. Pippin had freed one hand to cling to his arm tightly, his eyes huge. “And Sam and Boromir?”

“To draw the Heir to us,” the spirit responded. “We felt your presence, Lord Aragorn, but we could not travel so far to your camp. Then we discovered that we could draw one of your company to us through the evil he carried.” Frodo’s face whitened and his hand unconsciously sought the silver chain around his throat. Sam took his hand and clasped it firmly, and Frodo shuddered and leaned against him. “So we called him and he came, sleeping and unaware, and after him came the other and the heir of the Steward. And you followed.”

“I am here. What do you wish of me?”

“Release us,” they moaned hoarsely, “release us." The leader rose in the air and joined with the others, his voice merging with theirs. “Let us go to our rest. Long have we waited and sorrowed over our choice. Let us have peace at last.”

Aragorn gazed up at them and the Company saw such sadness on his face as to rend the heart. “You have suffered for your crimes, and I sorrow for you. But I cannot release you from your torment.”

A great hiss went through the pale host, a snarling sound of disappointed anger. As if their fury gave them strength, the ghosts gained substance and their death-blows manifested more strongly. Blood dripped from horrific wounds, evaporating into black smoke before hitting the ground. The image of flesh receded and bare bone shone palely through rotting shreds of cloth. Behind him, Aragorn heard Pippin make a sickened sound, and a moment later, Merry’s soft voice uttering reassurances too low for him to hear.

The foremost among them broke from the others and came again to drift before Aragorn, the death-wound he bore so vivid that the Ranger half-expected to smell the stink of ruptured bowels. “You cannot?” the ghost said. “You cannot? Think, Heir of Isildur, of where you stand. Think of those you captain. Here, in this place of our death, we have enough power to prevent you from leaving.”

At once the Fellowship drew together, placing the hobbits in the center of their circle. Frodo and Sam drew their swords, and Pippin also. Merry’s was already raised and ready. Boromir and Gimli and Legolas stepped before them, weapons unsheathed. Outward they faced, shoulder to shoulder, seeking to form a defensive shield. Legolas’ deadly bow was in his hands, but it was only half-raised. What harm could arrows do against those already dead?

Aragorn had taken one step back towards the others but he halted and raised his hand, palm outward. “Stop!” he ordered, and such was the command of his voice that the tightening circle of hostile wraiths obeyed. 

“Speak, Aragorn son of Arathorn,” snarled the leader. “We are many, and this is our place. If you do not accede to our request, you will join us here, to wait for all eternity until Middle-earth is no more.”

Aragorn stared at the ghost and his stern face was cold. “You did not allow me to finish.  I would release if you I could, for you have endured much, and cruelly. But it is not within my power to do so.”

“Not … not…  What do you mean?” Aragorn looked at the specter calmly, pity on his face. Confusion and anger and suspicion chased across the dead features. “Did you not say that you are the heir of Isildur? If you have lied to us, it will go ill for you.”

Aragorn’s grey eyes flashed. “I do not lie. I am whom I have said. When I told you that it is not within my power to free you, that is exactly what I meant. My ancestor cursed you to wander until you fulfilled your oath, and that must take place before you may find peace. No will or act of mine may alter the outcome of that doom.”

For long moments, there was no sound in that ruined place. Then a great wail rose up from the dead, a cry of such agony that the living dropped their weapons and clapped their hands over their ears. Imprisoned in that scream was ages of unspeakable grief and torture, and it drilled through the Fellowship’s minds and hearts and turned their limbs to water. The hobbits cried out and fell to the ground, sprawling like limp rag dolls. Legolas’ bow faltered in his hands and he fell to his knees, stunned but not completely overwhelmed, not as affected as the mortals. Aragorn collapsed to his hands and knees, his face twisted in agony. 

In a movement too quick for living eyes to follow, the assemblage of wraiths flew together and hovered over the hobbits. Pippin was sobbing in terror and Merry was struggling weakly beside him, his hands twitching as he sought to catch up his sword. Sam was unconscious, or at least unmoving, his eyes closed and his face slack. Frodo was shaking his friend’s shoulder weakly, barely able to move himself. Frodo looked up and saw what was above him, and Aragorn saw for an instant his terrified eyes, impossibly huge in his pale face. In a split second, as Aragorn watched, the ghosts merged into one tattered, seething mass and descended.

Decaying arms pushed the other hobbits away from the Ring-bearer, sending them tumbling. Merry fought to his feet and swung his sword at the wraith nearest his cousin, but the weapon passed through the apparition without contact. Off balance and still stunned, Merry swung completely around, narrowly missing Frodo’s head, and fell hard to the ground, his sword torn from his grasp. 

Pippin threw himself on top of Frodo as ghostly arms sought to lift his cousin. Aragorn heard Frodo scream, a shrill shriek of utter terror. Pippin cried out too, but instead of releasing his cousin, he buried his head against Frodo’s chest and clung the tighter. Aragorn tried to move towards them but his limbs seemed frozen, heedless of his need. Faintly, he could hear Boromir gasping and a groaning wail from the Dwarf, but he could not turn his head to see them. Both of the halflings were being lifted, dragged upwards by the force of many fleshless arms. Long fingers like white twigs were clamped around Frodo’s arms, his shoulders and legs. As they hefted him from the ground, more sought to support him from underneath, carrying the two hobbits high into the air.

Merry somehow dragged himself to his feet and crouched, then leaped with all he had in him. For the briefest moment, his hands encircled Frodo’s ankle and Frodo cried out again, this time in pain. But Merry could not hold. One hand then the other slid free and the hobbit dropped back to earth. He landed awkwardly and lay still.

* TBC *

* “The Passing of the Grey Company,” The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien     

Chapter Eight

Still stunned and on his knees, Legolas dragged his great bow before him and turned it sideways, struggling to aim it as he would a crossbow. Gimli lay on his belly, his great axe fallen from nerveless fingers. Legolas spared him a glance but saw that he would have no help from that quarter.

Leaden fingers fumbled for an arrow but dropped it and the Elf swore, almost the first time Aragorn could ever recall hearing such an utterance from him. With great effort, Legolas set arrow to string and raised the bow shakily. Before the Ranger could gather himself to forbid the action, the Elf fired. The arrow wobbled and passed harmlessly through the ghost holding Frodo’s shoulders. Pippin yelped as it passed within inches of his cousin’s head.

“Legolas, no!” The Elf dragged his gaze to the Ranger and Aragorn shook his head furiously. “They are already dead! What threat could our weapons hold against them?” Legolas ground his teeth but hearing his own thoughts echoed by Aragorn stilled his hand. He had hoped that in becoming corporeal enough to support the little ones’ weight, the wraiths might render themselves vulnerable to his arrows. Such was not the case. In shooting, he would only further endanger the captives. Frustrated and furious, he lowered the bow.

A shrill cry from Sam drew their attention. He had roused from the shock to which the ghostly company’s cry had driven him, and seen his master and Pippin suspended above them. The ghosts were endeavoring to carry them higher, but at perhaps forty feet, they seemed to be fighting against an invisible force that would let them ascend no farther. It did not matter; a drop from forty feet onto the hard ground would surely break every bone in their bodies. Sam was on his feet, shaking, fists beating impotently against his sides. Without the training of a warrior or a loremaster’s knowledge of what they faced, he fought with the only weapon he had. Almost before the warriors could blink, the hobbit had his small sling out and was firing tiny stones with deadly accuracy into the throng’s midst. One passed directly through the forehead of the specter holding Frodo. But like the Elf’s arrow, the small projectiles passed through the wraiths without harm. 

Boromir, meanwhile, had cast aside his shield and sword and was crawling on his belly towards Merry. Having suffered the wraiths before, he had recovered more quickly than the others. Merry groaned as Boromir reached him and his eyes fluttered open, glazed and unseeing. Boromir ran his hands carefully over the small body, checking for breaks. Merry gasped when the soldier’s hands passed over his ankle, and his eyes cleared a bit from the pain.

Suddenly Merry half sat-up, his horrified gaze focused above them, a silent shriek on his lips. Without even looking, Boromir knew from the expression on the halfling’s face what was coming. Boromir gathered himself and flung his body over Merry, muscled arms already reaching, risking a quick glance upward. Pippin was falling, tumbling head over heels in the air, silent in his terror. Boromir threw himself upwards, long arms curving to catch the small body. A remote part of his mind had a heartbeat to marvel at the sudden, solid weight of the tweenager as Pippin crashed into him and bore them both to the ground. The little one looked so delicate to weigh so much, he thought dazedly. Boromir landed hard on his shoulder, digging a swath in the sickly grass, sheltering Pippin against his chest. The soldier grunted in suppressed agony as all the air was driven from his lungs, and yards away, Aragorn and the others winced at the impact. For a long moment, Pippin did not move. Then his hands clutched at the Man, winding his small arms around Boromir as if he would never let go.

Panic stricken, Merry tried to struggle to his feet but the ankle betrayed him, twisting beneath him and he fell. Digging his elbows into the turf, he dragged himself over to their entwined forms, and latched onto Boromir’s leg, using the limb to pull himself forward. “Pippin! Pip!”

With a final, despairing glance above him, Sam stuffed the useless sling in his pocket and ran to the huddled forms, his hand going out to stroke the head pressed so tightly against the Man. “Pippin,” Sam whispered. “Are you all right there, my lad?” Pippin whimpered, his head still buried in the crook of Boromir’s neck.

“I have him,” murmured Boromir softly, his eyes flicking between Sam and Merry and the host above them. He rubbed the tweenager’s back with one hand, cupping the back of the trembling head with the other. “Peregrin,” Boromir said quietly. “If you do not let Merry know you are all right, he is going to tear off my leg.” Pippin shuddered and his grip tightened around Boromir’s neck. “I have need of that leg,” Boromir murmured ridiculously, “You and Merry will have to carry me –“ With a gasping laugh, Pippin raised his head and unlocked his hold from around the Man’s neck. Seeing him raise his head, Merry transferred his death-grip from Boromir’s leg to Pippin, hugging his cousin tight. Then Merry looked up again and his face blanched.

“Frodo! I had him, Sam! But I couldn’t hold on. What are they going to do to him?”

“Don’t know, Mr. Merry.” Sam’s caught up Merry’s hand with such force that Merry winced and despite himself, gave a soft cry of pain. Sam glanced at him in apology and eased up slightly but kept Merry’s hand held tight in his own.

Aragorn allowed himself to close his eyes for a heartbeat, sending up a prayer of thanks to Elbereth for Boromir’s successful catch of the young hobbit. If Pippin had been killed, he could not have borne it any more than the youngster’s kin. Legolas stood beside him, at a loss and helpless for one of the few times in the Elf’s long life. 

“If you’d see to Master Gimli, Samwise,” Aragorn said quietly. His voice was soft but it carried easily to the small group. Sam nodded and with a last squeeze of Merry’s hand, scuttled sideways to kneel besides the prone Dwarf. 

“Mr. Gimli, sir? Sir?” Gimli was breathing harshly, his face beneath the beard pale and strained. Seeing Pippin safe, he tried to push himself up and Sam helped him, steadying him as the Dwarf struggled to a seating position. “It gets better,” Sam reassured him softly. “You sort of get used to them, if you don’t think about it too much.” Still wordless, Gimli nodded, some of the unreasoning panic leaving his eyes.

“Man!” They aren’t calling Strider by name, Sam thought. Bad sign, that. “There are rocks nearby, man. Sharp, jagged rocks. Your Ring-bearer would fare ill indeed were we to drop him from so high and over such a place. And we will, man. We will drop him unless you, Isildur’s Heir, free us!”

The specters were moving, shifting under Frodo’s limp form. It seemed to the watching hobbit that this was an effort for them, a strain to keep themselves corporeal enough to support a solid weight for any length of time. Sam could not tell if his master was conscious or not. He wasn’t moving. Some part of Sam hoped desperately that Frodo was not. Hobbits are not good with heights at the best of times. And this… Tears burning against his eyelids, Sam hoped frantically that Frodo had fainted. 

“No! No, do not harm him!” Aragorn stood beneath them, clenching and unclenching his fists in impotent rage. With Sam giving him a hand up, Gimli heaved himself to his feet and stood swaying, his thick legs planted like tree-trunks against the ground. Legolas stood rigid, useless arrow in one hand and the bow in the other. Both stared upwards, unable to do more. From the corner of his eye, Sam saw Pippin try to look up. Boromir gently pushed the youngster’s head down, whispering to him, and Merry patted his back, his eyes on Frodo and his expression grim.

Sam saw Frodo shudder suddenly, and his formerly limp body suddenly exploded into a frenzy of twisting. He thrashed against those holding him, kicking, trying to turn himself to see those on the ground. He was awake now, then. No, thought Sam. No, don’t look. Don’t see. Oh, my dear master… The spirits swirled around Frodo, tightening their holds as the hobbit writhed and fought. Ghastly fleshless hands caught his arms, his legs, and fastened themselves in his clothing. Frodo recoiled from their touch, his gasping, terrified breaths an agony to the ears of the helpless Fellowship below him.

“Pip! Pip!” Frodo kicked and cloth tore, the sleeve of his jacket ripping. He dropped several feet before bony fingers caught and tightened around him again.

“Frodo!” Pippin shrieked, struggling against Boromir’s restraining hand. At a nod from Merry, the soldier allowed him to see. Pippin’s face went white at the sight of his thrashing cousin, but to see Frodo moving and fighting was more steadying to him than any number of whispered reassurances.

The leader darted up to his comrades and caught Frodo’s head, arching the hobbit’s neck back painfully. The Ring-bearer froze, his eyes captured by the spirit’s burning gaze. “Let him join us in death, then, where we died in such shame and dishonor. We will smash him upon the black rock of our ignominy, break his spine across the stone!” The foremost of them glared down upon the Companions, the rotting remains of his face twisted in such despair as to smite the heart. A finger like a white twig pointed at the great black standing stone situated in the center of the clearing. He released Frodo and descended to hover just above the Ranger and stare into his eyes. “We will do this thing, unless you release us!”

“I cannot free you from the curse laid upon you by my forefather,” Aragorn said to him, pitching his tone to carry to the others. The Ranger’s voice was low and steady, the only sign of his anger and tension the almost imperceptible quivering of his tall frame. “That is beyond my power. But I can release you from this place! And once quit from here, return you to Erech and await the summons that will free you from your long years of torment. For I am coming! The Heir of Isildur is coming, and it may yet come to pass that I will ride the Paths of the Dead, and send out my summons for you to fulfill your oath at last.”

They were listening. Sam knew they were listening. They had stilled, their putrid, weary faces looking down on them. Frodo too was motionless, but Sam could see him shaking. With their attention on Aragorn, Sam saw that Frodo had managed to twist himself partway around, but not enough to see his friends upon the ground. He tried again as Sam watched, and Sam saw the ghostly hands tighten cruelly upon him. 

“But if you harm that little one,” Aragorn continued, “it will all be for naught. If he dies, then our Quest has failed. If he dies with our mission yet unfulfilled, what he bears will most likely find its way back to the Enemy, to the great increase of his power. He lacks only the Ring to cover all the world in darkness. And if that comes to pass, then you will be forever condemned to the hell in which you have damned yourselves.”

The lost souls had drifted lower while Aragorn spoke, listening to him so intently that they forgot to sustain their altitude. Sam saw them leaning towards each other, passing among themselves some communication that the living could not perceive. 

“Forever,” repeated Aragorn in a softer voice, and they came closer to hear him. Legolas and Gimli fell back, and Boromir closed his eyes and bowed his head over Pippin, pushing the youngest hobbit’s face into his surcoat, keeping his eyes from them. Beside Sam, Merry shuddered, his face glistening with perspiration. He looked away as the decaying forms drew nearer, and then forced his gaze back as the Ranger continued speaking. “Forever. With no hope of release. With no hope of finding peace, ever. Never to rest.” Aragorn fell silent, his eyes boring into those of the leader. 

A low moan was birthed and grew among them, a sound of lingering grief. Hope was all that had sustained them, held them by a knife’s-edge to what sanity they had left. The smallest of hopes, but one yet possible. Sam could not imagine an existence without the smallest glimmer of hope. Better, by far, to be dead. Completely, irrevocably dead. Sam felt the tears prinking at his eyes brim over, the pity in his heart so great that for a moment he could forgive them for what they did. He prayed that he would never understand being driven to such straits, to a place where all hope failed.     

The shifting of Frodo’s shoulders caught his attention, warning him a heartbeat before Frodo acted. Before Sam could shout, “Master, don’t!” Frodo snapped his arms against his sides and curled in on himself, making his body as small as possible. With no reference points in the air, he did not know how high he was still above the ground. Caught off guard and distracted, the ghosts dropped him.

He fell through their insubstantial forms like a stone through melting snow. Fleshless hands caught at him, but they had drifted apart in their absorption of Aragorn's words and had not density enough to catch him. Frodo managed to turn as he fell, and Sam saw his eyes widen as he saw how very far the ground was below him. I can’t reach him, thought Sam, as his world slowed to that falling form. Nor Legolas, nor Aragorn – none of us…

The leader whirled, alerted by the motion above him. His head whipped back, then he was shooting upwards like a ragged sheet caught in the wind. Sam saw him solidify suddenly as if some human emotion remained in him, some shred of inherent human decency, not to allow the helpless to come to harm. The memory of his living form crawled over the bare bone and putrefying flesh; muscles firmed and strong hands reached out. They caught Frodo in mid-air, then the leader drifted down and deposited the Ring-bearer gently into Aragorn’s arms.

“Your proposal is accepted,” he murmured into the stunned Ranger’s face. “Free us from this place, that we may return to our brethren and await the summons that will allow us to atone for what we have done.” 

Aragorn’s arms tightened around Frodo. He could feel the Ring-bearer’s heart hammering against his chest with such force that it seemed it would burst from Frodo’s breast. Frodo was utterly silent, his hands clasping Aragorn’s arm as it held him across his chest.

The others came down to hover before him, arraying themselves behind their leader in silent anticipation. Aragorn held his ground. Very carefully, he put Frodo down. The hobbit wavered on his feet, then sank to the cold earth, sliding down to rest with his back against Aragorn’s legs, his white face upturned, staring at the unearthly assemblage. He said nothing, but Aragorn could feel him trembling.

“All right, Frodo?” he asked softly.

“All right, Strider,” the Ring-bearer answered, his voice so low that only the absolute silence of the glade allowed it to carry to Aragorn’s ears. There was a rustle of movement then Sam was crouching by Frodo’s side, glaring at the phantoms furiously.

The Ranger returned his gaze to the waiting ghosts. He drew himself up and his blue-grey eyes were filled with such majesty and his stern features with such nobility that all those waiting for his words bowed their heads in awe. “I, Aragorn son of Arathorn, descended through many fathers from Isildur, son of Elendil, release you from your place of death. It is laid upon you to return to the place of your desertion and rejoin your kin, to await the day when the Heir of Isildur summons you to fulfill the oath you made to the King of Gondor. In doing so, may you find the peace so long denied you and be known as Oathbreakers no more.”

A great sigh rose up from the half-seen forms, a moan of relief that rose to the stars and filled the heavens. As if the late sun had suddenly increased in strength, they became more difficult to see. A great rush of air filled the clearing, swirling around the blighted trees, and when it was gone, only the leader remained. He drifted for a moment before the Fellowship, and in those tortured eyes was some measure of peace.

“Thank you,” the wraith said to Aragorn. “If it is within your power, lord, do not delay in your coming. We will wait, as we must. This time, we will honor the return of the king.” With that, he was gone on the last breath of the cleansing wind.

* * * 

Upon Merry’s assurances that his ankle was only twisted, the Company had departed that ill-fated place as quickly as possible. None wanted to remain in a place of such sorrow. Merry asked Boromir to carry Pippin, but the tweenager, upon seeing that each step brought a grimace of pain to Merry’s face, had insisted that his cousin be carried instead. Merry had indignantly refused, insisting that Pippin be carried. Frodo had firmly settled the impending squabble, reassuring Aragorn of the Ring-bearer’s resilience.

As Boromir lifted Merry and settled him in his arms to carry him, Legolas ran his slender hands over several of the trees, murmuring reassurances to the blighted trunks in Elvish. “Perhaps they will recover now,” the Elf said, “and grow strong and beautiful once more.”

“An evil has been lifted from this place,” Aragorn responded. “May it presage the coming of better days.  Let us go. We have lost a day and will have to paddle hard on the morrow to make up the time.”   

It was a weary Company that trudged back the long way through the darkening forest to where they had pulled up the boats and made camp. Pippin kept tight hold of the hem of Merry’s cloak as they walked, and Sam kept an arm around Frodo’s waist, guiding his master’s weary steps. Aragorn led the Company and Gimli took the rearguard, axe over his shoulder, dark eyes roving uneasily. Legolas scouted ahead of them, his superior night-sight guiding them unerringly back. Seeing Frodo stumble on the path, Boromir offered to carry him along with Merry, bringing back all of Sam’s misgivings in a rush. Sam tensed, his arm suddenly tight around his master. Frodo glanced at him in surprise, but before he could speak, Aragorn dropped smoothly back and offered to carry Frodo himself. Frodo had refused. Thereafter had ensued a brief but animated discussion (involving much arm-waving and mutual accusations of stubbornness) which comforted Sam. It had ended to his satisfaction; Frodo was carried the rest of the way by Aragorn, arms crossed over his chest as he glowered up at his benefactor.

Mr. Frodo’s too tired to have a nightmare this night, at least, and there won’t be any more sleepwalking, Sam thought as he slid into his bedroll next to Frodo. Pippin was already asleep, his scarf wrapped around the bandage on Merry’s ankle for additional warmth and, Sam knew, as a gesture of love. Sam checked that everyone had their blankets pulled up, then nodded goodnight to Gimli, who was watch. Now if I could just settle about Boromir, there shouldn’t be any more trouble. But that’s a worry for another day. Careful to make no sound, Sam checked that the hilt of his sword was within easy reach, and burrowing into his bedroll, began to snore softly.

The End 

 





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