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A Desperate Race  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,  My thanks to my dear Marigold for the beta.  

A Desperate Race

The ground was muddy beneath Aragorn’s feet as he searched for signs of hoof prints in the soft earth of the river’s banks.  He did not know which frightened him more – that he wouldn’t find the tracks he sought, or that he would.  The steep bank, slashed by vigorous water and churned by the violent passage of at least one horse, distorted all details of Frodo’s passage.  Aragorn and the others had been caught on the far bank when the killing flood roared out of the narrow crevice upstream, and his last sight of Frodo had been as the hobbit raised his sword in desperate defiance against the horrors that pursued him.  Then the Ranger’s vision had been blocked by the raging waters, the great white wave-horses and tumbling boulders.

Keen eyes cast desperately at the torn earth before him.  Aragorn knelt, unheeding of the mud that immediately coated his boots and clothes.  His eyes fell on deep gouges in the ground, evidence of a frantically struggling mount.  It had slipped; earth was thrown forward and kicked backwards as it thrashed about to maintain its balance in the sliding earth.  He could not tell if the horse had been the white elf-horse of Glorfindel or the black beast of the fell Rider, not from the marks of this frenzied struggle up the bank.

The soil was so disrupted that he could not even tell if there was the light imprint of a small body.  If Frodo had fallen, he was not here now.  The Ranger’s heart clenched within his chest as he remembered his last sight of the wounded hobbit.  Frodo had swayed in the saddle as he raised the small sword, and from the far bank, Aragorn could see the pain and furious hopelessness on his face as the hobbit shouted, “Go back!”  Frodo wavered in his seat, his face white and tight with agony.  “Go back,” he repeated in a whisper, the momentary strength his anger had given him spent.  “Go back to the Land of Mordor, and follow me no more!”

Aragorn strained to hear Frodo’s words and the snarling reply of the Nazgûl.  Glorfindel would hear the exchange without difficulty, and from the expressions of terror and desperation on the hobbits’ faces, their sensitive ears could also pick up the distant words.  “To Mordor,” the Nine had answered, their voices cold and mocking and utterly inhuman.  “To Mordor we will take you!”  Frodo shook his head but had not had the strength for more.  “Go back!” he whispered once more, his head falling forward on his breast.

“The Ring!” they had hissed in reply.   “The Ring!” The one who had stabbed Frodo on Weathertop kneed his mount, urging it forward into the clean waters of Elrond’s river.  Two more followed, and the others readied themselves to move forward and claim their prize.

“By Elbereth and Lúthien the Fair,” said Frodo with a last effort, “you shall have neither the Ring nor me!”  On foot and too far away to help, Aragorn could but watch as the Witch-King stood up in his saddle and gestured at Frodo.  The sword wobbled in the hobbit’s grasp and snapped.  Frodo slumped forward in the saddle, the broken blade falling from his hand.  Then the Bruinen had risen in enraged reprisal, and the white waves and tumbling boulders had obscured his view.

The other hobbits would have thrown themselves into the rampant waters, driven beyond reason by their fear for Frodo, had not he and Glorfindel thrust them back and set them to kindling torches to drive the black horses back into the raging waters.  All of the Nine had entered the river but some were closer in than the others, and these had time to turn their beasts and attempt to fight their way back to solid ground.  Their faces set, Aragorn and the others used flame and courage to drive their maddened mounts back into the devouring waters.

He had been first into the river as the waters subsided, ignoring the shattered bodies of the animals and the tattered robes caught on the jagged boulders of the river.  One of the beasts lay broken not far away, its spine snapped.  The coarse hair of its black mane waved in the calming current.  Surprised by the surge of pity in his heart, Aragorn averted his eyes.  Wicked as it had been, it had only been a slave forced to serve its master.  Desperately he looked up from his search of the bank and cast about for Frodo.  He saw not the limp form of the hobbit on the ground first, but the form of the great white stallion standing guard over something small and flat to the earth.

“Glorfindel!  Over here!”  The Ranger scrambled up the bank, using his hands to steady himself in the slippery mud.  From the corner of his eye, he saw the Elf lean down to speak to the hobbits, then leap forward into the sinking waters, balancing himself easily on convenient rocks.  Frodo was lying on his face at the top of the bank.  Aragorn started to drop to his knees by the unmoving figure but suddenly Asfaloth snorted, the stallion’s eyes white-rimmed.  The elf-horse bared his chisel-like teeth and snaked out his head on his foam-covered neck, warning the Ranger off. 

“Easy, Asfaloth,” Aragorn soothed, understanding the stallion’s dilemma.  His master had charged Asfaloth with Frodo’s safety, and the white elf-horse was unsettled and frightened.  “You have done well, but you must let me near.  Easy, great heart, easy…”  Under that familiar voice the stallion calmed and moved back, allowing the man near his charge.  Fear in his heart, Aragorn laid a hand on the still figure’s outstretched arm.

“Frodo?” whispered the Ranger.  The hobbit did not move.  “Frodo, talk to me.”  There was no response.  Carefully he cupped the hobbit’s head and turned it so that he could see the unconscious face.  Frodo’s eyes were closed and he breathed shallowly in little gasping starts and stops.  Mud plastered his features but did not hide the ashen tone of his skin.  Aragorn slid his other hand over the small body, fearing to find a broken back.  It was a long fall from the tall horse to the ground, and if he had fallen on his wounded shoulder…  Better that he be unaware, should that be the case, for the pain would be unendurable.

Glorfindel halted across from him, his slender hands cupping the great stallion’s velvet muzzle.  Asfaloth dropped his head into the comforting hands, his soft brown eyes still white-rimmed with distress.  Murmuring gentle praise to the white elf-horse, the Elf searched him quickly for injuries.  Finding none, Glorfindel spared a pitying glance for Frodo before turning to check on the other hobbits.  Sam and Merry each had an arm locked around Pippin’s shoulders, helping the smaller hobbit against the current and the high water in the middle of the river.  Sam’s other hand was entangled in Bill’s lead, half-hauling the panicky pony after them.  All three of them looked terrified, their eyes riveted on the Big People up on the bank.  They were sodden and filthy and exhausted and with all the speed they could muster, they pushed themselves forward towards their greatest fear.

“How is he?” murmured the Elf.  His clear eyes swept the river and its banks, counting.  Even elven sight had not been sufficient to pierce the wall of water and foam and death as the river rose against the Riders.  Glorfindel knew it was vitally important to account for all of the Ringwraiths, to know if any had escaped. 

“He is alive.  He’s breathing.  No sign of consciousness, though…”  Under the Ranger’s careful fingers, Frodo shifted and gasped, his face tightening in pain.  Both leaned over him.  “Frodo,” muttered Aragorn, “come on, my friend.”  He pushed the lank curls back off the pale brow.  “Take a deep breath, Frodo. Can you open your eyes?”

Frodo’s eyelashes fluttered and he inhaled again, a gasping struggle for air that did not denote normal breathing.  He emitted a small, weak cry that had no words but contained within it a world of agony.  Glorfindel looked at Aragorn in concern, then crouched by his side to lay a slender hand across the hobbit’s brow.  “He is in great pain, Estel.  It is worse than before.”

“I can find no broken bones,” Aragorn responded hesitantly, running his hands carefully along the hobbit’s arms and legs.  “But yes, I sense it, too.  Either the pursuit or the fall has injured him further.  I did not know the Nazgûl could shatter a sword from a distance … did it also harm Frodo when it did so?”

Glorfindel shook his head.  “I have not Elrond’s lore of the Nine, Estel.  I do not know the extent of their evil powers.  But I sense that Frodo is weaker.  Only his great strength of will sustains him now.”

“He has not much strength left,” Aragorn whispered.  “The left side is completely cold.  Can you -”

“The little ones are coming,” warned Glorfindel, his clear voice no more than a sigh on the breeze.  Aragorn nodded, stooping to gather up Frodo, turning him gently so that he lay facing upwards.  The halfling was a dead weight in his arms. Glorfindel sighed and his gaze went to the approaching hobbits in compassion.  “What do we say?”

“That he lives.  That there is yet hope.”  Aragorn cradled Frodo next to his chest, shifting him gently so that the hobbit’s head lay against his breast.  Frodo’s head lolled limply and the Ranger hastened to support it with his shoulder, as one would a small child.  Glorfindel glided to his feet and unrolled a blanket from behind Asfaloth’s saddle, wrapping it carefully around the unconscious form.

“And is there yet hope?” asked the Elf as his hand lingered on Frodo’s dark head.

Aragorn shook his head; the others were too close for him to reply.  They would hear.  A heartbeat later, a mud-covered Merry skidded to a halt at his side and fell to his knees, hands already reaching to cup his cousin’s face.  “Frodo!  Frodo!”

His cry was echoed by Pippin, with Sam right behind him.  Aragorn found himself almost buried in hobbits.  Merry threw himself upon Frodo and tried to take him from Aragorn’s grasp.  “Frodo,” he cried again, his voice choking with tears, and buried his face in his cousin’s matted hair.  “Oh, please be all right.  Please, please be all right…” 

Pippin wound his arms around his unconscious cousin’s chest, trying to hug Frodo to himself as if his small self could protect his kin against all that had been done to him.  He was sobbing loudly, as was Sam.  Glorfindel prudently fell back and stood by the restive Asfaloth.  The stallion was beginning to dance in place, still protective and unsettled by the despair and panic he sensed in the air.  “Stop, all of you!” Aragorn ordered, fearful that the halflings’ actions and the stallion’s reactions might further injure Frodo.  “Would you do him greater harm?”

For a moment he did not know if his words had registered through the hobbits’ distress.  Then Merry gulped and drew back, pulling on Pippin’s arm.  With a gasping sob, Sam also forced himself away, but he kept his master’s cloak clutched tight in one fist.  “Is he all right?” Sam begged.

Aragorn could not lie to them.  “No, Sam.  He is sorely hurt.”  He had not thought their faces could pale further.  “We must get him to Rivendell as quickly as possible.”

Merry ran shaking hands over his face, trying to compose himself.  He was still trembling violently.  “Yes.  Yes, of course.  They could still be out there, those Black Riders.  The river may not have got them all.  What are we going to do?”

Aragorn looked up to see Glorfindel waiting quietly, stroking Asfaloth’s nose.  The Elf’s clear eyes were sorrowful as he looked upon them.  “If we are to get him to Lord Elrond in time, there is no choice.”  Glorfindel nodded, turning to lengthen the saddle-stirrups that had been shortened for Frodo’s use.  “Glorfindel will take him and flee with him to Rivendell at all possible speed.”

“Take him away?” cried Sam, echoed by Pippin’s, “No!  You can’t take him!”

“It is the only way,” Aragorn told them gently.  Against his body, he could feel Frodo's heartbeat, slow and inconsistent.  The hobbit's skin was cold and no longer gleamed with perspiration.  They had very little time.  “Only Glorfindel can get him to Elrond in time.  We will follow as quickly as we can.”

“No…“ whimpered Pippin, but it was more in grief than protest.  Merry tugged on his arm and the youngest hobbit slowly released Frodo and sat back on his heels, his eyes on Frodo’s slack face.  Then he twisted around and looked at the Elf.  “May I go, too?”

Glorfindel shook his head, eyes and hands checking quickly over Asfaloth’s saddle and tack.  “No, Peregrin,” he said gently.  “You would slow us.”

Pippin surged to his feet, his small hands balled into fists and crushed against his chest.  “Please,” he begged.  “Please.  I’ll ride pillion.  I don’t weigh much.”  Tears began to stream again down his face.  “He needs me.  He won’t have anyone there.  I have to go with him, in case…”

“Pippin.”  The youngest hobbit’s face swiveled towards Aragorn.  “Frodo’s only chance is in speed.  We must do all we can to help him.”  The Ranger rose to his feet, cradling the limp form gently.  Sam reached under Frodo and tucked the blanket up around his master, making sure there were no gaps in the warm cloth.  He trailed after them as the Ranger strode over to the Elf and stood waiting with the unmoving figure in his arms.

The other two trudged after, shoulders slumping and mud-covered feet barely clearing the ground.  When Pippin would have pleaded further, Merry slipped an arm around him and hugged him, whispering into his ear.  Aragorn could not hear what the elder cousin said but after a few moments the younger nodded and sniffed, scrubbing at his eyes with a filthy sleeve.

Glorfindel tightened the saddle’s girth-strap then swung himself aboard the great stallion with a grace no mortal could match, melding himself into the saddle as if he had been born there.  Aragorn gave him a moment to gather up the reins, then Glorfindel reached down and as carefully as possible, Aragorn placed the limp bundle in his arms.

Whether it was the jostling or whether he sensed he was being taken from his kin and friends, Frodo moaned as he was placed in the Elf’s arms.  It was a whimper of absolute agony.  The effect on the hobbits was shocking.  Glorfindel found small hands clawing at his boots, shrill voices demanding to see the one he carried.  Asfaloth snorted in alarm and shied, his great hooves unintentionally near trampling Sam.

Wordlessly, Aragorn reached out and snatched Sam back, using his other arm to catch Pippin’s shoulder and drag him away from the shying horse.  Asfaloth threw back his head and half-reared, his rider trying to calm him with soothing words.  Unaccountably, both halflings fought the Ranger, writhing in his grasp.  “Let me go!” Sam demanded, trying to jerk away.  Pippin was more direct – he twisted lithely in Aragorn’s grasp and sank his teeth into the man’s hand.

Aragorn grunted, lips drawing back off his own teeth in pain. “Pippin!”  Mortified by his cousin’s behavior, Merry spun around and shook the tweenager.  Pippin released Aragorn’s hand and collapsed into a heap, wailing.  Merry sank down after him and wrapped his arms around him.

Sam had frozen at Pippin’s attack but with a final wrench, he freed himself.  Aragorn grit his teeth and clasped his bleeding hand with the other, shaking both in silent pain.   Glorfindel looked down on this from Asfaloth’s high back, amazement written clearly on his fair features.  Aragorn did not doubt that the Elf had never seen such a display.  Despite the burning pain in his hand, one corner of his mouth turned up at the thought of introducing these impetuous folk to the peaceful, well-ordered household of Elrond Halfelven. 

“Aragorn?” asked Glorfindel.  Aragorn met his eyes. 

“Go,” Aragorn instructed.  Crouching on the cold earth next to the hobbits, he looked up into the Elf’s sorrowful eyes.  “Take him, Glorfindel.  Get him to Elrond.”

The Elf nodded and tightened his hold.  Frodo lay limply against him, breathing shallowly, eyes shut.  Glorfindel shifted in his seat and ever so lightly, tapped the great stallion’s sides with his heels.  “Noro lim, Asfaloth,” he commanded.  “Run!”

The white elf-horse shook his great head and neighed, then sprang lightly away as if he had not just fled before horror unimaginable.  The man and the hobbits watched them shrink into the distance, Glorfindel crouched low over the stallion’s neck, sheltering his small passenger with his body.

Aragorn turned back to the hobbits, and his heart twisted within him.  They were utterly undone, that fierce core of determination that had sustained them over this terrible fortnight exhausted.  Merry hugged Pippin to himself, rubbing the tweenager's back, while Pippin sobbed unrestrainedly against him.  Sam stood over them both protectively, his eyes still on the retreating figure of the horse, such despair on his round face that Aragorn thought his heart would break.

“Pippin,” he murmured softly, moving nearer to the hobbits.  Sam tensed, his hand going to the pommel of his sword, his initial mistrust of the Ranger flaring again in his eyes.  Aragorn shot him a reassuring look, trying to convey that in Pippin’s place, he might have acted the same had another tried to take one so dearly loved from him.  Sam looked at him narrowly then nodded and stepped back, his gaze going to the sobbing youngster sadly.  “Pippin-lad,” Aragorn tried again.  Merry raised his head and looked at him, tears standing in his eyes, but Pippin would not.

“Pippin,” he said for a third time, more sternly.  “Peregrin Took, I suggest we depart for Rivendell, where you may use those sharp teeth of yours on your supper instead of on me.”

A giggle very nearly emerged from the quivering form and Pippin raised his tear-streaked face, maintaining tight hold on his cousin.  Merry looked at Aragorn gratefully over Pippin’s head.  Pippin sniffed hugely and rubbed his nose against Merry’s waistcoat.  Merry grimaced but only hugged the tweenager reassuringly.  “I’m sorry, Strider.  That I bit you.  I didn’t mean to.  I mean, I did, but I was so upset…” 

“Shush,” Aragorn remonstrated.  “It is all right, Pippin.  I understand.  Now, let us get moving.  Glorfindel will bring Frodo safely to my lord, and a hot meal and hot baths and warm beds await us.”

“Is it very far?” asked Merry, rising to help Pippin to his feet and dusting him off, his hands straightening an errant collar and retying Pippin’s scarf, both finding comfort in the automatic movements.

“Yes, it is far,” Aragorn told them, wishing it were not so.  They were already so tired.  Even with poor Bill carrying their packs, they could not move at the speed his heart desired.  “And the way into Rivendell is hidden.  You must stay close to me, for the way is deceptive and a moment’s inattention may well result in getting lost.” 

“Right, then.”  Merry closed his eyes for a moment, then straightened with an effort.  “Sam, would you please get Bill.  He deserves a sugar lump, I think.  Pippin, help Sam.  Check that our packs are lashed down good and tight.  Aragorn, you must wash that hand in the river and put something on it.  I’ll bandage it for you.”  He ventured a small, tired smirk.  “I wouldn’t want to guess what Pippin ate last.”  Merry raised an eyebrow and amidst a chorus of “Aye, sir,” and “Yes, Merry,” the other two scurried to obey.  The young hobbit turned his attention back to the Ranger.  “Which way do we go, Aragorn?”

Aragorn hid a smile at the hobbit’s dispensation of orders.  A fine Master of Buckland he would make someday.  And Pippin would be a fine Thain.  Sam would always be Sam, sturdy and strong and with roots as deep as the Shire itself.  What a remarkable people these were.  Rivendell was in for quite a surprise.  The smile faded as his thoughts turned to Frodo.  So little hope, he thought.  So little.  Hold on, Frodo.

“Come,” he said to them.  “We will ready ourselves and then follow Glorfindel.  We must find a narrow passage, ahead and through the trees.  Let us go.”

The End

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