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Caught Between the Light and Dark  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.

Caught Between the Light and Dark

Chapter One

Two small, curly heads peered over the lip of the steep embankment, joined a moment later by a third. The yelp that had shocked the hobbits from their stumbling, half-asleep march still lingered in the cold, pre-dawn air, its shrill echoes fading as it reverberated amongst the winding gorges. Three sets of hobbit hands clenched the edge of the cliff as their owners flung themselves flat to peer down into the crevasse. Dust was still billowing up from the fourth’s sudden, involuntary descent down the almost sheer slope. A heartbeat later, two larger heads joined them, one dark and one blond, then three more, these sporting beards of varying lengths.

Frodo closed his eyes and dug his hands into the shallow dirt coating the cliff wall against which he leaned, his feet precariously balanced on a narrow rock shelf that jutted less than a foot out from the stone wall. His heels hung over the precipice. Loose soil crumbled under his fingernails, drifting down to pepper the top of his feet. Trying to calm the panicked beating of his heart, he raised his head and squinted up the sheer wall. "Would anyone else care to look?" the hobbit asked with resignation. "Bill, perhaps?"

One of the smaller heads, glinting bronze in the faint pre-dawn light, leaned out a little farther. Merry latched onto the hood of Pippin’s cloak and pulled him back against a tree standing almost at the edge, choking his younger cousin. "Not so close to the edge, Pip! Do you want to fall off too?"

"Gaaack!" Pippin coughed, rubbing his throat reproachfully. He wriggled free and deliberately inched closer to the lip to exacerbate his cousin’s dislike of heights, grinning over his shoulder at Merry. Turning back to the settling dust, he called down in gleefully disingenuous tones, "Why did you fall down the cliff, Frodo?"

Midway down the almost vertical cliff-face and with his face forced against the wall, Frodo resisted the urge to kick the rock before him and ground his teeth. He looked up at the line of heads that were gazing down on him. "I didn’t intend to," he gritted out. "I slipped."

"Likely not watching where he was walking," remarked Merry cheerfully with a poke to his cousin’s ribs.

"I heard that, Meriadoc!"

"Are you all right, Mr. Frodo?"

Frodo sighed again and sagged against the wall, taking mental inventory of the scrapes and friction-burns he was beginning to feel. The chasm in which he so unexpectedly found himself was deep but very narrow, a crack in the earth that resembled the letter "V." From where he perched on the ledge, the opposite wall loomed less than two yards away. The wall was being cast into shadow by the sun’s ascent and the light overhead was bright and burning to dark-accustomed eyes.

The Fellowship had walked through the night, and all were weary. It was that fatigue, Frodo decided, that had dulled his normal alertness and caused him to misstep. He had been struggling to hide his exhaustion from the others, though he doubted he had managed to deceive either Aragorn or Gandalf. He harbored no hopes of fooling Sam.

"Perfectly, Sam. No damage done." He looked up again and blinked against the sharp division of light and shadow above him. It was perhaps fourteen feet up to the flat ground where the rest of the Fellowship stared down at him with varying expressions of concern, amusement, exasperation and irritation. The wall was too vertical for him to climb and completely lacking in convenient handholds or small stunted bushes for pulling himself up. Except for a thick thatch of scrub growing against the opposite wall almost directly across from him, that side of the crevasse was likewise barren of strongly rooted shrubs or projections. His luck hadn’t changed any since their departure from Imladris, Frodo thought dismally. It was all bad.

"Are you sure, sir?"

Frodo sighed and rubbed his forehead tiredly, smearing a thick band of dust across his brow. He had better speak up or his friend would no doubt be down after him. "Other than being stuck on a little rocky shelf about a foot wide above what appears to be a bottomless ravine, just fine. Would you please throw down a rope, Sam?"

"Shall we?" asked Merry, sitting up on his knees to look at the others. "He’s being sarcastic."

"Enough, Merry," said Gandalf. Merry grimaced as the wizard leaned over him to peer down, using Merry’s shoulder as a support. Gandalf straightened with an aggravated sigh. "Samwise, would you be good enough to toss Frodo a rope?"

Sam climbed upright, shuffling his feet, getting dust in his foot-hair. "Er … Mr. Gandalf, sir, I … I don’t have any rope." Finding himself the sudden center of attention, Sam blushed in mortification. Gimli made a contemplative rumbling sound, stamped over to a boulder and laid his great axe against it. Sitting himself down, he turned to watch the silent landscape, obviously settling himself in for a wait.

Leaving the guard to the dwarf, Gandalf turned back to Sam. "No rope? How can you not have any rope?" The wizard’s bushy eyebrows were raised in disbelief, and annoyance glinted in his sharp blue eyes. Boromir and Legolas looked taken aback; Sam’s efficiency had been demonstrated time and time again, and this lapse was surprising.

"I didn’t see there weren’t any till I was finishing the packs," Sam explained miserably. "And then we had to go … and it was too late ‘ta get any before we left Rivendell."

"Let’s go back!" enthused Pippin. "With only short rests, we could be there in a few days. To get the rope, of course," he added hurriedly when Gandalf glared at him. "And have a decent meal or two," he finished in an aside to Merry, who nodded, but without much hope.

"What is going on up there?"

Aragorn leaned out and called, "Just a moment, Frodo. We have a minor problem." From where he knelt, the Ranger could see the top of the Ring-bearer’s dark head and the pale oval of his raised face. Aragorn leaned out farther, one hand steadying himself against a tree growing near the edge to avoid repeating the hobbit’s misfortune. He could see that Frodo’s feet were now turned sideways and the hobbit was straining to press back against the rock wall. Knowing how hobbits dislike heights, the man grieved for him.

Frodo had seen the movement above him. He attempted to lean back to see the others better, resulting in a small cascade of loose stones and dirt down the steep cliff side. The hobbit hastily pulled back against the cliff, closing his eyes with a shudder. The ledge on which he stood was perhaps four feet long in length, jutting from the wall at one end and abruptly breaking off at the other end. It looked as if a boulder had loosened from the top and come down on it, long ago. The small ledge was the only projection that Aragorn could see on either side of the steeply sloping walls.

"What problem? What is happening up there?"

"Nothing to worry about, Frodo. We’ll be with you directly."

From below them came a muttered grumble that human ears could not make out, but elven and hobbit ears could. Merry and Pippin grinned. Legolas seemed amused, while Sam looked woeful. "We could tie our cloaks together, sir," the poor hobbit continued, waving his hands about vaguely. "Or maybe find a long branch for him to climb up … or something…"

"I don’t want to use my cloak," Merry commented. "It’s mid-winter and freezing out here. And I wouldn’t suggest asking Frodo to climb up a long branch," he continued loudly, his eyes sparkling, "you know how he tends to fall off things. Out of trees, over cliffs—"

"Or trip over pebbles or his own two feet—or air," contributed Pippin happily, raising his voice to make certain that Frodo heard. Assured that their cousin was unharmed and in no danger, the two young hobbits’ weariness was forgotten as they delighted in the opportunity to taunt their cousin without the possibility of immediate retribution.

"You two stop that!" Sam scolded. "Ain’t he embarrassed enough? We should have been watching him closer." Frodo groaned and rested his forehead against the cool rock.

Cautioning the remaining hobbits to be careful, the Big People withdrew a few feet from the cliff’s edge to discuss the situation.The slanting rays of the rising sun were casting the small ledge into shadow and the two younger ones were having difficulty seeing their cousin. Frodo was now only an indistinct shape against the rock; his upturned face and white hands splayed against the rock all that was visible of him.

That face was distinctly annoyed, even in the gloomy light. "I’m cold," Frodo complained. "I daren’t wiggle around to get into my pack for a blanket. And I’m hungry. Sam, would you throw me down some bread, please?"

"I have some boiled sweets, Frodo," Pippin called down before Sam could reply. Before the others could stop him, he dived a hand into a pocket, took aim and let fly.


"Sorry! Sorry!"

Sam captured Pippin’s hand firmly as the tweenager took more careful aim with a second sweet. "That’s good of you, sir, but I think Mr. Frodo would rather have a piece o’ bread for breakfast. Or cheese. Or anything else."

"Considering it was Frodo," Gandalf sighed as the others clustered around him, "I suppose we are fortunate that he did not fall all the way to the bottom or impale himself upon a tree, or break his leg upon the ledge or some other absurd accident."

"I heard that!"

Ignoring the conversation behind him (in which Pippin was now offering to pelt his cousin with tomatoes or a nice boiled potato and Frodo was threatening instant doom if he did so), Boromir remarked, "Perhaps I could climb down to him and bear him up on my back. I have done some mountain climbing and know the use of crampons and climbing spikes."

"We have neither of those," retorted Gandalf testily, "nor any means to make them."

Aragorn pondered a moment. "Master Gimli, could you shape Bill’s extra horseshoes into crampons?" Glad of having a task to perform, Sam scurried over to the patiently standing pony and rummaged through the saddlebags, emerging with a shoe. He hurried back to the seated dwarf and pushed it into Gimli’s grasp.

The dwarf considered, turning the heavy metal shoe over in his thick hands. "Aye, with a proper forge and hammer," the dwarf responded. "Not out here in the wild." Discouraged, Sam returned the shoe to the saddlebags.

"Ridiculous hobbit," Gandalf growled, jabbing his staff into the earth to emphasize his irritation. "How shall we get him out of there?" Legolas smiled, his eyes on the staff. "What?" asked Gandalf warily, following the Wood-elf’s gaze.

"Your staff, Mithrandir. It is of good, stout wood. Surely it would not break under the weight of one small halfling—and a slim one at that."

"It would not be long enough," Gimli objected, keeping his gaze on the surrounding countryside.

"Frodo could jump for it," suggested Aragorn. "If he could catch the larger end and hold on till he could get both hands on it, we could pull him up."

"Or he could miss, and fall into the ravine," Gandalf countered. "Or catch the end and then fall, probably taking my staff with him. Do not forget that his shoulder is not fully healed. Frodo is not as strong as he was before the Ring-wraith’s attack. I would not see him injured further." The wizard’s fingers slid over the rough, gnarled wood thoughtfully. "Nevertheless, I can think of no better plan. Let us try." With a grunt, Gandalf folded himself to his knees then stretched out by the two young hobbits.

"Frodo," the wizard called, "I am going to lower my staff. Can you jump and catch the end of it?"

"I’d really rather not," Frodo replied from the deepening shadow. "I can’t see very well down here until the sun climbs higher."

"That is a high jump from such a narrow ledge," Merry said seriously. "I don’t think this is a good idea, Gandalf."

"Do you have a better?" the wizard asked sharply. Merry shook his head. Aragorn and Boromir again lay themselves flat on each side of the wizard and clamped a hand on the staff as it was lowered, ready to add their strength to his in hauling the hobbit up. Displaced by the men, the three hobbits fanned out to each side of them. Legolas exchanged a glance with Gimli, then the Elf positioned himself to the rear, prepared to leap forward and pull anyone back who overreached himself.

Frodo had no room to step back, but he did achieve a good height from a standing leap. His fingers brushed under the staff, not touching but close. He landed hard and immediately threw his weight forward against the wall. Another cascade of small stones and soil rattled loose under his feet and were lost to the growing darkness. As one, the Fellowship held its breath and listened. The miniature landslide did not strike bottom for many long moments.

"It’s no good!" Frodo called up breathlessly. "I can’t reach it. And I’m afraid to try again. I don’t know how sturdy this ledge is."

"Very well, Frodo," Gandalf called back. "It was a good effort," he said to the others as he rose stiffly to his feet, "but I fear we will have to fish him out. Unpack the blankets, Samwise, and we’ll tie them together."

"I have an idea." Aragorn walked to the edge again and stood frowning for a moment. "Legolas," the Ranger asked, "could you fire your arrows to build a stair up the opposite side of the crevasse wall?"

It was the Elf’s turn to consider. "Some will have to be shot at a very close angle, Aragorn." Legolas knelt gracefully next to Merry and regarded the sloping side thoughtfully.

Merry rocked back on his knees and glanced up at him, his face calculating. "If they strike rock, they will bounce off and be lost."

The Elf nodded. "I fear so. And if they do not penetrate deeply enough, they may dislodge when Frodo steps upon them. One of us larger folk could not do it, but perhaps a hobbit could." Legolas reached over his shoulder and effortlessly retrieved an arrow, flexing it between his hands as his keen gaze gauged the opposite wall. "It is a good thing hobbits do not weigh much. I believe it could be done."

Aragorn moved to stand beside him, resting a hand on the Elf’s shoulder as he leaned over the edge. The sun was above the horizon now, filling the sky with glorious yellows and oranges and reds even as it threw the gap below them into deep shadow. "Frodo," the Ranger called, "Legolas is going to fire arrows into the opposite wall to build a stair. You will have to leap across to the far wall and use them to pull yourself up. Can you do this?"

"I am surprised you would trust me not to fling myself into this bottomless pit," grumbled Frodo’s voice from the growing shadow. "Considering you lot think I can’t walk without falling over."

Pippin leaned farther out, unable to resist. "We don’t think that, Cousin!" he shouted down cheerfully. "We don’t think you are accident-prone, or anything like that. These things just happen to you, don’t they?"

A martyred sigh was the only response to this question. "Peregrin," Gandalf snapped, "stop that. Be quiet." Grinning, Pippin scooted back.

"Frodo," Aragorn called, "It is probably only five or six feet to the wall opposite you. I know hobbits are agile—you should be able to leap and turn without difficulty. And if you fall—well, perhaps it is not so far to the bottom." The Ranger’s weak attempt at humor fell flat. Sam was giving him an unfriendly look. Aragorn sighed and turned back to the featureless shadow that now hid the unfortunate Ring-bearer.

"Frodo, I know you will not fall." Silence greeted this. "Frodo," called Aragorn again, a note of apology in his voice, "it is not such a far leap to the other wall. I know you can do it."

No response.



"Frodo! Answer me!"

* TBC *

Chapter Two

When Frodo did not answer, the hobbits began calling shrilly, frenziedly, their teasing forgotten. Aragorn hushed them with a hand tight around the two younger hobbits’ mouths. Sam clamped his hands over his own mouth, eyes frantic above his overlaid palms. "Do not forget the need for quiet," the Ranger hissed in their ears. "Just because we have seen no watchers does not mean there are none."

Sam leaned out so far that Boromir caught him with a hand on his shoulder. Small stones and dirt rained down upon the ledge, lost to sight in the deep shadow. The hobbit shrugged him off, peering distraughtly into the dark. "Mr. Frodo? Mr. Frodo, sir?"

There was no reply. "Get the blankets out," Aragorn ordered roughly. "I need to get down there."

Even with the help of the hobbits, by the time they had unpacked the blankets and Aragorn and Legolas and Boromir had tied them together and tested the knots to be sure they would bear a man’s weight, the sun had risen high enough so that the deep shadows that had hidden the ledge had receded. Except for a crumpled sweet wrapper, it was empty.

"Pippin, take the guard," Aragorn snapped. When the tweenager would have objected, Aragorn said more gently, "I need Gimli’s strength, Pippin. You can help most by taking the watch, so he can hold the rope and keep me from falling." Pippin nodded and went to the dwarf. Gimli picked him up and set him on the boulder, then paused for a moment to squeeze a small shoulder in reassurance. Pippin caught his balance and turned his back to them, watching the deserted countryside fiercely.

"The point?" Gimli suggested curtly, and at Aragorn’s nod, sat down near a tree at the cliff’s edge and dug the heels of his heavy hob-nailed boots into the rocky earth. Once he was satisfied he would not slide, he nodded to the others and Boromir dropped behind him, catching up the length of the blanket-rope. Legolas took the end, wrapping it around his forearm. Gandalf stood by Gimli’s side, his staff dug into the ground, eyes vigilant.

"Ready?" Gimli held up the close end of the improvised rope and Aragorn wound the end around his left forearm, using his right hand to grip the length and control his descent. Turning to face them, he stepped backwards and let himself slip. The ‘rope’ took his weight, snapping taut. Sam and Merry watched the knots carefully but they were tight and none gave as the three lowered the Ranger down the sheer slope.

Aragorn released the rope and dropped the last foot, landing on his the balls of his feet with a jar that went clear through him. Hands splayed flat against the wall, the Ranger breathed deeply for a few moments. He had deliberately estimated the blankets short so that the end would not brush the ledge and possibly dust out any sign that he could read. He could barely move on the small ledge. But he turned one foot laterally and swung his body to the side, dropping to a crouch with one foot tucked behind the other. His bowed back hid his actions from those above.

"Well?" Gandalf called. Gimli handed the blankets to Sam, who began coiling up them up, testing each knot as he wrapped. The stocky hobbit said nothing, but his eyes watched them all worriedly.

"Where’s Frodo? Did he fall?" asked Merry, all of his earlier amusement at his cousin’s predicament gone. Pippin turned to look at them, then jerked his attention back to the watch. Unnoticed by any of them, Sam dropped the make-shift rope behind the tree and hurried back to their pack-pony.

The Ranger did not reply to Merry’s questions. Instead, he peered closely at the scuffed earth, running his fingers over the disturbed dirt as if touch alone could tell the tale he needed to read. "My own shadow hides any sign," he called up to the others. "Will one of you kindle a torch and drop it?"

There was activity above him, then a flaming arrow sliced cleanly into the wall opposite the ledge. Aragorn resisted the urge to fling himself to the side and instead looked up coolly. "Thank you, Legolas. A little warning would have been appreciated."

The Elf’s head appeared over the incline. "I knew you would be prepared," Legolas called back calmly. Aragorn stifled the rejoinder that rose to his lips and knelt, his face close to the earth.

By the light of the burning rag tied around the arrow’s shaft, Frodo’s precipitous arrival on the ledge was clear—here and here the marks of unshod hobbit-feet, scuffing the dirt as they scrambled to catch their balance and achieve the safety of the wall. They moved little after that, and of the method or reason for the Ring-bearer’s disappearance, the earth could tell him nothing.

Aragorn slid down on his hands and knees and tried to peer down into the depths of the chasm. The rag was burning out and Aragorn waited, watching as the consumed shaft fell. Its dying light illuminated no hidden crevices, no concealed mantles. Certainly none large enough to hide a hobbit. Grimly, Aragorn went over the scraped ground again, taking advantage of the sun as it moved ever higher in the sky, revealing more and more of the featureless rock walls. The lack of vegetation continued down to the narrow canyon at the base of the crevasse, and only a few tumbled stones and stunted bushes graced that soil-poor space. The ground cover was not thick enough to shroud a hobbit, even one unconscious from a fall.

Aragorn reared up on his knees and steadying himself with a hand on the wall, drew the great knife at his belt. He reversed the blade and began hammering the hilt against the wall. "What‘s he doing?" Pippin called, hearing the blows.

"He’s looking," Merry breathed, his eyes locked on the Ranger.

"For what?" Boromir asked.

"For a … hole … or a tunnel," Merry replied, thoughts passing like quicksilver behind his eyes. "A secret entrance. We are looking down—perhaps the vertical wall hides an opening from us. If there were an indented place, we would not see it from up here."

"There is nothing," Aragorn called up, slamming his fist against the cliff wall more in frustration than in seeking. "It is solid rock." He inched around on the ledge and sheathed the knife, replacing it with his sword. Reaching out over the abyss, he used the point to prod the opposite wall. When he poked the scrubby bush opposite the ledge, his point did not stop. Off balance, Aragorn pitched forward.

Those above saw his long body start to fall, then Aragorn did the only thing he could—he pushed himself off from the ledge and caught the bush with his free hand. Not loosening his hold on his sword, he reached up and caught a spiny branch just as his first handhold tore loose. For a moment he struggled against the drop then caught the brush at its base, clamping his fingers around the rough bark. The poor plant creaked and rained a small shower of dirt down on him, but it held.

"Are you all right?" Gandalf called.

"I am not hurt," Aragorn assured them, twisting so that he could look up at them. "And … I think … yes! There is an opening here!" the Ranger shouted. More of the dangling branches were cut away as he slashed at it with his sword, until the watchers could see a fair-sized hole. It looked like a dark mouth, jagged with rotting teeth. "It is a tunnel," Aragorn informed them, using the remainder of the bush to swing one leg up far enough to clamber into it. He disappeared for a moment, emerging a moment later on his hands and knees, stabilizing himself on one of the ‘teeth.’ "This is a shaped stone," Aragorn called, patting the tooth, "shaped and put in place using mortar. Something built this tunnel."

"Is there any sign of Frodo?" Gandalf called.

"I will need more light," Aragorn replied. "Legolas, will you—" He was interrupted by a second flaming arrow neatly imbedding itself in a fleshy root near his head. Aragorn merely reached up and snapped the shaft off beneath the burning cloth, and withdrew inside the hole with it. His head emerged again almost immediately, coughing, the hand not holding the torch clamped over his mouth and nose. "There is a foul odor inside," he explained. "It is rank." Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself and went again into the darkness.

Gandalf drew back from the edge, trying to see inside the opening. Defeated by the angle and lack of light, he turned to the dwarf. "Gimli, can you climb down to that tunnel and look at it?"

"I’ll go," volunteered Merry, clamping down on thoughts of dropping from such a height. "I would have an easier time sliding down that slope and landing on the ledge."

"But you could not tell us about the stonework of that construction, Merry," the wizard replied as Gimli secured his throwing axes and other accoutrements that might impede his gravity-impelled descent. Boromir moved forward to take the point, Legolas behind him, and Gandalf left his place to take the end of the rope, flexing his hands. As Gimli sat down on the edge, Aragorn reappeared at the tunnel mouth and tossed the spent torch into the crevice. It bounced on the rocky earth and went out.

Aragorn held up something that glittered, and it took those above a moment to adjust their foreshortened view to recognize the slender object the Ranger held. It was Sting.

"There is a thick layer of dust," Aragorn said grimly, "but the track is confused. Cloaks or some such fabric were swept over the dust to obscure the trail. Here, near the opening, someone was dragged in on his back, to judge by the two heel-marks in the dust. He fought … the dust is smudged in all directions. Many footprints surround him, of what nature I cannot tell through the dust and the dark." The Ranger paused and coughed, and the others noticed that he was covered in grey grime. "I found the sword some ten feet in."

"Ten feet?" rumbled Gimli. "How far does the opening go back?"

"I cannot tell," Aragorn replied. "I need proper torches. It is utterly dark in there."

"Why did Frodo make no sound?" asked Legolas.

"Perhaps they caught him unaware," Aragorn replied, returning his sword to his scabbard. "They must have taken him when the rising sun cast this place into shadow. If he were facing the cliff, he’d not have seen them. Whatever they are, they are quick."

"And silent," murmured Legolas. "I did not hear them."

"And well disciplined," Boromir added. "It takes training and coordination to overwhelm a target with such speed and stealth."

"Swift indeed to see an opportunity and seize it," growled the wizard. "Why did they take Frodo? Certainly not to help him—that purpose would have been better served by alerting us and then rescuing him. No, they wished to separate us." He paused, thinking, and the Fellowship could tell by his furrowed brow that his thoughts were not pleasant. "Master Gimli, go you down there and tell us what you can of the stonework Aragorn has found."

The dwarf nodded briefly at those anchoring him and glanced once down at the ledge. After a moment’s thought, he turned around to descend the cliff facing outward, knowing he had no chance of turning his burly body around on that small ledge. Gimli grasped the rope effortlessly, hands locked around it over his chest, his shoulder protected from the burn of the fabric by his chain-mail. He stepped off the ledge and allowed the others to take his weight. Despite their boots entrenched into the earth, Boromir, Gandalf and Legolas were dragged forward until Gimli tilted his feet and dug the heavy hobnails of his boots into the wall. Kicking his heels backward, he slid down the embankment using a hand to slow himself. Gimli landed on the small ledge with a bone-rattling thump, teetering uncertainly. His eyes widened and he stared across the chasm to Aragorn in supplication. The Ranger had been waiting for him; as Gimli struggled to catch his balance, Aragorn raised his sheathed sword and reached across the gap, pushing the tip of his scabbard against Gimli’s chest to shove him back against the wall. The little ledge trembled with the armored weight of the dwarf, and hair-thin fissures appeared in the stone. Hastily, Gimli shuffled over to the uncracked half of the rocky shelf.

Aragorn drew back again into the opening, giving the dwarf room to work. His reach shorter than the man’s, Gimli had to lean forward with his feet on the ledge and his body over the crevasse, supporting himself with one hand on the rock outside the tunnel. Merry looked down at the sheer drop beneath the dwarf and shuddered.

"Hewn," Gimli muttered, examining the blocks with his free hand. "See the chisel marks? These were cut from a greater stone and shaped to need. They are even in thickness and level. No small degree of skill, that. Not up to dwarven standards, of course, but no duffer’s work." Thick fingers tried to pry out the greyish, flaking mortar that made the blocks resemble rotting teeth. Gimli worried a piece loose and held it up to his face, closing one eye to squint at it. He tightened his grasp and it crumbled in his hand. The dwarf shook his head. "Old construction, this. Very old. This opening has been here a long time, but the breaking of the mortar is new. Otherwise, rain and wind would have softened it and washed it from between the blocks."

"Why would anyone build a tunnel that leads out into a crevasse?" Merry asked.

"I’ve a worse question," Aragorn responded grimly. "Why would they wall it up?"

"I can go you one worse than that," Gimli rumbled. "Why would they wall it up … from the outside."

"The outside?" Gandalf repeated hoarsely.

"This wall was blocked from the outside, to keep whatever was inside contained. But it was broken open from the inside." Gimli nodded, his expression grim. "See, the blocks have not fallen inwards. Pressure has been applied from the inside, bowing the blocks outward until the mortar gave. If you look down among those bushes at the bottom, you can see them." The Company followed the dwarf’s finger. Now they could see that the stones they had dismissed at the bottom of the gorge were indeed square-shaped and the product of intelligent making.

"Then we have something that was walled up from the outside," Aragorn summarized grimly, "and it escaped from the inside." A silence settled over the Company.

"And took Frodo as he waited for us to recover him," Merry murmured.

"Well, are we going after him or not?" interjected Sam. "I’ve the water skins ready an’ Bill’s staked on a grazing line. He’ll be all right for a day or two."

"A moment, Sam," Aragorn replied. "We do Frodo no favors if we take off after him unprepared. "

"We are not so far from Lord Elrond’s lands," Legolas said. "Would he know what might have been imprisoned here?"

Aragorn shook his head. "He might, though I do not recall that he ever mentioned this place. Still, in over seven thousand years of life, I imagine there is little he does not know." Aragorn still held Sting in his hand, and he turned the elven-blade idly while he thought. "We are beyond Elrond’s borders. This is unclaimed land, though once it was populated and prosperous. The ruins we have passed testify to that." Their eyes roamed over the desolate land, studded with the remnants of a once-great civilization, abandoned and lost from memory. Atop the boulder, Pippin made a soft murmur of sorrow.

"Are we going after him or not?" Sam interjected, too worried for propriety.

The Ranger’s eyes focused on the hobbit. "We are, Sam." Aragorn looked up at Gandalf, and some communication seemed to pass between them. "But we go carefully. We do not know what we face in there."

"Best to face it with a Dwarf, then," Gimli rumbled. "Help me in, laddie." Aragorn laid aside Frodo’s sword and knelt at the mouth of the tunnel, locking his hands around Gimli’s arms. The Dwarf drew a great breath then flung himself forward. He struggled for a moment then again used his boots to dig into the rock and push himself up, gaining the sanctuary of the opening most ungracefully.

"We do know that it is swift and it is silent," Aragorn continued, shifting to the side as Gimli dusted himself off and straightened his mail. "And we know that it is our enemy."

"How do we know it is our enemy?" asked Merry.

"In war," Boromir answered him softly, "you seek to capture that which will cause your enemy the greatest grief and black despair. In capturing Frodo, whether they know what he bears or not, they have seized the single hope of our world. If we cannot recover the Ring-bearer, then the darkness will roll over us like a wave."

* TBC *

Chapter Three

"Careful," Aragorn warned. "The ledge is unstable. Send the hobbits down first—they are the lightest. Boromir, would you fetch Pippin?" The soldier nodded and strode to the boulder on which the hobbit perched. Pippin held out his arms hopefully and Boromir gave him a lift down, sparing the tweenager the drop. "You heavier folk will have to come down on the rope and keep tight hold," Aragorn continued, eyeing the thin fissures on the opposite ledge with concern. "If the ledge starts to crumble, you will have to jump."

"What about a guard?" Boromir called over his shoulder, eyeing the silent landscape nervously.

"We shall have to take our chances," Gandalf replied grimly. "We have seen nothing moving out here. Retrieving the Ring-bearer must come before all else."

Pippin immediately scurried to the edge but restraining hands clamped on each of his shoulders. "I’m the smallest," Pippin protested, for once glad of that fact.

"I’m older," Merry shot back.

"And I’m older than you, Mr. Merry, meaning no disrespect," Sam interrupted. "If that ledge is going ‘ta give, better it give under me than the future Master of Buckland. Or the future Thain," he added firmly when both drew indignant breaths to object.

There was a blur of movement past the hobbits then Legolas was running down the almost vertical wall. They watched, agape, as the Elf seemed to descend as lightly as a feather, drifting down the nearly sheer wall as if he only bowed to gravity out of courtesy. A few small rocks clattered down as his shoes touched the ledge but it held. Legolas balanced for a moment on the narrow shelf, then leaped gracefully over the chasm, his accuracy unerring as he landed beside the Ranger.

"Fine, Sam, you go right ahead and follow Legolas," Merry grinned.

"Um … maybe I’ll just use the rope," Sam muttered. Boromir sat down at the edge and Gandalf eased down behind him, both wrapping the rope of blankets around their hands and bracing themselves. Sam took a deep breath, clamped his hands on the tied blankets and kicked off. He let himself down slowly, scaling the cliff side with much more effort and much less grace than the elf.

Merry watched him drop, his face paling. Pippin wiggled up at his side, noting how tightly his kinsmen’s hands were clenched on the rocks at the edge. "Can you do this, Cousin?" the tweenager asked quietly. Merry said nothing but perspiration glittered on his brow.

"My turn!" Pippin announced suddenly. Merry snatched for his cloak but the tweenager was too quick. Without waiting for an argument from his cousin, he locked both hands around the rope and turned around, the soles of his feet teetering on the drop. Taking one deep breath, he flexed his knees and pushed himself off.

With rather too much enthusiasm. Pippin swung out from the wall and fetched up against it, knocking the breath out of himself. Furry feet scrabbled at the rocky wall. Then his hands loosened and he dropped several feet, sliding down the rope until he could tangle his hands in the cloth.

"Pippin!" several voices cried, both above and below him.

Pippin took a deep breath and struggled to control his voice. "It’s all right!" he called. "I’ll just go a little slower, I think."

Pippin descended the rest of the way with far more care. He fastened his eyes on the tree near the edge of the cliff, finding that if he concentrated on the way the sun glinted between the canopy of leaves, he did not have quite so much attention to spare for being afraid. Then strong hands were fastening on his calves, his waist, his back, and he was down. Sam released him with a gust of relief and guided him around to face the others.

"Well done, both of you," Aragorn said warmly. "Now, I want you to jump across to Gimli and Legolas and I. It is not a far jump for a hobbit, and we will be ready to catch you." After rappelling down the wall, it was a simple matter for first Sam, then Pippin, to leap across the small chasm. In moments they were safe behind Gimli, wrinkling their noses in distaste at the horrible stench in the tunnel.

"Merry?" asked Gandalf softly, placing a hand on the hobbit’s shoulder.

Merry gulped and tore his eyes away from the dark opening. From this angle, all he could see was Aragorn’s head and shoulders as the Ranger leaned out to stare up at them. Below the Ranger stretched a great drop. It seemed to go down forever. The view swam before Merry’s eyes and he felt faint. "I… I…" the hobbit mumbled.

Boromir took a last look around the deserted landscape and stood up. "Let me go next," he murmured into Gandalf’s ear. "I will carry him down on my back."

"You don’t have to do that," Merry said resolutely before the wizard could reply. "I am just not very good with heights. Or rather … depths. I will be fine." To prove this point, he gazed determinedly straight down. "See? I am … ohhhh…"

"Put your head between your knees, Merry," Gandalf urged as the hobbit’s legs gave way and Merry collapsed in a heap. "Just breathe for a few moments. That’s a good lad." The wizard struggled to his feet and turned to Boromir. "I think that would be best, Boromir, but I will go next. Help me tie the rope to that tree. I pray it will support us." Gandalf eyed the small tree with disfavor; it did not look strong enough to bear his weight and would certainly never have supported Gimli or Aragorn. Boromir, too, did not trust the slender sapling but no other was close enough to aid them. The wizard tested the knot when the soldier was done but could not fault it. "Well done. Bring Merry down when he is a little more settled."

With that the wizard stuck his staff through his belt and let himself down, descending hand-under-hand easily. He paused, his head level with the ground. "Check the knots after me. Blankets tied together are not the equal of a real rope."

Boromir waited until Gandalf was safely inside of the tunnel before kneeling next to the hobbit. Ignoring the anxious faces that could be glimpsed below them, he placed a hand on Merry’s shoulder. "Can you hold on?" he asked quietly.

Merry nodded, his face still very pale. "I think I will be all right if I keep my eyes closed. I am sorry, Boromir."

The soldier smiled and knelt, motioning for the hobbit to climb up on his back. "Everyone is afraid of something, Merry. Everyone. Your particular fear is shared by many. You have nothing to be ashamed of."

"It is good of you to say so," Merry replied as he fastened his arms around Boromir’s neck and locked his legs around the soldier’s waist. "But I must overcome it. Frodo cannot afford for it to rule me."

Merry buried his face between Boromir’s shoulder blades and closed his eyes firmly as the man lurched to his feet. He struggled for balance for a moment, then Merry felt him moving forward. His grasp tightened involuntarily when Boromir bent to take the rope in his hands, wringing a grunt from the soldier. "Sorry," Merry whispered. Boromir did not reply.

Boromir began handing them down when suddenly Merry felt a sickening lurch. They were falling. His heart leaped into his throat, and his eyes flew open involuntarily. Rock flashed by his eyes, blurred, obscured by Boromir’s head. Before he could even scream, they were jerked to a halt and Boromir slammed face-first into the rocky wall. The jar went clear through Merry and his hands loosened their death-grip on the soldier’s clothes. Boromir groaned deeply, his shoulders wrenched and blood began to trickle down his wrists from his frenzied grip on the blankets. The cloth had slipped through his hands; he had saved them only by twining the rope around his wrists. It had bitten deep into the unprotected flesh above his gauntlets.

They hung for a few moments, swinging gently, shocked into vacuity. Merry made the mistake of glancing down, trying to see past Boromir’s dangling boots to the narrow ledge. Another surge of faintness took him, made worse by his brief glimpse of the protrusion. It seemed there were more loose stones on it, and had those cracks enlarged? It looked even narrower than he remembered, and he did not see how they could possibly achieve it.

Riiipppp… Merry felt Boromir tense, then groan softly. The soldier dragged his head up and Merry followed his gaze up the ‘rope’ above them. The fabric was giving. Merry could see the fibers pulling, snapping. It was tearing. Gimli’s chain mail, Merry’s quick mind supplied. The links snagged it, sliced it. Then the others’ weight weakened it.

"The rope is giving!" Merry thought it was Legolas that cried out, but he could spare no attention outside of the little world that encompassed only himself, Boromir, and their tearing lifeline.

Merry felt a surge of great muscles under him and Boromir was scrambling upwards, swinging his body side to side like a pendulum as he clawed desperately to reach above the unraveling blanket. "Merry," Boromir panted, "climb up on my shoulders. You can reach above the rip. Do not fall with me."

"I … can’t," the hobbit whispered. "And I won’t. Come on, Boromir! You can pull us both up." The man’s face contorted as powerful muscles bunched in his shoulders.

"Climb, Merry!"

"No, I will not leave you! Hold on, Boromir! Hold on to me!"

Against his every instinct, Merry tore his arms free from around the man’s neck and inched upwards. He balanced for an instant, seated on the man’s shoulders, only his legs clamped under Boromir’s arms keeping him from tumbling off. He was straining upward then his hands locked above the unraveling cloth and clenched. Their positions were suddenly reversed as the rope below him gave with a rip that sounded almost a scream, and Boromir’s full weight dragged at the hobbit. The pain was unbearable. His arms and legs were being dragged from their sockets and his spine felt about to snap. Merry had no chance of supporting his own weight and Boromir’s too. But still he held, a keening cry of pain bursting from him.

Then one of Boromir’s long arms reached past his head and a hand fastened on the end of the rope. The unendurable pain eased as Boromir wound his hand in the cloth, the other tight on Merry’s jacket. "Can you get on my back again?" Boromir whispered. "I cannot hold us long with one hand." Numbly, Merry nodded and sidled down the soldier’s body into his former position.

Hand over hand, Boromir pulled them up. Merry kept his eyes focused on the craggy rock wall as they passed it, not daring to look up, terrified to look down. Dimly he became aware of the calling of frantic voices but he could spare no breath to reply.

Boromir gained the edge of the cliff and Merry crawled over his head to solid ground, resisting the urge to flatten himself to the earth and hug the soil. Boromir rested too, half of his body on the edge of the cliff and legs dangling, exhausted. When he had some control of himself, Merry fastened his hands on the shoulders of the man’s surcoat and helped drag him forward to safety.

Fully on solid ground, Boromir sprawled on his back and Merry dropped beside him, both of them gasping as if they had just run for their lives. In a way they had, Merry thought, and a half-hysterical giggle escaped him. His arms burned and quivered, muscles jerking spasmodically, and he could not even control his hands enough to rub them.

Merry turned over on his side and stared into the man’s face. Boromir looked astonished to be alive. He met the hobbit’s eyes and a ridiculous grin broke out over both of their faces. "I think I am taller now," Merry whispered. "Am I taller?"

Boromir chuckled raggedly, then groaned. "Did I hurt you?"

Merry tried to raise himself up on his arms … and failed. Shaking his head, he collapsed back to the earth. "I am all right, Boromir – I’m not hurt. But you are. Let me see your wrists."

Boromir looked down at his hands in surprise. The fabric had bitten deep into his palms and wrists. His fingers too were lacerated, and bright red blood ran in rivulets down his forearms to his elbows. "In a moment," he replied. Grimacing, he tucked his hands under his arms to slow the bleeding. "Best tell them we are all right," the man murmured with a jerk of his chin towards the chasm, not yet able to get up.

Merry sat up with a moan and crept to the edge of the cliff. His hands were cramping and his arms shook, but reluctantly they did his bidding. He found he could not bring himself to lean out over the edge. "Hoi!" he shouted weakly. "We are not hurt! Badly, I mean. Boromir’s hands are torn, and I need to help him."

His hearing could pick up raised voices, Pippin’s shrill tones among them. "I will try to come up," Aragorn called, shushing the other speakers.

Merry looked at the rope. It had torn on the second blanket, just below the edge of the cliff. The rest lay coiled on the ledge, out of reach of all of them. "Not unless you grow wings," the hobbit called back, calmer now. He dared to stretch his neck out until he could see the tunnel, but the rest of his body stayed firmly away from the edge. "Or scale the wall like a fly." He glanced over his shoulder and Boromir nodded. "We will wait here for you."

At the surge of protest below, Merry shook his head. "We aren’t in any shape to get more blankets and come down now, Aragorn, and you must go after Frodo. We will take care of Bill and be ready to help you all back up."

Gandalf’s head appeared beside the Ranger; someone must be anchoring him from inside the tunnel. "We have no other choice," the wizard called up in soft tones. "Take care of yourselves."

Boromir crawled alongside Merry, dragging himself forward on his elbows. "Go on," the soldier called down. "Find Frodo. Merry and I will enjoy a nice little holiday, and be waiting for you."

Pippin appeared between the wizard and the Ranger. Spotting them, he waved frantically. "Bye, Merry! Take care of Boromir! Don’t eat all of our supplies! Or smoke all the pipe-weed! And—" Aragorn shoved him back inside.

"The medical kits are in Bill’s panniers, Merry," Aragorn continued, ignoring a muffled wail of "I wasn’t done saying goodbye!" "Wash the wounds well. Do not bandage them too tightly—"

"I know some healer’s craft, Aragorn," Merry called back. "Will you please go after Frodo?"

Aragorn fell silently, looking up at them. Merry too felt sorrow at this division of the Company, and he knew Boromir shared his apprehension. Then Aragorn nodded and ducked back into the tunnel, and the two were left alone.

"Hurry back," whispered Merry.

* * *

At first Frodo thought that many lamps were shining far in the distance. He was reminded of the night of Bilbo’s last Birthday Party, when he and the old hobbit had stood on the crest of The Hill and looked down into the Party Field. Bilbo had hugged him tightly for a moment before saying, "Come along, Frodo my lad. Let’s join our guests. I’ll wager this Party will be remembered for years to come!"

Brightly colored tents were scattered throughout the field, and the new white gate that Bilbo had ordered constructed to greet the partygoers shone in the reflected light of many lamps. Lanterns hung in the branches of the great Party Tree, were set on poles above the hedges and flower boxes, glimmered from the tents and flickered on tables. These lamps looked that that.

But how odd that they were lined up in twos, set side-by-side, each like a pair of eyes. Many eyes…

It was dark, but this was not the Party Field. Frodo’s pleasant, confused dream faded as the hobbit became aware that his head ached and his neck felt as if it was on fire. Pain radiated down from his shoulders, pooling in the tips of his fingers. Even the hair on his toes hurt. Memories of the fragrance of flowers and sweet autumn grass withered, replaced by a foul, rank odor that stung the inside of his nostrils. The lingering warmth of his uncle’s hug dissipated in the awareness that the tightness he felt around his ribs was rope. He was bound. He was lying on his side on a cold stone floor, his hands tied behind him and rope wrapped around his chest, and many, many cold luminous eyes were staring at him.

* TBC *

Chapter Four

Frodo writhed desperately, trying to edge backward and place a solid wall behind him. He was tied too tightly to sit up; he could only wiggle on his side like a worm in the dirt. Praying they did not spear him for moving, the hobbit rolled over onto his back, his pack digging into his spine, and dug his heels into the floor of the tunnel. Using his legs, Frodo pushed himself against the limited protection of the rock wall.

A murmur ran through the watching assembly as he moved but none of the glowing eyes moved nearer. Frodo fetched up against the wall with bruising force and pushed his shoulder into the rock, using it to lever himself up into a sitting position. Breathing hoarsely, he pressed himself against the wall and stared back, details becoming visible as his eyes adjusted to the dimness. The pounding pain in his head began to recede. Not total dark, a part of his mind noted—the lamps his captors held were shuttered, only the bottom panels folded back to illuminate this place. The light pooled at their feet and Frodo saw that some wore boots and some did not. These feet were bare like his own, but they were scaled and misshapen, distorted and clawed.

Vaguely he remembered facing the cliff wall, looking up at his friends, and then they had been hidden by shadow as the sun rose. Then he had felt the ledge tremble and out of nowhere, a claw was wrapping itself over his mouth. He was lifted into the air and for an instant there was nothing beneath his feet. He was being borne over the chasm, the air driven from his lungs as he hit the hard ground inside the mouth of the tunnel. It had happened so fast—he had not even time to cry out or to fight. He had drawn Sting but the sword had been dashed from his hand.

One of the lights was approaching. From where the hobbit lay, the lights appeared disembodied, floating in the freezing darkness. The light drifted nearer and Frodo found he had to squint. It dropped closer to him, illuminating the one who held it. Frodo’s last tenaciously held hope of a friend faded.

It held up a knife, and Frodo shrank against the wall. "No more carrying," his captor grunted. "You’re awake now. You walk." It brought the knife down and sliced cleanly through the ropes binding Frodo’s chest. Other hands clamped on his arms and jerked him to his feet. Frodo hoped that the bonds that bound his wrists behind his back would likewise be cut, but it was not so. "Walk," his captor said. "Now." Hands pushed at him, some clawed like beasts. Unable to resist, the Ring-bearer began to walk.

* * *

"All I am asking," the youngest hobbit said doggedly, "is why didn’t you send Legolas down to lift Frodo up? Legolas could have gone down as easily as he just did and then picked Frodo up and held him high enough to reach your staff. Frodo never would have been taken away. We all wouldn’t have had to come down here and crawl around in this nasty tunnel. Merry and Boromir would never have almost fallen, and we wouldn’t be separated from them now, too." Pippin ran out of breath and gazed reproachfully up at the wizard. "Why didn’t you do that?"

Gandalf stopped dead and thrust his staff into the ground, thunder on his brow. The others trailed to a halt and grouped themselves loosely around the pair. Pippin was frowning, intent on receiving an answer. Sam looked frightened. Gimli and Legolas appeared worried, unsure if they dared intervene in a debate that had begun almost as soon as their splintered Fellowship had left the light of the new day behind them.

The crystal placed in the tip of the wizard’s staff blazed incandescent for a moment, brilliant enough to cause pain to dark-adjusted eyes. Gandalf’s hands clenched around the rough wood, fingers twitching. He drew a deep breath and Aragorn, who had been about to speak, stepped back a pace. Pippin didn’t budge. "Peregrin," the wizard said, his voice gruff, "why did you not say this earlier?"

Sam almost put a hand over the tweenager’s mouth, but stilled when Aragorn shook his head imperceptibly at him. "You told me to be quiet," Pippin continued in aggrieved tones, oblivious to the wizard’s white-knuckled grip on the staff. "As you always do. You told me to be quiet and get back, and didn’t listen to me at all—"

"Master Pip," Sam said desperately, "I thought I saw some mushrooms growing over there. Why don’t we take a look?" Pippin’s head whipped towards the indicated spot, then he gave Sam an exasperated look.

"Nothing could grow down here, Sam," Pippin said, irked. "And if you don’t mind, I was asking Gandalf—"

"Come along now," Sam said with a worried glance over his shoulder. Gandalf appeared about to explode. The wizard’s face was furious, and he kept muttering under his breath. Sam caught the word "frog" and "no trouble then," and hurried Pippin forward, a hand firmly under the tweenager’s elbow.

"Sam, stop pushing me," Pippin complained. "I was just asking—"

Aragorn thought it prudent to interrupt—and quickly. "Gandalf," he murmured. "Gandalf?" The Ranger was careful not to place himself in the path of the glowing staff.

The wizard glared at him. "What?"

The Ranger gestured at the rock they were passing. He had ceased to track their stolen Ring-bearer—the tunnel was straight, with no branching side tunnels. It had been made with single purpose, formed from effort unimaginable. "We are headed towards the mountains," Aragorn said softly as they walked. "As Gimli said, this tunnel is old. It was made eons ago. Perhaps now he can tell us more." He turned and motioned for the dwarf to join them.

Gimli drew even with them, leaving Legolas to take the rear guard. The elf’s head turned constantly, tracking every drop of falling water, every echo, every slither of sliding stone. Elven eyes shone in the darkness, watchful and wary. Frodo had been taken from under their noses without alerting him, and Legolas’ every movement made clear his resolve that such would not happen twice.

"This part of the tunnel was hewn before the entrance was constructed," Gimli replied. "Look about you. Stones have fallen from the walls, from the ceiling." As one, their eyes were drawn upwards. The tunnel had expanded as they moved deeper and the roof was now out of sight, hidden in the murky darkness. The thought of heavy stones—or of something yet more dangerous—descending on their unprotected heads was not a pleasant one. "The mortar has crumbled over the years," Gimli continued after a moment. "There were none fallen near the mouth of the tunnel, only where the stones had been pushed outwards. This part of the tunnel is older."

"And it’s age increases with every step," Aragorn murmured.

"Back towards the mountains," Gandalf added, his face tightening. "I have dealt before with those that live inside the mountains. Long ago, with Bilbo and Gimli’s folk. I—"

"Mithrandir!" Legolas’ voice was strained. Gandalf instantly dimmed his staff and the others drew near to him. Aragorn reached out and gathered the remaining hobbits, pulling them close. "Above us," the elf murmured quietly, his musical voice soft. "Scraping and scratching. Something is moving up there."

* * *

Boromir and Merry lay sprawling on the ground near the edge of cliff for a long time after the others had left. They did not speak but lay looking at the clouds and feeling the earth wake as the sun rose. Birds were chirping and a cold breeze caressed their faces. At last Merry sighed and sat up. "It is good to be alive," he said to the world in general.

Boromir followed suit, wincing as the abraded skin on his hands and wrists hurt. Seeing his expression, Merry struggled to his feet. "You should have said something," the hobbit scolded. "Those need attending to. Let me just get a kit…"

Boromir waited obediently as Merry knelt before him and carefully washed and bound the damaged skin, being as gentle as he could. Long accustomed to battlefield injuries and rough triage, Boromir was puzzled by the constant stream of reassurances and encouragement that poured absently from Merry’s lips. The hobbit did not appear to be particularly aware of his automatic comforting, Boromir marveled. Merry simply saw hurt and gave what solace he could, never thinking of how odd that might seem to a soldier.

At last Merry sat back and regarded his handiwork critically. Boromir’s arms were bandaged from forearm to fingertip, the linens tied off with neat knots. "Now, you’re not to lift a finger," Merry lectured sternly, waving one of his in front of the man’s nose. "I’ll do the cooking and take care of Bill, and whatever else needs doing."

The sun had risen to its highest point in the sky before the hobbit was satisfied with his ordering of their temporary camp. He had assisted Boromir in settling down with his back against the boulder from which Pippin had kept watch, easing him down against the support with an admonition to rest. Merry had then arranged the Company’s packs, brushed Bill till the pony gleamed, and prepared an excellent meal that was more than two could possibly eat, even if one of them was a hobbit.

"Merry," Boromir said gently as the hobbit attacked the bowls and Sam’s cooking pots with a scrub brush. "Why don’t you rest for a few minutes? Take a nap. We’ve walked through the night and surely you are as weary as I am. Neither of us will be of much use if we are exhausted when the others return. I’ll take the first watch and wake you for the second."

Merry started to shake his head, but then his worry-born energy gave out. "All right," he said with a yawn. "Let me know if you if you need me. And—"

"I know, Merry," Boromir said with a smile. "And ‘don’t lift a finger.’ I’ll call you for your watch." As the man watched, the hobbit curled himself into a ball between two of the smallest packs, draped his arm over the one before him, and fell asleep.

* * *

The watcher in the grass waited until the man’s keen gaze relaxed and his head drooped against his chest. The sun had warmed the boulder against which he sat, easing weary muscles. Exhausted eyes closed. The creature that watched had its orders. The strangers were two and the scout was on its own, but it had its orders. And it feared the two resting before it less than the ones who had forced it out into the cruel light.

The watcher and its kin had not wanted to break open the old entrance to the tunnel and let in the painful, bright glare of the Sun, but they were given no option. The intruders from the East were bigger and stronger, and utterly merciless. They had ordered the tunnel be opened as part of the plan they brought with them, and the watcher and its kind had no choice but to obey.

The scout tried to ignore the glaring sun and crept slowly towards the smaller form. ‘Halfling,’ it had been told. And ‘an elvish weapon of some kind.’ The intruders hadn’t known more than that; the scout thought that their master would not trust them with more information. Not that it mattered, of course. If it could gain that weapon, then the new bosses perhaps would leave and let them be.

It could move swiftly in a half-crouching position, long-used to running bent along the smaller side-tunnels of its home. Keeping its body low, it avoided the rocky earth and kept to the grass growing at the lip of the cliff, flattening itself in the shade of a small tree that grew near the very edge.

It froze into immobility as the big warrior straightened and looked about, frowning. It watched the man’s head turn back and forth, his hand on his long sword. The man was looking in the wrong direction, back towards the way the strangers had come. For long moments the soldier watched and listened, and the scout barely dared breathe. Then the little being between the packs muttered something in its sleep and hugged the pack before it tightly. The man’s attention was drawn to the sleeper and a faint smile crossed his face. He relaxed, easing back against the boulder.

The creature, too, relaxed. Long, hooked claws on its hands and feet coupled with spikes built into its rag-tag armor enabled it to scale the rock walls and stone columns of its home. Such would serve equally well as killing tools if the halfling creature resisted. It waited until the man’s eyes drifted shut, then it scuttled soundlessly towards the halfling.

Merry’s eyes snapped open as something sharp pressed against his throat. His cry of surprise died before it was uttered as he stared into protuberant luminous eyes, sickly green eyes now squinted half-shut as if in pain. The black pupil was vertically slitted, like a cat. A pale, leathery face surrounded the eyes, pinpricks of nostrils, a slit of a mouth now drawn back to expose pointed, stained teeth. It was nothing Merry had ever seen before. But he knew it immediately from Bilbo’s stories. Orc, part of his quicksilver mind informed him. Or more accurately, mountain goblin.

"Shuushh," the creature hissed in Merry’s ear. "A sound and you die." The cold pressure at his throat increased. Merry tore his eyes away from the gruesome face grinning above him. From the corner of his eye, he could see Boromir, his back against the boulder, his head on his breast and his eyes closed. Boromir, help! Thought Merry frantically. He dared not disobey the creature. He could not tell what manner of knife was being pressed against him, but it was razor-edged. Help! Help!

"Give me the weapon," the thing snarled. "Give it and I will go."

Weapon? Desperately Merry tried to make sense of the creature’s words. Then in a flash, he understood. The goblin felt him tense and the blade was pressed deeper into Merry’s unprotected throat. A small trickle of warmth ran down his neck. Merry gasped.

"I—" he choked. The blade was withdrawn slightly. "I don’t have it. I’m not… I don’t have it."

"They said a halfling," the creature hissed. "Bring them what the halfling carries."

"Who?" asked Merry daringly.

"Orcs," the creature answered grudgingly. "Orcs from Mordor. They come to make us fight. Fight the Elves." The creature twisted aside its head and spat. "Orders, they say, from the Great Eye. Make us open the tunnel, that the Elves walled up long ago. Attack Rivendell. Kill all but the halflings." The goblin’s voice had risen, and it shot a quick glance towards the sleeping man. "Where is this weapon? Tell me!"

Merry started to shake his head then froze as the blade was returned to its previous place. "Be still! I can kill you and that warrior will never wake as I search your body!" The goblin’s other hand wound in his hair and jerked his head back. "I will," it hissed in his ear. "I’ll rip you to shreds and search you to the bones. I’ll cut you to quivering shreds!"

"I don’t have it," Merry insisted in a whisper, an idea already forming in his mind. "It is too dangerous for me to carry. It is in the packs."

The creature was still as stone, trying to read the truth of Merry’s words. But it could not. It was too different from hobbit-kind, and the look of wide-eyed innocence that Frodo would have recognized instantly deceived it. "Which one?"

Merry gestured towards the neatest of the hobbits’ packs, the one he had pulled against his back. "In there."

The cold pressure was withdrawn slightly from Merry’s throat as the goblin edged backwards. Now the hobbit could see that what had been held against his throat was not a blade, but one of the creature’s own filthy claws. The twisted creature hesitated over the pack. "You open it," it hissed. "Silently!"

Slowly, Merry extended an arm and untied Sam’s pack. The creature watched avidly. Merry reached carefully into the pack and felt around for the small leather pouch. Sam had filled it near to overflowing and had perhaps been overly generous with it. Ah … there. He withdrew his arm, the pouch clasped tightly in his fist.

"Give it to me!"

Wordlessly, Merry extended the pouch, praying that the wind was just right. The goblin snatched it from him and backed away. Tearing open the pouch, it poured out a handful of lumpy white granules into its opposite palm.

Please, thought Merry. He did not need to turn his head to identify Bill’s loud whinny. Boromir’s eyes snapped open as the pony lurched into motion but the piled packs and Bill’s bulk hid the trespasser from him. Bill trotted forward, soft velvet nostrils distended, coming for the treat he thought he was being offered. The goblin’s huge eyes bulged in horror. Bill stretched out his long neck, muzzle questing, lips pulled back. The goblin shrieked in terror, confronted with an enormous animal it had never seen before.

The creature threw the sugar into the air and scrabbled backwards. At the edge of the cliff, it paused to direct a malevolent stare into Merry’s eyes. Then it hissed and slammed its claws into the rock, disappearing over the side. Boromir raced around Bill, arriving near the edge just in time to see it disappear into the tunnel’s mouth.

"What was that thing?" Boromir panted.

"I think it was a goblin," Merry replied, patting his throat. His fingers came away stained red. Boromir seized his hand and stared at the scarlet fingers.

"It cut you?"

Merry nodded. "With its claw. It’s just a little cut." He squirmed as Boromir snatched up the kit and daubed at the wound with a fresh bandage. Boromir turned Merry’s head from side to the side, tilting his neck back, using the sun overhead to peer closely at the small gash. He seemed to debate a moment, then squeezed a cold white ointment out of one of the pouches and smeared it on the wound. "Ow!" Merry complained as it stung. "Boromir!"

"The claws and blades of these foul creatures might carry poisons on them," Boromir said, releasing Merry to stare into the hobbit’s eyes. "Merry, you must tell me if it starts to burn, or if you feel ill."

"All right, all right," Merry replied dismissively. The hobbit paused, thinking, then bright blue eyes looked up into the soldier’s in dismay. "Boromir," Merry whispered, "it wanted the Ring. Frodo’s Ring." He paused, trying to impose order on his racing thoughts. "The goblin referred to it as an ‘elvish weapon.’ Reasonable, I suppose, as we are coming out of Rivendell. But how did it know we are here?"

Boromir grimaced. "We were careless, after Frodo slid into the chasm. We should have not called back and forth so. No doubt they heard us."

"They heard us," Merry repeated. "And sent a scout while others of its kind snatched Frodo in that instant when the rising sun shadowed the ledge and we couldn’t see him. So they have him, and they know our Company is divided, and now they know that you and I are up here alone." His breathing evening out, he backed away from the edge and rescued the little leather pouch from Bill. The pony had already eaten the fallen sugar and was nosing the pouch for more. Bill nudged him hopefully and he patted the pony’s neck.

Merry’s stomach roiled as he remembered the rank creature’s hissing voice. "Boromir, that thing told me that orcs from Mordor had come, that they were forcing the goblins to attack Rivendell! That’s why the tunnel was broken open—in preparation of invading Rivendell!"

Boromir was silent, and Merry was suddenly reminded that this brave and noble warrior had left his own people besieged by orcs to assist in the faintest of hopes for Middle-earth. "That creature has gone back to report to its masters," Boromir murmured, his face grim. "And as we don’t have this ‘weapon’ the scout sought, another of our Fellowship must."

"They are walking into a trap," Merry whispered.

* TBC *

Chapter Five

"We’ve got to go after them! We can’t let them walk into a trap!" Merry dashed forward and caught Boromir’s hands, forgetful of the soldier’s injuries. Boromir blanched and Merry released him, instantly regretful for the pain he had caused. "I’m sorry, Boromir! I’m sorry! Are you all right?"

"Yes," the man muttered through gritted teeth to the obviously contrite hobbit. "I’m fine, Merry. But we must act quickly."

Merry tugged carefully on Boromir’s arm and led him back to the boulder, where they both slid down its sun-warmed side. Merry leaned back against it and dropped his head into his hands, resting his elbows on his drawn-up knees. "We’ve got to warn Aragorn and Gandalf and the others. And warn Rivendell that the goblins are planning to attack them. How can we do both?"

"We cannot, Merry," Boromir said gently. "We must choose. It is the burden of command. And we must choose our own Fellowship."

"We cannot abandon Rivendell to this fate!" Merry cried, anguished. "Bilbo is there! All those good people … Lord Elrond, Elladan and Elrohir, Lady Arwen … Glorfindel and Lindir and—and everyone! They’re our friends!"

"And keeping the Ring-bearer safe is our duty," Boromir replied. Tears sprang to the hobbit’s eyes. "If you can figure out a way to do both, we shall," Boromir promised softly, regret in his deep voice. "But we cannot place other people—or a town, or even a City," and the man’s voice tightened with grief, "before the single hope of saving all of Middle-earth. Merry, we cannot help the people of Rivendell. We must go after the Ring-bearer and the others of our Fellowship."

Merry’s hands curled into impotent fists and he beat them upon the ground in frustration. There must be a way! There must! Then his hands stilled. "Boromir," Merry murmured, "you told me on the cliff that everyone is afraid of something. Everyone. What are you afraid of?"

Anguish flickered in the soldier’s eyes. He was silent for long moments and Merry began to fear he had overstepped the bounds of their still-tentative friendship. "I am sorry," the hobbit whispered, "I did not mean to cause you pain—"

But Boromir shook his head. "You did not, Meriadoc. I gave you counsel—you have the right to give the same to me. I will answer your question." He took a steadying breath. "I fear failure. Failing in my duty. And the consequences of that failure to my people, and to my world."

Merry took the man’s hand, gently this time. "I too, fear failure. Not just heights." The hobbit smiled depreciatingly. "And I will give in to neither. There is a way, Boromir, if you will trust me."

Merry leaped to his feet and ran to the neatly arranged pile of packs. He unlaced one and dug into it, throwing its contents about. Boromir rose stiffly and followed. "What are you doing?" he asked.

"Gandalf’s pack," Merry panted, tossing aside a silver scarf and other items of clothing. "I thought I smelled some when I was arranging the packs, setting up camp. Ah!" The hobbit was on his hands and knees, half into the wizard’s pack, his head and shoulders enveloped by the material.

Boromir quelled a smile at the picture the halfling made. "Smelled what, Merry?"

The hobbit emerged with several long, slender tubes wrapped in bright paper. Merry’s eyes sparkled. "Fireworks," he breathed.

* * *

Gandalf extinguished the light and the Company stood in total darkness, crowding close to each other. Elven and dwarven eyes might make out some detail but the rest of the Fellowship was blind. Pippin waved a hand in front of his face but saw not even the movement. He waved more frantically and was oddly comforted by a muffled exclamation when he whacked Samwise.

"What do you hear?" whispered Gimli, his usually rough voice as soft as velvet dragged over stone.

"I cannot tell by sound," Legolas murmured, his head still turning from side to side. "I think … metal. Metal on rock. Scraping sounds. Scratching."

"Where?" This from Aragorn.

"Above us," Legolas breathed. "Up in the ceiling. I think there must be … openings or holes up there."

A faint musical chime echoed in the utter dark. Pippin almost squeaked, then fought it down as Aragorn’s hand tightened on his shoulder. The young hobbit realized that he could see, a little. A slender shape was being held before his eyes, blue foxfire dancing along its length. Gandalf had drawn Glamdring. The elven-blade glimmered with blue light, dancing, licking flames of light running along its razor edges like fire. After a moment of fumbling Sam unsheathed Sting, and all saw the same fire dance along its graceful span.

"How far away, and how many?" Aragorn growled softly.

Gandalf shook his head. By the light of the two elven swords, they could see the movement well enough. The wizard’s grey beard and hair glimmered in the darkness and his eyes gleamed. "Close, and very many for the light to be so bright. Hundreds, perhaps. The blades can tell us no more that that."

Pippin was staring fixedly at the glowing swords. "Goblins, like in Bilbo’s stories? Real goblins?"

Aragorn nodded grimly. "Very real, I fear. They are smaller than their orc kin, but more numerous and more vicious. They are cowards—like rats, they attack only in large numbers. Once they taste blood, they are fearless. They are merciless foes, hating all that walks on the face of the earth."

"Maybe they don’t know we’re here," Pippin whispered.

Gandalf shook his head as Legolas unlimbered his bow and strung it. Gimli freed the throwing axes at his belt and tightened his grip on the great battle-axe he carried. All of them could hear the sounds now, slithering and scuffling above them. "They know."

* * *

"I do not think Gandalf would sanction us trying to use his fireworks, Merry," the soldier said apprehensively. "They are dangerous."

Merry turned one of the long, slender tubes over in his hands, quick fingers peeling off the paper wrapped around it. He looked up with a frown. "Which? Wizards or fireworks?"

"Both!" Boromir responded with some asperity. "Do you know how to set them off?" the soldier added apprehensively, regarding the slender tubes with a worried eye.

"I think so," Merry replied slowly. "I have done it before." Seeing the man looking at him with mingled disbelief and horror, Merry elaborated, "The night of Bilbo’s last Birthday Party, before he left the Shire. Pippin and I—um—borrowed one from the supply Gandalf had made in Bilbo’s honor." Merry decided to rush over unimportant details. "You stick it in the ground and light the fuse. Oh, yes, don’t do it in enclosed places. And stand well back." Memory lit Merry’s face with a smile that rather distressed Boromir.

The man resisted the urge to step backwards as the halfling examined a long stick wrapped in silver paper, tugging experimentally on the fuse that issued from one end. "That doesn’t seem too complicated. But would Imladris see them in the daylight?"

"No worries about that, Boromir. Gandalf’s fireworks explode with great, loud bangs that you can hear for leagues. We aren’t that far from Rivendell—Elven ears can’t fail to pick them up. And since Elrond won’t know what they are, he’ll send scouts. They’ll find the cave opening, and see the wall has been broken open." Merry inhaled deeply. "Rivendell will be warned."

The end of the tube pulled off and Merry held it up to one eye, closing the other to squint into the dark interior. "And they explode in colors, and form shapes that move and make noises like hissing spears or chiming bells." Merry’s grin turned fatuous and his eyes gleamed in that alarming manner. "They are altogether wonderful—"

"It is leaking," Boromir observed.

Merry hastily cupped his hand under the tube, halting the flow of dark, strong-smelling granules that trickled from the end. The fuse he had tugged on dangled freely. Merry stared at the black powder and froze.

"Merry?" Boromir asked after several moments, unwilling to interrupt the thoughts dashing through that quicksilver mind but worried by the expression on the hobbit’s face.

When Merry looked up, his eyes were almost glowing. "I know how we can do it, Boromir. Alert Rivendell and warn our people, too."

* * *

"Merry," Boromir murmured. "This is very dangerous."

The hobbit paused in scraping out the last of the dark granules from the fireworks and cast the empty tube away. "Yes," he agreed. "But it will work, Boromir. If we have just a bit of luck. There—it’s done."

The man was sitting on the edge of the cliff, his long legs dangling over the drop. He gave the blankets he was tying together a mighty pull, watching carefully as the fabric grew tight around the small tree at the edge of the cliff. "That is almost the last of our blankets," Merry commented, trying to ease the knot in his stomach by making light of what they were about to do. "You had better not lose these, too."

"I didn’t lose the others," Boromir retorted, long familiar with the use of teasing to mask apprehension. Soldiers routinely sought to raise their spirits through friendly insults and taunts, and his heart warmed as he recognized the hobbit’s effort. "Neither I or the blankets can be blamed for the dwarf’s mail fraying the cloth. Just you be clear in your direction." He pulled again, seemingly satisfied with his work, then began to snake the tied lengths down the sheer wall.

Merry stayed back from the lip, fighting down the faintness that rose in him whenever his gaze wandered off the end of the earth. Very, very carefully, the hobbit handed the man a kerchief-wrapped bundle. "Don’t bump it," Merry warned.

Boromir paused in tying the bundle to his belt and looked up. "Why? Will it explode?"

"I don’t think so," Merry replied hesitantly. "But best not to take chances, isn’t it?" He tried to smile but it came out as a ghastly grimace.

Boromir slid the bundle ‘round to the back of his belt, behind the great horn he carried, tucking in the long fuse that Merry had made by tying all of the lengths into one. Then he checked the knot on the small tree a final time and started to hand himself down the ‘rope.’ Merry heard him gasp, then grunt as his damaged hands flexed. He could not bear not being able to see what was happening. Merry crawled to the edge and peered over. He was instantly assailed with dizziness, and illness rose in his throat. He forced the fear from him and looked down.

Boromir was directly below him, sliding down slowly. He was breathing harshly and the hobbit could see the linen darkening on the bandages. He found if he focused on Boromir’s head—just look at Boromir’s head—he could manage the nausea and not be sick.

Boromir’s boots gained the ledge with a thud. Small puffs of dust rose under his feet, and several small stones shivered loose to tumble away into the abyss. He leaned against the rocky wall for several moments then released the rope. Merry saw him visibly gather himself and straighten. Boromir slid one foot behind him and turned carefully on the narrow lip of crumbling rock.

"Well done! Well done!" Merry called. Boromir grinned up at him, then crouched with his back against the cliff wall and caught up the fallen blankets, tying the ripped end to the length that dangled against the wall.

"Very good, Boromir!" Merry laughed. "You are learning to think like a hobbit!"

Boromir tensed then launched himself over the chasm. He disappeared into the tunnel mouth then Merry heard him grunt as he impacted the hard earth. Boromir rested for a moment in the tunnel’s mouth, hidden from Merry’s view, then Merry saw him appear at the mouth and wave. Merry waved back.

"Good!" Merry called as the soldier leaned out and started looking about. "Left! My left, I mean! More! Right there! Right where the stones are joined at the arch! It won’t fall out, there!" Following Merry’s instructions, Boromir wedged the small bundle in the roots of the scrubby plant that had hidden the entrance, trailing the long fuse down the outside wall. Fresh sap still gleamed where Aragorn’s blade had hacked away the concealing bush.

"Good," Merry murmured to himself, as Boromir was out of hearing. "The tunnel will funnel the sound to Gandalf and the others. And Rivendell can’t fail to hear such a noise." Merry allowed himself a brief, self-congratulatory smile, wishing that Pippin were here to admire his cleverness.

Boromir gave the bundle a last check and waved again. His eyes locked with the man’s, Merry nodded. Boromir drew out his flint and struck it, sheltering the strike with a cupped palm. Merry saw the soldier smile in the brief glare of light, then Boromir leaned out and touched the flame to the long fuse. The man sheltered it for a moment, making certain it was feeding well on the string. "Come on, Boromir!" Merry urged. "Hurry!"

Boromir took a deep breath and leaped back over the gap, landing on the narrow ledge with difficulty. He teetered, flailing at the wall, trying to clamp his hands around something to steady himself. He lurched to the side with a gasp, onto the fissured section, and Merry feared he had lost his balance. A stone broke loose from the cracked shelf, falling into the crevice. Another. Then Boromir threw up his arms in desperation as the stone ledge disintegrated beneath him.

"Boromir!’ Merry cried, his voice gone shrill with terror. Boromir clamped his already bleeding hands around the rope, his face twisting in pain as the rope bit into ravaged skin. Stones tumbled below him, dropping down, bouncing against the sheer wall. Far below him, the largest part of the ledge impacted the canyon floor and shattered into a thousand pieces, sending up a great puff of dust.

"Boromir, the fuse! Hurry!" The man hung in space, face paling as his gaze followed the quickly-burning fuse. The spark he had lit glittered its way towards the bundle, casting off tiny sparkles as it consumed the string. Desperately Boromir unlocked one hand and reached it above the other, groaning in anguish. He began to haul himself up, inch by agonizing inch.

Too slowly. He would never make it. Merry knew this. The fuse was burning too quickly. Desperately, the hobbit cast around. His eyes fell on the little tree that anchored the rope, and he saw with horror that it was giving.

It was being torn out by the roots. It was already tipping—on its far side, roots waved in the air like spidery fingers, seeking the strength of the soil. Before Merry’s horrified eyes, it dipped towards the chasm, and he heard Boromir’s stifled cry.

He had to do something. Merry’s hands locked around the rope, then reason reasserted itself. He could not hope to pull Boromir up by his own strength. His arms still ached dully from holding the man those brief seconds as the rope tore—it would be impossible for him to haul Boromir up to solid ground.

Merry remembered the pouch of sugar in his pocket. "Here, Bill," Merry called, trying to keep the fear from his voice. The pony had been grazing; at Merry’s call he raised his head and looked inquiringly at the hobbit. Merry fished out the little sack and Bill’s ears tilted forward. Soft black nostrils distended. Then the pony was trotting forward eagerly, hoping for a rare second treat of the day.

"Good boy," Merry muttered, catching the bridle. "Here, my lad." Bill followed willingly and stood patiently by the small tree. Merry dropped a handful of white lumps and Bill dipped his head to nose them up, his attention for the moment fixed to the earth.

Merry heard Boromir groan again, and though the sound was closer, it was also weaker. Neither of them had truly rested and Boromir was already hurt. The hobbit desperately wanted to know how far the fuse had burned but he dared not spare a heartbeat to look.

Merry caught up the loose end of the blanket-rope and tied it to the snapple on Bill’s bridle, frantically bunching the cloth to push it through the small ring. "I’m sorry, Bill my lad," Merry whispered. "This is going to hurt."

Then the tree gave entirely, ripping from the earth with the sound of snapping wood. It tangled in the improvised rope, then spun off with the force of a thrown spear. "Merry!" Boromir shouted. "Merry!"

Bill’s head was dragged sideways and he lurched, towed forward by Boromir’s weight. He squealed, then his head came down and his forequarters locked, hooves digging into the rocky soil. "Hold on, Boromir!" Merry cried shrilly. "Hold on!" The pony whinnied shrilly, his soft brown eyes rimmed with white. Merry caught hold of Bill’s rein and hauled him backward. Confused and frightened, Bill followed, muscles bunching as he backed. The top of Boromir’s head appeared over the lip.

The soldier’s eyes widened as he took in the pony and the snapped tree. He loosened one hand to scrabble in the earth, digging his fingers into whatever support he could find. His bloody hand fastened on a rock. He thrust himself over the lip and one knee followed. With a heave, Boromir was on the top and pushing away from the edge.

Merry could not resist. Seeing the man safe, he scrambled to the cliff’s edge and dropped, looking over the edge to the tunnel’s mouth. A heartbeat later a shattering blast of smoke and sound hit him in the face.

* TBC *

Chapter Six

With sinking hearts, the members of the Fellowship saw that the patches of deeper darkness were resolving into forms; dark shadows coalescing into slinking, hunched figures emerging from gaps in the ceiling by the hundreds. The creatures moved like cockroaches, scuttling, using their claws and the spikes and hooks built into their rag-tag armor to skitter down the columns. They encircled the Fellowship, silent, cutting off all hope of escape.

The path ahead was blocked, the tunnel behind them also. In the faint light of Gandalf’s barely-lit staff, the goblins’ weapons glimmered and reflected in their globular, shining eyes. The Company raised their own weapons and drew together, back to back, pushing the hobbits to their center. Sam and Pippin exchanged a glance then slid between the larger bodies, taking their place beside the others. For a moment Aragorn seemed about to object, then he nodded at them and let them be.

"They will rush us," Gandalf murmured, "overwhelming us with their numbers." In the darkness, Glamdring shone with ghostly fire, bright enough to illuminate the wizard’s steady grip upon its hilt. "Strike for where their armor does not meet—knees, elbows, faces. If we can kill or maim enough, they will retreat."

"They are cowards," Gimli rumbled, "but they will not retreat. They are too many and we too few."

"Good," Legolas replied softly. "We will have the opportunity to kill the more of them."

The nearer of the goblins grinned, mottled lips drawn over needle-like teeth, as if they understood the elf’s whispered words. They shifted among themselves, one urging another forward while its comrades sheltered safe behind it. One would dart forward then draw back, teasing and threatening. They shook their weapons and clashed them together, ill-made swords and make-shift shields. At last a huge goblin worked up his courage; with a bellow he vaulted forward, aiming a blow at Aragorn. Legolas’ arrow caught him in the throat and he fell dead at the Ranger’s feet.

The remaining goblins growled at this, their play ended. It was time to kill. They began rocking back and forth and uttering little shrieking cries, louder and louder, until one of the creatures let out a scream and leaped forward. In a heartbeat, hundreds followed.

For a moment all was whirling darkness. Pippin saw a something blaze with painful brilliance and realized it was Gandalf’s sword. By that fiery light he saw a long arm flash over his head and strike at Gimli; the dwarf swung his axe and the arm, sword still in its hand, smashed to the rocky floor. The tweenager felt burning liquid splatter on his toes. Then all was forgotten as he ducked and feinted, his body remembering the training pounded into him in Rivendell as his mind blurred out the horror about him.

He ducked a thrust and retaliated, feeling his own small sword cleave flesh. The black figure before him screamed, long and piercing. The sound was lost in the shouts and ring of steel. Pippin pulled on his sword and fought resistance; belatedly he recalled that Boromir had told him a wound sucked at a weapon—he would need to pull hard to free it. He did and hot blood rushed over his hand. Then the goblin was falling, and he leaped backwards as it collapsed at his feet.

Figures were writhing around him; Legolas had abandoned his bow and was fighting hand to hand with his long knives, beside him, Aragorn fought silently and grimly. The others were only blurs of movement. In the uncertain light, Pippin could scarcely tell friend from foe. A bulky form turned towards him and the hobbit had only a heartbeat to realise that it was not Gimli by his side, but a huge goblin. Pippin tried to shrink back but it was too close. With a roar, the goblin slashed at him and Pippin moved without thinking, throwing himself at the creature’s feet. It looked down in surprise, obviously not expecting such a manoeuvre. Pippin rolled over and stabbed upwards, his sword severing the great artery in the upper thigh. The creature bellowed and doubled over but Pippin was already gone, rolling to the side. He found a piece of broken column and scrambled behind it, sickened by his knowledge that the goblin would bleed to death.

Desperately Pippin sought for other members of the Fellowship, and especially for Sam. He had a brief glimpse of his friend; Sam was weaving before a goblin big enough to be an orc, and in his hand was not his own sword but Sting. He lunged forward and the goblin retreated, its bulbous eyes fastened on the glowing elven blade. On its face was fear and on Sam’s was determination. Pippin felt a brief glow of pride at his friend’s bravery then another huge form loomed before him and abruptly jerked his attention back to his own survival.

The goblin sneered at him, delighted to find an opponent so much smaller than itself. Pippin backed up warily, his eyes on its sword as Boromir had taught him. Mistaking his action for cowardice, the creature hooted and lunged forward. Pippin had already seen the blade tip forward in preparation of its leap; he was no longer there when the creature slashed down, intending to split him like a ripe melon. The creature stumbled and Pippin stabbed from the side, aiming for the gap in its armor at the joint of the knees. But he had not counted on its quickness. The goblin turned and his sword caught on one of the jagged climbing spikes forged into the creature’s armor. With a screech of metal, it was turned aside. The goblin spun around, one clawed hand reaching out to clamp on the tweenager’s shoulder. He yelped, the cry of pain and terror almost swallowed by the battle.

"Pippin!" someone shouted. "Pippin!" He thought it was Gandalf but could not be certain above the howls and roars and clash of steel about him.

Pippin tried to writhe free but the grip on his shoulder was like a vice. He twisted, stabbing with his sword but the goblin held itself easily out of his reach. It raised its sword and Pippin’s eyes followed its downward arc. He felt the impact along the entire length of his body, as if a great hand had descended from the heights overhead and slapped him. He was lifted from his feet and thrown backward. White light filled his vision, and his ears rang. He slammed against the stony floor and knew no more.

* * *

"That was good," Merry murmured. "I wish we had another one." Boromir looked at the hobbit in alarm, noting twitching fingers and the ecstatic smile plastered across Merry’s soot-covered face.

"Don’t worry, Boromir," Merry said, catching the soldier’s expression of concern. "This happened the last time, too." The wide grin did not diminish. Boromir shook his head, wondering if the explosion had concussed the hobbit. Merry was filthy and his clothes reeked. His bright hair was grimed to grey spikes and stood out straight from his head. Wisps of smoke still curled gently into the cold breeze. Two big patches of black powder decorated his face; one over an eyebrow and the other under the eye. Those eyes twinkled no less brightly than the glittering streams of sparks that had shot into the air and scattered high above them.

"That takes care of one problem," the hobbit continued in a more focused manner, examining the ash on his waistcoat. "Nothing is coming out of that tunnel, not without a lot of work clearing tons of rock. Lord Elrond will send scouts to investigate the blast." He sighed and his small form sagged in relief. Then he drew a deep breath and puffed out his chest, pleased that his plan had succeeded. "Rivendell won’t be caught unawares."

"Our Company also will not be coming out of that tunnel," Boromir reminded him, using one hand to scratch Bill between the eyes and feeding him occasional lumps of sugar. The pony licked them off the man’s palm eagerly, the pain of the rescue and terror of the blast already forgotten.

Merry deflated slightly. "Yes... But collapsing the tunnel exit was an accident. We didn’t mean for it to cave in. Gandalf will understand that."

His attention apparently on petting the pony, Boromir refrained from commenting. But his averted face and the stiffness of his broad back spoke volumes. Merry looked at the rigid back anxiously. "Gandalf will understand it was an accident," he repeated in apprehensive tones. Receiving no agreement, he ducked around to the opposite side of Bill where Boromir could not avoid meeting his gaze. "They couldn’t come back that way anyway," Merry declared, "not without the ledge to jump over to and the tree to pull them up. The ledge is shattered and the tree fallen." Merry paused for a moment to contemplate the damage, then continued determinedly, "And at least Gandalf and Aragorn and the others will be warned—they couldn’t have walked so far from the opening not to have heard the blast."

"I can see us explaining that to Gandalf," Boromir replied gloomily. "As well as the theft of his fireworks."

Merry sighed again and scrubbed absently at the soot, smearing it over his face. His throat stung dreadfully where some of it must have got into the cut given him by the goblin scout. "We must go after them. But first, I have to clean up and you need new bandages. Pity there isn’t a bucket of soapy water about when you need one," he muttered to himself.

Boromir grimaced as Merry completed the tying of the new bandages. He looked across the gap, flexing his hands to determine the amount of easy movement he had. "We can detour around this chasm. The earth will join at some point. But how can we follow an underground tunnel we cannot see?"

Merry thought about it as he folded the remaining linens back into one of the medical kits. "I may not have Gimli’s knowledge of masonry and construction, but I know about building underground. We hobbits have built our smials underground for hundreds of years. You should see Brandy Hall—the place is a warren. Pip got lost once when he was a little ‘un and we couldn’t find him for two days. Luckily, he managed to lose himself in a storeroom. He’d gained half a stone by the time we found him. Mum wouldn’t let him have pudding for the rest of his visit." Merry shaded his eyes against the sun overhead and stood up on his toes. He turned back to smile at the soldier. "There must be shafts in the earth to allow the exchange of air, to permit cooking smoke to escape. If we know what to look for—and I do—we can follow the tunnel by finding these openings."

* * *

Even if Frodo had not been already exhausted by the Company’s long walk before his capture, he could not have kept the goblins’ pace. They quick-marched without discipline, snarling and shoving at each other, but their squabbling did not slow them. That they knew their way about this dark passage was obvious—only he tripped and stumbled over unseen projections on the rocky floor. The lanterns the goblins held were kept shuttered, except for the one carried by the leader of the group.

The Ring-bearer had no sense of passing time in this nightmare of darkness and exhaustion. He tried counting his steps but forgot his count when his weary mind could not produce the next number. Then he tried counting his heartbeats in sets of ten, but lost the count repeatedly and at last gave up. He did all he could to slow their forced march, but he was not permitted to lag.

Exertion and the cold had diminished the pain in his head to a dull throb but hunger and weariness compensated to augment his misery. But even more than that, something else was invading him. A cold knot was forming in his stomach, and his hands and feet felt made of ice. He could not seem to order his limbs. He began to weave, then stumble. Then, unable to stay on his feet, he fell.

Roughly he was jerked to a sitting position and something sharp prodded him in the back. "Get up!" hissed the one who had spoken to him before. "Walk!"

"Please," murmured the hobbit. "What do you want?" He received no reply except for another painful jab in the shoulder.

"I can go no farther without rest," Frodo whispered. "Give me a few moments to gather my strength." The creature stared at him. When it did not strike or threaten him, he dared to ask, "Please, I must have a drink of water. Will you unbind my wrists so I may drink?"

The goblin muttered something under its breath, then straightened and drew out a knife. Frodo tried to hide his flinch but it only reached over him and slashed the bonds that held his wrists. Blood, and pain, slowly began to return to his arms. Ignoring the fire burning along his arms, he shrugged off his pack and laid it on the floor before him, untying the flap. There was no food but stale bread and strips of dried meat, but his captor made no move to stop him as he pulled them out, nor when he took a hesitant drink from his water bottle. He was so desperately thirsty that he wanted to gulp it all, but he refrained. Forcing discipline on himself, Frodo took small bites of the bread and meat, washed down by tiny sips of water.

Seeing their leader was allowing their captive a break, the other goblins sank to the ground and pulled out their own provisions, arguing among themselves when one perceived another had a larger or a better tasting portion of rations. Frodo ignored them but watched them from the corner of an eye, ready to defend himself if necessary.

All too soon the little water and less food was gone. Frodo left a single swallow in the bottle, reasoning that even foul creatures such as these could not march far without water. "Where are you taking me?" asked Frodo, trying to gain every moment of respite he could.

"To the bosses," the goblin replied, eyeing him speculatively. "The new bosses." It spat, the glob narrowly missing the hobbit’s leg. "From the East. Maybe we give them you, and they go away."

It hunkered down and looked at him, curiosity warring with the malice on its ugly face. "The bosses say bring you. They say don’t kill you. Don’t search you. You’re to be kept alive for the Big Boss that’s coming."

"Big Boss?" Frodo repeated with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

The creature hunkered lower and glanced around furtively. It seemed reluctant to speak yet proud it had information that Frodo did not. The hobbit could not guess if it wished to frighten him or sought to relieve his fear. Its face and expressions were too alien for him to interpret. Its motivations he could not guess at, other than obedience to the orders it had received. The goblin ran its tongue over its needle teeth and leaned closer, its voice dropping to a whisper. "The Eye wants the elves destroyed. They don’t bow to Him. They stand in His way. They are a danger to Him, to His plans. So He is sending his chiefest servant to command the invasion."

"What invasion?" Frodo asked, though he knew of only one stronghold of elven-kind in these lands.

"Imladris," the goblin leader confirmed. "Rivendell, as it is called by Men. The Eye wants it destroyed. There is not an elf to be left alive, except for its lord and his children. He is sending the Big Boss to command their capture and see Rivendell burned to the ground."

"Lord Elrond?" Frodo asked. "And Elrohir and Elladan and the Lady Arwen? Why? What does … the Eye want with them?"

The goblin shrugged. "Don’t know. Not my business to know." It grinned, and in the light of the single lantern, its pointed teeth glimmered. "Wouldn’t want to be them, though, when the Eye gets His hands on them."

"When will this happen?" Frodo asked, already seeking a way to warn the ones he was certain would come after him, and for them to warn Lord Elrond.

"When the Big Boss comes," the creature replied, distracted. It stood to watch two of its troops arguing over some scrap of food, the others gathering around them in hopes of a fight. It glanced down at the hobbit. "Soon. Get ready to move out." Striding away, it pushed between the two combatants, snarling at them.

Frodo reached down and began tying up his pack. He stared at the clean space on the floor where the fabric had rubbed the dust from the earth, then ran a finger over the ground. In the dim light of the lantern, the clean space shone. Frodo looked up; the goblin leader was cuffing both of the brawlers indiscriminately, roaring at them. Aragorn would be tracking him, he was sure of it. All of his friends would be watching for any sign he might leave. Quickly Frodo began writing in the dust. Surely this creature was illiterate. Making it look as if he were idly drawing, he wrote, Rivendell, followed by goblin invasion. Then he added, Soon. Warn them.

He lurched to his feet as the leader returned, slinging his pack on his back and stepping forward over his writing. "I’m ready," he said before the goblin could speak. "Let’s go."

The creature stared at him, then shrugged and stooped to retrieve the lantern. As it lifted the light, clean rock gleamed. Frodo’s heart sank. The goblin pushed him out of the way and stared at the writing. Then it stretched out a clawed foot and rubbed out his message.

It stared at him enigmatically. "Maybe we don’t fight the elves now," it mumbled, seemingly to itself. "Maybe the Eye wants you more than He wants the elves dead? Maybe the Big Boss take you and go?" It pushed him forward.

"This ‘Big Boss’," Frodo repeated, delaying, desperately trying to think of any way to alert the Fellowship. "Is it the chief of the orcs?"

"You don’t know?" the goblin sneered. "Nazgûl."

* TBC *

The feeling of weakness that had assailed him earlier returned to Frodo in an overwhelming rush, freezing his limbs to ice. Cold perspiration coated him and his legs felt as if the bones had melted inside his skin. He staggered and fell against the wall of the tunnel, only the solid rock keeping him on his feet. Utter fear. He recognized the feeling now. He had felt it first in his rooms in Rivendell—the building hysteria, the unreasoning horror. Absolute terror, such as he had not felt since the single remaining Ringwraith had sought to breech Rivendell’s borders after him. The Nazgûl was coming, and when it arrived, he would be given to it.

He would be given to it and taken by it to the Dark Lord. What would come after that, he could not even imagine. It had never really been discussed, not with Gandalf, or Aragorn, or Elrond. His mind veered away from even contemplating it. What would happen if his mission failed he could only understand in a subjective sense. Who could truly conceive of the ending of the world?

A merciless shove sent him into motion again, and only then did he realize he had stopped still. Behind him, the goblin company was sorting itself out, wolfing the last bits of food and struggling to their feet, falling into line. "I said get moving," the leader growled at him. "The Big Boss wants you in a hurry." It paused and eyed him speculatively. "What do you have, that the Eye wants so much?" it asked.

"I carry nothing," Frodo said automatically, still torn between his own imminent abduction and the impending invasion of Rivendell. His mind fixed with dread upon the impending doom of all that was fair and good in the world. To know that that fair place would be the first burned and despoiled, the immortal Elves slaughtered, and after them, the rest of Middle-earth … and it would be his fault, because he had failed in the trust placed in him. Even if the goblin attack was repelled, Imladris would fall eventually when the Dark Lord regained his Ring, but Frodo wished he could give them some warning, some time to prepare their defense.

The creature raised a hand and the Ring-bearer readied himself for a blow. But it did not fall. The leader snarled, remembering its orders that this prisoner was not to be abused. Instead, it merely raised its clawed fingers to graze along his cheek as a reminder of the damage it could do, should it choose not to restrain itself.

Frodo’s thoughts churned as the goblin company began to march. He could think of no way to warn Gandalf and Aragorn, he could think of no way to save himself. He could do nothing to prevent what was going to happen, either to Rivendell or himself. His hand shaking, he pressed it against his tear-filled eyes for a moment and in utter hopelessness, heartily wished he were dead.

* * *

"Halt!" The goblin leader’s harsh voice rang out in the tunnel, oddly distorted by the rock walls. Frodo frowned in puzzlement, then understood that the command did not echo. There was an opening ahead of them. The goblins carrying lamps unshuttered them and by their weak light the hobbit could see nothing but a great blackness before him, a vast round opening like a mouth. The foul smell, which he had almost grown used to, suddenly intensified. Gagging, the hobbit covered his nose with the sleeve of his jacket and staggered forward as the command to march was given.

He was in a cavern, he realized. The tunnel ended abruptly, replaced by far walls and a stone ceiling so far above him he could not see it. Something icy cold struck the back of his head and ran down his neck and he looked up just in time to receive another on the cheek. It was water, little pit-pats of icy water as they dripped off some unseen stalactite. The next unerringly found the back of his neck and he shivered and stepped a little to the side.

The stench was worse in here. Frodo coughed and backed up another step, his feet crunching on a hard object that splintered beneath his tough soles. Looking down, he could just make out something white and thin, like curved white sticks, and realized it was a ribcage. Rat, or some other small rodent. And not completely clean; shreds of decaying flesh still clung to the bones and bits of organs shone with slime in the dim light. Looking about him, he realized now that the dark lumps strewn about the floor were the remains of the goblins’ meals, cast from the front of the cave and ignored. The entire cavern was a carrion heap.

He felt ill. He sought for a clean place to wipe his feet, but there was none. Rats and insectile scavengers skittered among the rotting bones, completely unafraid of him. A huge cockroach as long as his hand reared up before him and Frodo shrank back, sickened of the thought of treading on such filthy creatures. He realized that the cold breeze that he had felt thoughout the entire miserable journey emanated from here, or more accurately, from an opening that led into this cave. The wind blew into the cavern and from here it collected the horrible stink of carrion and funneled it along the tunnel. Gagging, he covered his nose with a hand and fought to control his stomach.

A murmur ran through the assembled company and some of the goblins began pointing and hooting back and forth among themselves. Frodo could see that the ground rose and ahead there was an area of the cavern better lit, illuminated by torches set in sockets along the wall. Shadows moved against the wall and sounds were coming from some activity there, snarling and growling—there was an animal in the cavern. But not any beast the hobbit had ever seen. The shadow retreated as the animal moved farther into the cavern. It was an enormous beast similar to wolf-kind, but greatly larger, and deformed by unnatural breeding and use. A flat nose overhung enormous stained teeth and its forequarters were heavy with muscle. Madness glimmered in its yellow eyes. With a shock, the hobbit realized it wore a saddle. The cinch had been pulled so tightly around the massive body that it had cut into the skin, and blood dripped from the straps in unceasing rivulets of red.

Warg, his mind supplied. Riding-beast for orc-kind. He had never seen one but he recognized it from Bilbo’s stories. But the dear old hobbit’s tales had never captured its hideousness, or its viciousness. It turned to snarl at a second, slightly smaller beast by its side, and that one snarled in return but cowered back. There was something wrong with the first; it lunged for one of its handlers but its movements were uncoordinated and shaky. The rough hair of its dirt-encrusted coat was dark with perspiration and its limbs quivered. Its tongue lolled out of its mouth and even as Frodo watched, its hind legs gave way and utterly exhausted, it collapsed to the ground.  

It is dying, Frodo thought. Hideous as it was, he sorrowed for it.Then something stalked from behind thetwo beasts, and Frodo’s terror returned full-force. 

The Nazgûl was shapeless underneath the tattered black robes, not more than a tall Man-form with nothing to distinguish it from any of the others. Nevertheless, Frodo knew that this was the one who had stabbed him on Weathertop. He knew it immediately, and knew that it recognized him in the same instant. Despair poured from it like a poisonous miasma and Frodo choked, unable to breathe. The pain in his left shoulder, never completely quiescent, flared into agonizing life. At the same moment, the burden he bore blazed into burning ice at his breast. He dropped to his knees, overcome, his right hand clutching his shoulder and his left wrapped around the Ring.

The black form raised its hooded head and the black pit of its face turned towards him. Frodo’s blood slowed in his veins and his head dropped. As if pushing against a great weight, the hobbit forced himself to release the Ring and struggled to raise his head. He would not bow before it—he would not. He sought to revive that surge of defiance, that refusal to bend to its will that had saved him as he lay helpless in that ring of stones. But he knew what a Ringwraith was now, what it could do to him. And the consequences to Middle-earth if it did. Rage sparked in his heart but it burned too weakly, worn down by hunger and exhaustion and the weight of the responsibility he carried. This time, he did not have the strength to defy it.

The dying warg broke the equipoise between them. A goblin had come too close and it snapped at the creature, foam dripping from its slavering jaws. The goblin leaped back, cringing in fear. "The beast, my lord," it whined. "It dies. The other will bear you back, my lord. Please, my lord—"

"It is of no more use to me," the Ringwraith hissed, its cold gaze fixed on the hobbit. "Kill it."

Of course, Frodo thought. The poor, warped horses the Black Riders had enslaved were dead, and replacements not yet been trained to suffer such evil riders. He recalled vaguely that Gandalf had warned him the Ringwraiths would return, once they had new forms to wear and new mounts to ride. The Witch-king had found a new mount, evidently, and ridden it to its death.

"Food! Fresh meat!" Whooping, the goblins swarmed the creature, stabbing eagerly at it with their swords. The beast lurched to its feet, galvanized by pain, blood already streaming down its coat. The smaller beast lunged at the smell of blood but its handlers dragged it back, away from the other. The dying warg lurched forward and a goblin that had come too close screamed as it was caught in the massive jaws. The crunch of bone resounded in the vast cavern and the scream was abruptly cut short.

Some goblins had throwing-spears, and these they cast deep into the beast’s ribs. All missed the heart but many lodged in the animal’s side, driving it into even greater frenzy. Howling, the warg threw itself back on its hind legs, rearing like a horse, then leaped into the midst of the goblins, savaging them with its jaws and shredding them with its claws. Expecting an easy kill, the goblins were not prepared and those caught under it went down as others behind them fought each other to escape the ravening beast.

The Nazgûl, also, was caught off-guard by the ferocity of the warg’s death-throes. The warg shook its great head and the mangled body of a goblin was thrown from its jaws, spinning out into the air to slam against the Wraith. Black blood splattered its black robes and it staggered. For a moment, the merciless grip on the Ring-bearer’s mind lessened. Frodo seized his chance. Still moving as if he were underwater, he struggled to his feet and took a step backwards.

The Nazgûl pushed the goblin’s broken body off itself and threw out an armor-clad hand. Metal-encased fingers clenched into a fist, and Frodo felt the ice returning. He was paralyzed. The ice was consuming him. Hysteria screamed in his mind but he could pay it no heed—his body was frozen. Then the warg lunged forward, an arrow in its throat. A second impaled an eye and this one must have entered the brain, for the animal went limp even as it launched itself into the air to hurl itself amongst its tormentors. The goblins under it screamed as the massive body crashed down upon them. And not only the goblins. The Wraith also was beneath it. It fell, crushed beneath the dead beast, and the grasp on Frodo’s mind was gone.

The hobbit did not hesitate. Frodo whirled around and ran. Intellect told him that there must be an opening past the wargs, that the cavern mouth must be close. And from there, open space and freedom. But he dared not chance that he was wrong, and dared not chance that the remaining warg and the goblins would let him by. He plunged back the way he had come, trying to gain the tunnel before he was spotted.

"The halfling!" snarled the Ringwraith. "Do not let it escape!" Pinned by the dead warg’s body, it struggled to free itself, one armored hand gouging a great gash in the rock floor. Its terrible voice rose above the goblins’ shrieking cries of triumph and they looked about in confusion, having forgotten their small prisoner during the turmoil.

One tried to intercept Frodo but he dodged to the side and it missed, a clawed hand tangling for a moment in his cloak. Frodo jerked himself free but the delay had cost him. They were converging on him, swords ready in their hands as if he were some mighty elvish warrior. Hobbit-quickness and hobbit-stealth would not aid him now; they could see him clearly. See him… Of its own accord, Frodo’s hand returned to the Ring and clasped it. They could see him…

Before he quite knew what he was doing, he had torn the silver chain from his neck and was holding the Ring between his fingers with one hand while his other prepared to don it. Somewhere in his mind a voice was shrieking no! no! but the shrieks of the goblins were louder. His right forefinger slid into the golden band and those shrieks faded away in the absolute cold of wearing the Ring.

He had forgotten how icy it was in this not-place, and how windy. It was difficult to see—everything seemed leached of color and distorted. He was aware of the goblins only peripherally. In this place, the Nazgûl loomed in all the decaying splendor that Frodo remembered, just before it had driven the poisoned Morgul-blade into his body. It knew he had donned the Ring, and its will on him returned and intensified. Battling the Ring, battling the Ringwraith’s will, the hobbit staggered back and sought to evade the goblins searching for him.

They stumbled about, snarling questions at each other, "Where did it go? Did you see it?" and calling for him as if they thought he would answer. Frodo gained the wall and pressed his back against it, trying desperately to control his panting. He had to get out. But his way was blocked by goblins—they were packed too closely for him to slide between them.

"Fools! Set me free!" the Ringwraith’s snarled command brought the horde to its side and set them to trying to drag the enormous corpse off it. They feared the Wraith, Frodo saw, and perhaps their efforts were less than whole-hearted, for none wished to approach the Nazgûl closely. Some took hold of the throwing-spears lodged in the creature’s body and threw their weight against them, levering the warg off its prisoner. With the Ring altering his vision, he saw bone-thin fingers, white and unnatural, scrabbling at the rock floor then the Wraith was pulling itself out from under the dead beast.

Frodo did not wait to see more. With fewer goblins in his path, he gathered the last of his strength and darted for the entrance to the tunnel, toward the opening that he had exited in such weariness but minutes before. Its burning gaze fixed on him, the Nazgûl saw him move. "It is escaping!" it shrieked, its voice taking on the cruel screech that caused such terror and pain to any who heard it. Frodo stumbled, going to his knees amongst the filth, for the moment blinded and weakened. He forced himself up and continued running. The goblins fell back, cringing, covering their ears with their hands, no longer hunting the escapee. Seeing that it was hurting its own cause, the Wraith controlled itself and its voice descended to a more mortal level. "By the tunnel mouth! It is escaping! Stop the halfling!"

Those who had continued the search for him stared about in confusion but could not see and did not hear the small form that wove between them. Frodo put on a burst of speed and passed between two that sought to bar the tunnel entrance, reaching out to cross their arms against him. He ducked and passed under the groping hands, his footfalls entirely silent as he escaped from that place of doom.

* TBC *

Chapter Eight

"Pippin! Peregrin Took, are you all right?"

It wasn’t fair, the young hobbit thought resentfully, that he be thrown to a hard floor, shaken, and shouted at. It also was not fair that someone had evidentially set off little sparkles of light on the inside of his eyelids. The sparkles streaked across his vision like shooting stars and were making him dizzy. He strove to open his eyes and stop the spinning, but they seemed glued shut. He would complain, he would, if he could just get his mouth open. It seemed choked with dust, and his throat hurt. His head pounded. The person shouting at him would do better to offer him a drink of water. This was intolerable. He would set Merry on them, Pippin decided. Merry wouldn’t stand for people to treat him like this.

"What did he say?" A low rumble, gruff but overlaid with concern. It was familiar but Pippin could not immediately place it.

"I believe he said, ‘Merry.’ He must think his cousin is here. Does he have a concussion?" A light, musical voice, which did not belong in this dank, close-seeming place.

"If he does not, it is only because hobbits have very hard heads, and Tooks the most hard of all."

He knew that voice. "Gandalf," he sobbed, reaching out blindly.

"I am here, Pippin," the gravelly voice said gently. The tweenager felt arms gather him up and he was carefully lifted into a lap and cradled against rough cloth that smelled of pipe-weed andspices and fireworks. "Give the lad some room," the voice ordered above his head. "He’s all right. Aren’t you, my lad?"

Pippin made a great effort and pried open his eyes. The lined face looming above him was a bit blurry and grey with dust, as were the other worried faces that hovered over him. Gimli had little bits of broken rock imbedded in his beard, and Legolas’ usually fastidious clothing was marred by a thick coating of dirt. All of them looked slightly singed and thoroughly disreputable, Pippin thought with a sniff.

"What happened?" he asked after a moment’s thought.

"I believe that cousin of yours has set off my fireworks," the wizard growled while continuing to check the hobbit in his lap for injuries, "for which I shall certainly fry him like a sausage unless he has a very good reason."

A water bottle was pressed into Pippin’s hands. He blinked at it blankly. Sam unstopppered it and tilted it to the tweenager’s mouth. "Take a drink, lad," Sam urged softly.

"I do not think Merry would act foolishly, Gandalf," Aragorn said, rising from Pippin’s side. "There must have been some great need for him to take so drastic an action." With a gentle press of Pippin’s shoulder, the Ranger began moving among a scattering of dark forms that littered therocky floor. Pippin realized Aragorn was checking the bodies of the goblins that sprawled inbroken disarray about them, dark liquid seeping from gaping wounds that he thankfully could not make out through his blurred vision.

The water eased the dryness in Pippin’s throat and the world began to make more sense to him. He sniffed, smelling black powder in the air, the acrid stink of it magnified by the close walls of the tunnel.

"There was an explosion of some kind, Pippin," Legolas explained, sinking into a graceful crouch so that the hobbit did not have to look up at him.

"Aye, an enormous blast," agreed Gimli. "We were hard-beset when suddenly there was a blinding flash of light and sound, and a wall of dust and shattered rock rolled over us. The tunnel funneled the blast. We were all knocked from our feet, and you were thrown into the wall."

"I think the explosion saved your life, my young Took," Gandalf murmured, carefully setting Pippin on his feet. The hobbit swayed for a moment and the wizard held his arm until he steadied. "There was a great black goblin about to run you through when the blast hit. It was blown away from you and Gimli finished it."

"Hah," Pippin said dizzily. "I had it just where I wanted it. It only looked like I was losing."

"It was the light that sent them running," Gimli said contemptuously, "more than the shockwave or the sound. They have no courage to fight against an enemy of flame and smoke. The creatures fought each other to win back to the walls, tearing at each other like rats in their panic. They swarmed up the columns and into the openings in the ceiling. We’ve not seen a sign of them since."

Gandalf signaled to Sam, who came forward and took Pippin’s arm. "Here, Pip-lad, you just lean on me." Pippin accepted his help gratefully, still uncertain if his feet would obey his orders.

The wizard struggled to his feet and only then did Pippin register that his glowing staff provided what little illumination there was. "Can you go on, my lad?" Gandalf asked softly. "Aragorn or Legolas can carry you, if you wish, but it would be better to keep our swords ready."

"I’m all right," Pippin assured them, still a little woozy. Aragorn handed him his sword, and Pippin sheathed it, deciding it would be safer to walk unencumbered for a while. At least until his vision cleared. He kept his eyes averted from the still figures scattered about them. "I can walk. Let’s find Frodo and get out of this horrible place."

* * *

Frodo raced into the tunnel and immediately stumbled over a rocky projection on the floor. He went sprawling, bruising himself painfully as he rolled and fought to his feet again. There was no light here; all the lanterns were left behind him in the cavern. Then the hobbit realized that he did not need light; in this terrible world of the wraiths, he could see in the dark.

Take it off, he thought. Take off the Ring. The Ringwraith can see me. At that moment, he feared the Nazgûl more than all the goblins that swarmed around him, slashing the air with their swords and snarling at each other. If he removed the Ring, he would become visible to them and they would have him. If he continued to wear it, he was visible to the Wraith. He slammed against the carved wall of the tunnel and slid down it, crouching there with his mouth pressed into the inner elbow of his jacket to muffle his panting.

Clawed feet and ill-made boots pounded past him and the hobbit pressed himself closer to the wall as a half-score of goblins thundered by him, calling to each other and shouting orders to the others. Some ran their claws or swords along the wall, the order that he not be harmed evidently forgotten in the excitement of his escape. Frodo ducked as a sword flashed just over his head, sparks flying from the wall, leaving a line of white in the rock. Neither hearing nor seeing him, the goblin raced on.

"Find it! Find it!" the Ringwraith appeared in the tunnel mouth, its ghastly form outlined by the reddish torch-light of the cavern behind it. Its tattered robes were drenched with the blood of the murdered warg and the goblins the beast had killed. Frodo sank lower, the unreasoning fear it engendered in him tearing at him, undermining his ability to think. He would not survive it a second time, even if it did not have another Morgul-blade. He could not bear to think of being taken by it away to the Dark Lands. He knew he would rather die than have it touch him.

The Ringwraith’s head was turning from side to side, searching for him. It could feel he had donned the Ring and it sought to wrest his will from him. Frodo resisted the demand that he surrender but he could not bring himself to move. He felt the Nazgûl’s will like a great weight, crushing him, forcing the air out of his lungs and the blood from his limbs. He sagged, then fell to his hands and knees against the wall.

"There! By the curve of the wall! Bring me the halfling!" Frodo could only watch as a ghostly arm lifted and pointed directly at him. The unceasing wind that blew in this place seemed to distort the arm and made it seem to reach impossibly long to seek to fasten on him. The howling wind was tearing at him, tearing away his soul, and he could not think.

The goblins that had passed him looked about in confusion and Frodo remembered he was invisible to them. Baffled but obedient to the Wraith’s will, they laid down their iron bars and cudgels and sheathed their swords. They began advancing step by step until they were within feet of him, their hands extended to close on what they could not see. It was now or never. Frodo pulled in a great gasp of the stinking air and leaped forward, curling into a ball and hurling himself between the approaching goblins. They felt something go past and turned, snatching at the air.

Frodo was on his feet and running. Behind him, he heard the Nazgûl’s shriek, "Do not let it escape! Seize it!" He put down his head and ran, but behind him came the goblin horde. They were longer-legged than he, and had not marched for hour upon hour, all night with the Fellowship and then been forced to walk beyond the point of exhaustion by ruthless captors. He could not hope to outrun them.

He must use his head, then. Frodo stopped his ragged flight and forced himself to make use of the gift given his folk, that of silence. It was not true magic, not as Gandalf made, but Big Folk thought so. Perhaps these creatures would also. Fighting to control his gasping, he set his feet down with hobbit-quietness and walked, not ran, away from the cavern mouth.

They caught up with him quickly, and the hobbit was disheartened to realize that they were not dull-witted. They were listening, all of them, for a sound that seemed out of place in a world that they knew and he did not. His heart sank and his feet stumbled. A pebble, the smallest pebble, rolled out from under a foot and instantly, he was surrounded by goblins.

They cut him off in a semi-circle, forcing him against the wall. They crowded close enough this time that he could not dart between them. No, thought Frodo. I won’t let you take me. He would make use of another ability Big Folk considered almost magic. Reaching his hand into a pocket, Frodo soundlessly withdrew his sling. He loaded it with one of the throwing-stones found in every hobbit’s pocket and without a sound, let it fly.

The stone ricocheted off the rock far ahead and bounced several times before sliding to a rest on the floor. Little puffs of dust rose where it struck, just enough to catch the eye without identifying the source. The goblins whirled, howling and hooting in triumph, and shot down the tunnel, abandoning him. Frodo breathed deeply for a few moments, waiting for the trembling in his hands to subside. He returned the sling to his pocket and began creeping after the goblins, trying to be as invisible to the ear as he was to the eye.

* * *

Boromir shaded his eyes with his hand, shaking his head in amazement. He was becoming quite adept at spotting the air holes that serviced the tunnel beneath their feet. The goblins had not sought to conceal the openings, but the growth of grass and passage of the wind had softened their outlines and made them difficult to see. It was fortunate that the tunnel they were following seemed to be almost a straight line; even with Merry’s help, it took practice to spot them. But he was improving, Boromir thought with pride. It had been he who detected the last three, not Merry, surprising as that was.

He turned to point out that fact to the hobbit and was startled to see that Merry had fallen behind again. The hobbit was leading the pony; Bill had been loaded with the rest of the Company’s packs and all their supplies, and the poor little pack-pony was almost staggering under the weight. Merry had apologized to the little beast profusely as they strapped on the packs and loaded the panniers but they really had had no choice. They would meet up with the others at some point, and they could not spare the time to backtrack to recover their belongings.

"Merry," Boromir called, "here is another vent. We are still on the right course."

Merry raised a hand and waved, but did not reply. Boromir frowned; the hobbit had been delighted that his pupil picked up so quickly on the evidence of underground construction and had praised the soldier extravagantly each time Boromir found an air hole. Boromir had been somewhat startled by the warm glow the hobbit’s praise engendered in him; he found that he increasingly was becoming to value this little person’s good opinion of him. When Merry had dropped back, he thought that the hobbit was allowing him to exercise his newfound skill and nothing more. But Merry now lagged back two-score paces, and his steps were increasingly slow.

Boromir waited until his companion drew even with him, Bill plodding passively behind. "Would you like to rest for a few minutes?" Boromir asked, seeing the hobbit’s shoulders were slumped and he was almost shuffling. "We have been walking steadily since we left the cliff. I think—"

Merry at last looked up at him, and Boromir’s voice caught in his throat. The hobbit’s eyes were glazed and sweat ran down his face in rivulets. Merry’s face was almost grey, so pale that the blue veins in his face stood out prominently. The hand holding Bill’s rein trembled and as Boromir stared in horror, Merry’s eyes rolled up in his head and he collapsed at the pony’s feet in a boneless heap.

"Merry!" Boromir threw himself to his knees and gathered the hobbit into his arms. Alarmed, Bill snorted and shied but was too heavily laden to bolt. "Merry! What’s wrong?"

His hands plucking at the soldier’s sleeves, Merry made some indistinct mutter, lying limp in Boromir’s embrace. His head lolled back and Boromir was horrified to see a great red slash of inflammation running down the hobbit’s throat, disappearing under the white shirt. The goblin’s claws, Boromir thought. Poison.

He rose to his feet, the hobbit cradled in one arm, and used his free hand to catch the pony’s lead. Cover, thought the part of his mind beyond the fear for his friend, we’re in the open here. There was a stand of sparse trees ahead of them, stunted-looking pines with a few scrub oak. It was the only concealment in sight. Quickly he carried the semi-conscious hobbit to it and laid Merry on the grass. He tied the pony’s rein to a stout branch, then turned at the hobbit’s soft moan and hurried back to Merry, kneeling down to straighten his body and loosen his clothing.

"Merry," he murmured, "can you hear me?" The young hobbit blinked and tried to focus on him, still perspiring profusely. Boromir uncorked his water bottle and slid a hand around to the hobbit’s back, lifting him easily. Merry accepted a drink and Boromir gave him as much as he would take. I am not Aragorn, Boromir was thinking. I am not a healer. I don’t know what to do.

"Uhhhh," groaned the hobbit, then softly, "Boromir, I don’t feel very well."

"Shush. Do not talk, Merry. Let me have a look at you." Boromir laid him back down and gently tilted Merry’s head back and to the side. Merry did not protest but lay quietly, even when his head was placed at an uncomfortable angle. He had closed his eyes and was breathing rapidly but shallowly. The hobbit gasped and bit his lip when Boromir touched the fiery scratch. It had bled a little more after it had been cleaned but the majority of the red came from underneath the skin, from tissue inflamed and swollen. Merry swallowed painfully and his eyes opened and looked up into the soldier’s pleadingly.

"Do not worry," Boromir babbled, fighting to keep his fear from his voice, "it isn’t that bad, my friend. The scratch that goblin gave you is a little infected, that’s all. I am sure there is something in the medical kits that will help. Just lie still, Merry, and I will fetch one. You will be all right in no time." The hobbit nodded and closed his eyes again.

Boromir went quickly to the pony and dug out one of the kits. Inside there was linen for bandages, tins of powders, vials of liquids, and small leather pouches of ointments. All of them were labeled—in Elvish. Boromir stared at the kit’s contents despairingly. Even if he could read the elven language, he did not know what medicine to use. If any of these liquids or powders or ointments would counteract poison. Behind him, the hobbit could not stifle a whimper. I cannot fail him, Boromir thought. I will not fail him.

* TBC *

A/N: This chapter contains two references to my favorite epic-in-progress, as a bow to the author. The references are well-hidden, but if you can consider finding them a challenge, if you wish!  (The answer may be found at the end of the chapter.)

Chapter Nine

Creeping silently behind the goblins searching for him, Frodo thought he did not need his natural hobbit-stealth to shield his movements; the creatures were too busy quarreling and snarling at each other to listen for his cautious, soundless steps. They blundered on, arguing over the source of the faint pings that had drawn them farther down the tunnel. One claimed the sounds were merely sliding pebbles, another swore it was their escaped prisoner. Frodo kept a hand in his pocket, a stone ready in the sling should another distraction be needed. He stayed close to the wall and kept to a crouch, though while wearing the Ring, none could see him.

None of the goblins, the hobbit amended with a fearful glance behind him. The unthinking terror had faded somewhat as he left the cavern behind him, but he could feel the Ringwraith lurking in some corner of his mind. He could feel it, and knew that it could feel him. Yet that awareness of each other seemed to fade with distance. He intended to get as far away from it as he could. He did not doubt that it would come after him as soon as it tore itself free of the warg’s body and whipped the goblins into pursuing him.

The scratch of claw on rock and muted snarls heralded the approach of another band of hunters. He was caught between the two search parties. Frantically, Frodo ran his hands along the wall and found a slight depression that allowed him to press into it. He made himself as small as he could, forcing his shoulders back against the rock, and held his breath.

The light of a lantern appeared first, held aloft by a hunched, shadowed form. It flashed off drawn weapons. "Find it," the one carrying the lantern growled and Frodo identified the harsh voice of the goblin that had taken him captive. "Then I’ll tell the Big Boss it got hurt in the capture, it did. Tripped over a rock and got itself all bloody."

"Boss said don’t hurt it," one reminded the leader with more courage than Frodo would have credited it with. The leader’s reaction was immediate. It pivoted and the clawed hand not holding the lantern raked across the goblin’s face. It screamed, dropping to its knees, black blood pouring from skin slashed to ribbons. Its hands came up to cover its face and it rocked backwards. With a snarl, the leader drew its sword and stabbed it through the heart.

Frodo cringed against the wall, sickened. The murder had been so sudden that he had almost cried out in shock. "Any more of you lot got something ‘ta say?" the leader snarled. The half-dozen goblins shrank back from it, their eyes averted. Satisfied, the leader sheathed its sword and kicked aside the body. "You maggots heard the Boss. Find it!"

Frodo waited until the last of their shuffling footsteps faded. Carefully he edged away from his sheltering indentation in the wall and crept towards the cooling body. Horror filled him but so also did need. He was terribly thirsty and near faint with hunger. First, however, he needed a weapon. The goblin’s sword was very heavy and too large for him. Clamping down hard on his revulsion, he forced himself to search the body. Opposite the sword was a knife, encased in a rough leather sheath. Frodo unbuckled the sheath from the goblin’s belt and drew the knife. The rasp of it leaving the holder seemed a shriek and he paused, heart pounding, to listen. Nothing. The corpse had a water bottle and a carry-sack, which the hobbit retrieved and brought to his nose. Yes, it was water, brackish but drinkable. The carry-sack held strips of some kind of dried meat but he did not know the smell. It did not seem to be pork or beef. With a shudder, he dropped it.

He felt something wet and slimy ebb along his toes and stepped back hastily, rubbing his feet on the ground to scrub off the blood. The dead goblin might have more supplies that he could use, but Frodo could not bear to touch it again. Now he needed to continue back along the way he had been forced to march, avoiding the search parties, staying ahead of the Ringwraith, and find his way out to his friends.

Frodo knew he should remove the Ring, yet he was strangely loath to. He felt safer with it on, stronger, less vulnerable. And knew such feelings were a lie. The Ring would betray him at the first opportunity. But he needed its deceitful light to see in the pitch-darkness of this horrible place. Indeed, it was because his mind was on the Ring that he almost missed the strip of light painted across a rock before him. He blinked, not trusting his eyes in this cold and windy world of the wraiths. Still it glimmered before him, a narrow line of light, pure as mithril silver. Frodo looked up. He had not seen the light approaching the cavern; his entire attention had been on keeping his feet as the goblin band pushed him along.

Far above him, there was an opening in the roof of the tunnel. It must be a vent for air. Now that he thought about it, Frodo realized that though the air stank from the carrion-heap behind him, it was not stale. He edged away from the wall and stared upwards. Piles of rock and shattered boulders littered the tunnel; the goblins had not wasted effort in carrying out most of the stone, only pushing aside the debris. Frodo turned in a circle beneath the light but it was unable to estimate the distance between the opening and the top of the rock pile. Could this be his path to freedom?

He could not allow himself to be recaptured. Frodo closed his eyes and listened intently but could hear no pursuit, either ahead of him or behind. But more goblins would be sent out after him, he was certain of it. He could not evade them forever in this closed place, invisible or not. He stared up at the brilliant light and winced. Despite incautious climbing adventures in his youth, hobbits are not made for heights. He imagined falling from a great height onto a rock floor would hurt a great deal more than falling out of the roof tree at Bag End onto soft spongy turf. And there would be no anxious Bilbo hovering over him with plasters and toffees and hugs.

Cursing his imagination, Frodo placed a cautious foot on a knee-high stone and scrambled to the top of the small pile, then reached up and sought a hold in the rough-hewn wall. Hand after hand, he began climbing. Already exhausted, it seemed almost too much effort to reach up and grope for a handhold, then fumble about until he could set his feet on another rocky shelf and haul himself up. At perhaps eleven feet up, or twelve, he stopped, panting. The tunnel wall seemed to go up forever in his Ring-distorted vision, and he could not push himself far enough away from the wall to see where to place his feet. He had to catch his breath. Gasping, he availed himself of the last sip of water from his water bottle, shuddering at the thought of having to drink from the one he had taken from the goblin. As he droppedit back over his shoulder,his sweating fingers fumbled on the slick leather and it slid out of his ofhis grasp,falling to the floor below.

He looked down and saw that it had rolled amongst the rocks, nearly invisible among the debris. He could not face going down after it. He would never summon the energy to climb up again. Abandoning it regretfully, he dragged himself upwards. Fifteen feet. Seventeen. Frodo did not dare to look down. And yet the desire to do so was enormous. Much like the siren song of the Ring, Frodo mused. Perhaps if he knew that he could not see how high he was, he would not be so tempted. Balancing for a moment on a rocky ledge, Frodo decided that the dark-sight advantage of the Ring did not benefit him now, and wearing it only revealed his location to the Wraith. But he did not want to take it off.

"Show some hobbit-sense, Frodo," he murmured to himself, then instantly stilled as he had no idea how far sound carried in this place. He leaned against the rock and smiled as his imagination repeated those words in Sam’s voice, complete with a mental picture of Sam with sturdy arms folded, giving him that look that Sam reserved for when Frodo forgot to eat or spent all night in his study over an Elvish translation. Sam never came out and told his master that he thought Frodo was at times a great git, yet made that perfectly clear by expression and posture. Frodo almost chuckled, thinking how much he would like to see Sam again, and Merry and Pippin, and all the others. That would not happen unless he won free of this place.

With a great effort of will, he locked his fingers around the Ring and pulled. It did not budge. Frodo almost lost his balance in surprise, then decided that his grip must have slipped from it. He grasped the cold band tightly, then understood it was resisting him. Not so far away, a cold and chilling cry came to his ears, and pain tore through him. The Nazgûl was coming. It knew he was trying to remove the Ring. Despite the cold, sweat broke from his brow. His limbs seemed numb and his blood flowed sluggishly. Mastering every ounce of will his exhausted body could produce, Frodo tore the Ring from his finger, returned it to its chain, and slipped the chain over his head.

The Ring settled back against his breast, coiling against him like a poisonous snake. The Wraith screamed again, knowing Frodo had succeeded. The shriek was closer this time. Red light flashed behind his eyes and agony lanced through his shoulder. He cringed, almost losing his grip on the rocks. He had to move, now. Locking his eyes on the brilliant band of light above him, he forced himself to climb.

* * *

"Mithrandir, stop." Legolas’ soft voice brought the Company to a stumbling halt and brought the wizard around to face the elf.

"What is it?" Gandalf asked. "Do you hear something?" The faint light of his staff dimmed and the Fellowship stood, straining their ears and staring into the darkness of the tunnel.

Legolas shook his head. "No. But Pippin falters."

"I do not," the young hobbit protested, leaning against the cold stone of the wall. "I mean … I’m not. Faltering, that is." Pippin was mortified to find that his knees were trembling. His indignant protests were cut off by Aragorn kneeling in front of him. "I’m just tired," he told the Ranger softly.

"He’s been weaving the last half-mile," Sam informed the Ranger, taking advantage of the halt to sink to the floor himself. Gimli found a broken boulder and sat himself on it, leaning his great battle-axe against the rock.

Pippin found that he was being guided down to sit on the floor, and the light of Gandalf’s staff was brightening as both the wizard and Aragorn leaned over him. "Thank you, Sam," Pippin muttered, storing away that tattle for future retribution. He further resented that Sam did not seem as worried over Pippin’s revenge as Pippin felt he should be.

"The little ones are exhausted, Mithrandir," Legolas said softly, crouching to offer Pippin a drink from his water bottle. Sam already had his out but sat with his arms dangling between his legs, too tired to raise it to his lips. Gandalf leaned against his staff, sighing with weariness.

"You could leave us, sir," Sam said tautly. "Master Pip and I can just sit tight till you come back."

"No!" said Gandalf and Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli together. "Well, we are united in that," Gimli murmured with a faint smile almost hidden in the depths of his beard.

"I can’t keep up with you," Pippin said, striving to hide the quaver in his voice. "I’m sorry, but I can’t. My head hurts so and the blurriness is worse."

Aragorn reached out and cupped the young hobbit’s head in his hands, raising Pippin’s face to the light of the staff. The Ranger sighed in relief as the tweenager’s pupils, enormous in the dim light, contracted at the same rate and to the same size. He looked searchingly into the hobbit’s face for a moment then drew forth the medical kit he had taken from their supplies. Opening it, he stared at its contents with a frown, then slowly picked up one of the smallest leather pouches, weighing it thoughtfully in his hand. Pippin struggled to focus on the elegant tag attached to the pouch, but the script was in Elvish.

"Aragorn!" Legolas protested. "You cannot!"

"Just a dab under the tongue," the Ranger said. "He will have the energy to keep going for many hours. And will not feel the headache."

"He would not feel the tunnel collapse on him," Legolas replied with some heat. "Mithrandir," he appealed, turning to the wizard, "you cannot permit this!"

"What is that?" asked Sam suspiciously.

"A drug," Gandalf answered him slowly. "It will dull his pain and enable him to go on." The wizard was silent, frowning. Pippin watched them dully, feeling detached from the conversation, as if it did not concern him at all.

"I won’t let you give him anything bad for him," Sam said in flatly, one hand unconsciously on the hilt of his sword.

"Peace, Sam," Aragorn told him. "It will do no permanent harm. I promise you that he will only sleep for a long time after it wears off."


"If Aragorn does not, Legolas, then we will have to carry him. None of us can walk burdened with goblins about. We could be attacked again at any moment." Plainly unhappy, the elf did not protest further but instead drifted to his feet and stepped back as if to distance himself from the proceedings.

"Open your mouth, Pippin," Aragorn said. The young hobbit did, tilting his head back like a baby bird. The Ranger squeezed a thumb-tip of the gooey paste out onto his finger and swiped it under the tweenager’s tongue.

"Aaaack! Ick!" Pippin choked and tried to spit out the foul substance, but Aragorn was ready for him. Pippin found the water bottle pressed to his lips and a gush of water filled his mouth. Then a large hand firmly sealed his lips together. Pippin looked pleadingly at the man but Aragorn only nodded at him firmly. Given no choice, Pippin swallowed.

"You didn’t say it would taste like that! Ick! Ick!"

"I did not say it would taste like anything," Aragorn pointed out. "Have you got it all down?"

Pippin ran a tongue distastefully around his mouth and took several more gulps of water. Sam patted his shoulder in gentle commiseration.

The wizard motioned the Ranger forward. "Are you certain it will not hurt him?" Gandalf asked softly.

"I was very careful," Aragorn whispered back, "and gave him less than I would a Man or an Elf because of his size. But he must not have any more of it."

Gandalf rubbed at his face wearily. "We will rest for a while. Take a little food, if you wish." The faint light of his staff reduced further, until only a dimly glowing sphere was all they could rest their eyes upon. Aragorn sat, as did Gandalf. Legolas remained standing, seemingly unwearied by their pursuit, his head turning slightly as he listened for approaching danger.

Sam had fallen asleep when Pippin suddenly shot to his feet, startling the entire Company. The young hobbit was fairly vibrating in place. "What are you all waiting for?" he asked them all. "Let’s go!" Then a hobbit-shaped blur was racing forward.

"Pippin, come back here!" the wizard hissed.

Obediently Pippin returned to the rest of the Fellowship. "You are all very slow," he said rapidly. "Why does this place smell so bad? Do you think Frodo is all right? I hope Merry and Boromir haven’t eaten all of our supplies. I left two bags of boiled sweets and a package of ginger biscuits in my pack. You never answered my question, Gandalf."

"What?" the wizard said, having lost track of the subjects.

"I asked you why you didn’t send Legolas down to lift Frodo up off the cliff," Pippin said, his words tripping over each other in his hurry. "Why didn’t you? Then I said, if you had, we wouldn’t have had to come down into this nasty tunnel and get attacked by goblins—they were certainly ugly weren’t they?—and—"

"Because I did not think of it, that’s why, Pippin," Gandalf interrupted, looking at the hobbit worriedly.

Pippin stopped hopping from foot to foot and stared at the wizard, momentarily struck speechless. That moment lasted for far too short a time. "You mean I thought of something you didn’t?" Pippin asked in delight. "Truly? Did you hear that, Sam? I thought of something Gandalf didn’t! Wait till I tell Merry! Maybe all of you will listen to me more, now."

"We certainly shall, Pippin," Aragorn said gravely. "Now you must be quiet. It is very difficult to listen for goblins with you chattering so."

"Yes, Strider. Of course." With great effort, Pippin swallowed the endless stream of comments and questions that seemed to want to burst from him. Unable to be still, he darted forward then backtracked to the others like an overeager puppy, repeating the short dashes in silent appeal for them to start moving. Sam stared at him in horror.

"How long did you say until that drug wears off?" Gimli asked.

* TBC *

(The two references in this chapter are a bow to Llinos' "Recaptured!" posted on The story is named in one paragraph and the drug Aragorn gives Pippin is modeled after her infamous "poppy paste" in the story.)

Chapter Ten

"Aragorn! Look at this!" Legolas’ soft voice echoed in the tunnel and the entire rescue party halted and crowded around the elf. "Careful!" Legolas said, motioning them back. "Something has happened here. See, the ground has been wiped clean in this place. Let Aragorn look."

The Ranger knelt on the edge of the cleared space. The ubiquitous rock-dust was absent here and the stone underneath glinted in the faint light of Gandalf’s staff. "Well done, Legolas. I did not see this. Gandalf, more light please." All were silent as Gandalf dipped his staff forward, the light on the tip brightening. The wizard held it low, cautious of blinding eyes grown accustomed to darkness.

"There are many places where the dust has been disturbed," Gimli observed, staring into the periphery of the light. "And I see…" He left their circle and the others saw him stoop and pick up something from the rocky floor. Returning, he held out an item for the Ranger’s inspection. "Food. Dried strips of meat. And other rubbish lies cast about."

"Food?" asked Pippin hopefully.

"Not such food as you would want, laddie," the dwarf answered gruffly. He cast the scrap back into the darkness and scrubbed his hands on his mail coat. Pippin’s gaze followed it regretfully but Sam understood. He murmured softly into the tweenager’s ear and Pippin blenched, then looked sick.

"What can you tell us, Aragorn?" Gandalf asked quietly.

Aragorn rose from his crouch. "There is little enough to tell. They rested here, for a short time. I can make out part of a footprint—an unshod footprint. A bare heel and hobbit toes."

"He was able ‘ta walk, then," Sam breathed. "They can’t have hurt him too badly."

Aragorn frowned at the cleared space. "This area has been deliberately wiped clean, not just used for a few minutes’ rest. It is the only such space. Gandalf, please bring your light to the edge?" The wizard complied, taking care to keep well back.

"Writing," Legolas breathed. "In the Common Tongue."

"Goblins don’t write," Gimli said. "That is, most don’t. And those that do use the Black Speech."

"Something has been rubbed out," Aragorn agreed. "I cannot make it out … ‘fell’? ‘Bell’?"

"Rivendell," stated the wizard flatly. None questioned his surety. Now Aragorn drew back and Gandalf moved over the space. He closed his eyes and the hand not holding his staff opened and spread over the cleared space. They hardly dared breathe as the wizard stood so for some time, his face strained. At last he lowered his hand and breathed deeply, the lines on his face easing.

"Frodo wrote us a message," Gandalf said. "He was trying to warn us of an impending goblin attack on Rivendell. The goblins must have found the message and destroyed it."

"Did they hurt him?" Pippin asked fearfully.

"No," the wizard said kindly. "I suspect that they have been given orders not to harm their prisoner."

"Attack Rivendell…" Aragorn repeated, his face white.

Strangely, Gandalf smiled. "Do not fear for your home, Estel. I think that Merry has made sure that Elrond will send riders to this place. They will see the unblocked tunnel, and investigate. Rivendell will be forewarned." The wizard leaned on his staff, musing. "Was that the reason for Merry’s thieving of my fireworks? To alert Imladris? But how would that young hobbit have known of the planned attack?" Gandalf’s brows drew down as he stared into the darkness, his usually piercing gaze abstracted. "So the fireworks were set off as a warning? A warning to Elrond which coincidentally saved us from slaughter? Perhaps I shall have to reconsider my intention of frying our Meriadoc like a sausage."

"Merry saved us?" Pippin trilled. "And setting off the fireworks warned Rivendell?" He laughed and capered in a small circle, unable to be still. "That’s my Merry!"

"I think Gandalf might want to discuss with him the proper amount of powder for blowing things up," Aragorn said with a smile. "Or not," he added when the wizard glared at him. "That might not be wise information for someone like Merry to possess…" Then his mien turned serious and he left off his teasing. "There is nothing more to be learned here. We should continue on." With lighter hearts, the Company hurried through the darkness.

Some time later, the Ranger turned at the dwarf’s hail and stepped to the side, waiting for Gimli to pull even with him. Gimli had taken the rear-guard position, claiming his superior dark-sight vision would be of more advantage there. Aragorn privately thought that the dwarf had chosen to place himself in the position of greatest peril, for the goblins would most likely attack them from behind.

Sam and Pippin passed them, Sam looking up at him anxiously in the dim light of Gandalf’s staff. They had solved the problem of Pippin’s abundance of energy by having Samwise clamp the tweenager’s arm in his and lock-step him through the tunnel. Even the young hobbit’s chemically induced verve could not compensate for greater size and strength, and Sam hung on to Pippin like grim death.

"Do you think it not strange that we have seen no goblins but that motley band?" Gimli asked as he fell into step beside the Ranger. His great battle-axe bobbed easily on the amored shoulder and Aragorn prudently took a half step to the side to avoid the massive weapon. Legolas drifted closer to them, though Aragorn knew that elvish hearing would carry their words to him effortlessly.

"Those openings above the tunnel must interconnect," the dwarf murmured, his eyes never ceasing to roam the darkness beyond their little oasis of light. "How else would those foul creatures move about over us?" Gimli reached out to rap the wall with his knuckles. "This is good stone. Hard bones of the earth. It could support much delving … many openings and tunnels. So many goblins must have a living space, a lair, somewhere. Surely they would carry news of our invasion and seek reinforcements. Why have we not been attacked again?"

"Why indeed?" asked Gandalf, turning around to join them. Sam pulled Pippin after him and the tweenager stood, vibrating with energy, his eyes wide in the darkness.

"They are afraid of us," Pippin contributed rapidly. "I would be, if I weren’t us. Afraid, I mean. And—"

"I am certain that is part of it," Aragorn said diplomatically as Sam put his hand over Pippin’s mouth. "But Gimli is right. They do not seem overmuch concerned with our presence. What could be so occupying their attention that we are allowed to walk through their stronghold unmolested?"

"Mr. Frodo," said Sam quietly.

Aragorn nodded. "I fear so. I fear they have discovered he carries the Ring. That would take precedence over anything else. A small group of intruders would be of little import should such a treasure be uncovered."

"What would they do?" asked Sam in that same hushed voice.

Aragorn looked to Gandalf, and it was the wizard that answered. "They would take it from him, certainly. Frodo could not prevent that. If he tries…" Gandalf fell silent and his face tightened. "It would depend on how fiercely Frodo defended his ownership of the Ring. We know the Enemy desires not only his possession, but the one who has kept it from him all these years. Sauron wishes to savor the taste of revenge."

"Those Black Riders tried ‘ta take him at the Ford," Sam murmured, his eyes turning inward to again see that dreadful pursuit. "I heard them. They said, ‘To Mordor we will take you’."

"It is difficult to extract revenge on a dead Ring-bearer," Gandalf said. "I think they will try to keep him alive."

"He might not wish to be taken alive to Sauron," said Legolas, his soft, clear voice sorrowful. "I would not, in his place. Perhaps he will choose to fight so fiercely that the yrch would have no choice but to kill him."

Pippin made a queer sound, half a whimper and half a sob. Aragorn reached over to stroke the top of his head gently. "Do not despair yet," he told all of them. "We know too little. Frodo is intelligent and resourceful. There is very little I would put past that hobbit—or any hobbit." This last was directed to Sam and Pippin. Sam looked at him consideringly and nodded, while Pippin knuckled tears from his eyes, then stood very straight, his expression determined.

"What do we do?" asked Sam. Pippin said nothing but nodded his head so quickly that the others’ necks hurt.

"We can do nothing more than what we already are," Gandalf said. "We continue the hunt. We must find Frodo."

"And when we do?" growled Gimli. He shifted his great axe to his other shoulder and the light flashed on its razor edge. "We cannot count on another fortuitous intervention to save us from hundreds, perhaps thousands of goblins. They will overwhelm us like an avalanche. We will be buried beneath them."

"We, too, are resourceful," Aragorn reminded him. "And intelligent. And perhaps lucky. But for now, we must walk, and at a faster pace than before. Let us go on."

* * *

Boromir examined both sides of several of the tags on the various pouches and ointments of the medical kit, hoping to find Westron printed on the backs. But the backs were blank. Clearly, the kits were for use by Aragorn or Gandalf, who knew the elvish language. He excavated to the bottom of the kit, hoping to find a list hidden under its contents, like the guide which came packed in the boxes of chocolates he presented to various young ladies of his father’s Court. He did not find a guide, or any kind of instructions. Catching the man’s distress, Bill shook his head and nosed Boromir’s hands. The soldier patted the pony absently and Bill whickered.

Keeping his back to Merry to hide the trembling in his hands, Boromir called casually over his shoulder, "Merry? Do you read Elvish?"

"I know a few words," the hobbit replied after a long moment of silence. His voice was soft and strained, tight with suppressed pain. "If I hear them, that is. I don’t know written Elvish." He was silent for a moment, running his tongue across cracking lips. "Why?"

Boromir closed his eyes and lied for all he was worth. "I see several remedies for … infection here. I am trying to decide which would be best."

"Oh." Merry’s reply sounded almost disinterested. Boromir turned around and looked at him in alarm, noting his friend had fallen nearly asleep—or unconscious. Merry had curled himself into a ball and now lay on his side, hands tucked under his head, cloak pulled over himself like a blanket. The hobbit sighed deeply and as Boromir watched, Merry’s eyes drifted shut and his face relaxed into sleep. Instinctively Boromir felt that Merry should not sleep. He dropped the useless kit back into the pannier and knelt swiftly by the hobbit’s side, raising his shoulders and pulling him half-upright against his chest.

"Merry! Stay awake, Merry." This demand was enforced by a hard shake when the hobbit did not respond.

Merry pried his eyes open and looked up at the soldier resentfully. "I’m tired," he slurred. "I want a nap. Just a little one…"

"No! Merry, you must not sleep! Merry!" Boromir pulled the hobbit up further, so that Merry was forced to sit upright. He swayed and would have toppled over had not Boromir been holding him. "Wake up, Merry," Boromir begged, hearing the note of panic in his own voice.

Merry blinked at him then closed his eyes, sagging against the soldier’s chest. "Big Folk are so noisy," the hobbit complained indistinctly. "Always shouting and stomping about…"

"Merry! Wake up!" Boromir bellowed in his ear, unintentionally confirming the hobbit’s assertion. Merry winced at the volume but did not open his eyes, sliding bonelessly down further.

Boromir dabbed helplessly at the perspiration on the hobbit’s face, and the warm wetness on his fingers generated an idea. Still kneeling, he lifted the small body and repositioned Merry so that the hobbit lay flat. Merry scrunched up his nose then began to snore softly. Quickly, Boromir uncorked his water bottle and dumped its icy contents directly into the hobbit’s face.

"Gaaack!" Merry choked as the water rushed into his nose and mouth. His eyes snapped open and to Boromir’s joy, fastened on his in pure outrage. "Are you trying to drown me?" the hobbit sputtered, bolting upright. "What did you do that for? It’s running down my back!" The last was uttered in a wail as Merry twisted frantically, hunching his shoulders to escape the freezing deluge.

"I’m sorry," Boromir apologized, "but you must not sleep. You must not sleep, Merry."

Merry glared at him as he wiggled out of his jacket, his cloak already tossed aside. As Boromir watched anxiously, the waistcoat followed the jacket and Merry was jerking his sodden shirt out of his breeches. "I’m soaked!" the hobbit accused him as he flapped water off his shirttails. "Why did you do that?"

"I had to," Boromir defended himself. "You were falling asleep and wouldn’t wake up."

"I wouldn’t wake up?" Merry’s eyes narrowed and Boromir’s heart sank. The hobbit stopped flapping and both his small hands moved to his throat. "Ow," he said absently. Then Merry was drawing his sword, and as Boromir watched curiously, the hobbit held the sword up and was angling it before his eyes, squinting as he stared into the shining metal. He adjusted it for some moments then very softly, said "Oh."

He is using the blade as a mirror, Boromir realized. Merry’s face had gone white as he examined the rampant inflammation of poison marring the skin of his throat. Carefully, he settled down on the cold earth, his knees drawn up before him as he continued to look into the reflection of the blade. Boromir could see that the red rash had grown, spreading farther to the sides. It had also deepened in color, now a more burnt-red than blood-red. Merry stared into the improvised mirror for some time. When he looked up at Boromir, his eyes were sick. Holding the sword carefully away from his body, he sagged back against the ground.

"’Infection’," the hobbit murmured. "That’s why you wanted the medical kit. It’s bad, isn’t it?"

"I don’t know," Boromir said helplessly, coming to kneel across from the hobbit and lay a hand on his shoulder. "I am not a healer, Merry, and know nothing of healer-craft beyond the treatment of battlefield injuries. How do you feel?"

Merry’s fingers lightly traced the river of redness and he swallowed painfully. "It burns," he whispered, "and I feel very sleepy."

"We must find Aragorn and Gandalf," Boromir told him. "They will know what to do. We can’t be that far behind them, Merry; we might even be ahead of them."

Merry’s hand trembled as he guided his sword back in its sheath, and Boromir caught his hand and steadied it. "Thank you," Merry said politely, then yawned. "I’m sorry, Boromir, but I’m just so sleepy. I’ll be fine after a brief rest, if I could just … have a nap."

"No naps," Boromir replied firmly. "I do not think you should sleep, Merry. It might be dangerous."

"You don’t know that," the hobbit argued with drooping eyes. "It might be … just what I need." He lay down again and yawned hugely.

"Merry," Boromir said in a firm voice, "Sit up this minute. We are leaving now. I will carry you, if I must." He reached out and gathered the hobbit up, ready to make good on his threat.

"You are being very unfair," the hobbit mumbled, leaning his still-dripping head against Boromir’s chest. "I just want … a little rest. Bill’s tired, too. He needs … a chance to graze. And a good rub-down … and some oats…"

"Are you hungry, Merry?" Boromir asked, seizing upon the remark about food and his growing knowledge of ever-hungry halfling appetites. "Pippin said not to eat all our supplies, but we could eat some of them! Have a good dinner, yes? Would you like a good dinner, Merry?" Boromir stopped, aware he was beginning to babble. "Merry! Wake up! Talk to me!"

"Not hungry…" the hobbit managed. "Not…"

Boromir felt a shudder pass through the hobbit’s body. Merry gasped, then cried out loudly, his face contorting into a rictus of pain. "Merry! Merry!" the man shouted. But the hobbit was limp in his grasp, and the hand held tight in Boromir’s loosened and fell free.

* TBC *

Chapter Eleven

"I am glad I am not tall," Pippin was whispering earnestly, "if it makes Big People so slow. And they make so much noise when they walk! Aren’t you glad you are not a Big Person, Sam?" The young hobbit had talked—or actually, whispered—constantly since they had left the place where they had found the rubbed out remains of Frodo’s message. "Sam, would you please let go of my arm?" Pippin continued with a pout. "I want to go and talk to Gandalf."

"I think you’ve talked to Mr. Gandalf quite enough, sir," Sam replied grimly with a wary glance at the wizard’s back. "He was muttering to himself about ‘frogs’ again. Mr. Frodo wouldn’t never forgive me if I let you get turned into anything unnatural."

"Oh, Gandalf wouldn’t really," Pippin assured Sam blithely. "He always says that. He’s said that ever since I can remember. One time I—"

"Let us not put him to the test," Aragorn interceded gently, rescuing Pippin from Sam’s relentless grip with a hand on the tweenager’s shoulder. Sam surrendered custody gladly, dropping back a few steps to walk beside Legolas and shake some feeling back into his arm.

"Is your vision still blurry, Pippin?" the Ranger asked, maintaining his hold. The rescue party had soon discovered that one of them needed to physically anchor the young hobbit at all times, or Pippin tended to outdistance them. Aragorn was becoming concerned about the tweenager’s constant, overwhelming energy—the drug should have started to wear off by now. Yet Pippin was showing no inclination to slow down.

The youngster grinned up at him in the dim light of the staff that drifted over the wizard’s shoulder. "No, Strider. My headache is gone and I can see much better now, thank you. Watch this!" With alarming swiftness, Pippin slipped out from under Aragorn’s hand and picked up three small stones from amongst the ever-present rubble they traversed. Hands already in motion, he managed to juggle them in a high arc before one flew out of his over-enthusiastic toss and slammed into the top of Gimli’s helmet.

The dwarf staggered sideways and whirled around in a circle, glaring fiercely into the darkness, axe raised and at the ready. Bringing up the rear and not blessed with elven or hobbit hearing, he had missed the exchange at the head of the line. It was an entirely reasonable assumption that they were under attack.

"Oh! I am sorry, Gimli!" Pippin apologized, spinning and rushing around Sam and Legolas up to stare anxiously up into his victim’s face. "Are you hurt? I am so sorry!"

The dwarf growled something to himself and lowered his axe, blowing out a great breath that lifted the ends of his mustaches. "No, young hobbit, I am not hurt. I wish you would warn us if you intend to pelt us with rocks, however."

"No more juggling," Aragorn said firmly. With a martyred sigh, Pippin pocketed the remaining stones.

"Well, I didn’t mean to," the tweenager whispered peevishly as they resumed their march. "Nobody probably heard the noise, anyway. And it isn’t like we are walking very quietly, you know. You Big Folk sound like a herd of oliphaunts, tromping—"

"Mr. Pippin," Sam whispered when Pippin paused for a rare breath. "You got to be quiet. Please." Visibly steeling himself, he abandoned the sympathetic elf to recapture a flailing arm.

"I am being quiet," Pippin hissed back in injured tones. "Nobody is being more quiet than I am. Tooks are known for it. Being quiet, that is. Everyone says so. Well, maybe not Merry. Or Frodo. Or my mother. She says she hasn’t had a moment’s peace since I was born. I don’t know why she says that. Or my da—"

"Mr. Gandalf, sir!" Sam pleaded, desperate enough to risk frogdom and his master’s wrath.

"Pippin," Legolas intervened gently, "perhaps you should—"

The elf’s suggestion was cut off by a long wailing cry, a deep, guttural howl that rose in volume until it seemed the very air of the tunnel throbbed with it. The close walls of the underground passage magnified the sound, throwing it back upon itself, growing even louder. Legolas clapped his hands over his ears, an expression of pain on his face. Sam released Pippin to follow suit, and Pippin did also, dropping to his knees with a cry. Gimli grit his teeth and narrowed his eyes, his hands tight on his weapon. Only Aragorn and Gandalf did not react, other than to look at each other in horror.

"What was that?" Sam asked, scrubbing at his ears as the cry died away. "Was that a wolf? I’ve never heard a howl like that."

"It was a warg," Aragorn murmured, his face drawn in the faint light of the wizard’s staff. "A warg. What would such an evil thing be doing here? They do not belong in this part of the world."

"Their masters command them," Gandalf replied grimly. "Such ferocious beasts are valuable servants to the Enemy’s minions."

"For use in the attack upon Imladris?" Legolas asked, gazing keenly into the darkness as if he wished elven sight could pierce stone.

"There would be more howls than just the one, were that so," Gandalf replied. "They are pack animals and hunt and kill together. No … no, what we just heard was a hunting cry. That warg is hunting something."

"In a tunnel? What would a warg be hunting in a tunnel … oh," Pippin ended softly.

"Us," Gimli supplied. "They are trackers, after all." The dwarf stepped away from the others and swung his great axe in an experimental arc. The breeze from its passing stirred the rank air. "There is not much room for axe-work in this place."

"And not much space to fire an arrow," Legolas said. "For all their size, wargs are very fast and the heavy muscles of its forequarters guard the heart. Only an arrow in the eye or through the throat will bring it down." The elf paused, calculating. "I will have time for only one or two draws. Then it must be blade-work."

"Can you guess how far away it was?" Aragorn asked the owner of the Company’s most accurate pair of ears.

Legolas listened for a moment then shook his head. "No. Sound is distorted in this place. Yet I do not think it is very far. Close enough that a rush could put it in our midst without warning." The elf ran his slender hands down the length of his bowstring, then reached over his shoulder to position the hilt of his sword.

"We should meet it where there is more room to fight," Aragorn said. "We are limited by this close place, and these broken stones are not much cover. Let us find a better battleground."

"It will not be alone," Gandalf growled, his hand on his own elvish blade. "I think they will set it upon us and seek to destroy us while we are distracted by the larger threat. Perhaps they hope that it will kill or injure enough of us to make their job easier. We can expect a great many goblins to follow upon its heels."

"Sirs…" Sam murmured softly. Pippin saw that his friend had drawn Frodo’s Sting, and the graceful blade was brightening. Sam held it up and blue fire crawled along its length, flickering, tiny tongues of flame reaching out to caress Sam’s fingers. As the Company watched, that fire brightened until the blade was glowing.

With a musical chime, Gandalf drew his own elvish sword. Glamdring repeated Sting’s fire, many times greater and many times deadlier. "Prepare yourselves," the wizard murmured. "We—"

Another howl rose and drowned out the wizard’s words, closer now and more excited. It was followed by a series of wild barks, hoarse and deep. The beast sounded as if it had caught their scent, and eagerness and viciousness drove it on as well as the whips of its handlers.

* * *

Frodo heaved himself up another few inches, feeling the burn of overstrained muscles in his arms and chest and back. His body ached and yet felt numb at the same time. He could no longer feel the tips of his fingers, but warm rivulets of liquid ran down the back of his hands and into his palms and made his grip uncertain. Wedging his feet into a little shelf of rock, he locked his hands on a ledge and leaned against the piled stones, struggling to catch his breath.

The howl made that breath catch in his throat and he choked upon it. Panic rose in him, the terror of being pursued, the primal reaction of prey that knows the hunter is on its trail. His hands weakened and he slid down several feet, the rocks bruising him, finally stopping as his feet impacted a rocky lip that sent a stab of compression up his spine. Shuddering, he leaned forward and pressed his face against the rock, too frightened and weary to move.

He had been so close to the opening! The darkness still deceived him but he was very far above the uneven floor of the tunnel. The urge to put the Ring back on and look down battered at him, but he fought it. He wished heartily that he could see in the dark without the Ring’s traitorous aid. He could not guess how far away the howl had been, but it did not seem far. The animal’s nose would not be deceived by the Ring. Could such beasts climb?

Goblins certainly could. The warg had only to locate him, and its handlers would scale the rock after him. Or perhaps the Ringwraith had grown impatient with its slaves, and would ascend the rocks after him itself. He shuddered, and wondered if a fall from this height would kill him or merely cripple him. He would fling himself onto the rocks before he allowed that wicked thing to touch him.

In the silence marred only by his own panting and the pounding of his heart, a thin, shrill cry came to his ears. Like the last ray of sunlight in a darkening world, all of Frodo’s attention was abruptly focalized on that sound. Merry? Frodo would have known that voice anywhere, in any circumstances. That cry had come from his young cousin, he was certain of it. His cousin was close. And something was dreadfully wrong.

Merry needed him. Frodo tilted his head back on his neck and stared into the red-tinged slash of light above him. Merry needed him. New strength poured into exhausted limbs. The sun must be near setting for the light to be colored so. The brilliance brought tears of agony to his eyes after so long in the dark, but the light was his only point of reference in this black world. Heedless of the damage to his hands, Frodo grasped a rock and pulled himself up.

"Merry! Merry-lad! I’m coming!" The need for silence no longer important to him, Frodo dragged himself up and fell sprawling when he could climb no higher. He was at the top, a loose platform of flattened boulders heaped haphazardly against the wall. The opening blazed above him, larger now that he was close, a cut opening in the earth too regular to be natural. Bracing himself with an arm against the tunnel wall, Frodo reached upwards with the other, struggling to brush the ceiling with his fingers. Rock shifted under him as he strained upwards on his toes. The opening was out of his reach. He sagged against the wall and groaned.

"Frodo? Frodo?" The silhouette of a head appeared at the opening, casting him again into darkness as it cut off the light. Frodo shrank back, his hand on the hilt of the goblin’s dagger. "Frodo?" repeated the voice, "Is that you?"

"Boromir?" Frodo cried, his voice cracking with relief. Now he could see the flyaway strands of the Man’s hair, and recognize the curve of the great shield the soldier wore at his back. "Boromir! Yes, it’s me! What is wrong with Merry?"

"Frodo!" The disbelief in the soldier’s voice was understandable, but Frodo had no time for it. The light diminished again as Boromir leaned farther over the opening, supporting himself with one hand propped on the ground. With the failing light behind him, he could just see the pale oval of the hobbit’s face and two disembodied hands, oddly dark at the fingertips. "Are you all right? Where are the others?"

"I am alone. Can you help me out?"

Boromir lay down flat and reached an arm in. Frodo could see the waving appendage by the light filtering in between Boromir’s head and shoulder. He essayed a little jump but fell short and landed flat-footed, dislodging small stones that rattled down the piled rocks and bounced off larger ones, creating a small landslide of rock and dirt. It cascaded to the bottom, raising puffs of dust that settled slowly in the still air.

"No, don’t jump!" Boromir called to him, "You might fall!"

"Get me out," Frodo begged. "Merry needs me."

At a loss, Boromir sat up and rocked back on his knees. He looked helplessly at Merry, and was heartened to see the young hobbit’s eyes open and watching him. Merry had one hand at his throat, rubbing the source of the inflammation. He tried to speak, then coughed and shook his head. Pulling at his cloak, Merry grimaced at his friend and pointed to the vent. Boromir nodded to show he understood and laid himself flat to better communicate with Frodo.

"Frodo, use my cloak as a rope. Here it is… Catch hold and I’ll pull you up!" Frodo felt the material brush against his face and he caught it, but his damaged hands could not close on it. The cloth slipped through his fingers when he tried to clasp it. Desperate, he wound it around his forearm and tucked it against his body.

"I have it! Pull me up!" Pain ripped through him as the man lifted. Then he was falling, the cloak pulling free; he was not able to hold it. He no longer had the strength. He fell heavily on the rock and only saved himself from sliding off by an agile roll against the wall.

"I … I can’t," he groaned. "Boromir, I can’t. My hands are all bloody from climbing." Frodo rolled over and placed his back against the rock wall. "Please … let me rest for a moment. Tell me what is the matter with Merry. Why doesn’t he speak to me?"

Boromir glanced behind him at his friend. Merry had closed his eyes but opened them again at the sound of his name. "He is ill," Boromir said softly. "The others went after you, Frodo, but Merry and I had stayed on the cliff to await your return. A goblin scout caught us unawares. Caught me unawares," he added bitterly. "It scratched Merry … and it had poison on its claws."

"How bad—" Frodo began, but his words were interrupted. The hobbit fell silent, for the howl was very close. Then Frodo heard a scrabbling sound, as of claws on a stone floor, and heavy breaths came to his ears. Looking down, he could barely make out an enormous black shape moving below him, at the base of the rocks. The warg lifted its head and snarled, and the last sunbeam of the setting sun shone into the opening and dyed its fangs red.

* TBC *

Chapter Twelve

"Frodo…" said Boromir softly. "We must get you up here. You must hurry. Too many times have I heard that howl from the walls of Minas Tirith. That was a—"

"Warg," the Ring-bearer whispered. "I know, Boromir. It is right below me."

He heard no reply and ventured to tear his eyes away from the vent and look below him. The warg was sniffing around the body of the goblin he had seen killed, licking at the cooling blood. As Frodo watched, the beast fastened on a limp arm and pulled, and the flesh departed the bone with a sickening "rriiiippp." It began to eat, whimpering in its eagerness.

"Stupid beast!" The crack of a whip sent the animal snarling back to cringe against a rock. A goblin emerged from the cavern-end of the tunnel, already drawing the whip back for another strike. "Eating, not hunting! Find the halfling, stupid beast!"

More goblins came behind the first, many of them. Frodo pressed himself against the rock, making himself as flat as he could, and peered over the edge. The setting sun washed everything in red, which horrible as it was, was somehow easier on his eyes than the white brilliance of the earlier light. By its bleeding illumination he saw the first goblin, the one with the whip, advance upon the cowering beast and shake out the length of braided leather, preparing to strike it again. Frodo saw that the animal’s sides were striped with red lashes, and foam dripped from its muzzle. It whined and crouched to the stone floor, ears laid back, fear momentarily overcoming its hunger.

"Why did it stop?" That voice froze the hobbit’s blood in his veins and made him clench his teeth as pain rocketed through his shoulder. The Ringwraith stalked into his view, its tattered robes heavy with blood. It moved somewhat slowly, and Frodo wondered if it had been injured when it was crushed, or if such a creature could be injured. He hoped so. He devoutly hoped so.

The foremost goblin bowed, trying to stay as far away from the Wraith as it could. "It feeds, my lord. You did not allow it to eat on your journey here, lord. It is starving."

"Stop it," the Wraith hissed. "It may feast on elf-flesh when the attack on Imladris is done. Set it back on the halfling’s trail."

The goblin advanced on the cowering beast and shoved something in its face. His heart lurching, Frodo recognized the ropes that had been used to bind him. The warg tried to move its head aside and sneak around the goblin for another mouthful of meat, and the handler slapped the ropes painfully across its muzzle. It snarled but subsided, sniffing at the ropes again.

Whining pitifully, it backed away from the goblin and set its nose to the rock floor. I knelt there, Frodo thought, when I took the dead goblin’s knife. It smells me.

The warg sniffed deeply, then snorted, circling around the corpse. "Make it hunt!" ordered the Wraith. "Find me the halfling!"

The goblin used Frodo’s ropes to whip the beast, lashing the strands against its already-bleeding sides. The animal jumped and snarled, showing patches of darkness in its mouth that were shreds of meat caught between its teeth. When the goblin raised its whip, the animal cowered and whined, but did not move out.

"It smells something, lord," the handler guessed, looking about them. Frodo held his breath, Don’t look up, don’t look up he thought at it passionately. Above him, Boromir and Merry were utterly silent.

The goblin handler kicked disdainfully at the cooling body of its comrade, and as it did so, something flipped away from the scattered debris around the corpse and rolled away. The warg leaped for it but a snap of the whip sent it cowering to the floor. The object rolled to the feet of the Ringwraith, who stooped and picked it up.

My water bottle, thought Frodo. Oh no. No.  

It looked absurdly small in those scaled gloves as the Wraith turned it over in its mailed hands. Then the Nazgûl clamped both hands on it and bowed its head. Agony tore through Frodo and despite his resolution not to betray himself, his left arm jerked, convulsing, knocking against a small stone. It broke loose and tumbled down the rocks.

The Wraith lifted its hooded head and slowly pivoted to face the piled rocks. The goblins drew out of its path as it advanced to the base and slowly the black hood raised. Frodo shrank against the wall, but he could retreat no farther. Suddenly he was assailed by an overwhelming desire to put on the Ring. His hand had already grasped it when he became aware of what he was doing. "No," whispered the hobbit, forcing his fingers to drop the cold golden band. "I won’t. I won’t do it. You cannot make me."

The Wraith stood at the base of the rocks, motionless, and the black hood stared upwards. Even looking down with the light above him, Frodo could see no trace of human features in that black pit of a face. Slowly the Wraith lifted an arm and pointed wordlessly. Shrill hoots of excitement rose from the watching goblins as they milled around the base of the rocks, then they leaped upon the stone and began scaling the pile. They pushed at each other in their eagerness, pulling each other down, knives and cudgels already in their clawed hands.

"Boromir!" cried Frodo wildly, "get me out of here! They’re coming! Get me out!"

"Frodo," said the soldier quietly, "move aside. I am going to drop through the opening. I’ll lift you up to the surface. Then I want you and Merry to take the pony and leave this place as quickly as you can."

Frodo gaped up at him. "You won’t be able to get out," he said softly. Then louder, "No! There must be another way!"

"Move aside!" Boromir twisted around on the ground and dropped his knees into the opening. He could not see if the hobbit had moved, but there was no more time. He would have to almost throw Frodo through the opening, then delay pursuit as long as he could. "Goodbye, Merry," he whispered. "Tell Pippin to behave himself, will you? And if you ever come to Gondor, tell my father … tell my father…" Boromir shook his head. "Give him this." Boromir removed the fabled Horn of Gondor and laid it carefully on the grass beside the hobbit.

"Shield," croaked Merry, struggling to push himself up on his side. His arms gave out and Merry collapsed, but his gaze remained fixed on the soldier. "Shield," the hobbit repeated hoarsely. "Tie your cloak … lift him…"

In a flash, Boromir understood. He was so accustomed to carrying his great battle-shield that he did not notice it. He had removed it before shedding his cloak, the action so automatic that his mind had not registered it. Merry waved a hand at it feebly. "Cloak," he insisted.

Boromir shifted to his knees and pulled the shield before him, threading his cloak through the leather hand-grip on the inside surface. Pulling the knot tight, he leaned over the vent again. "Frodo, I am lowering my shield. I want you to get on it. Lock your arms around my cloak. You won’t have to hold on with your hands. I’ll pull you up."

"I understand." Frodo spoke without looking up at him, and Boromir saw the hobbit lay on his belly at the edge of the topmost boulder. Frodo pushed himself up and made a casting motion and the nearest goblin shrieked and clapped it hands to its head, losing its grip and sliding down the rocks to lie sprawled at the pile’s base. Familiar with the ability of hobbits to throw stones, Boromir almost laughed. Instead, he angled his great shield sideways and slid it through the air vent.

Frodo caught the edge of the shield as it descended and steadied it. It tipped as he tried to slide onto it and he only caught himself by wrapping an arm around the cloth. Long-forgotten memories of building a rope-and-plank swing for Pippin, many years ago, skimmed across his mind and he felt his heart lift. He looped his arms around the shield and hooked a leg around the cloak, maneuvering the cloak into the crooks of his arms. Inching closer the center, he found his balance and looked up into the shadowed face above him.

"I’m on!" he called. "Pull me up!" His words were nearly drowned out as the warg howled again, excited by all the activity around it. It reared up on its hind legs and clawed at the rocks, dislodging several stones, weakening that side of the pile. The goblins above it snatched for a firmer hold but the shifting of the stones caused one to slide down. It landed within the warg’s reach and was instantly savaged. It screamed horribly as it was torn to pieces.

"What—" Boromir began, his view blocked by the shield, then fell silent. "Frodo," he muttered, "Hold on." Boromir strained, the muscles under his surcoat bulging with the effort. Incredibly, the shield began to rise, swinging slightly side to side. Shouts rose below Frodo, and a knife flashed by his head to fall harmlessly to the side. Frodo hung on grimly. When the shield rose to the opening, Boromir hissed, "I will have to turn it sideways to slide you out. Can you hold?"

"I will," Frodo panted.

Again Boromir strained, tipping the shield and its passenger to slide through the vent. Frodo marveled at the man’s strength. The rock pressed into his back as he was pulled through and had he not been protected by his pack, the skin would have been torn from his body. He locked his arms around Boromir’s cloak and hung on for dear life.

"Ahhhh!" Boromir groaned as the hobbit was jerked free. Frodo’s strength gave out and he slid off the shield, rolling on his hands and knees onto the grass. He slid to a stop on his back, and gazed straight up in joy. Never had an approaching sunset looked more beautiful. The clouds were banded with color, golds and purples and blues, and even the winter grass beneath him smelled sweet. Boromir collapsed beside him, arms outstretched, breathing heavily. Before Boromir could regain his feet, the hobbit was already crawling to where Merry lay. Frodo cupped the beloved face in his hands.

"Hullo, Cousin," Merry said weakly, a smile on his face that was a ghost of his usual cheeky grin.

"What’s wrong, Merry dear?"

"Poison," Boromir said softly, crawling across from them. "A goblin scout attacked us as we rested, just after you were taken and the others followed. It scratched him. I was on guard … and I slept."

Frodo had no time for the man’s self-recrimination. Merry’s skin was very hot and rimmed with perspiration. He blinked at his cousin vaguely and did not respond to Frodo’s question.

Below them was bedlam. The most agile of the climbers had reached the small platform, struggling with each other and the uncertain footing to stand. "We must get away!" Boromir gasped. "Perhaps we can outrun them…"

"There are hundreds down there," Frodo murmured softly, his attention wholly on Merry’s face. "They will find another exit—the tunnel opens into a cavern, not so far away. Or they will find a way out of this opening. The sun is setting … daylight will not save us." Frodo passed a hand over his eyes, feeling tears prickle at his eyes. "So my quest fails before it actually began," he murmured. "It has all been for nothing."

A hand tugged at his jacket. "Frodo," Merry murmured, "I’m thirsty."

"Merry-lad… Give him some water, please, Boromir. I haven’t any." Boromir sat down and pulled the young hobbit against his chest, cradling him. Merry’s head sagged and Boromir lifted it, pulling off the hobbit’s water bottle.

Merry coughed as the water slid down his throat. Lifting his head, he thanked Boromir with a look. Then his dull gaze shifted to his cousin. "Frodo," he whispered. "I’m sick."

"I know, lad. We’ll have you fixed up in just a minute. You are going to be fine." Boromir looked at him blankly over Merry’s head, then carefully he slid his arms under Merry’s body and lifted him into the circle of his cousin’s arms. Frodo hugged him tight. Boromir rose to his feet and picked up the Horn, retying it to his belt. Then he undid his knotted cloak and let it drop, picked up his battle-shield, drew his sword and stood waiting.

"My throat hurts," Merry whispered, turning his face into Frodo’s chest. "And it is … hard to breathe."

"Shuush," Frodo begged him. "Don’t talk, dear heart. Let us help you. Boromir, would you—"

"They will be here in moments, Frodo." Nevertheless, he sheathed his sword to hand Frodo the medicinal kit. Frodo tore into it, his hands trembling and scarcely able to hold the little pouches and vials. His fingers had largely stopped bleeding but still small smears obscured the writing on the tags. Frodo held up each to the dying light and Boromir remembered what he had heard at some time—the Ring-bearer could read Elvish.

"No," Frodo muttered. "No … no … this … no!" In frustration he upended the box, scattering its contents on the ground where he could handle them more easily. "This one! Help me, Boromir!" Frodo held up a single corked vial. While Boromir tilted Merry’s head back and held his jaw open, Frodo poured it in.

The young hobbit struggled feebly but Frodo and Boromir kept him pinned. "Drink it, Merry-lad," Frodo urged. "It will make you better."

"Nasty," Merry complained indistinctly. "I’m sorry I … teased you about taking … Lord Elrond’s tonics, Frodo." Grimacing distastefully, Merry tucked his head under Frodo’s chin, curled up against him, and slept.

Frodo kissed his forehead tenderly then lowered his sleeping cousin’s head to rest on his knees. He eased off his pack and lifted Merry’s head, pillowing the matted curls on the pack gently. Struggling to his feet, Frodo stood uncertainly, the ground seeming to tip and throw him off balance in his weariness. He picked up Boromir’s discarded cloak and covered Merry with it, then stumbled to the soldier’s side. "I know we should try to escape," he whispered to the man, "but I can’t go any further."

"It does not matter, Frodo. What little lead we could gain on them would make no difference," Boromir told him resignedly, his gaze on the vent. Shouts and snarls sounded below them, closer and more eager. "Gandalf and the others cannot be far behind. Perhaps they will be in time to avenge us. They set after you almost immediately after you were taken at the tunnel mouth. I think I can guess what happened, but could you tell me?"

Frodo nodded and pulled his cloak more tightly about him. Leaning down, he brushed the hair out of Merry’s eyes, checking his face carefully. Satisfied, he straightened and rubbed a hand across his face wearily. "It happened so quickly. I was looking up at you all—"

A roar sounded below him, the shouting of many voices raised. Neither hobbit nor human could make out the words, but the very sound was ugly. And triumphant.

"They have found a way up," Boromir said quietly. Suddenly he turned and slapped the quietly dozing pony across the hindquarters. Bill neighed in shock and bolted, running to the cover of a small mound of boulders not far away. There the pony stopped and turned around, staring at them with eyes white-rimmed in surprise at this unexpected treatment. Boromir smiled. "He’ll run when the fighting starts. No need for the goblins to enjoy horse-meat and our supplies, too."

Frodo nodded. "Good luck, Bill," he wished the pony.

"That opening is too small for many of them to attack at once," Boromir muttered, striding around the vent. "I would say that no more than two could emerge together. I will take as many as I can. When they get past me, it will be up to you."

"I will defend us for as long as I can," Frodo said tiredly. "If it is within my power, they will take neither of us alive."

"I think that is wise," Boromir agreed softly. Then he raised his war-horn to his lips and blew a great blast. A grey-tinged head emerged from the vent, followed by a second. In the blink of an eye, the goblins were out and more pushed behind them. The soldier shot the hobbit a twisted smile over his shoulder. "Goodbye, my friend. May we meet again in a better place." Then with a roar that momentarily stunned the goblins, Boromir raised his sword and leapt towards them.

* TBC *

Chapter Thirteen

As the Company neared the screams and hoots ahead of them, Legolas passed the hobbits on silent feet and laid his hand on Gandalf’s arm. The wizard stopped at once and the light of his staff dimmed even further. “What is happening?” he whispered.

“There is too much confusion to make out words,” Legolas murmured in reply. “But I believe the warg has run its prey to ground.” A heartbeat later, a howl echoed through the tunnel, the excitement in it evident to all.

“Not us,” Gimli grunted. “What then?”

“Mr. Frodo,” said Sam, at the same moment Pippin said, “Frodo!”

Gandalf nodded. “Most probably.” The wizard smiled faintly through his eyes were strained. “If there is any commotion about, that hobbit seems to be at the centre of it. Shall we, my friends?”

“Gandalf and I will go first,” Aragorn instructed. “Legolas, you next. Take the warg down, if you can. Sam, you and Pippin are to stay between Legolas and Gimli. We will rush them, and hope that surprise will carry us through to Frodo. Guard each other’s backs.”

Despite their intention to rush the goblin horde, the Fellowship stopped dead at the sight before them. Forgotten in the chaos, lanterns lay abandoned on the rocky floor, their contents spilling out in an oily tide. Ahead of them, before the passage faded into darkness, they were able to see a great pile of broken stone rearing from the tunnel floor to almost the ceiling of the tunnel. A red-washed opening could be glimpsed above the top of the piled rock, and the Fellowship realized the day was dying. It was the first sunlight they had seen since early morning. Around the stony pile swarmed more goblin-folk than they could count, scuttling like insects along the base of the great stack of stone. Some were climbing on the pile, some were dancing about in excitement, some were trying to control a huge warg that scrabbled at its base, tearing away loose rocks and small boulders with its claws. None of them noticed the small group of quiet interlopers standing in the darkness, gaping at them in astonishment.

“So many…” Sam murmured, “There’s so many of them…”

“Quiet!” Gandalf ordered brusquely, and behind him, the Fellowship fell silent, Pippin’s latest question cut off with a little half-heard “eep! Aragorn crept past the wizard on soundless feet and only the faint shifting of air in the close walls of the tunnel informed them that Legolas followed.

“What do you see?” asked Gandalf softly.

“Ahead of us the tunnel widens,” Legolas whispered. It seemed his eyes almost glowed as he glanced over his shoulder at them. “There are a great many yrch grouped around the pile of broken stone, climbing it. They seem … gleeful. The warg is throwing itself against the rocks, but I cannot see what excites it so. There is something else—” The elf fell silent. Then, “Ah, Elbereth,” he moaned faintly.

“What? What is it?” Gandalf thrust himself forward, the last flicker of light from his staff dimming entirely as he took in the guttering lamps dropped by the goblins.

Almost as if it hurt him to answer, Legolas whispered, “Nazgûl.”

“May the Valar preserve us,” murmured Gandalf, and heard his prayer echoed in elvish from two soft voices. Pippin pressed back against Sam, and Gimli lowered his axe for a moment to lay a hand on the tweenager’s small shoulder, finding that Pippin was trembling.

“Easy there, lads,” rumbled the dwarf.

“Do you see Mr. Frodo?” asked Sam, mastering his fear enough to ask.

Legolas shook his head. “No. Those creatures seek something, though. Some are near to the top. I think—”

All eyes were drawn upwards as the goblin nearest the top suddenly cried out, clapping a hand to its head. It wavered for a heartbeat, arms waving, and fell backwards off the stone pile. Then a small figure atop the stones was leaping to its feet and climbing aboard something that descended down to it from the opening above. There was a moment of blurred movement then the round platform was ascending out of the goblins’ reach, and their cries and curses were horrible to hear as they leaped fruitlessly after it.

“Oh, well done, Frodo!” Gandalf laughed.

“What was that?” asked Pippin, lacking elven, dwarven, or wizardly sight.

“Boromir has used his shield to pull Frodo out of the tunnel,” Legolas explained, his eyes shining in the darkness.

“He’s safe with Mr. Merry and Mr. Boromir, then?” asked Sam.

“For a few moments only,” Gimli growled. “These foul folk will be up after him as soon as they can find a way.”

Then one of the shadows at the base of the rocks moved. It seemed to straighten, growing impossibly taller as it came to the bottommost stones. The goblins cringed away from it and the warg also backed away, twisting its head and jerking at the reins that restrained it. The goblin holding it tightened its grip and the beast trembled, crouching on its belly and whining as the tall form passed it. “Go after it,” the Nazgûl hissed at its minions, its unseen eyes piercing the darkness as it stared upwards to the opening in the earth. “Bring me the halfling!”

The goblins resumed their efforts, snarling at each other, but none could leap high enough to follow the escaped Ring-bearer. “Stupid creatures,” the black form snarled. “Climb on each others’ shoulders! Lift each other up!”

Working together had apparently not occurred to the creatures, but they obeyed the Wraith’s instructions readily enough. Several had now reached the pinnacle and were pushing each other, fighting for room on the unsteady surface. The largest ones scrambled to their hands and knees, bracing themselves against the shifting stones as others mounted their shoulders, steadying themselves on the lower ones’ backs. A third tier rushed to climb the others.

“They are building a pyramid,” groaned Aragorn. “They will be after Frodo in moments.” And it was so. The pyramid of bodies rose until a goblin was able to kneel on the backs of the two below it and brace its hand against the ceiling of the tunnel. It pulled a sword from its belt, then reached out to steady a second climber on the uncertain footing. Others below them swarmed up the straining pyramid in eager anticipation.

“We must stop them!” hissed Aragorn. “Distract them! Give Frodo time to flee—”

“We will be slaughtered,” Gimli growled. “There are hundreds of them, not to mention the Ringwraith. It is certain death.” He paused a moment. “Right then, I’ll take the point.”

Legolas raised his bow and the others checked their weapons. Sam held Sting low, as Gandalf did Glamdring, so that the glowing elven blades would not forewarn their enemies. “Ready?” the wizard murmured. “Now—”

The music of a great horn cut through his words. Beautiful it was, lifting their hearts, reminding them of light and life beyond this dark place. The topmost goblins cringed, then in a flash, one thrust itself through the vent and the other followed. The unmistakable sound of sword-work met their ears, then something blocked the light above them for an instant. The headless body of a goblin plunged through the opening. A second followed it, crashing to land on the goblin pyramid. Those underneath could not take the impact and were driven to their bellies. Those swarming up them fell, sliding down the sides to the waiting jaws of the warg. Their screams and its growls drowned out Pippin’s incautious whimpers.

“Good old Boromir!” whispered Aragorn, the spilled lanterns of the goblins casting a baneful look to his stern, fierce face. The descending bodies had thrown the goblins into disarray; some were attempting to rebuild the pyramid, some were intent only on evading the ravening warg below them, some were seizing the opportunity to quietly desert. It was one of these, a cowardly, slinking creature, creeping silently away from the activity that stumbled upon them.

“Eeeeeeeeek!” The goblin squealed like a pig, its strident, high-pitched screech cutting through the shouts and snarls of the others like a hot knife through butter. It scrabbled backwards on all fours shrilling, “Intruders! Outsiders! Invaders!”

Aragorn leaped forward and ran the creature through its black heart, but the damage was done. The wet sucking sound his sword-point made withdrawing from the body fell into a pit of absolute silence.

“The Shire! The Shire!” Pippin’s loud shriek seemed to drill right through their eardrums. He leaped past Aragorn, sword raised before him. Sam snatched for his cloak but Pip was already out of reach, short legs churning. The others stood frozen by shock, then leaped after the youngling. Aragorn lunged for the tweenager but Pippin was moving too quickly. An elf-shaped blur shot past the man, outdistancing Sam and Aragorn easily. The elf caught the charging hobbit about the waist, lifting him and sprinting him back to the others. Pippin struggled in his arms, waving his sword about dangerously. “Let me go, Legolas! Put me down!”

Then the Company heard a sound they had never thought to hear in waking life, the hissing, choking snarls of a Ringwraith laughing. Pippin stopped fighting, his hands digging into Legolas’ arms. Legolas wrapped his arms around him then gently lowered him into Sam’s trembling embrace. The two hobbits hugged each other, their faces pallid with fear.

“Brave, is it?” The Ringwraith’s voice seemed to pierce their hearts and bleed out their strength. “My Master has plans for the other halfling, but mayhap He will let me keep you, ratling. You might amuse me … for as long as you last.” Pippin’s knees gave, and he sagged to the cold floor. Sam knelt against him, his arms around the tweenager. Pippin buried his head in Sam’s shoulder, trembling violently. The Wraith made that horrible sound again and Gandalf sighed, his eyes closing for a moment in pain.

Then the Nazgûl straightened, and it seemed to all that its unseen gaze fastened on the wizard for long moments. “Kill them,” it ordered with a dismissive wave of its mailed glove. Shrieking, the goblins surged forward, eager but well disciplined in their blood lust. The ones atop the tumbled stones resumed their efforts, but their attempts to follow Frodo seemed half-hearted, their attention on the impending slaughter below.

“Against the wall!” Gandalf commanded, “Keep it at your backs!” Pushing the hobbits before him, the wizard raised his sword and it glowed with fire. The goblins recognized it and slowed, whispers of “Beater! Beater!” hurtling among them. Legolas’ bow sang and the leading goblins staggered and fell, tripping those behind them. The hobbits were quick to pick up some of the ever-present stones about them, and if their missiles were delivered with force less deadly than the elf’s arrows, they were no less accurate.

The goblins had no desire to hurry; here was prey they would enjoy taunting. Some leaped forward and shook their weapons, shrilling war cries before sliding back out of reach. They were too close for bow-work now; with regret Legolas slung his bow over his back and drew his long sword from the sheath at his back; in the other hand he held one of his long, bone-handled knives. Gimli glared about him, axe raised, waiting for the first of the enemy to come to him.

“This is no battle,” Aragorn muttered. “We will be slaughtered, and then they will pursue Frodo. Gandalf, the lanterns!”

The wizard tore his gaze from the taunting horde and spared him a glance. “What of them?”

“Oil,” Aragorn whispered, his eyes lighting. “Light! Fire and light! Gandalf, can you set the lanterns’ oil aflame?”

For a heartbeat the wizard stood frozen, his eyes on the oil coating the goblins’ feet where they had waded unheeding through it. The viscous liquid had spilled out and covered much of the rock floor. It made footing treacherous, even for clawed feet. Gandalf seemed to gather himself, then his hands tightened on his staff and a ball of white fire blazed at its tip. The goblins hesitated and shielded their eyes, cringing back from the incandescent light. Gandalf tilted his staff and the flaming ball flew from it to the nearest lantern, which lay on its side, its contents oozing from it in a greasy wave.

The oil did not so much ignite as explode. A great tongue of white fire with a blue heart rose from the floor nearly to the tunnel ceiling, licking at the cold air. The sudden brightness was agonizing to dark-accustomed eyes. At the same moment an inferno of heat blasted out in all directions, crisping those with their feet in the oil. The hobbits saw these unfortunates writhe momentarily before they were consumed, their blackened bones crumbling like burnt tinder.

Sam reacted without thinking; blinking his eyes against the blue spots that danced in his vision, he stooped and gathered a stone and cast it with all of his strength towards one of the lanterns. The struck lantern wobbled, then tipped, falling on its side to add its contents to the seeping oil. In a second, Pippin was emulating him. Then Legolas was shooting, and lanterns shattered and tipped and burst into flame.

The goblins screamed and scrambled backwards, their blood lust forgotten in their terror and pain. One of the burning figures ran towards its folk; fire fed on it, devouring it, and the goblins fled before it, inadvertently kicking over more of the lanterns in their panic. The burning goblin shed fire as it went, spreading the conflagration, tongues of flame leaping from lantern to lantern, from goblin to goblin. Those above on the piled rocks abandoned their place of safety, leaping to the floor to escape the tunnel ahead of the fire.

All was chaos. Gandalf drew the Company’s eyes to him and waved his staff towards the rock pile. “Climb!” the wizard ordered them stridently. “Follow Frodo! Go!

Again Pippin was a jump ahead of them. He leaped forward and ran, head down and half-blind from the fiery light. The burning, shrieking goblins had no attention to spare for a small, fleet figure that wove among them. The rest of the Fellowship stared, aghast for a moment, then raced after him in pursuit. The pile of stone was unguarded, untended. The warg crouched at the far side of the base, belly to the floor and ears laid flat. Its handler had fled with the others and it was directionless, too terrified to move. Its eyes followed the small figure but it only cringed, a high, shrill whimper in its throat. Pippin gained the rocks unscathed and launched himself onto the lower stones, beginning to climb.

Legolas reached the rocks next but instead of climbing, he whirled around and began firing, the twang of his bowstring swallowed by the roaring of the flames and the goblins’ screams. His first targets were those horrific figures that ran in mindless agony about the cavern; these pitiful creatures he killed as quickly and as mercifully as he could.

Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, and Sam were less swift. Some of the goblins were now realizing what was happening, and a few of the braver ones dared to raise arms against them. These massed before the small group, snarling and slavering at them with pain-slitted eyes. They darted forward then retreated, disoriented and cowed by the light and Legolas’ rain of death. The air vent above was pulling the smoke upwards and the roiling smoke obscured and hindered all of them. Gandalf clamped a hand on Sam’s shoulder and dragged the hobbit past while Aragorn and Gimli defended them. Then Sam cried out and pulled Gandalf’s robe, directing the wizard’s eyes to the tall black form stalking towards them through the inferno.

The Nazgûl paid no heed to the flames, or to the burning, dying goblins screaming around it. Its sword in its mailed hands, it ignored the burning figures, side-stepping the pools of flaming oil.With senses they could not begin to understand, it avoided the flames and the stumbling, shrieking figures and walked towards them, grim purpose in its every step.

Sam saw Legolas fall back, his bow sagging in his grip. The Wraith’s very nearness seemed to cause the elf pain; he stumbled back and half-collapsed against the lower stones of the piled rock. Behind him, Sam heard the dwarf bellow, then a goblin’s high, shrill shriek as it died. Another burning figure tumbled before them, between he and Gandalf and the Black Rider, but none of them had eyes for it. It crashed into the rocks and fell into a twitching, smoldering ruin.

“You shall not pass.” The creature’s very voice raised the hair on Sam’s neck and he pressed back against the wizard. Fear caused his throat to close, as weariness and the stinking cold and the long unending dark had not. Sam felt the wizard’s hand ease on his shoulder, then pat him almost absently before gently pushing Sam behind him. Sam had the feeling this amused the Ringwraith, and that in itself terrified him.

“Aragorn, Gimli,” Gandalf said, and his voice carried in the tunnel. Sam realized that it was quiet in the tunnel; the snap and pop of the flames almost the only sounds. The majority of the goblins had fled, more afraid of burning alive now then being punished by the Wraith later. A few still writhed on the floor, dying by Gimli’s axe or Aragorn’s sword. The summoned pair came silently to the wizard’s side, breathing heavily, splattered with black blood. Legolas joined them, and Pippin slid down the few feet he had climbed to crowd next to Sam. Together they stood before the greatest and most terrible of the Enemy’s captains as it barred their escape from this place.

* TBC *

Chapter Fourteen

Sword raised, Boromir stood at the edge of the vent, ready for whatever nightmare creatures might emerge next. Black blood dripped from his blade and fell into the pit at his feet. The slanting light of the setting sun no longer illuminated anything in the tunnel below them; he could see nothing and only the hoots and shrieks of the goblins below were evidence of the horde that would soon follow the escaped Ring-bearer.

When no more goblins immediately came after the first two, Boromir dared to risk a glance over his shoulder. Frodo was crouching in front of Merry, an unfamiliar knife in his hand. Boromir remembered that the hobbit’s elven sword had been dropped in his abduction, and the little gardener now carried it for his master. Frodo looked strained and exhausted, scarcely better than the unconscious hobbit beside him. “Frodo!” Boromir called, “Are you well?”

“Yes,” came the shaky reply after a moment. “They never came near us. Or most parts of them didn’t.” The hobbit reached out and distastefully used the knife to push away one of the severed heads Boromir had struck from the goblins. It left a black, glistening trail as it rolled slowly down a slight incline. Frodo shuddered.

“How is Merry?”

Frodo leaned over the still form and peered into Merry’s sleeping face, then gently placed his fingers on his cousin’s throat, careful not to touch the inflamed cut. “He is better, I think. His heart beats strongly, and the perspiration is less. Elvish medicine works quickly.”

Frodo sank to the ground next to Merry as if his legs could no longer hold him up. “My poor little lad,” he whispered, stroking Merry’s hair tenderly back from his cousin’s sweating face. “My poor sweet little lad.” Boromir was surprised by the incongruity of the Ring-bearer’s murmured comfort; Merry stood scarcely less tall than Frodo and was broader through the shoulders. Then he thought of how he would feel to see his much-loved younger brother sorely hurt and suffering because of him, and he understood the Ring-bearer a little better in that moment.

Frodo’s head came up sharply. “Do you hear that?”

Boromir’s eyes shot back to the opening and he readied himself. He too was worn to exhaustion, and the heavy sword trembled in his hands. But no more goblins emerged to menace them. “Hear what?”

Frodo dragged himself to his feet and to Boromir’s side, staring warily down into the opening. “No more screaming.” Frodo inched closer to the gaping maw of the vent and tilted his head, listening. “Something has happened down there.”

“The Shire! The Shire!” The words were faint and distorted by the tunnel walls, but both recognized the shrill voice instantly. Frodo flung himself down and tried to peer into the hole and was immediately lifted by the scruff of his neck and almost thrown backwards.

“Are you mad?” Boromir hissed. “Would you make yourself easy prey for what lurks below? Stay back!”

“That was Pippin!” Frodo cried. “That was Pippin! Pippin’s down there!” He scrambled to his feet, trembling, striving to master himself. “The others must be down there, too!”

“Amongst legions of orcs,” Boromir groaned. His next words were drowned out by more shrill screams, but these were of a different nature. These were screams of fear and pain, and came not from human or hobbit or other Free Folk throats. Frodo threw himself down again and this time Boromir did not prevent him but dropped beside him, sword still in his hand. Light was flaring below them, little flickers of illumination that spread as they watched. Smoke rolled up and smote their faces, thick-smelling and oily. They coughed and covered their mouths and noses, peering down into a growing inferno. The lights were moving—running—and the two understood sickly that people were burning down there.

“Not Pippin,” Frodo breathed to Boromir. “That lad can scream like a banshee when he chooses. You can hear him three farms away.”

“Look!” Boromir pointed and they realized at that moment that they could see; the smoke was diminishing. The tunnel seemed almost empty; figures darted towards both exits but many of the forms did not move, lying still as the flames fed upon them. There were no new fires below them, but several smoldered and snapped still and these provided enough light to see … oh, Pippin! Frodo clutched Boromir’s surcoat, opening unnoticed several of the small cuts in his hands that climbing up the rocks had given him. And Gandalf and Aragorn and Legolas and Sam! Frodo gathered breath to shout, then choked and swallowed his cry as he saw Pippin hesitate, then slide down the pile of rock to join the others and stand facing…

Frodo made a soft whimpering sound as the pain hit him, the unreasoning terror. He rolled over onto his back, eyes staring upwards, momentarily blind. His hand was clenched around the burden he carried, and it burned him. Summoning all of his will, he rolled back onto his elbows, one hand still clamped around the Ring. Boromir looked at him in concern, his face pale beneath the stubble of beard.

“They cannot stand against that evil thing,” Boromir murmured softly. “We must distract it.”

Frodo closed his eyes. “Offer it what it wants. Boromir … if I go back down there, can you pull me back up? And the others?”

“You cannot go down there,” Boromir said reflexively, his heart quailing at the thought of the Ring-bearer bringing the One Ring near that creature’s grasp.

“It came within inches of the Ring on Weathertop,” Frodo murmured, seeming not to hear the soldier’s words. “It will forgo the murder of any number of enemies for a second chance. Nothing is more important to it than obtaining its master’s Ring.” Those brilliant eyes turned to the soldier. “Boromir, ready your shield. I am going to jump down and get it to come after me.”

“Frodo, I forbid—” Boromir began. He got no further.

Blue eyes glared into his with the intensity of the sun. “You will do as I bid you,” Frodo said softly but clearly. “You are sworn to the Fellowship, Boromir. You are sworn to me. You will obey my instructions.”

Boromir gaped. He had never heard this gentle, retiring hobbit speak so. Accustomed to following commands all of his life, he found himself moving to do as Frodo bade him. Frodo swung himself around and sat on the edge of the vent, feet dangling into darkness. “Boromir, take care of Merry. If this doesn’t work … please … take him back to the Shire. And Pippin and Sam. Tell Gandalf and Elrond and everyone … I’m sorry.” With that he pushed himself forward and dropped into the hole.

“Stay behind me,” Gandalf murmured to the others as he stepped forward, his face lined and weary. The wizard drove his staff into the rock beneath him and light blazed again on its tip. He did not look up as something dropped from the opening above and fought for balance on the topmost rock; it was the Ringwraith who froze in place. Then slowly, to Gandalf’s astonishment, its black hood turned away from them and stared upwards to the top of the piled stones.

A small, pinched face stared back. Frodo was crouching on his hands and knees, hands grasping the stone tightly, the bones of his knuckles straining against the pallid skin. But his expression was serene and determined as he looked into the black pit of the Nazgûl’s face. “I have what you want,” he called down to it. His voice was thin but it did not waver. “You have only to take it from me, and it will be yours.”

“Frodo,” Gandalf whispered. “No—”

Frodo stood up, steadying himself on the shifting rock. With one hand he reached inside his shirt and pulled out the silver chain that held the Ring. It dangled at the end of the chain, swinging above his breast, glittering in the light of the fires and the wizard’s staff. “Here it is. And here am I. You have orders to take me back as well, don’t you?” The hobbit’s voice trembled, then he continued, “You failed at Weathertop. You failed at the Ford of Bruinen. You failed on the north road from Rivendell.” He raised the chain higher and in an abrupt gesture, pulled it from his neck and held the Ring at the end of his outstretched arm. It swung from his fist, seeming almost to move of its own accord. “Well, here we are! Do you want us or not?”

The Ringwraith did not glance again at the dumbfounded group of lives who stood before it. Turning its back on them, it sheathed its long sword and placed its mailed gauntlets on the rock. With a heave upwards, it began to climb.

“You can’t mean ‘ta let that thing have him!” Sam shrilled, his voice high.

Aragorn clamped his hand on Gandalf’s arm. “No sword or arrow or axe will kill that evil creature, but we can perhaps drive it off with fire—”

“No,” said the wizard softly. The others looked at him in horror. Gandalf tore his gaze away from the small figure above and faced them. “Have you forgotten Boromir and Merry? Frodo escaped this place once with their help; he can do it again. I know him. I know that look on his face. He is planning something.”

The Ringwraith moved up the rock face slowly but surely, like a huge black cockroach scuttling up a wall. Frodo shifted to the side slightly and the black figure followed him as if it could not help itself, as if it were drawn after the hobbit like a moth to the candle-flame. Its unseen gaze never left Frodo, and if it even noticed when the hobbit stooped and gathered a handful of the loose stones that littered the rocks, it took no note of it.

Still holding out the Ring, Frodo edged back slightly and the Wraith moved to the side again. The fires were dying out around them, their fuel consumed. Frodo grit his teeth as he scraped his damaged hands with the stones he had caught up. Fresh blood began to seep over the old. He rolled the rocks from hand to hand, coating them with his blood.

One of the loose rocks under the Wraith shifted and it lost its hold, dropping several feet. Its mailed gloves and boots left white scars on the rock that shone faintly in the weak light. Frodo seized the moment of its distraction to leap to the far side of the rock pile and search the darkness below. Yes … he had not been mistaken. It was still there. Carefully he raised one of the blood-washed stones and cast it. It struck the side of the cowering warg and bounced off, rattling a few feet before the beast’s nose. The beast snarled then its ears came forward and it sniffed, catching the scent of the one it had been set upon. It rose from its crouch and trotted forward, lowering its hideous head to sniff at the stone. Then its long tongue came out and it licked the rock, savoring the taste of its prey’s blood.

Frodo fought down a whimper of relief as the huge, fanged head raised to look up. The awful head swung from side to side, nose in the air, seeking. He drew back his arm and cast another stone. This one slammed right into the warg’s ugly snout. The warg growled, shaking its head, the heavy muscles of its forequarters bunching under its pelt. It followed the scent to where the stone had slid to a stop on the first tier of stones, and it nosed the rock eagerly. Rearing up on its hind legs, it began pawing at the pile of tumbled stones. Frodo raced back to the other side and locked gazes with his friends below. Then he was raising his arm and making a casting motion, again and again, pointing to the advancing Nazgûl. They stared uncomprehendingly at him.

Whether through drug-enhanced thinking or simple knowledge of his kinsman, Pippin understood first. “You leave my cousin alone!” he shouted and before anyone could stop him, he had fished out one of his juggling-stones and was setting it to his sling. It sailed through the air and struck the black cloak; all could see the cloth indent before the little stone dropped harmlessly to join the thousand others on the pile. The Ringwraith paused for the briefest moment, then continued climbing.

Aragorn caught Pippin’s arm as the hobbit loaded a second stone but Gandalf shook his head, his gaze fastened on Frodo. “No! Let him! Sam, help Pippin. Legolas, shoot it. Shoot it!” Rocks and arrows filled the air, then Gimli and Aragorn and Gandalf were helping too. The Ringwraith staggered under the barrage but it was stymied—it would not turn from its goal above to defend itself. The Company could not truly hurt it, but they could distract it.

Frodo darted back to the opposite side of the pile and carefully tossed down another bloody stone. The shouts of the Fellowship and the rattle of arrows and stones covered the warg’s eager whine. Not built for climbing, it could only scrabble at the rocks, tearing them out of their place with its huge claws and enormous strength.

Then the pile of tumbled stones shivered, as if by an earthquake. But no earthquake this; the underpinning layer of rocks had shifted. The goblins who had constructed this tunnel did not build for permanence; they had merely pushed the rock out of the way in the manner requiring the least effort. Gimli smiled into his beard as he understood the Ring-bearer’s plan. He abandoned the harassment effort and ran to the base of the pile. Stones dropped around him and rang on his helmet, adding to the general noise and confusion. Surveying the stones before him he dropped to his knees and locked his thick arms around a chosen rock, and began to pry it from its moorings.

With a grunt, the dwarf pulled the stone free. The entire pile shuddered. The Ringwraith hesitated and its black hood turned to look down on them. Then the warg snarled eagerly, and the pile shivered again as it dug out another rock and pushed it aside.

“Get back!” Gandalf roared. “Everyone, back! Frodo!”

Frodo waved at them and shouted something unintelligible. A dark object descended from the opening above and the hobbit climbed aboard it. “Boromir!” Frodo cried, “Now!” Then he was rising upwards. The Ringwraith lunged forward and sought to catch a dangling foot, but Frodo pulled it in and held on to Boromir’s cloak for dear life. The Wraith screamed in fury, slamming its fists against the rocks.

With a rumble like a groan of the earth, the entire pile of rocks began to collapse. Down it came, seeming to melt from the top like ice left too long in the sun. The topmost boulder on which Frodo had stood not a moment before tilted sideways and began to slide down the incline. Those underneath it tore loose and tumbled after. The Ringwraith twisted around and tried to leap off the steep side, but it was too near the top. A small but heavy stone bounced onto its black cloak and settled there, pinning the creature. The Company saw it grasp the cloth in both hands and jerk, trying desperately to win free. The cloak ripped and gave, but it was too late. They had a brief glimpse of tattered robes and a single mailed glove grasping at air before the avalanche thundered over it and a rising tide of dust obscured all.

* TBC *

A/N: Frodo’s third accusation of failure to the Nazgûl is from my “Recovery in Rivendell,” when the Wraith tried to invade the Last Homely House seeking the Ring-bearer.

Chapter Fifteen

For long moments, there was only the sound of panting breaths in the darkness. Gandalf’s light had gone out. When it reappeared, weak and shivering on the tip of his staff, the wizard seemed almost dazed.

“Hoy! Is everyone all right?” A voice gone shrill with worry was shouting, seconded by a deeper one. “Gandalf! Gandalf, is anyone hurt?”

“We are all right,” the wizard called back after a brief inspection, catching a mouthful of dust and coughing painfully. It was twilight now; the sun had set and the clouds had lost their evening glory. Gandalf could see the two heads above him only as indistinct blurs. With an effort, he strengthened the light of his staff and Frodo and Boromir’s anxious faces resolved out of the darkness above him.

“Frodo! Frodo! Frodo!” crowed Pippin, dancing about excitedly and waving his sling in the air. “Did you see what I did? I shot it! That will teach that horrible thing!”

Aragorn and Legolas walked to the edge of the collapsed pile. Stones slid under their feet, raising small puffs of dust to join the coating of grime settling on their skin and clothing. “A landslide will not hold it long,” Aragorn said. “We must leave this place before the foul creature works free.”

“And Frodo has most graciously provided us the means,” Legolas replied, his eyes shining like clear stars. He gestured and Aragorn’s gaze followed the movement, noticing for the first time that the slide rose higher at the end adjoining the wall of the tunnel. The topmost stones now rested less than a man’s height below the opening.

“A ramp! Well done, O most excellent of hobbits!” Aragorn laughed. Frodo grinned down at him, dark bruises of exhaustion under his eyes but his expression impudent, both knowing full well it had been only serendipitous chance.

“Hurry,” Gandalf urged them. A boulder shifted, as if something immensely powerful was struggling beneath it. “Everyone up the ramp. Be careful! Don’t slip! Peregrin, stop jumping up and down on those rocks—the Nazg‌ûl is more to the left, anyway. Samwise, take Pippin’s arm. Come along now.”

With many slides and scrapes, the Company reached the highest point of the rocks. Boromir was ready; he lowered his shield and Pippin clambered aboard. Up he came, near bursting with excitement until his eyes fell on Merry’s still form. Pippin at once left off his garbled account of the rescue party’s adventures and flung himself down at Merry’s side. Frodo caught Pippin’s hand just in time as he was about to shake his cousin’s shoulder. “Merry?” Pippin asked, his voice high and frightened. “Frodo! What’s wrong with Merry?”

Frodo captured Pippin’s other hand and held both tight between his own. Pippin looked down at the sensation of warm liquid on his skin; darkness had hid the seeping blood. “Frodo? Your hands…? And what is wrong with Merry? Tell me!”

“Hush, lad,” Frodo told him. “I just cut my hands a little. And don’t worry, our Merry is all right. He’s been ill but I gave him some Elvish medicine and he will be fine.” Sam knelt at Frodo’s side, white-faced after his ride on the shield. He looked closely at Merry, then turned his concerned gaze to Frodo. Frodo smiled at him, and Sam smiled shakily back. After a moment he stumbled up to coax the suspiciously watching Bill out from the boulders the pony had taken refuge amongst.

Pippin gathered Merry’s hand carefully into his and settled more comfortably beside him. Frodo began to struggle to his feet, but Pippin gasped and clutched his cloak anxiously. “It’s all right, Pippin,” Frodo told him, gently freeing the cloth. “I will be right back. I’m going to fetch Aragorn.” Pippin nodded but remained frightened and tense.

Feeling the tweenager’s eyes upon him, Frodo returned to Boromir’s side and peered past the soldier into the hole. There was a grunt from below, followed by Aragorn’s head and then his body as Gimli and Legolas hefted from below. Frodo stepped back as Boromir caught Aragorn’s arm and dragged him over the lip of the vent. The Ranger had scarcely risen to his feet when the hobbit caught his hand and tugged him towards the two figures on the ground.

Swiftly, Frodo told him what had occurred. Pippin paled when his cousin spoke of the poison and he held Merry’s hand the tighter. Aragorn patted the tweenager’s arm reassuringly then returned to examining Merry’s throat. Carefully he loosened the sleeping hobbit’s jacket and waistcoat. “Yes, that was the best choice, Frodo,” Aragorn confirmed, unbuttoning Merry’s shirt to trace the fading streak of red down his chest. “Elrond’s medicines are very effective. The Elves have had much experience with orcish poisons.”

Merry’s eyes struggled open when Aragorn started to rebutton the bright waistcoat. He blinked in confusion then frowned at the Ranger. “Lemme ‘lone, Strider,” he muttered indistinctly. “Go ’way.”

“I see you retain your usual amiable nature, Master Brandybuck,” the Ranger replied, pulling the blankets up and tucking them around the young hobbit.

Merry attempted a glare. “I’m afraid Merry’s not a very good patient,” Frodo murmured apologetically.

Pippin squeezed Merry’s hand and the older hobbit’s eyes travelled to him. “Stop being difficult, Merry,” Pippin ordered, his voice trembling. “You aren’t nearly as good at it as Frodo.”

“I—What?” said Frodo, who had turned back to watch the others emerge from the vent.

Merry grinned weakly. “Hullo, Pip,” he said, and squeezed back.

Declining Gimli’s aid, the elf sprang straight up and caught himself with his hands on both sides of the opening, vaulting free with a push. He was as covered with dust as the others yet made the exertion look effortless. Gandalf followed, using Gimli’s bent knee to climb to the dwarf’s shoulders where Boromir and Legolas could catch him under the arms and drag him out.

Aragornlooked up to see most of the Fellowship grouped around Merry, watching quietly but anxiously. “He will be all right, my friends. Pippin, would you fetch me one of the medical kits?”

“Samwise,” puffed the wizard, wiping dust from the glowing crystal imbedded in the tip of his staff, “I charge you with obtaining proper ropes at the first opportunity.” 

Sam tugged on Bill’s bridle to position the pony closer to the opening, a blanket tied at the ready. “Aye, sir,” replied Sam as Gimli clamped onto it. “Won’t ever be without one again. I’m sorry, Bill!” A stifled dwarvish oath sounded from below, followed by Gimli’s head and then the rest of him.

Pippin returned with the kit and handed it to Aragorn. The Ranger began sorting through its contents. “Don’t want any,” Merry croaked as the man read the Elvish tags to himself in a murmur.

Pippin leaned against the Ranger’s shoulder to watch as Aragorn uncorked a vial. “I never make such a fuss when I have to take some nasty tonic,” he said virtuously and untruthfully.

“Frodo!” wailed Merry as Aragorn lifted his head and placed the vial at his lips.

“Drink it, Meriadoc.”

“You’re … enjoying this,” Merry accused. Aragorn took advantage of the open mouth and tilted the vial. “Gaaaak! Ick! Yick!” Aragorn ignored the observations and eased his head carefully down again.

“We had best take what rest we can,” Gandalf said quietly as he sank down on a boulder. “Let us all sit and take counsel for a few moments.” He looked at the hobbits and the Ranger. “We cannot stay here, Aragorn.”

“I know,” replied the Ranger, examining Merry’s face intently. “He will be fine. He just needs to sleep now.” Even as Aragorn spoke, Merry’s eyes closed and he slipped back into slumber. Aragorn poured another liquid onto two more of the bandages and handed them to Frodo and Boromir. “Wipe your hands with this,” he instructed them. “It will clean the cuts and help them to heal.”

 Aragorn closed the kit and Pippin repacked it quickly, hurrying back to Merry’s side. Aragorn smiledat the tweenager. “It is all right, Pippin. Merry will undoubtedly wake hungryand thirstyand irritable because he missed all of the excitement.”

“Merry’s usually like that, anyway,” Pippin replied, cheerful now that his fears had been allayed. “I was really quite afraid,” he continued in a low voice, “when the rope broke while Boromir was lowering them down to the tunnel mouth. I thought they were both going to fall.” He sniffed slightly, still frightened by the memory. “And my Merry is so afraid of heights… I wanted to pull them up myself, or jump and knock them onto the ledge, or something… And then there were all those horrid goblins, and we had to walk for so long, and then there was the explosion and—we found your message, Frodo!” Pippin’s voice had been gradually growing louder and his words faster and Frodo looked at him in alarm. “And then I saw you trapped on those rocks, and all those goblins were screaming and burning, and … and then … and then there was the Black Rider…” Frodo rose stiffly to his feet and drew the trembling tweenager close for a hug, holding him tightly for long moments.

“No one in the Shire has braver, truer cousins,” Pippin declared, returning Frodo’s embrace fiercely, “despite what I say all the time. You and Merry are … you … you and Merry…” Suddenly the young hobbit stiffened and his hands curled into fists.

Frodo drew back and looked at him, startled. “Pippin? What is it, dear heart?”

Pippin’s mouth opened, but most uncharacteristically, nothing came out. His eyes widened, then rolled up, and he collapsed bonelessly into Aragorn’s waiting arms.


“It is quite all right, Frodo,” Aragorn assured him. “In fact, overdue.” He carefully lifted the young hobbit into his lap and laid Pippin across his knees. One hand took the tweenager’s pulse while the other gently pried up an eyelid to check the rolled-back eye. “I will never again permit this one stimulants,” the Ranger murmured himself. “Pippin is quite … energetic … enough without them.”

Seeing Frodo’s anxious gaze riveted to the young one’s face, Aragorn continued, “He will sleep through the night, and likely most of the coming day. And awake with a throbbing headache, I fear. He and Merry will make a fine pair until they feel better.” Frodo nodded his understanding and bent down to gently kiss his cousin’s forehead. Aragorn tucked Pippin into a nest of blankets next to Merry, who yawned and turned his head slightly. Without waking in the least, Pippin inched closer and tucked his head under his cousin’s chin. Something in Merry’s expression relaxed as he slipped into a deeper state of sleep. Frodo looked down upon them a moment and the Ranger saw the glimmer of tears in his eyes.

“Come, Frodo,” Aragorn said gently. “I would hear how you came to be surrounded by goblins, taunting a Ringwraith from atop a vast pile of stone. I’m sure it is quite a tale.” He guided the hobbit down next to Samwise and Frodo leaned against his friend gratefully.

“I was looking up at you all,” he began slowly. Underneath the dirt and weariness, his eyes sparkled briefly. “Merry was teasing me for falling over the edge and Pippin was throwing things at me—how long did you say my dear cousins will sleep, Aragorn?”

“The story, Frodo,” Aragorn prodded him with a smile.

“We must leave this place,” Gandalf said when Frodo had finished. The wizard rubbed the time-worn wood of his staff absently as he continued, “It is not safe here. The goblins will not seek us tonight; there has been too much disruption of their lives. But Frodo tells us we are not so far from the opening of the cavern mouth. When the Wraith wins free, it will hunt us as soon as it is able. We must move on.”

“Aye,” Gimli put in softly. “We are much reduced in strength. Boromir’s hands need time to heal and the hobbits are done in. Better to flee and hope to lose the Wraith in these trackless lands.”

“Gandalf,” Aragorn said quietly. “The Nazgûl will not forget this defeat. Be wary should you meet again.”

The wizard nodded tiredly. “I hope that that day will never come to pass … but if it does, my friend, I will remember your warning. Sam, is the pony ready?” Sam jerked up from where he had fallen asleep, sputtering. Frodo patted his arm in reassurance. Frodo had only spoke and listened and rested, his hands busy repairing the Ring’s chain, his thoughts in some dark and distant place.

“Yes, sir, we’re ready ‘ta go.” Sam struggled to his feet and extended an arm down to Frodo. Grimacing, Frodo hauled himself up and stood swaying, his arm locked in Sam’s.

The rest of the Fellowship donned their packs. Aragorn stooped and handed a sleeping Merry to Boromir, then collected Pippin for himself, hefting Pippin against his chest as one would a child. The young hobbit snuggled into the warmth of Aragorn’s shoulder and started to drool a little on his cloak.

They began their march slowly. Little rest and frantic activity was manifesting in stiff joints and aching muscles and weariness almost past bearing. Frodo walked close at Gandalf’s side, his shoulder providing the wizard a helpful hand-rest while taking comfort himself from his old friend’s touch. He kept checking around him on his kin and Sam until Gandalf laughed gruffly.

“Frodo, will you relax? Aragorn and Boromir will not drop your cousins. And Sam is doing well enough with the pack-pony to hold him up. What concerns you so? Do your hands pain you?”

Frodo flexed his fingers stiffly. “I do not ever want to have to climb up another rock wall... No, my hands hurt, Gandalf, but it is not too bad. I am more worried about the uncounted hundreds of angry goblins below us, and a Ringwraith buried in rubble that is at this moment working itself free—if it hasn’t done so already. Andthe fact that those of us who are still on our feet are nearly too exhausted to walk, much less fight. And we haven’t had a proper meal or sleep since we left Rivendell.”

Gandalf tightened his hand on Frodo’s shoulder affectionately. “You can always count on a hobbit to keep track of the important things. We will stop and sup and rest as soon as we have put the goblins a few more leagues behind us, Frodo.”

“Oh, goblins,” Sam said from behind, tugging on the pony’s rein to draw even with them. “Pardon me, Mr. Frodo, I forgot your sword.” Sam held out Sting and offered it to his master. “I’ve carried it ever since you were taken, sir, and I’m sure you’ll be wanting it back now.”

“Bless you, Sam!” Frodo said gratefully. “I would hate to tell Bilbo I’d lost it. And I certainly don’t want to carry this ugly goblin blade any longer.” Frodo pulled out the long, strange knife and all three of them regarded it with distaste.

Suddenly Bill whinnied and shied, pulling his reins out of a startled Sam’s hand. “Easy, lad,” Sam murmured, “it’s only a goblin blade—no goblins about—Bill!” The pony reared, laden as he was, and his hooves pawed the air. “Bill!” Sam cried again, aghast at the usually docile pony’s behavior.

Gandalf jumped to the side with speed belaying his appearance and caught the animal’s harness, pulling Bill’s head down. The pony tried to bolt, dragging the wizard several yards forward. Sam darted after them and added his weight to Gandalf’s, fighting to steady the pony. Bill squealed and kicked, ignoring their attempts to calm him.

Frodo took a step forward, uncertain if they needed his help, when something huge and impossibly fast crashed into him and slammed him backwards to the earth. The breath knocked out of him, he could only manage a strangled cry before a horrible stench overwhelmed him. Coarse, stinking hair filled his face. Over the warg’s growls he heard Aragorn shouting, then the great body on him tried to lift itself off and savage him. Stained yellow fangs slashed close to his face, its hot breath choking him, but the warg had misjudged its leap. It had overshot him and landed with its prey under its belly instead of under its jaws.

Unable to breathe, unable to think, Frodo stabbed upwards with the blade in his hand. Hot blood gushed into his face. The warg screamed and a huge paw narrowly missed the hobbit’s head as it clawed at the ground to rake him. Frodo thrust the knife in again, as far as he could. The beast jerked away from him, allowing him a breath of air. Frodo rolled to the side and cut at the back of the massive paw, seeking to hamstring it. Even wounded the warg was impossibly quick; it leaped backwards, clearing Frodo entirely, and crouched snarling before him.

Now the others were moving; carrying the sleeping hobbits had slowed Aragorn and Boromir. Legolas’ arrow found its mark before the men could clear their swords; it burrowed deep into the beast’s side. But Legolas was too close and its hide too thick; the arrow did damage but did not kill. The warg threw back its head and howled, agony mixing with blood lust. The elf flung down his bow and leaped forward with his sword.

Frodo heard rather than saw the thick ‘thunk’ of Gimli’s axe as it parted hair and flesh and drove deep into the animal’s body. The warg twisted and screamed, snapping at the axe imbedded in its shoulder. The double-bladed war axe had scored on bone but even the dwarf’s great strength could not snap the shoulder. Gimli jerked it free and fell back, his face grim.

Gandalf had managed to untangle himself from the pony, leaving Sam to drag Bill out of the path of the monster. Frodo was dimly aware of shouts and swords flashing above him; his attention was all for the warg weaving between them. It was almost full dark; he could see it only as a vast bulk outlined against the early stars. The warg snarled at its attackers but did not divert itself from the scent it had been put to. It charged Frodo again and the hobbit rolled to the side, managing to sink his blade deeply into its foot as it passed over him.  

The warg yelped and drew the injured paw close to its body, whirling around on three legs. Frodo twisted over onto his stomach and pushed himself  to his feet, the goblin blade still tight in his hand. Long, bleeding cuts covered the beast’s hide and he saw Aragorn dart in and thrust his sword in to the hilt in the hollow behind the beast’s foreleg. The warg screamed and threw itself backwards, dragging Aragorn into the air before he could pull free his sword. Boromir snatched his cloak and pulled the Ranger out of the way of the thrashing claws. With elven-speed, Legolas ran under it as it pawed the air and drove his sword in its belly, seeking to eviscerate it. But it too was quick and with suddenness none of them could have anticipated, the beast flung itself to the side, plowing into Gimli and tossing him aside. But it did not go for the dwarf on the ground. Instead it turned back to Frodo and crouched to leap for him. Frodo saw it hesitate, then stagger. Then slowly, it toppled to the ground and lay still.

The embattled Company crept towards it cautiously. The beast’s great, bloodied sides heaved and it shuddered. Blood gushed from its nose and mouth. Whining, it clawed the earth once, and then it died.

Aragorn stared at the shocked faces around the carcass. “None of us scored deeply enough to kill it…” he murmured. Then his eyes fastened on the Ring-bearer. “Frodo,” he rasped, “let me see that knife.”

Wiping the foul beast’s blood from his face, Frodo handed the goblin blade to Aragorn. It was red to the hilt but the Ranger spat on it then used a corner of his cloak to wipe the blood away. The place he had cleaned gleamed black with an iridescent glaze, like a film of oil laid on water.

“Poison,” Gimli growled. “The blade is coated with it. It is a device often used by these cowardly folk.”

“Then … Frodo,” stammered Sam, still holding the trembling Bill with the pony’s nose in the crook of his elbow, “he killed that beast…”

Frodo was staring at the knife in Aragorn’s hands, horror writ deep on his face. “I … I carried that,” he murmured, “…handled it … fought with it. I could have…”

Aragorn dropped the blade and in two strides reached the hobbit and was kneeling before him, clasping Frodo’s arms. “This poison was meant to kill, not merely incapacitate. Did it cut you? Even the smallest cut?”

“No,” Frodo managed. “No … it never touched me.”

Aragorn bowed his head and closed his eyes for a moment before releasing Frodo. “Thank the Valar for that,” he said, regaining his feet. With a sigh, he added, “If there is any good to be made of this day’s work, it is that Elrond is now forewarned and will be on his guard. Rivendell will not be caught unprepared.”

“And we have dealt a blow, however small, to the Enemy’s plans ourselves,” Gandalf added. “I do not think the Eye will be pleased when he hears of his chiefest servant’s discomfiture. Let us hope Sauron is very, very displeased.”

“And extracts retribution for his displeasure on the Wraith,” Legolas contributed with a twinkle in his starry eyes.

“Aye, I would hope for that,” Gimli agreed.

“We will probably never know,” Gandalf murmured. “In any case, time is wearing on and we still need to put distance between us and the caverns behind us. How are Merry and Pippin?”

Boromir knelt over the two sleeping forms, placed well away from the conflict. “They sleep undisturbed,” he replied, a smile in his voice. Sliding his arms under Merry’s back and knees, the solider lifted him as Aragorn collected Pippin.

The wizard nodded as the Fellowship fell into line. “Ring-bearer, will you lead on?"

“I will,” said Frodo, and despite his weariness walked forward into the dark.

The End

A/N: For those of you interested in the birth of plot bunnies, the bunny that sparked this story was partially engendered by movieverse, from a scene in The Return of the King. Remember the shot of the Witch-king astride the Fell Beast as the captain of the orcs stands before it and asks it about the White Wizard? The Nazgûl replies, “I will crush him.” I wondered why it had chosen those words to describe its plans for Gandalf. Much of this story springs from that single sentence of dialogue.

My heartfelt thanks to my wonderful beta Marigold, who's beta-work has vastly improved this adventure. Thank you, my friend! 


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