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Dangerous Folk  by Budgielover

Disclaimer: All original plots and original characters are the property of the author. The Lord of the Rings and all its characters and settings are the property of the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien Enterprises, and 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.  Almost all of Budgie's stories may be found at

Chapter One

“Ahhhhh,” the soldier murmured, leaning forward intently. “That is it, then.”

Aragorn raised an eyebrow and shifted against the fallen log he was sharing with Boromir, seeking a place where the rough, decaying bark did not dig into his back. He sucked on his pipe for a moment, then sent a lazy smoke ring into the air. “What is?”

Boromir relaxed against his end of the log and stretched out his legs to cross his boots at the ankle, a satisfied smile on his face. Aragorn waited patiently, studying the terrain as the rest of the Company moved about them or rested, the breather the wizard was allowing them promising to be all too brief. With Legolas standing watch atop one of the nearby boulders, Aragorn had no fear that an enemy would make use of the stone-sewn landscape to waylay them … but a lifelong practice of watchfulness ruled him, now more than ever when he had the Ring-bearer’s safety to consider.

Gandalf stood by one of the great stones, scowling as the wind tugged at his hair and beard. There seemed to be little before him to deserve such a severe expression; few points of interest populated this empty land between Eregion and the distant mountains. Most trees, like the one against which Aragorn and Boromir reclined, were long dead and fallen. With a disgruntled mutter, the wizard turned from his examination of the bleak hills and called, “Hurry up there, my lads!”

“Almost done, Gandalf!” Frodo called back.

“The halflings’ secret language,” Boromir clarified at last. “I have finally deciphered it.”

Aragorn withdrew his pipe and examined the smoke from it as if he thought it might be adversely affecting the soldier. Pippin, for instance, would think it a fine joke to add certain herbs to his pipe-weed. That thought had occurred to him earlier in their march, prompting Aragorn to twist wires tightly around some of the little sacks in the medicinal kits Elrond had provided them. He would know if they had been tampered with. Finding nothing amiss with his pipe, he replied, “The hobbits speak Westron after the manner of Men. Just as we do.”

Boromir nodded. “They do. I refer to the secret language they speak amongst themselves.” He chuckled as Aragorn’s other eyebrow followed the first.

Boromir gestured to where the hobbits were gathered at the edge of the murky lake which had earned them this respite. Pippin, Merry, and Frodo were lined up in a row, an arm’s length apart, forming a hobbit-chain to fill the Company’s water bottles. Sam stood on the bank, accepting each laden bottle from Pippin then passing back an empty, which Merry would then pass on to Frodo. Gimli stood at Sam’s side, holding the pony’s halter to keep the thirsty beast from the water until they were finished.

Bill whinnied, bobbing his head. “Easy, easy,” Gimli rumbled as the pony strained forward, nostrils distended. He might have dragged a hobbit to the water but Gimli stood immovable as a stone pillar. Bill gave up the effort with a snort and an unhappy wicker. Stroking the rough mane comfortingly, Gimli said, “It is fortunate we came upon this lake before our water is completely gone. What little we have left tastes flat and stale, and there is no sign of more for leagues.”

“I wish it was a mite clearer,” Sam replied, reaching up Bill’s side to unlash the Company’s water barrel and lower it to the ground. “I don’t like water I can’t see the bottom to. And all these boulders … they look like Mr. Bilbo’s trolls rooted up the ground and threw them in the water, trying to drown some poor soul, maybe. This place has an evil feel. Maybe we should just go on–”

“Animals know, Samwise,” Gandalf said, giving the pony a pat as he joined them. “Bill would not want to drink from a fouled water source. This lake was always muddy, but never so dark before. I do not understand what has happened. But it is still potable, and we must drink. The water is wholesome, if unpleasant.”

Sam looked dubiously at the water as he passed the barrel to Pippin, ignoring the tweenager’s strangled “Ugh!” as Pippin accepted its weight. “If you say so, sir. But I’m straining it through cheesecloth before any of us drink.”

“That exchange seemed quite intelligible to me,” Aragorn observed to Boromir.

“I said, ‘amongst themselves’,” the soldier repeated. “Listen.”

“Just a little longer, Bill,” the men heard Sam say as he loosened the pony’s cinch. Bill heaved a great sigh. Sam’s face softened and he reached forward to rub the pony’s muzzle. Bill thrust his nose into his hand eagerly, looking for water. “You can have a drink in just half a tic. There’s a good lad. How many more, master?”

Frodo looked up, wet to his waist, water dripping from his sodden, shivering form. His shirt was plastered to him and the fine brown velvet of his breeches had darkened to black. He had taken off his cloak and jacket and waistcoat, and these now lay in a heap on the bank, along with his sword and swordbelt and pack. The others also had removed their packs and coats; Aragon had no doubt that once their task was done, there would be a dive for the packs and the frantic donning of dry clothes.

“This is the last, Sam. Just the water barrel, then we can dry off and poor Bill can have his drink.”

With sudden trepidation, Aragorn realised the Ring-bearer had ventured farthest out into the lake, filling the bottles where the water was clearest and cleanest. He wondered if Frodo had placed himself at the end of the line because he was the tallest, or because he did not want to allow his cousins into the deeper water. Aragorn started to his feet but at that moment, Frodo straightened, holding aloft the last bottle. Shaking water from it, he stoppered it and passed it to Merry, accepting their wooden water barrel in its place.

“Good!” Pippin chimed in, lifting a hairy foot free of the water and shaking it. Merry grimaced as some of the icy drops struck him. “I am freezing! And there aren’t any fish in this pool. Or clams or mussels or anything to eat.” The men saw Merry roll his eyes as he pivoted to pass the bottle to Pippin.

“We are getting water, Pippin,” Frodo replied patiently, struggling to position the barrel in the water so he could pull the cork. It came free and Frodo stowed it carefully in his pocket.

“Odd there isn’t any cattails,” Sam remarked idly, “nor marsh-grass or water-weeds. There’s almost always something growing at the edge of a pond.”

“Not even frogs,” Pippin continued in aggrieved tones. “I could do with a nice score of frog legs, dipped in breadcrumbs and fried in butter–”

“Mind your business,” Merry said sharply as Pippin shifted from foot to foot. “The bottom is slippery. And your jumping about is clouding the water. Clouding it more,” he added in a disgusted tone.

“I am not ‘jumping about,’ thank you very much. It just happens to be so cold my feet are freezing, and–”

“Lads! Please!” With a sigh, Frodo looked down at the agitated water swirling past him. Extending a foot carefully, he felt the mucky ground before him and moved deeper into the lake, dragging the water barrel after him. Boromir decided his theory was confirmed at Frodo’s choice of words and tone and nodded in self-congratulation, earning himself an amused look from Aragorn. Frodo found a spot to his liking and bent again, pushing the water barrel under the water and leaning on it to keep it from bobbing to the surface. Bubbles rose up and burst in noisy ‘blops’ as the barrel filled.

“Gandalf tells me they once had their own language,” Aragorn commented, “that is now largely forgotten. This language shares many archaic words with Elvish, which is a special interest of Frodo’s. But hobbits speak Westron now.”

Boromir nodded, grateful for the chance to rest. He had been gathering the water bottles himself when the Ring-bearer had stopped him. Frodo looked tired and in sore need of a rest himself, but he stood with his back straight, holding out his arms. “Thank you, Boromir,” the hobbit had said, “but you brought in our supper last night, and did all the skinning and butchering. Let us do our share of the work.”

Surprised, Boromir handed over the water bottles. The bottles had filled Frodo’s arms until only his eyes peeked above them. “Up, lads,” Frodo had said in a commanding (and somewhat muffled) voice. The others had dragged themselves to their feet and obeyed, initiating the soldier’s contemplation of hobbit-hierarchies. As Boromir settled himself against the log and the hobbits waded into the lake, he mused that while he usually did not feel the weight of the chain-mail he wore, he was learning that endless hours of riding a horse were quite different from endless hours of walking on one’s own two legs. Of all of them, Boromir thought, only the dwarf walked heavier-burdened; helmet and chain-mail and axes. But Gimli never seemed to tire.

“Have you not noticed?” Boromir asked, realising his late reply had caused the Ranger to examine his pipe again. “When Frodo wants his younger cousins’ cooperation, he refers to them as ‘lads.’ Master Samwise is an adult, I understand, and Meriadoc also, and Pippin is not a child. But Frodo puts them quite firmly in their place by addressing them so.”

Aragorn puffed, intrigued by this train of thought. “But it is also a term of affection. Of reassurance. I cannot count the number of times I have heard Frodo or Merry call the youngest one ‘Pippin-lad’.”

“Think on it,” Boromir urged. “When Frodo wants obedience from his kin, he calls them ‘Meriadoc’ and ‘Peregrin.’ Not that his use of their formal names seems to be terribly effective, but I believe he does signal thusly to them that he is serious.”

“And Samwise?” Aragorn asked, amused by this speculation.

Pippin paused in his work, drawing their attention to him. The men fell silent, watching. Legolas turned and looked at them, then resumed his scrutiny of the landscape. The youngest hobbit’s gaze was riveted on the water, his body tense. The other hobbits froze also, their eyes on him. Frodo looked curious, Merry annoyed. When Pippin did not move, Merry began, “Pippin? What–?”

Pippin shook his head minimally, not looking up. Merry fell silent, frowning. Pippin visibly gathered himself. Then he darted forward, quick hands snatching up something long and dark undulating just under the surface.

“Got you!” Pippin’s triumphant expression faded as he held up a thick, slime-covered stick.

“Looks delicious,” Merry remarked. “Shall we fillet and fry it, or salt it and eat it later?”

Pippin looked mournfully at the stick then cast it back into the water, wiping his hand on his shirt and leaving a muddy smear. “I thought I saw something moving… If that had been a fish, cousin, it wouldn’t have been enough for two. Go catch your own fish.”

“Not too keen on eating anything out of that,” Merry muttered, eying the brown water distastefully.

“Back to work, lads,” Frodo admonished them. “We are almost done, and I, for one, would appreciate getting out of this freezing lake.”

“Ah, that is different,” Boromir said, resuming their conversation. “Frodo calls Samwise ‘lad’ as an endearment. I might add that I have seen Samwise do nothing to provoke, embarrass, or mortify Frodo, intentionally or not, as the two other ones did repeatedly in Rivendell. Which brings me to another observation…” Boromir paused, enjoying the Ranger’s expression. “When Frodo uses one of the others’ full name, that one is in trouble.”

Aragorn coughed in amusement. “I think they are taught respect for their elders early,” he said thoughtfully. “You saw how they were with Bilbo–”

“Pippin, will you be still!”

“My toes are freezing off! You’ll be sorry when you have to carry me!”

“Lads! If you don’t–” There was a yelp then a tremendous splash. Aragorn looked up just in time to see Frodo’s horrified expression as the hobbit threw up his arms and fell backwards. Water closed over his head. Freed, the barrel bobbed to the surface and began to drift away. Aragorn winced and resisted the desire to close his eyes.

“Now you’ve done it,” Merry growled at Pippin.

“I did not–”

“Frodo?” Merry’s tentative query rode over Pippin’s protest. At the same moment, the men heard Sam gasp, “Mr. Frodo? Are you all right?”

Gandalf strode to the edge and leaned forward, driving his staff into the soft earth of the shore. “Frodo Baggins! You stop that this moment and come up! This is not remotely humorous!”

The circles of water were diminishing where Frodo had gone under. The members of the Company looked at each other blankly.

“Frodo?” quavered Pippin.

Aragorn shoved himself to his feet, feeling the log behind him rock as Boromir followed. “Can you see him?”

“The water is too laden with silt,” Gimli replied, peering into the murky depths. “Are hobbits known for being able to hold their breath?”

“He’s not coming up!” Merry flung himself full-length into the lake, throwing water in all directions, drenching Pippin and pelting Sam, Gimli, and Bill with icy droplets. Startled by the unexpected shower, Bill reared, sending his unsecured packs crashing to the ground. Sam whirled around, his expression appalled as his beloved pots and pans clattered on the rocks. Leaping for Bill’s reins, he caught them and held on with both hands. The pots and pans and sudden movement were too much for Bill; the normally-placid pony tried to bolt. Sam was dragged off his feet but did not relinquish the reins. Gimli hauled on the bridle, dragging all three of them in a half-circle.

“Whoa, lad! Whoa!” Sam cried as Gimli pulled the pony’s head down. “Take him, sir!” Staggering to his feet, he thrust the reins into Gimli’s hands and barrelled into the pool, pulling up short as an erupting fountain of water heralded Merry’s surfacing. Sam leapt forward and caught him, holding him upright as Merry choked and coughed.

“Where is he?” Sam shouted.

 Merry spit out a mouthful of water and looked frantically about. “I didn’t find him!”

“Frodo?” Pippin cried, starting to wallow towards Merry and past him. Merry caught him by the collar and dragged him back.

“I couldn’t find him! Aragorn!

Aragorn leapt into the water and pushed himself to the spot where Frodo had disappeared. The hobbits fell back to give him room. Boromir, behind him, was struggling to pull off his surcoat and had entangled his arms in a confusion of tunic and mail. Swearing, he dragged his arms free and threw his surcoat on the ground, splashing after the Ranger. Legolas leaped down from his boulder and raced towards them, abandoning his watch for the more immediate emergency. With a great breath, Aragorn ducked into the water, feeling an icy shock slice through him like the blade of a sword. For a moment he could not move, stunned by the cold, then his chest loosened and he regained control of his limbs. Snow-melt, he realised, running off from the mountains. Frodo was submerged in this?

The hobbits’ actions had indeed clouded the water; silt swirled around him, filled with tiny black particles that seemed to move independently of the undercurrent. He could see nothing. He turned in a circle, arms extended, fingers seeking to brush against a possibly unconscious form. Nothing. Another step into deeper water. Another groping turn. Nothing. With a gasp he surfaced, water streaming down his face like tears.

“Get the hobbits out of the water!” Gandalf roared, splashing forward.

Legolas swerved in mid-stride. Long arms reached out and scooped up Pippin, handed him dripping and fighting to Gimli. Gimli freed a hand from Bill’s bridle to wrap an arm around him. “Master Pippin, stop struggling! Be still!”

“Merry!” Legolas cried. “Samwise! Come to me!”

“No!” Merry shouted. He tried to duck as Boromir overtook him and hauled him free of the water. “Put me down!” In his desperation he twisted and slid free of Boromir’s arms, landing in the water to launch himself after Aragorn. Boromir struggled after him, hampered by his heavy clothing. Merry dove but Boromir caught a hobbit-foot and held on, dragging Merry backwards. Gasping, Merry surfaced, flailing at the water. Legolas joined him and together he and Boromir overpowered the hobbit and dragged him to shore.

“Give me Pippin,” Gandalf ordered, reaching for the tweenager. Gimli surrendered him. Pippin clung to the wizard’s robes, frightened now, then tried to dart to Merry as Legolas handed him to Gimli. Gandalf tightened his hold, but his gruff voice was unusually gentle. “Stay with me, Peregrin.”

With another deep breath, Aragorn went under again. This time he crawled along the mucky bottom, sweeping his hands to the side. He propelled himself forward with kicks, farther than Frodo could have simply fallen. With an explosive gasp, Aragorn surfaced and looked back just in time to see a white-faced Sam reach the spot Frodo had gone under. Sam was batting at the water, his face wild with fear.

“Sam! Go back to Merry and Pippin!”

“Where’s he gone? Where’s he gone, then?”

“Samwise,” Legolas said kindly, coming up on the hobbit, “Please come back with me to shore. You are needed there, and not here.” Sam stood irresolute, then nodded jerkily and followed the elf, who seemed to glide through the water with the same ease as air.

Raking his hair out of his eyes, Aragorn called, “Hobbits, stay with Gandalf! Gimli, guard them! Legolas, search the shore – see if you can find any sign.”

“Dwarves are not good swimmers,” the dwarf agreed regretfully, tightening a heavy hand on Merry’s shoulder as Legolas sprang away. “You will stay with me, young sirs, until we find Master Frodo. He has probably surfaced behind one of those boulders and is even now catching his breath.”

“Frodo!” Pippin shouted, straining up on his toes. “Frodo!”

“No! Pippin, be quiet! There has been enough shouting!” Still huddled in the shelter of Gandalf’s robes, Pippin looked up into the wizard’s face. Gandalf was glaring at the water, at the surrounding area, into the air, as if enemies might descend upon them at any moment. “We have already announced our presence to any listening ears. We must quit this place as quickly as possible.”

Gandalf turned to Aragorn, and his eyes blazed. “Find him. Bring him back.”

Boromir and Aragorn exchanged a grim look. “We will,” Aragorn affirmed. Then the two men took a deep breath and forced themselves under the dark waters.

* TBC *

The hobbits stood on the shore, shivering fit to rattle their bones out of their bodies. Gimli could hear their teeth chattering, and icy water had crept up Samwise’s clothing until he was scarcely drier than the other two. They made no move towards their packs and dry clothes, but instead stood hugging each other, their eyes riveted on the dark waters.

Gimli shook his head and patted the pony’s trembling neck. Bill’s soft brown eyes were white-rimmed but he stood quietly, no longer trying to bolt. Gandalf, in Gimli’s opinion, was demonstrating no better sense than the little people. The wizard stood behind the hobbits, soaked to his knees, one hand clenched around his staff and the other resting on Pippin’s shoulder. His hat had fallen off sometime during his charge into the water and was now drifting slowly away, forlorn and forgotten.

With an explosive spray of water, both men surfaced, flinging freezing droplets in all directions. Aragorn shook hair out of his eyes and ran a hand over his face, then kicked for shore. Boromir followed, still encumbered by his heavy clothing.

“He is gone,” the Ranger called, raising his eyes to Gandalf.

Pippin winced as Gandalf’s hand tightened to the point of pain. A faint squeak escaped him and Gandalf looked down with a frown. Seeing the frightened face tilted back to look up at him, the wizard gently tugged Pippin’s hair in apology.

“Gone? How could he be gone?”

“The water … becomes very deep past this shallow shelf,” Boromir gasped. “He is not there.” He tried to stand, slipped in the mud, and sat down with a splash. As he could not possibly be any wetter, he addressed them from there. “We dove to the bottom. We could not see, so we searched with our hands. There is an opening, a passageway between two rocks. Those over there.” He pointed and all eyes turned to the tops of two of the great boulders, visible only as dark grey mounds barely above the water.

“They must have dragged him down and between them,” Aragorn said. “It must have been very quick.”

“They? Who are ‘they’?” Sam’s voice was shrill.

Aragorn made no reply as he gained his feet. Boots squelching, he waded up on the bank. “Were they waiting for us? They might have surmised that we would stop for water, but they could not have known the hobbits would be refilling the bottles. Or that Frodo would venture farthest into the lake.”

Like a rush of wind, Legolas passed them, reversing the direction of his search. He did not pause to give his report but only shook his head, his eyes on the ground ahead of him. In moments he was out of hailing distance, visible only as a swift, graceful blur of motion running soundlessly over the marshy ground.

Aragorn stared after him, his face grim. Then he slogged past the hobbits and Gandalf, dripping mud and brown water. Unbuckling his sword belt, he laid it over the log and began to divest himself of coat, leather tunic, and an astonishing number of knives. He made an attempt to dry the blades, shaking his head as he only smeared the mud. “Gimli, would you–”

“I will clean and oil them, Aragorn.” Gimli held out the pony’s reins to Sam, who took them automatically.

“Thank you.” Aragorn sank down on the log and retrieved a knife from the pile, re-inserted it into the side of his boot. He started to slip another blade down the back of his shirt then withdrew it. “Too short, too short,” he murmured, regretfully returning it to the others. Boromir was doing the same, entrusting his sword and battle-shield to Gimli’s care and choosing instead long knives more suitable for swimming.

Soundless and swift, Legolas returned, his fair face distressed. “I found no sign that he has been taken from the water. I searched both directions for half a league. They could not possibly have taken him farther than that in these last moments.”

“Then they are still in the lake with him … taking him – where?” Aragorn absently accepted the handkerchief Sam pressed upon him and mopped his face, still staring at the water.

“Frodo is a good swimmer,” Merry said tersely, “but no one can hold his breath that long.”

“It is unlikely he had a choice,” Aragorn replied. “They could have surfaced behind the rocks, caught a breath of air, and gone down again. A hand clamped over his nose and mouth would prevent him from crying out, while controlling his breathing. They would have forced him under again as soon as he had air enough.” He pulled a twig out of his hair and stood, ignoring the puddles forming under his feet.

“Be careful,” Gandalf instructed as the men strode past him to the water’s edge. “We will follow along the shore. We will keep you in sight as much as we can. If we are separated–”

“I’m coming too.” Merry was already unbuckling his sword belt, and sliding the small dagger he wore at his waist around to the front. Pippin’s face blanched and his mouth opened, then he swallowed, saying nothing.

No, Merry.” Aragorn’s tone was firm as he pushed into the water. It seemed to be even more frigid the second time. He thought of Frodo immersed for so long in such water, and of the consequences to a body already weary from travel and weakened by an unhealing wound.

“I can swim as well as you or Boromir. I’m a better swimmer than Frodo, actually.”

“That as may be,” Gandalf said, “but one hobbit missing is enough. You will stay with me, Meriadoc Brandybuck.” Merry stood twisting his hands, his desire to disobey obvious. Pippin inched away from Gandalf and ran his arm through his cousin’s, leaning against him, misery on his face.


Aragorn pivoted and caught the long knife Legolas tossed to him with ease. It was one of the matched pair the elf always carried, rosewood hilts inlaid with mithril, grace-filled blades forged both beautiful and deadly. Aragorn nodded and slid the sheath down his back, shrugging his shoulders to settle it into place. The two men exchanged a look, sank into the water and began swimming to the grey boulders.

Those on the shore stood watching. And … dripping. Gimli growled his opinion of people who stood about in freezing wet clothing, then with the practicality of Dwarves, reached over the log to examine the Ranger’s forgotten pipe. Finding it still lit, Gimli broke off several pieces of decaying bark, turned the pipe over on them and by the time Legolas carried the escaped water barrel up onto the bank, had a small blaze going.

“Well done,” the elf said softly as Gimli fed the growing fire another piece of wood. Legolas lowered the barrel to the ground, then looked lost as he realised the cork had vanished with their Ring-bearer. Gimli selected a piece of soft bark and drove it into the barrel with one slam of his fist.

Pippin jumped and turned to look behind him, then resumed staring out over the lake. None of the others even turned, their attention wholly on the swimmers in the water. Legolas sighed and moved closer to Gimli, stooping slightly so that his voice would not carry. “There is no sign along the banks. Oh, there are scuffling marks and signs of animals, but no footprints.” He paused, watching as Aragorn and Boromir reached the boulders. “Yet there is something in this empty land. Water had crept into the marks, and they were some distance from the shoreline. I think that perhaps water was poured upon them to distort them. And … I feel unfriendly eyes upon us.”

Gimli nodded in agreement. They watched as Aragorn and Boromir steadied themselves against the great rocks, treading water while they talked in low voices that did not carry to those on the bank. At least to mortal folk, Gimli thought wryly, as the elf beside him could no doubt hear every word. Merry actually stepped forward before Gandalf ordered him back. Knowing Merry, Gimli could well appreciate how frustrated the hobbit must be not to overhear the men’s conversation. Then the Ranger and the soldier drew apart, took deep breaths, and dived.

Legolas turned back to Gimli. “I will resume the watch. The boulder over there will be high enough for me to see our companions, as well as the land and the rest of the lake.”

Gimli nodded again, fingering the axes at his belt. With the men gone, it would fall to him and Gandalf and Legolas to defend the little folk. Best they be gone as soon as possible. Gimli humphed to himself and marched up to the silent foursome. “Master Frodo will be little pleased if you three catch cold,” he rumbled, not daring to reprimand Gandalf. Catching Sam’s shoulder, Gimli turned him around and pushed him towards the fire. “Standing there in the wet will help no one. Better you dry off and warm up.”

“Bill hasn’t had his drink,” Sam demurred, his hands tightening on the reins. “And I’ve got to pick up my pans.” The pony was placid now, but his ears still flicked nervously and the skin on his withers jumped and twitched.

“After you have changed,” Gandalf said abruptly. “Samwise, get yourself dry. Merry, Pippin, you also. I will water Bill.” Not waiting for their agreement, he caught the pony’s bridle and led Bill forward, his grey robes billowing about him as he waded into the water. Reaching his hat, he slapped it against his leg and glared at it as Bill lowered his head to drink.

The hobbits began sorting out their packs and unlacing them, pulling out blankets and whatever clothing they encountered. The fire was now crackling merrily, an oddly incongruous sound. It somehow sounded much louder than it should. Pippin held out his hands to the flames, then ducked his head and began rubbing his hair dry, keeping one eye on Merry and the other on Sam. Sam had collected Frodo’s discarded clothing and pack and was laying out a set of his master’s warmest clothes before he opened his own.



Pippin was silent, a rare enough occurrence for his cousin to tear his attention from the lake and award him a piercing look. The tweenager was staring into the fire with a strained look on his face, his damp blanket lying forgotten on his lap. Merry’s impatient words died on his lips, and he reached out caught Pippin’s arm and squeezed it gently.

“What is it, Cousin?”

“Is it him? Did he take Frodo?”

Merry was confused. “Who are you talking about, Pip?”

Pippin dropped his voice as if listening ears were leaning towards them. Merry glanced around; Gandalf was still watering the pony, his gaze locked on the place where Aragorn and Boromir had disappeared. Gimli was working on the men’s weapons, and Legolas stood silent and intent on a tall boulder, his keen gaze roving ceaselessly.

Gollum. Was it Gollum, Merry?”

Ah. That old story of Bilbo’s had always terrified Pippin. Strange, really… Pippin loved the old hobbit’s tales of dragons and dwarves and battles, but that skulking creature in the cave struck some chord Merry had never understood. Perhaps it was Bilbo’s vivid description of the cold, cloying dark, or the naked, decaying bones of the poor fish the creature had consumed. Or Bilbo’s dramatic depiction of his own terror and desperation. That particular story would give Pippin horrible dreams for nights after. Hearing of Gollum’s escape from the Elves at Elrond’s Council had caused Pippin to whimper and toss in his sleep, until Merry could bear it no longer and had crawled in with him. Even so, Merry could not answer less than honestly.

“I don’t know, Pip.” Pippin’s eyes seem to grow even larger and Merry sought to comfort him. “Aragorn said ‘they,’ though. I think it would take more than one, however quick and strong, to overpower Frodo … he may be tall and skinny but he’s tough, our Frodo.”

Pippin hunched closer to the fire. “But if Gollum caught him off-guard … and pulled him under…”

“Pippin,” Merry said firmly, “we don’t know anything, except that Aragorn and Boromir have gone after him. And we’re following them–”

“Aren’t you ready yet?” Gandalf asked as he led Bill past them. Already changed, Sam jumped up and took the reins, tying them around a stunted tree. Nodding his approval, Gandalf continued, “Hurry up, then. Samwise, pack up. You two help Gimli load the pony whilst I speak with Legolas.”

Ignoring his own wet clothes, Gandalf strode past them. Legolas sank down to one knee to speak with him, but the elf never looked at him, keeping his attention on the landscape. At least he did not have to chivvy the elf into dry clothes, Gimli thought. Of course, Elves never caught cold, unlike Hobbits, Men, and Dwarves. He was uncertain of Wizards.

“Ready, then?” Gimli asked the hobbits, privately thinking that the three still looked more like drowned rats than anything else. Though dressed in fresh clothing, the brown water had crusted on them until only a long scrub in clean water would remove it. Pippin’s hair stuck out in all directions while Merry’s lay flat, the ends already curling into snarled ringlets. “Put out the fire and bring me the water bottles.” With a grunt Gimli lofted the barrel up against the pony’s side and held it while Sam lashed it to the packs.

* * *
Burning. His chest was on fire. He could feel the pressure in every toe and finger, but the greatest pain was his chest. His ribs felt fit to explode while his starved lungs fought to expand, denied that by the hand clamped agonizingly over his face.

The hand was clammy cold, but no more than the arm pinning him across the chest. Cold, so cold. He had tried kicking backwards, and had felt contact with hard bone, but it seemed to have had no effect. Twisting and fighting were useless; it was as if whatever was dragging him down felt neither pity nor pain.

Was this how his mother and father had died? That night on the Brandywine, so long ago? Everyone said he had her eyes, his mother’s eyes. She had been so beautiful. And his father had had the most infectious laugh. It rang in his ears again, a full-throated peal of joy. No … it was water rushing into his ears and mouth and lungs. Even while recognising that he was drowning, Frodo hoped that his parents had not suffered so. Not so much pain. Not this slow stiffening of his limbs, not this darkening of his sight. Not this…

* TBC *

“Where were these marks on the shore?” Gandalf asked, steadying himself with a hand against the boulder on which Legolas knelt to speak with him. Water still dripped in a steady stream from the elf’s light clothing and from Gandalf’s heavier robes, forming puddles at their feet. “Could you tell what manner of creature made them?”

The elf stood, straightening the bow at his back automatically, his clear-seeing eyes scrutinizing the scuffling marks that were their only clue to Frodo’s abduction. Before sinking down again, he checked on Gimli and the hobbits, appreciating the dwarf’s gentle harrying of the little people. Gimli had Samwise and Merry and Pippin hurrying around the pony, gathering firewood, kicking sand over the fire, bringing him this or that to be lashed to the packs – the bustle keeping them warm as well as keeping them occupied.

“Half a league before us,” Legolas murmured, mindful of the hobbits’ excellent hearing. “Water had distorted them – water, with the lake at least four strides away. There were muddy drips on the ground, as if the water had been scooped up and poured into the tracks. Of the tracks themselves…” Legolas paused, his brow knitting. “They had done a good job with their concealment. I could tell little beyond that there were perhaps a score of them … and they went barefoot as do our little ones … and their feet were clawed.”


Legolas nodded. “Yes. The water had not blurred the indentation of claws in the sand. Indeed, water had seeped into the indentations and preserved them. I do not think they counted on that.”

Gandalf was silent, thinking, but the hand on his gnarled staff was white with strain. After one glance at him, Legolas stood and returned his attention to the watch, listening as well as looking.

“We’re ready!” Pippin called moments later. He hurried to them and tugged on Gandalf’s robe, too frightened and worried for Frodo to be prudent. “Please, may we go now?”

“Very well,” Gandalf said. “We will follow the shoreline. Legolas–”

The elf leapt down gracefully, unlimbering his bow and stringing it in one motion. Running an arrow between his fingers and finding the fletching dry, he nocked it loosely and laid a hand on Pippin’s shoulder. “Lead on, Mithrandir. We will not be taken unawares a second time.”

* * *

Aragorn could feel the pressure of the water all about him, so cold it seemed to burn. Eyes clenched tightly shut, he followed Boromir, a hand lightly clasping the soldier’s ankle. Too close would earn him a kick in the jaw, too far and they might become separated. They had agreed between them that he would follow with one hand on Boromir and a bare blade in the other. If they were attacked, he would have to defend them both, but one of them must have his hands free for swimming.

Boromir kicked and turned his body sideways and Aragorn followed blindly, feeling rock scrape both chest and back as they passed between the rocks that had hidden Frodo’s abduction from them. The murky water not only limited their vision but the tiny black specks in it seemed to gravitate towards unprotected eyes, irritants all out of proportion to their size. Then Boromir was angling upwards and they broke the surface of the icy water, choking and gasping from want of air.

Aragorn immediately stroked backwards, widening the distance between them, conscious of the long knife in his hand. Boromir wiped water from his face then turned, scanning the empty landscape. From here they could not see the others, but Pippin’s piping voice carried to them for a moment then stilled as he was hushed by another.

“The water carries sound,” Aragorn murmured, wondering if Legolas’ elven hearing would pick up his soft-voiced comment.

“We were not quiet,” Boromir agreed. “Not as quiet as we should have been. There was much calling back and forth as we made camp and the hobbits filled the water bottles.” He spat out a mouthful of water, eyeing the brown murk distastefully. “Do you think there are leeches in these waters?”

“Most likely.”

“Foul things.” Boromir muttered, turning in the water apprehensively as if he could feel tiny investigative brushes against his skin.

“They have their uses,” Aragorn replied.

Boromir paddled sideways, allowing his body to sink as he pulled his long knife free of its sheath. “Do you think it was happenstance or their intention to take Frodo?”

“Take Frodo…” Aragorn repeated. “Or any of the hobbits? Or was Frodo simply the easiest, as he had ventured out deepest into the lake? Would any of us have done, or did they target the Ring-bearer?”

“I suggest we ask the last survivor,” Boromir said grimly, gesturing with his knife.

Aragorn followed the direction of the pointing blade. Well ahead of them rose a steep bank, lined with rocks, littered with broken branches. Fresh mud gleamed in the pale sun, churned and trodden by numerous feet. In the centre of the disturbed area, something had been dragged from the water – the ground was smoothed from the water to the top of the bank. Near the crest of the slope the number of feet more than doubled, new ones joining and overlapping the ones around the drag marks. The swath was about the size of a hobbit.

“They came down the bank to help the others pull him out,” Aragorn said softly.

“That answers the question of how many,” Boromir murmured. “Many. Very many.”

Aragorn raised his knife and inserted it carefully in his mouth, biting down on the blade to hold it steady. Boromir did the same. Holding their heads up and keeping a careful distance from each other, they began to swim to shore.

* * *

Frodo was not conscious of moving; the urge to throw himself on his stomach was instinctive and incontestable. He had one moment to blink in confusion at the mud beneath his nose then his body took over, violently expelling the water he had inadvertently taken in.

Even as he choked and retched, he reached for his sword. Gone. He had lost it. No … he had left Sting on the shore when he waded into the lake. With that realisation memory returned; Pippin complaining about the icy water, Merry’s exasperation, his own self so cold he could not feel his feet. The reason they were in the middle of this miserable, forsaken land, in hiding and running for their lives.

Trembling, he sagged into the mud, barely able to lift his head clear enough so that the watery vomit he had expelled did not fill his nose. He shifted minutely to the side, the hand that had reached for his sword now stealthily snaking its way beneath him to fasten on the cold burning at his throat. He had not lost the Ring. Trying to move as little as possible, he slid the exposed chain and its burden back into his shirt. Only then did he try to lift his head enough to take stock of his surroundings.

Something sharp prodded him in the back. He flinched, then froze as something laughed.

“You done?” a harsh voice rasped.

Very slowly, Frodo raised his head and tried to blink the black spots from his vision. His throat burned and his stomach cramped, and the taste in his mouth was unspeakable. Water pooled in his ears, a minor annoyance he was scarcely aware of, no more than of the fact that he was surely freezing. His shirt and breeches were twisted about him and clung like a second skin – a second skin fleshed of ice. He had little sense of touch – his skin felt brittle, as if he might shatter. His very bones hurt, and as he raised his head, pain lanced through it.

Black, was his first impression. He blinked again. Larger than he, there were many of them, shifting and whispering to each other in a hissing language his blocked ears had taken for the rushing of the wind. They wore ragged, dripping clothing, leathers and bits of fabric. No … some were wet and dripping and some were dry. There were at least forty. All clutched knives and swords and spears, glistening with some sort of grease, and all looked very sharp.

He would not meet them on the ground, shivering like a whipped cur. Trying to hide the fact that he could not fully control his limbs, he dragged himself up and into a sitting position, shifting away from the small pool of sickness. Water ran down him, down his hair into his eyes, down his sodden clothing. Still not able to focus fully, he turned towards the one that had spoken to him.

They stared at him as he stared at them. What they might be making of one bedraggled, half-drowned hobbit Frodo could not suppose, but he was beginning to guess what he was looking at. Bilbo said they adapted to living in caves in the Misty Mountains, he thought, that their bodies changed over time to live in the dark … great bulbous eyes that could see in the faintest light, long, strong fingers to climb crevices and cracks. These live in the water. No, not in the water, he amended, staring, for they are air-breathers as are we, but they have adapted themselves to water. Water-goblins.

Now that he could see them more clearly, he saw the elongated feet, longer and wider than his own, their toes webbed like flippers but ending in claws. The hands clenched around their weapons were webbed, too, and their eyes were large and gleamed oddly. As one blinked, Frodo realised their eyes were double-lidded – the inner a glistening, protective membrane that would allow them to see in the water. They were not truly black in colour but their skin was dark and shiny, as is a frog’s, or perhaps an eel.

“What you?” The one who had spoken before asked, leaning over him avidly. It held a barbed spear, the point split like a fish-spear, but it only leaned on it. Its teeth were tiny, white and pointed, and there seemed to be a great many more of them than there should be.

Frodo wondered if he had the strength to rise and bow. They had not threatened him – yet. Courtesy might win him leniency. He took quick store of himself and settled for a seated bow, no more than an inclination of his upper body. Even that made him dizzy for a moment.

“I am a hobbit.”

“Hob-bit,” the goblin said wonderingly. “What hob-bit?”

Frodo was at a loss for a moment. If it had said, “What is air?” or “What is water?” he would have had a quicker answer. He gestured at himself vaguely. “I am. A hobbit. From the Shire.” It stared at him. “A … halfling?” he tried.

One of the others hissed something in their harsh, guttural language and shook its spear at him. Frodo did not react, being almost too exhausted and frozen for the threat to have meaning. His stomach roiled unpleasantly and there seemed to be a burning heat at the core of him, one that threatened to rise unpredictably.

The goblin that had spoken to him kept growling at the others, repeating “Hob-bit, hob-bit,” as if it were trying to explain him to them. Abruptly, the one that had shaken its spear at him pushed the first aside and strode towards him. Frodo felt numb, removed from what was happening, as if this were one of his dreams that came upon him when he was very weary. The creature caught his chin and stared into his eyes, then released him. Frodo stared at it numbly. It snarled something at him, drew back its spear and without warning, jabbed it into his upper arm.

Frodo cried out and jerked away, brought back to the reality of the present by the unexpected, unwarranted attack. He clapped his hand around the small wound, the sleeve of his shirt already turning red. Red trickled from between his fingers. The goblin snatched at his hand, dragging him sideways and Frodo fell jarringly on his side. His left side. Pain roared through him and his vision dimmed. The wound the Nazgûl had given him had closed, but never truly healed. For a moment he thought it had been torn open again, and could only writhe on the ground in agonized silence, biting his cries of pain behind his teeth.

When he came back to himself, he looked up to see the goblin licking his blood off its fingers. Ignoring him, it turned and held up its hand to the others. The sight of his blood seemed to please the others. They grinned at each other, flashing those pointed teeth, and made hacking motions with their weapons. The one who had spoken to him leaned down and, very deliberately, ran its tongue around its lips then over its teeth. Frodo reared back, his heart hammering. Lack of a shared language did not impede his understanding of the gesture. It seemed they had only wished to test what kind of creature he was. They had no interest in the Ring at all. They merely intended to eat him.

* TBC *

The pace Gandalf set them left little breath for talking but still the hobbits managed, huffing and puffing to converse in low, winded tones. Gimli watched them anxiously; reflecting that strenuous exercise so soon after an icy dunking was probably dangerous. Each was holding fast to the pony’s cinch or a strap from Bill’s packs, using it to keep the pace. Likely they would all fall ill. And the Ring-bearer would undoubtedly be sick – whenever they found him. Travelling with these folk was turning him into a mother hen, the dwarf thought dourly. Fine thing for a warrior of his people and son of Glóin, one of the heroes of Thorin and Company. But he seemed quite unable to help it.

Gandalf strode at the pony’s head, one hand holding Bill’s lead and the other driving his staff into the earth with each step, as if the very ground had affronted him with its lack of warning when Frodo was taken. The wizard’s beard bristled and his face was grim and angry, and the hobbits feared to talk to him. The uneven shoreline caused him to veer now and then close to the lake and Gimli and the hobbits followed, Sam keeping one eye on the water distrustfully.

Legolas floated before them, far enough ahead that the laboured breathing behind him did not interfere with that near-miraculous elven hearing. The elf still held his bow at half-draw, an arrow nocked as he searched the boulder-strewn land. He turned frequently to check behind Gimli, and at such times the hobbits would see him stare at the empty landscape as if he sought to see into the stones themselves.

The pony, too, was unused to such a pace. Bill was beginning to blow, foam rising on his withers and neck. “Poor lad,” Sam crooned, reaching up to pat the sweaty mane. “Ponies aren’t made for hard going, no they’re not.”

“Nor … are hobbits,” Pippin panted.

Sam growled something under his breath and Pippin looked at him inquiringly. “Lakes,” Sam muttered. “Rivers. I should have … been watching him better. Nothing good ever came out of lakes, if you take my meaning.”

“Fish!” said Pippin, brightening up as much as he was able while at a hard jog. “Filleted … and fried in butter and breadcrumbs! Clams … and oysters!”

“Now, Sam,” Merry remonstrated, “you can’t blame … the lake for this mess. We shouldn’t have let Frodo go in the deepest. I’m almost as tall as he – I should have filled the water bottles.”

“T’wasn’t your fault. Mr. Merry! A landslide won’t shift Mr. Frodo when he makes up his mind. You know that. I should have been with him–”


Legolas leaped forward like a bounding deer. In moments he was out of sight, his single shout fading into the distance. The hobbits gaped after him. Then in a shaking of the ground Gimli passed them in a burst of speed, his great battle axe bouncing on his shoulder. Gandalf shoved Bill’s reins into Sam’s hand as he too broke into a run, his robes whipping about his legs.

The hobbits looked at each other. “Right,” Merry said decisively. “Come on, lads!”

Pippin was already moving, elbows tucked into his sides, short legs churning. Merry dashed after him. “Sorry, Bill,” Sam gasped, hauling the pony to the nearest tree and lashing the lead around a branch. “I’ll come back for you – you just wait here, boy!” With that Sam sucked in a great breath of air and charged off after the others.

Sides heaving, Bill whinnied forlornly and tugged at his reins. Knowing of old the uselessness of trying to pull out one of Sam’s knots, the pony bobbed his head, jerking at the lead. The knot stayed but the branch bent. Bill’s ears pricked up. Twisting his neck, he dragged his head sideways and managed to catch the reins between his strong yellow teeth. Leather snapped. With a snort, Bill began trotting after his people.

* * *
The watch-goblin posted on the crest of the hill suddenly crouched and hissed, pointing down the rise towards the water. Its comrades, no, Frodo thought, closer to fifty than forty, turned from slavering at him to stare at it. Still clutching his arm, Frodo tried to shift himself up on his knees to see. He was at least no longer shivering – the shock of being stabbed seemed to have driven the shock of being immersed in icy water from him. The one that had wounded him glanced down and snarled, thudding the butt of its spear into the ground. Its meaning was very clear. Frodo sank back down, trying to suppress both the pain of his agonizingly jarred left shoulder and stop the bleeding in his arm. Blood was dripping from his fingers. He remembered how some of the weapons had glistened with an oily salve – did these goblins poison their weapons, as he had heard that some did?

The goblin on watch sank down farther, then stretched itself out on the top of the hill so that only the top of its black head peered above the rise. It pushed itself backwards towards those waiting below it and hissed again, gesturing urgently. Silence fell amongst them and they too crouched, looking at each other uneasily.

“Here! They must have pulled him out here!”

The words were spoken in a language and by a voice Frodo knew and trusted, its Gondorian accent a balm to a frightened heart. Now, listening intently, he could hear splashing and the swish of wet clothes. He drew breath to call out, but the goblin nearest him raised its spear again and shook its head, eyes boring into his. It’s every movement spoke of threat. Frodo looked at the razor-sharp spear-tip, already red with his own blood, and his shout died behind his lips.

“I see no hobbit-feet among the clawed tracks. They dragged him up this hill.” Aragorn’s reply was soft, but unbeknownst to the Men, it still carried clearly to the goblins and their prisoner.

“I cannot read this churned mud as you can. Was he unconscious? He would have been long under the water, without air.”

Frodo could almost see Aragorn kneeling on the bank, unmindful of his dripping clothing, piercing eyes hooded as he examined the ground. Boromir would be standing above him, his watchful gaze scanning the water, the steep hill, the boulders and the trees. They had no way of knowing that a small army of enemies stood barely a stone’s hard throw away.

“I would think so. We are gaining on them, at least. Water has only just begun to seep into the tracks nearest the lakeshore.” There was a brief pause, then Aragorn’s voice resumed, softer yet. “They are well armed, Boromir. See this mark, and this? These are the marks of spears or lances, driven into the ground to aid their owners in the mud.”

“Spears against knives,” Boromir groaned. “They do not even have to close with us. They can take us down with a cast.”

“For Frodo’s sake,” Aragorn replied, wet leather squeaking as he gained his feet, “we must not give them the opportunity.”

The watching goblin lowered its head and scuttled backwards, turning when it was below the crest of the hill. It grinned at its fellows, pointed teeth bared, its odd, protruding eyes glittering with ferocity. It jerked a thumb over its shoulder at the other side of the hill and held up two of its webbed fingers.

Two. Only two? What of Legolas and his deadly bow, and Gimli with his indefatigable strength? What of Gandalf, capable (Frodo was uncertain but thought it likely) of raining down lightening bolts on these wicked creatures? Even as he despaired, Frodo was at that same moment grateful that wizard elf, and dwarf remained with those he loved. A shudder, this time of relief, passed through him. Merry, Pippin, and Sam would be safe.

The goblin standing over him nodded in reply to the watch’s information and it pulled its spear from the ground, making a sweeping motion with it. Frodo’s heart sank as he realised that this was the leader of the troop. Silently, the others began to unsheathe their swords and draw their daggers.

I can’t let Aragorn and Boromir walk into a trap, Frodo thought frantically. They don’t know how many there are– The leader pointed at the crouching goblin on the crest and that one hunkered down further, sliding silently down towards them. It took its place amongst the others as the horde began to scale the hill.

“I believe he must have been unconscious. See … here is the mark of an arm, dragged under the body. That would have hurt very much. Frodo would have sought to avoid that, were he awake.” Frodo rubbed at his arm absently. The ache of hitting the ground was slowly giving way to the burning pain of the spear-wound. He could move his arm now, a little, but it felt weak and he could not trust its strength.

His gaze fastened on the spear the leader of the goblins leaned against, secure in its knowledge that he would not be foolish enough to try to warn the approaching Men. It was watching the others scramble up the hill, their clawed hands and feet finding easy purchase in the soft earth. They moved stealthily, almost gracefully, sliding over the earth like shadows.

Be quick, Aragorn! Frodo thought. He closed his eyes for a moment, seeking an untapped vestige of strength. Then releasing his aching shoulder, he threw himself back on both elbows and kicked out with a sturdy hobbit-foot, knocking the spear out from under the goblin.

The goblin went down with a bellow of astonishment. The surprise on its ugly face was almost comical. Even better, the rag-tag armour it wore clanged with the impact, shattering the silence with tinny ringing. The goblins halted in their tracks and turned, startled, and several gave involuntary barks of surprise. Frodo snatched up the spear, longer than he was tall, and scooted backwards, trying to keep his weight off his injured arm. If he could just find a shelter, a cave, some boulders, some place where they could come at him only one at a time…

For a moment, confusion reigned among the goblins. Some started down the hill after Frodo, some continued upwards a few paces, some stood rooted gawking at their sprawling leader. Those nearer the crest of the hill began calling out questions to those below and were silenced by frantic gestures and hissing. They fell immediately silent, but their element of surprise was gone.

With a roar, the leader bounded upright, its furious gaze locked on Frodo. Running was out of the question – Frodo still felt sick and weak, and had no desire to make himself an easy target for a spear in the back. Hide, you fool! Frodo ordered himself. He risked a glance behind him. There – a small pile of boulders, with an opening between them just wide enough for a slim hobbit unencumbered by pack, jacket, or adequate clothing.
Frodo rolled sideways and came up on his hands and knees. The world seemed to roll with him and he faltered, disoriented by the sudden juxtaposition of earth and sky. Water seemed to slosh between his ears. Then the world steadied and he scurried backwards, reaching the boulders just as the leader’s claws fastened on his leg.

Cloth tore, and beneath it, skin. Frodo gasped as fresh pain slashed through him. Twisting, he tried to dislodge the creature, scrabbling desperately at the ground for an anchor. There was nothing he could take hold of. Loose gravel and dirt scratched his hands and slid between his fingers, then he was being hauled backwards.

The goblin roared in triumph and threw itself down behind him, tightening its grip. Frodo dragged up the spear and tried to jab it backwards, but now the boulders turned from help to hindrance. The spear caught on the rock – there was not room to manoeuvre it. And the goblin saw. Its mouth stretching in a horrific grin, it effortlessly flipped Frodo onto his back and dug its claws into his hip, dragging him out.

He could not allow it to pull him into the open. Frodo reared up enough to see, then collapsed back down. This creature obviously knew nothing of hobbits. Frodo tensed, aimed, then drove his heel right into its grinning face.

The goblin howled, releasing him to clamp its claws over its nose. Frodo was ready – as soon as it freed him, he scrambled away from it and wedged himself into the boulders as far as he could. Stone scraped his shoulders and he fetched up hard against a sheer wall of rock. He could not stand; a great, flat stone topped the pile and there was barely room to turn. He braced himself against the back wall of his little cave and raised the spear to guard the opening. Only now did he dare to look outside.

The leader of the goblins was rolling from side to side on the ground, its hooting screams painful to the ears. Several of the others stepped towards it hesitantly, clearly wary of approaching it. Frodo fought to control his breathing and the speed of his heart; he could not afford to give in to the pain of his wounds and the weakness that even now threatened to overwhelm him. After long moments the goblin raised its head, blood dripping from its slit of a nose. It stared straight into Frodo’s shelter and the look on its face meant murder.

“Hob-bit! Hob-bit!” Roaring, it flung itself at the outcropping and slashed at the rock with its claws. Frodo made himself as small as he could and kept the spear up, protected more by the boulders than its sharp point. The goblin seemed not to care about the weapon. It dug at the boulders, its fury lending it enormous strength. Spittle flew from its lipless mouth. It screamed something at the others and several came forward, keeping their distance from their maddened leader as they helped it shift aside the rocks.

“I wish I could have told Bilbo this story,” Frodo whispered to himself as the first ray of sunlight penetrated his refuge.

* TBC *

Chapter Five

The first scream, so close and so unexpected, sent both men diving for cover. Aragorn flung himself into a stand of marsh grass, camouflaging himself among their tall, mottled stalks. Boromir had a moment to appreciate the practicality of the Ranger’s attire – rather than looking worn and patched, to his eyes the leathers and earth-toned fabrics Aragorn wore seemed suddenly a stroke of brilliance. Aragorn’s choice of clothing seemed much wiser than his own red surcoat and the bright gold embroidery adorning it. Which was completely covered with mud at the moment anyway, as he had thrown himself into a mud hole.

They listened in astonishment to the various screams, shouts, shrieks, and howls. Aragorn raised himself up on his elbows and crawled to Boromir, the marsh grass barely rustling to betray his movement. Side by side, the men checked their knives, glancing up at the lowering sun to estimate if it would flash on the blades, then sliding them through the mud. Legolas’ long knife glowed through the muck, its blade shining like a full moon behind a veil of clouds.

“Frodo?” Boromir mouthed at Aragorn.

“Can there be any doubt?” Aragorn murmured, a smile twisting his lips.

“Hob-bit! Hob-bit!” That cry was followed by more roars of anger and pain.

The crest of the hill was suddenly alive with milling black forms. Some began starting down the hill towards the two men, some paused at the top to turn around and peer back. Aragorn and Boromir were looking up the hill from ground-level and the black forms seemed distorted and fore-shortened by the angle. They watched in horror as more than a score of hunched figures crested the hill, then another score. Hairless, rag-tag forms in pieced armour and leathers, bits of clothing hanging on them, carrying tall spears that reflected redly in the lowering sun. Water-goblins. The men exchanged a grim glance. They were outnumbered and out-weaponed by more than twenty to one.

The foremost goblin raised its arm and the men saw it carried a lance, a long spear tipped with a barbed head. Like a fish-spear, it would pin its victim to the ground and cause immense damage being pulled out. The goblin snarled fiercely and glared around it, made brave by the knowledge that the newcomers were only two and his companions were many.

Those companions passed it, hissing at each other in gleefully malicious tones and waving their spears and swords. They seemed in no hurry, secure in the certainty that their targets were trapped. Then another roar rode over their banter, the command in the tone unmistakeable even though the harsh language warped the words. Several stopped, looking at each other apprehensively. The watching men were relieved to see a large number of the goblins reverse themselves and began climbing the hill again.

“It might be wiser to retreat,” Boromir whispered, “and come at them again from elsewhere.”

“Into the lake?” Aragorn breathed back. “We would have no chance of out-swimming them. Look at them – they are made for the water. And Frodo needs us now.”

“We cannot win through to Frodo amongst so many. It is foolishness.”

“We have no choice. Do not seek to slay, merely to break through. With enough speed and surprise, we may win past them.”

As if in reply to Aragorn’s words, the screams on the other side of the hill redoubled in volume. The approaching goblins grinned at each other, flashing pointed teeth. Sheltering the long elvish blade under his body Aragorn surreptitiously cleaned it, freeing the knife from the concealing mud. “”Ready?” he murmured. “On the count of three. One … two … thr–”

* * *
Frodo huddled against the rock, trying to make himself as small as possible. Turning sideways with his knees scraping against stone, he could shelter his side with his arm in case the goblins tried to pull his captured spear away from him and use it. But the leader seemed oblivious to common sense; it howled again and tore at the rock keeping it from him, screaming at the others to do the same.

Rock shifted and the gap overhead widened, scored by goblin claws. Warmth caressed his cheek, the last gift of the failing sun. Frodo was sure he could weave that into the story he was composing for Bilbo in his mind. Dear Bilbo did so love beautiful metaphors. Some part of him was retreating to a far green place where all this horror was just a story; just a story in a book that he could put down at any time and saunter into the kitchen for a cup of tea. Such withdrawal made the knowledge that he had failed his Quest easier to bear, somehow. He had failed to deliver the Ring to its destruction. Grief welled up in him – not for himself, but for those who would live on after him to suffer because of it.

With another low grinding growl, the topmost rock of his little cave shifted more to the side, raining dust down on him. At the same moment, a harsh jerk on the other end of the spear tore it from his grasp. A black hand squeezed through the upper opening and slashed at his head. Frodo crouched lower, bending himself so tightly that he could not breathe. The pain in his slashed leg flared anew but was forgotten as fingers fastened in his hair. The hand pulled, then slipped through, leaving in its grasp dark threads of curls. The leader of the goblins howled in frustration and threw itself against his hiding place.

If there were only another hiding place… With a shock, Frodo realised there was. If he dared. Refusing to think of what he was doing, he fished mud-covered fingers down his shirtfront and fastened them on the cold weight against his chest. Pulling his hand out, he opened it and stared at the Ring.

It was cold, much colder than his recent immersion in freezing water could have rendered the metal. Sometimes it seemed to burn, but it was never a warming heat. No mud or dirt clung to it. It shone beautiful and pristine, unsullied, its perfect gold tinged with red, and it was only then that Frodo realized that if he could see the sunset reflected in it, the top rock keeping the goblins from him must have been pulled away.

Frodo looked up. The leader of the goblins grinned at him, its filed teeth appallingly white in its black face. The dark blood from its broken nose had slowed to a trickle. “Hobbb-itt,” it hissed, and licked its lips.

Look away, Frodo begged it silently. Look away … just for a moment… The goblin snarled and reached for him.

“Yrch! Drego! Gurth 'ni yrch!” (Orcs! Flee! Death to the orcs!)

The goblin froze, clawed fingers almost brushing Frodo’s head. For a heartbeat it seemed the entire world stood frozen, then as one, the goblins whirled towards the clear, ringing voice. Unaware of doing so, Frodo rocked up on his knees and stared over the top of the boulders.

Legolas stood on the crest of the hill, the sinking sun outlining his slender form in a halo of gold-red light. The light seemed to come from behind him and through him and from him, so to look upon him was painful to the mortal eye. His legs were spread in an archer’s stance and his bow raised, and even as Frodo could scrape together the wits to recognize him, the elf loosened his bowstring and one of the goblins fell dead with an arrow in its throat.

Albai! Albai!” Dimly, Frodo identified the orcish word for Elves. The goblins surrounding Frodo fell back, their eyes riveted on the lone figure outlined by the sinking sun.

From behind Legolas came another shout, an eager battle-cry in Elvish, roared by a voice less sylvan-clear. Another figure, more solid than the first, topped the rise and stopped beside Legolas. A second later, a third joined them. From behind came a shout, the Elvish words distorted by distance but approaching fast.

“Albai! Albai!” The cry was taken up and repeated again and again. Some of the goblins cringed, whimpering and shielding their eyes. The leader’s hands curled into fists, and its eyes glinted with near-madness as it swung back to Frodo.

The little cave was empty. The goblin leaned over the boulders and gibbered in shock, its eyes bulging. The others tore their eyes from the glowing figures and stared at it, then down into the rocks where the unknown little creature had sought refuge. It was not possible – they blocked the opening where it had crawled in and they would have seen it scramble out over the top. It has simply disappeared.

Magic. Elvish magic, most hated and most feared by goblin-kind. Its promise of a sweet meal and a sweeter revenge stolen from it, the leader of the goblins pivoted to stare up at the intruders. All reason seemed to have fled it. With a bellow it snatched its spear from the one who had recovered it and raised it, striding to the base of the hill. It made it three strides before the second figure moved and a long elven knife arched through the air to imbed itself dead center in the goblin’s chest.

The creature looked down at the gleaming blade in confusion, its spear falling unnoticed from its claws. It hit the rocky earth and clattered, the sound greatly magnified by the nearby water and the utter silence. Then the goblin followed it, folding slowly to the ground, the Elvish knife standing upright in its body.

“We are come!” shouted a voice in Elvish from behind the three figures, followed by the sound of armour crashing and clanging, as if a great army was mounting the hill. “Prepare to die, yrch!”

That did it. Unnerved by the hated Elvish magic and their leader’s death and now faced with what sounded like a vast number of Elvish warriors, the goblins reverted to their cowardly natures. Wailing, many cast their spears and swords to the ground, valuing their own skins more. Some kept their weapons but still ran, crashing into each other, fleeing blindly. Legolas’ arrows pursued them, arrow after arrow, and each one found its mark. In seconds there was only a litter of abandoned arms on the ground, the cooling bodies of the slain, and the small pile of boulders they had been excavating.

Le hannon a tholel ” (Thank you for coming), Legolas said, turning to face Gandalf as the wizard toiled up the hill, hat missing and panting horribly.

Gelir na thaed” (Happy to help), Aragorn replied dryly as Gandalf had no breath to spare.

“I shall have to improve my Elvish,” Boromir said a smile. “Well-met, my friends!”

The discordant clanking behind them increased as Gimli joined them. Looking around, the dwarf cast himself down on the ground, the heaving of his chest straining his chain mail. Legolas looked at him, a smile twitching his lips, wondering if Gimli had yet realised that he by himself had made enough noise to make the goblins think an entire army of Elves approached.

“It seems there is no one left to fight,” Legolas commented in disappointed tones, struggling not to laugh.

Still panting, Gimli rolled over and with great difficulty, sat up. “You could have … left me some,” he gasped. “Ran … all that way … I should at least … have a few heads to lop off … for my trouble.”

Movement, rather than sound, made Aragorn turn just as Merry raced up the hill, his face shining with determination as well as perspiration. Pippin was right behind him and Sam but steps behind. The hobbits had been as soundless as Gimli was noisy. Aragorn caught a small shoulder as it flashed past and hauled Pippin to a stop.

“Hold, gentlemen!”

“Where’s … Frodo?” Merry gasped, sending small stones rolling as he skidded to a halt. Sam stumbled up next to him and bent double, holding his sides and looking sick.

“The yrch were gathered about those boulders,” Legolas said, pointing with his free hand. The other remained on his bow, another arrow nocked.


“Quiet, Merry. We will go down together. The goblins might be watching us from cover.”

“I think they will have noticed that we are not an Elvish army,” Gandalf said at last, wiping sweat from his brow. “I gather that was your intent, Aragorn?”

“It was,” the Ranger replied. He said it calmly but his eyes roved ceaselessly over the landscape.

Gandalf looked down at a tug on his robes. Wordlessly, Pippin handed him his hat. Gandalf took it and returned it to his head, then stroked Pippin’s cheek with the back of his finger in silent thanks. Pippin smiled back tremulously.

A shrill whinny rang on the chilling air. “It seems we are reunited,” Boromir said with a laugh. “Here comes our Bill!”

Puffing, packs jangling, the pony plodded up the hill and went straight to Sam. “Good boy,” Sam said, stroking the pony’s nose. “I mean, bad boy! I told you to stay!”

“Just as well that he did not,” Gandalf said. “I would not to want to go all that way back after him. Sam, you had best walk him to cool him down. Now let us find Frodo and leave this place. Legolas will keep guard.”

“Aye, sir,” Sam replied, clearly unhappy at not going after Frodo.

“Let me check Bill’s load first, Sam,” Boromir said. “It has certainly shifted and must not come undone as we travel.”

“I will have ready fresh clothing and boots,” Gimli rumbled, struggling to his feet to unlace a pack and pull out blankets, which he pressed upon the two men. “You and Boromir cannot continue to walk barefoot as do our hobbit friends.” Aragorn nodded his thanks as he rubbed his hair dry, hearing but not understanding the dwarf’s mumbled groan of “…mother hen!”

“Are we going to get Frodo or not?” Merry demanded impatiently.

Aragorn started down the hill, the two hobbits with him. Sam compromised by holding Bill where he could see them as Boromir and Gimli worked on the packs. As the three came to the bottom, Aragorn paused a moment to pull Legolas’ knife out of the goblin’s body. The sound that it made leaving the corpse caused Pippin to stagger slightly and put a hand over his mouth.

“Pippin?” Merry said, instantly aware of his younger cousin’s queasiness.

“It’s nothing,” Pippin said shortly. He averted his eyes as Aragorn wiped the knife clean, staring instead at the small pile of rocks. “Why doesn’t he call to us? The goblins are all gone, and he must have heard us.”

Aragorn said nothing but rejoined them quickly. “Let me go first, my friends.”

“Why?” asked Merry. “If he’s hurt, I want to know. We are going with you.”

“Frodo? Frodo!” Pippin cried, his voice quavering. This time Aragorn did not attempt to quiet them.

Merry and Pippin ran ahead of him to the small shelter of stones. Pippin was not tall enough to see down into the center, so he scurried around to the opening and peered in. By the time Aragorn reached them, he knew that the little cave was empty.

“Frodo!” Merry shouted, his voice hoarse with suppressed tears. “Frodo!

The wind blew, stirring what few leaves and little grass could grow in this barren land. It ruffled the hobbits’ sweat-soaked hair and fluttered Aragorn’s drying clothes. The setting sun looked like a line of blood on the horizon, and only the wind answered them.

* TBC *

“Albai! Albai!” The cry rang about him, the orcish word for Elves made even more ugly and distorted by the mouths that uttered it. Praying that Legolas was not alone, that the others were not far behind, Frodo seized his chance.

He slipped on the Ring and immediately his world turned pale and muted, the stone surrounding him less real than the cold wind that tore and slashed at him. The band of gold around his finger seemed the only colour in this terrifying place, and he had to resist the desire merely to gaze upon it. With a small jump, he was over the dislodged top-stone and out of the small pile of boulders that had sheltered him from being spitted and eaten.

He slid to the ground soundlessly, landing with a lurch on his injured leg. For a moment, the world spun and darkened around the edges. A small gasp escaped him but it was lost in the howls and hoots of the goblin-mob. From behind Legolas was coming more shouts, words he felt he should know, but he had no time to analyze them. The sun was sinking, casting deceptive shadows on the ground. It would be all too easy to stumble, and once down, he did not know if he could struggle to his feet again. Head down and arms tucked into his sides, he scooted past the gaping goblin leader towards his one visible ally.

No, bad plan. He had not time to count them, but perhaps half a score of goblins stood between he and Legolas. They were milling about, shouting, brandishing their swords and thudding their spears into the earth. Even if calling out did not betray him, Legolas could not possibly make out his voice over the clamour. Frodo dodged to the side as one of the goblins, huge, slope-shouldered and nearly twice his size, bulled its way past him. Another followed it, screeching its battle-eagerness in shrill yowls. Frodo evaded the two but there were so many others, moving about so quickly. He could not stay here; he would be discovered. Using every ounce of his natural gift of hobbit-stealth, Frodo crept towards the outskirts of the action, hoping to circle ‘round the side of the hill and rejoin the Fellowship.

All around him, confusion reigned. The din was nigh unbearable to sensitive hobbit-ears. He heard the leader bellow behind him but he spared no time to look. Undoubtedly his escape had been discovered. Another goblin barrelled toward him and he pulled up short, missing it running him down by inches.

It could not possibly have heard him but it stopped, its bulging eyes sweeping from side to side in puzzlement. Frodo stilled and sank to one knee, willing it to pass by. The dizziness was returning; hungry, weary, near-drowned and now hunted, he did not know if he had the strength to continue. The goblin snarled, its lipless mouth curling back over the pointed teeth. Then its nostrils flared, and Frodo realised it did not need to see him. It could smell him.

Blood. Fresh blood. Frodo looked down, down at the blood drying on his arm from the goblin leader’s spear and from its claws in his leg. He clamped one hand over his arm, aware the thin linen of his shirt would hold the blood-smell. The goblin raised its head, sniffing, and took a step towards him.

A great clatter halted it, followed by howls of dismay. The creature swung towards the noise, distracted and suspicious. Frodo could not see what had caused the racket, but the opportunity was too good to let pass. Summoning every ounce of strength left in him, he sidled past it.  

The goblin twisted back to stare at where he had been a moment ago, its ugly face transported by rage. Adding its howls to the others’, it raised its spear and drove it into the earth where Frodo had crouched not five heartbeats before. Again and again the goblin stabbed, blindly now, and Frodo used each stab into the earth to mask another soundless step away from it.

What was happening? He could not see – tall forms were all around him and it took all of his quickness to avoid them. He bumped into one and it whirled, claws slashing, looking surprised when it saw nothing. Then goblins were running past him, some throwing down their weapons, some clutching them or using them on their fellows, freeing the way for their own passage from this place. He would be trampled. Unable to outrun them, Frodo was pushed along with them as the tide sweeps with it small bits of flotsam. He turned and darted whenever he could find an opening but they were a solid mass behind him, and he could not break free.

For all that they were adapted to water-life, they were swift. He could not outrun them, could not break through them. Then weariness and dizziness and his injuries betrayed him, and he fell. One of them tripped over him, near crushing him. It could not see what had felled it but it rose up on its arms, cursing, only to be slammed back down to the ground by another tripping over it. That one’s fall tripped another, and all of their combined weights bore down on him. They were crushing the life out of him, as surely as the water of the lake. As the darkness rose up and swallowed him, his last thought was that he was drowning for the second time.

* * *

The hobbits’ cries brought Gandalf, Boromir and Gimli striding towards them with Sam following tugging on Bill’s bridle, the pony’s half-packed packs flopping.

“What is it?” Gandalf demanded. “Where is he?”

“Not here,” Aragorn replied succinctly.

“Not–” His face blanched white, Gandalf whirled in a circle, his cloak billowing as he stared into the lengthening shadows. “Meriadoc!” Gandalf bellowed, interrupting the hobbits’ shouts for their cousin, “You and Peregrin come to me – now!” Rather to Aragorn’s surprise the two obeyed, pulling up before the wizard with frightened, anxious faces. “We will find him,” Gandalf said more gently. “But you must not stray from our sight with so many of those foul creatures out there. Let Aragorn look.”

“The yrch had something cornered here,” Legolas said, stooping to peer into the little pile of rocks. The elf had not lowered his bow, remaining alert and watchful. “Something that was fighting back, to judge by their actions.”

Aragorn knelt before the narrow tunnel of rocks, just deep enough to shelter a hobbit. Sam might have had difficulty forcing his way through, but Frodo would have fit easily. “I need light. Gimli, would you–”

Before the dwarf could even pull out his tinderbox, Gandalf’s staff blazed into radiant light. The wizard muted it, positioning himself behind Aragorn, leaning the staff down close to Aragorn’s head. The Ranger eyed it warily then ignored it, intent on examining the rocky shelter. A long smear on stone caught his attention.

“Gandalf. Here.” As Gandalf angled the staff to better illuminate the dark smudge, Aragorn placed a fingertip against the stain and rubbed. It transferred easily to his finger. He sniffed it carefully then ventured a taste with the tip of his tongue. “Blood.”

One of the hobbits made a queer, choking sound. Aragorn did not look up to determine which. There was a rustle and Merry squeezed under his arm, peering at the mark almost nose-to-rock. “Maybe it is orc blood.” Aragorn felt a shudder pass through the small, solid form, but Merry’s voice was matter-of-fact. “There’s a lot of that around.”

“Orc blood is black,” Aragorn reminded him.

“Frodo,” Gandalf said heavily.

Aragorn nodded and inched backwards, catching his shoulders on the rocks and scraping them. Merry stayed a moment longer, staring at the long stain. As Aragorn rose, Gimli handed him his coat and the Ranger shrugged into it absently. “Something was here. Something the size of a hobbit.”


Legolas had arrow to bow before most of them could register the hissing word. One of the shadowed forms stirred and before any of them could react, an elven arrow was arching towards it.

“No!” Gandalf shouted, thrusting his staff into the air. The arrow burst into flame in mid-air and fell to the earth, charring into ash inches short of its intended target. Legolas followed it, his face grim, and stood over the still form with drawn knife.

The goblin cringed but made no attempt to flee. It could not, Aragorn saw. No elven arrow pierced it; none survived whom Legolas had shot to kill. A great sword-cut had opened this one’s side, cutting around from side completely across its front, mixing its entrails with dust on the ground. It had been savagely wounded by one of its fellows, caught in the path of a larger orc as it sought to escape. It would not live long.

“Keep the hobbits back,” Aragorn murmured to Boromir and the soldier complied, calling them to help him to ready the pony. After one glance at the dying goblin, Merry turned his back on it and chivvied Pippin and Sam away. Aragorn handed Legolas back his knife then retrieved his own weapons from Gimli; even mortally wounded, the Ranger knew well the treachery of orcs.

He knelt by its head, out of the spreading puddle of black blood seeping from it, making certain it saw his knife. “Hobbit,” he repeated back at it. “What hobbit? Where is the hobbit?’

He had spoken too fast; the creature’s few words of Westron did not suffice. It shook its head, its bulging eyes blinking. Its gaze fastened on Gimli.

“Ale? Ale?”

“It wants dwarf-ale,” Aragorn said, his flat tone not conveying the surprise he felt.

“Ale?” it begged. “For hobb-itt.”

“Gimli, give it your flask.” Aragorn could give the dwarf grinding his teeth as he handed his treasured flask to the creature. The goblin snatched at it and tore out the stopper with its teeth, up-ending it to gulp thirstily. Hardened warriors all, the four that surrounded it had to turn away for a moment as the dark, pungent liquid oozed onto the ground from the creature’s violated stomach.

The goblin released the flask. It fell to the earth but Gimli made no attempt to retrieve it. “Hobb-itt of the Shire,” it said clearly, blinking at them.

Now Gandalf knelt. “Where is he?”

The goblin grimaced, baring it pointed teeth. Perhaps it was an attempt at a smile or perhaps it was a snarl. “Dead,” it said.

Gandalf thrust his face close to it. “You lie,” the wizard whispered softly. “He escaped from you into that little pile of boulders. And from there … where?”

“Dead,” the goblin repeated, its voice slowing. “Soon. Very soon. Speared. Spear poisoned. Soon dead.”

“Where is he?” Gandalf rasped, desperation making his tone harsh. “Tell me!”

“It is no use,” Legolas murmured above them. “Its heart no longer beats.”

Aragorn sat back on his heels as Gandalf straightened slowly, leaning on his staff. The black body before them seemed somehow smaller in death, a phenomena all of them had witnessed many times after life ended. Already it smelled, the contents of the carcass reeking as it continued to ooze and drip fluids. It would smell worse soon, as the others around it already did, and be no more than a meal for the carrion-crows come the morning.

Gandalf turned abruptly and strode away, anger and fear in every line of his body. Pivoting back, he snapped at Aragorn, “Can you track him? From the boulders?”

“No,” Aragorn said, looking into the distance. Twilight had deepened and the first cold stars were shining. “Not in the dark, over ground trodden and overrun by so many.”

“He put on the Ring, didn’t he?” Aragorn jumped to find Merry at his side; unnoticed, the hobbit had joined them and was looking at the dead goblin.

“Merry, Pippin–”

“Sam and Boromir are with him. He doesn’t need to see this.” Merry looked away from the corpse, his expression sickened. The flickering light of Gandalf’s staff made the sight worse, somehow. “We’d all best get used to things like this, hadn’t we? For as long as Frodo carries that damned Ring.”

None of them seemed to know how to respond to Merry’s question, or to the bitterness in the young hobbit’s voice. Aragorn settled for placing a hand on Merry’s shoulder as he climbed to his feet. The young hobbit staggered slightly but held firm. “He did, didn’t he?” Merry persisted. “Put on the Ring?”

“It is the only explanation,” Gimli rumbled in his slow, deep voice. “We know he was here – the goblin confirmed that. ‘Hobbit of the Shire.’ I have heard Master Frodo introduced himself to others so.”

“He would,” said Merry wearily, but a hint of pride wove through his voice. “Be courteous to orcs, he would. Probably gave them a bow. Ridiculous Baggins.” Abruptly Merry sat down and cradled his head in his arms, his shoulders shaking.

“The moon will be rising soon,” Legolas murmured. “We must find Frodo.” Unspoken the goblin’s words echoed in their minds. Speared. Spear poisoned. Soon dead. Aragorn looked down at the quietly weeping hobbit, weighing whether he should convey what they had learned to Frodo’s kin.

Gimli looked at Merry and behind him, to where the shadowy forms of Boromir and Pippin waited by the pony. Sam was busy with the packs, lashing them closed and tight with muffled ferocity. To the dwarf’s cavern-bred eyes, it was easy to make out the tall form of the Man as he knelt to talk to the tweenager, eye-to-eye, both intent on their conversation. Standing eye-to-eye with taller folk was a consideration Gimli was just beginning to appreciate.

“Aye, we must,” he announced. He waggled his eyebrows at Aragorn over Merry’s head, unaware that his gesture was of little value as his helmet hid it. “I suggest we divide into parties of two – one Big Folk and one Little, and search.”

Merry looked up, tears glistening unheeded on his face. “But if he’s already gone–”

“It is unlikely that he has gone far,” Aragorn interrupted. “He would be very weary –and he would know that we would not be far behind. I think it much more likely that he would find a good hiding place, and wait for us.” If he can hear us calling. If he is conscious. Aragorn took a deep breath, steeling himself. “We must find him quickly, Merry. Frodo has been–”

“Abducted, nearly drowned, probably half-frozen, and without supper for far too long,” Gandalf’s voice rode over Aragorn’s with unnecessary loudness. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli stared at the wizard blankly. Gandalf ignored them. “We must find  your cousin quickly to remedy all of those predicaments, Merry.”

The hobbit climbed to his feet, scrubbing at his face. “You are right, Gandalf. I claim Gimli as my search partner.” A shadow of a smile flitted across Merry’s face at Gimli’s startled expression. “Hobbits don’t see in the dark as well as Dwarves. Come on, Gimli – you and I will find him first.” With that, Merry latched onto the surprised dwarf’s arm and began towing him determinedly in the hobbit’s chosen direction.

“I do not agree with your decision not to tell them,” Aragorn murmured to Gandalf. “If Frodo dies, they will never forgive you.”

“If Frodo dies,” Gandalf murmured back so softly that his breath did not even stir the hairs of his beard, “their forgiveness will matter little.” Only one who knew the wizard as well as Aragorn would have heard the grief and love in Gandalf’s voice, or been able to discern the shine of tears in his eyes from starlight. “The whole world will be devoured by unending darkness, and nothing we can do will atone for the loss of the Ring-bearer.”

* TBC *

Just a quick note, friends ... once again I am changing my website, this time for good. Budgie now has a domain and one sparkly, COOL website: You will find links to all my published stories and newest works there, including the upcoming Chapter 7 of  Dangerous Folk. Please stop by!

“We will have to kindle torches,” Boromir said, using Pippin’s shoulder to climb to his feet. Pippin winced as Boromir squeezed his shoulder in thanks, then looked up at him as Boromir raised his voice again, “It is too dark. We could walk right past Frodo and never see him.”

“We can’t see him anyway,” Merry called over his shoulder. “He’s wearing the Ring.”

“Master Merry,” Gimli wheezed, trying to recover his arm from the hobbit’s determined grasp. “Slow down, I beg you.”

“Lighting torches will advertise us to any who might be watching,” Gandalf said. “Those orcs have by now ascertained that we are not an Elvish army, despite the evidence of their ears.” Gimli growled something under his breath but further retort was denied him as Merry towed him out of range.

“And would mark us as targets.” Aragorn stood, wiping his hands on a cloth. While the others spoke, he had been examining the dead goblin, noting with dispassionate interest the webbed hands and feet. The stinking entrails he ignored, but paid great attention to its eyes and ears and nose. “Remember that they have spears. I count over a score of bodies; those Legolas killed and those that killed each other in their craven escape. Which still leaves perhaps two score out there … outnumbering us five to one.”

“Four to one,” Sam replied, an edge in his voice. “I makes thirty of them to us – about even, I reckon it.”

“My apologies, Master Samwise,” Aragorn said with a slight bow towards the bristling hobbit. “I meant no offense. Nevertheless, we are outnumbered and Legolas has spent his arrows. From what I could determine from this dead one, their eyes are well suited to darkness. They could certainly see in the dark water of the lake, while Boromir and I could barely keep our eyes open.”

“That was due to the irritants,” Boromir objected. “My eyes still feel as if they are filled with grit.”

“I need no torch,” Legolas said. “The light of the stars will suffice. I will take the farthest quarter.”

“Merry,” Aragorn called as Legolas glided past him, “Come here. We must do this systematically, instead of hoping to stumble over Frodo in the dark.” Puffing like a bellows, Gimli looked relieved as Merry released him and hurried back to the others. “Teams of two as Gimli suggested,” Aragorn continued as the hobbits grouped themselves before him, “one hobbit and one Big Folk. Boromir, you and Pippin take from the boulders where Frodo was hiding to … to that flat expanse of ground. Sam, come with me. Tie up that pony first – to a rock, this time.” Sam nodded, twisting the pony’s reins in his hands. Not liking the smell of blood in the air, Bill whinnied and bumped Sam with his nose.


“I search better alone,” the wizard interrupted. “But I do not want the hobbits out of my sight. For all their cowardly natures, goblins are cunning creatures. They are justly known for playing dead or lying in ambush.”

“You can’t mean to keep us here!” Pippin cried in distress.

“We won’t stay,” Merry said, looking around at them all. “Not while Frodo is out there someplace, maybe unconscious – certainly hurt.” Gimli toiled up behind, looking anxious at this hobbit-revolt. “We are searching, too. And you won’t stop us.”

“You are staying with me, Meriadoc,” Gandalf said grimly. The flickering light of his staff blazed hotter and the Company shrank back at the expression on the wizard’s face. Merry blanched but did not give ground, only stepping a little to the side to place Pippin behind him.

“Gentlemen, this is not the time–” Aragorn began, but Sam interrupted him, whirling to rummage in the pony’s packs and emerge with something slender and dark in his hands.

“Wait!” Sam said, eying the angry wizard warily, “Wait! Here, Master Merry. Carry this.”

A pale light shone in the darkness. With a faint chime, Sam drew Sting from its sheath and handed the naked blade to Merry. Light glimmered around its edges but it did not truly glow, and several of them released an unconscious breath of relief.

“Near, but not too near,” Aragorn said, staring at the sword. “Carry the elven blade before you. It will give true warning of the nearness of goblins.”

“All right,” Gandalf agreed grudgingly. “But, Meriadoc Brandybuck, if you ignore that blade’s warning and place yourself and Gimli in danger, you will have me to answer to.” Merry nodded, his eyes fixed on Frodo’s sword.

“If that is settled,” Gimli rumbled, “then let us search. I do not trust these foul goblin-folk to stay away when the odds are so in their favour.”

“There is another, perhaps greater danger.” The search teams halted in their tracks and turned back to Gandalf. “Every moment Frodo wears the Ring,” the wizard continued, “he risks discovery by the Enemy. Sauron searches for him ceaselessly. The Eye almost saw him in Rivendell – I have no doubt it is seeking him even as we speak.”

Suddenly the cold of the night seemed to deepen and the Company looked at each other in fear. “But the Enemy is too far away, isn’t he?” Merry asked. “He couldn’t reach us here.”

“Not the Enemy himself, no,” Gandalf replied. “But he knows we took refuge in Rivendell. He knows which direction we must travel, if not by which road. If he knows approximately where we are, he can direct his minions to us.” Pippin shivered and Gandalf’s face softened. “Not the Nazgûl – they are not yet sent abroad again. But he has other evil things under his command. These will be drawn to the power of the Ring.”

“We must find him before they do,” Aragorn said. “And in this, our hobbit friends surpass us.” Merry nodded, his expression calculating. “You have a better chance of finding him than we,” Aragorn told them. “Seek low to the ground. Listen for breathing; look for any disturbance of the earth. Boromir, Gimli, guard them.”

“Just you hang on, Mr. Frodo,” Sam whispered, his hand tightening on his own small sword. “We’re coming.”

* * *
“Look,” Pippin urged, tugging on Boromir’s surcoat. He pointed ahead; before them rose a dark mound of shadows, their composition made even more indistinct by the silverly light of the risen moon. The man squinted to make out at least three shadowed, unmoving forms. “There are several of them there,” Pippin whispered. “All of the other … bodies … have been alone.”

“Carefully,” Boromir breathed. “Let me go first.”

Pippin dropped back as the soldier moved forward, drawing his sword in imitation of Boromir. Feeling somewhat ridiculous, Pippin glanced around them but no one was looking at him; the others were all far away, intent on their own searches. Sam was practically going over the ground before him inch by inch; not a caterpillar would escape his notice. Merry was even farther, Sting shimmering faintly as he held it aloft before Gimli and himself. Pippin balanced himself for action as Boromir used his sword to prod the topmost body … but there was no need. The black form neither attacked nor retreated, but only slid bonelessly down the others onto its face, already starting to stiffen.

“Dead,” Boromir said in disgust. “At least I can return one of Legolas’ arrows, as well-shot as always.” He stepped closer and bent down to pull the arrow from the corpse’s back. It was then that Pippin saw the second orc’s eyes snap open.


The orc’s coiled attack caught Boromir just as he made the instinctive mistake of looking up at Pippin’s shout. The creature swept an arm under Boromir’s feet and he went down with a bellow, his sword flying from his grasp, one arm caught awkwardly beneath him as he hit the ground with numbing force.

The orc flung itself on him, struggling to wrap its clawed hands around his throat, seeking not only to strangle but to use its claws against the thin, vulnerable skin of Boromir’s throat. It snarled, its pointing teeth flashing white in its black mouth. Boromir heaved, trying to throw it off, then locked his hands around the creature’s, tearing at the goblin’s fingers, struggling to bring up a knee between them.

Crack! The sound of breaking bone was drowned by the goblin’s scream. It jerked one hand away from Boromir and reared back, but not to flee. Instead it curled its broken hand into a fist and slammed it into Boromir’s head, too maddened by pain and rage to recognize the injury. Already stunned by his fall, Boromir could not block or evade the blow, or the one that followed it. His head whipped to the side, blood flowing from his temple.

Pippin’s blood pounded in his ears, and all his world seemed to slow to focus on the two struggling forms before him, one a friend he was already learning to love and one an enemy who had hurt his kin. Dimly he was aware of shouts coming from all quarters, but paid them no heed. In desperation, Boromir rolled, using his greater body weight to drag the goblin sideways. But instead of being thrown off, it lunged forward, gnashing those pointed teeth, trying to strain past fabric and leather into skin. Boromir kicked and Pippin heard it grunt, then both were twisting and the orc was on top, half astride Boromir, its legs clamped around his body. Boromir struck at the creature’s bulging eyes but it only turned its head away, its hands tightening around Boromir’s throat. In the weak light of the stars, Pippin saw his friend’s eyes start to dim.

If Pippin made any sound, he was not aware of it, nor was he aware of choosing to move. In he darted, driving his sword between the creature’s shoulders, feeling it jar against bone. He saw the goblin straighten and felt it stiffen. Burning hot liquid inundated his hand. Then he was springing away as Boromir’s hand came up from his side, his long knife locked in his grasp, and drove it through the creature’s heart.

Time speeded up again as the creature slowly toppled to the side. Revulsion on his face, Boromir pushed the corpse off. It rolled to Pippin’s feet and lay rocking slightly. Panting, Pippin kept his sword up, as Boromir had taught him, but it did not move again.

“Hah! Foul … thing!” Boromir gasped, tearing at the stiffly embroidered collar of his surcoat. “Are you hurt, Pippin?”

Pippin shook his head, mesmerised by the sight of the goblin’s slack face. Boromir looked at him keenly, then dried off his knife with a cloth and handed the fabric to Pippin. “Always clean your sword, soldier. Remember that.”

“Yes,” Pippin whispered, sheathing it just as the others descended upon them.

Everyone seemed to be talking at once, asking him if he was all right, when Pippin thought they should be asking Boromir if he was all right. “Yes, yes, I’m fine,” he said to Merry’s white face. “I was barely in the fight – Boromir killed it. Merry, leave off – I’m fine!” This last was directed towards Aragorn, who had captured his bloodied hand to examine it. Aragorn ignored him, turning the hand over carefully.

“I should have made you take Sting; of course you’d be the one to find trouble–”

“Hoy! I resent that, Merry!” Pippin responded, beginning to overcome his shock.

“True, though,” Sam muttered. Pippin glared at him but Sam only smiled blandly.

“He did very well,” Boromir said, rubbing his throat gingerly. “Had he not wounded it enough for me to gain a breath, things might have turned out very differently.”

“Aragorn! Here!”

Gandalf’s deep voice cut through the questions and reassurances like a sword through butter. Aragorn dropped Pippin’s hand and shot to his feet. In two bounds he had cleared the diminished pile of dead orcs and was racing towards Gandalf. Gandalf was kneeling in the dirt, tears shining in his eyes, his arms wrapped around something which left mud-caked smears on his robes, but there was nothing in his hold.

Aragorn flung himself down beside Gandalf and almost snatched the unseen weight from him. Gandalf resisted for the barest moment, then surrendered his burden. “He’s cold,” Aragorn whispered, his voice rough as gravel. “Cold as ice–”

“Is he breathing? Is he breathing?”

“I can’t– We must take it off him–”

“Don’t touch it! Here, use this!” Gandalf tore off his cloak and ripped an unravelling strip from it, shoving it into the Ranger’s hand as he bundled the rest around the unseen form. One-handed, Aragorn shifted the burden in his arms to pull Gandalf’s cloak around it, cradling it against him, using the cloth to shelter his hand from the touch of the Ring. There was a flash of something – not light, Pippin thought, never light – then Frodo’s limp form was sagging against Aragorn, his face hidden in the Ranger’s jerkin.

“Sam! Blankets! Gimli – build a fire!”

The Fellowship scattered. Gimli thudded to his knees before them, sparks already leaping from his tinderbox. “Wood!” the dwarf roared. Pippin obeyed; snatching up every twig he could lay hands on in this barren, miserable land. A moment later, Gimli was showered with wood from three sides, which he trained up to bonfire-size in seconds.

“Is he alive?” Merry was dancing around the kneeling figures, a branch forgotten in his hand, afraid to go closer, afraid to retreat, afraid to hope and afraid to find out for certain.

“He’s breathing,” Aragorn said tersely, “and I have a heartbeat. We must get him warm. Then–” he looked at Gandalf and something stiffened in his face. Pippin was astonished to see a flash of anger in the Ranger’s eyes. “We must do what we can for him. First, warmth. He is near frozen.”

“Legolas?” Aragorn did not look up as he spoke, he was laying Frodo as near as he safely could to the flames and removing each piece of stiff, muddied clothing. After a moment he tore off another piece of Gandalf’s already disintegrating cloak and wrapped the Ring in it, tucking it safely inside Frodo’s shirt.

“None of the yrch will approach us, Aragorn.” Though Legolas did not raise his voice, Pippin heard the steely anger in it. The elf stationed himself at the crest of hill above them, his bow held at full-draw over their heads, its deadly point swinging as Legolas’ elven senses isolated and identified each night sound. Pippin looked about them uneasily, all thoughts of not drawing an attack gone in the immediate emergency.

“He was buried under the orcs,” Boromir murmured, disbelief in his voice.

“They kept him from freezing entirely,” Aragorn replied without looking up. His hands were moving over Frodo, squeezing carefully, testing limbs. “Claws,” he said grimly, examining deep scores in Frodo’s leg. In the moonlight, his blood looked as black as that of the orcs. “…but the leg was already injured. It is not the source…” Frodo moaned faintly as Aragorn examined a gash in his arm and Aragorn bent closer. Pippin realised that Aragorn was smelling the cut. “And being so sheltered perhaps saved him from being killed outright as the creatures fled our approach. Ironic, if you think about it.”

“I don’t care to think about it,” Sam snapped. “Would something hot help him? Tea, or broth? He’s had nothing in him for hours. I’ve coffee – coffee with honey–” Frodo was visible only as a white face bundled in what seemed to be almost every blanket the Fellowship owned, his dark hair his only defining feature.

“Why isn’t he waking up?” Merry had finally realised he was still holding the branch and added it to the fire. He knelt opposite Aragorn and rested a hand on the blankets. “Frodo? Wake up, Cousin!”

“You must tell them.” Aragorn was looking over Frodo’s head at Gandalf, and his face was set and stern. There was no compromise in Aragorn’s voice, and the hobbits understood at that moment that something terrible had been kept from them.

“Tell us what?” There was an undercurrent of anger in Merry’s voice, fuelled by fear.

Gandalf said nothing, not seeming to hear Merry’s question. It was Aragorn who answered. “It is worse than near-drowning in a freezing-cold lake, Merry. Or being wounded by goblins." He paused, pulling the blankets closer around the still form. "The spear that wounded him was poisoned, and enough time has passed for the poison to enter Frodo’s blood. He is dying.”

* TBC *

Other than Gandalf, the Fellowship stared at Aragorn in shock. The larger members of the Company stood frozen, grouped in ragged formation around the Ranger and the Ring-bearer. The smaller members reacted first. Sam’s jaw sagged open while. Pippin let out a yip that changed to a sob halfway out, ending in a choke. Still on his knees, Merry shuffled forward, arms encircling the blanket-bound form as if he would physically drag Frodo from Aragorn’s grasp.

“Can’t you do anything?” Sam whispered.

“Use something from Elrond’s medical kits,” Merry grit out over Frodo’s head. “Use whatever you used on me when I was clawed by that goblin scout outside of Hollin.”

“That was only a shallow scratch, Merry,” Aragorn told him, gently pulling Frodo’s silent form back. “This is a small cut, but deep; the spearpoint driven into muscle and tissue. And Frodo has been running and hiding since, causing the poison to travel more quickly through his body.”

Gimli and Legolas exchanged grim looks. Legolas still held an arrow to his bow, his vigilance all the more for their exposed position. How many of the water-goblins had survived they did not know, but they did know that they were still greatly outnumbered. With Legolas listening for danger and Gimli watching the dark for it, it was the best they could do. Trusting to superior Elven hearing and Dwarvish night-sight, Boromir added more wood to the fire, doing what he could to help.

Small hands covered Aragorn’s own, icy cold, and curled around his fingers. Tearing green eyes stared into his. “Do something,” Pippin whispered. “Do something.”

Aragorn stared at them helplessly. Then a wild light came into his eyes. “There is a way… Perhaps his being so very cold will help.”

“Help?” Gandalf prompted, his voice sharp. “Help how?”

“Blood moves through the body more slowly when a person is cold,” Aragorn replied. “He was active and running for only a few minutes, as compared to the time spent in the freezing water and then restrained as a captive.” As he spoke, he shifted Frodo against his chest, freeing a hand to move it over Frodo’s arm and shoulder, pressing here, pinching there, examining the pale skin intently.

“Move back, Pippin. Let me put him down.”

Aragorn leaned forward and started to lay Frodo gently on the ground. Sam caught his master’s feet and straightened Frodo’s legs as Pippin darted around and dropped cross-legged, sliding Frodo’s head into his lap. Frodo’s eyes were shut, his face slack. His eyes did not move under his closed lids. In the darkness, he looked as if he was only very deeply asleep. But no depth of sleep would account for such encompassing relaxation of the limbs–only total and complete unconsciousness. Pippin bowed over him, stroking back his hair and whispering to him.

Aragorn drew his great knife and slid a hand under Frodo, lifting him from Pippin. “What are you going to do with that?” Sam cried, his alarm evident.

“I am going to open the wound–”

“You’re going to cut him? Why?”

Legolas laid a hand on Sam’s shoulder. But his words were addressed to Aragorn. “That is an old wives’ tale. It does not truly help.”

“If there is any chance at all, we must take it.”

“No.” The quiet despair in Gandalf’s voice silenced them. All eyes turned to the wizard. “No, Aragorn. I forbid it. I will not lose you both.”

“Gandalf, I have done this before. I know the workings of it. I do not have any cuts or sores in my mouth. Will you deny Frodo what chance we can give him?”

“If you die of this, Aragorn, then everything we have worked for all these many years will come to naught. There is too much at stake. I will not allow it.”

“If he dies of it, then what we have worked for all these many years will never come to pass. It will truly be for nothing.” Aragorn looked at Pippin, who was watching in bewilderment. “Pippin, hand me Frodo’s braces.”

Rooting in Frodo’s discarded garments, Pippin pulled out the water-stiffened breeches. The tiny specks that had so fouled the water had embedded themselves in the fine velvet and the clothing felt scratchy and rough. Unbuttoning a brace, he handed the length to Aragorn, who stretched it, nodding to himself. Wrapping it around Frodo’s arm just under the shoulder, he pulled it cruelly tight and tied it.

“Let me do it.” Merry’s eyes glittered with determination, the reflection of the fire painting his face with flickering crimson. Sam and Pippin watched helplessly, baffled. “Just tell me what to do. We’re wasting time.”

“No, Merry. I am a healer–I know how and where and how much. I will do it.”

“Please,” Pippin begged, “What are you talking about?”

“I am going to open the wound and suck the poison out,” Aragorn told him. Gandalf shifted, his staff still blazing, but did not object. “The cold will have slowed its progress through Frodo’s body and much of it will still be close to the wound. If I can get enough of it out, Frodo will have a chance.”

“Tourniquet,” Sam said in sudden understanding. “That’s what you wanted his braces for.”

“I will hold him for you.” Gandalf handed his staff to Gimli and lowered himself stiffly to the ground. Holding out his arms, he accepted Frodo’s limp form, sitting the hobbit in his lap as one would a child. Catching Frodo’s bared arm and pulling it out of the blankets, Aragorn ran his blade quickly through the fire. Quickly but with infinite care, he angled the razored point a little before the wound, pushed down, and drew it quickly over the clotted wound and past.

Frodo jerked and a small sound escaped him. His eyelids fluttered. “Frodo?” Merry asked fearfully. But Frodo did not open his eyes or give any sign of awareness. Red began to flow past the crusted blood, which Aragorn cleaned carefully away, then he lowered his mouth to the cut.

Pippin looked away, sickened, but Merry and Sam watched intently as Aragorn held open the wound and encouraged it to bleed. He sucked and spat, sucked and spat, eyes closing in concentration. Red welled from the wound and Aragorn took it and disposed of it on the ground, forcing blood down the arm with the pressure of his hands when no more came readily from the wound.

This went on for what seemed many long minutes, though it could not have been. At last Aragorn signalled with his free hand and Legolas handed him a water bottle. Leaving Gandalf to press a cloth against the wound, Aragorn rinsed his mouth and spat, again and again, careful not to swallow. Another time, Pippin would have laughed to see the faces Aragorn pulled as he sought to clean out every crevice in his mouth.

“It’s not enough,” Gandalf whispered. “His life burns weaker.”

“We’ve got to get more of it out of him.” Pippin blinked; sometime during Aragorn’s effort, Merry had settled himself at Gandalf’s other side. Pippin had not noticed that he had moved. “Let me try.”

“No,” Sam said, overriding him, “Let me. Let me.”

Aragorn shook his head and spat out a final mouthful of water. “The poison has travelled past where I can reach it. Where any of us can reach it.” Aragorn reached over to raise a slack eyelid and peer at the unconscious eye. Frodo did not react at all, and when Aragorn released him, his head sagged forward until Gandalf gently pushed it into a more comfortable position. Aragon pulled up the blankets around Frodo and stared into his face. It seemed to the others that he was willing the hobbit to breathe, willing his heart to beat. Then he leaned back and something changed in his face.


“What?” Merry said in confusion.

“Leeches. Give him to me, Gandalf. The lake-”

“No.” It was Boromir who spoke. “He should not be moved. I’ll get them.”

“They will be near the shore,” Aragorn said briefly. “Under a log or rock, some sheltered place where the water is warmer. Quickly, Boromir.”

Boromir swung around and raced towards the lake. Pippin took a step after him, then with a nod from Merry, followed. Together they splashed into the water, sliding to a halt in the mud.

“Pippin,” Boromir said, “take the shallows. Look for waving forms in the water. I’ll go deeper.”

Pippin flung himself to his knees, water drenching him, and began tearing up rocks from the lakebed. The water looked black in the moonlight, calm as a sheet of ice, and it felt like ice. It seemed far colder than when he had first stood near the shore and passed water-bottles back and forth with Sam and Merry and Frodo. Unbidden, a sob rose in his throat and he choked it down.


“We’ll never find them in the dark,” the young hobbit panted. “It’s imposs–”

A strangled grunt interrupted him. Pippin dropped the water-logged branch he had been examining and looked up. Boromir was standing waist-deep in the water, a knife clamped in one hand as blood dripped profusely from the other. As Pippin watched in horror, Boromir swished the bloody blade in the water and sheathed it, then spread the cut on his hand to force more blood to pour into the water. His face very pale in the moonlight, he submerged his hand completely.


“No! Stay back, Pippin. Do not disturb the water.”

“I”ll help–”

“No need. They’re hungry.”

Boromir shuddered, raising his arm from the water. His hand was black with writhing forms, and more were on his wrist. Pippin pushed his fists against his mouth, nausea rising in his throat. Boromir’s face had gone from pale to grey. “Filthy things,” he murmured faintly. “Pippin, get out of the water. Wait for me on the shore.”

Pippin sloshed up on the bank, trying to keep his movements to a minimum. He stood dripping and shivering as Boromir followed, his leech-encrusted hand wrapped in the hem of his surcoat. Pippin caught his other hand and helped him out, fighting against shying away in revulsion.

Together they stumbled back to the others. Sam met them halfway with blankets. It was small comfort to Pippin that Sam looked scarcely less sick than he when he saw what Boromir had done.

“Well done,” Legolas said softly as they passed. Gimli said nothing but made an affirmative rumble, keeping his eyes away from the fire and Gandalf’s staff, so he would not be light-blinded by them. Boromir nodded shortly, his jaw clenched.

Aragorn seemed to have no such inhibitions. He nodded wordlessly as they drew near, his eyes on Boromir’s hand. Pippin saw that in the bare minutes they had been gone, the Ranger had finished removing Frodo’s water-stiff garments and wrapped him entirely in blankets. He was sitting very close to the fire with Frodo in his arms, turning him one way then the other to warm him.

Gandalf threw a blanket over Boromir’s shoulders, the hobbits being unable to reach so high. Retrieving his staff from Gimli, he followed them back. “Sam, we need more blankets, and one of the medical kits. Bring Bill around the side of the hill and unpack dry clothes for Boromir and Pippin and Frodo.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Here.” Not knowing what else to do, Boromir dropped to his knees and simply held out his hand.

If Aragorn had any reservations about touching the creatures, he did not show it. With Gandalf leaning over him and supplying light more steady than the fire, he looked closely at the twisting creatures and identified the smaller end. One by one, he slid a finger next to the sucker at the other end and pushed the sucker sideways with a fingernail. Once it was loose, he plucked off the smaller end, ignoring the leeches’ attempts to reattach themselves.

“I will wash the bites and apply a salve,” he assured Boromir absently. “Keep the bites clean. They will itch as they heal.” Boromir nodded, the muscles in his jaw jumping.

Baring Frodo’s arm, Aragorn placed each leech he had taken off Boromir just above the extended cut he had made. And another, above that, and another. Pippin realised that he was placing them in a row along the major vessels that carried blood.

“They will feed for perhaps half an hour,” Aragorn continued to them all. “The little they took from Boromir will only have whetted their appetites.” He placed another of the squirming creatures on Frodo’s shoulder, just on the other side of the tourniquet. The ones below it already seemed fatter.

Fascinated and horrified at once, Pippin could not seem to look away. The segmented forms fastened at once and Pippin saw that each creature had a sucking cup on its tail that helped it move and cling. Leeches were far from uncommon in Shire, but few hobbits cared to go swimming and so rarely encountered them. Pippin was an exception, being as fond of swimming as his cousins Merry and Frodo. When Aragorn lifted one to reposition it, Pippin saw the front jaws had made a Y-shaped bite on Frodo’s pale skin. Despite himself, a sound suspiciously like a whimper escaped him.

Aragorn looked up at the sound and Pippin covered his mouth and gulped, ashamed at being caught queasy. But the Ranger’s eyes held only understanding. “They are not pretty,” Aragorn said gently, “but leeches have been used for many ages. Clearing the blood, as we are doing now, is only one of their functions. They can aid in improving the circulation of blood, allowing limbs that might otherwise have been lost to be restored.

“Nor does their bite hurt greatly, for in their saliva is a substance that dulls pain. Oftimes swimmers do not even know they have been bitten, until they emerge from the water and see their passengers. Healers have used them for time out of mind.” Aragorn chuckled, watching as the tiny creatures worked. “Indeed, the word ‘leech’ comes from an old word for physician.

“There are salves and powders in the medicine kit that will help, guarding against infection and aiding in dispelling the poison. Regrettably, Elrond could give us nothing to guard against the effects of freezing water. If Frodo comes out of this with simply a cold, it will be nothing less than a miracle.” He sighed, shifting uncomfortably on the ground. “He would be the better for some food inside of him … something hot. We will rest and eat away from this place, of course. I think none of us want to linger here any longer than we have to.”

Aragorn raised his head and looked into the darkness. “Why hasn’t Sam returned with the pony?”

* TBC *

Chapter Nine

“I will go and search for him,” Legolas said immediately.

“No,” Aragorn replied, shifting Frodo’s unconscious form in his arms. “Samwise is a sensible hobbit, and you are needed here. None of us can match your Elven sight, nor your skill with the bow. I would not send our best archer from us with goblins about.”

“Then I will go,” Gimli said, swinging his great axe over his shoulder. “I see in the dark as well as Master Legolas, and better a Dwarf to walk amongst enemies. If I am fortunate, some of them will show their cowardly heads – briefly, before I part them from their shoulders.”

“I would rather that you collect Sam and the pony and join up with us as quickly as possible,” Gandalf told him tersely. “Boromir will go with you. The hobbits and I will douse the fire while Legolas keeps the guard. Aragorn will carry Frodo.”

“He should perhaps not be moved yet,” Aragorn objected. “He is still very cold, and the leeches have not finished their work.”

“They’re not…” Merry trailed off, pushing aside the layers of blankets in which Frodo was wrapped to peer closer. In the pale light of the moon and the muted glow of Gandalf’s staff, the creatures looked like black burns on Frodo’s white skin. “Aragorn? Should the leeches be finished … feeding?”

The Ranger looked down. “They will drop off of their own when sated, Merry. At least we can spare Frodo the pain of having them pulled off.”

“But…” Merry nudged one gingerly with a forefinger. It rocked slightly then dropped off, landing on its back in the mound of blankets. “It hasn’t been near a half hour yet. This one is dead. So is this one … and this one.”

“Dead?” His staff brightening again, Gandalf pushed Merry aside and knelt at Aragorn’s side. Merry scurried around Aragorn’s back and fetched up opposite him against Pippin, refusing to give ground as the Fellowship crowded around them.

Aragorn depressed the pale flesh at Frodo’s shoulder but there was no need to break the leech’s hold. As he touched it, the bloated black form simply fell off. Aragorn fished it carefully from Frodo’s blankets and held it up to examine it.

“What’s wrong with it?” Pippin leaned closer, curiosity overcoming his revulsion.

“Other than being dead, you mean?” Merry asked.

Pippin ignored him. “Look! They are all … Aragorn, why are they dying?”

Aragorn flicked the black forms from Frodo’s body. They dislodged easily and were lost in the shadows. “They are dying from the poison. It is to be hoped that the poison has been drawn into them, and from Frodo.”

“But–” Merry began, to be interrupted by a shifting in the blankets. “Frodo?” asked Pippin, his voice rising. “Frodo?”

Aragorn pushed back the blanket draping Frodo’s head. Enormous blue eyes, black in the moonlight, squinted at them then winced away from the blaze of the glowing staff. Gandalf instantly stilled it.

“Hello, Frodo,” Aragorn said gravely.

Gandalf reached past Aragorn and cupped Frodo’s chin, his touch very gentle. “How do you feel, my dear lad?”

Frodo blinked up at them. “Cold,” Frodo replied, his voice weak and cracking. “Itchy. I feel dreadful.” Pippin pressed his water bottle into Aragorn’s hand, and Aragorn leaned Frodo against him, supporting him with one hand while raising the water bottle to his lips. Eyes closing, Frodo swallowed, then choked, coughing painfully for some moments. Breathing heavily, he looked around at them, obviously confused.

Then his expression changed, and his hand flew to his throat. “Where – Where is it? Where is it?”

“Be easy, Frodo,” Aragorn hastened to say. “Do not move. You have been hurt–”

Frodo seemed not to hear him. He struggled in the blankets, his fear turning to panic as he discovered he was trapped. “Where is it?

“Frodo! Frodo – here!” Merry shoved the bundle of damp clothing into Frodo’s arms, guiding his hand to the small bulge in a pocket. Frodo looked at him wildly, then suddenly relaxed, trembling. Still keeping tight hold of the pocket and its contents, he drew a deep, shuddering breath.


“Right here, Cousin. I’m right here. Pip’s here, too. We’re both here.”

“Merry…” Frodo sagged back against Aragorn, then stiffened and looked up in alarm as his warm support moved.

“Be easy,” Aragorn repeated. “You are safe now.” Frodo nodded and relaxed, too spent for the moment to speak. Aragorn drew the blankets around him again and tucked them in until only Frodo’s head showed. “Would you like another drink of water?”

 “No,” Frodo whispered. “My throat hurts.” After a moment, he added, “Why haven’t I any clothes on?”

I’m not going to tell him,” Pippin informed everyone.

“Frodo,” Aragorn said, “do you remember what happened? The lake? The water-goblins?”

Frodo frowned at him,struggling to focus. He looked around, obviously counting faces. “Sam? I want Sam.” With a final inarticulate murmur, he sagged against Aragorn. Head drooping, he nestled into the blankets and slid into sleep.

“Come, Master Boromir,” Gimli said in as quiet a voice as he could manage, “as we are sworn to obey the Ring-bearer, we will fetch his Samwise. The moon has risen enough to light the way for eyes less night-gifted than a Dwarf’s.”

Boromir checked his weapons and settled his great shield on his arm. “We will meet you all on the road.”

Aragorn looked up from loosening the tourniquet around Frodo’s arm. “Open one of the medicinal kits and apply the salve in the pouch marked with stinging insects. It will do well enough for leeches.”

Boromir clenched his fist, grimacing as the bites pulled. “Frodo–”

“There is more. Use it. Wash your hand well first.”

“Go carefully,” Gandalf warned them. “And watch your backs.”

Cradling Frodo with immense care, Aragorn climbed to his feet. Merry and Pippin gathered up the trailing blankets and tucked them under Frodo, ensuring that Aragorn would not trip over them.

“Mayn’t we wait for Sam and Boromir and Gimli just a little longer?” Merry asked.

“Do you really want Frodo to wake up in this place?” Gandalf said, gesturing with his staff towards the shadowed, stiffening forms around them. Merry glanced at one, nearly cleaved in two with a sword, and shuddered. Gandalf put a hand on his shoulder. “Do not worry, Merry. They will catch up with us soon enough. Help Pippin douse the fire, and let us be off.”

* * *

“Master Samwise!” Gimli called, trying to make his voice carry without volume. His words travelled oddly over the bleak landscape, and the night seemed to lean in and listen. “Sam! Samwise!”

“He should be able to hear us,” Boromir said softly. “Hobbits have excellent hearing. And we left the pony just below the crest of the hill – no more than a few minutes’ brisk walk. Even if he stopped to tighten Bill’s packs, he should have been back before now.”

“Perhaps he was prevented.”

Boromir nodded. “One of us should have gone with him.”

“Aye. A mistake, that.”

Ahead of them rose the knoll where they had left the pony. It was deserted. Gimli leaned on his great axe while Boromir knelt and examined the earth, but the dim light of the moon and stars and his own lack of tracking skill denied them the knowledge of what had happened there.

“I cannot tell even if Sam came back here,” Boromir confessed, raking his fingers along the unrevealing ground. “I can find no footprints of his at all. But … yes, here is a hoof-print.” He found another in the darkness then looked ahead of them, to where the moon shone over the hill, the unseen water below it casting a pale glow like mist on a sheet of silver glass.

“Why over the hill and not away from it, towards us?” Gimli asked.

Boromir straightened and in his hand was a black-fletched arrow. “I fear I can guess.”

A shrill whinny cut through the air, followed by a sound that neither of the two had ever heard before, the bellow of an enraged hobbit. “Get your filthy paws off him! Get off, I say!” Sam’s cry was followed by a deep ringing clang, and the splash of something large falling into water.

Gimli on his heels, Boromir crested the hill and was running down the other side as another clang rang out, followed by a scream and ugly shouts. Below them, they saw the shortened figure of a hobbit waist-deep in the water, the pony behind him, holding off a ring of spear-bearing goblins with a short sword in one hand and a frying pan in the other.

One darted forward and cast its spear. With quickness neither would have credited the stocky hobbit, Sam pivoted and the cast that would have downed him instead slammed into the pan, ringing loudly like a badly cast bell. The spear shattered and fell into the water and Sam batted it away, holding up the frying pan like a shield.

Now they understood why he had retreated into the water. Behind Sam were planted several of the massive boulders, narrowing the space from which the goblins could come at him and hampering their advance. Bill too was contained by the half-circle of rock, and stood trembling on the end of his lead as Sam defended them both.

“Help! Help, sirs!”

Boromir and Gimli hit the water together, deliberately making as much noise and tumult as they could. Intent on their trapped prey, the goblins were slow to react. Those nearest dived to the side but others were already turning to fight. Boromir and Gimli gave them no chance to rally.

“Gondor!” Boromir cried, crashing into those in the shallows with his weight behind his great shield. His charge knocked smaller goblins off their feet and sent the nearest diving to the sides to escape him. Those closer to Sam swung around, surprise writ on their black faces, and he brought his sword around in a two-handed stroke. The goblin before him jumped back, its spear slashed in two. Boromir followed; his second blow cut the creature’s legs from under it. It fell, screaming, and the water closed over it.  He could hear Gimli roaring as his great war-axe rose and fell; if there were words in his song, Boromir could not make them out.

One of the goblins lunged around Sam, snatching for the pony’s bridle. Distracted by the rescue and hampered by the water, Sam lost his footing, going down in a spray of water. The goblin swung back towards him, grinning. Sam could only flounder helplessly at it as it raised its sword to strike. Then it stiffened and its sword dropped from its claws. It leaned towards him, then toppled forward. It floated a moment, just long enough for Sam to see one of Gimli’s throwing axes imbedded in its back.

“Sam! Make for shore! Make for shore!” Boromir turned to meet another goblin, this one nearly as large as an orc. He ducked its blade and swung low, eviscerating it. The goblin dropped its sword, steaming handfuls of entrails spilling from it as it collapsed and sank under the surface.

Hauling on Bill’s reins, Sam towed the pony through the water. Bill was squealing shrilly, terrified by the shouts and screams and clash of steel. A thin line of blood gleamed on his flank. When his hooves touched dry ground he bolted forward, dragging the hobbit onto the shore. Sam dug in his heels and pulled the pony’s head down, bringing Bill to a stamping halt.

Boromir withdrew his sword from a last opponent, watching dispassionately as the body slid off it into the shallows. Meeting Sam’s gaze, he exchanged a look of grim satisfaction with the hobbit then looked about for Gimli. The dwarf did not need his help. As Boromir watched, Gimli wrenched his weapon from the back of a black body, lifting it entirely from the water to free the double-bladed war axe. It splashed back and tangled with two others at the dwarf’s feet, all three of them bobbing gently in the slowly calming waters.

Gimli looked about regretfully. “That warmed the blood a little. Pity the others ran. Are you hurt, Master Samwise?”

Sam shook his head, still stroking Bill’s neck automatically. “They wanted to eat my Bill,” he told them indignantly as Boromir splashed out of the lake and joined him. “Look, they hurt him! Monsters! What kind of thing would want to eat a poor pony?”

“Hungry things,” Boromir said slowly. With the tip of his sword he turned one of the bodies over and it rolled easily on the curve of its too-prominent ribcage. Beneath its rag-tag armour and the leather strips that made up its clothing, they could see wasted flesh and limbs made thin by hunger.

“They’re starving,” Sam said, horror and pity in his voice.

“Orcs and goblins are fond of horse-flesh,” Boromir told him, refraining from adding that such wicked creatures would equally relish hobbit-flesh. “Bill is lucky to have no more than a scratch. Both of you were very, very lucky.”

Gimli lumbered up to meet them with all the grace of a rampaging oliphaunt, both of his throwing axes now restored to his belt. Water streamed from his hair and beard and his carefully-braided moustaches had come awry, making him resemble one of the legendary Wild Men of the Woods. Inexplicably, he had removed his helmet and in it carried a good quantity of lake water.

“If’n you’re thirsty, sir,” Sam said doubtfully, “there’s all the water bottles full and the barrel, too. We’re not short on water, if you take my meaning.”

Gimli chuckled, swirling his helmet so that some of its contents sloshed out and ran down his armour. As he was already drenched, it made little difference. “It is regrettable that I did not go into the water when all this started,” he said, “but as I said then, my people are not known for their swimming ability. It would have explained much.”

“Explained what?” Boromir asked, tugging at his sodden clothing distastefully.

“Why all of this has happened,” Gimli rumbled. “For now, best we get back to the others. Samwise, Master Frodo has asked for you. Do you need a moment to rest before we go back?”

“He spoke, then? He’s awake?” Sam asked, a catch in his throat. “Just let me tie up this pan… There, there, Bill, we’ll be out of this dreadful place quick enough … there’s a good lad…”

“You should at least change into dry clothes,” Gimli pressed, looking at him with concern.

“Thank you, sir,” Sam replied, “but Gamgees don’t hardly ever get sick. Mr. Frodo will be needing me. Bill and I are fine. May we go now?” He sheathed his sword but Boromir and Gimli kept their weapons drawn and the hobbit and the pony between them as they began retracing their steps.

* TBC *

Chapter Ten

Boromir, Gimli, and Sam were not halfway back to the others when a shifting of the shadows in the distance alerted them to the swift approach of a runner. The two warriors exchanged a grim glance then looked for cover, but they had left the hill behind them and now stood exposed on the flat, boulder-studded plain behind it.

“No cover,” Gimli grunted.

“No need,” Sam replied, flashing a grin in the moonlight. “Hoy! Over here, Mr. Legolas!”

A moment later, the shadows resolved into the elf. His advance almost soundless, Legolas bounded gracefully over a pile of tumbled stones and joined them, not even breathing hard. An arrow lay nocked on his bow and his sword was in his other hand.

“We heard fighting.”

Gimli waved a hand dismissively. “Hardly, hardly. Master Samwise had matters well in hand by the time Master Boromir and I arrived.”

“Meaning my poor Bill would be turning on a spit right now, if’n they’d hadn’t come when they did,” Sam put in, unwilling for the elf to award him undue credit.

“Well enough,” Legolas said with a smile. With another keen glance around him, he reversed his sword and slid it cleanly into its scabbard but left the arrow ready on his bow. “Aragorn urges us to return speedily. We have seen no sign of the yrch.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?” Sam asked.

Legolas was silent. When he did not reply, Boromir shook his head. “I’d rather know where they are, Sam. And what they were doing. I cannot believe they will allow us to pass unavenged through their lands, after killing so many of them.”

* * *
The hobbits heard them approaching before the Big Folk, and alerted Aragorn and Gandalf with tugs on their clothing. “Aragorn,” Merry whispered. “They’re coming back. I hear Gimli’s armour creaking, and Bill’s hoof– Oi!

Peeling a dripping shirt off his head, Merry glared up at his cousin. “Did you have to do that?”

Frodo leaned sideways out of Aragorn’s arms and considered it. “I suppose I didn’t have to, but you were such a tempting target.”

“I am glad you are awake and feeling better, Frodo,” Aragorn interrupted, “but perhaps you could just hand the rest of your clothes to your cousins. All of you should change into fresh clothing as soon as Sam arrives with our packs.” None of them made any mention of the silver chain restored around Frodo’s throat.

“Everything itches,” Pippin complained, scratching industriously.

“It’s the dirt, or sand, or whatever those black specks in the water are,” Merry told him. “I won’t feel better until I’ve had a bath. A real bath.”

“Speaking of necessities,” Frodo murmured, “one of you wouldn’t have a bite of something strengthening, would you? I’m famished.”

“We will stop very soon, Frodo,” said Gandalf, laying a hand briefly on Frodo’s face. “There are no caves in this area, but we can find shelter in the lee of the hill ahead of us. It is steep enough to cut the wind. And food, dry clothing, and most importantly, tea and pipe-weed, are arriving now with Sam.”

“How is he? How is he?” Thrusting Bill’s lead into Boromir’s hands, Sam hurried past the Big People to where Aragorn was lowering Frodo against a small boulder. Suddenly tilted, Frodo paled and dug his hands into Aragorn’s arms. With a strangled gasp, he started to cough.

“Frodo,” Aragorn said urgently, “can you breathe? Breathe, my friend.” Frodo shook his head frantically, wrapping his arms across his chest as he drew up his knees and leaned forward, struggling to stifle the deep, wet coughs. Pippin dropped by his side and began rubbing his back.

“Here, Mr. Frodo,” Sam said, pressing a water bottle on him. Frodo merely closed his eyes and turned his face into Pippin’s shoulder.

“He’s awfully warm,” Pippin told them as the coughs trailed off. Frodo slumped against him, exhausted.

Aragorn laid a hand against Frodo’s forehead. “Merry, please bring me one of the medicinal kits. And fresh clothes for all of you …and something for Frodo to eat. Sam, would you heat water–”

“I’d best strain any water before we use it, sir,” Sam interrupted. “I wouldn’t want to drink any of that nasty stuff either,” he told Frodo, who nodded in agreement without opening his eyes.

“All right. Merry, would you also please bring Sam one of the rolls of cheesecloth in Bill’s panniers. No, Pippin, stay with Frodo. Your cousin needs you more where you are. We will gather wood…” Continuing to issue instructions, Aragorn soon had a fire burning and the others settled around him, watching as he administered various salves, tonics, and powders to a reluctant Frodo.

“Now rest,” Aragorn admonished him in a quiet voice. Pippin had gone to sleep, his head in Frodo’s lap. Having assured himself that everyone had been fed, was warm enough, and his master settled as comfortably as he could be, Sam had sat down on Frodo’s other side and immediately gone to sleep against Frodo’s shoulder. Frodo nodded, his face ruddy in the firelight, but Merry struggled to his feet and followed Aragorn wearily to where the others waited at the edge of their impromptu encampment.

“How much farther until we are out of these creatures’ territory?” Aragorn asked Gandalf.

The wizard shook his head. “I did not even know they were here, Aragorn.”

Boromir joined them, pulling a fresh tunic over his head. “Perhaps they have lived here without notice, until they could remain hidden no longer.”

“What would have driven them out in the open to attack travellers?” Merry asked, sitting himself on a boulder.

“Hunger.” Aragorn and Boromir spoke together. Aragorn nodded. “I have seen signs of it amongst those we have killed. Long starvation. Our intrusion into their lands – with packs and supplies and with a nice, fat pony – must have been seen as too fortuitous an opportunity to let pass.”

“I can answer that question of ‘why’.” Gimli cupped his hand under his helmet and poured into his palm a quantity of the water. Loosening his fingers slightly, he allowed the water to pour through, leaving in his hand a small puddle of tiny black flecks.

“That is what made swimming so difficult,” Boromir said, looking at them. “They lodged in our eyes and burned. It was like swimming through a sea of grit.”

“Close enough,” Gimli said. “This is rock ore, the result of open-pit mining done poorly, done carelessly. Such debris comes from a quarry used beyond its resources.” He pushed a thick finger into his palm and held it up, the tiny particles glittering in the moonlight. “When such quarries are exhausted, the mines are sometimes converted to landfills. Some form of water control is usually required to keep the mine pit from becoming a lake. The easiest way is to make a slurry … pump the waste into a river to carry it away.

“The river would carry it underground as far as the river flows, then empty it into whatever the river feeds … another river, a pond ... or a lake. Eventually rock covers the bottom of the lake, smothering the plant-life there. The fish and lake-life dies. Then things on the shore start to die.”

“The trees,” Legolas murmured.

Gimli nodded. “Tailings can often be toxic due to the presence of unextracted minerals, often toxic minerals, and oftimes toxic from chemicals and processes used to treat the ore. Dumped as this was, eventually, everything dies.”

“The hobbits remarked up on it,” Aragorn said thoughtfully. “Or Sam did. He said, ‘No cattails, or marsh-grass or water-weeds, or fish or frogs or anything edible’.”

“Pippin remarked upon the lack of frogs,” Legolas corrected him.

“In relation to the equal lack of breadcrumbs and butter,” Aragorn agreed. “Yes, he would.” Merry smiled, too tired to contest the comment.

“But where–” Legolas began.

“Isengard.” Gandalf’s voice was flat. “You would understand if you had seen what I saw while captive on the tower of Orthanc. Saruman’s orcs had dug great pits into the earth and burrowed into it like maggots, consuming every mineral and resource in their paths. Far deep the caverns went, wretched from the earth, for more than a mile around. So that is what happened to the earth they dug,” he murmured. “I had not thought upon it till now.” He sighed, leaning on his staff. “A grievous fate for a land that was green and flowering once.”

“We cannot stay here, Gandalf.” Aragorn’s voice was firm.

The wizard nodded, straightening with visible effort. “Nor can we venture blindly into the unknown. Legolas, if you are not too weary–?”

“I will go,” the elf said in his soft voice. “Let the little ones sleep.”

When Legolas returned, all but Gandalf and Aragorn and Gimli slept. The hobbits lay in a row in a hollow of the hill, sleeping more than half upright. Boromir stretched out at their feet, his unsheathed sword near his hand. Bill drowsed at the end of his stake-rein, head down, hip-shot. Gimli sat on the other side of the fire from the sleepers, cleaning his mail, his face thoughtful. Gandalf was staring into the fire as Aragorn stood the guard, smoke curling from both their pipes.

Light-footed, Legolas went to those awake and gave his news. “They have summoned reinforcements. Orcs. Orcs on wargs. Word must have gone to them almost as soon as we entered these lands. There are perhaps sixty, and many more of the goblins. They gather perhaps a half-league from here, on the other side of a narrow pass.”

“We should have pressed on,” groaned Gandalf.

“We would have had to carry the hobbits,” Aragorn said, “and we could not do that and still defend ourselves in case of attack. We will have to evade them, if we can.”

“We cannot,” Legolas told them. “The pass I spoke off… The ground descends sharply, then rises again on both sides, not gradually but in steep upthrusts of rock. The sides are sheer stone, broad at the top but very narrow at the bottom. No more than two could walk abreast. We could not hope to pass unseen there.”

“I know that place,” Gandalf said. “We could not scale the sides without mountain-climbing gear. The tops of the sides are lined with loose boulders – they would come down on us if we even tried. And it would be impossible to get the pony up them.” He stared into the fire, old grief on his face. “Who would have thought that old treaty between goblins and orcs would still be in force, this far from the Misty Mountains. I must remember to tell Bilbo.”

“They would catch up with us easily enough if we tried to outrun them by going back and circling around the lake,” Gimli said. “So … we cannot go back. We will have to fight.” Silence greeted this statement. Rubbing off the last of the black specks from his mail shirt, Gimli laid it aside. “I have a plan.”

* * *
“I am not certain this is a good idea, Gandalf,” Aragorn said, keeping his voice low. “I would feel better if Merry had agreed not quite so quickly.”

“I am more concerned about Gimli’s assertions,” Gandalf replied, watching the industry taking place about him. “Pippin! Get back from the fire!” Merry looked up from his work and snagged his younger cousin’s jacket, dragging him and the bundles he carried farther from the flames.

Food, a quick wash, food, sleep, and more food had done much in restoring the hobbits’ strength but their weariness still showed in an unwonted slowness of their movements. The first hints of pre-dawn waited on the horizon; not light yet, but the moon was preparing to set and the stars were fading.

Frodo had unintentionally awakened them several times, coughing, and was quiet and withdrawn, inarguably running a fever. As he would not rest while the others worked, Aragorn had assigned him the easiest job, sitting and tying shut the little bundles the others passed to him. Sam cut the cheesecloth into little squares which Merry and Pippin filled from the grey doughy mixture Gimli had concocted.

“That is the last of the water,” Boromir announced, shaking the last water bottle to catch every drop. He watched critically as the water pooled and dripped through the layers of cheesecloth tied over the top of the water barrel, then carefully gathered up the cloth and spread it on the ground to dry. “It will be good to have water fit to drink, for a change.”

Muscles strained in his broad back as he lifted the barrel and carefully apportioned the water back into the water bottles, careful to waste none of it. “Here, Boromir,” Frodo said, holding up the barrel’s missing cork. “You might want this. I found it in my pocket.” Smiling, the soldier took it and pounded it home.

“And that’s the last of the cheesecloth,” Sam said, laying down a pair of scissors and rubbing his fingers ruefully. “There’s just enough for the last batch.”

“I still think we should test them,” Merry said, holding up one of the little bags to examine it. “At least one. How do we know they will explode?”

“They will explode because rock ore, washed free of dust, strained, and dried, is explosive,” Gimli rumbled. “Rock ore mixed with Gandalf’s fireworks powder is doubly explosive. And I’ll thank you to not stand so close to the fire holding that, Master Merry.” Hastily Merry stepped back.

“Come,” Gandalf said, squinting at the horizon. “We just have time enough to take our positions before the moon goes down.”

* * *
Creeping along as silently as they could, the Company heard the gathering of orcs and goblins before they saw them. Hoots and snarls and deep, growling voices rose on the pre-dawn air, magnified by the narrowness of the pass. Quickly the hobbits did as they had been instructed, placing the bundles where Gimli directed them, lining both sides of the narrow way and the pass itself. That done, they scrambled back to the others on the high ground before the mouth of the pass and waited.

“It must be soon,” Gandalf whispered. “They hate the light, and it will be dawn in another hour. They would seek to surprise and overpower us, and return to their deep lakes and shelters before the sun rises.”

Scarcely had he spoken when a great shout rose from the other side, and the sound of shuffling feet. A high whine rose over the stifled noise, evidence of a warg’s eagerness. The whine cut off at the sound of a whip. Then a sword clashed against a shield and the unseen army began to advance.

* TBC *

Chapter Eleven

The hobbits moved forward and took their places before the Big People. Bill had been very firmly tied and hobbled by an apologetic Sam farther back. Aragorn had forbidden Frodo to join them, asking him to stay with the pony, but the Ring-bearer had refused the order. “It’s just a fever, Aragorn,” Frodo had replied impatiently. “I can fight as well as any.” Knowing the need, Aragorn had given way, but the others saw him watching Frodo worriedly.

“Ready?” Frodo whispered. Sam, Merry, and Pippin nodded. Before each of them rose a pile of cheesecloth-wrapped bags nearly to their knees, and the first swung ready in their slings. Frodo twirled his over his head then shook out his shoulders, grimacing as his arm pained him.

Behind the hobbits stood Legolas, Boromir, and Aragorn, bows strung, arrows nocked, each arrow with a bag tied just before the fletching of the shaft. Each arrow of each quiver carried such a burden. Gimli stood ready to throw, trusting his great strength to cover the distance. Gandalf had refused his portion of the bags, but now and then fire would dance at the end of his staff, and the others knew he planned something in addition to the part given him.

The scratch of claw on stone heralded the goblins, followed by black forms bristling with weapons. The water-goblins came first, spears raised and swords unsheathed, followed by the bulkier forms of the orcs. Even the darkness before the dawn the two groups could be easily distinguished; the orcs wore helmets and actual armour, and they carried thick swords of better quality. The two troops did not travel peacefully together, snarling at each other and shoving, an uneasy truce at best.

“Wait,” Gimli murmured. “Let enough of them come into the pass.” Frodo nodded intently. Colour rose high in his face. Beside him, Pippin was trembling slightly. Merry put a hand on his arm and gave him a lop-sided smile. Sam moved a little away from the others and knelt, beginning to swing his weapon in preparation.

“Now!” At the dwarf’s word, four sacks of cheesecloth arced high into the air and landed with pin-point accuracy at the feet of the foremost goblins. Those stumbled, surprised and stared blankly at the little bags. One reached down and picked up a bag, fingering it curiously.

“Now,” Gimli rumbled again. Three arrows followed the bags; bursting into flame after leaving their archers’ bows. Gandalf nodded in satisfaction. Two of the arrows thudded into larger bags the hobbits had laid at the sides of the pass and one less precisely into the middle ground. The dwarf watched their placement calculatingly, then – “Get down!”

The hobbits threw themselves flat. Aragorn, Legolas, and Boromir sheltered their heads. The first bag ruptured into a shattering blast of fire, followed less than a second later by the other. Boromir’s arrow did not find its target but hit a rock and skittered along the ground, managing to ignite two at once. These exploded in bursts of fire, sending flaming shreds into the others, igniting the pass into an inferno.

Flame boiled towards them from the narrow fissure, but Gimli had kept them at a safe distance. Bag after bag blew up, igniting one after another, the blasts of sound merging into one shattering roar. The Fellowship contributed to this; after their initial shock the hobbits sprang to their feet and their slings delivered bag after bag into the fury. A deep, grinding roar caused them to look up to the tops of the high cliffs as a great number of boulders worked and came rolling and smashing down, disappearing into the fire and smoke.

The archers sent their arrows into the maelstrom, each arrow bursting into flame with a gesture from Gandalf’s staff. The wizard’s face was awash with red light as he focused on each arrow and timed his magic, igniting it so the flame would burn along the shaft to the bag just as the arrow shot between the walls of stone. Now and again brilliant flashes of blue, green, and red light would flash into the air above the pass, and at such times Gandalf’s eyes would glint, perhaps remembering the humiliation of another time of being trapped by goblins. Gimli trusted to his own strength to deliver his missiles, and if they landed with less accuracy than those delivered by the archers’ arrows or the hobbits’ slings, they accomplished the same work. The entire passage reverberated with sound and fury.

Frodo reached down and no bag met his searching grasp. Startled, he looked to see all of them gone. Turning, he saw that the Big People’s arrows were spent, and Gimli and the others, too, had exhausted their ammunition. Gandalf sent a last flash of green light into the pass then leaned on his staff, breathing noisily. They waited, the smell of acrid smoke and dust heavy in the air.

“Is it over?” Pippin quavered after some moments.

No one answered him. Pippin glanced around, reassuring himself that everyone was all right. Legolas stood with his empty quiver at his feet, turning his head one way then the other. Pippin realised the elf was listening. He listened too, but did not understand the sounds he heard. The roar of fire he recognized … things burning. The pops and tings of overheated metal. Then the wind shifted and he hastily covered his nose, assailed by the stench of burnt hair and flesh. Pippin gagged, his face taking on a greenish tinge.

“We do not want to go through that place,” Aragorn said briefly.

“It is to be hoped that those behind the first advance had to sense to take flight,” Legolas said, lowering his bow at last. There was an odd, almost unwilling compassion on his face, he, who hated orc-kind with every fibre of his being.

Abruptly Gandalf thrust his staff into the ground and drew his sword. The others looked at him in alarm, their hands flying to their own weapons, but they relaxed when he merely held up the blade before him. Glamdring gleamed dully, faintly, its glow growing weaker even as they watched. Frodo pulled Sting from its sheath and examined its leaf-shaped blade, sighing with relief when it echoed the information of the larger sword.

“None near enough to endanger us,” Gandalf said, sheathing the elven blade. His next words were addressed to Legolas, but he was looking at the hobbits as he spoke. “I have no doubt those behind the leaders ran. For all their brutish ways, they are not entirely stupid.”

“They will seek cover when the sun rises,” Boromir said, “and lick their wounds and plot and wait for dark. We must be gone from this place before then.”

“We will return the way we came,” Aragorn said, his weariness showing for a moment in his face, “back to the lake and around the other side. It is not so very far. If we march hard through the day, we can make up the time lost. At least we can walk without fear of ambush, now.”

“Up, my friends,” Gandalf said. Frodo had sat down as they spoke, swinging his hands loosely between his knees. He struggled up, only to be overcome by a fit of coughing. Sam pressed his water bottle upon his master.

“Here, sir. Take a sip.”

Frodo tried, but deep, wet coughs welled out of him, and he could not swallow. Another gust of smoke rolled over them at that moment, deepening his distress. He leaned forward, coughing violently.

“Mr. Aragorn, sir!”

Aragorn had already reached Frodo, forcing him to sit straighter. Frodo choked and turned away from him, shuddering, than choked and spat out a great glob of slimy, yellowish mucus the colour of spoiled cream. “Easy, friend,” Aragorn told him softly. “Easy … easy.”

Aragorn lifted Frodo and stood with him in his arms facing Gandalf. Frodo lay limply, too tired to protest the indignity. “We need shelter, Gandalf. He needs warmth and stillness and rest.”

Gandalf looked at a loss. “We can camp…”

“We need a cave, Gandalf. A cavern. An enclosed place, where the wind cannot reach him.” Aragorn swung into a walk and the others fell in behind him, Sam hurrying ahead to retrieve the pony.

“Why?” Pippin asked, trotting anxiously in the Ranger’s wake. He redoubled his efforts but the Ranger’s long legs were quickly outdistancing him. Boromir waited until all the Company passed him, then took the rear position, his great shield on his back.

“Frodo must clear his lungs,” floated back the answer. “I need an enclosed place where he can inhale herb-infused smoke.”

“…don’t want to breathe smoke,” Frodo gasped, which the Ranger ignored.

“If we cannot find a cave, we may make one,” Gimli called from behind Pippin.

Aragorn stopped dead. “Make a cave?”

Huffing, the dwarf pulled even with him. “A wind-break, I mean. We have hills and boulders and an infinite source of black powder.”

Gandalf and Aragorn exchanged a long look. “It would take the rest of the day to gather and strain enough of the ore to use for blasting. Drying it would take hours.” Aragorn looked down at the silent hobbit in his arms, watching them. “I would leave this place behind us. When darkness falls, we must be far from here.”

Silence reigned. “Aragorn and I could take Frodo and travel on ahead, to where the foothills of Caradhras rise,” Legolas said slowly. “You others could catch up with us in your own time…”

“No!” Wizard and hobbits spoke together. “We stay together,” Gandalf added, with nods from Gimli and Boromir.

“It won’t take hours. Here.” Merry reached into his jacket and with a tug of the cloth, freed two of the cheesecloth bags, holding them out so the others could see them.

“Meriadoc Brandybuck,” Gandalf said in a dangerous voice, “give those at once to Gimli.”

Merry did so, his reluctance visible. “You owe me, Cousin,” he hissed to Frodo.

“I could have done without this help,” Frodo hissed back.

“And just what were you planning on doing with the powder, Meriadoc?” Gandalf continued as Merry laid the pouches carefully in the dwarf’s outstretched hands.

“You never know when something like that might come in handy,” Merry replied, giving the bags a last longing glance as Gimli stowed them away.

“Like now,” Pippin smiling brightly at Gandalf. “Come on, Merry, let’s help Sam with Bill. Come on, Merry.” Literally dragging his cousin away, Pippin towed his cousin out of the wizard’s glowering reach.

* * *
“Just a nudge is needed,” was Gimli’s professional opinion as the Company examined their potential campsite. Gandalf had demanded that they put as much distance between them and narrow pass and the lake as they could, allowing them no halts, not even for eating. The hobbits sat together against a fallen log, revelling in the warmth of the pale sun on the faces, watching tiredly as the dwarf muttered and clucked to himself, delighted with the great stones surrounding them.

“These rolled from the slopes of Caradhras ages ago,” Gimli rumbled, patting one almost with affection. “Move this boulder two steps to the left and it will fit neatly against the other, providing Master Frodo a nice, wind-proof shelter where our good healer can administer his remedies.”

“I don’t want to breathe smoke,” Frodo said despondently. “Why doesn’t anyone listen to me?”

“Is everyone well back?” Gimli asked. He had opened one of the bags and a thin line of glittering black powder ran from his feet to where the bag and its mate were tucked in a shallow hole hollowed out under the smaller boulder. He knelt, tinderbox in hand, and looked around. “Good. Shelter your heads.”


As the dust cleared, they saw that the great rock Gimli had chosen to move had performed exactly as the dwarf said it would, snuggling tightly against the larger one at its side. Aragorn went at once and started building a fire between them, Sam helping him. Gandalf joined the hobbits on the log to wait. Frodo crossed his arms and glared at all of them.

“Oh, that was marvellous,” Merry murmured, staring fixedly at the settling dust.

Gandalf’s eyes narrowed. “Meriadoc Brandybuck.” Merry looked at him, suddenly apprehensive at the abrupt deepening of the wizard’s voice. “Do you have any more of those bags on you?”

“No,” Merry replied rather sulkily.


Surprisingly, Boromir stepped in. With an apologetic glance at the hobbit, he said, “Or in your pack, or stashed with Pippin, or on Bill–loose powder, dried ore, another bag of cheesecloth or of anything else, or in any form, in or out of your immediate possession?”

Merry glared at him. Very slowly, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his handkerchief, bulging with glittering black specks. Pippin stifled a yip and inched away from him. This Merry handed to Gimli, who emptied the kerchief on the ground, shook the last speck from it, and returned it to its owner.

“Thank you,” Boromir said courteously. Merry glared at him a final time, got up, and stamped away. Looking relieved, Pippin smiled at Boromir and followed.

“Dangerous folk, hobbits,” Gimli rumbled. “I think I had best remove temptation from the path of those two younglings.” He added the contents of the two cheesecloth bags to the one at his feet, grinding them carefully into the dust.

“I told you I had deciphered their secret language,” Boromir said in response to Aragorn’s raised eyebrows.

The End

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