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Merry craned his neck, trying to see what Frodo and Sam were up to. Why would they be sneaking away from camp in the middle of the night? And what did Sam mean, waving his arms at him like that? Was he supposed to do something? He was on guard – he could not leave his post. All he could do was watch Frodo rise and walk into the woods and Sam follow after him, but disquiet stirred in his heart.
Merry stood up on his toes, shifting his weight forward on the boulder to keep the pair in sight. If anyone had need to leave the camp, they were to tell the guard where they were going and how long they would be gone. Sam and Frodo knew that. Surely they hadn’t forgotten. What reason could they have for deliberately disobeying Aragorn’s order? Merry darted a quick glance over at the indistinct lump that was Aragorn and bit his lip in indecision. When he looked back, the two had disappeared into the darkness. It seemed foolish to shout and wake the camp over such a little thing. But why hadn’t they -
“All quiet, Merry?”
With a stifled yelp, Merry slid off the boulder, landing hard on his rear. A huge shadow loomed over him, and it was a moment before the startled hobbit could identify it as Boromir. The Man extended a hand down and pulled the hobbit up, and Merry clung to it for a moment, his heart racing.
“I am sorry,” Boromir whispered contritely. “Are you all right? I did not mean to frighten you – did you hurt yourself?”
“No, no, I’m all right,” Merry assured him breathlessly, rubbing his backside. “I didn’t notice you.” He grimaced self-depreciatingly. “Fine guard I am.”
In the dim starlight, Merry saw Boromir tilt his head and regard him quizzically. “I am to relieve you on watch. Is everything all right?”
Merry didn’t quite know the answer to that. He stared into the woods but could see nothing. His worry suddenly intensified – something was wrong here. Coming to a decision, he shook his head and scrambled up onto the boulder again, where standing, he was eye-to-eye with the soldier. “No. Boromir, I just saw Sam and Frodo leave camp.”
The Man glanced up at the stars. “It is hours until dawn. Where are they going?”
“I don’t know. The privy pit is the other direction. And Sam was waving his arms at me for some reason. Something’s wrong, Boromir. I know it is.”
The Man was silent for long moments, peering into the silent night. “I agree. The Ring-bearer should not be wandering about alone in the dark. Even if Sam goes with him. There might be orcs and other foul creatures in the area.”
Merry’s fear grew. “I’m going after them,” he muttered, and sat down on the rock in preparation for sliding off.
Boromir stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Let me go, Merry. If they are in trouble, I might be of greater use.”
The hobbit’s protest died on his lips. Boromir was right, of course. Merry had been practicing diligently with his sword but despite keeping his skin intact against the orcs that came against him in Moria, he held no illusions that he could best more than one enemy at a time. As humbling as it was to admit, this warrior could protect his cousin better than he.
Merry nodded and rose to his feet. “I’ll stay on watch.” He pointed to the shadowy place between the trees where the two had entered the forest. “They went in there.”
Boromir nodded, and in a few steps, returned to catch up his great razor-edged battle shield. He checked his sword and the great horn that hung from his belt. Then following Merry’s pointing finger, he set off after Frodo and Sam.
Merry dug his toes into the stone and leaned forward, trying to keep Boromir in sight as long as possible. But once he entered the vegetation, his tall figure merged so quickly with the long shadows of the trees that his form was indistinguishable. Merry bit his lip and hummed to himself in frustration.
This time Merry did yelp, and slid off the other side of the boulder. The Big People said hobbits moved quietly, he thought in the abstracted second before his already-tender rear hit the ground again, but he was going to suggest that all Rangers tie bells on themselves. Or at least quit sneaking up on him. “Ouch,” he groaned, managing to pack a world of resentment into that breathy exclamation.
Aragorn lifted him to his feet and dusted him off, hands tangling in his cloak. “What is going on here?” the Ranger asked. “Where are Frodo and Sam and Boromir?”
“Shush,” Merry begged, but it was already too late. A glance told him that Legolas was sitting up, his head turned in their direction. The Elf reached over and prodded Gimli. The Dwarf snorted then shot up in his bedroll, hands already seeking the haft of his battle-axe. Pippin slept on, oblivious.
Merry sighed and gave up on not waking the camp. “Frodo just got up and walked into the woods. Sam went after him. I don’t know where they were going – they didn’t say anything to me. Then Boromir came to relieve me on watch, and he went after them.”
“Boromir went after them?” Aragorn repeated. Merry winced as the Ranger’s hand tightened on his shoulder like a vise. Realizing that he was hurting the hobbit, the Ranger abruptly let go then sank to one knee to peer into his eyes.
“How long ago was this? Which direction did they go in? Did Frodo seem all right?”
Merry staggered a little under the barrage of questions. That undefined anxiety coiled tighter in the pit of his stomach. “It was not five minutes ago. They just got up and left. Sam was waving his arms at me for some reason – I know he was trying to tell me something but I have no idea what.”
Cloth rustled, and Legolas stood over them, his eyes more luminous than the stars. Puffing slightly, Gimli pulled up a moment later, his axe over his shoulder, dark eyes already scanning the night.
“We must go after them,” Legolas said softly.
Aragorn raised his gaze, startled at the Elf’s words. “You know?”
Legolas nodded. “I feel it in him. It is much stronger since we left Lothlórien. And I heard what occurred between you, there on the shoulders of Caradhras after Frodo lost his footing and rolled down the slope.”
“What did he say?” said Gimli at the same moment Merry said, “You feel what in whom?”
Legolas’ eyes drifted to both of them. “Boromir. The Ring is calling to him. He is falling into despair, and the Ring knows that. It wishes to abandon its Bearer, as that Bearer will not heed it, and seek one who will succumb to its false promises.”
Aragorn rose to his feet, his hands seeking his sword hilt. His keen gaze swept the darkness. “We must find them, and quickly. Which way did they go, Merry?”
Merry felt like he had been kicked between the eyes by one of his father’s ponies. He waved his hands uselessly, trying to order his thoughts. “Boromir … Boromir wouldn’t hurt Frodo. He’d die to protect him. He wouldn’t -”
“Merry!” The hobbit jumped under the lash in Aragorn’s voice. “Which way did they go?”
“That – that way.” He raised a shaking finger to point to the gap between the trees. For a moment, he was unable to identify the shadowy entrance to the forest, and broke out in a cold sweat as panic quivered through him. His finger wavered between two openings; both looked identical and he was unsure. Then his resolution firmed and Merry pointed to the gap on the right.
“Legolas, come with me. Gimli, stay and guard the hobbits.” Aragorn checked his great curved knife while the Elf caught up his bow and slung the quiver over his back. Merry watched numbly, hardly aware of the Dwarf’s gentle hand on his arm. Then both were gone, running as silently as a whisper in the grass, between the trees and out of sight.
“It will be all right, laddie,” Gimli rumbled comfortingly. “All a misunderstanding, no doubt. They’ll be back before we know it.”
“Merry?” All things come in threes, though Merry idiotically. At least I didn’t fall off the boulder this time. “Merry, what’s happening?” Pippin was sitting up in his bedroll, clutching the blankets to his chest. While Merry struggled to find words, his little cousin’s gaze roved over the empty bedrolls to the side of him. “Where are Frodo and Sam?” Pippin’s voice began to rise and Merry went to him quickly.
“Easy, lad,” murmured the Dwarf, but he did not relax his stance.
“It’s all right, Pip,” Merry hastened to reassure the frightened tweenager. “We just had…” he trailed off, having no idea how to tell Pippin what he had just learned. And what Aragorn and Legolas feared. “We just had a bit of a misunderstanding,” he parroted Gimli’s words and heard the Dwarf’s deep grunt of laughter. “Frodo and Sam and Boromir went for a walk, and Aragorn didn’t think that was a good idea, so he and Legolas went after them.”
“In the middle of the night?” Those green eyes met his, and if Merry could not see their color in the faint light, he knew well that they narrowed in disbelief. Pippin cast off the blankets and scrambled up, then yipped and made a dive for them when the cold night air bit through his clothes. Merry helped him wrap up, scolding him to remember he had just been ill and didn't need another chill. Pippin rolled his eyes and draped several blankets around his cousin in return.
“All right,” Pippin said reasonably, now on his feet and wide-awake. “What is going on here?”
Merry stared at him blankly. Pippin awarded his cousin a look of disgust then turned to Gimli. “Gimli, I think Merry has been into that flask of yours. Not much else I know of can tie up his tongue. Now, will you tell me what I missed?”
Suddenly placed on the spot between the cousins, Gimli harrumphed to gain a moment’s thinking time. Then with an apologetic glance at Merry, he said, “Aragorn fears that Boromir might do Frodo harm.”
Pippin’s mouth dropped open. “That’s ridiculous! Boromir would never hurt Frodo–“
“To gain the Enemy’s Ring?” The Dwarf’s voice was still soft, but the sorrow in it was unmistakable.
Pippin’s head dipped, and Merry knew it was to hide the quick shine of tears in his eyes. After a moment the curly head nodded jerkily. “He’s always watching Frodo. In the boats, I mean. Sometimes he paddles up right behind Aragorn, and his knuckles get so white on the paddle. We’ve tried speaking to him –“
“But he doesn’t hear us,” chimed in Merry softly. Pippin edged closer to his cousin and Merry draped a comforting arm over him. “He stares right over our heads like we’re not even there.”
Gimli nodded sagely. “Legolas and I have seen it. He has begun to despair, and the Ring feeds upon such. He is listening to its evil whispers.”
“They had an argument,” Pippin said softly, his eyes still downcast. “Boromir and Aragorn.” Merry looked at him, startled. Pippin was so rarely quiet that it was easy to forget how undetectable the tweenager could be when he wanted. “After dinner. They didn’t know I was behind them, in the rocks. I wasn’t eavesdropping, truly, “ he added hurriedly. They couldn't see the flush that rose to Pippin’s cheeks but Merry knew it was there, nonetheless. “I didn't want Frodo to see me taking the herbs you gathered for my cold, Merry.” Pippin paused and took in a deep breath, then said in a miserable rush of words, “Boromir accused Aragorn of trusting the Elves quickly enough. But not Men.”
Gimli did not know what to say that that. Before Lothlórien, he might have growled an agreement with Boromir. But so many things had changed for him in Caras Galadhon, so many fundamental beliefs of his life proved false. Still struggling with his own changed perceptions of his peoples’ traditional enemy, the Dwarf was silent. But his silence offered no help to the halflings, who were gazing at him wretchedly. “Come on, lads,” said the Dwarf in a gentle voice that would have astounded those who knew him, “let’s stir up the fire. They’ll be cold when they get back.”
The hobbits trailed after him to the fire pit, and started to clear the ash that Sam had heaped upon it to preserve the coals.
* * *
“There,” Aragorn murmured, stooping to pick up the leaf that a boot had crushed. He knelt and placed his hand in the impression of a shod foot. “The hobbits do not leave such a clear trail. If Boromir were not following, I might not be able to track them.”
“If Boromir were not following, there would not be such need to track them,” returned Legolas, his voice tight and worried. Aragorn glanced up at him. “I saw your hand tighten on the hilt of your sword, Aragorn, there on the slopes of Caradhras. Even if Boromir and Frodo did not. You were ready to draw on him.”
Aragorn’s face tightened. “Yes. At that moment, I feared our Fellowship was broken. And we still had so far to go.”
“And now it may truly be broken,” the Elf whispered. “And we still have so far to go.”
* TBC *
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