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Riding the Nightmare  by Budgielover

Chapter Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * * 

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

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

* * * 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legolas murmured softly in Elvish, a quiet lament.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hobbit?” asked Legolas. “Or Man?”

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

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

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

* TBC *

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