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Even at a flat-out run, the Wood-elf and the Ranger raced almost in silence. Legolas’ arrows rattled in his quiver and Aragorn’s leather clothing squeaked faintly, but few snaps of twigs beneath their feet or rustle of leaves betrayed them. On they ran in desperate silence, straining to hear any cry. But the dark forest echoed only silence.
“Legolas, look!” The Ranger’s harsh whisper brought the Elf to a skidding halt, sending up a flurry of decaying leaves. Legolas pivoted gracefully and knelt to peer at the shadowed earth. Aragorn crouched with his hands framing a patch of disturbed earth, leaning down so far that his hair almost trailed along the ground.
“What is it? Is it the halflings and Boromir?”
Aragorn raked the soft earth with his fingertips, displacing a leaf that had drifted onto the dirt. “Here – and here. Scuffling marks of unshod feet. There – toes… Sam, I think – his feet are larger and broader than Frodo’s. It looks like a struggle… See, his prints partially overlay Frodo’s, as if he was trying to push him back…” The Ranger crab-walked forward a few steps. Then he leaned down again, and ran his sensitive hands over the earth. “No…”
Legolas could see the boot-marks, too. Heavy boots, driven deep into the earth. Running. The marks passed the tracks of the hobbits’ feet and continued on for some way. Then stopped. They did not shorten in length till Boromir came to a halt – they simply disappeared between one stride and the next.
Aragorn had risen and was casting about, trying to use the moon’s faint light to illuminate the ground. But through he and Legolas both searched far in all directions, there was no more sign. Boromir and Frodo and Sam had simply vanished, and nowhere around them was any sign to tell what had become of them.
* * *
“What do you mean ‘vanished’?” repeated Merry, struggling to understand. “People don’t just vanish. They don’t grow wings and fly. They don’t -”
“Merry,” said Aragorn sternly, and the hobbit fought to control his tongue and his rising alarm. Beside him, Pippin was silent but very pale, clinging tightly to his older cousin’s arm. Gimli was peering out into the darkness, his axe in his thick hands, as if he suspected ambush at any moment. The first faint hints of dawn had aided the hunt; the two trackers had spent hours searching where the Ring-bearer and his friend and their protector had disappeared. Protector … or pursuer? Aragorn refused to consider the implications of that second thought. Unable to find any indication at all of what had happened to them, Aragorn and Legolas had widened their search to include the surrounding wilds in every direction for almost half a league. Defeated, the two had then worked their way along the track back to camp, examining each booted or bare hobbit-print in meticulous detail.
They had found the place where Sam had fallen into the stream, and where Frodo had stepped out onto the opposite shore. The splash from the little gardener’s fall had dried, but the sandy soil of the small brook had been displaced and most of a handprint could be seen where Sam had pushed himself up. And in a straight line from that, the more narrow imprint of a hobbit-heel … Frodo stepping out onto the bank.
“He kept waving his arms and pointing at Frodo,” Merry was trying to explain. “And Frodo didn’t look at me or Sam or anyone; he just walked off into the forest.” Merry paused, trying to understand both of his friends’ strange behavior. “Why would they act like that, Aragorn?”
The Ranger shook his head. “I have no idea, Merry. And why was Sam so silent? Surely if there were any danger, he would have roused the camp.”
“Unless in doing so, he would endanger Frodo … or us,” Legolas said slowly.
“Endanger us?” growled Gimli. He waved the axe and the other members of the Fellowship took a prudent step backwards. “There’s nothing around us but whining mosquitoes and rabbits.”
“Now that you mention it,” said Aragorn thoughtfully, “don’t you think it odd that we have seen no larger animals or game for miles? Not even foxes.”
“No sign of wolves or bear or elk or deer … of any large creature,” mused Legolas. Unbidden, his slender hand strayed to the hilt of one of his long knives and rested there. “Why?”
“Why indeed?” murmured Aragorn. “The forest is rich with food for deer-kind. There are many wild grasses, brush, trees and leaves. This area should be teeming with wildlife.”
“Well, it’s not,” declared Merry. “And this isn’t finding Frodo and Sam and Boromir. Surely the most reasonable course of action is to return to where you lost their trail and look again in full daylight?”
“There is nothing that we would see in daylight that we missed in the darkness, Merry,” Aragorn returned, his frustration evident in his tone. “Do not forget, we have the eyes of an Elf with us. Their tracks just simply stopped.”
“That’s impossible,” said Pippin in a tiny voice, speaking for the first time since Aragorn and Legolas had returned. The others looked at him in silence.
* * *
Awareness came slowly back to Sam. His throat hurt terribly, as if the inside of it had been rubbed with that sanded paper that Ted Sandyman produced at the Hobbiton mill. He gulped, and winced as fire ran over the abraded tissues.
His head hurt too, and his eyes. In fact, everything hurt. But there was something more important than his pain that was demanding his attention. When he remembered it, his eyes shot open and he clamped down on the cry already rising in his throat. Frodo!
His eyes were blurred, but sufficient to make out an enormous dark form looming above him and a smaller dark form lying close to him, within touching distance. Desperately, Sam gathered his arms underneath him and dragged himself over to the motionless form. Rough wool and chain mail met his fumbling fingers, and the stubbled harshness of a beard against his palms. Boromir… Sam’s fingers fumbled for the great pulse-point under the Man’s throat, and found it. He lived, then. But the beat was slow and sluggish, and Sam’s attempts to rouse him were unsuccessful. He and Boromir had been positioned at the base of a great standing stone, a black monolith set deep into the earth and rising above him like an ebony finger pointing to the sky. It surely weighed tons, and Sam could not imagine the might of Men or even Dwarves carrying it here and placing it in the center of this small clearing. Perhaps it had ridden one of the great ice-sheets that old Mr. Bilbo claimed had once covered the land, eons ago. The dear old hobbit told the most wonderful stories of Ice Giants riding the frozen waters like ponies, and making war on… Sam shook his head; he had to stay focused. In any case, it was blocking the sun and it was cold here in the shadow.
Sam grasped the capped sleeves of Boromir’s surcoat and used them to pull himself up the Man’s body, leaning on the unconscious form to see over him. He blinked, struggling to clear his vision. The pale light of dawn suffused the small glade in which he and the Man had been placed, but Frodo was not within it.
Had been placed? Sam tried to order his panic and force reason upon his careening mind. They were not in the tiny meadow where he and Frodo had stopped, where …his mind shied away, like a spooked pony. He certainly would not have forgotten the great black stone standing above them. Yes, he and Boromir had been placed here, and his master had not. He turned back to the Man and for the first time noted how Boromir had been laid out. Oh, yes, thought Sam grimly, ‘laid out’ is the word, all right. Like a corpse. And me, too. Boromir lay on his back, legs straight and together, hands folded on his breast. His clothing had been straightened and the great cloak-clasp at his throat set evenly at the center of the broad chest. Sam had awakened in the same position, but he had been too busy dragging himself up to be aware of it. Like a corpse.
Sam tried to remember what had happened. He’d been following Mr. Frodo. Yes. Yes, he remembered doing that. His master was sleepwalking. Sam had been afraid to wake him, afraid of what the startlement might do to him. You don’t never wake a sleepwalker sudden. Yes, that’s right. There’d been a stream … Sam felt the front of his shirt; it was still damp. Then a little farther on, a still, deep glade. And … and … something purely awful. And for the life of him, Sam couldn’t remember what it was.
It was almighty cold. Sam shivered and drew his cloak tightly about him. Some persistent tugging managed to free enough of Boromir’s cloak to cover the Man somewhat. Sam could not hope to lift Boromir’s weight to free the cloak completely and cover the Man warmly enough. There was a dark slash across the inside of one of Boromir’s wrists, a long clean slice that had bled profusely. Sam examined it hesitantly, but the bleeding had stopped. Now, what could have done that? Gingerly, he pulled the sleeve closed over the wound and tied the cloth shut with a length of fabric torn from the hem of the Man’s embroidered surcoat. Then he tried again. “Mr. Boromir, sir, you got to wake up. Please, sir. Please!” Daring greatly, Sam lightly slapped Boromir’s face, first one cheek then the other. This elicited a faint groan, and encouraged, Sam slapped him harder. Me striking the heir o’ the Steward of Gondor, Sam thought. What would my Gaffer say?
“Boromir!” Sam abandoned the light slaps, and grasped the Man’s surcoat in both hands, giving him a hard shaking. Boromir’s chest lifted slightly from the cold earth and his eyelashes fluttered. Sam let him drop, and leaned down to bellow in one ear, “Mr. Boromir! Wake up!”
Sam froze, still as a coney scenting the wolf. The command, cold and devoid of emotion, had come from behind him. He released Boromir and the Man sank back into unconsciousness with a sigh, his face once again going slack. Keeping one hand on the Man’s shoulder to steady himself and to feel the other’s presence, Sam turned around.
There was no one behind him. His gaze darted around the small clearing but only trees and low brush met his gaze, the rising sun beginning to slant through the remaining leaves and limn them in splendor. There was movement between them but nothing he could discern. “Come out!” he called, perversely glad that whomever had hailed him had not, in fact, come out. “Come out where I can see you!”
Soft laughter greeted this, derisive and mocking. Other voices joined the first, depreciatory voices, cruel and sneering. They came from all around him. He was surrounded. Sam’s heart began to beat faster. His hand checked his side and tightened on the hilt of his small sword. They hadn’t taken it. Why hadn’t they disarmed him? Boromir, too, still had his sword and his great shield, placed at his side in ceremonial grandeur. Sam almost drew his sword but stilled the motion. There had been too many voices to fight. He could not get himself killed – he had to find Frodo and somehow get his master and Boromir back to the others.
Sam rose to his feet shakily. His limbs felt numb and little tingles of returning blood were beginning to run through his legs. He ignored the sensations. “Where’s Mr. Frodo?” he shouted at the voices, hating how shrill his own sounded.
“Frodo,” several of the voices murmured. “Frodo… That is the Ring-bearer’s name?”
Sam’s heart sank. They had him, then. His last hope that Frodo had not been taken by them evaporated. They must have searched him, to know about the Ring. Frodo would never tell them that. Surreptitiously he tried nudging Boromir in the ribs with a heel but the soldier remained inert.
“Be still,” ordered the first voice harshly. Sam complied, too frightened of what harm they might do to Boromir and Frodo if he disobeyed. “I asked you a question, halfling.”
Sam could see nothing to be gained by lying. And these folks might know if he was doing it. “Aye, sir. Mr. Frodo Baggins.” He’d give them that, but no more unless they demanded it.
“And the warrior? Who is he?”
Sam sighed. “This here is Boromir son of Denethor, heir to the Steward of Gondor.” Immediately he felt tension in the air. A great whispering passed around the glade, many voices.
“The heir to the Steward of Gondor? The heir to the Steward?” No longer were the unseen voices cold and dispassionate. Suddenly the little space in which he and Boromir were placed seemed crowded, the focus of unseen regard. Sam shivered and pressed himself closer to the Man’s unmoving form, frightened without knowing why.
The first voice rose over the others, hissing, “Silence, all of you!” The other voices went still. It occurred to Sam that no birds greeted the rising sun in this little place. The forest was as silent as death. Then, “And you?”
“Me, sir?” For a heartbeat, Sam’s mind was totally blank. Then he almost squeaked, “Nobody, sir! Leastwise, I’m Sam Gamgee.”
“You are the Ring-bearer's bodyguard?”
If Sam hadn’t been half terrified out of his wits for his master, he would have chortled. “His gardener.”
There was a moment of silence then, then snarling laughter. Sam wanted to cringe at the cruelty in it. “Please,” he begged instead, “have you got my master? Please don’t hurt him. He’s had a cruel time.” Not orcs, Sam thought. Few orcs spoke the Common Speech, and those that did, did so in hissing, distorted fashion. Absolutely not Elves – neither voice nor speech was fair enough. And he could not imagine Elves acting thus. Dwarves or Men? Something else? He looked desperately from tree to tree but they had hidden themselves well; now he could not even see movement.
When the answer came, it seemed to Sam that almost there was respect in the reply. “We have no intention of harming the Ring-bearer, if he cooperates with us. That is not why we called him to us.”
“You called him…” Sam trailed off, struggling to understand.
“We called him through his nightmares, through the torment visited upon him by that which he bears.” The voice turned grimmer, and for the first time, Sam heard the undercurrent of self-loathing that laced its every word. “We are … intimately acquainted with nightmares, you see.” With that, the owner of the voice stepped clear of the trees. Sam shoved his own fists into his mouth to keep from screaming. The only sound that escaped him was a small whimper as his wits fled in horror, and he slumped down senseless next to Boromir.
* TBC *
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