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For the second time, Samwise awoke to pain. Bright light stabbed into his eyes, burning its way all the way to the back of his brain. Sam groaned, then his heart seized as he remembered what had sent him into the darkness. Cold sweat broke out on his skin. Keep your head down, Sam, he thought. Maybe they won’t notice you’re awake.
Sam pried an eye open. Some time had passed; the sun had moved around the great stone and now he and Boromir lay exposed to its cold and brilliant rays. As near as he could tell, he lay where he had fallen. Next to him, Boromir breathed more easily, more deeply, but no signs of returning consciousness did he show. I’ve got to find Mr. Frodo and get him out o’ here, Sam thought. And Mr. Boromir, if I can. They can’t have taken us that far from the others.
They didn’t have to, Sam decided upon reflection. They could call Frodo to them, and Sam would follow. Gandalf said not to leave him, the hobbit thought, and I don’t mean to. No matter where he goes. He had followed Frodo and Boromir had followed them both. Walked right into a trap, they had. Lambs led to the slaughter. Hastily, Sam shoved that image from his mind and slowly, carefully raised his head to look around.
In the bright daylight, the little clearing looked sad and forlorn. Sam saw that the trees here were stunted, many showing signs of disease. Small wonder. The gardener in him grieved for them, for the green, growing lives they should have had. When there was no response to his movement, Sam cautiously gathered his arms under him and pulled himself into a sitting position. Still nothing.
Right, then. Gathering his courage, Sam stood up and glared around him. They wouldn’t catch him that way twice. Here, in the sunlight, he was in his element and not in the dark misty world that was theirs. Sam had his courage firmly in hand now, and it wasn’t going to escape him again.
As his shadow fell across Boromir’s face, the Man groaned. Quickly, Sam knelt and shook the soldier’s shoulder. “Boromir? Mr. Boromir? Can you wake up, sir?”
Boromir groaned again, louder this time and with a definite note of pain. His face tightened and Sam moved his head so that it blocked the sun shining into the Man’s eyes. Slowly, as if hauling a great weight, Boromir’s eyes dragged themselves open.
Sam could have sobbed with relief. Instead he slid an arm under the soldier’s shoulders and helped him to sit up. “Where … what happened?” the Man managed, running a hand over the stubble on his face.
Sam sought at the Man’s side and came up with his water skin. In his hurry to follow his master, he hadn’t thought to catch up his own. Sam uncapped it and Boromir accepted a drink gratefully, then poured a little of the cool liquid into his hand and rubbed it over his forehead and eyes. Bringing up his arm pulled at the skin of his cut wrist and the soldier hissed, then examined the shallow slice blankly.
Sam waited until the Man’s eyes focused on him again. “Sam … Sam, are you all right?” Boromir said groggily. Briefly Sam considered the idea of slapping Boromir to full wakefulness, then decided against it.
“That I am, sir,” he replied. “Do you remember what happened last night?”
Boromir frowned. “You and Frodo left camp. I followed you, to bring you back. None of us should wander about alone after dark, Sam…”
Sam chewed his lip against his impatience. “Aye, sir. I know it. But I had to. Mr. Frodo was sleepwalking, sir, and you don’t never wake a sleepwalker sudden.”
“No, you don’t…” murmured Boromir vaguely. Then his hand on the hobbit’s shoulder tightened like a vise, so hard that Sam bit back a cry. “Them,” the Man whispered, his unfocused eyes going wide with horror. “I saw - I saw -”
“Me, too, sir,” Sam said. Both his hands tightened on the Man’s. “But they’re not here now. They’re not here. It’s just us.”
In a surge of movement, Boromir was on his feet, his hands on the hilt of his sheathed sword. Sam edged back warily, not entirely certain that the soldier was in full possession of his faculties. Boromir spun on his heel in place, frantic eyes darting among the sickly trees. His eyes widened as he beheld the great stone, then dismissed it as an unlikely threat. Only when he had completed the full circle did he relax, breathing heavily. When Sam saw the broad shoulders shudder and loosen, he dared to approach the Man.
"Mr. Boromir, sir…” Boromir’s gaze fastened on him, and Sam was careful to keep his voice low and calming. Even if his words could not be. “They’ve got Mr. Frodo.” Some of the fear faded from Boromir’s face as he heard Sam’s words, and his gaze sharpened. Encouraged, Sam continued, “He weren’t here when I woke up last night. I talked with … one o’ them. They said they weren’t going to hurt Mr. Frodo – that that wasn’t why they … they called him.”
Boromir knelt so that he could see eye-to-eye with the hobbit. “They called him?”
Sam nodded vigorously, pleased that the Gondorian was coherent once more. “Through his nightmares. Mr. Frodo’s been having awful nightmares, sir, and they’ve got worse since … since we lost Gandalf.”
“Nightmares,” said Boromir softly, his gaze once again seeking among the dying trees. But the unreasoning fear in his eyes had faded and Sam was profoundly glad of that. “The nightmares of men. Such an old tale … I never paid it much attention…”
“Sir…” there was one more thing Sam had to tell him. “They made me tell them who you and Mr. Frodo are.” The Man’s gaze narrowed on him and Sam hurried on, “I had to, sir. I didn’t know what they’d do to you if I didn’t.” After a moment, Boromir nodded. “I told ‘em you were heir to the Steward of Gondor, sir, and they got real excited.”
A strange smile twisted across Boromir’s face. “Oh, yes,” he murmured. “I could see that they would.” Abruptly he laughed but there was no humor in the sound. “Yet I am not the member of our Company whom they have sought for years uncounted. How ironic.”
Sam stared at him in puzzlement. Whatever the Man was on about, it wasn’t finding Frodo. He glanced up at the Sun, now almost overhead. “Sir, can we go now? It’s near midday, and we’ve got to find Mr. Frodo and get back to the others.”
“Yes, of course.” Boromir’s voice was crisp and his keen eyes focused at last. “We’ll find him, Sam.” Then the Man hesitated and his voice dropped. “Do you … did they indicate that they knew … about it?”
Sam had been dreading that question, hoping the soldier wouldn’t ask. "I’m afraid so, sir,” he replied in an equally soft voice. “They called him… They called him…” Sam’s voice fell to a whisper, “…the Ring-bearer.”
“Ah, no,” Boromir murmured, “Then we must find him without delay.” He kept his hand on Sam’s shoulder as they moved towards the circle of trees, waiting for the command to halt at every step. But no such command came. They reached the trees unmolested, and passed from that blighted place.
* * *
“And I say again what I said last night,” Merry repeated in frustration, his voice growing shrill. “They didn’t just grow wings and fly!” No one had returned to sleep after being roused the previous night, and all of the mortal members of the Fellowship were showing their tension and weariness.
Despite the young hobbit’s assertion, the rising of the sun had not provided any more illumination to the confused trail left by their three missing ones. Despite careful searching by every remaining member of the Company, the tracks just – stopped.
“Well, they did not walk!” retorted Aragorn. In a most uncharacteristic gesture, he struck the uncommunicative earth with a fist and rose from a crouch, still staring at the ground.
“Perhaps they did fly,” Legolas said softly. Aragorn whirled, an angry reply on his lips, when he saw the Elf’s expression. Raising his eyes, he followed Legolas’ thoughtful gaze. Above them, where the tracks ended, hung a broken branch. Next to it, another. And from this one glinted a single golden thread.
The Wood-elf was up the tree in a flash, long arms reaching out to capture the glimmering thread. But he did not immediately come down – instead, he reached out again and again, slender fingers gathering something that was unseen to the anxious watchers below. When he descended, his prizes clamped tightly in a fist, they crowed about him eagerly.
“What is it? What is it?” cried Pippin, unable to be still.
Legolas carefully opened his fist and Aragon plucked something from his palm. “The first is a thread,” he said, holding it up to catch the light. “Golden embroidery … this might have come from Boromir’s surcoat.” The others digested this in silence, looking from the thread to where it had been found, high above them. “And this…” All eyes returned to the Ranger. “Hair. Curling hairs, one dark, two sandy-blond.”
“Frodo and Sam?” whispered Merry. Next to him, Gimli leaned in closer to see, his dark eyes squinting.
Aragorn had been looking up at the trees. “There are scrapes against the bark, and fresh sap. Many of the smaller branches and twigs are also broken, as if they were pushed aside.”
“Are you saying something … some thing … swooped down and carried them off?” the Dwarf growled doubtfully. “All of them? In the dark? Without them making a sound?”
“Boromir fought,” said Aragorn slowly. “Remember the sword cuts Legolas and I showed you on the trees further back. And then he ran.”
“You showed us the dried blood, too,” Pippin chimed in, his voice trembling.
“We don’t know who’s it was, Pippin,” Merry said. “It may have belonged to the … whatever … that took them.” He hugged the tweenager briefly then turned to Aragorn. “Very well, we have a trail. So we follow?”
All eyes turned up to the treetops. Pippin voiced what was on each of their minds. “How?”
* * *
Frodo sighed, dark eyebrows quirking together. The sun was beating against his closed lids. Oh, stars, he had overslept. Aragorn was going to be annoyed with him. He was probably holding up the whole Company, and they had a great distance to travel today. Odd that Sam hadn’t woken him…
Surprisingly, he felt well-rested. Frodo yawned and stretched luxuriously, savoring the unfamiliar feeling. That was probably why the Ranger had allowed him to sleep, knowing that Frodo’s rest had been troubled of late. Eyes still closed, he frowned. He had had a nightmare earlier in the night … something about being chased, hunted. So many of his dreams were about being pursued … or about Pippin or Merry or Sam being hurt, because of him. Because of what he carried. Unconsciously, his hand rose to his throat and sought the end of the silver chain around his neck, fingering the cold weight of his burden before dropping to his side again.
A shadow crossed his face and Frodo sighed again, knowing that they were waiting for him to get up. He could remember nothing after the nightmare, and was glad of that. Such awful dreams… He hoped that Aragorn would not seek to make up the time lost by demanding he eat in the boat. When the small craft rocked or hit an eddy, he invariably dropped his breakfast on himself, prompting a martyred sigh from Sam. Sam always felt he had to keep Frodo’s clothes looking respectable – just about an impossible task when one is trekking through the Wild. Or more recently, climbing in and out of boats…
Realizing that he was stalling, Frodo turned his head towards the shadow and smiled. “I’m awake, Sam,” he mumbled sleepily to the waiting presence. “Good morn-”
A moment later, a shrill shriek rent the air.
* TBC *
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