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“Did you hear that? Did you hear?” Boromir’s hand tightened on Sam’s shoulder, his hand bunching in the Lórien cloak and clamping hard on flesh and bone, almost lifting the poor hobbit off his feet.
“Aye, I did,” Sam gritted out. Boromir released him with a swift apology. Rubbing his shoulder, Sam pointed to the northeast. “Came from that direction. That was him, I know it was. I know his voice.” Sam did not add that he had never heard such terror in Frodo’s voice. Even when the Witch-king bore down upon him on Weathertop, Frodo had not cried out so.
Boromir strode through the trees in the direction Sam had indicated, inhibited from breaking into a run by the thick foliage. Branches snatched at their cloaks, snagging their clothing, slowing them. Sam followed as best he could, hobbit-feet silent upon the forest floor. He was weary from lack of sleep and the sun burned in his eyes. He had not lost his feelings of apprehension and disquiet around the warrior, but such nebulous worries mattered little in light of Frodo’s need. Moving as swiftly as they could, they struggled towards the source of the cry.
* * *
“Did you hear that?” Legolas’ head had already pivoted towards the shriek even as Aragorn asked the question. The two were making slow progress – once they knew where to look, their only clues as to the direction of their lost ones’ abduction had been the occasional broken branch or scuff mark high on the bark. Twice Aragorn had spotted smears of blood in the trees, and they halted while Legolas climbed to examine them. The Elf’s efforts were wasted; they learned nothing more from the dry patches. The sun was climbing towards midday when they heard Frodo scream.
* * *
“Come on, Gimli!” Merry tightened his hold on the Dwarf’s burly arm and towed determinedly. Heedless in his resolve, the young hobbit did not allow sufficient leeway for Gimli to move and the Dwarf was dragged through a thick clump of prickle bushes. “Sorry! Sorry!” said Merry, not sounding it.
Dodging the bushes as he trailed behind them, Pippin stifled a giggle then tried to look innocent as Gimli cast him an annoyed glance over his shoulder. “Young hobbits,” the beleaguered Dwarf tried again, struggling to free his arm without hurting the halfling, “ I am quite sure that Aragorn’s saying ‘Stay here and wait for us’ does not mean, ‘Follow as soon as we are out of sight.’ Furthermore –“
“Stay close, Pippin,” Merry ordered, ignoring Gimli. “We don’t want to get separated.”
Then they heard their cousin scream.
* * *
All three parties converged on the tiny clearing more or less simultaneously, with Aragorn and Legolas arriving mere seconds before the others. When Boromir and Sam charged out into the glade, followed by Gimli and Merry and Pippin from another direction, they were treated to the sight of the Ranger and the Elf standing motionless, their weapons slack in their hands, their faces bloodless and frightfully blank.
“Aragorn!” Boromir barked, hearing his shout echoed by Gimli. “Don’t look at them! Don’t look!” A flash of movement behind the Dwarf caught his eyes, but there was no time to warn the hobbits. Merry and Pippin darted around Gimli and ran into the center of the clearing, their gaze solely and completely on the sprawled form of their cousin. For those brief seconds, nothing beyond Frodo’s unmoving form existed for them. They ran to their kin and flung themselves upon him, heads down and hands already searching for an injury that would account for such dreadful stillness.
“Frodo! Frodo!” cried Pippin. “What’s wrong with him, Merry?”
Merry patted Frodo’s slack face but received nothing but a quirking of the dark brows in response. “He seems to be unconscious. Not hurt, not anywhere I can find. Not –“ Merry jerked violently as a hand clutched his shoulder.
“It’s just me, Mr. Merry,” Sam said, his mouth close to Merry’s ear. “You two need to listen to me. Right now!” In all the years Merry had known Sam, he had never heard that tone of voice from his friend. Merry started to tear his gaze away from Frodo when Sam unaccountably grabbed a handful of both Merry’s hair and Pippin’s, and pulled their heads down. “You need ‘ta listen right now, sirs.”
“Ow!” complained Pippin, trying to twist away. “Sam, you’re hurting me! What’s the matter with you?”
“Be still, Pip,” Merry said softly.
Sam breathed in heavily and the other two realized he was trembling. “Thank you, Mr. Merry. Now you two listen to me right smart. I want you to look at Mr. Frodo. Just keep your eyes on him. Don’t raise your heads.”
“Sam,” said Merry very quietly, “what is happening?”
Sam took a deep breath and released the two curly heads. The cousins kept their faces obediently down turned. Pippin stared at his hands, gripping Frodo’s jacket. His own knuckles were dead white, bone straining underneath flesh, and with an effort, he released the soft cloth and stroked the velvet lapels straight again. Merry stared down at Frodo’s closed eyes, relieved to see a flicker of movement under the shuttered lids.
“You got ‘ta keep looking down because there’s something awful in the air above us,” Sam said softly. “Now it don’t seem they’re going to hurt us,” he rushed on when Merry twitched, “but you don’t want to look up. Head down, Pippin!”
Pippin almost snapped his neck rushing to obey. In the silence that followed, the youngster muttered a soft “ow…”
“What is it?” asked Merry, voice very controlled. Sam’s halting reply was diverted by Boromir’s arrival. The hobbits saw a shadow fall over them, the razor-sided battle shield distorting the familiar shape. They felt Boromir’s hands on their backs.
“Quick thinking, Sam,” said his familiar voice. Sam nodded. “We’ve had a little time to get used to them,” the soldier continued. “They’ve made no move to harm us, and have said that they will not, so long as Frodo cooperates with them.”
“The little ones are all right?” Legolas sank into a graceful crouch beside them and his slender hands examined Frodo’s still face. Frodo opened his mouth slightly and made a noise that sounded like, “wherrr?”
Boromir glanced sideways in surprise then dropped his eyes again. “You do not fear them?”
“I was startled, only,” Legolas replied. “The shades of Men hold no terror for Elves.”
“Ghosts!” squeaked Pippin.
“Ghosts,” repeated Aragorn, and Pippin felt a gentle hand lain on the crown of his head. “They won’t hurt you, Pippin. Fear is their chief weapon, and you can control your fear. How is Frodo?”
“I think he fainted,” Legolas replied. “His heart beats strongly. He is coming back to us. No doubt it was a great shock.”
“No doubt,” Aragorn agreed. He took a deep breath and raised his head, looking around the small circle surrounding Frodo. His gaze returned to Merry and Pippin, and he sighed. “I see you obeyed my instructions as well as you usually do. We are all here, then?”
“Where’s Gimli?” said Merry sharply. Moving very slowly, as if their limbs were bound, all those but Pippin dared to raise their eyes and look about them.
The Dwarf stood rooted where he had emerged from the trees, his hands clenched tight around his great battle-axe. Above his russet beard, his face was bloodless and his eyes… Those dark eyes stared above him in abject terror.
Aragorn rose to his feet and walked carefully towards the Dwarf. “Gimli,” he said softly. “Gimli, my friend.” There was no response from the other. “Gimli,” said the Ranger again, slightly louder but still with great gentleness. “Son of Glóin, look at me.” Slowly, jerkily, Gimli’s eyes dropped from what hovered in the air above him to the Man. “Good,” encouraged Aragorn softly. “Look at me, my friend. They cannot harm you unless you permit it. They have no power over you.”
With great effort, Gimli swallowed. The others were relieved to see some sense return to the dark eyes. Gimli’s hands loosened on the deadly axe and it dropped unheeded to his side. “How … how do you know this?”
Aragorn moved forward and placed his hand on the Dwarf’s shoulder, squeezing it, forcing Gimli to feel his solid presence. “It is old lore –“
“That few but the one we seek would know, heir of Isildur,” came a cold, empty voice above them.
Aragorn froze, and an expression of pain crossed Gimli’s pale face. Hastily the Ranger removed his hand, giving the Dwarf an apologetic squeeze first. From where he watched with one hand spread protectively on Frodo’s chest, Sam thought how very strong the Man must be, for his grip to pain the armored and muscled Dwarf. Very deliberately, Aragorn raised his head slowly and looked at what drifted on the cold breeze above him. Gaining courage from the Ranger’s calmness, the others looked also.
In the bright sun, they appeared no more than tattered shreds of man-shaped memories, almost more sorrowful than terrifying. The light shimmered through them, illuminating a skeletal hand, the blank-eyed stare of a skull from which a few wisps of hair yet clung. Formed more of their memories of themselves than of actual substance, they were washed of all color, white and grey, shadowed with grief. Insubstantial swords and decaying spears were held loosely in their rotting hands, tattered, moth-eaten clothes splashed with faded blood from their death-wounds. All of them bore signs of death by great violence. They were altogether pathetic and horrifying.
“What do you want with us?” Aragorn asked. “Why have you taken members of our Company?”
Abruptly Frodo twisted and he cried out. His eyes were open now, resembling blue china saucers, and sweat slicked his face. He heaved under Sam’s restraining hand and Sam and Merry caught him forcefully by the shoulders. “Hush, sir, hush. It’s all right. Nothing’s going ‘ta hurt you, sir,” Sam murmured softly. Faintly, Aragorn heard Merry add his reassurances to Sam’s, then Pippin’s soft, quavering voice.
A sigh passed through the assembled wraiths. They were perhaps twenty in number, though it was difficult to tell as they kept fading in and out of sight. Enough to lift and carry two small hobbits and one man made weak with fright. Enough to do their captives’ minds and their hearts true damage, if they chose. Aragorn waited patiently, wondering if he already knew the answer to the question he had asked them.
One moved forward of the others. This one seemed marginally more solid than the rest, as if the memory of what he had been was stronger within him. When he spoke, Aragorn recognized the empty voice that had greeted them upon first entering the glade.
“We took the Ring-bearer…” Aragorn stiffened and the being paused, something like amusement flickering across the naked bones of his face. “Oh, yes, we know the small one bears a Ring of Power. It called to us … summoned us. It is altogether evil.” He stopped and it seemed to the living that a bright spark burned red in the empty eye sockets. “But it would avail us nothing to take it. We could not wield it. No, we do not want what the Ring-bearer carries. We took him and the others only to secure what we want.”
Behind him, Frodo had stilled, half-sitting, one hand clamped on Sam’s arm. Merry and Pippin crouched by his side, pressing themselves against him. The Ranger sorrowed to see Frodo’s other hand clenched tight around the Ring at his throat, and the hobbit’s eyes still wild and terrified.
Seeing Frodo cared for, Legolas left the others and glided to Aragorn’s side, studying the faded, floating figures with great interest. The one Aragorn was speaking to bore a horrific death-wound, a great slash across his abdomen that would surely have eviscerated him. Death would not have come immediately. Not for many hours. Shuddering, Aragorn resisted the urge to turn his head away. Instead, he stared into the blank eye sockets of the figure before him and asked, “What then do you want?”
* TBC *
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