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Still stunned and on his knees, Legolas dragged his great bow before him and turned it sideways, struggling to aim it as he would a crossbow. Gimli lay on his belly, his great axe fallen from nerveless fingers. Legolas spared him a glance but saw that he would have no help from that quarter.
Leaden fingers fumbled for an arrow but dropped it and the Elf swore, almost the first time Aragorn could ever recall hearing such an utterance from him. With great effort, Legolas set arrow to string and raised the bow shakily. Before the Ranger could gather himself to forbid the action, the Elf fired. The arrow wobbled and passed harmlessly through the ghost holding Frodo’s shoulders. Pippin yelped as it passed within inches of his cousin’s head.
“Legolas, no!” The Elf dragged his gaze to the Ranger and Aragorn shook his head furiously. “They are already dead! What threat could our weapons hold against them?” Legolas ground his teeth but hearing his own thoughts echoed by Aragorn stilled his hand. He had hoped that in becoming corporeal enough to support the little ones’ weight, the wraiths might render themselves vulnerable to his arrows. Such was not the case. In shooting, he would only further endanger the captives. Frustrated and furious, he lowered the bow.
A shrill cry from Sam drew their attention. He had roused from the shock to which the ghostly company’s cry had driven him, and seen his master and Pippin suspended above them. The ghosts were endeavoring to carry them higher, but at perhaps forty feet, they seemed to be fighting against an invisible force that would let them ascend no farther. It did not matter; a drop from forty feet onto the hard ground would surely break every bone in their bodies. Sam was on his feet, shaking, fists beating impotently against his sides. Without the training of a warrior or a loremaster’s knowledge of what they faced, he fought with the only weapon he had. Almost before the warriors could blink, the hobbit had his small sling out and was firing tiny stones with deadly accuracy into the throng’s midst. One passed directly through the forehead of the specter holding Frodo. But like the Elf’s arrow, the small projectiles passed through the wraiths without harm.
Boromir, meanwhile, had cast aside his shield and sword and was crawling on his belly towards Merry. Having suffered the wraiths before, he had recovered more quickly than the others. Merry groaned as Boromir reached him and his eyes fluttered open, glazed and unseeing. Boromir ran his hands carefully over the small body, checking for breaks. Merry gasped when the soldier’s hands passed over his ankle, and his eyes cleared a bit from the pain.
Suddenly Merry half sat-up, his horrified gaze focused above them, a silent shriek on his lips. Without even looking, Boromir knew from the expression on the halfling’s face what was coming. Boromir gathered himself and flung his body over Merry, muscled arms already reaching, risking a quick glance upward. Pippin was falling, tumbling head over heels in the air, silent in his terror. Boromir threw himself upwards, long arms curving to catch the small body. A remote part of his mind had a heartbeat to marvel at the sudden, solid weight of the tweenager as Pippin crashed into him and bore them both to the ground. The little one looked so delicate to weigh so much, he thought dazedly. Boromir landed hard on his shoulder, digging a swath in the sickly grass, sheltering Pippin against his chest. The soldier grunted in suppressed agony as all the air was driven from his lungs, and yards away, Aragorn and the others winced at the impact. For a long moment, Pippin did not move. Then his hands clutched at the Man, winding his small arms around Boromir as if he would never let go.
Panic stricken, Merry tried to struggle to his feet but the ankle betrayed him, twisting beneath him and he fell. Digging his elbows into the turf, he dragged himself over to their entwined forms, and latched onto Boromir’s leg, using the limb to pull himself forward. “Pippin! Pip!”
With a final, despairing glance above him, Sam stuffed the useless sling in his pocket and ran to the huddled forms, his hand going out to stroke the head pressed so tightly against the Man. “Pippin,” Sam whispered. “Are you all right there, my lad?” Pippin whimpered, his head still buried in the crook of Boromir’s neck.
“I have him,” murmured Boromir softly, his eyes flicking between Sam and Merry and the host above them. He rubbed the tweenager’s back with one hand, cupping the back of the trembling head with the other. “Peregrin,” Boromir said quietly. “If you do not let Merry know you are all right, he is going to tear off my leg.” Pippin shuddered and his grip tightened around Boromir’s neck. “I have need of that leg,” Boromir murmured ridiculously, “You and Merry will have to carry me –“ With a gasping laugh, Pippin raised his head and unlocked his hold from around the Man’s neck. Seeing him raise his head, Merry transferred his death-grip from Boromir’s leg to Pippin, hugging his cousin tight. Then Merry looked up again and his face blanched.
“Frodo! I had him, Sam! But I couldn’t hold on. What are they going to do to him?”
“Don’t know, Mr. Merry.” Sam’s caught up Merry’s hand with such force that Merry winced and despite himself, gave a soft cry of pain. Sam glanced at him in apology and eased up slightly but kept Merry’s hand held tight in his own.
Aragorn allowed himself to close his eyes for a heartbeat, sending up a prayer of thanks to Elbereth for Boromir’s successful catch of the young hobbit. If Pippin had been killed, he could not have borne it any more than the youngster’s kin. Legolas stood beside him, at a loss and helpless for one of the few times in the Elf’s long life.
“If you’d see to Master Gimli, Samwise,” Aragorn said quietly. His voice was soft but it carried easily to the small group. Sam nodded and with a last squeeze of Merry’s hand, scuttled sideways to kneel besides the prone Dwarf.
“Mr. Gimli, sir? Sir?” Gimli was breathing harshly, his face beneath the beard pale and strained. Seeing Pippin safe, he tried to push himself up and Sam helped him, steadying him as the Dwarf struggled to a seating position. “It gets better,” Sam reassured him softly. “You sort of get used to them, if you don’t think about it too much.” Still wordless, Gimli nodded, some of the unreasoning panic leaving his eyes.
“Man!” They aren’t calling Strider by name, Sam thought. Bad sign, that. “There are rocks nearby, man. Sharp, jagged rocks. Your Ring-bearer would fare ill indeed were we to drop him from so high and over such a place. And we will, man. We will drop him unless you, Isildur’s Heir, free us!”
The specters were moving, shifting under Frodo’s limp form. It seemed to the watching hobbit that this was an effort for them, a strain to keep themselves corporeal enough to support a solid weight for any length of time. Sam could not tell if his master was conscious or not. He wasn’t moving. Some part of Sam hoped desperately that Frodo was not. Hobbits are not good with heights at the best of times. And this… Tears burning against his eyelids, Sam hoped frantically that Frodo had fainted.
“No! No, do not harm him!” Aragorn stood beneath them, clenching and unclenching his fists in impotent rage. With Sam giving him a hand up, Gimli heaved himself to his feet and stood swaying, his thick legs planted like tree-trunks against the ground. Legolas stood rigid, useless arrow in one hand and the bow in the other. Both stared upwards, unable to do more. From the corner of his eye, Sam saw Pippin try to look up. Boromir gently pushed the youngster’s head down, whispering to him, and Merry patted his back, his eyes on Frodo and his expression grim.
Sam saw Frodo shudder suddenly, and his formerly limp body suddenly exploded into a frenzy of twisting. He thrashed against those holding him, kicking, trying to turn himself to see those on the ground. He was awake now, then. No, thought Sam. No, don’t look. Don’t see. Oh, my dear master… The spirits swirled around Frodo, tightening their holds as the hobbit writhed and fought. Ghastly fleshless hands caught his arms, his legs, and fastened themselves in his clothing. Frodo recoiled from their touch, his gasping, terrified breaths an agony to the ears of the helpless Fellowship below him.
“Pip! Pip!” Frodo kicked and cloth tore, the sleeve of his jacket ripping. He dropped several feet before bony fingers caught and tightened around him again.
“Frodo!” Pippin shrieked, struggling against Boromir’s restraining hand. At a nod from Merry, the soldier allowed him to see. Pippin’s face went white at the sight of his thrashing cousin, but to see Frodo moving and fighting was more steadying to him than any number of whispered reassurances.
The leader darted up to his comrades and caught Frodo’s head, arching the hobbit’s neck back painfully. The Ring-bearer froze, his eyes captured by the spirit’s burning gaze. “Let him join us in death, then, where we died in such shame and dishonor. We will smash him upon the black rock of our ignominy, break his spine across the stone!” The foremost of them glared down upon the Companions, the rotting remains of his face twisted in such despair as to smite the heart. A finger like a white twig pointed at the great black standing stone situated in the center of the clearing. He released Frodo and descended to hover just above the Ranger and stare into his eyes. “We will do this thing, unless you release us!”
“I cannot free you from the curse laid upon you by my forefather,” Aragorn said to him, pitching his tone to carry to the others. The Ranger’s voice was low and steady, the only sign of his anger and tension the almost imperceptible quivering of his tall frame. “That is beyond my power. But I can release you from this place! And once quit from here, return you to Erech and await the summons that will free you from your long years of torment. For I am coming! The Heir of Isildur is coming, and it may yet come to pass that I will ride the Paths of the Dead, and send out my summons for you to fulfill your oath at last.”
They were listening. Sam knew they were listening. They had stilled, their putrid, weary faces looking down on them. Frodo too was motionless, but Sam could see him shaking. With their attention on Aragorn, Sam saw that Frodo had managed to twist himself partway around, but not enough to see his friends upon the ground. He tried again as Sam watched, and Sam saw the ghostly hands tighten cruelly upon him.
“But if you harm that little one,” Aragorn continued, “it will all be for naught. If he dies, then our Quest has failed. If he dies with our mission yet unfulfilled, what he bears will most likely find its way back to the Enemy, to the great increase of his power. He lacks only the Ring to cover all the world in darkness. And if that comes to pass, then you will be forever condemned to the hell in which you have damned yourselves.”
The lost souls had drifted lower while Aragorn spoke, listening to him so intently that they forgot to sustain their altitude. Sam saw them leaning towards each other, passing among themselves some communication that the living could not perceive.
“Forever,” repeated Aragorn in a softer voice, and they came closer to hear him. Legolas and Gimli fell back, and Boromir closed his eyes and bowed his head over Pippin, pushing the youngest hobbit’s face into his surcoat, keeping his eyes from them. Beside Sam, Merry shuddered, his face glistening with perspiration. He looked away as the decaying forms drew nearer, and then forced his gaze back as the Ranger continued speaking. “Forever. With no hope of release. With no hope of finding peace, ever. Never to rest.” Aragorn fell silent, his eyes boring into those of the leader.
A low moan was birthed and grew among them, a sound of lingering grief. Hope was all that had sustained them, held them by a knife’s-edge to what sanity they had left. The smallest of hopes, but one yet possible. Sam could not imagine an existence without the smallest glimmer of hope. Better, by far, to be dead. Completely, irrevocably dead. Sam felt the tears prinking at his eyes brim over, the pity in his heart so great that for a moment he could forgive them for what they did. He prayed that he would never understand being driven to such straits, to a place where all hope failed.
The shifting of Frodo’s shoulders caught his attention, warning him a heartbeat before Frodo acted. Before Sam could shout, “Master, don’t!” Frodo snapped his arms against his sides and curled in on himself, making his body as small as possible. With no reference points in the air, he did not know how high he was still above the ground. Caught off guard and distracted, the ghosts dropped him.
He fell through their insubstantial forms like a stone through melting snow. Fleshless hands caught at him, but they had drifted apart in their absorption of Aragorn's words and had not density enough to catch him. Frodo managed to turn as he fell, and Sam saw his eyes widen as he saw how very far the ground was below him. I can’t reach him, thought Sam, as his world slowed to that falling form. Nor Legolas, nor Aragorn – none of us…
The leader whirled, alerted by the motion above him. His head whipped back, then he was shooting upwards like a ragged sheet caught in the wind. Sam saw him solidify suddenly as if some human emotion remained in him, some shred of inherent human decency, not to allow the helpless to come to harm. The memory of his living form crawled over the bare bone and putrefying flesh; muscles firmed and strong hands reached out. They caught Frodo in mid-air, then the leader drifted down and deposited the Ring-bearer gently into Aragorn’s arms.
“Your proposal is accepted,” he murmured into the stunned Ranger’s face. “Free us from this place, that we may return to our brethren and await the summons that will allow us to atone for what we have done.”
Aragorn’s arms tightened around Frodo. He could feel the Ring-bearer’s heart hammering against his chest with such force that it seemed it would burst from Frodo’s breast. Frodo was utterly silent, his hands clasping Aragorn’s arm as it held him across his chest.
The others came down to hover before him, arraying themselves behind their leader in silent anticipation. Aragorn held his ground. Very carefully, he put Frodo down. The hobbit wavered on his feet, then sank to the cold earth, sliding down to rest with his back against Aragorn’s legs, his white face upturned, staring at the unearthly assemblage. He said nothing, but Aragorn could feel him trembling.
“All right, Frodo?” he asked softly.
“All right, Strider,” the Ring-bearer answered, his voice so low that only the absolute silence of the glade allowed it to carry to Aragorn’s ears. There was a rustle of movement then Sam was crouching by Frodo’s side, glaring at the phantoms furiously.
The Ranger returned his gaze to the waiting ghosts. He drew himself up and his blue-grey eyes were filled with such majesty and his stern features with such nobility that all those waiting for his words bowed their heads in awe. “I, Aragorn son of Arathorn, descended through many fathers from Isildur, son of Elendil, release you from your place of death. It is laid upon you to return to the place of your desertion and rejoin your kin, to await the day when the Heir of Isildur summons you to fulfill the oath you made to the King of Gondor. In doing so, may you find the peace so long denied you and be known as Oathbreakers no more.”
A great sigh rose up from the half-seen forms, a moan of relief that rose to the stars and filled the heavens. As if the late sun had suddenly increased in strength, they became more difficult to see. A great rush of air filled the clearing, swirling around the blighted trees, and when it was gone, only the leader remained. He drifted for a moment before the Fellowship, and in those tortured eyes was some measure of peace.
“Thank you,” the wraith said to Aragorn. “If it is within your power, lord, do not delay in your coming. We will wait, as we must. This time, we will honor the return of the king.” With that, he was gone on the last breath of the cleansing wind.
* * *
Upon Merry’s assurances that his ankle was only twisted, the Company had departed that ill-fated place as quickly as possible. None wanted to remain in a place of such sorrow. Merry asked Boromir to carry Pippin, but the tweenager, upon seeing that each step brought a grimace of pain to Merry’s face, had insisted that his cousin be carried instead. Merry had indignantly refused, insisting that Pippin be carried. Frodo had firmly settled the impending squabble, reassuring Aragorn of the Ring-bearer’s resilience.
As Boromir lifted Merry and settled him in his arms to carry him, Legolas ran his slender hands over several of the trees, murmuring reassurances to the blighted trunks in Elvish. “Perhaps they will recover now,” the Elf said, “and grow strong and beautiful once more.”
“An evil has been lifted from this place,” Aragorn responded. “May it presage the coming of better days. Let us go. We have lost a day and will have to paddle hard on the morrow to make up the time.”
It was a weary Company that trudged back the long way through the darkening forest to where they had pulled up the boats and made camp. Pippin kept tight hold of the hem of Merry’s cloak as they walked, and Sam kept an arm around Frodo’s waist, guiding his master’s weary steps. Aragorn led the Company and Gimli took the rearguard, axe over his shoulder, dark eyes roving uneasily. Legolas scouted ahead of them, his superior night-sight guiding them unerringly back. Seeing Frodo stumble on the path, Boromir offered to carry him along with Merry, bringing back all of Sam’s misgivings in a rush. Sam tensed, his arm suddenly tight around his master. Frodo glanced at him in surprise, but before he could speak, Aragorn dropped smoothly back and offered to carry Frodo himself. Frodo had refused. Thereafter had ensued a brief but animated discussion (involving much arm-waving and mutual accusations of stubbornness) which comforted Sam. It had ended to his satisfaction; Frodo was carried the rest of the way by Aragorn, arms crossed over his chest as he glowered up at his benefactor.
Mr. Frodo’s too tired to have a nightmare this night, at least, and there won’t be any more sleepwalking, Sam thought as he slid into his bedroll next to Frodo. Pippin was already asleep, his scarf wrapped around the bandage on Merry’s ankle for additional warmth and, Sam knew, as a gesture of love. Sam checked that everyone had their blankets pulled up, then nodded goodnight to Gimli, who was watch. Now if I could just settle about Boromir, there shouldn’t be any more trouble. But that’s a worry for another day. Careful to make no sound, Sam checked that the hilt of his sword was within easy reach, and burrowing into his bedroll, began to snore softly.
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