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Sam knew that Merry had awoken not by any word but by the soft intake of breath followed by ragged breathing as the young hobbit fought to master himself.
“Merry?” Young Pippin’s voice was very small and very frightened. Sam heard a soft thunk followed by a faint “oof!” then Merry’s voice, “Easy there, Pippin-lad. Calm down. Just give me a minute, lad.”
“Merry?” Pippin’s voice was higher, going shrill in his ill-controlled panic. Between them, Frodo stirred then relaxed back into sleep when the other two froze into silence. Sam held onto his resolve with iron control, blinking his eyes and rubbing at them, though he knew it would do no good. White. So white. Not even shadows behind his eyelids…
The large hand that descended on his shoulder caused Sam to gasp and the hand tightened. “All of you,” came a rough, well-known voice, “be still. Be still. It is only temporary. Only temporary, Pippin.” Despite himself, Sam made a sound shamefully like a whimper. Gandalf’s hand squeezed again then was removed. The hobbit smelled pipe weed and wood smoke and the faintest fragrance of elvish spices, and felt the presence of the wizard lean over him.
“Wha…” his master’s voice. There was a moment of absolute silence, only the dim whistling of the breeze over the frozen ground. The wind picked up loose snow and dashed it against Sam’s face. Then faint rustling sounds as Frodo sat up. “Gandalf?” Frodo’s voice was very controlled, the fear mastered and swallowed and pushed into some contained space that frightened Sam almost more than the blindness.
“Yes, Frodo, I am here. Merry, Pippin, relax now. Sam, breathe. All of you, it is all right. It will pass. Do you hear me? It will pass.”
“Gandalf…” it was Merry’s voice, now level with Sam’s head; he must be sitting up. “Snow-blindness?”
The wizard’s voice was warm and reassuring and each shivering form felt a large, warm hand briefly stroke his curls and cup his face. “Yes, Merry. It is only temporary. It will pass as soon as your eyes recover.”
“Why didn’t you tell us this might happen?” Frodo’s voice, with an undercurrent of anger beneath the fear.
A soft sigh answered these words. “Because I hoped it would not. There was nothing to be done to prevent it, in any case. Your eyes have been hurting, have they not?”
“Yes…” the hobbits responded. Pippin jumped as he felt large hands capture his and stop him from rubbing his eyes. The large hands clasped his gently together and then laid them down in his lap. The hand brushed his face again and was gone.
“We must just wait this out. It would be better to rest in a dark place but we are below where we could find an ice-cave. In a little while, Legolas and I will guide you all down below the snowline, and there we will find a place to rest.”
“Legolas … can no one else see, then?” Frodo felt the hand on his shoulder.
“No,” replied the wizard softly. “All the mortal folk are affected. Are you all right now? Legolas is speaking with Aragorn and Boromir and Gimli. Boromir has suffered this affliction before; he is assuring the others that they will regain their sight. I must leave you now to speak with them.”
Sam sensed the wizard start to rise, the soft rustle of robes coming to his ears. He grunted involuntarily when a hard hand smacked into his shoulder. “Sorry, Sam,” came Frodo’s voice. “Gandalf! Gandalf, can you see?”
There was absolute silence for a moment. Then came the soft reply, “No, Frodo. I am blind, too.”
“But … but how…”
“Do not fear, my friends. Wizards have senses other than sight to guide us. Now wait here and do not rub your eyes. Just keep them closed. I will return shortly and help you to tie blindfolds around them – the darkness will ease the burning and help them to heal.”
A soft exhalation and they were alone.
* * * * *
The pack paused some leagues yet from the where the Fellowship waited among the sun-warmed boulders of the small, sheltered place they had chosen for their midday rest. The leader halted, nose to the cold earth, distracted by the scent of one of the large, white-coated goats that had passed this way shortly before. Food was plentiful here at the edge of the snowline; the great horned deer and the mountain goats roamed and feasted on the spongy turf, and rabbits, rodents, and fat-bodied birds were many.
Even as the wolf sniffed, a mouse lost its nerve and ran from hiding before the great fanged muzzle. It was snapped up in an instinctive, automatic motion. The sweet burst of blood on its tongue decided the pack leader. With an inaudible growl that informed the others of his decision, he set them on the trail of the luckless goat. He would return to the unfamiliar scents on the wind later. Now it was time to hunt.
* * * * *
“We must look bloody ridiculous an’ no mistake,’ thought Sam. Gandalf and Legolas had arranged them all in a line, Aragorn first, then Boromir, Gimli and the hobbits; Frodo then Sam, Pippin then Merry, each with his hands on the shoulders of the stumbling figure before him. Murmuring gentle reassurances, the Elf guided the weaving line as best he could, but he could not be everywhere and bumps and bruises were accumulating as the Fellowship tripped over every obstacle in their path, muttering a constant stream of apologies to the person before and behind him. Had the situation been less perilous, Sam would have laughed.
Legolas had his own hurts, Sam remembered, though the Elf had showed little acknowledgement of his injuries. Though the three rescuers had not described what had occurred during his master and the Elf’s capture by the foul orc-kind, Sam knew they had both been hurt. But no one would have guessed it from the Elf’s soft, clear voice and Frodo was silent.
Gandalf brought up the rear, occasionally using his staff to guide an errant hobbit back into line. All of the Company, with the exception of the Elf, wore handkerchiefs and socks and whatever would serve tied around their eyes. Though the wizard could not see any more clearly than the faltering figures he guided, he was aware of the world as sparks of life, of fire, on the frozen earth. Non-living things were cold gray shadows on the backdrop of his mind. As they walked, he related tales and songs to the hobbits to keep their minds from fear. Before them, he was aware that Gimli also listened intently, the Dwarf’s heavy shoulders rigid as Gimli faced an enemy he could not fight or conquer.
Despite what help the two could provide, progress was slow. It was only natural to curb one’s steps when walking blind, to extend one’s hands into the darkness in the attempt to guard oneself from harm. At the head of the column, Aragorn cursed himself for falling prey to the affliction, though the more reasonable part of him knew that he could not have prevented it. The burning ache of strained eyes should have warned him, but his mind had been occupied by the Fellowship’s desperate straits and he had not recognized the symptoms.
The Ranger felt Boromir’s hands tighten on his shoulders. “Do not blame yourself, Aragorn,” the Man said with his usual perception. “I have been twice snow-blinded. I did not feel it coming, or could do naught to prevent it. We were rather busy, I think.”
Aragorn chuckled and knew that Boromir could feel his shoulders shaking. “Thank you, Boromir. How long did your snow-blindness last, when you suffered it?”
Boromir thought for a moment. “The first time it was two days. My brother and I were climbing in the mountains outside of our home. He was wiser than I; he covered his eyes with the cleaned intestines from one of our dinners. Snow-hare, if I remember correctly. The membrane was just enough to occlude the glare and save his vision. I would not bind a strip of the foul-smelling, greasy membrane around my head, and so I suffered for it.”
“And the second?”
“Ah, I was wiser, then. When my eyes began to water and the pain began, I rubbed ash from my cook-fire underneath my eyes. That darkening of the skin cut the snow’s reflection into my eyes and helped somewhat. But it was not enough. I knew it was happening and I could do nothing. I was alone, on an errand for my father. I found a small cave and stayed there in the darkness, my face turned from the entrance, for a day.” Boromir sighed. “It was a very long day.”
“And you recovered with no ill effects?”
“My eyes were very tender for a while. I have heard that some experience nausea and sickness, some agonizing headaches. I was fortunate. The pain passed within a few days.”
“And your vision was not permanently affected?”
“No. No, once my eyes had healed, there was no damage.”
Had the Ranger’s eyes not already been closed, Aragorn would have shut them in relief. Boromir’s hands tightened on his shoulders, then eased, a world of comfort in that simple gesture.
Legolas led them well, choosing a path for them with the least amount of rocks and hillocks and small bushes that tangled the feet. The snow decreased in thickness and became isolated patches of white nestling in shadowed hollows where the sun did not reach. The hobbits sighed in relief to feel soft turf under their feet instead of freezing snow and frozen earth, and with the constant reassurances of Gandalf that this would soon pass, began to regain their spirits.
Gandalf followed after, casting about with his mind to safeguard his charges and seek danger before and around him. So it was that he first became aware of the fire-sparks that was the pack, as they pulled down and extinguished the fire-spark of their prey. The sparks burned the brighter as they closed in upon the hapless animal, and the wizard “watched” as the prey’s spark glowed brightly for a moment before dimming and going out. The sparks of the others burned lower then, as the pack feasted. The brightest spark ate first, the slightly dimmer spark of his mate beside him. The wolves came in ordered sequence after, according to their place in the pack, each eating its fill at speed, until it could hold no more. They would have rested then, but the leader’s curiosity had been aroused by the strange scents he had been following. With snaps and growls, the brightest spark drove the lesser sparks to their feet and set them again on the trail of the unfamiliar beings that dared to cross his territory.
The wizard’s hands tightened on his staff. The bright sparks coming towards them were many. One gnarled hand reached down and patted the hilt of the great elven sword that hung at his side, then reached out to steady the steps of a stumbling hobbit. They must find shelter very soon.
“Can you lot walk by yourselves for a while, lads? I must speak with Legolas concerning a place to stop.” Gandalf kept his voice light, allowing no trace of the fear in his heart to be heard in his voice. Well he knew how, deprived of one vital sense, others senses would sharpen and seek to fill the void.
The hobbits heard nothing to alarm them. Frodo, at the head of the hobbit-line, turned his head out of habit towards the voice and replied, “We’re doing rather well at this now, Gandalf. We’ll be fine.” Pippin, the one who had stumbled, wished to disagree but he said nothing. Their headaches had gradually been intensifying and none of them would object to any action that would allow them to rest and possibly bind some of the still-present snow into the cloths over their eyes.
Gandalf nodded then remembered that they could not see him. “Good,” the wizard remarked with a smile in his voice. “I shall return shortly. Remember, lift up your feet.”
The wizard moved swiftly past them and his boot steps were quickly lost in the spongy turf. “Did Gandalf seem awfully cheery to you, Frodo?” Merry asked from the rear of the column. His cousin turned his head then tightened his hold on Gimli’s shoulders, almost bruising his fingers in the Dwarf’s chain mail.
“Now that you mention it…” Frodo responded after a moment’s silence.
“Oh-oh,” muttered Sam.
* TBC *
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