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Caught Between the Light and Dark  by Budgielover

Chapter Four

Frodo writhed desperately, trying to edge backward and place a solid wall behind him. He was tied too tightly to sit up; he could only wiggle on his side like a worm in the dirt. Praying they did not spear him for moving, the hobbit rolled over onto his back, his pack digging into his spine, and dug his heels into the floor of the tunnel. Using his legs, Frodo pushed himself against the limited protection of the rock wall.

A murmur ran through the watching assembly as he moved but none of the glowing eyes moved nearer. Frodo fetched up against the wall with bruising force and pushed his shoulder into the rock, using it to lever himself up into a sitting position. Breathing hoarsely, he pressed himself against the wall and stared back, details becoming visible as his eyes adjusted to the dimness. The pounding pain in his head began to recede. Not total dark, a part of his mind noted—the lamps his captors held were shuttered, only the bottom panels folded back to illuminate this place. The light pooled at their feet and Frodo saw that some wore boots and some did not. These feet were bare like his own, but they were scaled and misshapen, distorted and clawed.

Vaguely he remembered facing the cliff wall, looking up at his friends, and then they had been hidden by shadow as the sun rose. Then he had felt the ledge tremble and out of nowhere, a claw was wrapping itself over his mouth. He was lifted into the air and for an instant there was nothing beneath his feet. He was being borne over the chasm, the air driven from his lungs as he hit the hard ground inside the mouth of the tunnel. It had happened so fast—he had not even time to cry out or to fight. He had drawn Sting but the sword had been dashed from his hand.

One of the lights was approaching. From where the hobbit lay, the lights appeared disembodied, floating in the freezing darkness. The light drifted nearer and Frodo found he had to squint. It dropped closer to him, illuminating the one who held it. Frodo’s last tenaciously held hope of a friend faded.

It held up a knife, and Frodo shrank against the wall. "No more carrying," his captor grunted. "You’re awake now. You walk." It brought the knife down and sliced cleanly through the ropes binding Frodo’s chest. Other hands clamped on his arms and jerked him to his feet. Frodo hoped that the bonds that bound his wrists behind his back would likewise be cut, but it was not so. "Walk," his captor said. "Now." Hands pushed at him, some clawed like beasts. Unable to resist, the Ring-bearer began to walk.

* * *

"All I am asking," the youngest hobbit said doggedly, "is why didn’t you send Legolas down to lift Frodo up? Legolas could have gone down as easily as he just did and then picked Frodo up and held him high enough to reach your staff. Frodo never would have been taken away. We all wouldn’t have had to come down here and crawl around in this nasty tunnel. Merry and Boromir would never have almost fallen, and we wouldn’t be separated from them now, too." Pippin ran out of breath and gazed reproachfully up at the wizard. "Why didn’t you do that?"

Gandalf stopped dead and thrust his staff into the ground, thunder on his brow. The others trailed to a halt and grouped themselves loosely around the pair. Pippin was frowning, intent on receiving an answer. Sam looked frightened. Gimli and Legolas appeared worried, unsure if they dared intervene in a debate that had begun almost as soon as their splintered Fellowship had left the light of the new day behind them.

The crystal placed in the tip of the wizard’s staff blazed incandescent for a moment, brilliant enough to cause pain to dark-adjusted eyes. Gandalf’s hands clenched around the rough wood, fingers twitching. He drew a deep breath and Aragorn, who had been about to speak, stepped back a pace. Pippin didn’t budge. "Peregrin," the wizard said, his voice gruff, "why did you not say this earlier?"

Sam almost put a hand over the tweenager’s mouth, but stilled when Aragorn shook his head imperceptibly at him. "You told me to be quiet," Pippin continued in aggrieved tones, oblivious to the wizard’s white-knuckled grip on the staff. "As you always do. You told me to be quiet and get back, and didn’t listen to me at all—"

"Master Pip," Sam said desperately, "I thought I saw some mushrooms growing over there. Why don’t we take a look?" Pippin’s head whipped towards the indicated spot, then he gave Sam an exasperated look.

"Nothing could grow down here, Sam," Pippin said, irked. "And if you don’t mind, I was asking Gandalf—"

"Come along now," Sam said with a worried glance over his shoulder. Gandalf appeared about to explode. The wizard’s face was furious, and he kept muttering under his breath. Sam caught the word "frog" and "no trouble then," and hurried Pippin forward, a hand firmly under the tweenager’s elbow.

"Sam, stop pushing me," Pippin complained. "I was just asking—"

Aragorn thought it prudent to interrupt—and quickly. "Gandalf," he murmured. "Gandalf?" The Ranger was careful not to place himself in the path of the glowing staff.

The wizard glared at him. "What?"

The Ranger gestured at the rock they were passing. He had ceased to track their stolen Ring-bearer—the tunnel was straight, with no branching side tunnels. It had been made with single purpose, formed from effort unimaginable. "We are headed towards the mountains," Aragorn said softly as they walked. "As Gimli said, this tunnel is old. It was made eons ago. Perhaps now he can tell us more." He turned and motioned for the dwarf to join them.

Gimli drew even with them, leaving Legolas to take the rear guard. The elf’s head turned constantly, tracking every drop of falling water, every echo, every slither of sliding stone. Elven eyes shone in the darkness, watchful and wary. Frodo had been taken from under their noses without alerting him, and Legolas’ every movement made clear his resolve that such would not happen twice.

"This part of the tunnel was hewn before the entrance was constructed," Gimli replied. "Look about you. Stones have fallen from the walls, from the ceiling." As one, their eyes were drawn upwards. The tunnel had expanded as they moved deeper and the roof was now out of sight, hidden in the murky darkness. The thought of heavy stones—or of something yet more dangerous—descending on their unprotected heads was not a pleasant one. "The mortar has crumbled over the years," Gimli continued after a moment. "There were none fallen near the mouth of the tunnel, only where the stones had been pushed outwards. This part of the tunnel is older."

"And it’s age increases with every step," Aragorn murmured.

"Back towards the mountains," Gandalf added, his face tightening. "I have dealt before with those that live inside the mountains. Long ago, with Bilbo and Gimli’s folk. I—"

"Mithrandir!" Legolas’ voice was strained. Gandalf instantly dimmed his staff and the others drew near to him. Aragorn reached out and gathered the remaining hobbits, pulling them close. "Above us," the elf murmured quietly, his musical voice soft. "Scraping and scratching. Something is moving up there."

* * *

Boromir and Merry lay sprawling on the ground near the edge of cliff for a long time after the others had left. They did not speak but lay looking at the clouds and feeling the earth wake as the sun rose. Birds were chirping and a cold breeze caressed their faces. At last Merry sighed and sat up. "It is good to be alive," he said to the world in general.

Boromir followed suit, wincing as the abraded skin on his hands and wrists hurt. Seeing his expression, Merry struggled to his feet. "You should have said something," the hobbit scolded. "Those need attending to. Let me just get a kit…"

Boromir waited obediently as Merry knelt before him and carefully washed and bound the damaged skin, being as gentle as he could. Long accustomed to battlefield injuries and rough triage, Boromir was puzzled by the constant stream of reassurances and encouragement that poured absently from Merry’s lips. The hobbit did not appear to be particularly aware of his automatic comforting, Boromir marveled. Merry simply saw hurt and gave what solace he could, never thinking of how odd that might seem to a soldier.

At last Merry sat back and regarded his handiwork critically. Boromir’s arms were bandaged from forearm to fingertip, the linens tied off with neat knots. "Now, you’re not to lift a finger," Merry lectured sternly, waving one of his in front of the man’s nose. "I’ll do the cooking and take care of Bill, and whatever else needs doing."

The sun had risen to its highest point in the sky before the hobbit was satisfied with his ordering of their temporary camp. He had assisted Boromir in settling down with his back against the boulder from which Pippin had kept watch, easing him down against the support with an admonition to rest. Merry had then arranged the Company’s packs, brushed Bill till the pony gleamed, and prepared an excellent meal that was more than two could possibly eat, even if one of them was a hobbit.

"Merry," Boromir said gently as the hobbit attacked the bowls and Sam’s cooking pots with a scrub brush. "Why don’t you rest for a few minutes? Take a nap. We’ve walked through the night and surely you are as weary as I am. Neither of us will be of much use if we are exhausted when the others return. I’ll take the first watch and wake you for the second."

Merry started to shake his head, but then his worry-born energy gave out. "All right," he said with a yawn. "Let me know if you if you need me. And—"

"I know, Merry," Boromir said with a smile. "And ‘don’t lift a finger.’ I’ll call you for your watch." As the man watched, the hobbit curled himself into a ball between two of the smallest packs, draped his arm over the one before him, and fell asleep.

* * *

The watcher in the grass waited until the man’s keen gaze relaxed and his head drooped against his chest. The sun had warmed the boulder against which he sat, easing weary muscles. Exhausted eyes closed. The creature that watched had its orders. The strangers were two and the scout was on its own, but it had its orders. And it feared the two resting before it less than the ones who had forced it out into the cruel light.

The watcher and its kin had not wanted to break open the old entrance to the tunnel and let in the painful, bright glare of the Sun, but they were given no option. The intruders from the East were bigger and stronger, and utterly merciless. They had ordered the tunnel be opened as part of the plan they brought with them, and the watcher and its kind had no choice but to obey.

The scout tried to ignore the glaring sun and crept slowly towards the smaller form. ‘Halfling,’ it had been told. And ‘an elvish weapon of some kind.’ The intruders hadn’t known more than that; the scout thought that their master would not trust them with more information. Not that it mattered, of course. If it could gain that weapon, then the new bosses perhaps would leave and let them be.

It could move swiftly in a half-crouching position, long-used to running bent along the smaller side-tunnels of its home. Keeping its body low, it avoided the rocky earth and kept to the grass growing at the lip of the cliff, flattening itself in the shade of a small tree that grew near the very edge.

It froze into immobility as the big warrior straightened and looked about, frowning. It watched the man’s head turn back and forth, his hand on his long sword. The man was looking in the wrong direction, back towards the way the strangers had come. For long moments the soldier watched and listened, and the scout barely dared breathe. Then the little being between the packs muttered something in its sleep and hugged the pack before it tightly. The man’s attention was drawn to the sleeper and a faint smile crossed his face. He relaxed, easing back against the boulder.

The creature, too, relaxed. Long, hooked claws on its hands and feet coupled with spikes built into its rag-tag armor enabled it to scale the rock walls and stone columns of its home. Such would serve equally well as killing tools if the halfling creature resisted. It waited until the man’s eyes drifted shut, then it scuttled soundlessly towards the halfling.

Merry’s eyes snapped open as something sharp pressed against his throat. His cry of surprise died before it was uttered as he stared into protuberant luminous eyes, sickly green eyes now squinted half-shut as if in pain. The black pupil was vertically slitted, like a cat. A pale, leathery face surrounded the eyes, pinpricks of nostrils, a slit of a mouth now drawn back to expose pointed, stained teeth. It was nothing Merry had ever seen before. But he knew it immediately from Bilbo’s stories. Orc, part of his quicksilver mind informed him. Or more accurately, mountain goblin.

"Shuushh," the creature hissed in Merry’s ear. "A sound and you die." The cold pressure at his throat increased. Merry tore his eyes away from the gruesome face grinning above him. From the corner of his eye, he could see Boromir, his back against the boulder, his head on his breast and his eyes closed. Boromir, help! Thought Merry frantically. He dared not disobey the creature. He could not tell what manner of knife was being pressed against him, but it was razor-edged. Help! Help!

"Give me the weapon," the thing snarled. "Give it and I will go."

Weapon? Desperately Merry tried to make sense of the creature’s words. Then in a flash, he understood. The goblin felt him tense and the blade was pressed deeper into Merry’s unprotected throat. A small trickle of warmth ran down his neck. Merry gasped.

"I—" he choked. The blade was withdrawn slightly. "I don’t have it. I’m not… I don’t have it."

"They said a halfling," the creature hissed. "Bring them what the halfling carries."

"Who?" asked Merry daringly.

"Orcs," the creature answered grudgingly. "Orcs from Mordor. They come to make us fight. Fight the Elves." The creature twisted aside its head and spat. "Orders, they say, from the Great Eye. Make us open the tunnel, that the Elves walled up long ago. Attack Rivendell. Kill all but the halflings." The goblin’s voice had risen, and it shot a quick glance towards the sleeping man. "Where is this weapon? Tell me!"

Merry started to shake his head then froze as the blade was returned to its previous place. "Be still! I can kill you and that warrior will never wake as I search your body!" The goblin’s other hand wound in his hair and jerked his head back. "I will," it hissed in his ear. "I’ll rip you to shreds and search you to the bones. I’ll cut you to quivering shreds!"

"I don’t have it," Merry insisted in a whisper, an idea already forming in his mind. "It is too dangerous for me to carry. It is in the packs."

The creature was still as stone, trying to read the truth of Merry’s words. But it could not. It was too different from hobbit-kind, and the look of wide-eyed innocence that Frodo would have recognized instantly deceived it. "Which one?"

Merry gestured towards the neatest of the hobbits’ packs, the one he had pulled against his back. "In there."

The cold pressure was withdrawn slightly from Merry’s throat as the goblin edged backwards. Now the hobbit could see that what had been held against his throat was not a blade, but one of the creature’s own filthy claws. The twisted creature hesitated over the pack. "You open it," it hissed. "Silently!"

Slowly, Merry extended an arm and untied Sam’s pack. The creature watched avidly. Merry reached carefully into the pack and felt around for the small leather pouch. Sam had filled it near to overflowing and had perhaps been overly generous with it. Ah … there. He withdrew his arm, the pouch clasped tightly in his fist.

"Give it to me!"

Wordlessly, Merry extended the pouch, praying that the wind was just right. The goblin snatched it from him and backed away. Tearing open the pouch, it poured out a handful of lumpy white granules into its opposite palm.

Please, thought Merry. He did not need to turn his head to identify Bill’s loud whinny. Boromir’s eyes snapped open as the pony lurched into motion but the piled packs and Bill’s bulk hid the trespasser from him. Bill trotted forward, soft velvet nostrils distended, coming for the treat he thought he was being offered. The goblin’s huge eyes bulged in horror. Bill stretched out his long neck, muzzle questing, lips pulled back. The goblin shrieked in terror, confronted with an enormous animal it had never seen before.

The creature threw the sugar into the air and scrabbled backwards. At the edge of the cliff, it paused to direct a malevolent stare into Merry’s eyes. Then it hissed and slammed its claws into the rock, disappearing over the side. Boromir raced around Bill, arriving near the edge just in time to see it disappear into the tunnel’s mouth.

"What was that thing?" Boromir panted.

"I think it was a goblin," Merry replied, patting his throat. His fingers came away stained red. Boromir seized his hand and stared at the scarlet fingers.

"It cut you?"

Merry nodded. "With its claw. It’s just a little cut." He squirmed as Boromir snatched up the kit and daubed at the wound with a fresh bandage. Boromir turned Merry’s head from side to the side, tilting his neck back, using the sun overhead to peer closely at the small gash. He seemed to debate a moment, then squeezed a cold white ointment out of one of the pouches and smeared it on the wound. "Ow!" Merry complained as it stung. "Boromir!"

"The claws and blades of these foul creatures might carry poisons on them," Boromir said, releasing Merry to stare into the hobbit’s eyes. "Merry, you must tell me if it starts to burn, or if you feel ill."

"All right, all right," Merry replied dismissively. The hobbit paused, thinking, then bright blue eyes looked up into the soldier’s in dismay. "Boromir," Merry whispered, "it wanted the Ring. Frodo’s Ring." He paused, trying to impose order on his racing thoughts. "The goblin referred to it as an ‘elvish weapon.’ Reasonable, I suppose, as we are coming out of Rivendell. But how did it know we are here?"

Boromir grimaced. "We were careless, after Frodo slid into the chasm. We should have not called back and forth so. No doubt they heard us."

"They heard us," Merry repeated. "And sent a scout while others of its kind snatched Frodo in that instant when the rising sun shadowed the ledge and we couldn’t see him. So they have him, and they know our Company is divided, and now they know that you and I are up here alone." His breathing evening out, he backed away from the edge and rescued the little leather pouch from Bill. The pony had already eaten the fallen sugar and was nosing the pouch for more. Bill nudged him hopefully and he patted the pony’s neck.

Merry’s stomach roiled as he remembered the rank creature’s hissing voice. "Boromir, that thing told me that orcs from Mordor had come, that they were forcing the goblins to attack Rivendell! That’s why the tunnel was broken open—in preparation of invading Rivendell!"

Boromir was silent, and Merry was suddenly reminded that this brave and noble warrior had left his own people besieged by orcs to assist in the faintest of hopes for Middle-earth. "That creature has gone back to report to its masters," Boromir murmured, his face grim. "And as we don’t have this ‘weapon’ the scout sought, another of our Fellowship must."

"They are walking into a trap," Merry whispered.

* TBC *

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