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Caught Between the Light and Dark  by Budgielover

Chapter Six

With sinking hearts, the members of the Fellowship saw that the patches of deeper darkness were resolving into forms; dark shadows coalescing into slinking, hunched figures emerging from gaps in the ceiling by the hundreds. The creatures moved like cockroaches, scuttling, using their claws and the spikes and hooks built into their rag-tag armor to skitter down the columns. They encircled the Fellowship, silent, cutting off all hope of escape.

The path ahead was blocked, the tunnel behind them also. In the faint light of Gandalf’s barely-lit staff, the goblins’ weapons glimmered and reflected in their globular, shining eyes. The Company raised their own weapons and drew together, back to back, pushing the hobbits to their center. Sam and Pippin exchanged a glance then slid between the larger bodies, taking their place beside the others. For a moment Aragorn seemed about to object, then he nodded at them and let them be.

"They will rush us," Gandalf murmured, "overwhelming us with their numbers." In the darkness, Glamdring shone with ghostly fire, bright enough to illuminate the wizard’s steady grip upon its hilt. "Strike for where their armor does not meet—knees, elbows, faces. If we can kill or maim enough, they will retreat."

"They are cowards," Gimli rumbled, "but they will not retreat. They are too many and we too few."

"Good," Legolas replied softly. "We will have the opportunity to kill the more of them."

The nearer of the goblins grinned, mottled lips drawn over needle-like teeth, as if they understood the elf’s whispered words. They shifted among themselves, one urging another forward while its comrades sheltered safe behind it. One would dart forward then draw back, teasing and threatening. They shook their weapons and clashed them together, ill-made swords and make-shift shields. At last a huge goblin worked up his courage; with a bellow he vaulted forward, aiming a blow at Aragorn. Legolas’ arrow caught him in the throat and he fell dead at the Ranger’s feet.

The remaining goblins growled at this, their play ended. It was time to kill. They began rocking back and forth and uttering little shrieking cries, louder and louder, until one of the creatures let out a scream and leaped forward. In a heartbeat, hundreds followed.

For a moment all was whirling darkness. Pippin saw a something blaze with painful brilliance and realized it was Gandalf’s sword. By that fiery light he saw a long arm flash over his head and strike at Gimli; the dwarf swung his axe and the arm, sword still in its hand, smashed to the rocky floor. The tweenager felt burning liquid splatter on his toes. Then all was forgotten as he ducked and feinted, his body remembering the training pounded into him in Rivendell as his mind blurred out the horror about him.

He ducked a thrust and retaliated, feeling his own small sword cleave flesh. The black figure before him screamed, long and piercing. The sound was lost in the shouts and ring of steel. Pippin pulled on his sword and fought resistance; belatedly he recalled that Boromir had told him a wound sucked at a weapon—he would need to pull hard to free it. He did and hot blood rushed over his hand. Then the goblin was falling, and he leaped backwards as it collapsed at his feet.

Figures were writhing around him; Legolas had abandoned his bow and was fighting hand to hand with his long knives, beside him, Aragorn fought silently and grimly. The others were only blurs of movement. In the uncertain light, Pippin could scarcely tell friend from foe. A bulky form turned towards him and the hobbit had only a heartbeat to realise that it was not Gimli by his side, but a huge goblin. Pippin tried to shrink back but it was too close. With a roar, the goblin slashed at him and Pippin moved without thinking, throwing himself at the creature’s feet. It looked down in surprise, obviously not expecting such a manoeuvre. Pippin rolled over and stabbed upwards, his sword severing the great artery in the upper thigh. The creature bellowed and doubled over but Pippin was already gone, rolling to the side. He found a piece of broken column and scrambled behind it, sickened by his knowledge that the goblin would bleed to death.

Desperately Pippin sought for other members of the Fellowship, and especially for Sam. He had a brief glimpse of his friend; Sam was weaving before a goblin big enough to be an orc, and in his hand was not his own sword but Sting. He lunged forward and the goblin retreated, its bulbous eyes fastened on the glowing elven blade. On its face was fear and on Sam’s was determination. Pippin felt a brief glow of pride at his friend’s bravery then another huge form loomed before him and abruptly jerked his attention back to his own survival.

The goblin sneered at him, delighted to find an opponent so much smaller than itself. Pippin backed up warily, his eyes on its sword as Boromir had taught him. Mistaking his action for cowardice, the creature hooted and lunged forward. Pippin had already seen the blade tip forward in preparation of its leap; he was no longer there when the creature slashed down, intending to split him like a ripe melon. The creature stumbled and Pippin stabbed from the side, aiming for the gap in its armor at the joint of the knees. But he had not counted on its quickness. The goblin turned and his sword caught on one of the jagged climbing spikes forged into the creature’s armor. With a screech of metal, it was turned aside. The goblin spun around, one clawed hand reaching out to clamp on the tweenager’s shoulder. He yelped, the cry of pain and terror almost swallowed by the battle.

"Pippin!" someone shouted. "Pippin!" He thought it was Gandalf but could not be certain above the howls and roars and clash of steel about him.

Pippin tried to writhe free but the grip on his shoulder was like a vice. He twisted, stabbing with his sword but the goblin held itself easily out of his reach. It raised its sword and Pippin’s eyes followed its downward arc. He felt the impact along the entire length of his body, as if a great hand had descended from the heights overhead and slapped him. He was lifted from his feet and thrown backward. White light filled his vision, and his ears rang. He slammed against the stony floor and knew no more.

* * *

"That was good," Merry murmured. "I wish we had another one." Boromir looked at the hobbit in alarm, noting twitching fingers and the ecstatic smile plastered across Merry’s soot-covered face.

"Don’t worry, Boromir," Merry said, catching the soldier’s expression of concern. "This happened the last time, too." The wide grin did not diminish. Boromir shook his head, wondering if the explosion had concussed the hobbit. Merry was filthy and his clothes reeked. His bright hair was grimed to grey spikes and stood out straight from his head. Wisps of smoke still curled gently into the cold breeze. Two big patches of black powder decorated his face; one over an eyebrow and the other under the eye. Those eyes twinkled no less brightly than the glittering streams of sparks that had shot into the air and scattered high above them.

"That takes care of one problem," the hobbit continued in a more focused manner, examining the ash on his waistcoat. "Nothing is coming out of that tunnel, not without a lot of work clearing tons of rock. Lord Elrond will send scouts to investigate the blast." He sighed and his small form sagged in relief. Then he drew a deep breath and puffed out his chest, pleased that his plan had succeeded. "Rivendell won’t be caught unawares."

"Our Company also will not be coming out of that tunnel," Boromir reminded him, using one hand to scratch Bill between the eyes and feeding him occasional lumps of sugar. The pony licked them off the man’s palm eagerly, the pain of the rescue and terror of the blast already forgotten.

Merry deflated slightly. "Yes... But collapsing the tunnel exit was an accident. We didn’t mean for it to cave in. Gandalf will understand that."

His attention apparently on petting the pony, Boromir refrained from commenting. But his averted face and the stiffness of his broad back spoke volumes. Merry looked at the rigid back anxiously. "Gandalf will understand it was an accident," he repeated in apprehensive tones. Receiving no agreement, he ducked around to the opposite side of Bill where Boromir could not avoid meeting his gaze. "They couldn’t come back that way anyway," Merry declared, "not without the ledge to jump over to and the tree to pull them up. The ledge is shattered and the tree fallen." Merry paused for a moment to contemplate the damage, then continued determinedly, "And at least Gandalf and Aragorn and the others will be warned—they couldn’t have walked so far from the opening not to have heard the blast."

"I can see us explaining that to Gandalf," Boromir replied gloomily. "As well as the theft of his fireworks."

Merry sighed again and scrubbed absently at the soot, smearing it over his face. His throat stung dreadfully where some of it must have got into the cut given him by the goblin scout. "We must go after them. But first, I have to clean up and you need new bandages. Pity there isn’t a bucket of soapy water about when you need one," he muttered to himself.

Boromir grimaced as Merry completed the tying of the new bandages. He looked across the gap, flexing his hands to determine the amount of easy movement he had. "We can detour around this chasm. The earth will join at some point. But how can we follow an underground tunnel we cannot see?"

Merry thought about it as he folded the remaining linens back into one of the medical kits. "I may not have Gimli’s knowledge of masonry and construction, but I know about building underground. We hobbits have built our smials underground for hundreds of years. You should see Brandy Hall—the place is a warren. Pip got lost once when he was a little ‘un and we couldn’t find him for two days. Luckily, he managed to lose himself in a storeroom. He’d gained half a stone by the time we found him. Mum wouldn’t let him have pudding for the rest of his visit." Merry shaded his eyes against the sun overhead and stood up on his toes. He turned back to smile at the soldier. "There must be shafts in the earth to allow the exchange of air, to permit cooking smoke to escape. If we know what to look for—and I do—we can follow the tunnel by finding these openings."

* * *

Even if Frodo had not been already exhausted by the Company’s long walk before his capture, he could not have kept the goblins’ pace. They quick-marched without discipline, snarling and shoving at each other, but their squabbling did not slow them. That they knew their way about this dark passage was obvious—only he tripped and stumbled over unseen projections on the rocky floor. The lanterns the goblins held were kept shuttered, except for the one carried by the leader of the group.

The Ring-bearer had no sense of passing time in this nightmare of darkness and exhaustion. He tried counting his steps but forgot his count when his weary mind could not produce the next number. Then he tried counting his heartbeats in sets of ten, but lost the count repeatedly and at last gave up. He did all he could to slow their forced march, but he was not permitted to lag.

Exertion and the cold had diminished the pain in his head to a dull throb but hunger and weariness compensated to augment his misery. But even more than that, something else was invading him. A cold knot was forming in his stomach, and his hands and feet felt made of ice. He could not seem to order his limbs. He began to weave, then stumble. Then, unable to stay on his feet, he fell.

Roughly he was jerked to a sitting position and something sharp prodded him in the back. "Get up!" hissed the one who had spoken to him before. "Walk!"

"Please," murmured the hobbit. "What do you want?" He received no reply except for another painful jab in the shoulder.

"I can go no farther without rest," Frodo whispered. "Give me a few moments to gather my strength." The creature stared at him. When it did not strike or threaten him, he dared to ask, "Please, I must have a drink of water. Will you unbind my wrists so I may drink?"

The goblin muttered something under its breath, then straightened and drew out a knife. Frodo tried to hide his flinch but it only reached over him and slashed the bonds that held his wrists. Blood, and pain, slowly began to return to his arms. Ignoring the fire burning along his arms, he shrugged off his pack and laid it on the floor before him, untying the flap. There was no food but stale bread and strips of dried meat, but his captor made no move to stop him as he pulled them out, nor when he took a hesitant drink from his water bottle. He was so desperately thirsty that he wanted to gulp it all, but he refrained. Forcing discipline on himself, Frodo took small bites of the bread and meat, washed down by tiny sips of water.

Seeing their leader was allowing their captive a break, the other goblins sank to the ground and pulled out their own provisions, arguing among themselves when one perceived another had a larger or a better tasting portion of rations. Frodo ignored them but watched them from the corner of an eye, ready to defend himself if necessary.

All too soon the little water and less food was gone. Frodo left a single swallow in the bottle, reasoning that even foul creatures such as these could not march far without water. "Where are you taking me?" asked Frodo, trying to gain every moment of respite he could.

"To the bosses," the goblin replied, eyeing him speculatively. "The new bosses." It spat, the glob narrowly missing the hobbit’s leg. "From the East. Maybe we give them you, and they go away."

It hunkered down and looked at him, curiosity warring with the malice on its ugly face. "The bosses say bring you. They say don’t kill you. Don’t search you. You’re to be kept alive for the Big Boss that’s coming."

"Big Boss?" Frodo repeated with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

The creature hunkered lower and glanced around furtively. It seemed reluctant to speak yet proud it had information that Frodo did not. The hobbit could not guess if it wished to frighten him or sought to relieve his fear. Its face and expressions were too alien for him to interpret. Its motivations he could not guess at, other than obedience to the orders it had received. The goblin ran its tongue over its needle teeth and leaned closer, its voice dropping to a whisper. "The Eye wants the elves destroyed. They don’t bow to Him. They stand in His way. They are a danger to Him, to His plans. So He is sending his chiefest servant to command the invasion."

"What invasion?" Frodo asked, though he knew of only one stronghold of elven-kind in these lands.

"Imladris," the goblin leader confirmed. "Rivendell, as it is called by Men. The Eye wants it destroyed. There is not an elf to be left alive, except for its lord and his children. He is sending the Big Boss to command their capture and see Rivendell burned to the ground."

"Lord Elrond?" Frodo asked. "And Elrohir and Elladan and the Lady Arwen? Why? What does … the Eye want with them?"

The goblin shrugged. "Don’t know. Not my business to know." It grinned, and in the light of the single lantern, its pointed teeth glimmered. "Wouldn’t want to be them, though, when the Eye gets His hands on them."

"When will this happen?" Frodo asked, already seeking a way to warn the ones he was certain would come after him, and for them to warn Lord Elrond.

"When the Big Boss comes," the creature replied, distracted. It stood to watch two of its troops arguing over some scrap of food, the others gathering around them in hopes of a fight. It glanced down at the hobbit. "Soon. Get ready to move out." Striding away, it pushed between the two combatants, snarling at them.

Frodo reached down and began tying up his pack. He stared at the clean space on the floor where the fabric had rubbed the dust from the earth, then ran a finger over the ground. In the dim light of the lantern, the clean space shone. Frodo looked up; the goblin leader was cuffing both of the brawlers indiscriminately, roaring at them. Aragorn would be tracking him, he was sure of it. All of his friends would be watching for any sign he might leave. Quickly Frodo began writing in the dust. Surely this creature was illiterate. Making it look as if he were idly drawing, he wrote, Rivendell, followed by goblin invasion. Then he added, Soon. Warn them.

He lurched to his feet as the leader returned, slinging his pack on his back and stepping forward over his writing. "I’m ready," he said before the goblin could speak. "Let’s go."

The creature stared at him, then shrugged and stooped to retrieve the lantern. As it lifted the light, clean rock gleamed. Frodo’s heart sank. The goblin pushed him out of the way and stared at the writing. Then it stretched out a clawed foot and rubbed out his message.

It stared at him enigmatically. "Maybe we don’t fight the elves now," it mumbled, seemingly to itself. "Maybe the Eye wants you more than He wants the elves dead? Maybe the Big Boss take you and go?" It pushed him forward.

"This ‘Big Boss’," Frodo repeated, delaying, desperately trying to think of any way to alert the Fellowship. "Is it the chief of the orcs?"

"You don’t know?" the goblin sneered. "Nazgűl."

* TBC *





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