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Caught Between the Light and Dark  by Budgielover

The feeling of weakness that had assailed him earlier returned to Frodo in an overwhelming rush, freezing his limbs to ice. Cold perspiration coated him and his legs felt as if the bones had melted inside his skin. He staggered and fell against the wall of the tunnel, only the solid rock keeping him on his feet. Utter fear. He recognized the feeling now. He had felt it first in his rooms in Rivendell—the building hysteria, the unreasoning horror. Absolute terror, such as he had not felt since the single remaining Ringwraith had sought to breech Rivendell’s borders after him. The Nazgűl was coming, and when it arrived, he would be given to it.

He would be given to it and taken by it to the Dark Lord. What would come after that, he could not even imagine. It had never really been discussed, not with Gandalf, or Aragorn, or Elrond. His mind veered away from even contemplating it. What would happen if his mission failed he could only understand in a subjective sense. Who could truly conceive of the ending of the world?

A merciless shove sent him into motion again, and only then did he realize he had stopped still. Behind him, the goblin company was sorting itself out, wolfing the last bits of food and struggling to their feet, falling into line. "I said get moving," the leader growled at him. "The Big Boss wants you in a hurry." It paused and eyed him speculatively. "What do you have, that the Eye wants so much?" it asked.

"I carry nothing," Frodo said automatically, still torn between his own imminent abduction and the impending invasion of Rivendell. His mind fixed with dread upon the impending doom of all that was fair and good in the world. To know that that fair place would be the first burned and despoiled, the immortal Elves slaughtered, and after them, the rest of Middle-earth … and it would be his fault, because he had failed in the trust placed in him. Even if the goblin attack was repelled, Imladris would fall eventually when the Dark Lord regained his Ring, but Frodo wished he could give them some warning, some time to prepare their defense.

The creature raised a hand and the Ring-bearer readied himself for a blow. But it did not fall. The leader snarled, remembering its orders that this prisoner was not to be abused. Instead, it merely raised its clawed fingers to graze along his cheek as a reminder of the damage it could do, should it choose not to restrain itself.

Frodo’s thoughts churned as the goblin company began to march. He could think of no way to warn Gandalf and Aragorn, he could think of no way to save himself. He could do nothing to prevent what was going to happen, either to Rivendell or himself. His hand shaking, he pressed it against his tear-filled eyes for a moment and in utter hopelessness, heartily wished he were dead.

* * *

"Halt!" The goblin leader’s harsh voice rang out in the tunnel, oddly distorted by the rock walls. Frodo frowned in puzzlement, then understood that the command did not echo. There was an opening ahead of them. The goblins carrying lamps unshuttered them and by their weak light the hobbit could see nothing but a great blackness before him, a vast round opening like a mouth. The foul smell, which he had almost grown used to, suddenly intensified. Gagging, the hobbit covered his nose with the sleeve of his jacket and staggered forward as the command to march was given.

He was in a cavern, he realized. The tunnel ended abruptly, replaced by far walls and a stone ceiling so far above him he could not see it. Something icy cold struck the back of his head and ran down his neck and he looked up just in time to receive another on the cheek. It was water, little pit-pats of icy water as they dripped off some unseen stalactite. The next unerringly found the back of his neck and he shivered and stepped a little to the side.

The stench was worse in here. Frodo coughed and backed up another step, his feet crunching on a hard object that splintered beneath his tough soles. Looking down, he could just make out something white and thin, like curved white sticks, and realized it was a ribcage. Rat, or some other small rodent. And not completely clean; shreds of decaying flesh still clung to the bones and bits of organs shone with slime in the dim light. Looking about him, he realized now that the dark lumps strewn about the floor were the remains of the goblins’ meals, cast from the front of the cave and ignored. The entire cavern was a carrion heap.

He felt ill. He sought for a clean place to wipe his feet, but there was none. Rats and insectile scavengers skittered among the rotting bones, completely unafraid of him. A huge cockroach as long as his hand reared up before him and Frodo shrank back, sickened of the thought of treading on such filthy creatures. He realized that the cold breeze that he had felt thoughout the entire miserable journey emanated from here, or more accurately, from an opening that led into this cave. The wind blew into the cavern and from here it collected the horrible stink of carrion and funneled it along the tunnel. Gagging, he covered his nose with a hand and fought to control his stomach.

A murmur ran through the assembled company and some of the goblins began pointing and hooting back and forth among themselves. Frodo could see that the ground rose and ahead there was an area of the cavern better lit, illuminated by torches set in sockets along the wall. Shadows moved against the wall and sounds were coming from some activity there, snarling and growling—there was an animal in the cavern. But not any beast the hobbit had ever seen. The shadow retreated as the animal moved farther into the cavern. It was an enormous beast similar to wolf-kind, but greatly larger, and deformed by unnatural breeding and use. A flat nose overhung enormous stained teeth and its forequarters were heavy with muscle. Madness glimmered in its yellow eyes. With a shock, the hobbit realized it wore a saddle. The cinch had been pulled so tightly around the massive body that it had cut into the skin, and blood dripped from the straps in unceasing rivulets of red.

Warg, his mind supplied. Riding-beast for orc-kind. He had never seen one but he recognized it from Bilbo’s stories. But the dear old hobbit’s tales had never captured its hideousness, or its viciousness. It turned to snarl at a second, slightly smaller beast by its side, and that one snarled in return but cowered back. There was something wrong with the first; it lunged for one of its handlers but its movements were uncoordinated and shaky. The rough hair of its dirt-encrusted coat was dark with perspiration and its limbs quivered. Its tongue lolled out of its mouth and even as Frodo watched, its hind legs gave way and utterly exhausted, it collapsed to the ground.  

It is dying, Frodo thought. Hideous as it was, he sorrowed for it.Then something stalked from behind thetwo beasts, and Frodo’s terror returned full-force. 

The Nazgűl was shapeless underneath the tattered black robes, not more than a tall Man-form with nothing to distinguish it from any of the others. Nevertheless, Frodo knew that this was the one who had stabbed him on Weathertop. He knew it immediately, and knew that it recognized him in the same instant. Despair poured from it like a poisonous miasma and Frodo choked, unable to breathe. The pain in his left shoulder, never completely quiescent, flared into agonizing life. At the same moment, the burden he bore blazed into burning ice at his breast. He dropped to his knees, overcome, his right hand clutching his shoulder and his left wrapped around the Ring.

The black form raised its hooded head and the black pit of its face turned towards him. Frodo’s blood slowed in his veins and his head dropped. As if pushing against a great weight, the hobbit forced himself to release the Ring and struggled to raise his head. He would not bow before it—he would not. He sought to revive that surge of defiance, that refusal to bend to its will that had saved him as he lay helpless in that ring of stones. But he knew what a Ringwraith was now, what it could do to him. And the consequences to Middle-earth if it did. Rage sparked in his heart but it burned too weakly, worn down by hunger and exhaustion and the weight of the responsibility he carried. This time, he did not have the strength to defy it.

The dying warg broke the equipoise between them. A goblin had come too close and it snapped at the creature, foam dripping from its slavering jaws. The goblin leaped back, cringing in fear. "The beast, my lord," it whined. "It dies. The other will bear you back, my lord. Please, my lord—"

"It is of no more use to me," the Ringwraith hissed, its cold gaze fixed on the hobbit. "Kill it."

Of course, Frodo thought. The poor, warped horses the Black Riders had enslaved were dead, and replacements not yet been trained to suffer such evil riders. He recalled vaguely that Gandalf had warned him the Ringwraiths would return, once they had new forms to wear and new mounts to ride. The Witch-king had found a new mount, evidently, and ridden it to its death.

"Food! Fresh meat!" Whooping, the goblins swarmed the creature, stabbing eagerly at it with their swords. The beast lurched to its feet, galvanized by pain, blood already streaming down its coat. The smaller beast lunged at the smell of blood but its handlers dragged it back, away from the other. The dying warg lurched forward and a goblin that had come too close screamed as it was caught in the massive jaws. The crunch of bone resounded in the vast cavern and the scream was abruptly cut short.

Some goblins had throwing-spears, and these they cast deep into the beast’s ribs. All missed the heart but many lodged in the animal’s side, driving it into even greater frenzy. Howling, the warg threw itself back on its hind legs, rearing like a horse, then leaped into the midst of the goblins, savaging them with its jaws and shredding them with its claws. Expecting an easy kill, the goblins were not prepared and those caught under it went down as others behind them fought each other to escape the ravening beast.

The Nazgűl, also, was caught off-guard by the ferocity of the warg’s death-throes. The warg shook its great head and the mangled body of a goblin was thrown from its jaws, spinning out into the air to slam against the Wraith. Black blood splattered its black robes and it staggered. For a moment, the merciless grip on the Ring-bearer’s mind lessened. Frodo seized his chance. Still moving as if he were underwater, he struggled to his feet and took a step backwards.

The Nazgűl pushed the goblin’s broken body off itself and threw out an armor-clad hand. Metal-encased fingers clenched into a fist, and Frodo felt the ice returning. He was paralyzed. The ice was consuming him. Hysteria screamed in his mind but he could pay it no heed—his body was frozen. Then the warg lunged forward, an arrow in its throat. A second impaled an eye and this one must have entered the brain, for the animal went limp even as it launched itself into the air to hurl itself amongst its tormentors. The goblins under it screamed as the massive body crashed down upon them. And not only the goblins. The Wraith also was beneath it. It fell, crushed beneath the dead beast, and the grasp on Frodo’s mind was gone.

The hobbit did not hesitate. Frodo whirled around and ran. Intellect told him that there must be an opening past the wargs, that the cavern mouth must be close. And from there, open space and freedom. But he dared not chance that he was wrong, and dared not chance that the remaining warg and the goblins would let him by. He plunged back the way he had come, trying to gain the tunnel before he was spotted.

"The halfling!" snarled the Ringwraith. "Do not let it escape!" Pinned by the dead warg’s body, it struggled to free itself, one armored hand gouging a great gash in the rock floor. Its terrible voice rose above the goblins’ shrieking cries of triumph and they looked about in confusion, having forgotten their small prisoner during the turmoil.

One tried to intercept Frodo but he dodged to the side and it missed, a clawed hand tangling for a moment in his cloak. Frodo jerked himself free but the delay had cost him. They were converging on him, swords ready in their hands as if he were some mighty elvish warrior. Hobbit-quickness and hobbit-stealth would not aid him now; they could see him clearly. See him… Of its own accord, Frodo’s hand returned to the Ring and clasped it. They could see him…

Before he quite knew what he was doing, he had torn the silver chain from his neck and was holding the Ring between his fingers with one hand while his other prepared to don it. Somewhere in his mind a voice was shrieking no! no! but the shrieks of the goblins were louder. His right forefinger slid into the golden band and those shrieks faded away in the absolute cold of wearing the Ring.

He had forgotten how icy it was in this not-place, and how windy. It was difficult to see—everything seemed leached of color and distorted. He was aware of the goblins only peripherally. In this place, the Nazgűl loomed in all the decaying splendor that Frodo remembered, just before it had driven the poisoned Morgul-blade into his body. It knew he had donned the Ring, and its will on him returned and intensified. Battling the Ring, battling the Ringwraith’s will, the hobbit staggered back and sought to evade the goblins searching for him.

They stumbled about, snarling questions at each other, "Where did it go? Did you see it?" and calling for him as if they thought he would answer. Frodo gained the wall and pressed his back against it, trying desperately to control his panting. He had to get out. But his way was blocked by goblins—they were packed too closely for him to slide between them.

"Fools! Set me free!" the Ringwraith’s snarled command brought the horde to its side and set them to trying to drag the enormous corpse off it. They feared the Wraith, Frodo saw, and perhaps their efforts were less than whole-hearted, for none wished to approach the Nazgűl closely. Some took hold of the throwing-spears lodged in the creature’s body and threw their weight against them, levering the warg off its prisoner. With the Ring altering his vision, he saw bone-thin fingers, white and unnatural, scrabbling at the rock floor then the Wraith was pulling itself out from under the dead beast.

Frodo did not wait to see more. With fewer goblins in his path, he gathered the last of his strength and darted for the entrance to the tunnel, toward the opening that he had exited in such weariness but minutes before. Its burning gaze fixed on him, the Nazgűl saw him move. "It is escaping!" it shrieked, its voice taking on the cruel screech that caused such terror and pain to any who heard it. Frodo stumbled, going to his knees amongst the filth, for the moment blinded and weakened. He forced himself up and continued running. The goblins fell back, cringing, covering their ears with their hands, no longer hunting the escapee. Seeing that it was hurting its own cause, the Wraith controlled itself and its voice descended to a more mortal level. "By the tunnel mouth! It is escaping! Stop the halfling!"

Those who had continued the search for him stared about in confusion but could not see and did not hear the small form that wove between them. Frodo put on a burst of speed and passed between two that sought to bar the tunnel entrance, reaching out to cross their arms against him. He ducked and passed under the groping hands, his footfalls entirely silent as he escaped from that place of doom.

* TBC *

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