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Caught Between the Light and Dark  by Budgielover

Chapter Fifteen

For long moments, there was only the sound of panting breaths in the darkness. Gandalf’s light had gone out. When it reappeared, weak and shivering on the tip of his staff, the wizard seemed almost dazed.

“Hoy! Is everyone all right?” A voice gone shrill with worry was shouting, seconded by a deeper one. “Gandalf! Gandalf, is anyone hurt?”

“We are all right,” the wizard called back after a brief inspection, catching a mouthful of dust and coughing painfully. It was twilight now; the sun had set and the clouds had lost their evening glory. Gandalf could see the two heads above him only as indistinct blurs. With an effort, he strengthened the light of his staff and Frodo and Boromir’s anxious faces resolved out of the darkness above him.

“Frodo! Frodo! Frodo!” crowed Pippin, dancing about excitedly and waving his sling in the air. “Did you see what I did? I shot it! That will teach that horrible thing!”

Aragorn and Legolas walked to the edge of the collapsed pile. Stones slid under their feet, raising small puffs of dust to join the coating of grime settling on their skin and clothing. “A landslide will not hold it long,” Aragorn said. “We must leave this place before the foul creature works free.”

“And Frodo has most graciously provided us the means,” Legolas replied, his eyes shining like clear stars. He gestured and Aragorn’s gaze followed the movement, noticing for the first time that the slide rose higher at the end adjoining the wall of the tunnel. The topmost stones now rested less than a man’s height below the opening.

“A ramp! Well done, O most excellent of hobbits!” Aragorn laughed. Frodo grinned down at him, dark bruises of exhaustion under his eyes but his expression impudent, both knowing full well it had been only serendipitous chance.

“Hurry,” Gandalf urged them. A boulder shifted, as if something immensely powerful was struggling beneath it. “Everyone up the ramp. Be careful! Don’t slip! Peregrin, stop jumping up and down on those rocks—the Nazg‌ûl is more to the left, anyway. Samwise, take Pippin’s arm. Come along now.”

With many slides and scrapes, the Company reached the highest point of the rocks. Boromir was ready; he lowered his shield and Pippin clambered aboard. Up he came, near bursting with excitement until his eyes fell on Merry’s still form. Pippin at once left off his garbled account of the rescue party’s adventures and flung himself down at Merry’s side. Frodo caught Pippin’s hand just in time as he was about to shake his cousin’s shoulder. “Merry?” Pippin asked, his voice high and frightened. “Frodo! What’s wrong with Merry?”

Frodo captured Pippin’s other hand and held both tight between his own. Pippin looked down at the sensation of warm liquid on his skin; darkness had hid the seeping blood. “Frodo? Your hands…? And what is wrong with Merry? Tell me!”

“Hush, lad,” Frodo told him. “I just cut my hands a little. And don’t worry, our Merry is all right. He’s been ill but I gave him some Elvish medicine and he will be fine.” Sam knelt at Frodo’s side, white-faced after his ride on the shield. He looked closely at Merry, then turned his concerned gaze to Frodo. Frodo smiled at him, and Sam smiled shakily back. After a moment he stumbled up to coax the suspiciously watching Bill out from the boulders the pony had taken refuge amongst.

Pippin gathered Merry’s hand carefully into his and settled more comfortably beside him. Frodo began to struggle to his feet, but Pippin gasped and clutched his cloak anxiously. “It’s all right, Pippin,” Frodo told him, gently freeing the cloth. “I will be right back. I’m going to fetch Aragorn.” Pippin nodded but remained frightened and tense.

Feeling the tweenager’s eyes upon him, Frodo returned to Boromir’s side and peered past the soldier into the hole. There was a grunt from below, followed by Aragorn’s head and then his body as Gimli and Legolas hefted from below. Frodo stepped back as Boromir caught Aragorn’s arm and dragged him over the lip of the vent. The Ranger had scarcely risen to his feet when the hobbit caught his hand and tugged him towards the two figures on the ground.

Swiftly, Frodo told him what had occurred. Pippin paled when his cousin spoke of the poison and he held Merry’s hand the tighter. Aragorn patted the tweenager’s arm reassuringly then returned to examining Merry’s throat. Carefully he loosened the sleeping hobbit’s jacket and waistcoat. “Yes, that was the best choice, Frodo,” Aragorn confirmed, unbuttoning Merry’s shirt to trace the fading streak of red down his chest. “Elrond’s medicines are very effective. The Elves have had much experience with orcish poisons.”

Merry’s eyes struggled open when Aragorn started to rebutton the bright waistcoat. He blinked in confusion then frowned at the Ranger. “Lemme ‘lone, Strider,” he muttered indistinctly. “Go ’way.”

“I see you retain your usual amiable nature, Master Brandybuck,” the Ranger replied, pulling the blankets up and tucking them around the young hobbit.

Merry attempted a glare. “I’m afraid Merry’s not a very good patient,” Frodo murmured apologetically.

Pippin squeezed Merry’s hand and the older hobbit’s eyes travelled to him. “Stop being difficult, Merry,” Pippin ordered, his voice trembling. “You aren’t nearly as good at it as Frodo.”

“I—What?” said Frodo, who had turned back to watch the others emerge from the vent.

Merry grinned weakly. “Hullo, Pip,” he said, and squeezed back.

Declining Gimli’s aid, the elf sprang straight up and caught himself with his hands on both sides of the opening, vaulting free with a push. He was as covered with dust as the others yet made the exertion look effortless. Gandalf followed, using Gimli’s bent knee to climb to the dwarf’s shoulders where Boromir and Legolas could catch him under the arms and drag him out.

Aragornlooked up to see most of the Fellowship grouped around Merry, watching quietly but anxiously. “He will be all right, my friends. Pippin, would you fetch me one of the medical kits?”

“Samwise,” puffed the wizard, wiping dust from the glowing crystal imbedded in the tip of his staff, “I charge you with obtaining proper ropes at the first opportunity.” 

Sam tugged on Bill’s bridle to position the pony closer to the opening, a blanket tied at the ready. “Aye, sir,” replied Sam as Gimli clamped onto it. “Won’t ever be without one again. I’m sorry, Bill!” A stifled dwarvish oath sounded from below, followed by Gimli’s head and then the rest of him.

Pippin returned with the kit and handed it to Aragorn. The Ranger began sorting through its contents. “Don’t want any,” Merry croaked as the man read the Elvish tags to himself in a murmur.

Pippin leaned against the Ranger’s shoulder to watch as Aragorn uncorked a vial. “I never make such a fuss when I have to take some nasty tonic,” he said virtuously and untruthfully.

“Frodo!” wailed Merry as Aragorn lifted his head and placed the vial at his lips.

“Drink it, Meriadoc.”

“You’re … enjoying this,” Merry accused. Aragorn took advantage of the open mouth and tilted the vial. “Gaaaak! Ick! Yick!” Aragorn ignored the observations and eased his head carefully down again.

“We had best take what rest we can,” Gandalf said quietly as he sank down on a boulder. “Let us all sit and take counsel for a few moments.” He looked at the hobbits and the Ranger. “We cannot stay here, Aragorn.”

“I know,” replied the Ranger, examining Merry’s face intently. “He will be fine. He just needs to sleep now.” Even as Aragorn spoke, Merry’s eyes closed and he slipped back into slumber. Aragorn poured another liquid onto two more of the bandages and handed them to Frodo and Boromir. “Wipe your hands with this,” he instructed them. “It will clean the cuts and help them to heal.”

 Aragorn closed the kit and Pippin repacked it quickly, hurrying back to Merry’s side. Aragorn smiledat the tweenager. “It is all right, Pippin. Merry will undoubtedly wake hungryand thirstyand irritable because he missed all of the excitement.”

“Merry’s usually like that, anyway,” Pippin replied, cheerful now that his fears had been allayed. “I was really quite afraid,” he continued in a low voice, “when the rope broke while Boromir was lowering them down to the tunnel mouth. I thought they were both going to fall.” He sniffed slightly, still frightened by the memory. “And my Merry is so afraid of heights… I wanted to pull them up myself, or jump and knock them onto the ledge, or something… And then there were all those horrid goblins, and we had to walk for so long, and then there was the explosion and—we found your message, Frodo!” Pippin’s voice had been gradually growing louder and his words faster and Frodo looked at him in alarm. “And then I saw you trapped on those rocks, and all those goblins were screaming and burning, and … and then … and then there was the Black Rider…” Frodo rose stiffly to his feet and drew the trembling tweenager close for a hug, holding him tightly for long moments.

“No one in the Shire has braver, truer cousins,” Pippin declared, returning Frodo’s embrace fiercely, “despite what I say all the time. You and Merry are … you … you and Merry…” Suddenly the young hobbit stiffened and his hands curled into fists.

Frodo drew back and looked at him, startled. “Pippin? What is it, dear heart?”

Pippin’s mouth opened, but most uncharacteristically, nothing came out. His eyes widened, then rolled up, and he collapsed bonelessly into Aragorn’s waiting arms.


“It is quite all right, Frodo,” Aragorn assured him. “In fact, overdue.” He carefully lifted the young hobbit into his lap and laid Pippin across his knees. One hand took the tweenager’s pulse while the other gently pried up an eyelid to check the rolled-back eye. “I will never again permit this one stimulants,” the Ranger murmured himself. “Pippin is quite … energetic … enough without them.”

Seeing Frodo’s anxious gaze riveted to the young one’s face, Aragorn continued, “He will sleep through the night, and likely most of the coming day. And awake with a throbbing headache, I fear. He and Merry will make a fine pair until they feel better.” Frodo nodded his understanding and bent down to gently kiss his cousin’s forehead. Aragorn tucked Pippin into a nest of blankets next to Merry, who yawned and turned his head slightly. Without waking in the least, Pippin inched closer and tucked his head under his cousin’s chin. Something in Merry’s expression relaxed as he slipped into a deeper state of sleep. Frodo looked down upon them a moment and the Ranger saw the glimmer of tears in his eyes.

“Come, Frodo,” Aragorn said gently. “I would hear how you came to be surrounded by goblins, taunting a Ringwraith from atop a vast pile of stone. I’m sure it is quite a tale.” He guided the hobbit down next to Samwise and Frodo leaned against his friend gratefully.

“I was looking up at you all,” he began slowly. Underneath the dirt and weariness, his eyes sparkled briefly. “Merry was teasing me for falling over the edge and Pippin was throwing things at me—how long did you say my dear cousins will sleep, Aragorn?”

“The story, Frodo,” Aragorn prodded him with a smile.

“We must leave this place,” Gandalf said when Frodo had finished. The wizard rubbed the time-worn wood of his staff absently as he continued, “It is not safe here. The goblins will not seek us tonight; there has been too much disruption of their lives. But Frodo tells us we are not so far from the opening of the cavern mouth. When the Wraith wins free, it will hunt us as soon as it is able. We must move on.”

“Aye,” Gimli put in softly. “We are much reduced in strength. Boromir’s hands need time to heal and the hobbits are done in. Better to flee and hope to lose the Wraith in these trackless lands.”

“Gandalf,” Aragorn said quietly. “The Nazgûl will not forget this defeat. Be wary should you meet again.”

The wizard nodded tiredly. “I hope that that day will never come to pass … but if it does, my friend, I will remember your warning. Sam, is the pony ready?” Sam jerked up from where he had fallen asleep, sputtering. Frodo patted his arm in reassurance. Frodo had only spoke and listened and rested, his hands busy repairing the Ring’s chain, his thoughts in some dark and distant place.

“Yes, sir, we’re ready ‘ta go.” Sam struggled to his feet and extended an arm down to Frodo. Grimacing, Frodo hauled himself up and stood swaying, his arm locked in Sam’s.

The rest of the Fellowship donned their packs. Aragorn stooped and handed a sleeping Merry to Boromir, then collected Pippin for himself, hefting Pippin against his chest as one would a child. The young hobbit snuggled into the warmth of Aragorn’s shoulder and started to drool a little on his cloak.

They began their march slowly. Little rest and frantic activity was manifesting in stiff joints and aching muscles and weariness almost past bearing. Frodo walked close at Gandalf’s side, his shoulder providing the wizard a helpful hand-rest while taking comfort himself from his old friend’s touch. He kept checking around him on his kin and Sam until Gandalf laughed gruffly.

“Frodo, will you relax? Aragorn and Boromir will not drop your cousins. And Sam is doing well enough with the pack-pony to hold him up. What concerns you so? Do your hands pain you?”

Frodo flexed his fingers stiffly. “I do not ever want to have to climb up another rock wall... No, my hands hurt, Gandalf, but it is not too bad. I am more worried about the uncounted hundreds of angry goblins below us, and a Ringwraith buried in rubble that is at this moment working itself free—if it hasn’t done so already. Andthe fact that those of us who are still on our feet are nearly too exhausted to walk, much less fight. And we haven’t had a proper meal or sleep since we left Rivendell.”

Gandalf tightened his hand on Frodo’s shoulder affectionately. “You can always count on a hobbit to keep track of the important things. We will stop and sup and rest as soon as we have put the goblins a few more leagues behind us, Frodo.”

“Oh, goblins,” Sam said from behind, tugging on the pony’s rein to draw even with them. “Pardon me, Mr. Frodo, I forgot your sword.” Sam held out Sting and offered it to his master. “I’ve carried it ever since you were taken, sir, and I’m sure you’ll be wanting it back now.”

“Bless you, Sam!” Frodo said gratefully. “I would hate to tell Bilbo I’d lost it. And I certainly don’t want to carry this ugly goblin blade any longer.” Frodo pulled out the long, strange knife and all three of them regarded it with distaste.

Suddenly Bill whinnied and shied, pulling his reins out of a startled Sam’s hand. “Easy, lad,” Sam murmured, “it’s only a goblin blade—no goblins about—Bill!” The pony reared, laden as he was, and his hooves pawed the air. “Bill!” Sam cried again, aghast at the usually docile pony’s behavior.

Gandalf jumped to the side with speed belaying his appearance and caught the animal’s harness, pulling Bill’s head down. The pony tried to bolt, dragging the wizard several yards forward. Sam darted after them and added his weight to Gandalf’s, fighting to steady the pony. Bill squealed and kicked, ignoring their attempts to calm him.

Frodo took a step forward, uncertain if they needed his help, when something huge and impossibly fast crashed into him and slammed him backwards to the earth. The breath knocked out of him, he could only manage a strangled cry before a horrible stench overwhelmed him. Coarse, stinking hair filled his face. Over the warg’s growls he heard Aragorn shouting, then the great body on him tried to lift itself off and savage him. Stained yellow fangs slashed close to his face, its hot breath choking him, but the warg had misjudged its leap. It had overshot him and landed with its prey under its belly instead of under its jaws.

Unable to breathe, unable to think, Frodo stabbed upwards with the blade in his hand. Hot blood gushed into his face. The warg screamed and a huge paw narrowly missed the hobbit’s head as it clawed at the ground to rake him. Frodo thrust the knife in again, as far as he could. The beast jerked away from him, allowing him a breath of air. Frodo rolled to the side and cut at the back of the massive paw, seeking to hamstring it. Even wounded the warg was impossibly quick; it leaped backwards, clearing Frodo entirely, and crouched snarling before him.

Now the others were moving; carrying the sleeping hobbits had slowed Aragorn and Boromir. Legolas’ arrow found its mark before the men could clear their swords; it burrowed deep into the beast’s side. But Legolas was too close and its hide too thick; the arrow did damage but did not kill. The warg threw back its head and howled, agony mixing with blood lust. The elf flung down his bow and leaped forward with his sword.

Frodo heard rather than saw the thick ‘thunk’ of Gimli’s axe as it parted hair and flesh and drove deep into the animal’s body. The warg twisted and screamed, snapping at the axe imbedded in its shoulder. The double-bladed war axe had scored on bone but even the dwarf’s great strength could not snap the shoulder. Gimli jerked it free and fell back, his face grim.

Gandalf had managed to untangle himself from the pony, leaving Sam to drag Bill out of the path of the monster. Frodo was dimly aware of shouts and swords flashing above him; his attention was all for the warg weaving between them. It was almost full dark; he could see it only as a vast bulk outlined against the early stars. The warg snarled at its attackers but did not divert itself from the scent it had been put to. It charged Frodo again and the hobbit rolled to the side, managing to sink his blade deeply into its foot as it passed over him.  

The warg yelped and drew the injured paw close to its body, whirling around on three legs. Frodo twisted over onto his stomach and pushed himself  to his feet, the goblin blade still tight in his hand. Long, bleeding cuts covered the beast’s hide and he saw Aragorn dart in and thrust his sword in to the hilt in the hollow behind the beast’s foreleg. The warg screamed and threw itself backwards, dragging Aragorn into the air before he could pull free his sword. Boromir snatched his cloak and pulled the Ranger out of the way of the thrashing claws. With elven-speed, Legolas ran under it as it pawed the air and drove his sword in its belly, seeking to eviscerate it. But it too was quick and with suddenness none of them could have anticipated, the beast flung itself to the side, plowing into Gimli and tossing him aside. But it did not go for the dwarf on the ground. Instead it turned back to Frodo and crouched to leap for him. Frodo saw it hesitate, then stagger. Then slowly, it toppled to the ground and lay still.

The embattled Company crept towards it cautiously. The beast’s great, bloodied sides heaved and it shuddered. Blood gushed from its nose and mouth. Whining, it clawed the earth once, and then it died.

Aragorn stared at the shocked faces around the carcass. “None of us scored deeply enough to kill it…” he murmured. Then his eyes fastened on the Ring-bearer. “Frodo,” he rasped, “let me see that knife.”

Wiping the foul beast’s blood from his face, Frodo handed the goblin blade to Aragorn. It was red to the hilt but the Ranger spat on it then used a corner of his cloak to wipe the blood away. The place he had cleaned gleamed black with an iridescent glaze, like a film of oil laid on water.

“Poison,” Gimli growled. “The blade is coated with it. It is a device often used by these cowardly folk.”

“Then … Frodo,” stammered Sam, still holding the trembling Bill with the pony’s nose in the crook of his elbow, “he killed that beast…”

Frodo was staring at the knife in Aragorn’s hands, horror writ deep on his face. “I … I carried that,” he murmured, “…handled it … fought with it. I could have…”

Aragorn dropped the blade and in two strides reached the hobbit and was kneeling before him, clasping Frodo’s arms. “This poison was meant to kill, not merely incapacitate. Did it cut you? Even the smallest cut?”

“No,” Frodo managed. “No … it never touched me.”

Aragorn bowed his head and closed his eyes for a moment before releasing Frodo. “Thank the Valar for that,” he said, regaining his feet. With a sigh, he added, “If there is any good to be made of this day’s work, it is that Elrond is now forewarned and will be on his guard. Rivendell will not be caught unprepared.”

“And we have dealt a blow, however small, to the Enemy’s plans ourselves,” Gandalf added. “I do not think the Eye will be pleased when he hears of his chiefest servant’s discomfiture. Let us hope Sauron is very, very displeased.”

“And extracts retribution for his displeasure on the Wraith,” Legolas contributed with a twinkle in his starry eyes.

“Aye, I would hope for that,” Gimli agreed.

“We will probably never know,” Gandalf murmured. “In any case, time is wearing on and we still need to put distance between us and the caverns behind us. How are Merry and Pippin?”

Boromir knelt over the two sleeping forms, placed well away from the conflict. “They sleep undisturbed,” he replied, a smile in his voice. Sliding his arms under Merry’s back and knees, the solider lifted him as Aragorn collected Pippin.

The wizard nodded as the Fellowship fell into line. “Ring-bearer, will you lead on?"

“I will,” said Frodo, and despite his weariness walked forward into the dark.

The End

A/N: For those of you interested in the birth of plot bunnies, the bunny that sparked this story was partially engendered by movieverse, from a scene in The Return of the King. Remember the shot of the Witch-king astride the Fell Beast as the captain of the orcs stands before it and asks it about the White Wizard? The Nazgûl replies, “I will crush him.” I wondered why it had chosen those words to describe its plans for Gandalf. Much of this story springs from that single sentence of dialogue.

My heartfelt thanks to my wonderful beta Marigold, who's beta-work has vastly improved this adventure. Thank you, my friend! 


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