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Dangerous Folk  by Budgielover

“Where were these marks on the shore?” Gandalf asked, steadying himself with a hand against the boulder on which Legolas knelt to speak with him. Water still dripped in a steady stream from the elf’s light clothing and from Gandalf’s heavier robes, forming puddles at their feet. “Could you tell what manner of creature made them?”

The elf stood, straightening the bow at his back automatically, his clear-seeing eyes scrutinizing the scuffling marks that were their only clue to Frodo’s abduction. Before sinking down again, he checked on Gimli and the hobbits, appreciating the dwarf’s gentle harrying of the little people. Gimli had Samwise and Merry and Pippin hurrying around the pony, gathering firewood, kicking sand over the fire, bringing him this or that to be lashed to the packs – the bustle keeping them warm as well as keeping them occupied.

“Half a league before us,” Legolas murmured, mindful of the hobbits’ excellent hearing. “Water had distorted them – water, with the lake at least four strides away. There were muddy drips on the ground, as if the water had been scooped up and poured into the tracks. Of the tracks themselves…” Legolas paused, his brow knitting. “They had done a good job with their concealment. I could tell little beyond that there were perhaps a score of them … and they went barefoot as do our little ones … and their feet were clawed.”


Legolas nodded. “Yes. The water had not blurred the indentation of claws in the sand. Indeed, water had seeped into the indentations and preserved them. I do not think they counted on that.”

Gandalf was silent, thinking, but the hand on his gnarled staff was white with strain. After one glance at him, Legolas stood and returned his attention to the watch, listening as well as looking.

“We’re ready!” Pippin called moments later. He hurried to them and tugged on Gandalf’s robe, too frightened and worried for Frodo to be prudent. “Please, may we go now?”

“Very well,” Gandalf said. “We will follow the shoreline. Legolas–”

The elf leapt down gracefully, unlimbering his bow and stringing it in one motion. Running an arrow between his fingers and finding the fletching dry, he nocked it loosely and laid a hand on Pippin’s shoulder. “Lead on, Mithrandir. We will not be taken unawares a second time.”

* * *

Aragorn could feel the pressure of the water all about him, so cold it seemed to burn. Eyes clenched tightly shut, he followed Boromir, a hand lightly clasping the soldier’s ankle. Too close would earn him a kick in the jaw, too far and they might become separated. They had agreed between them that he would follow with one hand on Boromir and a bare blade in the other. If they were attacked, he would have to defend them both, but one of them must have his hands free for swimming.

Boromir kicked and turned his body sideways and Aragorn followed blindly, feeling rock scrape both chest and back as they passed between the rocks that had hidden Frodo’s abduction from them. The murky water not only limited their vision but the tiny black specks in it seemed to gravitate towards unprotected eyes, irritants all out of proportion to their size. Then Boromir was angling upwards and they broke the surface of the icy water, choking and gasping from want of air.

Aragorn immediately stroked backwards, widening the distance between them, conscious of the long knife in his hand. Boromir wiped water from his face then turned, scanning the empty landscape. From here they could not see the others, but Pippin’s piping voice carried to them for a moment then stilled as he was hushed by another.

“The water carries sound,” Aragorn murmured, wondering if Legolas’ elven hearing would pick up his soft-voiced comment.

“We were not quiet,” Boromir agreed. “Not as quiet as we should have been. There was much calling back and forth as we made camp and the hobbits filled the water bottles.” He spat out a mouthful of water, eyeing the brown murk distastefully. “Do you think there are leeches in these waters?”

“Most likely.”

“Foul things.” Boromir muttered, turning in the water apprehensively as if he could feel tiny investigative brushes against his skin.

“They have their uses,” Aragorn replied.

Boromir paddled sideways, allowing his body to sink as he pulled his long knife free of its sheath. “Do you think it was happenstance or their intention to take Frodo?”

“Take Frodo…” Aragorn repeated. “Or any of the hobbits? Or was Frodo simply the easiest, as he had ventured out deepest into the lake? Would any of us have done, or did they target the Ring-bearer?”

“I suggest we ask the last survivor,” Boromir said grimly, gesturing with his knife.

Aragorn followed the direction of the pointing blade. Well ahead of them rose a steep bank, lined with rocks, littered with broken branches. Fresh mud gleamed in the pale sun, churned and trodden by numerous feet. In the centre of the disturbed area, something had been dragged from the water – the ground was smoothed from the water to the top of the bank. Near the crest of the slope the number of feet more than doubled, new ones joining and overlapping the ones around the drag marks. The swath was about the size of a hobbit.

“They came down the bank to help the others pull him out,” Aragorn said softly.

“That answers the question of how many,” Boromir murmured. “Many. Very many.”

Aragorn raised his knife and inserted it carefully in his mouth, biting down on the blade to hold it steady. Boromir did the same. Holding their heads up and keeping a careful distance from each other, they began to swim to shore.

* * *

Frodo was not conscious of moving; the urge to throw himself on his stomach was instinctive and incontestable. He had one moment to blink in confusion at the mud beneath his nose then his body took over, violently expelling the water he had inadvertently taken in.

Even as he choked and retched, he reached for his sword. Gone. He had lost it. No … he had left Sting on the shore when he waded into the lake. With that realisation memory returned; Pippin complaining about the icy water, Merry’s exasperation, his own self so cold he could not feel his feet. The reason they were in the middle of this miserable, forsaken land, in hiding and running for their lives.

Trembling, he sagged into the mud, barely able to lift his head clear enough so that the watery vomit he had expelled did not fill his nose. He shifted minutely to the side, the hand that had reached for his sword now stealthily snaking its way beneath him to fasten on the cold burning at his throat. He had not lost the Ring. Trying to move as little as possible, he slid the exposed chain and its burden back into his shirt. Only then did he try to lift his head enough to take stock of his surroundings.

Something sharp prodded him in the back. He flinched, then froze as something laughed.

“You done?” a harsh voice rasped.

Very slowly, Frodo raised his head and tried to blink the black spots from his vision. His throat burned and his stomach cramped, and the taste in his mouth was unspeakable. Water pooled in his ears, a minor annoyance he was scarcely aware of, no more than of the fact that he was surely freezing. His shirt and breeches were twisted about him and clung like a second skin – a second skin fleshed of ice. He had little sense of touch – his skin felt brittle, as if he might shatter. His very bones hurt, and as he raised his head, pain lanced through it.

Black, was his first impression. He blinked again. Larger than he, there were many of them, shifting and whispering to each other in a hissing language his blocked ears had taken for the rushing of the wind. They wore ragged, dripping clothing, leathers and bits of fabric. No … some were wet and dripping and some were dry. There were at least forty. All clutched knives and swords and spears, glistening with some sort of grease, and all looked very sharp.

He would not meet them on the ground, shivering like a whipped cur. Trying to hide the fact that he could not fully control his limbs, he dragged himself up and into a sitting position, shifting away from the small pool of sickness. Water ran down him, down his hair into his eyes, down his sodden clothing. Still not able to focus fully, he turned towards the one that had spoken to him.

They stared at him as he stared at them. What they might be making of one bedraggled, half-drowned hobbit Frodo could not suppose, but he was beginning to guess what he was looking at. Bilbo said they adapted to living in caves in the Misty Mountains, he thought, that their bodies changed over time to live in the dark … great bulbous eyes that could see in the faintest light, long, strong fingers to climb crevices and cracks. These live in the water. No, not in the water, he amended, staring, for they are air-breathers as are we, but they have adapted themselves to water. Water-goblins.

Now that he could see them more clearly, he saw the elongated feet, longer and wider than his own, their toes webbed like flippers but ending in claws. The hands clenched around their weapons were webbed, too, and their eyes were large and gleamed oddly. As one blinked, Frodo realised their eyes were double-lidded – the inner a glistening, protective membrane that would allow them to see in the water. They were not truly black in colour but their skin was dark and shiny, as is a frog’s, or perhaps an eel.

“What you?” The one who had spoken before asked, leaning over him avidly. It held a barbed spear, the point split like a fish-spear, but it only leaned on it. Its teeth were tiny, white and pointed, and there seemed to be a great many more of them than there should be.

Frodo wondered if he had the strength to rise and bow. They had not threatened him – yet. Courtesy might win him leniency. He took quick store of himself and settled for a seated bow, no more than an inclination of his upper body. Even that made him dizzy for a moment.

“I am a hobbit.”

“Hob-bit,” the goblin said wonderingly. “What hob-bit?”

Frodo was at a loss for a moment. If it had said, “What is air?” or “What is water?” he would have had a quicker answer. He gestured at himself vaguely. “I am. A hobbit. From the Shire.” It stared at him. “A … halfling?” he tried.

One of the others hissed something in their harsh, guttural language and shook its spear at him. Frodo did not react, being almost too exhausted and frozen for the threat to have meaning. His stomach roiled unpleasantly and there seemed to be a burning heat at the core of him, one that threatened to rise unpredictably.

The goblin that had spoken to him kept growling at the others, repeating “Hob-bit, hob-bit,” as if it were trying to explain him to them. Abruptly, the one that had shaken its spear at him pushed the first aside and strode towards him. Frodo felt numb, removed from what was happening, as if this were one of his dreams that came upon him when he was very weary. The creature caught his chin and stared into his eyes, then released him. Frodo stared at it numbly. It snarled something at him, drew back its spear and without warning, jabbed it into his upper arm.

Frodo cried out and jerked away, brought back to the reality of the present by the unexpected, unwarranted attack. He clapped his hand around the small wound, the sleeve of his shirt already turning red. Red trickled from between his fingers. The goblin snatched at his hand, dragging him sideways and Frodo fell jarringly on his side. His left side. Pain roared through him and his vision dimmed. The wound the Nazgûl had given him had closed, but never truly healed. For a moment he thought it had been torn open again, and could only writhe on the ground in agonized silence, biting his cries of pain behind his teeth.

When he came back to himself, he looked up to see the goblin licking his blood off its fingers. Ignoring him, it turned and held up its hand to the others. The sight of his blood seemed to please the others. They grinned at each other, flashing those pointed teeth, and made hacking motions with their weapons. The one who had spoken to him leaned down and, very deliberately, ran its tongue around its lips then over its teeth. Frodo reared back, his heart hammering. Lack of a shared language did not impede his understanding of the gesture. It seemed they had only wished to test what kind of creature he was. They had no interest in the Ring at all. They merely intended to eat him.

* TBC *

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