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Dangerous Folk  by Budgielover

The pace Gandalf set them left little breath for talking but still the hobbits managed, huffing and puffing to converse in low, winded tones. Gimli watched them anxiously; reflecting that strenuous exercise so soon after an icy dunking was probably dangerous. Each was holding fast to the pony’s cinch or a strap from Bill’s packs, using it to keep the pace. Likely they would all fall ill. And the Ring-bearer would undoubtedly be sick – whenever they found him. Travelling with these folk was turning him into a mother hen, the dwarf thought dourly. Fine thing for a warrior of his people and son of Glóin, one of the heroes of Thorin and Company. But he seemed quite unable to help it.

Gandalf strode at the pony’s head, one hand holding Bill’s lead and the other driving his staff into the earth with each step, as if the very ground had affronted him with its lack of warning when Frodo was taken. The wizard’s beard bristled and his face was grim and angry, and the hobbits feared to talk to him. The uneven shoreline caused him to veer now and then close to the lake and Gimli and the hobbits followed, Sam keeping one eye on the water distrustfully.

Legolas floated before them, far enough ahead that the laboured breathing behind him did not interfere with that near-miraculous elven hearing. The elf still held his bow at half-draw, an arrow nocked as he searched the boulder-strewn land. He turned frequently to check behind Gimli, and at such times the hobbits would see him stare at the empty landscape as if he sought to see into the stones themselves.

The pony, too, was unused to such a pace. Bill was beginning to blow, foam rising on his withers and neck. “Poor lad,” Sam crooned, reaching up to pat the sweaty mane. “Ponies aren’t made for hard going, no they’re not.”

“Nor … are hobbits,” Pippin panted.

Sam growled something under his breath and Pippin looked at him inquiringly. “Lakes,” Sam muttered. “Rivers. I should have … been watching him better. Nothing good ever came out of lakes, if you take my meaning.”

“Fish!” said Pippin, brightening up as much as he was able while at a hard jog. “Filleted … and fried in butter and breadcrumbs! Clams … and oysters!”

“Now, Sam,” Merry remonstrated, “you can’t blame … the lake for this mess. We shouldn’t have let Frodo go in the deepest. I’m almost as tall as he – I should have filled the water bottles.”

“T’wasn’t your fault. Mr. Merry! A landslide won’t shift Mr. Frodo when he makes up his mind. You know that. I should have been with him–”


Legolas leaped forward like a bounding deer. In moments he was out of sight, his single shout fading into the distance. The hobbits gaped after him. Then in a shaking of the ground Gimli passed them in a burst of speed, his great battle axe bouncing on his shoulder. Gandalf shoved Bill’s reins into Sam’s hand as he too broke into a run, his robes whipping about his legs.

The hobbits looked at each other. “Right,” Merry said decisively. “Come on, lads!”

Pippin was already moving, elbows tucked into his sides, short legs churning. Merry dashed after him. “Sorry, Bill,” Sam gasped, hauling the pony to the nearest tree and lashing the lead around a branch. “I’ll come back for you – you just wait here, boy!” With that Sam sucked in a great breath of air and charged off after the others.

Sides heaving, Bill whinnied forlornly and tugged at his reins. Knowing of old the uselessness of trying to pull out one of Sam’s knots, the pony bobbed his head, jerking at the lead. The knot stayed but the branch bent. Bill’s ears pricked up. Twisting his neck, he dragged his head sideways and managed to catch the reins between his strong yellow teeth. Leather snapped. With a snort, Bill began trotting after his people.

* * *
The watch-goblin posted on the crest of the hill suddenly crouched and hissed, pointing down the rise towards the water. Its comrades, no, Frodo thought, closer to fifty than forty, turned from slavering at him to stare at it. Still clutching his arm, Frodo tried to shift himself up on his knees to see. He was at least no longer shivering – the shock of being stabbed seemed to have driven the shock of being immersed in icy water from him. The one that had wounded him glanced down and snarled, thudding the butt of its spear into the ground. Its meaning was very clear. Frodo sank back down, trying to suppress both the pain of his agonizingly jarred left shoulder and stop the bleeding in his arm. Blood was dripping from his fingers. He remembered how some of the weapons had glistened with an oily salve – did these goblins poison their weapons, as he had heard that some did?

The goblin on watch sank down farther, then stretched itself out on the top of the hill so that only the top of its black head peered above the rise. It pushed itself backwards towards those waiting below it and hissed again, gesturing urgently. Silence fell amongst them and they too crouched, looking at each other uneasily.

“Here! They must have pulled him out here!”

The words were spoken in a language and by a voice Frodo knew and trusted, its Gondorian accent a balm to a frightened heart. Now, listening intently, he could hear splashing and the swish of wet clothes. He drew breath to call out, but the goblin nearest him raised its spear again and shook its head, eyes boring into his. It’s every movement spoke of threat. Frodo looked at the razor-sharp spear-tip, already red with his own blood, and his shout died behind his lips.

“I see no hobbit-feet among the clawed tracks. They dragged him up this hill.” Aragorn’s reply was soft, but unbeknownst to the Men, it still carried clearly to the goblins and their prisoner.

“I cannot read this churned mud as you can. Was he unconscious? He would have been long under the water, without air.”

Frodo could almost see Aragorn kneeling on the bank, unmindful of his dripping clothing, piercing eyes hooded as he examined the ground. Boromir would be standing above him, his watchful gaze scanning the water, the steep hill, the boulders and the trees. They had no way of knowing that a small army of enemies stood barely a stone’s hard throw away.

“I would think so. We are gaining on them, at least. Water has only just begun to seep into the tracks nearest the lakeshore.” There was a brief pause, then Aragorn’s voice resumed, softer yet. “They are well armed, Boromir. See this mark, and this? These are the marks of spears or lances, driven into the ground to aid their owners in the mud.”

“Spears against knives,” Boromir groaned. “They do not even have to close with us. They can take us down with a cast.”

“For Frodo’s sake,” Aragorn replied, wet leather squeaking as he gained his feet, “we must not give them the opportunity.”

The watching goblin lowered its head and scuttled backwards, turning when it was below the crest of the hill. It grinned at its fellows, pointed teeth bared, its odd, protruding eyes glittering with ferocity. It jerked a thumb over its shoulder at the other side of the hill and held up two of its webbed fingers.

Two. Only two? What of Legolas and his deadly bow, and Gimli with his indefatigable strength? What of Gandalf, capable (Frodo was uncertain but thought it likely) of raining down lightening bolts on these wicked creatures? Even as he despaired, Frodo was at that same moment grateful that wizard elf, and dwarf remained with those he loved. A shudder, this time of relief, passed through him. Merry, Pippin, and Sam would be safe.

The goblin standing over him nodded in reply to the watch’s information and it pulled its spear from the ground, making a sweeping motion with it. Frodo’s heart sank as he realised that this was the leader of the troop. Silently, the others began to unsheathe their swords and draw their daggers.

I can’t let Aragorn and Boromir walk into a trap, Frodo thought frantically. They don’t know how many there are– The leader pointed at the crouching goblin on the crest and that one hunkered down further, sliding silently down towards them. It took its place amongst the others as the horde began to scale the hill.

“I believe he must have been unconscious. See … here is the mark of an arm, dragged under the body. That would have hurt very much. Frodo would have sought to avoid that, were he awake.” Frodo rubbed at his arm absently. The ache of hitting the ground was slowly giving way to the burning pain of the spear-wound. He could move his arm now, a little, but it felt weak and he could not trust its strength.

His gaze fastened on the spear the leader of the goblins leaned against, secure in its knowledge that he would not be foolish enough to try to warn the approaching Men. It was watching the others scramble up the hill, their clawed hands and feet finding easy purchase in the soft earth. They moved stealthily, almost gracefully, sliding over the earth like shadows.

Be quick, Aragorn! Frodo thought. He closed his eyes for a moment, seeking an untapped vestige of strength. Then releasing his aching shoulder, he threw himself back on both elbows and kicked out with a sturdy hobbit-foot, knocking the spear out from under the goblin.

The goblin went down with a bellow of astonishment. The surprise on its ugly face was almost comical. Even better, the rag-tag armour it wore clanged with the impact, shattering the silence with tinny ringing. The goblins halted in their tracks and turned, startled, and several gave involuntary barks of surprise. Frodo snatched up the spear, longer than he was tall, and scooted backwards, trying to keep his weight off his injured arm. If he could just find a shelter, a cave, some boulders, some place where they could come at him only one at a time…

For a moment, confusion reigned among the goblins. Some started down the hill after Frodo, some continued upwards a few paces, some stood rooted gawking at their sprawling leader. Those nearer the crest of the hill began calling out questions to those below and were silenced by frantic gestures and hissing. They fell immediately silent, but their element of surprise was gone.

With a roar, the leader bounded upright, its furious gaze locked on Frodo. Running was out of the question – Frodo still felt sick and weak, and had no desire to make himself an easy target for a spear in the back. Hide, you fool! Frodo ordered himself. He risked a glance behind him. There – a small pile of boulders, with an opening between them just wide enough for a slim hobbit unencumbered by pack, jacket, or adequate clothing.
Frodo rolled sideways and came up on his hands and knees. The world seemed to roll with him and he faltered, disoriented by the sudden juxtaposition of earth and sky. Water seemed to slosh between his ears. Then the world steadied and he scurried backwards, reaching the boulders just as the leader’s claws fastened on his leg.

Cloth tore, and beneath it, skin. Frodo gasped as fresh pain slashed through him. Twisting, he tried to dislodge the creature, scrabbling desperately at the ground for an anchor. There was nothing he could take hold of. Loose gravel and dirt scratched his hands and slid between his fingers, then he was being hauled backwards.

The goblin roared in triumph and threw itself down behind him, tightening its grip. Frodo dragged up the spear and tried to jab it backwards, but now the boulders turned from help to hindrance. The spear caught on the rock – there was not room to manoeuvre it. And the goblin saw. Its mouth stretching in a horrific grin, it effortlessly flipped Frodo onto his back and dug its claws into his hip, dragging him out.

He could not allow it to pull him into the open. Frodo reared up enough to see, then collapsed back down. This creature obviously knew nothing of hobbits. Frodo tensed, aimed, then drove his heel right into its grinning face.

The goblin howled, releasing him to clamp its claws over its nose. Frodo was ready – as soon as it freed him, he scrambled away from it and wedged himself into the boulders as far as he could. Stone scraped his shoulders and he fetched up hard against a sheer wall of rock. He could not stand; a great, flat stone topped the pile and there was barely room to turn. He braced himself against the back wall of his little cave and raised the spear to guard the opening. Only now did he dare to look outside.

The leader of the goblins was rolling from side to side on the ground, its hooting screams painful to the ears. Several of the others stepped towards it hesitantly, clearly wary of approaching it. Frodo fought to control his breathing and the speed of his heart; he could not afford to give in to the pain of his wounds and the weakness that even now threatened to overwhelm him. After long moments the goblin raised its head, blood dripping from its slit of a nose. It stared straight into Frodo’s shelter and the look on its face meant murder.

“Hob-bit! Hob-bit!” Roaring, it flung itself at the outcropping and slashed at the rock with its claws. Frodo made himself as small as he could and kept the spear up, protected more by the boulders than its sharp point. The goblin seemed not to care about the weapon. It dug at the boulders, its fury lending it enormous strength. Spittle flew from its lipless mouth. It screamed something at the others and several came forward, keeping their distance from their maddened leader as they helped it shift aside the rocks.

“I wish I could have told Bilbo this story,” Frodo whispered to himself as the first ray of sunlight penetrated his refuge.

* TBC *

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