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Dangerous Folk  by Budgielover

Chapter Five

The first scream, so close and so unexpected, sent both men diving for cover. Aragorn flung himself into a stand of marsh grass, camouflaging himself among their tall, mottled stalks. Boromir had a moment to appreciate the practicality of the Ranger’s attire – rather than looking worn and patched, to his eyes the leathers and earth-toned fabrics Aragorn wore seemed suddenly a stroke of brilliance. Aragorn’s choice of clothing seemed much wiser than his own red surcoat and the bright gold embroidery adorning it. Which was completely covered with mud at the moment anyway, as he had thrown himself into a mud hole.

They listened in astonishment to the various screams, shouts, shrieks, and howls. Aragorn raised himself up on his elbows and crawled to Boromir, the marsh grass barely rustling to betray his movement. Side by side, the men checked their knives, glancing up at the lowering sun to estimate if it would flash on the blades, then sliding them through the mud. Legolas’ long knife glowed through the muck, its blade shining like a full moon behind a veil of clouds.

“Frodo?” Boromir mouthed at Aragorn.

“Can there be any doubt?” Aragorn murmured, a smile twisting his lips.

“Hob-bit! Hob-bit!” That cry was followed by more roars of anger and pain.

The crest of the hill was suddenly alive with milling black forms. Some began starting down the hill towards the two men, some paused at the top to turn around and peer back. Aragorn and Boromir were looking up the hill from ground-level and the black forms seemed distorted and fore-shortened by the angle. They watched in horror as more than a score of hunched figures crested the hill, then another score. Hairless, rag-tag forms in pieced armour and leathers, bits of clothing hanging on them, carrying tall spears that reflected redly in the lowering sun. Water-goblins. The men exchanged a grim glance. They were outnumbered and out-weaponed by more than twenty to one.

The foremost goblin raised its arm and the men saw it carried a lance, a long spear tipped with a barbed head. Like a fish-spear, it would pin its victim to the ground and cause immense damage being pulled out. The goblin snarled fiercely and glared around it, made brave by the knowledge that the newcomers were only two and his companions were many.

Those companions passed it, hissing at each other in gleefully malicious tones and waving their spears and swords. They seemed in no hurry, secure in the certainty that their targets were trapped. Then another roar rode over their banter, the command in the tone unmistakeable even though the harsh language warped the words. Several stopped, looking at each other apprehensively. The watching men were relieved to see a large number of the goblins reverse themselves and began climbing the hill again.

“It might be wiser to retreat,” Boromir whispered, “and come at them again from elsewhere.”

“Into the lake?” Aragorn breathed back. “We would have no chance of out-swimming them. Look at them – they are made for the water. And Frodo needs us now.”

“We cannot win through to Frodo amongst so many. It is foolishness.”

“We have no choice. Do not seek to slay, merely to break through. With enough speed and surprise, we may win past them.”

As if in reply to Aragorn’s words, the screams on the other side of the hill redoubled in volume. The approaching goblins grinned at each other, flashing pointed teeth. Sheltering the long elvish blade under his body Aragorn surreptitiously cleaned it, freeing the knife from the concealing mud. “”Ready?” he murmured. “On the count of three. One … two … thr–”

* * *
Frodo huddled against the rock, trying to make himself as small as possible. Turning sideways with his knees scraping against stone, he could shelter his side with his arm in case the goblins tried to pull his captured spear away from him and use it. But the leader seemed oblivious to common sense; it howled again and tore at the rock keeping it from him, screaming at the others to do the same.

Rock shifted and the gap overhead widened, scored by goblin claws. Warmth caressed his cheek, the last gift of the failing sun. Frodo was sure he could weave that into the story he was composing for Bilbo in his mind. Dear Bilbo did so love beautiful metaphors. Some part of him was retreating to a far green place where all this horror was just a story; just a story in a book that he could put down at any time and saunter into the kitchen for a cup of tea. Such withdrawal made the knowledge that he had failed his Quest easier to bear, somehow. He had failed to deliver the Ring to its destruction. Grief welled up in him – not for himself, but for those who would live on after him to suffer because of it.

With another low grinding growl, the topmost rock of his little cave shifted more to the side, raining dust down on him. At the same moment, a harsh jerk on the other end of the spear tore it from his grasp. A black hand squeezed through the upper opening and slashed at his head. Frodo crouched lower, bending himself so tightly that he could not breathe. The pain in his slashed leg flared anew but was forgotten as fingers fastened in his hair. The hand pulled, then slipped through, leaving in its grasp dark threads of curls. The leader of the goblins howled in frustration and threw itself against his hiding place.

If there were only another hiding place… With a shock, Frodo realised there was. If he dared. Refusing to think of what he was doing, he fished mud-covered fingers down his shirtfront and fastened them on the cold weight against his chest. Pulling his hand out, he opened it and stared at the Ring.

It was cold, much colder than his recent immersion in freezing water could have rendered the metal. Sometimes it seemed to burn, but it was never a warming heat. No mud or dirt clung to it. It shone beautiful and pristine, unsullied, its perfect gold tinged with red, and it was only then that Frodo realized that if he could see the sunset reflected in it, the top rock keeping the goblins from him must have been pulled away.

Frodo looked up. The leader of the goblins grinned at him, its filed teeth appallingly white in its black face. The dark blood from its broken nose had slowed to a trickle. “Hobbb-itt,” it hissed, and licked its lips.

Look away, Frodo begged it silently. Look away … just for a moment… The goblin snarled and reached for him.

“Yrch! Drego! Gurth 'ni yrch!” (Orcs! Flee! Death to the orcs!)

The goblin froze, clawed fingers almost brushing Frodo’s head. For a heartbeat it seemed the entire world stood frozen, then as one, the goblins whirled towards the clear, ringing voice. Unaware of doing so, Frodo rocked up on his knees and stared over the top of the boulders.

Legolas stood on the crest of the hill, the sinking sun outlining his slender form in a halo of gold-red light. The light seemed to come from behind him and through him and from him, so to look upon him was painful to the mortal eye. His legs were spread in an archer’s stance and his bow raised, and even as Frodo could scrape together the wits to recognize him, the elf loosened his bowstring and one of the goblins fell dead with an arrow in its throat.

Albai! Albai!” Dimly, Frodo identified the orcish word for Elves. The goblins surrounding Frodo fell back, their eyes riveted on the lone figure outlined by the sinking sun.

From behind Legolas came another shout, an eager battle-cry in Elvish, roared by a voice less sylvan-clear. Another figure, more solid than the first, topped the rise and stopped beside Legolas. A second later, a third joined them. From behind came a shout, the Elvish words distorted by distance but approaching fast.

“Albai! Albai!” The cry was taken up and repeated again and again. Some of the goblins cringed, whimpering and shielding their eyes. The leader’s hands curled into fists, and its eyes glinted with near-madness as it swung back to Frodo.

The little cave was empty. The goblin leaned over the boulders and gibbered in shock, its eyes bulging. The others tore their eyes from the glowing figures and stared at it, then down into the rocks where the unknown little creature had sought refuge. It was not possible – they blocked the opening where it had crawled in and they would have seen it scramble out over the top. It has simply disappeared.

Magic. Elvish magic, most hated and most feared by goblin-kind. Its promise of a sweet meal and a sweeter revenge stolen from it, the leader of the goblins pivoted to stare up at the intruders. All reason seemed to have fled it. With a bellow it snatched its spear from the one who had recovered it and raised it, striding to the base of the hill. It made it three strides before the second figure moved and a long elven knife arched through the air to imbed itself dead center in the goblin’s chest.

The creature looked down at the gleaming blade in confusion, its spear falling unnoticed from its claws. It hit the rocky earth and clattered, the sound greatly magnified by the nearby water and the utter silence. Then the goblin followed it, folding slowly to the ground, the Elvish knife standing upright in its body.

“We are come!” shouted a voice in Elvish from behind the three figures, followed by the sound of armour crashing and clanging, as if a great army was mounting the hill. “Prepare to die, yrch!”

That did it. Unnerved by the hated Elvish magic and their leader’s death and now faced with what sounded like a vast number of Elvish warriors, the goblins reverted to their cowardly natures. Wailing, many cast their spears and swords to the ground, valuing their own skins more. Some kept their weapons but still ran, crashing into each other, fleeing blindly. Legolas’ arrows pursued them, arrow after arrow, and each one found its mark. In seconds there was only a litter of abandoned arms on the ground, the cooling bodies of the slain, and the small pile of boulders they had been excavating.

Le hannon a tholel ” (Thank you for coming), Legolas said, turning to face Gandalf as the wizard toiled up the hill, hat missing and panting horribly.

Gelir na thaed” (Happy to help), Aragorn replied dryly as Gandalf had no breath to spare.

“I shall have to improve my Elvish,” Boromir said a smile. “Well-met, my friends!”

The discordant clanking behind them increased as Gimli joined them. Looking around, the dwarf cast himself down on the ground, the heaving of his chest straining his chain mail. Legolas looked at him, a smile twitching his lips, wondering if Gimli had yet realised that he by himself had made enough noise to make the goblins think an entire army of Elves approached.

“It seems there is no one left to fight,” Legolas commented in disappointed tones, struggling not to laugh.

Still panting, Gimli rolled over and with great difficulty, sat up. “You could have … left me some,” he gasped. “Ran … all that way … I should at least … have a few heads to lop off … for my trouble.”

Movement, rather than sound, made Aragorn turn just as Merry raced up the hill, his face shining with determination as well as perspiration. Pippin was right behind him and Sam but steps behind. The hobbits had been as soundless as Gimli was noisy. Aragorn caught a small shoulder as it flashed past and hauled Pippin to a stop.

“Hold, gentlemen!”

“Where’s … Frodo?” Merry gasped, sending small stones rolling as he skidded to a halt. Sam stumbled up next to him and bent double, holding his sides and looking sick.

“The yrch were gathered about those boulders,” Legolas said, pointing with his free hand. The other remained on his bow, another arrow nocked.


“Quiet, Merry. We will go down together. The goblins might be watching us from cover.”

“I think they will have noticed that we are not an Elvish army,” Gandalf said at last, wiping sweat from his brow. “I gather that was your intent, Aragorn?”

“It was,” the Ranger replied. He said it calmly but his eyes roved ceaselessly over the landscape.

Gandalf looked down at a tug on his robes. Wordlessly, Pippin handed him his hat. Gandalf took it and returned it to his head, then stroked Pippin’s cheek with the back of his finger in silent thanks. Pippin smiled back tremulously.

A shrill whinny rang on the chilling air. “It seems we are reunited,” Boromir said with a laugh. “Here comes our Bill!”

Puffing, packs jangling, the pony plodded up the hill and went straight to Sam. “Good boy,” Sam said, stroking the pony’s nose. “I mean, bad boy! I told you to stay!”

“Just as well that he did not,” Gandalf said. “I would not to want to go all that way back after him. Sam, you had best walk him to cool him down. Now let us find Frodo and leave this place. Legolas will keep guard.”

“Aye, sir,” Sam replied, clearly unhappy at not going after Frodo.

“Let me check Bill’s load first, Sam,” Boromir said. “It has certainly shifted and must not come undone as we travel.”

“I will have ready fresh clothing and boots,” Gimli rumbled, struggling to his feet to unlace a pack and pull out blankets, which he pressed upon the two men. “You and Boromir cannot continue to walk barefoot as do our hobbit friends.” Aragorn nodded his thanks as he rubbed his hair dry, hearing but not understanding the dwarf’s mumbled groan of “…mother hen!”

“Are we going to get Frodo or not?” Merry demanded impatiently.

Aragorn started down the hill, the two hobbits with him. Sam compromised by holding Bill where he could see them as Boromir and Gimli worked on the packs. As the three came to the bottom, Aragorn paused a moment to pull Legolas’ knife out of the goblin’s body. The sound that it made leaving the corpse caused Pippin to stagger slightly and put a hand over his mouth.

“Pippin?” Merry said, instantly aware of his younger cousin’s queasiness.

“It’s nothing,” Pippin said shortly. He averted his eyes as Aragorn wiped the knife clean, staring instead at the small pile of rocks. “Why doesn’t he call to us? The goblins are all gone, and he must have heard us.”

Aragorn said nothing but rejoined them quickly. “Let me go first, my friends.”

“Why?” asked Merry. “If he’s hurt, I want to know. We are going with you.”

“Frodo? Frodo!” Pippin cried, his voice quavering. This time Aragorn did not attempt to quiet them.

Merry and Pippin ran ahead of him to the small shelter of stones. Pippin was not tall enough to see down into the center, so he scurried around to the opening and peered in. By the time Aragorn reached them, he knew that the little cave was empty.

“Frodo!” Merry shouted, his voice hoarse with suppressed tears. “Frodo!

The wind blew, stirring what few leaves and little grass could grow in this barren land. It ruffled the hobbits’ sweat-soaked hair and fluttered Aragorn’s drying clothes. The setting sun looked like a line of blood on the horizon, and only the wind answered them.

* TBC *

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