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Aragorn froze automatically, half-crouching, the throwing-knife clenched in his hand. Another flash of lightening sent blue spots dancing before his eyes. He blinked them away, eyes tearing, and took a step forward, only to have the pale spectre’s accusing finger move to follow him.
“Who are you?” he called, his voice barely audible above the rumbling thunder. “What seek you here?”
The figure made no response, other than to shake its head slightly. In the clouded moonlight it glowed with pale radiance. It seemed to shimmer, giving the illusion of movement when there was none. It glimmered like a will o’ the wisp, a deceiving sprite existing only to lead lost souls to doom over fouled waters. It but stood and pointed at him, condemnation and accusation in its very stance.
“Answer me! How came you here?”
He took another step forward and the figure shook its head sadly, lowering its arm. Its entire body seemed to slump in sorrow, and it turned away from him, burying its face in its hands. He knew those clothes. That dark hair…dark hair on its pale feet…
“Frodo, if that is you, you will answer me this moment. I am done with games!”
The figure raised its head again, face averted, shoulders still slumped. Then it turned completely around, threw its arms wide in a dramatic gesture, and took one step forward off the side of the cliff and disappeared.
“Frodo!” Aragorn’s knife thudded to the ground, forgotten, as he leaped forward. Hurling himself to the ground, he threw out his arms, struggling to catch the slim figure. Small stones tumbled from beneath him, bouncing down the cliffside to disappear into the dark with small pinging noises. He slid forward, heedless of his own safety. His outthrust fingers brushed the top of the head of the falling figure, then it was gone.
Rapidly retreating from him was a luminescent blur in the darkness. It was not falling; it seemed to swing away from him, floating in the air. Pinpoints of light ‒ stars ‒ surrounded the dwindling figure. Another flash of lightening seemed to reflect back at him from the pale blur. Arms outstretched and legs spread wide, it grew smaller and smaller and then, in a heartbeat, seemed to disappear completely.
His heart thudding, Aragorn lay on the edge of the cliff. A few soft, curling hairs twined around his fingers, before another gust of wind tugged them free and sent them tumbling into the dark. Wind whipped his hair into his eyes. With another agonizingly bright flash of light and thunder that nearly deafened him, the rain began.
* * *
“Pull, Sam! Pull!”
Sam did, shoulders straining through the soaked linen of his shirt and waistcoat. Rain lashed at them, making the line on which they were hauling as slippery as ice. Without warning, the line snapped taut as a heavy weight hit the end trailing over the balcony rail. Both hobbits were dragged forward, Merry almost to the railing. “He’s down!” Merry shouted, spitting out water.
Wasting no breath in reply, Sam kicked the sealed pipe-weed jar they had taken from Frodo’s bedroom under the quivering line, against the balustrade, taking a moment to make certain it was firmly wedged against the railings and would not budge. With this fulcrum in place, he wound the line around his hand and he and Merry together threaded the line over the smooth surface of the glass jar and re-wrapped it around their hands.
“Lord Elrond should be grateful we aren’t damaging his stone,” Merry huffed, hauling on the line.
“Aye, that line they use for stringing the lanterns is marvellous stuff,” Sam agreed, panting. “Thin as a thread, almost, and stronger than anything I’ve ever seen. Almost like spun metal. Better than rope! I’ve got to remember to ask the Elves for some when we leave.”
“Would you two quit chatting and get me up there!”
With another mighty effort, the line sawed over the glass jar and a dripping, flour-streaked face rose from the darkness. The rain had puddled in Pippin’s hair and on Frodo’s beautiful elven suit, giving both it and its wearer a leprous appearance. Pustules of flour paste ran down his body to drip away into the void. “Hurry up!” Pippin wailed, “I can’t feel my hands!”
“Did you load the pockets with rocks?” Merry gasped. Both hobbits tightened their hold on the line and began hauling hand-over-hand, grim determination on their faces. With a glance at Sam to warn him, Merry released the line and snatched Pippin under the arms, tugging him forward over the top of the railing and spilling them both to the balcony floor. Pippin slid off the mirror he had been holding onto for dear life and shook his hands, his face squinched up in pain.
“Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!”
“Pippin! Are you all right? Are you cut?”
“No,” came the somewhat hesitant reply. “But I’m never stepping off a cliff again, riding a board or mirror or anything else on a line. Not ever, ever again.”
“Is the mirror all right?” asked Merry, coiling up the line.
“It’s not even chipped,” Sam replied, examining it. “I’ll just rub it dry and have it back in the corner in two tics.”
“I’m all right, Sam, thank you,” Pippin muttered, sitting up and rubbing his cramping hands along his arms. “I could have fallen off, you know!”
“Not as long as you held on to the frame,” Merry told him. “How did Aragorn react when you stepped off the cliff?”
Under the flour and runnels of water, Pippin’s face lit. “You should have seen it! The look on his face when I swung away from him! He could not see the mirror at all in the dark. He‒” Pippin yelped as abused muscles protested when he levered himself to his feet.
“I want to hear every lovely detail,” Merry told him with relish. “But right now we have to concentrate on not being caught.”
“We’ve got to get moving, sirs–he’ll be here in a shot.”
“Inside, lads,” Merry ordered. “We’ve got to get clean and dry before he gets here. The rain will wash the flour off the balcony–it’s almost gone already. Sam, hide that line; we’ll return it to the walk later. Move, hobbits!”
Carrying the mirror under his arm, Merry hurried for the balcony doors. Pippin, wincing, came after him, followed by Sam, who was tidily tucking in the end of the line into the neat coil. Merry propped the mirror on his toes as he pushed at the doors. But the doors did not open. He pushed harder.
“Merry, will you hurry up? I won’t need a bath at all in a minute.” Pippin crowded against his back, beginning to shiver from the rain and reaction.
“I’m try‒”, Merry began. Then his horrified gaze fell on the bar supports inside Frodo’s room. The bar was lain across them, firmly locking shut the doors.
* * *
How long Aragorn lay on the edge of the cliff, pounded by rain, he did not know. It seemed at once seconds and yet hours. From the awful blankness of shock coherent thought at last emerged. Whatever he had just seen, it was not possible.
He inched back from the sheer drop-off, unaware of the damage being done to the silks and velvet he wore as mud ground into the fine fabrics. Without thinking of it, he recovered his knife and returned it to his boot, his reminder to clean and oil it drifting away in the echoing recesses of his mind. He seemed unable to think, to move, to even stand – all that passed through his consciousness was the sight of that small body falling into the abyss, surrounded by stars and lightening.
Just for the briefest moment, he had felt hair as he touched the apparition’s head. He had seen the figure – he was certain he had. And touched it. Touched something. Therefore, it had to have been real.
“Lord Aragorn? Are you ill?”
He did not believe it had been a spirit. Frodo had not died, no matter how close he had come to it. The hobbit lived yet. He was recovering‒
The hand on his shoulder galvanized him into action, trained responses born of ten thousand nights of reconnaissance in hostile lands. He flung himself to the side and rolled, coming up on one knee with his long knife in his hand. Another leap and his back was to the cliff, knife raised to strike. Only then did he register the shocked visage of Boromir, son of Denethor, as the soldier of Gondor stared at him.
Thunder rolled in the distance as the two men stared at each other. The rain had been hard but brief, the water already rushing down to join the waterfalls of Imladris. Aragorn became aware that he was breathing heavily, almost gasping, and tried to master himself enough to steady his breathing. With an effort he lowered the knife, his hand clenched about it so tightly that its grip pressed into his hand, leaving an image of itself in his flesh. He straightened, seeking unconscious reassurance from the great rock wall behind him.
To his credit, the soldier had not responded to his threat; the great sword he carried was still sheathed at his side. Though his hand was on its pommel. The Master of Rivendell had not insisted that his many guests go unarmed in his domain; the Dwarves retained their axes and many of the Men their swords. Boromir was one of these, not comfortable enough among so many strange and unfamiliar races to give up his weapon. This discomfort often prompted him to avoid the evening gatherings in the Hall of Fire, and it was not surprising that he was out enjoying the unsettled weather.
Boromir took a step towards him, his hand still on his sword. He looked as though he did not know if he should shout for help or seek an attacker, and Aragorn hastened to reassure him. The two men did not trust each other, though Aragorn hoped that trust would grow between them. There were tensions between them, not the least that Aragorn claimed the vacant throne which Boromir’s father and his father’s father and fathers uncounted guarded, a trust which Boromir himself had expected to continue in the fullness of time. Aragorn wished it had been another – any other – who had come upon him.
“I am not ill, or injured,” he said, moving slowly to sheath his knife. Unarmed, he meet the soldier’s gaze. “Forgive me – I have just had a great shock. One which,” he paused and drew in a steadying breath, “I can only believe has been intentionally inflicted upon me.”
“Inflicted?” Like Aragorn himself, Boromir did not wallow in words. Curiosity was replacing concern and alarm in his face. “How mean you, ‘inflicted’.”
Aragorn raised his hands and pushed the hair out of his eyes, rubbing a wet sleeve over his face. “Lord Boromir,” Aragorn said formally, “would you be kind enough to accompany me? I have need of your sword, and your strong right arm.”
Boromir bowed. “Of course, my lord. May I ask where we are going?”
“We are going,” Aragorn said, staring across the crevasse to the residences of the Last Homely House, “to confront the most insidious, evil, vile, obnoxious, and ungrateful creatures in all of Middle-earth.”
* TBC *
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