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While the Ring Went South...: 3. Yuleday, 3019
Gandalf propped his back against a convenient rock, sighed, and shook his head. "I had hoped to elude them for a longer period of time."
"There was only one set of tracks," Aragorn said quietly, almost speaking to himself. "It might be a simple scout sent by the pack to search for warmer climes."
"You know the likelihood of that as well as I do," Gandalf responded with a meaningful glance at Frodo. "Wargs. Of all the creatures to first test this Fellowship. You’re certain it was a Warg and not a mere wolf hunting for food?"
It was relatively early in the morning, but the rest of the Fellowship had already fallen asleep. After Legolas and Aragorn had rejoined the company around midnight the previous night, the Ranger had talked quickly and quietly with Gandalf as they journeyed. Shortly after that, the wizard had stopped the discussion and declared that he and Aragorn would be taking the first and second watches together in the morning. No more would be said on the subject, though many questions were put to Gandalf, Aragorn, and Legolas. Eventually, the rest of the Company gave up—though Boromir continued to mutter angrily beneath his breath—and hoped that the recent mystery would be explained in time. And now Gandalf and Aragorn sat together and took counsel on the wolf tracks that Aragorn had found shortly after he and Legolas left the camp.
"It was a Warg," Aragorn said solemnly in answer to the wizard’s question. "It was too large for an average wolf and the length in stride bespoke a hard body used to carrying burdens. Legolas also recognized it for a Warg track, and the elves of Mirkwood have had many with the Enemy’s wolves on the borders of their land."
"And you scouted the terrain before the rest of us woke?" the wizard asked. When Aragorn nodded, Gandalf sighed wearily. "He must have come on us shortly afterwards. Yet we saw no sign of him when we left you and Legolas."
Aragorn grimaced and took out his pipe, feeling the need for a smoke. "There may be no cause for concern," he pointed out. "As I said before, there was only one set of tracks. Elrond’s scouts reported that the main packs were still east of the mountains. This could be an exiled Warg. No howl has been raised at our presence and we may be but a passing interest to this creature."
Gandalf steepled his hands and studied the Ranger. "A passing interest? How many times did you say this Warg had circled our camp?"
"But he has yet to signal his comrades," Aragorn pressed.
"Yet," Gandalf noted. "And there is no further sign of him. Perhaps he has gone to signal them now."
"According to the trail Legolas and I followed last night, the Warg eventually turned west toward Rivendell. He was not traveling toward a pack. A Warg pack that close to Rivendell would not have escaped our notice."
"There are other reasons for him to turn west. Perhaps he was looking to see if our party had others further back. Perhaps he has gone to rally more scouts. Perhaps he was hungry and found game, putting aside our pursuit for a while until he satisfied his hunger. In any case, it is very likely that this Warg will soon put others on our trail."
Aragorn rubbed a tired hand across his weathered face. "Unfortunately, that was what Legolas and I concluded as well. It seems we have not shaken pursuit after all."
"As long as we travel with the Ring-bearer, pursuit will never be far behind," Gandalf sighed. "It remains for us to stay one march ahead of those who hunt us. And for us to do that, we must travel faster."
"Perhaps I should scout for this Warg while the others sleep. I may learn more of his movements and intentions," Aragorn mused. "If I find him, I could put an end to his fell life before he can contact his pack."
"You might find more of his tracks, but I doubt you will find him," Gandalf said. "If he does not wish to be seen, then you will not see him." The wizard looked at the dark trees that sheltered their Company and shook his head. "No, in this I think we must wait. Scouting Warg or chance wolf, we must endure him for a little longer. My heart tells me his intentions will be revealed soon."
"Should we speak of this with the others?" Aragorn asked, glancing specifically at Boromir.
Gandalf pursed his lips with indecision. "They suspect something. Legolas will not speak of it if they ask him, but their fears may be doubled by their ignorance. I think…I think it best if we caution them tonight before we set out. Perhaps we should warn Boromir and Gimli directly, but the hobbits, at least, should be told no more than necessary. They have fear enough as is." Gandalf was silent for a moment, still thinking the matter over, and then he seemed to give himself a shake and return to the present. "Well. We have talked long and hard, but have gained little new counsel. Let us close this discussion for now. I will take the last of the first watch and the whole of the second watch. You, Aragorn, should rest."
Aragorn chuckled slightly. "I may be in need of rest, but so are you, my friend."
The wizard brushed off the Ranger’s concern with a wave of his hand. " Have no concern for me. I have much on my mind, and it is doubtful that I could sleep anyway."
"But my mind is also filled with thought. If you wish, I will take half the second watch."
Gandalf shook his head firmly. "I am not in need of sleep this day. Rest. We will talk again tonight."
The Ranger was tempted to continue the debate, but he recognized the tone of finality in Gandalf’s voice and knew further protests on his part would be in vain. "Far be it from me to argue with a wizard," Aragorn said, signaling his surrender. Gandalf snorted at this and the Ranger smiled. "Until tonight, then."
Aragorn rose, found a suitable place to rest on the perimeter of their camp, and settled himself on the ground. He pillowed his head on one arm and positioned the other arm near Anduril’s hilt in case he should he have need of his sword during the day. With a last glance at the profile of the thoughtful wizard, Isildur’s heir closed his eyes and fell swiftly into sleep.
* * * *
Frodo rubbed his hands together and cupped them over his mouth, hoping to heat them with his breath. The sun was high in the sky, but its rays of warmth did not reach the small group of weary travelers huddled beneath a copse of trees. Frodo sighed and pulled his cloak tightly around himself, wishing for the bliss of sleep where he could be ignorant of the cold, the danger, and his burden. He could feel the cold touch of gold upon his chest, and its presence stirred a wealth of strange feelings and thoughts. Already, Frodo hated his journey. He was growing more aware of the Ring and that frightened him. With each passing day, the Ring became more prominent in casual thought. As of yet it was not an overwhelming concern, but it was a constant reminder of the unique danger and power that was his and his alone.
And the Ring set him apart. He was different from the rest of the Company in a way that did not extend to his fellow hobbits. Most of the others were uneasy around him. Casual conversation was hampered by a mixture of curiosity and fear. He would be forever known as the Ring-bearer whether this quest ran ill or not, and that was also something he was coming to hate.
So lost was he in thought that he did not realize his watch had come to an end until a soft touch on the shoulder roused him. Frodo jumped and spun, his hand straying to Sting.
"Whoa, Frodo," Pippin yelped, scrambling back a few feet. "Easy. I’m just here to relieve you."
Frodo blinked and then relaxed. "Sorry," he murmured. "You took me by surprise. And I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have been."
"Don’t worry about it," Pippin said, relaxing in turn. "I probably should have said something."
"No, I should have been aware of the time," Frodo said with a shake of his head. "I hadn’t realized my watch was over. If you hadn’t awakened…" The hobbit trailed off and looked at Pippin. "What’s going on? You never wake up for your watches."
"I had problems sleeping," Pippin sighed. "So I decided I might as well save you the trouble of coming over to rouse me." He glanced behind him, spied a convenient log, and sat down. "You can relate to that, Frodo, can’t you?"
"Relate to what?"
Frodo shuffled his feet a bit and looked away. "Perhaps."
The Took snorted. "Perhaps? Definitely, I’d say. Every time I take the watch, half of my time is spent watching you toss and turn. Cousin Frodo, what is wrong? What bothers you so much that you can’t even escape it in your dreams? It’s the you-know-what, isn’t it?"
"The you-know-what?" Frodo questioned, hoping to elude the conversation. At Pippin’s pained expression, he gave up, knowing exactly what the other hobbit was talking about. "What if it is?"
"Look, I’m just trying to help," Pippin said. "I’m your friend, Frodo, and as a friend, I’m telling you that you can’t keep this locked up inside. You’ve got to talk about it. The more you hide it, the worse it will grow until it is truly your burden alone. You were given this Fellowship so that wouldn’t happen. We’re here not only to protect you but also to help you bear you-know-what. So let me help. Talk to me."
"I don’t know if…I don’t think here and now is such a good place to discuss this," Frodo hedged.
"If not now, then when? And if not here, then where? The road won’t get easier, and it won’t get prettier. And if you don’t feel like talking to me, then talk to Sam or Merry or Gandalf or Strider. But talk to someone!"
Frodo was silent for a long time, looking toward the east and thinking. Pippin was right. He did need to talk, if only to find some way of putting his thoughts and feelings into words. And yet who could possibly understand the burden he carried? Who could possibly know what he was going through on a daily basis? "I’m not sure where to start," he finally said, knowing it was a weak answer but unable to offer anything else.
"Well, let’s start by answering a few questions," Pippin said. "Is the you-know-what causing your sleeping problems."
"I’m almost sure of it."
"Good. We’ve made progress. Next question. Do you have any theories as to why the you-know-what won’t let you sleep?"
"Maybe. Not really. It’s just…I can’t seem to get away from It," Frodo stammered, trying desperately to express what he felt. "Even when I sleep, I feel that It’s looking at me. Watching me. Waiting for me to slip. And when I do, slip that is, there will be no one left to pick up the pieces. I…I’m afraid that when I sleep, something will happen."
"That’s why we post watches," Pippin explained. "It’s so nothing will happen, or if something does happen, we’ll be warned."
"But that doesn’t help!" Frodo exclaimed, forgetting the rest of the sleeping Fellowship as he began to pace and wave his arms. "None of that helps. I know that’s why we post watches. I know that’s why Strider goes scouting every night before we march. But it doesn’t matter, because the forces we’re dealing with are beyond our control. Even if we see them coming, what good does it do? How does it help us to get some forewarning before we’re killed?"
"You speak as though we have no chance. Is that what you really believe?" Pippin asked curiously.
"Yes. No. Maybe. I don’t know anymore," Frodo sighed, slumping onto the log beside the other hobbit. "All I really know is that I hate this burden and wish to be back in Rivendell before a comfortable fire listening to Bilbo recite poems from his book."
"And knowing that things will get worse before they get better doesn’t help, does it?"
"I thought you were trying to cheer me up."
Pippin shrugged. "I can’t give what I don’t have."
Frodo smiled slightly. "Thank you for trying anyway."
"You’re most welcome. Do you feel any better now?"
Frodo thought about that and found, much to his astonishment, that he did feel better. The Ring was still cold against his chest, the sun was still a pale gleam in the sky, and he was still somewhere in the wilderness in lands he did not know. But despite all this, it seemed a burden had been lifted from his shoulders. "I do feel better, Pippin," he finally said.
"Good. Now remember this little talk we’ve had and remember that I’m here. I can’t take your burden away from you, but I can help you by providing a listening ear whenever you need it. And so can the others. Just don’t keep things quiet so long that you can’t even sleep. And speaking of sleep, you’d better get some. I think Gandalf wants to pick up the pace. Strider said something to him last night, and after that he looked like he was ready to carry us if we didn’t move faster."
"I suppose you’re right for once, Pippin," Frodo said with a slight grin.
"Hmm. Yes, it does seem unlikely, doesn’t it?" Seeing the look on the Took’s face, Frodo laughed and felt more of his cares and worries slip away. "Thank you again, Pippin. Hopefully I will sleep easier tonight."
"My pleasure, Frodo," Pippin answered. "And I’ll have you know that I’m always right."
Frodo chuckled, laid out his blanket, and tried to make himself comfortable. Before long, sleep overtook him and he drifted into a world of misty dreams.
* * * *
Gimli awoke with a jerk, fearful that something horrible had been done to him while he slept. He felt frantically at his beard, reassured himself that it was indeed still there, then reached for his axe. Yes, that was there, too. Clothes? No, nothing had been done to the clothes. Narrowing his eyes, the dwarf sat up slowly, expecting to be assailed at any moment but a nameless something. Reaching for his water skin, he sniffed cautiously and then tasted it. Yes, that was fine, too. Gimli scowled and looked around. Legolas would have done something during the day to retaliate for the pipe-weed in the water last night. But what?
The dwarf glanced about the stirring camp, wondering what the elf could have possibly done. Yet there was no sign of any tampering. Legolas himself was sitting next to Sam, humming softly as he aided him in breakfast preparation. Aragorn looked as though he had just returned from his daily scouting routine and was speaking quietly with Gandalf, who was eyeing the surrounding woods with a great deal of mistrust. Frodo and Pippin were packing up their belongings. Merry was sorting through one of the bags of food under Sam’s direction. All was at peace with the exception of Boromir, who was stalking the camp’s perimeter like a predator on the prowl.
Gimli wondered if the man still felt slighted by Aragorn’s refusal to explain his secretive conversation with Gandalf. Despite the Ranger’s lineage, Gimli had noted that Boromir was drawn to the other man as a drowning sailor might be drawn toward a light on the shore. In this strange Company of varied Races, Boromir was desperately trying to anchor himself in a familiar environment. But with Aragorn continually placing his trust in Gandalf, Boromir was feeling…betrayed. Gimli wondered if he should mention this to Aragorn or Gandalf and then noticed that the two in question were motioning him toward them.
Curious, the dwarf rose and joined them. Boromir was also beckoned over, and Gimli felt some of his fears for the man die when Aragorn began talking to them about what had happened the previous evening, but they were quickly replaced by new fears.
"When Legolas and I left the camp last night, we came upon a set of tracks that had not been there before," Aragorn reported, his voice low and secretive. Gandalf kept a close watch on the hobbits and Legolas skillfully kept them busy with breakfast and other menial tasks. "We believe them to be Warg marks," the Ranger continued. "In my scouting this evening, I did not come upon any new tracks, but we should be wary. It may have been a scouting Warg and he may even now be reporting to his pack."
"If this is the case, we must hasten our journey," Boromir said quietly, glancing at the hobbits. Gimli searched the man’s voice for any telling emotion, but the warrior from Gondor carefully kept his voice neutral. Gimli could not tell if the man was upset at being denied this information or grateful that it had been shared. Perhaps a little of both.
"Indeed, but how that is to be accomplished remains to be seen," Aragorn answered, also looking at the hobbits. "They are not used to such travels and hardships. We must be patient."
"Patience could lead to our deaths and the ruin of all Middle Earth," Boromir countered. "There is a time and a place for it, but now is the time for speed. They must be made to travel faster."
"What would that accomplish?" Gimli asked suddenly. "If Wargs are indeed on our trail, they will catch us whether we hurry forward or wait for them here. We cannot outrun them on foot no matter how hard we press this Company."
"But there are places of greater safety that we may reach," Boromir pointed out.
"But would we reach them before the Wargs reach us?" Aragorn asked. "On this side of the mountains, there is little in the way of shelter, and I doubt we shall make the passes before we hear the howls of the pack. As I said before, we must be patient. We must travel faster, but we must do so by degrees. It is no use to waste energy now when it might be needed in battles to come."
Gandalf shifted suddenly and Aragorn fell silent. Beyond the wizard, dwarf, and men, Sam was putting the final touches on their cold breakfast and Merry, Pippin, and Frodo were watching the others curiously. Legolas shrugged as if to say he could think of nothing else to keep them further occupied.
"Breakfast is ready," Sam announced. He looked around and for the first time noticed the tension in the air. "That is, whenever the rest of you are ready for breakfast. It can wait."
"We are ready now, Sam," Aragorn said, moving forward and helping himself to dried fruit and salted meat. "And you have our thanks for the meal."
Gimli took his own breakfast with some trepidation, fearing that Legolas had devised a malicious trick and that it awaited him in his meat or his fruit. But breakfast passed without incident—much to the surprise of everyone—and before long, the Fellowship was on the trail, journeying through the dark night toward the mountains.
* * * *
Around midnight, Gandalf called for a halt and watched as the hobbits broke out what they termed "walking food." This consisted of anything that could be eaten with little preparation and was readily accessible. The wizard had once catalogued how much a hobbit could eat in a day, and even now, it never ceased to amaze him. The elves might be renowned for the glory of their feasts, but the hobbits should carry equal renown for their ability to eat everything at an elven dinner and more. Gandalf wondered what would happen when the "walking food" ran low and the hobbits were forced to go without for a while.
Turning his attention away from the hobbits, Gandalf next rested his gaze on Boromir and Aragorn, who stood talking together. That was a good sign. If Aragorn did become the king, he would need the support of his steward and that would eventually be Boromir. A close friendship might not be necessary, but a working relationship was vital. Fortunately, it seemed they were beginning to develop one, though awkwardness continued to hamper their efforts.
Next up for evaluation was Legolas. The elf and dwarf had been strangely quiet all night, and Gandalf wondered what new plot was afoot. Having had the final say yesterday, Gimli was wisely refraining from further acts. But Legolas…it was not like the prince to ignore the gauntlet that Gimli had thrown. Something was underway, and Gandalf desperately hoped that whatever it was would prove harmless enough. They could ill-afford to bring the Wargs down upon them through some mishap between a quarrelling dwarf and elf.
This brought Gandalf to the other half of the pair. Gimli was studying the elf closely whenever it seemed that Legolas was not paying attention. The dwarf also feared retribution, and Gandalf couldn’t help but smile at the elf’s cleverness. The wizard had no doubt that vengeance would be forthcoming, but making the dwarf wait for it was cruel and genius.
Gandalf also noted, with some amusement, that Gimli seemed tired. The dwarf had been casually boasting of his endurance the other day, but it appeared now that his endurance had been put to the test and found lacking. Small trails of sweat wound their way down from his temples, and his breath was heavy and forced.
Legolas’s low tenor broke though the silence like the breeze whistling through the treetops, barely noticeable and yet instantly commanding the attention of those who noted it. Gandalf moved toward the elf even as the Ranger did, and a shiver of foreboding swept through the old wizard’s frame.
"Do you see something?" Aragorn asked quietly.
"Nay, but I hear movement," Legolas whispered, watching the surrounding forests with all the venerable knowledge and experience of an elf raised in the woods. "Something stalks us, but this something is skilled beyond the measure of an ordinary creature."
"Could you flush it toward us as you did with the spiders that day in Mirkwood when we were hunting?" Aragorn wondered.
The elf swung his pack down, readied his bow, and smiled grimly. "Your wish is my command, my liege."
Aragorn smiled back, clapped the elf on the back, and slid Anduril out of its scabbard as the Legolas slipped into the forest.
"What do you suppose is happening?" Pippin asked, watching the activities with interest.
Merry shook his head darkly. "Whatever it is, Strider and Gandalf don’t look happy about it. And Strider has his sword out."
"I thought his sword was broken," Pippin wondered aloud.
"It was mended in Rivendell," Boromir explained quietly, coming up behind the hobbits and also watching the proceedings closely.
"What is happening?" Gimli asked, joining the group. Sam and Frodo were also looking on silently.
"It might be just me, but it’s almost as if they’re hunting something," Merry said slowly. "I used to go after foxes in the woods west of Buckland with my cousins, and it looks like they’re trying something similar."
"You may be right, Halfling," Boromir said. The man stood with them a moment more and then moved toward Aragorn and Gandalf. Gimli considered joining them as well, but his back was screaming at him and his legs felt they could not move a single unnecessary step.
"We know so little of this land," Frodo murmured. "What could they be hunting?"
"Food?" Sam suggested hopefully, having noted that their supply of provisions could be increased.
"No, not food. There will be time enough to look for food later," Gimli murmured, giving in to his weariness and plopping to the ground. This exhaustion was strange, and the dwarf was becoming concerned.
"What, then, do you think it is?" Pippin asked, but the dwarf made no answer. He continued to watch Aragorn.
For his part, Aragorn’s senses were straining for any hint of the unseen. Only dimly aware of Boromir’s questioning glare behind him and Gandalf’s silent support, he stared into the woods and listened for any sign of the stalker or of Legolas. Shortly after the elf’s departure, he had heard the sounds of stealthy movement that had caught the attention of the elven prince. But not long after that, all sounds had ceased.
"Wait for me," Aragorn eventually whispered, starting forward.
"Aragorn…" The wizard’s voice was an unspoken warning.
"Legolas may need help," the Ranger answered. "I will not be long." He started forward again and then stopped. A cry echoed out of the woods, there came the sounds of a scuffle, and then everything fell quiet again. After a minute of tense silence during which none dared to move, Legolas emerged from the undergrowth, shaking his head and cursing quietly beneath his breath.
"I saw him," the elf told Aragorn. "And it is as we suspected, but he has gone now, and I doubt he will return this night." Legolas sighed and looked away. "I should have been faster."
"He is alone and thus more wary than usual," Aragorn answered. "I doubt any of us could have driven him. He would be doubly on guard."
"We can do no more about him this night," Gandalf said. "Come. It is time we were underway again."
The wizard turned and walked toward the hobbits and Gimli, Legolas picked up his pack and shouldered his bow, Aragorn sheathed Anduril, and Boromir glowered angrily off to the side, wondering why Aragorn put more trust in wizards and elves than in his own kind.
* * * *
"A simmering stew with potatoes, fresh carrots, onions, pork, and the Gaffer’s special secret ingredient."
"A stew? Come on, Sam, you can do better than that," Pippin scoffed. "What about a big turkey stuffed with bread and greens and a big bowl of apples?"
"Apples?" Sam shook his head. "The turkey’s fine and you’re all right with the stuffing, but where did you get the apples? You don’t serve apples with turkey."
"I had apples with turkey once," Merry commented.
"No, I agree with Sam," Frodo announced. "Apples don’t go with turkey. What was it Nob and Hob said? Apples for walking?"
"That’s right, Mr. Frodo," Sam nodded enthusiastically. "Apples for walking. It’s yams you’ll want with that turkey, not apples, Mr. Pippin."
"You know what you’ve all forgotten?" Merry piped up. "Mushrooms. Mushrooms go with any meal."
Behind the hobbits, who were now talking about food rather than eating it, Gimli staggered in a weary daze. His pack pulled at him, his shoulders ached, his legs dragged, his back moaned, and all his energy seemed spent. Every moment was a painful drudging experience, and the night dragged on as though it would last forever. Gimli was vaguely aware that Gandalf, Aragorn, and Boromir were regarding him with open concern, but he was too tired to view this as an affront to his pride. He wished only for this endless journey to cease and leave him to collapse on the path.
Gandalf called a halt to the marches earlier than usual. The others noticed this and also noticed Gimli’s exhausted state, but the dwarf himself remained oblivious. When his foggy mind finally comprehended that they were setting up camp for the day, he dropped like a stone and refused to move. Having already set up his own bed, Merry wandered over with the intention of moving Gimli’s pack over with the rest of the packs. But when he tried to lift it…
"What do you have in this?!"
The dwarf managed to open heavy eyelids and send the hobbit a glare. "I know how to pack for a long journey. The night’s travels must have tired you."
"Let me see," Pippin offered, trying to sling the pack onto his shoulder. His efforts were pitifully unsuccessful and he quickly gave up. "All right, now I want to know you have in here."
"Cloak…some food…" Gimli mumbled, closing his eyes and wishing the hobbits would go away and leave him alone. A rustling caught his attention and he opened his eyes again. "What are you doing?"
"Well no wonder your pack is so heavy," Pippin exclaimed, peering into the dwarf’s bag.
"Is this normal for dwarves?" Merry wondered. "I know they like to mine and they probably know a lot about different kinds of rocks, but on a trip like this, do you really want to carry them with you?"
Gimli stared dumbly at the hobbits until something deep within his mind clicked. "Rocks?"
"Rocks?" Boromir echoed from across the camp. "You’re carrying rocks?"
"Big rocks, too," Pippin observed.
Aragorn and Gandalf turned grim expressions on Legolas. The elf, who was in the process of arranging his own bed, managed to project an impressive air of innocence that fooled no one.
"Rocks," Gimli muttered, directing his own dark glare at the elven prince.
"Merry, you have first watch," Gandalf announced, trying to divert attention away from the elf and dwarf. "The rest of you, get some sleep. We’ll have to make up for lost time tomorrow."
"We may also have to make up for a lost elf," Gimli growled beneath his breath as weariness ultimately overcame him and he drifted into dreams.
**In the reckoning of the Shire, each month had 30 days and the first and last day of the year were days outside the normal calendar, called Yuledays. This meant that December 30 was the next to last day of the old year and January 1 was the second day of the new year. See ROTK Appendix D.
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