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Hunted: 4. Fire at Amon Sûl
He felt worse than a fool when Strider said he and Pippin had ruined the tracks. Sam, you ninny-hammer! What are you doing tramping about on things that others need to see! he silently berated himself. He asked Strider if they should just go, seeing as how Riders might know about this place, looking over to Frodo to see how disappointed his master was with him.
Frodo stood with a worried expression and looked about anxiously. Sam's heart drooped for having caused his master more worry. He looked to Miss Laurë, but she was discussing whether they should stay or go at once with Merry and Strider. Miss Laurë wanted to leave, given that they had seen some of the Riders far off from the top of the hill. Strider was shaking his head and saying there was no better place to stay for the night, not within traveling distance. Sam moved to stand next to Frodo. After a bit more discussion, Laurë and Merry went to tend to the horses and meal, taking a frightened Pippin with them.
Sam's attention was caught by Strider saying 'the Ring draws them.' He watched the Ranger comfort his master who now looked even more scared than Pippin. After tasking Sam to build a good fire, Strider peered intently back towards the others who were finishing setting up the camp.
'Frodo, Sam,' Strider spoke sternly and quietly, 'be very careful with your words around Laurë. She knows not about the Ring, and she must not learn about it.'
Frodo said, 'You do not think she can be told?' Sam watched Strider emphatically shake his head.
'No. Not because I do not trust her,' he held up a placating hand, 'but because she has no need to know about it. As she herself has said, we should not burden her with our purpose just as she does not burden us with hers. Sam, be sure to have a quiet word with Pippin and Merry, especially Pippin, to say nothing about the Ring.'
Sam thought it was rather rich that Strider should be telling them who to trust. Master Frodo might think this rascally fellow was a fine companion, but he still was not convinced. Maybe he was a good guide, but that did not mean they should just do everything he said. He looked over at Frodo for direction.
His master sighed, tired and scared, then nodded a little. 'As you say, Strider. Gandalf would advise me the same way.' He straightened up a bit, and looked at Sam. 'Sam, do as Strider says. There is time enough for Laurë to learn about this in Rivendell, if Gandalf and Lord Elrond decide it is right for her to know about it at all.'
Sam nodded obediently. That was better; if his master thought it right, then wild horses could not make him speak about the Ring. 'I'd best get over there and start helpin' get the meal going, if you don't mind sir. Wouldn't do to have Merry and Pippin burning anything, seeing as how we don't have none to spare.' Frodo gave him a smile and nodded. Sam smiled back and set off back to the fire. He would make a good hot meal for his master and get another smile out of Frodo, get him to forget for a while the wicked things out there.
The meal was hot, if not exactly filling, and the poems and stories Strider told afterwards were plenty good, almost as good as what Mister Bilbo would tell by the hearth in Bag End after a good supper and all of them enjoying a pipe. Sam felt a stab of homesickness at the thought - Bag End, plenty of food, his master laughing without a care in the world. What Sam would not give to have that again! Well, best finish up this trip as quick as may be, then, and get ourselves back there soon, he thought, looking over at Frodo. A look of worry had settled onto the older hobbit's brow like a permanent mark.
Sam could not bear to look at that another second. He pulled on Merry's sleeve and said that they should take a small turn about the dell, to stretch out their legs before they settled in for sleep. Miss Laurë walked with them over to the horses. Earlier, after seeing the boot prints at the spring, Miss Laurë had unsaddled Dragonheart, brushed him down thoroughly, then had resaddled him instead of leaving him free to rest.
'Why are you putting his saddle back on, Miss Laurë? Sam had asked.
'If danger is near, we are best off having him ready for riding,' she had replied. That was not what Sam had wished to hear. He thought it best not to ask any more questions.
Sam and Merry patted Dragonheart and Bill's noses before they continued their walk. 'Sorry, Bill, no apples or carrots for you until we get to where we're goin',' Sam apologized to the pony, who seemed to understand, nibbling at Sam's fingers. Miss Laurë stayed near the horses, murmuring a soft lullaby to them as she checked Dragonheart's tack for the third time that evening. It made Sam nervous to see her so on edge.
He and Merry were a few dozen yards from the fire, just beyond the fire light, when Dragonheart let out a fierce neigh and started snuffing the air. At the same moment, Sam felt an icy dread seize his heart. Turning to Merry, he could see on Merry's face that he, too, had been touched with the same dread. Miss Laurë shouted at them to get back to the fire at once. He watched her run back to her pack at the fire and take something out of it, stuffing it into a pouch at her waist. She then grabbed some long sticks and thrust one end of them into the fire.
He and Merry came back, telling the others what they had felt and seen. Strider ordered them to stand with their backs to the fire. Miss Laurë stood next to Strider and drew her sword. It glimmered with white fire down the length of it, and Sam thought it seemed as if she was holding a star in her hand. He positioned himself next to Frodo on the other side of the fire, opposite where the horses stood, while Merry and Pippin were the closest to the steeds. Sam drew his sword and grabbed up one of the sticks Miss Laurë had thrust into the fire. It was a good torch now. He turned his attention to the shadows standing at the lip of the dell.
Sam watched Strider grab up two of the torches and start to advance on the shadows. Miss Laurë advanced a pace or two, then stopped, sword flaring brightly, something held in her left hand. Sam staggered as a breath of something shockingly cold, full of malice, crawled over him, and he stepped nearer to Frodo. Merry and Pippin cried out and crouched down, trying to elude the touch. Bill whinnied in fear, while Dragonheart belled a challenge, rising up a bit off his front feet.
He heard his master whimper, and tried to turn to him, but could only move his head. The rest of him was frozen as solid as stone. He looked over to his master's face, seeing some great struggle going on in Frodo's mind. Then he saw his master close his eyes, pull the Ring on its chain from his pocket and put it on. Like that, Frodo was gone.
Sam heard the icy wail that had been pursuing them through the Shire, but almost on top of him, and he whipped his head around towards it. Strider was lashing out at the shadows with his torches, but, like night turned to water, they flowed around the Ranger and poured around one side of the fire, coming directly towards Sam. He imagined he was a rock at the edge of a stream, with the water swiftly racing along one side, him unable to move in between it and Frodo, or even to step out of the way and save himself. The liquid dark slipped past him and behind him, and he slid to the ground, the ice in his bones and blood turning into the same flowing substance. He ended up on his side, staring away from the fire.
Faintly, he heard Frodo's voice say something that brought heat to his own frozen heart. A split-second later, he heard a roar of wind and fire, and could feel the fire behind him surge bigger and brighter, illuminating the dell and sending the shadow water fleeing back. Strider leaped into view, torches flashing, and attacked what ice-dark forms remained, driving them back towards the edge of the dell. Miss Laurë came around the other side of the fire, and stood by Sam, the gleam off her sword a star in the night. Dragonheart neighed and charged over to his mistress.
Sam struggled up to his knees, slowly as though in a dream. He watched Strider run back to the rearing, screaming warhorse. He saw the Ranger throw one of his torches to Miss Laurë as he ran past, and swing up onto Dragonheart's back in one smooth motion. Even as he did this the horse gave a great leap forward into the night, a wash of silver foam pursuing the retreating liquid dark wave of the Riders. Sam watched the flame in Strider's hand disappear behind the lip of the dell.
'Frodo!' Sam jerked back to wakefulness, 'Miss Laurë, Frodo's gone!' He grabbed the torch from her hand, and scrambled back to his feet. Where was Frodo last standing? Almost where he stood, and he started casting about for him. 'Mister Frodo! Mister Frodo!' he yelled, terrified that he would never find his master while Frodo was wearing the Ring, even more afraid that the Riders had somehow swept his master along with them in their retreat from Strider and Dragonheart.
'Mister Frodo!' Sam yelled again, and then saw him, lying in a heap just at the edge of the light, face down. Miss Laurë saw him in that moment, too, and sheathed her sword as she ran over. Sam got there first.
He tried to turn Frodo over, and started sobbing when he realized how heavy and limp Frodo was. 'Oh, no, no, master, no, they can't have, you aren't,…' Sam couldn't say what he feared. Miss Laurë knelt next to him and gently turned his master over, then felt for a pulse. Sam grabbed Frodo's hand. Merry and Pippin ran up.
'Peace, Sam, he is not dead,' soothed Miss Laurë, 'he has just swooned. He was probably overcome with the Black Breath as you were. Come now, Frodo,' she crooned, 'come now and wake up, come back to us.' Miss Laurë reached down for Frodo's right hand to chafe the wrist, then noticed he was clutching something in it.
'What's this? What are you holding?' She pried open his fingers. Sam drew in his breath sharply - there on Frodo's hand lay the Ring, attached to his belt by the chain. Sam wildly ranged about for what to say.
'It's a ring, just a ring,' he babbled, then saw Miss Laurë looking at him curiously. 'It's a family heirloom, and it's precious…' he broke off as she raised an eyebrow at him.
'So why does he not just wear it?' she inquired.
'Well, obviously, because it is too big and would fall off and get lost,' interjected Merry quickly. 'Why else would he keep it on a chain in his pocket?' He glared at her. 'Who cares about a miserable ring! What about Frodo? He's hurt!'
Sam breathed a sigh of relief. Good old Merry! Thinking isn't your best talent, Samwise, he chided himself, good thing there's someone about quicker than you. 'You're right, Mister Merry. Miss Laurë, please, help my master!' He grabbed the Ring off of Frodo's hand and shoved it back into his master's pocket, careful not to let it slip onto his own fingers.
Miss Laurë grunted agreement, and ordered Pippin and Merry to build up the fire and set water to boil. She picked up Frodo and carried him right next to the fire. Within a moment, she had found a wound in Frodo's shoulder, and let out an angry curse. She started bathing the wound in hot water, while Sam stood guard.
Frodo woke up, crying out about a pale king and thrashing about some. Sam noticed his master calmed after he put his hand in his pocket and found the Ring there, safe. Frodo looked over to Sam then, and closed his eyes, leaning back against Miss Laurë's supporting arm. Miss Laurë asked him low questions about how he was, and Frodo answered as he could.
Some time later they heard hoof beats, and Strider and Dragonheart came back into camp, the horse wet with sweat. Strider dismounted, and came swiftly towards them, hand on his sword hilt. Sam stepped in between the Ranger and his master, sword drawn. Nothing was going to harm Frodo, especially not this Ranger. He did not know what Strider had been doing out there, taking Miss Laurë's horse, but he was not going to let him come near his master. Strider knelt and spoke softly to him, and Miss Laurë also pleaded with him.
'Sam, sweet Sam, it is Strider. He is our companion. It is all right. He is sworn to Frodo, he will not do any harm. Sam, please, your master needs him.' Sam finally relented, though he wouldn't sheathe the sword. He kept on his feet, one eye on Miss Laurë holding Frodo, the other on the shadows that ringed the dell, listening to Strider and Miss Laurë talk.
'How is he?'
'Weak, disoriented. He was stabbed in the shoulder. The wound is making him go cold.'
Sam heard Strider hiss at this news, and stepped closer to try to hear more.
'Have you found the knife that did this?'
'No chance to look. Too dark and I dared not let him go.'
'What was that you did to the fire? When it flared up as the Riders attacked?'
'Fire powder, the stuff used in fire works. I have some small store of it. I usually use it to frighten away big beasts. I threw some in the camp fire as the Riders passed. Any sign of them?'
'None I could see. From Dragonheart's snuffing and challenges, I think they have withdrawn back to the Road, west of here.'
Strider looked at Sam and motioned him to come a ways away from the fire. Sam followed. When they were far enough away not to be overheard, Strider said, 'Frodo put on the Ring, didn't he?'
Sam nodded. 'That's what he did. It was in his hand when we found him.'
'She saw it?'
'Yes, but Mister Merry said something to distract her, and we didn't answer no questions about it. I put it back in his pocket quick, and she hasn't asked about it or been trying to look at it since.'
Strider looked relieved, then he looked over at the group by the fire. He just stared for a while, then shook his head, and looked back to Sam. 'Sam, I am going to be relying on you a great deal now. It will be difficult to guard the secret of the Ring from the Lady. She is greater than she appears, and I think sees more than the usual person.'
'Would she hurt Mister Frodo if she knew about the Ring?' Sam did not want to think such a thing about Miss Laurë, but…
'No, I do not think she would do harm to any of us. But now more than ever I think it unwise for her to know about the Ring.' Strider held his eyes.
Sam gazed back with all the determination he could muster on this terrifying night. 'As you wish Strider. My master thought it best she not know, either, so I'll do my best to keep it from her.'
They talked a bit more about where the Riders had gone to and what they were trying to do. Strider walked Sam back to the fire, then told Miss Laurë he was going to scout some more and get herbs for Frodo's shoulder. He left the horse to act as a guard, and did not return until dawn.
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