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While the Ring Went South...: 6. January 3, 3019 (Day)
"Would that have been a waste?"
"Legolas! He is a member of the Fellowship."
"He was in no danger. The wind was steady, he was resting, and the arrow was well crafted. It would have been impossible to miss that shot. Even a hobbit could have made it."
Listening to the conversation of his companions, Boromir wondered if he should hazard a guess as to the subject of their conversation. Instinct and common sense told him it concerned Gimli, but he was reluctant to ponder as to what an arrow might have to do with the dwarf. But at least one good thing was born of the argument between Aragorn and Legolas. Boromir could hear them coming and would not be taken by surprise.
"There is always a degree of uncertainty with arrows, even elven arrows! Elrond chose the dwarf! The least you could do would be to show him some form of acceptance as a member of this Fellowship."
Definitely about Gimli, Boromir decided, studying the surrounding trees and wondering if they could be bent to form a kind of lean-to.
"I honored your request, Aragorn, and I did not act until sunrise. Now would you please honor my request and let this matter fall?"
"I cannot let this matter fall because this matter happens to concern all free creatures from here to the Gray Havens."
Still listening to the conversation with part of his mind, Boromir decided that if the trees would bend beneath his weight and he used the straps from the group’s scabbards and quivers, he could probably form a rough shelter. It would be about as effective as their shelter from the previous day, but in this rain, something was better than nothing. Laying his horn and shield to the side, Boromir gauged one slender tree and leaped, catching hold of a large branch. Pulling himself up, he started to climb higher, hoping that near the top he would be able to pull the tree over towards another tree and lace the two together.
"We have already discussed the matter of all free creatures from here to the Gray Havens, and I have already assured you that my actions will in no way endanger them. I know perhaps better than any save Gandalf what lies at stake. My people have fought this menace since the dawn of time, and since my birth I have fought alongside them."
"I, too, have been trained since birth to fight, and I would not see my training go to waste because of the actions of a foolish elf."
"Foolish elf!? And what of man, Aragorn? What of your own ancestors? The Ring might have been destroyed long ago were it not for them."
"Well do I know that, and long have I labored to correct their mistakes. I warn you, do not make mention of that again. I am not my fathers."
"Nor am I. Let me handle the dwarf in my own way and in my own good time. Cease to pry into affairs that are none of your concern."
Boromir was now quite high in the tree, and it was starting to sway from side to side. Clinging to a limb while he waited for the swaying to cease, Boromir reflected on the fact that he had never heard Aragorn and Legolas argue. Not like this, anyway. Differences of opinion there had been and always would be, but angry contention was something new, and it caused Boromir to shiver. They were only a few yards away from the campsite now, and if they looked up, they would probably be able to see Denethor’s son dangling from a tree. But both were too locked in their private quarrel to worry about trivial things like their surroundings. Or the fact that Boromir’s current situation was slightly precarious.
"The Fellowship is my concern and the safety of the Ring-bearer!"
"And the safety of the Ring-bearer has no connection with my actions toward a greedy, gold-grubbing dwarf. If anything, I do Frodo a favor!"
"You do Frodo a disservice as well as bringing down the spirits of the entire company!"
"I am not responsible for the emotional well-being of those around me. They choose to feel the way they feel, and it is foolish to think I should hold any sort of accountability for that."
Boromir was not in the habit of asking for help. He could count on one hand the number of times he’d done so. He’d once asked Faramir to draw an arrow from his side. He’d asked Denethor for the interpretation of the dream he and his brother had shared, something that ultimately led him to Imladris. He’d asked another guard to stand watch with him at Henneth Annûn because a large company from Harad drew nigh and Boromir feared he could not watch all roads at once. And he’d asked Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth to command the forces at Pelargir while he led a quick raid northwards into the forests of southern Ithilien. But other than those rare occurrences, Boromir was a fiercely independent man who chafed at the possibility that he might need aid. Yet as he hung from a tree upon a branch that was making rather disturbing cracking sounds, he realized he might need to request help yet again.
"Whether you admit it or not, you are an integral part of our group and your emotions affect those around you. You are an elf, Legolas! How can you think you would have anything less than a great effect?"
"Well do I know that I am an elf, and that should say something to you. I know what I do, and I tread my own paths cautiously."
Legolas and Aragorn were now directly below Boromir, but they were so intent upon one another that both elven archer and Ranger failed to realize that Denethor’s son seemed to have vanished from the campsite. Such a failure was a unique occurrence in Middle Earth and one worthy of note, but Boromir was too preoccupied to appreciate the significance of this event. Hoping he could avoid asking outright for assistance, he cleared his throat significantly and tried to knock some leaves down onto the two below him.
"You tread recklessly when you fire arrows at innocent dwarves!"
"Innocent?! May I remind you that…Boromir?"
Boromir sighed in relief at the same time he tried to look a little more competent in the trees. "I trust the others found sufficient shelter?" he called down.
Below him, Aragorn nodded slightly, his face showing obvious confusion. Legolas looked equally bewildered, but a smile was playing with the corners of his mouth and a twinkle of merriment glistened in his gray eyes.
"That is good," Boromir said, wincing as a shuddering crack ran along the limb to which he clung. "I would hope that drier bodies will result in better spirits." He wondered just how long it would take them to realize he needed help or if he would have to speak of it.
"Might I inquire as to what exactly you are doing?" Aragorn finally said after a moment of awkward silence.
"I was hoping to lash some of these trees together near the top where the trunks are slender," Boromir said as another crack sounded. He glanced anxiously at the point where the limb sprang from the trunk and with a sinking heart realized he had but moments to live. "We might be able to provide ourselves with some shelter this way," he continued, trying vainly to keep a note of grim fear from his voice.
"I see it."
Boromir swung slightly, trying to see what Aragorn and Legolas were doing down there. He could still see the Ranger, he could even see Bill where the pony was hobbled off to the side, but he had lost track of the elf. He wondered where Legolas had gone and then his thoughts were abruptly sidetracked by an ominous creak.
"You have not done this often, have you?"
Boromir gasped and nearly lost his grip as a voice sounded just above his head. Looking up, he caught sight of Legolas who was attempting to maneuver himself closer to the dangling man. "How did you…were you not on the ground a minute ago?"
"I was," Legolas answered, swinging off a limb and neatly catching another all in one smooth motion. "And if we do not act quickly, you will be on the ground in less than a minute." Now only a few branches away, Legolas studied the surrounding limbs, attempting to find a place that would hold both his weight and Boromir’s.
"Can you get to the tree next to you?" Aragorn shouted.
Legolas gave it a quick glance and shook his head. "That tree is wary of Boromir and does not seem inclined to lend us its aid."
"What does a tree know?" Boromir demanded, trying to decide whether to be confused, angry, or resigned to his fate.
"That you are too heavy to be this high," Legolas answered, jumping up one more branch and turning around. Wrapping his legs around the trunk behind him, he stretched out on his limb and extended his hand down toward Boromir. "Can you reach me?"
Boromir gingerly pulled himself up, but at that moment, his branch gave out. With a yell, he found himself falling and then his fall was violently arrested. His cloak constricted around his neck and his hands flew to it to prevent it from choking off his airway. A surprised grunt from up above and a small exclamation of surprise was all the reaction Legolas gave as he tightened his flimsy hold on the end of Boromir’s cloak and struggled to keep the man from falling.
"Now what?" Boromir managed to croak out as he started to strangle.
"Is there anything you can grab?" Legolas asked through gritted teeth.
Reaching out with one hand while the other tried to keep his airway open, Boromir’s flailing arm found a sturdy limb, and he quickly seized it. "Let go," he told Legolas.
With a sigh of relief, the elf let the cloak drop. Boromir felt the noose around his neck loosen and as he started to swing, he grabbed the limb with his other hand as well. Feeling about with his feet, he found a larger branch off to the side and jerked himself over. Hooking a leg over it, he managed to pull himself into a sitting position. With a shudder as the adrenaline in his system started to fade, he leaned back against the trunk and closed his eyes.
"If you are both done, I suggest you come down," Aragorn called. "I think we have played in the tree long enough."
"Actually, I believe Boromir had a good idea," Legolas responded, starting to climb higher in the tree. "Though I am at a loss as to what we could use to lash these trees together. But up here, there are branches that might be intertwined if we could find something akin to a rope."
"I was thinking that the straps from the packs or from your quiver might serve," Boromir said wearily. He opened his eyes and looked for Legolas, but the elf was too high and too at home in the trees. Only when he moved could Boromir find him.
The Ranger moved away from the tree trunk where he had been considering going up to check on Boromir. A quiver sans strap plummeted toward him and he moved back slightly to grab it. "Can you make it work?" he asked.
"We shall soon see."
Branches were now shaking violently above as Legolas sought to craft some sort of roof in the treetops. Feeling vibrations in the trunk, Boromir decided that the ground would probably be the safest place for him. With a great deal of care, he started down the tree.
After several long minutes of cautious climbing, Boromir found himself back on solid ground and enduring a rather amused look from Aragorn. "The elf is very high," Boromir said gruffly, trying to direct attention away from himself. "Is he safe up there?"
Aragorn’s amusement seemed to grow and he smiled as he glanced upward. "He is a Silvan elf. He is probably safer there than he is down here."
High above, the branches suddenly shifted with a note of finality and rain ceased to fall upon the two men below. There was a slight sound of movement, and then nothing. Boromir scanned for signs of Legolas, but he found no sign of the elf until—
"I think that will serve us well."
Boromir barely managed to keep from jumping as he swung around to discover Legolas behind him. Noting his surprise, the elf’s eyes danced with merriment and he smiled.
"My apologies, Master Boromir," the prince said with a slight bow. "I did not mean to startle you. Next time, I shall conduct myself in the manner of a dwarf so as to alert you of my presence."
A mixture of anger and chagrin warred within Boromir as he considered how to respond to that, but Aragorn beat him to it.
"Dwarves can move quickly and silently if they have great need."
Legolas looked as though Aragorn had just solemnly stated that the Misty Mountains were really large piles of cram discarded by the Beorings and left to harden over the process of thousands of years. "Perhaps to a man a dwarf might move with a degree of silence," the elf said at length, his eyes searching Aragorn’s face for signs that the Ranger might be ill.
"If you would allow him the opportunity, Gimli might surprise you," Aragorn said.
Legolas’s eyes flashed. "And how would he do that? With an axe while I am unawares? Or perhaps while I sleep?"
"He would never even consider such things," Aragorn responded. "Though I now wonder about you, seeing as you are the one doing the suggesting. And you were also the one to loose an arrow at him this morning."
"My arrow was released with skill and over a thousand years worth of experience," Legolas shot back.
Boromir sighed and stalked away. He was curious about the constant references to archery and if he listened long enough, his questions might be answered, but ultimately, he really didn’t want to know. He was growing weary of this animosity between elf and dwarf, and now there was contention between Legolas and Aragorn to deal with. It seemed the Fellowship was breaking before it had even truly formed.
Picking up three small twigs and breaking one so that it was shorter than the others, Boromir started back to his two arguing companions. Clearing his throat loudly, he managed to get their attention. "I suggest we draw lots for watches," he said. "And then I suggest that the two of us not on watch get some rest."
Legolas and Aragorn sent one another rather dark glares, but the elf reached forward and drew a twig from Boromir’s hand. Aragorn did likewise and found himself with the short one.
"Well," Boromir said with a clap of his hands, "now that this is settled, I will expect to be awakened in two hours, for longer watches will earn us better rest when we are sleeping. And after my turn, I shall wake you, Legolas." Quickly turning away before Aragorn or Legolas could protest his sudden assumption of authority, Boromir wrapped himself up in his damp cloak, settled against the trunk of a tree, and forced himself to go to sleep.
Legolas glanced between Aragorn and Boromir for a moment and then sprang into the branches of the tree that Boromir had attempted to climb. Aragorn sighed, shivered at the cold breeze that was beginning to blow in from the north, and wandered over toward Bill who was quite possibly the only member of the company within a mile who was not upset or annoyed with him. The morning was not off to a good start.
* * * *
"I wonder if there isn’t a bit of magic Gandalf could do that would make this wind skip over us," Sam muttered miserably, huddled beneath layers of blankets and feeling as though they did nothing for him.
Merry, who was on watch at the moment, shrugged and glanced at the wizard. "Maybe it doesn’t feel as cold to him as it does to us," he offered. Gandalf had taken the first watch and roused Merry for the second, though Merry had actually been awake. In fact, all of the hobbits had been awake and were still awake. The only two finding any rest in this storm were Gandalf and Gimli. The wizard had fallen asleep almost instantly after turning watch duty over to Merry and was now even snoring slightly. And as for Gimli, the dwarf might have been safe and dry in a cozy cavern for as soundly as he slept.
"Well, it wouldn’t feel as cold to me if we could get rid of that wind," Pippin said, seconding Sam’s opinion. "And that would get rid of the rain, too. We’d be drier, warmer, and then maybe I could go to sleep. How do they do it?" he demanded, peeking over his mound of blankets to scrutinize Gandalf and Gimli.
"Because they know how much they’ll need it," Frodo answered wearily. He was bone-weary, but like the other hobbits, he could not sleep under these conditions. "Maybe somebody could offer us a bit of a song. Maybe that would warm us up."
"A mug of ale would go a long way for warming me up," Sam said. "But I suppose I won’t get it for a long ways. And like as not, it won’t be near as good as what we had in Bree or even in Hobbiton."
"I think the elves should make ale," Pippin decided, shivering violently and pressing himself against Sam and Frodo in an attempt to share their meager body heat. "They make wonderful bread and wine. Why can’t they expand to other things? I’d give gold for an elven tankard of ale!"
"You don’t have gold," Merry pointed out.
"You know what I mean," Pippin said. "What about it, Frodo. You’re the official elf-friend. Why can’t the elves make ale?"
"Maybe wine is good enough for them," Frodo said, pulled into the trivial conversation despite himself.
"Wine is fine for feasts and banquets and all, but, begging your pardon, Mr. Frodo, wouldn’t you get tired of it after a while? And anyway, it doesn’t seem fitting for a good old-fashioned home-cooked meal," Sam opinioned.
"Well, there’s your problem," Merry answered. "The elves don’t have good old-fashioned home-cooked meals. They have banquets, feasts, or nothing. So they really don’t have a need for ale."
"What a waste of good talent," Pippin groused. "Do you think we could talk Legolas into brewing us some ale?"
"With what, Mr. Pippin?" Sam demanded. "Do you see anything around here that could be put into any sort of worthwhile brew?"
"I didn’t mean now, Sam, I meant later. We’ll be getting into warmer lands soon and then we’ll have better pickings. At least, I hope so. I don’t know if I can take any more cold weather."
"Legolas said something to me the other day about things getting worse before they get better," Merry remembered.
"I didn’t need to hear that," Frodo moaned. "I could have gone the rest of the journey without hearing that."
"But we all know it," Merry countered. "So why not say it? Let’s get it out into the open. It’s bound to get worse before it gets better. Take those mountains off in the distance. Mordor is on the other side of them, right? And that’s where we need to go. Exactly how are we going to do that? Somewhere around here, we’ll have to cross them. And I wager that won’t be an easy crossing."
"We could use snow to make ale," Pippin mused thoughtfully.
"As long as we can toss you into the pot, too," Frodo grumbled. "And don’t talk about snow. It’s already raining. You’re just tempting fate."
"Do you hear that?" Sam asked abruptly.
The other hobbits fell silent immediately, having learned even in the Shire to trust Sam’s ears. But the only sounds that came to them were that of wind and water. They shifted and looked at one another, but Sam was now standing, his blankets wrapped tightly around his shivering frame. He moved forward, daring the falling rain, and paused.
"What is it?" Frodo asked, getting to his feet and starting toward Gandalf in case he needed to be woken.
"I…well, I can’t rightly say, Mr. Frodo," Sam answered slowly, his face a study in confusion. "But it sounds like a…a big animal."
"A big animal?" Pippin echoed, fearing that the weather had driven poor Sam to madness.
"No, not just any big animal. I think it’s a…well, it’s a mean one. And it’s roaring."
"Roaring?" Merry frowned and moved out into the rain next to Sam. "I still don’t hear anything."
Deciding that Sam’s big, mean, roaring animal probably needed investigating, Frodo walked over and shook Gandalf. The wizard was awake instantly, reaching for his staff and surging to his feet with such speed that Frodo toppled over into the mud.
"What?" Gandalf demanded, trying to work out exactly what had shaken him from his sleep.
"It’s Sam," Frodo explained from his position on his back. He was dirty enough already and lying around in mucky water really wasn’t doing any harm, so he decided to stay there and collect his bearings. "Sam says he can hear something and it sounds like roaring."
Gandalf’s eyes narrowed immediately and he strode to Gimli’s side, waking the dwarf by rapping his staff against Gimli’s chain mail. "Up," the wizard commanded. "We may have visitors."
Gimli groaned in response, but he did open his eyes and struggle to a sitting position, reflexively reaching for his axe as he sensed the tension in Gandalf’s voice. "What visitors might those be?" he asked, turning his eyes to the surrounding forest. "And what would possess them to be out in this weather?"
Gandalf did not answer but moved into the rain to stand with Merry and Sam. Now that he was more alert, he was more puzzled than alarmed. His first thought upon waking had been that the Warg had drawn nigh and was signaling the rest of the pack, but as he cast about for signs of that, he realized that nowhere could he feel the presence of the wolf.
"What is it that you heard, Samwise?" Gandalf asked at length, his puzzlement turning to irritation as he continued to find nothing out of the ordinary.
"Roaring, and I still hear it," Sam answered. "It’s coming from up there."
The hobbit pointed toward the river that raced in the distance. Gimli had deigned to get to his feet and now stalked out to join them, hoping that whatever had disturbed everyone could be dealt with quickly so that he might sleep. He needed his rest to plot a fitting revenge for Legolas. The arrow in the beard demanded severe retribution, and Aragorn had hustled the elf away too quickly after it happened for the dwarf to take action then.
"I see nothing," Gimli grumbled after a quick glance at the woods. He eyed Sam with a baleful glance, wondering if the hobbit’s imagination had run away with him and woken them all up in the process.
"You won’t see anything. There’s nothing to see," Sam answered, becoming slightly frustrated. "I can hear it, not see it! Whatever’s making that sound is out there now and it wasn’t out there earlier. That’s all I know. And the sound is roaring."
"Roaring…" Gandalf suddenly stiffened, finally catching the sounds that had first commanded Sam’s attention. "Not roaring," he whispered, horror filling his face. "The river! The river is flooding!"
"Strider!" Pippin cried. "They’re all right next to the river!"
"Hurry!" Gandalf ordered, racing forward and praying that the sharp ears of Legolas and Aragorn would alert them to their danger just as Sam had been alerted. If not, they would never be warned in time."
* * * *
Aragorn paced restlessly beneath Legolas’s improvised canopy. Something was amiss, but he had yet to place what. The Warg had not returned, he was certain of that. And no orcs were near, of that he was also certain. Ringwraiths? No, he would have sensed those long ago, and their presence would have roused Legolas and Boromir. But something…something was not right. Something that eluded the Ranger’s sharp eyes but still managed to warn his senses.
Listening was something of a lost cause. With the river only a stone’s throw away, Aragorn could hear little above its constant roar. It was loud and fast this day, and Aragorn hoped that its crossing would not prove to be too difficult a task. He had recommended to Gandalf that they continue the southern journey and cross the river at one of its many fords, and he still stood by that counsel, but the continuing rains were a sobering note to an already dreary and despairing quest.
Hobbled off to the side, Bill suddenly gave a snort and started forward, jerking at his hobbles and neighing in fright. Aragorn hastened to his side, and once more attempted to discern what was wrong. But to his mortal senses, all was as it should be. No dread of evil darkened his heart, no suspicious noise sounded from the forest around them, and no shadow of movement caught his eye.
That only held true for another few seconds, and then Aragorn reached for his sword and swung his gaze upward. Something was moving in the trees, but it didn’t take long for the Ranger to realize it was Legolas. Relaxing, he released his sword hilt and frowned as he tried to follow the elf’s movements. From what little Aragorn could see of him, Legolas seemed agitated. Perhaps he also suffered from feelings of misgiving. That would be the logical explanation for the fact that he was taking no care to conceal himself, trusting in his innate elvish ability to alert him to imminent danger. Of course, it is doubtful that a gaze other than that of a Ranger would have been able to follow Legolas as he skillfully followed a trackless path through a maze of branches. Though stealth was last on his list of priorities, Legolas was an elf and moved noiselessly and gracefully, seeming to be an extension of the forest rather than a visitor that climbed higher and higher into the trees.
Trying to calm Bill, Aragorn impatiently waited for the elf to find a better vantagepoint and survey the situation with far-seeing eyes. Leaning against the trunk of a broad tree, Boromir stirred slightly and mumbled in his sleep, picking up on the tension around him but not awake enough for it to completely rouse him.
And then everything seemed to happen at once. Despite the hobbles, Bill reared and whinnied, breaking Aragorn’s hold on his halter and awkwardly dashing away. Boromir started and sat up slowly, attempted to discern what was happening around him. And Legolas dropped straight out of the trees, landing low in a cat-like crouch and making no attempt to hide the horror on his face.
"The river is flooding!" he cried, turning and racing toward the bank.
"What?!" Boromir jumped to his feet and followed the elf, shaking off the last remnants of sleep as he did so.
"The river!" Legolas repeated, leaping down the rocky bank and skidding to a halt next to the overhang where they’d stored the baggage. "Hurry! It will be upon us soon!"
Knowing all too well that without their winter clothes and extra food they wouldn’t last another week in the wild, Aragorn hastened to help the elf, forming a chain with him and Boromir. Legolas would seize a pack and toss it to Aragorn who tossed it to Denethor’s son who flung it as far as he could away from the river. As for the river, it was slowly rising, and Aragorn could now feel vibrations under foot that spoke of the flood barreling toward them. They were faint, but they were growing quickly.
"How soon?" Aragorn shouted above the sound of rain and rushing water.
Legolas tossed up a pack heavy with dried meat and paused to glance up the river. His eyes widened slightly, and he immediately dove back under the overhang, grabbing wildly for anything his hands would reach. That was answer enough for Aragorn who shouted a warning back to Boromir. Boromir grunted—a typical response for him—and continued to throw the baggage. He would not leave until the other two were clear.
"We can’t save the rest of it," Legolas yelled, seizing one more pack and starting to climb back up. "We must get clear of this area!" In his haste, a rock turned underfoot and he stumbled, sliding back down the bank.
"Come on!" Aragorn ordered, reaching a hand down to the elf and pulling hard as soon as he felt Legolas seize his arm. Then Boromir was beside him, taking the pack from Legolas and seizing the elf’s other hand. Legolas was pulled clear of the bank and together the three of them turned and began running.
But they had tarried too long. Aragorn heard a short oath from Boromir, a sharp intake of breath from Legolas, and the next thing he knew a wall of water hit him like a cave troll wielding a mithril club. The river rushed over his head and he was swept downstream with horrible speed, smashing into rocks, knocking against trees, and tearing through shrubs now all at the mercy of the raging water.
Flailing about, he somehow managed to get his bearings and stroked for the surface, but he fought against swirling currents and strong undertows caused by the boulders and tree trunks over which the flashflood was sweeping. His air began running out, and stars sparkled before his eyes. With a rather detached observation, he decided that the stars reminded him of the fireflies that danced on the lawns of Rivendell in the summer evenings. As a child he’d chased them, challenging Elladan and Elrohir to beat him in the game, and for all that they were far older and more mature, they could not forebear to join him.
His head glanced against a granite boulder and he was knocked from his daydream and back into reality. Realizing he had moments before he would be forced to take a grasping breath of water, Aragorn tried once more to break the surface. Kicking out with his feet, he pushed off riverbank and shot upwards, letting the currents sweep him about so long as they did not sweep him back down. And just as his eyes began to dim while his clamoring lungs screamed in protest, the waters above him parted and he thrust his head into wonderful, glorious, beautiful air.
With a gasping heave, he choked on sprays of water and rejoiced over the gift of breath. Struggling to remain afloat while his heavy cloak and sword threatened to drag him back down, Aragorn looked around for possibilities of a place to land. The western bank looked promising and he started swimming toward it, clutching at floating logs whenever he could and stopping often for rest. He was dragged beneath the water three more times, but each time he managed to resurface and each time the bank seemed a little closer. Inch by gasping inch, he closed the distance between himself and shore and finally managed to find a place where his feet could touch the bottom. He did not stand, though, for the rushing river would not permit such actions, but he was close now. And so he swam forward until the water only reached his knees, and on all fours, he threw himself from the river, exhausted, drenched, and shivering.
For a long time, he lay there, making no effort to exert himself and sucking precious air into his lungs. Rain continued to pour down on his back and his head throbbed where it had hit the rock. At length, summoning what strength remained to him, he attempted to stand. He managed to get to his knees, but that was as far as he could go. He lacked the energy for anything else and with a despairing moan, he sank back onto the wet, muddy ground. He knew he should begin looking for Boromir and Legolas, or at least Gandalf and the others to tell them of what had happened, but his eyes were closing of their own accord. All efforts at staving off unconsciousness were in vain, and it was not long before the Ranger fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
* * * *
In silent desperation, one wizard, one dwarf, and four hobbits raced toward the campsite of their companions, hoping that they would find them safe and unharmed. Gandalf kept throwing irritated glances over his shoulder, unspoken demands that the hobbits increase their pace, but even Gimli was having trouble keeping up with the wizard’s long strides. They simply could not move faster despite the fear each one carried in his heart.
When the flood hit, they knew it. The rushing river could be seen from a distance and its roar could not go unheard. Moans of large trees as water slammed against their trunks echoed through the forest, and the grinding of great boulders now relegated to a riverbed was loud in their ears.
"What have I always told Mr. Merry about rivers?" Sam asked as he tried to push his short legs to greater speeds. "I knew something like this was going to happen!"
"Faster!" Gandalf shouted back at them. "If you have breath to speak, you have breath to run!"
But then Pippin cried out and veered to the side, jumping into the wet underbrush and disappearing instantly from view. Gimli shouted ahead to Gandalf who came to a skidding and angry halt, glaring into the surrounding forest for a glimpse of the now-missing Took. And then Pippin was racing back, reappearing almost as quickly as he had vanished, and behind him, jerking his head restlessly against the lead rope, came—
"Bill!" Sam cried, hurrying to the pony. "Bless me, Bill, look at you! You haven’t a dry spot on your entire body!"
The pony snorted and shook himself, flinging water everywhere. His hobbles had broken and only one lace around his right forefoot showed they had even existed in the first place. A shivering wracked his body and the pitiful horse buried its nose against Sam, exhausted from his flight and still frightened by the suddenness of the flood.
"They would not have let the pony run alone," Gimli said, his ominous words throwing a shadow onto Sam’s joy of having found his horse.
"I fear you are right, Gimli," Gandalf said, his voice soft and thoughtful. "They would not have left the pony alone." He shook his head, water raining down from his gray beard, and then turned. "Come," he urged, moving back into a run.
The others trailed after him, considerably more depressed now than they had been moments ago. Even Gimli’s powerful gait seemed to be faltering. In silence they ran, each cringing to think of what might await them when they found the camp by the river. But none of them could be truly prepared for what they found when at last they reached it.
Water still rushed over the former campsite, though now it was only ankle deep. The hobbits, wizard, and dwarf sank deep into the ground as they walked, making each step a mucky, wearisome struggle. They found a number of packs mired in deep mud. It looked as though they had been thrown there in haste. And high in the tops of a tree, the hobbits’ sharp eyes could make out what appeared to be the strap to Legolas’s quiver. Some of the boughs had been pulled together, creating a canopy that, for the most part, blocked the rain. Gandalf discovered the quiver itself lodged in a nearby tree. It looked as though it had been placed there for safekeeping during the day. The wizard shook his head sadly. The quiver and all its arrows had indeed been kept safe, but what of the owner?
And that was the great problem they met as they sloshed through what had now become a muddy quagmire. Nowhere could they find sign or token of Aragorn, Boromir, and Legolas.
It was Gimli’s voice near the south end of camp that attracted their attention. The group gathered together around him and the dwarf slowly lifted an object that had been partially buried by mud and debris and lodged between two trees growing closely together.
"Boromir’s shield," Frodo murmured, looking at Gandalf and awaiting his reaction.
The wizard stepped forward and took the shield from Gimli, examining the back and the straps that would have wound around the warrior’s arm. "This was torn from him," the wizard said at length. "See how the leather here is pulled and stretched. He clung to this before the water swept him away. But I do not think he held others. It is not stretched enough for that. Boromir was alone when he fought the flood."
"What of Aragorn and Legolas?" Merry asked quietly. Gandalf made no answer.
"Almost half of the baggage is over there," Sam observed, breaking the silence that settled over them like a shroud. He nodded toward the pile of packs that were sinking even deeper into the mud as they spoke. "Most of the food is saved and almost all the winter clothing is still here."
"It seems they tried to save the most valuable things before the flood could take them from us," Gandalf murmured.
"But what about them? Did they save themselves?" Pippin asked.
"I do not know," Gandalf answered quietly, surprising them all in admitting this, though if they had thought about it, there was no way for Gandalf to know otherwise. "I do not know if they survived or where they might now be," he continued. "One thing is clear, though—they are not around this campsite." The wizard looked about, seeming to weigh several decisions, and then shook his head. "Gather the baggage. And Pippin, see if you can retrieve Legolas’s quiver strap."
"What?!" the young hobbit demanded.
"Retrieve the strap," Gandalf repeated. "Sam, load Bill with the remainder of the packs. Gimli and Merry, track further south. See if you can find any more of our baggage, but stay within calling distance. Frodo and I will stay here to aid Sam."
Pippin looked as though he were about to set up a very loud protest at being made to climb the tree and secure Legolas’s quiver strap, but one look from Gandalf’s flashing eyes beneath bristling brows and he decided that high in the tree would actually be safer down in the mud. With a muttered grumble and a glare of his own, Pippin began slowly and cautiously climbing the tall tree.
By the time that Bill was loaded again and Gimli and Merry had returned, finding only a few extra pots and pans that had been stowed originally on Bill rather than in Sam’s pack, Pippin had reached the thin leather strap that tied tree branches together and formed a semi-shelter. He was making a concerted effort not to look down, but he was very aware that the ground was a rather long distance away. Clinging tightly to the shaking branches, he began unwinding the strap, hoping desperately that no wind would come up and blow him from his perch. A gasp of horror and amazement from Sam did not help his situation and he felt himself freeze up.
"You’re almost finished," Merry called encouragingly. "Don’t rush it, Pippin, you’ll be fine."
"If I’m so fine, why don’t you come up here and join me," Pippin grumbled, squeezing his eyes shut as a soft breeze whistled through the treetops. His stomach was doing a rather interesting dance, and he wondered if Sam’s breakfast would taste as good coming up as it had going down. Those below probably wouldn’t appreciate it, but at the moment, Pippin was not inclined to be generous to those who were still safe and sound on solid earth.
"If you would finish your task, you could come down," Gandalf said.
Pippin was severely tempted to turn his stomach loose, but he couldn’t for that would jeopardize his hold on his precarious perch. And though revenge and retribution were tempting, the will to live was more compelling. Gritting his teeth, he finished freeing the quiver strap and began backing off the branches toward the tree trunk, moving with painstaking slowness.
"What is our next move, Gandalf?" Gimli wondered while they waited for Pippin.
"We shall return to our camp," the wizard said. "And there we shall light a small fire." The others blinked in amazement at this and Gandalf went on to explain the reasoning. "The clothes must be dried no matter what the danger, for if we die of cold, the spies of Mordor will find us regardless. And when our missing companions are found, they will need the fire. Also, I suspect we could do with a bit of light. The dark clouds overhead have sapped our spirits, and a small fire might go far in cheering our hearts."
"But what about Strider, Legolas, and Boromir? Aren’t we going to search for them?" Frodo gasped.
"Not immediately. The fire and dry clothes are our first priority, for if we find them without such things, it will do them no good. Once things are properly underway, we shall separate. Some will stay at camp while others go on the hunt."
Gimli glanced around as if to indicate to the wizard that numbers and strength were not in their favor. Gandalf sighed, knowing that all too well. He currently planned to leave Gimli at camp with Frodo and Sam while he, Merry, and Pippin searched for Aragorn, Boromir, and Legolas. It was the best plan he could come up with on short notice, and he didn’t think another would be presenting itself soon. He didn’t like the notion of splitting, particularly since that gave the hobbits only one capable warrior for each group, but there was nothing else to be done.
"Will they make for our camp?" Merry asked. "Or do you think they’ll come back here?"
"Aragorn will make for our camp," Gandalf answered with reasonable certainty. He’d hunted with the Ranger before, and Aragorn’s first instincts would lead him to the driest campsite. Even though he would be tempted to search for Legolas and Boromir on his own, he would realize that he had to meet up with the remainder of the Fellowship and assure them of his survival as well as secure their help in finding the other two. Gandalf was also fairly certain that Legolas would do likewise. When separated, elven warriors were taught to make for a rendezvous point, and Legolas would probably employ that strategy here. As for Boromir, Gandalf had absolutely no idea what he would do.
"Just a few more feet, Pippin," Frodo called, watching the progress of the young Took. It was actually ten more feet, but considering how high Pippin had been, ten feet seemed like just a few.
"No elf will ever convince me to climb up a tree again," Pippin vowed, sliding down the trunk and landing with a rather strange plopping sound in the mud. "I don’t care if there are orcs, ringwraiths, trolls, or anything else behind me. No more trees."
"Come," Gandalf ordered, turning south. "It will be nightfall by the time we reach our former camp, and then we must work swiftly to dry blankets and cloaks. I fear we will need them ere the night is over."
"Thank you, Pippin, for getting that strap," Pippin said to himself, aiming his words at Gandalf’s back as he trailed behind the wizard. "You know, Pippin, for a hobbit you are incredible in the trees. I appreciate all the effort and trouble you go to on our behalf, Pippin. Even though it was only a quiver strap, I’m sure Legolas will be thankful, Pippin."
"Shut up, Pippin," Merry chimed in.
"You made a remarkable elf up there," Frodo said, jumping in before Pippin could redirect his anger.
The Took sniffed and nodded. "No need to thank me. I was only doing my duty as a member of the Fellowship."
Sam rolled his eyes, Frodo sighed, Merry shook his head, Gimli chuckled quietly, and Gandalf looked over his shoulder. "Are you coming or do you prefer to stand here chatting in the cold and wet?"
Straightening his waistcoat and running fingers through his dark hair, Pippin nodded. "Proceed. Pippin the Elf will follow."
"Fool of a Took," Gandalf muttered to himself as he turned and began walking again.
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