18. All That Is Gold
Aragorn’s mood was as restless and turbulent as the weather that evening. He ushered them on their way with uncustomary haste, allowing them a meager bite to eat, a few shared words, and but a moment to collect their things. The Ranger was ill at ease. He paced about as they readied themselves, somberly studying each of their faces. He moved amongst them, clasping Legolas’s arm, touching Merry’s shoulder, speaking softly to Frodo, acknowledging each of them in some small way. He was back and forth, helping to heft baggage and shift blankets and stow belongings with a determination graver than grim. He ignored their curious faces.
The hobbits in particular wondered at his behaviour and began to cast nervous glances over their shoulders at the deeper shadows, expecting danger. Frodo discreetly looked to Sting, but the sword did not flush blue.
Gimli it was who finally spoke up. He announced his intention to wash up by the riverside and informed the Ranger, not unkindly, that he had a mother and didn’t require a hand to hold.
Aragorn bore the laughter of the others with a smile and subsided; he withdrew and gave them some little room, but he watched over them that much closer.
Boromir stood upon the shore, cloaked against the wind, contemplating the Ranger from the depths of his hood. He suspected that Aragorn’s watchfulness was guilty recompense for falling asleep during his turn at watch, but it seemed more than that. It was something Boromir could not quite determine, a perception of more imagination than substance, perhaps. Aragorn looked no different, really: a haggard man with an Elf’s heart, a lean wolf with a light in his eyes.
Ah! now. There it was. The Ranger’s keen grey eyes were furtive -- troubled. They were aged rather than ageless, and almost hurting. The Man’s world-worn aplomb seemed to have dissipated to mere weariness, and he looked more the old dog than the lean wolf. Boromir frowned and wondered now if he had been too swift earlier to deem the Ranger hale. Perhaps it is only bad dreams of black wings preying upon Aragorn’s mind, he thought. Denethor’s son was not one to quail before a foe, but he was vastly grateful for the storm clouds sweeping the sky and felt safer for them, whatever lurked beyond. Aragorn had disparaged the threat of the Nazgûl in the light of day; Boromir hoped the coming of night was inspiring proper fear in the Ranger against such an enemy. Night or day, the notion of one of the Nine drawing so near to them should have been enough to darken all of their dreams.
Aragorn caught him staring. Boromir looked away, but not quickly enough. Aragorn approached him. “This storm will make the night unpleasant, but I would have us press forth nonetheless,” said the Ranger, squinting against the wind. “Can you manage?”
“Aye,” said Boromir. “Merry and I can do this.”
Merry heard his name and came to join them. The hobbit affirmed his willingness to travel on despite the weather. “Worse breezes than this whip up through the deeper tunnels of drafty old Brandy Hall!” he shouted cheerfully, even as he held onto the edges of his own hood to keep it from being torn off his head. “We’ll manage!”
Despite his light words, Merry regarded Aragorn with sidelong complaisance. Aragorn did not notice, but Boromir did. Merry could see the change in Aragorn as well, Boromir realized; the hobbit apparently bore misgivings along with the bruises on his arm. Boromir did not like that. Aragorn was their guide and whatever differences existed between them, Boromir recognized his leadership. It pained him to see even that little lack of respect for Aragorn in Merry. Boromir felt an inexplicable desire to speak up on the Ranger’s behalf, but there was naught he could say. His private, recurrent wish had been to see Aragorn prove fallible, for this son of Kings to taste humility. Now that his wish had been granted he grieved, and the shame was his own. It is unfair, what we expect of him, he thought, and the words seemed familiar. He watched as Merry left to join Pippin, and he wished now instead that he had spared the hobbit the deed and been the one to wake Aragorn. Disgusted with himself, Boromir stood there, silently dwelling upon his own pantheon of heroes vanquished by disillusionment over the years.
The Company gathered by the water’s edge. Aragorn spoke to them, his voice vying with the low cry of the wind. “The course of the Anduin runs straight ahead of us from here and shall soon begin to narrow,” he said. “The water will be deeper and faster, but that shall make it less an effort for us to break through this storm. Go with as much speed as you are able, but heed the other vessels and my lead. Do not separate!”
“Your shield, Boromir.” Legolas approached him bearing the broad piece of armour. Boromir took it from him and thanked him. He glanced down at it. He could see the Elf reflected there despite the darkness; the slight, living glow of Legolas’s face and hands warmed the burnished metal. Boromir cast no reflection, only a shadow.
“They need you.”
Boromir looked up sharply. The sound of the soft-spoken words was lost on the wind, but he saw them upon the Elf’s fair lips. Legolas made a slight gesture and Boromir turned to see Merry and Pippin waiting upon him patiently, small sentinels standing on either side of their boat. Pippin held the Man’s sword for him, sheathed in its scabbard, and he was leaning on it against the sand; the weapon as high as he was. Boromir laughed inwardly at the sight. The sudden, simple rise of his spirits surprised him. Legolas traded a quick smile with him, but then winced as the wind surged around them. The Elf ducked away from it, his cloak swirling around him, and he hastened off to help Gimli nudge their vessel into the restless water.
Boromir shouldered his shield and strode forth to join the young hobbits. He took his sword from Pippin and lifted him into the boat with easy strength. Merry hopped over the side, eager to be off, and Boromir shoved them on their way.
Boromir did not look at Frodo, nor did his thoughts stray in his direction.
There was a breathless sense of exhilaration as they moved on into the darkness with the presence of the rolling clouds above them. The wind was soon howling in their ears like a mad warg and they were forced to shout to be heard. They fought to keep from being washed onto the western shore as the Anduin pushed and pulled them, hurling them forward and then tugging them back. The sleek vessels of the Galadhrim were put to task as the Fellowship forged ahead, building up speed to counter the buffeting gales until they were skimming over the water, flying beneath the storm.
Pippin’s eyes streamed as he clutched to the side of the boat, squinting out at the dark shoreline through his tears. He threw tense peeks from time to time at Merry in front of him, who was bent against the might of the elements with his hood drawn up and his oar in hand. There was no rain and still they were wet, soaked through by sloshing, wind-driven water. It was miserable and exciting all at once; Pippin’s teeth chattered from the cold and the thrill of it.
A particularly vicious gust of wind scudded over the waves and whipped around them, forcing a yelp from Pippin. He scrambled back to avoid the slopping spray that hit Merry, and he came up hard against Boromir’s knees. He turned his head with some difficulty to look up at the Man. Boromir spared one of his hands long enough to grip the Halfling’s shoulder reassuringly and he said something which might have been “Do not be afraid!” but Pippin could not hear it for the wind in his ears. The hobbit buried his head in his arms and hunkered down as small as he could before Boromir’s broad form, keeping as near to him as possible without being in the way. He cursed the storm and all those daft enough to be out in it, himself included.
It was a battle against the River and the wind for a steady hour ere the going eased. It remained dark and blustery, but gradually the wind subsided. The choppy water calmed. Beyond them the sky was lit with flickering jags of lightening. They slowed their pace a little and watched the storm at play over the plains in the West.
Merry let out a whoosh of pent up air and he thumbed the water from his ears. He turned to grin at Pippin and shook his dripping hair. “Are you still with us?” he cried. “Poor Sam!” he chuckled. “He must be a quivering wreck by now.”
“What about Sam!” shouted Pippin, his ears ringing now in the absence of the wind. He narrowed his eyes and held out his own shaking hands. “I would rather lose time than drown in the dark! Why did we not stop to wait it out?”
“It was no more than a mild squall, Master Took,” said Boromir. He sat forward with his oar across his knees, resting. “Not enough to even slow us down.” He searched out his flask of water and tipped it back over his mouth, and then offered it to Merry. Boromir wiped his face with a sleeve that was only marginally drier. He grinned and reached out to flip the dangling hood of Pippin’s cloak over his head, muffling the hobbit in its sopping folds.
Merry laughed and handed Boromir back his flask. “We will let you take over now, Pip,” he teased. He offered him the paddle. “Careful now you don’t knock yourself in.”
Pippin dragged the hood off of his face and drew a deep breath, preparing to scold the two of them, but he choked instead. He began to hack, air and water and emotion mingling in his lungs. Boromir set his oar carefully aside and reached for him.
“Steady!” exclaimed Boromir, drawing him near and gently pounding him upon the back. “You may be no more than ballast on this river trip, Master Peregrin, but we need you breathing. Are you all right?”
Pippin spluttered and nodded. He buried his head in his arms. “Aye,” he rasped. “No thanks to any of you.”
Boromir smiled and ruffled Pippin’s hair; the young hobbit shook his head and pushed the man’s arm away, recovered but reproachful.
The other boats slowed up ahead, and Aragorn hailed them. “All good?” he shouted.
Boromir held up an open hand, though it was too dark for any but the night-sighted members of the Fellowship to see. “All good!” he called back. “Pippin would like another go!”
“As would Samwise!” replied Aragorn, and a rousing round of laughter came out of the night from the other two boats. Pippin responded impolitely beneath his breath and crawled back to his place behind Merry.
Time fleets swiftly beneath day’s certain light, and often treads slowly through the shadows after nightfall, but it seemed they had hardly set off again when morning arrived. The storm that had kept them company throughout the night now rumbled far off in the distance, and the overcast sky began to grow lighter by shades of grey. The gales abated and ceased to moan, though sighing zephyrs still riffled the water and cooled the air. The River was narrower, as Aragorn had described, and the banks higher. They chose a small, sandy cove to halt and sheltered in the lee formed by their overturned boats. Again they chanced no fire, but the day was warm and comfortable enough once they were into dry clothing and out of the wind.
For all the water-borne misery he complained of, Pippin had fallen asleep soundly in the boat sometime during the night to the rocking of the waves. Boromir lifted him out, bedraggled and exhausted, and brought him to the bedroll Merry spread for him on the ground. Pippin’s head lolled and he immediately began to snore.
“Nuisance,” Merry whispered over him. “I do not know why I put up with him sometimes.”
Boromir covered Pippin over and he looked at Merry sternly. “Because he is your brother, or as close as one to you. Look after him. He will always be there for you. It may come that someday you two will have no one to rely on but each other.”
Surprised by the earnestness of the Man’s reply, Merry said nothing. He flushed and nodded.
Boromir rose up. He laid a hand upon Merry’s head. “Let us find something to eat, Master Brandybuck. If we are quiet enough and do not wake this one, we just might get away with his share of breakfast.”
Breakfast consisted of bread and cheese and dried fruit, sound enough fare, but hardly worth coveting. They ate to quiet their stomachs and then spread their damp things over the hulls of the boats to dry, hoping for a little sunlight to find its way through the clouds.
Frodo took the first watch. He sat perched atop one of the overturned vessels above the heads of his sleeping companions amidst their laundry. He forgave the breeze that chapped his cheeks, for it was keeping him awake. His knees were drawn up tight to his chest and he traced the smooth wood with his toes as he considered the leaden water and the dull sky. His mind should have been filled with dire thoughts of the days ahead and the usual myriad of doubts and worries which belonged to him, but it was not.
Frodo was busy. He was making a friend.
A small bird, streaked grey and brown, nipped nimbly about the sand and rocks in search of food. It blended well with the buff landscape. The colourless thing would have been barely noticeable but for its bobbing black tail. Frodo had never seen its kind before. Several of the little birds were about when the Fellowship came ashore, but had fled when it became apparent the humans intended to occupy the place. Only this one remained, stubbornly refusing to give up this spot to the gawky intruders. It had kept its distance, watching as the Fellowship nested, and then sallied forth to pick about in the patches of wet sand stirred up by their feet.
Frodo sat for some time watching it glean breakfast along the ground below his feet, nibbling insect delicacies and ruffling its feathers when the wind blew against it. Frodo had several dull hours ahead of him and a crust of bread too stale even for a hobbit to consider eating. He made use of both to try to coax the bird to come to him. He cast out bits of bread to it and made soft clucking sounds with his tongue in an attempt to win it over, but the bird was not so easily impressed. It paused now and then to nod its head at Frodo, humouring him politely, but ignored the bread and kept its distance.
“Fussy thing,” said Frodo. He took to throwing larger chunks of bread and he varied his bird noises, but to no avail.
“I realize it has been a trying few days for us all, but have you taken complete leave of your senses?”
Frodo glanced over his shoulder and down into Pippin’s bleary eyes. The hobbit had been sleeping at the base of the boat where Boromir and Merry deposited him earlier. He was now turned half-about and looking up at Frodo with exasperation. “Are you roosting up there?” he asked.
“What if I am?”
Pippin flopped back and closed his eyes, one arm draped over his head. “Do it more quietly. I’ll take mine over-easy.”
Frodo lobbed a piece of the bread at him.
“Here now!” protested Pippin.
Another piece followed the first, and another, and Pippin lifted his head. He gave a grudging groan and sat up. “All right!” He brushed off the crumbs and then clambered atop the boat to join him. “I should like to know who appointed me bait for everyone’s amusement on this little outing,” he grumbled. Pippin sat down and noted the bread-strewn ground. “A bird,” he observed tritely, spotting Frodo’s company, “and not a very impressive one. Certainly not a black creban thing, I should say, or anything of the like, if it is worrying you.”
“Not all of the Enemy’s spies are so easy to discern,” Frodo reminded him, though it hadn’t really occurred to him to worry about the bird in that way at all.
“Fair may look foul, foul may seem fair…,” Pippin recited carelessly. He dismissed the notion with a wave of a hand. “Thus far, foul has been foul enough, if not directly terrifying. May I go back to sleep now, or shall I run the villain off for you?” Pippin aimed a threatening look at the bird and stamped his foot on the boat, but the bird went on about its business, showing no more interest in a pair of hobbits than it had in one.
“Don’t,” said Frodo. “I am glad to see it. I was beginning to wonder if we were the only living things left in the world. Perhaps we are nearing more civilized parts.”
Pippin nodded, looking about them without much interest, and then he shivered as the wind ran up his back. “It would have been considerate of you to arrange for warmer mornings on this little outing of yours, my dear Frodo.” He rubbed his hands together and clapped them over his ears.
“I will make certain of it next time,” promised Frodo.
“Next time!” Pippin made a face. “’Finish what you have ere you reach for more’, as my father used to say to me at the dinner table. If I recall, he also predicted I’d get in trouble tramping about with Bilbo’s addled nephew. He was a wise hobbit, my father.” Pippin nodded thoughtfully. “I should have probably listened to him more than I ever did.”
“You do well enough getting into trouble all on your own,” retorted Frodo. “I’ve nothing to do with that. What a fine mood you are in this morning!”
Pippin grinned apologetically. “I am feeling better, though no doubt it will come upon me again when you all insist on climbing back into those boats.” He took his hands from his ears and placed them in his lap.
He was silent for a moment, and then he looked at Frodo. There was a seriousness in Pippin’s eyes that made Frodo take notice. The impulsive young hobbit revealed such a sober side of himself only on special occasions.
“It hasn’t changed, you know,” said Pippin. “Any of it, really. I know I haven’t been of much good to you yet, but we set out with you, and we mean to stick by you, Merry and me. And Sam, of course.”
“I know,” said Frodo quietly.
Pippin shrugged, staring at his toes. “I thought you did, but, well, there it is again. It’s beginning to look maybe as if we hobbits are best suited to see you through it all.” He cast a quick look back over his shoulder.
Frodo followed Pippin’s eyes to where Boromir lay sleeping a small distance away. He lowered his voice. “How has he been?”
Pippin hesitated, and then said, “He is so like himself, sometimes, so like he was when we started all of this. And then… he withdraws again. There isn’t any help for it. Merry and I are looking out for him, Frodo, but I am afraid for him. For all of them.” He sighed. “Once we’ve thrown it into the fire, it will all be undone, and things will return to what they were before, won’t they?”
“I do not know,” admitted Frodo. He reached for Pippin’s hand. “I know no more than you about any of this. I think maybe nothing will be the same. Perhaps it will be better!” added Frodo, anxious to comfort him. “But if we do not get rid of it, more people will suffer. I won’t let that happen.”
Pippin nodded. “Good.” He looked at his cousin with appreciation. “You’re very brave, you know. I would have cast it aside a long time ago, Frodo, into a dark hole or deep lake for someone else to find. I know that sounds awful, but I would not have the strength to bear it.”
Frodo shook his head. “I have no choice. You can’t call that brave, Pippin. I could not cast it aside if I tried to. All of you who are with me -- who have stayed with me in spite of the danger -- you are the ones with courage. I could not have made it this far without any of you.” Frodo affected a frown and a brusque tone. “Even you, Fool of a Took,” he said, and he stroked his chin in a gesture familiar of Gandalf.
Pippin wrinkled his nose. “Yes, well, as long as I am appreciated,” he sniffed, and then his smile broke through. “You’re a terrible liar,” he laughed affectionately. He shoved Frodo, nearly toppling him from the boat. “If you think you can survive without me for a little while, I think I will go back to bed – you know, I’ve almost forgotten what a real bed feels like,” he said wistfully. “I miss home. And Bag-End. I spent more time there anyway than I ever did at home. I wonder how the Sackville-Bagginses are keeping up the place?”
Frodo gave him a sour look. “If that is the best you can manage for cheery conversation, Peregrin Took, you may indeed go back to bed!”
“O thank you!” Pippin excused himself brightly. “It is, so I will.” He patted Frodo on the back and twisted sideways to slip back down to the ground. “I’ll leave you to your….” He hesitated and a funny expression came over him. “Your bird is gone!”
Frodo looked. His little erstwhile friend was nowhere to be seen. He hadn’t heard it take to the air, but the bird was the sort that was fast on its feet. “I suppose it scooted off to find a quieter breakfast nook while we were talking,” shrugged Frodo.
But Pippin was not so quick to dismiss it. He drew himself up and crouched there beside Frodo, still staring. “It was right there,” he said, pointing. And then he whispered, “Should we wake Strider?”
“To tell him that we saw a bird?” asked Frodo incredulously. “You may wake him up if you like, but I won’t try to stop him if he tosses you headlong into the River for it.”
Pippin did not laugh. “If not Strider, Merry then,” he insisted stubbornly.
A little annoyed now and beginning to feel jumpy himself, Frodo said to him, “Even if it was Saruman himself sporting a set of feathers and spying us out, there is little we can do about it now.”
Pippin set his jaw. “Something has put Strider on edge of late, and Legolas watches the sky as if he can’t help himself. I’ve been waiting for something out of the ordinary, but perhaps the ordinary is what we should be afraid of. I’m waking Merry.”
Frodo thought he was overreacting and was about to tell him so when the bird reappeared, bobbing and strutting from the far side of a tangle of driftwood at the edge of the cove.
Pippin caught sight of it as well and let go of the breath he had been holding. But he did not seem at all relieved. He gaped at the bird as if waiting for it to burst into the form of some large and fearsome beast.
Frodo was looking at it more closely now as well, but there was no indication the animal was anything but what it seemed to be. He gave a dismissive snort.
“There, see?” Frodo said. “Your wizard-bird didn’t vanish, you ass. Get some sleep before you have us both running about waving our swords, attacking invisible Orcs. I’m sorry I woke you. I’ll be quieter.”
Pippin accepted the apology with an absent nod, still eyeing the bird suspiciously. He left Frodo and crawled into his blankets, though he tossed and fidgeted for some time.
Frodo brushed the bread crumbs from his lap with a smile. Despite himself, however, his attention was drawn back to the funny little bird.
It was still there. It bobbed its head at him and then darted off after a shiny green beetle that was winding its way through the rocks. Frodo settled with his chin upon his hands to watch the chase. The bird caught the bug and nipped it down, then immediately set out looking for more.
“A spy would look fairer and feel fouler,” murmured Frodo, correctly recalled his own sage words inspired months ago by dark meetings at the Prancing Pony and too much drink.
The object of his apprehension cocked one black eye and stared at him as if it had heard. And understood. Frodo frowned at it.
“Drat the bird!” he said at last, his unease getting the better of him. He hopped down to pick up a rock and he hurled it. The bird flew off with a rustle of feathers and an indignant *chiwee*. Frodo watched it disappear, and then returned crossly to his seat to spend the rest of his watch alone.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.