Unravelling the Tale: 3. When All Is Lost

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3. When All Is Lost

It was cold. He was cold, he knew, but he did not feel it. The chill from the ground seeped into his body, into his bones, but it seemed distant and not very real. He found it hard to breathe but could not remember why. He hurt. He hurt, but that was distant as well and he thought perhaps if he closed his eyes hard enough the hurt and cold might go away and he would wake to find himself warm and hale and whole once more, and he could be returned to the existence he knew.

The existence he knew.

He shivered and closed his eyes and remembered the world that once he knew.


"Listen," she would say, "I will tell you of ages long past...." and they would gather at her feet, her children and her grand-children, and she would tell them of a time when the world was made new and the light of the stars was young, when evil had not yet awakened, when there was no shadow upon the land. They would listen with rapt attention, though they knew her stories, knew them by rote, knew every word and every rhythmic turn of her voice, the very rhythm of their life. She passed their history to them in this manner, as the Elders had to her, as her children would to theirs, and on throughout the ages as was the way before the written word. Their stories were woven of threads of the past and the present, serving to preserve what had been and to remind them of who they were. Their legends became their lives, their lives became their legends, and all were a part of a timeless sea of events which would stretch on long after they themselves had ceased to live, and yet they would not be forgotten by those who came after. Thus they gathered at her feet and listened and they knew their place in the family, knew their place in the world.

And for them the world was this corner of the Wilderlands, a bit of country made up of marshes and grassy plains near the Great River, vague and rather unremarkable other than that it was near the shallow crossings over which the Tall Men and Fair Folk often passed on their way to other places. The dark forest grew fast and wild to the east of them and the mountains stood strong and vigilant to the west, but as the blood flowed through the veins of these hill-people, so did the sound of running water in their hearts; they strayed never far from the strong stream which linked mountain to sea and they made their homes within sight of the rocky shoals and swiftly flowing river.

Small they were and sturdy, and their hands and feet were overlarge and delightfully proper for swimming. Most were olive-skinned and dark-haired, and their eyes were light and bright and curious. Their homes they made in the low hills, burrows delved into the earth itself which, in truth, appeared to *be* hills till one wandered near enough to see the round openings and the hides covering the entrances. Inside the clusters of these burrows would dwell the extended families of the matriarchs, and their children were reared by the many rather than few, and all were ruled by the wisdom of the elders of the clan.

It was among this small group of rustic river-dwellers that a son named Smeagol was loved and raised.

His clan was the largest in the village and the most highly regarded. His grandmother was the oldest of their people and considered by many to be the wisest, and few even from outside clans would come to her to beg advice or marvel at her stories. She was revered by her family; to Smeagol she was omnipotent and he was ever in awe of her. He was one of the youngest of the clan and as such was doted upon by all, especially by her. As a child he would often sit at his grandmother's feet and listen to her speak, and she would pick him up and cradle him and peer at him with clever eyes and tease him with conundrums and fill his mind with tales of beginnings and memories of long ago.

He was a bright, pretty child with an inquisitive mind, and the elders would smile when he asked questions and more questions, never satisfied with what they gave him and always craving more knowledge. He wanted to know why the rain fell, who created the mountains, where the river began. His grandmother would answer what questions she could and still he was unsatisfied.

"...I touch your face... I'm in your words... I'm lack of space and loved by birds. Grandmother, what? What? Is it air? It is! The answer is air. Too easy, Grandmother, a chestnut that one was, and too easy," he scowled, and then brightened again. "Grandmother, how do birds stay in the air, anyhow? Why do we not have feathers? I would much rather have feathers than hair, I think, and how come...."

"Smeagol, you will wear yourself thin," she would chide gently. "You are as headstrong as the Tall Men, as curious as the Fair Folk. I think you are not one of us at all, but a changeling child left in your mother's arms as she slept. You have much life to live yet, and time enough to answer the questions you have for yourself, little mouse."

"I wish to know things," Smeagol would say, and his small face would screw itself up with frustrated longing. "I wish to know about everything."

"And once you knew everything, then what is it you would you do? Even the wise do not know all."

Smeagol spent much of his young life searching for the answers to his questions and exploring every inch of the Wilderlands that was within his reach. Often he was alone, but sometimes he would have company in his grand expeditions in the person of his younger cousin, the son of his father's sister, a slender and light-hearted child named Deagol who looked up to Smeagol and followed at his heels wherever he would go. Smeagol found this to be of the utmost annoyance for a very long time, but it came to be that eventually he went nowhere without Deagol and missed him when he was not there. His younger cousin had a curiosity to match his own and was always willing to follow upon a trek to the edges of the dark forest or a trip down the river in search of the perfect fishing hole. They would return home bearing the treasure of their day, whether it was a string of shimmery silvery trout, a plunder of mushrooms gathered from beneath the shady hollows beneath the trees to the east, or horseshoes and bits of leather or silk left by the travellers whose feet brought them to paths crossing the Great River and close to the homes of these small hill-people.

And often travellers did come, and the hill-people would hear the approach of horses and hear the sounds of strange voices speaking in words they did not understand. If the company that approached was large they would remain hidden and let them pass, but their presence was not unknown to some whose business or pleasure took them often across the Great River to and from the mountains. Those who knew where to look would find the hill-people there, and often Tall Men or factions of the Fair Folk would spare a few moments from what deeds called them hither from their homes and they would come to speak with the tiny hill-people, to trade for food or hides, or simply just to see these strange beings and marvel at them. A few of the village's elders had taught themselves to speak sparing words in the tongues of the travellers who passed and so could communicate with them, if only in the most basic of ways.

When groups of these strangers had come and their elders were certain it was safe, the children were allowed to go and see them. Smeagol and Deagol, being the intrepid scholars they were, never missed an opportunity to get near the visitors and learn all they could from what they bore with them, what clothing they wore, and from the bright weapons at their sides that would flash in the sunlight and capture their eyes.

Deagol loved the Fair Folk. Smeagol's small cousin delighted in all things growing and green, and loved nothing more than to run happily back to their grandmother with an armful of bright flowers fresh from spring soil gathered in his arms. If left to his own devices he would sit for hours on end in a patch of sunlight by the riverbank and watch the reeds blow in the breeze or the lilies nod and bow their heads until Smeagol was sent out to fetch him and bring him back for supper. The Fair Folk quite astonished Deagol, though he would never dare approach them ever when they came to visit their village. He confided in Smeagol that he thought them to be magic, like the magic of the stars up in the sky or the magic of his father's lucky fishing pole which never failed to catch at least a half a dozen fish when he took it to the river with him. Deagol was forbidden to play with his father's fishing pole lest he should break it and ruin the magic, and in his child's mind he was afraid to come near the Fair Folk for the same reason; he feared to draw too close, worried that he might ruin the magic with his meek touch and they would vanish and never come back. Always would the child linger wistfully nearby, and he would follow their movements with shining eyes and flush to the roots of his curly dark hair if one of them smiled upon him. When the Fair Folk sang, as they often did when they approached or bid their farewells, Deagol would cease to stir, cease to breathe until the last note trailed off in the air.

Smeagol was fascinated by the Fair Folk as well, but more captivating to him were the rare visits from those they called the Mountain Fathers, those who were shorter than the Tall Men and did not sing as did the Fair Folk. With fierce eyes hardly to be seen beneath bristling braids and beards these warriors could be heard approaching from a great distance and often plunged through the river and on without stopping, having no time to tarry, on their way to tending important matters. Only twice had they paused to speak with the hill-people during Smeagol's lifetime and the visits had been brief. Their voices were deep, deep as the roots of the earth. Whereas Deagol loved the beauty of leaves and flowers, Smeagol was interested in what lay beneath, where all things began. The Mountain Fathers seemed made from the very stones in from which Smeagol's grandmother said they lived. Smeagol had thought that perhaps they could answer his questions and tell him the secrets of the deepest places in the world, but he did not speak the thundering language of the Mountain Fathers and could never ask. He would stand by to watch them and wonder at their shining silver coats, to gaze with longing at the gems which glittered at their throats and dripped from their hands and to shiver a little at the sight of the wicked axes they bore. They never stayed long, and Smeagol would be left to wonder what kind of villages they made and what it would be like to live inside a mountain and whether they had cousins to play with and grandmothers to tell them stories.

When the travellers were gone, Smeagol and Deagol would run off to spend their time by the riverside. Deagol would mimic the Fair Folk and try to walk across the rocks to the other side without teetering off, and Smeagol would sit by the water's edge and sift through the pebbles and sand and gather pretty stones and polish them along his shirt until they gleamed almost as brightly as those the Mountain Fathers kept.

And so they grew, Smeagol and Deagol, and they were almost always together. Deagol remained the smallest of the two, but quicker than Smeagol and more adept at catching fish. Smeagol was stronger and could climb the trees in the dark forest with more skill and the two would often enjoy the treat of eggs scavenged from unguarded nests. They wandered together over plain and marsh and creek bed, scouting out new territory ever in their eagerness to see just what might lie over the next hill, and they took it to be a personal affront if there were any stone in their world left unturned by their hands.

Seasons passed and the summer that year was particularly hot and humid. The hill-people spent much of their time at the water's edge as it was, but now the only respite from the overeager sun was the cool river and they flocked to it. They would take their meals upon the rocks along the banks and would weave small rafts of reeds and weeds to paddle in the deep pools and to sleep away the warmest hours of the days.

Deagol woke his cousin early one auspicious morning with a cheery trill from outside the entrance of the burrow; he met Smeagol down the path with two newly-crafted fishing poles, a basket of food, and a grin which stretched from one edge of his good-natured face to the other.

"Happy birthday, coz!" his companion had said in a whisper, and ere anyone else yet set foot outside that day, the two were off on their own. "Soon you will be too old for fun!" Deagol had proclaimed and he had teased and taunted Smeagol, standing upon his tip-toes to match the height of his taller cousin and squinting to see if perhaps Smeagol had the beginnings of a beard as the Mountain Fathers did wear, and otherwise behaving as a younger cousin should until Smeagol had pushed him headfirst into a bramble bush.

Laughing, they tread quietly so as to wake no one ere they could be off. The two made their way down to the river and absconded with a reed raft left there unattended. This would prove to be another hot day if the sky was any indication, and they had wished to be far from the village and free of responsibility, to leave behind the sticky warm confinement of home and family.

Looking back upon that morning, Smeagol would have given everything, anything to have stayed.

They paddled far, letting the current take them. Deagol wished to stop at midmorning to eat a little and to wander the land upon the west bank, but Smeagol wanted to see something new; it was his birthday, after all was said and done, and he was feeling adventuresome. And so they journeyed on past familiar stopping points, passing them by, passing them by for what might lie beyond the next bend in the river, further than they had ever dared to venture. If one felt any misgivings about being so far from home, he certainly did not share that feeling with the other; they were brave wanderers and someday they would travel to see the mountains and explore the forests.

For the most part, this particular adventure had been uneventful. They ate their lunch and watched the shore skim past them and plunged into the cool water now and then when the sun beat too hot upon their backs. They were dozing, in fact, side by side when the raft suddenly surged and flew past a point where the Great River mingled with another flowing cold from the mountains in the west.

The swiftness of the rapids took their breath and they felt their tiny raft of reeds creak and shift beneath them. The Great River swallowed the other stream and flowed on, stronger now, louder and wider, splashing over sand and gravel. It narrowed to slide over an incline of smooth stones and with a whirl and a rush, it dumped them over the edge and into a large deep pool. There the water eddied and swirled in lazy circles before carrying its way on down the river's path and was almost still there, and try though they might, they could not see the bottom. The sunlight glinted upon the edges of the light current. Upon one shore were fens and marshes fed by underground springs, and upon the other, sparse brush and tangled trees blocked the view of the fields beyond and their shadows dappled the pool.

Deagol blinked and stared with large, eager blue eyes at this most perfect of fishing-holes into which fortune had tipped them, and he gave a joyous whoop.

They spent the afternoon fishing and swimming; Deagol pulled in fish after silvery fat fish even during these hottest hours of the day, shouting with glee each time his pole strained and dipped into the water. Smeagol paddled about the pool lazily, ignoring Deagol's admonishments that he was scaring away the trout. Cool air came up from the river and warm air beat upon his skin from above; he closed his eyes and let the river lift him, feeling so light, utterly weightless. His ears were filled with the sound of splashing water, the call of birds along the shore, his cousin's lively voice, and the hum of dragonflies which darted through the air and hovered near; he thought there could be no place in the world as wonderful.

The dragonflies buzzed closer and Smeagol flicked his hand over his head, trying to drive them away. The sound persisted, and did not seem to waver.

Too steady to be dragonflies.

It was a droning buzz... a droning which grew stronger... and more pronounced until it began to seep through into his pleasure-hazed mind. Too loud was this sound that was not dragonflies, and now it was a persistent sound that grew and grew... and seemed almost...

It seemed to form words.

... it wasss hot when I firssst took.... ... with this sssshall I .... throw it, throw it away.... .. ... many sssseek it and I will not... .... lest it fade beyond recall....

Smeagol was wrenched from his daydreams and he spluttered as the water closed over his nose and mouth. He tread water and looked about him with a bewildered expression, then glanced at Deagol.

If his cousin had heard anything odd, he showed no indication. He was lying upon his belly at the edge of the raft, fishing-pole clenched tightly in his hand, willing the fish to bite. He took no notice of Smeagol's discomfiture.

Perhaps he had been in the heat too long.

Smeagol swam away and pulled himself slowly to shore. He sat upon the sand, feeling the sun's rays evaporate the moisture on his skin. He absently scrubbed a hand through his wet hair while staring apprehensively into the brush, wondering if they were being watched.

The sound that was not dragonflies buzzed around him louder and a deep voice spoke. It was as if someone was whispering into his ear.

....I doubt... if I shall ever be freee of the pain of it.... ssso near.... is unknown to me... so Gil-galad wasss destroyed... .. I will rissk no.... it is precioussss to me....

Smeagol cried out, and Deagol turned laughing, thinking his cousin was calling to him. Deagol quieted at the sight of his Smeagol's pale face and made to speak, but he did not have the chance.

Smeagol watched in horror as Deagol's head whipped back and he grasped his pole with both hands. Something tugged at the line, something larger than any fish, and with a shout and a splash, Deagol and his fishing-pole disappeared.

Smeagol screamed Deagol's name and dove into the river, but the constant, slow movement of the stream roused the soil beneath so that nothing could be seen below the surface. He dove over and over, swiping his arms about him in the murky water, and returning time and again to the top with a gasp and a handful of naught but mud and weeds. He cast about, his eyes frantically searching for any sign of Deagol, but there was none. The sunny pool no longer seemed to reflect the sunlight, but absorbed it. The black surface was flat and menacing, broken only by the current which circled as if the water was being stirred by gigantic invisible fingers. The trickle of the stream which fed the dark pool now seemed a roar in his ears; the river an overpowering and uncaring thing that did not care if it took his cousin from him. He swam to the lonely raft in the center of the pool and dragged himself on to it, weeping.

.... in the darkness... where ... ... shadows lie.....

As his hope failed, as his despair reached its depth, Deagol surged upward no more than a few feet from the raft, his arms flailing, choking for air. Smeagol wiped his eyes, flung damp dark locks from his forehead and reached for his friend, yanking him onto the raft with a strength that belied his thin body. He clasped a trembling Deagol to him tightly, and his little cousin held onto him as if he would never let him go.

"Deagol... Deagol, what was it?"

His cousin was silent for a moment, his breathing still rapid, then he flashed a shaky smile at Smeagol.

"The one that g..g..got away, I suppose," Deagol stuttered, and he laughed. Despite his concern Smeagol laughed too, and they fell over one another on the raft with nervous merriment.

Smeagol looked uncertainly over the edge into the deep water. "You lost your fishing-pole," he said.

Yes, but... but Smeagol, look what I found."

His cousin thrust his hand into the pool and sloshed it about, then drew it forth once more. His fist was clenched tightly and straggled bits of weeds poked out from between his fingers. Slowly, Deagol opened his hand. And he caught his breath.

Nothing was ever, ever so beautiful as that glittering circle of gold.


He was cold. He knew he was cold, but he did not feel it. He twitched where he lay huddled in a niche in the riverbank, half-buried in the dirt and grass beneath a large mass of roots. It smelled of moist soil and earthworms and moss and he could not be seen, would not be found. He licked at the ragged gash along his ribcage and whimpered softly, remembering now the hoarse shouts of the orcs, the sharp whistle of elvish arrows, and the black blood which had soaked the forest-floor and overran the clear stream water. Gollum had fled through the trees, had vanished down the Silverlode southward, running with bent back and hands near the ground as the beast they believed him to be. He had eluded capture. They could not catch him.

But he had lost them, yes, lost them. The elves hid the hobbits and the tall men and the elf and the dwarf, hid them in the trees, and had chased him away from them when he drew near. They were gone, gone down paths he could not follow.

He was cold and in pain, but they were distant sensations, distant compared to the loneliness and despair which now racked his body and stole his breath from him. And though he squinched his eyes closed and begged for release, he could see that nothing had changed. Nothing would ever change. Nothing changed at all.

He missed their voices.

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.

Story Information

Author: Nimue

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Work in Progress

Era: 3rd Age - Ring War

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 09/14/04

Original Post: 07/13/02

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