6. The Shifting Currents
GoodNESS! What is it? Shall I be plagued to death by requests for more chapters? What? I left the Fellowship stranded out on a river in a highly agitated state? And they're waiting for me to show up and tell them what to do? Do I LOOK like a wizard? A Ranger? Any kind of person with intelligence at all? *Ahem!* Don't answer that. I DID get the boats going in the right direction eventually, didn't I? So there. ; )
LOL! Sorry, sorry... all kinds of not-so-fun distractions lately and I've been dying to get back to working on this story. My deepest apologies for the wait, and thank you all for caring enough to pester me into writing more. The story IS there in my head all the way to the last chapter, I just have to find time to hammer out the details. In the meantime, here's the next bit of the tale... before I get strung up, or Fairyboy goes hoarse. ; )
"I have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can't think what anybody sees in them."
Frodo remembered warm, lazy evenings curled up in Bilbo's study at Bag End with a cup of tea steaming in his hand and his feet stretched out before the fire. He recalled laughing at his uncle's uncharitable opinion about being whisked away upon strange roads with strange companions as he pored over the passages of the dog-eared book which lay open in his lap. When idle time allowed he would settle in with the Red Book and lose himself within its story, more often than not succumbing to the temptation to breeze beyond the first few pages to get to the exciting bits, to find elves and dragons and the dark things which dwelt in caves, to read of swords and spiders and battle. Adventure? It was the most wonderful thing there could be. It was far-off lands and fantastic folk; it was happy endings and songs sung of great deeds and heroes who could never die. So it had seemed to Frodo when he sat before the fire in the safety of Bag End and dreamed, and the young hobbit had longed for adventure from the humble reaches of the Shire more than anything he could imagine.
It was the fourth day of their journey down the Anduin and Frodo had been given more than enough time to reflect upon the foolish notions of his early years. He thought of how these bleak days might look upon a written page, imagined himself swallowing the uncertainty and fear and misgivings which stretched the minutes into the longest of hours, the hours into interminable days. He would shorten them, certainly, and perhaps compress this bit of their journey into a brief few pages, and even so, he was certain this would be the part of the adventure any reader would breeze past in search of some more impressive passage, some greater event. Frodo wished he could do just that, wished he might take up the pages of his life which were unfolding there and now and thumb ahead to whatever awaited him beyond.
He could find nothing to dispute about Bilbo's assertion about adventure; if anything, his dear uncle had been too lenient.
This journey was indeed uncomfortable.
Hobbits hated the water. At least, the sane ones did. Frodo's feet were continually wet and he found out quite quickly that even a sleek elven boat was no better able to keep the water from sloshing about their toes any more than the most hastily constructed raft built by any hobbit child of the Marish on the banks of the Brandywine. Boats leaked, and that was that.
The trip was nasty.
As they journeyed southward, the trees had finally shunned the land and had given way to bleak and bare countryside. They had come to the Brown Lands that lay vast and desolate between Southern Mirkwood and the hills of Emyn Muil. On the eastern bank to their left they saw long formless slopes stretching up and away toward the sky; brown and withered they looked, as if fire had passed over them, leaving no living blade of green: an unfriendly waste without even a broken tree or a bold stone to relieve the emptiness.
Upon the west to their right the land was treeless also, but it was flat, and in many places green with wide plains of grass. On this side of the river they passed forests of great reeds, so tall that they shut out all view as the little boats went rustling by along their fluttering borders. Their dark withered plumes bent and tossed in the light cold airs, hissing softly and sadly.
If the change in their view was not enough to quell Frodo's spirits, the weather alternated between being unbearably hot and miserably wet, often switching from one to the other in the space of an hour until almost Frodo wished they were back in Moria. The caves of the fallen dwarven kingdom might have been dark and terrible, but at the very least there had been no threat of a sudden deluge from the changeable skies or the confounded nuisance of consistently wet feet.
Even as he touched lightly upon the memory of Moria, his grief for Gandalf flooded through him once again and Frodo's heart trembled. He could picture the old wizard sitting complacently in a grey boat of Lorien, the rain dripping over the brim of his hat and of the sharp point of his long nose, grumbling over the lack of a good pipe and warm feet; yet the spark of laughter and life in his eyes would never have been quelled by such a small annoyance as a dismal river trip. If he could have seen Frodo's misery now, he would have no doubt given the hobbit a look of supreme disapproval from under those bushy eyebrows. Frodo could almost hear Gandalf's voice lecturing him and he straightened a little at the thought and smiled sadly. They had been able to forget their grief in Lothlorien as they took their ease amongst the elves, but here back in the wilderlands Frodo was painfully aware of the lack of the old wizard's presence in the Company.
For of late, their journey had also become disturbing. The hobbit wished more than ever that Gandalf were here to set things right because Frodo was not even altogether certain when they had gone wrong.
There was no speech and little laughter in any of the boats, and it was no longer the reflective, comfortable silence between friends who needed no reassurance of one another's presence; it was an audible silence filled with unspoken words and dark thoughts and it thundered in their ears, drowning out even the constant rush of the river which carried them along.
Those who were still on speaking terms with one another dwelt upon their own discomfort and were just as miserable as Frodo, in which case sharing their thoughts would have served to compound their dismal mood rather than alleviate it, and so they did not speak. Aragorn had said naught since they had broken camp that morning except to give them instructions for navigating the much broader and shallower river and to warn them to care for the gravel-shoals that would beach them if they were inattentive. The Ranger was watchful but seemed disinclined towards any kind of cheerful conversation.
And so they did not speak.
Boromir had sunken into a black state and kept his vessel subtly but noticably apart from the others, now bringing up the rear rather than taking the lead. He did not seem angry, nor did he join in grumbling and complaining about the state of his sodden clothing and weary aches with Merry and Pippin when the silence of travelling with the reticent man of Gondor became too much for the talkative young hobbits. He had simply withdrawn; Boromir did not speak lest he was spoken to, and then it seemed an effort for him to fashion any reply beyond a nod of his head or vague murmur.
Frodo found his gaze wandering often to Boromir behind them in the last boat. Sometimes he thought he heard Boromir call out to him and he would look over his shoulder, only to feel a fool when he found their companion had not stirred nor breathed a word, though more often that not Frodo was disconcerted to turn and find Boromir watching him too.
He was uneasy but not surprised, for he had caught something of his conversation with Aragorn the morning before when the men had thought the hobbits all asleep. He had listened guiltily to the frank discussion from beneath his blankets, but had learned nothing he did not already know.
How could he not read Boromir's mind in every glance the man cast his way, in the manner of his speech and the change in his behaviour whenever Frodo drew near? Restlessness and doubt ever plagued Denethor's heir since he had come to Rivendell, and quite likely ere he left Minas Tirith. His anxiety for his city and its defense consumed him, but now, rather than try to disguise his frustration with the jovial bravado he displayed for the Company or the careful politeness around Frodo to which they had become accustomed, Boromir had withdrawn completely and there was naught any of them could do to coax him from his dark thoughts. He no longer strove to lead their group along the river's way; his fire had burned low, though the embers of his deep-seated passions still glowed in his solemn eyes.
And so they did not speak.
As uncomfortable Frodo found Boromir's pensive brooding to be, it was yet far easier to tolerate than the suddenly volitile relationship that had seethed to the surface between two other members of their Company. Interminable hours in a canoe had taken their toll upon each of them, and such confinement was enough to try even the most patient of elves, the most tolerant of dwarves.
Legolas and Gimli were respectively neither and any measure of forbearance they might have had seemed long since exhausted.
Gimli had been ill since the morning of the third day. Frodo had watched the dwarf move slowly about the campsite and collapse into the boat with Legolas; he had watched Legolas visibly fretting over the dwarf's malady, and though the hobbit had felt sympathy for Gimli's pain, the care and concern of one friend for the other had caused Frodo to marvel at the difference of their relationship from earlier days.
Their stay in Lothlorien had been not for naught in this respect; for the first time upon this journey the Company had taken their ease in a place of peace and protection where they could let down their guard and rest without fear or worry. Though they had travelled far together, they had walked through peril and fire and had banded together out of necessity in order to survive. Within the Golden Wood, however, they were allowed to be at peace and many of the Fellowship had found themselves seeking the familiar presence of their companions now because they wished it, not because it was needed. Lorien was not a place of isolation; though a quiet haven, its paths and byways and beauty were meant to be shared. The Company had drawn closer to one another and in Lorien their hearts were strengthened, and most curious to those who witnessed it was the evolving relationship of Gimli and Legolas.
The elf and the dwarf were no longer able to disguise their growing friendship as a barely tolerable imposition for the sake of the quest. After a few days of feigning relief at not having to put up with one another, Legolas had found himself reluctantly yearning to show to Gimli the sights of Lorien and delighted at the dwarf's sudden interest. Gimli, immersed as he was in elvish land and custom, grudgingly found himself seeking the elf to engage him in questions and conversation. It had been an unspoken truce, but there could be no excuse for it now but for them to admit that they had grown used to one another and missed the other when he was not around. They had stoically ignored the smiles behind their backs and surrendered to the friendship that was inevitably growing between them. The two were never far apart now, though Gimli would sooner have recited elvish love poetry to the Lady Galadriel than use the word "fond" when it came to describing how he felt about Legolas.
Perhaps of all the loyalty and courage his companions had shown thus far, this most of all had lifted Frodo's heart and bolstered his confidence that Elrond's faith in the Company had not been misplaced. The strength of his companions in battle and darkness was remarkable, but in Lorien they proved to be a Fellowship in spirit as well as in deed to the extent that elf and dwarf should walk together in friendship beneath the golden boughs. Regardless of their uncertainty at the moment about where their path should now lead them, Frodo had been certain they could do what needed to be done and he had left Lorien with regret, but great hope.
"By the shine of Durin's axe and the Eternal eyes of Aule! If you sing one more note, elf, I will capsize this cursed boat and drown your voice in cold water."
Most of that confidence had now since been leeched from Frodo by the drizzling rain and the tempest of bitter words which had been brewing steadily between Legolas and Gimli during this interminable trip down the river.
Frodo felt his spirit sink down to his toes and he reluctantly lifted his eyes to look at the elf and the dwarf. He cringed and waited for the caustic reply which was certain to follow Gimli's outburst and felt Sam beside him let out a weary sigh.
Legolas ceased the soft, wordless song he had been singing to himself at the height of the afternoon and he made a noise deep in the back of his throat. He laid down the paddle he was holding and fixed Gimli with frosty, appraising eyes.
"Tell me, Master Dwarf... if you did so, which of us would find the bottom first, do you think? I grant you that your stature does not mark you as a significant presence in this boat, but taking into account the veritable ironworks you insist upon carrying about at your belt and upon your back, I think I should be the one to come out on top, as it were." The elf shifted and the canoe dipped to the side ever so slightly. "Now, pray tell me... would it be my voice you object to, or the song? If it be the latter, I know several verses pertaining to the battle of Sarn Athrad which I find to be rather diverting, if not positively suggestive."
Gimli looked well. Yesterday they had watched over the dwarf with great concern and he had rested before Legolas in their boat and spoke little and ate nothing. They had halted early that evening and Gimli had fallen into a deep sleep as soon as he had laid his head upon his bedroll. This morning the colour had returned to his face and the dwarf had waved off Aragorn with good-natured gruffness and had assured him that he had recovered. Indeed, it seemed that he had; he joined them at breakfast with a hearty appetite and a cheerful tongue.
But there had been a haunted and wary look which came into his eyes when he thought no one was watching, and what was more, he inexplicably refused to acknowledge Legolas's presence. He neither spoke nor looked to the elf all morning, not even as they prepared to depart.
Legolas was dismayed at the dwarf's behaviour and strove to break the silence as they guided their boat into the flowing stream once more, but still Gimli remained coldly indifferent. Never one to back down from a challenge, the light-hearted elf persisted upon drawing his friend from his gloominess and grew irritable in his turn when his efforts failed. The compassion and passivity he had shown towards the dwarf during Gimli's illness swiftly eroded. Gimli grew angry and the elf's temper flared as too many unwarranted verbal jabs took their toll, and by mid-morning they were barking at one another and hissing insults under their breath which might as well have been shouted out loud given the silence which surrounded the rest of the boats. Their strife aggravated nerves already stretched thin.
"Keep your head from the clouds, elf, and heed the water," the dwarf spat, and he dug his paddle deeply into the river and thrust viciously, out of rhythm with Legolas's measured strokes.
There was a sound of rock scraping wood and their vessel heeled in the stream. Aragorn slowed to avoid a collision, and Legolas cursed as he used his paddle to pole away from the bank of sand which breached the water and had caught their keel. He cast them back into the current and snapped, "You need not concern yourself with me, Master Dwarf! Heed your tongue, rather, and make use of what little intelligence granted to you."
Always the elf and dwarf had resorted to jesting jibes to span the gap of prejudice and long-standing differences which separated them, but ever had there been a flicker of amusement in Legolas's eyes, a mocking indignation in Gimli's voice as they competed with one another in their game of creative disrespect. Now their attitudes bordered upon malice and their words dripped with spite that was neither amusing nor assumed.
"We shall change places when next we halt," Gimli demanded.
"For what reason?"
"I trust you not at my back, elf."
"I am not of the craven Naugrim. You would see your death in my eyes if I wished it to be so, or would if you could hope to rise above your petty existence to look so high."
"Easily could I break you down from your lofty heights, Master Elf."
"Have no illusions as to how long you would live if you tried."
Gimli shifted and hurled his oar to the floor of the boat, his face dark with gathering rage. Harried beyond his patience, Aragorn interrupted.
"Legolas! You waste your energy and our time with this senseless arguing. Gimli, you will say no more!"
Gimli straightened with a belligerent set to his shoulders but swallowed his retort at the flash of Aragorn's hard eyes. He settled back with a grunt and dismissed Legolas, Aragorn, all of them, with a jerk of his hand and a curl of his lip. Legolas gripped his oar, his jaw clenched tightly, and he refused to meet Aragorn's gaze. The elf pressed their boat forward and took the lead.
Surrounded by this hostility and sundered trust, Frodo yearned for the easy rapport they once held. Almost he would say they had fallen back on old ways, but even the start of this miserable journey had never been this tense and frightening. He huddled in his boat and closed his eyes to Boromir's intensity, Aragorn's troubled mind and the bitterness between Legolas and Gimli, only to discover that the tension which surrounded him became more tangible when he could not see it; he could smell it, feel it, like the air gathering before a storm, like stirring ripples warning of troubled waters ahead.
And so they passed the hours, suspended between the pages of a rousing adventure in the tedious part of the journey which would never be mentioned if any were to write about it, Frodo thought wryly. What would they write? That the companions who had passed through the fire and shadow of Moria and braved dangers insurmountable to get this far now fought one another? That they had become their own worst enemy? A wholly unimpressive part of the story and not one befitting a proper heroic tale.
It was a painful thing to realize, but the past day and a half had shaken Frodo's trust in those who had sworn to protect him. He had feared for them at first, but loathe as he was to admit it, he had now begun to almost fear them. For a moment, he was overwhelmed by a notion that he was in the midst of strangers and he felt bereft, terribly alone and abandoned and he wanted to shout at them himself, to roar and rage and howl against the unfairness of it all.
Had he known just how far they would fall, Frodo would have left the Company in Lothlorien, beneath the peace of the eaves of the fading forest. This would be the sorest trial any of them would have to face; the Enemy never came so close to defeating the Fellowship as it did upon that tedious trip down the Anduin.
Frodo sighed heavily. Sam lifted his head at the sound and roused himself from a pleasant daydream involving the Golden Perch and a bottomless flagon of ale to look anxiously at his master. Frodo gave him a reassuring smile despite his discouraging thoughts, then turned his attention to the western bank to ponder the passing landscape ere the worry in his eyes could betray him.
There was no sign of living moving things, save birds. Of these there were many: small fowl whistling and piping in the reeds, but they were seldom seen. Once or twice the travellers heard the rush and whine of swan-wings, and looking up they saw a great phalanx streaming along the sky.
"Swans!" Sam said. "And mighty big ones too!"
"Yes," said Aragorn, "and they are black swans."
"How wide and empty and mournful all this country looks!" said Frodo, more to keep the Ranger talking than anything. "I always imagined that as one journeyed south it got warmer and merrier, until winter was left behind forever."
"But we have not journeyed far south yet," answered Aragorn. "It is still winter, and we are far from the sea. Here the world is cold until the sudden spring, and we may yet have snow again. Far away down in the Bay of Belfalas, to which Anduin runs, it is warm and merry, maybe, or would be but for the Enemy. But here we are not above sixty leagues, I guess, south of the Southfarthing away in your Shire, hundreds of long miles yonder. You are looking now south-west across the north plains of the Riddermark, Rohan the land of the Horse-lords. Ere long we shall come to the mouth of the Limlight that runs down from Fangorn to join the Great River. That is the north boundary of Rohan; and of old all that lay between Limlight and the White Mountains belonged to the Rohirrim. It is a rich and pleasant land, and its grass has no rival; but in these evil days folk do not dwell by the Great River or ride often to its shores. Anduin is wide, yet the orcs can shoot their arrows far across the stream; and of late, it is said, they have dared to cross the water and raid the herds and studs of Rohan."
Sam looked from bank to bank uneasily. The trees had seemed hostile to him before, as if they harboured secret eyes and lurking dangers; now he wished that the trees were still there. He felt that the Company was too naked, afloat in the little open boats in the midst of shelterless lands, and on a river that was the frontier of war.
Sam looked ahead to see Legolas's boat gliding along quietly before them. Aragorn had flicked his oar and eased them forward in some fit of restlessness, and they drew parallel to the elf and dwarf. Gimli sat motionless within, his glittering eyes fixed upon the water. The elf was gazing off to the side at the shore sadly, wistfully.
Sam reckoned Legolas must miss the trees too, being a Wood-elf and all. The gentle heart of Samwise Gamgee had been most distressed by the conflict between elf and dwarf and thought it foolishness indeed. He would have piped up about it if Gimli hadn't looked quite so dark and Legolas so grave, and if Frodo had not shook his head at him and motioned for him to be still. Sam could see no reason for the marked change in the mood of the Fellowship, but there was more going on here than he could grasp and he thought it best to be quiet until he understood what it was.
His master was lost in thought and Aragorn had gone back to guiding their boat through the sliding water. Sam was cramped and miserable, having nothing to do but stare at the lands crawling by and the grey water on either side of him. Even when the paddles were in use they didn't trust Sam with one. The desperate boredom made him restless. Sam cast about, seeking a diversion, and valiantly decided to take it upon himself to see if he couldn't cheer up Legolas.
He fished around in his pack and came up with a map he had scrawled upon a sheaf of paper during an idle evening by the campfire back in Hollin a lifetime ago, after Frodo had teased him lightly for mistaking Redhorn for Mount Doom. Maps were Frodo's delight but they meant nothing to Sam and he had paid little attention to them in Rivendell when others in the company had pored and plotted over the journey laid out before them. He had occupied himself that night with a bit of charcoal and Aragorn's help and had fashioned a crude map which he kept tucked away with his cooking supplies.
He traced his shaky line representing the Great River with one finger, ignoring the hole he had gouged near the Misty Mountains when Pippin had jostled his arm during the map's creation, and followed it downwards, past the Old Ford, along the Gladden Fields. He lingered at Lorien, smudging the charcoal blotches which had represented trees with the edge of his thumb, then dragged a fingertip to the Limlight and to the Bay of Belfalas as Aragorn had described. It seemed a right good distance away to Sam. He retraced the Anduin's path back to where it now currently carried them along, then poked at the eastern side of the river at the wide patch of parchment at the left that he had marked 'Mirkwood.'
Sam pursed his lips and thrummed his fingers upon his knee. He shifted and squirmed until he was leaning as much as he dared over the bulwark, then screwed up his courage to speak to the elf in the boat beside him.
It wasn't exactly as if he were afraid of Legolas. He counted Legolas a good friend and companion; it was just that Sam had spent so much time in his early years imagining what the elves would be like and he could not quite shake his awkwardness at being around them now. Of all the legends that he had heard and fragments of tales and half-remembered stories as the hobbits knew, those about the elves had always moved him most deeply and though the stories had become reality now and he had been tossed smack dab into the middle of one, he felt distinctly out of his element travelling with the Fellowship. Ever was he in awe of the way Frodo handled himself around people of importance and how he could find just the right things to say when speaking to such folk as wizards and dwarves and elves, but Samwise still found himself tongue-tied when trying to string together the proper words. He could not help feeling as if he was presuming much to strike up a conversation with the elf in their party, being the simple hobbit he was, and had never spoken much to Legolas as such.
But drastic times call for drastic measures, his Gaffer had said to him many a time, though usually the old hobbit had been referring to a particularly stubborn stone in his garden or a vegetable blight, and not to a sulking elf. Nevertheless, Sam smoothed the creases from his map and lifted it. He straightened it with an exaggerated movement and he loudly cleared his throat, trying to catch the attention of their usually sharply attentive companion.
Legolas did not look up. Sam craned his head sideways with painfully obvious subtlety to study the elf's strange, distant eyes. Legolas continued to sweep the water with steady strokes, but otherwise did not stir.
Sam frowned and wondered whether maybe Legolas was sleeping. He had gathered by now after months of having Legolas around and taking turns at setting a guard over their camp each night that sleep meant one thing to a hobbit and entirely another to an elf, though he hadn't quite figured out the mechanics of elvish sleep. Unnatural it was, and beyond Sam's reckoning and he had given up trying to understand how anyone could get a decent night's rest with their eyes wide open to the darkness, but he certainly had never mentioned it to the elf and wasn't about to.
It did seem queer to him, however, that Legolas might be sleeping and paddling a boat at the same time. Though Sam was a properly sane hobbit and knew next to nothing about navigating a canoe in deep water, it seemed to him too complicated a task for even an elf to accomplish when not fully conscious. He pondered that for a moment, then shrugged aside his speculations and decided that Legolas must be awake and simply lost in thought.
Sam tried a more direct approach.
"Mr. Legolas, sir? Legolas?"
The elf drew in a long deep breath and lifted his head. He regarded Sam with questioning, melancholy eyes.
Sam opened his mouth and promptly forgot what it was he wished to ask. He flushed with helpless embarrassment and bit his lip and raised his eyebrows apologetically.
Legolas's expression grew merry at the sight of Sam's discomfiture and he laughed lightly. "Samwise, my dear hobbit, someday we shall have to rid you of this shyness that seems to overtake you at the very sight of an elf. I promise you I shall not bite," the elf smiled regretfully, "despite what you may think of me after this morning."
Sam eased a little and found his voice, encouraged by the elf's alacrity. "T'was nothing important, Legolas. I mean, that is, I was wanting to ask if we were close to Mirkwood or if I am completely out of my reckonin'."
Legolas thrust his oar into the swirling waters and slowed his boat, allowing Aragorn's to slide nearer and draw alongside. He looked across Sam's arm to examine the hobbit's makeshift map.
"Nay, Sam, you have it aright. We are indeed close to Mirkwood's southern border... there by your hand. That is where the Brown Lands end and Mirkwood begins."
"Then we are near your home?"
"What you must remember, Sam, is that Mirkwood is a very great forest. Upon your small map it is but a vague outline of trees but in truth Mirkwood stretches out far to the north from where we are, nearly as great a distance as your home from where we find ourselves now. The Wood-elves of Mirkwood roam through much of these parts, and my father's palace lies there... in the northern section and to the east, near the Grey Mountains where the swift Forest River runs."
Frodo chuckled. "As I recall, Bilbo was less than charmed by the denizens of Mirkwood outside Thranduil's borders."
Legolas laughed and his eyes glimmered. "Ah, but your uncle travelled blindly, Frodo, and did not have an elf with him for company. I fear he saw naught but the darkness and the wild. Yet I might show you the glades beneath the beech and oak and elm where light lingers longest, where silver moonlight sifts white between the leaves to dance upon the air. Someday you shall see it, Frodo, and you, Sam. I will take you there, and you shall drink and feast with the Wood-elves on a midsummer night and discover the beauty of Mirkwood for yourselves."
Sam strove to answer, but was confounded by a lump caught firmly within his throat. Frodo came to his rescue. "I could imagine nothing more wonderful, Legolas."
Aragorn stretched and lifted his oar high above his head as a warning to Boromir and the hobbits behind them. "In the meantime, you may want to take a securer seat, my friends. There are rapids approaching."
Sam scrambled to the center of their boat and stowed his map as the sound of the water grew louder and the canoes began to pick up their pace. Legolas unfolded his legs and knelt in readiness and cut behind them. Gimli stirred finally from the silent meditation he had slipped into after Aragorn's chastisement. He caught up his paddle with strong hands and raised his head to size up the disturbance of the water.
It was but a small swirling flow of running rapids, a mere riffling of the current tugging at them, but the swiftness took their breath and the boats rose and fell to the buoyant swell with exhilirating speed. Each caught the drive of the current that carried them away from the angriest places and they let them go quartering to the wildest rush and shooting past.
Aragorn paddled into calmer waters beyond and tarried watchfully until all three boats had emerged safely from the toiling river and Frodo laid down his own oar with a sigh. He could do little enough to aid Aragorn when the waters grew rougher, but Aragorn assured him the river was mostly tame until one reached Sarn Gebir. His assurances and the promise of the elves in Lorien that the grey vessels would not sink were all that kept Frodo from diving to the floor with Sam when the Anduin chose to toss them about like grey leaves in a stream.
They watched Boromir and Merry drive their boat through the foaming water and weave between the rocks and heard Merry's triumphant shout rise above the roar as they defeated the rapids and coasted in behind them.
"Trust a Brandybuck to be enjoying this!" Sam muttered as he sat back up.
Aragorn swept the dark, wet hair from his eyes and grinned. "A conspirator, a jester, a warrior, but we have not made you yet into a riverman, Samwise Gamgee?"
Frodo laughed despite the still racing of his heart and the trickles of cold water running uncomfortably down his back. It was good to see their spirits lift and hear mirth in their voices.
"Not now, not ever," Sam declared as he settled once more against the curve of their small boat and wrung out his cloak. "Soaked to the bone and smellin' of fish. I will be right happy when we get out of these boats tonight, and happier when we don't have to get back in 'em."
Sam turned up his nose and cast a look of aversion back at the stretch of river they left behind.
Suddenly something caught his sight along the shoreline far back and away: at first he stared at it listlessly, then he sat up and rubbed his eyes; but when he looked again he could not see it anymore. Aragorn had taken up his oar once more and they fell into line behind him and began to weave their way down the river once more. Though Sam strained to catch another glimpse of movement upon the edge of the dwindling rapids, there was now nothing there.
"You say no one lives here, Strider?" Sam asked.
"Nay, no one does, Sam. Not in these dark times."
"The elves of Lorien and Mirkwood never travel this far?"
Legolas paused in his idle efforts to bail the water from their boat's hull and looked up, his keen elvish ears catching the note of worry in Sam's voice. He followed Sam's gaze, as did Aragorn, and they scanned the banks along the Anduin behind them. The elf and the Ranger exchanged glances.
"The elves of Lorien do not now leave their borders lest they are sorely pressed, and sorely pressed would they have to be to venture forth with the Shadow watching in the East," the elf said. "Nor would my people. Southern Mirkwood is a dark place and none come this way, Samwise, though my father and my people have tried to conquer the evil which still lingers there. Mirkwood is aptly named, I fear, for all our efforts. The dark things that were driven out in the year of the Dragon's fall have returned in greater numbers and the forest is once more unsafe, save where our realm is maintained. The deeper into the southern wood you venture, Sam, the more perilous. There lies Dol Guldur and long was it a haven for Sauron ere his shadow grew."
"That is where it began," Frodo said quietly. Legolas made to answer, but was interrupted.
"Aye," murmured a deep voice. Gimli stirred, but did not turn his head to look at the hobbits or the elf, and seemed more to be speaking to himself. "That is where it began. In Mirkwood. Often have I wondered whether it was due to the negligence of the elves that Sauron grew strong beneath their very noses, or whether it was not such a coincidence that evil should choose elvish lands in particular to take root."
Legolas's eyes grew sharp and cold as green ice and Sam shuddered at the sudden change. It was unexpected and took his breath as surely as the rapids scant moments ago. Legolas drew his attention from the shoreline and turned to confront Gimli; his words were clipped and tense when he replied.
"I believe you did strike upon the truth with your latter suggestion. I do not think it a coincidence. Ever has evil sought to corrupt that which is fair, and what greater pleasure could Sauron find than to twist the trees and growing things that once thrived in Greenwood the Great to fashion the decayed and foul eyesore that is Dol Guldur. But I argue with one whose wit is so feeble that I find I cannot fault him for seizing upon the first absurd conclusion which sprang into his mind. You are forgiven."
It was odd, Sam thought. Gimli had blinked and regarded Legolas with what appeared to be confusion when the elf spoke to him. The dwarf listened with a weary, disinterested expression, then he changed also and he glared malevolently at the elf and bared his teeth. "Feeble my wit must be," he muttered, "else I should have sliced out that elvish tongue of yours long ago and left you to the Wargs ere you ever defiled Khazad-dum with your presence."
"And in those filthy caves we should have left you, sobbing as a weak child beside the tomb of your failed cousin," Legolas hissed, and he stood up before the dwarf, balancing within the lurching boat.
Sam saw Gimli's hand stray to his axe and there was an eerie glint in his eyes. Legolas's face became terrifyingly emotionless, as if a mask were sealed over his fair, familiar features, turning them fell and fearful. Vile epithets crackled through the air as Legolas and Gimli sought to wound with words, scarcely far from seeking to wound one another with cold steel. Sam heard Frodo and Aragorn shift and felt Frodo grip his shoulder hard but he sat mesmerized by the awful confrontation. It seemed to Sam as he watched that the elf and dwarf were staring across thousands of years of hatred and rage into each other's gaze. It was horrible to see and Sam felt sick at heart. Feeling responsible for inadvertently sparking the conversation which had led to this, he turned to his master helplessly, pleading for him to do something.
It was too much... these cruel and cutting words that leapt unbidden to their tongues, the senseless, petty spite... It made little sense, this sudden change in them. Weariness and frustration could not stir up such strife. Frodo felt gripping terror well up within him.
He caught the look in Sam's eyes and he shook his head... and realization dawned within him.
Nay, it is not your fault, Sam, he thought. It is mine. It is because of me.
"Stop this..." Frodo moaned. "Please, both of you stop." He shivered with a sudden chill and drew his cloak tighter about his shoulders and hunched down, his eyes shut tightly. His hand flew to his throat, then touched the chain about his neck, and followed it downward until he gripped the hard, golden circle beneath the soft fabric of his shirt, clasping it as he did a hundred times a day, always checking to see that it still was there, that it still hung securely about his neck. It was warm to the touch. Perhaps it was warmed by the heat of his body, though he did not think so for his flesh beneath was clammy and cool. He heard Aragorn speak and heard Gimli's rough voice answer, but he did not understand their words. The air vibrated in his ears and he could taste a coppery tint at the back of his throat.
Chinks in their armor.
Frodo gulped for air, and a pressure squeezed his chest until he thought his heart might burst.
Chinks in their armor. It is finding the cracks in their defenses and prising them open, burrowing into them, baring their weaknesses and prodding at their minds.
It is using them. It was trying to take them from him.
The taste in Frodo's mouth grew stronger and he felt dizzy, felt as if he were suspended within some horrid black void. The hum in the air grew stronger and triumphant whispers filled his mind.
Frodo's eyes flew open and he gasped at the touch of a firm hand upon his arm. Aragorn had laid aside the oars and caught Frodo up. He gripped him tightly and in his grim face Frodo saw worry and sadness and also a confirmation of his fears.
He knew. Aragorn knew what was happening and there was naught he could do. Frodo despaired, but the Ranger held his gaze for a long moment until Frodo felt the weight upon him ease and the whispers in his mind grew quiet. He remained still, listening.
"You will cease this." Aragorn's voice was low and terrible to hear and Frodo shuddered at the force of it.
"You will cease this at once. Now!" he said, and he fixed commanding, unbreakable eyes upon the elf and dwarf.
The hum in the air vanished and the air grew lighter, and it seemed as if something dark had fled before Aragorn's wrath. Legolas choked slightly and trembled, his breathing suddenly quick and shallow. He looked at Frodo and the colour drained from his cheeks. He sank down and his eyes closed; he lifted the oar in his hands and he held the wood tightly to his heaving breast as if to steady himself.
Gimli's shoulders jerked at the lash of Aragorn's words and his shoulders slumped; his face was ruddy and he blinked rapidly as one awakening from a deep sleep, from a nightmare, to find that others had shared in it with him. Bewildered, he looked to Legolas and swiftly averted his eyes.
Aragorn looked grim. Frodo felt his grip on him loosen, and the Ranger sat back onto the stern-seat slowly, warily, still watching the elf and the dwarf.
Legolas and Gimli sat motionless, though the shore behind them raced past and the river continued to bear them along. Gimli's face was in his hands. Legolas was motionless, his dull eyes fixed upon the water.
"Come, my friends," Aragorn said. "We have yet a long way to go."
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.