3. To Follow
Aragorn searched the forest for sounds to appease his concern, but again the woods were quiet. He scanned the trees around him, then the floor, but instinct was only futile in this case; the tracks of the Orc army were so numerous and consuming that he would never be able to spot the nimble feet of an Elf.
Gimli watched the man intently, his heart churning with rage, worry, and despair. He reached forward and grasped the others arm. I fear admitting this to myself, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, he began quietly, but they would not let us easily find their prize.
Aragorn turned to look upon the Dwarf, the others small, ruddy face holding only compassion and sorrow. Then he bowed his head, his heart heavy. I worry that they have killed him, he said sadly and softly. A silent moment passed, where battered warriors spoke in ways not easily comprehensible to those that have never wielded a weapon in battle. But I worry more that they have not.
The Dwarf squeezed his arm reassuringly, but they both knew the strength to be false. Orcs were not kind to the Elves they kidnapped or captured. Few lived to regale the horrors of their captivity, and those that did were maimed and marred beyond recognition. The thought of such a horrible fate befalling Legolas twisted his stomach.
Gimli sighed and then turned back to the camp. Behind them sat Frodo, Merry, and Pippin, the latter two working diligently at cheering up the former. Frodo rested upon an old log, a blanket salvaged from their supplies wrapped around his shoulders. His eyes were blank, his face downcast. Not long ago, what remained of the Fellowship had been reunited. Gimli and the two Hobbits had rowed a bit upstream, remaining in the river long enough to elude the passing Orc army. By chance Aragorn and Frodo had come to the shore not far from their old camp and not long after they had returned from the water. The ranger had been more than dismayed to find Legolas not among them, the fact confirming the fears that the cries before had borne unto him. Gimli had first been angered and then dismayed by the news of Boromirs betrayal and the loss of the Ring. As if hearts were not already weary with toil enough, Sams disappearance had only served to crush what remained of their morale.
The sun was setting. An unpleasant chill was settling over the woods, and the trees seemed to droop as though their limbs had grown weary from the trauma of the day. Long shadows grew longer still with the slow dusk. Aragorn chewed the inside of his cheek and looked ahead, folding his arms across his breast. Indecision gnawed at his resolve, and for a moment he felt completely helpless against the ebb and flow of the melancholy consuming their group.
Then he turned and drew his cloak tighter about himself. Merry sighed and looked upward. Perhaps we ought make camp here tonight, he said quietly. His dismal eyes turned to Aragorn, speaking of distress and weariness.
Pippin blanched a bit as he looked at his cousin. Are you sure thats wise? the Hobbit asked.
Aragorn sighed and looked around once more, as if yearning and glancing alone could return their missing comrades to them, but found no words for the want of his heart. Merry explained quietly when it was clear the ranger would not speak. When Sam does return, he will be disheartened to find that we have up and left without him.
Pippin sighed and looked blankly ahead, his long face dirtied. If he does return, he moaned almost wistfully, dark eyes blankly trained forward as if finding some point of great interest in the trees ahead. Foolish Gamgee. Hes got no sense of direction, Ill tell you that!
Merry smacked his arm loudly, to which the other yelped and brandished an angry scowl. You never know when to keep that mouth of yours shut, Pip! he admonished harshly. Then Merry looked to Frodo, the irritation fading from his face. Softly he assured, Sam knows his way.
As much as Aragorn wished to rest the pain of his soul and his body, he knew that the hours spent in respite would later needle him as a senseless waste. Pushing the tired and grief-stricken group onward ailed his heart, but there was no other choice. To tarry now meant losing precious days of tracking the army. Even if they had already killed Legolas, Boromir was undoubtedly with them. Thus there, as well, would they find the One Ring. He did not want to consider such painful thoughts, but he knew he must. Reclaiming the Ring from evil meant the victory of the Fellowship, and that undeniably was more important than any of them. They could not afford to wait for Sam.
We must move on, the ranger then announced, chasing the uncertainty from his voice. For a moment the statement hung on the air, and the Hobbits stared at him as though they did not understand. Aragorn supposed they wished not to.
Strider, you arent suggesting we goafter the Ring, Pippin asked incredulously, aghast with the thought. We cant possibly hope to defeat that army!
The ranger grew angry. He knew it was unfounded, but it was difficult to stifle. His own guilt and rage drove him to it. We can and will if need be, Master Took. The One Ring must not fall into the hands of evil, or we all will have failed and again this world will be covered in blackness.
Pippins face grew ashen, starkly white in the fading rays of the sun. Merry glanced at him, trepidation and apprehension clear in his gaze, but a certain vehemence was returning to his defeated face, as though the existence of a greater purpose brought absolution to his bleeding heart. Lets ready the supplies, Pip, he declared, tightening his jaw. Pippin sat a moment more, as if in sad disbelief, before rising and following his cousin to the few packs that remained.
Gimli grunted. Tracking the army will not be too difficult, I trust, son of Arathorn. His deep voice was torn in grief over the loss of Legolas, but anger was swirling in his gaze. Aragorn did not doubt that, should the occasion arise, the son of Glóin would brandish his massive and deadly axe against the enemy with relish.
The ranger gave a weak grin that did not carry to his eyes. Easy enough, my dear friend. When we happen upon them, I have no doubt they will quickly know the fire of Dwarven vengeance.
As well the strength of human valor, Gimli responded, sharing a resolute look with the ranger. The loss they bore they did together. The enemy would know their fury.
When Gimli turned to help the Hobbits with the packs, Aragorn released a slow breath. Then a small hand came to tug at his pants leg. He looked down.
Frodo did not meet his gaze, his wide blue eyes red-rimmed and glazed with tears. His depression was consuming, sucking all light from his pale complexion. The wound upon his temple that had likely rendered him unconscious hours before had now ceased bleeding, though it brought a horrid agony to his young and innocent countenance. His youth seemed snapped, stolen, brutalized. Aragorns heart ached for him. Ive failed you all, Frodo moaned despondently, fresh tears building.
The ranger knelt before the Hobbit and took the small hands in his own. Nay, Frodo. You were not the soul that faltered or the friend who betrayed. Have strength now in knowing this.
The small creature shivered. Moisture ran down his sallow cheeks, glistening in the fading sun. Legolas is dead because of me, he whispered. And Sam is lost. I have only brought you strife, when this burden should have been mine to carry alone.
Aragorn reached forward and with the pad of his thumb gently wiped away the tears from the Hobbits quivering face. This burden is all of Middle Earths, Frodo, though you are courageous to assume it for yourself. Legolas knew that. He felt his throat constrict in unshed tears. He squeezed the Hobbits hands. I promise you, he declared quickly. Frodo finally met his gaze. He forced solidarity into his eyes and grip. We will get it back.
Frodo seemed heartened by his words. The Hobbit sniffled and then wiped his cheeks with the back of his hand and nodded. Relief washed through the ranger as he saw a bit of Frodos old courage return to his eyes, and he helped the Hobbit stand.
Merry clapped Frodo on the shoulder brotherly as he approached, but said nothing. Pippin groaned under the weight of his pack, but then righted himself and winced. Gimli tipped his axe over his shoulder. If you would, Master Ranger, the Dwarf declared, nodding to the woods ahead.
Aragorn turned and gazed upon their path. Leaves were trampled, twigs and branches crunched under pounding feet, the forest floor decimated as though by a stampede. The signs of the armys direction were blaring, an obvious clue even in the waning daylight.
He heaved a silent prayer for them all as he turned and began to walk. Behind him clanking resounded, and then the plodding of tired feet became the only sound in the forest. As they marched, the ranger grew uneasy. Each footstep led them closer to an unimaginable danger. His soul shivered in silent resignation.
The tracks led west.
West towards Isengard.
A small figure crept through the dark woods like a shadow. Swiftly yet cautiously he slipped between the thick trunks of old trees, stepping on light feet. Only the pale light of the moon showed him his path. The white face in the sky seemed mournful and concerned for the lone traveler carefully navigating the cold forest. It would almost be serene if not for the urgency with which the figure stepped. He was running, forever running, charged now with the greatest of all responsibilities.
Sam nearly choked on his breath as he finally happened upon the small clearing along the bank of the great river Anduin where he believed the Fellowships last camp to be. He stared with wide eyes in disbelief. Where only a mere few hours before they had rested, there was now nothing but vague imprints of boots in the sand and boats upon the shore. The supplies that he had remembered to be forgotten during the skirmish were gone. All that remained was one boat, idly resting upon the sandy shore. Within it still, covered by a blanket of black, were a few pouches of supplies left untouched.
A great sob threatened him, but he stifled it. Crying would not do him any good. An eternity had passed since he had left Legolas, it seemed, and he had wandered for hours in the maze of trunk and leaf, desperately searching for sings of the Fellowship. The accursed Ring mocked him for his weakness; he had fastened Frodos necklace around his own self and tucked the trinket deep into the folds of his tunic in hopes of ignoring it. He had never been good with directions, his sense of the outdoors dulled by long years spent within the confines of offices and taverns. He tried to recall how he had found the camp of the Orc army and retrace his steps, but he was no ranger and the actual act proved too difficult. So he had ran against the setting sun, with the blazing ball behind him. At least this small bit of logic had repaid him, and he had finally found the shore.
Discouraged, he sank to the cold ground as burning tears again fled his eyes against his will. They were gone now, dead or lost. He did not know. The oppressive fear of isolation that had picked at his resolve since losing Legolas threatened to overwhelm him. How he wished for Frodos strong eyes to guide him! He almost found himself wishing he might encounter an Orc patrol, for at least that would be something in this terrifying wilderness. Deep down inside he had known that finding the camp as such was a very likely possibility, but a fierce loyalty to Frodo and a driving hope had kept his worries at bay. Now, though, he could not deny that the Fellowship had truly fallen, and he was utterly alone.
For a long time he sat upon the shore, weeping for both himself and his friends, the despair and pain leaving in a great tempest of tears and gasps. What would become of him? He was no fighter. He did not have Gimlis strength nor Legolas agility. He knew not the lay of the land nor the language of the stars as Aragorn did. He was neither wise nor noble as Gandalf had been. Even Merry and Pippin, despite their foolery, possessed a quiet loyalty and fierce determination that never wavered even in the face of the greatest peril. He was only Sam, son of Hamfast, a Hobbit too shy at heart to even ask his fancy for a quick dance. Nothing about him was remarkable. What was more, all he could manage now was tears for the foul crisis upon him!
The moonlight covered him in an ethereal embrace. Frodo had once said that he, too, had only been ordinary before the Ring had come to him. He had been just a young Hobbit, enamored with fantasy but content with the Shire. Extraordinary circumstances birthed a stronger soul, and Frodo had risen to the destiny before him no matter the pain it caused.
His sobs quieted. It would truly be weakness to succumb now to the grievances of his heart.
His hand came up to clench the hot Ring through the fabric of his tunic. In the face of disaster, he would not give up. If he was fated to continue in this horrid battle alone, then he would rise to meet it with dignity. He owed this at least to Frodo.
And so he stood and allowed hope to find its way back into his heart. Sniffling now he looked to the lonely moon. It too had no companions, the night strangely starless. Yet without falter it traversed the black of the sky, silently strong.
Perhaps his friends were not dead. The webs of life were vast and intricate; many paths and roads lay in wait for them, many possibilities, the fruits of which unknown. He would meet them again. He would put his faith in that for now.
Sighing, he turned his gaze to the river. It shimmered like dark silk in night, rippling with the cold breeze. In the shadow he could barely make out the eastern shore. The river was moving quickly, rushing towards the ravine not a league to his right where it tumbled in a great cacophony down the falls to the lands below. Sam watched the river apprehensively a moment. Ever since his youth, he had been terrified of water. At the moment it seemed a violent and menacing force, covered in the shadows, threatening him with the soft swish of current against the shore. He hesitated, irrational dread clawing at his resolve. But he felt the horrible weight of the Ring about his neck and composed himself. This would be the first hardship of his journey.
Steeling himself, he pushed the lone, wooden boat into the water. Holding it steady, he licked his lips and waded in after it. The water was freezing, aching in his bones and numbing his skin. Grunting, he hauled himself up and over the edge of the boat with a spray of chilly water.
Sam shivered, glad to be in the solid boat. He picked a large oar and began to row.
The water churned and swirled with unseen power, so dark with night that it appeared to be an endless abyss that was sucking him down. Sam shook with fear and cold, but made himself concentrate on the simple action of rowing to calm his riled nerves. With a quiet slosh, the wooden oar sliced through the water and pushed the boat forward. Again and again. The sounds of the river and his own heavy breathing seemed amplified a thousand fold in the silence.
A strange thing he did not intend then happened. Maybe halfway across the river, the boat suddenly trembled and buckled, and the currents pushing the water towards the falls grew stronger. Shock coursed through his small body as he frantically pushed with the oar to keep the nose of the craft pointed straight towards the eastern shore. But the river was far stronger than he, and he cried out as it turned him to face the edge. The oar splashed uselessly into the water and sank into the black deep.
Though the flight across the last rapids before the descent seemed impossibly infinite, it lasted hardly a few moments. The small Hobbit, terrified beyond all sense, grasped the boats sides with two shaking, white hands, watching wide-eyed as the edge of the water grew closer and closer. It seemed such a silly thing, that he should have the misfortune to row into a spot of current that too strongly pulled in its own direction. He would never have the strength to fight that. He breathed in short gasps, all thoughts fleeing his mind in a desperate attempt to escape the fate of his body. The boat gave a last few wicked jostles before reaching the end.
Then it tipped over. Cold water washed over him, slapping him with a hard and icy blow, and suddenly he felt weightless. His stomach leapt to his throat, his heart stopped, and he could not breathe. The feeble wooden craft of the boat pushed him forward sadistically. One look sent him into a paroxysm of convulsions and gasps. As if fate had cruelly left him to dangle, he was held there upon the precipice for an endless moment. But that too forsook him, and he lurched forward.
Sams horrified scream trailed into the darkness, the thunder of the water and his own heart filling his mind. He could not think to close his eyes nor pray, paralyzed as he fell, propelling at unbelievable speeds into the dark below. There was neither air nor reason in this vacuum, only the horrifying sensation of flight. He tumbled downward, vaguely aware of the boat behind him, of the mist from the falls stinging against his skin, of the pain and terror in his soul.
Then he struck.
Intense pain flowered over his body, snapping tension from his limbs, and all sound was suddenly replaced by a dull roar that filled his ears. Some part of him realized that he was under water, but his panic and pain ignored the blaring warning, and he choked. He could not move, the vicious chill invading his body, snatching his strength. His lungs burned and ached. Kicking and struggling vainly, his deprived mind moved solely on instinct. But it was too black to find the surface, and something heavy was pushing him down. Red splotches danced in his vision.
He was drowning!
As life began to fade from him, leaving him at the mercy of the icy grasp of the water, he thought of the Shire. It was such a pretty place, filled with loving neighbors, warm, lazy summer days spent under the cool canopy of ancient trees, good food borne from centuries of tradition. Home. He had spent many a day with Frodo wasting afternoons away in the shade in a companionable silence, puffing upon the good weed of the fields. How he longed for the sweet taste, for the companionship of his friends and family, for the security of his home. Hobbiton seemed a lost dream, and it had since they had formed the Fellowship. Even if he did return, he would never be the same.
Still, he had pledged to Rosie another dance. He had told his father that he would help him with thatching the roof of their small, old shed. He had made a promise. A promise not to lose Frodo. Not to leave Frodo. Not to give up.
With a cry, he shoved upward, and broke the surface. Gasping, water sputtering from blue lips, he drew in heaving breath after breath of sweet and glorious air, filling his lungs without reservation. Complete darkness surrounded him and panic pulsed once more through his frozen body, pushing energy into him. Had he fallen into some sort of cave? The sound of water lapping against wood was so loud. Logic returned to his aching mind. He was trapped under the overturned boat.
Sam shook in fear. He could not swim. The other Hobbits, especially Merry and Pippin, had many times in the past poked fun at his fear of water and his inability to move in it. Although despair jabbed at his resolve, he ignored it. He took at deep breath, the vow he swore to himself giving him strength. He could swim if he set his mind to it. He knew he could!
Pushing down from the top of the boat, he submerged again. The water grabbed him, its icy caress sapping energy once more, but he refused to be defeated. Struggling in the black, keeping one hand on the outside of the boat as a reference, he pushed away and fled from beneath it. Now free, he rose again to the surface.
The pale light of the moon directed him. Maybe half a league away was the other shore, glowing like salvation. He struggled to stay afloat, kicking, swallowing his panic. It seemed so far away, and he was so very tired. There was no one to help him.
You must, Sam. Legolas words filled his mind once more. Your first duty is to the Ring and to Frodo. He swallowed water and choked. His face was streaked with tears. The small creature gritted his chattering teeth. I must do this!
And so he struggled forth, kicking, straining, pushing the heavy water aside, gasping and fighting with all the strength he had left. The conviction in his heart gave him resolution. As he swam, words from a conversation he had once overheard floated about his exhausted mind. Gandalfs wise voice heartened him. Hobbits really are amazing creatures. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you in a pinch! It seemed so long ago! Oh, how they all had changed! Before he had doubted those words could ever apply to him. But they had, and they would still. He would not fail.
Then, after an eternity of struggle against wet peril, his toes struck the mud, and he waded to shore. Once there he collapsed upon the bank, utterly exhausted, his body refusing to support him any longer. There he lay sopping wet, staring blankly at the sky, relishing the feeling of the sturdy ground beneath his back, severely winded. A great maelstrom of emotion swirled about his weary heart. Despite himself, he grinned foolishly and began to weep.
The moon smiled down upon him. Such a constant companion, shedding its soft light quietly when all other lights had gone out.
Then he closed his eyes.
He had reached the eastern shore. He had passed this first test. Although he knew there would be many more to come, for now, this was enough. And he sank into sleep.
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.