20. Chapter Twenty
Each was therefore surprised to find a kindred spirit in the other. They exchanged a regretful glance when passing an alehouse, sighing in shared sorrow. Sam slowed to admire the pretty sight of a red lamp burning in a lace-curtained window and was surprised to feel Gimli firmly place a hand on his shoulder and hustle him past it with an embarrassed expression on what Sam could see of his bearded face. Sam turned to ask the dwarf what the matter was, but the smells of dinner wafting from a nearby inn distracted his attention. Gimli heaved a sigh of relief and thanked his ancestors he had escaped having to explain certain conventions of other races to the hobbit.
Neither hobbit nor dwarf wasted words or action or effort, and found that they shared a dry and somewhat understated sense of humor. Gimli had merely raised a bushy eyebrow and nodded his approval when Sam stopped and leaned against the edge of a building to support himself as he pulled off his boots, having the good sense to remove them and discard them in a rubbish heap before they could blister the sides and tops of his thick-soled feet.
As Sam straightened, he caught sight of a white-bordered short black cape, attached to the meaty shoulders of a large guardsman who was speaking with a townsman. Sam nudged Gimli and pointed, and the dwarf leaned past him to peer around the corner. The man was gesturing animatedly, then spread his hand and lowered it to his mid-section. To about hobbit-height. Then the man turned and pointed in their direction.
It was too dark in their shadowed place for the guardsman to see them, but the torches lining the public thoroughfare illuminated the two men well. The guardsman thanked the townsman with a nod, then placed his hand on his sword and with a grim expression, started in their direction.
Sam heard the dwarf rumble something under his breath, then felt a heavily muscled hand on his shoulder, pulling him back. Gimli jerked his head towards an alley and Sam nodded. The two retreated, seeking to slide between the buildings and be lost. Then the guardsman was rounding the corner and Sam and Gimli took off at a run.
“Halt! Halt!” the guardsman shouted. “By order of the Guard! You there – stop!”
Townsfolk were materializing on the previously deserted street, sticking their heads out of their doorways to gawk at the two fleeing figures. Gimli swerved down a side street and Sam plunged after him, any sound his hobbit-feet might have made lost in the clatter of Gimli’s hob-nailed boots. The guardsman’s shouts were collecting a throng of curious people, who were catching up torches and joining in the chase with entirely too much enjoyment, in Sam’s opinion.
His contemplations of what his Gaffer would say about his son being chased by a mob of Men for the second time were brought up short when he slammed into Gimli’s solid back. The dwarf had screeched to a stop, sparks flying from his boots, and was standing with both muscled hands braced against a high wooden fence. Their escape route had betrayed them into a dead end.
They could not possibly jump over the fence, and there was nothing nearby to use to climb over it. Gimli growled and backed up, ramming the sturdy wood with his shoulder. The fence shuddered but held. Gimli bounced off and Sam winced, sucking on his lip in sympathy. The dwarf muttered under his breath then swung back to Sam. “Samwise, I can toss you up to the top of the fence. Will you permit me?”
Sam gaped at him, stunned by the thought of such strength. He could steady himself on the posts, pull himself over and drop down the other side … escape. But then he shook his sandy head. “No, sir. No way. I’ll not be leaving you. They’ll have to take us together.”
Gimli’s hand tightened on his arm, then relaxed. “It goes ill to surrender to this motley pack. But … Gandalf and Aragorn have forbidden us mayhem.” He ran a gnarled hand down the wood. “My axe would make kindling of this in moments - but our good wizard would no doubt construe that as mayhem, even if wood and not heads. We are well and truly caught, Master Samwise,” he growled.
The guardsman pounded around the corner, followed closely (but not too closely) by several townsmen brandishing their torches. Gimli and Sam turned to face them, hands held away from their weapons. The guardsman, panting noisily, glowered at them and bent over with his hands on his knees. “Right,” he wheezed. “I … I ordered you to stop. Not run – stop. You, sir, and the halfling are coming with me.”
Gimli stepped forward and held out his hands, palms up, trying to look harmless. Respect for authority was entrenched in dwarven society and it had gone against Gimli’s grain to disobey a lawfully given command. Sam had no such conflict. Hobbits were a law-abiding folk … as long as it was convenient. Both sought to keep their expressions earnest and non-threatening. Their lack of height as compared to Men aided them; they looked to be less of a danger.
“We will come peaceably,” said Gimli in as soothing a tone as the gravelly-voiced dwarf could muster. “This is a misunderstanding and will certainly be cleared up when we speak with your superiors.” The guardsman looked at him doubtfully but seemed grateful for the lack of resistance. The townsfolk were disappointed to see the chase end. When no further excitement looked to be forthcoming, they began to drift away.
Gimli and Sam, with their escort, were but a block from the jail when all heard a roar as if from a great beast, and a blast of heat stirred the hair on their heads and blew it back from their faces. Then fire fountained ahead of them, its source hidden by the intervening buildings. The guardsman stumbled to a stop, his jaw dropping. Sam and Gimli halted too, disbelieving eyes staring at the inferno then at each other.
“Oh, no,” groaned Sam.
The guardsman uttered a short, inarticulate cry and glanced at them wildly. “You two stay here,” he shouted at them. “Stay here! I’ll be back for you in a moment!” His two prisoners gaped at him wordlessly. Then the man whirled and leaped forward and – fell to his knees, the haft of Gimli’s axe a blur as it rebounded from his skull.
“Sorry, lad,” grunted the dwarf. “Can’t have you getting in the way.” The man groaned and pitched forward. Gimli caught him easily and propped him up against a barrel on the wooden sidewalk. Then he and Sam were running, running towards the crackle of flames and the glow that was climbing higher into the night.
The two came upon a scene defined by flame, yellow and orange and red, flickering light that painted the street in unreal shades of fire. Boromir was kneeling, sliding an unconscious man from his shoulder and laying him flat in the street, well out of danger from the flames. Gandalf stood over him, staff in hand, gesturing urgently.
The wizard caught sight of them and waved at them to stay back. Another crowd was gathering, shouting at each other to form a bucket brigade. ‘They ought ‘ta be getting good at that by now,’ Sam thought.
People were dashing aimlessly about in front of the burning jail and it was not difficult for Gandalf and Boromir to ease away from the supine figure and melt into all the confusion, seeking the sheltering darkness beyond. Drawing their cloaks over themselves, Gimli and Samwise worked their way inconspicuously to their sides.
The wizard looked at them unsurprised, but Boromir seemed half in shock. Gimli took in the burning jail and shouting, frantic townsfolk and remarked, ”I think we had best quit this place. Did you start another fire, Gandalf?”
“I did not start another fire, Gimli!” retorted the wizard in angry exasperation. “I did not start the first one! I was a totally innocent bystander here. Almost totally innocent. It started when the commander sought to shoot me, and Boromir tackled him.” Gandalf muttered something under his breath then said more loudly, “I thank you, Boromir, by the way.” Boromir nodded numbly and Gandalf continued, “His bolt went wide and shattered the oil lamp.”
“Be that as it may,” returned the dwarf, unperturbed, “I doubt that these good people would see you as the injured party. Especially with the commander of their guard force stretched out on the ground. And considering your history of burning down important bits of their town.”
“My history -” sputtered Gandalf irately, but Sam intervened.
“Sirs, sorry to interrupt, sirs, but don’t you think we should get out of here?”
Gandalf glared at the hobbit for a moment, then raised his face and closed his eyes, seeking Aragorn and Legolas. Surprisingly, their life-flames were together, while somewhat behind them came two bowing, dancing sparks that could only be the youngest hobbits. A third was with Merry and Pippin, a young bright-burning spark – a mortal child? But there was no time to wonder over that now.
“That way,” said the wizard, pointing with his staff. The four melted quietly into the flickering shadows and headed in the direction of the others.
* * * * *
Had Gandalf expanded his search over a wider area after locating the four familiar sparks and the one unknown one, he would have puzzled over the insensate spark of the sleeping child and the banked, waiting spark of the dark form that knelt above it. The wizard would have seen three other life-sparks hesitate at the gates of the public gardens. Frodo’s spark he would have known immediately, even as the weakening flicker of its incandescent flame would have alarmed him. And the hissing life-spark that came last would have filled his heart with terror.
Peter huffed as they came through the gates and Marly looked at him, concerned. The man found a bench and eased himself and Frodo down upon it. The hobbit had been silent for most of the walk, conversing only to speculate fretfully about the source of the fiery glow they could see painting the sky red, and to urge the man to greater speed. Frodo’s breathing had become louder and now rasped with a gasping quality that worried the man. Frodo did not open his eyes as Peter raised him into a sitting position in his lap. The dark curls were limp with perspiration, and sweat glimmered on his face.
“Frodo?” Peter whispered fearfully.
The hobbit did not respond. “Frodo?” the man asked again more loudly.
Frodo shuddered and forced his eyes open. Peter was alarmed to see them glazed and brilliant with fever. “We are here?” the hobbit whispered.
Marly wetted a cloth from her water skin and wiped his face with it. “Aye, sir, we’re here.”
Frodo tried to straighten up and Peter shifted to accommodate him, moving a hand to support the small back. The hobbit looked about him, eyes narrowing as he peered into the darkness. Here, away from the streets, there were no torches or lamps for public illumination. But the fire that the three could see over the rooflines of the narrow houses was growing, and they watched it in apprehension and fear. The flickering light outlined the half-seen forms of trees, their swaying branches seeming forbidding and menacing. The cold wind plucked at their clothing with insistent, malicious tugs.
“Do you see anything?” Frodo asked softly.
Marly and Peter shook their heads. “The note said that we were just to wait,” Marly murmured, trying to keep her voice steady. “Would you like a drink, sir?”
Frodo accepted a mouthful of water, his eyes never leaving off his search of the darkness. “When this is over…” he began, then coughed. “When this is over, please tell my friends what happened. They will search for me, I know they will. Will you promise?”
“Yes, sir,” Peter said softly. “We promise.”
“Will you tell Brion that I am very sorry. I never meant for this to happen.”
Marly gave a little cry of grief that she could not stifle. Peter’s face was tight with anger and shame and terror for his son. But his voice did not waver. “Yes, Frodo. We’ll tell him.” They were silent then, waiting.
As they waited, Peter’s eyes roved nervously over the well-known grounds of the gardens, made unfamiliar and threatening by the night. Not far away from where the three sat with pounding hearts, what they had taken to be the back of a large ornamental bush quivered slightly as the cloak-draped woman adjusted her seating. A slim hand reached from concealment to part the thick growth before her. Asleep at her feet lay the boy. In the guise of a farewell drink, she had given Brion more of the sleeping powder, and the lad had yawned and apologized to her for the yawn and then slumped unconscious at her feet.
Alissa had carried him easily, slipping along the narrow streets with the surety born of long experience and training. On the few occasions that she had encountered the residents of this little town, she had kept to the shadows until they moved on. She could move as silently as the wind. None of the people she passed were even aware of the lithe figure wrapped in a black cloak, a softly snoring burden over her shoulder.
She watched them now, the three on the bench, her eyes on the small form between the two larger ones. About the same size as the boy was all she could tell in the darkness. ‘Third time pays for all,’ Alissa repeated to herself, and spared a moment to wonder why she was being paid so much to deliver this halfling to her employer.
“Ring-bearer” she had overheard. One who bears a ring – very well. What type of ring? Her education as an assassin and thief enabled her to assess the value of any piece of jewelry, and tell real stones from paste at a glance. Tales of another sort of ring surfaced in her mind, faint memories of half-attended stories … magical rings that could convey vast powers upon their wearers. Dismissing such ridiculous fancies, Alissa rested, content for the moment to prepare herself.
The glow of the distant fire flickered on the faces of the three on the bench and the woman resisted the temptation to turn and look at the flames as it might affect her night-sight. She had no interest in the blaze other than how it would assist her escape with the halfling. She would not even have to disguise herself; no one would question a woman carrying what appeared to be a child when their attention was focused on saving their miserable cesspit of a town. She inclined her head under the cloak and allowed a smile to cross her features – at last, it seemed, fortune’s long-averted face was turning her way.
Two others lingered outside the gates, hidden in the shadow of the high verge that surrounded the gardens. Aragorn and Legolas had come moments after Peter and Marly and Frodo, delayed by the Elf’s quick climb up a drainpipe to view the burgeoning flames from a rooftop. He had not been able to see the source and they could only hope desperately that the fire had nothing to do with the Fellowship. They arrived at the gardens just in time to see Frodo and the man and the woman be seated, the human couple obviously distraught and frightened yet tender in their care of their injured friend.
Closing his eyes to listen intently, Legolas relayed the whispered conversation among the three to Aragorn, his mouth pressed against the Ranger’s ear. Aragorn longed to rush in and recover Frodo, but that would endanger the child that had helped the Ring-bearer. He and Legolas had agreed to wait until the kidnapper showed, then intervene. They had little hope of spotting the kidnapper before the exchange, knowing that he would have certainly familiarized himself with the gardens first and they had no time to do so. Nor could they guess what plan of escape the man might have - either confederates waiting (as they were) in the bushes or other safeguards to ensure his escape with his prize.
It had never been said between them, but Aragorn and Legolas both knew that ultimately they had not the option of allowing the kidnapper to seize the Ring-bearer. If the child – and his parents – had to be sacrificed to that end, so it must be. Frodo might hate them for it, but three lives … or many more … could not be placed before the fate of all of Middle-earth.
They never heard the silent hobbit-feet that trailed them, though Legolas raised his head briefly at the sound of a booted foot kicking a pebble. Booted, not bare… The Elf turned his head slightly but saw nothing. He quickly returned his attention to the still tableau before him.
Merry and Pippin, with Rich behind them, released inaudible sighs of relief when Legolas did not further investigate the boy’s slight misstep. Rich grimaced an apology and Pippin patted his arm in reassurance.
Unseen by any of the others, last approached a cloaked figure, limping slightly. The creature raised its head and its forked tongue tasted the night wind, catching the scents of scattered humans and halflings and one Elf. The familiar scent of the halfling he had taken was sour with illness and the creature was pleased to know that the little one’s hurts had festered. It hoped it suffered greatly. It would hurt the halfling much, much more before finally being done with it. Perhaps it would keep the other halflings to play with, for a while, if it saw that the little one cared for them.
The man and the Elf it would kill first, for they were dangerous. Those two crouched with their backs to it, unaware of its presence. It would have to fly past the halflings and the human whelp to reach them. The creature did not doubt its ability to engage the two warriors before they were aware of it. Perhaps the halflings would follow once it had its prey; if they dared pursue, it could take them for its later amusement. The man and the woman with the little one it would kill quickly, for they were of no consequence. The woman that crouched in the darkness with the other human child it did not understand but she did not concern it, so long as she did nothing to hinder. Soundlessly, the creature unsheathed its sword and prepared itself for the rush of speed and flame that would gain it the One Ring … and Power unimaginable.
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.