21. Chapter Twenty-One
“It is true, there are few greater pleasures than a mug of beer with friends at the end of the day. Among my people -”
“Quiet back there,” snapped Gandalf. “This is not a hobbit walking party.” He and Boromir were in the lead, booted feet making a horrendous amount of noise on the cobblestones (in Sam’s opinion). He had grown used to the clatter of Gimli’s hob-nailed boots, he realized. He had almost forgotten what quiet sounded like. He and his fellow hobbits thought the Big Folk noisy enough in the Wild, but here the noise they made was astonishing. Sam wondered idly if anyone had informed the soldier of Gondor about the fate of his spare pair of boots yet, and decided to leave that to Master Pippin. Or to Mr. Merry, being as it was his idea.
The wizard paused, hands tight on his staff, eyes closed. Gimli and Sam exchanged a glance then looked at Boromir, who shrugged. Gandalf stood stiffly, brow furrowed in concentration, muttering under his breath as he searched. As they waited, their eyes turned to the flaming garrison behind them. All they could see of it was a red rim over other buildings and a glow in the night sky. Word was still spreading; people darted past them to see the excitement. The curious and the idle, and those who ran to help. Some had shouted questions at them in passing but did not stay to hear any answers. The four had quickly put some distance between them and the fire, and hoped that none had seen them depart. The guardsman Gimli had struck might or might not have regained consciousness by now, but the commander probably had. Boromir had struck the man reluctantly, only to still him and to save his life.
Not daring to interrupt the wizard, they stood patiently and waited. Gandalf’s countenance was at last keen and focused, and he lifted his bearded head and pointed down another of the narrow, confusing streets. “That way.” They had all moved forward when Gandalf stopped abruptly. “What-” He raised his staff slightly, sharp eyes abstracted. “Frodo?” He leaned forward, his long body tense. “Oh, Frodo, my poor boy…” he whispered softly, his lined face drawn in grief.
Sam’s head jerked up and he heard Gimli gasp. Boromir glanced at them then opened his mouth. But before he could speak, Gandalf was motioning them forward. “Hurry,” he said. “Frodo is ahead of us, and Aragorn and Legolas and Merry and Pippin. And others. And something … something wicked.”
Then there was no more time for questions as they followed the wizard down the dark alleyway.
Not far away at all, Legolas crouched behind the verdant hedge and fitted an arrow to his bow. Aragorn had placed his hand upon his bow then changed his mind; mortal sight was not sufficient to guide his aim through the darkness and thick underbrush. A stray bolt might strike the Ring-bearer, and he could not risk that. One hand rested now on the hilt of his drawn sword, its point ready against the earth, the other on his sheathed knife. Kneeling in the darkness next to the Elf, he waited.
Seated on the cold bench in the public gardens, Marly and Peter and Frodo were unaware of the man and the Elf on the other side of the hedge and the two parties that had followed them, one made up of friends, the other consisting of pure evil. The two halflings were taking great care to keep out of the sight and hopefully hearing of the Big Folk, guiding the young human boy, whose senses were not as keen as theirs. The unnatural creature that trailed them observed this with amusement, its clawed hands tightening on its sword.
The man and the woman on the bench had eyes and ears that sought only for signs of the hidden presence of their son. Frodo too waited, his battle to remain awake and alert an increasingly difficult one. Fire burned along his leg and thrummed through his veins, making it difficult to focus on his surroundings. Growing within him was a fear that he would somehow fail these good people who had tried to help him; that he would faint or cry out or do something that would spoil the exchange for Brion. Nothing must interfere with getting the lad back safely. Nothing.
The woman who knelt in the darkness to the side of the bench, sheltered by the thick bushes and the expert draping of her cloak, decided that she had waited long enough. It was full dark now, the time that she had specified for the boy’s ransom. She snaked a slender arm down and checked the pulse at Brion’s throat. It beat strong and steady, and she was pleased that she had correctly estimated the amount of the drug to keep him quiet and asleep. She could use that information for subduing the halfling as well. Brion sighed and shifted in the curled-up ball he slept in, and she saw the halfling’s head swivel in her direction.
It was time. Alissa rose gracefully, allowing the voluminous cloak to slip back to reveal the child. The halfling made a soft sound in his throat and she saw the boy’s parents look down at him, then follow his gaze over to her. The woman gasped audibly, and the man gulped. She almost laughed at their expressions of fear and desperate hope.
Now that she had revealed herself to them, she twitched back the cloak a bit further to show them the long sword, its point at their sleeping son’s heart. The woman made a choked sob and Alissa saw her arms tighten around the halfling.
The man gently eased Frodo to the bench between them and rose, taking a step forward. “Hold,” she commanded him softly, absurdly pleased to be able to use her own voice without the need for disguise. She flicked the sword along the boy’s chest for emphasis, and the man quivered to a halt.
“He only sleeps,” she murmured. “He is unharmed.” She allowed them a moment to understand that. “Send me the halfling,” she ordered. “Then we will withdraw and you may have the boy.”
“Frodo can’t walk.” It was the woman who spoke, terror and despair in her voice. “He’s been hurt. He can’t walk.”
Alissa would have thought it an attempt to dissemble, had not she heard the same from her eavesdropping on the halfling’s friends at the jail. And she could see that something was wrong with the little one – he seemed struggling to attend their words, and one small leg was heavily bandaged. There was just enough starlight to shine on the dark, wet-looking stains that marred the white linen.
“I can walk,” the little one said in a soft, musical voice, overlaid with pain. “If you will allow my friend to help me.”
“No! I will not allow the man near.” Alissa’s sword returned to just above the boy’s heart, and the hobbit swallowed.
“Then let Peter carry me to a place more convenient for you. He will not come near. Let him put me near the entrance; it will be easier for us to leave from there. And no one will be between us to hinder our departure.”
The Southron woman considered this. The halfling was intelligent. She must remember that. “I agree.” To the man she said, “Carry the halfling to the hedge and set him down. Then withdraw. Do not think you can rush me – I still hold your son’s life even if I am not near him.” To prove her point, Alissa unhooked one of the metal stars from her belt and held it up to their eyes. Marly and Peter and Frodo stared at the starlight winking off the object, uncomprehending.
They did not know of throwing-stars? Well, she would teach them. With a grace born of long experience, she cocked her arm back and let the star fly. It made the softest whirring sound before it thunked deeply into a tree trunk near the three, tough bark shredding like paper. She heard the sharp intake of their breath and knew they understood.
Wordlessly, Peter turned back to the bench and sat, holding out his arms. Frodo pulled himself into them and steadied himself with an arm looped around the man’s neck. The man stood, cradling the hobbit tenderly. Walking carefully because of the shadowed ground and to avoid jostling his small passenger, Peter moved to the very entrance. He knelt slowly and placed Frodo on the ground, then carefully pulled his arms out from under the halfling.
When he would have risen to return to his wife, he found a small hand on his arm. “Thank you,” said the hobbit, “for all you have done. I am sorry to have brought grief to your family.”
Not trusting himself to speak, Peter nodded. But Marly spoke from where she had remained seated on the bench. “I’m sorry, Frodo. I’m sorry.”
The hobbit nodded wearily. “It was the only thing that could be done.” As Peter rejoined his wife, Frodo turned his gaze to the slim woman that held the boy’s life. “I can walk, if you will help me. Let us go now.”
Did he but know it, the place where the man had put Frodo down was less than five meters from where Aragorn and Legolas crouched hidden by greenery and darkness. Even the sharp-eared assassin had not heard their approach, nor did she discern their presence. A throwing star ready in a raised hand, Alissa edged away from the sleeping boy and over to her prize.
Her prize, at last. After two failed attempts. Unprecedented failures. Small, dark-haired … he looked very young. She stared at what she could see of the enormous feet. This was worth so much gold? The halfling stared up at her, large eyes appearing black in the darkness. Turning her body so that the boy was ever within her aim, Alissa leaned down and caught it – Frodo – caught Frodo by the arm. She pulled him up and he balanced unsteadily in her grasp, favoring the damaged leg. That would have to be attended to, and quickly, if he was to live long enough to be delivered to her employer.
“We are going now,” she informed the couple. “You may go to your son when I have reached the end of the street. Be assured that I can throw so far, and if you try to reach him before then, or decide to come after us or call out, I will kill the child.”
Half dragging the stumbling hobbit, Alissa continued backing out of the gardens. Her finely-honed senses alerted her that something was amiss just as she cleared the hedge and she looked about suspiciously, dividing her attention between her target and her surroundings.
The man and his fat wife still sat woodenly on the bench and the brat snored peacefully where she had left him. What then, had alarmed her?
Aragorn eased himself deeper into the shadows under a great tree and looked to Legolas. They had not counted on the woman having a belt of the deadly throwing-stars. When she began pulling Frodo towards the garden’s entrance, the Ranger and the Elf looked at each other in shock. The boy and his parents were not safe yet. Nor could they risk the Ring-bearer. In the seconds they had before she reached the gates, the two rose on soundless feet and fell back into the deeper shadows. None but a Ranger of the Wild and an Elf - or a hobbit - could have moved so quickly and so silently. In wordless accord, they agreed to wait until she reached the turning at the end of the street, when the little family would be beyond the reach of the razored stars.
There was no light in the deep shadow to glint off the deadly leaf-shaped point of Legolas’ arrow, or the blade of the sword held in Aragorn’s grasp. Keep going, Aragorn urged her mentally. His initial shock at her sex had dissipated in admiration for her expert handling of the situation, but that admiration had withered in his anger at her actions. He knew that some women of Harad were thieves and skilled assassins, but he had never seen one. He longed to know what Legolas thought of this.
A little farther, Aragorn prayed as the woman hesitated, the throwing star cocked and ready. Her dark head was turning from side to side, seeking the source of her alarm. He knew that he and Legolas were well-hidden; she could not possibly see them. His silent, controlled breathing did not falter as she shook her head and continued her retreat, but his heart leaped within him as she backed further into their trap.
As she pulled back, he had a better view of Frodo, and fear rose in him. The hobbit seemed only vaguely aware of his surroundings. He was holding tightly to his abductor’s arm, doing his best to keep his feet. In no way was he hindering her. Could he not distract her?
No, Aragorn realized. Frodo would not risk the boy, or the boy’s parents. The people who had helped him. He would go with her, despite what he bore, to whatever fate awaited him if his actions would spare these folk. The gentle goodness and compassion in Frodo that made him able to endure the Ring also put the thing within the grasp of evil, yet Aragorn suddenly realized what he had always known deep down … that to expect Frodo not to follow his heart and to do differently than what it told him was right would compromise his ability to carry the Ring to its destruction.
The abductor had almost reached the turning of the street. Once she had passed it she could no longer threaten the child and the man and the woman. The boy still slept. The parents sat rigidly, the man’s eyes on the retreating pair, the woman’s fixed upon her son. Aragorn made the softest noise in his throat, it never passing his lips, but he knew Legolas heard. The bow lifted slightly and centered on the Southron woman’s throat.
Aragorn rocked forward as Pippin’s shout registered in his mind. No! What were they doing here? He fought against the urge to bound to his feet and break cover in an attempt to warn them off. He stilled his leap just in time and instead took advantage of the distraction to widen his view through the leaves. The two younger hobbits stood frozen at the corner, the boy Rich with them, staring in shock at their cousin being held up by the woman.
The woman whipped around toward the three with frightening speed, dragging Frodo with her. The hobbit cried out, agony raking through him as his leg was jarred by the motion. She dropped him and Frodo collapsed to the cobbles, stifling a scream as he tried to cradle his leg with his arms. Aragorn saw her dark head lash from side to side, assessing and dismissing the danger from the couple and their son, focusing on the three small ones who approached her now. Pippin had leaped forward at Frodo’s cry of pain, Merry close on his heels running towards her. Rich followed not far behind, his face contorted with terror.
Before Aragorn could even move, could rise to his feet and shout, “NO!” she acted to defend herself and her prize. The slender, muscled arm let fly and the deadly throwing star arced gracefully into the night, aimed straight for Pippin’s heart. Starlight and faint flickers from the far-off fire caught on the razored edges, transforming the lethal object to almost a thing of beauty. His blood pounding in his ears, Aragorn could but watch in horror. The child was safe and they might yet save Frodo, but Pippin was going to die.
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.