24. Chapter Twenty-Four
Legolas snatched Gimli around his broad chest and pulled him back as fire leaped at them. Off-balance, the two crashed backwards to the cobbles, the impact wringing an agonized gasp from the Elf as Gimli’s considerable weight crushed him to the unyielding stones.
The fire lashed out at them again but they were out of its grasp. Instead it washed over the walls of the shop, running up the wooden slats to feast on the cloth awning. The fire divided like a stream of water over a rock, flowing along the dry, dusty cloth. Eddies of flame swirled along the dry wood, licking at the rough boards, seeking to feed on the building and from there, glut itself on the many small homes of the people surrounding the shop.
“Frodo!” Gandalf bellowed from the window, his staff clenched in one hand. He saw the dwarf and the Elf in a tangled heap on the ground, staring at the devouring flames, too shocked to move. “It has Frodo!” he shouted at them, gesturing with his staff. “Go after it!”
Gimli rolled off Legolas and struggled to his feet, leaving the Elf wheezing on the ground. The dwarf made a sound between a cough and a growl and ran to the far side of the street, unlimbering one of his throwing axes. In a heartbeat, he positioned himself and threw it straight at the creature. Gimli’s cast was true but some unnamed sense alerted his target; it twisted lithely at the last possible moment and the razor-bladed throwing axe thudded into the wooden fence behind the creature’s head. The axe hung there, quivering.
The creature turned down a side street, seeming not at all inconvenienced by its thrashing burden. Gimli swore, then pounded heavily after it, his great battle-axe clenched in his fist and his boots striking sparks from the cobbles.
Now Aragorn was at the window, crowding against Gandalf. Boromir was with him, their disbelieving gazes having passed over the empty bed in horror. Rather than take the time to go out the front door, the Ranger swung his long legs over the windowsill, never noticing that the creature’s violent exit had shattered the glass. A long, triangular shard gifted him a gash along his calf, the searing pain experienced and forgotten in an instant. He started to push himself over and out when the wizard’s hand clamped on his arm. “Be wary,” Gandalf breathed, his gaze wild. “It is an evil thing, and very swift. There is something about it that I do not understand.”
Aragorn nodded and drew his long sword. Boromir had not waited his turn at the window, dashing instead out the front door, swinging his great shield before him. Aragorn paused a moment in the street to offer an arm up to the still gasping Elf and pull him to his feet. Then the three were running after Gimli, who was out of sight but not hearing, his infuriated bellows drifting back to them.
Fighting to impose order upon his thoughts, Gandalf kicked out the glass shard and started over the sill himself, to feel a small hand tangling in his robes. “What was that thing?” Merry shrilled. The hobbit’s other arm was clasped around his younger cousin. Boromir had thrust Pippin into Merry’s arms as he followed Aragorn, and the youngster stood swaying on his feet, shocked into wakefulness. He did not understand what was happening and clung to Merry in terror. The light of the growing fire came through the smashed window, illuminating the three small white faces to the wizard. Behind them stood the little family, the boys held tightly in their parents’ arms.
“I do not know,” Gandalf answered truthfully. “Something vile. It has stalked Frodo before, though what it knows about –“ he broke off, sternly controlling his tongue.
“It’s got Mr. Frodo?” shrieked Sam, panic in his voice. Unable to pull himself up to the high sill, he whirled and would have run out the door, Frodo’s cousins at his heels, had not Gandalf’s staff barred their way.
“No!” roared the wizard, when they would have ducked under the barrier. “Stay here, all of you! Do you hear me? You are needed here, if all is not to burn!” They followed his pointing finger out the shattered window, to see that the fire had already spread to the shop next to the closed store.
“A tailor’s shop,” groaned the wizard. “What ill luck. Bolts and bolts of cloth and cotton batting… Peter, have you a fire bell nearby? Peter!”
The man jerked violently. “Aye, we do. Rich, go ring it. Go, boy!”
Rich tore himself from his mother’s arms and ran through the main room, out the door and to the side. A few moments later, they heard the tinny tones of the hand bell ring out loudly.
“Quick now,” snapped the wizard. “Marly, Peter, we need buckets, basins, cooking pots … whatever you have. Now!”
The family’s remaining store of water filled these in moments, and the hobbits were set to throwing their contents on the flames. Already the wooden storefronts were afire, the flames snapping and crackling like a living creature. People were pouring from the surrounding homes, many in their nightshirts, and horrified shouts were being replaced by men calling orders and forming a water-chain. These were their homes and livelihoods; there were no bystanders here.
Women gathered at the well, working the buckets without undue waste of motion. Children emptied rain barrels and storage containers, adding the water to any available receptacles and passing them to the men. Marly and Peter and even Rich joined in spading dirt and throwing it upon the flames. The hobbits’ efforts were quickly replaced by larger folk, and Gandalf herded them back into the house with orders to stay there, hoping in all the confusion that none had noticed that these were not children.
“Merry,” called the wizard, and found the attentive hobbit instantly by his side. “Take care of Brion. I want you and Pippin and Sam to straighten out this room. Keep out of sight of the townsfolk. If fortune is with us, none of them identified you. I am going after Frodo. Do not worry – and do not follow! Do not disobey me in this, young hobbits. We will bring him back.”
With that the wizard was gone. Trembling, Merry looked to the others and saw fear and misery in their faces. “Let’s get to it, then,” Merry said decisively, struggling to hide his own terror. The shattered panes of glass and slivered shards littered the floor and the coverlet. “We’ll make the place ready for when they all get back with Frodo. Come on, Pippin-lad, find a dustbin. Brion, show Sam where the broom is, would you? All of you, stay back from the window until I get this picked up.”
Merry knelt and began to carefully gather up the shards of glass, laying every splinter and shattered piece in a neat pile. His forced calmness had its desired effect on the others. With a shake, Pippin set out to obey, as did Sam and Brion. Merry watched them respond to his instructions from the corner of his eye, his back to them, so that none of them saw his own tears as they began to drip down his face and fall in invisible droplets on the broken glass.
* * * * *
Once outside of the little home, Gandalf paused as the flames spread to the second shop’s wooden roof. Peter and Marly did not see him go; they and all of their neighbors were involved in fighting the flames. The wizard grimaced; so many innocents had suffered from this unlucky detour. He would see that some of the reparations that Legolas’ father was to send in payment for the inn would go to the owners of those shops. It was all that he could do.
Not so far from where the wizard regretted his decisions, the three hunters drew even with Gimli. The dwarf was almost dancing from foot to foot in agitation, his bearded head turning as he glared up each of the four crossways that intersected the narrow street. He had followed as swiftly as he was able but had lost sight of the fleeing form and had not seen which road the creature took. Rather than choose wrongly and doom them all, he had given up the chase to wait for the others. “Shall we separate,” he rumbled, “and each of us take a way?”
Instead of replying, Aragorn knelt and ran his hands over the cobbles. But it was too dark to see any track the creature might have left. Aragorn groaned then pushed himself to his feet. “Legolas?” he murmured, peering into the darkness.
The Elf closed his eyes and tilted his head. The moments that passed seemed a lifetime to the three who waited. Then Legolas’ clear eyes snapped open and he pointed to the left passageway. In one graceful leap he was pulling ahead of them. Aragorn clasped Boromir’s shoulder then he and the soldier were off again. Gimli drew in a great breath of air, his thick chest expanding like a bellows, and followed at a run.
Legolas swung his bow from his back and managed the almost impossible feat of stringing it as he ran. The effort slowed him, and he spared a thought for his elvish dignity as he hopped on one foot for several feet, trying to force his knee between the notch and the curve to string it. But he accomplished it and had an arrow fitted to his string in another breath. He raced around another of the curving streets and with another burst of speed, caught sight of the dark figure. The Elf drew back the bow, and his world narrowed to the small place at the base of the creature’s skull, where the arrow would pose no threat to Frodo. With a whispered prayer to Elbereth, Legolas skidded to a standstill and let fly.
The string twanged and the arrow sang high and true, a thing of grace arcing into the night. Legolas felt no satisfaction; like Gandalf, he could recognize that what fled before him was an unnatural thing, conceived and nurtured in wickedness, but he would not rejoice at its death. Then the arrow began its downward, killing rush – and burst into flame.
The Elf almost dropped his bow in shock. Another arrow he fitted to his string, and this one crisped to cinders before it had flown halfway to its target. The third erupted into flame even as he notched it and he flung his bow to the earth and stamped out the burning arrow on it before it could eat its way to the string.
Legolas crouched over smoking arrow-shaft, struggling to understand what could do this. His quarry had stopped, facing him, and he would swear it was laughing. So, being aware of his pursuit, it could flame his arrows into ash before they could strike? He had seen it move its clawed hand, but had not connected the movement with the result until his third arrow flashed into charred wood. The creature’s other arm was tight around the struggling hobbit, crushing Frodo to its chest. As Legolas watched, Frodo twisted in the thing’s arms and drew back his good leg, landing a solid kick in the creature’s ribs.
The creature staggered to the side, its fanged mouth turning from a mocking sneer to a snarl. Frodo pressed his advantage, kicking at exactly the same spot with all of his strength. The thing almost went down and Legolas realized it was hurt there. Had his arrow flown true then, that night as he glimpsed a dark figure on the inn’s roof, when Frodo first was taken?
His ears picked up heavy breaths coming up behind him, and he called out, warning those who followed of the dangerous impasse. The creature snarled again when the two Men appeared, distracting it from punishing the hobbit for his resistance. Frodo saw them, too, and treated his captor to a powerful kick directly in the stomach.
The creature doubled over and stumbled forward. Frodo tore himself free and tried to flee, but his injured leg gave under him and he went down with a cry. Aragorn would have rushed it, sword raised, but Legolas stopped him. “Do not!” cried the Elf. “There is some abominable power at work here – the creature can summon flame. I saw it draw a rune in the air, and my arrows took fire. It is a maker of flame.”
Boromir shook his head, not understanding and not willing to stand idle while his enemy stood defiant before him. “Gondor!” he shouted, leaping past the others. Legolas cried out and Aragorn sought to halt him, twining his free hand in the soldier’s surcoat. All three of them were blown back as a sheet of fire slashed at them, called into being and guided by the creature’s clawed hand. Had Boromir not been holding his great battle-shield before him, they would all of them have been engulfed in flame and agony.
They fell back, staring in horror. Seeing their expressions, the creature laughed. “Behold the great warriors,” it hissed at them, enjoying their dismay and revulsion. “Three mighty warriors against my poor self. Four, that is,” as the clatter of hob-nailed boots announced Gimli’s arrival. “Ah, five,” it amended a moment later, as Gandalf joined them, gulping great mouthfuls of air, his lined face grim. The creature’s laugh twisted into a snarl. “How shall I defend my treasure?” it taunted softly, the hissing tone derisive.
“Give us the halfling,” called Gandalf after sparing a moment to catch his breath. “Give him to us, and we will let you go free.”
The creature issued its hissing laugh again, finding the sight of the five somewhat bedraggled folk highly amusing. But Legolas could see that it favored its side where Frodo had kicked it. His eyes traveled to the Ring-bearer, still on the ground, but silent now and watchful. Seeing the Elf’s gaze upon him, Frodo tried to creep a little away from his captor, but tongues of flame rose before him and he stopped, trembling.
The creature lowered its hand, the claws clenching. “No, little one,” it said almost affectionately. “I am not done with you yet. You owe me for the pains you have cost me. That which you bear will be adequate recompense.” Frodo gasped and his hand went to his throat, his fingers twisting around the silver chain. “Give it to me,” the creature hissed, “and I will leave you to your friends.”
“No,” said Frodo quite clearly. “I will not.”
“Give it to me,” the creature repeated, “or I will burn you alive, and these your friends with you.” The hobbit’s white face went even whiter. “Then,” it continued, “I will return to that miserable little hovel and burn the other halflings and those human folk and their whelps. You will be the cause of all their deaths.”
“You might not find that so easy,” spoke Gandalf. He had been examining the creature with a wizard’s eyes and thought he knew what it was now, if not why it was. “I, too, am a wielder of flame. Give us our friend and go, or it will be you that burns.”
The creature made a sound caught between a hissing laugh and a snarl. The fanged mouth opened and the sensitive tongue flicked out, tasting the truth of the wizard’s words. It had never met another beside itself that could command fire. “For what the halfling bears,” it muttered, “I would challenge a thousand warriors to possess.” Then it raised its clawed hand and fire fountained from its fingers, a wall of searing red flame that stretched from the earth high into the air, and threw it at them.
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.