25. Chapter Twenty-Five
The fires, white and red, writhed around each other as if wrestlers, each seeking a hold to break the other. Gandalf’s face glimmered with perspiration in the devouring light, his staff held high across his body. The creature stood transfixed, its clawed hand raised, pouring its malice into the flame. Its face was twisted, fanged mouth drawn back over needle teeth. The flames surged back and forth as the combatants sought a weakness in the other. Slowly the white flame began to overcome the red, to shove it back and suffocate it. Shock and disbelief blazed in the creature’s eyes as it gave ground. In growing desperation, it turned from the wizard and thrust a stream of fire towards the rickety wooden buildings. Gandalf grunted as he diverted some of his flame to intercept the stream of fire, and the creature’s slitted eyes widened to see both rivers of flame turned back on itself.
Legolas dropped back slightly behind the stunned Ranger and the Man, using their bodies to cover his movements. He knelt, hoping not to be visible to the creature. Slowly, surreptitiously, he eased another arrow to his bow and aimed between the Men’s bodies. Gandalf was holding the flame off them from about knee-height up… The Elf had no hope that his arrow would survive a flight through the inferno, but if he could but shoot the evil thing in the lower leg…
Something interfered, intruding on his line of sight. It was Frodo. Unable to walk or even crawl on his hands and knees, he was inching forward on his belly toward the creature and not away. A sudden flaring of the battling flames flashed on something in the hobbit’s hand.
Glass, thought Legolas. A shard of glass from the broken window, as long as a dagger for a hobbit. Even as he recognized what the little one carried, Frodo rolled, coming up on his side. He drove the improvised dagger deep into the creature’s leg and cut downward, and its shrill scream sliced the night air.
The wall of red flame disappeared. Thrown off-balance, Gandalf staggered back and would have fallen had not Aragorn caught him. Legolas leaped to his feet and aimed, but the creature was on the ground now, shrieking and thrashing as dark blood poured from the long gash. Frodo was too close to it; he could not risk hitting the Ring-bearer.
Boromir was already moving forward, Gimli right behind him, death on their faces. The dwarf’s eyes were still tearing from the onslaught of light, but his hands on his great axe were steady. The creature tore itself from its agony long enough to recognize its danger. Ignoring the blood and pain, it rose on one leg and gestured again. But its concentration had been broken, and the pain of its wounding prevented it from using the rune-magic. They had it at last.
It turned, but not to flee. Its clawed hands fastened on the prone hobbit, pulling Frodo upright against its body. Frodo tried to stab it again, but it was forewarned this time and twisted the hobbit’s small wrist. The shard of glass fell from the hobbit’s grasp and shattered, each splinter glinting red from the deep cut it had inflicted on Frodo’s unprotected hand.
“Sssstop!” it hissed at them, the sibilance of the word accented by its rage. Boromir and Gimli froze, their eyes on the long knife pressed to Frodo’s throat. His enormous eyes were wide and frightened, but he did not cower or cringe. Held immobile against the cold body of the creature, his gaze was already darting from side to side, seeking a way to break the thing’s hold upon him yet again.
Panting, the two sides could but stand and stare at each other. Then the creature’s arm tightened around the hobbit’s chest. “One ssstep forward, and he dies,” the creature snarled. “You - Elf! Drop the bow, or he dies now!”
Legolas’ hand tightened on the bowstring but he dared not pit his speed against the unnatural swiftness of the creature. Carefully he laid the bow on the ground, then rose and backed away from it.
The creature steadied itself on its still-bleeding leg. “We are going now,” it hissed. It dragged Frodo even more securely against it and took a step back. Another. Another. Held impotent by the knife at the hobbit’s throat, they could only watch and silently curse the evil thing.
Aragorn readied himself for a desperate effort, even as he felt Gandalf gather himself. The Ranger’s hand tightened on his knife. Throwing a knife such a distance in the dark might well kill the Ring-bearer instead, but they could not stand and watch Frodo being taken from them again, step by dragging step.
The creature had reached a turning of the narrow road. It stopped there and smiled at them, gloating. “I win,” it hissed softly.
Then it stiffened suddenly and stood very straight. Frodo tore his eyes away from those of his friends and looked up at it. The knife moved a little away from his throat. Frodo took his chance; he threw himself down and rolled away from the creature, ignoring the agony that laced through his leg and entire body.
The creature’s slitted eyes followed him. It took one step in pursuit, then it crumpled forward and fell on its face, something silver glittering deep in its back. There was a last hiss, a tremor through its body and then the thing was dead. Darkness shifted at the very end of the turning, and a lovely, olive-skinned face emerged from the black cloak that had hidden it. Alissa looked at the body on the ground, at the confused hobbit. Then she raised lovely eyes to the stunned Company and smiled. At Boromir.
“We are even, warrior of Gondor. A rescue for a rescue, however unwanted at the time.” Her eyes flicked over him appreciatively, and the soldier flushed. “I forgive you for meddling in my plans and losing me a significant amount of gold.”
Her gaze traveled over the other members of the Company and her eyes narrowed. “Business is business, after all.” She nodded to Aragorn and Legolas, and after a moment, both bowed. “You will not see me again. I will move on to other prizes and other rewards. But I will watch for you, son of Denethor, when you return to your home.” She smiled again at the flustered soldier and very deliberately ran her tongue over her white teeth. Boromir’s flush turned bright red, and she laughed. “Yes,” she mused, “rewards… I will be waiting for you.” And then she was gone, the dark cloak merging with the night.
Aragorn strode over to the hobbit and lifted him, cradling the injured leg carefully and turning up the sliced hand. “It is a good thing I have more powdered myrrh,” he remarked. “Are you all right, Frodo?”
“I…” Frodo stammered, “Yes, I…”
Aragorn hugged him gently, then turned and strode back to the others. Gandalf put his hand on the hobbit’s brow, then nodded. “Let us get back to our companions,” the wizard said gently, laying his hand on Frodo’s cheek for a moment. “It is time and past time that we were gone from this place.”
* * * * *
“She is very beautiful, Boromir.”
“I do not wish to discuss this, Aragorn.”
“Breathtaking as the glow of the moon through milk quartz, those Harad women. I have heard –“
“Gimli, I do not wish to discuss this with you, either.”
“Would you take offense if I compared her to an exotic bloom –“
“I would, Legolas.”
Frodo smiled and snuggled himself deeper into the Ranger’s warm arms, and let the world drift away from him.
* * * * *
Gandalf held out his staff, halting the others, wary of the sight of so many people still milling about before the two burned shops. Wisps of grey smoke still curled from them. As they hesitated in the shadows, Aragorn felt a tug and looked down. Brion’s brown eyes, huge in the darkness, stared up at him. “Is Frodo all right?” he asked anxiously.
“He is all right, Brion,” the Ranger assured the boy. “Just exhausted. Where are the hobbits, and what has happened here?”
“They put the fires out,” the child whispered. “People from the fire at the jail came over to help. Then the town magistrate showed up, and the guard commander and his troops. Everyone started shouting. Da, too. He’s talking with them, over by the well. Mama’s with Merry and Pippin and Sam – they’re in the house. Mama told me and Rich to watch for you.”
Aragorn squeezed the boy’ shoulder with his free hand, and some of the fear went out of Brion’s face. “Can you get us into the house unseen?” the man asked softly.
Brion looked at them, worried. “We can try to go ‘round back and cut through the garden,” he replied with equal softness. “This way –“
They had not made it more than five steps when Gandalf found his way blocked. The guard commander stood before him, a large and colorful bruise blooming on his chin. The man’s hate-filled eyes traveled over the small company and fastened on Boromir. The soldier tensed, but the guardsman just gave him a cold, enigmatic look and turned back to address Gandalf.
“Is it too much to hope for that this was not your doing?”
“We did not start the fire,” the wizard replied, not actually denying the charge.
Puffing breaths preceded the round little magistrate, who regarded them with active dislike. The man wiped his red face with a handkerchief then tucked it into a breast pocket. “Your bill just went up, sirs.”
“And we will pay it,” said Legolas, stepping forward. The little man stared at the Elf but did not dare to challenge the prince of the Greenwood. Feeling the townsfolk’s’ eyes upon him, the little man made a great show of snorting and huffed, “We’ll be expecting that gold from your royal father, sir. These … accidents … are costly and this is not a wealthy town.”
Legolas bowed coldly, wearing what Aragorn privately referred to as his “Court face.” The Elf gazed down the length of his refined nose at the little man, and against his will, the town magistrate found himself sketching a bow. Flushing, the man stepped back, muttering to himself about posting a gatekeeper from now on.
“If there is nothing else,” Gandalf said, “we wish to tend our friend, who has been hurt, and retire for the night. There is nothing else, I trust?”
Frodo had awakened and his eyes turned from one speaker to another, but he was silent. He had not heard Boromir’s explanation of the commander’s intentions, but he felt the tension between the two Men. Gimli’s hands were tight on his great axe and Legolas stood at his ease, but his hands rested on his knives. Apparently they were not out of danger yet.
The guard commander exchanged a glance with the subdued magistrate. “You will not be coming this way again?”
“I promise it,” said Gandalf and Aragorn together.
The commander stepped back. “You have one hour to vacate our town.”
Gandalf bristled but Aragorn laid a hand on his arm. “Can you blame them?” the Ranger asked.
Brion made a soft sound and they looked over to see Peter looking at them anxiously, Rich standing behind his father. “Please,” the man said quietly. “Come inside. The little folk are besides themselves.”
Gandalf glared at the officials but let it go. He followed Peter and the boys into the little house, the others coming after. Marly met them at the door, throwing her arms around her husband and hugging him in unabashed relief. Aragorn found himself mobbed by small bodies, practically swarming up him to see Frodo. The Ranger set him gently down in a chair and left him to the care and questions of his kin and friends while he set the kettle on to boil and prepared the powdered myrrh to tend the hobbit’s leg and hand, and his own cut from the broken window.
“What a debacle,” muttered the wizard, sinking back down on the worn divan. In a fit of ill-humor, he kicked one of the cushions before the hearth fire, and it clinked. He looked at it suspiciously. Before Gandalf could investigate, Merry distracted him. “Sam and Pippin and I have the packs all ready to go, Gandalf,” said the hobbit helpfully. “We can be off as soon as Aragorn and Frodo are ready.”
Peter looked up from where he had been helping Aragorn. Frodo was quiet between them, so very weary that even the pain of having his leg treated was dulled for him. “I’ll be sorry to see you leave, sirs. Been more excitement around here lately than I can remember in me whole life.”
“I think others will be happy to see us go,” remarked Gandalf dryly. “But we thank you for your courtesy. In these evil times, it is reassuring to remember that there are good people in the world.”
At last the farewells were said. Riding comfortably in Aragorn’s arms, Frodo waved over the Ranger’s shoulder at the small family, and all four of them waved back enthusiastically. There were tears in the boys’ eyes, and in the eyes of the hobbits and in those of more than one of the Big Folk.
They did not lack for company on the way out. The guard commander had waited to ensure that his ultimatum was met, and he and his troops escorted the Fellowship to the east gates. Sam volunteered to collect Bill from the corral, and if he took longer than was seemingly necessary, none but Merry noted it. “All done, then?” Merry asked, rubbing the pony’s soft nose as he helped Sam transfer much of their gear to Bill.
Sam grinned tiredly. “Aye, it’s done. I couldn’t hold my head up, else.” He added two jars of peaches and several handfuls of walnuts to Bill’s packs. “Figure these are paid for, too.” Bill whickered and bumped his head into Sam’s chest, almost as if he also was glad to be leaving.
Many of the townsfolk came too, astonished anew at the strange company that had guested so briefly among them. If some of the men growled at the hobbits (especially Merry) as they passed, others waved to them and wished them well. More than one of the village matrons pressed fruit and sweet breads upon Pippin, who accepted with big eyes and the charm that came so readily to him. Merry hugged him and laughed, too relieved to be leaving to reprimand the tweenager for his innocent flirting.
So the Fellowship passed through the gates and returned to the road, leaving the town behind. They trudged in silence for some time before Gandalf allowed them a brief halt to eat and rest. As Sam set up his cooking pots and Merry and Pippin foraged for firewood, Merry sighed. “Is there any of the molasses candy left, Pip?”
“No,” responded Pippin sadly. “I’ve … um … apples and plums and pears … here’s some frosted buns – oh, ginger biscuits! No candy, though. I wish we could go back, just for a minute, and buy more. We could pay with some of the money you bilked them out of.”
“You what, Meriadoc?” Both cousins jumped at Frodo’s voice, coming from where the Ranger had lain him against the packs. They had not realized he was awake. Frodo’s usually fair face was beginning to flush. Sam stared intently at the ground, hoping to be forgotten. Pippin tried to edge unobtrusively away, abandoning Merry to his fate.
“He set up a shell-game con,” interjected Aragorn helpfully when none of the hobbits responded. Merry glared at him furiously but the Ranger deliberately did not meet his eyes, his lips twitching. “Managed to come away with quite a lot of the townfolks’ money before they found out he was cheating.”
“Cheating? Cheating!” Frodo made a choked sound, too irate to get out coherent words. “Cheating! Wait until I tell your father, young hobbit! You won’t be able to sit down for the rest of your life -”
“You do,” said Merry quite calmly in the face of Frodo’s towering rage, “and I’ll tell him which elder cousin taught me the game.” Frodo’s mouth dropped open but no words came out. “And then,” continued Merry mercilessly, “I’ll tell Da who taught me how to cheat at it.”
Frodo made a choked sound and his hands rose and clenched, as if he would like to fasten them around a certain younger cousin’s throat. Aragorn watched, fascinated. This was as close as he had ever seen the usually gentle Ring-bearer come to physically attacking one of his cousins, despite numerous provocations. The Ranger was momentarily glad, for Merry’s sake, that Frodo could not stand up on his own. He readied himself to intervene, though, if necessary.
“I – You…” managed Frodo. “Oh, stars!” With that he turned his back on Merry and put his head in hands, muttering imprecations to himself.
Seeing the drama pass, Pippin edged back into his usual position at Merry’s side, hoping his cousin hadn’t noticed the temporary desertion. “It’s a good thing that Frodo was so upset that he didn’t think this through, Merry,” he whispered.
Merry’s eyes were still on his elder cousin’s bowed back. “What do you mean, Pip?”
Pip grinned and looped his arm through his cousin’s. “Just remembering what you told me when you taught me the game.” Merry looked at him quizzically.
“Frodo taught you, and you taught me. But your Da taught Frodo.”
Merry was silent for a moment, then he threw back his head and laughed. “That’s right, isn’t it? Let’s hope our beloved elder cousin doesn’t remember that little fact.”
A hot meal did much to improve the Company’s spirits. Frodo fell asleep before finishing his stew, his dark head drooping over his bowl. Sam gently removed it without ever waking him, nor did Frodo wake when Aragorn knelt and gathered him up into his arms. Silent except for the Big People’s footfalls and the pony’s hooves, the Fellowship resumed its journey. Far above them, the bright stars painted the night in silver and shadows.
Merry and Pippin paused as the rest of the Company passed a wooden pole sunk into the ground, the faint light making it difficult to see the name painted on the signpost nailed to it. “Don’t fall behind, lads,” warned Gandalf’s quiet voice. Pippin tugged on the wizard’s robes as he passed, and Gandalf halted obligingly and looked at them. Pippin pointed up at the signpost and grinned. The wizard read the wooden arrow that pointed back towards the little town. Then he laughed, his eyes crinkling at the corners. He ruffled the two curly heads and pushed Merry and Pippin gently before him, urging the young hobbits to catch up with the others. Gandalf glanced back at the sign, repeating the name to himself. Yes, he thought … most appropriate.
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