5. Chapter Five
“Sam is right,” agreed Aragorn decisively. “I will seek any sign of their passing. If he could walk, then the marks of bare hobbit feet should be easy to find. If he could not…” the Ranger paused and wished he had phrased that differently, as Sam’s eyes rounded with worry, “then it will be more difficult.”
At once Aragorn sprang away, his eyes scanning the churned earth. Legolas followed, his attention on the muddy ground, elven sight compensating for the darkness.
“Gandalf,” murmured Boromir softly, “I fear we may have another problem.” The wizard turned around to behold a knot of men approaching them, obviously frightened yet determined, hands on their knives and swords. Their faces were dark and angry, and they stared at the strangers with hostility.
At their front was the Innkeep, his face florid with anger and fear. “You!” he shouted, pointing at Gandalf, “you burned down me inn, you did!”
“My good sir,” began the wizard, “I assure you it was an accident -” but the man was too enraged to listen.
“White fire!” the Innkeep shouted, the perspiration on his face glistening in the failing light of his burned livelihood. “Set fire to me inn, you did! Now everything’s gone! Best inn in the town, it was!” Some of the men looked askance at that, but they supported their own. “Now, sir, how do you intend ‘ta make reparations?”
Gandalf drew himself up, standing tall with his staff in his hands before him, cloaked in dignity. “I assure you -” he repeated.
“I don’t want no assurances,” the man fairly howled. “I want reparation, I does!”
Gimli and Boromir moved to stand behind the wizard, their faces grim, their hands on their weapons. The townsfolk blanched and fell back - they were farmers and herdsmen and merchants, not warriors. Gandalf noted their fear with a glint of satisfaction in his eye. “I said,” he began again, and this time was not interrupted, with two hardened and ready warriors at his back, “that you will be reimbursed for the unfortunate accident that destroyed your inn, good sir.” The Innkeep looked slightly mollified. “However … ah … I do not carry such a large sum with me, of course, and -”
“I knew it!” the man fair cried, spittle forming at the sides of his mouth.
Merry tugged on Gandalf’s robe and the wizard spared a moment to glance at the hobbit. Merry pushed something into his hand. “I have my purse, and Frodo’s,” Merry whispered. “We spent a lot in the market but there’s still a tidy sum of money here. Take it, Gandalf.”
“Thank you, Merry,” Gandalf returned, weighing the two small sacks in his hand. “But everything we have would not suffice, I fear -”
The Innkeep had watched this exchange avidly, unable to overhear their soft voices. Now his face hardened, as did those of his neighbors and they moved forward purposely. Gandalf pushed the three hobbits behind him, and Boromir and Gimli came forward, raising their weapons. The hobbits looked about them in confusion, unable to believe this turn of events. With a ringing chime, the wizard unsheathed his great elven sword and it glinted in the cold twilight like adamant.
Both sides sighed in relief as several men dressed in short black capes bordered in white entered from one of the side streets. At once the Innkeep turned to them, baying out his grievances. “About time you lot got here!” he roared at them. “These are the ones that did it! The old man says he won’t pay! What are you going ‘ta do about it?”
“I am going to find out exactly what happened, Pol,” the tallest of the men said. Gandalf’s bushy eyebrows lifted to hear the educated accents of Gondorian military training. Behind him, Boromir gasped, taking a step forward and trying to peer through the gloom into the man’s face. The guardsmen spread out, surrounding the reduced Fellowship with military professionalism, swords drawn but not leveled at the strangers. The captain had not noticed Boromir’s soft exclamation and addressed his remarks to Gandalf.
“Sir,” the man said courteously, “I think it best if you and your … group … accompany me to our stockade. We’ll let tempers cool a little and I can hear your side of the story, and Pol’s. Then we can decide what needs to be done.” The captain bowed and motioned to the side with his sword.
Gandalf was not pleased. “And I think not -” he began, anger on his face, then startled to feel Boromir’s hand on his arm.
“Gandalf,” Boromir whispered, “we cannot stand in the streets. If we do not go with this man, we will be forced to kill him and his company and these townsfolk also. No deaths have yet resulted from this unhappy chance; let us not start with these innocent people.”
“Aye,” added Gimli, equally softly. “Think you also of a stout roof and strong walls around us tonight. No other lodging-house will accept us and it is too late to leave this place. There are worse options than a night spent in jail. And if we choose to leave, I doubt they could stop us.” The dwarf’s thick hands shifted on his battle-axe, and the wizard was reminded of how much carnage that weapon could deliver.
Gandalf looked down to the hobbits clustered between himself and the other two. All three had their small swords out, but were looking about them in dismay and confusion. Pippin felt the wizard’s eyes upon him and raised his face, white with fear and worry.
“It is all right, Pippin,” Gandalf murmured softly. With another soft chime, Glamdring was sheathed. “Put up your weapons, all of you. We are going with the captain.”
The man bowed then, his white-bordered cape fluttering with the movement. “I regret we must confiscate your weapons. They will be returned to you pending settlement of this … dispute.” The warriors stiffened and it might have gone ill then, if Gandalf had not laughed abruptly and handed over Glamdring’s gleaming sheath. The others surrendered their arms more reluctantly. Had Gandalf not been watching so closely, he would have missed the infinitesimal closing of the man’s eyes and the breath of relief released. The Innkeep and his friends watched warily, angry and unsatisfied, but out powered by the guard force.
“If you will accompany me, sirs,” said the captain graciously.
The Fellowship followed. Sam tugged anxiously at the wizard’s robes. “But what about Mr. Frodo?” he hissed, “and Strider and Legolas?”
“Peace, Sam,” Gandalf said softly. “I have no doubt that Aragorn and Legolas know of this development.” The wizard glanced about him then raised his voice. “They will find Frodo.” The rough voice softened again. “If we do not go with these men, we will be forced to kill them. Do you want that?”
“No, no … o’ course not. But -”
“No talking,” said one of the guardsmen. Sam gulped and was silent.
* * * * *
Legolas repeated the last words to Aragorn, his elven hearing catching the words the Ranger could not. The two crouched behind stacked barrels, hidden from view, yet with a clear view of the events. Aragorn leaned back against the beer-smelling wood and shook his head. “Are you certain he said to find Frodo?”
“I heard him clearly.” Legolas returned his arrows to the quiver slung over his back.
Aragorn nodded then sheathed his own great sword. “Then that is what we must do. The others are safe enough, for the present.”
* * * * *
Awareness returned to the Ring-bearer slowly. How his head ached! Had the fire in the hearth smoked and breathing it while he slept given him this dreadful throbbing ache? He was lucky he didn’t burn the hair off his toes if he was careless enough to go to sleep in front of the flames…
Frodo tried to raise his hands to rub at his temples and found that he could not. For a moment, this did not register through his haze of pain and confusion, then he understood that he was restrained.
The hobbit forced open his eyes, struggling to pry apart lashes sticky with crusted matter. He was in a dark room, dim and dingy, tied to a chair. Tied to a chair. Strong cords bound his wrists to the arms of a man-sized chair. Then his heart lurched in his chest and his whole world narrowed down to a silver chain about his throat. Yes … it was still there. He could feel it coiled against his breast like a snake, cold and poisonous, a weight that never ceased in sucking the life from him. It had not been taken from him.
His next thought was for his friends. Had they been captured also? The room was empty except for himself and the half-seen lumps of musty-smelling furniture piled against the wall. Were the others all right?
A faint scuffling sound caught his attention and diverted him somewhat from the pounding behind his eyes. A huge rat, near to the size of a cat, regarded him from underneath an overturned, broken-seated chair. The rodent’s eyes gleamed at him, reflecting in the dim light that came through the room’s single dirty window. As he watched in horror and disgust, it emerged from its hiding place and rose up on its hind legs, whiskers twitching. It could reach him, he realized – it was large enough that it could attack him. The vile beast seemed to know this also, and with a final peering at him from its malicious eyes, lowered itself to all fours and came towards him, sharp claws scraping against the dusty wooden floor.
Frodo kicked at it desperately, muffling the cry that rose in his throat. He managed to scoot the chair marginally back but did not have the strength to push it far. The thought that he might overturn the chair stilled him. Many black eyes now peered at him from beneath the furniture and corners of the room, all as large as the great rat. Many, many of them…
“They hunger,” said a soft, hissing voice.
Frodo looked about frantically. What he had taken for some unidentified lump of furniture shifted slightly, resolving itself into a dark form draped in shadows. The rats paused at the movement but it did not alarm them, and they crawled closer to the Ring-bearer’s chair, reaching up tiny clawed hands to touch the chair-legs of the prisoner.
Frodo looked up wildly. He tried to pull up his legs but was tied too tightly; he could only tuck them sideways. From the trembling of his thigh muscles, he would not long be able to hold that position. He stared mutely at the shadowed figure, eyes wide with terror and pain.
The rat placed both fore claws on the lowest ring of the chair and pulled itself up, balancing easily on the narrow rod of wood. Others crowded after it, weaving their lithe bodies around the chair legs, squeaking in rising excitement. Frodo made an inarticulate bleat of fear in spite of himself.
“Once they taste blood,” came the sibilant voice, “I may not be able to pull them all off in time.”
“What do you want?” Frodo tried to order his voice but it came out high and terrified. “Why are you doing this?”
“Because I am ordered to, of course,” the voice answered, a trace of contemptuous amusement in its tone. “Do not you know that you have many hunters on your trail, little halfling? There is quite a price on that curly head.”
The first rat had stilled upon hearing voices but now it raised itself to the second rung. With a leap, it could be upon him, Frodo realized. The others would follow in seconds. He kicked at it again but the creature only watched, its snarling mouth drawn back over tiny white teeth.
“Who are you? Where are my friends?”
“I took you from the inn,” the form continued, ignoring the hobbit’s questions. “You are heavier than you look. You owe me your life, you know.”
Frodo stopped staring at the rats and raised his eyes to the dark form. The other nodded. “Oh yes, the Grey Pilgrim burned it down, trying to open your locked door. Ironic, yes?” It laughed, a snarling, ugly sound.
“Burned it … burned it down?” Frodo could not assimilate the information. The rat sat back on its haunches and gathered itself to leap.
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.