9. Chapter Nine
In an instant, Aragorn and Legolas were surrounded by angry, frightened men. It was inevitable that someone should connect them with the group of strangers that had burned down the inn. The crowd pressed closer, faces darkening, rough voices shouting accusations and questions. The Ranger and Elf drew together, placing themselves automatically back-to-back, hands on their weapons. Someone reached out and tried to grab Legolas on the shoulder. With a graceful shrug, the Elf freed himself. As he did, the borrowed, tattered cloak fell away and the men dropped back in startlement at seeing a non-human amongst them.
In the silence that followed, the two were astonished to see Kent struggling his way to the fore of the mob. The thin man was using those bony elbows to advantage, his forward progress punctuated by “ouch!’ and “oof!” He fought his way to stand beside them, small, close-set eyes darting nervously. “It weren’t them!” he shrilled, then tried to modulate his voice. “It weren’t them,” he repeated to his dumbfounded audience. “Pol’s wrong. I saw another man leave the building a minute or two earlier. They didn’t start the fire.”
The man named Pol had followed Kent, growling under his voice. “I saw them come out of that building,” he asserted loudly. “The smoke weren’t so thick I couldn’t see ‘em!”
“If the smoke was already thick, then the fire must have been started earlier,” said Legolas gently, standing relaxed and poised, and ignoring his still-smoldering clothes and fine wisps of smoke curling from his hair. The Elf smiled at Pol, then allowed his luminous eyes to wander over the crowd, moonlight reflecting in their starry depths.
‘These rural folk have never seen an Elf,’ thought the Ranger. Aragorn would have laughed at the expressions of awe and wonder as they stared at the prince of the Greenwoods, had the circumstances been less tense. Legolas’ clear gaze returned to Pol and the man ducked his head and flushed under that immortal gaze.
“Maybe so,” Pol muttered sullenly, “but it’s mighty strange … your lot comes to town and our inn burns down, an’ now this building.”
“A most unfortunate series of accidents,” Legolas replied soothingly. Aragorn stood quiet and still beside him, knowing too well how his dark looks and dangerous demeanor could cause the townsfolk to feel threatened and belligerent. He kept his hand on his sword, but unobtrusively. In this situation, the Elf’s sweet voice could defend them better than steel. “But please believe me when I say that we did not start the fire … either fire. I pledge you my word on this.”
Kent seized the following silence to interject, “Everyone knows the Fair Folk don’t lie. Everyone knows that.” Pol growled, about to protest, and Kent swung to face him. “Pol, I’ve known you all my life. Your mam and mine were friends afore we were born. I say these folk were just caught in a bad place, and we’d be better off helping the others put out the fire before it spreads to the other warehouses.”
The crowd shifted, muttering among themselves, but the words of one of their own swayed them. With many dark looks and angry mumbles the men dispersed, some going to aid the fire-fighters, others helping douse the adjoining buildings with buckets of water. Aragorn and Legolas and their unexpected savior stood very still until the last the townsfolk had left, casting them hostile, uncertain glances over their shoulders.
When the last had moved beyond range of easy hearing, Aragorn released the breath he had been holding. “Thank you,” he murmured to Kent. The little man nodded, the perspiration on his face shining in the dimming flames of the fire.
“You were walking a fine line with the truth there, my friend,” Aragorn commented to Legolas. The Elf raised an elegant, slightly singed eyebrow. “We didn’t start the fires,” the Ranger continued. “But they were started because of us.”
“Nevertheless,” returned the Elf with great dignity, “you and I did not start them.”
Aragorn grinned at him through a smoky mask. “The letter of the truth, if not the spirit. Have it your way, then.”
Legolas nodded decisively. “Thank you, I will.”
“Sirs,” hissed Kent’s voice from a small courtyard. “This way, please, sirs.” The little man led them to a deserted courtyard, weeds overgrowing once well-tended flowerbeds. But the decrepit well in the center of the abandoned yard still worked, and the two were able to splash water over themselves and wash the grime from their faces. Aragorn resisted the urge to remark on the Elf’s bedraggled appearance, the silky golden hair burned unevenly above the slender shoulders. Superior speed, senses and reflexes Aragorn could forgive his elven kin and friends, but he had never quite accepted their ability to slog through the foulest terrain and emerge immaculate, while he looked like he had crawled through mud on his belly.
Aragorn took a deep drink of the icy water then turned to face their shivering rescuer. “Thank you,” said the Ranger gravely.
Kent nodded. “I figure I paid you back for your friend sparing my life. I said if I could do anything for him in return, I would. ‘An I did. We’re even now. You’ll tell him when you see him?”
It was Aragorn’s turn to nod. “We will. Boromir will be honored by your loyalty and bravery.”
The thin man puffed out his chest. “Good luck in finding your little friend. I hope he’s come ‘ta no harm.”
Legolas finished washing his face and joined the Ranger in watching the man depart. “So do I,” the Elf whispered.
“We must find him, Legolas.” Aragorn reached inside his jerkin and pulled out a compact lump that unwound itself into the Ring-bearer’s mithril coat. “I mean to return this to him.”
“When did you pick that up?”
“When you dropped it, of course.”
“I was on fire, Aragorn.”
Aragorn nodded, the smile fading from his stern features. “Yes. Another complication. A magic-wielding … whatever that thing is.” He folded up the small, glittering coat and returned it to his jerkin. “I wish we had never come to this cursed town.”
* * * * *
Huddled and freezing in some darkened doorway, Frodo was losing his battle against sleep. It was too much to hope for that the creature and the unknown intruders had killed each other off. Even now, one or both might be trailing him. But for his life, he could not force himself to rise and move. He was so tired that his hurts seemed a distant thing, present but unimportant. The rope-burns on his wrists had stopped bleeding, as had the infected rat-bite. Now both ached and throbbed with a pain that seemed to travel throughout his entire body.
‘Get up,’ he ordered himself. ‘Get up and move. They’ll find you if you don’t.’ His body did not obey. The sun would be coming up soon. Desperate, Frodo tried another tack. ‘If they find you, they will take it. They will take it away from you. And all of this will be for nothing.’ From somewhere deep inside, defiance and anger stirred, and a nameless fear. The hobbit dragged himself to his feet, pulling himself up by clinging to the doorframe. He took a step and almost fell, catching himself on a rough banister. The abused wrist stretched and the skin broke, shedding blood black in the faint pre-dawn light on the banister. Steadying himself, the Ring-bearer drew in a great breath of icy air and stumbled forward into the dying night.
Not long after, a black-cloaked figure limped to the doorway where the hobbit had rested. A long, forked tongue flicked out of its lipless mouth, tasting the scents on the air. The occasional blood-drops it had been following were petering out. Now it paused in the shadowed doorway and stood still, testing the air. It leaned into the doorway and ran the forked sensory organ over a smear of dark liquid that glistened on the banister. Then it raised its black head and hissed, hurrying after the failing scent.
* * * * *
Boromir came awake with a gasp, convinced that the hordes of the Enemy were rattling their weapons before the city gates. But no, it was only the dwarf snoring. The Gondorian soldier shut his eyes in relief. The screams of the women and the wails of the men had been so real…
The faint sound of rustling cloth came to his ears and he looked over to see the wizard staring out of the small window, gnarled hands clutching the bars. The sun was just clearing the horizon. How odd to see the sun rise over ramshackle wooden buildings instead of majestic mountains or the receding shadows of a mighty forest. Stifling a groan, Boromir rolled off the hard bench that had served as his bunk and joined the wizard, noting that a washbasin and water had been put out for them, as well as other necessary sanitary accoutrements. Not the restful night in a feather bed he had been hoping for, but better than awaking in a cold bedroll. Much, much better than not awaking after the attentions of an angry mob.
Gandalf nodded absently in greeting, his attention on staring distractedly out of the glassless window. Seeing the wizard’s hand tight on his staff, Boromir forbade to interrupt, but suddenly Gandalf sighed and shook his grey head. “I cannot find him, or Aragorn or Legolas. There are too many bright sparks of life too near … I cannot sort out theirs.” The wizard rested his forehead against the cool stone of the windowsill for a moment. “I thought I had Merry and Pippin and Sam for a moment, but then the sparks merged with many others and were lost.” Gandalf turned himself around and dropped wearily onto the bench below the window that had been his bed for the night.
The man did not understand the wizard’s words and did not wish to inquire more closely into things that made him uncomfortable. Instead, he turned to practical considerations. “Gandalf, we must take our leave of this jail before the guardsmen’s commander questions us too closely.”
The wizard raised deceptively mild eyes to meet his. “What do you suggest?”
Boromir leaned over and fastened his strong hands onto the bars, pulling then pushing against them with all of his strength. Sunk deep into the quarried stone of the windowsill, the bars did not even quiver. “They – do – not – budge,” the man grunted.
“Your father taught me well the advantages of a stout prison, Lord Boromir,” came a cold voice. The commander of the town’s garrison stood outside the wall of bars, his eyes locked on the image of the White Tree embossed into Boromir’s gauntlets.
* * * * *
This time Frodo could not catch himself when he slumped against a shadowed door to rest. His fall continued, landing him with a hollow thump on a small wooden platform. Voices were raised from inside the door and in a panic, the hobbit tried to gain his feet. He could not. The door opened and a child of Men stood there, one no taller than he. A boy of about ten years, as he understood their ages.
The two stared at each other. The boy’s mouth hung open, his brown eyes goggling the battered, bleeding figure on his doorstep. Frodo summoned what he prayed was a reassuring smile. “Don’t be afraid,” he whispered. “I won’t hurt you. I -” the rest was lost in a cough. “Please,” the hobbit whispered desperately, “may I have a drink of water?”
“Mama!” the boy shouted, uncaring of the early hour and his still-sleeping neighbors. “There’s a halfling fainted on the porch!”
The creature snarled as the human female and her whelp lifted its unconscious quarry and carried the little one inside. It would have rushed them still, but her cries had brought a male and an adolescent male to help her. It could have killed the four unarmed humans easily, but not without noise that would draw unwanted attention. There was no help for it. It could draw no risk to itself that might prevent it from obtaining the hobbit’s treasure. The sun was rising and stirring could be heard in the neighboring homes. It could not risk being caught in the light, where no cloak was sufficient to disguise what it was. Consoling itself with how it would enjoy killing the humans and amusing itself with the hobbit until it died, the creature turned its back on the scene and sought a dark and quiet lair to wait out the day.
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.