21. Down Into the Darkness
“What was what?” Aragorn asked, taking the packet of foodstuffs Pippin held up to him and tying it to his horse. Pippin stared up at him, puzzled. “I didn’t hear anything.”
“We did,” both Elves replied simultaneously, as they often did. Elladan frowned, seeking movement on the flat landscape with his dark, clear-seeing eyes. “A soft cry in the distance, I think. Where is Merry?”
“He went to wash in the river,” Elrohir supplied. “I saw him -”
Aragorn was already moving. Throwing the reins to Pippin, the Ranger was racing towards the swift water, his long legs moving at a pace the hobbit could not hope to match. Pippin hastily tied the reins to a nearby bush and ran after the Man as fast as his short legs would carry him. Behind him, Inmara, also tied, twisted her head and expertly pulled her reins free. Whirling on her haunches, the old mare followed her rider and the larger figure. Elladan snatched for her flying reins but was not close enough; the twins could only watch as all three figures disappeared over the slight rise that separated their campsite from the swiftly-flowing water.
The three other horses, the twin’s stallions and Aragorn’s gelding, sought to follow, herd-instinct demanding they go after the wise old mare. “Catch them, brother!” Elrohir cried, leaping towards the milling horses. Elladan yanked his own stallion’s head down and caught the other’s headstalls, stopping the stampede with the weight of his body, the horses dragging him several yards before their training overruled their instincts.
Pippin paused at the top of the rise, all strength fleeing from his limbs. Before his horrified eyes, he briefly saw the top of Merry’s water-soaked curls before they disappeared again in the frothy white of the river. “Merry!” he screamed, his voice gone shrill with terror. Merry twisted towards him and he saw his cousin’s white face for one instant before the great, rotted log bobbed over him, pushed by the swift current but still dragging one end on the sandy shore. Merry resurfaced again, his back to them, small hands snatching desperately at the log. But he could not gain a hold and with another dip, the log shook him off. Merry went under again and this time did not come up.
Aragorn plunged into the river with an inarticulate shout, the freezing water instantly turning the dark green suede of his leggings to black. The shock of the frigid water momentarily slowed the Ranger, then he was moving again, plummeting full into the flow. Sinking to the earth on strengthless legs, Pippin could only watch as the Man fought his way along the log and dove beneath the surface.
For long moments, there was no sign of man or hobbit. Pippin was holding his breath; if Merry could not breathe, then neither could he. They had not come up, either of them, he must do something. Refusing to acknowledge that he had no chance against the swift waters well over his head, Pippin unfroze his limbs and ran to the edge of the water. He had only just entered it when the Man’s dark head appeared above the water, and Merry… Merry hung limply in his grasp, Aragorn’s arm around his chest. He wasn’t moving and he didn’t appear to be breathing.
“Inmara! Inmara, to me!” Aragorn shouted. Pippin didn’t understand – what… Then the mare plunged past him, her great body knocking the small hobbit backwards to the bank. Aragorn was struggling along the length of the rotted log, hampered by Merry’s limp form. ‘Raise your head, Merry,’ thought Pippin. ‘Let me know you’re alive. Merry, please…’
The mare was struggling to answer Aragorn’s call. Though small by elven standards, her great hindquarters bunched as she dug her hooves into the sandy river bottom and pushed herself forward. Abandoning the log, Aragorn threw himself towards her, the swift water swirling about him, pushing him towards the center of the flow and the dark shapes of the jagged rocks there. Inmara reared, her forequarters clearing the water, and leaped. Aragorn caught her bridle just as the water swept his feet out from under him. Momentarily lengthwise in the water, he rolled sideways to bring Merry’s limp form up above him.
Inmara squealed in pain when their weight hit the end of her rein, but she did not give way. The mare dug in her hindquarters, her neck stretched out in a straight line, and began to back in response to Aragorn’s soft, choking urgings. “Good girl,” he gasped at her, “back up, back up, Inmara. Back, back…” Another mouthful of water silenced the Man but the mare continued to back, ears laid flat against her head in agony, pulling the two bedraggled forms with her.
Aragorn was almost within touching distance of the shifting bottom when the log, unbalanced and now caught in the swift current, tore free of its precarious mooring and swung out into the flow. The anchored end swung and caught the Ranger directly on the back, sweeping them both under. Aragorn surfaced a moment later, shaking water from his hair, hands empty. Remotely he heard Pippin scream on the bank, his eyes sweeping the water for Merry’s unconscious form. He raised wide eyes to the frantic hobbit’s and followed Pippin’s shaking finger. Turning, he was just in time to see Merry’s mop of blond curls disappearing around the bend.
Elrohir thundered past him on the bank, his stallion’s long neck outstretched, following the small, bobbing figure. The swift water had pressed Merry to the surface, feet first was he being pushed down the river. Without saddle or bridle, the Elf crouched over the stallion’s straining flanks, the great hooves struggling to find purchase on the uncertain ground. His knees drawn up, Elrohir tried to keep his weight forward over the stallion’s withers, using his weight to help the great animal find his footing in the shifting sand. Aragorn shouted at him as he flew past and the Elf nodded, his dark gaze never leaving the bobbing form being swept before him.
With a final shove, Inmara heaved herself up onto the banks, dragging Aragorn into the shallows where the hobbits had numbed their saddle-sore backsides the previous evening. Pippin hooked his arms under the Ranger’s shoulders and managed to drag him half out of the water, fear lending the tweenager unaccountable strength. Aragorn loosened the rein and pulled himself up beside Pippin, panting hoarsely. The mare stood by them, head drooping, her great sides heaving from the effort.
Elladan appeared by their side and helped to pull the soaked Ranger free of the grasping water and onto the shore. Delayed by having to calm the other two horses, he had not seen his brother in pursuit of Merry’s unconscious form. “Where is the little one?” he called to Aragorn, who could only gesture a shaking arm towards the bend, his teeth chattering too much to reply.
Elladan started in pursuit, then his dark gaze returned to the shivering pair on the beach. Swiftly he turned his stallion and pushed a bundle of blankets from his horse’s hindquarters, dropping them directly onto Aragorn. “Estel, you must build a fire. There is flint and tinder with the blankets. Dry yourselves or the river will claim you yet.” Still shaking too much to talk, Aragorn nodded and wrapped the first blanket around the trembling hobbit.
“I will go after them.” Elladan’s dark eyes roved to the trembling tweenager. “Do not fear, Pippin,” he added softly. “We will bring him back.” With that, the Elf dug his heels into the stallion’s sides and the two leaped away in pursuit.
* * * * *
“Sure is quiet ‘round here, ain’t it?” Sam remarked with a soft, happy sigh. The remaining hobbit population of Rivendell were relaxing in the small courtyard outside of Frodo’s room, tilting their heads back to feel the sun warm on their faces. Bilbo and Frodo shared a bench against the sun-warmed wall and Sam sat at his ease on the ground between them, his knees drawn up comfortably and his hands busy examining the tiny white flowers that grew in the sheltered soil. The flowers were unlike any the gardener had seen, like white lace laid against the dark soil, and he was carefully replanting the several he had eased from the earth to inspect their root systems.
Neither of the two hobbits replied to Sam’s idle query, both sleepy and too full of luncheon to exert themselves overmuch. Frodo yawned then winced as the movement pulled at the bruise on his face. The cut above his eye was healing nicely but remained tender and Frodo was quite happy to sit and revel in the peace and tranquility.
“Delightful afternoon,” Bilbo confirmed eventually, after some time had passed in peaceful silence. The old hobbit withdrew his pipe from his mouth and gently blew a series a smoke-rings, which the hobbits watch drift into the distance. Seeing his nephew’s eyes fasten longingly on the pipe, Bilbo shook his head. “Sorry, lad. Not till Elrond says it’s all right.”
Frodo sighed and nodded, content to sit in the sun. “I hope Merry and Pippin are enjoying themselves,” he remarked after a while.
Sam dusted off his hands and eased himself up on the bench between the two. ‘Me too,’ he thought. “A long, long ways from ‘ere.’
Bilbo yawned, then gently nudged Frodo across Sam. “Come on, lad. Time for your nap. Mine, too, I think.”
Frodo groaned and rolled his eyes. “Really, Bilbo, that isn’t necessary. I am quite all right – and quite tired of taking naps. I want to be ready to meet the Company after tea in the Library. Gandalf is going to explain our route to us.”
“Then you’ll be more alert after a nap, won’t you?” Bilbo was adamant. “Tell you what, Frodo-lad. I won’t ask you to take another after today if you’ll not give me an argument now.”
Frodo sighed deeply but would never gainsay his beloved uncle. “All right, Bilbo, all right. Sam, you heard him say that, didn’t you?”
“Aye, sir. I’ll remind him o’ it, if necessary.”
Heaving another deep sigh, Frodo dragged himself to his feet and trudged slump-shouldered into his room. Bilbo and Sam stared after the dejected figure, then burst into stifled laughter.
* * * * *
Despite what Aragorn had thought as he crushed the hobbit to him, Merry was not completely unconscious. He battled against the freezing water to retain the spark of awareness left in him, to spread his unresponsive arms sufficiently to float. The log had caught him a solid blow across the brow as it bobbed above him, stunning him but not sending him into the cold blackness that would surely have resulted in drowning. Like most of the Brandybucks living near the Brandywine River, Merry could swim, and swim well. But his limbs would not obey him. Fighting against the blackness that seemed to weight his mind and cloud his thoughts, he retained just enough wakefulness to stay on his back, head tilted into the water and chin and hips raised.
He was not aware of much past the freezing water washing over his face and body. Disjointed scenes flashed through his mind, Pippin’s shriek echoing to him from the shore, Aragorn’s arms like iron bands around him, then the rolling of the enormous log and he was adrift again, tumbling in the swift waters. All was coldness that was dissolving into red-tinged darkness. When his small body slammed against one of the jagged boulders in the swiftest part of the river, Merry knew only pressure, not pain.
The tiny disjointed part of his mind that sat back to observe his own death commented that this was most likely a bad sign, and Merry agreed. ‘I’m sorry, Pip,’ was his last coherent thought. ‘I’m sorry, Frodo. I’ve failed you.’
* TBC *
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.