27. As Darkness Draws Near
“No! No! One wasn’t! One escaped! Sam, I know one is here. There’s a Black Rider in Rivendell!” Frodo’s eyes were glazed and unseeing, lost in a terror so profound that he was scarcely aware of his surroundings. He was on his feet and trembling, trembling so violently that Sam thought he was going to collapse. Quickly, Sam reached out and caught his master, wrapping him tightly in sheltering arms.
Frodo sagged against him, strengthless hands plucking at Sam’s shirt. “It’s coming, Sam! It is looking for me!”
Bilbo levered himself stiffly out of the chair and cupped his withered hands around Frodo’s sweating face, trying to call those morning glory eyes to his. “Frodo my lad, calm down. There are no evil things in Imladris.”
“It’s coming! I can feel it! Feel it in my mind!” Frodo’s voice was spiraling up into hysteria; his body rigid, the too-thin frame clenched tightly yet Sam was all that held him up. Growing increasingly frightened himself, Sam half-carried, half-pushed his master back into the chair. Frodo struggled weakly, staring past Sam out to the balcony. “It’s close, and it’s coming for me!”
Bilbo followed them, stroking his nephew’s hair and murmuring reassurances. Consumed by the unrelenting nightmare, Frodo did not hear. He began to hyperventilate, the aborted breaths racking his chest. Bilbo tapped Sam on the shoulder, his brown eyes strained and frightened. “Sam, go for Elrond. Something is very wrong. Hurry, lad.”
Frodo had pulled his knees up to his chest and laid his head upon them, wrapped in a ball of horror. He was rocking forwards and back, hiding his eyes, choking on sobbing breaths. Bilbo lowered himself to kneel by the chair and wrapped his arms tightly around Frodo’s waist, telling him that he was safe, that nothing could harm him here. But even that gentle, much-loved voice could not penetrate the Ring-bearer’s prison of terror. With a last glance at his master, Sam reluctantly turned and raced out the door. ‘Something is very wrong,’ Mr. Bilbo had said, and Sam knew in his heart that the old hobbit was right. This unreasoning terror wasn’t like his master. Even when those wicked things had him down and cornered that terrible night on Weathertop, he hadn’t lost himself in fear. The look in his eyes…
Stars above, where was Elrond? Sam tore past the gazebo, peering desperately into the late-afternoon shadows, scanning the balconies for the tall, elegant figure. Where would he be this time of day? Sam ran to the Lord of Imladris’ study, rushing past his secretary with an inarticulate cry. Elrond raised a startled face when the door rebounded from its hinges, papers and manuscripts scattering off his desk in the sudden gust. The Elf-lord rose gracefully, a stern expression forming on his high-browed face. “Master Gamgee, what –“
“You’ve got ‘ta come, my lord! It’s Mr. Frodo. Please, sir, you’ve got ‘ta come!”
Whatever words of rebuke Elrond had been about to deliver died on his lips as he took in the sight of the white-faced, terrified halfling. He snatched up the large black bag that he kept ever in readiness in his study and with a hand on Sam’s shoulder, followed the hobbit swiftly from the room.
* * * * *
His heart in his throat, Pippin followed the Men that were following his back trail to where Merry slept, defenseless and hurt. The young hobbit had sought to distract the Men more than once, slipping noiselessly alongside them and rustling the bushes or making odd sounds to attract their attention. No woodsmen, these, the Men ignored all of his attempts at distraction and single-mindedly focused on the blazes that led back to the hobbits’ camp.
Pippin was growing desperate. He could not allow these Men (scouts of the mercenaries that Aragorn had seen, he thought) to find Merry. He and Merry could give them their food, and whatever else they wanted, but Pippin feared that everything they had would not satisfy these Men. From what he could overhear of their growled conversations, the Men were hungry and frustrated and ill content with their lot. They were the sort who would delight in hurting two young halflings, one of them already injured, simply for the twisted delight of giving pain to something smaller and weaker than they.
Pippin choked back the wail that wanted to rise in his throat. Never in his life had he felt so small and helpless. He had never felt so in the Shire. In the Shire, he had seen Big Folk from a distance, but rarely, and even more rarely did he accompany his father to deal with them. The only Big Person he saw was Gandalf, with an occasional glimpse of a Ranger, visible only as a quick flash of grey and green then gone. Then he and Merry and Frodo and Sam had come to Bree, and suddenly everything was so outsized and threatening.
What was he going to do? It would be getting dark soon. Could he dart in and wound them, cripple them, before they were aware of him? Should he run ahead and warn Merry, and the two of them escape with what they could carry? Could he trick them into following a false trail? The three of them were now less than fifteen minutes’ walk from camp. Aragorn had told him to take care of Merry. He could not allow any harm to come to the person he loved best in the world. He had to do something very soon.
* * * * *
Elladan rode swiftly, sitting the great grey stallion with a natural grace that made no division between Elf and horse. His thoughts wandered from his missing brother to his separated foster brother, now tracking a Nazgûl. ‘Be safe, Elrohir,’ he thought. ‘Be safe, Estel.’ Then his thoughts turned to the hobbits left back at camp, and he added one more prayer to Elbereth. ‘Merry and Pippin, may you also be safe.’
The stallion stretched out his long neck and Elladan rose in the saddle and shifted his weight forward above the animal’s withers, helping the great horse run. At another time, Elladan would have enjoyed the ride, the exhilaration of the powerfully muscled animal moving beneath him, the wind in his face, the slow sinking of the Sun … but there was little joy in his heart now. A shadow and a threat was growing in his mind, and nothing but seeing them all safe and reunited again would dispel it.
* * * * *
Much the same thoughts were passing through Aragorn’s mind as he watched Elladan ride off. This time he did not remount but walked leading his gelding, his watchful eyes ever on the soft earth. He found where he had lost Elrohir’s trail; it veered to the East. Now the Ranger did mount and stood up in the saddle to see further into the distance. Far ahead of him, it seemed the earth was greatly trampled, as if a great host had passed that way. The hoof marks of Elrohir’s stallion passed towards the trodden area, merged with it and were lost. Aragorn greatly desired to find out what had happened but he could not spare the time. He turned his back on Elrohir’s trail and sought that of the Black Rider.
Aragorn returned to the river’s edge and sought the scuffed marks from where he had cleaned the foul marks of the Nazgûl’s mount from the sand. Backtracking, he found the beast’s tracks and began to follow them. He wanted to follow the trail as far as he could before the light failed. When he came to a clear patch of earth, Aragorn dismounted to study the hoof marks more closely. This was a big animal with a long stride, capable of great speed. Yet the hooves were misshapen, as was all the Dark Lord touched. The imprint of the nails that were driven from the side of the hooves through the tender frog into the shoe were clearly visible. ‘It must make each step the beast takes an agony,’ Aragorn thought. ‘Or perhaps the poor beast is now so perverted that pain matters not to it.’ Shivering a little, the Ranger patted his own horse gently on the side of the neck, then urged it to greater speed.
* * * * *
Far to the north of Imladris, the son of its lord sat in a tree and tried to amuse himself by inventing tortures for the great host of Men that camped below him. So far, Elrohir had wished for a fast-moving brush fire, the introduction of some vile ingredient into the cook pots that gave them all the trots, and a plague of locusts. As his good humor at his involuntary entrapment deteriorated, the fantasies became darker. He almost wished that the reports of large numbers of orcs moving East had been true; then perhaps they would encounter this host and in the ensuing battle, he could make his escape. It would be too much to hope for that the opposing forces would destroy each other.
At least the great host seemed to be preparing to move out, to seek a fresh campsite before darkness fell. Elrohir had watched since the previous afternoon, through the cold night, as the Men rested and repaired their gear, readying themselves to continue their march. The Elf was not impressed. The host seemed to be comprised of several companies of mercenaries, all of them dirty, ill trained and ill-equipped, and showing coarse behaviors. The Men fought among themselves like snarling dog-packs, the strong bullying the weak. As he watched, Elrohir saw more than one or two struck down by their fellows, the possessions of the murdered ones stolen before the bodies had even cooled.
This was the intelligence for which he and Elladan and Estel and the little ones had been sent. For intelligence of the enemy’s numbers and arms and movements. And here he sat in an oak tree, hiding from those he was sent to observe. Elrohir sighed in disgust and raised his dark eyes to watch the westering sun.
So it was that he heard the croaking cries before he saw them. Elrohir twisted about in the tree and looked behind him, drawn from his contemplation of the lowering Sun by the odd sounds. A dark cloud marred the clear skies to the East, a smudge on the blue canvas. Elrohir stiffened and directed his keen elven eyes to the dirty smear. The dark cloud was approaching rapidly, splintering into many small fast-moving bodies. With a sinking heart, the Elf recognized them as crebain, foul eyes out of Fangorn and Dunland, spying for the wizard Saruman.
The crows were coming at speed, so many that the beats of their wings made a small thunder that drowned out the constant babble of talk and shouts below him. Below him, heads were turning, being raised to regard the crebain in apprehension and fear. Too late did Elrohir remember that the sheltering leaves of the great oak in which he crouched would not shield him from eyes at a level with his.
The foremost of the flying horde were drawing near to him, eyeing him and cawing in great excitement. Their agitation at locating a hidden watcher was being communicated through the flock, and they flapped and swirled about him at incredible speed. Elrohir found his bow in his hands and an arrow nocked, but after a moment’s hesitation, he lowered the weapon in frustration. The thick boughs of the oak interfered with his aim. And it did not matter, Elrohir thought. He could spend all of his arrows and a thousand more and never make a dent in their numbers.
Others of the foul flock had veered off, over flying the mercenaries and no doubt gathering much of the same information as the Elf, to report to their distant master. Dimly over the croaking cries, Elrohir could hear the Men shouting to each other and saw them gesturing at the crebain. One of the Men, a great, dirty brute, pointed up at the throng and shouted in rage, “Aren’t we movin’ fast enough for his Wizardness, then? He didn’t need to send his flying rats to spy on us!”
Another came to his side, sheltering his head from the rain of excrement with which the crebain fouled the earth. “What’s got them so excited, Captain? Look how they’re swirling ‘round that oak tree.”
The Man raised a hand to shelter his eyes, staring up into the thick foliage of the oak. The setting sun, as well as the screaming flock, interfered with his attempt to see into the leaves. Elrohir tried to shrink farther back against the trunk but could retreat no further against the hard bark. Excited the more by his movement, the crebain cawed and flapped around him with renewed vigor, trying to dart through the branches to attack him. Small they were, but very many, and those beaks and claws were as sharp as razors. If they could blind him, he would not last long against them. This the Elf knew, and understood that the crebain knew it also.
Below him, the mercenary captain watched and wondered at the strange behavior of the birds. Summoning his lieutenants to him, he gave them swift instructions and set them to climb the tree and report to him of what they found there. Elrohir watched the Men as they formed a loose circle around the oak and started to climb. The Elf returned the useless bow to his back and drew his long knives.
* 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.