28. Darkness Falls
There could be no doubt now, though the Ranger was loath to admit it. He rose and shaded his eyes with a hand, staring into the distance. The forest around him was deserted, as if all the natural creatures had fled before the Nazgûl’s advance. The woods were silent, not even birdcalls enlivening the still air. No, no doubt at all…
The evil thing was heading for Rivendell.
The creature was traveling slowly, at no more than a walk. Its mount’s disfigured hooves soiled the earth at regular intervals and the grass that bent under its steps did not rise again. At this pace … at this pace, it would arrive in Imladris no earlier than tomorrow’s eve, if the Black Rider did not rest at night. Somehow, Aragorn knew that it would not rest. It must be close enough to feel the Ring, or at least the general direction in which the Ring lay. Perhaps it could feel that the Ring was no longer moving, no longer fleeing before it. Could it also feel the protections with which Elrond had encircled his hidden valley?
Should he ride on to Rivendell or return to the scouting party? If he rode through the night at the fastest pace he dared in the darkness, he would arrive before the Rider. Surely the creature did not know the ways of the Last Homely House – it would lose valuable time searching for the Ring-bearer. Elrond would certainly feel it as it came within his domain, feel it as a coldness in his heart and a pain in the clear recesses of his soul.
His decision made, Aragorn wheeled the gelding around and set it running north, back towards the campsite. Indecision still gnawed at his heart but he made had best choice he could. He must rely on Elrond to protect Frodo; he would gather up the halflings and Elladan – and hopefully, Elrohir – and return as quickly as they may. Aragorn’s heart twisted within him; the scouting mission had failed. He had failed. He would return without the information for which they had been sent.
* * * * *
“No! No! Let me go!”
The Master of Rivendell swept into the Ring-bearer’s rooms and stopped dead in shock. He never thought he would witness the sight now before his eyes. Frodo was twisting in Bilbo’s arms like a wild thing, his wide eyes empty of anything other than terror and the desire to escape. Yet still he managed not to harm his frail uncle, twisting and trying to slide free rather than striking his captor. Bilbo held on like grim death, his arms locked around Frodo’s chest, murmuring a constant stream of reassurances and comfort. Frodo keened, lost in hysteria.
Sam rushed past the Elf-lord and caught Frodo’s arms, holding him so that Bilbo could pull away. With a sob, Bilbo did so, falling back against Elrond. Swiftly, the Elf-lord caught him and half-carried him to a chair. Bilbo batted at him, frantic. “Help him, Elrond! I’ve never seen him like this!”
Elrond squeezed the fragile shoulder gently before turning back to the fray. Sam had Frodo on the floor, wrestling him down by greater body weight and strength. He’d caught the Ring-bearer’s hands and crossed them over his chest, half-laying on Frodo to keep him pinned on his belly to the floor. Frodo wailed and bucked, trying to throw him off.
Swiftly Elrond knelt by the struggling pair and opened his satchel. He did not try to reach or speak to Frodo, seeing that the Ring-bearer was beyond reason. From far away he registered that Samwise was begging his master to be calm, be still, tears flowing down his round face. But he could not let either’s distress slow him. The Elf-lord’s long hands sorted through the phials and herbs within, selected one earthenware vial corked and sealed with wax. He broke off the cork and sniffed it to be certain there was no error, turning back to the mêlée.
Sam had succeeded in restraining Frodo; the Ring-bearer lay beneath him panting, enormous eyes blank, sweat glistening over his entire body. Sam angled his head up painfully, trying to locate Elrond. “Hurry, sir! Hurry!”
Frodo wiggled like an eel as Elrond moved to his side. “Turn him over,” the Elf instructed. “He must swallow this.” Frodo stared at him but there was no recognition in his eyes. But he recognized the sedative and threw himself desperately to the side, trying to escape.
Sam did not loosen his grip though he was dragged sideways several feet. Elrond followed, helping the sturdy hobbit roll his master onto his side. Frodo kicked at him and the Elf-lord was hard-pressed to avoid those powerful hobbit-feet. He circled ‘round behind Sam and caught Frodo’s head from the rear, forcing his head back and the jaw open.
The sweat in the hobbit’s dark hair made it difficult to hold him. While Sam immobilized him, Elrond poured in the sedative. Frodo tried to spit it out, his eyes wild. Elrond clamped his mouth shut then carefully gauging his strength, punched the hobbit in the stomach.
Frodo doubled over, swallowing hugely as he fought for breath. He gagged and choked, the thick liquid of the sedative coating his throat. For a moment longer he fought them, then with an enormous sigh, his eyes rolled back and he collapsed bonelessly in Sam’s arms. Elrond became aware that Bilbo knelt besides them, weeping quietly as he stroked his nephew’s limp curls. “Oh, my poor lad,” the old one whispered. “My poor lad.”
With a sigh of his own, Elrond sat back on his heels and checked the unconscious halfling’s pulse, then opened one thick-lashed eye to examine the enormously dilated pupil. He rose and bent to lift the small figure, laying it gently on the bed, and pulled the coverlet over the limp form. Frodo was unresponsive, his breathing slowing, small hiccups and coughs still racking him as his overtaxed body relaxed.
Elrond stroked back the dark curls from the glistening forehead. He turned on the bed, settling himself comfortably on the edge. Samwise would develop a nice black eye, he noted; an unlucky elbow had caught him on the cheek. Tears still streamed down both the small ones’ faces. “Now,” he asked them softly, “What upset him so?”
* * * * *
Watching the men struggle up the great oak with all the grace of climbing oliphaunts, Elrohir reflected that this was an inglorious way to die. His lord father would be mortified. Elladan … Elladan would be destroyed. The twins had always been together. He could not imagine life without his brother – would not want to live if Elladan did not. He knew his twin felt the same. Regret for the sorrow his death would cause his brothers and sister and his father and friends filled the Elf’s heart.
The crebain were further excited by the climbing men, darting in to rake them with those razor beaks and claws. Finding they could not reach the Elf through the branches and thick foliage, they concentrated instead on the climbing mercenaries. Blood was streaming down the soldiers’ backs, marking their arms and legs where sharp beaks had punctured the rough cloth of their breeches and jerkins. The blood seemed to drive the birds into a frenzy and the cawing and screaming increased, more of the creatures withdrawing from trying to attack Elrohir to strike at the undefended men.
Despite the distraction, the men were drawing close and the young Elf could hear their snarling voices swearing and gasping obscenities as they struggled to evade the birds and pull themselves up. Elrohir steadied himself against the thick trunk and readied his knives. As soon as the nearest Man raised his head, he would be seen. Then the mercenary would call out to his fellows, and it would soon be over.
Instead of raising his head and meeting the Elf’s eyes, the Man suddenly jerked violently and lost his grip. As Elrohir watched, astonished, several of the men either flung themselves against the trunk or dropped, catching themselves on a lower branch. But it was not until he saw the first black body fall past him that he understood. Of course … the mercenaries were hungry and above them flapped fresh, succulent meat. Arrows arched into the air, passing perilously close to the stranded men. Screaming curses at their fellows, the men started down, trying to shield themselves from spent shafts. Small feathered corpses began to fall like black rain; they were so many that almost every arrow, aimed or not, buried itself in a target. Elrohir crushed himself against the trunk but the soldiers were shooting out from the tree, shooting at the crebain that swirled around it.
Caught in their frenzy, the crebain were slow to understand what was happening. Men darted below Elrohir on the ground, picking up the black forms and already starting to pluck them. Cook pots were being dragged out. Over the creatures’ cawing and the men’s cries, Elrohir became aware of the captain shouting, “Hold, hold!” his powerful voice rising over the confusion. “Hold, I say! Bows down!”
The host did not obey immediately, depending on the general noise and confusion to cover their release of yet more arrows. But slowly the rain of arrows thinned and then ceased. Elrohir stared down in amazement. Black bodies littered the ground, piled two and three deep in places. The surviving crebain seemed in shock, fallen silent, their black wings still carrying them in circles about the great tree. Then, as one, the flock gathered itself and swept away to the East.
The captain stood with his hands on his hips, glaring around him. In the silence that followed, his words came easily to the Elf’s ears. “That was a fine display of mutiny, that was! Who started it?”
The men under his command milled about, eyes carefully downcast, none of them meeting his glare. Knowing he would receive no reply, the captain capitulated. “Gather them up, then; no use in wasting fresh meat.” A cheer, quickly suppressed, met this order. “But now we’ll double-march the rest of the way! Have to get ‘ta His Wizardness and explain why you lot ate his little birdies.”
Elrohir watched, astonished beyond measure, as the entire company packed itself up and marched off, gathering up every fallen black form along the way. He sat in the tree long after the last had departed, then grasped the nearest branch to steady himself as he began to laugh.
* * * * *
Far away yet closer than he had been, Elladan started at the sudden, inexplicable lightening of his heart. The great stallion beneath him rolled an ear back at the sudden glad cry that burst from his master’s lips. Elladan patted the foamed grey neck reassuringly. Mindful of Estel’s concerns over the little ones, he leaned forward again and let the mighty animal’s long strides bear him back to the campsite.
It was with relief that he pulled up short of the place where they had left the hobbits, walking the horse the last few meters so as not to startle them. “Peregrin!” he called. “Meriadoc!” No response. “Merry, Pippin - it is I, Elladan. Are you here?”
With that, the great stallion walked through the low brush around the camp. Elladan stared in shock. No halflings. And no gear, no supplies, no marks of residence. Instead, the ground was churned, here and there marked by scuffs and gouges. Looking closer, the Elf saw a discarded spoon, half-trampled into the soft earth. A wooden mug, shattered into splinters, lay abandoned by the cold remains of the fire. A small length of moss-green cloth was caught on a low branch, dangling forlorn in the slight breeze. Swinging off his mount and pulling it free, Elladan recognized it as Pippin’s scarf. Along one edge, ruby droplets of blood stained the soft wool.
Elladan clutched the scarf close and looked about the small clearing. “Merry,” he called. “Pippin! Answer me!” Only silence replied to his desperate call.
* 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.