29. Darkness Deepens
Here and there he could make out the partial imprint of a bare hobbit foot, some trodden over by the great boots. Here, and here – that must be Peregrin, his prints were smaller than the other. He followed the small tracks from the campsite and some little way into the forest. But Elladan could not look at the ground and tell the time between the hobbit and human tracks; his skill did not extend so far. With a sigh of exasperation, he sat back on his haunches, rolling the pine needles and leaves between his long fingers.
Unmoving now, he heard in the distance a running horse. For a moment his heart rose in his throat. The Black Rider was never far from his thoughts. Elladan knew himself no match for such a thing. Estel, returning? What would bring him back at such a pace? Elrohir?
The twins each knew that the other half of his soul waited before Elrohir broke through the brush and swung down from the saddle. Elladan and Elrohir embraced, no words needed between them. But at last Elladan found them. “Where were you?”
Elrohir laughed and leaned his brow against his brother’s. Like two sides of a mirror they looked, one image the reflection of the other. “Brother, have I a tale for you.”
Elladan pulled back, his face sobering. “And I have one for you. Estel tracks a Nazgûl. And the little ones are missing.”
* * * * *
Pippin wrapped his arms around Merry and eased his cousin against the tree, sliding down the rough bark to collapse beside him. Merry was holding his broken arm with the other and his face was deathly white. Running had aggravated the injury and it had gone from barely aching to throbbing so intensely that he felt nauseous. Both of them tried to stifle their gasping breaths and be quiet.
Pippin peered around the tree. “Do you think we lost them? I think we lost them.” Blood dripped down his cheek from where a branch had caught him as he dashed back to the campsite to warn his cousin. Pippin rubbed the stinging cut absently, smearing the blood on his face.
Merry could not reply for a moment. Pippin looked at him then flung his arms around the panting form. “I’m so sorry, Merry. I ran as fast as I could. But they were almost to camp and I couldn’t -”
“Not your fault, Pip,” Merry finally managed, taking great gulps of air against the sickness that made his vision blur and his head swim. “You cut Inmara’s tie-stake and got me out in time. They didn’t get any of us.”
“But they got our supplies – everything, Merry! All our food and the water-skins and blankets and -”
“And nothing that matters,” Merry interrupted him. “You are all right and so am I. So is Inmara, wherever she bolted to.”
Pippin was fighting back tears. “It’s my fault. It’s my fault, Merry! I led them right to camp. They followed my blazes. I was trying to be so responsible and not get lost, and I led them right back to you -”
“Pippin! They’ll hear!” The tweenager was quiet instantly, his small hands buried in his cousin’s cloak as he trembled. “It’s not your fault,” Merry repeated, more gently this time. The throbbing was easing, leaving room in his mind for something other than fighting the pain. “Now listen to me. We’ve got to hide … find someplace where the Men won’t find us and wait for Aragorn and the twins to return.”
Pippin sniffed hugely, trying to follow his elder cousin’s lead. “I set some snares in good hiding places. Where coneys would hide, I mean. We could hide there, too.”
“Is it far?” Though he was no longer gasping, Merry’s face was grey and streaked with perspiration.
Pippin slid a shoulder under his cousin’s good arm and helped him to stand. “No, not far. Lean on me, Merry.”
Though it was indeed not far, it took the two stumbling figures some time to find the leafy bower where Pippin had laid his last snares before the Men had chanced upon his trail. Pippin quickly checked the snares but none had game in them. Not that they had a cook pot, any vegetables or even firewood. Then he helped Merry crawl into the leaf-roofed little opening, shielded on three sides by boughs and late-flowering vines.
The hobbits slept then, completely exhausted. Merry woke first, thirst clawing at his throat. If he listened, he could just hear the river; a tributary must be close. Checking that Pip was still soundly asleep, Merry dragged himself out of the bower and located the stream by following his ears. After satisfying his need, he cast about for some means to take water back to Pip. He didn’t want him wandering about alone –
The Man burst out from behind the tree with a roar, momentarily freezing Merry from pure shock. Unimaginably strong arms wrapped around him and lifted him off his feet. Merry tried to cow-kick the Man in the stomach but the mercenary knew hobbits and was wise to that trick. With terrifying ease, he immobilized the struggling hobbit and whispered in his ear, “Where’s the other one, then?”
Another surge of nausea rose in Merry’s throat and he fought it down. The Man sat him down by the simple expedient of dropping him and caught his broken arm in a vise-like grip, ignoring the hobbit’s cry of pain. “What’s this?” Dirty fingers explored the sling. “Got away with some goodies, did you? And me mates were happy with your little bit o’ food and supplies! Is this where you hid your money, halfling?”
The Man’s avaricious expression went blank when he pulled Merry’s arm out of the sling and unwrapped the limb from its support. If Merry hadn’t been in so much pain from the rough handling and terrified for himself and Pippin, he would have laughed at the soldier’s expression as he held up Pippin’s detestable bread sculpture.
“HAH! HA! Hahahaha…” almost choking, the Man doubled over, his hoarse brays of laughter sending the birds fleeing from the trees. “Hahaha … the family jewels!”
Even being abducted and restrained and hurt could not diminish Merry’s humiliation. The hobbit groaned and wished he could just sink into the ground. But all too soon the Man’s amusement spent itself and he returned to business. Tossing the dough form onto the spongy riverbank, he picked Merry up by his shirtfront and held him up to his unshaved face. “Where’s the money? Where’s the money, halfling?”
“We don’t have any money,” Merry gasped; the Man’s grasp was strangling him.
“Everyone takes money when they journey!” The mercenary shook Merry, jarring the broken arm agonizingly. Merry closed his eyes in pain, then opened them again as a muffled cry came to his ears. No … no, please…
Pippin crouched in the bushes bordering the riverbank, an expression of horror on his young face that Merry would never forget. “Pippin,” he managed, “Run -”
With a roar, the Man dropped Merry and lunged after the tweenager. Pippin shot straight up and landed facing in the opposite direction, tearing back into cover. The Man blundered after him, ripping bushes from the earth and breaking branches off trees in his pursuit. Abandoned and forgotten, Merry struggled to his feet and followed, sobs of pain and terror racking his small form.
* * * * *
Aragorn halted his mount on the crest of one of the steep rises north of Rivendell, hoping against hope that the Nazgûl’s trail turned aside. Despite hard riding, he had not caught up with the Black Rider, which meant that it had increased its speed. It knew where the Ring lay, now.
The winding, confusing pathways into Imladris would delay it for a time. Some of the entry-ways into the hidden valley were so narrow that only a single horse could traverse them a time, making them difficult to spot from afar. Elrond would sense the Nazgûl, Aragorn knew, as soon as it set foul foot on his land. If he continued to follow its trail into Imladris, he might overtake it and… And what? Glorfindel, a mighty Elf-lord, could not triumph against them with all the power that was in him. What could a single man do against such evil?
One man could warn his lord. Choosing another path than the one the Black Rider had taken, Aragorn spurred his gelding down a rocky incline that he knew opened to a small meadow in the vertical hillsides above the Last Homely House. Small stones and soil tumbled after him as the horse slid down, practically on his tail. The Rider’s path was a dead end, emptying into a sheer cliff face. It would have to retrace its steps before finding a path into Imladris. Perhaps, with sufficient warning, Elrond could muster the forces needed to finish the surviving Black Rider and return it to Mordor, empty and shapeless, until the Nine could regroup and return.
* * * * *
Elrond raised his dark head from where he sat with the unconscious Ring-bearer, a smile forming on his lips. Aragorn… But the smile faltered and faded. Yes, Estel, but alone and frightened and troubled. And something dark came after him … not yet to the borders of Imladris but coming quickly.
Elrond stood, causing Bilbo and Sam to start and stare up at him. “What is it, Elrond?” Bilbo asked, his sharp old eyes noting Elrond’s sudden trepidation.
“Nothing, my old friend,” returned the Elf-lord matter-of-factly. “Just a difficulty I must attend to. I will instruct the kitchens to send you trays this eve.”
“Are you going ‘ta leave us?” asked Sam. The black eye that Frodo had inadvertently given him was coming along nicely. “What if he needs you, sir?”
“I will not be far, Master Samwise. Your master will sleep through the night without waking. The sedative I gave him was very strong. There are orders that I must give my people, and councils to take regarding what you have told me of Frodo’s fears.”
“Elrond -” began Bilbo in his best ‘look-here-young-hobbit’ voice, and amusement briefly lit the Elf-lord’s ageless eyes as the old halfling attempted to take him to task.
“Stay with him,” the Master of Rivendell bade them. Frightened eyes, brown and grey, met his and he knew that he had not fooled them. “Do not fear,” Elrond said softly. “I will not allow the Ring-bearer to come to harm while in my care.” In a billow of copper-colored robes, he was gone.
No sooner had he left than Frodo began to whimper and struggle weakly against the cool sheets and warm blankets. His thick eyelashes fluttered but he could not find his way past the drugs Elrond had forced upon him to calm him. Bilbo reached out and caught the flailing hands in his, murmuring reassurances and endearments, the grief and sorrow in his cracking old voice rending Sam’s heart. Sam rose and moved to the balcony, staring out at the sheer cliffs that ringed and protected the valley. Then he pulled the balcony doors shut and dragged the drapes across them, shutting out the world as best he could.
* * * * *
Pippin’s cries of terror spurred Merry to greater speed even as they froze his heart and weakened his limbs. His hand sought the small razor-sharp throwing-dagger he wore at his waist and then nearly dropped it as a stab of agony tore through his arm when he tried to close upon it. He drew it left-handed, awkwardly. Could he throw left-handed? He had never tried.
Merry burst out of the ground cover near the sheltered bower where he and Pippin had slept. The Man had Pippin down, his hands around the tweenager’s throat. Pippin’s face was turning blue. His back arched off the ground as he bucked, trying to throw the mercenary off, his small hands pulling against the Man’s as he fought for breath. Pippin got both feet under him and kicked, his fear lending him strength. Grunting, the Man fell backwards - then screamed. Unlocking his legs, Merry ran to Pippin and tried to drag him away but Pippin twisted in his one-handed grasp. “No, Merry, no! Don’t move!”
The Man screamed again, rolling as another snare fastened itself about his leg, tightening further as he thrashed. Another snapped on his outstretched arm, drawing blood. A fourth caught the same arm, pinning it to the earth. Panting, the mercenary lay still. His creased eyes glared at them as he slowly reached down and pulled the two wires off his leg, shaking blood off his fingers as he pulled off the two immobilizing his arm. Merry sagged against Pippin, too shocked and bewildered to flee. Pippin’s eyes were huge as he watched his plan collapse.
“Rabbit-snares? Rabbit-snares?” the Man sneered. “I am not a coney, lads.” He looked at the blood and his face darkened with rage. “I’m going to make you sorry you were ever born, you little Shire-rats.”
* 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.