39. Desperate Straits
“Are you warm enough, young Peregrin?” asked Gimli, the small amount of expression the hobbits could see between the russet hair and bushy beard looking concerned. “Shall I build up the fire further?”
Pippin nodded hopefully. But his eldest cousin broke in before the tweenager could speak. “If you do,” said Bilbo, “Elrond will think that you have set his woods ablaze.” Black smoke was already billowing from the bonfire that the dwarf had made, climbing high into the cold morning sunlight. The shifting wind seemed intent on finishing off what the icy waters had started; each time the three damp, shivering and thoroughly miserable hobbits moved to avoid the wind-blown smoke, it changed direction and sought them out.
“Do you think they’re all right?” murmured Sam. The stocky hobbit took an inopportune breath and exploded in a frenzy of coughs, tears streaming from his eyes as he struggled to clear the smoke from his lungs
“Smoke follows beauty,” commented Bilbo. Alone among the small company, he was on his feet, watching for four to return where two had left. “It’s an old saying. But then, I’m an old hobbit. ” Pippin managed a wan smile. Bilbo reached out and tousled the youngster’s limp curls gently. “Buck up, lads. Aragorn and Legolas will bring him back. They’ll return any time now.”
Gimli looked at Sam worriedly as he coughed again and pressed his water-skin upon the young hobbit. “Master Samwise, drink a little water,” he urged.
Sam shook his head. “No thank you, sir. I’ve drunk enough o’ that to last me forever. I’m thinking of switching to beer for the rest of my life.”
“What about washing, Sam?” Pippin could not resist asking.
“Beer will work for that too, Master Pip,” replied Samwise firmly.
“Sounds good to me,” muttered Merry with a cough. Then he raised his head, staring into the woods. “What’s that?”
Instantly Gimli was standing before them, his small throwing-axes in his hands. Aragorn had forced him to leave his great battle-axe behind but the dwarf would not forgo his small axes, not even during boating lessons.
He returned them to his belt as two great grey shapes broke through the trees. Elladan and Elrohir reined their blowing stallions to a stop before the wrenched-looked party, astonishment on their fair faces. “We came as soon as we saw the signal fire,” called Elladan.
“What occurs?” asked Elrohir, searching Merry’s face, while his brother looked keenly into Pippin’s tearing eyes. Merry held up his arms and Elrohir leaned to the side, sweeping the hobbit up into his arms without dismounting. Elladan caught up the blanket-wrapped Pippin and seated the hobbit before him.
“We will tell you as we ride,” said Merry and pointed a shaking finger downriver.
* * * * *
Legolas was pulling ahead of the Ranger and with a wave of his hand, Aragorn motioned the Elf on. The Man sank to his knees, hands on his thighs, wet clothes sticking to his sweating body. Aragorn closed his eyes and coughed, fighting to draw breath. They had seen no sign along the banks and the roaring of the great falls was becoming more distinct. Crushing down his fear with an iron fist, Aragorn tried to recall the configuration of the rapids. The greater rocks were first, sides worn smooth by the rushing waters. After them were scattered smaller boulders, many jagged and splintered. Water white with speed sprayed over them. Catching and holding on to one of the serrated, slippery boulders would be almost impossible.
“Aragorn! Come quickly! I have found them!” Aragorn was on his feet and running again before his mind had deciphered the meaning of the Elf’s shouted words. Bursting through the trees, he emerged onto a sandy bank and pulled to a stop in horror. Legolas was standing in the shallows, his breeches wet to the knees where he had waded out before keeping his feet became impossible. The Elf had halted perhaps twelve feet from the first of the boulders, the larger but more gentle rocks that presaged the rapids. Something long and slender glinted in the water, hung on its ends between two great boulders. Not a tree trunk, Aragorn saw… it was the elven river-craft. Wedged sideways in the water, it was providing an lifeline for the two sodden forms that clung weakly to its sides.
Part of the river-craft’s sides had been torn away but the frame remained intact. Frodo had clamped his hands on the upturned side of a bench, the force of the water pushing him full-length in the water. His cloak streamed out behind him as if he were flying. His dark head was down, between his arms, trying with all his strength to hold on. He did not see them.
Boromir, too, had managed to catch hold of the streamlined craft as it has passed them and caught on the rocks. The pushing flow was too great to allow it to slide sideways and off the rocks, but the implacable force of the water was breaking the craft’s spine.
Aragorn started to forge past the Elf but Legolas caught his clothing and dragged him back. “Will you be swept away also?” Aragorn shook off the Elf’s hands, impotent fury in his face. But Legolas was right. He could no more stand against the raging waters than a grain of sand could hold back the tide.
As Aragorn and Legolas could but watch, the wooden back of the small boat bowed and more of the frame cracked and snapped. Frodo’s head came up as he was jerked back in the water and he saw them. He cried out but they could not hear him. Boromir’s head turned towards the hobbit, and the two on the bank saw the soldier’s eyes fasten on them. They saw despair on Boromir’s face, even as he struggled to drag himself hand-over-hand closer to the Ring-bearer.
With a snap that was heard over the rushing waters, the elven craft’s spine shattered. Frodo had a moment to scream before the frothing waters closed over his head. The broken end of the slender boat was caught up in the current and up-ended completely before being dragged under, visible only as a dark shape before it exploded into splinters on the rocks. Boromir’s end was thrust upwards and came down with the bow impaled on a sharp boulder like a cap on a mushroom. The Man disappeared then came up clawing for the splintering frame, something dark clamped between his legs.
It was Frodo. The hobbit was moving feebly, small hands flailing aimlessly at the water. The soldier’s legs held him tightly at the waist, the current stretching them both out. If they were torn free like that, Aragorn thought, the rocks would smash their spines just as it had the river-craft.
Legolas had his bow from his back, stringing it in a heartbeat. Then he was unwinding the thin, tensile fiber that was wound around the base of his quiver. It was a type of twine, the Ranger saw, thin and strong. The Elf pulled out an arrow and tied the thin line just below the nock, winding the line between the fletching. Aragorn’s eyes turned to the broken skeleton of the remaining half of the river-craft’s frame caught over the rock - the slender wooden ribs offered little surface to hold an arrow. And the frame was bucking in the current, splintering as they watched. Legolas backed out of the water and stood on firm ground, bracing his legs wide.
The arrow and its trailing line sang as pure as elven-song over the white waters, imbedding itself deep in the narrow rib that had formed the bow-point. Boromir understood immediately, reaching out with one hand to wrap the line around his wrist. Legolas cast aside his bow and closed his hands around the line. Aragorn seconded him, wrapping the end of the line around his forearms. Boromir took a deep breath and called out something to Frodo. They could not see if the hobbit responded. With the line securely tied about him, Boromir struggled to pull out the arrow. Unable to, he snapped it. Boromir released the wooden skeleton and the two were wrenched back by the current.
Aragorn and Legolas dropped to their haunches and dug in their boots, pulling with all of their strength. Boromir could not help them; it was all he could do to keep his hold on the line and turn his body to keep the hobbit’s face above water.
Though it was but a half-score of feet to the calm waters at the banks, the river never ceased its tug-of-war with the two mortal lives as prize. Fire ripped through Aragorn’s shoulders and the muscles of his arms spasmed in protest. Legolas pulled grimly, his expression set, the pain he bore only a clouding of his sunlit eyes. With one mighty effort, the two hauled Boromir and Frodo ashore like two gasping fish on a line. Dragged free of the greedy waters, Boromir managed to catch up the choking hobbit and pull himself two steps out of the water before falling unconscious at their rescuers’ feet.
* * * * *
Elrond pulled the door closed and leaned his forehead against it, indulging himself in a moment of simple aggravation well mixed with relief. After examining each of the red-nosed, coughing, sneezing halflings, he had ordered Merry’s and Pippin’s beds moved into Frodo’s rooms and decreed that all four of the hobbits share quarters until they were recovered. They were reassured by one another’s presences, and it would be easier for him to attend them so.
“How are they?” asked Gandalf, who had been waiting with Aragorn for the diagnosis.
The Master of Rivendell sighed. “They are all developing fine colds. They will have headaches, stuffy noses, sore throats, coughs and general aches and pains for several days at least.”
“It could have been much worse,” said Aragorn softly.
“Indeed,” agreed Elrond. He joined Gandalf in taking a chair and rubbed his high brow tiredly. “That Elladan and Elrohir brought them in so quickly has greatly reduced their chances of pneumonia. Frodo bears the brunt of it, bruises and scrapes resulting from the most time spent in the river. He swallowed a great deal of icy water and was thoroughly chilled. We will have to watch both he and Boromir carefully for signs of fever.” Elrond frowned, cataloging in his mind remedies and tonics that might be of use. “I am thinking of confining the hobbits to the Ring-bearer’s room for the remainder of their stay here. That way, perhaps, they will stay out of trouble.”
“Only if you remove all furnishings, decorative items, linens, carpets and drapes and possibly the floor, ceiling and walls,” drawled Gandalf.
“I have known only Bilbo, who is a noteworthy enough person,” Elrond continued, ignoring the wizard. “Are all halflings so … so…”
“Consistently unfortunate?” suggested Gandalf.
“Accident-prone?” supplied Aragorn.
“I was about to say, ‘Adventurous’,” the Elf-lord finished, with a quelling glance at the other two.
Gandalf leaned back in his chair and laughed. “I have been friends with hobbits for many years,” he said, his sharp eyes slightly distant. “They are, without exception, completely unique individuals. Their small size in no way reflects the size of their hearts, or courage, or souls.”
“Be that as it may,” replied Elrond, “these four will have no more lessons for two days, at least. Then nothing strenuous for another day. Estel, what might you or the others teach them that does not require physical exertion, and in which they cannot possibly harm themselves?”
“Setting snares, I suppose,” the Ranger replied at length. “Pippin is now expert and Sam as well, but Frodo and Merry could use some practice. They are less used to providing for themselves in the Wild.”
Gandalf nodded. “They would be. As members of the elite of hobbit society, Frodo and Meriadoc are more accustomed to packing their staples on a walking-party, or having a servant prepare their dinners for them.”
“But they could do themselves no damage?” pressed Elrond.
“Maybe a cut or squeezed finger, nothing more,” assured Aragorn.
Elrond nodded. “Very well.”
Aragorn bowed to his foster father and the wizard. “If you will excuse me, I will prepare the wires and see what else may be taught our invalids.” So he departed, still smiling slightly.
When he had gone, Gandalf turned to the Elf-lord, the sparkle in his eyes fading. “You realize, of course, that these ‘accidents’ to the Ring-bearer may not be accidents at all?”
Elrond was silent for a long moment. Then he rose and drifted to the open balcony, looking out past the beauty of Imladris to the East. Grey clouds marred the horizon there, it looked to be cold and raining. “You think they have been caused by the … by what he bears?”
Gandalf joined his old friend, looking out into the darkness in the East. “I think that the Enemy is able – increasingly able – to exert an influence over his … property. What we have been calling mischance may be a deliberate effort to dispense with a Bearer who has proved to be remarkably resistant to his evil, so that the … his property … might fall into the possession of one who will heed its whispers and lies, and deliver it to its maker.”
“Does Frodo know this?” demanded Elrond softly.
Gandalf frowned and shook his head. “I do not believe so. Hobbits live very much in the ‘now.’ Though Frodo is an introspective hobbit and quite intelligent. He might have realized it on some level but he denies himself the knowledge.”
“And when he must face that knowledge?”
Gandalf sighed and leaned against his staff, his gnarled hands sliding over the timeworn wood as if for comfort. “We will be there for him.” His glance strayed back to the closed door, from behind which a particularly loud sneeze had just been heard. “We will all be there for him.”
* 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.