46. Clouded Horizons
Pippin reached up and tugged on Aragorn’s leather coat. “Wouldn’t it be faster if you went and searched for him alone?” the tweenager asked anxiously. “We will slow you.”
“No,” replied the Ranger after a moment’s thought. “I do not want us to be separated. If something out there has delayed or injured Frodo, I do not want to give it the opportunity to wreak more havoc.” He did not say it, but there was always the chance that whatever had delayed Frodo might also be a danger to the other halflings. Despite the fact that he had not voiced his fear aloud, he noted Merry moved unobtrusively a bit nearer to Pippin.
“Injured him?” echoed Sam worriedly, tucking the small trowel back into his pack. He shrugged it on then picked up his master’s. “What would do that? Wouldn’t Lord Elrond have warned us if he sensed anything evil hereabouts?”
“If it was wholly a thing of evil, Sam,” replied the Ranger thoughtfully. “My lord can certainly sense creatures like Black Riders on his lands. Possibly orcs, if there are several. But not Men or other ill-intentioned folk that somehow managed to find one of the concealed paths hither.” Then he smiled in an effort to allay the growing apprehension on the faces of his young friends. “It is always possible Frodo has fallen into a ditch, too. Our Master Baggins has in the past shown a remarkable proclivity for such mishaps.”
Merry sniggered. “That’s probably it. Or got himself stuck in a tree. Or tripped over his own two feet.”
Sam bristled at Merry, aggravated but unable to refute the truth of the younger hobbit’s words. “He’s just distracted. You’d be distracted too, Mr. Merry, if you had ‘ta carry that wicked thing around your neck day and night.”
Merry’s teasing expression was replaced by a contrite one. “You are right, Sam. I’m sorry.”
“Come,” said Aragorn gently, interrupting the strained silence that had fallen over the hobbits. “He went into the woods … there. Follow me, and do not stray.”
Merry resettled his pack and followed. Pippin came next, with Sam behind him. Glancing over his shoulder, Aragorn noted wryly that the older hobbits had automatically placed the tweenager between them in the position of greatest safety. Would that he had been so careful of the Ring-bearer’s well being. Frodo’s request or no, he should never have allowed his friend to wander into the woods alone. What could have befallen the hobbit?
Sternly clamping down on his imagination, Aragorn began using his tracking abilities to trail Frodo. As he feared and expected, it was not easy. Hobbits were a light-footed folk and only a displaced leaf or the slight bending of a single twig here and there told of Frodo’s passage. He could not even find a full footprint. If Frodo had not stopped in one place to kick a pile of autumn leaves, Aragorn might well have taken a wrong turning. He picked an orange leaf up from where it had come to rest upon a neighboring bush and examined it carefully, but it could tell him nothing.
A scuffed disturbance farther on told him more. The Ranger knelt, his attention wholly upon the path. He was peripherally aware of Sam and Merry and Pippin behind him but they kept back, careful not to confuse the tale the earth had to tell. Here … Aragorn’s heart sank. A boot print. Here the imprint of the imprint of toes digging deep into the turf - Frodo had dodged to the side… The boots had followed… The hobbit had slipped on a pile of leaves and gone down. Much thrashing here … leaves scattered about, a slide in the earth. The boots had staggered back, off balance. The hobbit had whirled to run and the boots had recovered and followed … then leaped, clearing the earth for several paces. A flying tackle, then. And here … the outline of a small body, crushed into the soil by a larger one. Broken grass stems and small plants uprooted … a struggle… And a conclusion. The Ranger sighed and rose to his feet. All trace of the smaller body ceased and when the boots steadied again, they pressed into the earth deeper than they had before. The Ranger stared into the leafy forest and motioned the hobbits forward, his heart sinking with the sun.
Darkness was falling, the hours of daylight shortened by the deepening winter. They had tarried too long in preparing their meal and eating it, then waiting while Frodo tried to come to terms with the fact that those he loved were going to suffer hardship and danger because of the commitment he had made. The lengthening shadows were merging, melding their surroundings into an indistinct panorama of trees and bushes. The slanting light was just sufficient to illuminate the small glade that opened before them.
It was a small meadow, the wild grasses kept short by foraging deer. Though it was winter, parts of the glade were still green, sporting once beautiful flowers now tipped black with frost. It was almost perfectly round, and in the exact center lay something dark. Dark, and disturbingly still, thought Aragorn grimly.
To the side of them, from the forest’s edge, the grass was bent and broken leading to and from the motionless form, the frosted blades cleanly snapped. Two trails… One trail was less distinct than the other, as if feet had shuffled more under the weight of a burden. The other path showed no such smudging; the trail-maker had returned unburdened. Both trails ended at the same spot at the edge of the glade.
The hobbits crowded up near Aragorn, trying to peer past him but the Ranger spread his arms and blocked them. Pippin pushed at the man’s arm and stiffened himself at the quivering tension he felt in the unyielding muscles. Aragorn stood frozen, seeming not even to breathe as he looked and listened, and tasted the evening breeze like a stag scenting the wind.
Sam looked up at the Ranger, suddenly fearful. “Is it Mr. Frodo? Let me go to him!”
Instead of moving forward or aside, Aragon turned and knelt, facing the hobbits. “It is Frodo,” he said softly. “I see his dark hair. He is wrapped in his cloak. But he does not move.”
“Is he asleep?” asked Pippin, perplexed. The young hobbit inhaled. “Fro – “
Aragorn’s hand was across his mouth before he could complete the hail. The tweenager choked and turned startled eyes on their guide. “Keep your voices low,” the man ordered.
“What’s wrong?” whispered Pippin and Sam together.
“Think, both of you,” counseled the Ranger quietly, his eyes returning to the motionless figure. “Look where he lies.”
The hobbits looked at the still form in the exact center of the meadow. “It’s a trap,” said Merry flatly.
Sam gasped and unthinking in his fear for his master would have torn away from the Ranger, but lightening-quick, Aragorn’s hand came down on the stocky hobbit’s shoulder – hard. Sam was literally dragged back to the shelter of the trees. Aragorn shook his head. “No!” The Ranger’s voice was soft but the authority in it was unmistakable. “We must assess the situation first. Do you understand?” He released Sam’s shoulder but his glare was for all of them. Three curly heads nodded in unwilling unison.
“It would help immensely to know if Frodo is conscious and bound, or completely unconscious. He is lying on his side … his back is to us…” The Ranger was silent, thinking. Then he grasped the shoulder of the youngest hobbit gently. “Pippin, can you use your sling to strike Frodo? Not too hard, just to see if he responds. His reaction – or lack of it – will tell us where matters stand.”
Pippin nodded eagerly, his small hands already pulling the sling from the pocket of his cloak and loading it from his ever-present bag of smooth round stones. “I never thought someone would actually tell me to hit one of my cousins, gently or otherwise! I’m always being warned I’ll be murdered if I were to dare such a thing.” The last was delivered with an eye to his other elder cousin, who was too preoccupied in watching the swaying of every leaf and twig to give it the response it deserved.
With smooth practiced motions, Pippin readied his cast and let the small stone fly. Those watching could not see it but a heartbeat later they heard a soft whack! and Frodo’s cloak indented slightly, just hard enough to get his attention without causing him hurt. The still form neither moved nor made a sound.
“Unconscious, then,” sighed Aragorn. “We will have to spread out and encircle the clearing. Use your ears more than your eyes – those who did this are certainly lying in wait for whoever might come after Frodo. They may be perched in a tree and out of your sight, or perhaps hidden behind a large rock, or in the brush. Listen and you will hear them breathing before you see them.”
“What then?” asked Merry. “What if we do find someone? Do you wish us to draw our swords and engage them?”
“No, do not do that,” replied Aragorn, noting the frustration evident in the hobbit’s tone. “Find them only, then signal me.”
“How, without alerting any others there may be?”
The Ranger frowned thoughtfully. “Can all of you imitate a cricket?”
“In winter?” replied Sam skeptically.
“I would guess that whoever has done this is not well versed in wood-craft, or they would not position their captive in the direct center of the meadow. Easy to see, yes, but most unnatural. But you are right, Sam. It is better to be cautious. How about a bird – a thrush perhaps?”
Three soft thrush trills greeted his query. Aragorn nodded, impressed at their skill. “Good. When you find one, trill.”
Merry had been staring fixedly at his cousin’s unmoving form. “Aragorn, why do this in the first place? Why not just take Frodo and go?”
The Ranger had been dreading that question, knowing in all probability that Merry would be the one to think of it. “It would be my guess,” he said slowly, “that whomever was entrusted this task was not trusted with why Frodo was wanted. No underlings would be trusted with knowledge of what Frodo carries. It is far more likely that the order would have been to capture all of the halflings. Frodo was just unfortunate enough to be the first to fall into their snare.”
“So we are in danger, too,” stated Merry matter-of-factly. “And so are you so long as you are with us.”
“For every step we take with Frodo. And so it will remain, until the Quest has been completed.”
Merry nodded, seeming not at all disconcerted by that pronouncement as far as his own safety went. But Aragorn saw that his eyes turned towards Pippin and that strained, withdrawn look had returned to his face. The youngest one was practically vibrating in place, twisting his sling eagerly in his hands. Sam’s expression was grim.
“Be very careful,” the man whispered. Merry tapped Sam on the shoulder and pointed to the other side of the clearing. Sam nodded and was gone into the darkening woods without so much as a rustle to mark his going. Pippin was shifting eagerly from foot to foot and took off before Merry could complete his gesture to the left, halfway between himself and Sam. Aragorn watched apprehensively as the small forms melted soundlessly into the underbrush, then accepted Merry’s point to the right, across from Pippin. Drawing his long knife, he moved along to his compass point of the clearing, eyes half closed to better focus his hearing.
Ranger though he was and listen as he might, he could hear nothing of the hobbits’ movements. He understood why some thought the halflings had magic – their ability to move unseen and unheard was amazing. It seemed magical to he, himself despite that he knew approximately where they were. His own stealthiness was born of talent, years of experience in the Wild, and great need. His passage did not disturb the night-sounds around him, the day world falling to sleep as the night-world was waking. A rabbit emerged from its burrow and twitched its nose at him. A flight of sparrows had sought refuge on the branches of an oak tree, tucking their heads under their wings, their sleepy chirpings trailing off. A fox stared at him, cocking its head sideways, then trotted off on its own business.
The harsh breathing that came gradually to his ears was jarringly out of place among the gentle sounds of the night. He froze, eyes shutting completely as he sought to pinpoint the sound. There, slightly more to the left. He opened his eyes and in the grey dusk could barely distinguish a large, bulky form kneeling on the forest floor. A man? Orc? Something else?
The dark figure was turned sideways, trying to keep an eye on both the bait and for the prey it was supposed to attract. The figure’s head swiveled to the left then right in rapid, nervous movements. It was cloaked, the cowl pulled up over its head, and in its hands was a crossbow, the bolt nocked and ready. The Ranger felt a surge of anger flash through him. Such a bolt would likely kill one of the hobbits. Did these that hunted them have orders to kill, then, or was that bolt meant for him?
Aragorn snarled under his breath with harsh self-recrimination. He should have exercised more caution in leaving Elrond’s House; he should have known it would be wiser that they depart in secrecy and silence instead of trooping forth carelessly in broad daylight with chattering, singing halflings. Had he allowed himself to be lulled into complacency by the peace and serenity of Imladris? What could harm them so close to his foster father’s home? He had been seduced by safety and ease into letting down his guard once, and this was the result.
The Ranger ghosted closer, feeling with his feet for twigs that might snap before letting his weight down. Intent on the scene before him, the dark figure he stalked was still. Five slow, cautious steps. Four. Three. Aragorn reversed the knife and raised its weighted pommel. Two. The figure jerked, alerted by some primal sense. Instead of shouting an alarm, the figure tried to whirl and face the soundless shadow that had coalesced out of the dim light. A mistake. Without a moment’s hesitation, Aragorn brought down the weighted knife on the figure’s cowl and caught the unconscious form before it could crash to the earth.
The Ranger eased the limp form down and laid it on its back. The crossbow he recovered from where it had fallen and removed the bolt, returning it to its fellows in its quiver, which he slung on his back alongside his own. The bow itself he laid out of reach. Then he searched the still form and relieved it of a sword and two knives. Only then did he push back the cowl, and behold the coarse features of an unknown man.
So those that hunted them were human. One, anyway. Even as he wondered how many more of the enemy there were, a thrush trilled to his right. Near and to the right … that would be Sam. With a last check of the unconscious figure, Aragorn rose and padded in the direction of the call. It came again as he neared and he stopped, knowing that the hobbit had spotted him. He could make out no small form among the hummocks and bushes. But a moment later he felt a small hand fasten on his wrist and he looked down to see a light-colored curly head.
He crouched down and Sam nodded, pointed ahead of them then held up two fingers. The Ranger followed where the hobbit pointed and saw two large dark figures, crouched a few yards apart. How to get them both without alarming any others that might be out there? Another tug on his coat directed his eyes downward. With a vicious expression on his usually amiable face, Sam held up one of his frying pans and pointed to one of the men. Aragorn stifled a grin and nodded. He leaned down and breathed into Sam’s ear, “On the count of three.” Then he found himself alone.
They would have to coordinate the timing of this. Aragorn drifted silently up behind his target, grateful that the two were made confident by the other’s presence and did not keep as sharp a lookout as the single man he had downed moments ago. He stopped several feet behind the crouching figure and looked for Sam. He saw and heard nothing until the first stars glinted momentarily on the silhouette of a small head. He pursed his lips and a nightingale called in the night. Once it called, then twice. The third time it called, it was interrupted by a Wham!
Aragorn caught his man and eased him down, but Sam could not so manage a figure almost twice his size. The man fell heavily into the thick underbrush, the rattling and rustling of his fall seeming to echo throughout the clearing. For a moment, everything was absolutely silent. Then all heard a soft voice whisper, “Bran? Powell?”
Sam gasped, and only then was Aragorn aware the hobbit had returned to his side. The voice came again, to their right, perhaps a quarter of the way. Pippin’s quadrant. The voice was hoarse, distorted by the effort to keep quiet. “Bran! What was that? Answer me!”
Aragorn sucked in a breath. “What?” he hissed back harshly.
The disembodied voice was silent. Then, uncertainly, “Powell?”
“What?” repeated Aragorn, trying to locate the fourth man in the dark.
There was no answer. Then a voice came clearly, “I don’t know who you are or what you’ve done with Powell and Bran. But I have a crossbow. And unless you show yourself this instant, I will shoot the halfling.”
* 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.