47. Springing the Trap
“Pippin! Stay back!” Aragorn swiveled in place to locate the cry. His shout rang out after simultaneous cries of fear and rage from Meriadoc and Samwise at the unseen man’s words. The youngest hobbit appeared briefly at the far edge of the clearing then was dragged back bodily into the bushes. Amidst thrashing sounds, Aragorn could make out Pippin’s voice, “No! Let me go! Let me go!” The Ranger could only hope it was his older cousin that he struggled with and not another one of these men who had struck down Frodo.
Pippin’s impetuous advance had caused the owner of the unseen voice to rock forward, betraying his location by rustling leaves and quivering branches. For the briefest of moments Aragorn saw the obscuring shadow of dark cloak and thick hands encircling a loaded crossbow. The man’s threat was not empty.
The man’s attention was on the furious altercation taking place in the bushes lining the clearing; thrashing shrubbery and flashes of indistinguishable movement and stifled hobbit-shouts. The stars were brightening but it was yet too dark to distinguish what was happening. Aragorn took advantage of the diversion to steal a few crouching paces closer to the man. Sam came after him, sword drawn, his other hand tight on the frying pan and murder on his face.
The man suddenly remembered the threat on his other side and whirled back around. Both stalkers froze. “You there,” the man called again. “I will shoot the halfling if you do not come out this instant. Now! Or he dies!” The man turned back to the clearing and raised the bow, sighting along its length, his finger already on the trigger.
Aragorn could not risk this. Hastily he stood, his knife held far from his body. Peripherally, he was aware that Sam had disappeared from his side. The man saw Aragorn immediately and now the deadly crossbow was aimed at his heart.
“Come out!” snarled the man. “Come out where I can see you plain.” The Ranger took an unwilling step into the meadow, reluctant to abandon the shelter of the forest. “Closer,” hissed the man. “Away from the trees.” Another slow, dragging step.
The thrashing noises abruptly stopped, which pulled the man’s attention back to the clearing. There was an outraged squawk, which Aragorn had heard numerous times before and recognized as resulting from the removal of an elder cousin’s hand from a younger cousin’s mouth.
When the complaint was not repeated, the man’s attention turned back to Aragorn. “Drop the knife,” he snarled.
Aragorn’s hand tightened on the hilt and for one swift second, he considered a throw. But the man was still almost completely hidden and the darkness and the thick brush conspired against him. He could not be certain of a clean cast. Reluctantly, he loosed his hand and the knife fell with the faintest of dull thuds, standing upright and quivering in the soft earth.
Suddenly a small form broke from cover on the left and ran to Frodo. A slightly larger one followed in pursuit. ‘No!’ thought Aragorn desperately. ‘Do not reveal yourselves! Get back!’
The man’s head jerked towards the two small figures and the crossbow started to swing towards them. Assessing the threat, the lethal point wavered between them then firmed on the Ranger. Merry and Pippin had reached the still form and were kneeling by Frodo’s side, then trying to raise him between them, a shoulder under each unresponsive arm.
“You tell them to leave off,” the man hissed. “Leave the halfling where he is and to just stay where they are!” Aragorn hesitated, torn between his vow to the Ring-bearer and his own life.
“Now!” shouted the man. “Now!”
His death would not serve the Ring-bearer. There was a chance yet that they all could come out of this alive. Aragorn nodded at the man to calm him, then turned to the small glade.
“Merry! Pippin!” The two figures paused in pulling Frodo to his feet and looked up. Frodo’s head lolled limply, his face hidden by shadow. From the center of the clearing, they could not see the man crouched in the underbrush. But the strained note of Aragorn’s voice held them.
“This man has a crossbow trained on me. Lay Frodo down and stay there, or he will shoot.”
The cousins had Frodo up now, his boneless form balanced between them. They stood irresolute for a moment, then the larger form whispered something to the smaller and they began to ease their burden down, laying him gently on the grass. Pippin sat down and tenderly maneuvered Frodo’s head into his lap, stroking back the dark hair. Merry knelt at Pippin’s side, one hand laid protectively on his elder cousin’s chest, the other clenched on his sword hilt as his eyes scanned the perimeter, trying to pinpoint the man‘s exact location.
The man sighed in relief. “Powell?” he called. “Bran? Kane?”
Kane must have been the first man he had downed, Aragorn realized. He had struck the man to disable, not kill. Soon he would be regaining consciousness, if he were not already. As if on cue, from behind him a ragged groan sounded and the Ranger’s heart sank. Disarmed and held motionless, he and the hobbits would have no chance against two armed and ready men.
“Kane?” called the man. “Kane?”
The groan sounded again, accompanied by rustling noises and muttered curses. Aragorn dared not turn but his ears followed the man’s stumbling progress through the trees, night-attuned eyes picking him up as the man came up on his right. The cloaked form held one hand up to his head. He staggered to a halt midway between the captor and his captive, looking from one to the other with unfocused animosity. “He hit me!” the man growled, as if this were the greatest affront imaginable. “He snuck up on me, and he hit me!”
Aragorn swallowed a reply that he wished he had hit the man a good deal harder. It would be a while before the other two awoke, anyway, and the one that Sam had struck with his frying pan…
With a start, Aragorn realized that he had quite forgotten the stocky halfling. It was easy to do; Sam was so self-effacing and quiet. As surreptitiously as possible, he began to scan the surrounding area. But it was Pippin who guided his gaze to the missing hobbit. From the corner of his eye, he saw Pippin stiffen and lean forward, his gaze intent on something to Aragorn’s right. Merry too seemed intent, head tilted slightly, but only someone familiar with the young halfling could tell that he was tracking Sam by sound. Aragorn himself could hear nothing. Without turning his head, the Ranger followed Pippin’s gaze. Still, he almost did not see the flash of movement mirrored under the stars. A curly head showed itself momentarily between some bushes between the men, then disappeared again. Hobbit magic…
He had to help Sam somehow. “What do you want with us?” Aragorn asked, catching the two men’s gazes and holding them. He kept his hands up to appear less of a threat, empty palms turned towards them. The man he had struck was staring fixedly at him, hatred on his coarse features. The other holding the crossbow alternated between watching him and flicking his eyes to the three hobbits in the meadow. Aragorn knew the man could turn and shoot in either direction before he had a chance of attacking. Merry and Pippin were silent, but the Ranger knew the night wind carried their words easily to hobbit ears.
“There’s a bounty on the halflings,” the crossbow wielder replied, more amiable now that the situation was in his favor. “More than one, I’m told. My friends and I have been watching this valley for over a month, waiting for all the men and Elves and Dwarves to leave. Laying in ditches, covered with brush, hoping you’d come by the south road… No fire, cold stale rations - living in a filthy little cave so we wouldn’t be seen…” the man hacked and spat, his disgust evident. “So what was that all about, eh?”
Aragorn was silent. It had been too much to hope for that the Council of Elrond would remain secret - too many people had been involved. Not only the delegates sent by the Free Peoples, but their servants and support staff and minor officials. At least it did not seem that word of the reason for the Council had been spread. How far had the whispers and rumors progressed, Aragorn wondered?
“A bounty? How much?” questioned Aragorn, seeking to distract the man. Infusing his voice with just the amount of interest and greed, he sparked suspicion in the other.
“Aye,” the man growled. “Which we’ll be claiming so never you mind how much. A bounty offered by the wizard Saruman. For the halflings guesting at Rivendell to be delivered to him, alive and unspoiled. The other bounty offered is said to be far greater, but I wouldn’t…” the man trailed off and shivered. “I’ll not risk my skin to deal with…” he swallowed then continued more firmly, “Not for any promise of gold. At least Saruman is human … or close enough.”
The other man had been woozily patting down his clothing and now held up his empty scabbard. “Where’s me sword? And me knives?”
Glad of a reason to turn the other man’s interest from the Council of Elrond, Aragorn turned slightly to face the one he had knocked unconscious. “I threw them into the woods. Surely you did not expect me to leave them to you?”
The man took a step forward, his hands balling into fists, face darkening with rage. Aragorn was peripherally aware that Merry was cautiously edging to his feet and desperately wished the hobbit would kneel again, making himself a less visible target.
“Back off, Kane,” snapped the leader. “You – you tell him where his gear is.”
Aragorn waved a hand towards the spot. “Back there. At the base of a pine tree.”
The man snarled an oath, obviously wishing to use those fists. The leader jerked his head. The man stalked off in the direction the Ranger had indicated, the promise of retribution in every line of his body.
The other watched him go. “You’d best be telling the truth,” he remarked casually, one hand caressing the stock of the crossbow. “Kane there would like nothing more than to take a lie out of your hide.”
“I do not lie,” returned Aragorn softly. “Not even to brigands and turncoats.”
The man stiffened, and Aragorn found the crossbow raised to his throat. He dared not take a step back as the razored point of the bolt grazed the vulnerable skin just below his jaw. A trickle of something warm followed the sharp pain and began to trickle down his neck.
“Brigand?” said the man softly. “Turncoat? These little folk aren’t our kind. What matter to you if we make a profit off a wizard’s foolishness?”
“They are one of the Free Peoples,” retorted Aragorn. “They have as much right to walk Middle-earth in liberty as you or I. What you do here is wrong.”
The man’s face flushed dangerously and the Ranger wondered if he had gone too far. But the man would not be goaded into an incautious action that might turn to his captive’s advantage. “Kane!” he shouted. “Get back here!” No reply answered his call. “Kane!” the man shouted again.
Furious now, the man glanced into the meadow again then back to Aragorn. His face paled and his gaze swung back to the meadow. Only two figures were there now, the still one on the ground and the one pillowing his head in his lap. Aragorn felt his heart surge as he identified Merry as the missing one. Good for Merry! That little one possessed Ranger potential.
“Where is he?” snapped the man. “The other little one? And the fat one?”
Aragorn raised an eyebrow at him, his gaze deceptively mild. “I do not know where they are. I did not see them go. But what harm could there be in the little folk loose? Surely they are too small and weak to be a threat to you.”
The man considered this then nodded his head. The Ranger almost felt sorry for him.
“It is of no matter. We will capture them again. Kane! Answer me, you offal!” Still he did not receive a response. “Lazy, good-for-nothing…”
To this the Ranger did not reply. His attention was on the two small heads that had shown themselves briefly and deliberately to him out of his captor’s line of sight. Merry held up one of Kane’s knives and Sam had the other, evidently having stowed his fry pan to use the blade. Aragorn nodded imperceptivity and both hobbits sheathed their swords in favor of the more manageable knives. Both looked very grim and Aragorn wondered what had happened to Kane. He hoped it had been painful.
Merry pointed to the man then to the opening in the trees that led into the clearing. He and Sam melted back into the underbrush behind the leader, one of each side of the path and were lost to the Ranger’s sight.
“Let me see to the halfling,” requested Aragorn. “He is dear to me, and he has been very still for too long. I fear for him. I am a healer – let me see if he is hurt.”
“I hit him harder than I wished to,” admitted the man, his glance straying again to Frodo and the protectively hovering Pippin. “I caught him unawares, but he was very quick and I was forced to strike him down.”
Aragorn felt rage rip through him, though none of it showed in his voice. “Were not your orders to deliver the little ones alive and unspoiled? These halflings are more fragile than men, and that one has endured trials that have made him still more so. Let me look at him.”
“All right,” agreed the man, motioning for the Ranger to move forward with the crossbow. “You go first.”
Still keeping his hands well away from his body, Aragorn walked slowly forward farther into the meadow. He glanced back with a slight turning of his head and from the corner of his eye saw starlight glimmer of the drawn blades of knives.
He felt rather than heard the violent rustle of brush at the edge of the trees as two hobbits leaped out of hiding. The man behind him shrieked once, shrilly, piercingly. The twang of the bolt releasing was lost in his scream. Then something drove into his back with the force of a lightening bolt, and through the red wash of pain that swept over him as he fell, Aragorn realized that he had been shot.
* 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.