54. Disaster Strikes
The hobbits turned their faces north with both gladness and sorrow. Several days in the Wild, on short rations, had reminded them of the luxuries of Elrond’s House. Hobbits are comfort-loving creatures, and they were eager to return to soft featherbeds and warm hearth-fires and dinner tables straining under the weight of well-cooked food. But the short journey had invigorated them, too, and filled them with hope that this mission-thing they were undertaking would succeed. Realistically, the hobbits knew that their upcoming journey would be no cheerful walking party, but hobbits love the feel of soft earth under their feet and the smell of dew on leaves and the wonder of seeing new things, and to their surprise, they found they were eager for the Adventure to begin.
Legolas was relieved to see that young Pippin had relaxed his vigilance over his eldest cousin somewhat, allowing Frodo to be out of his sight for moments at a time. Frodo was befuddled but tolerant of the tweenager’s sudden clinginess, while Merry and Sam were frankly mystified. The Elf would watch as every now and then, Pippin would dig out his fairy-stone and peer at his cousin, then quickly transfer his gaze about him in apparent fascination if one of his fellow hobbits cast an amused glance his way. “Best keep your eyes on the path, little one,” the Elf advised gently after Pippin had become so involved in looking through the stone that he walked straight into a prickle-bush and the whole party halted while Pippin was sat down and a cousin attended to each foot, pulling thorns (not very gently) out of his curly foot hair.
Aragorn and Legolas walked slowly, bows swinging at their backs, allowing the four smaller members of the party to explore as they would and freely indulge their curiosity. Aragorn was pleased to see much of what he had taught them put to use; the hobbits’ gathering-sacks bulged with sweet marsh-grasses, nuts, late berries, and all manner of the bounty of the Wild. No insects, however, he was amused to note. Teaching the hobbits survival food-gathering was rather like teaching a duck to swim, the Ranger reflected. They absorbed all he had to teach them then built on that knowledge with (to quote Sam) pure ‘hobbit-sense’. He was glad, for someday they might become separated from himself and the Company and each other, and he feared for them on their own in dark and hostile lands such as they in their innocence could not imagine.
“What troubles you, my friend?” Legolas’ soft voice in his ear startled the Ranger out of his ruminations. He glanced over to the side to see the Elf’s clear gaze upon him. “You walk with furrowed brow and dark expression,” Legolas elaborated.
Aragorn smiled faintly, recalled to the present by the Elf’s concern. “Worrying about the future, my friend, which avails me nothing. Our upcoming journey will no doubt present enough challenges without my inventing imaginary ones.”
“Yet it is best to be as prepared as possible,” Legolas commented. “It was wise of you to take the little folk to see the geyser. The walk has done them good, as well as lifted their spirits.”
“And gave Elrond a few days of peace, which he requested most adamantly,” Aragorn responded.
Legolas covered a laugh with a cough, his clear eyes sparkling with mirth. “I cannot comment on that, of course,” the Elf said diplomatically. “But it is certainly true that Imladris is much quieter … and less interesting … when the two youngest halflings are absent.”
Aragorn’s gaze swept about him, seeking the hobbits. Underground streams that joined the powerful river in feeding the great geyser broke the surface of the earth in spots and the swirling openings excited the little folk. They had passed several already on this route and the hobbits had insisted on examining each one. The openings where the earth surrendered to the water were never very large, no more than a meter across, but the view of the icy water passing swiftly through the peek holes in the earth seemed to fascinate the hobbits. Merry and Pippin crouched about one such opening now, while downstream some distance away, Sam and Frodo were similarly on their hands and knees, intent faces peering into the water. The two younger hobbits were dropping leaves and twigs into the water then taking turns racing them to the next window on the water, where Sam and Frodo were watching avidly.
“I do not think you are being truthful, Frodo,” Pippin complained, panting harshly as he flung himself to the grassy earth by his cousin. “I am certain that I arrived here before that twig.”
Frodo held up a dripping piece of wood. “You did not. Here is the proof. Pay up, Cousin.” Pippin glared at the inoffensive stick, then handed his older cousin a handful of blackberries he had gleaned as they’d walked. Frodo dipped his hand into the swift water to wash his winnings then deliberately ate the berries in front of his young cousin, grinning all the while.
Merry was on his knees and elbows hovering over the first opening, trying to peer into the water. “The stream flows under the ground through a tunnel it has carved in the rock, “ he called to the other hobbits. “Look, it does not fill completely the space it has made but ebbs and flows with the current. How interesting!” Pippin wandered back to join him, munching on a few blackberries he had hidden from his cousin.
His hobbit-inventory complete, Aragorn turned back to the Elf. Legolas was watching Merry, too, amusement in his starry eyes. The young one had now pushed up his sleeve and inserted an arm into the water, feeling around the underside of the rocky shelf on which he perched. He was struggling to extend his reach and was near to dipping his bright head into the water. “I should help,” the Elf murmured. “It would not do for him to fall in.”
“Merry!” called Aragorn. Merry and Pippin raised their heads. “Please do not fall into another river!” Merry wrinkled his nose at the Ranger and said something to Pippin that made the tweenager giggle. Aragorn could not make it out over the muted murmur of the river, but no doubt Legolas could. The Elf laughed abruptly, tried to turn it into a cough, then shot the Ranger an amused look.
“I will return in a moment,” remarked Legolas hurriedly, before Aragorn could ask him what Merry had said. Both hobbits looked up as Legolas approached and sank gracefully beside Merry.
“There’s something hanging down from underneath the ground,” the hobbit explained earnestly, withdrawing his dripping arm. He shook it, showering droplets of icy water on all three of them. “It’s long and slick. I can just touch it with my fingertips. Probably just a rock, I suppose, but…”
“But you cannot bear not to know,” teased the Elf gently. “All right. If you will move aside, I will see if I can reach it.” Merry scooted backwards and Legolas took his place, laying down with his head to the side, and inserted his long arm seeking into the opening. He wiggled about slightly, bending his arm back beneath himself under the rocky shelf. Pippin crouched on the far side of the opening across from them and watched with interest.
“Ah, I feel it,” Legolas said. “How odd. Let me just … Merry, give me a little more room, please. Thank you. Perhaps I can work it loose…” The Elf inched his body closer to the opening, half-suspending his torso over the rushing waters. Pippin watched as Legolas bent his arm back and underneath him at what must have been a painful angle. “Luckily, the ground is not so thick here. Ah – this must be it. Long and slick, you said?”
Merry nodded eagerly. He was standing by the Elf’s side, hands on knees as he leaned forward to see the better. “Can’t be just a root,” the young hobbit mused. “There’s no trees over the river’s path. The water’s too close to the surface to let them grow, I suppose, and it doesn’t really feel like a root. It must be a very strange-shaped rock – or something. Can you get hold of it, Legolas?”
“Almost,” Legolas replied. His hand tightening around the projection, he tried twisting it from side to side. “Ah,” he breathed. “It’s giving. It is very cold and difficult to keep hold of.” Icy water splashed over his cheek and Legolas grimaced. “A few more good pulls…”
From where he crouched across from the prone Elf, Pippin felt a tiny tremor run under his feet. He tore his eyes from the straining figure and looked down, his mouth dropping open. Tiny rivulets of earth were disappearing with each effort from Legolas. The Elf had closed his eyes against the onslaught of icy water and did not see, nor did Merry. Pippin did, but his cry of warning came too late.
Without warning, the earth on which the Elf lay crumbled. The ground sank along the line of the underground stream. Legolas’ eyes snapped open and he gasped, earning him a mouthful of water as the upper part of his body splashed into the rapid current that threatened to pull him into the dark tunnel through which the swift water ran.
Pippin reacted without thinking. He launched himself from a crouch and knocked the Elf backwards to safety before his mind reminded the rest of him that there was no earth underneath to stop his own fall. He tried to latch onto Legolas’ cloak and for the briefest of moments he felt the Elf’s flailing hands clutch his shoulders. But Legolas was still falling backwards, off-balance and partially stunned; he could not maintain his hold. Neither could Pippin. Dimly he heard Merry ‘s terrified shriek, then icy water drowned out every other awareness.
Pressure and cold. The water was so cold it burned, and the force of the water battered him. Time seemed to slow. Pippin felt water flood his ears as he was sucked under. A strong swimmer, the tweenager kicked up automatically, hands cupping the swift water and pushing. He turned in the water, struggling to keep his eyes open, instinctively seeking the light. His cloak suddenly caught him up short, dragging him backwards, strangling him across the throat. The hood was caught on something. One hand tugging at the clasp, he stroked upwards and forward and felt it jerk free. His eyes wanted to close – cold bit into them with a sharp pain that felt like they were freezing in their sockets. He forced them to stay open. Two indistinct forms were outlined against the light. Then something long cut through the water and Pippin knew it was Legolas’ arm.
The young hobbit kicked towards it. It was not until then that he realized that the opening was ahead of him instead of above him. The powerful underground current was pushing him away from the aperture.
His view of the opening was being foreshortened. He kicked frantically towards the seeking arm but could seem to make no headway. His legs tangled in his cloak and he almost choked himself. He was horrified to see Legolas’ arm thrash about a final time and disappear then everything went black and he was under the ground, a solid roof of stone and earth above him.
Even so, Pippin did not lose his head. He needed to breathe, and soon. Striking the icy water had prompted his body to inhale deeply before the water pulled him under, and he had automatically trailed tiny lines of bubbles as his body expelled spent oxygen. He kicked again and tried to level out his body, rising in the water like a fish. When he felt earth bump against his back, he rotated in the water, face-up, and readied himself.
The second opening, where he had lost the race to the twig, was upon him before he was prepared for it. Utter blackness was replaced by dazzling light. His hands shot out with desperate strength and just caught the lip of the rocky shelf where Frodo had knelt to hold up the twig. The merciless current strove to drag him under and he held on with all of his might. Loose earth tore his fingers and far away, his freezing fingers knew distant pain as fingernails were torn away and bloodied. The swift current pushed him up again, this time helping him level himself out with his face to the surface. With a desperate pull of his arms, he brought his face above the surface and took a breath of blessed air.
His heart was pounding so hard that it did not seem there was room in his body for his oxygen-starved lungs to expand. Hot tears flooded his eyes, excruciatingly painful against his icy face. In that instant, terror finally overwhelmed him, and his carefully-marshaled bravery dissolved. His fingers were weakening upon the rocky shelf and he strove to fight back panic. His heart rose in his throat, and suddenly he could not think past dying in this cold and lightless place.
Pippin blinked his eyes to clear them but could see nothing but glittering blurs. He tried to scream but could only choke, spewing out water. Were Frodo and Sam still by the second opening? No, if they were they would have seized him by now. Had everyone run over to the first hole, where he had fallen in? Was there no one to help him?
The tweenager clenched every muscle in his small body and locked his arms, surging upwards, breaching the water like a trout leaping for a fly. Water cascaded down him. For a moment he teetered on the edge of the lip of earth, then his strength failed and he began to sink down. His sodden clothes seemed to weigh tons, and there was a straggling weight dragging at his throat. He had time for only one weak, gasping cry before he was sucked back under.
But the intake of air galvanized him for another effort and he firmly pushed the fear to the back of his mind. He found himself scrabbling back towards light and life, hands and feet dog-paddling as he struggled upwards, fighting to stay to the slower moving edge of the swift current as Merry had taught him, so long ago when they had played and swam in the Brandywine. This might be his only chance. His heart sank within him as the light was masked. But no – he hadn’t yet been dragged under the rocky shelf. Wavering, half-seen forms obscured the light – blurry forms that resolved themselves into his kin and friends. With a dull slapping sound, Pippin felt himself forced back marginally as a large object impacted the water. There was just enough filtered light to see Legolas as the Elf twisted in the water, probably held by Strider and the others.
Legolas’ eyes forced themselves open and his far-seeing gaze pierced the murk. Pippin was out of the direct light but the Elf’s eyes found him anyway. Pippin saw them widen as he was spotted, then Legolas’ long arms were reaching for him. Pippin paddled forward with all of his remaining strength, pulling with one torn hand along the wall of the tunnel, stroking with the other, kicking determinedly with all of the Tookish stubbornness he had in him. Then he felt his fingers brush those of the Elf’s. The current pulled at him pitilessly as he struggled nearer just a bit more, just a bit, and Legolas would have him, he would be saved…
But it was too far. Too far. Legolas tried to thrust himself forward, and Pippin saw his friend’s face twist in pain as the grip at his knees must have been tightened. Yet still he stretched himself and Pippin felt hope kindle in him as slender hands clasped his fingers. A great bubble of air escaped him in a sob. The tweenager scrabbled desperately at the hands but neither of them could gain a purchase. His last sight as the icy waters bore him away into cold darkness was of the Elf’s anguished face as Legolas was dragged back up into the light.
* 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.