14. January 8, 3019
Much to the surprise of most of the Fellowship—with the exception of Aragorn and Legolas—the morning dawned bright and clear with no hint of the threatening clouds that had loomed over them in previous days. The wind had shifted slightly as well, bringing a warm breeze out of the south. And though the air was cold due to the lack of clouds, it was not the biting cold that the Fellowship had endured when the wind lay in the east and blew down at them out of snow-topped peaks.
With a feeling of smug satisfaction, Legolas lifted the hood of his cloak as the sun slowly rose above the Misty Mountains. His predictions about the weather had borne out and he could not resist throwing a victorious smile at Gandalf when the wizard called a halt and happened to glance back his way. Gandalf’s eyes narrowed slightly but he said nothing and turned back to gaze southward as the rest of the Fellowship gathered around them.
They had stopped on a ridge ringed by holly trees, the dark green leaves swaying slightly in the southern wind as it ebbed and flowed around them. There were a few scattered stones that seemed to indicate the presence of a civilization long gone, and Legolas closed his eyes briefly as he took his mind backwards over the vast history he had learned under the strict tutelage of his elven teachers. The stones spoke of elves, and Legolas was curious as to who had lived here once.
"We have done well."
Legolas opened his eyes again and looked up at Gandalf’s voice. There was an air of relief about the old wizard that suggested a great goal had been accomplished, and Legolas wondered slightly at this. Had Gandalf not believed they would make it even this far?
"We have reached the borders of the country that Men call Hollin," the wizard continued, his voice soft and thoughtful. "Many Elves lived here in happier days, when Eregion was its name. Five-and-forty leagues as the crow flies we have come, though many long miles further our feet have walked. The land and the weather will be milder now," he said with a sidelong look at Legolas that might almost be taken as a grudging concession of victory, "but perhaps all the more dangerous."
"Dangerous or not, a real sunrise is mighty welcome," Frodo sighed, letting his own hood fall back as Legolas had done and tipping his face up into the sunlight.
"But the mountains are ahead of us," Pippin said, glancing around with narrowed eyes. "We must have turned eastwards in the night."
"No, but you see further ahead in the clear light," Gandalf explained. "Beyond those peaks the range bends round southwest. There are many maps in Elrond’s house, but I suppose you never thought to look at them?"
"Yes I did, sometimes," the hobbit protested, and Legolas smiled slightly at his defensiveness. "But I don’t remember them. Frodo has a better head for that sort of thing."
"I need no map," a dwarven voice growled, and Legolas stiffened slightly upon hearing him as he always did. But this time there was something strange in Gimli’s voice…something that spoke of longing, and of a suffering and a hurt that had never fully healed…almost he sounded elvish at the moment… "There is the land where our fathers worked of old," the dwarf continued, his tone softening with quiet reverence. "And we have wrought the image of those mountains into many works of metal and of stone, and into many songs and tales. They stand tall in our dreams: Baraz, Zirak, Shathûr. Only once before have I seen them from afar in waking life, but I know them and their names, for under them lies Khazad-dûm, the Dwarrowdelf, that is now called the Black Pit, Moria in the elvish tongue."
This last was said with a sharp look at Legolas as though daring him to reply, but the elf stood silent. Moria was a delicate subject for elves. If Legolas remembered correctly the history he had now dredged up from the depths of his mind, there had once been friendship between Moria and Hollin. But the dwarves had awakened something deep in the caverns of the mountains, and the resulting ruin had been great. What exactly had awakened was lost in the sea of time, at least for the Silvan and Sindarin elves. Perhaps Elrond and Gandalf knew, but all that was remembered in Mirkwood was that the greed for profit and trade that came from finding mithril had driven the dwarves to unleash a grave peril. Thankfully it had been sealed in Moria, barred from the outside world, but it had been one of many things that had begun the feud between elves and dwarves. Moria’s downfall would have been a good barb to throw at the dwarf and Gimli seemed to be expecting it, but in light of Aragorn’s stern warning glower, Legolas decided not to bring it up at the moment.
Somewhat surprised, the dwarf blinked and then shrugged, turning back to his impromptu geography lesson. "Yonder stands Barazinbar, the Redhorn, cruel Caradhras; and beyond him are Silvertine and Cloudyhead: Celebdil the White, and Fanuidhol the Gray, that we call Zirak-zigil and Bundushathûr. There the Misty Mountains divide, and between their arms lies the deep-shadowed valley which we cannot forget: Azanul-bizar, the Dimrill Dale, which the elves call Nanduhirion."
"It is for the Dimrill Dale that we are making," Gandalf said, pointing out the direction for the sake of the hobbits. "If we climb the pass that is called the Redhorn Gate, under the far side of Caradhras, we shall come down by the Dimrill Stair into the deep vale of the dwarves. There lies the Mirrormere, and there the River Silverlode rises in its icy springs."
"Dark is the water of Kheled-zâram, and cold are the springs of Kibil-nala," Gimli whispered, and Legolas studied the dwarf carefully. This did not sound like the stunted creature that had attacked him over a lost pipe or forced him to gather firewood because of a life-debt. "My heart trembles at the thought that I may see them soon."
"May you have joy at that sight, my good dwarf!" Gandalf said, a strange light in his eyes. "But whatever you may do, we at least cannot stay in that valley. We must go down the Silverlode into the secret woods, and so to the Great River, and then…" The wizard trailed off, falling quiet for a moment.
"Yes, and where then?" Merry prompted.
"To the end of the journey—in the end," Gandalf eventually finished. "We cannot look too far ahead. Let us be glad that the first stage is safely over."
He looked at me when he said that, Legolas thought with a flash of irritation. Why did he look at me? If this concerns the dwarf, Mithrandir should know better than to worry that I might bring harm to the Fellowship.
"I think we will rest here, not only today but tonight as well," Gandalf was saying when the elf turned his attention back to the conversation. "There is a wholesome air about Hollin. Much evil must befall a country before it wholly forgets the elves, if once they dwelt there."
At this, Legolas frowned and allowed his senses to spread out into the surrounding area. Hollin had once been inhabited by elves, but that had been long ago and the prince of Mirkwood had not sensed much in the way of a lingering elven presence. In fact, the area felt strangely vacant and quiet. "That is true," Legolas said somewhat cautiously, his senses still searching their surroundings. "But the elves of this land were of a race strange to us of the Silvan folk, and the trees and the grass do not now remember them. Only I hear the stones lament them: deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone. They are gone. They sought the Havens long ago."
"Still, perhaps the reputation of these lands shall shelter us," Gandalf said.
"Perhaps," Aragorn murmured, speaking for the first time that morning, and to Legolas’s ears, he sounded wary and suspicious. Keen Ranger eyes swept the area and eventually came to rest upon the elven prince. "Legolas, by your leave, I would have a quiet word with you."
"Of course," Legolas answered, stepping away from the company and moving down the ridge to ensure a measure of privacy. Aragorn followed close behind and the others watched them curiously until Gandalf began to issue orders. The rest of the Fellowship soon became engaged in setting up camp, and Legolas turned his attention to the Ranger. "You are troubled."
"As are you," Aragorn replied. "Gandalf feels this area is safe for us, and I have no wish to doubt his wisdom but my own senses say otherwise. What of you, Legolas? What do you say of this place?"
"As you have already noted, I am also troubled," the elf said slowly, attempting to collect his scattered feelings and make of them an understandable picture that could be shared by words. "And the area of darkness through which we journeyed on the previous night still concerns me. I have not felt at ease since then, and I fear that there are more watchful eyes upon us. Yet I have naught to back this impression, for I have been unable to find any evidence of spies or pursuit."
"And the hobbits will be on watch today," Aragorn murmured, rubbing his face. "Legolas, I hesitate to ask this of you as you were up yesterday and the day before, but would you—"
"Yes," the elf answered, knowing exactly what the Ranger wanted. "Remember, my friend, that I am an elf and require little in the way of sleep. Your request is no great burden. Is there any particular area that you would like me to scout?"
"I am wary of the paths we have already taken. Would you backtrack along our trail and ensure that we are not being followed."
"I can ensure that nothing follows us from the ground, but the air is another matter," Legolas answered. "Hawks have soared overhead, and their manner is not that of birds hunting for food."
"I know it well, for I have also seen them," Aragorn sighed with a glance skyward. He shook his head and then turned dark gray eyes back to the elf. "Be careful, Legolas. Something draws near."
"An elf is always careful," Legolas said, taking his bow off his shoulder. "I shall return this afternoon unless there is a need to do otherwise." And with that, the prince gave Aragorn a quick grin and headed back down the trail, feeling the trees close behind him at his wish for secrecy.
* * * *
It was Merry who suggested the compromise of calling the morning meal supper-breakfast. Sam was not altogether pleased with this, still pressing for it to be called breakfast, but he had to concede that with the majority of the Fellowship still calling it supper, it was impossible to have complete conformity that satisfied Sam’s requirements. The compromise was accepted by all present, and the meal now known as supper-breakfast was prepared and eaten with a surprising amount of peace and even mirth. Pippin was doing his best to annoy Boromir while Boromir was responding with jokes and jests, Merry and Gimli were having a contest blowing smoke rings, Sam and Frodo were discussing the elven languages and laughing over Sam’s halting attempts to learn Quenya, and Gandalf was thoroughly enjoying a morning of rest.
Unfortunately, it seemed that not everyone in the Fellowship shared this sense of peace. Legolas had vanished at Aragorn’s request, and as for the Ranger himself, he was pacing back and forth along the upper ridge of the dell in which they had established camp. Watching him carefully, Gandalf wondered what could be upsetting the man. It was true that elves had not lived in this place for many centuries, but Hollin was close enough to Rivendell that the influence of the elves should not be wholly lost. And Legolas had heard the stones speaking of the elves who had once lived here. Surely, then, Hollin could still serve as a place of refuge for the Fellowship.
If Gandalf had been completely honest with himself, he would have been forced to admit that there was something amiss about this land. There was something that felt different. But the wizard was so relieved at reaching Hollin without a certain elf and dwarf tearing one another apart that he was ignoring the warnings of his own senses. Beyond that, didn’t the Fellowship deserve a respite? They had traveled for two weeks in fear and adverse weather. Why should they not be allowed at least a day in which to rest and recuperate? With this rationale running through his mind, Gandalf did his best to ignore Aragorn’s pacing, Legolas’s absence, and his own feelings that perhaps all was not as it should be. And he managed to do a fairly good job of it until Merry suddenly noticed Aragorn’s restlessness and spoke of it before the rest of the company.
"What is the matter, Strider?" the hobbit asked, puffing out another smoke ring. "What are you looking for? Do you miss the East Wind?"
The Ranger laughed slightly at that. "No indeed! But I miss something." He fell silent for a moment, gazing out at the land, and then spoke again, his voice quiet and somber. "I have been in the country of Hollin in many seasons. No folks dwell here now, but many other creatures live here at all times, especially birds. Yet now all things but you are silent. I can feel it. There is no sound for miles about us, and your voices seem to make the ground echo. I do not understand it."
"But what do you guess is the reason?" Gandalf questioned, holding on to an irrational hope that Aragorn might be wrong in his foreboding. "Is there more in it than surprise at seeing four hobbits, not to mention the rest of us, where people are so seldom seen or heard?"
"I hope that is it," Aragorn said, his voice so low it was difficult to hear. "But I have a sense of watchfulness, and of fear, that I have never had here before."
At this, Gandalf was finally forced to admit to himself that he’d had the same uneasy feelings about Hollin. He had also traveled these lands often, and Aragorn was right. There was usually an abundance of wildlife about, but the wizard had neither seen nor felt any living things save for the Fellowship. I have let my relief in being here overpower my caution, he sighed to himself. Such a thing should not have happened. I can ill afford to drop my guard because I desire a rest. It is fortunate that Aragorn did not succumb to such a temptation.
"Then we must be more careful," Gandalf finally said aloud in response to Aragorn’s warnings. "If you bring a Ranger with you, it is well to pay attention to him, especially if the Ranger is Aragorn. We must stop talking aloud, rest quietly and set the watch."
"I shall take the last one, for Legolas is due to return then," Aragorn said, turning his eyes outward upon the land.
Gandalf frowned but decided he could speak with the Ranger after the matter of the watches had been settled. "Then that leaves three to be filled," the wizard said, turning his attention to the hobbits. "Are there volunteers?"
"I’ll take the first one," Sam offered. "I haven’t watched in a bit."
"Second," Frodo said, chewing on the last of his supper-breakfast.
"And I’ll do the third one," Merry said with a yawn and a stretch. "I think Pippin could use the extra sleep."
"And just what is that supposed to mean?" Pippin demanded.
With the watch rotation set, Gandalf stood and let the hobbits argue while he made his way toward Aragorn. The Ranger’s stance was tense and watchful, and his eyes were in constant motion as they swept the landscape. Gandalf hesitated a moment before intruding, but he did not feel that what he had to say could wait. "My apologies for not heeding you earlier."
Aragorn flicked a glance to the side and smiled. "I would that Lord Elrond were present to hear this."
Gandalf snorted. "Galadriel, Thranduil, and Radagast would also find this quite amusing, of that I have no doubt. But I did not speak idly, Aragorn. And I apologize for my lapse in caution."
"Had I not traveled this land so often in the recent past, I would have fallen prey to that same lapse," Aragorn said, dismissing the matter. "We looked for a place of rest and peace, and where better to find it than in a land where elves once lived? But I fear that such peace and rest are lost to us while we travel with this Fellowship."
"As Elrond said, friends shall be found upon the way when they are least looked for. A respite will come, Aragorn. Unfortunately, it seems I looked too early for such a thing." He sighed and shook his head, mentally berating himself for ignoring the warning signs that Aragorn heeded. "I take it that you intend to watch with the hobbits?"
"With Sam, at least," Aragorn confessed. "I trust not this land’s silence, and until we have passed a few hours here peacefully, I doubt I will be able to sleep."
"See that you do not overtax your strength," Gandalf warned. "You are Isildur’s heir and in you the blood of Númenor is strong, but weariness is the bane of all men and we will need you alert for danger."
"It is difficult to be alert when one is sleeping," Aragorn pointed out with a small smile. "How shall we reconcile the need for alertness during the day with the need for sleep?"
Gandalf sighed. "You have had your fun, Dúnedain, and I have readily admitted that my caution and wariness faltered upon entering Hollin. But that does not set my wisdom at naught, nor does it diminish the validity of common sense. You cannot keep watch the entire day. There are enough light sleepers among us, yourself included, that if the watch does go ill, we should still be able to respond effectively to any threat."
Aragorn was silent for a moment and then he nodded slightly. "I promise you that I shall sleep today, but I still desire to watch with Sam. Perhaps when the others are sleeping I may know more of what disturbs Hollin. Too many voices intrude on the silence now."
"Very well, then," Gandalf sighed. "I know better than to ask you to take any more sleep, for when you are decided, your mind is unalterable. I only pray that no trouble comes of this. Remember your promise, Aragorn. And to my mind, sleep is more than a quick doze during the changing of the watches."
The Ranger laughed quietly. "Fear not, Gandalf. I shall sleep, and it will be a sleep that meets even your approval."
"Good," the wizard nodded. "Then I shall leave you and encourage the rest of the Fellowship to retire for the day. Wake me if you discover aught."
"I shall," Aragorn promised. "Sleep well."
"Sleep well yourself, my friend," Gandalf replied with a hard look at the Ranger ere he turned back to the rest of the Fellowship. "And I do mean that."
* * * *
Samwise Gamgee was used to peace and quiet. As a gardener, his work usually took place away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Secluded by the plants and grounds he loved so much, Sam usually saw no other hobbits during the day unless Frodo wandered out for a bit of fresh air. At night, Sam would wander down to the Green Dragon for a drink and some talk, but he never stayed very long and soon found his way home for supper and a soft bed. Such a lifestyle did not lend itself to much in the way of social pursuits, and though Sam did not go out of his way to avoid others, he did tend to be somewhat shy and reclusive during community gatherings. He loved silence, and he loved to work without the distractions of mindless babble.
At least, he thought he loved silence, but Sam now realized he had never experienced complete silence. As the rest of the Fellowship dropped off to sleep, the world became as still as a corpse. The occasional popping of the smoldering fire seemed to echo for miles in the empty land, and Sam was certain that the sound of his own heartbeat would wake the rest of the Fellowship. The hobbit glanced up as a restless Aragorn walked past, and the leaves that crunched faintly under the Ranger’s feet sounded so loud to Sam’s ears that he almost fancied an army was marching by. Over by the campfire, Gimli grunted and muttered something in his sleep, and Sam cringed, feeling as though the dwarf was shouting their position to all within the land. Bill snorted and flicked his tail to the side, and Sam was hard-pressed to keep himself still and not leap up in order to silence the pony. It was so quiet! Sam had never experienced such a complete absence of natural noise, and it was preying upon his nerves like a predator that has found fresh meat.
Sam found a small measure of relief when Aragorn ceased his pacing and took a seat next to the hobbit. The Ranger was still very alert, Sam could tell that, but at least he wasn’t wandering around searching for whatever had caused the silence. As long as Aragorn stayed in one spot, Sam felt that the danger was still some distance away. But the absence of sound still disturbed him greatly, and he could not truly relax even with Aragorn sitting at his side. The fact that the Ranger’s hand was constantly curled around the hilt of Andúril didn’t help matters either.
Still on edge, Sam cast his eyes about and looked for something to distract him. Previously, he had been able to watch Aragorn pace, but now that Aragorn was seated, Sam needed something else to watch. He realized that distracting himself was probably not the best way to conduct a watch, but Aragorn was also awake and the silence was driving poor Sam mad.
Unfortunately, just as there was no sound, there seemed to be nothing of interest to see. He could look at the surrounding holly trees, he could watch Merry twitch slightly in his sleep, and he could count how many times Boromir scowled at his dreams, but aside from that, there was virtually nothing to attract his attention. Beyond the Fellowship members, nothing seemed to live in this area. Even the skies were devoid of life.
Or were they?
Sam frowned, focusing his attention southward. Something in the far distance was moving. It was a dark shadow against the clear blue sky, and it seemed to change shape and height as it began to draw closer. Sam looked to Aragorn and noticed that the Ranger’s keen eyes were also focusing on this strange phenomenon. "What’s that, Strider?" the hobbit asked, wincing at how loud his voice sounded in the stillness. "It don’t look like a cloud."
Aragorn made no immediate answer but remained intent on this shadow that drew nearer. And after a minute or two more, Sam had no need of a reply from the Ranger, for the darkness had drawn close enough that its true composition was revealed. Birds! Sam realized, his eyes growing wide. There must be hundreds of them. But that’s a strange way to fly and no mistake. Are they looking for something? A shiver crept up his spine when the birds came even closer, wheeling and diving as they hovered over the silent land.
A hand suddenly grabbed Sam’s shoulder, and much to his surprise, he found himself pulled beneath a holly tree and shoved far back into the shade. "Lie flat and still!" Aragorn ordered, pressing himself against the tree’s trunk.
The Ranger had acted not a moment too soon. A collection of birds broke off from the main group and swung low over the campsite. Watching intently at the same time that he tried to hold absolutely still as Aragorn had instructed, Sam decided these birds were some kind of crow. But never before had he seen such crows as these. They were huge, and they flew in formation as though they had been trained. Nor did they cry out to one another as crows were wont to do, but they soared overhead in absolute silence, further unnerving Sam. A shadow fell upon the ground as the mass of birds wheeled past, for so great were their numbers that even the sun’s light could not penetrate their formation.
It seemed to take a lifetime, but eventually the cloud of birds turned and set off to rejoin the main group. Sam began to relax marginally, but at that moment, one of the last birds cawed. Terrified that they had been discovered, Sam froze and watched with fearful eyes, yet the large crows did not alter their course and continued into the north and the west, maintaining their pattern of circles and sweeping dives as they went.
Several more minutes crawled by before Aragorn stepped away from the tree, and Sam took this as his cue that movement was safe again. But the strange birds weighed heavily upon his mind, and when Aragorn hastened to the camp and knelt to wake Gandalf, Sam followed closely. After such an unnerving experience, he was leery of being away from the Ranger and his wood-crafty senses.
"Regiments of black crows are flying over all the land between the mountains and the Greyflood, and they have passed over Hollin," Aragorn reported quietly when Gandalf woke at his touch. "They are not natives here; they are crebain out of Fangorn and Dunland. I do not know what they are about: possibly there is some trouble away south from which they are fleeing; but I think they are spying out the land. I have also glimpsed many hawks flying high up in the sky. I think we ought to move again this evening. Hollin is no longer wholesome for us: it is being watched."
A creeping cold went down Sam’s spine at this announcement. The Ranger’s voice had been firm and certain, leaving no room for doubt. But we’ve been watched so often in the past! Sam silently protested. Those Black Riders, they watched us all the way to Rivendell. Don’t we deserve a break now and then?
"And in that case so is the Redhorn Gate, and how we can get over that without being seen, I cannot imagine," Gandalf said with a heavy sigh. Sam thought he saw Aragorn wince at these words, but the moment passed so quickly that he wondered if he imagined it. "But we will think of that when we must," the wizard continued. "As for moving as soon as it is dark, I am afraid that you are right."
"Luckily our fire made little smoke, and had burned low before the crebain came," the Ranger said, glancing at the hot coals that remained from the supper-breakfast meal. "It must be put out and not lit again."
"I can do that," Sam volunteered, feeling the need to make himself useful. "And I’ll see to it that the fire doesn’t smoke when I’m dousing it."
"Thank you, Samwise," Gandalf said, curling one gnarled hand around his staff. "Well, what say you, Aragorn? What of our next path?"
"If Caradhras is watched, then it is watched," the Ranger answered, and to Sam it seemed as though this was a continuing discussion. He wondered if he should be listening in, but at the same time, he realized that there was really nothing to be done about it. With the surrounding forest in a state of dead silence, the hobbit couldn’t help but overhear the discussion.
"There are other paths that may not be as watched."
"We do not know that with any certainty, and against such odds as we would face were we to take the darker way, I would rather travel a lighter road though all the spies of the Enemy be upon it."
Sam frowned as he started to bury the fire in dirt, taking care that no smoke rose to signal unwanted visitors. What was this about a darker way?
"That may be what we encounter, Aragorn," Gandalf said with a sigh. "Unfortunately, on our present course, I see no help for it. We must do our best to escape the watchful eyes above, but we will not be able to evade them for long."
"If the watchful eyes above are content only to watch, I shall be happy," Aragorn said. "It is what these eyes will tell others that I fear, yet if we avoid them for a day or so longer, we shall soon be out of reach of any opponent they might set upon our trail."
"But what of the darkness that Legolas felt?" Gandalf asked. "He seemed to think that watchful eyes had already found us."
"For that night only they might have found us, but as we have discovered no sign that we have been followed, I believe they now know not where we are. Perhaps the crebain were sent to solve this problem."
"Perhaps," Gandalf sighed.
Sam decided he didn’t like it when Aragorn and Gandalf sounded so uncertain. It was far more comforting when they behaved as though they knew all the dangers in the world and were more than ready to confront them. Of course, Sam also realized that much of this was an act put on because of leadership’s necessities, but it was still something of a comfort.
"Fear not, Master Samwise," a quiet voice suddenly said from behind, and the hobbit turned in surprise to find Aragorn watching him with shrewd eyes. "Fear not," he said again. "You travel in a company personally selected by Elrond. No matter how dark the path, we will find a way to prevail."
"I know," Sam answered, surprising himself with his answer and also with the fact that he did know. Somehow, he knew they would make it.
Aragorn smiled and turned away to watch the skies. "Get some rest, Sam," he said. "I shall take the remainder of this watch."
"Remember your promise, son of Arathorn," Gandalf warned with a sleepy yawn. "There is naught that you can do to prevent the spies."
"I keep my vows, Gandalf," Aragorn answered. "I only look for some sign of their movements." The Ranger turned his head and motioned Sam toward the hobbit’s blankets. "Rest, my friend. Tonight we shall have to travel quickly."
After a moment of hesitation, Sam nodded and moved toward his pack, careful not to disturb Frodo as he approached. If Aragorn was willing to take the rest of the watch, then he was willing to sleep. He wondered, though, if he would be able to sleep, for he was still somewhat anxious about the strange crows and the unnerving silence. But he needn’t have worried, for only seconds after lying down, Sam’s breathing deepened and he fell into a dark and dreamless sleep.
* * * *
Gimli woke late in the afternoon. Somewhat disoriented, the dwarf lay still for a moment, curious as to what had roused him from his dreams. He was normally a very heavy sleeper, though he could wake if the situation called for it. But the situation did not appear to be calling for anything, and Gimli frowned, wondering if something in Sam’s supper-breakfast had upset his stomach. The hobbit was an excellent cook, but as their rations had begun to dwindle, Sam had begun to create some rather interesting meals.
However, as he relaxed beneath the afternoon sun, Gimli decided Sam’s cooking was not at fault but rather the extreme silence that had fallen upon this land was to blame. He had listened to Aragorn when the Ranger warned them that all seemed wary and watchful, but he had not fully appreciated just how wary and watchful everything was because the endless chatter of the hobbits had held the silence at bay. Now, though…now the world was quiet as an abandoned mine in the darkest hours of the night.
Soft voices suddenly broke the silence, sounding loud in the stillness though they were actually quite hushed. Curious, Gimli turned to see who might be talking and scowled when he discovered the participants of the quiet conversation. Aragorn and Legolas, the dwarf thought disparagingly. It seems the elf has returned. Why cannot he simply disappear forever when he leaves on these scouting missions? The dwarf rolled back over, fully intent on ignoring whatever might be going on and returning to the world of dreams, but curiosity overrode disdain and he found himself listening to the conversation in spite of his prejudices.
"How many did you count?" Aragorn was asking.
"Five companies directly over our position and three more further west," the elf said, his voice worried. "Each time they came, there were more of them. They know not our exact location, but they have narrowed down the possibilities. And with each flock of crebain, the danger grows."
"I have already discussed this with Gandalf, and we will be moving again tonight. But we are both at a loss as to how these birds might be avoided."
Birds? Gimli frowned and shook his head as concern began mounting within him. Another being might have scoffed at the idea that birds could present a problem to the Fellowship, but Gimli was a dwarf and knew far better. The dragon Smaug had been slain thanks in part to the services of a thrush and Roäc, lord of the ravens, who spoke the tongue of men and dwarves and had long served those of Durin’s line. Unfortunately, not all birds were so helpful, and in these forsaken lands where crows and hawks roamed free, Gimli seriously doubted that the birds passing overhead were possessed of honorable intentions. And if memory serves, the crebain are crows out of the far south. It seems the elf was right, though I will be dead ere I ever admit such a thing. We are being hunted.
"Long have the crebain kept watch over southern Mirkwood where Dol Guldur still sits in shadow," Legolas said quietly. "The elves know not how to drive them, and even my people who are crafty in the ways of the forest cannot forever dodge their searching eyes. They will find us, Aragorn. It is now only a matter of time."
"But if we travel quickly, it may be that they will not find us soon enough to cause any great harm. The Golden Woods lie on the other side of the mountains, and there we may take shelter from any pursuit these crows set on our trail."
"That will have to be our hope, but the crebain are capable of causing their own mischief," Legolas warned. "And the mountains passes are open to any spying eyes. There the danger will be very great."
"Yet what other choice do we have?" Aragorn demanded, and Gimli blinked to hear the sudden strain in the Ranger’s voice. Something the elf said had alarmed him. "Would you have us travel to the Gap of Rohan and tempt the emissaries of Saruman?"
"I know of no course better than the Redhorn Gate," Legolas said. He sounded surprised at Aragorn’s reaction, and Gimli wondered what might have caused it. "I merely spoke words of warning. We will have to take extra care when braving Caradhras. If you do know of another way we might journey, then—"
"Nay, in my mind the Redhorn Gate is the best course open to us, though I agree that it is fraught with dangers. Yet perilous as it might be, there are darker ways into which I will not venture unless there is no other choice."
There was silence for a moment during which time Gimli attempted to decipher Aragorn’s words. Darker ways? As if this quest was not dangerous enough, it seems there has been discussion about taking paths not as open as Caradhras. At least I may rest easy in the knowledge that Aragorn has opted for the mountain passes.
"Shall we wake the others?" Legolas said at length when the silence began to stretch into minutes.
"Yes. We shall be moving this evening, and the Fellowship must be informed. I fear that the hobbits will not be pleased with this change in plans. Sam knows already and I mentioned it to Frodo when I woke him, but I know not if Merry has been told and Pippin has slept the day through."
Legolas laughed quietly. "I fear this shall be ill news for the young hobbit. He seemed most anxious about spending the night here."
"I will confess to desiring a rest myself, but such things are now denied us, it seems. Come. Let us rouse them."
Gimli now realized that he faced an interesting predicament. He could feign sleep and pretend to wake when Aragorn came to shake him—he knew Legolas would never come within touching distance—or he could sit up now and admit to eavesdropping on their conversation. Such a thing would not be so bad and he could easily say he had just woken, but such an action would imply that he had wished to hear Legolas’s words and that he valued the elf’s scouting missions. The dwarf’s pride revolted violently against this, and Gimli chose instead to act as though he still slept. It was a small deception, but it was necessary to maintain his dignity.
The sounds of a waking camp now filled the air, for the moment holding at bay the eerie silence of the vacant land. Gimli felt himself relaxing at Boromir’s familiar grunts that indicated his journey to the conscious world, and he smiled to himself at the sound of Sam’s yawn. If the hobbit was not careful, he would swallow his face one of these days. During one of Sam’s legendary yawns, his mouth was almost capable of doubling as a cave should the need ever arise to take shelter.
Attempting to appear groggy and sleepy, Gimli blinked his eyes open and turned enough to see Aragorn’s face peering down at him. "It is time to rise?"
"It is time to break camp and have a bit of supper," the Ranger said. "We shall be moving tonight, I am afraid. Events during the day call for a change in plans."
"And what events might those be?" Gimli asked innocently as he pushed himself into a sitting position.
"Spies of Sauron have been scouring the land," Aragorn told him. "During Sam’s watch, crebain were sighted, and Legolas tells me that more passed overhead later in the day. We must move, or I fear we may be discovered here. Arise, Master Dwarf. Your services are required."
With that, Aragorn moved on to wake Gandalf while Legolas finished waking the hobbits. The thought occurred to Gimli that now might be a good time to rifle through Legolas’s pack and plant something rather unpleasant deep inside—a branch from a thorn bush came immediately to mind—but the dwarf dismissed this idea after a moment or two. Now was not the time for vengeance, though he promised himself that vengeance would come. But with the spies of Sauron about and the entire Fellowship on edge, it would not be a wise move at the moment. Tomorrow, if naught happens tonight, Gimli promised himself.
"Well if that isn’t a plague and a nuisance!"
Gimli blinked and glanced over at the hobbits to find Pippin getting to his feet and angrily confronting both Legolas and Aragorn. The dwarf was hard-pressed to keep down his laughter, and he could not hide his smile. Legolas and Aragorn—as well as Boromir and Gandalf—had recently been on the receiving end of several grueling hobbit tongue-lashings, and with a grin, Gimli settled himself down to watch this latest one. They always proved to be highly amusing.
"All because of a pack of crows!" the irate hobbit continued, waving his arms about. "I had looked forward to a real good meal tonight: something hot."
"Well, you can go on looking forward," Gandalf sighed, getting wearily to his feet. "There may be many unexpected feasts ahead for you. For myself I should like a pipe to smoke in comfort, and warmer feet. However, we are certain of one thing at any rate: it will get warmer as we get south."
"Too warm, I shouldn’t wonder," Sam muttered with a glance at Frodo, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. "But I’m beginning to think it’s time we got a sight of that Fiery Mountain and saw the end of the Road, so to speak. I thought at first that this here Redhorn, or whatever its name is, might be it, ‘til Gimli spoke his piece. A fair jawcracker dwarf-language must be."
Gimli snorted and shook his head. Sam was quite out of his depth here in the Wilds. They had not traveled even a quarter of the distance between Rivendell and Mordor, and dwarf wondered which unfortunate soul would have to break this news to Sam. But what was this about the dwarf-language being a jawcracker?
"Are you certain that we have to move?" Pippin pleaded, looking to Gandalf for help. "Couldn’t we just rest tonight and tomorrow? I promise to move twice as fast if we do."
Aragorn made a noise that sounded like a strangled laugh which could not quite be stifled, and Pippin turned to glare suspiciously at the Ranger. "My apologies," the man said hastily as the corners of his mouth twitched. "I…choked on a piece of dried meat."
Pippin scowled, not fooled in the least by Aragorn’s story, and then turned his attention back to Gandalf. "Well?" he prompted expectantly.
"Help Sam prepare dinner so that we might move out quickly as soon as it is dark," the wizard instructed.
The hobbit threw up his hands and shook his head, muttering under his breath as he stomped across camp to where Sam was unpacking some of the food supplies. Gimli chuckled and picked up his axe, inspecting the blade. Hobbits were always interesting creatures, and life was certainly never dull when one was around. For all their pride in being completely predictable and doing nothing out of the ordinary, Gimli’s experience with hobbits had taught him that nothing they did was ordinary. Most hobbits would have been greatly offended by this observation, and it must be said that much of Gimli’s hobbit experience centered around Bilbo and Frodo, who were not exactly model hobbits. But Gandalf would see much truth in the dwarf’s opinion, and when pressed, such an opinion would probably hold true for all hobbits.
"Aragorn! I cyrch ad!"
Legolas’s sudden shout took them all by surprise, but perhaps more surprising was his sudden lapse into Sindarin, indicative of great alarm. Gimli shot to his feet, his hands tightening about the haft of his axe, and looked at Aragorn, hoping for a translation of some kind. He was not disappointed.
"Everyone, beneath the trees!" the Ranger ordered. "The crows are upon us again."
The ringing command in Aragorn’s voice had everyone moving even before he finished speaking, and the Fellowship was soon hidden under thick bows of holly. The land fell completely silent, and Gimli began wishing for anything to break the oppressive stillness. Close to his position, Boromir shifted slightly and began inching toward the dwarf.
"Lie still!" Aragorn hissed from a few meters away where he crouched with Legolas and Merry. To his credit, Boromir stopped, but he turned a strange look upon Aragorn that Gimli found strangely disconcerting.
But the dwarf was not given a chance to think further upon this, for at that moment a horde of wings descended from above. Flying low over the trees, so low that some of the highest branches were struck by the crebain, they swarmed over the campsite and then vanished beyond it, using the trees to hide their movements. Gimli hissed quietly, his eyes searching the sky. There had been almost no warning, and the crebain had come and gone so quickly! If the elf hadn’t heard them in time to warn the Fellowship…
"They know, Aragorn," Legolas murmured, straightening slightly. "And they seek to come upon us unawares. They fly so low that we cannot see them until they are nearly upon us."
"Do you still wish to linger here, Pippin?" Aragorn asked, his eyes fixed on the sky as he searched for signs of more birds.
"If it’s all right with you, maybe we’d better find a different place to camp," the hobbit answered with a slight tremble in his voice. "Those were big birds."
"They were indeed," the Ranger murmured. "Legolas, can you hear them still?"
The elf nodded. "They maintain their course away from us. Other groups, too, I can hear, but they are further north. There are many out there, all of them flying low and all of them searching."
"All of you, gather the packs and hide them," Gandalf instructed, taking charge of the situation. "We dare not risk the chance that they might be seen. Sam, we will take supper beneath the trees. Keep to the shadows, my friends, for it seems that the search has begun. We will not move until it is completely dark."
* * * *
The night was quiet. Very quiet. Frodo couldn’t remember a night that had been so devoid of sound and life. In the Shire, one could always hear chirping insects or slight rustlings in the underbrush as mice scurried about on foraging missions. And in the Wilds, there were owls, foxes, and even more insects that crept about once the sun hid her face. But now, there was nothing. Not even a breeze.
Frodo shivered and pulled his cloak more securely over his shoulders. He was not cold as the night was actually quite pleasant, but he wished for better coverage. He felt vulnerable and exposed to any eyes that might glance his direction. The darkness seemed darker, the shadows seemed blacker, and there was a watchfulness in the air that had Frodo grasping at the Ring that dangled heavily from his neck. The temptation to vanish from the world was so great that more than once he nearly succumbed. Only the presence of Gandalf and Aragorn seemed to keep his impulses in check, and he would often glance at the two for courage and strength. They walked as silent sentinels in the darkness, but unlike the vacant land of Hollin, their silence was not oppressive. Rather, it was the comforting silence of protection, and Frodo’s heart would rest easy at the thought that their senses were intent on the survival of the Fellowship.
Under Aragorn’s guidance, they had found an old road lain down by the elves that once lived in Hollin. The stone path was now partially overgrown with plants and brush, but long ago, it had probably served as a main thoroughfare. But those days were now gone, and the forest was working to reclaim this road. Forgotten were the elves that built it, or so Legolas had said, and Frodo sighed, remembering the words of Gildor Inglorien spoken when he was still in the relative safety of the Shire. The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out. * The hobbit sighed again. The Shire seemed so far away now, like a faint memory in the distant past. And though he’d had inklings of adventure desires, Frodo felt that he might have been perfectly content to fence himself in. But fate had not been kind, and a golden trinket from his uncle’s journey had come to haunt him, preventing him from fencing in his life and living in peace and comfort.
Frodo clutched at the ring beneath his shirt, feeling its smooth edges through the thick fabric and cursing its existence. Why couldn’t the Ring have stayed with Gollum? At least that creature wanted it. Frodo certainly didn’t. And why did Bilbo have to give it to him? Why couldn’t he have kept it? For that matter, why hadn’t Gandalf taken it? The wizard had known long before Frodo that the Ring was dangerous. Or why not the elves? Surely they could keep it safe. Even another hobbit might be better suited to bear the Ring! But one thing was certain—Frodo wanted nothing more to do with it.
And even as this thought crossed Frodo’s mind, he shook his head and seemed to come back to himself. Gandalf had warned him of this. As the Ring began to edge its way into his mind, it became a detestable thing. Like a predator, it preyed upon his subconscious and he began to feel its influence and resent it for its power. For better or worse, I am the Ring-bearer," Frodo sighed. I took this task upon myself of my own free will, and no one is to blame for that. And with that, Frodo released the ring, smoothed out his tunic, and hitched his pack higher upon his back. Dawn was not far away now, and he only had to struggle a little further tonight.
It had been a remarkably peaceful night even if that peace was troubled by the night’s extreme silence. Nothing had attacked them, the crows had not flown overhead since the sun sank below the horizon, and even Legolas and Gimli had done naught to one another. The uneasy feeling of being watched that pervaded the company was probably responsible for this latter reprieve, and for that, Frodo was intensely grateful. The constant bickering of elf and dwarf was wearing on his nerves, and he was of more than half a mind to leave them somewhere in the wilderness and let them settle their quarrel on their own terms. Hopefully, one would live to catch up with the Fellowship later.
Frodo cracked a small smile at this thought, wondering which one would survive and in what condition that one might be, but his mirth abruptly ended when a deadly chill swept over him like the wings of death. He froze, startled, and high overhead, a shadow hid the light of the stars for a moment and then vanished.
A soft grunt behind him prompted Frodo to start moving again and he sent an apologetic look at Sam, but the feeling of cold evil did not leave him and he moved to Gandalf’s side, praying that the wizard might alleviate his fears. "Did you see anything pass overhead?" he whispered, watching the sky closely.
"No, but I felt it, whatever it was," Gandalf answered. At these words, Frodo glanced furtively at the stars, wondering if the shadow he’d seen was still out there. Seeming to sense his unease, Gandalf turned and gave the hobbit a half-hearted smile. "It may be nothing, only a wisp of thin cloud."
"It was moving fast then," Aragorn murmured from his position opposite Gandalf, and the chill and wariness in his voice sent shivers up and down Frodo’s spine. "And not with the wind."
I cyrch ad—The crows again
*This was lifted from page 113 of The Fellowship of the Ring, 50th anniversary Ballantine edition.
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