"I am naked and alone in the dark…"
Frodo Baggins sat and shivered by the camp fire; the flames burned brightly but they gave out little heat. Or even if they did, the warmth did not seem to penetrate him.
He shifted slightly and shrugged his shoulders to dispel the tension within the muscles. His arms and legs ached from the steep climbing they had done that day to gain the high moor in the foothills of the Misty Mountains. During the climb he had slipped several times and one or other of the big folk had hastily grabbed hold of him to prevent his falling. But their aid had left his flesh bruised; fingerprints of painful tenderness now plagued the muscles of his arms.
He flinched inwardly as the twinge of the bruise provoked an unwelcome memory. He remembered another time, another unfamiliar place, another darkness.
He had felt the iron grip of strong fingers on him, demanding and unyielding. A harsh, menacing whisper met his ear, then he was yanked off his feet and bundled up the narrow stairway of the inn before he could put up even a token struggle.
Cast into the room he had watched, cornered and breathless, as the menacing hooded figure snuffed out the sole candle. At once it was dark, save for the pale moonlight which shone through the grimy leaded window. And he was alone with this strange and dangerous man. The dusty floorboards creaked, and the room seemed to shrink suddenly. He felt an odd tense sensation, a sort of tightness deep in his belly.
"What do you want with me?" he asked, trying to keep his voice from shaking.
And he did not want to admit to himself that he already knew.
Frodo shook himself and dragged his thoughts back to the present. He kicked another log into the fire and tugged his cloak tighter around him. Cupping his hands he breathed into them to warm his face. The evening air was bitter; a thin wind from the east seeped through the thorn bushes that surrounded their camp.
It was miserably cold; even as cold as it had been on that desperate night on Weathertop.
Weathertop - where the remains of the great watchtower still clung to the mount of Amon Sûl. A high place, it rose forbiddingly before them as they trekked wearily towards Rivendell under a darkening sky.
The Ranger who led them had announced that they would rest there for the night, but the stark outline of the ruins offered little prospect of comfort.
And there, in that bleak and desolate place, Strider had left them a while - left him and his hobbit friends alone and unguarded. The Ranger gave them weapons for their protection, but then he abandoned them to the mercy of the night.
Oh yes, he had told them that he was "going to look round" - as if he would soon come back. But he was gone much longer than they expected, and in that time Frodo slept while his unwary friends decided to cook supper.
And as they did, the light of their fire drew their fearsome foes straight to them.
The wraiths surrounded the ruined watchtower, but still Strider did not return. Had he seen and watched the Nazgûl close in, waiting nearby for the brutes to do their deadly work?
Whatever the man's intention, the wraiths had attacked them before he came to their rescue. Frodo recalled the mind-numbing terror and the agonising pain of a grievous wound he was dealt by a Morgûl blade. Mercifully, he remembered little after that, before waking safe in Rivendell.
Frodo shuddered again. He stared into the fire, recalling another time, another fear. That other time, just a few nights ago...
A time when he had wanted to be alone, when he had strayed away from the others of the Fellowship. He had wanted only peace, but Aragorn had seen and had followed him into the woods. He had confronted him in a quiet clearing, and Frodo realised that the man had pursued him, quietly but relentlessly, waiting until they were out of earshot of the others.
"Frodo." the Ranger called to him softly. "You should not stray too far from the camp."
"I am not going too far!" the hobbit snapped in reply, perhaps a little too sharply. "I just want a few moments by myself."
Predictably, the Ranger did not take the hint -the sharpness in Frodo's tone did nothing to discourage him. He circled around in front of the hobbit and sat down on a fallen tree, eyeing him speculatively.
"You are troubled, Frodo." he said mildly, as he patted the space beside him. "Come, sit."
And Frodo sat, for he could not find an excuse not to.
"Everyone needs some time alone…" the man began."But upon you, all depends. You must not leave camp by yourself without telling one of us where you are headed."
Frodo kicked at a ragged piece of bark that was peeling from the fallen tree.
"But if I do, you will follow me and I will no longer be alone!" he protested.
"I will follow at a discreet distance only. Not to deprive you of privacy, but to protect you."
And the Ranger took hold of the hobbit's small hand and squeezed it. His expression was so earnest, so concerned, begging for the hobbit's acquiescence. But to what? Frodo felt the strange and unsettling colied feeling deep in his core and suddenly he wanted the man to let him go. He nodded stiffly as he dragged his hand free.
Aragorn had smiled at him then; a slow secretive smile,as if they had reached some silent understanding.
And Frodo wondered grimly what it was that he had just consented to.
The hobbit shivered as if trying to shake off his morbid thoughts. He turned from watching the flames, seeking the comfort of a friendly face to lift his spirits. And he found one, for Sam had returned to the fire to check the cooking pot which steamed and bubbled merrily.
"Supper's ready, Mister Frodo." he announced cheerfully. "This'll warm you, no mistake."
"Yes, Sam." Frodo smiled wanly. "I hope so. Thank you."
Frodo watched Sam spoon a portion of the stew into a porringer. It smelt delicious and for a while the simple hobbit in him was restored as his thoughts turned inexorably to food.
The days were warmer as their passage changed direction to the south. The sky cleared and the wind was at their backs. The Fellowship made good progress in their journey and after a particularly hard morning's march they came upon a pleasant vale, well wooded, with a meandering river. Gandalf declared that they should make camp early and avail themselves of a few hours of rest and relaxation.
Frodo knelt at the water's edge. He felt moisture from the wet grass soak through the knees of his breeches, but he did not care - he needed to feel something. Something real, something other than the great weight that seemed to press down on him. And every day a little more, for even though it weighed almost nothing, the Ring felt heavy around his neck.
He leant forward and dipped his cupped hands into the clear water. He drank deeply and swilled the remainder over his face and neck, relishing the cleansing coolness. Breathing slowly, he closed his eyes.
He heard voices, but he did not want to be sociable right now; he craved a few moments of peace, alone. Irrationally, his heart began to hammer in his chest at the notion of being discovered and he felt an overwhelming compulsion to hide, to withdraw from his companions. He retreated into the bushes behind him.
Moving quietly he made his way downstream under the cover of the tangled shrubs and trees that lined the banks of the river. And the further Frodo went, the better he felt; the throbbing ache in his head abated, his tread became lighter and easier, the paths he walked smelt fragrant and inviting. Sunlight streamed through the trees, muted and softened by the dappled leaves above him.
Birds sang. How long had it been since he had heard or even noticed birdsong? As the river widened and the banks became less steep, Frodo wandered closer to the water, pausing every now and then to pluck the wild cress that grew in the shallows.
Voices…more voices. He stopped, frowning slightly in irritation. He chewed and swallowed the piece of cress had just picked, waiting for the sounds to reach his ears again.
He could hear a man's voice, protesting at the water's chill. There was splashing, and then the rhythmic sound of a body moving through the water. Then silence. After a moment or two came more splashing sounds, noisier this time, and the man was growling at someone. The splashing subsided.
Frodo eased himself onto a long low branch of a tree which overhung the river. The dense foliage concealed him from view, but from where he lay the broad leaves framed a perfect window on the tranquil water.
Quite suddenly a figure swam into his field of vision, and he recognised Aragorn. So it was the Ranger whom he had heard grumbling earlier. Frodo craned his head slightly, trying to see where Aragorn was heading.
He shifted sideways slightly and peered through the foliage. He stifled a gasp of surprise; Aragorn was standing naked in the shallows on a small bank of shingle just short of midstream. His hair and body glistened wet in the bright sunlight. The water came up only to his knees as he stood, his face tilted up to the sun, enjoying the warmth of its rays on his body.
Frodo stared, transfixed. He had never seen a man unclothed before. The man's broad chest was adorned with a light dusting of dark hair; very much in the same way that a hobbit's feet had an abundance of hair on them. In fact, Frodo concluded, the man was quite hairy compared to a hobbit, apart from on his feet.
He took in the lithe, wiry frame, the hard muscles of the Ranger's limbs, and the flat firm stomach. He had no hobbit's paunch, not even a generous covering of flesh on his ribs. Living the harsh nomadic life of a Ranger, he had been fashioned by the wilds in which he wandered.
Frodo's eyes were inexorably drawn to those parts of the man that were normally kept covered. He wriggled slightly on the branch to better observe the object of his scrutiny, when suddenly the bough bowed alarmingly under his weight. He clutched at it, trying to regain his balance, but it gave way with a resounding crack. It dropped under him, tipping him forward as the branch end splayed out into the water.
Aragorn reacted instantly to the sudden noise, diving into deeper water. He surfaced near to the broken bough and seeing Frodo's predicament he grabbed hold of the branch to steady it while the hobbit righted himself.
Legolas appeared on the bank behind them and together the elf and the Ranger rescued Frodo from a most ignominious ducking.
"Are you alright, Frodo?" Aragorn asked.
"Yes, yes…thank you." Frodo mumbled, blushing furiously. Frodo noticed for the first time that the elf's hair was wet - he too must have been swimming, perhaps with Aragorn.
"What were you doing?" Legolas asked ingenuously.
"I was ..was..well, nothing." Frodo stammered. His eyes darted back and forth between them, guiltily. "I was just enjoying a few moments peace by the waterside. I thought the branch was strong enough to hold me…" he explained.
"You should not be wandering off on your own." Aragorn said sternly.
"But I wasn't!" Frodo protested. "I could hear that you were close by."
"Yet I was unaware of your presence, Frodo." the Ranger chided him. "How could I protect you if I knew not where you were?"
"Why did you not reveal yourself?" Legolas asked innocently.
Aragorn held up his hand. "It's alright, Legolas. I'll deal with this."
"I'm sorry." Frodo mumbled. He could all too easily surmise why the Ranger was angry with him. He must know that the hobbit had been observing him silently, concealed by the trees, watching him in secret. The blush came again, more pronounced than before. He could not stop it; it discomforted him intensely and proclaimed his guilt like a flag.
Aragorn nodded curtly to Legolas.
"You have my things with you?"
"Yes." the elf replied, reaching behind him for the bundle of clothing he had cast down beside the tree. "You asked me to fetch them."
"Good. Take this hobbit and show him how to tell if a branch will hold his weight. In the meantime, I will get dressed."
Legolas led Frodo away along the bank.
Although Frodo was calmer in the company of the elf, he could not shake the growing feeling of disquiet that gnawed at him. He felt certain that the Ranger intended to punish him in some way for what he must surely regard as prurient curiosity.
He had read the knowing look that came into Aragorn's eyes at Legolas's innocent question - and then he had seen how that look had hardened as the traitorous blush had spread over Frodo's face.
So why had he watched? He should have turned away, or spoken out, or coughed, or… something. Instead he had enjoyed the secret solitude, and now he was in trouble with the Ranger.
He cringed inwardly at what the man must think of him.
Having shown him a variety of trees and dutifully discussed their various qualities and tolerance for weight-bearing, Legolas brought Frodo back to the place of his fall. Aragorn was waiting for him. The man dismissed the elf, sending him to seek out and relieve Boromir from his spell on watch.
They were alone now.
"Frodo." the Ranger started "We have already discussed your tendency to wander off on your own."
"We have…" Frodo nodded.
"And you agreed that you would alert me whenever it was your intention to absent yourself, and at least tell me the direction in which you were heading." Aragorn continued sternly. "Today you did neither of those things."
"I'm sorry. I didn't think that I had strayed too far from where you were." the hobbit mumbled. "I was enjoying strolling along the bank and watching the river…. And I thought that you also might need some time to yourself."
Aragorn smiled wistfully.
"I know, Frodo. I was enjoying the water also." he paused. "But I would have enjoyed it no less had I known that you were here."
Frodo stared at him. His heart hammered as thoughts raced from what he had just heard. Or what he thought he had heard. Had Aragorn really suggested that he enjoyed being watched…. being watched by him?
The hobbit mentally shook himself. Surely the Ranger only meant that he would have sacrificed his privacy to keep him safe, he told himself. But another part of Frodo's mind still whispered dark and insistent counsel about the Ranger, his sinister intentions and his mannish urges.
A vivid image of the naked man sprang unbidden into his mind, the size of him, the strength of him, the ruthless flesh and his merciless eyes.
Frodo's fingers scrabbled to his neck chain as he sought the Ring. He must escape…he must get away at all costs….
Aragorn recognised blind terror on the hobbit's face and he realised that he was trying to reach the Ring. He grasped Frodo's small hands in his fist, restraining him. The Ringbearer fought against him fiercely and the Ranger was shocked at the desperate strength with which the hobbit struggled.
"Steady, Frodo. Hold, be still…" Aragorn tried to soothe him. "You need have no fear of me. We will deal with this, but calmly."
Frodo's struggles abated but his body remained tense, as taut as a bowstring.
"Let me go!" he pleaded.
The Ranger released him and Frodo hastily sprang back, putting distance between them.
Aragorn looked askance at the hobbit. "Where did that come from?" he questioned lightly.
"I ...I don't know." Frodo panted. "I was afraid!" It was the truth, but even to the hobbit it sounded lame.
Aragorn leant towards him, concerned. "Frodo, tell me what's wrong."
"I do not wish to speak of it." Frodo mumbled breathily. "You cannot make me."
"Very well, Frodo." Aragorn said gently. "Come."
He held out his hand, beckoning the hobbit to precede him. But Frodo baulked at this; he wanted to keep his distance, and he would not have the option if the Ranger walked behind him.
"You go first. I will follow."
Aragorn quirked an eyebrow at him. "As you wish." he said mildly.
"I am not angry with you, Frodo." the man murmured as they walked. "I was, but it is over now."
Frodo shivered. To his ears the well meant words still carried a veiled threat.
Over? he thought bitterly. No, my Lord Aragorn - it isn't over.
Not while I carry the burden of the Ring.
The sun was setting over another campsite on their long and arduous trek south. In the small grassy clearing Frodo sat close to the fire while Gandalf was settled on a fallen log nearby, puffing on his pipe. Aragorn was crouched across from him on the opposite side of the fire brewing some sort of tea, a mixture of herbs that he said would help Frodo sleep. His other companions in the Fellowship were either posted on watch or were busy making ready to bed down for the night.
Frodo's stomach crawled. Aragorn was watching him closely, like a predator waiting for his moment. He could feel the weight of his gaze, the sly yet steely stare which hid intentions that Frodo did not wish even to contemplate.
"Frodo, it is ready." the Ranger announced quietly, lifting a pot from the fire. He poured a small quantity into a cup and held it out to the hobbit.
Frodo shook his head. He did not want to drink the concoction; he looked beseechingly at Gandalf, but the wizard just nodded reassuringly.
"I…" Frodo tried to speak, but his mouth was dry from fear and the squeak died in his throat.
"Drink it, Frodo." Gandalf intoned. "You need proper rest and sleep to keep up your strength. The tea will relax you."
Frodo shuddered at the words - he felt he was doomed. For as soon as the others slept, Frodo would be alone with the Ranger, in the all-smothering dark, under the cover of the looming trees. And then, while none would witness it, Aragorn would lead him away. Under the influence of the potion he would be unable to resist; he would go with him. And he would submit to him, his instructions, his commands, his bidding.
Frodo's breath caught in his throat as the man stepped around the fire, but he stopped about a pace away and offered the cup to him. Frodo met his eyes and nodded curtly in acknowledgment. He reached for his staff as if to use the stick to help himself up. Then lightning quick, he sprang from a crouch, striking forward with the staff as he did so, and connecting with the Ranger's groin.
Aragorn grunted, gasped and doubled up in pain. Clutching at himself, he went down like pole-axed beast, groaning loudly.
Frodo bolted for the trees.
He could hear them approaching - Boromir was among them. The man of Gondor made more noise than any of them, save the dwarf. The big man was not making any attempt at stealth; he held a torch aloft and called out as he came.
Then Gandalf's gruff voice joined in.
"Frodo, stop this foolishness and show yourself!"
The wizard's patience was clearly under strain.
Frodo shrank against the bole of the tree. He glanced around him anxiously; he could not let them get too close. He needed to find a better hiding place, and then…then… what?
He could not think further than getting away from them.
He stepped backwards cautiously, watching the approaching figures weaving slowly through the trees. Suddenly something dropped to earth behind him and before he could even flinch, a firm hand closed upon his shoulder.
"Let me go, Legolas!" he begged the elf.
"You know that I cannot do that." Legolas answered. "Do not give in to fear- it will destroy you if you let it."
Frodo stared at the elf who held onto him. His eyes were dark, but his features glowed with the mysterious inner light of the Eldar. And though the hobbit stood and shook as if fevered as the others slowly approached him, he no longer wanted to run.
The Ranger was waiting for him in another smaller clearing and the elf led him there, so he could not flee. The moon's blue light filtered through the trees and the grey grass underfoot was crisp with frost. The trees bore silent witness as the Frodo approached the appointed place of his…his…
No. He could not think it - he must not think it. The elf would not stand by and let that happen, he told himself.
Aragorn was hunched over, perched on a flat boulder. As they approached he straightened and got to his feet, moving stiffly and gingerly. He limped forward and knelt before Frodo.
"I forgive you, Frodo." he murmured. "I want you to know that I bear you no ill will."
Frodo said nothing. He started to tremble again as the man reached out and took hold of his arm. He raised helpless eyes to the elf, in silent plea. Legolas met his gaze unflinchingly; he did not look away, but neither did he intervene.
Frodo began to weep. He could not help himself.
He felt the Ranger lay his hand on his flesh, caressing him. His skin crawled at the unwanted touch and he started to struggle in earnest.
"Legolas, by the Valar and all that you hold sacred, save me from this!" Frodo cried. "Don't you see what he means to do?"
"Do not fear, Frodo." Legolas said calmly. "Aragorn will not harm you."
No, he thought, swallowing his sobs and trying to breathing less hard. Even a man would not …would not…not with the elf's eyes upon him. And surely one of the Eldar would not stand by and let it happen..?"
But the fear welled up in him again, overcoming all sense of reason.
"Ai!! No!! His hands are on me!!" he yelled. "I feel it - his body betrays him! Don't let him, Legolas!"
Suddenly there came the feeling of rippling tautness in his belly and he recalled with horror that he had felt this disturbing sensation before. He had not sought it; he did not want it, but it threatened to overwhelm him. He squirmed in the Ranger's grasp and the strange coiled tension increased in intensity, even as he tried to escape..
"Legolas, have pity..!" he wailed. "Save me! He means to do it!"
"Do not give in to your fear, Frodo." Legolas urged him. "Trust him and your fear will leave you…. it will have no power over you."
"Ai!! No!! His hands are on me!! I feel him - his body betrays him! Don't let him, Legolas, for Valar's sake...!"
Frodo was thrashing wildly with all his might, trying to free himself from the Ranger's grasp. His chin struck the edge of the rock and he bit his tongue, but it seemed that nothing would stop his desperate struggles.
"I will fetch Gandalf" Legolas muttered worriedly, slowly backing away.
"No!" Aragorn stopped him. "Do not leave. Stay."
"Frodo!" Aragorn addressed the frenzied hobbit sternly, playing to his fear. "Why are you afraid of me?"
"Because you…you…want …!" he hissed breathlessly. "I will not speak of it. You cannot make me."
"What makes you think that of me, Frodo?"
Frodo's squirms subsided a little.
"Do not toy with me." Frodo spat contemptuously. "It is because of that day at the river." he panted. "You saw me watching you…and you were naked."
"I was not offended, Frodo." Aragorn said softly.
"No?" Frodo sounded uncertain. "But you think that I watched you because I desired you."
"Frodo, I would never hurt you."
The Ranger shook his head sadly. "Do you not recall the last order that Gandalf gave?"
"To stay close and not stray from camp because crebain had been sighted?" Legolas prompted him.
"But I could not obey that order." Frodo muttered brokenly.
"Why not?" Aragorn pressed him.
"Because…because I had to stay away from you!"
"Why do you fear me?"
Frodo blinked. "Because...because I saw you, and..."
"Frodo, let go of your fear!" Aragorn told him, shaking him again. "You are here, in this dark place because you let fear govern you, let it trample all sense of reason and crush the truth."
He felt Frodo's body go rigid. It was as if the hobbit's whole being was resisting, rejecting even the sound of his words.
"However..." Aragorn growled. "If you truly fear that watching me was a dreadful wrong…" he paused, then smiled easily; too easily. "Then I forgive you for it."
Frodo wavered, perplexed.
"I forgive you." he repeated.
Frodo focused on the quiet sincerity in his words. Gradually they sank in and he became quiescent. At last, tentatively, he returned the Ranger's smile.
Quite abruptly he realised that the peculiar tightness in his belly had gone. He groaned as reality assailed him and he flushed in discomfort, face burning red brightly as he recalled what he had said.
The Ranger embraced him.
"Forgive me." Frodo snuffled tearily. "I am ashamed of my fear and the unworthy thoughts that I gave credence to.."
"Hush, Frodo." Aragorn whispered. "I am just glad to have you back."
"Legolas." Aragorn called to the elf. "Go and fetch a blanket. Tell Gandalf that all is well and that we will return to camp shortly."
Legolas trotted away from the clearing, and Aragorn released Frodo to let him compose himself. It was cold, their breath misted in the frosty air. From the camp they could smell the aroma of drifting wood smoke, other than that the air was clear.
"I don't know how I could think that…" Frodo sniffed, shaking his head. "I..I must be losing my wits to this wretchèd quest."
Aragorn gently squeezed the hobbit's shoulder in a gesture of comfort. He sat quietly for a while before he answered.
"Gandalf warned me once…he said that the Ring wants to be found. I don't know whether or not I believed him at the time. But if it is so, perhaps it wanted the Ringbearer to be lost. To separate you from the others…" he mused. "And this would happen if you were frightened of me, if something scared you enough to make you run away."
Frodo was silent, thinking on what Gandalf had said to him when he and Sam first set out for Bree.
"When you are afraid you are at your most vulnerable, Frodo." the Ranger continued. "Only when you let go of that fear can you see the truth."
"I'm sorry, Aragorn." Frodo mumbled sadly. "Forgive me."
The Ranger put an arm around his shoulders and hugged him briefly, reassuringly. He snorted and gave a soft laugh, a low rumble in his chest. Frodo drew back and peered at him curiously.
"No, forgive me, Frodo" he grinned. "I had no idea that the sight of me..naked..would so affect you."
"Don't answer that." Legolas interrupted as he strode towards them, smiling. He handed over the blanket he had brought. "He'll most likely take it as a compliment and be reminding us of it for days."
"Spoil sport." Aragorn grumbled at his friend.
Legolas's eyes sparked with amusement.
"Just remember to take care when next you bathe, mellon nîn..." he told him mischievously "Don't frighten the hobbits."
The perilous pit of Moria had mauled them and spat them out; but there was no cause for thankfulness or rejoicing, for one of their number had fallen. Now Frodo followed the Ranger blindly, numb to all except the pain of grief at the loss of Gandalf.
The hobbit's mind churned from the choices he had made. After all, it had been the his own decision to go through Moria, under the mountain. Or had it?
On Caradhras it had been decided. Boromir and Aragorn had been at loggerheads, each yelling above the howling wind their arguments against the other's preferred route. And Aragorn had argued against making for the Gap of Rohan. Perhaps he had done so to close off all other choices; to leave Frodo with no choice at all.
And the Ranger led them now.
They trudged down the Dimrill Dale and passed the Mirrormere. Aragorn set a hard pace, running ahead to scout the way, not stopping for food or rest. Frodo and the other hobbits struggled to keep up, particularly Sam, who was limping badly.
At last Legolas looked back and saw how far the small folk lagged behind. He ran forward and spoke to Aragorn, who called a halt.
Frodo watched as the Ranger ran back towards them, accompanied by Boromir.
Aragorn's voice was full of concern and he encouraged them with the promise of a place but a little further ahead where they could rest and recover their strength.
"Come, Boromir!" he urged. "We will carry them."
No one asked us if we wished to be carried, thought Frodo. But he had neither the will nor the energy to protest as the Ranger scooped him up and set him upon his shoulders. The big Gondorian lifted Sam and they started forward once more.
Frodo was weak with shock and fatigue - he found he could focus his thoughts only briefly before they slipped away from him. He stared down at the Ranger's hands where they gripped his legs, then his gaze shifted to the top of Aragorn's dark head. As the Ranger bore him Frodo marvelled at the strength and endurance of the Dúnadan. His stride was long and his gait smooth, eating up the distance that opened between the hobbits and the rest of the party.
Behind them he could hear the man of Gondor panting slightly under Sam's greater weight, and Frodo wondered briefly why Aragorn had not called upon Legolas to carry one of them.
It was plain to Frodo that the Ranger would not suffer Boromir or anyone save himself to lay hands on the Ringbearer. That was the truth of it, though he masked his motives under the guise of concern.
Aragorn quickened his stride and for a while Frodo listened to Boromir's heavy footsteps and rasping breaths which came faster as the man tried to keep pace with the Ranger. There was something almost absurd about the rivalry between the two men, but Frodo found it nothing to laugh at.
The Fellowship turned from their road and stopped in a hidden dell where they took time to eat, tend their hurts and rest a while before pressing onwards. Then for hours more they marched, until at last they reached the eaves of Lothlórien.
Aragorn uttered a great sigh of relief as he stepped forward into the trees, but Boromir halted and did not follow.
"Is there no other way?" Boromir asked.
"What other, fairer way would you desire?" said Aragorn, folding his arms.
Frodo cringed; yet another argument seemed imminent.
Boromir seemed not to sense it, or not to care. He plunged onwards to make his challenge.
"A plain road, though it led through a hedge of swords!" he exclaimed. "By strange paths has this Company been led, and so far to evil fortune. Against my will we passed under the shades of Moria, to our loss. And now we must enter the Golden Wood, you say."
Frodo had heard enough; he walked away a short distance and paused at the edge of the trees. Sam followed him.
"Best not go too far, Mister Frodo."
"I know, Sam. It's alright, I'll stay in sight of them. I grow weary of their discord." he sighed. "Better to leave them until they have decided which path we should take."
"They never ask us for our thoughts on the matter." Sam grumbled. "Or the elf for that matter. Surely Legolas could counsel on the best way to take?"
"This isn't about finding the best way, Sam." Frodo told him. "It's about Aragorn and Boromir."
He fell silent as Merry and Pippin sauntered over to join them.
"Are they still in debate?" Sam asked them.
"Barely." replied Merry dourly. "But they haven't come to blows yet."
"Well I hope they settle it soon." Pippin chipped in. "It's long past suppertime, and arguments don't make an appetite."
They stood in silence and watched the leaves and the stars above them until at last Legolas came across to shepherd them back to the main group.
"We are going into the wood." he told them.
"What was that all about, Legolas?" Merry asked him.
"In Gondor, Boromir had heard grim tales of Lothlórien." the elf answered. "He did not trust that we will be safe within that realm."
"Or he didn't trust Strider." offered Merry.
"It is not for me to say what is in his mind." Legolas replied. "But to me it is plain that he fears Aragorn less than he fears entering Lórien."
"Is he right to be a'feared of the Golden Wood?" Sam asked nervously.
"Do not trouble yourself, Master Hobbit." the elf smiled. "Only evil beings need fear it… or those who bring evil with them."
Frodo grew suddenly cold. Gandalf had warned him that evil would be drawn to him. Evil from outside the Fellowship, and within. He recalled their conversation outside the walls of Moria.
"Whom then do I trust?" he had asked the wizard.
"You must trust yourself. Trust your own strengths." came the answer.
And it was thus, even though no name had been uttered, that Gandalf had told him whom he should fear.
Frodo sat and watched as Aragorn negotiated with the elven archers who guarded the borders of Lothlórien. Clearly the elves felt the threat of evil that the Fellowship brought with them.
All the travellers were weary and desperate for some respite and relief from the perils of their journey. One by one, Frodo observed his fellows and he caught their dark looks of resentment. All surely blamed him for their current predicament - the Galadhrim would not allow them passage because he, the Ringbearer, was with them.
Trust your own strengths. Poor dear Gandalf had tried to warn him that ultimately he would be alone. Perhaps that time would come soon now.
The wizard knew that the men who accompanied them had great capacity for evil - and that must be the threat which the elves felt even now. But Haldir and his warriors took them forward nonetheless, and led them into the heart of the Golden Wood and to Caras Galadhon.
Until at last they stood before the Lord and Lady of Lothlórien. There Frodo silently bore witness as Aragorn lowered his shameful eyes before Galadriel's gaze, and he saw how Boromir wept with fear and dread as the Lady perceived the malevolence in his heart.
It had been all too easy for the men to conceal their wickedness from the others. Beside the greater darkness of the Ring, all other evil paled. But Galadriel could see through them; they could not hide from her.
Frodo felt safer in her presence, and he drew some comfort from that.
Another camp, this time the last on the shores of the Anduin. The haven of Golden Wood was far behind them now, and they would soon leave the river and strike out across country heading for Emyn Muil.
The Fellowship beached their boats and unloaded their things. Boromir started to make a fire and Sam broke out his cooking gear, hoping that one of the big folk would catch him something to cook.
The campsite was a bleak and cheerless place; Frodo sat himself down a little apart from the others. He watched the Ranger as he strode about among them, making terse pronouncements about their plans for the morrow.
Aragorn had been taciturn since leaving Lothlórien, but Frodo had heard his quarrel with Boromir the night before, and the renewed tension between them unsettled him. He knew that he must soon get away and continue alone, for the Fellowship was breaking down - it was crumbling from within.
The influence of the Ring teased out petty conflicts between them all, but the men in the party were the ones through whom it worked most effectively. Aragorn was dismissive of any concerns that might challenge his decisions, ruthlessly squashing any attempt at debate. This rankled with the others who were unused to having their views so disregarded.
Particularly Boromir. The Man of Gondor wanted Aragorn to lead the Fellowship to Mordor by way of Minas Tirith. His motives for that were clear, but Aragorn would not entertain any suggestion of it.
And what of the Ranger who was Isidur's heir? Where would he lead them? Perhaps he had his own sinister agenda.
Would they perish, one by one, on the treacherous road the Ranger had chosen for them? Until at the last Aragorn could wrest the Ring from him and then return in triumph to the City of the King?
Gimli was arguing now, protesting loudly about the terrain that awaited them. Frodo winced and quietly moved away, not wanting to listen to Aragorn ruthlessly putting the dwarf down.
He needed some time alone, to think.
Frodo leapt blindly up the path to the hill top. Terror and grief shook him as he saw in his mind the mad fierce face of Boromir and the malice that burned in his eyes.
Why did he not give in, relinquish the Ring to the men that desired it so? Lay the burden of blame on those who longed to bear it and bend it to their will. Why not?
Because somewhere in the heart of his psyche, a small voice told him not to listen - not to take the easy path. He tried to think of what Gandalf would tell him.
So he had shunned Boromir, and he had taken flight when the man's unsuccessful attempts at persuasion had dissolved into frightening rage. The man's sudden frenzy had terrified him; Frodo had always considered the big man to be somehow less of a threat to him than Aragorn.
Perhaps that too was the Ring`s influence, he thought grimly. For Gandalf had warned him to trust in his own strength, not his fear.
A cloak of mist rushed and swirled about him as he fled, unseen to mortal eyes, up the hill of Amon Hen.
Frodo yanked the Ring from his finger and the mist vanished, as if instantly sucked away by some irresistable force. He was alone, below the stone Seeing Seat. He had fallen, for he was lying on his back in the wiry grass which surrounded the stones. He smarted a little from the impact of the fall; the muscles of his back and rump protested slightly as pushed himself up on his elbows to look about him.
Aragorn had found him! Immediately his heart began to race; now he would have to fight him off as well. He kept the Ring hidden in his fist.
"It has taken Boromir!" he panted.
"Where is the Ring?" Aragorn grated menacingly.
"Stay away from me!" Frodo yelled, scrambling to his feet and retreating rapidly.
"Frodo!" the Ranger held up his hands. "I swore to protect you!"
"Can you protect me from yourself?"
That stopped him. Aragorn blinked in pained confusion.
"Would you destroy it?" Frodo challenged him. Deliberately, he opened the hand which held the Ring.
Staring at the Ring which lay in the centre of Frodo's palm Aragorn stumbled forward, transfixed. Although he himself could not hear it, Frodo knew the Ring was calling to the Ranger.
Here now on this hill, away from the eyes of their fellows, Aragorn had
him at his mercy. He could strike him down, murder him or worse, and
then take the Ring and be well away before anyone found him.
Frodo wanted to run, but something made him stay. His body shook with fear; his legs trembled, aching to flee, but he stood bewildered as he realised that above all, he wanted to believe in the Ranger. The man who was Isidur's heir.
Gandalf had told him to trust his own strengths - and once, not so very long ago, Frodo had trusted his ability to judge friend from foe. Perhaps he had to trust his instincts now.
This was a test. It was Aragorn's test, and his.
The man dropped to his knees before the Ringbearer. Reaching forward, his covetous fingers hovered over the band of gold.
But he did not touch it. Gently he folded Frodo's fingers closed over the Ring, pressed them to the hobbit's chest and then released them.
"I would have gone with you to the end." he whispered softly "Into the very fires of Mordor."
His eyes were bright with unshed tears.
"I know." said Frodo simply. Grief bore down on him, but at the same time his whole being soared with relief. He was suddenly calm and at peace with what he had to do.
"Look after the others. Especially Sam - he will not understand."
Aragorn seemed about to reply, when a blue glow on the blade of Sting caught his eye.
"Go!" he hissed.
They were out of time. The host of uruk-hai were almost upon them. Aragorn drew his sword and advanced, putting himself between the enemy and Frodo's path of flight.
"Run!" Aragorn urged him.
But even as he made his escape, the hobbit's heart swelled with fierce hope. Aragorn, a mortal man, had resisted the lure of the Ring. The strength of men was a forlorn hope no more.
"If by my life or death I can protect you, I will."
That had been Strider's oath, and he was true to his word. Frodo knew now that he should have always believed him; trusted him as he had wanted to from the first. And now the truth revealed shone out to Frodo like a beacon, dispelling the mists of doubt and fear in which he had dwelt for so long.
The Ranger had given him hope.
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.