12. Passage South
"Steady, my boy. Slow and steady. Use your back. Keep the blade of the oar flat side forward, as straight as you can. Dip the blade in three fourths of the way--not too deeply, now. Remember: pull the boat forward in the water, don't try to push the water backward. Pull forward."
Pippin bit his lower lip for the dozenth time and frowned. Performing for Gandalf was a perfect distraction for how much he missed Merry, but it was also straining his nerves. Was he holding the oar correctly? Was he pulling hard enough, or straight enough? He tried to ignore how much his shoulders ached. He tried not to imagine what a silly fool the wizard thought he was.
"Take a rest, Pippin," the wizard said. "The current will carry us along well enough for now."
The hobbit gratefully lifted his dripping oar over the bow and balanced it across the gunwales as Gandalf had taught him. He leaned forward onto his elbows and watched the endless drab forest that lined both shores of the Great River roll by, and listened to the steady hiss of the water as the boat slid through the current.
It was the morning of their second day from Lothlorien, and Pippin had never felt so lonely in his life. At their very first stopping point, just hours after leaving the rest of the Fellowship behind, Gandalf announced that he would be in charge of teaching the art of boat-mastery to Pippin and Sam, to both their horror and to Frodo and Boromir's amusement.
"When Mithrandir informed me that only one of you Halflings had ever steered a boat before," Boromir laughed, "I nearly decided to walk to Minas Tirith."
"I had to promise—over a rather substantial glass of brandy—to give lessons," Gandalf replied with a grin.
Pippin was chosen to be the first student. At least he had been in a boat before. Sam still clutched the sides with wide eyes, gasping with every rocking motion. The majority of their baggage was transferred to Gandalf's boat to compensate for Boromir's greater weight. In no time, Boromir, Sam and Frodo were well ahead of them, and Pippin was alone with the cantankerous wizard.
At least he had always seemed cantankerous to the young hobbit. But even Pippin had to admit that Gandalf had been exceptionally patient with his floundering efforts on the first day, even when Pippin accidentally splashed him.
"Thank you, Pippin," he had chuckled, as he wiped river water from his eyes. "I was feeling a bit thirsty. But next time, I'd prefer to drink it."
The wizard laughed the first time. The second time Pippin's oar slipped and a plume of water flew backward, Gandalf snorted and glared. The third time, his eyes practically glowed red, and Pippin swore he could see smoke pouring from his ears.
"Fool of a Took!" Gandalf hissed. "If you do that one more time... Oh, never mind. Try, Pippin—try to pay attention!"
Gradually, Pippin learned how to kneel upon the boat's curved bottom, how to lean to the side without tipping the small craft too far, how best to grasp the oar, how often to switch sides without causing Gandalf to mutter in irritation. His muscles passed through soreness and he gained strength. By the second day's end, several hours passed without a single correction by the wizard.
"It is time that Sam takes his turn in school," Gandalf declared when they halted together on the western bank. Pippin sagged with relief, and Frodo snickered at Sam's look of sudden terror.
"Poor Sam," Pippin muttered the next day as they pulled in to wait for their lagging friends.
They all listened as the booming voice of Gandalf echoed over the stream.
"Apparently Sam is receiving another lecture on the fine points of boating," Boromir mused. "I am glad to have learned the skill as a lad. It is much more difficult to acquire such knowledge once grown."
"Not to mention to have to overcome a fear of water as well…and having a wizard yelling at you all day…" Pippin sighed.
Frodo looked back from the prow. "He'll be all right, Pip. Gandalf's bark is much worse than his bite."
Boromir sniffed. "It had better be. He has been barking all day. If his bite were as fierce, our Sam would arrive in a dozen pieces."
Another frustrated roar echoed from behind them. The second boat drifted aimlessly in the stream. Sam appeared to be cowering in the prow, and the wizard's arms were crossed as he glared at his student.
"Oh my, look at that," Frodo said worriedly. "You're right. I must speak to Gandalf about this. Maybe Sam doesn't need to learn to steer a boat after all."
That evening, Pippin crouched beside Sam at the water's edge, helping him fill their water skins for the next day's journey. They had no dinner dishes to wash, for Gandalf had forbidden the lighting of fires, and their meals were, in Pippin's opinion, once again tasteless and boring.
"I'd grown accustomed to hot food," Pippin sighed. "How long do you suppose it will be until he lets you cook one of those marvelous stews of yours, Sam?"
Sam said something unintelligible as he dunked the neck of Frodo's water bottle into the stream.
"I didn't catch that," Pippin said.
"I said," Sam grumbled loudly, "If Gandalf's got anything to say about it, I shouldn't be trusted to be filling these here water skins." He capped the opening and slammed the bottle onto the ground. Immediately the stopper loosened and the water dribbled out. Sam sighed. "And he wouldn't be wrong, at that... I can't seem to do anything right."
"Frodo would tell you he's ashamed of you for saying such a thing, Sam. Look over there! Your Master's giving our fearless leader and guide a tongue-lashing, if I'm not mistaken... On your behalf, Master Gamgee!"
Pippin pointed up the bank. In the growing darkness the wizard could just be seen sitting on the ground, his knees drawn up. Frodo stood beside him, with a stern look on his face.
"See?" Pippin said. "You can tell--you know, Sam, when Frodo gets his dander up... He's giving old Gandalf the what for, you can be sure of it!"
Sam stared. "Well, I never... Mr. Frodo looked just like that when he caught Ted Sandyman taking a whip to that poor hound of his! He gave the cruel rascal an earful, and then he marched right to Sandyman's hole, called his gaffer out, paid for the cur and marched back and took the dog away. Found a proper home for the poor creature, too." Sam frowned. "He shouldn't ought to be doing that, Mr. Took," he said. "Mr. Gandalf is only trying to teach me, and if I weren't such a numbskull, I might be able to catch on better..."
"Your Master knows best, Sam." Pippin said. "Gandalf is the one who 'shouldn't ought' to be so harsh. His method of so-called teaching is only making matters worse. Frodo's going to make him give you a pass on boat-handling."
Sam frowned into the twilight. "There's no call for him to do that," he said quietly.
Pippin chuckled. "Don't worry, Sam. Frodo's already reassured us today that Gandalf's bark is worse than his bite. Your Master is perfectly safe..."
"No, that's not what I mean," Sam said as he jumped up, dropping the water skins. "He's got no right. He shouldn't be sayin' anything!"
"But..." Pippin stared as Sam rushed off. Pippin finished filling the bottles, and tucking three under his arms, he grabbed the last two and hurried back to the encampment. He returned the water skins to their customary pile near the five packs and turned to watch. Boromir joined him, hovering in the shadow of a nearby tree.
Sam stood with his feet planted widely and his arms crossed, glaring at Frodo, who stared back, his mouth half open. Gandalf remained seated on the ground, his face subdued and unreadable--save for the twitch of one bushy brow.
"You've got no right, Mr. Frodo!"
"But Sam, all I was saying to him was..."
"I won't be made fun of!"
Frodo gasped. "Sam, no one is making fun of you, truly!"
"Mr. Frodo, begging your pardon, but you just hold still and listen!"
Sam's face was scarlet, and Frodo's cheeks had turned bright pink. Frodo drew in a slow breath. "Very well. I'll be still and listen."
Sam seemed to have momentarily lost his capacity for speech, as though his stinging words had suddenly reached his own ears. His red face turned pale, and he looked downward as he dropped his hands to his sides.
"I know he's being a hard teacher. Don't you think I know it?" he muttered, as he continued to stare at the ground. "But he's got to, because I have to learn, and fast. You and Mr. Took can't take every turn with the oars. He knows that. He respects me enough to give me the chance to...to do my part. To pull my own weight." He looked up, and the heat rose in his cheeks again. "I don't want a pass, Mr. Frodo! You had no right to be speaking on my behalf, without clearin' it with me first."
The intake of Frodo's breath was harsh in the silence. "Of course," he said. "You are absolutely right, Sam. I should have discussed it with you first. I apologize."
Sam hung his head. "That's all right..." he mumbled. "And you'll have to forgive me, too, Master, for speaking so rough and impertinent..."
Frodo stepped forward and tentatively placed his hand on Sam's wrist. "No, Sam. You don't need to apologize. You were right to have done so. Thank you."
"And I, too, owe you an apology," Gandalf said quietly. "I was no teacher at all today, Sam. It is my fault if you have not yet learned what you must know about boats. If you will forgive me, I would like to have a second chance. And if I fail again, you should choose another teacher, if Boromir is willing."
Boromir bowed his head solemnly. "I would be honored, Master Samwise."
Sam chewed on his lip for a moment. He cleared his throat. "Well, if it wouldn't be too much trouble, Mr. Boromir, perhaps you could start in with teaching right off...tomorrow, maybe?" Sam glanced furtively at the wizard, and his face flushed again. "That is...if it's all right with you, Mr. Gandalf..."
They all turned to look at the wizard. Pippin saw that brow shift upward a notch again, but he could detect no other reaction on Gandalf's weathered face. "I believe you have made a very wise choice, Sam. If Boromir is willing to take over as instructor, tomorrow you shall go with him."
Boromir nodded before returning to his post on watch.
"And that will allow Pippin to take a refresher lesson, while Frodo has a rest day," Gandalf said. Pippin's shoulders sagged at the hint of amusement on the wizard's face. As he pushed upward on his knees and rose to his feet, Gandalf leaned down and whispered into Frodo's ear.
"And you were very wise in your choice of companions, my friend."
After Sam and Pippin mastered the use of the oar sufficiently, the travelers made better progress downriver. At Gandalf's insistence they did not simply drift with the current, but put their backs to it and covered many miles each day. The two men always took their positions in the stern of their boats; but the hobbits rotated places, allowing a different one to rest each day. Thus Frodo as often rode with Boromir as with Gandalf, and sometimes would rest amid the heap of baggage while Sam or Pippin took the prow. He found himself grateful for the shuffling of places and the occasional chance to speak--or merely to be close--to Pippin. For as the days ran by he realized how keenly he would miss his young cousin, and it seemed to him that the severing of his last connection to Merry would come all too soon.
The weather was cold and grey, and rain fell regularly, forcing the travelers to halt and stretch the fitted skins over their boats. As much as Anduin's currents would allow, they stayed close to the western bank. Yet the River seemed against them, for often they had to fight a strong flow that ever wished to push them eastward.
The trees faltered and thinned, and then disappeared altogether. To the east were sere hills, stripped of even the memory of growing things; to the west swept an endless expanse of reeds and grass, now dull as straw in the final grip of winter. They saw no creatures save for green and brown water birds floating in the reeds. Once, the air over their heads was filled with the rushing of wind through feathers, and when they looked up they saw a great 'V' of white and black geese with crimson bills, calling in their wild trumpet voices as they soared northward.
Now that the forests were gone the travelers felt like puny specks in the vast emptiness of the wilderlands. They spoke little, and flung their hoods forward against hidden eyes that they felt all about them. After a few days the course of the Great River swerved eastward for many miles, cutting deeply into the stony bank. A brown wall loomed over their heads, casting a chill shadow until nearly noon. Then the stream veered in a great curve to the west, and the late winter wind penetrated every layer of clothing they wore as it swept down from far off snowy peaks they glimpsed between the dun grasses.
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.