7. Inconvenient Assumptions
A/N: The chapters will be darker here on out. Although I'll never try to be too graphic or violent, I think I'll just boost the whole story to PG-13.
Fireworks went off behind my eyes. Then I thought I saw my life flashing, but this was nothing I'd done. Two pillars of light, like giant trees, gold and silver like the sun and moon. So many bright faces, happy… and then… A sudden darkness. A city by the sea, blood on the pearly streets. So much more blood and screams. There was a forest and in there a man with silver hair. He held my hand and all was fine, though the screams and the blood never left. The earth rumbled and the sea swallowed everything and many lands rolled by – or one and same over time. I had a city by the mountains. Everything was beautiful. I now held the hand of a silvery-locked girl and in the other the man's. And a ring was on my finger and again the world turned to screams and blood. I was in the forest and nothing changed. I stayed and the world changed. I had nowhere to go. I looked to the west and it was closed. At last everything closed in around me. And the screams and blood was my own. My ring was taken from my finger…
Stop it, stop it, stop it, stop it.
I was being shaken. It was no use trying to open my eyes because they were already open. My brain felt like it was being compressed and ribboned through my ear or like a roll of film going through a projector, with which my memories were being showcased on a screen. I could not pull it back in. I had no control over my mind. But I had to interrupt the flow somehow... Lalulalalalula! LALULALU! I'm a-singin'! Keeep on de sunny side, a'ways on de sunny side… WOOOOOOO!
My eyes cleared. I was still being rattled.
"I believe it is working!" Oddly enough, it was not Frodo's voice, but rather Gandalf's. And I was shaken all the harder, like a stubborn salad dressing.
I growled. Gandalf aha-ed! I saw Frodo in the background running in a circle, flailing his arms.
As my brain settled back in place, I inspected my surroundings. It was still night, though the stars had clouded over. Steam was rising from rubble beside us. I realized it must be the remains of the mirror. Yeah. 'K.
Quickly I shifted my gaze to another scene nearby. Celeborn was kneeling on the ground and fanning a conked out Galadriel. Her eyes were open, fizzling like a broken TV. The fizzling cleared as I watched. She focused onto Celeborn and I caught her whisper: "Such I never knew. Such I never dreamt. What I have seen… Mithrandir!" Her eyes settled on us. "You were right. This otter is of the other shore… she has the blessing of Ulmo… she carries knowledge of the Quest… what you must do to succeed."
Damnation! No, no, no, nopidy, no…
Gandalf bowed his head. I smelt the bacterial decomposition of his orifice. Frodo persisted on his circle. I thought it strange that his legs seemed cut off at the knee, but it was only that he had formed a knee-deep trench.
Celeborn caught his wife's head as it settled back. His gaze shifted between his wife, me and the hobbit. It settled long on the hobbit. He moistened his lips. "When shall you depart, Mithrandir?"
"We had planned to leave on the morrow, as soon as we have made ready."
The Lord of the forest said with eagerness, "I shall give you boats, to hasten your journey south."
Gandalf paused, rubbing his chin. "Thank you, Lord Celeborn, but that is too great a risk."
"The lands south have changed much," Celeborn shook his head sadly. "They are barren. Your best chance would be to pass them swiftly by river."
Again, I was jetted by that aroma. "What say you, Odi?"
Pinching my snout, I nodded fervently. Gandalf nodded back. "Then walk we shall."
My mouth fell open. I shook my head, popping my neck more than once. No one looked my way.
"We shall give you whatever you need for the journey," Celeborn droned on.
Frodo's trench had now reached his waist.
Back in the company of our snoring fellow world-savers, I fell into my nest, exhausted but unable to sleep from my mind-swap. My brain felt unhinged and I was certain I had suffered a whiplash. Ache, ache, ache. Eh, it wasn't so horrible that I couldn't manage to get up for our final elvish bed-n-breakfast.
Before noon, Haldir came to our root den and tapped his invisible hat. "We have readied your provisions," he waved his hand to where a half-dozen Elves were piling up sacks and handing out greenish cloaks. "The Lord and Lady request your presence, to grant you their parting wishes."
He looked my way and fell face-forward to the dirt. I thought he was having a seizure or something. But he unbent himself right back up again, and said with fiery zeal: "Friend of Those ruling beyond the Sea."
He stood still, staring at me with great wide eyes. I wished suddenly that the moon would fall on me… anything to distract this guy. What was he waiting for? Oh. OH! I gotta do something. I twirled my right paw and gave him a live long and prosper. He backed away with rapturous trembling.
The others were taking great interest in our new supplies. The Elves who had lugged them in stood aside, surveying the Company with polite interest.
Gimli had already cracked into one of the sacks. The Elves bent in, awaiting his approval. The dwarf sniffed the opening, licked the material and reached his hand in. He retracted it with a shriek, as though he had been struck by a viper. He threw down the sack and crushed it, smashed, bashed it with his boots.
Merry and Pippin quickly tore open one for themselves. Merry's scream was blood-curdling. Pippin flung the sack's contents onto the trees, where they burst apart in white explosions. The hobbit yodeled and reached for another sack. Legolas threw himself against the pile and slashed it with his knife, calling in the name of his father, mother and all relations three generations up. "Elendil!" cried Aragorn, before dull and hesitant, though now in the hour of his wrath terrible to behold. For a moment, it seemed to me, a white flame burned on his brows like a shining crown. With his left arm, he smote the sacks to the last, and so mighty was the skill of his blade, he was marred nary but once. Glamdring, too, sang beside Adúril. In one minute, not a modicum of lembas bigger than a mustard seed was left.
Not to be left out, I gave the crumbs several good tail-whaps. I remembered too well the suffering of our bowels on the journey south. Oh, such suffering they endured.
"Perhaps our people's waybread is not to your liking," said Haldir gravely.
"Give us meat! Meat!"
"I want ripe meat, fresh off the bone!"
"Tomatoes, sausages, eggs, bacon!!!"
We surrounded the Elves with demands of non-baked eatables. Shielding their pale faces, they backed into a mallorn, and in an eye's blink, shot up the tree. Legolas led the throwing of the shriveled leaf wrappers after them.
Frodo gave a great snort from his couch and rolled over.
Our helpful Elves plus Haldir returned in less than ten minutes, again loaded with sacks, which this time were steaming and soaked with dark grease stains. We gave them a close, finger-licking inspection, then we packed up, shook Frodo and let ourselves be led to the Lord and Lady. We become merry and talkative (well, chirpative in my case) as we walked under the golden afternoon sun and silver trees. By the time we came to an open green lawn, our Company had become fast friends with our Elven comrades and it sorrowed us to see them go. Haldir explained he had things ta do and places ta go, tapping that pretend hat of his one final time.
Galadriel and Celeborn were waiting for us. They stood shoulder to shoulder and could not look any more solemn than if they were attending a funeral.
"Alas, you will pardon us for not eating with you again, though you are our guests, for the time for departure has come," Celeborn said, sounding to be in the final stages of pre-nap time.
Galadriel pinched his hand. "We have, however, brought you gifts, such that we are able to provide in so short a time."
Oooo! Yeah! I love presents. Come on, give, come on, give. Come on!
They made us line up and called us one by one. It was like Christmas at Grandma's.
To Merry and Pippin were given belts. They seemed a teeny let down, maybe because they weren't made of food. To Gandalf the Lady whispered for five minutes and gave him a flask. I could only assume it was more liquor.
To Aragorn she said loudly: "Forget not Beren one-handed, who won the heart of fair Lúthien. Many were his deeds and many shall be yours." And many other things, in just as loud a tone.
After the Ranger had finally been let go, she called forward Legolas, who got his omg-the-coolest-thing-evah. Then there was the whole cute Gimli scene, which left my face so burning with pent-in laughter, I had pressed it against the grass and bit into the dirt. She called me next.
I jumped to my paws and scraped the grass off my tongue. I forgot myself for a moment and tried walking two-leggedly toward the Lady's feet. I toppled and actually rolled almost the whole distance. Galadriel knelt down and said softly: "There is naught I can offer that matches what you have given. I have seen myself pass the test. I know now I must diminish. That, or suffer the future of the dark lord, which we both have seen." She paused and I parted my chops in a weak smile. "But to you I must give something. Please accept it. It is a near-stone, given to me long ago. Very few were made and still fewer now exist."
She gave me a small pouch. It was black and soft, but the material felt strong and impenetrable, as though even water could not work its way in if sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Inside I felt a flat, slightly rounded object. It was surprisingly heavy for being smaller than my paw. I dumped it out. It was a perfectly clear glass, with not a scratch or smudge. Closing one eye, I looked through it.
The Lady's noble Noldorin nostrils enlarged into porous detail. What magnification! Better than any backyard scope! As I moved it from my eye, the magnification grew even more, bringing the farthest up branches into minute detail. But I could not see how it was even possible with a single glass.
The Lady still watched me. I closed my eyes and imparted my humblest squeaks. She then called to Frodo, and I replaced the stone and hung the pouch about my neck.
While Frodo tried to nibble on the Light of Eärendil, Galadriel whispered, "You could have no greater protection, Frodo, than from the kind of Gandalf and Odi."
Sigh. It just don't end. I'm as much a Maia as Al Gore is a climatologist. She must have interpreted my innumerable memories of web-surfing for some sort of omniscience.
Finally they were finished. They raised their hands in solemn farewell. We bowed, belching out many a thee and thou, andcontinued the tedious road south.
We went on for days and weeks while the land became more and more barren. We generally followed the river, staying where the rocks or dead weeds and trees provided most cover. There was not a day I did not expect to wake up to the battle-mooing of Orcs. And days went by and it never happened. It was fortune that kept them from our trail… least as far as I knew. We just kept downwind of them, maybe. Gandalf must have been aware of this potential peril because he dropkicked anyone who snored or talked above a whisper.
One evening, a few days from Rauros if the wizard was to be trusted, we halted near the shore and broke out food. While the sausages sizzled, I paddled into the water. This was not the barely floating sort of swimming I did in my other life. I mean, this was really swimming, liking flying.
A small fish was waving stupidly near the shore in the weeds. A light snack before dinner would be nice. I swam nearer and nearer, slowly. That fish wasn't budging; just waving up and down. I pulled myself a diving-length away… but the fish was gone. Instead there was a hand. Then I couldn't breathe. It was like iron clampers were around my neck.
"Isss it sweet? Isss it juicy? We'll squeeze it and see…"
I struggled, but it was as though I were wrapped in cords. I could move nothing, nothing – I wiggled my backside – except my tail. I whipped it against my captor with a wet slap. The clampers loosened enough for me to squeak.
"Something's got Odi!" Frodo howled. "Shoot it!"
Legolas shouted, "I cannot!"
The clampers pushed off and I could breathe again. I floundered around, gulping in oxygen.
"Shoot!!!" Frodo's howl was that of an animal's.
"I canno-- Yeeow!" Yelling, scraping, a whistling…
The next second, Aragorn splashed into the water with Frodo. Again I was suffocated.
The Ranger went deeper into the weeds and bent over. "It's… " Aragorn looked up. "It's Gollum." He had the limp creature in hand. "Frodo. He's dead."
Frodo let me breath. "So?"
The others were gaping on the shore, save Legolas, who was hopping on one foot, clutching his shin. I saw Frodo still held the Elf's bow, between him and me. He had actually seized it, the little twerp.
We buried Gollum by the shore. I stood a long time by the mound. This stunk – the situation, I mean. Stunk like old bananas. Goodbye climax.
I returned to the camp. Everyone picked at his food. The air was heavy with silence. It was Merry who shattered it at long last, with the throwing down of cup.
"Frodo, this is not right. What you did today. It's not that I liked the old creature but… but I think you're putting Odi before everything… all of us and the Ring even."
Frodo scowled and shooed Merry's words.
Then Pippin jumped up, right nose-to-nose with the Ring-bearer. "He's right, Frodo, you've changed. You just won't see it! It's that animal – that animal's changed you! I don't care what Gandalf or the Elves say. That thing has been nothing but trouble. It drove Sam away, it's destroying our fellowship. It's destroying you, Frodo!"
"Not a friend of Odi, not a friend of me."
"We are your friends, Frodo, maybe the only you got left," Pippin pinkened.
"No longer can I stand to be in their presence!" Frodo pointed to his cousins. "Have them go home."
"We came to keep an eye on you, Frodo!" cried Merry. "And you prove even now you need it, more than ever! We won't let you!"
"Then enough of this quest. I've had it. I'll just throw the Ring into the river, and be done with it." He made a beeline for the shore. The others roared Noooo!!! and took off in his dust.
He was teetering on the bank's edge, the Ring dangling on its chain over the rushing water. He grasped it with but two fingers. Everyone stopped abruptly, afraid to disturb him in the slightest, as though he were a boulder balancing on a needle.
"Come now, Frodo," Aragorn said softly, his one hand outstretched. "Come, we are your friends…"
"We swore to protect you!"
Frodo opened one finger.
"Please Frodo," whispered Gandalf. "Let not our labors have been in vain. Think of Boromir!"
"You will do as I ask," hissed the hobbit. His eyes were dark and shifty.
Frodo wrapped all his fingers around the chain and stepped from the edge. Ours was a collective sigh.
"Let us sit," said Gandalf. We followed suit, not talking, not looking at each other. "Now, Frodo, what is it that you wish? Understand we only want to help. We were all charged with this task. We must destroy this thing, at any cost."
Gandalf leaned forward, his beard dangling. "Then what will you have us do?"
"They," Frodo jerked his head. "Are not to come. I'm sick 'n tired of 'em."
Merry and Pippin opened and then bit their mouths as Gimli, sitting between them, smashed their feet.
"I agree," Gandalf said. The hobbits' faces slumped. "This is a venture too dangerous for those young and rash. Not to say they shan't have uses elsewhere." He smiled under his many hairs. "Aragorn, you must continue with your plan. Go to Gondor. Take the young hobbits with you."
Aragorn bowed his head for a contemplative minute and looked up, a struggle in his eyes, though his tone was deliberate. "You are right, as always, Gandalf. I will go."
"And Legolas and me?" grunted Gimli.
"Let us go with you, Frodo, to the end!" said Legolas, though his face was less-than-eager.
The wizard sighed. "In truth, I never supposed the whole company would cross into Mordor. Our hope is in stealth, and the more of us, the more we stand out. Two, maybe three, is the most sensible number. All of us have aided the Ring-bearer, but for some of us that part is over. I advise you Legolas, and you Gimli, to consider accompanying Aragorn. There will be many perils and chances of valor on that road as well. There are other tasks no less crucial than protecting the Ring-bearer."
Gimli chewed his lip. "Very well! I will go to Gondor, if you approve, Master Baggins?"
Frodo rolled his eyes.
"I shall also take the road to Gondor," Legolas said quietly.
Whamana? My heart shattered. Why, I poured my heart and my soul onto your altar! My face crinkled up painfully as I blubbered. There's only one thing to do. I took out my mental List and slashed out Legolas' name. I heaved a shuddering sigh. On second thought… I erased the mark and circled the name, and then drew an arrow pointing between Spock and Qui-Gon Jinn. There. Ya never know.
Aragorn pointed out that those going to Gondor will need to reach the western shore and the only feasible way was to swim (Gimli shouted that down) or build a raft. Trees would be more abundant by the time they met Raurus, the most feasible place to cross, so that task could wait. I wished they would build it now. It would give them something to do, besides stare at each other, pretending nothing significant was happening.
My opinion, though, was not asked for; it went unsaid that Frodo wasn't going anywhere without me. And he had to go to Mordor. Catch-22, damnit. But did I really want to be subjected to living death with only him and Gandalf for company? I could bash Frodo, I could sneak away, I could go to lovely, historic Gondor. Then I remembered the trip of Boromir's boot on my body. This also dropped into my mind: when Denethor asked how it was his son was dead, I didn't want to be twenty leagues of the Citadel. I shivered off the feeling of his throttling fingers. Ohhhh, by the Whistle of Oromë…
Early next morning, before the sun even hit the horizon, the two-leggeds shouldered their packs. We were divided in two. On one side was Legolas and Gimli, Merry and Pippin, and Aragorn, his single hand raised in farewell. The hobbits' eyes swam with tears. The Elf and dwarf tried to smile and wished us good fortune. On the other side was Gandalf, Frodo and me on Frodo's head. Gandalf spouted some moth-eaten diatribes on fate and hope. Frodo under me sighed and tapped his foot.
Then like from a pre-arranged signal, we turned from each other. They along the Anduin, us toward the now red-wreathed sun. Nobody looked back.
To be continued…