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While the Ring Went South...: 11. January 5, 3019 (Night)
Merry flinched and turned away from the furious demon that Sam had become. Aragorn’s announcement about Bill—coming just after everyone had been roused from a rather restless sleep—had probably not been the best way to start the late afternoon. They were gratified to hear that the Warg would no longer trouble them, but the news about Bill…that was something else.
Still, Sam was taking the situation fairly well, at least in a relative sense. The raging gardener had not reduced Strider, Legolas, and Boromir to an odd assortment of body parts. That was something of a victory for Sam’s restraint, and Merry made a mental note to compliment him on it as soon as he stopped shouting.
"I knew it. I knew this would happen. But did I listen to myself? Of course I didn’t! The Gaffer, he warned me too much about listening to myself, but there are times, like as not, when I’m the most sensible one around. And now poor Bill’s paying the price. He’s lost in this horrible forest and I don’t doubt but what he’s hungry and alone and—"
"Easy," Frodo interrupted gently, approaching Sam with the same caution that Bilbo had once used to approach Smaug. "I’m sure we can find him without too much trouble. Strider can track just about anything, and a pony can’t be too difficult. We’ll find him quickly and then we can start our journey. Right?" Frodo turned to the other members of the Fellowship for support in this.
"We can certainly not leave without him," Gandalf said slowly, eyeing the pile of baggage next to the remnants of their campfire. "If we continue on our present course, we will have need of his aid in transporting our packs. And there is the fact that he has proven himself a loyal friend. Yet there is also a need for haste. The flood slowed our journey by at least two days, and the rain added to the delay. Time is too precious to be thrown away carelessly."
"You would call a search for Bill careless?!" Sam demanded.
"I said not so," Gandalf returned, his eyes narrowing slightly. "But we must watch out time carefully. Aragorn, can you estimate how long a search for Bill might take?"
There was a slight pause before the Ranger answered. "I would say two hours," he said at length. "But it is difficult to be certain, for he could have fled in several different directions once leaving our presence, and he may have doubled back or crossed a stream, making it more difficult. Beyond that, he could be very near or he could be very far. There is simply no way to tell for certain. The three of us did attempt to track him before returning to camp, but his trail was lost when it led onto a rock shelf and we could no longer follow him."
Gandalf nodded, allowing himself a small sigh before he turned and addressed the rest of the Fellowship. "I fear this delays our journey yet again, but that cannot be helped now. We shall separate into teams and search for Bill while leaving a small guard here with the baggage."
The sudden clearing of a throat behind the wizard stopped him and Merry frowned as he studied the strange, uncomfortable look on Strider’s face. His confusion and curiosity grew when he noticed a very similar look on Boromir’s face. Turning to Legolas, he tried to read the elf’s expression, but the prince was inscrutable. Typical, Merry thought disparagingly. Elves are never any good if you need information.
"There is one more thing I feel we should know," Aragorn said, and Merry turned to watch the Ranger expectantly. "We did kill the Warg, but as we were returning, we came upon another set of tracks."
"Another set of tracks?" Gimli echoed with a raised brow.
"There is another Warg out there," Boromir murmured, folding his arms across his chest. "Larger than the first."
"But perhaps that will aid in finding him," Aragorn said quickly before alarm could spread, though it seemed that alarm was much faster than the Ranger. "His larger size will be more difficult to conceal in the underbrush and he will not be as fast or as wary as his comrade was."
"There’s another Warg out there?!"
Merry wondered if it was possible for Sam to explode much like one of Gandalf’s firecrackers. It certainly looked as though he was about to. And while it would make for an interesting sight and something to talk about years down the road, Merry couldn’t see it being very healthy for Sam. Unfortunately, Merry didn’t know what he could do about the situation. He sent a rather urgent look over to Frodo, but the Ring-bearer seemed just as baffled. None of them had ever seen Sam this upset, and it was taking them all by surprise.
"We should have expected this with an elf on the watch," Gimli grumbled.
Merry blinked, froze, and then glanced fearfully at Legolas. He supposed that was one way of diverting attention from Sam, but he wasn’t sure this was an improvement. The elf had gone completely still, one hand clutching his bow so tightly it was turning white. His bright gray eyes were closed to the world and his breathing was short and shallow. It seemed he was drawn as taut as his bowstring, and the slightest touch would snap him in two. Or snap someone else in two, Merry thought with a quick look towards Gimli. The dwarf didn’t seem to realize just how much wrath was building in Legolas, but Merry doubted that his ignorance would continue for long.
"Bill is lost and alone and there’s another Warg out there?!" Sam yelled again.
Merry backed away from the Fellowship and tried to make an impartial assessment of the current situation. Legolas was still standing as silent and resolute as a lone tree, but his breathing was getting faster and Merry was reminded of ale casks that are jostled too much on their journey to the inn. Eventually, enough pressure builds and they break their casings, spilling the contents over everything and providing their transporters with an impossible mess. Gimli, who was most likely to be the recipient of the impending explosion, didn’t seem to sense his imminent demise. Either that or he was confident in his ability to deal with whatever Legolas saw fit to send his way. Merry wondered if that was a wise attitude. The elf seemed quite capable of dealing out death and destruction. As for Sam, that hobbit was beginning to turn an interesting shade of red as his anger at Aragorn, Boromir, and Legolas started to reach dangerous levels. Merry had never before seen that particular color on a hobbit’s face, and while it certainly did not set him at ease, it was a rather interesting and curious thing to look at.
Having finished his assessment of the Fellowship, Merry came to a conclusion. They were in trouble. If things didn’t start to resolve soon, the company would break apart before they ever crossed the mountains. Unfortunately, Merry had no idea what to do in order to ease the tension within the group. He didn’t know enough about the problems between elves and dwarves to even consider approaching Legolas or Gimli, and Sam wasn’t likely to listen to anyone other than Frodo at this point in time. And Frodo didn’t seem to be willing to step forward, possibly waiting until the storm died before acting. But if you wait too long, you might be too late, Merry thought to himself.
"Three teams," Aragorn suddenly announced, breaking the tense silence with words before Legolas could break it with an arrow. In fact, Merry though he caught a glimpse of the elf’s hand straying to his quiver, but Legolas pulled it back before anyone else could notice. "Merry, Pippin, and Gimli will guard the baggage. The rest of us will make for the rock shelf where Bill's trail becomes lost. From there, we will split into two groups. Gandalf, Frodo, and Sam will move east. Legolas, Boromir, and I shall go southeast. Those directions shall lead us to the easiest trails in this area, and it’s likely that Bill will have found his way onto one of them. In the event that we discover nothing, we shall meet back here at midnight."
"You left him alone with a Warg!" Sam wailed.
"Three teams it is," Gandalf said. "But I suggest we split our paths here so the noise of our travels is less, for Bill might be startled by crashing in the underbrush." Aragorn nodded, accepting the wisdom in this, and Gandalf turned to the two hobbits now relegated to his care. "Frodo, Sam, come with me. If we start now, we should be able to find Bill and still get in several hours of travel ere morning."
"Come on, Sam," Frodo said, his voice soft and soothing. Putting a tentative hand on Sam’s shoulder, he began to guide the other hobbit toward Gandalf as the wizard struck out into the underbrush. "We’ll need you on this hunt. Bill knows you and he’ll come to you if he feels you’re near. I bet he wants to see you just as much as you want to see him."
"Stay alert," Aragorn warned as he started on his own path into the forest, taking a more southerly route. Legolas had already disappeared, hidden by the shadows of the trees, and Boromir was not far behind. "Remember that there is still one Warg left and that he is on the hunt."
"Fear not for us," Gimli said. "These good hobbits have a dwarf with them, and he shall not fail them as an elf might. Or already has, in the case of the pony."
Merry cringed upon hearing the sharpness of Boromir’s tone and he could only imagine what the elf had tried to do under cover of the forest canopy. Catching a glance at the anger, frustration, and weariness that raced across Aragorn’s face, Merry decided he was quite glad that he was not in a leadership position. The constant feud between Legolas and Gimli was making life difficult for all of them, but to be the one constantly stepping between the two of them… The hobbit shook his head. It was unfathomable to him, and he didn’t even want to think about what it had become like since Legolas had incurred a life debt. The tension between the two was becoming dangerous, and if something didn’t give, both were going to snap.
"You’ve been very quiet this evening," a voice at his elbow said.
Merry jumped and swung around, frowning as he discovered Pippin. "I might say the same of you, Cousin Took."
"Everyone else was busy talking, so I thought I’d let them make their grand plans without help from me. It’s good practice for when they need to make serious decisions and I’m not around to aid them."
Merry snorted and then began to laugh, feeling some of the tension drain away. "Don’t let Sam hear you say that. To him, this is serious, and if one of those teams doesn’t find Bill, I can’t imagine what he’ll do."
"Have no fear, young hobbits," Gimli said, taking his axe out and inspecting its sharp edge with a critical eye. "There are no better trackers and hunters to be found than the Rangers, and as their chief, Aragorn has skills ordinary men cannot even begin to fathom. The pony will be found, the Warg will be killed, and we will continue our journey."
"I hope so," Pippin said, flopping down onto a large bundle of rolled blankets. "Because if they don’t find Bill, we’ll have to leave some of this stuff here, which means less food later in the trip."
"You’re impossible," Merry informed him. "But at least one good things comes of all this. Let’s eat. It wouldn’t do if the others came back and found that we’d starved to death."
"You’re absolutely right!" Pippin exclaimed, a large smile making its way onto his face. "And we have all the food right here. Come on, Merry, let’s break out some of that spicy meat that Sam’s been hoarding."
"Hobbits," Gimli grunted, shaking his head and hiding his own smile. If nothing else, it would be an interesting night.
* * * *
Sam stormed behind Gandalf in a furious rage, heedless of all that went on about him. His thunderous mind barely registered the fact that brambles were tearing at his cloak and that he was actually beginning to drift away from Gandalf’s towering form and off onto his own path. For the last fruitless hour of searching, he’d replayed the early morning conversation over and over again. They’d promised Bill would be safe! They’d given their word! Legolas would be right above him. Aragorn would be right beside him. Boromir would be right behind him. There was nothing to worry about. The pony was as safe as any of them were. There was no need for concern or fear. What could possibly happen?
"The worst! And I’m the one as let it happen!"
Frodo blinked and stepped back. "Sam, I…did you know you were wandering off the path?"
"Was I? Bill wandered off the path, too, but like as not, I’m the only one who cares. I don’t think that…" Sam suddenly stopped and looked at Frodo, his face paling. "Oh, sir, I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean to talk so and—"
"Sam, it’s all right," Frodo broke in, taking hold of Sam’s arm and leading him back toward Gandalf who was waiting for both hobbits with an unreadable expression on his face. Had Sam not been so upset, he might have seen a flicker of compassion in the wizard’s dark eyes, but as it was, he was lucky to even notice that Gandalf was looking his direction. "You’re upset and that’s understandable," Frodo continued as he coaxed Sam back to the trail. "But if we’re to find Bill, we have to stay focused."
"You’re right, Mr. Frodo," Sam sighed, dismissing the fact that Frodo had been one of the individuals encouraging him to send the pony out into the Warg trap. In the gardener’s mind, his master could do no wrong and if there was a fault in the matter of Bill, it lay somewhere else. Not with Strider, that was certain. And not with Gandalf either. But if they weren’t to blame, then who was? Maybe—
"Sam? Sam, we have to get going."
Sam shook his head, trying to refocus his attention on his surroundings rather than his thoughts. His anger was beginning to simmer and once Bill was safely with them again, it would probably vanish completely, though he would certainly be reluctant to let anyone use the pony as bait again! "I’m sorry, sir," Sam mumbled, attempting to order his feelings into something slightly less chaotic. "It’s just that…I don’t rightly know how I feel about all this. And Bill is still out there with that second wolf or Warg or whatever it is and—"
"We’ll find him, Sam," Frodo promised, still guiding the other hobbit after Gandalf as Sam had not quite come back to himself. "Bill’s too smart to wander far away, and he’ll probably come looking for us. We just have to be alert enough to meet up with him."
"You’re right again, Mr. Frodo, as usual," Sam sighed. "I’m sorry to be such a burden but I—"
"Sam, will you just shut your mouth and start listening for Bill?" Frodo laughed, and in his laugh was perhaps the first real hint of merriment that had entered his voice for days. "Didn’t the Gaffer tell you to stick your foot in your mouth when you opened it? Do that now and it will help us a great deal more."
"Are the two of you coming or would you rather wait here until this age of the world passes away?" Gandalf demanded, looking sternly at the slower hobbits but there was a twinkle of mirth in his eyes that took away the sting of his words.
"Coming," Frodo responded, pulling Sam along with slightly more force than he’d previously used. "Now Sam, you’ve got better ears than I do, so you’ll have to concentrate on listening for Bill. He can’t move much in this underbrush without making some noise, right? So you’re in charge of listening."
"I can do that, sir," Sam said, thankful that Frodo was giving him something that demanded his concentration.
"Good," the other hobbit said, clapping Sam on the back and releasing his arm. "Then let’s hurry so we can get in a bit of traveling tonight. Gandalf’s right. Time is an issue and we don’t want to take any longer than we have to, for both our sakes and Bill’s!"
Sam nodded, feeling his anger begin to drift away and adopting a concentration normally reserved for pulling weeds away from delicate flowers. As Frodo had charged, he began to listen closely for any sounds that might indicate Bill’s direction, and he kept a sharp eye out. He was aware of Frodo hovering at his side, a constant presence should any comfort be needed again, and he felt a flash of guilt. He was supposed to look after Frodo, not the other way around. Sam was on the verge of saying something to that effect as well as attempting a polite way of asking Frodo to back off when Gandalf uttered a short oath.
Sam and Frodo both came to an abrupt halt and looked curiously at the gray-clad wizard. Neither had ever heard Gandalf swear before and it earned the old wizard their complete and undivided attention. A shiver of fear crept down Sam’s back and his stomach began to twist, fearing the worst for Bill. Gandalf was staring into the forest, but his eyes were unfocused and it seemed he was reaching out with senses beyond those of mortals. For a long moment, nothing dared to move. Even the trees seemed to hold their breath.
And then Gandalf surged forward, breaking into a job and sweeping offending underbrush out of the way with his staff. "Hurry," he ordered over his shoulder.
"What is it?" Frodo asked as he and Sam took off after the wizard. "Has something happened to Bill?"
"To my knowledge, the pony is still safe. But he will not remain so unless we make haste," Gandalf answered cryptically.
Sam gulped and tried to pump more energy into his weary legs. "Hang on, Bill," he panted beneath his breath as he tried to follow the wizard’s shadow through the darkening night. "You just hang on and we’ll find you. No harm will come to you, I promise. Not with Sam Gamgee on the job."
* * * *
"I feel it."
Legolas glanced over at the two men in his party and made a mental note to ask the Ranger at a later date about the perceptions of his Race. He had felt the presence of the second Warg several minutes ago, but it seemed that Boromir and Aragorn only now noticed it. To Legolas’s mind, there was no appreciable difference between now and when he had first sensed the creature, and the elf wondered why the delay in noticing the wolf. He was aware that elven senses were far more acute than the senses of men, but perhaps there was also in men an element of time required for the perception of evil. Legolas had sensed it immediately, but maybe a buildup of sensory perception was needed for Aragorn and Boromir to recognize a Warg’s approach. It was an interesting possibility and one Legolas felt was worth pursuing as soon as they had finished with their current task.
"Close," he answered, calling to mind the conversation he had subconsciously followed while he was considering the factor of time in relation to men’s perceptions. "Close and yet not close enough. It would seem he is wary of our presence."
"You have no bearing on him?"
"Nothing certain," the prince said, feeling as though he was being used as a rather elaborate compass. Still, there was nothing to do for that. After all, he did possess the better senses, and at the moment, he could best serve the Fellowship by using those senses to find the creature that hunted them.
"What of Bill?" Boromir asked, and Legolas could hear a certain reluctance in the man’s voice as though he was loath to admit his mortal shortcomings. "Can you find any signs of him?"
The elf paused and narrowed his eyes, searching the surrounding forest. They had been out here for over an hour now and the rockiness of the ground was making it difficult to track the pony. They had come upon hoof prints once, but it seemed that as soon as the trail was discovered, it disappeared. The area was not good for tracking and even Aragorn’s woodcraft had met its match. Yet if they did not find Bill soon, it was almost certain that the Warg would. Unable to catch find any sign of the pony with sight, Legolas turned his attention to his keen elven ears, willing them to hear anything that might remotely resemble the sounds of a pony traveling through dense brush. And at the edge of his senses, teasing the limits of his elven hearing, he finally heard it.
"Due east," he announced, taking the lead and picking out a path through the trackless wilderness. He heard Aragorn and Boromir begin to follow him, making far more noise than he did as they were forced to crash into the brush while he seemed to drift effortlessly through it. It was something he had never noticed until Aragorn complained of it once in Mirkwood, and since then, it had become a source of puzzlement to Legolas. The way was open for travelers if they knew where to look and where the limbs of brush would give way. Was it beyond a man’s perception to sense this? The elf shook his head, realizing just how little he knew about the Race his people had allied with from time to time.
"Legolas, stop!" Aragorn suddenly commanded. The elf froze, surprised by the authority as well as the hidden fear in the Ranger’s voice, and looked back curiously. Aragorn wore a strangely blank expression, and he appeared to be listening intently. "The Warg," he whispered. "Where is the Warg?"
Legolas blinked, realizing that in the process of musing over the differences between man and elf, he’d lost track of their quarry. Refocusing his senses while furiously berating himself for this lapse in awareness, he abruptly realized what Aragorn had already guessed. "His presence is growing stronger as we draw closer to the pony," the elf whispered.
"He must be hunting Bill," Boromir stated, brushing past Aragorn and hurrying forward. "Come! We have no time to lose."
Filled with a new sense of urgency, Legolas quickly overtook Boromir and passed him, breaking into a sprint that threatened to leave the two men behind. He felt the pull of healing muscles in his thigh but he ignored them. If the Warg reached Bill before they did, they would face a world of ill ramifications. The Warg would feed and find himself stronger, Sam would never trust any of them again, they would be forced to leave much of the baggage behind, and they would lose a pony that had become more than a pack animal. To many of the company, Legolas included, he had become a dear friend.
The sense of evil was growing stronger now, as were the sounds of a pony floundering helplessly through thick forest, and Legolas increased his pace, drawing further ahead of the men who followed him. The elven prince had led many scouting expeditions and fought in many skirmishes along the border of Mirkwood. He had lost friends and comrades to the blades of Orcs, but he had never yet lost a companion to the teeth of a Warg and he didn’t intend to start now. Swinging his bow off his back, he seized an arrow and set it to the string, searching the forest carefully as he ran, for the Warg was now very close. He could dimly hear the sounds of Aragorn and Boromir as they crashed through the brush behind him, and he winced with the knowledge that there would be no opportunity to take this Warg unawares. They would have to catch him in the open and hope for the best.
A sudden whinny of surprise and alarm reached Legolas’s sharp elven ears, and his breath caught in his throat. The thudding of hooves came next, and using the sound to create an image in his mind, the elf mentally traced out the path of Bill’s flight and altered his course slightly, hoping to intercept the pony and so intercept his pursuer. If the Warg was hungry enough that he was wholly concentrated on Bill, there was still hope for this to work.
Bill neighed again, his voice filled with fear and panic. Legolas increased his speed and leaped into the trees, trusting that Aragorn and Boromir would be able to follow the pony’s cries much as the elf was. Completely at home in the trees, he leaped from branch to branch as easily as if he raced across sand. The trees sensed his need for haste, and limbs lifted and parted for him as he shot through the forest canopy. The dark shadow of the Warg was becoming so strong that Legolas could almost follow the creature by its presence alone.
And then the bushes to the side of the elf parted abruptly, making room for a frantic pony who burst through in a frenzy of hooves and fur. With a snort of fear, the horse raced directly beneath Legolas’s position, and right on his tail came a large Warg in hot pursuit.
Legolas was so surprised by the wolf’s sudden appearance that he actually failed to shoot upon first sight of the animal. Most Wargs kept exclusively to the shadows, even while on the hunt, yet here was one taking the direct route in chasing the pony. It was either very confident or very hungry. And looking at its gaunt form, large though it was, Legolas decided on the latter. With little food in this portion of the wilderness, there had certainly not been enough prey to satisfy two Wargs, and this particular Warg was now ravenous.
Loosing his arrow as the wolf passed beneath his position, Legolas also let out a shrill whistle as a warning to Aragorn and Boromir. If the Warg was willing to chase down a large pony without keeping to the safety of the underbrush, he would be more than willing to attack a man.
As if sensing the imminent attack, the Warg roared and swerved to the side. Legolas’s arrow grazed his side and the wolf howled indignantly, picking up his pace and circling back to see who had dared attack it. Legolas was more than prepared for this response and swiftly notched another arrow, drew, and released. Yet again the wolf swept to the side, but this time he was not so lucky and the elven arrow lodged in his shoulder. Yelping at the sudden pain, the Warg snarled ferociously and raced away, knowing it could not outwit a foe in the trees. Legolas let one more arrow fly and heard a whine of agony as he hit the wolf’s hindquarters, but it did not slow its escape and the creature vanished into the forest.
Dropping from the trees and tracking the blood it was leaving, Legolas hurried forward with his eyes trained on the ground and his senses alert for any disturbances. Traveling quickly, he suddenly skidded to a halt and listened intently as voices drifted to his ears. Turning his head in the direction from whence they came, he called quickly. "Mithrandir!"
"Legolas?" the answering voice called.
"I have found Bill and the Warg. Hurry, for they are both on the run!"
The elf’s sharp ears then heard hobbit voices raised in both fear and relief, but he paid them no mind and went back to tracking his quarry, easily following the trail of blood. It was then that a loud oath, the ring of swords, and the sounds of a struggle came to his ears, and the prince hastened forward, fearful of what he would find.
There was no answer and the sounds of a struggle died away, leaving a cold fear in possession of Legolas’s heart. No longer following the Warg’s path, he hurried to the position where he had last heard his friends. It seemed certain that they had met with the wolf, and Legolas hoped he was not too late in coming to their aid. Furiously berating himself for not having killed the creature when it first came into view, Legolas passed through the dense underbrush like a wind rushing through tall grass.
Bursting through a dense thicket and into a small clearing, he skidded to a halt and caught himself on a convenient tree. Aragorn and Boromir stood before him, with Aragorn gripping the halter of a panicking pony and at the same time trying to wrap a strip of torn cloth around Boromir’s left forearm just above the gauntlet. Relief rushed through the elf and he allowed himself to sigh as his fears for their safety drained away. "When you did not answer, I feared the worst," he said, looking pointedly at the Ranger. "Are you well?"
The two men looked up as the elf spoke and an apologetic smile found its way onto Aragorn’s face. "We are fine, though not unscathed. Forgive me for not answering your call, but Bill’s nerves are not as steady as one might like them to be. And you, Legolas, might have warned us that this Warg was larger and faster."
"We already knew he was larger, and since I did not succeed in killing him, you were to assume that he was faster," Legolas answered with a slight shrug, walking over and whispering soothing words to Bill. The pony calmed somewhat, but his ears stayed flat against his head and wide eyes stayed fixed on the surrounding forest. Realizing it would take time for Bill to relax, Legolas stroked the horse’s neck gently and turned to examine the long gash on Boromir’s arm.
For his part, Boromir seemed rather embarrassed to be wounded and was muttering something about it not needing attention. By contrast, Aragorn had him firmly by the arm and was insisting that it did need attention and at the very least needed to be bandaged. It was not a severe injury and the bleeding had almost stopped, but it looked painful and Legolas winced with sympathy. He’d been hurt himself by Wargs in Mirkwood, and their bites were slow to heal, even for elves.
"How did this come to be?" Legolas asked, taking Bill’s halter from Aragorn so that the Ranger might more easily see to Boromir.
"It was my fault," Boromir answered with a disgusted shake of his head. "I had seized Bill and was trying to keep him from bolting. Thus I did not see the wolf coming. Aragorn shouted a warning, but in trying to calm the pony, I did not move in time. Thankfully, I received no worse than this."
"You were distracted by another concern, and I should have better guarded your back," Aragorn said. "The fault is equally mine."
Legolas groaned and rolled his eyes, recognizing the start of something he and Arwen had come to call the Ranger Responsibility Syndrome. It seemed that Rangers as a whole—and Aragorn in particular—could never understand the simple fact that it was not always their fault when something went wrong. Sometimes the blame rested with another while sometimes there was no one to blame and things just happened, good or evil. But for reasons unfathomable to Legolas, the Rangers couldn’t accept this and insisted on being accountable for any wrongdoing in Middle Earth regardless of their own involvement or lack of involvement. Judging from their speech, it appeared that Boromir also had a touch of this problem.
Fortunately, they were interrupted before Aragorn and Boromir could begin arguing about whose fault it really was. An excited hobbit suddenly broke from the trees and wrested Bill’s halter from Legolas. The elf quickly stepped back as Sam wrapped his arms around the pony’s head and sobbed quietly against the broad neck. With the hobbit back, Bill seemed to calm even more and his ears pricked up as he nickered gently.
"Oh Bill, I knew you’d be all right. Mr. Frodo said that you were a resourceful horse and I wanted to believe him, but in these words you can’t be too sure, now can you?"
"I see you have discovered our pack animal," Gandalf commented as he arrived at the scene, smiling at the reunion between hobbit and pony. Frodo trotted up behind him and grinned broadly upon seeing Sam and Bill. His eyes then strayed to Aragorn and Boromir and the smile quickly vanished.
"What happened?" the Ring-bearer asked.
"I did not react quickly enough," Boromir answered.
"I failed to guard his back," Aragorn corrected.
"The Warg came this way," Legolas said, glaring at his two companions. "And because of his anger, he managed to injure Boromir."
"Where is the Warg now?" Gandalf asked, also well aware of what was taking place between the two men.
"We injured him, but he still managed to flee," Aragorn sighed, tying off the makeshift bandage on Boromir’s arm.
"He is still alive?" Even as he said it, Legolas realized that this was a question he should have asked when he first came upon the two men. But he had not felt the menacing presence of the Warg, and a Warg does not easily relinquish his prey. Since the wolf was no longer attacking—or at least stalking—the pony, Legolas had assumed that the fell creature had been killed. It was an erroneous assumption and one that would have had the prince’s mentors and trainers shaking their heads in dismay, but nevertheless, it had happened.
"He fled west," Boromir answered, flexing his arm and testing the give in Aragorn’s wrappings. "I tried to delay him, but this cursed injury hampered my movements."
"And he has not returned to hunt Bill?" Gandalf asked, fixing his gaze on Aragorn. The Ranger frowned and then his eyes widened.
"He has found other prey."
Legolas cursed, turned, and raced into the forest. His sharp ears caught the sounds of Aragorn and Gandalf in hot pursuit while Boromir, Frodo, Sam, and Bill took up the rear, demanding to know the reasons for this sudden haste. But Legolas did not slacken his pace for his friends, for he now knew exactly where the Warg was heading and exactly what the Warg was after.
I pray your axe is a better weapon than it appears to be, Master Dwarf, and that you are something of a competent warrior, Legolas thought, thinking of the poor hobbits left in Gimli’s care. Because you will be their only defense when the Warg attacks.
* * * *
With a sigh, Gimli slid his newly sharpened axe into his belt and stalked to the edge of camp. Aside from the rather remarkable fact that the hobbits had actually stopped eating before the food ran out, the evening had been uneventful. Pippin was now dozing quietly, Merry was watching the stars and humming softly to himself, and Gimli was becoming thoroughly bored.
The others had been gone for almost two hours now, and during that time, Gimli had neither seen nor heard the presence of any living creature aside from himself and the two hobbits. The forest on all sides was peacefully quiet with no sign of tension or darkness that would herald approaching danger. In a strange way, it reminded the dwarf of guard duty at home in the Lonely Mountain, for very few foes escaped the Beorings, even fewer escaped the elven archers in Mirkwood, and almost none made it past the vigilant men of Dale. As such, the routine guard duty that all dwarves were forced to serve from time to time was among the most tedious, boring, and hated chores in the entire mountain.
Not that Gimli was quite ready to complain yet. In truth, he was actually glad of the respite. They’d not had a quiet evening since… The dwarf frowned and tried to remember the last time he did not have to watch for an elven prank or a flooding river. Five days out from Rivendell, he eventually decided. That was my last night of peace. After that, the elf began to cross the line.
Gimli, of course, dismissed the fact that he had also "crossed the line," for in his mind, he had only been retaliating. The dwarf firmly believed that he had not started the feud and that all fault rested with the elf. If he were told that Legolas believed exactly opposite this, he would have snorted and mumbled something about elven self-righteousness. An impartial figure like Gandalf or Aragorn might have labeled both elf and dwarf as the cause of their present argument, but here was one thing that both participants had in common. Neither was willing to believe that both were to blame.
"How long have they been gone, Gimli?"
From the edge of camp, the dwarf turned around and looked toward Merry who was still staring at the sky. "Two hours by my count," Gimli answered. "For a scouting party, that is not long. Unless favored by fortune, it is likely that they will be gone for some time yet."
"Two hours," Merry murmured to himself. "I don’t know that before leaving the Shire, I could have spent two hours simply watching the stars. I guess traveling changes a person. Or in this case, a hobbit!"
"Very few things can change one the way an adventure can, and I don’t doubt but that you are experiencing the effects of such changes. But I would remind you that the first half of these two hours was spent eating, and if I am any judge, that is not a great change from your usual habits. If given the opportunity, I suspect hobbits would make the day one long meal."
"I see nothing wrong with that," Pippin murmured, turning over and pillowing his head on his pack. Merry launched a small rock in his direction but missed. Gimli chuckled and turned back around to watch the forest.
It was very quiet this night. There was little wind and even the creatures of the forest were silent as though resting in the peaceful stillness. The moon was bright and bathed the trees in a silver glow, giving it an almost elven beauty that even a dwarf could appreciate, though that dwarf might be reluctant to admit it. Resting one hand lightly upon the haft of his axe, Gimli leaned back against the slender trunk of one of the trees and sighed. Had anyone else been around, he would not have been caught in such a position. But Pippin was falling asleep and Merry was still staring at the stars, leaving Gimli more or less to himself on the edge of the campsite. And alone, he was allowed a chance to relax as he had not done since arriving at Rivendell with his father, Glóin. The constant presence of elves since that time had always grated on his nerves, and even during moments of relative peace, as in the beginning days of the Fellowship, Gimli had never felt truly at ease. But with the elf of their company off chasing Bill and the Warg with the others…
Gimli suddenly frowned and his grip on the axe tightened. His peaceful moment had shattered and something dark had entered the forest. It was a change so subtle that had he not been completely relaxed it is doubtful that he would have noticed it. He backed up, eyeing the woods distrustfully and noting that the peaceful stillness had turned into a tense silence. Something waited and something watched. The small camp was pondered with malice, and Gimli had a fairly good idea as to the origin of this malice.
"Merry, Pippin, on your feet," he said quietly, keeping his voice calm and low but still interjecting a note of command that would catch their attention. "Ready your weapons and stand near me. Face outwards and watch the forest."
To his credit, Merry was instantly on his feet and prodding Pippin to do likewise. The other hobbit grumbled, but apparently sensing the tension in the air, he asked no questions and gave no complaints. Silently, Merry and Pippin joined Gimli in standing near the baggage, waiting for the shadow in the woods to manifest itself. Minutes dragged by that seemed to stretch into years on end, and eventually, it was too much for the hobbits.
"What’s going on?" Pippin hissed. His voice was no louder than a whisper, but in the complete stillness it sounded as though he had shouted. Gimli and Merry both cringed, turning stony looks on Pippin who shrugged sheepishly but still had the cheek to look expectantly at Gimli in the hopes of an answer.
With a shake of his head, the dwarf grimaced and turned back to the forest. "The Warg," he murmured, becoming more certain of his feelings with each passing moment. He had never truly sensed a Warg before, but the contrast between now and the relative peace he’d enjoyed earlier could not be mistaken. So this is what father meant when he spoke of a Warg’s presence, the dwarf reflected. And this must be what set Aragorn and Gandalf on edge several days ago.
"The Warg wouldn’t attack us, would he?" Merry whispered. Like Pippin, the hobbit’s voice sounded unnaturally loud and Gimli winced.
"If he does, he shall soon have more on his mind than hunger," the dwarf promised, his grip tightening on the haft of his axe.
What might have been interpreted as a laugh came from the bushes to one side. It was a muffled sort of growl that startled all three, and as one they swung toward the sound. A shadow moved beneath the moonlight and then vanished. His muscles tensing, Gimli stepped forward slowly, inching his way along while all his senses strained for a sign of the wolf’s intentions.
"Stay behind me," he whispered to the hobbits. "And be ready."
More minutes dragged by and it seemed as though several ages of Arda passed. Once again, it was too much for the hobbits who were novices as to the wilds of Middle Earth. Pippin lowered his sword and looked at Merry, who shrugged and cleared his throat. Gimli sighed, and looked over his shoulder with the intention of sending both hobbits a deadly glare, but his fierce expression turned to one of surprise and alarm when he caught sight of what was leaping from the darkness behind them.
"Down!" he roared, lunging at the hobbits and shoving them to the side even as he flung himself to the ground.
The Warg sailed overhead and spun as soon as he hit the earth, his gleaming teeth bared in a terrible grimace. A deep gash was bleeding along the side of his neck and two Mirkwood arrows jutted from his body, one in the shoulder and one in his hindquarters. With ears flattened against silver fur, the hound of Sauron snarled and snapped his jaws, his tail lashing from side to side and yellow eyes gleaming with hatred. Like a nightmare from the twilight, he lifted his head and howled, voicing his rage and anger to the empty night and summoning all who served Sauron to rally to his aid.
Not about to let the wolf finish his call, Gimli rushed forward with a ready axe and a dwarven battle cry. The blade swung down, its sharp tip catching the moonlight in its arc, but it met with air as the Warg sprang aside. With a growl and a flash of teeth, the creature leaped at Gimli, and the dwarf was barely able to bring the haft of his axe up to meet the charge. A jaw capable of crushing bone seized the sturdy handle and with a suddenness that took Gimli completely by surprise, the axe was wrenched from his hands. Only instinct saved him from what happened next. Pressing the advantage, the Warg’s teeth sought the dwarf’s throat but Gimli threw himself backwards, rolling to his feet in one smooth motion and seizing his axe on the way.
But this wolf was faster than any opponent the dwarf had faced before. Coming to his feet, Gimli’s eyes darted to the place where the Warg had last been only to find it empty. He heard the hobbits shout a warning, but he did not turn in time and found himself knocked to the ground with the axe flying from his hand. Slightly stunned, he rolled to his side just in time to see the Warg leap, jaws gaping and tongue lolling. In some detached way, Gimli knew it would be the last thing he ever saw and he silently cursed the fate that had led him down this road. His ears caught the sound of crying voices, something let off a high-pitched whistle, a howl split the night, and then a great weight fell upon his chest and the world went red.
Gimli lay completely still, certain he had perished, and then he heard Aragorn’s commanding baritone as well as Gandalf’s curt instructions. The weight on his chest was lifted and a damp cloth touched his face. Batting hands away, Gimli seized the cloth himself and wiped his eyes, realizing as he did so that he was wiping away blood. Frodo’s voice sounded from nearby and he was answered by Boromir. The rest of the Fellowship had returned. But what had happened to the Warg? How had he…
A silent terror suddenly shook the dwarf and he opened his eyes and pushed himself to a sitting position, fearful of what he might find. The Warg lay to one side of him, its silver form limp and lifeless. An arrow protruded from its throat, having pierced the main artery, and a pool of blood was collecting beneath the wolf. Afraid to look but knowing it had to be done, Gimli glanced to his other side.
The bright, gray eyes of a smug-looking elf met him, and Legolas smiled with an infuriating calm, inclining his head slightly. "My debt is repaid in full, Master Dwarf. A life for a life. I would advise you to see to your appearance, though the sight of you might be enough to hold all our enemies at bay."
"Enough of this," Gandalf interrupted, sending a stern glare in the elf’s direction. "The Warg has sounded an alarm and we must depart this area immediately. All of you, load the baggage quickly. We cannot afford to waste time."
"Come then, stunted one," Legolas said. "Despite your condition, we must away." So saying, the elf turned, but as he did so, his bow, clasped in his left hand, swung around to slam solidly into Gimli’s head.
Unprepared for the blow, the dwarf grunted in surprise and put his hands out to prevent himself from falling backwards. He heard Frodo’s breath catch, he heard Aragorn’s swear quietly, but above all these sounds, he heard a quiet chuckle on the part of Legolas. He nearly charged the elf then, but the warning glare from Gandalf stayed his hand. Promising himself that there would be other opportunities, Gimli finished wiping his face free of blood, gathered up his belongings, and readied himself to continue the journey. His eyes watched Legolas carefully, and his mind began to plot. The elf would not be let out of his life debt so easily. Not if Gimli, son of Glóin, had anything to say about it. And with this thought firmly in the mind and heart of the dwarf, the Fellowship at length moved away from the camp, disappearing quickly into the forest so as to escape the notice of any spies who might have been summoned by the call of the Warg.
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