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While the Ring Went South...: 19. January 10, 3019 (Night - Part II)
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Saruman had once told Gandalf that the key to leadership was keeping up the façade that one knew what one was doing. And if one did not know, then one found a middle line between two extreme viewpoints and stuck to it.
This advice had been given partly in jest many years ago before the White Council was ever even conceived of, but it was a jest with a grain of truth. Looking back with the gift of hindsight, Gandalf could see how Saruman had used his own counsel during the uncertain years following the Council’s attack on Dol Guldur. Unfortunately, while walking the middle road between the will of the Valar and the temptations of Barad-dûr, Saruman had fallen. Gandalf now felt that he understood exactly why and how this had happened, for he was in a very similar situation. Perhaps the forces he stood between were not as powerful as Manwë and Sauron, but Aragorn and Boromir were still formidable opponents in their own right. And Gandalf, caught between them, had decided that soon or later he would have to choose a side. He could not walk the fence much longer.
The remnants of the Fellowship stood at the head of the gorge. The ground dropped away swiftly near the place where Aragorn stood, but it was not so steep as to make climbing impossible. In fact, Merry looked as though he were contemplating a descent into the gorge in an effort to find Pippin. Fortunately, Aragorn was keeping a close eye on him. Gandalf shook his head and sighed. They could ill afford to lose another member of this company.
Which led him to another problem. They had waited here one hour already. Aragorn had made clear the fact that he would wait all night if he had to. He had recommended that the Fellowship continue without him, but he wasn’t about to abandon Legolas, Gimli, and Pippin. Boromir, on the other hand, was already chafing at the bit. He had made clear his opinion that an hour’s time was time enough, and if the missing members of their party failed to make an appearance, prudence demanded that everyone—including Aragorn—continue the journey. As for Gandalf… Valar, where do I stand? the wizard wondered. I have already stated that we shall tarry two hours only, but I have yet to tell the hobbits and Aragorn has yet to agree to the time limit. Both are right, though. We can ill afford to lose Legolas’s bow and Gimli’s axe. We must give them every chance to find us. And yet the Ring takes precedence. We cannot allow it to remain in one place for an extended period of time. The crows shall be upon us if we do, and then all of Middle Earth shall fall into shadow because we delayed for the sake of three comrades.
Gandalf was used to making sacrifices, but he usually made them at his own expense. Bilbo would argue that, claiming that he’d been used as something of a sacrifice in the case of Smaug, but as a general rule, Gandalf would not ask anyone to do something if he could go ahead and do it himself. He had been the one to enter Dol Guldur during the reign of the Necromancer. He had been the one to take Narya at Círdan’s behest. But in this instance, if he chose to follow the counsel of Boromir—which was also the counsel of prudence—he would be asking the rest of the Fellowship to sacrifice their companions when it was not clear that such a sacrifice was necessary.
But did he truly believe that Gimli and Legolas would look past their differences long enough to emerge from the ravine in one piece? The wizard frowned and rubbed his temples. The possibility was remote at best. Gimli was Glóin’s son and had been raised to hate and distrust elves, particularly those of Mirkwood. The fact that Legolas was Thranduil’s son certainly didn’t help anything. As for Legolas, the prince had been raised with the prejudices of his people, and his father had indoctrinated his son with all manners of rumors and lies regarding the children of Aulë. There was no love lost between elf and dwarf, they had both verbally and physically assaulted one another, and now, with no significant third party to stand between them, they were caught in an unstable ravine that seemed intent on crumbling inward. And still I carry some hope that I will meet them again, Gandalf sighed. I foresee they have yet a part to play in this venture, but as Elrond is wont to say, even the wise cannot see all ends. And it may be that their part shall be cut short.
"How long will we tarry, Gandalf?"
The wizard blinked and looked to his side, frowning when he found Frodo standing next to him and waiting expectantly for an answer. "How long shall we tarry for what?"
"For Pippin, Legolas, and Gimli," Frodo answered, his expression unreadable. "You’re not planning to stay here all night. At least, Boromir isn’t, and I don’t think you are either. Aragorn’s another matter, but even he won’t wait forever."
Gandalf smiled slightly. "Fate chose you well, Frodo. Your perception shall be invaluable. Trust your instincts, for they lead you well."
"I shall," Frodo promised. "And right now, my instincts say that you’re changing the subject. Gildor told me it was dangerous to meddle in the affairs of wizards, but this is also my affair, as well as affecting Merry and Sam. How long are we going to stay here? Because if no one comes, we will have to move sometime. And I think Boromir is anxious to get started now."
"He is," Gandalf conceded, glancing over at Denethor’s son. "He thought that one hour was sufficient time."
"And Aragorn disagreed," Frodo guessed.
"Aragorn believes the Fellowship can proceed without him while he ventures into the ravine and conducts a search of his own," Gandalf said. "Barring that, he is prepared to wait out the night."
"So what do you think?" Frodo pressed.
The wizard hesitated, a rather rare event for him, and then made his decision. Frodo had forced him into it, but that couldn’t be helped. Besides, were it not for the hobbit’s questions, he might never have come to a firm decision. "We shall wait another hour. After that, we shall depart. All of us."
"Merry won’t like that," Frodo murmured. "I’m not sure that I like it."
"It weighs heavily upon me as well, Frodo, but that which you bear is far too important."
"I understand all that," the hobbit answered, sounding rather frustrated with himself. "But that doesn’t mean I like it. And it doesn’t mean that I really accept it, either." He sighed and shook his head. "I’m not strong enough for this, Gandalf. I can’t do it."
"Compassion and friendship are not weaknesses," Gandalf counseled, laying a hand upon Frodo’s shoulder. "They are strengths, dear hobbit, and you should use them as such. Your devotion to your companions is part of what holds at bay the evil that seeks to corrupt you. Hold on to these feelings, Frodo, for in the end, they are all that truly matter."
"But in the meantime, they seem to make life harder," the hobbit observed with a sigh.
Gandalf chuckled and squeezed Frodo’s shoulder. "Occasionally," he conceded. "Come. We should probably break the news to Merry and Sam. If we wait to tell them an hour from now that it is time to go, it will take another hour to convince them of it."
"That does give Pippin, Legolas, and Gimli some extra time to get up here," Frodo pointed out.
"It does, but it also gives our enemies an extra hour in which to find us. And that, we cannot have." Gandalf rose from his seat, stretching as he did so, and picked up his staff. With Frodo at his side, the wizard made his way to where the ravine began to drop away. "I gather there has been no sign of them?" he asked the Fellowship at large, already knowing the answer but deciding that it was best to start the conversation with something less controversial than the announcement that they would move in an hour.
"Nay, not yet," Aragorn murmured, folding his arms across his chest and leaning sideways against a tree.
"Hope dwindles, as does time," Gandalf said, watching both the Ranger and Merry.
"Hope increases if they join us," Aragorn answered with a pointed look at the wizard.
"What is this about dwindling time?" Merry demanded as the implications of Gandalf’s vague words registered with him.
"We carry a rather perilous burden, my friend, and considering what—"
"I know all about It and I know what happens if It falls into the wrong hands," Merry interrupted, his face turning red with anger. "What I want to know about now is Pippin."
Gandalf was not used to being interrupted, and a brief flash of annoyance slipped onto his face ere it was quickly concealed. Merry’s impatience and concern was expected, and in order to deal with it, Gandalf had to remain calm. Otherwise, it was doubtful that the Brandybuck would ever move from his post. "You know as much about Pippin as we do," the wizard said, his voice quiet and soothing. "And yet think of this from his perspective. Would he wish for you to stand around while spies of the Enemy draw ever closer? Strange as it may seem, we are probably in more danger than Pippin because we are in Frodo’s presence."
"What spies?" Merry demanded. "All we’ve seen are two overgrown wolves and a few flocks of birds. Suppose they aren’t spies? Suppose they have nothing to do with us?"
Gandalf raised an eyebrow at this "The overgrown wolves were Wargs, Master Brandybuck, and they were most assuredly in the service of the Dark Lord. As for the birds, they have been identified as crebain. Rarely do they fly so far north, and often have they acted as spies and scouts for the Enemy."
"But didn’t Strider say they might be flying away from something?" Merry glanced over at Sam whose face now registered surprise and alarm at the fact that he was being addressed. "Isn’t that what you told me, Sam? That Strider said they might have been running from a war?"
The gardener shifted his feet, uncomfortable at suddenly becoming the center of attention, and cleared his throat. "I don’t rightly remember, but it seems to me as that might have been a possibility," he finally answered.
"Rohan has often endured crebain," Boromir said, his voice carrying an undercurrent of impatience. "They are ill omens, no matter what purpose they serve. And as Mithrandir has already said, they often act as spies and scouts. I do not think I have ever seen a group of them brought together for any other purpose, for if left to themselves, their squabbles soon break apart the flocks."
"And there is your answer, Merry," Gandalf said. "The forces of the Enemy are to be found here in Hollin. We cannot linger. I propose we wait one hour more. After that time, if there is still no sign of our friends, we must press onward, painful as it may be."
"I plan to stay here until morning," Aragorn said, his voice firm and unyielding. "I can easily find the rest of you if you continue on."
"If you’re staying, I’m staying," Merry added.
"No one is staying," Gandalf said, raising his voice slightly. "Think, Aragorn. The Fellowship needs your sword."
"Ah, but which half of the Fellowship?"
Gandalf scowled. Aragorn had lived with the elves far too long and learned far too many word games. "I would put forth the opinion that Frodo’s burden is of greater importance than Legolas, Gimli, and Pippin."
"And Frodo has you to guide him," Aragorn pointed out. "He also has Sam’s assistance and Boromir’s sword. He is well protected. The fate of our comrades, though, is less certain, and I shall not abandon them when there is the possibility that they may need my aid."
"May I say something?" Frodo piped up. "You’re all talking about me, but no one’s actually talking to me. And I think I should have some input in this. We all should."
Gandalf blinked and glanced down at the hobbit, once more surprised with Frodo’s growing courage and leadership. "My apologies," the wizard said. "You are quite correct. What is your opinion on this matter?"
"I think we should wait one hour and then decide what to do. We all know the possible choices now and if we sit and think on it, maybe we can have a better discussion later. But right now, we’re all a little too upset to talk clearly about anything."
"I’m still not going anywhere," Merry muttered.
"Maybe we won’t even have to make a decision," Frodo continued, ignoring Merry for the moment. "Maybe Pippin, Legolas, and Gimli will arrive before the hour is up."
"But what are your feelings on this, Ring-bearer?" Boromir asked. "For if you choose to stay, the rest of us are denied a choice. Yet to stay with that which you bear would be folly, or so I see it."
For a minute or so, Frodo kept his eyes downward and made no answer, seeming to debate the matter. At length, he raised his head and sighed. "I will go on. I do not wish to, but I will not dispute Gandalf’s wisdom in this."
"Then my decision is also made," Boromir said, a small look of satisfaction gleaming in his eyes. "May others see the wisdom in this counsel as well."
"Others have a right to their own wisdom," Aragorn said softly, sending an unreadable look at Boromir.
Deciding that things were beginning to get out of hand, Gandalf cleared his throat and sent everyone a rather perturbing stare. "Frodo’s idea is a sound one, and we will follow it. For one hour, we shall not speak of this. After that hour, if our companions have not returned, we shall again take up our debate. But until then, I advise you to keep a civil tongue in your heads."
There were murmurs of acknowledgement from all, and satisfied that his word would be heeded, Gandalf decided to return to the rock where he’d been sitting earlier. He felt the need for a long smoke, and now seemed as good a time as any. They would undoubtedly be staying here for another hour at least. But by that do I mean that I have lost hope of seeing our companions again? Gandalf wondered as he sat down and went fishing through his pack for his pipe. Pondering that thought for a moment, the wizard eventually decided that thinking about it would only make matters worse. Instead, he cleared his mind and allowed his senses to drift, still keeping an alert mind in the event that trouble hailed but allowing his body to rest.
Silence fell and time passed. Time passed slower for some than for others, but it did pass. Gandalf himself was not truly aware of the minutes that ticked by. Rather, he was trying to compare the dangers of going over the mountains with the dangers of going under them. Aragorn was firmly set against the darker road, and Gandalf was tempted to agree with him. But there was a nagging doubt in his mind that insisted the mountains were not an option. He wasn’t entirely certain of this feeling’s origins, but it was persistent enough that he was beginning to give it his undivided attention. But Moria… The wizard shivered. He did not relish the thought of taking that path, yet it felt as though Moria was truly their only choice.
The wizard blinked and shifted his focus to his surroundings, coming out of a state of concentration akin to an elven trance.
"Mithrandir, it will soon be time to depart."
Gandalf muttered something and nodded in acknowledgment. Trust Boromir to keep careful track of the passing time, he sighed. The man was anxious to move on, though he did have a right to be. The fate of Minas Tirith rested with this Fellowship, yet they were waiting for three members to rejoin their company when it was doubtful that those three members actually would. It didn’t help that these three members were not of the Race of men. It was no secret that Boromir was rather suspicious of all of them, and it was doubtful that the man harbored any hope of seeing them again.
With a weary sigh, Gandalf lumbered to his feet and moved toward Aragorn. The Ranger looked up at his approach, his dark eyes glinting in the night. "Before you ask, the answer is no. There has been no sign of them."
"We can tarry no longer," the wizard said quietly.
"I wish to tarry the night."
"We need your skills. Frodo and the other hobbits trust you."
"Those whom we have lost may also need my skills, in particular my healing skills. I can be of more use to them. You still have Boromir with you. He is a valiant man and shall protect you with both his sword and his life."
Gandalf sighed and rubbed his head. He should have seen this coming. Aragorn was not one to abandon a comrade if he could help it. Even when all hope failed, he would continue. It would be interesting to see what eventually happened when Boromir turned south for Minas Tirith. Aragorn intended to travel with him, but that would involve leaving Frodo. Whatever the way Aragorn that decided upon, it would be a difficult choice.
"Sense you the presence of unfriendly eyes?"
The wizard blinked, caught somewhat off guard by the question. "Unfriendly eyes?"
"I sense nothing at the moment," Aragorn continued, his expression unreadable. "What of you?"
"They may not be here now, but we cannot take the chance that this will—"
"But you are certain they are not here now?"
Gandalf frowned. "As certain as one can be in uncertain times."
"Elvish response," Aragorn muttered. "But since we seem to be alone, allow me to hazard something. Should this fail to garner results, I will discuss our next move with you." And before Gandalf could ask what he meant by this, Aragorn raised two fingers to his lips and let out a high, shrill whistle.
Boromir, Sam, Merry, Frodo, Gandalf, and Bill all jumped. The whistle echoed far and wide over the land, resounding off the distant mountains and rattling the trees in the lower valleys. When the whistle finally died, six sets of astonished eyes turned on Aragorn.
"I am unable to think of a better way to get the Enemy’s attention," Gandalf finally said.
"I would put fire above a whistle," Aragorn answered.
Gandalf was preparing scathing retort to that, but he stopped when a second whistle rose up out of the darkness, slightly higher than the first and surprisingly close at hand.
"That’s them, isn’t it?" Merry asked excitedly.
"Legolas, at any rate," Aragorn confirmed.
"Then what are we waiting for?! Let’s go to them!"
"We know not exactly where they lie, nor do we know the best way to go and meet them," Aragorn said, stopping the excited hobbit ere he could tumble headlong into the ravine. "It will be better if we wait for them to find us. Legolas should be able to judge our position based on the whistles, for his ears are better than mine."
"They had best hurry, then, now that you have given away our position," Boromir growled, his tone sharp.
"I very much doubt that," Aragorn said. "The pitch of the whistles was such that only those nearby will be able to tell from whence the whistles came. All others will be confounded by echoes. They shall know that someone along the mountains is signaling, but they shall know neither what nor where."
"Begging your pardon, Mr. Strider, but didn’t we want to keep ourselves and our mission a secret?" Sam spoke up. "We’ve just given away the fact that we’re out here in the Wilds."
"The Enemy knew already that we were here," Aragorn said with a sigh. "Were it not so, they would not be flying such low patrols. I suspect that by now they have also found evidence of our camps away in the north. We are no secret to them, Master Samwise, and it is truly only a matter of time until we are discovered. Besides, Master Brandybuck has reminded us that the crebain may only be refugees," Aragorn added with a smile.
"That’s what you said," Merry grumbled. "I was just repeating you."
"How far away are they?" Frodo asked, tactfully changing the subject.
"Perhaps ten minutes," Aragorn answered. "Perhaps less. It is difficult to tell and it will depend upon their condition as well as the terrain."
"Do you think they’re all right?" Sam asked, peering into the ravine and trying to pierce the shadows of night.
"I know not. The whistle only indicated position. It did not indicate the number in the group or the state of the group."
"Wouldn’t that have been a good thing to ask?" Merry demanded.
"At the time, the question of existence seemed more pertinent," Aragorn replied. "And I will not hazard another whistle. One was enough."
"One was more than enough," Boromir grumbled.
Gandalf sighed and shook his head. He had thought that Aragorn and Boromir were learning to respect one another, but it appeared that this situation was undoing all of that. Clearing his throat significantly and successfully achieving silence, Gandalf stepped forward and watched the shadows dance along the slope into the ravine as clouds whisked across the moon. All were quiet as they joined the wizard in waiting, and eventually, their wait was rewarded. A flicker of movement caught Gandalf’s eye, and then Aragorn stepped forward cautiously.
"Legolas?" he called, pitching his voice low.
"Well met, Aragorn," an answering voice called. "We had wondered if you would tarry for us. Your whistle moments ago was heartening."
"Pippin!" Merry cried, rushing down the steep slope. A shadow abruptly moved to intercept him, and the hobbit was restrained as Legolas seized him and lifted him partly off his feet.
"Steady, Master Brandybuck," the elf cautioned, glancing back at Gimli and Pippin, who were making much slower progress. "Pippin is not up to receiving such an ardent embrace."
Gandalf quickly noted that Legolas was carrying the bulk of the packs while Gimli was aiding Pippin in staying upright. The dwarf also seemed to be favoring his right arm, but the wizard couldn’t be certain of that. In any case, no doubt these three had an interesting tale to tell.
"What’s wrong with Pippin?" Merry demanded, struggling against Legolas’s firm hold.
"Nothing’s wrong with me," Pippin answered, his voice weak but reassuring. "I’m just a little dizzy, that’s all."
"What happened to you?" Sam asked, moving forward but stopping at a warning look from Legolas. "Are you all right?"
"He has made great progress," Gimli reassured them, glancing toward Aragorn and motioning the man forward. "He was unable to walk earlier. He struck his head in the initial rockslide and was slow to wake."
"Was anyone else injured?" Aragorn asked as he knelt next to the hobbit and gently ran his hand over his hairline.
"The dwarf dislocated his right shoulder twice," Legolas answered, apparently much to Gimli’s chagrin judging from the deadly glare that the dwarf shot the elf. "Other than that, we are all hale."
"It is a joy to see you again," Gandalf sighed, his eyes roaming over all three in a search for unmentioned injuries. "We had feared the worst."
"You should know better, Mithrandir," Legolas said with a smile.
"It is because I know better that I feared," the wizard shot back as relief began to fill his entire soul.
"I was worried, too," Frodo added. "Warn us the next time you decide to tumble over a cliff."
"We shall endeavor to do so," Gimli promised, watching Merry as Legolas finally put the hobbit down. "Gently, Master Brandybuck."
"Gently nothing," Pippin snorted. "Come here, Merry! You don’t know what I’ve had to endure down in that ravine! It kept raining rocks on us, and then there were these two and then—"
Whatever Pippin was going to say next was muffled in Merry’s cloak as the Brandybuck caught him up in a firm hug, which Pippin tried to return but in the end had to settle for Merry supporting the bulk of his weight.
"Welcome back," Aragorn smiled as he clapped Legolas on the back by way of greeting. "By the Valar, prince of Mirkwood, but you shall age me before my time."
"You and your mortal penchant for trouble have already aged me, my friend," Legolas responded with a quiet laugh. "I simply return the favor."
"I wondered if I would see you again before we moved on."
"You should not have waited for us. We would have caught up eventually," Gimli said.
"It was my counsel to move on, Master Dwarf. Know that we are not all given to the ways of folly," Boromir said. Gandalf couldn’t tell if the man was relieved or not that their companions had rejoined them. Nor he could tell if that last statement had been made seriously or in jest. It seemed that even with the return of elf, dwarf, and hobbit, things were still uneasy. It had, after all, been a very long night.
"Folly or no, I am glad that we waited," Aragorn said. "It gives me hope to know that I have a dwarf’s axe before me and an elf’s bow behind me." He then looked over at Pippin and Merry, his brow furrowing. Merry was still bracing Pippin, Sam and Frodo had joined the reunion, and Pippin was beginning to regale all with tales of his adventures in the ravine. "How long was he unconscious?" Aragorn asked, glancing at Legolas.
"He did not wake until this afternoon, but once he opened his eyes, he began to recover rapidly. It has only been within the past hour, though, that he has been able to walk. And he is still very dizzy."
The Ranger shook his head thoughtfully and looked over at Gandalf. "Dare we risk staying here to tend to Pippin?"
"Think you that he is in need of immediate care?" Gandalf asked, returning question for question.
"It would be better to treat him now rather than later, but there is not an immediate need. If you feel danger closes upon us, I judge that he can wait until morning when there is more time to properly treat him."
"We shall do that, then," the wizard decided, hearing a sigh of relief from Boromir at this announcement. "Danger may not yet be upon us, but it is not far away and we have tarried here far too long. How fast can Pippin travel?"
"He is improving," Gimli said, "but he is slow and needs the support of others."
"I shall carry him," Aragorn said. "We must travel quickly tonight to make up for lost time."
"Then let us be on our way," Gandalf said. "The mountains are before us, and whichever road we choose, we must be upon it tomorrow." The wizard paused, then, hearing Pippin say something about dangling from a collection of belts along the side of a cliff, and he shot a curious glance at Legolas and Gimli. "As we walk, you must share with us exactly what happened after we became separated."
"An interesting tale, to be certain," Legolas said, a strange look taking over his face.
"Fortunately, the strength of the dwarves saw us through," Gimli added, stalking past them all and starting up the trail. Anger flashed across in Legolas’s eyes, but to the astonishment of all, he held his peace and said nothing, merely gesturing for the others to precede him so that he might assume rearguard. Gandalf blinked, not quite certain that he could believe his eyes, and then looked over at Aragorn, who appeared just as puzzled.
"It seems it will be a very interesting tale," the Ranger said before moving to join the dwarf.
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