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During a journey in the dark...: 2. January 12, 3019 (Night)
Eerie howls rose and fell upon the wind as it blew down from northern lands. A sharp chill in the air had caused everyone—with the rather exasperating exception of a certain elf—to wrap themselves securely in thick cloaks and blankets. Since secrecy had become something of a moot point now that wolves had their scent, Gimli and Boromir had started a fire, giving it a broad base so that all might easily gather around it and use it as a defense against the coming Wargs. The company’s other natural defense was a ring of stones set around the hilltop. These rocks would prevent the wolves from forming a tight circle when they advanced, and the circle would be further broken by the scattered trees. These things were meager wards that would neither intimidate nor slow the fell beasts for long, but considering the Fellowship’s dearth of both numbers and experience, additional protection of any kind was helpful. And judging from the way that most of the Fellowship bunched closely around the dancing flames, everyone was keenly aware of this.
In a twisted sense, it was almost funny. Should another traveler pass by and gaze upon the unlikely collection of beings that made up Middle-earth’s last hope, he might have made the mistake of assuming them all to be friends. There was no sign of the contention that had possessed the group only a short time ago when they sat at the base of the hill and argued the merits of traveling through Moria. The threat of danger had broken down the barriers between individuals, and they almost moved as a cohesive unit. A team. A fellowship. For once, there was nothing in the way of bickering between elf and dwarf. There were no subtle displays of power on the part of Aragorn and Boromir. Even the hobbits said naught about the food or the misuse of the word shelter. There was no further dissent from anyone about the decision to take the darker road should they survive the night. In the midst of turmoil and fear, a singular moment of unity had come to the Fellowship. Thus, the impending arrival of the wolves could almost be seen as a rather perverse blessing.
And if I seriously believe that, then I have been spending far too much time among the Rohirrim, Gandalf told himself with a shake of his head. For only they have the ability to take such a fell situation and find some skewed form of fatalistic pleasure. Still, it was unlikely that the circumstances were going to change within the next few hours, and Gandalf felt that he might as well be somewhat optimistic about their chances. After all, the wizard mused, fortune sometimes surprises us. Things have been known to work themselves out for the best. Perhaps I should be more trusting of fate.
Unfortunately, the idea to trust fate was identical to the counsel that Radagast had once given to a frustrated Thranduil, and Mirkwood’s present condition revealed just how well that tidbit of advice had worked. Baring intervention from the Valar, the elves of Mirkwood would not last another century. The Fellowship’s current situation—while certainly diminished in scale from the problems of Thranduil’s kingdom—was similar. They would not live to see the light of morning unless extraordinary means were taken.
It would seem, then, that trusting fate is not a possibility, Gandalf sighed, rubbing his temples. Well, if I cannot trust fate, I shall have to trust something else. However, the remaining options as I see them are my own powers and the Fellowship. The former is a given, but the latter…I believe the latter to be cause for concern.
Two days before the Fellowship left Rivendell, Erestor had succumbed to a moment of exasperation and pointed out that only half of the company had seen an actual battle. Aragorn had reminded the counselor that the hobbits had survived an encounter with the Nazgûl on Weathertop, to which Erestor had retorted that this brief meeting hardly qualified the hobbits as war veterans. One quip led to another, and eventually a heated debate erupted about the merits of military prowess within the Fellowship. In the end, Elladan and Elrohir had been forced to restrain their enraged foster brother when Erestor questioned Aragorn’s wisdom in taking Andúril along because the blade had not been tested in battle since its reforging. At that point, Elrond had evicted all of the debate’s participants from the Hall of Fire and warned them that if they continued their discussion they would find themselves translating the library’s massive scroll collection into Entish. The threat had worked and the argument dropped, but Erestor’s point had been a valid one. The Fellowship severely lacked military experience. This would be an interesting night, to say the least.
It was made all the more interesting given the fact that nearly the entire company was exhausted from their ordeal on Caradhras. They had gone without sleep now for one night and one day while enduring cold, snow, mountain trails, and fear of discovery. The hobbits were clearly ready to drop, and they were all yawning widely as they sat beside the fire. Bill the pony trembled and shook with every howl born to them on the northern wind, but his head was low and his ears drooped as the look of fear in his eyes competed with the desire for sleep. The other members of the Fellowship tried to mask their weariness, but even a casual observer could see that all was not well. Gimli was so close to the fire that he risked igniting his beard, and he would periodically wave one hand over the outer coals as though trying to keep his mind alert through the use of discomfort. Boromir had taken to pacing around the flames, which was not entirely unusual for him except that he ordinarily didn’t compulsively draw and sheathe his sword while doing it. Aragorn had removed himself from the rest of the Fellowship and stood near some of the large stones that ringed the top of this hill. Andúril was in his hands and he twirled it about from time to time, assuming battle stances that required both concentration and balance. The only member of the Fellowship who did not seem tired at first glance was Legolas, but even he was not immune. He would stand silent and still for several minutes, watching the dark sky and listening to the howls of the wolves. Then he would blink, shake his head slightly, change locations, and start all over again.
This will never do, Gandalf thought grimly. By the time the Wargs reach us, we will have worn ourselves so thin that there will be nothing left for them. Sighing, he raised one hand, caught Aragorn’s attention, and beckoned the Ranger toward the fire.
Sensing that an announcement of some kind was forthcoming, Boromir and Legolas both stopped their wanderings and moved toward the wizard. Gimli and the hobbits joined them with the exception of Sam, who was refusing to stray far from where Bill was staked next to the fire. But as he was well within hearing distance, Gandalf did not insist that he leave the pony. "How far away are the wolves, Legolas?" the wizard asked.
"Three hours, maybe," the elf said, his brow furrowing in concentration as he listened to the howls that echoed off the mountains. "Perhaps four. It is difficult to be certain, for the wind seems to be playing tricks. But judging from what I can hear, I am reasonably confident that we will not see the main pack for several hours at least."
"But they may have sent silent runners ahead of them," Aragorn said darkly. "We will be unable to hide, if that is what you intend."
"Nay, hiding will do us no good," Gandalf agreed. "Rather, I had survival in mind. And not only for tonight but for tomorrow, also. If we yet live when the sun rises in the morning, we will need to move with great haste. We cannot do that if we stumble and fall along the way."
Silence met his words, and though the hobbits seemed confused, the other members of the Fellowship quickly grasped the wizard’s meaning. "You cannot possibly expect us to sleep this night," Gimli said with a shake of his head.
"It would be a wise course of action," Boromir murmured, surprising Gandalf with his support. "Even during the darkest nights on the eastern shores of the Anduin, the men in the patrols were required to sleep. If the wolves are still hours away, we must take what rest we are afforded. We will then be better prepared to meet them. But I would advocate no less than a double watch."
"We can afford no more than a double watch," Aragorn said quietly. "We have not the numbers for it."
"Excuse me," Pippin said, raising his voice so as to be heard. "But if I understand you correctly, you’re saying we should go to sleep with those howls in our ears and the knowledge that at some point during the night we’ll have to wake up and fight for our lives. Am I wrong or is that what’s really being suggested?"
"That is indeed my counsel," Gandalf answered, frowning at the hobbit even as he pushed back a twinge of irritation. "The last time any of us slept was yesterday afternoon. Since then, we have climbed steep switchbacks, endured a fierce winter storm, forged our own path through the snow, retreated down those same switchbacks, and then hastened our steps in an effort to find some semblance of cover. We are wearied and we need rest. All of us," he added with a glance toward the elf and the dwarf, both of whom looked as though they strongly objected to the idea of sleeping this night. Would that they could come to an agreement on other things.
"I don’t think I can sleep through this," Merry said as the wind gusted strongly in from the north, bringing with it a loud chorus of howls
"I know I can’t," Sam added from his place next to Bill. Frodo did not speak, but he also looked dubious about the possibility of sleeping.
"You will have to," Boromir said, his voice firm but not unkind. "Sleep must be sought whenever possible, and if we are granted a few hours respite, we must take advantage of such a gift."
"Gift?" Sam echoed.
"I will agree that sleep is needful, but surely we cannot let all here rest," Legolas said, breaking in before Sam could start a denotation debate. "There are some of us who are intimately acquainted with the hounds of the Enemy. We know their feel and we know their hunting patterns."
"Which is why you will be taking the second watch," Gandalf answered. "For by your own reckoning, that is when the wolves will be upon us."
"Mithrandir, as an elf—"
"You were not unduly troubled by the snow, and you are able to go longer without sleep," Gandalf finished for Legolas. "But we will have need of your eyes and ears later in the journey. For now, you are afforded a chance to rest and I would see you take it. I do not know when another opportunity will present itself."
"But Legolas raises a good point," Aragorn said, pulling his cloak around him as the northern wind suddenly increased in strength. "Only three of us have extensive experience with Wargs, either as hunters or as prey. If you insist that we sleep, then we should divide the night into three watches rather than four."
"If we do that, we shall have numbers enough for a triple guard rather than a double," Boromir added with a rather unreadable glance at the Ranger.
"Your counsel is prudent," Gandalf said slowly, "but I believe rest to be of greater importance. Shorter watches mean more hours spent sleeping, and that is of priority given the fact that sometime during one of these watches, the Wargs shall arrive."
"I believe we’re all forgetting something," Frodo spoke up. "These arguments are well and good, but they’re pointless because of what Merry said. It will be difficult for us to sleep when we know danger is only hours away. And it’s fine enough for you, Boromir, to tell us that we must seek rest, but we haven’t fought the enemy like you have. We haven’t learned to sleep under conditions like this."
"You have had two weeks to practice, and that is without considering your journey to Imladris," Boromir answered. "Sleeping near danger is not unlike sleeping during a storm. And you have done that."
A particularly loud howl suddenly tore through the camp, and Bill whinnied sharply as Sam tried to comfort him. "Begging your pardon, Mr. Boromir," the gardener said, gripping the pony’s halter tightly, "but I see a world of difference between a few drops of rain and those wolves. I know Bill feels the same way."
"You may surprise yourselves," Gandalf said. "You may find that you fall asleep easily, for you are all greatly wearied."
"And I know of a trick or two that might help," Aragorn added. "But before we discuss this, I wish to return to the issue of how many watches we will have this night. I still believe that reducing it to three will result in greater safety."
"But also less sleep," Gandalf answered, feeling a hint of frustration. "There is still the morrow to think of. A long road lies before us, and if we are successful in entering Moria, we shall face an even longer road."
"But with insufficient guard tonight, we will not even live to see the morning," Aragorn argued.
"Four watches," Gandalf said firmly, fixing his eyes upon Aragorn as he tried to make the other understand. It seemed as though he and the Ranger had been at odds ever since he’d broached the topic of Moria. Since then, they had agreed on very little, and this was yet another example of the rift that seemed to be growing between them. "Frodo and I shall take the first watch, and Legolas and Sam will take the second," the wizard continued. "Aragorn and Pippin will then take the third followed by Boromir, Gimli, and Merry for the final watch. At no point will be there be insufficient guard, and for the last watch in which there is less experience, three shall be awake. It will be well."
For a long moment, the only sounds in the camp were Bill’s fearful shuffling, the whine of the wind, and the howl of the Wargs. Given all of this, the night was by no means silent, but even so, it felt as though a hush had fallen.
It was Gimli who eventually spoke, breaking the stillness that was anything but still. "Since it seems we are to sleep, let us do so and waste no more time in discussions. It is obvious that some minds will not be altered."
This last statement was made with a slight glance toward Aragorn, as though the dwarf wished to say that he shared the Ranger’s views but saw no other alternative. Watching the exchange of looks intently, Gandalf noted that this seemed to be the consensus within the Fellowship. They are weary indeed, the wizard decided. Two days ago, this might have resulted in a debate that endured for hours.
"I still don’t understand how you expect us to sleep in all this," Pippin said when the others began to move to their beds.
"Lie down and close your eyes," Aragorn commanded gently. "And remember that we probably have three hours before there is any immediate cause for concern."
Another gust of northern wind bore down upon the Fellowship, bringing with it a chorus of howls that lingered over the camp and echoed off the sides of the mountains. "I would call that an immediate cause for concern," Sam muttered grimly.
Aragorn sighed as he rolled out his blankets and directed his attention to the other side of the fire. "Legolas? Would you consider gracing us with a song? Something that might help the hobbits sleep?"
At this suggestion, the hobbits visibly relaxed, and from his position opposite the Ranger, the elf immediately nodded. "Of course. Did you have a particular song in mind?"
"Anything but that ridiculous song my brothers invented to wake everyone up in the middle of the night and then lull them back to sleep," Aragorn answered.
"And not the fall of Gil-galad," Gandalf added. Though he was in complete agreement with the idea of singing the hobbits to sleep, there were some songs that should be avoided. "Along with that, I would advise against any lays that speak of darkness and the devices of the Enemy."
"You have just eliminated the majority of songs that I heard in Imladris," Boromir muttered, drawing up his blankets and turning his eyes to the sky.
"Fear not," Legolas said with a slight smile as he lay back and folded his hands together upon his chest. "In Imladris, they sing many songs of sorrow, for that is all the Noldor seem to know. But my people, though we live in constant shadow, have learned to find mirth whenever possible. We have songs that may lighten your heart. I know of some that have been translated into Westron, so you may enjoy not only the music but also the words." Legolas was then silent for a moment, and then he began to sing, his fair voice quiet and soothing.
Down the swift dark stream you go
Back to lands you once did know!
Leave the halls and caverns deep,
Leave the northern mountains steep,
Where the forest wide and dim
Stoops in shadow gray and grim!
Float beyond the world of trees
Out into the whispering breeze.
It took all of Gandalf’s considerable restraint to keep from laughing aloud. This simple song was one commonly sung by the elves who disposed of empty wine barrels, sending them out through the river that ran beneath Thranduil’s halls. It was certainly not what the wizard had been expecting, but he heartily approved of the choice. The tune was haunting, as seemed to be the case with all elven songs, but it was also quick and brisk while the words were light, providing a stark contrast to the darkness that surrounded the Fellowship. Additionally, this was a song about escape and freedom, things the elves of Mirkwood pined after and things that the hobbits needed to remember.
Follow, follow stars that leap
Up the heavens cold and steep;
Turn when dawn comes over land,
Over rapid, over sand,
South away! and South away!
Seek the sunlight and the day,
Back to pasture, back to mead,
Where the kine and oxen feed!
A sudden memory took Gandalf, and he hastily turned toward Gimli. This particular song could also stir unpleasant memories of Glóin’s imprisonment at the hands of Legolas’s father. In fact, the wizard was mildly surprised that Gimli had failed to protest when Aragorn first broached the idea of an elven song. But mild surprise swiftly transformed into astonished confusion when Gandalf’s eyes fell upon the dwarf, for it seemed as though Gimli was…enjoying the song.
Gandalf blinked. That was unusual. To the casual eye, the dwarf appeared to be on the verge of sleep, but the wizard could see a slight movement to Gimli’s hand that appeared to be keeping time with the song. And there was also the fact that the dwarf seemed far too relaxed given the circumstances. Yes, there could be no doubt about it. The more he watched, the more Gandalf was convinced. Gimli took great pleasure from the song.
So it would seem that the dwarf has learned to appreciate something of the elves, Gandalf mused with an incredulous shake of his head. Now we must simply convince Legolas to lower his own haughty pride and appreciate something of the dwarves.
Movement off to the side caught Gandalf’s attention, and he turned to watch as Frodo stood and began walking around as though to stave off sleep. Aragorn’s idea was working wonders. Glancing back at those gathered around the fire, Gandalf could tell that Pippin and Merry were already asleep while Sam was not far behind. Gimli was on the verge of dropping off, and the even breathing of both Boromir and Aragorn suggested they had found solace in dreams, though it appeared to be a very light rest. And as for Legolas, the elf had concluded his song and begun another, but his voice faded from time to time and his eyes were glazing over
A ship with golden beak and oar
and timbers white came gliding;
swans went sailing on before,
her tall prow guiding.
Fair folk out of Elvenland
in silver-gray were rowing,
and three with crowns she saw there stand
with bright hair flowing.
The wizard frowned. At this point, the elf was no longer truly aware of what he was singing, and Gandalf wondered what had prompted this particular song. It was not a song of Mirkwood but rather a song occasionally sung in Lothlórien and in Rivendell that spoke of the sea and of the West. It was not something that Legolas was accustomed to sing about as almost his entire life had been spent defending Mirkwood. He had no thoughts for leaving the shores of Middle-earth, yet that was one of the themes to this song. Should I survive the road through Moria, I will speak of this with Celeborn and Galadriel, Gandalf decided. It may be best if Legolas goes no further than Lothlórien, for his journey to Rivendell seems to have awakened something within him. If he ventures further south, he will be in danger. But then again, further south we will all be in danger. Elbereth, we will meet danger this night. We have no need to venture south to find it.
Frodo walked across Gandalf’s view, still pacing, while Legolas’s song faded entirely as the elf drifted into sleep. And in the wake of the fair elven voice, the wind increased in strength, making certain that the sounds of wolves were ever in the ears of the Fellowship. Thick clouds rolled swiftly overhead, hiding the light of the stars, while darkness closed around the ring of rocks in which the Fellowship huddled. Sighing deeply, Gandalf curled his fingers tightly around the comforting wood of his staff. It was going to be a long night.
Aragorn stood in darkness.
He could not see. There was no light to guide him. His world had been plunged into a shadow that could not be pierced. He could clearly hear the crackle of a large fire, but there was no light to accompany this sound. He had always taken for granted that one would accompany the other, yet it was not so now. The fire was also lacking warmth, for the air around him was cold. It was a strange chill that seemed to strike more at the heart than at the body, and Aragorn shivered, unsure of what to make of this.
He was alone, and yet he was not. Others were with him, but he could not contact them. Should he speak, they would not hear him. Should he touch them, they would not feel his hand. Through means he did not fully comprehend, Aragorn knew that he was only here as an observer. An observer without sight, but an observer, nonetheless. And that was all. He could not act. He could not make his presence known. Whatever happened in this strange realm of darkness, he would be powerless to prevent it. He was only meant to watch. To listen. To feel.
The roar of the fire intensified as though it drew near, yet still it could not be seen and still it possessed no warmth. But there was a new sound that also grew. The sound of drums. Large drums. Loud drums. Deep drums that pounded out a steady rhythm that grew and grew until Aragorn nearly cried aloud, begging them to stop.
And then voices joined with the drums. Fell voices. Orc voices. Troll voices. They sang with the drums, and together they created a chant that promised death to all who heard it. Louder and louder they sang until the cacophony echoed in a continuous round off wide cavern walls that Aragorn still could not see. Clutching his ears, he dropped to his knees, trying to silence the voices that pounded against his soul and reverberated through his mind.
And it stopped.
The drums fell still.
The voices disappeared.
Fear pricking at his heart, Aragorn lowered his hands and stood. In some ways, this silence was worse than the bedlam. Much worse. Something waited in the dark. Waited and did not give itself away through noise. But it could not hide entirely. Aragorn felt it. He could not help but feel it. It was like an inky blackness stealing over his senses, darker than the shadows and deeper than the cavern’s depths.
And then a light appeared.
The shadows receded, but they did not flee. They remained, clouding the edges of vision. But Aragorn took no thought for them, focusing instead on the light. He knew that light. He knew its source. And he knew it stood against a darkness that would extinguish it. With this thought, he turned away from the light, seeking to penetrate the shadows that surrounded him. Perhaps he could find something that would aid the bearer of the light. And as though answering his demands for sight, the veil over his eyes lifted.
Aragorn jerked upright, one hand flying to Andúril where it rested beside him even as he scrambled to his feet. Blankets flew wildly, and a startled hobbit leaped back, his eyes wide.
His breath coming in gasps, Aragorn shook his head and looked around, glancing over Sam’s frightened face and then moving on to the sleeping forms of the Fellowship crowded around the dancing fire. A dream! he told himself firmly as he began to get his bearings. Naught more than a dream!
But the slight ache in the back of his head warned him that it had been no ordinary dream…
"Mr. Strider, are you—"
"My apologies, Master Samwise" Aragorn interrupted, rubbing his brow and trying to calm his racing heart. "I…was not sleeping peacefully."
The hobbit nodded, his eyes worried. "I know. I could tell. I didn’t mean to wake you, but I didn’t want you to carry on so, begging your pardon, when it was obvious that—"
A sudden howl interrupted Sam, and Aragorn stiffened. The Warg that had made that howl was close. Too close. In fact, now that he had begun to shake off the vestiges of sleep, he realized that he could feel the presence of the Wargs. There were many of them, and they were no more than an arrow’s flight away. Drawing Andúril, the Ranger let his scabbard fall to the side and scanned the darkness, searching for movement. And at that point, he realized that one of the Fellowship was missing.
"Where is Legolas?" he demanded, looking around for the elf but finding nothing.
"He went off that way," Sam answered, nodding toward the west. "He said he’d only be gone for a moment."
Aragorn frowned. "How long ago was that?"
Sam’s gaze turned inward as he calculated how much time had passed since the elf had left. "I think…there he is!"
The Ranger turned and loosed a silent sigh of relief as Legolas suddenly appeared between two of the stones that ringed their camp and hurried toward the fire, his head turned so as to watch his back. But relief vanished quickly when Aragorn saw that the elf had his bow in hand and an arrow already nocked. "Legolas?"
Turning his gaze away from the darkness, Legolas caught sight of Aragorn and blinked, confusion flitting over his face. He moved as though to speak, but a sudden chorus of howls behind him stopped whatever words he had thought to say. An unreadable expression flashed across his face and he turned to Sam. "Wake the others," the elf said quietly, his voice calm but laced with an undercurrent of urgency. "Be quick about it."
Sam nodded, his eyes growing wide with fear, and hurried to do as he was told. Watching the hobbit for a moment, Aragorn winced as yet another set of howls erupted into the night, this time on the opposite side of the camp. "How soon?" he asked, his hand tightening around Andúril’s hilt.
"Soon," Legolas whispered, turning his eyes back to the darkness. "We are surrounded."
More howls were heard, coming from several different directions now, and Aragorn felt the hair on the back of his neck begin to rise. Movement behind him drew his attention and he turned as Boromir joined them, his eyes slightly clouded with sleep but clearing rapidly. "They are close," he observed.
"Advance scouts arrived during the beginning of my watch," Legolas said quietly, still staring into the night as the chorus of howls ebbed slightly before it started up again. "They found us easily enough and sent word to their pack."
"And now the pack has arrived." Aragorn shook his head and cursed softly. Looking back toward the fire, he noted that the rest of the Fellowship was now awake and that Sam had joined the other hobbits with Bill, his hand firm upon the pony’s halter as the cries of the wolves continued to echo around them.
"The hobbits are not prepared for this," Boromir said, his words almost lost as a gust of wind rushed the camp and the howls became even louder.
"None of us are truly prepared for this," Gandalf murmured as he joined them.
A dwarven oath drew Aragorn’s attention across the fire, and he watched as Gimli took several steps away from the flames, peering into the darkness. As though sensing the Ranger’s gaze, the dwarf then turned toward Aragorn, his face grim. "Eyes," he warned.
A shiver crept over Aragorn and he also looked into the darkness, but he could see nothing beyond the ring of boulders. However, that did not lessen the fear in his heart. Dwarves had exceptional night vision, and if Gimli said that he saw eyes, then there were eyes. "Can you tell how many?" he asked, shifting into a battle stance as several new choruses of howls erupted around the camp.
"More than I care to count," the dwarf answered.
"Gandalf? What should we be doing?"
Frodo’s simple question drove home the observation that Boromir had previously made. The hobbits were not ready for such a confrontation, and looking over at Gandalf, Aragorn saw that the wizard shared his thoughts.
"Stay close to the fire," Gandalf told Frodo. "All of you. And keep that pony under control!" he added when Bill reared and neighed, almost pulling free of his stakes.
Aragorn registered the fact that Boromir had now moved to stand before the hobbits, all of whom had drawn their blades but none of whom seemed at all confident about using them. Gimli was also drifting closer to the hobbits while Legolas had stepped back into a position where he might better cover them with his bow. Leaving the wizard and myself to watch anything that does not directly concern the hobbits, Aragorn noted wearily. A poor defense at best, but given the circumstances, I suppose we can do nothing else. There is no time for greater strategy.
Deciding that he could trust Legolas’s bow to cover everything before the Fellowship, Aragorn moved behind the elf so that he might watch for things coming from the rear. "I pray your arrows fly true tonight," the Ranger murmured, shifting until he stood with his back against the archer’s.
"Have the arrows of the elves ever failed you?" Legolas demanded with an indignant sniff, his voice somehow cutting through the Warg cries that had now become almost deafening.
"To my knowledge, no," Aragorn conceded. "But the fate of this Fellowship seems to have run afoul."
To this, the elf gave no response, and the Ranger was forced to conclude that Legolas was of a similar opinion. It was not reassuring, and Aragorn felt his hope falter even more when he turned his gaze upon a space between two boulders. The light of their campfire was reflecting off of a pair of eyes, and the Ranger thought he could see forms moving beyond these eyes. And as he looked, he could see more eyes appearing in the gaps between the encircling stones. A quiet exclamation of fear and surprise from the direction of the hobbits revealed that he was not alone in his observations, and he quickly agreed with an earlier statement made by Gimli. Aragorn did not really want to know how many Wargs were out there.
And then there seemed to be a lull in the howls.
The fell sounds did not vanish completely, but they quieted as though waiting for something. Behind him, Legolas stiffened, and Aragorn turned to see what had caused dismay in his companion. He soon wished he had not.
Moving out of the night’s protective shadows, one of the largest Wargs that Aragorn had ever seen stepped between two of the surrounding boulders and snarled, his ears flat against his back and the fur along his shoulders rising. His muzzle twisted with hatred and his teeth flashed in the firelight as he lifted his head into the air and howled, his deep voice echoing off the sides of the Misty Mountains. His howl was answered by others from all sides of the hill, as though they were confirming and relaying orders. Yellow eyes narrowed to slits as the wolf regarded the Fellowship, and saliva flew as he snapped his jaws.
"Listen, Hound of Sauron!" Gandalf’s voice startled Aragorn, and judging from Legolas’s slight shift in posture, the Ranger was not alone in his surprise. "Gandalf is here," the wizard continued, advancing slightly and raising his staff. "Fly if you value your foul skin! I will shrivel you from tail to snout if you come within this ring!"
Slightly shocked that Gandalf had just revealed his name to a servant of the Enemy, Aragorn turned anxious eyes to the Warg, waiting for the response. The wolf lowered his head and snarled, and Aragorn could make out a slight bunching of muscles along the shoulders. He sensed the leap moments before it happened and was already moving forward as the Warg sprang into the air, his jaws gaping and his eyes gleaming while behind him the entire pack burst into howls.
The sharp whistle of an arrow stopped them all.
Crashing to the ground, the Warf fell limp with an elven bolt lodged in the side of his throat. One last growl escaped him before his hateful eyes closed, and as this sound ceased, so also did all other sounds. The eyes surrounding the Fellowship disappeared, and the wind that had now moved to the northwest was silent.
Exchanging a look with Legolas to make certain that the archer knew his back was unprotected, Aragorn strode toward the fallen Warg. Gandalf joined him, and together they approached cautiously. But their caution seemed needless, for the area was deserted. A slight tingling along his spine told Aragorn that the Wargs had not left, but they had retreated significantly. None were left upon the hill. Only the fallen captain remained.
"This is not normal behavior for Wargs," Aragorn whispered, struggling to make sense of what was happening. "Why have they withdrawn?"
"Perhaps they are waiting for a better opportunity," Gandalf said quietly.
"Perhaps," the Ranger murmured, moving forward to retrieve the arrow. But he was stopped by Gandalf’s hand upon his shoulder.
"Leave it," the wizard said, his eyes narrow as he studied the Warg.
"Leave it?" Aragorn questioned.
"There is something foul about that creature. A shadow lies upon him. Let him lie where he has fallen and do not draw the arrow."
Aragorn looked at the Warg, wondering what it was that Gandalf sensed. There was certainly a feeling of darkness in the air, but given the circumstances, Aragorn viewed that as something to be expected. But if Gandalf urged caution, the Ranger would heed him. There seemed to be little enough in the way or prudence on this quest anyway. "As you wish," he said, stepping away. "But I expect you to explain this to the elf. His supply of arrows is not without limit."
"I fear that he will not be the only one to demand an explanation," Gandalf sighed, glancing back toward the Fellowship.
"Would that we had one to give," Aragorn muttered, stalking back.
"Aragorn?" a voice called out to him. "Why—"
"Ask the wizard," Aragorn interrupted Legolas, stopping when he reached the others. Glancing back, he sighed as he watched Gandalf continue to examine the Warg. "He claims there is something dark upon the creature. He would not allow me to retrieve your arrow."
A flash of confusion appeared upon the elf’s face, but he eventually nodded. "If Mithrandir says it is so, then I will trust his wisdom."
"But what about the Wargs?" Merry asked. "Where are they?"
"They are gone," Aragorn said quietly.
"Gone?" Frodo echoed.
The Ranger shook his head wordlessly, unable to give a reason for the bizarre behavior.
"They had us surrounded," Gimli said, his brow furrowed. "Why withdraw?"
"It was a test," Boromir said grimly, and there was a fierce anger smoldering in his eyes. "They were uncertain as to what kind of resistance would be offered, and so they staged a trial of our determination. It is not dissimilar to what my brother’s companies face in Ithilien. The forces of the Nameless One make a test of the first attack and then return with greater numbers and greater strategy."
"It happens in Mirkwood as well," Legolas added, his hand curling tightly around the smooth wood of his bow. "You would not truly understand, Aragorn, for in Eriador…" The elf paused and then looked toward Gimli. "And in Dale and Erebor," he added, his tone reluctant, "the Enemy battles constantly for a foothold. No force can be spared. But in the southern regions of Mirkwood—and in parts of Gondor, too, it seems—where the Dark Lord’s power is nigh unto absolute, the Enemy can afford to lose a battalion of Orcs or a pack of Wargs for the purpose of judging defenses." Legolas looked out into the darkness, his face troubled. "That these Wargs have done likewise does not bode well. They have seen how we array ourselves when faced with their presence, and so they have retreated to better organize themselves. They will return ere the night is over."
"However, I sense that their return will not be soon," Gandalf said, joining the group. "Until that time, we must resume the watches. Those not watching must rest, for if Boromir and Legolas are correct, we will face a greater trial before we see the dawn. And should we survive, a long day awaits us come morning. We cannot afford to be wearied."
"Pippin and I shall assume our watch now, then," Aragorn said. "It is nearly time for it."
"That’s probably for the best," Pippin murmured. "I don’t think I could sleep now, anyway. My heart’s pounding too loudly."
"You think the rest of us are going to have an easy time?" Merry asked.
"Having slept once this night, I think you will find it easy to fall asleep again," Boromir said, though he himself made no move toward his bedroll.
"If it will aid your rest, I will sing for you once more," Legolas offered.
"I would appreciate that, Mr. Legolas," Sam said quietly.
"So would I," Frodo added, and Aragorn’s eyes narrowed as he noted that the hobbit seemed to be clutching at something beneath his tunic.
"Then let us retire," Gandalf said firmly, moving toward his own bed. "Every moment in which we rest will help us later."
"Do not hesitate to call if you sense that anything is amiss," Gimli said to Aragorn. "My axe is restless in my hand tonight."
"I pray it remains so, Master Dwarf," Aragorn replied, studiously ignoring the fact that Legolas was rolling his eyes. "We shall have need of it. And do not fear to sleep, for between myself and Master Took, we should have more than sufficient guard."
Something that might have been a snort of amusement came from Merry’s direction, but it was too soft for the Ranger to identify. Still, the tension within the Fellowship lifted slightly, and sensing what was happening, Pippin adopted a rather forced scowl of indignation. It was not much, but it seemed to be enough. With some half-hearted smiles on the part of the hobbits, everyone sought their beds. After a moment or so, the haunting melody of an elven song filled the camp, and Aragorn loosed a sigh as he turned to watch the darkness.
"You meant what you said, didn’t you?"
Aragorn blinked and glanced down, noting that Pippin had joined him. "Pardon?"
"When you talked about having sufficient guard," Pippin explained, glancing uneasily toward the surrounding rocks. "I know you were making a jest, but you meant it, too. Didn’t you? We really will be fine. Won’t we?"
"I meant every word," Aragorn said quietly, letting a hand come to rest on the young hobbit’s shoulder. "And yes, we will be fine. We will see the morning sun. You have my word."
Pippin nodded. "Good. I just wanted to make certain."
Aragorn smiled, but the smile did not reach his eyes and once again he turned to the darkness. We may see the morning sun, but what of the shadow that lies beyond the dawn? he asked himself. What of Moria? His thoughts were drawn to the memory of the dream that had woken him, and he shivered as he glanced toward the dark towers in the east that marked the line of the Misty Mountains. A tremor of premonition took him, and he saw an image of fire within his mind’s eye. Then it was gone, and naught but shadows remained…
When a touch of silver light suddenly fell upon the Fellowship, banishing the shadows that had managed to evade the light of the fire, Merry jumped in surprise, his hand flying to the hilt of his sword.
"Peace, Master Hobbit," Boromir said, his deep voice providing an anchor for Merry’s racing heart. "Peace. ‘Tis naught but the moon."
Attempting to slow his breathing, Merry released the hilt of his sword and turned his attention to the sky, looking westward. The rolling clouds were breaking up, and through their parting forms, the waning moon could be seen. Its light seemed to grace the earth below with reluctance, as though that which could not be seen should remain so.
"Dawn is not far away." The gruff murmur came from behind the hobbit, and he turned as Gimli joined him in watching the western sky as the moon sank toward the horizon. "Strange. Our watch has passed quietly enough."
Merry nodded and grimaced slightly. The dwarf was right. Their watch had indeed passed quietly. Too quietly. Since the three of them had relieved Aragorn and Pippin, they had neither seen nor heard any sign of the Wargs. Or any other living creature, for that matter. Even the wind was beginning to fail, and now fortune had granted them the light of the setting moon. A feeble light, to be sure, but a light nonetheless. Something was wrong.
"It is too easy," Boromir said quietly, echoing the hobbit’s thoughts. Merry watched as the man moved from the comfort of the fire and stopped several feet away, absently twirling his drawn sword. "Much too easy," he murmured after a moment.
"They cannot be far," Gimli whispered, his eyes narrowed as he peered into the shadows. "There is something out there. I sense something…dark."
"As do I," Boromir said, his voice as soft as the dying wind. "And I do not think it was there before. But I can tell no more than that."
Merry was already unnerved at the prospect that his two companions both sensed something dark, but Boromir’s admission that he knew nothing else threatened to send the hobbit into the twisting realm of full-blown panic. If there was one thing he had learned about the man since the Fellowship began its journey, it was that Boromir did not admit weakness. Ever. On those occasions when he needed to ask Aragorn or Gandalf about something, he did so with indirect methods.
"Maybe we should wake the others," Merry suggested, somehow managing to speak around the lump of fear in his throat. The moonlight was now making him feel vulnerable and exposed. It was as though the moon shone only on the Fellowship while all else remained concealed in darkness.
"I would not object to waking Gandalf," Gimli said, glancing at Boromir.
A moment of hesitation passed before the man sighed and shook his head. "Rouse the wizard, Merry. Mayhap he can be of aid."
Nodding quickly, Merry hurried around the fire toward Gandalf, dodging the sleeping forms of Sam and Aragorn as he did so. Reaching the wizard’s side, he bent down to grasp his shoulder, but before he could do so, he froze.
Something…something was in the darkness.
Paralyzed by a terrible and sudden fear, Merry tried to move, but his body failed to respond to his commands. The feeling of palpable evil slammed into the hobbit, and he was reminded of the night in Bree when he had gone out for a breath of fresh air. This darkness was not as strong as that had been, but it was potent, and the hobbit found himself powerless before its onslaught. And it was growing.
It was coming closer.
Somehow, Boromir’s strangled whisper gave Merry the strength to turn his head, and he looked toward the man, hoping to find something that would restore his mobility. But what he saw only lent wings to his already racing heart. Boromir and Gimli stood together, their weapons raised and their muscles stiff with tension. Neither seemed any more capable of movement than Merry.
"Merry, wake the others!" Gimli ordered sharply as a wave of darkness bore down upon them. "All of them!
Merry longed to speak. To cry out. To tell the dwarf that he could not even reach down to touch Gandalf’s arm. But his throat had closed up and the only sound he seemed capable of making was a frightened whimper that barely had strength to force its way past his lips.
Fortunately, he had no need to wake the wizard. Before him, Gandalf suddenly jerked and opened his eyes, one gnarled hand shooting out to seize his staff. The motion was enough to startle Merry into mobility and he stumbled back, arms flailing. A hand reached out and steadied him, and he looked up to see that Aragorn was now awake, his eyes intent upon shadows. On the other side of the fire, a sudden flurry of elvish revealed that Legolas had also risen.
"Wake your kinsmen!" Aragorn hissed, releasing Merry’s arm and giving him a push toward the other hobbits even as he drew Andúril from its sheath.
And then all of Mandos broke loose.
Bill suddenly flung his head back and reared, straining against his fetters, and loosed a noise that could best be described as a scream. And from all sides of the camp, his piercing cry was answered by a sudden chorus of terrible howls. Snarls and growls filled the air, turning the relative silence into a bedlam.
And the Wargs appeared.
From every direction, they came, issuing forth from the void of darkness. Seemingly untouched by the faint light of the moon, the fell hounds of Sauron rushed the Fellowship with teeth bared and eyes gleaming. Once again paralyzed by fear, Merry could only watch in horror as the snarling wolves leaped through the gaps in the circle of stones and raced straight for the Fellowship.
The shout jolted him from his stupor, and he turned just as he was violently pushed to the ground. A dark form sailed overhead and then its flight was suddenly arrested by an elven arrow, dropping it to the ground.
"Merry, you ninny, stand up!"
Someone had seized his arm and was hauling him to his feet. A quick flash of moonlight revealed this someone to be Pippin, and beyond his cousin, Merry saw that Frodo and Sam had also risen on their own. Then he was forced to turn his attention outward as more Wargs converged on them.
A sudden rush of instinct took Merry, and he drew his sword, sweeping his arm before him. A leaping wolf impaled itself on the end of the blade, nearly wrenching the weapon from Merry’s grasp, and the hobbit stumbled backwards as a spray of blood erupted from the dying creature. Then the forms of Gandalf and Gimli were suddenly before the hobbits, forcing the Wargs to alter their attack.
"Fling fuel on the fire!" the wizard shouted, sparing the hobbits one harried glance. "Draw your blades and stand back to back!"
There was no need for such a command as the hobbits had already huddled together for defense with drawn blades, but Sam did reach out and fling a few nearby branches onto the fire. Merry wasn’t sure how the gardener did this because he himself couldn’t take his eyes away from the charging wolves. Aragorn and Gimli had now joined Boromir and Gandalf in surrounding and defending the hobbits while Legolas’s presence was keenly felt as his arrows screamed overhead, dropping wolves left and right.
A sudden gust of cold wind fell upon Merry’s back, and along with it came the creeping realization that there was no longer anyone behind him. Standing at his side, Pippin came to a similar conclusion and they turned as one to see Frodo desperately trying to distract a large Warg that seemed to have singled Sam out.
With a shout, Merry moved to aid his friends but Pippin suddenly plowed into him, crying out in pain and surprise. Merry tumbled and rolled to a stop just in time to see a Warg leaping toward him, mouth gaping, fur bristling, and eyes gleaming with the promise of death—
A flash of metal swept before Merry’s eyes and before his mind could understand what was happening, an axe lodged itself in the Warg’s spine, striking the wolf down. Then Gimli was before him, his beard matted with the blood of the Wargs and his axe red in the firelight.
"Get up!" the dwarf yelled before turning to meet yet another wolf.
Scrambling to his feet, something struck Merry’s leg, and he jumped away before realizing Pippin had grasped his pant leg. The younger hobbit was clutching his right arm and blood was seeping through his fingers. "Stay behind me," Merry ordered, trying to ignore the stabbing pain of fear that pierced his heart.
Shaking his head fiercely, Pippin struggled to his feet and raised his sword, though his grip was clearly weak and the blade wavered in his hand.
"Pippin, stay back!" a new voice called, and Frodo and Sam were with them again along with Aragorn, who seemed to be favoring one leg. Gimli also joined them, his axe swinging furiously, and Gandalf stood near the dwarf, the elven blade of Glamdring making short work of any wolf that drew close to the wizard. Further away, on the opposite side of the group, Boromir and Legolas had moved until they stood back-to-back, both engaged in a desperate attempt to draw the attention of the Wargs away from the hobbits. But the elf was nearly out of arrows, and even Merry’s untrained eyes could see that Boromir was tiring as the dwindling supply of ammunition forced him to bear more of the burden for their collective safety.
A loud snarl jerked Merry’s attention forward, and he gasped as a Warg leaped toward him. An axe and a sword descended toward the creature, but the weapons deflected off one another in a conflict of battle strategies. The Warg ducked beneath the blow, barely scathed, and continued the rush. But Sam was suddenly next to Merry, his sword sweeping in from the side and puncturing the wolf’s side even as Merry brought his own sword up and impaled it in the roof of the Warg’s mouth.
"Watch your side!" Aragorn shouted, his frustrated words directed at Gimli. "I will guard the front!"
"And who shall guard the other side?" the dwarf demanded, knocking away yet another Warg with the haft of his axe and quickly swinging the weapon back into position as more wolves rushed to replace their fallen comrade.
"We will!" someone answered, and Boromir and Legolas stumbled into their midst. How they had managed to break through the press of Wargs, Merry could not say. Everything seemed to be happening at once, and everywhere he looked, another wolf was leaping at the company. It was a disorienting din of chaos further complicated by the fact that all around him was a pervasive blanket of fear eerily similar to that which he’d felt in Bree down the street from the Prancing Pony.
"Let the fire guard our backs!" Gandalf shouted from his position next to Gimli. "Withdraw until the flames are nearly upon us!"
Merry could testify that the flames were already consuming his own back, because he and the other hobbits had retreated as far as they could go. But when Aragorn, Gimli, Boromir, and Legolas also stepped back, they were forced to go a little further, and Merry winced at the heat that seemed enough to sear the hair right off his feet. But he knew that this was a minor discomfort compared to what the Wargs would do to all of them should the defense falter. And it was painfully obvious to even the hobbits that their meager forces could not hold out much longer.
Looking around in the faint hope that he would see an end to this attack, Merry dimly noted that the sky was light in the east and that firelight and moonlight were no longer necessary to see the advancing Wargs. The coming dawn was now bright enough to reveal that the Fellowship was doomed. Wolves swarmed around them like the currents of a deadly whirlpool, and it was only a matter of time before they were swept apart and destroyed. Even now, it was beginning. On Merry’s right, Gimli suddenly stumbled backwards, unable to hold his own. Aragorn cursed and staggered, whipping Andúril from side to side in desperation. Boromir’s shield was torn from his grasp. Legolas reached for his last arrow.
And then a shadow fell.
It was a powerful and looming shadow, but it was not a shadow of darkness or fear. To the end of his days, Merry would never be able to explain exactly what he witnessed or felt. But before his eyes, Gandalf seemed to grow above them all. Sweeping down upon the earth, the wizard seized a flaming branch from the fire and strode forward.
Taken aback, the Wargs withdrew in sudden fear with the exception of one. One Warg stepped forward, his large form indicating his dominance over the pack. With hateful eyes that gleamed in the light of the fire and bristling fur that glowed silver beneath the setting moon, this commanding wolf loosed a deep howl, clearly defying the wizard.
Hurling his burning branch high into the air, the wizard answered his foe’s challenge.
"Naur an edraith ammen! Naur dan i ngaurhoth!"
At these words, the fire upon the branch exploded outward with a blast of light. Merry fell to his knees and raised his arms over his head in surprise and self-defense as flames shot into the sky and enveloped the trees upon the hilltop. Limbs splinted and fell, raining ash and spark down upon all. The triumphant howls of the wolves turned into cries of fear before the roaring of the flames drowned out all other sounds.
Somewhere in the sudden brightness, Merry saw Legolas loosing his last arrow, and he heard a choked gurgle as it found its mark in the wolf that had sought to challenge Gandalf. Then he was forced to shield his eyes as the unnatural fires in the treetops flared brightly as though seeking to eclipse the dawn itself. Blinding light blasted its way through the camp, accompanied by the screams of fire and a wave of searing heat.
And then it was gone.
Everything was still.
Almost afraid to look, Merry slowly unfolded himself from his crouched position and looked around, blearily noting that most of the Fellowship had somehow ended up upon the ground. The one exception was Gandalf, who stood quietly in their midst and stroked his beard with a thoughtful look. The Wargs had completely disappeared. Even the bodies of the slain had vanished. The only remnants of the dreadful fight were the smoldering trees and the blackened branches that occasionally fell to the earth, still smoking slightly from the unnatural fire.
A soft sigh drew Merry’s attention, and he turned as Gandalf leaned upon his staff and nodded to himself as though in satisfaction. "I thought that might do it," the wizard said.
Baruk khazâd—Axes of the dwarves (Khuzdul/Dwarvish)
Naur an edraith ammen! Naur dan i ngaurhoth—Fire for the saving of us! Fire against the werewolf host! (Sindarin)
Author’s Notes: We have a wealth of references used in this particular chapter, so bear with me while I give each one due credit. Like last chapter, segments of the dialogue have been lifted directly from the book. For reference, check out pages 356-3577 from The Fellowship of the Ring, Ballantine 50th anniversary edition.
Before we actually get to the song references, I’d like to say that I used this chapter as kind of a testing ground for integrating songs into a fic. For those of you familiar with the books, you’ll know that Gimli sings a rather long song when the Fellowship hit the 21st hall in Moria. In my mind, the song is vital to the story for several reasons, not least of which is that it’s one of our glimpses of dwarven society within the Lord of the Rings trilogy itself. Consequently, I feel it should be included in this particular fic but I’m rather unsure of how to do that. So any feedback the rest of you can give me would be very much appreciated! And now, the rest of the references:
The first song Legolas sings is one that Bilbo overhears the elves of Mirkwood singing when he escapes Thranduil’s realm through the use of barrels. Only parts of that song have been included in this chapter, but it can be found in its entirety on pages 182-183 of The Hobbit.
The "ridiculous song" that Aragorn mentions is a reference to yet another song found in The Hobbit. It is a song that wakes Bilbo during the middle of the night on his trip back home when he stops for a bit in Rivendell, and can be found on pages 297-298. There is no evidence that the sons of Elrond composed it, and it seems to have been made up on the spot, but I like to think that they were improvising on a base melody and a general idea. So I’ve taken the creative liberty of making Elladan and Elrohir the instigators of such a song. Who knows? They might have even been the ones singing it the night it woke Bilbo.
The last fragment of song that Gandalf hears as everyone falls asleep can be found in The Tolkien Reader. It’s called "The Last Gray Ship" and is No. 16 in the Tom Bombadil section. Though it was enjoyed by hobbits, it’s obvious from the references contained within the full version of the song that it originated somewhere in the Southern Kingdom, and it is possible that Bilbo learned it (or something similar to it) while staying in Rivendell. If this is the case, it is not too much of a stretch for the imagination to think that Legolas could have also heard it in Rivendell before the Fellowship departed.
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