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While the Ring Went South...: 22. January 12, 3019 (Morning)
"The night is getting cold. The dawn is not far off."
"If any dawn can pierce these clouds."
Gandalf stirred slightly in his seat next to the fire and glanced out into the darkness, his eyes barely making out the silhouettes of Aragorn and Gimli beyond the flames. He had not noticed it before as he was sitting too close to the fire, but the night was indeed getting colder. The wizard had always thought it strange that the predawn darkness should be one of the coldest periods of the night, but perhaps it was the way of the darkness to inflict one last blow upon the sleeping world before the sun chased away the shadows. But Gimli had a good point. The clouds still hung thick over Caradhras and the sun would certainly not be making an appearance. Morning would not be much warmer.
"The snow is growing less, and the wind is quieter," Boromir observed, stepping away from the protection of the fire and glancing upwards.
"It doesn’t take much to be quieter," Sam grumbled, his voice barely audible as it had to struggle upwards through several layers of extra cloaks and blankets. "A dragon might have been quieter than that wind."
"Be thankful it wasn’t a dragon," Gimli said sharply, moving back toward the campfire. "You have never faced one, nor have your people ever been forced into exile because of one."
Gandalf sighed and rubbed his head. They were all tired and cross, but the wizard had noticed that when dwarves became cold and wet, their tempers tended to become sharp and violent. At the moment, it was hard to comment on something without Gimli making a snide remark or a retort of some kind. But Gandalf was quick to notice that Gimli was showing admirable restraint, particularly as far as Legolas was concerned. The elf was beginning to get on everyone’s nerves with his immunity to the cold and his nonchalant attitude, but Gimli had yet to comment on it. And to his own credit, Legolas had yet to antagonize the irate dwarf, which had to have been an enormous temptation for his elven sense of humor and mischief. This unusual display of restraint on both sides was an enormous step toward a partially civil relationship between Legolas and Gimli, and Gandalf wondered if anyone else in the Fellowship had noticed it. Perhaps Aragorn, but the Ranger seemed too preoccupied with blaming himself for the hardships they had encountered in making for the Redhorn Gate.
The wizard shook his head and smiled slightly. If ever we manage to reach Lothlórien, Galadriel shall thoroughly enjoy herself while analyzing the inner workings of this disparate group. There are enough different perspectives and different personalities to try even Radagast’s patience. Casting his eyes about the Fellowship, Gandalf wondered if there had ever been a company of wanders such as this one. Aragorn had fallen victim to the Ranger Responsibility Syndrome and had become quiet and morose. Boromir was brooding and seemed to be of the opinion that the priorities of the Fellowship were severely misplaced. Legolas looked as though he had not a care in the world and was perfectly comfortable in this weather. Gimli’s temper had rendered the dwarf virtually unapproachable, but he was still making a partial attempt to keep a civil tongue in his head. Frodo was feeling the weight of the Ring and was slowly withdrawing from the others because of it. Sam was fed up with the various definitions of the word shelter and also struggling to fight Frodo’s growing isolation. Pippin was still dizzy, but he was feeling well enough to become irritated if anyone took a specific interest in his health. Merry was still worried about Pippin, but sensing the sullen mood of the Fellowship, he was also trying to bolster everyone’s spirits with an occasional jest. And as for myself…I suppose I cannot say anything for myself as I have not an outsider’s perspective. But I fit into this Fellowship in some way or another, and doubtless Galadriel shall find my role in all of this to be highly amusing. There are times when I truly do not understand her sense of humor.
"The wind really is dying down," a voice murmured to the wizard’s side. Gandalf glanced down and watched Pippin peer out of his mound of blankets, much like a turtle who thought to venture back into the world after receiving a fright.
"I don’t know how you’re able to tell," Merry commented, buried beneath his own mountain of cloaks. "And to be perfectly honest, I’d rather not know what the outside world is doing."
"You’ll want to know if you ever want to get out of here," Pippin retorted. "We can’t stay here forever, and I’d rather not stay here even another day. Besides, we’re out of firewood. When this is gone, it’s going to get cold again."
"We shall not be staying here another day," Gandalf reassured them, getting to his feet and moving away from the fire. The world was beginning to become light, though the sun had yet to show its face, and Gandalf decided to join Aragorn, Boromir, and Legolas in watching the snow. And as the wizard drew near them, he discovered that Boromir had been right. The storm was letting up slightly. But Valar only knew how long that would last.
"It seems we are granted yet another reprieve," Boromir said.
"Then we would do well not to waste it," Gandalf answered. "We will wait only for the sun to clear the mountains so that we may have better light."
"I doubt we shall know it when it happens," someone grumbled from behind the wizard, and he turned to discover that Gimli had followed him away from the campfire. "These clouds are far too low. No sunlight shall be on this mountainside today."
"We need only enough light by which to see our trail," Aragorn sighed, and Gandalf mentally groaned at the guilt he heard in the Ranger’s voice. "After that we may be on our way."
"But what way shall that be?" Legolas asked. "Will we continue toward the Redhorn Gate or will we backtrack and seek another path?"
The question was innocent enough, but nevertheless, it caused both Aragorn and Gandalf to stiffen slightly. The only other path open to them was one they had discussed already, and Aragorn had made his feelings concerning that road quite clear. But what other choice did they have? A glance at the clouds revealed that if they insisted in continuing on this road, they would probably not live to see the sun set. They had to turn around. But as Legolas had said, doing that meant seeking another path.
Aragorn’s dark gray eyes were torn, and he looked beseechingly at Gandalf as though begging for one last attempt at the pass over Caradhras. Even considering the snow and the cold and the loss of firewood, he still wished to avoid Moria. As do I, but there is no other way, Gandalf grimaced. He shook his head slightly at Aragorn, watched the emotions fly across the other’s face, and then sighed as the Ranger forced his expression to become unreadable.
"We shall turn back," Gandalf said, watching Aragorn closely as he answered Legolas’s question. "We dare not go on. Not on this road."
"Gandalf speaks wisely," Gimli grunted, showing agreement with something for the first time that morning. "Caradhras has not forgiven us. He has more snow yet to fling at us, if we go on. The sooner we go back and down, the better."
"I believe we have overlooked something," Boromir suddenly said, watching the weather carefully. "Lord Elrond warned us that one should not vow to walk in the dark when that one has not seen the nightfall. May I also add that one should not vow to retreat down a trail when one has not examined the road."
A strange mixture of confusion and dread abruptly settled upon Gandalf’s heart at Boromir’s words. He had a sudden fear of what the man meant, but he desperately hoped it was not so. Yet as the morning light began to grow stronger, he could not forbear looking down the path along which they would have to journey. And what he saw caused him to groan. There was no road. Deep drifts of snow and the occasional bump that indicated a large boulder were all that was left.
"Valar," Aragorn swore softly. "The hobbits will never manage such a trail. Nor will the pony."
"We shall be hard pressed as well," Gandalf murmured with a shake of his head. He had feared the weather that they would face upon this mountain, but he had never really considered the idea that their retreat might be cut off.
"How deep will you sink in this snow?" Legolas asked curiously, speaking as though this was an abstract concept to be studied at leisure.
"Deep enough to make travel nigh unto impossible," Aragorn said, his voice filled with strained patience.
"Legolas, we are not elves," Gandalf tried to explain, keeping his temper firmly in check. After all, it was not entirely the elf’s fault, for he had probably never before traveled over snow with mortals. But even so, his rather carefree attitude was beginning to wear upon Gandalf. "We cannot cross the snow as you can. This is well over even Gimli’s head and—"
"Have no concern for me," the dwarf interrupted brusquely, and Gandalf belatedly realized that pointing out Gimli’s problem with the snow to Legolas was probably not the best thing to do. "A dwarf is used to harsh climes. I shall not falter in this."
"You shall not be able to see where you are going in this, either," Boromir pointed out crossly, sounding as though he would be more than happy to push everyone into the ravine. Gandalf surprised himself by deciding that he would cheerfully join Boromir in this task.
A low whistle from behind caught their attention before the dwarf could work out a response to that, and Gandalf stepped to the side as the hobbits came forward and stared at what used to be the trail. "Gandalf…it might just be the fact that I haven’t traveled a lot and don’t know all that much about getting around in snow and the like, but I don’t see how we’re going to get down," Merry eventually said.
"Or up," Pippin added. "It seems to me that we can’t go either way."
"The situation is not as hopeless as that," Aragorn said, but his voice lacked confidence.
"If Gandalf would go before us with a bright flame, he might melt a path for you," Legolas suggested with an elven shrug.
"If elves could fly over mountains, they might fetch the sun to save us," Gandalf retorted, wondering if perhaps Gimli would like to join Boromir and the wizard in pushing Legolas over the edge. "But I must have something to work on," he added, seeing the hopeful looks of the hobbits. "I cannot burn snow."
Silence fell as hope died again, and all stared at the snow as though the intensity of their gazes might open up a way. But as they continued to stand there and nothing continued to happen, Gandalf became aware that it was getting cold again and that they would have to try something soon. They could not afford to stay in this place much longer.
It was the practical, prudent Boromir who eventually broke the silence with a weary sigh. "Well, when heads are at a loss bodies must serve, as we say in my country. The strongest of us must seek a way," he said, stepping forward and evaluating their obstacle through narrowed eyes. After a brief moment, he seemed to find what he was looking for and began pointing toward the hidden trail. "See! Though all is now snow-clad, our path, as we came up, turned about that shoulder of rock down yonder. It was there that the snow first began to burden us. If we could reach that point, maybe it would prove easier beyond. It is no more than a furlong off, I guess."
It was not an idea that would have occurred to Gandalf and he was rather skeptical about Boromir’s ability to burrow through a furlong of snow, but it seemed that no one else had a better idea. Or any idea at all, the wizard reflected morosely.
"Then let us force a path thither, you and I," Aragorn said, apparently coming to a similar conclusion.
Armed now with company and support, Boromir gave a short nod and then started off. He had not gone more than a few meters before the snow reached his chest, and he at that point he began sweeping his arms before him while Aragorn followed behind and tried to pack the snow to the side. It looked to be an awkward and dubious process, but until he could come up with something better, Gandalf wasn’t about to express his doubts. At the moment, this was their only plan for getting down.
Legolas, on the other hand, was not so constrained in his speech. "The strongest must seek a way, say you?" he asked, a look of vast amusement playing over his face. "But I say: let a ploughman plough, but choose an otter for swimming, and for running light over grass and leaf, or over snow—an elf." And before Gandalf could say aught, Legolas had started off across the top of the snow, throwing an impudent smile over his shoulder as he did so. "Farewell! I go to find the sun!" And with that, he raced away, giving a cheeky wave to the men plowing through the snow and eventually vanishing around the bend.
"What just happened?" Pippin asked, sounding completely bewildered.
"We have witnessed normal elven disaster behavior," Gandalf sighed, rubbing his brow and feeling the beginnings of a headache. "Rest assured that he will be just as exasperating when he returns."
"Wonderful," Gimli growled, stomping back to the remains of the fire.
"Gandalf, this isn’t going to work, is it?" Frodo asked, watching the dismal progress of Boromir and Aragorn.
A number of cheerful assurances sprang to the forefront of Gandalf’s mind, but he gave none of them. The hobbits could see for themselves just how much progress Boromir and Aragorn were making, and the path they were leaving behind was narrow and the snow was still very deep in it. In some places it would easily come to Pippin’s shoulders.
"Patience," Gandalf said at length. "Perhaps Legolas will be able to find the sun for us."
A skeptical dwarven snort from the campfire summarized Gimli’s opinion on that, and Gandalf was constrained to agree with him. This did not look good.
* * * *
"Hold, Boromir. We can go no further right now."
A retort was swift to rise in Boromir’s mind, but he checked it and nodded in reluctant agreement. He and Aragorn had been silently laboring through the snowdrifts for the better part of half an hour, and they had somehow managed to plow their way around the rocky turn and out of sight of the Fellowship. Neither one of them had yet said aught of the cold or the wet, but it was obvious from the way Aragorn held himself that he was tired. And well he should be, for I am also tired, Boromir sighed to himself. They had periodically traded places so that the work of pushing and heaving snow had been evenly distributed, but in the end, fatigue had claimed them both and Boromir was ready to drop.
Yet exhaustion was not the primary reason for this halt, though undoubtedly it was a contributing factor. But more daunting than their weariness was a towering wall of snow more than twice Boromir’s height, looming upward toward the high cliffs above and seeming to taunt them in their weariness. Almost it was daring them to try and force a path through its vastness, and in the face of such an obstacle, Boromir felt his wan hopes fading rapidly. In their present condition, neither he nor Aragorn was capable of handling such a challenge.
"Are we certain that we cannot continue onward to the Redhorn Gate?" Boromir finally asked after studying the snow and drawing only a blank within his mind where answers should have been.
Aragorn glanced up and grimaced, marking the gathering clouds and the brooding atmosphere. "I would not chance it. Not with the current weather. If caught in a storm even half the strength of the one we faced last night, we would not survive."
"The elf seems to be holding out well enough," Boromir grumbled, remembering how Legolas had easily raced by them earlier, running atop the snow and looking as though this was all a summer jaunt in the woods.
"So he is, but the rest of us are not," Aragorn muttered, running a shaking hand through his hair. "With our wood gone, the hobbits may not even last the day if we do not find a way down. We must get through this snow and we must do it soon."
Boromir sighed and stared dismally at the wall that had stopped him as effectively as the Rammas Echor stopped Orcs. Aragorn was right, but Denethor’s son could see no solution to their problem. They were at an impasse. They were facing defeat. There was simply no other way to look at the snow that blocked their path. They could not go over it. They could not go around it. They could not go under it. And though he and Aragorn might labor until their cheeks were ruddy with cold and their hair was matted with sweat from exertion, they could not go through it. There was just too much snow. To be beaten by the weather! Boromir tried not to think about what his father would say concerning his fate. A soldier did not succumb to the environment because a soldier was a master of his environment. But not today, Boromir thought grimly. Today there is another master, and he stands ready to fling yet more snow upon us, as our fine dwarf has already observed.
"Have you any thoughts on the matter, Boromir?"
Boromir jerked himself away from inner contemplation and belatedly realized that Aragorn had been speaking to him. Unfortunately, he had no idea what the Ranger had said. Occasionally, this same thing would happen during council sessions in Minas Tirith, and on those occasions, Boromir could usually count on Faramir to give him some kind of silent clue as to what was being discussed. But on the times when Faramir was not there—or was simply choosing to let Boromir flounder for the sake of amusement—there were a number of bland, catch-all phrases that Boromir had developed for the purpose of preserving dignity and appearance. He had been able to employ most of them with a surprising amount of success and he decided to attempt that trick now.
"Perhaps the situation is not what we think it is."
Aragorn blinked and his brow furrowed, causing Boromir to internally wince. There were also times when his bland, catch-all answers did not quite fit the questions, and on those times, it was painfully obvious that he had not been paying attention. Boromir belatedly realized that this was one of those times.
"Perhaps the situation is not what we think it is?" Aragorn repeated slowly.
"I…there are not enough facts yet."
The Ranger studied Boromir closely while Boromir sternly fought against the urge to squirm. Eventually, a smile spread itself across Aragorn’s rugged face and he shook his head. "I have a very good friend by the name of Halbarad, and in the rare instances of necessity when Rangers of the North gather together in mass for council meetings, he is one of the last to come. He does not have patience for what he views as endless discussions. And many times he has used your trick to avoid looking inattentive. My congratulations for your ingenuity, but now is hardly the time. I was saying that I see no purpose in turning back but that continuing to plow through snow would be ineffective. We must find a way to get the company down the mountain, but I am at a loss as to what to do. I then asked you for your thoughts on the matter."
"Ah." Boromir nodded and wondered if the cold was affecting his mind. The subject matter should have been easy enough to guess without having to resort to council tricks. "Nay, I have no thoughts to offer. I, too, am at a loss."
Aragorn sighed and turned his attention to the wall of white that stood between them and warmer lands. "We have a mountain of snow before us, a mountain of snow above us, and a mountain of snow behind us," he murmured, voicing his thoughts aloud. "We have only a small amount of supplies, almost nothing that could be used as kindling, and four hobbits plus a dwarf who will have a difficult time walking in even the trail that we have made. There is more snow on the way and most of us are dangerously close to freezing." The Ranger sighed again and rubbed his head. "I see no solution."
"I would not give up."
"Nor would I, and I will not give up until it becomes clear that nothing can be done for us. Still, I cannot see our next step, and that troubles me."
Aragorn fell silent and Boromir chafed his arms, trying to instill a bit of warmth in them. Now that they were no longer moving, he was chilling rapidly and knew that something would have to be done about that soon. They would either have to go back to work or go back to camp. At this point, plowing through the snow seemed a futile endeavor, but returning to the Fellowship was nigh unto admitting defeat. Neither was a welcome prospect, but what else could be done?
"It seems that the Strong Men who sought a way have failed," an irritatingly cheerful voice remarked from above. Boromir sighed and raised tired eyes upward, knowing already who it was and trying to bite back a feeling of frustration. High above them, perched carelessly atop the snow, was Legolas, looking for all the world as though he was safe at home in the elven fortress deep within Mirkwood.
"And what have you been doing?" Aragorn asked, his voice carrying an undertone of warning. "I do not see that you bring any answers for this problem."
"You do not see far enough, then," the elf answered with a slight smile. "But I do."
The Ranger sighed wearily, and Boromir smiled slightly. Despite their situation, he found it somewhat amusing that the elf was beginning to try even Aragorn’s nerves. "Legolas, where did you go?" the Ranger asked, his tone indicating that he was nearing the end of his patience.
"I went to find the sun."
That was a rather odd answer, but by now, Boromir was more or less used to odd answers from elves. It seemed to be game for them. "And did you find the sun?" Aragorn asked, sounding as though he was having a difficult time keeping his voice under control.
There was a long pause while the men waited for Legolas to finish or qualify that statement, but when the elf made no move to continue, Boromir shook his head, yet again pressing down his frustration. It had taken some rather awkward encounters and more than a few moments of complete confusion, but before leaving Rivendell, Denethor’s son had eventually decided that elves were really not as obstinate as they pretended to be. They simply had a rather strange sense of humor. And in order to obtain answers from an elf, one had to play their game. At least, Boromir had found no other way to get around the peculiar elven habit of answering a question while still leaving the question virtually unanswered. "And?" Boromir prompted when the silence began to stretch into minutes.
The elf shrugged. "The sun will be of no help to us. She is far away in the south and quite content to stay there, or so I gathered. However, all is not without hope. There may yet be a way, though I fear you will have to once again labor through the snow."
Behind the son of Denethor, Aragorn shook his head and sighed. "Legolas, Boromir and I together are not capable of pushing aside that much snow even were we given a week’s time. Nor do we have the food and the supplies to last us that long, not to mention that Caradhras seems intent on burying us alive if we stay here another night. If you have an idea in mind or know of something that might aid us, come to the point and speak! I am cold, Boromir is cold, the hobbits are cold, and standing about in the snow is certainly not helping."
That was as close to complaining as Boromir had ever heard—and would ever hear—Aragorn come. It was a bit of an eye-opener for the man from Gondor, and he discreetly studied the harried Ranger. He is feeling desperate, Boromir decided at length. He fears for the Fellowship.
"My apologies," Legolas said after an awkward silence, his tone somewhat more subdued. "I had forgotten your circumstances." The elf stood and looked at the men, then at the drift, and then in the direction they were attempting to go. "How much more snow do you think you could push aside ere you collapsed from exhaustion?"
"Perhaps ten or fifteen meters," Boromir said after considering the matter.
"I judge that to be on the optimistic side," Aragorn said with a sigh. "My guess gives us five more meters, perhaps six." Boromir glared at the Ranger.
"Then all is well," Legolas declared, ignoring the exchange that was taking place below him. "This imposing mountain of snow, my friends, is little more than the width of a wall. After that, the snow decreases rapidly until even the hobbits might walk without undue strain."
Aragorn blinked and Boromir frowned. "But…how could the snow…" Boromir glanced back at the Ranger, his eyes questioning.
"Caradhras," Aragorn answered after a moment with something of a shrug. "It seems he sought to construct a trap. And almost he was successful."
"Caradhras is a mountain," Boromir felt constrained to point out. "It is an object. A thing."
"A thing possessed of considerable ill will," Legolas added. "But come, we sit idle while the day passes. I shall assist from the other side and mayhap together, we shall yet find a way through this wall of snow." And with that, Legolas quickly disappeared from view, vanishing behind the snowdrift.
"And a moment ago, it was the elf who was wasting time," Boromir sighed as he moved back toward the unfinished path.
"If it eases your feelings, he did not see it as wasting time," Aragorn said. "Elves do not measure time as we do, and a moment spent driving one’s companions to frustration and distraction is a moment well spent in the eyes of an elf."
"The snow does not block sound, though it certainly seems to block sluggards such as yourselves," Legolas called.
Aragorn rolled his eyes, shook his head, and began digging into the towering wall. Left with no alternative, Boromir sighed, despaired of ever understanding his companions, and joined the heir of Isildur in the snowdrift.
For what seemed like eternity, they made very little progress. The snow that they removed was almost immediately replaced by snow falling from the top of the pile. But gradually, as they began to move into snow that had been packed by weight and wind, a tunnel slowly formed. Now, in order to ensure stability, one man would dig for a while and then step back, allowing the other his turn. In this way, they slow formed a passage just wide enough to admit the pony but not wide enough to prove unstable. And after much effort and much snow, Aragorn broke through into the tunnel Legolas had been making as he came at them from the other side.
With a deep sigh of relief, Boromir fell backwards into the drifts, overjoyed at the prospect that they might actually make it down off the mountain. "I was right, though we did not know it at the time," he murmured. "The situation was not what we thought it was."
A snort and a quiet laugh was Aragorn’s response to that, and out of the corner of his eye, Boromir saw that the Ranger had gone down on one knee in exhaustion, his breath frosting in the chilly air. Beyond Aragorn, Legolas was inspecting the result of their work with a critical eye.
"My side of the tunnel is straighter," the elf announced at length.
At this statement, weighted with the natural arrogance that all elves seemed to exude, something deep inside Boromir snapped and he did something that he had not done in years. It required a bit more physical exertion on his part, his father would have had choice words to say about maturity and responsibility as captain of Gondor’s guard, it was a highly juvenile act, and it did absolutely nothing to further the goals of their quest. But the splattering sound of a big, wet snowball catching Legolas full in the face followed by a surprised yelp from the elf was wonderfully satisfying. And in the end, that was justification enough for Boromir.
* * * *
"How long have they been gone?"
Merry sighed and glanced at Pippin, who was attempting to warm himself next to the cooling remnants of the night’s fire. "Didn’t you ask that question five minutes ago?"
"They have been gone just under an hour," Gimli muttered with a glance skyward.
"You just said that," Pippin protested.
"You just asked that."
With a muttered statement about dour dwarves, Pippin burrowed back beneath his cloak covering and seemed to disappear from sight. Merry sighed again and got to his feet, brushing collected snow off as he did so. Sitting next to a pile of smoking wood was doing nothing for him, and he felt as though he needed to get his blood moving again. Stalking through the snow and trying to imagine plowing through it as Boromir and Aragorn were doing, the hobbit made his way toward Gandalf, Frodo, and Sam, who stood watching the trail.
"Anything?" he asked when he reached their sides.
"Not so much as a glimmer," Sam murmured. "And by my count, it’s been at least three hours since they left."
"One," Merry corrected.
The gardener blinked and turned to study Merry. "One?"
"That’s what Gimli says."
"Gimli is correct," Gandalf interjected, plunging his staff into the packed snow beneath his feet and idly twisting it around. "It has been approximately one hour."
"Seems like longer," Sam complained.
"You can pretend it’s been three hours," Frodo suggested, his cloak drawn up tightly around his head for warmth.
"That just doesn’t seem proper, sir, now that I know what the real time is," Sam said. "I can’t go pretending that something is something it isn’t, if you follow me."
"Not really," Frodo said with a slight smile.
"But then, that isn’t unusual," Merry added, deciding to join in the teasing. Sam, however, was not amused and decided to change the subject.
"What could be taking them so long? I don’t think this job should have taken even an hour."
"We know not what they found beyond that bend," Gandalf answered nodding toward the rocky turn around which Aragorn, Boromir, and Legolas had all disappeared. "Perhaps the snow extends further down the mountain than they expected."
"What if they ran into trouble?" Merry wondered.
"With an elf around, that would not be unlikely," a gruff voice remarked behind the hobbit. Gimli stepped up and eyed the snowy path that had been made by the men. "No doubt they have been forced to rescue him from his own stupidity."
Merry heard Gandalf sigh wearily and felt like echoing the sentiment. Though Gimli and Legolas were no longer openly antagonistic and had even stopped the verbal barbs, there was still very little in the way of friendship, or even companionship. They were both members of the same Fellowship, but it seemed that neither one was ready to acknowledge it. Fortunately, Boromir and Aragorn seemed to have mended whatever differences they’d had. Merry had not missed the tension between the two men and was very relieved that it was now gone.
"As Aragorn observed last night, not all that comes from the elves is perilous," Gandalf said. "I think it would do you good to consider Legolas from a perspective that did not stem from hatred and animosity."
"We are all entitled to opinions, I suppose," Gimli answered.
Gandalf’s eyes narrowed slightly and Merry found himself backing up. True, Legolas had not exactly endeared himself to anyone that morning, but Merry didn’t think that taking one’s frustrations out on Gandalf was a particularly wise idea.
"We face a common foe, Gimli," the wizard said quietly, his voice giving Merry shivers that were completely unrelated to the air’s temperature. "The Lonely Mountain and Mirkwood both will be under attack ere much more time has passed. Sauron is moving quickly now, and it would behoove all his enemies to unite against him in a common alliance."
"As the elf is also a member of this company, he shall have no cause to fear harm from me. But do not expect me to associate with him unless circumstances give me no alternative," Gimli said, apparently ignorant of Gandalf’s short temper.
"Mr. Gimli, begging your pardon, but I don’t see what cause you have to hate the elves," Sam interrupted, and Merry mentally praised the gardener’s timing. He had been preparing a countdown for the time when Gandalf sent Gimli over the edge of the cliff. "And I don’t see that they, meaning the elves, have any cause to hate the dwarves," the hobbit continued. "So why can’t you both learn to get along? We have some mighty nasty feuding families in the Shire, but they can be civil to each other if they need to be."
Unfortunately, Sam’s timing came with repercussions, and he was quickly the subject of a rather perturbing glare from the dwarf. Merry wondered if he shouldn’t come to Sam’s rescue, and looked to Frodo for advice. But the Ring-bearer was not paying attention. Instead, he was staring out at the mountains with a blank expression while one hand clutched at his tunic. Or is he clutching at something under his tunic? Merry wondered, his eyes narrowing as he studied Frodo closely.
But he was not allowed to pursue this thought because a great sneeze suddenly caught everyone’s attention, disrupting Frodo’s trance and diverting Gimli’s glare. Turning around, Merry hastened to Pippin’s side as his friend swayed slightly and rubbed his head. "Pippin?"
"Don’t ever sneeze if you have a headache like mine," Pippin muttered, closing his eyes and groaning. "It isn’t good for you."
"Are you still dizzy?" Gandalf asked, his voice colored by concern.
"Only if I move suddenly," Pippin answered, regaining his balance and shaking off Merry’s hold.
"Once we reach safety, we shall have Aragorn tend to you again," Gandalf said.
"They’re back," Frodo suddenly announced. All turned his direction, and there was a noticeable air of relief as they caught sight of Legolas jogging toward them, making almost no imprint on the snow as he ran. Behind him, pressing slowly but steadily up the slope, came Aragorn and Boromir.
"Well, I have not brought the sun," the elf announced with an insolent grin once he was within hearing distance. "She is walking in the blue fields of the South, and a little wreath of snow on this Redhorn hillock troubles her not at all. But," he added when the full force of Gandalf’s glare landed upon him, "I have brought back a gleam of good hope for those who are doomed to go on feet. There is the greatest wind-drift of all just beyond the turn, and there our Strong Men were almost buried. They despaired until I returned and told them that the drift was little wider than a wall. And on the other side, the snow suddenly grows less, while further down it is no more than a white coverlet to cool a hobbit’s toes."
"Ah, it is as I said. It was no ordinary storm. It is the ill will of Caradhras. He does not love elves and dwarves." Gimli looked pointedly at Gandalf as he said this as if to make certain that the wizard was noting the dwarf’s recognition of a common enemy. "And that drift was laid to cut off our escape."
Merry frowned and considered asking how a mountain could have laid a drift to cut off their escape, but since Legolas had said nothing about this, the hobbit decided that he wouldn’t either. Apparently, an enemy mountain seemed perfectly normal to both Legolas and Gimli. And I suppose that’s not such a stretch of the imagination, the hobbit considered. Last night was a little too cold for my comfort.
"But happily your Caradhras has forgotten that you have men with you," Boromir called as he struggled toward them, apparently having overheard the last part. "And doughty men, too, if I may say it; though lesser men with spades might have served you better. Still, we have thrust a lane through the drift; and for that all here may be grateful who cannot run as light as elves."
"But how are we to get down there, even if you have cut through the drift?" Pippin spoke up, echoing Merry’s own thoughts. All the hobbits were examining the "lane" Boromir spoke of, and all seemed to be coming to the same conclusion. They could not manage it. Though the men might be able to walk it easily enough, the snow was still too deep for a hobbit.
"Have hope! I am weary, but I still have some strength left, and Aragorn, too," Boromir sighed. "We will bear the little folk. The others no doubt will make shift to tread the path behind us. Come, Master Peregrin! I will begin with you."
Taken by surprise, Merry hastily stepped to the side as Pippin was suddenly seized and lifted into the air. The man shifted the hobbit onto his back, an awkward process given the fact that his shield was partially in the way, and then he began walking.
"Cling to my back! I shall need my arms," Boromir ordered as they started out into the snow.
"First shelters and now lanes," Sam muttered with a shake of his head. "I think we’re all speaking a completely different language."
"Perhaps," Aragorn murmured. "Who shall be next? You, Master Brandybuck? Pippin is still in your charge."
"It probably should be me," Merry sighed. "Who knows what trouble Pippin will find on his own down there."
"Who knows indeed," Aragorn laughed, bending down and lifting Merry into the air. "Come, then, and let us see if we can catch them. Legolas, would you accompany us? Boromir and I shall need to return for Frodo and Sam."
The elf nodded and the journey began. Merry wrapped his arms tightly around Aragorn’s neck and watched in amazement as the Ranger struggled through the deep snow. How had they managed to do this? Glancing backward, Merry caught glimpses of Legolas lightly walking on top of the drifts and he felt a quick flash of envy. The elf was easily twice his height, and yet if Merry were to venture into the drifts were Legolas walked, he would be well over his head.
Legolas’s voice drifted down to them as they neared what seemed to be a giant tunnel that had been carved through a mound of snow. Aragorn looked up, his eyes questioning. "Yes?"
"How shall we get the dwarf off the mountain?"
Merry blinked, not having thought of this. Apparently, it hadn’t occurred to Aragorn, either, which was a rather good indication of just how weary the Ranger was. But he was not so weary that he was unable to fashion a quick retort. "Do you worry that we shall have to leave Gimli here?"
Most casual observers would have said that the expression upon Legolas’s face did not change, but Merry was gradually learning to read his companions and he saw a clear flash of anger and indignation in the elf’s eyes. "I think only of your guilt should one of this Fellowship be left behind," Legolas answered, his voice cold. And before Aragorn could respond, the elf had moved ahead of them and crossed over the snow tunnel, temporarily disappearing from sight.
"And what think you of that, Master Brandybuck?" Aragorn asked with a quiet chuckle.
"I don’t know what to think," Merry answered. "But he has a point. How are we going to get Gimli down? He won’t be able to manage the snow, either. Unless dwarves can travel like elves can, that is."
Aragorn’s chuckle turned into a hard laugh and he shook his head in amusement. "It is good that Legolas did not hear you say that, or he might have taken great offense."
The two then ducked into the snow tunnel, and once they emerged on the other side, Merry saw that Legolas had been right. The snow did decrease dramatically. It was rather disturbing, actually, and Merry looked back to make certain that his eyes were not deceiving him.
"Down you go, Master Brandybuck," Aragorn announced, dropping to one knee as Merry let go. Pippin was already munching on something from his pack while Legolas studied the clouds above them. "Boromir and I shall return shortly with the rest of the company. All of them," he added with a sidelong look at Legolas. The elf completely ignored him.
"What’s going on?" Pippin hissed, not having missed the look.
Merry shrugged and watched as Aragorn and Boromir disappeared back into the tunnel of snow. "I’m not sure myself," he confessed. "But I think things might be taking a turn for the better."
* * * *
"Aragorn, how shall we bring the dwarf down the mountain?"
Aragorn glanced at Boromir walking before him and frowned. "I am not entirely certain," he said at length.
Boromir looked back, studied the Ranger for a moment, and then started to laugh. "You might be interested to know that I frequently give that answer in council sessions where I am not paying enough attention."
A smile found its way onto Aragorn’s face and he laughed softly. "Unfortunately, I was paying attention and I am still uncertain. I do not know how we are going to bring the dwarf down. Even if Gimli allowed it, we could not carry him. His weight almost equals mine, and we are too weary to support such a load. Besides, Gimli is too proud to permit such a thing."
Boromir sighed and fell silent. "I suppose that rolling him down the side of the mountain is not an option."
"Only if you wish to chase after him," Aragorn answered, smiling at the mental image in spite of himself.
"We could give that job to the elf," Boromir suggested with a wry grin. "He seems to take pleasure in displaying his ability for running atop the snow."
Aragorn snorted and shook his head. "I doubt that Legolas would agree. But we could push him down after Gimli."
Boromir laughed. "It would certainly be something for the tales. The vaunted Fellowship, entrusted with the fate of the free peoples, shoves two of its members off a mountain."
"I am confident that we could create a good reason for doing so," Aragorn said, warming to the game. "And I suspect that we would also have Gandalf’s support."
"We might need it should our actions be discovered," Boromir remarked dryly as they neared the campsite. "Or…" Denethor’s son stopped and cocked his head to the side. "Or perhaps we shall not have to push Gimli down the cliff after all."
Aragorn stopped and looked toward camp, his eyes narrowing as he studied the scene before him. Bill was standing patiently next to a rather worried Samwise, but he was not carrying as much baggage as he was wont to carry. Gandalf had taken some of the packs and added them to his own, leaving enough room on the pony’s back for someone to sit. Aragorn immediately realized the intended plan, but even as he did so, his eyes went to Gandalf and Gimli, who looked to be having an argument. "It is a good idea," the Ranger murmured at length. "However, it remains to be seen if we can convince Gimli to go along with it."
"Why should he not?" Boromir asked.
"While dwarves often use ponies for long journeys, they prefer smaller animals," Aragorn explained, resuming his trek up the hill. "Beyond that, it could be seen as a sign of weakness in the eyes of a certain elf."
"Ah." Boromir shook his head and released a small sigh of frustration. "But unless he wishes to be pushed along or off the trail, I see no other ready solution."
"Nor can I," Aragorn said. "Which is why I go now to aid Gandalf in his arguments." By now, Aragorn’s sharp hearing could pick up on most of the conversation between the wizard and the dwarf. Frodo and Sam looked to be at something of a loss and were there more to hold Bill than for anything else, which suited Aragorn. The fewer people arguing, the better. "Ho, friends!" he called as he reached Gandalf’s side and felt Boromir move up beside him. "What goes forth here?"
Gandalf shot Aragorn a rather knowing expression and stepped back, allowing the burden of answering to fall upon Gimli. The dwarf blinked as his opponent suddenly abandoned the playing field and found himself caught in the stern gaze of a new foe. "We were discussing how we might best lead Bill down the trail," Gimli eventually answered.
"Truly?" Boromir questioned. "From what I could hear, you seemed to be arguing more about what sort of burdens the pony would bear."
A flash of anger sparked in Gimli’s eyes, but Aragorn hastily jumped back in. "Worry not, Master Dwarf," he said, glancing back at Boromir with a twinkle in his eyes. What he was about to do was something he often did with Elladan and Elrohir, but he suspected that Boromir would catch on quickly enough. "By happy chance, we were actually discussing this very problem as we journeyed back here. And we may have a solution that does not involve the pony at all."
"Indeed?" Gandalf raised a brow at this, trying to feign surprise, but Aragorn caught a subtle tug at the corners of the wizard’s mouth. The wizard was trying very hard to keep from smiling.
"Yes," Aragorn nodded, flicking his eyes back to Boromir.
"It is something I did as a child with my brother in the White Mountains during the winter," Boromir added, catching on to the game and quickly taking his cue. "Or rather, something I did to my brother when he was still young enough that he could not refuse it. There must be a downhill slope for this to work, but I see no problems in finding one here. Gimli shall lie upon his side and we will begin to push. Once we gather enough speed and he has gathered enough snow, the weight shall begin dragging him toward the bottom and—"
"Enough!" Gimli interrupted, rage building in his countenance. "You may jest about this, but I—"
"No, Gimli, we do not jest," Aragorn returned quickly. "If you do not ride Bill, then there is no other way for you to descend this mountain. That snow is too deep even for you. I struggle to traverse, and my legs are twice as long as yours. Now cease this foolishness and mount the pony! If you so desire it, I will take the lead and send the others further down the mountain so that you may dismount before reaching them."
There was a long moment of silence, broken only by the swishing of Bill’s tail and his heavy breaths that frosted instantly in the frigid air. At length, Gimli’s shoulders dropped slightly in acknowledged defeat, but his eyes remained as fiery as ever. "There is no need to send the others further down the mountain," he growled, moving next to the pony and shoving one of the packs to the side. His strong legs propelled him upward and he was soon straddling Bill’s back, grasping at the straps and reins.
"Fair enough," Aragorn said with a shrug. "As you wish. Come, Frodo. Boromir shall take Sam, Gandalf shall take Bill, and Gimli shall watch our backs in the event that Caradhras has any more to send."
The dwarf muttered something rather rude, but Aragorn ignored him. Instead, he knelt and aided Frodo in wrapping the hobbit’s arms about his neck. Once set, they were off. Boromir led with Sam upon his back. He was followed closely by Gandalf, Gimli, and Bill while Aragorn and Frodo took up the rear. This time, the journey was not nearly as difficult since previous travels had packed much of the snow down, but there were still places where coaxing and prodding was necessary to convince Bill that this was indeed the appointed trail. Eventually, after passing beneath the tunnel of snow and enjoying a whistle of appreciation from Sam that probably made Boromir’s ears ring, they joined the rest of the Fellowship at the point where the hobbits and dwarf could walk unaided.
"You took your time in coming," Pippin complained as he showered snow upon Merry’s head.
"I told you to stop that!" Merry shouted, ducking out of the way and flinging a handful of snow back at the young Took.
"I trust their behavior has been similar for the entire time you were with them?" Gandalf asked wearily, glancing over at Legolas.
"They have actually mellowed considerably," the elf answered with a small smile. "When I pointed out that their activities were taking them closer and closer to the edge of the cliff and that the snow would prevent them from seeing this edge until it was too late, they curtailed much of their excitement."
"I don’t doubt it," Aragorn murmured with a quiet chuckle, kneeling as Frodo released his neck. He was about to say something to Legolas about knowing firsthand what snow in one’s face felt like—a rather cruel remark but he felt the elf’s previous behavior warranted it—but before he could even open his mouth, a sudden rumble shook the mountain. A horrific screech rent the air and sight was suddenly veiled by flying snow.
Reacting purely on instinct, Aragorn grabbed Frodo and threw them both against the cliff face. He sensed more than saw Boromir and Sam land next to them while Gandalf’s shouts filled the air and an elvish oath indicated that something had finally broken through Legolas’s veneer of calm. Pebbles rained down upon Aragorn’s head, the rumbling increased, and the Ranger prayed that none of the larger boulders would come their way. This particular cliff was not undercut as their shelter in the night had been, and falling rocks might actually strike them as they huddled together.
Eventually, the shaking died away and the air gradually cleared. Hardly daring to breath, Aragorn opened eyes he could not remember closing and straightened out of his bent position. He glanced back at the trail they’d just come down, and discovered it to be completely blocked by snow and rocks. Fearful of what he might find, Aragorn next turned his eyes toward his companions. With great relief, the Ranger soon saw that no one in the Fellowship was hurt, though all were now completely coated by snow.
"Enough, enough!" Gimli cried, glaring upwards. "We are departing as quickly as we may!"
"It is a mountain," Boromir muttered beside Aragorn, struggling back to his feet. "A thing."
Not feeling up to explaining Caradhras to Boromir, Aragorn sighed and looked to Gandalf, hoping the wizard would read the apology in his eyes. He had never meant for this to happen, and now…
"Come," Gandalf said, meeting Aragorn’s gaze briefly and then shaking his head in dismissal. "We must descend quickly. The morning wears on, and I will not tempt the weather more."
There was a general murmur of weariness and complaint on the part of the hobbits, but they dutifully shouldered their bags and got to their feet. As the Fellowship had done when ascending the mountain, Gandalf led the way. Merry walked next to Pippin, assisting him in places where the snow was still quite deep, but these places soon became fewer and fewer. Eventually, the clouds began to break apart and fragments of sunlight could be seen moving over the valleys beyond the shadow of the Misty Mountains.
This should have been a cheerful sight, but though spirits were lifted momentarily, they soon fell again. The Fellowship was retracing hard steps, and the thought weighed upon all minds that the mountains would still need to be crossed. They stopped briefly at the location where Frodo had observed the first flakes of snows and looked out over the lands of Hollin. No words were spoken, for most in the Fellowship seemed hopelessly exhausted and those who were not had enough presence of mind to keep their mouths quiet. Wearily, Aragorn rubbed his head and considered their options insofar as their next step was concerned. But before he could get far in his thoughts, movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. Blinking and wondering if perhaps he was more exhausted than he’d first thought, Aragorn looked a second time and felt his breath catch. "The birds again!" he called to Gandalf, pointing toward the pinpricks of black that hovered over the silent lands. Even as he did this, he noted that Frodo’s eyes were already upon the specks and surmised the hobbit had seen what he had seen.
"That cannot be helped now," Gandalf murmured, his voice quiet and reflective as his eyes sought out the crebain for himself. He was silent for a moment and then seemed to rouse himself. "Whether they are good or evil, or have nothing to do with us at all," he gave Merry a sidelong look during which the hobbit squirmed slightly, "we must go down at once. Not even on the knees of Caradhras will we wait for another night-fall!" And with that, the wizard started off, seeming to have decided upon something.
The rest of the Fellowship followed quickly enough, but Aragorn dropped to the rear of the line. Dark thoughts had come upon him, and he felt that he knew what Gandalf’s decision had been. There was now only one real path for the Fellowship to take, and Aragorn was too intelligent to hope otherwise. They would have to pass through the mines of Moria.
All their other options had failed. They could not take the Ring down to the Gap of Rohan. Even though he had chosen that way over Moria in jest, Aragorn knew that taking the Ring so close to Isengard was an open invitation for discovery and disaster. And though he still held to his belief that the Rohirrim were yet trustworthy, Gandalf though otherwise. And since the Gap of Rohan was closed to them, the Fellowship’s only other choice was to take the High Pass, which would require that they backtrack along their original trail for two or three weeks while braving the spies of the Enemy and the possibility of Wargs. Such an action could never be justified. Aside from the time factor, which was formidable enough, Legolas and his Mirkwood party had reported to Rivendell that the High Pass was now almost completely infested with goblins. It had become an impossible road unless one traveled it with a large, armed company, which the elves of Mirkwood had done. The Fellowship was anything but a large, armed company. That way was also closed to them.
But Moria… Aragorn shook his head and cursed quietly. Great danger awaited them there. He recalled no good experiences from his own visit to the dark halls, but even more than that, his foresight was screaming with warnings and promising great doom. But the strangest thing about these warnings was that doom did not center itself upon Frodo and the Ring; rather, it focused its attention on the one who had first made the suggestion to enter the mines—Gandalf. Ever since the wizard had broached the idea of Moria, Aragorn had felt misgivings and forebodings that dwarfed anything he had ever felt in the past. If the Fellowship chose to dare the darker path, great evil would befall Gandalf. And if great evil befell him, then it would also affect the rest of the Fellowship.
Aragorn had wondered if he shouldn’t share this feeling with Gandalf as a warning of sorts while they were debating the choice between Caradhras and Moria, but at the time, he had eventually dismissed the idea. Gandalf handled concerns about his own welfare with an ill grace. He was too proud and too stubborn for such things and would have probably dismissed Aragorn’s fears as the result of an overactive imagination. He would have known them to be more than that and he might have even experienced the same warnings himself, but as a general rule Gandalf did not hearken to forebodings about his safety. This disregard for personal health had become more pronounced since they had left Rivendell, something that rather unnerved Aragorn. The Ring took precedence in this quest, and if a sacrifice was to be required, Gandalf would not hesitate to make that sacrifice.
But Aragorn was of a very different mindset. The Ring was a priority, yes, but it was not yet such an extreme priority as to overshadow concerns for all else. It was for this reason that Aragorn had waited for Legolas, Gimli, and Pippin after their fall into the ravine before Caradhras. Time was of the essence, that could not be disputed, but it was not so pressing that one’s companions had to be abandoned. And Aragorn had learned above all else to value those who traveled with him. On more than one occasion he had trusted his safety to surrounding Rangers and elves, and along with this trust came a reciprocating feeling. As they looked after him, he was responsible for looking after them. And upon this mission, Gandalf was one of his companions. Aragorn could not let him walk into danger like this.
The Ranger sighed, reminding himself of a very difficult fact: There was no other option for the Fellowship. The Gap of Rohan was too close to Isengard. The High Pass was too far away and too dangerous for a small group. The Redhorn Gate was now blocked until spring. As much as he hated to admit it, Moria was the only way to get to the other side of the mountains. And because it was the only way, Gandalf would take it. And because Gandalf would take it, Aragorn would follow. But I will not follow blindly, the Ranger vowed. Gandalf will not walk into the shadow of death without being warned first, even if that wizard will not deign to acknowledge my warnings. And with this promise in his heart, Aragorn hastened after the company. And beneath his feet, nestled deep in the heart of the mountains, he fancied that he could hear drums…
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