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During a journey in the dark...: 3. January 13, 3019 (Day)
Author’s Notes: Once again, a lot of things in this chapter are being drawn directly from the book. Much of the dialogue is taken verbatim while some of the descriptions are loosely paraphrased from Tolkien’s own words. For those of you reading along at home, you’re looking at pages 357-361 of The Fellowship of the Ring Ballantine 50th edition paperback version. There is also a brief bit of remembered dialogue from Elrond’s speech to the Fellowship just before they set out on their journey. You’ll recognize it when you see it, and for reference, it can be found on page 336 (same source as above). So with that out of the way, on with the chapter!
January 13, 3019 (Day)
Instinct and a keen sense of time told Boromir that the tip of the sun was climbing over the mountains. A tingling feeling of warmth upon his skin confirmed dawn’s arrival, and despite a rising surge of frustration, Boromir felt a flash of gratitude that at least some of his senses were still working. His eyes certainly were not, for at the moment, he was quite blind.
Large, white spots danced across his vision, not unlike what happened when one ventured up into the snowfields on the northern face of Mount Mindolluin and stared at the reflection of the sun in the ice for too long. Gandalf’s inferno had taken him by complete surprise, and he had not been able to look away in time to preserve his vision. At the very least, he could have warned us, Boromir groused, ignoring the pounding in his temples as he pushed himself to his feet and reached out blindly to collect his fallen shield. In addition to destroying his sight, the blinding flashes had also managed to set off a painful headache.
"What did I tell you, Mr. Pippin?" Sam exclaimed from somewhere behind Boromir, his voice hushed. "Wolves won’t get him. That was an eye-opener, and no mistake! Nearly singed the hair off my head!"
"Mine, too," Pippin said softly. "There’s a lesson to be learned here. You just have to know how to talk to those creatures. I don’t know that I could ever manage whatever Gandalf did, but I’m making notes for the future."
"Where are the Wargs?" Gimli asked, his voice tense.
"They have fled," Gandalf answered. "Fear not. I do not think they will return for some time."
"Mithrandir, ú-cenin," Legolas spoke sharply, and though Boromir did not understand the words, he could not miss the alarm in the elf’s voice.
"Unless I miss my guess, Aragorn, Boromir, and Gimli cannot see either," Gandalf said. "It was to be expected. Aside from myself, the four of you were closest to the flames. Have patience and the blindness will pass. Until then, I suggest we pause a moment to calm ourselves. The night has wearied us all."
Grimacing, Boromir gingerly shook his head and blinked rapidly. He was not quite ready to relax, despite the wizard’s assurances that the Wargs had indeed left. If there was anything Boromir had learned from traveling with this company, it was that trouble was never far behind. He was actually forming a theory that someone within the Fellowship had severely offended the Valar and they were now all being punished for it. Boromir was not a particularly religious man by any stretch of the imagination, but their current run of bad luck had given him cause for second thoughts.
"Is anyone injured?" Aragorn asked.
There was a moment of silence in response, and then it was broken by Merry. "Yes!" the hobbit exclaimed, his voice carrying a measure of both fear and guilt. "Yes, Pippin is hurt."
"It’s just a scratch," Pippin said hastily. "Those Wargs had claws, and one nicked me. Nothing to be concerned about."
"Begging your pardon, Mr. Pippin, but it drew blood," Sam pointed out. "Best not to take chances."
By now Boromir’s sight was finally beginning to clear. Shadows still clouded much of his vision, but if he squinted, he could make out details around him. And as he looked back toward the hobbits, Boromir spotted a line of blood on Pippin’s arm. Merry was pressing his handkerchief against it—trust a hobbit to bring something like a handkerchief on this journey—and the wound did not seem too serious, but considering that it was caused by a servant of the Enemy, it was best to err on the side of caution. Boromir had seen similar scratches go from simple injuries to raging infections in a matter of hours when left untreated.
Aragorn—who appeared to be getting his vision back as well, though he was doing an unusual amount of blinking—knelt next to Pippin and started to examine the wound, gently pushing Merry to the side. He was almost immediately joined by Frodo and Sam, and Boromir turned away, confident that they had the situation well in hand. A glance at the rest of the Fellowship revealed that Gimli and Legolas also appeared to be regaining their sight and that they were both drifting into defensive positions around the cluster of hobbits and Ranger, almost as if they expected the Wargs to return at any moment. Gandalf was standing several feet away leaning against his staff, and if Boromir hadn’t known any better, he would have said that the wizard was exhausted. But despite his appearance, Gandalf’s keen eyes were scouring the area around them, looking for signs of danger.
Deciding that the hobbits were adequately protected, Boromir took a few steps away from the others and surveyed the hilltop as best he could with his recovering sight. Gandalf’s display of power had given them the advantage of surprise, but the Wargs would be back. While Boromir was not experienced in dealing with the Enemy’s fell wolves, he had dealt with Orcs enough to know that fear easily gave way to hatred. And in these empty lands, hunger would probably be a factor as well. The Wargs would return, and in preparation for this, it was likely that they left scouts to watch the Fellowship in the interim. If those scouts could be found and dispatched…
"Well, Master Took, we shall wash and bandage this, and afterwards we will have to watch it carefully for infection. But I believe you are going to live."
"Don’t tell me. Tell Merry."
Boromir smiled slightly and glanced back toward the hobbits. Still kneeling beside Pippin, Aragorn was now searching through one of his packs while the other hobbits watched. They had moved away from Pippin in order to give Aragorn room to work, but Merry was still rather close and it seemed as though Pippin was beginning to feel smothered.
"If you would be just a bit more careful, I wouldn’t have to worry so much," Merry said defensively. "First you went up that tree after a quiver strap, and then there was the cliff you had to tumble over, and then there was your dizziness while we tried to climb a mountain, and then there was the mountain itself, and then—"
"Most of that wasn’t my fault!" Pippin interrupted, hissing slightly as Aragorn began to clean the wound.
Shaking his head, Boromir turned away and redirected his attention to the outer edge of the hilltop. His vision had almost recovered completely, and the morning sun was now casting her light over the land, uncovering all that the darkness of night had attempted to hide. Unfortunately, that included the Fellowship, and Boromir mentally grimaced at the thought of the coming journey in broad daylight. The clouds from the previous days had vanished, and the sky was painfully clear. It would be difficult—if not completely impossible—to walk unseen.
"What happened to the wolves?" Gimli abruptly asked with akin to alarm.
A retort was quick to rise in Boromir’s mind, but it died swiftly when he realized what Gimli meant by this question. He was not asking after the surviving wolves but rather the wolves that had been killed. Now that he looked closer with eyes unhindered by blindness, Boromir saw that there was no sign of any Wargs, alive or dead, upon the hilltop. There were no carcasses. No bodies. No remains. Not even the stain of blood.
"He’s right," Frodo whispered quietly. "Shouldn’t there be dead Wargs about?"
An uncomfortable hush fell over the Fellowship, and Boromir clutched the hilt of his sword firmly. Out of the corner of his eye, Boromir saw Legolas step forward and then kneel, his hand grasping at something on the ground. When he rose, he was holding an elven arrow.
"We have all observed that there is little game in this area," Aragorn suddenly said, giving a final tug on Pippin’s bandage before rising to his feet. "Perhaps the Wargs have been forced into devouring their own. And perhaps with meat in their bellies they will not be so intent upon attacking us again."
As one, the Fellowship turned to stare at Aragorn, though Boromir now felt he knew what the other man was doing. The Ranger had spoken like this the day before, and to Boromir, it had felt as though Aragorn was seeking to deny the fact that they were now being hunted in earnest, even to the point of ignoring all evidence to the contrary. It had made no sense then, but now that the idea of traveling through Moria had been revealed, Boromir understood. Something about the dwarven mines frightened Aragorn. Frightened him badly. Frightened him enough that he was grasping desperately at anything that might allow them to avoid those ancient halls.
But Gandalf did not seem to appreciate Aragorn’s attempts to change the path of the Fellowship, and Boromir found himself taking a step back in an effort to avoid the flash of the wizard’s eyes. "You do not believe these Wargs will return?" he challenged.
"They may not be in league with the Enemy," Aragorn answered, his eyes clearly defiant. "Wargs have been known to operate independently of the Dark Lord. And perhaps they followed us in an attempt to assuage their bellies. It is not wholly unheard of. Is this not so, Legolas?"
All eyes now turned to the elf, who looked somewhat startled at his inclusion in the conversation. Nevertheless, Legolas recovered his composure so quickly that Boromir wondered if his eyes were yet playing tricks on him. "It has been known to happen in Mirkwood," the archer said slowly, as though considering his words. "During the spring when the rivers flood and the wolves have pups to feed, they hunt primarily for food and seem not to care what type of prey they hunt—be it goblin, spider, or elf—so long as they can bring it down. However…" He looked away for a moment, bent down, and retrieved a second arrow from the ground. Turning back to Aragorn with something of an apology written in his gray eyes, he held the arrow up and shook his head. "I do not believe that to be the case here."
"Perhaps those are from shots you missed," Aragorn said quietly.
The elf’s eyes darkened, though the rest of his face remained unchanged. "Do you truly believe that?"
For a moment, no one dared to breathe. Legolas’s voice, deceptively quiet, had contained hints of a dangerous anger, and even Gimli seemed impressed. All waited to see how Aragorn would react, and it was not long before the Ranger turned away from the elf, his hands clenched at his sides. "We should search the area before believing anything," he murmured.
"Then let us search," Gandalf said. "Sam, begin organizing breakfast. The rest, look for signs of the Wargs. But do not stray!" the wizard added, his eyes turning toward the hobbits. "Let us not lose sight of one another."
A difficult command considering our Fellowship, Boromir reflected grimly. There are many here who would like nothing better than to lose sight of one another. But perhaps because of the night’s battle—or perhaps because of the stern warning in Gandalf’s eyes—everyone did as they were asked. The Fellowship spread out and began searching for traces the Wargs might have left behind. Boromir was not quite certain what they were looking for or if they would even know it when they found it, but if nothing else, he was discovering quite a few arrows. At least the elf would be happy.
Collecting the bolts as he went since Legolas had exhausted his supply during the night, Boromir traced a wide circle around the hilltop. Upon completing his route, he stopped and looked around, sighing in resignation. In one hand he clutched his sword. In the other he held his shield and a fist-full of arrows. At no point during his search had he found any evidence that a fight had even taken place with the exception of the smoking trees and the arrows that littered the ground.
Boromir turned and discovered that Frodo had come up behind him. "Yes?"
"All I found were arrows. Did you…"
Boromir shook his head, taking in the arrows that Frodo clutched before turning his attention back to their surroundings. "I found only arrows as well."
"But the Wargs were here. We saw them. We fought them. Why is it that—"
"I do not know," Boromir interrupted bitterly, wishing desperately that he had better answers for the hobbit. These days it seemed that he was always short of answers. There was never enough information. Never enough strength in arms. Never enough men. No matter how hard he tried or how much he endured, the Enemy always had more. It was like an endless dance in which he was always a beat or two behind, and despite his best efforts, he could not learn the steps fast enough to keep up.
Shaking his head, Boromir chased away his grim thoughts and looked back at Frodo. "Let us speak with Mithrandir," he said. "The others are gathering around him. We would be wise to regroup as well."
The hobbit nodded his agreement and Boromir started back toward the fire, which now seemed to be dying quickly. Frodo fell into step beside him and the two arrived just in time to see Legolas drop a bundle of arrows at Aragorn’s feet. "I can account for nearly every shot I took," the elf said quietly. "I am only missing twelve arrows, and I can assure you that I killed more than twelve wolves."
"Here are three more," Frodo offered, adding his arrows to the pile.
"And I have eight," Boromir said, doing the same. "They all appear to be undamaged."
"Thus leaving only one shot unaccounted for," Gandalf said heavily.
"I think that would be this one," Gimli said, holding up the head of an arrow. "The shaft was not attached. It was like this when I found it," he added, tossing the sharp head toward the pile of bolts on the ground.
An uneasy silence fell upon those gathered as they looked at the arrows, all of them whole and intact save one, and then Pippin finally spoke, apparently unable to endure the tension any longer. "I don’t suppose this is normal when dealing with Wargs?" he asked hopefully.
"Nay, it is not," Legolas answered. The elf looked up, his eyes meeting Aragorn’s briefly before turning to Gandalf. "The wolves did not come upon us unaided. They were granted power, both in the attack and in the retreat. There is no other explanation for the arrows. And given these facts, the Wargs are almost certain to return tonight."
"It is as I feared." Gandalf shook his head darkly and sighed before he took a step back, drawing the attention of the Fellowship to himself. "These were no ordinary wolves hunting for food in the wilderness," he said firmly, looking at all gathered and allowing his glance to linger upon Aragorn, as though challenging the Ranger to dispute his assertion. But when Aragorn said nothing, Gandalf nodded and turned back to the rest of the Fellowship. "Let us eat quickly and go!"
And no more discussion did they have. Frodo, Merry, and Pippin quickly joined Sam in creating the morning meal. The others broke camp and packed all the supplies that were not used for breakfast-supper, or whatever it was being called at the moment. All this they did in silence, which was not entirely unusual except for the fact that the silence was accompanied by a strangling sense of foreboding. There was always a certain amount of tension within the Fellowship, whether it was the wars of superiority between Legolas and Gimli, the struggle for dominance against Aragorn, or the strange attempts by the hobbits to push Gandalf as close to the end of his patience as they could get without suffering an untimely death. But this foreboding…this was different. It was palpable. Tangible. Overpowering. It could not be ignored or dismissed. It demanded acknowledgement, and upon receiving that acknowledgement, it continued to make itself known by insisting that doom was only days away. Boromir was not gifted with foresight as his father and brother both were, but he had learned to trust his instincts implicitly. And at the moment, his instincts were rife with warnings about the Fellowship’s next steps. And to think that this is probably only a portion of what Aragorn feels, Boromir reflected, glancing over at the grim Ranger as he secured a bag to Bill’s back. I deem his foresight to be greater than mine, and he has been firmly set against this course from the beginning.
Boromir’s thoughts were then interrupted by Sam’s announcement that breakfast-supper—or supper-breakfast, depending upon who was asked—was ready. Tucking his fears away for the moment, Boromir joined the rest of the company as they ate in silent haste. It was a far cry from normal, and Boromir could not quite suppress a shiver of anxiety. Even the hobbits—who tried to make each meal last as long as possible in an effort to make up for both quality and quantity—finished quickly. Almost before they knew it, the breakfast supplies had been packed and they were ready to depart.
"We must reach the doors before sunset, or I fear we shall not reach them at all," Gandalf said as the Fellowship gathered around him. "It is not far, but our path may be winding, for here Aragorn can not guide us; he has seldom walked in this country, and only once have I been under the west wall of Moria, and that was long ago."
Boromir blinked at this. Up until now, he had been somewhat comforted by the fact that both Aragorn and Gandalf seemed to have an unerring sense of direction. The area was unfamiliar to him, but as long as those guiding their path knew the way, Boromir was able to set aside his natural unease that came with navigating new territory. But the wizard’s announcement about winding paths and inexperienced leaders fanned the growing fear in his heart, and the foreboding that had loomed over him all morning now dimmed the light of the rising sun.
"There it lies," Gandalf continued, seemingly oblivious to the reactions of those around him. Raising a hand, he directed the attention of the Fellowship to the southeast where the base of the mountains still lay shrouded by shadow. Faintly could be discerned a line of cliffs, their faces bare and sheer where they sat at the bottom of the towering peaks. "When we left the pass I led you southwards and not back to our starting point, as some of you may have noticed," the wizard pointed out. "It is well that I did so, for now we have several miles less to cross, and haste is needed. Let us go."
"I do not know which to hope: that Gandalf will find what he seeks, or that coming to the cliff we shall find the gates lost forever," Boromir sighed, glancing at Aragorn as he spoke though his voice was pitched so that all might hear. The Ranger had already tried to warn them of the danger they faced. Now it was Boromir’s turn. "All choices seem ill, and to be caught between wolves and the wall the likeliest chance." He turned his eyes back to Gandalf, making certain that the other had at least listened, though he knew the wizard would not hearken. After a pause, Boromir shook his head and swung his shield up onto his shoulder. "Lead on."
"How much further?"
"Mr. Gandalf said only two or three miles."
"But he said that almost six miles ago."
Sam grimaced and glanced at Pippin, tightening his grip on Bill’s halter when the pony’s hooves slipped slightly on the rock they were scrambling across. "Maybe our reckoning is off and we’re not judging the distance right. I know my mind’s having a bit of trouble taking all this in."
"Even if our reckoning is off, we’ve been walking for more than two or three miles since we asked," Pippin whispered darkly, his eyes turning skyward. "Look at the sun. We’re closing in on noon, and the last time Gandalf said we were close to the stream was at least an hour ago. I may not know much, but I do know that we’re traveling fast enough to have covered more than two or three miles since then."
Sam frowned and looked toward the front of the company where Gandalf and Gimli walked. According to the wizard, there was a trail to Moria that followed the course of a stream, which ran out from the base of the cliffs that had been pointed out earlier that morning. Gandalf’s plan, as near as Sam could tell, was to head south until they found this stream and subsequently the road, which would in turn lead them directly to Moria. It sounded like a good idea to Sam. Going from one landmark to the next made sense, especially after that horrible declaration that no one knew this land well enough to know exactly where they ought to go. But as the Fellowship continued to travel south and neither saw nor heard any sign of this stream, Sam was beginning to wonder about their course.
Beside him, Bill tossed his head restlessly and pawed the ground. Sam quickly laid a hand on his neck, stroking gently and whispering nonsense words to calm the pony. Bill snorted but quieted, obediently following Sam as the hobbit led him over the rocks and through the dry brush, and for this, Sam breathed a sigh of relief. Any sound, no matter how slight, seemed to echo for miles around them. It was so quiet! And open. When they’d first set out, Sam had been thankful for the clear skies, enjoying the light of the sun. But as the morning wore one, he’d become aware of just how exposed the Fellowship was. They scrambled over rocks and around brush with nothing overhead to cloak their presence from spying eyes. Sam tried to keep Bill’s feet on dirt as much as possible, but when he was forced to travel over rocks, the sound of the hooves rang out loud and clear in the still morning. Even Pippin’s occasional whispers seemed to become shouts that revealed their location to all.
Readjusting his hold on Bill’s lead rope, Sam shivered and tried to pick up the pace a bit. Fear was overtaking his mind, fueled by the oppressive silence and driven by the slow realization that Gandalf was lost. Pippin was right. By the wizard’s reckoning, they should have found the stream half an hour ago. The distant cliffs Gandalf had pointed toward before they set out seemed as far away now as they had during breakfast. It felt as though they could wander forever in this dismal country and yet never really move a step.
"Maybe we should say something," Pippin hissed.
Sam thought about that for a moment but then shook his head. "I don’t think we’re the only ones who are concerned," he said, keeping his voice low. "And as no one else is saying anything, maybe we’d best keep our thoughts to ourselves. It could be that Mr. Gandalf’s reckoning is off."
"Which is exactly what we don’t need," Pippin grumbled.
"If we were too far astray, Strider would have said something," Sam argued, speaking more to reassure himself than to reassure his companion.
"Strider is too busy trying to pretend that he doesn’t have a limp."
"He explained that," Sam sighed. "He said—"
"—that he’d turned too sharply during the fight with the Wargs and strained his ankle but that it wouldn’t slow him down or interfere," Pippin finished quietly. "That may be true, but it doesn’t mean he isn’t in pain. And maybe he’s focusing more on that than on—"
Gimli’s sudden call was somewhat muted, but given the complete silence of their surroundings, it seemed almost as loud as one of Gandalf’s fireworks. Bill reared, and Sam hastily pulled him back down, looking around and half-expecting a horde of enemies to descend on them. Judging from the way his fellow hobbits had bunched together and the sharp looks of surprise and wariness on the faces of Aragorn, Boromir, and Legolas, Sam wasn’t alone in his fear. Gandalf alone didn’t seem to mind that they’d just shattered the oppressive stillness and moved toward the dwarf without a word of caution or blame. Unable to do anything else, the rest of the Fellowship followed.
Sometime during the past few minutes, Gimli had pulled ahead of the group and now stood atop a small, rocky knoll, his eyes fixed on whatever discovery had prompted him to shout. Coaxing Bill up the incline was not an easy matter as the pony was now skittish and edgy, but Sam wasn’t about to be left at the bottom while everyone else learned what had caused Gimli to cry out. And after some quiet words and the promise of a meal—a meal that Sam hoped would not be far off for both his sake and the horse’s—Bill surged forward, stopping beside Gandalf and Gimli just as the others reached the top of the knoll. And glancing down, Sam quickly saw the reason for Gimli’s shout.
Below them was what appeared to be a narrow trough that at one point had probably contained water. Indeed, a trickle of liquid could be seen in the midst of the hewn stones in the bottom of the deep channel, but that was all. Whatever waters had previously rushed through this course were long gone.
"Ah! Here it is at last!" Gandalf said, nodding with what seemed to be a strange combination of relief and concern. "This is where the stream ran: Sirannon the Gate-stream, they used to call it," the wizard continued, his voice becoming somewhat distant. "But what has happened to the water, I cannot guess; it used to be swift and noisy."
If it were swift and noisy, it might have provided a bit of noise to cover the sound of our traveling, Sam thought dismally, staring at the trough as though he could will it to fill with water by his gaze alone. After the bitterly cold night on Caradhras, the eternal trek down from the mountain during which they were seen by the birds, and the terrible night spent fending off enormous wolves, Sam had been desperately hoping that this day would prove to be a good one. He hadn’t really been expecting anything extraordinary, but even a slight break in the tension would have been very welcome. Unfortunately, it seemed that all their hopes were falling short these days. First Gandalf had been unsure of their road, and now that he had found their road, it seemed that something was wrong with it. Something that Gandalf could not explain. And Sam had learned that when the wizard could not explain something, trouble was usually not far away.
"Come," Gandalf said, breaking the silence that had fallen over all of them. "We must hurry on. We are late."
I still don’t think it would hurt Mr. Gandalf to humor us once in a while, Sam sighed, tugging gently on Bill’s halter as the wizard led the way toward an ancient road that lay beside the empty stream. I’m sure it wouldn’t do any harm to tell us that we were ahead of schedule or making good progress. I know it would do wonders for my spirits.
"I don’t suppose we could stop for a bit of food," Merry said casually. They had reached the broken road and were starting to wind their way around pieces of wall and cracked stone. It was not exactly a good path, but at least now they had a clear trail to follow. Sam decided to be grateful for small miracles.
"Soon, Master Meriadoc," Gandalf answered, his pace quickening slightly.
"Soon?" Pippin grumbled. "And what does that mean, do you think?"
Sam grimaced in sympathy but refrained from answering. He had given up trying to interpret vague or indefinite statements uttered by anyone other than his fellow hobbits. From Boromir’s snow-packed and nearly impassable "lane" to the complete and utter corruption of the word "shelter," it was clear to Sam that the taller members of the Fellowship had decided to create their own language.
"The wizard said we were late," a quiet voice behind Sam spoke. "Know you how late we might be?"
"Nay, this land is unfamiliar to me," Legolas answered softly. "I have seldom journeyed west of the mountains, and I have never traveled here. Aragorn?"
"We have been delayed by our inability to find the trail, that is certainly true," the Ranger murmured, his voice no louder than a sigh. "I am not altogether certain in my judgement, but I believe that if we maintain a good pace, we should still reach the gates by sunset."
Glancing over his shoulder, Sam noted that Aragorn, Legolas, and Boromir seemed to be having a conference of sorts. The three walked closely together, and their voices were pitched so that those in front of them would be hard pressed to hear what was said. But what they had failed to take into consideration was the fact that hobbit ears were sharp, and Sam’s were sharper than most. Frodo, Merry, and Pippin, who had drawn ahead with Gandalf and Gimli, might not be close enough to listen. But Sam was. And he could not bring himself to ignore the words whispered behind him.
"That thought should gladden my heart, yet it does not," Boromir was saying. "Rather, I feel consumed with dread."
"Would you rather face the wolves than the darkness of the mines?"
"A good question, Ranger. Perhaps if I knew more of this darkness I might be able to answer. What can you tell me of it? For it seems to wear upon your mind."
A long pause followed Boromir’s statement, and Sam risked another glance over his shoulder. Legolas had fallen slightly behind the two men, his eyes scouring their surroundings for signs of enemies, but the tilt of his head indicated that much of his attention was still fixed on the conversation. Boromir was watching Aragorn closely, allowing instinct and skill to guide his feet along the tumbled ruins of the road beneath them. And Aragorn seemed to have turned his concentration inward, his gray eyes unfocused and his brow creased.
"I saw something last night," the Ranger whispered at length. "Something in my dreams. I believe it was something that lies within Moria."
"Can you describe what you saw?" Legolas asked, his voice so soft that Sam had difficulty hearing it.
"Darkness. Naught but darkness. Yet this darkness was not born of shadow or night. Rather, it had a source. It had strength and presence. Almost I could feel its thoughts as they bent towards me."
"And you believe that this darkness will pose a danger to us?" Boromir asked.
"Yes, but more specifically, it shall pose a danger to Gandalf. I have sensed this for days now, and I believe my dreams confirm it. But he will not listen to me when I speak of it."
"Were he to heed you, what would you have him do?" Legolas said. "Few choices are left to us. I do not wish this path, but I do not see another option."
"You do not have to go with us," Aragorn murmured. "You agreed to go only as far as the mountain passes."
"And leave you to the devices of a dwarven mine? Nay, that I cannot do. I will not leave the Ring-bearer now. My own people need me, that is true. But for the moment, I am of more use to them here than I am at home. Should we survive the mines, then I shall see where my path takes me."
Sam felt a slight easing of the tension that had fallen over his heart. He remembered Elrond saying that both Legolas and Gimli had been willing to go as far as the mountains. It was plain from Gimli’s enthusiasm that the dwarf was also willing to braves the mines, but Legolas was another matter. Sam had secretly been wondering if the Fellowship was going to lose one of its members, and his heart was lighter knowing that the elf would tarry with them at least a little longer. Sam didn’t understand all of what Aragorn had said, but he knew enough to know that the Ranger was worried. Anything that Aragorn found threatening was certain to be something dangerous, and if it was something that could be dangerous to even Gandalf…
Sam shook his head. Whatever Aragorn feared wasn’t here yet, and until it was, he wouldn’t concern himself with it. Some things were better left unknown until there was no avoiding them. And perhaps the Ranger was wrong. Perhaps there wasn’t anything to be feared and they were working themselves up over nothing. Perhaps fortune had decided to favor the Fellowship.
And perhaps my old Gaffer will grow himself a pair of wings and learn to fly, a small and disturbingly cynical voice in the back of Sam’s mind replied.
Trudging along stoically behind Gandalf and Gimli as the sun began to sink toward the western horizon, Frodo wondered if the amount of time spent on a meal was somehow directly related to the amount of strength that was gained from said meal. He was exhausted, and as their road had not been unduly difficult this day, the only reason Frodo could think of was that they hadn’t stopped long enough when they paused for lunch. It had been one of the briefest meals he could remember on this trip.
Although, I suppose my weariness might be due to the failed trip up the mountain and the harried night with the Wargs, Frodo reflected, stopping briefly to readjust his pack before summoning the strength to continue.
It was some measure of consolation to Frodo that he was not the only member of the Fellowship who seemed tired. Sam’s feet were also dragging, though he was fortunate enough to have the excuse of having to lead Bill around the various obstacles in their path. Merry and Pippin were also much slower today, and as they did not have the excuse of a pony to explain their faltering steps, they had begun quietly arguing with one another. To them, this was an acceptable reason for a more relaxed pace, and as the afternoon wore one, the rest of the Fellowship had begun to reluctantly indulge them. It was a sign that the hobbits were not the only weary travelers, and aside from that, the soft bickering served to break up the silence that had crept over the land.
Frodo could hear their voices now, though the rear of the party had fallen somewhat behind the three in the lead. At the moment, the topic of debate seemed to be the cliff that ran a stone’s throw away to the left of their trail. Pippin was protesting Merry’s words of warning about heights, arguing that he was not unusually prone to tumbling down rocky inclines and that his fall several days ago had been a singular occurrence. The occasional comment from Sam kept the conversation going while the muted chuckles and asides on the part of Aragorn and Boromir testified that Merry and Pippin were managing to lift the spirits of the party. It was probably a good thing that Legolas had disappeared an hour ago on a scouting run or he might have found himself bearing the brunt of some good-natured jests concerning his own fall into the ravine.
Smiling and shaking his head, Frodo thought about stopping to wait for the others so that he might join the conversation. Gandalf and Gimli were rather dour company at the moment, and Frodo was feeling the need for a bit of mirth that might break through his gloom. But even as he considered the idea, he decided against it. The Fellowship was on this journey because of what he bore, and as Its bearer, he felt it was his duty to know something of their situation. That meant staying close to Gandalf, who was currently the one most familiar with their trail.
And part of staying close to Gandalf means keeping Gandalf in sight, Frodo admonished himself as the wizard and the dwarf turned a sharp bend up in front of him and disappeared from view. Hastening after them, Frodo hurried around the bend and quickly skidded to a halt, almost running into the back of Gimli, who was no longer moving forward. Struggling to catch his breath, Frodo shifted to the side and wondered what had caused his companions to stop so suddenly.
He found himself looking up at a towering cliff face that had been worn down until it was almost completely smooth. A trickle of water tumbled down the middle of the stone, though judging from the cut of the top of the cliff, there had once been a sizeable waterfall here.
"There are records of this place, and I have heard stories of the western Gate," Gimli said quietly, his eyes dark as he looked at the sorry remnants of the waterfall. "But based on descriptions, I saw things quite differently in my mind’s eye. Either things have changed, or we are once again off in our reckoning."
"Indeed things have changed. But there is no mistaking the place," Gandalf answered, and in his voice was a slight note of uncertainty that made Frodo’s stomach jump. "There is all that remains of the Stair Falls. If I remember right, there was a flight of steps cut in the rock at their side, but the main road wound away left and climbed with several loops up to the level ground at the top. There used to be a shallow valley beyond the falls right up to the Walls of Moria, and the Sirannon flowed through it with the road beside it." The wizard paused, considering the sheer rock before them, and then he seemed to shake himself. "Let us go and see what things are like now."
Frodo was of the opinion that they should wait for the rest of the Fellowship to catch up before they went off to investigate anything out of the ordinary, but neither Gandalf nor Gimli looked as though they were in any mood to wait. With a sigh, the hobbit decided that whatever happened, he was probably safer in their company than waiting alone at the base of the cliff. Readjusting the straps of his pack, he swallowed his hesitation and followed.
They found the flight of steps that Gandalf had mentioned off to the left of the waterfall’s remnants, partially hidden from the light of the setting sun by the shadows of the cliffs. In days when water had actually flowed, these steps might have been wet from the spray, but now they were dry and dusty, as though none had dared to use them for years uncounted. Frodo found himself drawing back and even Gandalf seemed to pause as though considering the wisdom of his actions. But Gimli held no such reservations and quickly climbed the stairs, sparing neither a glance nor a word for his two companions. With a shake of his head and a muffled sigh, Gandalf followed the dwarf, and Frodo had no choice but to take up the rear.
Frodo found himself wondering if these steps had indeed been built by dwarves, for while they were broad and sturdy, they were also quite steep. They didn’t seem to slow Gimli at all, who had reached the top by now, but surely a dwarf might have found shorter steps to be easier. Of course, dwarves are not known for going about things the easy way, Frodo remembered, calling to mind some of the things he’d seen and heard from dwarves who’d come to visit Bag End over the years. And Gandalf and Legolas said something about this land having elves at one point. Maybe the dwarves built these steps to prove that they didn’t need any special treatment from the elves. That would make quite a bit of sense.
Gandalf had now reached the top and stood next to Gimli, and gathering his strength, Frodo mounted the last few steps with a burst of energy. He took a moment to enjoy the colors reflected off the top of the snow-capped peaks as the sun prepared to plunge below the horizon, and then he turned his attention to what lay in front of him, namely a large and rather dismal lake.
"That explains where all the water’s gone," Frodo murmured. Looking to his right, he saw a crude dam of logs and rocks that allowed only a thin trickle of water to escape over what used to be the Stair Falls. "I don’t suppose this pond is as big as the one in your stories, Gimli."
"There is no pond in the stories," Gimli answered, his voice quiet and troubled. "Dwarven memory recalls this place as Gandalf said. There should be a shallow valley with the Sirannon running through it. But someone or something has changed that, though for what purpose, I cannot guess."
"Whatever purpose they had, we must hope that it does not interfere with our quest," Gandalf said. He pointed across the lake where the smooth faces of imposing cliffs rose up from the base of the water. "There are the Walls of Moria. And there the Gate stood once upon a time, the elven door at the end of the road from Hollin by which we have come. But this way is blocked. None of the company, I guess, will wish to swim this gloomy water at the end of the day. It has an unwholesome look."
Unwholesome seemed a rather mild way of putting it, in Frodo’s opinion. There was something altogether wrong with the murky water. The sky and the mountains were basked in the light of the setting sun, taking on its fiery colors with enthusiasm. But the lake reflected none of that. It was still and quiet. No ripple marred its dark surface, and no hint of life stirred in its fathomless depths.
"We must find a way round the northern edge," Gimli said at length, shaking off whatever mood had fallen over him. "The first thing for the company to do is to climb up by the main path and see where that will lead us. Even if there were no lake, we could not get our baggage pony up this stair."
"But in any case we cannot take the poor beast into the Mines," Gandalf said, looking at Frodo as he spoke. "The road under the mountains is a dark road, and there are places narrow and steep where he cannot tread, even if we can."
Frodo gaped, his mouth opening wide in a soundless protest, but he seemed incapable of giving voice to his thoughts. What was Gandalf suggesting? That they leave the pony outside the mines? That they abandon him miles from anyone who might be able to look after him? But even as he began to construct an argument in his mind, the words Elrond had spoken just prior to their departure from Rivendell came to him. The others go with him as free companions, to help him on his way. You may tarry, or come back, or turn aside into other paths, as chance allows. The further you go, the less easy will it be to withdraw; yet no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will.
And that was it. Bill was one of the free companions that Elrond had named. And Gandalf had just explained that the pony could not venture into the mines as there were places he could not walk. The further he went, the harder it would be to let him go. If they actually took him into the mines themselves and were forced to abandon him in the darkness, he would have almost no chance of ever seeing safety again. To set him loose now was their only real option. "Poor old Bill!" Frodo whispered, looking back and noting that the other members of the Fellowship had caught up to them and were now congregating at the base of the stairs. "I had not thought of that. And poor Sam! I wonder what he will say."
"I am sorry," Gandalf sighed. "Poor Bill has been a useful companion and it goes to my heart to turn him adrift now. I would have traveled lighter and brought no animal, least of all this one that Sam is fond of, if I had had my way. I feared all along that we should be obliged to take this road."
"Should we…" Frodo hesitated, his eyes drawn to Sam and Bill where they stood somewhat separated from the rest of the group. "Should we set him free now?"
"Nay, not yet," Gandalf answered. "Let us take him with us around the lake. That way there will be an obstacle between him and pursuit."
Frodo nodded mutely, and he felt a strong hand come down upon his shoulder in a silent gesture of comfort. Smiling briefly at Gimli for the gesture, he let out a deep breath and stepped away. "We should go back down, then, and tell them what we’re doing."
"Yes, let us go down again," Gandalf said, glancing back at the cliffs across the lake. "Evening has come upon us. We must make haste."
The trip back down the stairs was not nearly as tiring as the trip up had been, but it was more dangerous. The sunlight was all but gone, and Frodo half suspected that the steps had become even steeper. But through care, caution, and a sense that Gimli was getting rather impatient behind him, Frodo made it to the bottom and breathed a sigh of relief. The rest of the Fellowship drifted toward him, and he noted that Legolas had rejoined the group at some point. The elf’s face was inscrutable, but something in his eyes spoke of unease. Frodo wondered if the archer had found something during his scouting trip, but hesitated to ask. There was tension enough without adding to it, and if Legolas chose not to speak, Frodo would not press the issue.
"Where now?" Pippin asked as Gandalf descended from the last step. "We wondered if we should come up after you, but we didn’t think we could coax Bill up those stairs."
"It is well that you did not follow us, for this way is blocked," the wizard answered. "We must turn north for a bit and climb up the slopes. There is a lake above, which is why there is no stream in the channel. But the lake stands between us and the Walls of Moria. We must search for a way around it. Come!"
With many a grunt and a moan from the tired hobbits—and Frodo was not too proud to admit that some of those grunts and moans came from him—the Fellowship began to scramble up the slopes to the north of the Stair Falls. Surprisingly enough, they made good time. Perhaps sensing that the object of their struggles was growing near granted them additional energy. In any case, it was not long before the Fellowship reached the edge of the lake, and from there they hastened along its shore. The southern end of the lake could not be seen in the fading light, but the northern end was not far away and a stretch of dry ground could be seen that would take them to the other side.
Now they rushed forward, all thoughts of a leisurely pace forgotten. Their goal was not only within sight but almost within reach, and this leant strength to their weary legs. The ominous darkness of the path they were about to tread lingered in Frodo’s mind, but in some ways it was better than the darkness of the path behind him. It felt as though something was watching their movements and tracking their progress. Frodo was not certain of his feelings but he knew he would feel much better if he put stone between himself and possible pursuit.
It was at that point that the leading members of the Fellowship came to a sudden stop, and for the second time that day, Frodo was barely able to avoid slamming into Gimli’s back. Annoyed with the delay now that he had his heart set on moving forward, Frodo stepped around Gimli and unsuccessfully tried to stifle a groan.
They were blocked again.
A portion of the lake had spilled over into their path and created a broad stream that vanished against the darkness of the surrounding cliffs. In the last of the sunlight, Frodo could see that this stream was now green and stagnant, as still as the lake. It was not impossibly wide, but the stench of the water had caused everyone to pause.
Gimli was the first to move. To Frodo, the dwarf seemed as one driven by some great errand, and he had been so ever since Gandalf’s announcement that they would have to take the road through the Moria. It was as though Moria had become a personal quest or vendetta of sorts, and nothing would deter Gimli from entering the darkness of his father’s halls. To this end, he walked into the filthy waters of the stream, stepping with care and slipping once, but righting his balance quickly. After a moment, the dwarf looked back at the Fellowship, his eyes glinting in the sun’s final rays.
"It is not deep," he said. "We can wade easily enough."
Frodo shook his head, looking at the foul stream in dismay, but there was nothing to be done. Gimli had turned and was making his way toward the opposite bank, Gandalf was already wading through, and Merry and Pippin were following, albeit with great reluctance. Boromir went next, a slight grumbling beneath his breath revealing that he was not exactly happy about the situation, and Legolas followed him, walking quickly with a strange stiffness that was very much at odds with his usual grace. Gritting his teeth, Frodo steadied himself and followed.
He could not hold back a shiver when his foot touched the water, and he almost slipped because of it. Fortunately he regained his balance and continued forward, moving as quickly as he could given the slippery stones beneath him. The rocks were slimy and choked with weeds that seemed to cling and grasp. By the time he reached the shore, Frodo’s empty stomach was staging a violent rebellion, and it was all he could do to keep from falling to his knees and heaving. Trying to put as much space between himself and the water as possible, Frodo hurried toward the rest of the gathered Fellowship as Aragorn moved out of the water while Sam quietly talked Bill through the ordeal. The pony was halfway across the stream and obviously disgusted with the situation, but Sam’s firm, calming voice kept Bill moving forward. After a few stumbles and slips that were nearly disastrous, Sam and Bill stepped up onto dry land, both intensely relieved to have put the dark water behind them.
And then they heard the plop.
It was a noise so slight that in other circumstances it might have gone unnoticed. But the strained nerves of the Fellowship had resulted in acute senses, and all turned to stare at the lake. Far away toward the center, something disturbed the surface of the water. Dark rings began to spread outward, and then came a sound of bubbling. Frodo’s hand went to the hilt of his sword and he noticed that his companions were also reaching for their weapons. But then the noise stopped, and the lazy ripples were all that remained. The sun plunged behind moving clouds upon the horizon, and night began to draw its shroud over the mountains.
"Come," Gandalf hissed, startling them all. "We must hasten."
To this counsel, all seemed to agree, but Frodo hesitated for a moment, his eyes drawn to the lake. And as he watched, he gradually became aware that he was not the only one who lingered. Off to his right he could see the shadowy forms of Aragorn and Legolas, who were also watching the waters.
"What do you feel?" Aragorn whispered, apparently heedless of Frodo’s presence.
"I have felt naught but foreboding since yesterday," the elf answered grimly. "That feeling has not changed. As for this lake, it is foul and dark, but more than that, I cannot say."
"Then can you hear or see anything?" Aragorn pressed, apparently unsatisfied with the answer.
Legolas paused and then shook his head. "I can see nothing, but I hear the water shifting, as though something beneath the surface stirs. But I do not know if this is a trick of the wind or if we have roused something that was better left sleeping." He fell silent and then turned his eyes away from the lake, looking back over the direction they’d come. "There are many sounds scarce to be heard this night, heir of Isildur," he murmured. "Not all of them come from the direction of the pool."
"What sounds?" the Ranger demanded. "I hear nothing."
"Some of these sounds are too distant for your ears, but they are not too distant for mine. I wondered if it was perhaps a trick of the wind as it wandered through canyons in the mountains, but there is not wind enough for the number of sounds I am now hearing. I discovered evidence of it while scouting, and now I am sure. The Wargs have returned, Aragorn. They have found our trail, and they are following."
All choices seem ill, and to be caught between wolves and the wall the likeliest chance.
Boromir’s words, spoken as they had left camp that morning, came back to Frodo, and he shivered as the cold hand of fear clutched at his heart. Looking back at the lake, he searched for signs that the water was moving, but whatever Legolas detected, it was beyond Frodo’s ability to sense. Shivering once again, the hobbit decided that he’d heard far too much for his own comfort and turned away, hurrying after the rest of the Fellowship.
Mithrandir, ú-cenin—Mithrandir, I cannot see
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