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While the Ring Went South...: 5. January 2, 3019
"And so we sit again and seek counsel," Aragorn sighed, taking a long draw of some rather damp pipe-weed. The rain continued to pour down through the trees, soaking everything it could reach. Though not as heavy as the cloud burst during the night, the storm was still severe and Aragorn was tempted to suggest the possibility of a fire. He didn’t because of the remote chance that this was no ordinary storm and the Enemy hoped they would reveal themselves, but it was still a fervent wish.
"Our old counsel has not held," Gandalf answered, wiping mud from his staff. "Therefore, I suggest we look for new counsel. And circumstances have changed somewhat." The wizard eyed the dark sky and the dripping leaves over head. "The weather, for example, seems to have turned against us."
"It also seems to have driven off the Warg," Aragorn pointed out. "Neither I nor Legolas felt any sign of him this morning." The Ranger paused and sighed at the mention of the elf. Shortly after the hobbits had fallen asleep, the elf had taken off. He would not be restrained, shrugging off all attempts to do so with deceptive strength, and he had not returned since. He would be back, Aragorn knew that much. But the elf’s pride needed to simmer, and until he could hold civil discourse with his companions, he would remain in the woods. With a shake of his head, Aragorn turned his mind again to their conversation. "I still do not feel this Warg. Perhaps the rain has also washed away our trail and our scent. He will have a more difficult time finding us if he is indeed gone."
"A difficult time, yes, but he will find us eventually," Gandalf said. "In fact, knowing our general location, it will probably not be more than a day or so before he hounds our tracks again. And there is the weather itself to consider. I had hoped to journey further south tonight or the next night, but if the streams begin to swell, it may serve us better to stay to the north where there are better crossings."
"In crossing streams, I think the hobbits and possibly Gimli will be the only ones at a disadvantage, and the hobbits at least will not object to being carried across. Barring that, they and Gimli can ride the pony. It will take longer, but we will be able to continue on our trail southward. And if you speak truly and the Warg quickly finds our scent again, we will not want to waste time wandering in the northern country. South is the most direct route, and I would vote for that."
"As would I. Our counsels agree then," Gandalf said. "All that remains now is to take thought for the Warg and the pursuit he may set to us. My heart still holds misgivings as to his motives. It is unlike a Warg to trail for so long without making some attempt at an attack. I fear he may be holding back because the main pack is not far behind."
"There have been signs of only a single Warg," Aragorn said. "Nowhere in this land do I feel the presence of a pack. Legolas has not said anything of that kind either, nor have you. Perhaps this is an injured Warg, or one that is overly cautious. And I still think the theory that he is an exile holds weight."
"If he had been injured, then Legolas would have been able to kill him two nights ago," Gandalf said. "A wood elf does not miss what he is hunting, yet the Warg was able to escape Legolas’s bow. No, he is in good health. As for being overly cautious, if that were true he would not be trailing us in the first place. And he drew quite close yesterday. Close enough to wake those of us who felt his presence."
"Then perhaps he is an exiled Warg and hunts us for purposes other than those of the Enemy."
"And what purposes would those be, Aragorn? Know you of any? Food? There is far easier prey to be found in the forest. Vengeance? He would have attacked long ago, not caring whether or not he perished so long as he ended the life of one who had offended him. Curiosity? He would have tired of us by the end of the first day." The wizard shook his head and looked out into the damp forest as water dripped from the brim of his hat. "No, it seems clearer with each moment that he is a scout or a spy. He has been sent to follow us and to mark our position. When the main pack arrives, they shall come on us swiftly and we shall be hard-pressed to drive them off."
"Then how do you propose we stop him?" the Ranger asked. "How shall we discourage him from following us and how shall we prevent other Wargs we might encounter from doing the same?"
"First of all, we must look at the problem one Warg at a time. It is no good worrying about the future if we cannot take care of the present. And as for the present, we must wait until the Warg returns. But we must also have ready a plan to spit him when he arrives. This is where you come in. I am learned in lore, but I fear that you are the wiser in hunting."
"Then perhaps we should hold counsel with Boromir and Legolas," Aragorn suggested. "Even Gimli may have suggestions for dealing with a following wolf."
"Perhaps," Gandalf mused. "But we would have to wait for one of that party to return from the woods."
Aragorn grimaced and looked to the surrounding trees. "He is angry, and well he might be. He fell before his foe, and his pride will sting for many days."
"So long as his pride does not lead us to trouble, he is welcome to it," Gandalf muttered. "But it is safer with the group than alone. A prince he might be and an accomplished hunter and archer, but he is still young as elves reckon the passing of years and he has much to learn. I fear what this journey may do to him and to the dwarf as well if they do not change their ways. A long road is hard, but it is harder still when you travel it with an enemy."
"I do not see any hopes that they will become friends," Aragorn remarked.
"They do not need to be friends. They simply need to cease to be foes. And they may surprise you, Aragorn, son of Arathorn. There are many similarities between them that neither can see right now." The wizard sighed and wiped the last bit of mud from his staff. "Well, we cannot worry about that now. Let us return again to talk of the Warg. Have you any ideas at this time?
Aragorn was silent for a moment as he considered the problem. "I think," he said at length, "that Legolas had wise words yesterday when he suggested a trap."
"But you know well that we cannot stop to build one."
"I am aware of that, but we may not have to. A trap can take many forms, and as a Fellowship we ourselves might be a far more effective trap than any we might construct. I think our problem comes in luring the Warg into our grasp. Somehow, we must bait him and force him into revealing himself. We tried last night and failed in part to the weather, but as I now consider this, I do not think separating would have drawn him into the open. We must use bait, and I have in mind a way."
The Ranger fell silent for a moment. He was an odd sight, soaked with rain and caked with mud, but still there was a hidden air of royalty. Gandalf could not help but smile as he considered this muddy, weary, weathered man. He looked for all the world like a wandering vagabond, but in his eyes was light of purpose and destiny that might make an ordinary man quail to see. Even among his own people, rarely had there been a man of such strength and nobility. It gave the old wizard hope, for if fate had played a hand in raising Aragorn, surely it would not abandon them on their quest to destroy the Ring. "What is this other way of which you speak?" Gandalf finally asked when Aragorn remained quiet.
"I do not think the hobbits will approve," he eventually answered, glancing at Sam in particular. "But we are reaching a point of desperation." He looked at Sam once more and then shook his head. "Here, then, is my idea. This Warg is unlike ordinary wolves, but he is still a creature of flesh and blood. He has needs and wants, and he must pause to hunt, drink, and sleep. I have noticed that there is little game around here, and unless he has been most fortunate, he has had little to eat. I suggest…" Aragorn paused again as though coming to a difficult decision. With a deep breath, he plunged ahead. "I suggest we stake our pack animal away from our camp during the day in the hopes that the Warg will take the chance at easy prey."
"You are right," Gandalf said slowly after a moment of awkward silence. "The hobbits will not approve. I am not altogether certain that I approve."
"One could stand watch hidden within the cover of the trees, and the pony need not be far away," Aragorn reasoned. "I do not offer this choice gladly, but I see no other way at this time. When I hunted Wargs through Mirkwood with Legolas, we had large hunting parties capable of moving silently through the trees. All would separate and encircle an area where the wolf was suspected of hiding. Then the circle would start to close. The elf that saw the Warg first would send up a signal and all would converge. The Warg would then panic, he would make a mistake, and an elven arrow would find its mark. Here, we have not the advantage of numbers, nor do we have stealthy hunters. What we do have, though, is bait."
"I do not see how you will explain this to Sam," Gandalf said bluntly. "Nor do I have any desire to be present when you try to do so. But," the wizard continued, "I think your plan has a chance of success. However, I would not have us try this until the weather clears. Arrows and blades may go awry in the rain and I doubt that Sam will forgive you should he lose Bill."
"Then this is our plan?" Aragorn questioned.
"Until we can engineer a better," Gandalf said.
"Good. If that is indeed the case, I have a favor to ask. I would seek Legolas in this rain. Will you take the remainder of this watch?"
"Think you that he desires company?" Gandalf questioned.
"He may not desire it, but he is in need of it," Aragorn answered, rising and shaking his cloak out. "And he is in need of wise words, as well, or as much wisdom as I can give. Specifically, words concerning actions toward a certain dwarf, for I fear that unless he is stopped, he will seek retribution that may be his own undoing."
"Then seek him quickly, for as I said before, it is safer to remain with the group," Gandalf said.
"I will return ere the watch is over," Aragorn promised just before he disappeared silently into the trees. Gandalf sighed, shook his head, and took a lengthy pull on his pipe. It was already turning into a very long day.
* * * *
Perched high in a tree, his face turned upward into the rain, Legolas removed his quiver of arrows and leaned back against a broad trunk. Much of his fury was now being washed away, but smoldering pride still clamored for vengeance. The dwarf had simply gone too far, and Legolas was determined to see him pay. He didn’t know what form this payment would take, but he promised himself that it would be endlessly satisfying. Visions of a beardless dwarf running around in a frenzied panic entertained his thoughts as the crisp rain continued to fall.
A snapping twig about fifty yards away caught his attention. Other than that noise, the woods were completely silent. Reaching for his bow and drawing an arrow from the quiver that hung on a nearby branch, he moved away from the trunk and further out onto the limb, easily balancing himself on the narrow perch. Sharp, gray eyes studied the surroundings woods and after a bit, the elf relaxed, though he was not pleased by what he saw. Shoving the arrow back into the quiver and stringing the bow over his shoulder again, he resumed his seat and watched the progress of the intruder.
He wondered whether or not he should call out to Aragorn or if he should simply let the Ranger wander past. The only reason for Aragorn to be out in this downpour was the elf’s continued absence from the group, but company was the last thing Legolas wanted right now. That was the very reason he had left the Fellowship in the first place. A spark of anger flared in the elf’s heart but died quickly. Aragorn did this out of concern for a friend with whom he’d hunted the servants of the Enemy and in whom he had confided during many cold, cheerless nights around a small fire in the dark places of Mirkwood. It would not be fair to allow him to continue to wander. Of course, there was the small chance that he would be able to find the elf on his own, but Legolas doubted it. He had left the ground not far from where the Ranger was currently tracking, and even Aragorn could not follow an elf’s trail in the trees. Legolas was mildly impressed he had followed him even this far, for elves make little imprints and the rain would have washed away much evidence of his passing. But there he was, stubbornly reading the signs that indicated where Legolas had gone and continuing to trudge on as the rain continued to pour down.
He should be back in the shelter, the elf thought to himself as he watched the man shiver. He then had to silently laugh for calling their campsite a shelter. It was merely a collection of trees where the rain could not penetrate as well.
With a shake of his dripping head, he moved down a branch and squinted through the rain at Aragorn. The Ranger had reached the spot where Legolas had taken to the trees, and he was clearly frustrated and angry. Doubtless he has many words to say to me, the elf perceived. He thought a moment more and then made his decision. If angry words are to be said then let us say them. I would not have him dwell on his anger all morning and then release his rage tonight.
Seizing and shouldering his quiver, the elf jumped lightly down from the tree and started toward the Ranger. He debated about whether or not it would be wise to surprise Aragorn. It would be great fun, but it would also be dangerous if Aragorn reacted as though threatened. In the end, fun won over caution and Legolas slipped silently from tree to tree, making use of the foliage as one who has lived for centuries in the forest. Aragorn seemed to sense his approach and turned, but he bore the expression of one both puzzled and exasperated. Legolas hid a smile and moved closer, wondering how quickly he would have to dodge when Aragorn swung at him.
He looks as though he wishes to call for me, Legolas thought as he moved closer and was able to see more clearly through the rain. Of course he cannot, for that would alert our enemies. But I do not think I have ever seen him so…frustrated. Legolas was beginning to have second thoughts about startling the Ranger, but he was too close now to back down. Besides, in some ways this could be compensation for the early morning’s embarrassing fall. Aragorn might not be responsible for what had happened, but to the elf’s mind, scaring the Ranger would serve as a strange form of retribution. Besides, the others would never allow the punishments he wished to inflict upon Gimli. This might very well be his only chance at some kind of vengeance.
Aragorn now looked into the trees as though seeking for some sign of the elf. Legolas shook his head at that while he continued his stealthy movements. The Ranger should know better than to attempt the tracking of a wood elf in the forest. Once an elf took to the trees, finding him was nigh unto impossible. Aragorn knew that as well as anyone, but still he tried to search. His movements tentative and uncertain, he started moving toward another tree that had a large branch within easy jumping distance of his first tree.
Wrong direction, Legolas thought wryly. I chose not the easy way. But I suppose that to you, Aragorn, all paths in the trees are difficult. The elf glanced at the tree he had actually jumped to and the slender limb that had served as his landing point. From here, it did not look as though it could support his weight, but elven movements within the trees were not always bound by what could and could not be done. Sometimes it was more a question of what the tree would and would not permit. And this tree had quite willingly stretched out its slender limb and strengthened it to provide a place for Legolas to land.
Directing his attention back toward the wet, wandering Ranger, Legolas crept closer. He thought he caught a muttered curse as Aragorn realized the futility of his search. But the man had to know that he was watched. An elven gaze was not an easy thing to miss, and Aragorn had an uncanny knack for sensing when he was being observed. Deciding that the time for hiding was probably over, Legolas moved out of the dripping bushes and stood quietly behind the Ranger.
With another muttered curse, Aragorn turned around as though to head back, saw Legolas, and flinched violently. A smile played with the corners of the elf’s lips at the same time a flash of anger flickered in the Ranger’s dark eyes. "That was not the wisest thing you have ever done, young prince," Aragorn said quietly, his voice too controlled and too calm.
"My friend, there is no conceivable rational you could use to justify calling me ‘young,’" Legolas replied, deciding to temporarily divert the conversation. "Among my own people, it is true enough, but I have lived far longer than you or anyone else in the Fellowship save Gandalf."
Still annoyed, Aragorn folded his arms over his chest and narrowed his eyes. "Did you seek your own death by coming behind me? Or had you another motive?"
"What of yourself?" Legolas returned. "What motive had you for following me?"
Sensing that he was not about to win a word game with the elf unless he turned this into an all-day activity, Aragorn relented and shook his head. "I followed you because I needed to speak with you. And also, I was concerned. Even apart from the Fellowship, it is known to the Warg that you are a member of it and he will seek your death if he can contrive it."
"Then he will have to learn how to conduct himself in a forest better than a wood elf can," Legolas said easily. "He is used to the high mountains and the hidden valleys where trees are sparse and thin. I think you need have no fear on my part."
"I fear not only for your safety but for your actions," Aragorn said, a note of warning entering his voice.
"My actions?" Legolas sounded puzzled, but he actually had a fairly good idea of what the Ranger might be referring to.
"Or future actions, perhaps," the Ranger amended, "as they pertain to a certain dwarf." He paused to study the elf, but Legolas’s face did not change. Only in his eyes did there come a hint of emotion, and then it was but fleeting. Aragorn shook his head slightly. "You cannot continue this ridiculous quarrel. You are a danger to the Quest and the Ring-bearer."
"Perhaps that is true of the dwarf," Legolas said, his eyes beginning to narrow. "But as for me, I have not forgotten the true reason for our journey. My actions have never once betrayed us to Enemy spies or called down Enemy arrows. Nor will they ever."
"So you say, but in these dark times, even small mischief might go awry. You say I cannot call you young, but these pranks are childish! What misfortune has this particular dwarf brought upon your house? You did not even know him until three months ago."
"Does that matter?" Legolas questioned.
"Does the Quest matter?!"
Gray eyes storming over with anger and indignation, Legolas tightened his jaw. "I know the importance of what we do, as does every elf from here to the Undying Lands. Do not preach to me on the importance of that which Frodo bears! It carries with it the future of the Eldar race and ultimately our undoing, for either way the Quest bends, our days in Middle Earth are ended."
"Then let them end with honor and victory!" Aragorn said.
"You think I would have it any other way?" Legolas demanded.
"If you would not, then show it," Aragorn challenged, growing angry in turn. "The dwarf is not your enemy. Save your cunning for the true foes. We shall have need of it ere our quest is through."
For a long, awkward moment, elf and man stood facing one another in a test of wills. It was Legolas who eventually looked away. "This morning’s actions can not go unpunished," he murmured, a hint of his father’s stubbornness entering his voice.
"Legolas, you are immortal," Aragorn said, completely exasperated. "You have years uncounted to roam at will through Middle Earth and Valinor. One small embarrassment in the wilderness does not merit your concern. One hundred years from now, none will remember this incident. Is the safety of Middle Earth truly so trivial that you would throw it away for your pride?"
"Your concerns are unfounded," Legolas said flatly. "I will not endanger us."
"You cannot be certain of that. Anything you do might be a danger."
"Our very presence is a danger to the Ring-bearer, yet we are still with him," the elf shot back.
The Ranger ran a tired hand over his face. "If I cannot convince you, will you at least promise me one thing?" he asked wearily.
"What is that one thing?"
"Do nothing today or tonight. Wait."
"Why should I do that?"
"Because we are already in bad circumstances," Aragorn answered bluntly. "We do not need the two of you making it worse."
"Then I suggest you speak to the dwarf."
The elf scowled, but he eventually nodded in grudging assent. "Very well," he said, though he was clearly not happy about the situation. "You have my word that I will do nothing today and I will do nothing while night endures."
"Thank you," Aragorn sighed. "And I will talk with Gimli during his watch." Wiping the dripping rain from his forehead, the Ranger glanced around the forest. "Will you come back to the Company now? There is safety in numbers, and the rain is less beneath our trees."
"Less, but not abated. And once you are wet enough, it makes little difference where you stand."
"True, but there is still safety."
"The forest is quiet today," Legolas said evasively. "All the creatures are sleeping through the storm. If danger does approach, I shall hear it soon enough."
"For my sake then," Aragorn tried. "At least as a sign of unity. The hobbits, I think, feel safer when we present ourselves as a group rather than as quarreling foes."
"The hobbits are asleep."
"Frodo and Pippin have watches."
"So does Gimli."
Aragorn finally threw up his hands. "Then would you humor me? Or would you at least show some interest in a mission for which Elrond deliberately chose you?"
Legolas studied the Ranger and finally nodded. "If that is truly your wish, then I will come back. But do not expect me to hold discourse with the dwarf. Though I have given my word not to initiate mishap, I will act in self-defense."
"You shall have no cause to do so," Aragorn assured him, turning back toward the meager camp as the elf fell into step beside him. "I intend to speak with him and extract from him the same promise you gave me."
"The word of a dwarf," Legolas said with a derisive snort.
"The word of a dwarf is more reliable than that of most Races," Aragorn said sharply. "They have a fierce sense of honor, and their stubbornness and pride rivals that of the elves."
To this, Legolas made no response but fell silent at the Ranger’s side, watching the surrounding trees and occasionally wiping his face free of rain. At least we will have peace for a while, Aragorn thought. Though I doubt not that at sunrise tomorrow, they will be at it again. Still, as Gandalf had already said, a feud spanning thousands of years could not be mended in a day or even a week. But at least it could be put aside for a small time. And I suppose I shall have to settle for that, Aragorn sighed. For I see no hope that the two of them shall ever be more than bitter foes.
* * * *
Boromir did not like the rain. He never had, and he didn’t see this opinion changing in the near future. He didn’t care for mud, either. Oh, he’d endured many military campaigns in the shadows of the Ephel Duath Mountains when they were cloaked in cloud and rain and hail blew hard against the face of every man. But that didn’t mean he’d enjoyed those particular outings. In fact, those were the times when he usually turned command of the main regiment over to Faramir and took control of the scouts, who slipped in and out of the undergrowth and avoided much of the moisture that hounded the troops in the open.
Turning over with an ill temper in the squelching mud, he wondered if there was a piece of him somewhere that was not thoroughly soaked through to the bone. He decided there wasn’t and sighed heavily. Perhaps things would improve once they got underway. He had to snort in derision at this rather optimistic thought. He had been partially awake when Gimli had taken over on watch, and he had listened with interest to the conversation Aragorn had endured with the dwarf, eventually receiving a promise that Gimli would not take action against Legolas for one day and night. It had been something of a learning experience for Boromir as Aragorn had used expressions and phrases that the dwarf immediately responded to, but they had held no particular meaning for Boromir. It is as I felt before. He is too sundered from his own Race and knows too much of elves and dwarves. And even hobbits, it seems!
Boromir rolled over again, stubbornly ignoring the clinging mud as he did so and looked for Aragorn among the dozing Fellowship members. The Ranger was nowhere to be seen, and Boromir quickly noted that the elf was also absent. Scouting, most likely. He chooses strange companions, if Legolas was indeed a choice. I suppose the presence of a wood elf might aid him in these dark forests, but how shall elven counsel ever rival that of a man’s?
A string of imaginative dwarven curses caught his attention and he cast his eyes toward Gimli. Gimli was attempting to smoke some pipe-weed—a substance that never failed to send shivers of disgust down Boromir’s spine—and he was failing miserably as the rain relentlessly doused any spark of flame that he might manage. It was probably not the best start to their day, though there was still an hour left before the company was expected to rise. Still, in his small time with Gimli, Boromir had quickly learned that the dwarf’s fiery temper was to be avoided at all costs, and it looked as though this continuing rain was making that temper shorter than ever. Promise or no, Legolas had best be on his guard. Of course, the elf seemed perfectly capable of defending himself through both words and actions providing there was sure footing beneath him.
The man shook his head as he recalled the mishap of the early morning. That had been something Boromir would not soon forget. The gasps from Aragorn and Gandalf, the bewilderment and gleam of victory in Gimli’s eyes, the flash of complete surprise and confusion followed by burning rage for Legolas…it had all happened in but a few seconds, but those few seconds spoke eloquently about the personalities of his companions, giving Boromir more to go on than all his observations in Rivendell had provided. I wonder how it shall all play out, Denethor’s son pondered, surrendering to his wakefulness and sitting up with a slight stretch. If nothing else, it shall be interesting.
"You are up early," Gimli observed, his voice bitter and angry.
"I saw no reason to lie in the mud once I woke," Boromir replied, carefully giving the dwarf a wide birth as he strode around the camp and worked the stiffness from his muscles. "Know you where Aragorn or Legolas are?"
"Aragorn is scouting," Gimli said, making no mention of the elf.
"I see," Boromir said slowly, trying to decide how to read the omission of Legolas. Did that mean that the elf was scouting with Aragorn or that the dwarf didn’t know where he was?
The question was answered by a low, rather dangerous-sounding voice behind the man. "As for me, I am right here."
Turning with a jerk, Boromir’s eyes narrowed as he caught sight of Legolas leaning against a tree on the edge of camp. He had not seen the elf and it is doubtful that he would have had not Legolas announced himself. "How long have you been there?" Boromir demanded.
"He has been there since the beginning of my watch," Gimli spat, glaring at the elf who continued to watch him with eyes that could pierce a dragon’s soul.
Boromir despaired of understanding either one of these strange beings and walked away, moving to his pack and trying to clean it of the thick mud. After a few minutes, he gave up and turned back only to find that dwarf and elf were still staring at each other, neither one giving ground though it looked as though Gimli longed to. A staring contest, Boromir despaired. And father says that Faramir and I can behave childishly at times!
Sounds of a clearing throat interrupted the staring contest and three sets of eyes turned to Aragorn who had just returned from scouting. "I believe that both of you promised me something," he said with a dark glower.
"So we did," Legolas replied coolly. "And I at least am true to my word."
"What do you mean by that, elf?!" Gimli demanded.
"If you cannot understand it, then that is your loss," Legolas answered.
"Perhaps this morning’s fall has rattled your mind and you make no sense when you speak," Gimli challenged.
A flash of rage bright enough to compare with Denethor’s anger flickered through the elf’s eyes, and Boromir felt a quick surge of respect for Legolas. Anyone who could summon as much ire as his father was able to summon deserved at least a nod from him. "You would do well to watch yourself, Durin’s son," Legolas said softly, and his tone sent shivers down Boromir’s spine. "I fear there is more substance in your beard than there is in your head."
"Enough!" Aragorn interjected sharply. His voice caused Pippin to stir and roll over while Gandalf murmured something less than complimentary. The Ranger gave them no heed and continued. "Taking no action against the other includes derisive remarks."
"That was not part of the agreement," Gimli said.
"It is now," Aragorn warned. Both Gimli and Legolas sent him dark looks, which the Ranger returned with skill and anger.
By the staff of the stewards, Boromir thought bleakly, stomping into the surrounding forest as nature called to him. He had no intention of being caught in the crossfire should something develop from this current confrontation. He shook his head, still pondering the personalities with which he was forced to travel. I fear that once more, he ultimately decided, it will be a very long night.
* * * *
"509 and 510."
"Pippin and Merry!" Frodo warned, his voice sounding tired and haggard.
"512 through 526."
"Merry and Pippin!" Frodo tried again.
"I’m truly sorry, Mr. Frodo," Sam mumbled as he led a dispirited pony behind the Ring-bearer. "But on my honor, I didn’t know they would take my suggestion to heart!"
Tired of listening to muttered complaints about the weather from both Merry and Pippin, Sam had suggested they count the number of large raindrops that hit their feet instead of grumbling. He now seriously regretted his actions. The continual stream of numbers was beginning to grate on everyone’s nerves.
"Aragorn, a moment please. And if I could have quiet from everyone else…"
Gandalf’s rather pointed suggestion succeeded in silencing Merry and Pippin momentarily, but Sam and Frodo both knew that this reprieve would not last long enough. Digging into one of Bill’s many bags and finding a collection of dried meat, Sam munched away, trying to think of a time when he’d been dry and comfortable. He watched the shadowy figures of Strider and Gandalf curiously, wondering what they were saying and if they were talking about finding shelter. He had to admit that his idea of shelter differed vastly from Strider’s idea of shelter. Their camp during the day had not been dry in the slightest, but when compared to the rain outside their collection of trees, it had been a rather bitterly pleasant place to sleep.
"533," Pippin whispered. Sam felt like slugging him but didn’t because one: it would be improper and inappropriate, and two: it would interrupt the travel of food from his hand to his mouth.
Not constrained by these reasons, Frodo went ahead and sent Pippin sprawling into the mud. Merry laughed delightedly but quickly stopped when faced with Frodo’s dark glare. But when Pippin turned an outraged expression on the entire group, even Frodo couldn’t help but smile slightly.
"Come," Gandalf announced abruptly, pulling attention away from Pippin’s muddy form. "We shall turn south and follow the course of this stream. Aragorn can lead us to a place where the bank has been undercut. It may provide us with a shelter of sorts."
"Now he qualifies his shelters," Sam muttered. "And if this is a ‘shelter of sorts,’ and yesterday was a ‘shelter,’ I wonder how wet we’ll be by tomorrow evening."
"Have no fear, Master Samwise," Aragorn laughed quietly, having overhead the hobbit’s grumbled remark. "This shelter shall provide more cover. The problem comes in its size, for not all of us will be able to fit within. But we will be able to store the baggage, and if nothing else comes of it, we may have dry garments to don tomorrow."
"The river is running high this year," Legolas interjected softly. "And the rain makes it worse. Will your shelter still be there or shall the river have risen above it?"
"That is something we will have to see," Aragorn answered coolly. The hobbits didn’t miss this strange degree of tension between elf and Ranger. As Sam thought about it, he realized the two had barely spoken a word to one another since they’d started the journey, and that was odd, because they were usually sharing some private joke or speaking softly during halts. He wondered what the reason could be for this and ultimately decided that he really didn’t want to know. He only wished they could make amends quickly because he liked Strider and he wanted to get to know Legolas better. It seemed wrong that they should be upset with one another.
The Fellowship trudged on through slick mud and thick rain for perhaps another two hours before Aragorn called a quick halt. Wiping water from his face, he walked forward into the trees and disappeared from all save the eyes of Legolas. Straining his sight, the elf could make out the silhouette of the Ranger approaching the riverbank where the water was flowing swiftly. Aragorn glanced up and down the stream, looking for something, and then he moved forward again. There was another pause, and then he turned back toward the company. At length, he stepped out from the trees and addressed Gandalf, though his words could be easily heard by everyone.
"The river has not drowned this shelter as Legolas feared," he said. "But it is smaller than I remember, probably due in part to the rising water. We shall be able to store the packs there and lay out clothes for drying, but I fear that with the supplies inside that there shall be no room for the rest of us. For ourselves, we must seek a different site or endure this storm here as best we can."
"Baggage without a guardian is a dangerous thing, even here in lands without inhabitants," Gandalf mused quietly. "Two must stand watch: one for the packs and one for the company." He was quiet a moment more, studying the weather thoughtfully. "Legolas, Boromir, and Aragorn. You shall rotate through guarding the packs. You three are all familiar with swift rivers and their danger, and you are used to longer watches and difficult circumstances."
"Then let us store the baggage and set one to watch while the other two go one with the rest of the Fellowship," Aragorn said. "This way, two will know where the Fellowship lies and we may meet up with you again when darkness falls."
Gandalf nodded, accepting the Ranger’s council. "Unload the pony. Let us work on storing our packs here, and then we may proceed the faster to a place of better shelter."
"See, Sam?" Merry spoke up. "Now it’s a ‘better’ shelter."
"But better than what?" Sam wondered with a sour glance at the sky. "Not better than a house, that’s certain."
"Even if it was better, how could we tell?" Pippin asked, pulling a large sack of food off Bill. "We’re really too wet to notice a difference."
Once again, Sam seriously considered slugging Pippin.
* * * *
The clouds had gone from a dark gray to a lighter gray, which meant the sun was rising though none could really tell. Boromir had stayed with Bill and the luggage while Legolas and Aragorn traveled on with the rest of the group, searching for some place where they might be reasonably dry. Without the pony and the packs, they were making good time, but they had yet to find a place where they might comfortably spend the day. Frodo was beginning to wonder if the river might not be the driest place to sleep when Aragorn suddenly stopped and swung left through the forest.
Puzzled by his abrupt actions, Gandalf halted and the rest of the Fellowship stopped behind him. It did not take long for Aragorn to return, and he bore a weary but grateful smile. "I have found something that might pass for a shelter," he reported. Ignoring Sam’s audible groan, he beckoned them to follow.
A few minutes later, they were facing a rocky overhang that offered refuge from the rain so long as the wind did not blow. Considering the fact that the wind had been gusting on and off throughout the previous day, this was not much. But it is better than nothing, Frodo allowed.
"I think we need to work on our definitions," Sam stated, eyeing the rocks. "My version of a shelter isn’t the same as everyone else’s version of a shelter."
"No, Sam, I think you and I are on the same page," Pippin said. "That is not a shelter."
"Would you have us construct a house for you?" Gimli asked. "Or perhaps a hobbit hole with lush furnishings, a warm bed, and a hot bath to go with it?"
"I’d settle for a warm bed and a hot bath," Merry said. "You can keep the furnishings."
"It is either this or the trees," Gandalf said, moving beneath the overhang. "And I have chosen this."
"Then Legolas and I will leave you," Aragorn said. "Take comfort, my friends, in the fact that your bed will be drier than ours. Until morning."
"Until morning," Gandalf answered with a nod.
Aragorn turned to go, but Legolas stood still, his head cocked and his eyes closed as though listening. The Ranger turned to him with a confused expression and moved as though to speak, but at that moment, the elf’s eyes popped open. He set an arrow to his bow with a speed no mortal eyes could follow, and then the bolt screeched through the morning air.
An outcry from Gimli and gasps from the hobbits followed. Almost afraid to look, Aragorn and Gandalf tracked the arrow’s flight path until their eyes rested on the dwarf. He was pinned to a nearby tree by his beard, the arrow securely nailing it in place. Aragorn turned an outraged expression on Legolas only to be met with a smile. Shouldering his bow, the elf met the Ranger’s challenging eyes with a cool calm as he folded his arms across his chest.
"The sun has just risen," he said simply.
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