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During a journey in the dark...: 5. January 13, 3019 (Night Part 1)
His breath coming in frantic gasps and his heart pounding in his ears, Frodo clutched his chest and wheeled about, eyes searching the blackness. Above the roar of his blood, he heard muffled crashes from the outside world, and he shuddered at the thought of what lay beyond the stone doors.
Something caught at the sleeve of his coat, and Frodo jerked away before recognizing Sam’s presence as the other hobbit seized his arm and then collapsed backward onto the steps. Still reeling from whatever had grabbed him outside the mine, Frodo lost his balance and fell back with Sam, landing heavily on the stairs and wincing as the edge of one unforgiving step slammed into his back.
"Poor old Bill!" Sam whispered, and Frodo felt the gardener trembling beside him. "Poor old Bill! Wolves and snakes! But the snakes were too much for him. I had to choose, Mr. Frodo. I had to come with you."
Still shaking himself, Frodo put his arms around Sam, wishing there was something he could say. But he did not quite trust his voice, and words would be meaningless. Bill was gone, running somewhere beyond the foul lake in a night that howled with the voices of wolves. Frodo could find nothing to reassure himself, much less Sam, so he stayed silent, holding the gardener tightly and trying to shake away the fear that still throbbed in his mind.
The heavy step of Gandalf’s boots caught his attention, and Frodo shifted to the side even as the wizard’s cloak brushed past his face. He could not see Gandalf in the darkness, but the noises outside were dying away and it was not difficult to follow the sound of his feet. The wizard walked back to the doors, and then there were no sounds save for Sam’s ragged breathing. Wondering what was happening, Frodo was on the verge of simply asking when a sharp crack startled them all. The rocks above and beneath groaned and rumbled, and with sudden panic, Frodo realized that Gandalf was attempting to open the doors. His heart skipped a beat as he remembered the grasping tentacles, and he opened his mouth to cry out in protest when all the sounds suddenly faded away, leaving them with nothing but a dark silence.
The doors remained shut.
Frodo felt an intense surge of relief at the thought that he would not have to face the creature—or creatures—that nested in the foul lake, but even as his panic receded, a chilling thought came to him: There was no going back.
Beside him, Sam sniffed and pulled away, mumbling quiet words of gratitude. Frodo nodded absently in response, forgetting that Sam could not see the motion. Farther up the stairs, he heard someone shift about uneasily and guessed that it was Merry. He did not know if Pippin would realize the significance of the closed doors, but Merry would. And Merry would appreciate just how dangerous their situation had become now that their only option was to go forward.
"Well, well." Gandalf’s voice broke the silence as the wizard started back up the stairs. "The passage is blocked behind us now, and there is only one way out—on the other side of the mountains. I fear from the sounds that boulders have been piled up, and the trees uprooted and thrown across the gate." He paused, and Frodo thought he heard a quiet sigh. "I am sorry; for the trees were beautiful, and had stood so long."
While Frodo would agree that the trees had been beautiful, he was grateful the tentacles had ultimately gone for them rather than for him. "I felt that something horrible was near from the moment that my foot first touched the water," he whispered, shivering at the memory. "What was that thing, or were there many of them?"
"I do not know, but the arms were all guided by one purpose," Gandalf said. "Something has crept, or has been driven, out of dark waters under the mountains. There are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep places of the world."
And these older and fouler things laid hold of me, Frodo thought, shivering once again. And now we are to march into their den!
"In the deep places of the world!" Boromir muttered, echoing both Gandalf’s words and Frodo’s thoughts. "And thither we are going against my wish. Who will lead us now in this deadly dark?"
"I will," Gandalf said firmly, and in his voice was no room for doubt. "And Gimli shall walk with me. Follow my staff!"
It was then that Frodo noticed a faint light in the darkness, and as he watched, he realized that the light was coming from the tip of Gandalf’s staff. Slowly but surely, the shadows gave way before it, and Frodo could make out the other members of the Fellowship huddled upon the steps. The stairs continued upwards until they passed into the darkness that hovered just beyond the reach of Gandalf’s light, and something about those shadows made Frodo shiver. Something out there was waiting…
Sam’s hushed voice drew Frodo from his thoughts, and he blinked, realizing that the others were moving forward now.
"Are you all right, sir?"
"Fine, Sam," Frodo murmured, not entirely sure of what he felt and reluctant to speak of it until he was. "Come on. We mustn’t fall behind."
Sam appeared dubious, but he said nothing and dutifully followed Frodo up the stairs. They quickly reached Merry, Pippin, and Aragorn, who had stopped to wait for them, and together they followed the bobbing light of Gandalf’s staff. "First mountains and now steps," Pippin whispered. "How many of these are there?"
"Fifty-eight so far, Mr. Pippin," Sam answered.
The gloom over Frodo’s heart lifted, and his lips twitched into a smile. "You’re counting them?"
"Mr. Bilbo will be wanting to know things like this, sir. For his book, you understand. He told me I should remember as many details as I could. Besides, if there are too many steps, maybe I’ll feel better about leaving poor Bill behind. He…he wouldn’t have liked the steps. He didn’t much care for the mountain, either." Sam lapsed into silence and Frodo mentally cursed himself, the Quest, the Ring, and Dark Lords in general. They had just lost one member of the Fellowship because of Moria, and Frodo could not help but feel that this was an omen of sorts.
"How many now, Sam?" Aragorn asked quietly.
"Seventy-four too many if you ask me," Pippin sighed.
"I thought you complained once that the Shire was too flat and that the hills weren’t big enough for adventurous Tooks," Merry said.
"Well, I take it back."
"These steps aren’t bad," Frodo offered. "They’re not very steep and there’s little danger of falling. How long ago were they built, Strider?"
Aragorn was quiet for a moment, considering his answer. "I do not think any story tells," he said at length. "Moria itself was founded before the First Age, when there were naught but stars to light these lands. But I do not know when the dwarves forged a tunnel through the heart of the mountain to make the West-gate, or when they carved steps to aid their travels. Gimli might know, yet even among the dwarves, tales of happenings so long ago are now songs and legends. I do not think any would reveal when these halls were built."
"Even so, they must be thousands of years old," Merry whispered with a hint of awe. "But they don’t look like they’ve aged at all!"
"They are old, certainly," Aragorn said. "The work of the dwarves endures, even when all else has faded."
"I guess that puts this all into a bit of perspective," Pippin said. "I’m walking on something that was here thousands of years ago."
"In Rivendell, you met elves that have lived even longer than that," Aragorn said, smiling when Pippin’s eyes widened at the revelation. "But look ahead. I think I see the end of the steps."
"How many are we at now, Sam?" Frodo asked.
"One hundred and sixty-five," Sam answered, pausing to adjust his pack.
"If that really is the end of the steps, then there will probably be around two hundred of them," Merry said. "It certainly looks like the end. I think Gandalf has stopped."
"Yes, he has," Aragorn confirmed, moving ahead of the hobbits. "Come. Let us see what he has found."
It was difficult to keep up with the Ranger’s long legs, but Frodo increased his pace nonetheless. Though Aragorn was hiding it well, Frodo could hear tension in the man’s voice. Something troubled him, and as Aragorn had been right about the Ringwraiths on Weathertop and the crows in Hollin, Frodo thought it would be best to heed the Ranger’s instincts here as well.
"Two hundred exactly," Sam announced as they reached the last step. "The dwarves knew what they were at when they made this."
"Of course they did," came a slightly indignant response from somewhere beyond Gandalf. "Dwarves make nothing unless we have a good plan and a clear vision for what it is we are making."
Looking around the arched hallway they had found, Frodo decided that this was undoubtedly correct. The hewn rock was smooth, with no sign of a chip or a blemish. The walls on either side matched perfectly as they rose up straight and tall on both sides of the Fellowship and then curved to meet at the top. Here was craftsmanship, and yet Frodo knew that the dwarves would consider this but a trifle compared to their other labors.
A slight rumbling sensation interrupted his thoughts, and after a moment’s confusion, he realized that the demands of his stomach were overcoming the last of his panic. And if he was hungry, then it was probably safe to assume that Sam, Merry, and Pippin were also hungry. They’d best take care of that now before they began traveling in earnest.
"Let us sit and rest and have something to eat, here on the landing, since we can’t find a dining room," Frodo suggested, pitching his voice deliberately light in an effort to dispel what remained of his fear.
"That’s the most sensible thing I’ve heard all day," Pippin said. "Though I wouldn’t mind it if we could find a dining room. I don’t suppose the dwarves thought to include one here."
"A brief rest will do us all good, I believe," Gandalf said, ignoring Pippin. "And we should look into the supplies we have, for I fear that much was left behind at the Gates."
"Go sparingly with the food," Boromir warned as all four hobbits promptly dropped their packs. "I doubt we will find much to eat in these dark halls."
"Nothing fit for a hobbit, I’ll warrant," Sam sighed, sinking down against a wall and digging into his pack.
"Boromir and Legolas have much of the extra food while Gimli and I have the spare water-skins," Aragorn said. "Much was left behind, but we should have enough for our needs." The Ranger paused, and in the dim light of Gandalf’s staff, Frodo saw a worried frown cross his face. "We have none of our kindling, though. We placed that in the packs we thought to rotate within the Fellowship, but it was forgotten in the attack. There is nothing we might use to create torches."
"Meaning that we will be unable to scout ahead," Legolas said grimly, speaking for the first time since they’d entered the mines. There was something strained about his voice, and with growing concern, Frodo looked for the elf, eventually finding him on the edge of Gandalf’s light. He could not make out his face in the shadows, but his body was tense and rigid, as though he sensed peril but could not determine its source.
"True, but perhaps that is for the best," Gandalf answered. "There is strength in numbers, and whatever we may find in these mines, it is probably best if we find it together. Moreover, these paths will begin to split and join as we go on. It would not be wise to send one or even two forward, for it would be easy to become lost."
"It will be easy to be taken unawares if we have no warning of what is to come," the elf muttered, but he said no more than that, turning away from the Fellowship to stare into the shadows.
"We journey in the halls of my fathers," Gimli spoke up, and within his deep voice, Frodo heard a faint tremor of excitement. "Dark they may be now, but they have not forgotten who carved the hearts of the mountains. If any approach with ill intent, we will know it."
"Will that be enough?" Boromir asked. "My brother’s Rangers patrol the forests of Ithilien, and they also know when any approach with ill intent. But rarely can they do aught about it save to hide and hope they remain unseen."
"And that will have to be enough for us," Gandalf said firmly. "We are here, and we cannot go back. Now let us cease this talk and eat. We must move on shortly."
Gandalf’s instructions about talking—or rather, the lack of talking—were heeded, but Frodo was quick to note that the hobbits seemed to be the only ones following his instructions about eating. Gimli was chewing on some of the salted meat, but he did not seem aware of his actions and he ate no more than a few bites. Boromir had a handful of dried fruit, but he ate none of it, his eyes moving between the darkness and Aragorn as though trying to gauge the former by the reaction of the latter. Aragorn himself had not even made a show of retrieving food from his pack and now stood silently beside Legolas, who seemed as taut as the strung bow he now held in his hands. The apprehension of their taller companions wore upon the hobbits, and Frodo saw Pippin pack his food after a short time. Merry and Sam followed suit, and Frodo’s own hunger vanished in the face of fear and foreboding. Gandalf alone seemed to be the only one not affected, and he ate quietly without so much as a glance at the rest of the Fellowship, affecting an unconcerned air that made the unease of the others all the more stark and unsettling.
At length, Gandalf finished and brought out a familiar flask, taking a quick drink before handing it to Aragorn. "The food and the previous excitement have left me parched, and I suspect you all feel likewise," the wizard said. "The miruvor will do us all much good, and even if you do not eat, you should at least drink to keep up you strength." This last was said with a rather pointed look at Aragorn, Legolas, Boromir, and Gimli.
Ignoring the glare but drinking nonetheless, Aragorn took the flask away from his mouth and tested its weight before giving the flask to Legolas. "There is little remaining," he observed.
"It will not last much longer, I am afraid," Gandalf agreed. "But I think we need it after that horror at the gate. And unless we have great luck, we shall need all that is left before we see the other side. Go carefully with the water, too," he cautioned, looking at Merry who was taking a drink from his water-skin. "There are many streams and wells in the Mines, but they should not be touched. We may not have a chance of filling our skins and bottles till we come down in the Dimrill Dale."
"How long is that going to take up?" Frodo asked, suddenly anxious to be out of the darkness.
"I cannot say," Gandalf answered. "It depends on many chances. But going straight, without mishap or losing our way, we shall take three or four marches, I expect. It cannot be less than forty miles from West-door to East-gate in a direct line, and the road may wind much."
"Three or four marches without mishap?" Legolas said, turning back to the Fellowship. His face was blank and his eyes inscrutable, but Frodo still sensed a note of disquiet within his voice. "What is the likelihood of that happening, Mithrandir?"
"We shall know after three or four marches," the wizard said briskly. "Now come. We have tarried here long enough. Have all had a sip of miruvor? Good. Now let us gather up our packs and depart. It is time to be underway again."
That wasn’t really an answer, Frodo thought, struggling to ignore the chill of dread that had taken up residence in his stomach. It was eerily similar to the chill of the Ring as it lay against his chest, and he shivered, earning himself a concerned look from Sam. Shaking his head quickly to reassure the gardener, he turned to his pack and swung it up on his shoulders. Maybe once they began moving again, he would feel better.
A cynical voice in the back of his mind laughed at that thought.
Before they set off again, Gandalf casually reminded the Fellowship that they actually had three potential sources of light rather than just one. Beyond the wizard’s staff, there were the swords Glamdring and Sting, both of which were now drawn. Should any Orc approach, the elven blades would warn them by emitting a cold glow of their own. As Gandalf put it, there would be sufficient light for a battle.
Merry did not view this as particularly comforting.
The Fellowship was silent as Gandalf led them into the darkness, and Merry found himself casting suspicious glances into the shadows. He knew this to be a fruitless endeavor, for if anything were there, the more experienced members of the Fellowship would probably be aware of it long before he was. But he could not quite help himself. The tunnel was beginning to twist and turn, and Merry felt a growing anxiety about what might be around the next corner. Gandalf’s staff was not nearly bright enough for his tastes, but he did not complain, fearing that any words he said would tempt fate and bring forth additionally light from the elven swords.
Merry was able to take some comfort in the fact that he was not the only one upset by the darkness. Frodo and Sam were just as uneasy, and Pippin’s arm would brush his own from time to time as though looking for something tangible to drive the darkness back. Even the Big People seemed affected. Directly in front of him, Legolas would occasionally glare at the shadows about the walls, and it was Merry’s considered opinion that these glares were powerful enough to hold an entire pack of Wargs at bay. And while he could not see Boromir and Aragorn as they walked behind him, he could certainly hear them. They said nothing, but their breathing was…different. Merry was actually surprised he noticed, but after two weeks of traveling, he had become aware of the small quirks and habits of his companions. He could not deny what his instincts were telling him now: Boromir was wary, and Aragorn was… Merry frowned, listening closely to the Ranger. Frightened? Was Aragorn frightened?
Unnerved, Merry shoved that thought to one side and directed his attention forward. His timing was fortuitous, for Legolas chose that moment to stop suddenly. Feeling a sudden rush of fear, Merry also stopped and caught Pippin’s sleeve, stopping him as well.
"Legolas?" Aragorn’s voice questioned from the back, and though he could not see him, Merry knew that the Ranger was gripping Andúril’s hilt.
"We are descending," the elf said, turning slightly to look at Aragorn. Merry peered around Legolas and saw that their road now angled downward. Ahead, the faint light of Gandalf’s staff bobbed in time to his step, and he could dimly make out Gimli’s form behind the wizard as well as the silhouettes of Frodo and Sam.
"The path will climb again," Aragorn said quietly.
Merry looked up at Legolas and then back at Aragorn, wondering if there was something being said that he could not hear. He could tell almost nothing from their voices, and it was too dark to see their faces properly. It was also growing darker as Gandalf drew further ahead.
"The light," Boromir murmured, inclining his head in Gandalf’s direction.
Legolas’s eyes flicked over to the man and then he nodded curtly, turning around and resuming the journey.
Merry looked at Pippin’s questioning eyes and shrugged. He didn’t know what had happened either, and he was fairly certain that if he were to ask, he wouldn’t get an answer and might just make things worse.
Down they went, hurrying at first to close the distance between themselves and Gandalf, and then slowing so as not to slip over the smooth stone. The path was not unduly steep, but it descended sharply enough to warrant caution. As if we were not cautious enough already, Merry thought.
"Is it my imagination, or is it getting hotter?" Pippin suddenly said.
Merry blinked and took a deep breath, testing the air. "Not unless I’m sharing in your imagination," he said after a moment.
"Is that normal?" Pippin pressed. "I don’t know many hobbit holes that go this deep, but I don’t think that the temperature should change this much underground."
"You are correct," Aragorn murmured behind them, startling both hobbits. "It should not change this much. And when I was in Moria before, it did not. It remained fairly constant."
"Then why would it be changing now?" Merry asked, undecided as to whether or not he really wanted an answer.
"There must be activity below," Boromir said. "A forge or a fire of some kind. I can think of no other reason."
"Maybe there are still dwarves here," Pippin suggested, but his voice lacked conviction.
"It has been many years since any heard tidings of dwarves in Moria," Aragorn said grimly. "I do not think we will find them here now."
The air was growing much warmer now, and Merry tugged at his collar as sweat began to build. Gandalf slowed the pace even more as the rising temperature became stifling, and with creeping, wary steps, they finally reached the end of their descent and the path leveled once more as it passed beneath an elaborate and detailed archway. Here, the wizard stopped.
There was still no light other than Gandalf’s staff, and Merry felt relief that Glamdring and Sting remained dormant. But he was also confused, for it now felt as though they were standing beside a forge, yet there was no sign of fire. At the very least, Merry had expected to see the red glow of coals if not an outright flame, but there was nothing. Only the darkness, Gandalf’s staff, and the heat. A heat that seemed to have no source. Despite the temperature of the air around him, Merry felt a chill race up his back.
Taking a few steps away from the rest of the Fellowship, Gandalf raised his staff and the light increased a bit. Merry found himself staring down a hall that was wholly unlike the hall in which they’d eaten. Previously, the walls had been smooth and unblemished, a testament to the skill of the dwarves that had carved these passages. But here, the walls were pitted and scored, as though giant claws had gouged out deep scars in the stone. Cracks ran along the floor and rocks fallen from the ceiling littered the ground.
"I thought you said that the work of the dwarves endures, Strider," Pippin whispered.
"It does," Gimli said before Aragorn could answer. "But these hallways have been touched by something stronger than the mountain itself."
"I don’t know as I like the sound of that," Sam muttered from his place beside Legolas and Frodo. "And why is it so hot?"
"There is something here that should not be," Gandalf said quietly, and it seemed as though he spoke to himself. The wizard took another step forward and then lowered his staff. The light dimmed, and the path before them became lost in shadow. "Come. But go carefully and mind where you step. I do not know if these halls are as sound as they used to be."
Gandalf began walking, and after a moment of hesitation, the rest of the Fellowship followed. For his part, Merry could not quite keep his eyes off the scarred walls. Something stronger than the mountain itself? If that was so, then that something was probably stronger than dwarves, too. Maybe that something was related to the fact that no one had heard anything about dwarves here for so long. And maybe that something was still about, lurking in the shadows where none could see…
Cool air suddenly brushed his face, and Merry started, his eyes peering upward. A yawning hole in the ceiling met his gaze, and he stared at the opening above him, straining his eyes to see where it led. Then the opening disappeared into the darkness behind them as they moved on, and the heat returned, smothering and stifling. Merry bit back a sigh and returned to watching the walls even as another hint of cool air touched his cheek. Snapping his head to the side, he saw a dark archway opening onto stairs that led upward. Wondering why the Fellowship had not taken the path that obviously led to cooler air, he looked ahead to discover that there were now many archways on either side of the tunnel, some leading to small chambers while others led to stairs that faded into darkness.
"How can any hope to find their way in here?" Boromir whispered behind Merry. "It is all alike!"
"To our eyes, yes, but not to eyes that have been trained to see what cannot be seen," Aragorn murmured. "Trust in Gandalf. He knows where he leads us."
"Just as you trusted his counsel to come here?" Legolas murmured, turning his head to favor the Ranger with an unreadable look.
"I do not doubt that Gandalf will be able to find the passage out. I only doubt whether he will be allowed to use it."
"Go carefully here," Gandalf’s voice warned from the front of the line, putting an end to their hushed words. Merry turned his attention forward in time to see Gandalf step over a wide crack in the floor, and he heard Pippin groan at his side.
"It doesn’t look too far," Merry said, watching Gimli jump over it with relative ease.
"This one doesn’t," Sam mumbled. "But who’s to say they won’t get bigger?"
"Come," Gandalf encouraged, motioning to the hobbits. "We cannot linger."
Merry drew closer and eyed the crevice. It appeared to be just short of four feet and was certainly not an impossible jump. But the unnatural heat and the darkness had already made him nervous, and the gurgling roar of water coming from deep within the crack.
So intent was he on his study of the obstacle that he actually jumped when something brushed past him. Calming his racing heart, he looked up to see Boromir lunge across the opening, keeping his right foot on the near side and placing his left on the other. "Take my hand," he told the hobbits, straddling the crevice. "We can make of this a simple task."
"Are you sufficiently braced?" Gimli asked as Frodo tentatively took the man’s outstretched hand.
"I am. This is no great challenge," Boromir assured him, swiftly pulling Frodo across as the Ring-bearer jumped the crack. A reluctant Sam went next, followed by an equally uncertain Pippin. Seeing as no harm had come to his companions, Merry was a bit more confident about placing his trust in Boromir’s strength and balance. Aragorn and Legolas jumped the crack as he took Boromir’s hand, and mimicking their movements, Merry gathered his strength and leaped.
For a moment, he felt suspended over a yawning void that hissed and growled, as though eager to taste fresh meat. Panic seized him, but even as it did so, Boromir’s grip tightened and Merry found himself flying forward with more force than he was prepared for. He cleared the fissure by several feet and stumbled into Gimli, who quickly steadied him. Breathless, Merry nodded his thanks and looked back as Aragorn offered his hand to Boromir and pulled him out of his straddling lunge.
"Now that we are all across, let us continue," Gandalf said. "And let us hope that we do not meet with any greater obstacles. We have many miles yet to go. Do not stray to the right," he added, nodding toward a dark hole against the wall that might once have been a well.
The journey resumed, and they passed a few more openings in the floor before Gandalf stopped suddenly, raising his staff and looking around. Fearful that they might have found the creators of the oppressive heat, Merry quickly glanced at Glamdring and Sting, but both swords were dark. Confused, he turned his attention back to Gandalf and saw that the wizard was examining an archway on their left that seemed to lead to another passage on their level. Merry could see nothing about this section of the tunnel to distinguish it from previous sections, but Gandalf apparently did and was now contemplating a different road. After a moment, he bent his head and began to speak quietly with Gimli, his words too low for Merry to hear.
The rest of the Fellowship gathered uneasily behind them. Merry and Pippin inched closer to Aragorn and Boromir, and Legolas soon joined them, his expression dark and his hands tight upon his bow.
"What are they saying?" Boromir asked, his voice no louder than a whisper.
Legolas frowned, his jaw tightening. "Naught that I find of any use. Mithrandir asks after the traditional layout of dwarven mines, and Gimli offers suggestions as to what passage might lead to a lode and what might lead to a main hall. But he is uncertain. He has nothing more than guesses."
"His guesses are more useful than anything the rest of us might have to offer," Aragorn murmured.
"But you’ve been here before, too," Merry remembered. "Don’t you recognize any of this?"
Aragorn shook his head. "I have never ventured west of the main halls. And of the eastern passages, I do not remember much."
"What were you doing here in the first place?" Pippin wondered.
The Ranger paused, and Merry looked back to see that his brow was creased and his lips pressed together in a firm line. "A story for another time, perhaps," he said at length.
"Preferably when we have put these cursed halls far behind…" Legolas suddenly trailed off, his eyes narrowing as he looked past Aragorn into the darkness behind.
"What do you see?" Aragorn demanded, one hand flying to Andúril’s hilt. Boromir reacted just as swiftly, swinging around and loosening the sword in his scabbard.
The elf’s eyes narrowed, intent upon the shadows. "For a moment, I thought that…" He stopped again and took a step away from the others, his movements slow and wary. "No," he finally said after a long pause. "There is nothing."
The elf did not sound entirely sure of himself, but before anyone could question him, Gandalf spoke up. "This way," he said, moving forward into the new passage with Gimli following close behind. "Tread carefully."
"And so we wind further into this maze," Boromir sighed, one hand still upon his sword hilt. Staying close to Pippin, Merry began walking, conscious of the fact that Aragorn was also gripping his sword hilt and that Legolas kept looking over his shoulder. On they went, twisting and turning in the dark with no more than the faint light of a wizard’s staff to guide them. Trust in Gandalf, Aragorn had said. Merry was now keenly aware that they could trust in nothing else.
Go with words of guard and guiding on you…
The night was cold and the wind swift. Mournful howls echoed off the towering mountains, and the clatter of hooves rang loud beneath the cheerless stars. His heart racing and his broad chest heaving, a lone pony galloped madly over pathless stone.
Bill’s mind was consumed with but one thought, and that one thought was fear. He could remember all too well the grasping, writhing snakes that had attacked from the dark lake. The foul stench of dark water that no creature would stoop to drink. The regard of a waiting predator that crept closer and closer until there was no escaping it. These things were behind him now yet still they hounded him, and to his ears came the keening calls of hungry wolves. His lungs burned and his legs shook, but he dared not stop. Fear drove him on.
There were no packs or burdens to slow him. No halters or bridles to direct him. With little care for how he placed his feet, Bill raced down gullies and basins, dodging boulders as he came to them and skidding across loose rocks with legs splaying wildly. Several times he nearly fell, and more than once the thought came that perhaps he should relent and go more carefully. But his frantic mind would hear nothing of it, and his frenzied pace continued.
New howls suddenly filled the air, and Bill’s eyes grew wide. More wolves had arrived. They were not many, but they were close to his position. Too close. Bill did not think they were trailing him yet, for it sounded as though they sought to find the larger pack. But should they catch wind of his scent, that would change. The collected memories of his ancestors told him that wolves were relentless when hunting, and Bill hastened onward as he listened to the hunger in their voices.
A sudden compulsion took Bill’s mind, and though confused by his own actions, Bill turned north and west, adding direction to his reckless gallop. Why he did this, he could not say, but his instincts insisted upon it. There was something in this direction that he needed to reach. Something that might aid him. Howls rose to his right and to his left, but Bill pushed past them, strangely committed to this new course.
…words of guard and guiding…
A harried mile later, he suddenly raced headlong down a stone slope and found soil at the bottom that was soft beneath his hooves. The sounds of his gallop became muffled by winter grass, and then he plunged into a wooded area that shielded him from unfriendly eyes. Many of the howls were behind him now, and relief began to creep into his thoughts.
Twigs snapped against his legs while branches tangled in his mane, and Bill reduced his pace to a brisk trot. He could feel himself tiring and knew that he would have to rest ere long. He caught the faint scent of water, and he altered his course ever so slightly, longing for a cool drink. He knew that he had not yet escaped, and he knew that the wolves could find him easily should they turn their minds to it. But they were focused upon other things, and Bill felt that he had time for a brief rest before he continued on.
After several more miles, Bill discovered a small stream that leaped and splashed. Finding a place where he would not slip upon the stream’s smooth stones, the pony lowered his head and drank gratefully. The water was cold and fresh, and it felt good in his throat. But ere he could fully quench his thirst, he lifted his head and stepped back. Something warned him against drinking his fill. The same something that had turned him northwest. And as before, Bill heeded these promptings, not understanding them but unwilling to contest them.
Still thirsty but satisfied for the moment, Bill turned his eyes back to the mountains. The howls were distant and fading, blown south by the northern wind, but Bill could still hear them. And if he understood their language correctly, the wolves were disappointed. Frustrated.
Bill’s ears twitched and his tail swished restlessly. He was suddenly aware of how very alone he was. His master had not come with Bill. Not that Bill had given him much of a chance, but that was an event of the past. Bill’s pony mind was far more concerned with the present, and at the present, he was alone. Perhaps he should go back. Perhaps his master and his master’s companions were driving the wolves away again. Perhaps that was why the wolves were frustrated.
The attack came without warning.
A heavy weight suddenly landed upon Bill’s back, and sharp teeth sank into his neck. Taken completely by surprise, Bill bucked hard and kicked out with his back legs. There was a stricken cry as his hooves connected with something, but the teeth in his neck only sank deeper in response. Whipping about in a circle, Bill bucked again and the weight on his shoulders disappeared. Spinning around, he stomped his forelegs in warning and defense, frantically searching for his assailant.
…words of guard…
Bill’s wide, searching eyes quickly lit upon two wolves, and the pony hastily backed away a step as he studied them. One wolf was sprawled upon the ground, wheezing hard as a growing stain of red darkened the thick fur on his right side. The second wolf stood next to him, his muzzle smeared with blood and his golden eyes gleaming with hunger. Bill felt something warm trickle down the side of his neck, and he tossed his head, flaring his nostrils and pawing the earth. His instincts screamed at him to charge and then flee, but another impulse—the same impulse that had guided him earlier—told him to watch and to wait.
The uninjured wolf growled softly and drew his lips back, revealing teeth that gleamed in the moonlight. His ears flattened, and the muscles along his shoulders bunched as he sank into a crouch. Terrified but heeding the command to watch and wait, Bill shifted his weight onto his back legs and stomped again, signaling his defiance.
All of time slowed to a crawl.
Poised in his crouch, the wolf gave no indication as to when he would attack. The only movement came from the long, pink tongue that flicked out to clean the dark blood from his nose. This seemed to have become a game for the foul creature, and a glimmer of amusement in his eyes revealed his delight. For his part, Bill tried to stay as motionless as the wolf, but he found it impossible to stop the quivers in his hindquarters. Once again, the impulse to charge and flee swept over him, but something older and wiser than Bill held him back. If the pony was to survive, he could not let the wolf goad him into the first strike. He had to wait.
And then time snapped forward into a furious pace.
Bill suddenly reared and struck out with his forelegs, obeying the impulses that he could still not explain. He was shocked when his right leg crashed into a skull with a resounding crack. He had not even seen the wolf move yet now the creature was beneath him, staggering in shock, and Bill needed no instruction about what to do next. He bore down hard upon his enemy, his hooves snapping the spine, and the wolf collapsed without a sound. Bill lifted his forelegs and did it again, this time crushing the ribcage. Again and again he struck until satisfied that the wolf would rise no more.
A sudden whine reminded Bill of the first wolf he had injured, and with eyes blazing in both fear and anger, the pony wheeled about. Still gasping, the other wolf was struggling to get to his feet, but his movements were slow and awkward. Loosing an enraged snort, Bill lunged and struck, raining blow after blow upon the dying wolf. When the body ceased to shudder beneath his hooves, Bill backed away and snorted again, keeping his eyes upon the corpse.
He waited a minute or so until he was certain of his opponent’s death, and then he turned back to the stream, drinking deeply. The spreading pain in his neck finally pulled him away and he lifted his head to sniff the air. Finding no evidence of other wolves in the area, he dropped to the ground and rolled, pressing his neck into the wet earth and coating the wound with cool mud. He surged to his feet the moment he was finished, shaking out his mane and shivering as the bitter wind met the damp mud on his back.
A second wave of loneliness hit him, and he once again wished for his master, who would tend to his neck and drape a cloak across his back as protection from the cold. But he could not go back to the mountains. He knew that now. Other wolves would come, and he would not survive the journey. Already the northern wind would have carried scent of blood to the main pack, and if they could not have his master, then they would come for him. Bill now had to put his trust in the other master. The tall, troubled, bearded master who smelled of smoke and stars. This other master had told him to leave, whispering words that a pony could understand, and though Bill did not know where his new road would take him, he did know that the other master would not lead him astray.
With a last, mournful glance to the south, he turned north and resumed his journey.
Author’s Notes: Credit time again. First up, huge thanks go out to docmon, who betaed much of this chapter and offered wonderful suggestions as well as great insight. Thank you!
Next, parts of the dialogue in the first section was lifted directly from the books. For reference, see pages 368-369 in the Ballantine 50th edition paperback version of Fellowship of the Ring. Furthermore, descriptions of Moria were drawn from Tolkien’s narrative in the same source on pages 368-371. I don’t think anything is an exact quote, but there are large sections that have been paraphrased.
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