58. Adrift in the Darkness
“Aragorn?” The Ranger turned from breaking up more branches to see Frodo and Samwise standing behind him. He cast the branches onto the small pile of firewood he had gathered and wiped his hands on his cloak. Frodo slipped his hand into Aragorn’s and gently tugged him farther from the fire.
“Yes, Frodo?” he replied.
The two hobbits exchanged a glance then looked over at Merry. Frodo’s younger cousin’s back was to them, and he sat with knees drawn up to his chin, minding the roasting rabbits with the single-minded abstraction that he had displayed ever since Pippin’s accident. Frodo edged closer to Aragorn and Sam followed, both wearing worried expressions.
“I’m frightened for Merry, Aragorn,” the Ring-bearer whispered softly. “I’ve never seen him act like this. I know he blamed himself for not being able to … prevent what happened to me on Weathertop. No one … no one could have…” Frodo stopped, his face paling, and Sam moved closer to him and put a hand on his shoulder. Frodo inhaled deeply and continued, “It has always been Merry’s nature to try to shoulder too much responsibility upon himself. Then you all went on that scouting trip and he and Pippin got into trouble, and then the disaster with the lessons. He really could have killed Pip with that ill-thrown knife, you know. So does he. I fear… If we don’t find Pippin safe and well, I fear what he might do.”
“Would he seek to injure himself?” Aragorn crouched down, and the hobbits crowded close. Sam did not contribute to the conversation, but his anxious grey eyes darted between them and the subject of their concern.
“It is not our way,” said Frodo slowly, “to follow a loved one into death. But those two lads … they are so close, Aragorn. I myself cannot … cannot imagine returning home to Pippin’s parents and sisters without him. Merry most certainly feels the same but even more keenly. They have been inseparable since Pippin was born. I cannot picture Merry without Pippin by his side.” Frodo paused, and his blue eyes closed in pain. “I think that … somewhere along our journey, Merry would make certain that he would not have to return home to live a life without Pippin.”
“He would suicide?” Aragorn asked, and Frodo winced.
“Rather, he would not move from the path of danger. Or more likely, he would place himself before the danger, should it come,” Frodo responded. Next to Frodo, Sam nodded shortly.
Looking from one solemn, frightened face to another, Aragorn raised his eyes to Merry’s rigid back. He had to agree. “We will watch out for him,” the Ranger said at last. “It is all we can do.”
“Horses! Horses!” rang out Legolas’ clear voice. The Elf leapt lightly down from the boulder, pointing to the west. Aragorn and the hobbits turned, and Merry sprang to his feet, shading his eyes against the sun’s glare.
For a moment they saw nothing, then they felt the ground underneath them shake and a moment later, a great rumble of hooves became audible. Sleek, shining bodies flashed between the trees. Aragorn threw back his head and laughed, then placed two fingers between his teeth and whistled an intricate melody. Shrill whinnies greeted this, and the herd slowed and with much head-tossing and small playful bucks, a small group of seven curious Elven-horses stood before them.
Not young these; their muzzles were grey and there were hollows in their flanks. But they held their heads proudly and their silken coats shone, and grace was yet in their every movement. Aragorn repeated the whistled melody and after a moment, a lovely bay mare with black mane and tail stepped forward. The Ranger swiped a piece of leather into the cooling sugar-mixture and held it out to the old mare. After a moment she dipped her head and accepted the treat, her great warm tongue licking over the leather.
That was the signal for the others to move forward, butting eagerly with their great heads. The sugared water was quickly divided and Legolas and the hobbits were put to work feeding it to the animals, until there was no more. The bay mare ran her tongue regretfully around the pot then stood waiting quietly, looking at the Ranger.
Aragorn bowed before the old mare, still whistling under his breath. Slowly he put out a hand and scratched her between the eyes. After a moment, the large soft brown orbs closed in bliss and she whickered softly. He murmured to her in Elvish, watching as the delicately pointed ears swiveled to listen. Legolas, too, was stroking a horse, an old chestnut gelding with three white stockings. A third, a black with a white star on his forehead, demanded equal attention. Hesitantly, the hobbits reached up to stroke velvet noses and were rewarded with soft whuffs of warm breath into their hands and lowered heads to allow scratching hands to reach higher.
“Will you help us?” asked Aragorn. “We have lost one of our own, and need swifter means to seek him than our own slow feet. We will ask no more of you than to carry us along his trail, and we will release you whenever you wish.” The bay mare raised her head and looked directly into his eyes. The hobbits were amazed by the intelligence shining from the great brown eyes. As if she felt their gazes upon her, the leader turned and looked at them, and the hobbits felt themselves being considered. They stood straighter and attempted to brush the dust off of their clothing.
The bay mare gave a nicker that sounded much like a laugh, then she reached out her long neck and tousled Sam’s sandy hair. Sam cupped her muzzle and laughed. “Here now,” he muttered in a soft, gravelly voice shared by all those who love horses, “a pretty lass like you can find better straw than me hair.” The mare snorted in agreement and turned to Merry and Frodo. Merry reached up and stroked her nose, and she nuzzled him gently. But when she moved on to Frodo, the tulip-tipped ears tilted back, and she shook her head.
“Stand still, Frodo,” Aragorn advised softly. Frodo looked at her with great wide eyes; from his vantage, she was enormous. The great head came down again and sniffed him thoroughly and this time she snorted.
“She senses the Ring,” said Legolas quietly. His hand remained on the old gelding’s neck while the leader made her decision, and he stroked the aged horse absently. “She does not know what it is, but she knows it is evil.”
“Lady,” Aragorn said, “this little one carries a burden which has been placed upon him out of great need by all of the Free Peoples. The evil you sense is not him, nor of his making. It is not a threat to you or your kin.”
But the old mare was shaking her head, lips now drawn back over yellowed, square teeth. She stepped back and seeing this, her herd did also.
“No!” Aragorn beseeched, “Lady, please! Our need is desperate -”
“Lady,” came Frodo’s soft voice. The mare stopped and eyed him suspiciously. Frodo kept his hands at his sides, but his heart was in his face. “Please do not deny us. Our lost one is my kin, very young and most probably hurt. No older than a yearling colt would be to your folk. Leave me here, if you must, but do not refuse these my friends the chance to save his life." He didn't voice the rest of his thought, 'If he still lives'.”
“Frodo, I will not allow you to be left alone –“ began Aragorn, but Frodo raised his hand and the Ranger fell silent. At that moment, he could not have gainsaid the Ring-bearer, for the grief and the dignity that shone from Frodo’s face stilled any objection to the hobbit’s will. Legolas looked at Frodo with wonder, and beside him, the others were silent with astonishment.
The old mare, too, was looking into the hobbit’s face and what she found there evidently pleased her, for the great head dipped and she lipped Frodo’s head, leaving his dark hair standing up in little wet spikes. “Thank you, lady,” he whispered and closed his eyes in relief.
The old mare nodded regally. The horses waited quietly while the roasted rabbits were gathered up and the fire put out, and the wood Aragorn had foraged collected and tied into a bundle. Then a new problem arose. The old gelding Legolas had been stroking snorted jealously when another horse tried to sidle between them and entice the Elf to mount. The old gelding forcefully pushed the smaller horse away. Legolas laughed and leapt lightly up to his back, his long hands caressing the proud, arched neck. The smaller horse was pacified by bearing the walking party’s packs and the bundle of firewood, with the other horses waiting impatiently their turn. Even Merry smiled as he was handed up before Legolas, settling himself comfortably as he had ridden before Elrond’s sons. Sam was less comfortable being mounted pillion behind the Elf; he had no fear of huge Elven horses but the ground seemed miles away. He closed his eyes and laid his face against Legolas’ back, locking his arms around Legolas’ waist.
“Aragorn, should not the hobbits have their own mounts, or two share one?” Legolas asked, giving little indication that his ribs were creaking. Nevertheless, Sam heard and tried to loosen his grip enough to allow the Elf to breathe.
“I would feel better if we rode with them, Legolas,” the Ranger replied. The Elf had simply leaped up bareback, but Aragorn was folding a blanket and tying it under the bay mare’s barrel, for their comfort and for hers. He had sought to mount one of the lesser horses but the old mare had shouldered that one aside and stood waiting, claiming the riders for herself. The cushioning blanket in place, Aragorn gently lifted Frodo up and placed the hobbit on the high back. Frodo leaned forward slightly, fisting his hands in her mane. “Now you must tell me if we need to stop,” he admonished the hobbits. “Merry, I will not have a repeat of the saddle-soreness you suffered on our scouting trip.”
“What saddle-soreness?” asked Sam, out of sight behind Legolas. A moment later his round face peered around the Elf, leaning carefully past him to see.
“None to speak of, really,” said Merry hastily, stringing more words together than he had since Pippin had gone into the water early that morning.
“He and Pippin were so sore that they waddled like ducks,” elaborated the Ranger breezily, “and so stiff that they had to spend the first evening sitting immersed to the waist in a cold stream. Then they were so frozen they had to be carried back to camp.” From behind the Elf came a muffled snort that sounded suspiciously like a stifled laugh.
“You didn’t tell us about that, Cousin,” Frodo commented blandly. Merry glared at the ground. Frodo grinned, then seemed to be taken by a sudden fit of coughing. Merry flushed, the tips of his pointed ears turning red.
“So,” continued Aragorn, swinging himself up behind Frodo, pleased at having gotten any reaction out of the withdrawn young hobbit, “we will not do that again. If any of you need a short stop, tell me.”
Both Elf and Man pressed their legs lightly over the horses’ barrels, and they moved forward at a canter, the others trailing behind.
* * * * *
“Hush, little one,” murmured Granlion. Pippin gritted his teeth against another involuntary cry. He had awakened to a moving and confusing world, with no up or down or surety. Blackness swirled about him and he became disoriented, his only point of contact with the world a slender arm across his chest. Granlion kept his arm around the small hobbit, balancing him and containing him, and Pippin was profoundly grateful for that simple, instinctual kindness. With the framework of strong arms around him and the sudden understanding that there was a solid horse under him, he did not feel so adrift in his lonely sea of swirling darkness.
A gentle hand touched his face. “Good afternoon, Pippin,” murmured Granlion. “There is nothing to fear. I am bearing you to Lord Elrond, who will no doubt be able to help you. And do not fear – Aragorn will return to Imladris as swiftly as he may. You will be with your kin and friends again very soon.”
“Brendion?” Pippin managed, hearing only one set of hooves. Granlion guided him to the small pommel on the high elven saddle and Pippin grasped it gratefully, wrapping the palms of his bandaged hands around it as he struggled to find his balance against the rocking motion of the walking horse.
“He has gone on alone to finish our rounds,” the Elf replied gently. “We may not return home with our work undone, but one can do it at need. Taking you home quickly is the greater need.”
“Thank you,” the tweenager murmured. He was finding that the horse’s rolling gait was making him nauseous. He swallowed heavily and felt his skin break out in cold sweat.
“Can you go back to sleep?” asked Granlion. “It would be better for you -” He looked down at the top of the curly head upon hearing a strangled gulp. “Pippin? Are you all right?”
“The horse -” Pippin swallowed again, the warm soup he had been given before he had returned to sleep sloshing about in his stomach. In fact, it was threatening to depart his stomach entirely. “Oh no…”
Whether the Elf understood the unspoken reference or the misery in Pippin’s voice alerted him, Granlion was off the horse and laying the little hobbit on the ground almost before Pippin was aware of it. Pippin curled up into a ball, knees into chest, and tried to order his rebellious stomach to behave.
“It is all right,” soothed the Elf. Pippin felt a large hand rubbing his back in a slow, comforting rhythm. “We have ridden for two hours – it is time to take a break. We will rest for a brief time.” There was a silence, then Pippin heard, ”I am going to take my horse down to the stream to water him, little one. Will you be all right by yourself for a few minutes?”
Still not trusting his stomach enough to speak, Pippin nodded. A few minutes of being still would take care of the nausea, he hoped desperately. There was a rustling sound, then something warm was laid over him. “Rest,” came the Elf’s kind voice. “I will be within hailing distance, and will be back in just a little time.”
Pippin listened as the faint jingle of harness and the horse’s hoofbeats faded; the Elf’s footsteps he could not hear at all. He pulled the blanket up around him and shivered. Tears prickled at his closed eyes – that he should be shamefully sick in addition to everything else was almost too much. Despite himself, a tear escaped the clenched lids. Pippin scrubbed it away angrily, then waved his hand in front of his eyes. He almost thought he saw a blur of movement, but another wave refuted that. He could not see. Pippin curled up tighter and whimpered.
Pippin remained so for some minutes, his terror battling with his pride. Then with an effort, he straightened his small body and relaxed. He had refused to be sick in front of Granlion, and he would not allow the Elf to see him frightened and weeping like an infant. He wasn’t an adult yet, but he could act like one.
The earth quivered just the slightest amount under Pippin’s cheek. Perplexed, the young hobbit sat up and pressed his hand flat into the cool earth, as Merry had shown him at the geyser, a frown marring his features. Granlion was certainly returning quickly. There hadn’t been time to water the horse, and he did not hear the faint jingle of harness. Had Granlion decided to come back? Or –
Faint sounds came to his straining ears, rustling, the movement of great weight on the earth, heavy breaths … not from the direction that Granlion had taken his horse. Pippin’s heart began to hammer and his own breath speeded up. He had not forgotten the wicked Men that had waylaid them before. Suppose more of them had invaded the Valley? He staggered to his feet and bandaged fingers sought his sword. He almost dropped it as fire ripped through his hands, clenching his teeth against a scream that tried to tear free of his throat. He held the weapon blindly but steadily before him and by listening intently, tried to face himself in the direction of the approaching sounds.
* TBC *
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.