Disclaimer: The Lord of the Rings and all its characters and settings are the property of the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien. These works were produced with admiration and respect, as fan fiction for entertainment purposes only, not for sale or profit.
Aragorn smiled despite his worries to see the two young hobbits pelting over the snow, hurling snowballs at each other. Merry and Pippin had resisted as long as they could, but with the recovery of their cousin, they needed some outlet for their pent-up concern and stifled energy. Still, they were largely silent, only laughing and calling to each other and the others of the Fellowship when they forgot the danger, and the hostile eyes that sought them.
Watching them from the warmth of his arms, Frodo laughed softly, then coughed. Aragorn glanced down at him, but Frodo met his eyes and shook his curly head. "I'm much better, Aragorn," Frodo assured him. "I wish you would let me walk a little."
"Not yet, Frodo," the Ranger responded. "Tomorrow, if there is no fever and if you do not cough tonight." Frodo nodded, resigned to being carried while his cousins played and enjoyed themselves on the shoulders of snowy Caradhras.
Watching them, the Ranger was amazed anew at the contradictory nature of hobbits. He and Gandalf had discussed it before, and he recalled what the old wizard had told him of a long-ago conversation with Frodo, when the young hobbit had first taken on himself the burden of fleeing with the Ring. "Hobbits really are amazing creatures," Gandalf had said. "You can learn all there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years, they can still surprise you. Soft as butter, they can be, but tough as old tree roots." Watching the young Brandybuck and the even younger Took chase each other over the icy slopes on unshod furry feet, then throw their small forms into the frozen drifts to make snow-angels, the Ranger shook his head.
Just ahead, Sam was leading the pony, Bill's hooves trampling down the snow and making the path easier for those who followed. Legolas walked behind the pony, his light feet leaving no imprint on the snow - as opposed to Gimli, who's heavy boots made more track than the rest put together. The Ranger wished they did not leave such a clear trail that any hunters might see, for the skies were clear and though the cold air smelled of snow, the only clouds were far on the horizon.
A light snowstorm would shield them, Aragorn thought. They had stayed too long at the shallow cave that served as their previous campsite, waiting for Frodo's sickness to either take him or subside. Now Frodo was healing, though still weak and listless, and Aragorn wanted nothing more than to make Lothlórien as quickly as possible, and let the little one rest and recover the strength lost in fever and delirium. It had been too close with the Ringbearer coughing out his lungs, the Fellowship not knowing if he would live or die.
In the lead, Gandalf raised his staff, calling a halt. The Fellowship gathered among the boulders the wizard had chosen for cover, willing enough to rest and change sodden socks for dry among the sheltering rocks. As rearguard, Boromir called in the young hobbits and they reluctantly left their play to join them. Last in line, Boromir had found himself the innocent target of many a dishonorable ambush, and his cloak and surcoat were peppered with hollow circles of snow.
Aragorn carefully lowered Frodo to a sheltered corner, and moved back to let Sam wrap another blanket around him. Samwise had orders to get food into Frodo at any opportunity, and was already breaking out some dried fruit from the pony's panniers. The two youngsters moved up to check on the invalid, and Aragorn judged that he could leave them to consult with Gandalf.
The wizard was standing with Gimli, discussing their passage through the almost featureless white landscape. Gimli had his hand up to his eyes, shading them against the blinding glare of sun on snow. Aragorn joined them, fine powder crunching under his boots as he climbed up to the small shelf on which they stood to survey the land.
"…then follow the ridge through the Pass," Gandalf paused. With each breath, all of them puffed warmed air like so many dragons. "We might as well camp down in that hollow for the night; the sun is westering and an early halt would rest Frodo. How is he, Aragorn?"
"Better," the Ranger responded. "He asked to walk a little earlier, but I judged it yet too early."
The wizard smiled. "Good. He is mending fast. If we can keep him warm and quiet tonight, I would think him able to walk a little tomorrow."
"So I told him." Aragorn crouched down and removed his boot, shaking out a stone. He wondered idly how he could pick up a rock in the midst of a snowfield.
"What of a fire?" Gimli asked. "We have seen no watching eyes for days, nor sign of any living thing." The Dwarf paused to brush ice off his braided mustache. "If we dig a pit among those stones, a small fire would be well-hidden."
"All right," the wizard agreed. "But only a small one."
* * * * *
The Company was merrier that night than for many before. Frodo's illness, the cold, the knowledge that they were being hunted, all had combined to dampen their spirits and drag down their energy. For the first time in days, they were able to prepare a warm meal, enjoy the luxury of hot tea, and relax without fear.
Eventually weariness overcame them, and the Company rolled themselves in their blankets and prepared to sleep. All was quiet, until Gandalf woke them with a gentle touch on each shoulder.
"No, nothing is wrong," he reassured them. "I only wanted to show you a wondrous rare sight. Look up. Lúthien Tinúviel is dancing tonight."
The hobbits raised their eyes to the heavens, and Legolas, standing watch, laughed softly as he beheld their expressions. Far above them, high in the cold sky, flames of light danced on the curtain of the night. Blue and green, some with a little yellow or the faintest flickers of red, light bowed and pirouetted in undulating rows, moving across the sky like dancers at a ball. To their ears came the faintest of crackling sounds.
The hobbits watched, open-mouthed.
"There," the wizard said. "Is that not worth a little lost sleep?"
* * * * * *
Alone among the Company, Pippin could not drift back into slumber. They had watched until the celestial dance faded and ceased, awed and silent. While the older members of the Company returned easily to sleep, the energetic youngster was now wide awake. And bored. And then hungry.
Perhaps there was a little bread left in his pack. Pippin edged out of his bedroll and climbed to his feet. Beside him, Merry snorted in his sleep and Pippin froze, waiting until his cousin's breathing evened out. Legolas turned to regard him, the Elf's eyes almost glowing in the starlight. Pippin raised his finger to his lips hopefully, and the Elf shook his head and smiled at him, returning his attention to the darkness.
A quiet search of his pack revealed no forgotten caches of food. Pippin was distracted from considering a search of Merry's pack by movement, white on white, not far from the smoldering fire. Snow-hares. Wouldn't the Company be surprised if he, Pippin, could supplement their dwindling food supplies with a few coneys... Pippin's hand snuck back into his pack and emerged with his slingshot and its small pouch of rounded stones. Like most hobbits, Pippin had excellent aim, and had used the little weapon to bring down his dinner more than a few times.
With complicated pantomime, involving much pointing and waving of the slingshot, Pippin informed Legolas of his intentions. The Elf watched as the little one rose soundlessly and padded after the rabbits.
* * * * * *
Pippin felt exhilarated by the cold night air. The stars seemed almost close enough to touch, the snow so crisp and clean. He ran until he was out of breath, just so he could turn around and see his footprints in the snow. Heavy snow was a rarity in the Shire - none of the foursome had ever seen more snow than what would cover their furry toes. Indulging in a bit of inherent good humor, Pippin jumped and turned himself in the air, walking backwards for the sheer joy of it.
It was so good to be away from adult supervision for a little while, away from the frowning disapproval he sometimes suffered when his natural energy and exuberance got the better of him. He tried to be quiet to be serious and responsible – but he was only twenty-nine, and sometimes he just couldn't stand it. Aragorn or Gandalf would tell him to be quiet, to settle down, to sit still, until he thought he would shout.
Pippin was seeing how far he could hop backwards when no ground met his leap. He teetered on the edge of a small drop, the incline hidden by the heaped snow. No one heard his small wail of dismay. Off-balance, he fell and tumbled down the slope. Snow caught in his ears, in his nose and mouth as he rolled. He never even saw the rock that struck his forehead, hidden as it was under the soft clean snow.
Above him, the snow clouds that Aragorn had smelled earlier began to drop their load, sparkling white flakes drifting over the still form.
* * * * * *
"Where is that fool of a Took?" Gandalf waved his staff furiously at the nondescript landscape. The falling snow had filled in any hobbit-tracks; Legolas could only point out the direction in which the youngster had gone. When dawn had begun to light the sky and Boromir came to relieve him, the young hobbit still had not returned. Legolas had started to trail him, but the tracks were totally covered and he could not follow far.
Now the Fellowship was ready to move out, except for their missing member. Merry was frantic; had Aragorn allowed it, he would have hared off in every direction, calling loudly. The Ranger had sought any sign to the best of his considerable ability as far as he could, using his hands to gently sweep the fallen snow aside in hopes of uncovering the small indentations of the hobbit's feet. But the falling snow had filled in any trail as surely as the tide erased marks in the sand. Aragorn knelt in the snow and stared out over the totally unmarked landscape.
"We must split the Company," he said at last, rising. "Gandalf will take the hobbits and continue on, with Gimli as guard. Boromir, Legolas and I will search. Boromir and I have cold-weather experience, and the snow is no barrier to Legolas. We have the best chance of finding him."
"We can't go on, sir," cried Sam, before Merry could speak. "Couldn't we wait but a day? If we move, he'll not be able to find us."
"We have no more time to spare, Sam." The Ranger's reply was gentle but firm. "The weather is clear now but those clouds carry much more snow – see how gray they are, flat and frozen. The snow will start soon, and it will be heavy. We must get through the Redhorn Pass as soon as possible, or we will not get through at all."
Unspoken but not unthought was the Ringbearer's need – they had to get through to milder climates for Frodo's sake. Frodo said nothing but his huge morning-glory eyes were tight with distress. Aragorn saw him stifle a cough, choking it back to avoid drawing attention to himself. Aragorn knew better than to put their options to a vote; the hobbits would place the youngster's safety over the surety of achieving the Pass. And nothing, nothing must deter them from their goal. Frodo knew this well and the Ranger knew the Ringbearer agreed with it – until one of his kinsmen and friends was in danger.
Gandalf stood twisting his staff in his hands. No choices, no choices… Abruptly, he nodded. "It is the only thing we can do. Sam, will you repack the pony to bear Frodo as well as our supplies? Gimli and I will carry what we can, as will you two. When Pippin is found, the finder will catch up with us and we will call in the other searchers with a small fire. The smoke will be hard to see – for them and for any other watching eyes."
Despite the remaining three hobbits' attempts at delay, it was soon done. Sam could not get the supplies redistributed equally; he kept declaring he needed to unpack the bundles and find this thing or that. Frodo avowed he could not get balanced on the pony, and required so many dismounts and mounts that he had began to gasp, leaning forward in the makeshift saddle. Merry had managed to "accidentally" snag the rope off one of the bundles of firewood, somehow kicking each piece further as he bent to pick it up. Finally, Gandalf had had enough. The firewood was hurriedly picked up, the supplies quickly divided between the walkers, and Frodo pushed down onto the pony and ordered to stay there. Gimli watched all this with laughter lurking in his dark eyes, prudently staying out of the path of the aggrieved wizard.
The three searchers each choose a cardinal point and set out. It was agreed they would return to the rest of the Company by tomorrow's eve at the latest, did they not find their quarry, and did the signal to return not go up. There was no need to keep searching after that, Aragorn thought grimly. The little one would not survive two nights exposed on the frozen slopes of Caradhras.
Gandalf took the point, Gimli rearguard with the pony and the two hobbits between them. They had left the campsite far behind when Merry could bear it no longer. "PIP!" he shouted, to the full extent of his lungs. "Pip! Pippin! PIPPIN!"
The wizard was beside him in a moment, his hand clamped across the hobbit's mouth. Too late - the sound echoed amidst the empty landscape, bounced back from the blanketing snow.
Gandalf shook him, hard. "Be silent! Be silent! Will you bring the mountain down on us?"
To their horror, the walkers saw the snowpack high on Caradhras shift and tremble, small tumbles of snow sliding free and rolling down above them. Little balls of snow rolled into larger balls, breaking the thin crust of ice that held them in place. Sam tightened the rein on the pony and pulled his head down as poor Bill shied, nearly unseating Frodo, at a rolling snowball the size of a hobbit. Like statues they stood and waited, till at last the little slides lost momentum and slipped gently to a halt about them, covering them up to the hobbits' knees.
Gimli exhaled sharply into his beard, loosened his white-knuckled grip on his axe. Sam sat down in the snow suddenly, and Merry collapsed besides him, putting his curly blond head in his hands.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm sorry. I didn't think…"
Gandalf unwound his silver scarf and re-wrapped it around his throat. His lined face was very red, with the cold or with suppressed fury, Merry was afraid to find out. "We were very lucky, Meriadoc. I fear for Pippin, too, and pray our fellows will find him quickly. But you will not do that again."
Merry hung his head and nodded.
* * * * * *
Already far to the east, Aragorn halted at a faint sound he could not place. Had that been a cry off in the distance? He listened intently but it was not repeated.
He had given up looking for footprints; the landscape was featureless. Instead he had adopted a zig-zagging search pattern, and had picked up a rare branch to probe any hillocks he passed. Hopefully, one of them would yelp. From the amount of snow that had fallen, the youngster could be completely buried, were he foolish enough to allow it. The Ranger thought about that for a moment, then increased his speed.
* * * * * *
To the north, Legolas had covered more ground than the others, moving with a lightness and speed that no mortal could hope to match. His light boots made almost no imprint in the virgin snow. He listened, too, and used his keen eyes, seeking any sign of life in the whiteness. Startling a snow-hare, he passed it before the animal could react. The Elf blamed himself for not stopping the little one. Should he die in this wilderness, Legolas would never forgive himself.
* * * * * *
To the south, Boromir moved with less speed than the Elf and less range than the man, but with more thoroughness. Thinking the youngster could not have gone so far, he took care to investigate every hobbit-sized lump he came across. All turned out to be rocks, frozen mounds of grass, bushes, and once, a white wolf, sleeping in the snow. Warrior and wolf had stared at each other for a moment, then the wolf had given him a disdainful look from its yellow eyes and loped away. Hand on his sword, Boromir added another worry to his fears for the young hobbit.
* * * * * *
Pippin felt as if someone had piled a great suffocating white coverlet upon him. It was fluffy and warm and – wet? If one of his older sisters had played a prank on him…
And it wasn't warm – it was cold. Freezing cold. The youngster discovered he was shivering violently, apparently buried – by snow? Brushing himself off as best he could, Pippin tried to gain his feet. He succeeded in pushing himself up and onto all fours, but could not seem to order his limbs enough to stand. He felt weak and woozy, and upon investigation, discovered he had a lump the size of a small egg on his forehead. It hurt.
Abandoning the idea of standing for the moment, he drew in his legs and sat tailor-fashion in the snow. Memory began to return, slowly. The snow-hares… His slingshot and pouch of stones lay within easy reach; he must have dropped them when he fell. He gathered them up and stowed them in a pocket, pleased that his hands and fingers worked. He had thrown out his arms to save himself and so landed with his hands caught beneath him – probably keeping them from frostbite. He was stiff and cold, but relatively undamaged.
He had to get back. He didn't even know what time it was – the sun was high in the sky, casting silver linings through the dark gray clouds that sailed before it. Gandalf was going to be furious, and Merry would be worried sick. No coneys, and delaying the Company… Pippin groaned and heartily wished he were home, back at Great Smials with his sisters.
The second attempt brought him to his feet. Pippin swayed slightly and groaned again, allowing himself a bit of self-commiseration. Using hands as well as furry feet, he dragged himself up the slope that had felled him and looked around. He could see absolutely no indication of the way he had come.
Like all adventuresome young hobbits, Pippin had been taught to wait for help when lost. But that wisdom didn't take into consideration freezing temperatures, sore heads, and a rapidly-growing hunger. Didn't he remember passing that tree, there? Hopefully, he began to walk.
As he moved, Pippin crammed snow in his mouth in an attempt to assuage his thirst. It didn't seem to do much good. A full mouth of snow melted into less than a sip of water. He pulled off his worn green scarf and unwound it, folded it over his ears and pulled the hood of his cloak up over all. That was a little warmer. After some time and a few wrong turns, he recognized the place where they had camped. Trampled snow and the small covered fire pit were all that remained. The Company had left without him.
Pippin sat down in the snow and cried.
Eventually, his good hobbit-sense reasserted itself, and Pippin decided the best course of action would be to somehow signal the others. (They would be looking for him, wouldn't they? They wouldn't be so angry that they would really leave him?) He cleared the snow dumped on last-night's fire pit and discovered that all of the wood was not burned. Pushing aside the ashes, he used the little flint he carried to rekindle the fire.
What little wood there was had absorbed water from the melted snow, and smoked like just-cut greenwood. Pippin watched it uneasily, mindful of their need for secrecy, but could do nothing to prevent it. Hopefully, Aragorn or whomever was looking for him would see it quickly, before someone else did. The warmth of it was delightful, and he crowded too close for safety to hold his hands and feet up to the flames.
All too soon the small amount of leftover wood was consumed. It seemed so much colder now, after he had enjoyed a little warmth. With deep regret, Pippin laid the slingshot on the last hungry flame. It licked up around the polished wood, and within moments, was no more. The flame flickered then, and starving, died.
Pippin began shivering again, clutching his arms across his body in the effort to retain his body heat. Hummm, what if he sat in the ashes? They were warm… The youngster dug out the center of the fire pit and lowered himself into the remaining heat. The pit had been dug deeply enough that he could sink down to his chest, and he raked in the ashes about him.
Movement ahead of him, white on white again… Now was a jolly time for the snow-hares to turn up, the youngster thought. Just his luck. Awfully big snow-hare… The white wolf turned its yellow eyes towards the ash-covered apparition in puzzlement. It lifted its muzzle into the air and sniffed, but could not identify the creature by scent. Curious but wary, it dropped into a hunting crouch and crept nearer.
Pippin stiffened, a whimper rising in his throat. The wolf loomed above his eye-level from where he squatted, and it looked enormous. Small hands shot out and Pippin snatched up as much snow (and ashes) he could, packing it quickly into snowballs. The wolf stilled at his movement, then continued its forward advance, its muzzle drawing back to display white, glistening teeth. A rumbling snarl was born in its throat.
Pippin took aim and let fly with the snowballs. The wolf blinked as they puffed harmlessly against the thick pelt. It leaped forward to catch the last one in its mouth, crunched down on the missile. Pippin would have sworn it was laughing at him.
The wolf took another step forward, having done with play. Pippin groped for his pouch of sling-stones, regretting even more the burning of his slingshot. The wolf gathered itself to spring, crouching back on its haunches, and Pippin surged up out of the pit, hurling the stones with all of his strength and shouting incoherently. Two stones scored; one bounced off the side of the great head and a second struck hard just above the yellow eyes.
The beast catapulted straight into the air, landing with a "whuff' of startlement. It stared at this strange creature, which had suddenly doubled its size, and decided it wasn't that hungry. The wolf turned, bushy white tail tucked between its legs, and bounded off.
Pippin watched it disappear over the rise, his heart pounding. Unable to be still and quite forgetting the need for quiet, he started jumping up and down in the snow, whooping in relief and triumph
To the east, Aragorn reached out in puzzlement to pluck a gray flake of – ash? as it landed on his greatcoat's cuff and clung there. It crumbled in his fingers, drifted on past him in smaller pieces. He turned around and another flake wafted past him. Another. He turned forward again and shaded his eyes against the blinding white glare, looking at the unmarked snow as far as he could see. Then he turned back to the direction of the drifting ash and began to run.
Legolas alone had seen the thin column of smoke. The Elf's sharp eyes swept forward, to the sides, and he turned often to check his backtrail as he moved easily over the snow without breaking the crust. The column was not in the right place to be the agreed-upon signal. Nevertheless, it was the only sign of hope he had seen. He turned with consummate grace and began to race towards the diminishing column of smoke.
Boromir paused in prodding yet another snow-covered lump and listened. Faintly in the silence he heard – what? Shrill shrieks and hoots, incoherent and eerie. He knew of no beast or bird that made such a sound. Boromir debated with himself for a moment and then turned and ran towards the sounds.
The three searchers converged more or less simultaneously, each catching sight of the other before spotting the small figure still leaping about in the snow. In unspoken agreement, they gathered on the rise and stared at the filthy, blackened hob-goblin which had apparently gone mad below them. It had thrown out its small arms and was now whirling in circles, yowling unintelligibly and shedding ash with every step. Suddenly it collapsed in the snow and was silent.
The Elf reached Pippin first, lifted him into a seated position and brushed snow off the small, panting face. "Little one, little one – are you hurt?"
Pippin opened his green-gold eyes slowly, dizzy. "Hullo," he beamed at Legolas. "I chased off a wolf! You should'a seen it! It was huge!"
Aragorn and Boromir knelt next to the Elf and exchanged glances with him. Boromir leaned forward and gathered the hobbit into his arms, pulling his cloak over him. "Rest, Pippin. We're taking you back to the others."
"Good," said the youngster. "Do you have any food?" Then he went to sleep.