(Author's Note:  For those cries of "nooooo, it's not ending?!" rising into cyber-space, I regret it is so.  I actually have several more chapters plotted but with the Holidays approaching, feared that other demands on my time might result in letting the story "hang" – an unforgivable thing for a writer to do.   So I decided to close "Snowball Fight" with the old year and start afresh in the new year with a new title [as yet unchosen].   Finding no better possible ending for this story, the last two sentences are borrowed from the very end of "The Ring Goes South," Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.  My thanks to everyone who has, with so much enthusiasm, read and reviewed this story.  TrueFan and QTPie-2488, I'm sorry but Christmas is just such a crazy time of year.  Shirebound, my apologies to you, too.  If I weren't having houseguests for two weeks, I'd continue the story anyway.  Robin Girl, the scene of Pip sliding down to Frodo on his stomach was put in for you.  Frodolover, thank you for the compliment.  Baylor and Ancalime, I too think that the first time the hobbits were forced to kill must have hurt them terribly.  Rose Cotton, I prefer to let my imagination depict Legolas being tortured by the goblins rather than describe it; it is so much worse that way.  For everyone I didn't mention by name, please know that I appreciate your review and value your input.  Thank you for reading and enjoying this story.)

Chapter 13

       "Hoy!  They're back!"

       "Quiet, Merry," scolded the wizard.  "Will you bring down the mountain on us again?"   Despite his sharp retort, the wizard was no slower than the hobbits in gathering on the slight rise behind which they sheltered and rushing to meet the returning party.  The first hints of dawn were appearing on the eastern horizon, pale pink watercolors washing over a canvas of featureless white.  A westward wind was beginning to blow, hurrying the heavy, snow-laden clouds towards them, picking up ice particles and throwing them to sting their cold faces.

       The hobbits plunged down the far side of the little rise, wading through snow up to their waists.  Pippin fell full-length, struggled upright, then found he could make better progress by half-pulling and half-pushing his compact body along the semi-frozen crust.  Sliding on his stomach, the youngest hobbit ignored Gandalf's rebuke and slammed into his cousin with a loud "Oi!  Are you all right, Frodo?"

       Wincing, his older cousin climbed stiffly to his feet and embraced the frantic tweenager.  Sam pulled up a moment later, puffing loudly, and Merry after him.  All were swept into a hug that left them laughing and gasping, with Frodo in the center.   Aragorn and Boromir, their shoulders under the smiling Elf's outstretched arms, exchanged a glance and the Ranger said, "Has no one words of praise for the rescuers, then?"  Gimli, following with the blankets and bearing the others' gear, chortled into his beard.

        The welcoming party, wizard included, swept the four stragglers into their embrace.  Gandalf caught the Ranger's arm and stared into his eyes, glancing anxiously at Frodo.  "It is safe," said Aragorn softly.  "They never searched the Ringbearer."

        The wizard for a moment bowed his gray head, the rising wind whipping his hair about his face.  "Thank the Valar that it has not all been in vain," he murmured softly.  "There is hope yet for Middle-earth."

        Gandalf had to remind them again to lower their voices and calm themselves.  The hobbits had initially gone silent at seeing the Elf's bruised and battered form, but upon Legolas' calm reassurances, had quickly regained their spirits.  Frodo assured his kin and Sam again and again that he was not hurt, but they saw how straight he stood and how tightly his jaw was clenched.  As excited as they were, they were gentle yet and Legolas and Frodo found themselves settled into a warm nest of blankets almost before they knew what was happening.  Hot tea was administered and the Elf fell into a rare, true sleep before he could even eat.  Frodo, too hungry to sleep, was being fed an enormous helping of hot stew by Sam.

        Gandalf looked over at the small gathering of hobbits clustered around Frodo.  The Ringbearer leaned against Merry's chest while Pippin slowly rubbed his feet and legs.  Sam was encouraging him to eat, fishing out mushrooms and other delicacies for him.  Frodo complied slowly, exhaustion evident in every painful movement.

       "What occurred?" asked Gandalf.  Aragorn and Boromir described what they had seen and done.  Leaving the talking to the Men, Gimli stumped over to the stew and Pippin leaped up to serve him, thanking him yet again for his cousin's return. 

       "We must rest, Gandalf," Aragorn said tiredly.  "We have not slept for two days and have walked all night.  And Frodo and Legolas need time to recover their strength."

      "My friend, we cannot."  The wizard's sharp eyes were sorrowful but adamant.  "We must put more distance between ourselves and the warm carrion that lies behind you.  Other things besides cave-bears and white wolves would relish such easy fare.  And then track our scent if the bodies did not satisfy.  You must endure, and Legolas and Frodo also.  We are too exposed here, Aragorn.  I am deeply sorry but we must move out."

       The Ranger rubbed his face, weariness etched into his drawn features.  Boromir had stretched out next to the Elf and the hobbits had covered him with blankets, and he too slept.  Gimli had leaned against the packs and had gone to sleep sitting up, snoring gently to himself.  Pippin and Merry had tucked more blankets around him and even draped one around his head, helmet and all.  Frodo curled between Merry and Sam, silent and still, but not resting.  Those morning glory eyes were struggling against sleep, turning inward.

      "Gandalf," Aragorn said, dropping his voice.  "There is another thing...  Frodo killed his guard, giving us the distraction we needed for the rescue.  He has not killed before and I fear it troubles him deeply.  There has been no time to talk to him.  I do not want him to bury this within himself, as I have seen him do before."  Their eyes turned to the hobbit, now visibly losing his battle to stay awake.  "He cannot bury all his hurts and fears forever, Gandalf.  It will destroy him."

       "Yet we cannot make him speak, Estel.  Perhaps after he has rested, he will talk with Merry or Sam."

      "I hope so, Gandalf.  Even the deepest well will overflow if more is poured into it than it has strength to hold." 

      The wizard sighed, his sharp eyes shadowed.  "I will wake Boromir and Legolas.  You and they must eat now.  Gimli and Frodo can sleep until you have finished."

       The Ranger nodded, his eyes closed.  His ears caught the faintest rustle of robes as the wizard stood and walked to Boromir and Legolas.  His entire body aching, Aragorn moved to gain his feet … and was stopped by a bowl of hot stew being pushed into his hands.  Samwise stood above him, his sandy head only slightly higher than the tall Ranger's seated form.  "Thank you," said the hobbit simply.  "I'll not forget this, Strider."

      The halfling was gone before Aragorn could muster the energy to respond.  Sam dropped again next to Frodo, sheltering the still form from the wind and stinging snow.  Merry had watched from Frodo's other side and gave the Ranger a slow nod, which Aragorn returned gravely.  Pippin still bustled about dishing up stew for Legolas and Boromir, asking them quiet questions and popping up and down with his usual irrepressible energy. 

* * * * *

       "Gandalf, we must find shelter!  We must rest or we will drop where we stand!"  Aragorn coughed as blown snow lodged in his throat, choking him briefly.  He wiped freezing tears from his aching eyes and put out a steadying hand on Frodo's shoulder as the hobbit wavered on his feet.

       The wind had continued to rise and was now driving the snow before it in such quantities that the Company could barely see.  Looking up, the wizard saw that visibility had been reduced to but a few feet before and to the sides.  The companions were reduced to dark blots amidst the white, indistinguishable from each other except for size and an occasional flash of a colored cloak.  The wind had dried out the top crust of snow, resulting in a fine powder that lifted easily and struck against exposed flesh like the jabs of a thousand tiny pins. 

       Gandalf turned and replied something, but the wind snatched away his words and flung them into the uncaring expanse.  Giving up on shouting, the wizard gestured with his staff and the Company began angling towards a dark outcropping.   The wind slashed at them brutally, disordering their cloaks and pulling their hoods off their heads.  The tips of the hobbits' pointed ears were blue.  Gandalf motioned the Company against the rocky wall, and if the hobbits even noticed that the Big Folk crowded them into the center, they were too miserable to care.  Legolas, too, seemed to be suffering from the cold more than his usual wont.  Though he walked on his own (with support from Gimli), he moved without his accustomed lithe grace, eyes focused on taking the next step.  Gandalf surveyed them and shook his head, dislodging a great pile of snow that had driven into his beard.

       "Pile the packs on the windward side!" he shouted into Aragorn's ear.  "Then unload the pony and add those!  We can at least make a windbreak to wait this out!"

      Nodding to show he understood, the Ranger touched Boromir's and Gimli's arms and the three set to stacking everything stackable against the wind.  Blankets were tied across the packs on the inside, stopping the drafts.  Poor Bill was led into this makeshift shelter and stood wearily, head drooping as Sam and Merry rubbed him down and worked the ice-balls out of his hooves.  Pippin was set to making a fire, with many warnings from Gandalf against using too much of their precious wood.  Frodo and Legolas tried to help with various projects and were rather abruptly directed to sit down and rest by the wizard.  When the improvised windbreak was finished, Gimli stood back and regarded it for a time, hands on hips, rumbling to himself under his breath.  Then the Dwarf returned to his pack and dug out the iron crampons he had scavenged from the orc-kind.  These he used to anchor more blankets over their heads, tying one end to the packs and hammering the far end into the rock wall with his axe.  Legolas looked at them and turned his face away, shuddering.

       So the Company created for themselves a little respite from the malice of Caradhras, sheltered on three sides and beginning to warm with the heat of their bodies and that of the pony.  The fire added a little warmth also, but all watched in apprehension as the bundles of wood diminished and outside, the wind howled and the snow fell.  Frodo drifted into exhausted slumber first, then Legolas, then the three rescuers.  Merry and Pippin and Sam rose to their feet, hobbit-quiet, and made certain that each sleeping form was as well-covered as possible.

       For a while the hobbits slept too.  Then Merry forced himself awake and came to sit by Gandalf's side.  "Don't you want to rest, Gandalf?" whispered the hobbit.  "You must be as worn as the rest of us."

      "Yes," the wizard admitted softly.  "But I've some thinking to do, Merry.  Go back to sleep, if you can.  I'll wake you if I grow too weary."  The hobbit nodded and returned to his place, bracketing Pippin between himself and Frodo, fitting easily onto the end of the row of small forms, so wrapped in blankets that they looked like lumpy logs.  Gandalf sat among the sleepers and kept the watch himself, sweet pipe-smoke drifting out to be lost in the maelstrom of snow.  After several hours, the wizard stirred but only to add more wood to the fire.  There were only two bundles left and his sharp gaze remained on them for a long time.

       The wizard made no move to wake any of the sleepers to relieve him but sat silent and cold despite the blankets wrapped about him, knees drawn into his chest and arms folded across his body and measured in his mind the leagues they had come against the leagues yet remaining.  With two bundles of firewood…   Gandalf closed his eyes and bowed his gray head upon his knees, accepting the inevitable.  He reached out and untied one of the two remaining bundles and cast the wood into the flames.  Heat stole around the little shelter and those inside it breathed easier in their sleep, relaxing in the fleeting warmth.

       When the Company awoke, the wind had slackened and the weather settled again into a killing chill.  Fear lurking in the back of his shadowed eyes, Gandalf informed them that they had no option but to take the darker road to Moria.  A cold wind flowed down behind them as they turned their backs on the Redhorn Gate, and stumbled wearily down the slope.  Caradhras had defeated them.