(Author's Note: The hobbits have now spent a month in Rivendell and this short story has evolved into thirty chapters. It seems a good place to break the story in half. I feel this is necessary; it is just too unwieldy and difficult to handle at thirty chapters. This story will be continued in "Renewal in Rivendell." Just a few quick responses: Firnsarnien, I have written two "Moria" stories, "All Evil Things" and "Stars in the Dark." I'd love to do another. Bookworm, I regret that that scene between Frodo and Faramir wasn't filmed, too. Baylor, I love your hobbits best of all – they are most like the Professor's, I think. Rose Cotton, the copywrite symbol slayed me! Alatariel, just a little Frodo torture … he gets so much of it. Coriandra, I breathe a sigh of relief. Leah Beth, my thanks. QTPie-2488, hey, begging works. Jael, welcome. You name me in illustrious company. Claudia, don't you find that "evil cliffies" stimulate the imagination? Jay of Lasgalen, the action takes place not too far from camp, remember. Shirebound, at the ending of this first part of the story, I want to thank you especially for your encouragement and support. You were the one who said, "Keep going!" when I didn't think I could. Thank you.)
Chapter 30: Dawn
The Lord of Imladris swept through the polished hallways of his home, unaware of the looks of apprehension that passed among his folk as they beheld his face, for it was stern and set and a dark cloud gathered on his brow. Courtiers and gallants bowed and withdrew from his path, casting quick worried glances among themselves. Some of these he collected with a glance; others he sent to seek for the Elf-lords of his House and upon other errands. When he at last seated himself in his study, there came behind him a great number of mighty warriors and weapons-masters of Rivendell.
"A Nazgûl comes to Imladris," he informed them without preamble. "The Ringbearer has sensed it. I feel it only as darkness and a coldness in my heart, for it has not yet crossed the borders of this land. But I do not doubt Frodo's word. In this, the Ringbearer has bitter experience and his knowing of this evil is greater than mine."
Glorfindel moved to the fore of the gathered throng and bowed. "What are we to do, my lord?"
Elrond's dark eyes swept over the assemblage, powerful and ageless, strong in their arms and knowledge. "We cannot destroy it. It is a creature of the Dark Lord and will endure as long as its master."
Glorfindel nodded, his noble face both sad and unyielding. "What are your orders?"
Elrond stood, his copper mantle falling in gentle folds about his tall form. "Arm yourselves. We ride to meet it."
* * * * *
Sam pulled aside the balcony drapes when he heard the clattering of hooves and urgent yet contained calls of the Elves below. Looking out, he saw a mighty host, dozens strong, arrayed for battle. Their helms shone in the westering sun and light reflected from their amour. Bilbo did not rise from where he sat by Frodo's side, holding his cold hand, but he met the younger hobbit's eyes and Sam saw both fear and sorrow in his gaze.
Frodo groaned and Bilbo's gaze returned to him. "Hush, my boy," the old hobbit crooned, his hand tightening on his nephew's. Bilbo had thought Frodo too deeply drugged to be aware of his comfort but he prayed that the lad at least knew he and Sam were there, and that he was not alone. But as he stroked the trembling hand, Frodo's thick eyelashes fluttered and he moaned. "Go to sleep, Frodo-lad," Bilbo whispered, striving to keep his voice soft and reassuring. "Go back to sleep, my dear."
But Frodo fought, trying to drag himself to wakefulness. Bilbo watched him writhe, knotting the blankets about himself, his distress deepening as he vaguely felt the restraining covers. "Samwise," called Bilbo, "help me. He's tying himself up."
Sam quickly left off watching the muster and hurried to help his old master, easing the sheets and blankets from around the struggling form. Freed of the restraining covers, Frodo's twisting increased, perspiration coating him as he battled the strong sedative. "He's fighting it," Bilbo murmured to Sam, tears crowding his old eyes.
"Aye," Sam muttered back. He leaned over to wet a soft cloth and wring it out. "He can feel that wicked thing comin' closer." Sam wiped the sweating face gently, trying to cool and reassure his master. "It's all right, Mr. Frodo," he whispered to the writhing form. "We won't let it get 'ta you. It'll have to come through Sam Gamgee to hurt you, and that's not going to happen."
* * * * *
Aragorn pulled up the gelding at a fork on the narrow pathway above Imladris. One fork led down and was a deception; the rising path, not descending until it rounded a curve, was the true one. Holding his horse to stillness, the Ranger listened. Here the cliffs were sheer and sound echoed misleadingly. Faintly he could hear the heavy plodding hoof-beats of the Ringwraith's mount, its steps ringing against the earth with dull thuds, but he could not estimate its location.
Swallowing a curse, Aragorn leaned forward to stroke his gelding's neck reassuringly as the animal caught scent of the other, the not-horse that the Ringwraith rode. The gelding's eyes rimmed with white as it sought to expel the smell of corruption from its nostrils. Blowing, the horse obeyed its rider's instructions and set itself to climb the steep path, fearing if not understanding that terror came behind it.
Aragorn let the gelding have his head, letting him move faster than was safe on such narrow, perilous path. Suddenly the horse threw up his head and whinnied - a welcoming sound, not a frightened one. The Ranger pulled it to the side of the path against the cliff and dismounted, knowing better than to trust the animal's weight on soft ground. Aragorn cast his lean form to the ground and peered over the cliff-side.
Far below him rode a great host of Elves, the setting sun reflecting on the points of their bannered spears. The Master of Rivendell rode at their head, wearing armor he had not donned for an age of the world. Even as Aragorn looked down, Elrond raised his dark head and met his foster son's eyes, and in the single smile that passed between them were volumes spoken.
The Ranger remounted and sent the gelding hurrying towards the host, less mindful now of the need for silence and stealth. The animal slid on its haunches, Aragorn standing in the saddle, to struggle to a stop before Elrond's mount.
"How far behind you is it?" the Elf-lord asked. Behind him, the Elves unsheathed their weapons.
Aragorn shook his head, unable to provide precise information. "Not far. It comes quickly."
Elrond nodded, then his face softened and he reached out to grasp the Ranger's arm. "You are well? And your brothers and the little ones?"
Swiftly Aragorn recounted the last few days and saw Elrond's face tighten as he took in the news that Elrohir had not returned to them. But there was no help for it, now. "And the halflings?" the Elf-lord asked.
"Merry's arm is healing fast and he seems unfazed by his accident. Pippin is most pleased to be able to care for his cousin. They are difficult to daunt, these hobbits."
Elrond smiled, a slight lightening of the worry in his dark eyes. "I have seen that myself." Then his face tightened again. "Frodo alerted me to the wraith's proximity. He felt it well before it reached the valley. I have had to sedate him."
"Such sensitivity to evil will serve us well on our quest," responded Aragorn. "But I am sorry it comes at such a cost to him."
Elrond raised his head, ageless eyes distant. "It comes," he said, the words carrying back among his folk. "Ride by my side, Estel. We must stop it from reaching the Ringbearer."
* * * * *
"Leave us alone! Leave us alone!" cried Pippin, his voice high and frightened. Merry dropped Pippin's cloak and cocked his arm to throw the dagger. But the cast would go astray, he knew – not left-handed, the cast felt wrong before it left his fingers.
The Man pulled off the last of the snares and gained his feet. Blood dripped from the shallow wounds, staining his dirty clothes and skin. Standing, he seemed enormous to the hobbits, impossibly large. Snarling, he reached out for them.
Then his face stilled and stiffened, and his arm froze in mid-grasp. The hobbits turned. Inmara stood behind them; elven-quiet she had come and her ears were flat against her huge head and her great, chisel-like teeth bared. She stretched her long neck over the hobbits' heads and shook her mane, great dark eyes narrowed on the Man.
Merry fought down the sob in his throat, cradling his arm. Inmara dipped her head and nuzzled their heads, blowing gently on their hair. He and Pip edged back behind the pillars of her front legs, sheltered by her barrel. The mercenary started to drop his arm and instantly her head was back up and those yellowed but strong teeth were but inches from his face.
"Good horse, good horse," murmured Merry, rather idiotically. Pippin glanced at him and laughed, a note of hysteria in his voice. Very slowly and carefully, the soldier took a step backward, then when the old mare did nothing was watch, another. Another, out of reach of those great teeth. Then the Man turned and ran, crashing away into the underbrush.
Merry slid down Inmara's leg and collapsed, the throbbing in his arm unbearable. Pippin was at his side immediately, supporting his cousin until Merry could overcome the pain and regain himself. Inmara nuzzled them both anxiously, though her delicately pointed ears remained upright, tracking the mercenary's retreat.
After some little time, Merry held onto his cousin while Pippin helped him to his feet. "Thank you, Inmara," the hobbits said softly, reaching up to stroke her muzzle, "for our lives. A second time."
The mare lipped their hands and blew sweet breath in their faces.
* * * * *
When Elladan and Elrohir found the halflings, the two were trying to gain Inmara's back by climbing a tree and crawling from it onto her. The old mare would have lowered himself to the ground to allow them to mount, but Merry and Pippin wished to spare the old mare that. The twins reined in their stallions to watch as Pippin tried to guide his cousin onto the mare's back, his arms tight around Merry's waist. Inmara pressed herself against the trunk beneath them, holding herself still so that Merry could drop the short distance from the branch to her back.
"May we help?" asked the twins together as they dismounted, eliciting a cry from the hobbits. The two stared open-mouthed for a moment, then Pippin was swarming down the tree, scraping his hands and feet against the bark. Elladan moved forward and caught Merry off the branch, saving the hobbit a painful climb down. The Elves laughed as the little ones wrapped their short arms around them, hugging them in joy and relief.
Amidst cries of "Are you all right?" and "What happened to you?" the Elves and the hobbits eventually heard one another's stories. Elladan and Elrohir had returned first to their destroyed camp and had heard the hobbits' cries and the Man's shouts from there. Spurring their stallions to a dangerous run, they had raced to the source of the commotion, their bows and knives in their hands. When they heard of the mercenary's intentions, Elrohir stood and clasped his hand around the hilt of his long knife, staring after the Man, anger evident on his fair face.
"It is well that Inmara found you when she did," he said at length. "I had much time to observe these Men and believe that they are the worst sort of hired soldier. Rough and cruel and taking pleasure in the giving of pain and death." The Elf's eyes darkened further. "Just the sort that Saruman would employ."
"Which our father needs to know," continued Elladan with a concerned glance at his twin. "We will rest this night and return to Imladris in the morning. It will be a long ride for you, my friends. Can you endure?"
Merry and Pippin looked at each other and thought of groaning supper-tables and feather beds and warmth and safety. "Can't we go tonight?" asked Pippin plaintively.
* * * * *
"There is no safety here," Elrond was saying, as the Elven host gathered close. "We cannot come against it directly; the strength of its master is in it." The Elf-lord closed his eyes briefly as he sought the cold, empty darkness of the Nazgûl with his mind. Very close, now... Its nearness caused him pain, a sharp gnawing hurt in his soul, and he wondered if this pain was a faint echo of what the Ringbearer must be suffering.
Elrond opened his eyes again. By his side, Estel sat his horse quietly. "Further up this way there is a narrow place, steep-sided and sheer," the Elf-lord continued, seeing his host nod as they knew the place. "It is not the Ford of Bruinen, but perhaps it can serve as well."
"Roll boulders down upon the evil thing," breathed Aragorn.
"Push it off the cliff," added Glorfindel, a fierce eagerness on his face. Beneath him, Asfaloth snorted and tossed his proud head.
"Yes," said Elrond. "Send it empty and shapeless back to its master, until it can find a new form to wear and a new mount to ride." The hurt he was feeling abruptly intensified. "Hurry," he commanded them. "It is coming."
* TBC *