(Author's Note: This story is a sequel to "Snowball Fight," which I wrapped up in December as I felt I was unable to concentrate on it during our recent blizzard of three weeks straight of houseguests over the Holidays. My family did not after all have me committed to an asylum but it was a near thing. I recommend that you read "Snowball Fight" before "Descending Caradhras." The first nineteen years of my life were spent in Alaska, so much of the cold-weather action described in this and the previous story are based on my life experiences, not only growing up there but working as a volunteer trail guide at Denali National Park. I hope you enjoy.)Descending Caradhras
To the unseen observer, the nine forms struggling through the deep snow would resemble nothing so much as walking snowmen, patted together by the children of giants. Four were quite tall, four were quite small and one was somewhere in between. All were covered with snow, from head to toe … and all of them were freezing. With a sigh, Sam Gamgee stopped working on the song he was composing in his head and leaned over to help his master, who had stepped into a snow-covered hole and fallen over.
Unfortunately, Sam had not accounted for the extra weight of the snow on his already heavy pack and now off-balance, he found himself face-first in the snow next to a panting Frodo. Behind him, Bill snorted in protest. Merry, trudging along in his own cold-induced daze, walked right into Bill's tail and was bounced back onto his seat. The usually placid pony had had enough. Bill stiffened his forequarters and balked, throwing his head down with a squeal. Gandalf turned at this sound of equine aggravation and worked his way back to where Sam and Frodo were struggling to stand, driving his staff into the snow with a growl of exasperation.
"Now what?" asked the wizard, striving to keep his voice low. Though they had seen no watchers, Gandalf and Aragorn constantly reminded the Company of the need for silence and stealth. Gandalf's decision to abandon the attempt on the Redhorn Pass and seek out an easier path to the East had not put the wizard in any sweet mood, despite the necessity of the decision. Their last bundle of firewood was strapped tightly to Bill's panniers. The Company's lives depended on descending Caradhras and finding shelter before nightfall. Below the snowline, they would not freeze to death but it would still be a cold and miserable night.
Mortified at halting the Company, Sam and Frodo gained their feet and tried to brush themselves off. "I stepped in a hole and fell over, Gandalf," Frodo explained, perhaps unnecessarily. "Sam fell over trying to help me up. We are quite all right."
Behind Bill, Merry was being assisted to his feet by Pippin, who upon ensuring himself that Merry was unharmed, had rather enjoyed seeing his older cousin flattened. Despite the cold, the younger hobbits could still summon from within themselves a spark of enjoyment in the solid white landscape, so foreign to what they knew. The older, wiser members of the Company merely endured.
It took two sugar lumps from Sam's carefully hoarded supply to bribe Bill into moving again. It was already late morning and the reflection of the wan winter sun on the snow was blinding, painful to their blurring vision. The Company walked with half-slitted eyes, those eyes leaking a continuous stream of tears from the corners. The tiny runnels of water froze on their faces and had to be rubbed off, often painfully taking delicate skin with it. Sam reflected that it must be worse for the Big Folk; parts of their beards often pulled out when they rubbed the icicles off their faces. It was merely one more small misery to add to frozen feet and aching fingers and bodies stiff from days of cold and wading through thick snow.
Sam wiped perspiration from his brow, glad that hobbits didn't have facial hair and so were spared having it pulled out by the roots. Elves, either, he remembered. As if Sam's thought had summoned the Elf, Legolas moved gracefully past the struggling hobbits, coming forward to speak with Gandalf. Sam permitted himself an envious sigh as the Elf's light boots moved easily over the snow he was struggling knee-deep through.
"Mithrandir," Legolas was saying, "there is a sheltered resting place below us. There are many dark boulders there from which the sun has melted the snow. They are warm – at least warmer than taking our midday rest in the snow."
The wizard nodded. "Thank you, Legolas. Could you see the end of the snow from there?"
The Elf shook his head. "I ascended the tallest of the rocks but could not see bare ground from where I stood. I do not think it is far, however. There are small plants and stunted trees among the boulders and I saw many signs of game."
"Good." Aragorn joined the two, moving past the hobbits and Gimli. Boromir stayed in the rearguard position, his keen eyes constantly scanning the horizons while the others talked. "We have little dried meat left. There is a small pheasant-type bird here that is very good. The bird changes its feathers from white to speckled brown according to the season. Legolas and I will go hunting when we come to the place."
"Very well," the wizard agreed.
* * * * *
The sun-warmed rocks felt almost hot to their chilled hands. Sam placed both of his on the dark boulder, then laid his cheek against the rock, as if he could pull the stored warmth into himself through his skin. Frodo chose an adjacent rock and dropped his pack, climbing up on the rock and stretching himself out on his belly like a lizard. Gimli choose one of the taller rocks and scrambled rather gracelessly up on it, standing up and holding a hand above his eyes, dark gaze watchful.
Here on the knees of Caradhras, the light seemed even brighter than on the mountain's shoulders. The almost constant cloud-cover that Caradhras wore like a shawl was absent in these lower altitudes. Sam ran a hand under his watering eyes and flicked tears off his fingertips. His eyes were beginning to burn and if he shifted his gaze too quickly, a shooting pain would lance through them, feeling as if his eyes had been stabbed with a large needle. The pain seemed to ricochet to the back of his skull and go all the way down his neck. Sam reached down to the base of the boulders and gathered a handful of snow, pressing it to his eyes. That seemed to help a little, but the burning at the back of his eyeballs seemed the worse in contrast.
Sam checked about him for his master. Frodo had turned over onto his back and thrown an arm over his eyes, already asleep. Careful not to disturb him, Sam laid a gentle hand against his cheek, looking for signs of fever. Frodo muttered something in his sleep but his skin was cool. Sam raised his head and met the wizard's gaze with a smile, glad to have nothing to report. Gandalf nodded in return.
"He is well, then?" the wizard asked softly.
"Aye," Sam replied. "Awful tired, though. He's not as strong as he thinks he is, yet." Frodo's dark brows drew down and the two quietly removed themselves farther away, seeking to rest tired legs and feet on convenient rocks. "I wish we could 'ave stayed a bit longer in Rivendell."
"Every day counts now, Sam," Gandalf returned. "The Enemy has had time to gather his forces. Companies of Men and Orcs have been sighted moving East. Other, more evil things are also gathering. It is my fear that we may have lost too much time as it is." Gandalf glared up at the Pass, now far above them, as if the mountain had chosen to personally thwart him. With a sigh at their defeat, the wizard dropped his gaze to see Frodo shiver in his sleep. Sam pulled a blanket out of his pack and covered his master, then quietly moved around the boulder back to the wizard.
"We will try to keep an easier pace for a few days," Gandalf continued, "but we must move as swiftly as we are able. Watch him, Sam, and let me know if he falters."
Sam nodded, accepting the charge as he had accepted the care of Frodo all of his life. "I'll keep an eye on 'im, sir." Gandalf clasped his shoulder and rose, levering himself up with his staff, and went to speak to Gimli. Sam roused himself and found Merry and Pippin dozing against one of the boulders. He shook the younger hobbits' shoulders, pointing at the spongy turf and handing Merry his flint. The two dragged themselves up and began to forage for the few small pieces of wood and dry turf in preparation for fire-building. Pippin cleared a small roundish area and Merry built a small fire on it and hung Sam's largest kettle over the flickering flames.
Legolas and Aragorn conferred briefly then strung their bows. The two set off in opposite directions and it did not take them long to return, a brace of coneys slung over each shoulder. Sam accepted them gratefully and sat down to skin them, then looked up when a tall shadow sheltered his aching eyes.
"Allow me, Master Samwise." Wordlessly, Sam handed the carcasses to Boromir and watched critically as the Man soon had them quartered and ready for the pot. Boromir smiled when he saw the hobbit examining his handiwork. "It seems a more fair division of labor," he commented softly and handed the jointed rabbits back to Sam. The hobbit nodded his thanks and added the pieces to the pot, wiping the blood from his hands. The Man straightened and took the small pile of skins and offal off to bury it.
The plain food didn't compare to well-laden tables of Imladris, but it was passable enough camp fare, Sam thought with a surge of pardonable pride. Alerted by Master Pippin's soft crow of delight, Sam had looked over to see the cousins intently grubbing in the spongy turf. The snow had melted between the dark boulders, the exposed ground absorbing the heat from the great rocks. Sam finished scrubbing the stew-ring out of his cooking pot and wandered over. "Look, Sam!" Merry had called softly, his broad face beaming as if the two of them had found a dragon's hoard. "Blueberries! Fat, juicy ones! And still frozen!" Nimble hobbit-fingers had immediately gathered all within sight and the three had carefully dumped them into his just-cleaned kettle, mashed in fresh snow with a few more of crushed sugar lumps and presented the surprised Company with a sweet dessert of blueberry ice.
"Ah, Sam, you are a marvel," Gandalf had said, and the stocky hobbit felt warmed right down to the hair on his toes. Pippin added an enthusiastic "Umm-hummm!," his lips and chin purple and stains cascading down his shirt. Merry had groaned and dragged the youngster over to the nearest patch of snow, forcing the reluctant tweenager to rub at the stains in the dim hope they might come out. Now the entire Company was engaged in trying to wipe sticky concoction off their faces and clothes, but the unexpected treat had enlivened an otherwise unexciting meal.
Checking about him, Sam saw that Frodo was asleep again, and as he watched, Pippin gave up on scrubbing more berry-stain off his fingers and carefully laid himself along Frodo, inching in close to his cousin but careful not to press against his still-tender side. Merry dropped on Frodo's other side, bracketing him and spreading a blanket across them all for warmth. With a yawn, Sam eased himself down on Pip's free side, and soon all four were soundly asleep. The two Men and the Elf stretched out their long forms, propping themselves up against the rocks, weapons within easy reach. Even Bill dozed, head down and legs locked, the pony's soft, deep breaths a familiar, comforting sound to the others.
With a silent tap on the shoulder, Gandalf relieved Gimli of the watch. The Dwarf rubbed his eyes and gave up his place gladly, dropping heavily off the rock to the soft earth. Sitting down on the great rock, the wizard pulled out his pipe and sat back, sharp eyes watching for any eyes that watched back from the featureless landscape.
* * * * *
It was not watching eyes that the wizard had reason to fear, though he did not know it. Leagues away, downwind, questing muzzles raised into the air, scenting wood smoke and the familiar scent of fresh blood and the unfamiliar scent of warm lives. The leader raised his great head, sharp ears pricking. The others milled about him, made confused and apprehensive by the strange smells on the sharp, crisp breeze. With a howl, the leader summoned the rest and they came to him eagerly, crawling on their bellies before him, pressing their bodies against his legs and whining. Then, as one, the pack turned and padded towards the unfamiliar scents on silent paws.
* * * * *
With a groan, Sam rolled over and cranked his eyes open. His lashes stuck together and he had to rub at them to loosen the sticky matter. He had grown chilled again as they slept, but he, like the others, had learned to ignore that. At first, Sam thought that it must have snowed again, for he could see nothing but white. Nothing. Nothing at all. Sam waved a hand in front of his face, then jerked himself upright with a stifled cry. His abrupt movement disturbed Pippin. Pippin also sat up, and Sam could feel the younger hobbit shift as the tweenager turned and looked about him. "Sam," Pippin hissed, "I can't see anything. Can you see anything?"
Sam shook his head, though he knew that Pippin couldn't see it. "I can't see nothing. I'm blind."
Sam felt Pippin push against him, trembling. "Me, too."
* TBC *