(Author's Note: I felt it time to conclude "Descending Caradhras," as the Fellowship has reached the mountain's feet and it is time to turn towards reaching Moria. TrueFan, someday I want to see a photo of those pink poodles! Nilmandra, forgive me – I gave you the wrong impression. I meant fellow cold-weather survivor, not fellow Minnesotan. We cold-weather people (Baylor included) are self-sufficient types, I think. Firnsarnien, I've done the same thing, and thought your description hysterical. Eris, I really, really wanted to portray the wolves in a more realistic light than having them attack the Fellowship right off – and that let's me save that battle for another story… Helga, wrong but that's a really good plot bunny. QTPie-2488, look, look! No cliffhanger! Bearleft, what a flattering compliment – thank you. Lily Baggins, I saw wolves many times in Denali National Park and treasured each sighting of these beautiful creatures. Shirebound, wow – I am floored. Thanks so much for telling me. A Elbereth, Zorra – for so many who encouraged and supported this story, my heartfelt thanks. BTW, everyone does know that FanFiction.Net will be down February 14 and 15, right?)
"Do not move, any of you!" the wizard fell silent when the rumbling snarl came again, rising and weaving about the Company like velvet brushing over skin. He was the only one standing; the others lay where they had collapsed. The great beast's head was swinging from side to side, examining them. Behind him, the pack milled uncertainly, some crouching with tails curled into their bellies, some pricking their ears forward with curiosity. The alpha wolf's great yellow eyes met those of the wizard, then traveled to each member of the Fellowship in turn, his sleek enormous head tilting to the side as he considered them.
"They have never seen Men before, I think," Gandalf murmured. The wolf glanced at him but did not snarl again, absorbed in his inspection. "Or any of the Free Peoples or those who walk on two legs. He does not know what to make of us."
"Legolas, take your hand off your bow. Boromir, Aragorn, Gimli – stay still." Gandalf kept his voice low and melodious, unthreatening, and those hearing it felt inexplicitly warmed and reassured. "What a magnificent beast," Gandalf breathed, admiration infusing his words. "Look at the width of his shoulders. His head would come to my waist. Never have I seen a more impressive animal."
His inspection completed, the great head swung back to the wizard. Then Gandalf did the most strange thing. Moving as little as possible, he sank to his knees, then keeping his staff firmly in one hand, laid himself flat on the ground.
The leader's huge head lowered and the beast took a step forward. Behind him, a beautifully marked gray wolf whined and he turned to touch noses with her for a moment. Then stiff-legged, he walked to the prone wizard and sniffed his hair. The Company watched, mesmerized. The wolf walked completely around Gandalf, sniffing along his body. When it came to the pouch that contained his pipe-weed, a deep snuff resulted in a sneeze and despite himself, Pippin giggled.
Instantly the beast was wary again. It left Gandalf and stalked over to the tweenager, head lowered and silver ruff bristling. "Pippin," Gandalf warned, "Stay very still."
Pippin did not need to be told twice. Beside him, he felt Merry tense and moved his foot the most minuscule bit to toe his cousin in the side. The wolf raised his head, tracking the small movement. Pippin froze. Merry stiffened too, then went rigid as the animal repeated its circling examination of the hobbits. Each member of the Company was so inspected, including the terrified Bill. The wolf sniffed at him lackadaisically, seemingly less interested in the pony than in the people.
Boromir shut his eyes and fought to hold himself still and the wolf tensed, catching the scents of fear and stress in the soldier's perspiration. It growled but Boromir kept himself in check. Receiving no response to its challenge, the animal moved on.
Gandalf spoke again, his voice gentle and soothing. "Look at their bellies. They have feasted recently. There is much game about. Life is easy for them here; it must be to support so large a pack." Indeed, several of the pack had dropped and lay panting as they awaited their leader's decision. They yawned, flashing long white fangs.
Last of all the leader came to the Ringbearer. Frodo had begun to relax when mayhem was not immediately offered, as had they all. But he tensed as the wolf drew near and it reacted, lips drawing off those white teeth. Involuntarily, Frodo shrank away and the wolf snarled. "Frodo! Be still!" Gandalf's voice was not quite so calm and Legolas again unobtrustively sought his bow.
The wolf's great muzzle quested near Frodo's throat, weaving about as it tracked that which alarmed it. "Gandalf?" whispered Frodo as it snarled again and the great ears laid back.
"It's the Ring," the wizard whispered back. "The beast senses it. No wargs or minions of evil, these."
"Gandalf?" Frodo's voice was higher, his fear evident. The wolf was growling in a continuous rumble now, and behind him, the pack came to attention and rose, their apprehension returning twofold in their leader's unease.
"Frodo," Gandalf murmured, that soothing note more pronounced, "very slowly, roll over on your back. Keep your arms at your sides."
"Gandalf -" Aragorn protested but the wizard interrupted him.
"If it sees the Ring as a threat, it will attack. We must show him we mean no harm." Frodo obeyed with obvious reluctance, exposing his apparently undefended stomach to the creature. The wolf watched this carefully, ears still flat but no longer snarling at this gesture of submission. At last it shook its head with almost a human motion and turning, trotted back to his mate. She licked his face with relief.
"He is the king of his kind," marveled Gandalf softly. "And he has granted us passage through his realm."
The pack did not interfer when Gandalf, still using that soft, soothing voice, instructed the Company to gain their feet, one by one. When all were standing, they very slowly walked over to their packs and shouldered them. Sam released Bill's tie-stake and stroked the frothed head, white-rimmed eyes fastening on him. "Ah, Bill," he murmured to the pony, "you were smarter than all o' us. You knew they were there before we did, didn't you, lad?"
The Fellowship resumed its march in fits and starts, as Gandalf allowed no more than two to move at a time, and always away from the pack, never towards it. They eased themselves off the ice flow and gained solid ground again with sighs of relief. The pack watched with interest but without fear as they picked up the pace. The wolves trailed after the Nine Walkers for several leagues, the alpha wolf slowly drawing closer and closer to Gandalf. Just before the pack turned away, the leader brushed the wizard's hand with his great head, and daring greatly, Gandalf stroked it. The wolf regarded him with its yellow eyes than turned and loped after his pack.
"Wizards and wolves have always had an affinity," Gandalf mused aloud. "We have been greatly honored, my friends. I will treasure this day all of my life."
* * * * *
They made good time after that, ignoring the protests of stiff joints and stretched muscles. The last of the snow disappeared and the bitter cold was easing. Firewood was plentiful now and the hobbits gathered it as they walked, handing it to Sam to tie onto Bill's panniers. The four watched Gandalf and Aragorn with questions in their eyes; the two walked together, carrying on a low-voiced conversation which seemed half an argument. Merry tried to edge up close enough to hear but the wizard glared at him and Merry chose prudence over enlightenment, falling back to safety among his cousins and Sam.
Gandalf paused at the crest of a gentle slope and the Company gathered around him. He gestured with his staff at the westering sun. "We will make camp tonight in that sheltered dell down the way. Tomorrow…" he stopped and sighed, weariness marking his lined features. "Tomorrow we return to the feet of Caradhras. It has all been for naught, this effort. By tomorrow's eve we will have to decide on our further course of action."
"What is there to decide?" this from Gimli, swinging his axe off his shoulder to rest his strong hands on its handle.
"Whether to go on or go back," replied Aragorn. "We have lost irreplaceable time in this assault upon the Redhorn Pass. With each day, each hour, the forces of Sauron mass and prepare for war. This failed effort has cost us dearly."
"Yet not so dearly that all hope is gone," said Gandalf, but not to the Ranger. His deep gaze was intent on the Ringbearer. Frodo had been mostly silent since they had parted from the wolves, not even the relatively warmer air improving his spirits. Several times the wizard had seen Frodo raise his hand and touch the Ring, then swiftly lower it, glancing about to ensure that none had seen.
It was not until the Company had settled down for the night that the wizard was able to speak to Frodo in privacy, drawing the Ringbearer to sit beside him on watch as the others fell into exhausted slumber. Frodo had sought to resist at first, claiming he was too weary for converse, but Gandalf knew him well. They had sat in silence and watched the stars, enjoying the luxury of their pipes, until Frodo began at last to speak.
"Even the beasts turn from me, Gandalf. Perhaps it would have been better had I fallen into that crevasse. At least the Enemy would never gain the Ring, then."
"I think you are wrong, Frodo. Somehow, sooner or later, it would make its way to its master. Sauron is calling all evil things to him, and the Ring is foremost among those. Your death…" and here the wizard had to pause a moment against the surge of grief that welled in him from those words, "your death would not change that."
Frodo was silent, sweet smoke rising from his pipe and wafting about his dark curls.
"This task is appointed to you and you alone, Frodo. No other can complete it. You must not give in to despair. It is a device of the Enemy."
"I know, Gandalf," came the soft reply. "But it is hard. The Ring grows heavier with each step. I am so very tired."
"If I could take this burden from you, I would, my friend." The hobbit nodded, his small face lost in the shadows. Gandalf slid an arm around Frodo and hugged him gently, mindful of bruises and scrapes and aching muscles and the unhealing wound. "Rest now. We have a hard march tomorrow, and a decision to be made at the end of it."
Frodo nodded wordlessly and put out his pipe, rising to his feet. "You'll wake me for my watch?"
"Yes. Good night, Frodo."
"Good night, Gandalf."
The wizard watched as the Ringbearer made his soundless way back to where the others lay and eased himself down between Samwise and Pippin. Though sound asleep, Pippin turned at once and snuggled against his back. Merry groped for the blanket and pulled it up over them all. Samwise's grey eyes opened, black in the starlight, checking his master's whereabouts, before closing again. Comforted, the Ringbearer slept.
* The End *