January 13, 3019 (Night Part 2)
Pippin had, of course, heard the saying that misery loved company. It was a favorite of Bilbo's, who had often used it to explain why the Sackville-Bagginses worked so hard to be so offensive to so many hobbits. But as the night wore on, Pippin began to believe that misery was better off without company, particularly when that company came with feelings of frustration, confusion, and barely restrained panic.
Had Pippin been the only one overwhelmed by Moria's darkness, he thought he might have been able to manage. He would have put his trust in his more experienced companions and left it at that. But the furtive looks, curt whispers, and hands that kept straying to sword hilts had Pippin firmly convinced that the rest of the Fellowship—with the possible exception of Gandalf—was just as bewildered and anxious as he was. And that thought frightened him almost as much as the shadows did.
With a dark glance at the pitted wall beside him, Pippin pulled at the straps of his pack and resettled it on his shoulders, moving closer to Merry in the process. They were standing about in a brooding silence while Gandalf and Gimli held a hushed debate over whether they should take the right fork or the left. Neither choice looked very appealing to Pippin, who'd had quite enough of this sprawling labyrinth. The twisting corridors and crossing hallways were giving him a headache, but more distressing than this was the growing sense of dread located just behind his stomach. Moria was not as tiring or as brutal as Caradhras had been, but there was something darker to the mines. Something that made the mountain's blizzard seem almost…friendly.
Pippin shivered and silently begged Gandalf to hurry. Fear seemed easier to ignore when they were moving. When they stopped, the darkness encircled them until it threatened to smother the faint light of Gandalf's staff, and the rest of the Fellowship faded until they were only shapes against the shadows. Which was what was happening now, and without even the pretense of adjusting his pack, Pippin took yet another step closer to Merry.
Aside from Gandalf and Gimli—who were huddled around their only light source—Merry was the easiest person to find. His quick breaths gave him away, as did a childhood habit of tapping his foot against the ground whenever he was anxious. The rest of the Fellowship was more difficult to locate. On the other side of Merry stood the grim, shadowed form of Boromir, discernible only because the buckles of his baldric glinted in the light. Beyond Boromir were Frodo and Sam, or so Pippin assumed. He couldn't see either of them but Sam's pans would clank in his pack whenever he shifted, and Pippin felt it reasonable to believe that Frodo stood nearby. Behind them all, a bit further back in the tunnel, were Legolas and Aragorn. They were completely lost to the darkness, but they were having a low, intent discussion punctuated by long periods of silence. Already unnerved by the deep shadows and the inexplicable heat, Pippin had made certain that he heard nothing of their conversation. For now, fear had superseded Tookish curiosity, and he had no desire to learn of anything that might add to his feelings of dread.
"I don't like this," Merry suddenly murmured. "We should have been on our way before now. What could Gimli and Gandalf be talking about?"
"I don't know," Pippin said, more to hear the sound of his own voice than to answer Merry. "And more likely than not, I don't want to know."
"Well, whatever it is, I wish they'd finish. At least when we're moving, Gandalf gives us a bit more light," Merry muttered. "I know we don't need light when we're not moving, but I find it comforting. Or rather, I would if we had some. I don't know that I've ever felt so…alone."
"I feel the same, if that's any help," Pippin whispered. "I'm even beginning to remember the Old Forest as a cheery copse of trees. This is…" He trailed off, unable to find words that described the sense of living darkness. It wasn't that there were no lights in Moria. It was that the shadows seemed to have a life of their own. Even had there been torches or fires lining the wall, Pippin felt that the night would remain.
"Do not be afraid."
Pippin flinched violently and looked up as Aragorn's tall form took shape beside him. Apparently the conference with Legolas was over, and Pippin held back a sigh of relief. If Aragorn and Legolas were comfortable enough to join the rest of the Fellowship, then things couldn't be too bad, could they?
"Do not be afraid," Aragorn said again, and Pippin's eye caught movement as the Ranger nodded toward Gandalf. "I have been with him on many a journey, if never on one so dark. And there are tales in Rivendell of greater deeds of his than any that I have seen. He will not go astray—if there is any path to find. He has led us in here against our fears, but he will lead us out again, at whatever cost to himself. He is surer of finding the way home in a blind night than the cats of Queen Berúthiel."
Pippin bit his lip and tried to ignore the phrase "if there is any path to find." He didn't appreciate the notion of "at whatever cost to himself," either. His fear now building rapidly, he latched on to Aragorn's last few words in a fit of desperation and blurted, "Who was Queen Berúthiel?"
There was a pause at the unexpected question, and for a moment, no one said anything. Then Aragorn spoke, and his voice was lighter than it had been since entering Moria. "A most interesting woman, if the tales speak truly. And the subject of most interesting tales, regardless of the truth. But there is one here who could provide a better answer than I. Boromir?"
Pippin jerked his eyes over to the looming shadow on Merry's right and saw the baldric buckles move. "My brother would be the one to ask," Boromir said softly. "He is the scholar, not I. But perhaps I can tell you somewhat. Berúthiel was wife to Tarannon, the twelfth king of Gondor. Many strange things are said of her, but she is perhaps most well known for her cats. She had ten—nine black and one white. According to the stories, they did her bidding and spied upon the people, bringing word back to her so that all the secrets of the realm were hers. It is a sordid, uncertain tale, and doubtless the truth lies buried beneath the myth. In the end, she was exiled by King Tarannon and set adrift upon the sea. Her name is gone from the Book of the Kings, but her nature and deeds were such that she was never forgotten."
"Fancy that," Sam whispered from somewhere beyond Boromir. "I wonder what it looked like, all those cats slinking about discovering things. How do you suppose she came by them?"
"You would need the lore masters to answer that, and even they might not know," Boromir said. "I can only say that Queen Berúthiel was one of strange habits and also strange travels. Perhaps she acquired her cats from distant lands."
"Well, Sam's right in that it would have been a sight to see," Pippin said, anxious to sustain the conversation. It kept his mind off the shadows. "Do you think she was able to herd them?"
A baffled silence met his question. Pippin felt the confused eyes of Boromir staring at him, and he thought he also sensed an incredulous look from Aragorn. It was finally Frodo's stifled laugh that broke the silence, which prompted an exasperated chuckle on Merry's part. "Pippin, only you would ask that."
"Well, it's an odd saying, isn't it?" Pippin returned. "And while we're waiting, don't you think we should find out if it's true or not?"
"You wish to know if Queen Berúthiel could herd her cats?" Boromir said slowly.
"We have a saying in the Shire," Frodo explained. "If something is very difficult to do, we say it's like herding cats."
"Ah," Aragorn murmured. "Yes, they say that in Bree as well, though it is not a common phrase. Well, Boromir, what say you? Could she herd these cats?"
"I fear that is beyond my knowledge," Boromir said, puzzlement giving way to amusement.
"A pity," Aragorn sighed. "Have you any other sayings in need of investigation, Pippin?"
"None come to mind," he said, deciding that his earlier musings on misery loves company were too grim for their current circumstances. Looking about quickly for inspiration, the gleaming buckles of Boromir's baldric caught his attention. "Of course, I wouldn't mind hearing sayings that other places have," he said. "Do you have anything you could share from Gondor, Boromir?"
"Naught related to what you have shared," Boromir answered. "Our sayings usually concern war or the Nameless Land."
"Share one of those," Merry encouraged.
Boromir fell silent for a moment and then said, "Enemies should be kept closer than friends."
"By closer, I trust you are not speaking of proximity," Legolas said, joining the conversation from somewhere behind Aragorn.
"No, indeed not," Boromir said with a quiet laugh. "It refers more to alliances in politics than to positions in battles."
"But what does it mean?" Sam asked. "Wouldn't you want close friends?"
"Most assuredly. My friends are my greatest assets in the councils of my father. But there are those who would seek to undermine my authority, and it is needful that they be kept especially close. It is easier to prevent another's acts if that other is within arm's reach. Friends may be allowed greater space as they can be trusted."
"Begging your pardon, but it sounds like an uncomfortable way to live."
"Perhaps. For some of us, though, it is all we have ever known."
No one seemed to have anything to say after that, and Pippin felt the darkness closing back in. "What about you, Legolas?" he asked quickly. "What sayings do the elves have?"
"We have many, but I do not know if any would translate well into Westron."
"Spider gifts," Aragorn offered.
"True, there is that one," Legolas said. His voice was moving now, and he seemed to be pacing behind the Fellowship. "If an offer is made that involves an unknown—and often dangerous—cost, we say that it is a spider's gift."
"What manner of gifts do spiders give?" Boromir asked.
"Unpleasant ones, and hence the warning."
"Mr. Bilbo didn't say anything about spiders giving gifts," Sam murmured.
"Bilbo stumbled upon a nest of young spiders," Legolas said. "He would have found no gifts among them. But the older spiders that live alone are more cunning. Sometimes they will raid abandoned settlements and collect trinkets that have been left behind, setting them within their webs as lures. Many children of the woodsmen have been snared in this fashion. It is a growing danger."
Pippin didn't think he had ever been so grateful for his quiet, peaceful, unassuming life in the Shire.
"Time for you, Strider," Merry said. "What sayings do the Rangers have?"
"All that is gold does not glitter."
"That's not a Ranger saying!" Frodo protested. "Bilbo made that up."
"Nay, Bilbo put it to verse and added a few lines of his own. It has been a saying among the Rangers for many generations."
"But it's something we already knew about," Pippin said. "Could you share one that we don't know?"
"All that glitters is not gold."
Boromir laughed and the four hobbits groaned. Aragorn was teasing them now, but Pippin couldn't find it within himself to be angry. It felt good to be teased, and it felt good to know that Aragorn's spirits were not so dark that he couldn't take part in a little fun. Perhaps there was hope for them after all.
As if cued by this thought, the light of Gandalf's staff suddenly brightened, and Pippin was forced to look away for a moment. "Come," the wizard called. "We turn left here."
"Good," Merry breathed. "I'll be glad to be moving again."
Pippin nodded but said nothing as the Fellowship started off down the left fork. They fell back into silence, saving their strength for the march and their senses for the unknown. The mood became somber once more, and as if angry with them for their brief respite, the darkness tightened its grip. Readjusting the pack on his shoulders and sidling closer to Merry in the process, Pippin tried to ignore the shadows and wondered when they would have a chance to stop again.
"We are followed."
Boromir looked over his shoulder at Aragorn and raised one eyebrow, wondering if the gesture would be wasted in the darkness. "I know."
The other blinked, nonplussed. "You know?" the Ranger echoed.
Boromir canted his head to one side, torn between amusement and indignation. "The elf's actions are not difficult to interpret."
Aragorn nodded slowly. "For a moment, I wondered whether you had seen or heard aught, and were that the case, I would have been most impressed."
Indignation won. "You think I have not?"
Pausing, Boromir concentrated on the sounds in the corridor, but all he heard were the footsteps of the Fellowship and the occasional hiss of hidden water. "Nay," he conceded at length. "My only knowledge comes from watching Legolas. But he has made no secret of his fears. Indeed, I am surprised that the hobbits—sheltered though they might be—have yet to guess why he scouts the shadows every time we stop." He turned his attention forward and sidestepped a gaping pit on his right. "I also know that you guess something about the nature of the one who follows us," he continued. "Enough to satisfy yourself, at least, or you would have insisted that we investigate the matter."
"Would that that were the case," Aragorn sighed, "but like you, I sense nothing of our footpad. It was only within the last few miles that Legolas was able to confirm his suspicions. He was hesitant to speak of it until then, and he only spoke of it to me because I have been rearguard."
"Then it is the elf alone that knows or guesses something?" Boromir asked, his eyes fixed upon the archer.
He had not thought his words loud enough to carry farther than Aragorn's ears, but near the front of the Fellowship, Legolas stiffened and glanced back, eyes flashing. "Legolas believes that he can recognize the sound of its feet," Aragorn murmured. "He heard its footsteps clearly when we passed through that larger room perhaps half a mile back, and prior to that he may have seen it for a brief moment."
"Then he knows what manner of creature it is?"
"More than that. He knows its name."
Boromir stopped short. "How is that possible? It was my understanding that the elf had never entered these mines," he hissed.
Ahead of them, Legolas also stopped and stepped to one side, allowing Merry and Pippin to pass him. With a frown, Boromir shook his head and started forward again. "He has not been in these mines before," Aragorn explained quietly as they drew even with the elf. "But to the best of my knowledge, neither has this creature."
"More likely than not, he is seeking a way through the mountains untouched by the sun," Legolas added, falling into step beside them. "He could not have followed us in, for the doors closed too quickly behind me and he would have been seen. It follows, then, that he must have journeyed from the east. And as for his name, it is Sméagol. My people guarded him for months, and thus I recognize his step."
"You speak of Gollum?" Boromir demanded. "He is here? How?"
"I do not know," the elf said, his tone stiff. "When my people tracked him after his escape, the trail led us toward Dol Guldur, and we dared not venture further. It is possible he skirted Lothlórien to the north and so came to Moria. As for how he discovered us, I cannot say, but now more than ever do I rue his escape."
Boromir shook his head darkly. "What mischief could he bring upon us?"
"On his own and against nine, he can do little," Aragorn said. "But we must be watchful. If given an opportunity to act, he will take it."
"He is alone, then?"
"Alone? None here are alone," Legolas said grimly, looking at the shadows behind them. "But there are no companions at his side, if that is what you ask. None that I can hear or feel."
"But he may acquire companions," Aragorn warned, "and it is this possibility that concerns me. He may seek out whatever lurks in the depths of these mines and set it against us."
"Just as he set the army of Orcs against my kinsmen," Legolas hissed.
Sensing a rising tide of fury from the elf, Boromir decided to move the conversation forward. "Have you spoken of this with the rest of the Fellowship?"
"Until recently, I was not certain that it was Sméagol," Legolas said, his voice still dark with anger. "But I have now informed Mithrandir. The dwarf also knows, for he was near us when I spoke. But we have said nothing to the hobbits."
Boromir looked at the four hobbits ahead of them, still finding it remarkable that they had not guessed what all the backward glances meant. Or perhaps this ignorance is of their own making, Boromir thought as he stepped over a crack in the ground that growled with the sound of rushing water. Perhaps they feel they have trouble enough without searching for more.
"If the hobbits wish to know, then they will ask," Aragorn said quietly, seeming to share Boromir's thoughts. "They must sense that something is amiss. They have journeyed far enough to know our habits."
"Or perhaps the darkness blinds them to it," Legolas whispered. "There is a presence in these shadows. A menace the likes of which I have not felt since the Necromancer was driven from Dol Guldur."
Boromir frowned, and something cold skittered down his back. The Necromancer had been ousted from Mirkwood during the stewardship of Denethor's grandsire, but Boromir knew the tales. He knew also that the Necromancer was he who now reigned in Mordor, and as he considered it, he found himself in agreement with the elf. There was something in these caverns that prompted memories of moonless nights in the shadows of the Ephel Dúath. Faramir had once remarked that he could all but feel the gaze of the Nameless One prowling their jumbled slopes, and Boromir felt this to be a particularly apt description now. What was it Gandalf had said after entering the mines? 'Something has crept or has been driven out of dark waters under the mountains.' Boromir did not think the hobbits understood the significance of that remark, but he could not help hearing the unspoken warning. Whatever creature had elected to dwell in the lake before the western door, it was strong and deadly. If it had been driven out of the mines, then there was something stronger and deadlier within. Possibly this was the presence that he and Legolas both felt, and Boromir's throat tightened at the thought. They had escaped the creature in the water by retreating into the mines, but where could they run should they come upon the thing that had forced it out?
"Gandalf braved the dungeons of Dol Guldur and escaped," Aragorn whispered. "He will see that we escape Moria as well."
The words were probably meant to be reassuring, but Boromir took little comfort from them. He remembered the Ranger's earlier words about a nightmare and its focus upon the wizard. Something in the darkness spoke of doom for their leader, and if Gandalf could be overcome, what aid could the rest of them possibly offer? And if the Fellowship fell in Moria, what hope was there for Gondor? What hope was there for his father and brother, who awaited his return? The outposts on the river would not hold past spring, and once the Enemy claimed the crossings, it was only a matter of time ere Minas Tirith fell!
A dark fear settled over Boromir, but before his thoughts could continue further in this vein, something deep within him sounded a warning. Startled, he looked up in time to realize that Gandalf and Gimli had suddenly stopped. Grasping his sword hilt, Boromir hastened forward until he had passed the hobbits, prepared to leap to the Fellowship's defense.
And promptly swore.
A gaping fissure split the floor, stretching from wall to wall and measuring at least seven feet across. Defense would not be needed, but Boromir had a fleeting thought that a small group of goblins might actually be preferable. The edges of the fissure were split and crumbling, and from the black depths below came an angry gurgle of rushing water, churning against whatever rocks blocked its path. For Boromir, it was a long but not impossible jump, and he doubted it would prove too much for Legolas and Aragorn. Even Gandalf and Gimli were probably up to the task. But the hobbits…
"What now?" Merry asked, inching up beside Gandalf but going no further.
The wizard was quiet for a moment, studying the crevice and then casting his eyes into the darkness behind them. "It would be unwise to go back at this point."
"But can we go forward?" Frodo asked.
"We passed a corridor that led to an adjacent hallway," Gimli remembered. "I guess it to be no more than a mile behind us. If we retraced our steps only that far, perhaps—"
"No," Gandalf said, his voice firm. "No, we go forward here. This crack may extend across several hallways, and we have not the time to waste in going back only to discover our path blocked again. Nor is there any guarantee that we will be able to return to this road after we leave it. No. I would not have us veer from this course unless we faced no other choice."
"But this looks very much like no other choice to me," Pippin said. "How are we to cross?"
"We jump," Aragorn said, moving away from the yawning fissure. "What would you make of that gap? Six feet? No more than seven, surely. Come. We will pace off the distance here, and you may practice your jumps ere you take them."
"Seven feet?" Merry whispered, his eyes fixed upon the hole.
Boromir shook his head but said nothing of his own misgivings. The company could not go back without its guide, and if Gandalf was intent on this road, little would persuade him otherwise. Turning away, he walked over to Aragorn where the Ranger was measuring out a distance of eight feet for the hobbits to practice their jumps. If they could not manage such a distance, then the Fellowship would have to find another path. But if they could…well, if they could, they might as well continue forward now. "Come," Boromir encouraged with false cheer. "'Tis safe enough to test your skills here."
"Here, yes," Sam said. "But what about over there?"
"We have a saying in Gondor, if Pippin is still curious of such things," Boromir said, knowing he should refrain but suddenly unable to help himself. "We shall simply have to cross that gap when we come to it."
As expected, Boromir found himself confronted by several glares, but Pippin did smile a bit and Gandalf noisily cleared his throat in a way that suggested he was covering more mirthful sounds. Looking torn between humor and exasperation, Aragorn gestured for the hobbits to gather. "All of you stand beside Samwise," he instructed, swinging his pack down and setting it in the middle of the tunnel. He then moved back until he was near the edge of Gandalf's light, at which point he drew a small knife from his belt and set it down. "You will want a good start, so run toward the pack as quickly as you can. When you reach it, jump! Your goal is the knife."
"That looks a bit further than seven feet," Merry said.
"It would be best if you jump farther than is needed and give yourself a measure of safety," Gimli said.
"We could further aid you by relieving you of your packs," Boromir added. "Those can be carried across separately. Your only concern should be your own safety."
The hobbits liked the idea and quickly made a pile of baggage at Boromir's feet. After that, they formed a line behind Sam, who had apparently been elected to go first. With a deep breath, Sam squared his shoulders, stared at the knife that was his goal, and began to run. All seemed to hold their breath as Sam jumped, and there was a collective gasp when he landed.
He had cleared the knife by several inches.
"Well done," Aragorn praised. "Well done indeed. That is more than sufficient to cross our obstacle. Who is next?"
Merry was, and his jump took him farther than Sam's had. A tentative confidence began to rise among the hobbits, and it continued to grow when Frodo's jump equaled Merry's. But it faltered when Pippin took his turn and landed just short of the knife.
"Do not let that trouble you," Aragorn said. "As Merry observed, this distance is greater than that which is required. Let us do it again!"
The hobbits lined up once more, and again, Sam, Merry, and Frodo were all able to pass the knife with a few inches to spare. Pippin did a bit better, but it was clear that he was becoming worried. Aragorn commanded them to try a third time. Then a fourth. Boromir suspected he was considering a fifth, but a faint tapping from Gandalf's direction indicated that the wizard wished to begin the march again. That—coupled with the searching looks that Legolas kept throwing back up the tunnel—made a fairly convincing argument that they should continue, and Boromir had to agree. The longer they tarried in a single place, the greater the chance of discovery.
"Feel yourselves ready?" Gimli asked.
The hobbits exchanged glances. "Pippin?" Merry asked.
Pippin took a deep breath. "I don't know as I'll ever be ready, but waiting any longer won't change that. If we must go on, it might as well be now."
"Do not look down," Gandalf said. "Some of us will go ahead of you, and the light of my staff will be your goal. Look and think of nothing else." Once the hobbits nodded to show their understanding, Gandalf turned to Legolas and Gimli. "Would you join me in being the first to cross? Leave your packs behind, and Aragorn and Boromir will throw them to us."
After handing Boromir his pack, Legolas went first. As anticipated, the jump caused him no problems, and he turned back expectantly as Gimli also made the jump, demonstrating a startling burst of power that caught Boromir by surprise. He was even more surprised by Gandalf, who made the jump as effortlessly as had Legolas, and then it was time for the hobbits.
"I'll go first again," Sam said, his voice shaking but determined. "If someone's going to fall, it might as well be me."
"No, Mr. Frodo, I won't hear anything about it. It's me or no one." He shook his head and backed up a few paces. "Rope," he muttered, fixing his eyes upon Gandalf's staff. "I knew I'd want it, if I hadn't got it!"
"There can be no hesitation, Samwise," Aragorn said. "Do not go until you are ready."
"Gandalf, Gimli, and Legolas are waiting to catch you," Boromir added, his stomach rolling. "So do not trouble yourself with balance. Think only of reaching the other side."
Sam nodded, fists clenching, and for a moment, all was still. Then his shoulders shifted, his eyes grew hard, and Sam raced for the chasm. In the darkness beneath, water churned and gurgled, as though eager for prey, and Boromir's heart leaped into his throat at the same time that Sam leaped into the air, sailing forward as Legolas shot out a long arm to steady him and—
"Pippin!" Merry cried, for the youngest hobbit had closed his eyes. "Pippin, he made it!"
"He did?" Pippin said cautiously.
"Indeed he did," Aragorn said. "Why, I would venture to say that he could have made the leap with his pack on!"
"I'll leave my pack to the bigger folk, if it's all the same to you," Sam answered faintly. "Bless me, but I don't know what my old Gaffer would think of all this. And if I ever get the chance to tell him about it, I don't think I will!" Having safely crossed the chasm, he was sitting against the tunnel wall looking as though he had just endured the greatest scare of his life. Boromir could sympathize, for the pounding of his heart was only now beginning to slow.
"Well done, Sam," Frodo called, his voice filled with pride and approval. "Come along, then," he said to Merry and Pippin. "We can't let a Gamgee get the best of a Took, a Brandybuck, and a Baggins!" Saying this, Frodo raced forward as though seized by a sudden fit of boldness, and before anyone realized quite what was happening, the Ring-bearer was across the gap, swaying slightly until Gimli recovered enough to steady him.
"And they're not even the ones who are supposed to be having adventures," Merry said, placing a hand on Pippin's shoulder. "We can't let them do that without us, can we?"
"No," Pippin said, though there was an alarming lack of confidence in his voice. "No, we can't."
"And if they can make it, then we can make it. With inches to spare, too."
Pippin closed his eyes. "With inches to spare," he echoed.
"There's our brave Took," Merry said. "Would you like me to go first, or do you want me to wait for you?"
"You go," Pippin said. "I'll follow."
Merry shot a concerned look at Aragorn and Boromir, and Boromir felt his jaw clench at the raw fear in Merry's eyes. "We will see that Pippin joins you soon," he promised quietly.
Merry held his gaze for a moment and then nodded. "The sooner begun, the sooner finished," he said, releasing Pippin's shoulder. "Right, Pippin?"
"Right," Pippin whispered, stepping back.
But Merry still hesitated, his eyes on Pippin until Pippin huffed and waved him toward the gap. His lips pressed together in a firm line, Merry shook his head and then broke into a run. His leap took him nearly a foot beyond the chasms' edge, and he immediately turned and looked to his cousin. "See? Inches to spare!" he called.
But Pippin did not answer. He did not move. His eyes were fixed upon the black depths before them, his face was pale, and Boromir knew that if he did not act quickly, Pippin would never reach the other side. "Move the packs across," he told Aragorn.
Aragorn's eyes flickered from Boromir to Pippin and then back again. "He is not a soldier of Gondor. You cannot command his courage."
"Before men are soldiers, they are boys," Boromir said evenly. "I know something of the difference."
A strangely piercing look crossed Aragorn's face, but then it was gone and the Ranger nodded slowly. "As you wish." Moving away, he turned to the Fellowship across the gap and announced that he would be throwing packs in their direction.
Ignoring the activity, Boromir moved between Pippin and the chasm and lowered himself to one knee, forcing the hobbit's attention on him. "Why did you leave the Shire?" he asked.
Pippin blinked as though seeing Boromir for the first time. "What did you say?"
"Why did you leave the Shire?" Boromir repeated. "What brought you on this journey?"
"Frodo," Pippin said, his tone puzzled. "I came to help Frodo."
"Even with the knowledge that it would be perilous?"
For a moment, Pippin did not answer. "If I'd known how perilous," he said at length, "I might not have come."
Boromir smiled. "It is a brave man—or hobbit—that can admit his shortcomings."
"But not brave enough to jump, seemingly," Pippin muttered.
"That remains to be seen. But do you still hold to your purpose here? After the snow and the wolves and the dark, do you still wish to help Frodo?"
This time, there was no hesitation. "Yes. Yes, I do."
"Then think of him now, and go to his side. See nothing else. The darkness and peril have no power over you so long as you hold true to your purpose." Boromir rose and stepped to the side, holding Pippin's gaze for a long moment before nodding toward the chasm. "Go," he whispered, and prayed that he had said the right thing.
From the corner of his eye, Boromir saw Aragorn turn toward them, and the eyes of the rest of the Fellowship followed. Beneath their collective gaze, Pippin seemed to grow. His eyes were still fearful and his color much too pale, but his fists tightened with a determination that had not been there earlier. Taking a deep breath, he began to run. And just as Boromir had hoped they would, the other hobbits stepped forward to encourage him.
Pippin's leap was not as graceful as Legolas's or as powerful as Gimli's. It was not as sudden as Frodo's or as surprising as Gandalf's. It was not as focused as Sam's or as long as Merry's. But it was straight and true, and that was more than sufficient to carry Pippin across the chasm and into the welcoming arms of his kinsmen.
"Well spoken," Aragorn murmured as the group across the divide celebrated Pippin's victory.
"He needed but to remember," Boromir said dismissively. "That is what separates boys and soldiers. The former know not why they act. The latter cannot forget."
The Ranger smiled. "Small wonder that you are a Captain in Gondor."
Strangely uncomfortable beneath the praise, Boromir shrugged off his pack and tossed it to Gimli. "Time wears on. Shall we join them?"
His smile growing, Aragorn gave him a knowing look and nodded. "Lead on."
Samwise Gamgee wasn't a hunter or a warrior. He couldn't see things in the dark. He couldn't sense things in the shadow. He couldn't tell if the shiver across his shoulders was the result of a draft or something watching him, and he didn't know how sound was supposed to echo in a dwarven tunnel. But he did know Frodo, and watching his master closely, Sam could tell that something was wrong.
Frodo kept looking over his shoulder as they marched, and he would stare into the darkness whenever they stopped. Sam didn't know what he was searching for, and he wasn't sure he wanted to know. He had trouble enough keeping his own feet and watching for sudden holes in the floor, and he was worried that Frodo wasn't paying attention to things like that. Not that Frodo ever stumbled or tripped. Come to think of it, that was a bit odd, too. In the dim light, it was difficult for Sam to see small rocks and protrusions, and he was constantly catching himself. But Frodo seemed to have no problem at all. Fisting his hands around the straps of his pack, Sam decided that the sooner they left Moria, the better.
A sudden increase in light from Gandalf's staff pulled Sam's attention forward, and he found that the Fellowship approached a dark archway where the tunnel widened. From what little could be seen, this new section looked to be in better condition than the pitted and scored tunnel through which they had marched. Maybe this was a good sign. Maybe the thing that had torn its way through the mines had left this part alone. Maybe they were now past whatever danger it was that Strider had feared, and maybe they were even close to making it out of these mines! Suddenly excited, Sam looked around at the rest of the Fellowship, hoping to find that his optimism was shared. But all he saw were grim faces accented with a touch of fear. His spirits sinking back into the darkness, Sam sighed and continued morosely forward until Gandalf stopped beneath the arch. It seemed they had come to another crossroads.
As Gandalf stepped forward to examine the three passages before them, Sam made his own quick study and decided that everything in Moria looked the same. The tunnel branching to the left went down, the tunnel in the middle narrowed while continuing on, and the tunnel branching to the right went up. They had met with many crossroads, though Sam didn't think they'd ever had three options before. But to one already bewildered by the dark and twisting corridors, three possibilities instead of the usual two were three possibilities too many. Such things were best left to a wizard.
"I have no memory of this place at all!"
Unless the wizard started making statements like that.
Frozen, Sam stared at Gandalf as a very awkward silence descended upon the Fellowship. Perhaps he was…making a cruel jest? It was a terrible thought, but it was far better than the alternative, which was that Gandalf had meant what he'd just said. But this latter option was looking more and more likely as the wizard held up his staff for a closer inspection of the three new passages. Behind him, the rest of the Fellowship waited anxiously, and to Sam, it seemed as though the darkness deepened. Not even Pippin—the usual instigator of conversations—dared speak.
At length, Gandalf turned to the Fellowship, and in his face was a glimmer of uncertainty that had chills racing up and down the length of Sam's back. "I am too weary to decide," he said. "And I expect that you are all as weary as I am or wearier. We had better halt here for what is left of the night."
Night? Sam frowned and looked about, wondering what difference the day might bring.
Almost as though reading his thoughts, Gandalf's eyes flashed. "You know what I mean! In here it is ever dark, but outside the late Moon is riding westward and the middle-night has passed."
Sam blinked. Was that all the time they had spent marching? It felt as though ages had passed in the darkness, not mere hours since their encounter with the grasping creature in the water that had attacked Frodo and frightened away—
"Poor old Bill!" Sam exclaimed, mortified that he had all but forgotten the pony until now. "I wonder where he is. I hope those wolves haven't got him yet!"
"His chances with the wolves are greater than they would have been with us," Gandalf answered, softening his voice. "He would not have fared well in these mines."
"I doubt you could have coaxed him across some of the chasms we crossed," Frodo added with an apologetic look. "At least outside, he can run."
"Or seek a place of hiding, which is what we should do if we intend to rest here," Aragorn said, nodding toward the darkness behind them as he spoke.
Sam started to ask who would hide Bill if the pony wanted to rest, but a hand upon his shoulder stopped him. "He'll be fine, Sam," Frodo whispered. "Bill's smarter than a bunch of wolves. You'll see." He gave Sam's shoulder a quick squeeze and then released it, stepping forward and looking around. "Gandalf? I think I see a door over to our left. Maybe it's a room where we can spend the night."
Firmly shoving thoughts of Bill to the back of his mind, Sam looked in the direction that Frodo indicated, but he saw nothing. He strained his eyes and felt a little better when he realized the rest of the Fellowship was doing the same thing. Then Gandalf increased the light of his staff a bit, and Gimli started.
"There," the dwarf said, pointing ahead. Squinting, Sam could just make out two parallel cracks in the rock that he would have certainly missed had he not been looking for them. "It is indeed a door, and it is far too small to lead to another passage."
"Let us see it," Gandalf said, walking forward. The rest of the Fellowship trailed behind, and Merry and Pippin drew even with Frodo and Sam.
"I hope it's a place we can rest. I'm so tired that this floor will probably feel just as good as those feather beds in Bag End," Pippin whispered.
"See if you still think that way in the morning," Merry said. "For myself, I'd prefer the beds."
"You'd have to fight Lotho for them," Frodo murmured, shaking his head. "I wish I'd taken those with me to Crickhollow. If we must sleep here, the Sackville-Bagginses shouldn't be allowed to sleep on anything softer."
"You can wish all you like, but the floor is what we have and I'm going to insist on seeing it as a nice feather bed," Pippin said. He looked ahead as Gandalf pushed gently against a door that blended well with the stone walls. It creaked inward at his touch, and Pippin hurried forward. "Come along, Merry! We can decide which spots look most like beds."
"Steady! Steady!" Gandalf said sternly when the two hobbits tried to pass him. "Steady! You do not know what is inside yet. I will go first," the wizard said, slipping into the darkness beyond the door.
"Begging your pardon, but what do you think you're doing?" Sam hissed as he and Frodo crowded behind Merry and Pippin. "What if there's something living in there?"
"It was foolish," Frodo agreed, looking over his shoulder. "We have yet to meet with anything else in these mines, and I for one would like to keep it that way!"
"I really wasn't thinking," Merry answered, shuffling in after the wizard. "I was just…well, in a way, Pippin's right. Even the floor sounds like a good place to sleep right now."
And though he glanced fearfully at the darkness closing rapidly behind them, Sam had to admit that Merry had a point. The prospect of sleep made him eager to rush in and take advantage of whatever fate had gifted them. But as the light from Gandalf's staff filled the room, Sam was glad that he hadn't.
"There!" the wizard said, indicating the middle of the floor. A large, round hole gaped at them, its edges chipped and worn. Rusted chains around it lay in wait to trip the unwary and send them tumbling into the darkness below.
"One of you might have fallen in and still be wondering when you were going to strike the bottom," Aragorn said from behind Merry. "Let the guide go first while you have one."
His eyes as round as the hole, Merry nodded quickly. Pippin also nodded, though he was a bit slower to show his agreement and had crept closer to the hole.
"This seems to have been a guardroom, made for the watching of the three passages," Gimli said, walking the length of the room. It was just large enough for everyone to be able to lie down well away from the hole, though Sam could have done with a bit more distance and was grateful that there were only nine in the Fellowship. "That hole was plainly a well for the guards' use, covered with a stone lid. But the lid is broken," Gimli continued, nudging a fragmented rock with his foot, "and we must all take care in the dark."
"We should probably take care in the light as well," Sam said, more for Pippin's benefit than for anything else. The young Took seemed to have developed a strange fascination for the well.
"How long do we plan to rest here?" Legolas asked from the doorway.
"As long as the path is in question, we cannot go forward," Boromir answered, joining Legolas in watching the hallway beyond.
"Even were the path not in question, we cannot go much further without rest," Gandalf said.
The elf's eyes flashed. "And what rest is there to be found in this darkness?"
"The rest needed to complete this journey."
Sam turned away, uncomfortable with the tension that his taller companions were no longer attempting to hide. Maybe Merry and Pippin had the right idea after all. Maybe he should find a place to sleep, imagine it was home, and dream of feather beds.
"Unroll your blankets," Aragorn instructed, removing himself from the discussion now unfolding near the doorway. "We will likely be here for several hours at least."
That was all the excuse Sam needed. Following Frodo over to a corner, he set about unrolling the collection of blankets and clothes that he slept upon. It was not exactly a comfortable pallet, but given his guilt over losing Bill, his fear of the unknown that prowled the dark, and the exhaustion from the long march, Sam doubted that it would take much to send him to sleep.
"All ready, Sam?" Frodo asked, shaping his pack into a pillow of sorts.
"Whether I am or not, I won't stay awake much longer," Sam confessed. "And forgetting why we stopped, I'm actually grateful that we—"
Sam's breath caught in his throat.
Sam swung around, fumbling for his sword as the sounds continued to echo from the well. "What's that?" Gandalf demanded, sweeping Glamdring forth as Boromir and Aragorn flanked the well from either side. Still in the doorway, Legolas had nocked his bow and now watched both the well and the tunnel beyond the room while Gimli had positioned himself in front of Sam and Frodo, gripping his axe tightly.
Eventually, the sounds died away, and the company was left in a tense silence. Sam held his breath, waiting for additional noise, but what he heard next came not from the well but rather from a shame-faced Pippin.
"I…" Pippin trailed off and cleared his throat, glancing at Merry before dropping his gaze to the floor. "I may have dropped a pebble into the well," he mumbled, seeming to shrink before them all. "Just to see how deep it is."
The breath Sam had been holding rushed out of him, and he slumped backward onto his makeshift bed. Boromir and Aragorn both sheathed their swords, Gimli's axe dropped, and from the doorway, Legolas bowed his head, murmuring something beneath his breath. Gandalf's shoulders sagged as he returned his sword to its scabbard, but despite the relief on his face, his eyes flashed with anger.
"Fool of a Took!" he snapped. "This is a serious journey, not a hobbit walking party. Throw yourself in next time, and then you will be no further nuisance. Now be quiet!"
Pippin backed away sharply and took shelter beside Merry, who looked back and forth between Pippin and Gandalf as though wondering whether or not he should say something. But no one seemed to want to interrupt the returning silence, and eventually, Sam turned back to his blankets. Tempers would probably be calmer if they all got a few hours of rest.
Rolling himself into his blankets, Sam nestled his head in the crook of his elbow and watched as the other hobbits did likewise. The rest of the Fellowship seemed to be having a silent argument of sorts near the door. Probably wondering what kind of a watch would be set. Sam closed his eyes and decided to ignore them. They could stand guard all they wanted, but he planned to shut out Moria's darkness for as long as they would let him.
Sam's eyes flew open. As before, the sounds came from the well, but this was no pebble. Even so, he searched the room for Pippin, but the Took was in another corner of the room with Merry, far away from the hole. Sitting up slowly, Sam stared at the well as the rest of the Fellowship gathered around, listening until the echoes died away.
The sounds started up again, longer this time and with a clear rhythm. On the other side of the hole, Aragorn looked sharply toward Legolas, who was still in the doorway. But peering into the darkness beyond the room, the elf shook his head. And after a time, the tapping stopped. The echoes faded, and once again there was nothing.
Sam didn't know which he hated more—the strange noises or the silence.
"That was the sound of a hammer, or I have never heard one," Gimli finally said, his voice hushed.
"Yes, and I do not like it," Gandalf said. "It may have nothing to do with Peregrin's foolish stone; but probably something has been disturbed that would have been better left quiet. Pray, do nothing of the kind again! Let us hope we shall get some rest without further trouble. You, Pippin, can go on the first watch as a reward."
With that, Gandalf stretched out on his own blankets and closed his eyes with an air of finality, though his staff continued to emit a faint light. Following the wizard's lead, Aragorn motioned for Pippin. "Keep your watch near the doorway," he instructed. "Wake me when you can no longer keep your eyes open, and Boromir and I will take the remainder of the watches."
"The rest of us can also take a watch," Gimli protested.
"Yes, but as our guides, it would be better if you and Gandalf were well rested," Aragorn said. "And the hobbits should get what rest they can in the event that we have more chasms to cross. As for Legolas…" Aragorn trailed off and looked to the elf, who raised one eyebrow in a manner that could only be described as challenging. "He will probably resist sleep for the greater part of the night, and I have no desire to give him further excuse to do so."
Sam wasn't sure he understood that last bit of reasoning, but he was very sure about the rest of it: he had no watch. Which meant that if he could fall asleep quickly, he could spend the next few hours ignorant of noisy wells and creeping shadows. Burrowing down into his blankets, he pushed the dark and the heat and the fear into the back of his mind where they could mingle with his concerns about Bill. About this time, he noticed that the light from Gandalf's staff was fading quickly and that the rest of the Fellowship was settling down for the night. As the room grew darker, it was almost possible to imagine that they were still in the forests of Hollin and that a thick blanket of clouds hid the stars.
Then he heard Pippin sigh, and the soft sound echoed slightly in the stone chamber. The dream of Hollin vanished, and the oppressive dark of the mines returned. Squeezing his eyes shut, Sam pulled one of the lighter blankets up and over his face. It seemed there was no escaping Moria, even in waking dreams, and Sam couldn't quite hold back the fear that perhaps this current lack of escape was an omen of sorts.
With that dark thought lingering on the edge of his mind, Sam shivered, wrapped himself tighter in the blankets, and struggled long before he was able to sleep.
Author's Notes: Once again, we've entered a section of the books where Tolkien has provided dialogue, so I've tried to integrate that into the story. The first POV section has a few lines from Aragorn that are taken from The Fellowship of the Ring, page 370, and the second POV section has a quick line from Sam taken from the same source on page 371. The last section has more extensive dialogue lifts from pages 372-373.
Finally, HUGE thanks got out to Docmon, without whom this chapter would not exist. I definitely don't appreciate her enough, and there really should be huge celebrations in honor of all betas. Thank you, Docmon!