Bainion had no idea what they were supposed to do with the…well, creature was the only word he could think to describe it, for it was neither yrch nor spider nor any other creature he had ever seen. Though it had been washed of the green slime that covered it when it was brought to the king's halls, it stank. It was pale and spindly, whimpering at the light it so obviously shunned. And it was hungry, so starved for food it would not suffer to wait while its guards brought it bread or cooked meat; it desired only fish, and that raw and still wriggling, if possible.
A feral light gleamed in its eyes as its rotted teeth tore into the scales, crunching through both meat and bone with little discrimination. Bainion could not bear to watch, setting his back to the door of the cell while the creature slavered over its meal, though he and the other guards had been told that it should never be left unwatched.
All he knew of the creature was that a Dúnadan ranger had brought it out of the wild and that Thranduil would have it kept under guard. Throughout the lower levels where the guards walked there were whispers that Mithrandir had urged the king to this course, yet for what purpose or for how long none could say. Neither Bainion nor any of the other guards could see why the thing must be held, for it was savage and ungrateful for the care its wardens tried to give it, and they soon began to weary of the task.
I would the king would have this creature removed to some other place, or that it might go back to the dark hole it came from and not bother us more, thought Bainion. In the shadows of the cubicle he shared with the other guards, he now often found himself starting suddenly at some imagined hiss in his ear, some cold stirring upon the back of his neck. He grasped blindly for the dagger he kept with him, slashing at the air, yet even when he saw he was in no danger he was chilled and could not rest again. Not even an encounter with the spiders of the forest had ever made him so uneasy.
Many of his fellow sentries agreed with him, that the creature had no place among them, and freely voiced their opinions once their superiors were safely out of earshot.
"Certainly it does not seem so important and was not troubling our borders before it came," observed Estannen. "Now if it were like those Naugrim who came tramping through here all those years ago and refusing to state their business to the king, aye, then that would make sense."
"I think it not our place to question," Bainion said softly, "though I like the business no better than you."
Behind him, on the other side of the stout oak door, he heard the creature huffing and making a strange gurgling noise that sounded like gollum, gollum. It was now finished with its meal and would sleep for a time, though Bainion wondered if it ever truly slept. At times on the watch, when he thought the creature insensible and deep in the slumber of mortal creatures, suddenly in the darkness he would see two glowing spots of yellow, two corpse-lights that flickered and fixed upon him.
"Go back to sleep," he would whisper, but the eyes would not waver even when he raised his voice and spoke more loudly. At last he would withdraw a pace, until he could no longer see the eyes. He would have liked to step farther back, for he could yet hear the creature's hissing breath and feel the chill of its malice, but his duty would not permit it.
He thought the creature must be male, yet after its initial capture and soaking no one could get close enough to examine it. A healer had come once, to see what manner of being it was and to discern if it was in any way injured or malnourished, but not five minutes after entering the cell had fled screaming with his fingers clutching a bleeding face. The creature, laughing hysterically, clutched a gory bit of flesh between its teeth, celebrating even as the door was slammed shut upon it.
"It is a thing," muttered Rínon, who paired with Bainion on that afternoon's shift, "and as such should be locked away."
"'Tis the most wretched thing I have ever seen," said Bainion.
Rínon's sharp laughter echoed down the corridor. "It wants not your pity, mellon, but something else, I think."
Aye, and it would follow me along the very road of dreams and torment me as it is itself tormented. I would be as rid of it as you, yet something in it wants a kind touch. But no bird with a broken wing was this, he knew. There was danger in the thing, and he did not delude himself that it might respond kindly to him. Only hissing and spitting had it ever given him; he did not know why he bothered to believe it could ever be capable of more.
Once, the king himself came down to view the creature. He came alone, with no tokens of his office about him save a sword richly scabbarded in gold and finely tooled leather, and lifted his hand for silence when the guards would have saluted him. Silently he bade them move aside that he might peer through the bars of the door, and stood a long time studying the creature. There were no words for what he might have thought.
At last, Thranduil spoke, though his utterance was so soft at first Bainion did not believe it was meant for him. "Its name is Gollum, I am told. I know not what evil is this that we must hold it captive, yet I will not have it suffer needlessly. I am counseled that there may yet be some good in the creature. Take it out into the air at sundry times and let it feel the sun and wind if it will bear it.
After the king left, he did not come again. The guards did as they were ordered, and at times they were joined by some of the king's sons, who, like their taciturn father, spoke little save to say that Mithrandir had hope for the creature's cure. They told the guards that they did well to let Gollum out into the air and out of the dark earth where its thoughts would surely brood and return to black things.
In fair weather the guards led Gollum out into the forest, keeping close watch upon all paths and shadows as it took its exercise. There was a tall tree Gollum liked, set apart from all other trees and yet just off the path where the guards hesitated to go, for even so near to the king's gate there might yet be danger lurking in the shadows. While there were enclosed gardens within the king's halls, the guards had been instructed not to bring Gollum anyplace where it might be a threat or an annoyance to others.
Bainion watched his charge closely, feeling somewhat more at ease when he saw the change that came over Gollum as it clambered among the high branches, and clung to the limbs with its feet and hung upside down, gurgling at the feel of the wind against its skin. Hissing and uncouth rhymes it threw down to its watchers, taunting them when they ordered it to come down, but always it complied, reluctantly coming down and returning with them to the warrens where it was placed once again in its cell.
"If you are this well-behaved throughout the night," Bainion told him, "you may go out again tomorrow, for the exercise does you good and your mood is much improved."
Estannen and Rínon muttered only that he was wasting his breath, for no intelligible conversation did Gollum ever make with them, or show its gratitude in any tangible way, yet Bainion hushed them. Somehow he sensed the creature could hear them and did understand.
He wondered sometimes what manner of creature Gollum was or had been, for he sensed something in it that was ruined and turned to despair, though perhaps not broken beyond repair. He wondered what dark path the little creature had followed to bring him so low; only briefly did he entertain the notion that it might be yet another of the Shadow's minions, bred in darkness for black purposes.
Nay, he thought, in darkness it has lain but I think not that it was born there. I hear it sometimes in the night, speaking to itself as if to another, and its words are torment. I would that it would speak to us and tell us what grief it has endured.
Summer came with its warmer, longer days. And on one balmy afternoon, Gollum clambered up into the branches of its tree and refused to come down even as the sun began to set. Never had it sported so long with its guards, never had it hung tauntingly in the branches in such silence.
"I like it ill that it heeds us not," muttered Estannen, "though I have never liked this task to begin with. We ought to have chained the thing ere we ever let it out into the air."
Bainion agreed that there might be some merit in chains, yet iron was cruel and they feared to tempt the creature's vicious temper by placing it in shackles. They had done so once and had suffered its twisting and curses, dragging its weight along behind them when it refused to move. "There is no remedy for it now," sighed Bainion, "save that we wait until it wearies of this sport and comes down. It always does, when it sees that it cannot win."
"Perhaps in other places it is good to sit out nights under the stars, yet here it bodes ill." Estannen threw a glance to the other guards of their company. "They like it not either, though the weather be fair."
"Let us build a fire and keep watch," Bainion suggested. "It cannot jump so far that it might reach other branches, and it cannot climb down but that we will see it and seize it ere it can fly. We must be patient."
Estannen grimaced and signaled to the junior guards to begin gathering kindling. "Aye, but when we have it I mean to clap it in its hole and not let it out on the morrow. Such mischief cannot be borne."
Gloaming turned to night, and still Gollum did not come down. Bainion sent word back to the king's halls that they would not return until their prisoner was caught, and that the sentries should be ready to admit them at anytime. He took his place by the fire and pondered the slow burn of annoyance that began to stir in him. Gollum ought not to behave in this manner, not when they had shown the creature kindness. They liked not their charge, it was true, but they had been kinder than other jailers would have been.
I have only ever been kind to you, he thought bitterly, and this is how you repay it. Increasingly his thoughts turned to what others had suggested long ago, that one swift arrow would end all. Were it not the king's will, I would do it myself, even as I would dispatch an animal wounded beyond all care.
The night deepened and Bainion felt lethargy take him, fed by the lull of the fire and his own hopeless situation. His eyes remained open and he heard the other sentries pacing back and forth, keeping the watch even as Gollum rustled and hissed in the branches high above. They had long ago given up trying to coax Gollum down, for if anything such tactics only encouraged the creature to taunt them.
A shuffling in the darkness that was not the scuttle and slither of spiders suddenly reached his ears. He heard a muffled cry, then another, and knew in that instant that an enemy was upon them.
"Yrch!" Rínon's voice cut the darkness a half-second before it broke off in a sickening gurgle.
Wrenching himself away from the fire, his senses sharpened with fear, Bainion reached for his weapons, yet even as he saw Rínon's body fall just beyond the circle of the fire he knew he was too late. He could not even save himself. A shadow blacker than the night and forest beyond, that exuded some foul odor, loomed over him and he felt a cruel blade bury itself in his belly.
He felt the fire of the metal pierce him, tearing through layers of leather, wool and flesh. Pain radiated outward, paralyzing him, and his breath came in short pants. He stumbled and sank to the earth, grasping at his belly, feeling only the warm blood that pulsed through his fingers. He choked back the blood that rose in his gorge, blinking to keep from losing consciousness. Off to the side, he saw a shadow that might have been Estannen overpowered and dragged back into the trees.
Some slight, slender shape dropped from the branches onto the ground beside him. He lay gasping, no longer able to hear the voices of his own people, only his own slowing heartbeat, and he did not have voice enough to scream even if he thought any of Thranduil's sentries would have been able to hear him. "Anno dulu enni," he whispered, tasting the blood in his mouth. "Tiro nin, Eru."
He wondered how long it would be before the yrch realized he was still alive. He knew what they did to their live captives; he did not want to be conscious when they found him still breathing.
His vision was beginning to mist over; he could no longer see or feel the heat from the fire. And yet, he could hear. A voice hung over him, shrill, hissing even in song. Bony fingers grasped his throat like pincers. His vision was beginning to mist over; he could no longer see or feel the heat from the fire. And yet, he could hear. A voice hung over him, shrill, hissing even in song. Bony fingers grasped his throat like pincers.
Foul breath rattled in his ear, and something moist snaked out to lap up the blood seeping from the corner of his mouth. "So good to eat, so juicy sweet…."
Anno dulu enni: (Sindarin) Help me
Tiro nin, Eru: (Sindarin) Watch over me, Eru