Credit where it's due: I do this for pleasure (weeeheeee!) not profit. I don't own anything, not even all of this story, since I used many of the spoken lines of the Fellowship from the book during their time on Caradhras. Also, thanks to Chloe Amethyst, who beta'd the story!
One more thing. (I know, get on with it already!) Readers: Can you tell who is/are my favorite character(s) by this story? I tend to give them what I deem the best/coolest parts and I tried very hard not to do that here. ALL reviews/comments/suggestions welcome! Okay, here we go!
Chapter 1: The Way
"Shelter!" Frodo heard Sam mutter as the Company squeezed into the niche in the cliff side. "If this is shelter, then one wall and no roof make a house." Bill nodded dolefully in agreement while Sam led him along to the deepest corner of the alcove. There the hobbits sank down with the pony as a poor shield from the biting wind – after Sam's profuse apologies to Bill, of course.
Frodo sighed in sympathy as he settled in next to Sam. He did not need to see Merry pulling his cloak closer, or hear Pippin's chattering teeth, or recall how the entire Company had slowed to a snail's crawl over the course of the night, to know how frozen and tired they all were, for he felt it himself. Still, the storm was not what really dampened his spirits. Adding to the cold and weariness in his limbs was a slight chill in his heart, as he recollected what he had overheard earlier that day – Gandalf's suggestion and Strider's ominous answer.
--There is another way, and not by the pass of Caradhras: the dark and secret way that we have spoken of.
--But let us not speak of it again! Not yet. Say nothing to the others, I beg, not until it is plain that there is no other way.
All along the journey so far, it had been either the wizard or the ranger advising them, leading them, protecting them. What were they to do now, when the two guides disagreed? Frodo did not like how grim they both seemed when speaking of the "other way." If the Big Folk were uneasy about it, it was certain to be dangerous. Yet Caradhras was also forbidding. Even now the whirling snow was forming an icy wall around them and Frodo did not think he and the other hobbits could advance much farther on their own feet. Still, the gloomy edge in Gandalf's voice when he spoke of that other way had embedded itself firmly in Frodo's heart. He hoped the wizard would not have cause to insist on taking it.
"I hope the storm lets up soon," Frodo found himself murmuring. "I hope . . ." The right words would not come.
"You hope you've not stuffed fifty seed-cakes in your mouth when you only wanted five," Sam finished Frodo's sentence. Frodo looked toward the gardener in surprise. He had not realized that Sam would hear his words – though, come to think of it, they were crowded into an awfully small area. A hesitant little smile formed on Sam's attentive, earnest face. "As Mr. Bilbo might say," he added. Frodo could not help but smile in return. Although Sam's words said nothing directly of anyone's worries at this point – no, they were rather (and most unfortunately) short of seed-cakes – it was a perfect way to express Frodo's thoughts.
"Dear old Bilbo." Frodo let his thoughts wander back to Bilbo's comfortingly cluttered, warm study in Bag End. "What do you think he might be doing right now, Sam?"
"Well . . ." Sam paused thoughtfully. "While we were in the elvish country he was ever writing away in that great big book of his, so I suppose he'd still be at it. Mr. Bilbo knows an awful lot of stories, not to mention he's even been in adventures himself, so he'd certainly not be short on material."
"Writing," Frodo repeated wistfully. "Yes, writing of wonderful adventures and great heroes." Great heroes who actually did something useful, instead of dragging friends into danger, huddling in tiny cracks on mountain faces while trapped miserably in terrible snowstorms, and hiding behind poor mistreated ponies to avoid freezing to death, with no inkling of which direction to go in next.
"Not that it matters much what I think, Mr. Frodo, but I wonder how in the stories, it never tells about the little things – like if the people got bitten by bugs, or how just one strap of a pack can dig in so deep!" Sam grimaced, rubbing ruefully at his shoulder. "And just how'd they last so long with so little food? They must have gone hunting, or found gardens along their way, though the tales don't mention it. They could always find it in themselves to face whatever trouble turned up. Can't say the same for myself. Even if a horde of orcs charged at us now, I'd stay put here; I feel that tired." Sam smiled through a wide yawn and his voice softened with the thickness of drowsiness; Merry and Pippin were already snoring lightly. "And, well, did they ever feel low? Of course, people like . . . like Beren, for example, went through some terribly awful times, but what I'm talking about is – well, nothing too discouraging, really. Just low in spirits, when they were lost or in bad weather . . ." Sam yawned again, " . . . like we are right now."
Frodo was startled; Sam gave voice to his exact thoughts. He looked at the other hobbit, who was now nodding off, and thought about what Sam had said. Yes. The stories never mentioned moments like these, but their Quest was quite like those grand tales he heard from Bilbo and the Elves of Rivendell, wasn't it? And in the stories, the heroes – Beren son of Barahir, Túrin son of Húrin, Eärendil son of Tuor, just to mention a few – generally turned out all right, one way or another. Perhaps Frodo and his companions could, too.
He turned his head to the side as weariness overtook him, and noticed Gandalf seated a little apart from the rest of the Company. The road under his feet had demanded Frodo's constant attention and he had not had a good look at Gandalf all night. Now the wizard's back was turned toward the rest as he sat there, solid and wise as ever, probably planning how best the Company could proceed. Somehow, the sight of that familiar broad-brimmed hat and billowing grey cloak, even through all the whirling snow, brought a sudden ease to Frodo's mind. Gandalf was there. One way or another, it seemed that everything would turn out all right. Though the rest of them might not see the path before them now – and though he doubted if a mere Frodo son of Drogo could prove equal to travelling it – Frodo was quite certain, as sleep enfolded him, that his old friend could find the way.
There is no way, Gandalf thought dourly, his bushy eyebrows bristling even further than usual beyond the rim of his hat. There is simply no way.
Knowing that the storm precluded any attempt at lighting a pipe, Gandalf had resisted a sore temptation to dig out his stash of pipeweed. What he had not resisted was a bout of ill humor. He had pondered the Company's options in irritation for quite a while now, but thinking up a good course to take was more impossible than forming even the simplest of smoke rings, what with all these blasted gusts of snow and wind blustering about. If Caradhras did not abate – and it was as likely to do that as the Witch-King was likely to take up a jolly job as a foot-tapping fiddler at Butterbur's – the Company would simply have to face the caves of Moria.
At that moment, Gandalf felt a tap on his shoulder. He knew, without turning, that it was Aragorn.
And this he also knew: Aragorn was not here for any pleasant chat about what they would all eat for the next meal, or the finer points of the art of smoke rings, or the beauty of the icicles – some of which had started to form on various members of the Company, by the way.
Aragorn was here to discuss the road to take.
Aragorn may be a man of steel, but I most certainly am not, Gandalf thought. At this point I am nothing more than a very old, very tired man. Valar, sometimes I really must question your choice to send us as aged Men instead of Elves.
He paused a moment, then shook his head. No, I do not ask for the constitution of an Elf, convenient as that may be. I do not even ask, though it is by no means an unreasonable wish, the chance for a good smoke. All I ask at this moment is just a mite of time to myself in the midst of all this cold and misery. That's all!
He could imagine Manwë's response. A simple, resounding "No," pronounced firmly and slowly of course, with an omnipotent echo besides, through teeth clenched in august irritation at the sheer banality of his request.
Despite the situation, the corner of Gandalf's mouth twitched up.
Mentally prepared at last to cope with Aragorn, Gandalf turned and found Boromir there also. The wizard's thick eyebrows now positively jutted straight out of his skin, stiff as porcupine quills. As if a stubborn, argumentative ranger were not enough, the hypercritical, overly cynical, entirely disrespectful Doughty Defender of Gondor had come as well!
"I suppose you want to discuss the road we are to take," said Gandalf, trying his very best to conceal his vexation and exude amiable sagacity – or sagacious amiability; he did not really care which.
Unfortunately, it seemed his best was not good enough. Boromir dropped his gaze and suddenly discovered something extremely fascinating about his bracers.
Fortunately, at this point Gandalf did not very much mind seeing the Doughty Defender of Gondor a bit unnerved.
Unfortunately, Aragorn remained undaunted.
Far from surprising, Gandalf reflected wryly. Gandalf was starting to wonder if the future king's sense of responsibility was too great for his own good - even if he was Aragorn son of Arathorn, the heir of Isildur and Elendil, former right-hand man of both the Steward of Gondor and the former King of Rohan, leader of the Dúnedain, future King of both Arnor and Gondor, and the sole hope of all Men.
But back to the matter at hand.
What should I say to convince Aragorn of the necessity of taking the other way? For certainly Aragorn is just about to say that there is still a chance of crossing the pass of Caradhras.
"There is still a chance of crossing the pass of Caradhras, Gandalf," Aragorn plunged straight to the point. A small part of Gandalf was pleased that he had predicted Aragorn's words with such precision. The rest of him inwardly groaned as Aragorn continued relentlessly, "I would that we do not yet give up our current course."
During the day's long trudge, the wizard had formulated several excellent explanations and expostulations as to why they must turn to Moria, rationalizations whose every word positively burst with astounding sense and unquestionable logic. Somehow, though, it seemed that Aragorn would find a way to argue, no matter how eloquent and elaborate a speech Gandalf presented. So at this moment Gandalf chose, rather, to invest great emphasis in an astute observation of the Company's present physical condition, psychological state, and surrounding environment.
In other words, he was going to state the obvious. The Company was exhausted, disheartened, and walled in by a snowstorm. Gandalf mentally nodded, pleased to have decided upon this simple course of action. Surely even Aragorn could not dispute these empirical facts. Yes, he was going to state the obvious.
Unfortunately, Boromir beat him to it. Apparently the bracers had lost their fixating charm the moment Aragorn spoke. Boromir had gained an impatient edge in his gaze that would not be suppressed.
"This," he ground out, "is a blizzard, Aragorn. And I still say that the Enemy has something to do with these howling winds and rolling stones. But whatever the case, the snow whirls so thick we cannot see even ten paces ahead. One needs not be a ranger to understand that this storm will not end anytime soon. It is quite unnecessary for us to cross the Misty Mountains here. There is the perfectly functional, easy terrain of the Gap of Rohan to the south, from whence we may progress quickly and safely to Minas Tirith!"
"We have discussed this before, Boromir," Aragorn replied, his countenance showing weariness – and the tiniest sign of annoyance, Gandalf thought with amused curiosity. "We cannot be sure of that road. Even now the servants of the Enemy may be lying in wait for us there, and we cannot be certain of Rohan's aid."
"Cannot be sure? Cannot be certain?" Boromir repeated incredulously. His hand flew to his temple as he continued, "You doubt even Rohan?" His voice spiked in volume. "Do you mean to suggest that we put our trust in the whims of the weather rather than the honor of Men?"
The force behind the outburst hit them all harder than any buffet of Caradhras could ever have done. Even Boromir seemed surprised. Nevertheless, his jaw maintained a determined set. An awkward silence followed.
Gandalf wondered briefly, and not for the first time, if he should try to smooth relations between the heir of the Kings and the heir of the Stewards. Then he remembered all the things he had to do already, and of course, there was also Aragorn's sometimes-usefully-overblown sense of duty to consider. So, also not for the first time, Gandalf decided to leave Aragorn to manage his future internal relations by his own conscientious self. (A more pressing concern to Gandalf at this moment was that this pause would have been long enough for him to take a good, deep draw on his pipe and blow a smoke ring of considerable intricacy.)
It was the ever-responsible Aragorn who first found something to say that would break the awkward silence. "No," he replied slowly. "I am a Man as well, Boromir, and I would believe that we are made of stronger stuff."
Another tense pause. (Another chance for a smoke ring, lost!) Boromir's hand dropped absently from his brow.
"But at any rate," Aragorn continued, "difficult as it may be, this Caradhras pass is safer than the route of which you speak. No servants of the Enemy can hunt us here."
Gandalf coughed. "I am not so sure of that." Boromir's chin tipped up, as if to say, See? Even the wizard agrees. "The Enemy uses all sorts of spies. We risk discovery no matter which path we take." Boromir's chin lifted even higher. "So at this point our concern is merely moving forward, which seems more and more impossible on this mountain." Gandalf spared Boromir a glance and wondered fleetingly if even Elrond could match the intensity of that particular expression on Boromir's face, the one that crowed Ha! I said it would be so.
"Just consider Moria, Aragorn," Gandalf urged. Boromir instantly deflated.
Aragorn hesitated. "We have come this far," he replied at last. "Let us give it one more chance, and learn more of what lies ahead before we choose the way." Gandalf assented with a small nod.
Boromir looked back to the little jumble that was the rest of the Company, one Dwarf and one Elf seated by a pony behind which four hobbits were not even visible, all walled in by the storm. He turned back to Aragorn with a skeptical frown, his hand going absently back to rub his temple. "And just how do you propose to learn more of our surroundings when our limbs are half-frozen and we can't budge from this crack in the mountain?"
Aragorn inclined his head slightly toward the space behind Boromir. Boromir turned, indulging only for a split second the notion that a benevolent dragon had arrived, its sole and especial purpose to aid the Company of the Ring – to melt all the snow with a well-placed breath of fire, or to level the cursed heights of Caradhras with a swipe of the tail, or perhaps even to serve kindly as the Company's ride to wherever they wished to go. But only for a split second. After all, Boromir might have been frustrated, but he was not insane.
However, what he did see behind him baffled him nearly as much as a magnanimous dragon would have. There was the elf, crouching right behind his shoulder, looking for all the world as if he had been perched in that spot the entire time. Boromir had just seen him sitting with the little ones an instant ago! He nearly lost his balance, recoiling from the abruptness of the elf's appearance. Legolas smiled cheerily and placed a hand on the man's shoulder, steadying him. Despite the elf's gesture of goodwill, Boromir's glower persisted. For one thing, the dull throb in his head that had been bothering him intermittently for several days had started up again. For the other, he was absolutely certain that he had caught a spark of amusement in the elf's eyes, not to mention the fact that he had been surprised into nearly falling over in the snow – from a stationary crouch, no less – and that was no action worthy of a warrior of Gondor.
"Legolas, if you would please scout . . ."Aragorn began.
"You need not even ask," Legolas interrupted. Boromir wondered distantly why he looked so . . . gleeful. "We have covered the astonishing grand total of almost two leagues in the past two nights. What are a few steps farther?" A hapless look came over Aragorn's face. Legolas paused with an expression that peculiarly reminded Boromir of when he wanted to correct a fault in Faramir's battle stance without injuring his younger brother's pride. He seemed to have read the look accurately, for the elf finally could not help adding, "It would still be nothing."
Nothing? Boromir's mind repeated, momentarily unable to grasp the concept that their trek up this mountain could be considered nothing by anyone, even an elf. Legolas seemed to understand the reason behind Boromir's bewildered look, for he started his next words with a conciliatory tone (though a childlike eagerness quickly took over). "Fear not! If there are spies lying in wait, I will spy them out. Fell voices, falling stones – whatever dangers lie ahead, I shall return with a full report." Grinning in farewell, Legolas stood swiftly and glided past the men and the wizard to vanish around the bend.
Yes. Glided. Boromir saw that the elf's feet left no mark in the snow. He stared at the trail – or rather, the lack of a trail. Then he looked toward the point where Legolas had disappeared, and then, back down at the non-existent trail.
"He is not accustomed to such a pace as we have kept," Aragorn sighed. Having heard this before only about individuals who could not travel as quickly as the rest of their group, Boromir only shook his head slowly while Aragorn spoke on. "To be fair, I am surprised he has not commented on it at all until now." The ranger's gaze turned inward, as if recalling far, fond memories. "The Valar know, certain other elves I have hunted with would certainly have . . . mentioned it long before."
Boromir slowly looked up at the ranger. Yes, he knew that some things were easier for elves than for Men – a paltry number of trifling things, really – but this fact had never seized his attention quite so sharply before he noted, just now, that the elf floated over snow. (And this was due to no lapse on Boromir's part, since the elf usually walked behind them all as rearguard.)
"Never mind. I'm rather glad he has this chance to stretch his legs a bit," Gandalf remarked.
Boromir slowly looked toward the wizard. Yes, Gandalf's voice had been completely calm, but the way his form shook, he must have been suppressing either laughter or great pain. A small part of Boromir's mind observed, rather sourly, that it must be the former. Acutely conscious of his aching knees and sore calves, understandable even for warriors of Gondor after so hard a night's journey, Boromir repeated, "Stretch . . . his legs?"
Aragorn sighed and cleared his throat. "Well, since we have a brief respite now, I suggest we follow the hobbits' example and get a little rest until Legolas returns." Still looking a bit dazed, Boromir followed Aragorn to rejoin the hobbits, Gimli, and Bill. At least his headache was receding.
Gandalf watched them go, musing wryly, Trust Aragorn to make even rest into a chore.
To be continued . . .