Credit where it's due: To Chloe Amethyst, my wonderful, insightful, encouraging beta reader, woohoo! To Mr. Tolkien and (especially in this chapter) to the LOTR film crew! And of course, to all the readers and reviewers! Speaking of which, all feedback is Most Craved, but the question is: Who do you think is/are my favorite character(s) by this story?

Just in case, here follows an explanation of four Valar and a Maia, drawn from the marvelously mythical Valaquenta in The Silmarillion. (Much better to read Tolkien yourself, but to paraphrase the wolf, the better to help you read my story, dear reader! Mwahaha!)

Manwë: The leader of the Valar, ruler of all Arda, "dearest to (the One) and understands most clearly his purposes." The One is like God in that he was the original being and created everything.

Nienna: Sister of Námo and Irmo (aka Mandos and Lórien). She is"acquainted with grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered . . . those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope . . . she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom."

Aulë: husband of Yavanna; creator of Dwarves; smith and craftsman of the Valar, associated with the earth, gems, precious stones and metals

Yavanna: wife of Aulë; loves all things that grow in the earth, brought about the existence of Ents to guard plants

Olórin: wisest of the Maiar. He learned from Nienna "pity and patience." Also known as (drumroll) Gandalf!

In this chapter, more than just dialogue is straight from the book, I'm afraid. Hopefully it weaves the story a little closer to the original.

And finally, a wink (or two) to film fans in this chapter, but it's not so overt that it's definitely AU for the book. I just couldn't resist!

Chapter 3: Warmth

Those unfamiliar with the ways of the Elves would have called the miruvor magic, for those single mouthfuls kept the Company warm for quite a while. Nevertheless, Caradhras seemed determined to block their progress. The snow did not relent. It whirled about them thicker than ever, and the wind blew louder. Much to Aragorn's dismay, one by one the companions started shivering again. It seemed that the mountain itself wanted to force the Company to another road. Boromir's words came to mind.

I wonder if this is a contrivance of the Enemy . . . Let those call it the wind who will; there are fell voices on the air; and these stones are aimed at us.

Aragorn sighed. Boromir was not the only one to give credence to the notion of a . . . force, for lack of a better word, directed in particular against the Company. By rationalizing the apparent hostility of Caradhras and reducing it to mere, random weather whims, Aragorn had achieved his purpose in quieting, at least for a while, the fears of the others. Yet in truth, he was more inclined to agree with Boromir's assessment than he would like to admit. The rarity of such heavy snowstorms this far south; the rockslides so near despite the Company's efforts to keep quiet; the shrieking gales that sounded like voices even to Aragorn's pragmatic ears; and most suspicious of all, how the storm's strength waxed and waned eerily in accordance with their efforts to forge ahead. Together, these factors suggested powerfully that an enemy was indeed intent on barring the Company's way.

And yet, to give up this slow, cold, stormy path was to choose another, a darker route whose greatest evil Aragorn feared far more.

He did not quite have Elven hearing, but he heard the hobbits' teeth chattering. They huddled together, a hardly distinguishable heap of blankets and curly hair. Gimli and Boromir both hunched over, attempting to keep a little body heat close. Even Gandalf looked chilled, his form not much more than a bundle of cloak topped with his hat. Without realizing it, Aragorn tried to rub some warmth back into his own arms.

Boromir shared Aragorn's concern over the cold, but ever a man of forthright action, he had already concluded that something must be done about it, soon. Very soon. They could not merely sit there while waiting for Legolas to return from scouting. When even Aragorn showed signs of cold, the ranger himself did not notice it, but Boromir did. He needed no further justification to speak. "What do you say to fire?" he asked suddenly. "The choice seems near now between fire and death, Gandalf. Doubtless we shall be hidden from all unfriendly eyes when the snow has covered us, but that will not help us."

Gandalf's eyebrows perked up like spines on an angry porcupine. At times he really could not believe the nerve of his traveling companions. Pippin and his second (and third, and fourth) meals. Boromir and his insistence on disagreeing with everything Gandalf and Aragorn said (even if that led Boromir to contradict himself). Come to think of it, even Aragorn could be rather overly responsible, straight-arrow, and by-the-book, not to mention stubborn. (At this point, it did not matter one whit to Gandalf that he actually shared many of these traits.) Why did they insist on exasperating him like this? Really, what was the education in Middle-earth coming to? Did they not realize how rude it was to provoke others to rudeness? Gandalf disliked being grumpy, for it ran entirely against how he was brought up, Ages ago (literally). At times he privately mused that Manwë must have added this dash of irascibility to his earthly form on purpose. After all, Nienna's all-encompassing compassion was well and good for those who had killed their own kindred or broken oaths sworn to the Valar, but on a daily basis it could get rather too . . . weepy, especially for someone like Manwë, who bore the burden of carrying out the will of Eru, the One, through punishments as well as rewards. Gandalf would not have been surprised at all if Manwë was just plain fed up with all the tears and the pleas for mercy on the day he sent the Maia to Middle-earth. Yes, give the powerful Maia forms of old men, give them back pain and headaches like any other aging mortal, and command them to save the world. Ah, but for Olórin that would not be enough, oh no. Let us give the student of Nienna a short temper; it will make his days in Middle-earth so much less bearable.

But back to Boromir the Doughty Warrior of Gondor, who started off this cantankerous train of thought in the first place. You want fire? Gandalf thought with rather malicious relish. I'll give you your fire. I'm sure such a doughty warrior as you would not mind being burnt to a crisp for the greater good!

This time what surfaced in Gandalf's mind was not Manwë's reaction, but Nienna's. It was her Look, overwhelmingly simple and quiet, full of empathy and forgiveness, with eyes shining in boundless sympathy for both him and the objects of his irritation.

With that thought, Gandalf's shoulders (and his eyebrows) slumped down.

"You may make a fire, if you can," he answered. He could practically see Nienna's sorrowful, long-lashed eyes sparkling with benevolent tears even as he said it. All right, all right, he mentally grumbled. So the "if you can" was a bit snide. He sighed and conceded to his companions, "If there are any watchers that can endure this storm, then they can see us, fire or no."

Gandalf did not quite know how he expected the others to respond to this long-awaited concession on his part. Perhaps he thought they would cheer. Perhaps he thought they would glance sidelong at him as they set about the task, grumbling under their breath all the while that, well, they knew Gandalf would have to agree to fire sooner or later. Any of these effects would have sent his eyebrows poking straight out again. What he certainly did not expect was an absolute lack of reaction. Boromir immediately turned toward Bill to unload wood and kindling. Gimli went looking among the packs for a tinderbox, while the hobbits roused themselves to gather around Boromir, helping him to pile the branches together. Gandalf paused. The Company – dare he even think it? – was working as a team, and not only that, but they were being efficient!

It occurred to Gandalf that this entire madcap quest might just work after all.

Quickly all the wood was gathered in a small pile, but Gimli was still rummaging in his pack. Aragorn's tinderbox was near at hand, however. He offered it to the dwarf, but after taking a look at the contents, Gimli returned it, grinning good-naturedly. "You might as well try it," he admitted, glancing at the shivering hobbits, though he was careful that they did not see him doing it. "Still, my wager is that in this weather and with that half-frozen wood, you'll need flint of special Dwarven make – if even that will work. Not to worry, I'll find my flint shortly and we'll do what we may." Aragorn nodded, turning toward the branches.

True to Gimli's word, even after several strikes, Aragorn was unable to kindle a blaze. Despite the bitter cold, he felt unnaturally warm, and wondered absently at this. He felt the gaze of the hobbits on him, could see in his mind's eye how their expressions dimmed from hope to expectancy, and finally to unease. He felt, also, Boromir's gaze, and again the warrior's words sounded clearly in his memory: a contrivance of the Enemy . . . aimed at us.

Aragorn grimaced. Boromir was probably right. The mountain stood against them, whether of its own will or as a mighty weapon of an even mightier foe. Mordor seemed too far for this to be Sauron's work, but what if Saruman directed the storms? Come to think of it, perhaps it was Sauron after all – Gandalf seemed to think it possible. Perhaps the Enemy already knew of this pitiful little band, and suspected it. The Dark Lord commanded orcs, trolls, and even Men from the South. That was not even considering the Ringwraiths, especially their leader the Witch-King, or the dark resources and foul powers of Sauron himself. And what did he, Aragorn son of Arathorn, command? Not the people of whom he claimed to be King. Not even the son of their Steward. No one. Nothing.

A slight pressure built at Aragorn's temples. Who was he to claim command of anyone? Here he was, a ranger for nigh on seventy years, and he could not even start a fire as his companions froze. Apparently I can care for myself all right, but cannot do anything for others at all. It's a wonder there are still Rangers roaming the North, with me leading them all this time. And as for King – a grand King I'll make, unable to start a fire in my own hearth!

The flint slipped from his hands. What fool am I to presume that I even have a chance, trying to lead people headlong against the Dark Lord?

Something flashed in the periphery of his vision, wrenching his focus back to the present.

It was only Frodo, huddled in a blanket, standing by his shoulder. The hobbit had picked up the flint-piece and was offering it back in one outstretched hand. "Is th-there anyth-thing we c-can do t-to help-p, Strider?" Frodo asked through chattering teeth. His hand, Aragorn saw, was rough and scratched from travel in the wilderness, crimson from cold, and shaking badly.

You command loyalty.

Aragorn could not recognize the voice he could virtually hear, saying these words in his head. It sounded remotely like Gandalf's, though it was deeper, somehow more ancient. When he quickly glanced toward the wizard, Gandalf's gaze was directed toward the companions, but his manner was curiously absent, for his eyes seemed to be focused beyond them.

Aragorn turned back to Frodo and accepted the flint-piece back, with a simple "Thank you."

You command the loyalty of friends, which is far better than the Enemy's control through fear and torment. And you have only to look at this Company to see what powerful friends they are. Dwarves, elves, and noble Men, and even a wizard! And of course, hobbits! One of whom has just returned to you your flint. The voice actually seemed to chuckle. Yes, hobbits!

Suddenly Aragorn felt himself very . . . present, as if he had just escaped back to reality from a long, exhausting dream. Yet he was very much aware, ready again to tackle the matter at hand. He could not help a small, wry smile. Here I am, thinking of malicious spirits and disembodied voices – and all the while unable to start a fire! The only way this day could get worse is if Arwen caught me striking flint and tinder over and over, with nary a spark in sight. I'll never hear the end of it . . . just like the story about how she came upon a particular man in the woods, a warrior so distracted that she was able to put a swordpoint to his throat as easy as you please, and ask, "What's this? A ranger, caught off his guard?" . . .

"Ah, here we are," Gimli rumbled, holding up a small stone box and tossing it toward the hobbits. "There! Hold it please while I find the flint-piece."

The box arced through the air toward Pippin, who reached up with both hands. It would have been an easy catch, except that they had all underestimated the power of the cold. Pippin's fingers would not obey, and before anyone quite knew what was happening the box struck Pippin's hand in passing and bounced off a jutting rock to pitch toward the edge of the mountainside.

Someone shouted, or perhaps it was several someones. Boromir dove for it, dropping to hands and knees to avoid tumbling over the edge himself. Aragorn was not as close but also lunged to catch the precious tinderbox before it dropped into the chasm below.

They caught it at the same time. There the tinderbox rested, suspended above a fall of unknown depths by the firm grip of both their hands.

A tense silence settled, heavy and smothering as the snowstorm itself. The hobbits shifted uneasily, glancing between the two men. For their part, Aragorn and Boromir simply stared at each other, each finding his own mixed uncertainty and determination mirrored in the face before him. To Frodo they suddenly seemed very alike, even beyond the hair and grey eyes. They seemed almost as long-lost brothers.

A branch plunged into the snow lengthwise, right beside the two men. It was not exactly how Aragorn had imagined it a few moments ago, but yes, this day had just gotten worse for him.

"What's this? A Ranger unable to start a fire?" asked a merry voice.

Boromir whirled, caught off guard for the second time in as many hours.

Aragorn inwardly groaned. The exact rhythm and intonation of the words were all too familiar to his ears. And no, he would not hear the end of this slip either, for Legolas was sure to reciprocate Arwen's tale with this one. And not only to Arwen herself, oh no, but also to the brothers Elladan and Elrohir, and thence to all of Rivendell. In all likelihood, even the kindred of Lórien would hear of it. Yes, Estel, Aragorn thought. That's the way to impress your beloved's august grandmother and her noble husband.

Despite himself, Sam let out a nervous chuckle.

Legolas grinned at the hobbits from where he had materialized next to the men. He twisted slightly to shift a bundle of wood from his shoulder to the grip of one hand. "The drifts only increase in height for nearly half a league from here, but aside from the storm there is no danger near us. The choice is yours, to try plowing through now, or to take a full night's rest and start afresh tomorrow."

As little as it was, the new information gave Aragorn something to attend to and allowed him to resume his outward calm. Boromir took only a moment longer to regain focus. It was a much quicker recovery than the last time the elf had appeared out of thin air next to him, and he permitted himself a small congratulation at the improvement. Aloud, he considered, "The continuing snow will make the drifts higher by morning."

"Yet we have not the strength now, I deem," Aragorn said. "If some danger threatened, it might be better to press forward, but as Legolas senses no nearby enemy, I believe a rest would do us all good." Boromir seemed about to protest, but he saw the relief on the hobbits' faces and subsided.

Legolas continued. "In any case, I scouted further and gathered some pine wood." – Exactly how much further? Boromir had to wonder, for it had been some while since the Company passed the altitude at which trees grew. "The oak we brought is better suited for long, steady burning, but we'll start the fire with the pine, as it's better for quick heat." How did he know Gandalf would allow - ? Boromir did not even bother to mentally finish the question. Legolas was already crouching in the niche with the hobbits, adding branches to the pile with cheerful efficiency.

Boromir sighed. He had seen many a curious creature on this journey – elves, dwarves, halflings, not to mention a long-lost ranger of the North claiming to be heir to Gondor's throne. In the beginning all their strange ways made him tense, challenging him in astounding ways that even the uncertainty of war and the strain of battle could not match. Gradually he had accustomed himself to them all. Still, he found himself wishing his brother were along sometimes. He suspected that these companions would never cease to amaze him, and in his life, being surprised usually heralded disaster.

Strange. He did not mind their surprises now.

Not today, anyway.

Whether or not Nienna's sensitive, caring countenance pervaded his mind, Gandalf was going to vent.

What do they think they're doing over there? There's no way that wood's going to light properly in this storm! Leastwise, no natural way. No, probably not even Óin and Glóin, working together, could do it! Aah, they'll want me to kindle it next! A wizard to kindle a fire for them! I, Gandalf the Grey!

"I'm very sorry!" Pippin blurted out. Gandalf turned, surprised to find Merry and Pippin right behind him.

"Whatever are you talking about, Peregrin Took?" the wizard demanded.

"Well, you were just saying, Gandalf, about having a 'wizard to kindle the fire . . . '" Merry began. Gandalf decided he would really have to be more careful about accidentally muttering aloud the things he wanted to keep internal.

Pippin continued, "We wanted to come along to help dear old Frodo, but . . . " he fidgeted. "We haven't helped really."

"Normally we're quite good at lighting fires and such, too, though the fighting and scouting'll never be our specialty, so to speak," Merry elaborated. "But now we can't even help light a fire, and everything on this Quest is left to you Big Folk – "

"Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took!" Gandalf set a firm hand on each of the young hobbits' shoulders and leaned closer, his eyes glinting severely. Merry and Pippin did not know what to expect – perhaps a tongue thrashing, or even something more serious. After all, Gandalf had thought of melting all the butter out of Mr. Butterbur, and roasting him over a slow fire, and what's more, announced it in front of the whole Council back in Rivendell.

No such thing happened. Gandalf merely shook his head sadly. "Now listen very carefully, both of you," he admonished. But it was intent, earnest, and though his voice was stern, it was not at all angry. "You know even better than I that Quests are not the usual business of your folk. Seedcakes and tea, and birthday parties, gardens and –" Gandalf chuckled wryly " – pipeweed are your business. So speak not of being unable to do your part. Indeed it is we Big Folk," Gandalf sighed, "who are not doing – cannot do – our part. And so, unfortunately, the burden has fallen on your cousin's shoulders."

Merry nodded solemnly. Pippin just stared at Gandalf, wide-eyed.

"Yet in a way it is fortunate," the wizard continued. "For of all creatures in the world, I do believe it is the hobbits who might just accomplish this perilous task that even the Mighty fear to undertake. And are you four not some of the best of your folk? Frodo spoke of great heroes in his sleep." A fleeting sadness clouded Gandalf's face, but then his eyes twinkled. "Well, who is to prevent you all from being great heroes? In your cousin's hands, Middle-earth has a chance." The corners of the wizard's mouth quirked up. "And meanwhile, we Questing Big Folk can attend, for once, to things like kindling fires. Come, it's time for a bit of warmth."

So saying, Gandalf stood, leading Merry and Pippin back to where the others were.

"Blast the storm! The wood is frozen. It's all good for naught, not worth the trouble of lugging along!" Gimli glared balefully at the large heap of branches. He did not stop striking flint and tinder, however, and his efforts produced some sparks, which was more than anyone else had managed. Gandalf and Aragorn tensed. They could see where this would lead.

"Not all the wood. You could try nearer the pine branches at the top, if it is not too far a reach," Legolas suggested. Given the fact that Gimli could not, indeed, reach the pine branches – though this was due to the pile's diameter, not its height – and considering that elves loved wordplay, Gandalf thought Legolas's tone was perhaps just a smidgen too helpful.

"I have tried striking at your precious wood," Gimli insisted, exasperated. Aragorn's brow furrowed for a moment.

Legolas raised an eyebrow. Gandalf belatedly realized the possible double meaning – or was that triple? – in Gimli's words. "And so far nothing has come of your attempts," the elf replied, his voice edged with the chill of autumn's final winds. Aragorn's brows furrowed again, and stayed that way. Boromir put a hand to his forehead and exhaled a silent, long-suffering sigh, while Merry and Pippin anxiously tightened their grips on Gandalf's cloak. Sam frowned anxiously. And Gandalf certainly did not miss the way Frodo absently fingered the spot on his jacket beneath which the Ring lay.

"Could you do better, Master Elf?" the dwarf challenged coldly.

"Perhaps I could, Master Dwarf," the elf answered coolly.

Time for a little warmth, indeed, Gandalf thought. He stooped to pick up a branch. He had hoped that interaction would overcome the historical (and familial!) enmity between dwarf and elf, but the journey had only worn frigid civility to uneasy friction and verbal barbs, not always veiled. That he ever hoped these two might befriend each other, even on the most superficial level . . .

He could hear Manwë's voice in his head again, chuckling.

Somewhat defensively, Gandalf reflected, Well, at least the sparring is only verbal. There was a time when the two of them would sooner come to blows than speak directly to each other; they each thought the other not even worthy to look down upon. In a way, one could even say that their relations have greatly improved.

Manwë's chuckle exploded into outright laughter, which merely goaded Gandalf to continue his dogged defense. Gimli was actually about to let Legolas try (however rhetorical his challenge was). And Legolas said "Perhaps." Not "Of course," not "How could I not do better than you, Dwarf?" He said, "Perhaps." Very good first steps, I should think.

Manwë was still laughing. And was that Yavanna, and Aulë as well, giggling and chortling away in the background?

Ah, Olórin, if only you knew . . .

Gandalf decided to ignore what he deemed to be overactivity of his imagination (which was most assuredly due to not smoking for so long). Holding aloft the branch he had chosen, he cried, "Naur an edraith amen!" and thrust the end of his staff into the midst of woodpile. At once a great spout of green and blue flame sprang out, and the wood flared and sputtered. It was a small satisfaction to Gandalf that his feat inspired a smile in Aragorn (who had seen him do this before), a delighted wonder in Legolas, awe of varying degrees in the eyes of Boromir and Gimli, and a chorus of amazed murmurs from the hobbits.

"It's like dear old Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday party!" Frodo remarked, entranced by the swirling colors.

"Prettiest fire I've ever seen, and probably the prettiest I'll ever see!" Sam whispered, eyes wide in wonder.

"Now I've seen everything, Merry," Pippin asserted. "Blue fire. And green!"

"Indeed," Merry answered, his gaze still riveted on the tall flames. But then, slowly, he turned to look at Pippin. "Better hold onto that thought about having seen everything, Pip."

"Why? We've seen men, dwarves, elves, and I won't mention all sorts of creatures that are better left unmentioned . . . "

"I took a look at the maps in Rivendell, and we're not even close to halfway on our journey. You'll see more yet! As for me," a mischievous twinkle came to Merry's eyes, "I'll say I've seen everything the day that I see you, Peregrin Took, don a suite of armor and take up a sword!"

"Goodness, how dreadful a thought! You shouldn't even say such things, Merry," Pippin reproached, but laughter tugged at hislips until he could no longer resist. "What a fate to forecast for a friend! If it really happens, it will be all your fault, and I wish the same ill-fortune upon you."

"A fine pair of knights you would make!" Frodo exclaimed, and he and Sam joined in the laughter.

Aragorn chuckled. But in despair or cheer, Aragorn remained ever vigilant, and he had noticed Gandalf looking all around after lighting the fire. He also knew the wizard's prickly side. And he knew not to confront that side directly.

"It is well," Aragorn said, directing his gaze at Boromir and Gimli. "This fire of Gandalf's gives neither smoke nor very bright light, and is perfectly suited to give warmth without taking away concealment. Tonight we will finally have a proper rest for tomorrow's travel. We have heat and light, and yet no enemies will see us."

"If there are any to see, then I at least am revealed to them. I have written Gandalf is here in signs that all can read from Rivendell to the mouths of Anduin," Gandalf said gruffly. Yet the others caught the wink of his eye.

Despite Gandalf's words, the Company cared no longer for watchers or unfriendly eyes. Their hearts were rejoiced to see the light of the fire. The wood burned merrily; and though all round it the snow hissed, and pools of slush crept under their feet, there was warmth within the Company at last.


There ends my first foray into unleashing my stories on the world. Please let me know what you think!

I am first and foremost a character nut. How was the characterization? True to the original? A bit too X-Files-ish? And the question: Who do you think is/are my favorite character(s) by this story? I tend to give him/them what I deem are the best/coolest parts, and though I certainly showed off my favorite character here, I hope I shone the light on others too, and kept him far from stealing the show.

Humor is not my forte, and I felt the ending was rather . . .anticlimactic. Still, this story was never meant to be high drama anyhow. The pseudo-metaphysical parts practically wrote themselves – I certainly didn't plan on having voices in their heads and all! I just wanted to write the Company during their journey together in a relatively day-to-day light, and show that even during the "slow," "humdrum" days of their travel, the undercurrents of temptation and conflict still ran strong, for each and every one of our beloved heroes.