"Stars and glory! But the Elves would make a song of that, if ever they heard of it!"
—"Shelob's Lair," The Two Towers
With a heavy sigh, Sam trudged up the hill. This was the third day he'd been making the long trek from the party's new encampment to the stream far below, and Sam was getting plenty weary of it.
It didn't help matters that their Elvish friend had whisked Mr. Frodo off at first light the morning after the attack, leaving Sam in sole support of three feverish and mostly helpless patients. Sam understood that time was critical for his master. Mr. Glorfindel had stayed only long enough to locate and help move the party to a new (troll free) cave. Then he had dashed off with Mr. Frodo to attempt the Road, leaving the rest of them as snug as could be arranged. Sam snorted. Snug indeed, if one didn't take into account the short rations and the fact that a shallow cave downslope from a dead troll weren't the best shelter Sam had seen. That fellow was getting ripe, too—as was all too easy to tell when the wind blew right.
At least the Elf had been kind enough to leave most of his food with them, and that flask of miruvor, too. That had been a comfort. In some ways, Sam's patients were harder to manage now than they had been at the beginning. At first, Sam had to do all the cooking and nursing single-handed, as the others were down with fever. But lately it seemed that, as his friends' bodies got better, their tempers got worse. If Sam hadn't sworn to stay and look after them, he might have took Bill and ridden towards the sunrise in search of his master, he'd been that tempted more than once.
The sun had already sunk behind the trees, but there was still plenty of daylight left. Sam's thoughts inevitably were drawn towards Rivendell, or more specifically, wherever it was in that place that Mr. Frodo might now be. He hoped his master had reached Rivendell safely. The danger of his wound aside, there were those Black Riders haunting the way. Sam felt pretty sure that Mr. Glorfindel could hold them off all right, despite all the hard work he'd done in helping to bring his master's spirit back—and assuming Mr. Frodo didn't slow him down overmuch. Nothing for it but to hope. Mr. Strider had told Sam that even a fast trip on horseback would take the better part of two days. Mr. Frodo would have reached Rivendell yesterday at the soonest. It was anyone's guess when Lord Elrond would be able to send anyone back for them. Sam hoped it might be soon. Part of him worried that they were just sitting here waiting for another attack—and whether it was trolls, Black Riders, or wolves, Sam didn't want any part of it.
He felt the tremor through the ground afore he heard it: a vibration, as of a heavy footfall. Sam stopped short, heart beating pell-mell. There it was, just on the edge of sound: the shuffle of a footstep. Something was moving through the forest, heading towards the clearing from below.
Soft as a shadow, Sam stooped and ran for the protection of the forest. Pushing through the wall of leaves that bordered the strip of turf, he found a fallen log. It had decayed enough to leave a gap between itself and the soft floor of pine needles; Sam might be able to squeeze himself underneath, if he had to. Anxiously, he crouched behind the log, and peered downhill.
The footsteps grew louder. Sam's first fear—that another troll had found them—was replaced by another worry. Hoofbeats—many hoofbeats. It sounded like four or five horses—mayhap more. He chewed his lip, listening for bells—and didn't hear any.
There! A glimpse of an equine head showed between the leaves some distance down the slope. The horse's head was dark, his rider duskily-robed. Another horse and rider, also darkly garbed, flashed for a moment behind it. Then leaves obscured the view. Sam huddled behind his log, wishing he could shout a warning. The Black Riders had found them! They must have picked up Mr. Frodo's trail from the Road, and tracked it back to this camp. But why? Surely they wouldn't have done that if they'd found Mr. Frodo, and that cursed Ring he bore…
The horses had pushed all the way through the trees, and were now climbing the clear area that hugged the cliff wall. At any moment they would draw even with Sam's hiding place. Would they pass him by? Or might they… smell him? Mr. Merry had repeated to Sam what Mr. Strider had told him on Weathertop—that the Black Riders can smell the blood of living things—smell it, and hate it.
The two lead horses halted. Sam could make out only a few scraps of horsehair through the screen of leaves. They were scarcely a dozen feet away. Had they sensed that Sam was near?
Sam ducked lower, as the other horses caught up—several other horses. Sam's heart was beating fit to burst when he heard it—the soft jingle of bells. The horse at the rear of the party stopped. From the same spot, a musical voice said, "Mellon no sí."
Sam popped up, to peer through the leaves. There was a mess of horses, all right, half of them riderless, as well as— "Mr. Glorfindel, sir!"
Sam burst from his hiding place, to find the Elf lord smiling at him. Two other Elves were with him. They were dressed similarly in dark garments—dark but elegant, with bright stones set into the design of their tooled leather tunics. Their faces were so alike that Sam wondered how he might tell them apart, if not for their gear. They were wondrous fair, with faces young, yet tempered with wisdom. With their dark hair and grey eyes, Sam supposed that they looked like Mr. Strider would have, had he been changed from a Man to an Elf.
Sam's golden-haired friend grinned broadly. "Well met, Sam. Once again, I have arrived in time to spare you carrying your burdens. I am glad."
Sam nodded at the two unfamiliar Elves, then rushed past them to meet his friend. "Mr. Glorfindel, I'm so glad to see you, I think I might burst. I thought you was Black Riders."
The Elf smiled grimly. "You need not worry about them for a time, young Sam."
"What do you mean?"
"Let us ride to your camp, and I will tell the entire party at once."
"Mr. Frodo, he…" Sam blushed.
Fortunately the Elf read his thought. "Your master lives, or did when I left Rivendell. But I shall save that tale for later. Now, come."
The Elf leaped lightly from the saddle of his horse—a fine blood bay. Sam said, as Glorfindel lifted him to its withers, "Where is Asfaloth, sir?"
"Here." The Elf nodded at one of the riderless horses. There was another dark one, and a chestnut, and yes, there was Asfaloth, on the far side. All of them bore light packs on their backs. The Elf explained, as he settled Sam, "We trade off riding the horses and letting them bear our bundles. This tires the horses less, and let us to make good speed from Rivendell."
"I wondered how you got here so fast."
"When Lord Elrond learned what had become of your party, he was only too happy to spare his sons to help bring you home as quickly as might be."
"His sons?" Sam looked at the two dark-haired Elves.
"This is Elrohir." Mr. Glorfindel indicated the nearer Elf. "And this is his brother Elladan."
"Elladan!" Sam blushed. "Pardon me, sir, but are you the same Elladan what kilt a troll on the Ettendales?" After Glorfindel's remark upon seeing the troll Mr. Strider had killed, Sam had hounded the Ranger unceasingly until he had heard the full tale.
The Elf threw back his head and laughed. His teeth were very white, his voice like warm butter, and his whole face glowing with joy. "Yes, I am he. I am pleased that my foster brother remembers my encounter so kindly."
Sam puzzled over the term "foster brother," but let it go for now. He continued eagerly, "He said it was you what taught him the tricks he needed to come out on top. Though it were a near thing, sir, I won't deny."
"So I understand. We bring supplies and food, and other means of assistance—though perhaps those will not be so well received."
"What do you mean?" Sam glanced at Mr. Glorfindel, who only smiled.
Elladan laughed. "You will see, and certainly hear, soon enough. Come, let us not linger. Your friends await us."
As used as Sam now was to the plodding climb, the horses seemed to cover the distance in a twinkling. Mr. Glorfindel needed no guiding, as it was he who had discovered the new cave in the first place, about a furlong below the troll-fouled one. As the Elven party climbed the last rise, a whinny rose from over the hill. Asfaloth neighed an answer.
Glorfindel smiled at Sam. "Your Bill sounds happy to see us."
"He won't be the only one."
The injured hobbits and Man had placed their blankets outside the cave entrance to enjoy the warmth of the afternoon sun. Alerted by Bill's greeting, they were already beginning to rise when the approaching horses came into sight. Mr. Strider had braced himself against the wall of the cliff to rise, then straightened with an effort. Mr. Merry was doing the same, while Bill watched the party's progress attentively, ears pricked forward. Only Mr. Pippin remained as he was; he was too dizzy to sit upright yet.
"Dúnadan," Mr. Glorfindel called, as the party drew near, "I have come for my clothes."
"And you shall have them, provided you have remembered to bring me some of my own." Mr. Strider's teeth flashed as white as Elladan's. "Mae govannen! My friends, it is good to see you."
"I hear you need lessons in troll fighting," replied that Elf, smiling in turn as he reined near.
"I'd have done you no credit, I fear."
"You are too modest, Estel." Elladan drew rein and dismounted. "Glorfindel tells me that the troll I met on the Ettendales was nothing next to yours."
"Did he?" Mr. Strider gave the yellow-haired Elf a wry look. Was that a hint of a smile on Mr. Glorfindel's face? The Ranger hobbled forward a step to embrace his… foster brother? Or so Elladan had called him. Sam found himself interested in learning more, but not just this instant.
"Please, sir," he begged Mr. Glorfindel, even as the Elf lowered him to the ground. "Now that we're all together, will you tell me what happened to my master? Did he reach Rivendell safely?"
Mr. Pippin ogled the newcomers from his blanket. Mr. Merry limped to his side.
"We followed the Road east," Mr. Glorfindel began, "with all the speed that Asfaloth could bear. I felt in my heart that the Enemy's servants were not far behind. They found us, indeed, about a mile west the Ford of Bruinen. Asfaloth could not outrun them, for four of the Riders were waiting in ambush. Things might have gone ill, had not my Lord Elrond called down the flood, and carried the Riders away. To my joy I found Mithrandir had arrived but the day before, and he also lent us aid."
"Gandalf!" Mr. Strider cried. "He is at Rivendell, then?"
"Yes, with the Ring-bearer." Mr. Glorfindel looked at Sam. "That is what everyone calls your master now. For he arrived through many perils, still carrying the Ring. You should have seen him at the Ford, dear friends. He defied the Witch-king himself—not a trivial feat for anyone, be he king or warrior."
"And Frodo is neither," said Mr. Merry. "Just a plain hobbit from the Shire, as are we all."
Glorfindel fixed Mr. Merry with his wonderful bright eyes. "I think Frodo of the Shire is not 'just' anything—and neither are his friends."
Sam couldn't drag his mind off the horror of another encounter with the Black Riders. "So, he's all right, then. My master arrived in decent shape?"
The bright eyes dimmed a little. "The encounter with the Witch-king took the last of his strength. He was carried, insensible, to Rivendell. There Lord Elrond, wisest in healing, attends him, with all others so skilled in his household."
Sam's agitation burst forth. "Well, we've got to get to him. Begging your pardon, sir—and your father's too, you other sirs," he added, indicating the Elven brothers, "but Mr. Frodo has got to have his friends and kin beside him. There's nothing like a hobbit to look after a sick hobbit, wonderful as I know Elven healing must be. So, if you don't mind, I'd appreciate it if we got underway." Sam looked warily at the riderless horses. "You don't expect us hobbits to stick to one of those great beasts on our own, do you? I'd sooner walk than ride. It might take longer, but it seems a deal safer."
Elrohir dismounted and approached Sam, while the other Elves started unlading the horses. He knelt between Sam and Mr. Merry. "I understand your concern, young friend. But Frodo already lies under the care of his kind and kin. Do not distress yourself on that account."
Sam shook his head bewilderedly. How could Mr. Frodo have kin at Rivendell? Unless—
Mr. Merry spoke his thought, even as Sam formed it. "Bilbo!" he cried. "Bilbo is at Rivendell?"
Elrohir smiled. "He has been an honored guest for many years. He will do all that is best for your master and kinsman, never fear. And Mithrandir is with him as well."
"Mithrandir is… Gandalf?" Sam asked.
The Elf nodded. He rose and crossed to his mount, where he began to loosen his mount's girth strap.
Sam walked with him. "Everyone seems to have a lot of names. Mr. Gandalf turns out to be 'Mithrandir,' and Mr. Frodo's now the Ring-bearer. But Mr. Strider seems to have the most names of all."
Elladan, tossing down a pack at the Ranger's feet, turned towards the Man questioningly. "Strider?"
"You call him 'Estel,'" Sam explained. "And Mr. Glorfindel calls him 'Dúnadan.' But according to Mr. Gandalf—or 'Mithrandir,' if you prefer—his real name is Aragorn."
Elrohir grinned as he lifted off his saddle. "The Son of Arathorn has many names."
"Son of Arathorn." Sam nodded. "Now, that one I've heard before."
"'Strider' is one I have not." Elrohir ran his eyes over the Man, who pursed his lips at the topic at hand. "It suits you."
"I shall not be striding anywhere soon." Mr. Strider seemed desirous to change the subject. "While I am longer of limb than Sam, I doubt that I would be able to ride more than an hour or two before needing a rest. And these hobbits are hurt worse than I."
"Ah, that is why we have brought this." Elladan shook out a roll of cloth from among the items he had piled at the Ranger's feet. It looked like nothing more than a long, sturdy strip of material to Sam, but Mr. Strider groaned.
He met the Elf's sparkling eyes. "No. You cannot expect me to…"
"You said it yourself, Estel," Elrohir interrupted. "Your ribs will not permit you to ride. Do not argue." He raised his hand to forestall a protest. "Glorfindel has described your injuries in great detail, so you needn't try to dissemble."
Mr. Pippin, who couldn't see well from his position, tugged at Mr. Merry's trouser leg. "What are they talking about?"
Mr. Strider answered. "It seems that we are to be carried back to Rivendell on litters."
"Litters?" Mr. Merry eyed the cloth suspiciously.
"We shall fashion poles from suitable branches in the wood," said Glorfindel, "and run them along the sides of the cloth to form a bed. We shall then secure the litter between two horses, so you might be carried without strain."
"Useless as a sack of grain," Mr. Strider growled under his breath.
"Pampered as a hero," Elladan countered. Mr. Strider snorted, looking away.
Mr. Pippin fretted. "Is it… safe? What if the horses took fright? We'd be helpless, trapped between them like that. I don't fancy being bounced into the dirt at high speed!"
Glorfindel stroked the nose of his mount. "Your bearers are among the wisest and gentlest at Rivendell. They will not run wild. Even so, one of us will be astride one of the horses in each pair, to give them guidance at all times. You, Sam, may ride with whichever of us you choose, to keep your friends company."
"Useless… helpless… lying on my back," Mr. Strider muttered.
"What was that, Estel?" called Elrohir. "I could not hear you."
The Man glowered, then nudged the mound of supplies with his foot. "Have you brought us something to eat in your bundles? I needn't tell you our provisions are desperately low."
"Particularly for hobbits," Mr. Merry added, a sentiment with which Sam heartily agreed.
Elrohir said, "We have brought many ingredients for soothing broths and gruels." As Mr. Strider glared at him, he grinned and added, "Also something more substantial. You needn't worry, Estel. None of you will starve on the road."
Mr. Strider growled. Stiffly, he went down on one knee, and began pawing through the pile. "Three days... porridge… lying on my back…"
Glorfindel clapped Sam on the shoulder. "Come, friend Sam. The Dúnadan is right. You shall have time for an excellent meal, while the litters are being made ready. Tonight, you shall feast to your heart's content."
"That sounds fine, sir," said Sam, as Mr. Pippin raised a weak cheer. "But we won't linger too long, will we?"
Mr. Glorfindel smiled kindly. "We shall set out later tonight if you wish, as soon as the horses are rested."
"I'd appreciate that, sir." Sam cut his eyes towards the unhappy Ranger, muttering savagely as he went through the gear. "Right now, I'd best help Mr. Strider with that dinner. I'm not sure he'll make the best job of it, the state he's in."
"That is well." Glorfindel's eyes twinkled. "And I shall look over your friends' hurts, while the brothers fashion the litters."
The Elven brothers, exchanging what were supposed to be hidden smirks, had already begun to walk to the woods. Sam called after them, "Bring back plenty of firewood, if you sirs would be so obliging." Elladan waved a hand in cheerful acknowledgement, as they continued towards the trees.
Sam sighed. "Well, sir, you've got a job to do, and so do I. I've had some fine fare among the Elves—finest I've tasted, if truth be told." He retrieved his two pans, lying ready by the fire pit. "Tonight it's my turn to repay in kind. So work your magic, Mr. Glorfindel, and I'll work mine. Samwise Gamgee's about to do what he does best."