Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. Both belong to J. K. Rowling and J. R. R. Tolkein respectively. No profit is made from this story.
Harry Potter watched on with a muted sort of disinterest at the scene before him: Tom Riddle, a handsome man with a rigid face, seemed to sway and distort in the dim light, frosty brown eyes glinting despite the darkness. They almost seemed to bleed crimson, like the girl. The girl below him... She laid sprawled, a burning halo contrasted like good and evil. Like dying embers... with pale skin so deathly wan that her chocolate freckles appeared like great spots of sickness.
Breathe... whispered what was left of his conscious.
He tried, but his lungs burned, his body felt like led, and everything seemed to be spinning and swaying... like one of those circus mirrors, around and around and around again. Faster and Faster... shorter and shorter...
But he couldn't.
Overhead, he felt the air currents waver. A bird with the most beautiful red and gold plumage fluttered near. Fawkes, he thought slowly, headmaster Dumbledore's phoenix. He tried to smile at it, but the muscles just wouldn't move. He couldn't move. He needed to move, to get up, to stand, to fight!
You need to breathe, never forget to breathe...
"And look now, Harry Potter, how far you've fallen. Truly, it is miraculous that a child such as yourself ever had a hope to defeat such a powerful wizard as I. Ha! What miserable and wretched existence to have led. What? Why look now Dumbledore's pet cries for you. Don't you see? Even this beast know you're going to die!" laughed the well-to-do image of Tom Riddle. The sound echoed hollowly.
Harry clenched the bloodied sword in his hand numbly, just barely feeling the warm metal still hot with blood. He managed to glimpse the bulking corpse of a giant snake as his vision blurred, probably for the last time. Was this the end?
Was this how everything would end? His body left to decompose at the bottom of the Chamber of Secrets, while his friends were all picked off one by one? Would Ginny survive? Would Hermione? Ron?
"Every year she makes us a sweater" said Ron unwrapping his own parcels, "and mine's always Maroon."
"You know what this means?" he finished breathlessly. "He tried to get past that three-headed dog at Halloween! That's where he was going when we saw him--he's after whatever it's guarding! And I bet my broomstick he let that troll in, to make a diversion!"
"Nearly Headless? How can you be nearly headless?"
Was this what it was to die?
To disappear and leave all of his friends behind?
If he could, he might have frowned or maybe glared at the almost substantial image that stared back, but as it was, he had no strength left to do anything more than stare. Finally he let go to the inevitable, the blur of colors colliding together as the tides of blackness washed over him.
He awoke slowly.
Pain, unbearable shifting pain stormed through his chest and arms, dancing on the bones and burning his head. Harry Potter doubted there was any part of him that didn't hurt. Flickering the emerald eyes slowly open, he stared at the white ceiling blurry and undetailed, a splash of grays against a simple white.
"Best not to move, young sir," came a simple voice through the haze of white. Harry, spiked with sudden fear and fury, tried to turn in effort to see the voice, only to find the pain in his neck so terrible he whimpered pitifully. A soft chuckle carried through the silence and he heard a distinct smirk in the voice. "Tried to warn you, I did..."
The man's deep chuckle died out and the tone became serious and sharp once more. "You've cause quite an uproar, young sir. Queer folk be coming round Bree lately, lucky old Bob found you near the stables, else you'd 'ave died by morn."
Uncertainty swept over Harry like drenching rain as flashes of memories came to him. Ginny. Ron. Hermione. Were they okay? What had become of Tom Riddle? A sharp pain hammered against his head before Harry got to question how he was alive.
"Rest now, young sir," spoke a voice calmly. "Old Butterbur'll answer questions later."
With leaded eyes, he returned quickly to a dreamless slumber.
"You're certain?" asked a gruff voice through the haze and fog of Harry Potter's dreary mind. A pause and scowling scurry of curses flittered through the background of subtly shifting clothes. They sounded heavy and woolen, and distinctly warm. "Very well. Barley, I'm off in the morning. Will you do something for me?"
"You've only to name it."
"I'm in a hurry," said the first voice, "and I've no time myself, but I want a message took to the Shire. Have you anyone you can send, and trust to go?"
"Tomorrow, maybe or the day after."
"Make it the day after," decided the gruff voice before there was a whisper of fabric once more.
Harry managed to twist his neck somewhat, but only caught a glimpse of gray in the corner of his eye. The movement caught someone else's eye, though, and a small flask pressed against his lips. Without meaning to, he swallowed the foreign liquid, tasting the bitter concoction as it slipped beyond his tongue. Beyond his control, the world disappeared and, numbly, he returned to nothing.
"Are you awake, young master?"
Opening his eyes, Harry searched for his crooked black glasses placing them on the tip of his nose despite their slightly broken and especially dirty state.
"Who are you? What's going on? Where am I?" he asked quietly, looking around the modest room he occupied. Humble and homey, he noted at once, and deceptively small. Everything looked child-sized, from the fluttery pale curtains and round-centered windows to the tall, ornamental mirror and short, spindly stools with their simple green velvet-like cloth.
"Not so many questions! No, you're at The Prancing Pony of Bree," answered the voice, and Harry turned to find himself staring at a tiny little man, about the size of his Charms professor Flitwick, with curling brown hair and kind brown eyes. For a moment, he stared at the strange person. "My name's Hob, Hob the Hobbit."
"Prancing... Bree? Hobbits?" Harry asked, his confused evident. How did he get here when last he remembered... Ginny! He shot up, sitting straight, only to feel his arm constrict painfully. Looking down, he saw a simple brown scab, the only remains of the poisoned wound. "How- How am I alive?"
If the little man thought this a strange question, he did not show it.
"Why, Mr. Butterbur nursed you to health. Quite lucky too, if you ask me, what with those strange riders coming and going. Queer folk be abroad and you is lucky that Bob found you and not one of them Rangers or worse."
Harry nodded without understanding, his mind a whirl of confusion, but the small man continued, talking in a rather easy voice with an accent unlike any he'd heard before.
"But as to you being alive, if you'll pardon my saying so, well I'd say it be a miracle, alright. Why if Gandalf hadn't happened by and saw to your wounds... Well, he fixed them up mighty well, if you'd ask me. Though he'd been muttering about you afterward all strange-like..."
"Aye," agreed the little man as he began dusting the room. "A mighty fine wizard, that man, but a terribly strange one."
"Wizard!" Harry shouted, only to blush at the startled stare of the other man. "I mean, he's a wizard?"
"Isn't that what I said?" Harry felt his face burn redder. "Ah, there we are. Now, young sir, yah need some more rest before Old Butterbur'll let yah rise. Can't have yah wastin' his kindness, aye? He'll probably come visit in a day or so, best to go back to bed while yah can." And with that, the little man quickly scurried from the room, leaving Harry no choice but to ponder the words as he fell back to sleep.
"Bring us three pints, would yah laddie?" called an obviously drunk dwarf over the roar of the crowded inn. Around him, two others heartily agreed, beating the now wet wooden tables and spraying spittle everywhere.
"You got the money for it?" Harry shouted over the bulking noise well aware the dwarf did not have it. The squat fellow had spent his last coin on a mug of ale last week, when Harry first begun working in the Prancing Pony.
He'd taken the job in hopes of not only paying back the owner for his help, but also to find this Gandalf man again. If he could only find this wizard, then perhaps the man would help him get home. That is, if there were even a home to go back to...
"Put it on me tab, boy."
Nodding in agreement, because really it wasn't his place to argue, he scurried away; mindful of the stray boots and stray wenches in his path. Glancing in a corner, he noticed the hooded figure once more smoking his pipe.
"Mr. Butterbur," Harry said as he awaited the drunk dwarf's order. "Whose that man there in the corner?"
"Him?" the fat man asked, his cheeks pink and eyes curious. "I don't rightly know, one of them wandering folk—Rangers, we call them. He seldom talks, save for a rare tale when he has the mind. He disappears for a month, or a year on end, and then pops up as though he'd never left. What his right name is, I don't rightly know, never heard. Around Bree we call him Strider; going about at a great pace on his long shanks. He don't tell nobody, mind you, where or what his hurry cause for. But there's no accounting for East and West here in Bree, meaning Rangers and Shire-folk."
But at that moment, the dwarves shouted for more ale, and Harry quickly nodded, though understanding not the words. He glanced once more at the quiet stranger before taking the dwarves their ale.
Harry Potter wheezed slightly as he dropped the heavy saddle at the base of the large stable and leaned against the wooden door beside it. Who would have thought leather could be so heavy? He turned slightly towards Bob, a hobbit of the stables.
"Your sword, ya say?" asked the three foot tall hobbit with a grin that resembled squash. "Ho! Thought you'd never be coming for it, the bulky thing."
Harry chuckled awkwardly, unsure as the little man bustled about. What would he do with the massive blade now that he'd found it? Was it possible his wand fallen with him, despite the fact Riddle was holding it when he left? Could it somehow help him find a way back home?
"Ah!" sighed the little man with pleasure as Harry struggled with his unanswered questions. "'Ere it tis, back 'hind the rakes and spades. 'Fraid it's still dirty, tho'. You'd best be takin proper care of it, young sir, lest it fall apart like an ole mule!"
Harry nodded in acceptance and took the massive blade from the tiny man. Even as he did so, he felt the cold, heavy metal biting beneath the mud under his fingers.
Harry easily completed his long list of chores before noon. Butterbur refused to give him to many, stating he had only just recovered, but Harry saw the pity in the man's eyes. Everyone always pitied the poor orphan boy.
Everyone but Strider, that is.
Perhaps that was why he liked the strange man so much. He never looked at anyone with anything other than contempt or a neutral expression that denied the observer his opinion.
Still, without much else to do, the green eyed youth journeyed into the woods behind the Inn, taking up the sword much as he had from the sorting hat weeks earlier, and attempted to slay some mighty invisible beast.
As he did so, he wondered once more, like he had since he'd awoken in the strange land, if Ginny was alive. Did Ron make it past the cave in to rescue his sister? Did Lockhart get sacked? Did Hermione get better? Was Riddle destroyed?
Using the blood-stained sword with it's mud-crusted hilt, Harry pushed forward and back, blocking and parrying and attacking his invisible foe. With stiff and heavy movements, he tried to destroy the imaginary monster, pushing the sword up in a high arch.
However, he misjudged his strength and the hilt came crashing down, falling onto his chest as his right arm burned with pain. The dull edge of the blade knocked upon the side of his head, blurring his vision. Hissing, Harry collapsed on the ground with a heavy grunt.
He laid there for a good while until he found the strength to pick himself up.
Strider sat in the corner again, when Harry returned to wipe down tables and scrub tankards at the inn.
"Harry, you have come at last." stated Butterbur as he poured himself a large drink of ale to moisten his lips.
"Er- Sorry," he replied sheepishly, well aware he was late.
"'Tis well enough, young Harry," replied the man with a wide grin. "But best don't repeat it, Harry. Now, what was I doing? Oh yes! Lock up the inn, will you boy? I'll just have me self another drink and then head up!"
Harry nodded slightly despite the ringing in his head and helped the forgetful man to Nob, who would show him to bed. Turning back, Harry began cleaning the glasses as a man rolled lazily on the floor, to drunk to stand.
"Have you got a room here sir?" Harry asked politely, not wanting to cause a fight. He looked towards a group of three nearby. "Sirs?"
The red headed one closest just grunted in response. Harry sighed and went around the counter.
"Sir, it's time for bed. Do you have a room?" The head lolled and Harry rolled his eyes in disgust as droll begun to trail down the man's face. Without much other choice, Harry pulled up the man and half-carried, half dragged the man to the spare room.
When he returned, he noticed Strider was gone. Just as well, Harry thought despite the odd feeling in his stomach, he named unsatisfied curiosity. He quickly shooed away the other visitors and locked the doors. With that, he gratefully went to bed.
For the next week Harry snuck out at noon every day and practiced his swordsmanship. Wielding the large blade as best he could with his lack of muscles and sore body, he managed to accidentally stab himself twice, wounded a few trees, and somehow knocked a few feathers off a stray bird.
Needless to say the animals all took to avoiding him frequently.
And yet, even as the time passed, Harry found his hope for ever leaving the strange land of hobbits and dwarves and men diminishing. He had yet to see or hear even a glimpse of this Gandalf fellow that nobody seemed able to describe, besides queer or strange.
Then there was Strider.
The ranger hadn't been seen for days by any of the people of Bree. He'd all but vanished without a trace one evening and not come back since. Somehow, the absents of the stranger left Harry hollow, but the young man brushed it off,
Swallowing a sigh, Harry pressed his arms upwards, dragging the sword's blade high and angling it slightly to the left, blocking a swift downwards blow from his imaginary opponent. Pushing back, Harry forced his invisible foe's blade back and swept wide, cutting open the man's gut and spilling his innards.
A leaf crunched behind him, and Harry turned at once, the blood-coated metal whistling forward to barely miss the top of the stable-hobbit, Bob's head.
"If ya didn't want any company, Mr. 'arry, you'd only 'ad to say so!" complained the Hobbit as he fell upon his bum with wide eyes. "We 'obbits aren't so nosy as all that!"
Laughing despite the occasion, Harry helped his little friend up.
Harry cleaned the mugs once more with a yellowing rag, listening silently to the great cheer amongst the hobbits, dwarves, and men. The entire inn seemed in an uproar as they danced about and sung loudly, drinking far to much than necessary. That is, all but Strider, silent as ever, smoking his pipe without expression.
The man had appeared suddenly again exactly ten days after his departure, though no one seemed to mind this strange occurrence. When asked, Mr. Butterbur explained it away as the queerness of Rangers. They come and go as they please, no one in their right mind would try to stop 'em.
Rolling his eyes at the hobbits antics, Harry scrubbed a particularly nasty spot and watched Mr. Underhill walk near Strider, sitting down next to the cloaked man. The boy wondered silently if they knew each other, but decided not at the expression of distrust on the hobbit's features.
Something about the round little hobbit with the kind blue eyes bothered Harry. He wasn't sure why, but he felt oddly possessed to get closer and all the while repulsed to stay far, far away. In the end, he settled for studying the strange little man's friends: a blithering tween, as he'd been told by a snorting Nob, going on about a birthday party and another, a gardener, as he quickly heard, who liked to tell stories of his old gaffer and sit in comfortable silence.
As the merry little hobbit, Mr. Took, just began to close the entertaining tale, Mr. Underhill stole the attention, suddenly pulling himself atop the table next to Strider to join the festivities. Drawing attention away from the surprised looking Took.
After yells for a song from half the inn, Mr. Underhill finally agreed to sing after a somewhat awkwardly short speech. Harry got the impression the hobbit had jumped before thinking.
"There is an inn, a merry old inn
beneath an old grey hill,
And there they brew a beer so brown
That the Man in the Moon himself came down
one night to drink his fill..."
The ostler has a tipsy cat
that plays a five-stringed fiddle;
And up and down he runs his bow,
Now squeaking high, now purring low,
now sawing in the middle.
The landlord keeps a little dog
that is mighty fond of jokes;
When there's good cheer among the guests,
He cocks an ear at all the jests
and laughs until he chokes..."
Listening to the jolly tune, the green eyed wizard glanced surreptitiously around the pub, watching men clap their hands and dwarves toasting ale. He frowned at Strider's concentrated glaze unwavering and dark.
Swallowing, he pushed down a wave of irritation. What did he care if Strider seemed oddly concerned with the hobbit and yet had refused to look at him even once?Why should he feel anything for a complete stranger?
Gripping the glass a little more forceful than necessary, Harry moved it away and began on the next one.
"The Man in the Moon took another mug,
and rolled beneath his chair;
And there he dozed and dreamed of ale,
Till in the sky the stars were pale,
and dawn was in the air.
Then the ostler said to his tipsy cat:
"The white horses of the Moon,
They neigh and champ their silver bits;
But their master's been and drowned his wits,
and the Sun'll be rising soon!"
So the cat on his fiddle played hey-diddle-diddle,
a jig that would wake the dead:
He squeaked and sawed and quickened the tune,
While the landlord shook the Man in the Moon:
"It's after three!" he said.
They rolled the Man slowly up the hill
and bundled him into the Moon,
While his horses galloped up in rear,
And the cow came capering like a deer,
and a dish ran up with the spoon.
Now quicker the fiddle went deedle-dum-diddle;
the dog began to roar,
The cow and the horses stood on their heads;
The guests all bounded from their beds
and danced upon the floor.
With a ping and a pang the fiddle-strings broke!
the cow jumped over the Moon,
And the little dog laughed to see such fun,
And the Saturday dish went off at a run
with the silver Sunday spoon.
The round Moon rolled behind the hill,
as the Sun raised up her head.
She hardly believed her fiery eyes;
For though it was day, to her surprise
they all went back to bed. "
There was a loud round of applause which Harry refused to join, for despite it all, Frodo did have a good voice and seemed to tickle the crowd's fickle opinion."Where's old Barley?" they cried. "He ought to hear this. Bob ought to learn his cat the fiddle, and we'd have ourselves a dance." They called for more ale and Harry rushed behind the bar, missing their next words, but guessing them all the same.
The song came again, only this time the crowd joined in, some humming and other singing with the tune, for it was well liked and Harry had heard the children singing it sometimes as they danced in the streets while he passed.
And then, as the song came to the notion of the horned cow jumping over the moon, a rhyme Harry distantly remembered his Aunt Petunia telling to his cousin Dudley, he heard a distinct clatter. Looking up, the young wizard had only a moment to comprehend the vanishing, singing hobbit when a sharp pain took his forehead. Falling to the floor, unnoticed by any, Harry managed, through the pain, to see something strange.
A hobbit appearing suddenly, sitting next to Strider's muddy black boots which remained unmoved.
"There's some mistake somewhere," said Butterbur, and Harry noticed at once he'd come from around the fireplace. "There was to much of that Mr. Underhill to go vanishing into thin air; or into thick air, as is more likely in this room."
"Well where is he now?" cried several voices.
"How should I know? He's welcome to go where he will, so long as he pays in the morning. There's Mr. Took now; he's not vanished."
"Well I saw what I saw," stated Mugwort obstinately, an elderly man with a rough face and stubborn demeanor. "And I saw what I didn't!"
"And I say there's been some mistake," repeated Butterbur, picking up the tray and gathering up the broken crockery.
"As do I," replied Harry from behind the bar. He didn't like angry and confused looks about the small tavern, nor Mugwort's disrespect towards Butterbur. "Mr. Underhill can hardly just disappear into thin air, as Mr. Butterbur has said. And if he did not vanish, than obviously he crawled."
The crowd did not seem to believe his words, as they frowned and grumbled, but they also didn't press Mr. Underhill for questions, which Harry could easily tell, the hobbit was avoiding. The guests quickly fled the inn, all but few casting angry glances of distrust.
Harry took their empty pints at once, giving each person a strained smile as they left. No one bothered to return it.
Looking towards the corner Strider had sat in, the dark haired youth frowned deeply.
"Their's trouble brewing, young Harry. Be sure of it," confided the old Inn Keeper, his dark eyes fearful and glossy as he laid a comforting hand on Harry's shoulder. "Best not stay up late, lad. Now go find old Bob and tell him to come in."
Harry nodded agreeably, though highly reluctant to leave the warmth inside.
Wiping his hands, Harry moved into the night.
It was dark, incredibly so, despite the kind flickers of the lamp. It made him miss his wand all the more. A simple Lumos spell would have not gone unwanted on the moonless night.
He walked slowly when a slight whimper broke against his ears. Harry turned towards it slightly, his green eyes searching the darkness from behind the broken frames, trying to judge the source.
"Bob?" He called slightly, his voice as strong as he could muster despite the cold chill that permeated around him. "Bob is that-"
He broke off at the loud neigh in the distance and an inhumane shriek. Hooves clattered like crushed echoes of thunder swept about by the chilling autumn wind. He couldn't leave Bob out there! He had to save the little hobbit... He couldn't loose him like he had his other friends...
The name brought the image instantly to his eyes. Crimson hair tossed about the unearthly pale face. Brown eyes shut, and lips parted slightly in an almost silent scream, lying limply. Cold. Next to the dead Basilisk. Next to the open diary.
Next to Tom Riddle.
Anger flooded his body and Harry moved faster towards the barn, his heart racing as he did; the distant sound of horses closing in.
"Bob! Bob!" he saw a flash of movement in the corner of his eye and move towards it, only to see a strange clump in the middle of the grass. Moving cautiously nearer, he allowed the light of his lamp on it.
He gasped in shock, dropping the lantern and loosing his only light.
The image still remained regardless, pale brown eyes opened wide in fear—just like Ginny's. Dead. Blood and vomit, mixed with mud. Dead. Dead. Dead...
Bob was dead...
He couldn't think. Couldn't feel, couldn't breathe. The world was spinning, he had to get away. Away... Bile, rising in his throat. He stumbled backwards, half crawling half running. The image wouldn't leave. The blood... the skin... glossy eyes gray and grim.
Somehow, Harry managed to make his way back to the inn.
Harry couldn't sleep, the image of the dead hobbit once more on his mind. He had to go, had to leave. He was going insane. He had to get back home. Had to save Ginny and help Hermione. Had to stop Riddle and rescue Ron. He had homework to do, McGonagall would want it on time. And Dumbledore need to know about the diary.
He need to go.
Harry packed as much food as he could carry in a stolen bag, numbly leaving his entire earnings on the table for Butterbur. When the old bartender awoke, he'd find a simple letter saying he had gone and that he doubted he'd ever return again. In that same spidery scrawl, Harry signed his name at the bottom in an inelegant mess.
When dawn's first light began to rise, Harry left the inn and walked into the woods, his mind numb as he carried the heavy sword that defeated the Basilisk and many other easily forgotten foes. Bob's bloodied face still haunting his every step.
"Harry? Where are you? Why'd you leave us?" cried a bushy haired girl with kind brown eyes shrilly. "Don't you want to come home, Harry?"
"Yes Hermione!" he tried to shout back despite the huge gap between them. He watched her face in the distance awash with tears. "But I don't know how! Hermione help me, please!"
"Harry!" called another voice, he turned at once on to his side to see red hair vibrant and freckles. "Come home Harry! Come home!"
"But Ron! I don't know how!"
"Magic Harry..." called the voice as he got further and further away. "Magic..."
"Magic..." Harry murmured before he awoke with a start. Magic...
Sighing, Harry sat up tiredly, rubbing beneath his eyes with dirty hands. Having been on the road for little more than a few days, Harry discovered he did not like it. No, Harry did not like it at all.
Sleeping on the ground where ants and mosquitoes and whatever other bugs could touch him was one thing, but the food was running low and his arms grew more leaded each day from carrying the heavy, muddy sword. His neck and legs already ached from the sun's red burns. It didn't help either that when he slept it was usually nightmares or dreams of his quickly fading home.
Swallowing another heavy sigh, Harry looked upwards towards the sun beyond the treetops. East. He needed to go East, hoping only that the sun rose and set the same way here as it did at home. Glancing about the ground, he found what he was looking for, the black pony dung he'd been following since he'd left.
Pulling on his stolen pack, Harry hefted the huge sword in his arms and started on his journey, not bothering with breakfast for the moment as he began the endless trek through the wilderness once more.
Harry stripped eagerly as he found the small stream, his sword and gear left forgotten in an untidy pile near a large oak. It felt like forever since he'd last taken a bath, the smell of dirt and grim and sweat so common he'd learned to ignore it.
Scooting towards the edge of the quietly babbling brook, Harry looked down to see what he expected to be his face, only to find a gaunt wild boy staring back. His chaotic hair, which Aunt Petunia normally kept as short as possible now fell past his ears, his bangs obscuring anything above his glasses with a veil of unruly black clumps.
The glasses, which he tried to keep as clean as possible despite their cracked and lopsided nature, still managed to look as though they magnified his green eyes in a thousand pieces, making millions of green irises swiveled all around at every glance.
Sighing, Harry removed the optical instrument from his face before jumping into the beautiful, clear water.
Absolutely frozen water, he discovered moments later.
As quickly as possible, the young boy cleaned his hair and face before attempting to wash the worn and dirty clothes. He'd just finished his pants when something sharp pressed against his neck.
He froze with fear, dropping the clothes.
"What is this?" whispered a low voice in his ear, the smell of pine and sweat invading his nose. "Surely, not a little boy alone in the woods?"