A Knife In the Dark

Please Take Note: Happily, this story will continue to be updated, as I have full consent from Imaginigma to continue on with it (in case you were wondering, her fic is entitled What If Weathertop). Thank you very much :) Also, just so everyone knows, I plan to update once or twice a week depending on what I have done. However, because I'm going to be adding more stories in the very near future, this may slow me down. And as always, I'm still looking for a beta reader who can help me sort through my grammar and offer second opinions on plotlines. Oh, and on the note of Strider's foster family; I'm going with the common assumption that he was raised as a son of Elrond, and as a brother to the twins Elladan and Elrohir.

Finally, many thanks to Calenlass, Ainu Laire, sassafras224, SiriusBlackFan2, Eriadne and Anonymousfog for your kind reviews and input.

Chapter One: Black Blood

The fallen Ranger felt as though a gigantic hand was slowly crushing his lungs into pulp; indeed, it was becoming nearly impossible to breathe. Whether this new development stemmed from the most-likely-to-be mortal wound mere inches above his heart or the sheer terror he felt quelling up inside, Strider did not know. What he did know, however, was that he was growing increasingly cold, and lying on the frigid stone tiles of a once splendid Watchtower was doing very little good.

Mentally steeling himself for what torture he knew awaited him, Strider slowly rose to his knees. Almost immediately, wave upon wave of incredible agony threatened to immobilize him, and he collapsed into a heap of intense shivers. Son of a Balrog, he cursed inwardly, inhaling deeply to soothe his frazzled nerves. It did little good, but he chose to focus more on the issue at hand: standing. He could not roll all the way to Imladris; and he shuddered to think of how his foster family would react should he arrive crawling. There was nothing for it then; he would have to get up.

Hauling himself back up to his knees, he uttered a small word of thanks to the few deities he could remember for allowing him to support his own weight. As expected however, the pain flared up again, and almost threatened to throw him back to the ground. Now cursing the few deities he remembered, he finally allowed his glazed, silver eyes to dart around the dais upon which he kneeled, to look for any sign of his companions, or worse, his dark attackers. A cursory scan revealed nothing, and Strider allowed himself a grateful sigh. It appeared that, for once, the Hobbits had heeded his words and fled the battlefield.

A soft sneeze from his right caused the sigh to catch in his throat and morph into a groan of frustration, directed more towards himself than to the Hobbits. It suddenly became clear to the Ranger, and had many any use of his fifty or so years of wilderness training at all, he should have immediately noticed the rounded outlines of four, very terrified Halflings crouching behind various collections of small rocks and reeds. Good gracious, had his senses already begun to fail him?

A unpleasant jolt shot through his spine to accompany the incessant throbbing of his shoulder, as Strider painfully became aware of the fact that his vision was most certainly hindered. While the shapes themselves were still sharp, he realized that the darkness had already begun to drain his world of colour. While night time brought little more than shades of black, he knew that once the sun rose, the vibrant shades he had grown to love in his eighty-six years would be nothing but pale imitations of their former glory; if they were not already lost to him.

"You may come out now," Strider stated quietly, to distract himself from his troubling thoughts. He winced as he heard the weakened quaver of his own voice. Yet, it would do no good to dwell on things he could not, for the moment, change. "I thought I ordered you to 'run'," he admonished in a mix of exasperation and amusement.

It was odd to see his little companions at eye level, Strider noted, as Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin slunk into sight, brushing dirt and grass from their curly heads. Shuffling their abnormally large feet sheepishly, the four Hobbits approached the kneeling Ranger with a mixture of curiosity and worry. "Why, we did run," Pippin pointed out innocently, in his usual attempts to quell anxiety with humor, "right into the bushes!"

"So you did; but, I sincerely doubt you'll find Rivendell hidden amongst the shrubbery. I did ask you to flee to Rivendell, did I not?" Strider added, the reprimand softened by his calm, soothing tone. The little ones were quaking from fear; he could feel the vibrations through the ground. Putting aside his own pain, his smiled tiredly in reassurance. "The Ring is safe; the Nazgul failed to acquire it. Let that knowledge put your hearts at ease, if nothing else."

The camp was covered in a blanket of tense silence as the four Hobbits regarded their fallen companion with anything but ease. "M-Mister Strider?" Sam asked worriedly, while licking his chapped lips with a dry tongue. "W-What happened? We heard you scream, and saw the big Ringwraith s-stab you with…" he trailed off, unsure of what exactly the Ranger was stabbed with.

Strider's ego shuddered when the Hobbit uttered the word 'scream'; he had not meant to show his weakness so spectacularly to the Nazgul. In fact, he had not even been aware that he had screamed. However, if the black beasts knew that the protector was damaged, they would not be as wary as he had hoped. The gardener, worried by the Ranger's silence, repeated his question. "It was a Morgul Blade, Sam," Strider answered, his raspy voice devoid of all emotion. "A dark weapon of the Nazgul, forged by the W-Witch King of Angmar himself, in the fires," he paused here, unable to swallow his groan of pain, "of Minas Morgul." Lifting the cursed knife from the ground, the Hobbits watched in horror as it disintegrated before their eyes.

"Strider," Frodo asked carefully, his brilliant blues eyes widening in fear. "That was no ordinary blade. What will happen to you?" The Ranger dropped his hooded eyes to the ground as he decided how best to answer the question.

I will pass into the Shadow-realm, Frodo, Strider thought miserably, and become no better than the wretched monsters that hunt you. No, he could bring himself to utter these words aloud; both for their sake and his. Instead, he chose a liberal, "Nothing, for the moment. Do not trouble yourself Master Hobbits, for I am fine."

He had not used the word 'fine' in many years, for very few could not instantly see past this lie. To the Ranger, the word 'fine' meant something along the lines of 'I am going to die', and could drain the colour from his Ada's face faster than a naked Erestor doing a tap dance. Still, it seemed to satisfy the Hobbits, seeing as their stiff shoulders suddenly relaxed. At once, the four Halflings began babbling about the Nazgul, more as a reaction to the waning fear than from anything truly astounding to report. Strider barely listened, but managed to nod in all the appropriate places as they described the battle they had witnessed.

"… and then, Frodo dropped his sword!" Pippin stated matter-of-factly, causing the Ringbearer to flush in a mixture of apology and embarrassment. Yes, I noticed that one too, Strider thought grimly, mentally requesting that his brothers instruct the Hobbits in self-defense should the four friends survive the six day journey to Rivendell.

Now that was a bleak thought Ranger, Strider inwardly chastised himself, even as his chest throbbed in reminder to his current predicament. From the objective perspective of a healer, Strider guessed that he had approximately five days left before he fell completely into darkness. From the subjective perspective of an injured human faced with a very miserable fate, he prayed he could last the extra day.

"We cannot tarry any longer," Strider announced coolly, forcing himself from his knees. His injury wailed in protestation, but the Ranger made a conscious effort to ignore it. There were many other urgent matters to be concerned with at the moment; nine of them, to be precise. "The dark servants of Sauron will return, and I would like to have many leagues between us when they do," he added as incentive. Rocking slightly on the balls of his feet, he shakily stepped forward, but managed to regain his balance before he crashed back to the earth which he had recently become very acquainted with. Wrapping his thick cloak around his shoulders, he coaxed Sam, Merry and Pippin to their extremely large but tired feet.

As he went to reach for Frodo's hand, their eyes met. Large, blue orbs scrutinized gray, and Strider felt as though the Lady Galadriel herself was poking about in his mind. He knows, Strider realized, as the Ringbearer's eyes narrowed slightly in distrust. Damned observant Hobbits, he grumbled good-naturedly, and the expressive gaze turned to regard him expectantly. Strider tilted his head stubbornly, but he was still unable to tear his eyes from the Halfling. "On your feet Frodo," he whispered encouragingly, finally succeeding in breaking the spell.

Frodo's eyes left the Ranger's face as he was pulled upwards. "You are not as well as you seem- or as well as you'd have us believe," the Ringbearer hissed as his three companions grappled with the supplies. Strider ground his teeth in annoyance, but did not deny the accusation.

"It is beyond any of us, Frodo, but it will not stop you from reaching Rivendell," Strider replied quietly, proud that his voice did not falter. As to prove his point, he picked up his fallen sword, and sheathed the blade in a fluid motion. The make-shift torch, which had burned down to embers, he left on the stone. "Only in Imladris, will the Ring be safe."

"You would see us to Rivendell, even at the expense of your own… existence?" Frodo asked softly.

Strider noticed uneasily how the Halfling purposefully avoided using the word 'life'. "If need be," he agreed shortly, and walked into the darkness. Each step pained him, but he would do nothing to fuel the attentive Halfling's suspicions. He was determined to lead his charges to the ford of the Bruinen, at the very least. Perhaps by then, one of the Elves of Rivendell would have been alerted and dispatched to see the Hobbits safely to the Last Homely House.

Frodo watched the Ranger disappear down a set of stone steps, unsure if the swaying motions were a result of the human's condition or the uneven staircase. Narrowing his eyes as Strider nearly fell forward, the Hobbit's gaze filled with a mixture of worry and distrust. In the few weeks that he had known the Dunadan, the mysterious human had never given the Halflings any reason to fear him. However, the Ringbearer knew something was off now; and he was growing more and more suspicious the more Strider attempted (albeit poorly) to conceal whatever it was that was ailing him. As the man's shaggy brown head disappeared from view, Frodo vowed that he would watch the Ranger very closely in the days to come.

:O:

Ducking safely out of sight behind one of the larger boulders, Strider allowed himself a agonized gasp. The stairs had been torture, and he had nearly pitched down them to his doom. However, now that he was safely at the bottom, his could finally see to the wound which would undoubtedly be a hindrance on what was left of his journey. Peeling back layers of both leather and cotton until his chest was bare, the Ranger examined the injury critically.

His skin was clammy and a corpse-like white, especially surrounding the deep puncture. Black blood oozed from the opening, thick, sticky and very unsettling. The tainted veins, especially visible beneath the chalky skin, had already begun to stretch towards his chest and carry the deadly toxin throughout his body. Strider inhaled one shaky breath, before reaching for his green under tunic. In swift motions, he tore the fabric into long strips, which he immediately used to blot the excess blood.

Once the area was relatively clean, he used another strip of cloth to bind his shoulder with the practiced motions of a healer. It was incredibly tight, both to alleviate the pain and to restrict the blood flow. The shard of the Morgul Blade was buried deep, could not be located, and therefore could be not removed; so, he would just have to make do and persevere. Oh, but what he wouldn't give for a few leaves of Athelas to boil!

"Mr. Strider?" he heard the panicked voice of Sam call from above. The Hobbits must have finally packed up the camp. Quickly, he shoved what was salvageable of the under tunic into the pocket of his cloak for future use, and hurriedly dressed himself in a simple tunic and leather over-coat. Rebelting his sword to his waist, Strider allowed himself one last shiver, before pushing the agony to the back of his mind.

"Over here, Sam!" he called back, and he was rewarded by the sounds of four pairs of Hobbit feet thumping down the stairs. The hesitant pounding of hooves also indicated that the loyal pony, Bill, was cautiously allowing himself to be lead by Sam. The Halflings looked decidedly frazzled as they attempted to navigate the dark steps without tripping, and the Ranger couldn't help but hope that they were so focused on themselves that they wouldn't spare him a second thought.

"We thought we'd lost you there for a moment, and we grew worried," Sam commented meekly, effectively snuffing out Strider's hopes. However, the Ranger smiled warmly at his companions' concern, although his eyes remained troubled. The Hobbits were such kind-hearted folk; he would never forgive himself if he brought them any harm. You haven't lost me Sam, he thought determinedly, as they began their march to the Bruinen Ford. At least, not yet.

.End of Chapter One.

In Parting: This chapter doesn't accomplish much, but is necessary to set some things up. Next time: More suspicious Hobbits and tempers flare.