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This idea has been brewing for a long time, and I finally got it out of my head and onto 'paper.' It would never have happened without Thundera Tiger, and I can't thank her enough for all her help and patience throughout this long process. Without her guidance and encouragement (in addition to the excellent beta work!), this story would never have seen the light of day, nor would I have considered posting any of my writing.
There will be one vignette for each Fellowship character, following this opening. I expect to be posting these vignettes daily, or close to it. I hope you enjoy!
“You are lonely,” Aragorn said suddenly as Frodo surveyed the Fellowship from his rocky perch to one side of the day’s camp.
“It seems you can be lonely even when you are not alone,” Frodo answered. Turning to his friend and leader, he said, “But I understand, Aragorn, why it is better this way.”
Aragorn offered no response but gave the group his own perusal. Gimli busied himself with helping Sam prepare the meal. Legolas stood as he often did on a high rock on the outskirts of camp, using his keen sight to keep constant watch over their surroundings. Boromir paced the perimeter, his movements nervous but watchful. And Frodo’s cousins pestered Gandalf with the usual barrage of questions, while the wizard gave the impression that he had finally tired of answering.
Aragorn realized then how familiar the scene before him was. Boromir, Legolas, and Gimli constantly busied themselves with cleaning their weapons, keeping watch, or other duties. The hobbits, for all their protectiveness of Frodo, drifted again and again to Gandalf’s side. He could not remember, at least since entering Hollin, any of the Company spending more than passing time with Frodo, with the exception of Sam. They were keeping their distance. And Frodo knew it. Somehow, that was more dismaying to the Ranger than if the hobbit had been unaware of their shunning.
“They can all hear It, can’t they?” Frodo asked, reminding Aragorn of his perceptiveness. “The voice is a constant in my ear, but I forget that It may speak to others as well.” After a moment of shared silence, the hobbit asked, “Can you hear It as well?”
Eventually, Aragorn looked at him with a steely eye. “Yes, Frodo, I hear It. But I do not listen. I will not. You must believe me, Frodo.”
Frodo looked at the others again and then slowly turned to Aragorn. “I believe you.”
Aragorn was unsure whether he heard an emphasis on Frodo’s first word.
Frodo drew the Ring out of his pocket again and looked at it. It now appeared plain and smooth, without mark or device that he could see. The gold looked very fair and pure, and Frodo thought how rich and beautiful was its colour, how perfect was its roundness. It was an admirable thing and altogether precious. When he took it out he had intended to fling it from him into the very hottest part of the fire. But he found now that he could not do so, not without a great struggle. He weighed the Ring in his hand, hesitating, and forcing himself to remember all that Gandalf had told him; and then with an effort of will he made a movement, as if to cast it away – but he found that he had put it back in his pocket.
– FotR, The Shadow of the Past
“I must admit some surprise that you would come to me with your concerns, Aragorn, son of Arathorn. On your last visit, you were asking us to take on a burden, one we still carry. I am aware, as well, that Elrond raised you as a son, and Mithrandir has taken you into his confidence many a time. Why do you not turn to them now?”
Aragorn tried not to shift in response as he sat in the sumptuous chair in the receiving room of King Thranduil’s palace, where he was met by Thranduil and his son, Legolas. The King of Mirkwood had every right to question his sudden appearance. He had already imposed on them the watch of the dreadful creature Gollum, and he was not here to relieve them of that duty. That Aragorn found himself in this room seeking advice surprised him as much as it did Thranduil. He had set out for Rivendell, but when obstacle after obstacle had blocked his path, he had been forced to admit he was being led east rather than west and had eventually turned his feet toward Mirkwood.
Vague yet pressing feelings of concern had set his feet on their path south, but by the time he had arrived in Mirkwood, his unease had developed into a sense of doom so deep and so urgent he could deny it no longer. Despite this, he was suddenly reluctant to utter a word. One did not come to the King of Mirkwood to speak of long-lost Rings. In fact, one did not speak of this Ring at all, if one respected Its power. More importantly, to convey his worries to King Thranduil meant relinquishing his denial as to what evil approached them all. Yet he knew in his blood, the same blood that once ran through Isildur’s veins, what doom loomed over them: the Ring was no longer safely hidden in the Shire.
The Ring had been claimed.
Legolas interrupted when the man provided no answer to the King’s questions. “Aragorn, has my father told you what gift Mithrandir has brought to the Greenwood?”
“No, he has not,” Aragorn answered slowly. He waited out a cold twist in his stomach before continuing. “A gift, you say? Do I guess rightly that this gift is tied to the burgeoning peace I sensed upon my entrance into the forest? Never have I been so at ease in Mirkwood in all my years. But I have not spoken to the wizard since he asked me to find the creature Gollum. I have searched for Gandalf lately without success.”
Legolas looked to his father, who began the tale hesitantly. “Mithrandir has purged the Shadow that long hung over this land and restored the Greenwood. The Orcs have been ousted; the spiders are gone. The Great Wood has been cleansed.” Thranduil looked pleased but wary.
Aragorn struggled to hide his shock. Many thoughts crowded his mind; questions vied to be asked. He could only manage the simplest. “How? How could Gandalf do this?”
Thranduil glanced at Legolas, misgivings revealed for a brief moment. “We are unsure,” Thranduil said cautiously.
A shiver ran up Aragorn’s spine as realization settled upon him, as clear suddenly as the click of puzzle pieces snapping into place. His stomach fluttered while he prepared to ask a dreaded question. “You have spoken to Gandalf recently then?” They both nodded. “Did he seem… different in any way?”
Again, the shared glance before Thranduil answered, a decision between them apparently made. “Yes, Legolas and I both sensed a difference about Mithrandir, on more than one occasion,” he said slowly. “I have not been able to identify the source.” He seemed to want to say more, but remained silent.
Legolas nodded. “Like my father, I too am at a loss to describe it.”
Aragorn closed his eyes for a moment. He could not believe it. No, he would not. Gandalf would never. He tried to maintain his denial, but it collapsed under the weight of his instincts. A deep grief washed over him.
Everything had changed.
A mentor and friend for all his life, in that moment, Aragorn relinquished all hope of counsel from the wizard. He could ask naught of him now. Indeed, he might have already become the enemy.
He forced himself to ask more questions, hesitant as he was to learn the answers. “You say on more than one occasion. How often has he been here of late?”
Thranduil looked upon Aragorn intently, judgment and decision in his eyes. “He was a visitor not more than three months past, at which time he announced his intentions to clear the Greenwood. He was here again more recently, on my request to be a guest at a feast in his honor. All the elves of the Greenwood are grateful for what he has done – however it came to be,” he finished in a whisper.
“Of course,” Aragorn muttered distractedly. Suddenly there was much to do. He needed to return to the North immediately, warn the Rangers, and try to organize a defense of sorts. They would have no notion of what to expect, but they had to be prepared for the worst. Some words of Thranduil then caught his attention. “You say, ‘however this came to be.’ Do you have thoughts on how? Or as to the source of this ‘difference’ you have felt?”
Thranduil sighed after a moment. “I apologize. I have not the proper words to describe it. Perhaps some of the wizard’s own words would better explain. They were …not Mithrandir’s words as I am accustomed to hearing them.” He paused, hesitant then resolute. “We focus our warriors’ efforts now on the small bands of Orcs that remain near Dol Guldur, aiming to rid the Greenwood entirely of Orcs and Spiders. Mithrandir seemed surprised, even …patronizing, of my expectation that in time the Shadow could be banished entirely from the Wood.”
Aragorn frowned in confusion. “Mithrandir seemed to think this an impossible task? Perhaps it is, if even he could not do it.”
“Not so much impossible as too much to expect. His own words were, ‘Evil has always been with us. And it shall continue to be so. We need only find a way to live with it with the least repercussions.’”
Aragorn sat back with wide eyes. “Indeed, those are not Gandalf’s words.”
“There was also,” Aragorn heard a strain in his voice as the King continued, “the issue of the direction taken by the banished Orcs.” As Legolas looked down guiltily, Aragorn was surprised to find the expression reflected in the King’s face. “They go east,” Thranduil said quietly.
“East? East of Mirkwood? That would take them into the lands of …Erebor and Dale…”
“I brought this matter to Mithrandir and he merely questioned my concern for the Dwarves, which I will readily admit has often been lacking. But as I told Mithrandir,” he continued, his voice growing in strength with his defensiveness, “no matter my opinion of Dwarves, I do not wish death upon them. The Dwarves should not pay for our peace.” He became subdued then. “Mithrandir pointed out that he could send them west, if I felt too strongly about the toll on the Dwarves.”
“There were other words,” Legolas added tentatively as Aragorn silently absorbed the implications of Gandalf’s words. “They do not seem to mean much on their own, but I feel in my heart they are important.” He looked to his father now and saw no reprimand, so he continued. “I asked Mithrandir on his last visit how he came to be able to do this in our land. He said that he was able… his words were, ‘By that precious power with which I have been gifted.’”
Immediately, the phrase touched a memory in Aragorn. His thoughts turned of their own accord to Gollum, and then he heard the sibilant rasp: my precioussss. Aragorn’s blood turned to ice. He was silent for long moments, then suddenly sprung forward in his seat. “Lord, I am sorry to have taken your time, but I must beg your leave to depart at once. I must make haste for the North.”
Thranduil and Legolas looked at Aragorn with confusion. “Did you not come here with great concerns?” Thranduil asked with annoyance. “Urgent concerns?”
“I did, lord. And I see that they are all the more urgent now. You have told me much already. More than I hoped to learn or desired to know, I daresay. I feel I must not say more – yet,” he hastened to add. “I apologize for my abruptness,” he continued as he donned his cloak, “but circumstances are more dire than I had feared.”
Thranduil looked at Aragorn shrewdly. “These concerns of yours pertain to Mithrandir, do they not?” Reluctantly, Aragorn nodded.
“He is not the same being we once knew, is he?” Legolas asked. Aragorn shook his head. Legolas paused, then asked, “You will tell us more when you are able?” His son’s quick acceptance of Aragorn’s answer raised Thranduil’s eyebrows.
“Yes, I swear to you,” Aragorn said to the younger elf. When Legolas simply nodded, Aragorn appreciated the trust he showed in not pressing him for answers and hoped the King would extend his trust in him as far. “With good fortune, my suspicions will come to naught, or at the very least, the danger will soon pass.” He knew there was likely no good fortune to be had regardless of the result, but he would not spread such words of doom just yet. “I will then be able to tell you all I know.”
Thranduil looked calculatingly at him for a moment and rose from his chair with a deep sigh. “I will tell you openly, Aragorn, that in my heart I feel that what has come to pass is not for good, this change in Mithrandir, though his deeds belie that. He has freed us, yes. But his eyes tell me there will be a price for that freedom.”
“Indeed,” Aragorn said quietly. “A price we may all pay.”
“Then I give you leave to do what you must. May the blessings of the Valar go with you,” Thranduil said in farewell, briefly resting his hand on the man’s shoulder.
Legolas looked upon Aragorn, heir of Isildur, his friend of many years, and suddenly felt a keen longing and foreboding. “May the stars always shine upon you, son of Arathorn.”
Aragorn bowed to them both and left the land of the Greenwood.
Frodo turned to Gandalf hesitantly as they finished their tea. The wizard’s appearances at Bag End had become less frequent of late, so the four hobbits were glad to share the afternoon with their long-time friend. “Gandalf, we were wondering…” Frodo glanced across the table at his cousins and Sam, who were looking encouragingly at him. The three younger hobbits had refused to go to Gandalf with this question. As much as they had discussed their thoughts among each other, they would only agree to Frodo speaking with Gandalf. They would not admit it, but Frodo knew they were afraid. There was a shimmer of fear in him as well, though he could not say exactly why. He knew only what his friends did. The wizard they had grown up knowing had changed. The friend they had trusted implicitly, they had begun to doubt.
He turned back to Gandalf. He hadn’t felt so young in many years. “You told us about how you wiped out all the Orcs in the land of the Elves in the East, Mirkwood. And you told us about the Rangers who had been protecting the Shire for years, and how brave and strong and loyal they were. You also told us how we had to share them now, so they might protect all of the Northern lands from the armies of Orcs that were coming west.” Frodo drew a deep breath. “Now… now you tell us that many Rangers died trying to keep the Orcs out of our lands…”
“Your question, Frodo?” Gandalf asked a bit impatiently.
“We were wondering why you did not simply rid the Northern lands of the Orcs as you did in the forest of Mirkwood. Why did all those Rangers have to die if you could do that? We – we don’t understand.”
Gandalf sighed. “I know it is hard for you to understand. Hobbits are simple folk who have no interest in war and such things. What you must learn is there is always a price for peace. The peace you have enjoyed here in the Shire has always had a price. I have only now revealed that cost to you. This recent battle was the latest payment for the tranquility of the Shire. Yes, Rangers died, many of them, some I have known for quite some time. They fought valiantly. But there were simply too many of the Enemy’s forces. And that, my dear hobbits, is the answer to your question. There were simply too many for me to handle on my own. I needed the Rangers to help. I had the best of them, led by their Chief, guarding your borders from this army. But there were far more than even I expected. There were few survivors, unfortunately. Even the Chief was lost, and he was a dear friend, one destined for great things. Middle-earth’s fate has changed with the loss of such a man.” He sighed again. Frodo thought he looked sad for a moment, but it was gone before he could be sure, replaced by a harder look Frodo was becoming accustomed to as he saw it more often on his old friend’s face.
“But all things happen with a purpose, and I believe we shall someday come to know the purpose in these terrible events.” He stood up as much as he was able in the hobbit hole and put more cheer into his voice. “Perhaps there are others meant for great things now, who would not have had the chance to rise to their full potential. In the meantime, we shall have to do with what we have. And you still have me. By that precious power with which I have been gifted, I shall do my best to keep you safe, for you are among the few things dear to me. But you must trust me. You do trust me, don’t you?”
The hobbit’s slight hesitation did not escape the wizard’s notice, but Frodo answered enthusiastically, “Of course, Gandalf. Why would we not trust you? We’ve known you all our lives. What could you possibly do to make us not trust you?”
Gandalf looked intently at Frodo for a moment, doubts whispering in his mind, but he brushed them off. The hobbits could not suspect anything. They trusted him utterly. If there were one people he knew well, it was Hobbits. He would not worry about the hobbits. They would trust and support him as he rose to his full potential.
The four hobbits huddled together in front of the fire the Innkeeper had prepared for them. They ought to have been sleeping, but too much had gone on and they still had excitement left in them. Merry especially, upon returning from his stroll in Bree, insisted on knowing all the details of their escapades of the night. He didn’t feel much like talking about his own adventures, though. Despite Strider’s quick explanation of the Black Breath and its effects, he still felt foolish, not just for falling flat on his face but for finding himself in the situation in the first place. What had been going through his addled mind, wandering around with those Riders out there? As he had said, he couldn’t help himself. Something had drawn him towards that Shadow and he had been powerless to do anything but follow.
“And how many pints had you had by then, Pippin?” Merry asked.
“He’d had plenty, don’t let ‘im fool you,” Sam told him before Pippin could say a word.
“Oh, I’ll not deny it. I did actually lose count, to be honest. But what was I to do, turn down Butterbur’s own beer?”
Merry laughed, knowing Pippin suggested the impossible. Soon they quieted down, but Merry continued to think about those shadows walking about beyond their window. Looking for them. For Frodo. For what Frodo carried.
He turned sideways to face Frodo, eyes falling to his cousin’s side. That thing was causing all this mess. He had once thought it so silly to get worked up over a small piece of metal without a bit of adornment. But, now that he had time to give It some thought, he came to see that It was quite pretty. As he stared at the gleam of reflected fire peeking out of Frodo’s pocket, the glow seemed to increase. Whyever did Frodo want to get rid of It? It wasn’t something to toss away like a rotten mushroom. To some It had been… precious.
Without knowing what he did, Merry’s hand began to creep towards Frodo. When it did occur to him what he was doing, he wondered at it, but then thought, ‘Why not? He doesn’t want It anyway.’ He had only to grab the chain hanging from the pocket and the Ring would come with it. ‘Yes, then It will be mine,’ he thought.
Merry frowned. How did that thought come into his head? Did he really want this Ring? Suddenly, his attraction to the round bit of gold grew tenfold. He didn’t just want It; he needed It. After looking to see that Frodo was asleep, he reached out and snatched the chain holding the Ring, waking his cousin.
“Merry! What are you doing?” Frodo asked frantically as the younger hobbit pulled on the Ring, trying to free It from Its chain.
“You’ve been wearing this precious thing quite long enough, Frodo. I thought you ought to be sharing It now!”
“No! Merry! No, you can’t take It!”
“Why not? You’re just going to give It away anyway! So why shouldn’t I have It?” Merry clutched the Ring as desire surged through him.
“Merry!” Strider suddenly shouted. “That is not yours,” he continued in a strained whisper. “It is for Frodo to carry.”
Merry looked at Strider with a flare of anger. Who was this Man that he could order around a hobbit of Brandy Hall? “It’s mine now.” Merry looked down at the Ring in his palm, with a small smile at his success in breaking the chain, and then looked up defiantly at all of them gazing back in disbelief. The possessiveness and craving in Merry’s eyes were as unmistakable as they were incongruous with a hobbit’s features. And then they disappeared – at the same time he did. Merry had put on the Ring.
Outside the inn, an unearthly screech was heard from somewhere across the courtyard. More shrieks soon joined the first, rapidly approaching. “Merry!” Strider called out. “You must take off the Ring. They will find you; they will find us all.” But as he saw the parlor door open and shut on its own, he knew his pleas were in vain. “Stay here, all of you!”
As Strider raced from the room, shutting the door tightly behind him, he missed the looks that passed between the hobbits. Clearly they were not about to leave Merry out there alone with only this Man to try to help him. They ran after Strider without a word.
Praying to the Valar that his actions were not as futile as he felt them to be, Strider ran to the main entrance. The Riders were steps away and Merry was running right to them. If only Gandalf had not been delayed, he suddenly thought, things might have gone differently. He had dared not take the Ring forcibly from Merry. He guessed that would only increase Merry’s desire for It. And besides, then Strider would hold It in his own hand. He would avoid that at all costs. But was this cost too dear?
Strider felt his hope drain from him as he reached the entrance, yet he drew his sword. The door to the courtyard opened on its own. At least he knew where Merry was. “Merry!” he called out in a loud whisper. “You must–” Strider stopped at the sight that met him. Three Ringwraiths. Now four. Now five… Five Ringwraiths against one blade. Strider tried one last hopeless time. “Merry! You must come back! You must remove the Ring!” His heart clutched at the last, knowing the hobbit would not relinquish the Ring now, even if he took It off his finger. He had claimed It for his own. No – the Ring had claimed him. And now the Ringwraiths were here to claim them both.
He understood then that everything was about to change. The Valar were not coming to his aid. He would fail in the charge he had been given years ago.
The five former Rulers of Men, now servants of Sauron, slowly climbed the steps of the Prancing Pony. They saw what they had long sought on the small creature standing before them. In his terror, he had not moved from the doorway. All the better, as it made their work that much easier. Then they saw the one behind him. He was bright with an inner light of his own, and his blade shone beside him. They looked beyond him. And then they smiled. One blade against the five of them?
Indeed, one blade was no challenge against five Ringwraiths. The three hobbits reached the foyer in time to witness the heir to Gondor’s throne valiantly try to save their friend and cousin from the clutches of Sauron. But it was already far too late. The hobbits looked on as Merry reappeared for the last time and then all hope was lost.
Taking up his watch, Legolas stepped out onto the rock that allowed him to see all the land about their camp. While he maintained vigilance of his surroundings, after a time, his mind meandered back to a thought that had been niggling at him throughout the day. Something had begun to surface before he was interrupted by duties to the Fellowship. Where had his thoughts been?
Oh, yes. Lórien. And Imladris. And Mirkwood. Mirkwood was the only realm of Elves so beset by darkness. How was it Elrond and Celeborn and Galadriel were able to protect their realms so effortlessly? He did not understand. His father was a powerful elf. What could he lack?
Ah, that was where his thoughts had been headed. Perhaps the lords of Imladris and Lothlórien were aided somehow. Could it be a special aspect of the land that enabled them to repel Orcs or shielded their land from the creatures? Was the land more powerful than that of the Greenwood?
No, Legolas knew it was far more likely that their aid came to them from another source: the Elven Rings. All were powerful enough to wield a Ring and not be controlled by It. He’d always been certain Mithrandir held one. Another he had surmised was in Elrond’s possession. Of the third he had been less sure.
All that he had seen and felt while in Lothlórien now made sense, as parts of a puzzle he had only begun to try to solve suddenly fell into place. He was sure now how it was these elves maintained peace in their realms. They wore Rings of Power.
A flare of anger swept through him. How dare they? How dare they wear a Ring of Power, protecting their realms and their people from harm, while watching the elves of Mirkwood fight for their survival? All these centuries of struggle, so many lost lives. Why had not King Thranduil been given a Ring of Power? Surely he had a greater need for one than the others did. They had been stalked and killed by Orcs and deadly spiders for hundreds of years. And yet it did not have to be so!
A thought flitted across his mind then. Still taking shape, the nascent thought held an idea, a vision of possibility, for his land, for his people. And it held desire.
As Legolas stood on watch at the shores of the Anduin, his mind drifted to his homeland. Gradually, the vision in his mind changed. He saw his forest free of spiders, Orcs, and wargs. He saw his land flourishing and his palace shining as the jewel of the Wood. The trees no longer chanted a sorrowful song. Elves walked freely without fear; they were safe and at peace. They held feasts, where his friends and family were always by his side. The elves showed their gratitude towards Legolas for bringing this peace to the Greenwood by planting trees, bringing him gifts of metalwork and even jewels bought from the dwarves. His people pledged their loyalty to him, as did Elves of other realms. In return, he kept them all safe. He kept them all free. He kept them all.
Legolas was jolted from his reverie by those last thoughts, once again seeing the waters of the Anduin flowing past them as it made its way south. From where had such thoughts come? He held no desire to control the elves of Mirkwood or have the fealty of all Elves. He certainly had no desire for Dwarven jewels and trinkets. All that he desired was that Mirkwood be free. He would do anything to attain that. Anything. Perhaps taking control was necessary. At least then he could be sure they were all safe. No one would have to die.
As he toiled on the journey towards Mordor, his people might even now be falling to the pressing darkness of Dol Guldur. With the One Ring, he could make his land safe. Of course, he did not need the Ring; he did not desire It. But he could bring to his father the tool to free their land and recompense their years of battle. Bringing home the Ring would enable them to free their people. It was the most fitting course of action.
He was wrenched from his musings once more, this time seeing before him the hobbit Frodo looking back at him with fear-filled eyes. At first confused, horror gradually stole over him as he slowly realized what he was doing. Frodo’s terror was for him – and his hands that were wrapped around Frodo’s neck and the Ring. As his face slowly turned red then blue, Legolas suddenly felt a sharp pain to his head, and then he ceased to think of anything at all.
When he once again regained his senses, he found himself lying on the ground, looking up at Aragorn. Puzzled, he tried to rise, but Aragorn stopped him with a strong hand on his chest. “What happened?” the elf asked warily.
“What do you remember?” Aragorn replied somewhat sternly.
Legolas frowned in confusion. Aragorn looked at him with anxiety and anger, emotions he had not seen in his friend’s eyes, not toward him. There was fear there, too, and perhaps a hint of disappointment. Wondering what he could have done to cause Aragorn’s reaction, he became tense and felt a shiver of his own fear in response. He thought back… he was looking for something. He needed something – something for his father? It was important… it was precious. Suddenly his idle musings and what they propelled him to do came rushing back to him and he looked at Aragorn with a gasp. He swallowed before asking in no more than a whisper, “What have I done?”
“What do you remember?” Aragorn repeated firmly.
Legolas looked away in shame, afraid that his memories were all too accurate. He swallowed forcibly again, and murmured, “I tried to take It.” Unable to confront the eyes of his friend, he shielded his face with an arm. “Did I hurt him?” he said more loudly, more anxious to know of Frodo’s well-being than to discover whatever desire had previously gripped him. Hearing nothing, he turned back to face Aragorn.
Aragorn nodded slowly, confirming the elf’s fears. Again Legolas tried to rise. “I must see him.”
“No,” Aragorn said, his unyielding hand holding him in place.
“Is he…?” Legolas could not finish the question for fear of the answer.
“I do not know yet. Boromir and Gimli are sitting with him. We will have to wait.”
Legolas began panting, as full awareness of his actions came over him. “Like a snake It crept upon me, Aragorn, perfectly camouflaged in Its surroundings. I never saw that It had sunk Its teeth into me, until…” He faded off his defense, knowing it was useless.
Overwhelmed with his horror and shame, Legolas tried to scurry back towards the woods. Aragorn grabbed him from behind and wrapped his arms around him to keep him from fleeing. “I must get away, Aragorn!” the elf cried out desperately. “I must get away from the voice…”
“No! You cannot run from It! Peace, Legolas! Be still!”
“No! Let me go! I cannot stay–”
Aragorn held him more securely and waited for his surrender. “You can run all the way to Mirkwood, but you will not be free of It,” Aragorn said quietly. “You must master your desire. You must learn what weakness the Ring found and fortify against It.”
Legolas struggled now with no intent of escape. When he finally sagged in defeat against Aragorn, the Ranger continued. “The Ring speaks to all of us, Legolas. Now, tell me. What did It say to you?”
Legolas squeezed his eyes tightly against the memory of the alluring words. He pulled away from Aragorn, but the man held him tighter, prompting him again to answer. “That… that it ought not to be,” he whispered reluctantly. “It ought not to be that my father was never given a Ring to succor our lands. While so many of our people die to protect them, the Elves of Lothlórien and Imladris enjoy their freedom. If my father held a Ring of Power, our people would not have to die.”
Aragorn was silent for a moment. Legolas was unaware of the indignation that crept into his voice as he returned to the seductive thoughts the Ring had aroused in him, revealing to Aragorn how the Ring had slipped under Legolas’s defenses. “What did the Ring show you? Did It show you a peaceful Mirkwood? A picture of serenity in the Greenwood? What did you see?”
Quietly, in small bursts of words he forced from his mouth, Legolas described his vision. “I saw my father, victorious against the Orcs and spiders. I was – he… we had peace. All was good.”
“I hear the words you do not say. You do not see, Legolas, that by the time you had reached Mirkwood with the Ring in your possession, you would have decided that you were more suited to wield It than your father was. Indeed, you would have sought to rule Mirkwood and perhaps beyond.
“And what would become of Mirkwood, if you brought the Ring to your father? Do you not think Sauron would pursue It? Once he learned where It resided, he would descend upon Mirkwood with a force she has yet to face. You might see your father standing among you victorious, but though he might vanquish Sauron, he would stand amidst the bodies of your people, for all would perish. And your father would stand among you, his face filled with love – as he gazed upon his Ring. For he would no longer be the father you knew. No one can wield a Ring and be unchanged by It.
“Hear me now, Legolas. What the voice of the Ring failed to remind you of was the price for the freedom that the Elves of Lothlórien and Rivendell now enjoy. What do you think will become of those lands once we complete our journey and the Ring is destroyed?”
Legolas looked up, his gaze wandering to the forest around them, contemplating that question for the first time. What did it matter what happened to their lands? He would save Mirkwood and not concern himself with them.
Aragorn’s words interrupted his wandering thoughts. “How have the Elves of Mirkwood managed to survive thus far against the darkness from the South?”
He needed no time to consider his answer. “By fighting day after day! And dying each day. That is how we have survived!”
“Yes!” Aragorn interrupted. “Fighting each day, with your own strength. Now I ask again. What will happen to the lands of Imladris and Lothlórien when we succeed in our Quest?” Legolas looked at him questioningly. “They will no longer have the Rings of Power to safeguard them. The outer world will encroach upon them. The lands will not remain as they are. They will fade, Legolas, and many of the Elves will sail. Even if we succeed, Lothlórien will no longer be the tranquil sanctuary it now is, and Imladris will become as any other wood in the forest, because their strength will be destroyed with the One Ring.
“Now, what do you suppose will be the fate of Mirkwood when the Ring is destroyed?”
As he pondered the question, a new sense of determination came over Legolas. Their hard-won strength would still be theirs. “We will be free of the darkness of Dol Guldur. Mirkwood will flourish and earn its true name, Greenwood the Great, once more.” He hoped that when Aragorn looked upon him now, he saw once again his friend.
“Precisely. Mirkwood will survive, and your people will continue, with nothing but your own strength to aid you. And that will be your salvation.” He looked more closely at Legolas and released some of his hold on him. “It found the only crack in your armor, Legolas: your love of your people. Remember who you are and It cannot seduce you again.” Aragorn tested the elf by easing his hold on him once more. Legolas only sagged further as if in exhaustion.
“What must I do now? I cannot remain. I threaten Frodo with my very presence.”
“You must remain. We need you, your bow, and your strength. Furthermore, to release you does not assure anyone’s safety, not even yours. And I would rather I knew where you were and how you fared in the near future.”
Legolas’s heart grieved the loss of his friend’s trust. “If you wish it, I shall stay. The rest of the Company, however, may not stand with you.”
“I would say that is a matter for Frodo to decide.”
Legolas’s eyes widened and he quickly looked back to Aragorn. “I cannot –” he closed his eyes. “I cannot ask his forgiveness.”
“But it is his to give, if he wishes,” Aragorn said.
“And if he will not?”
“Then we will both accept his decision and alter our plans accordingly. But I would hear Frodo’s word on this first, so let us see how he fares.”
Legolas allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. With shame and fear, he approached the Company. An echo of the Ring’s palaver made him shiver as he pushed the memory away. He had truly believed he would have been taking the Ring to save his people. Instead, he would have brought ruin to Mirkwood. Through his weakness, Sauron would have spread Darkness over all of Middle-earth.
Frodo might forgive him as Aragorn believed, and perhaps in time so would the rest of the Company, but his own forgiveness would be much harder to earn.
“Pippin! What are you doing? What have you done?”
Pippin froze for a moment, wondering at the answers to those questions himself. What was he doing? Oh, the Ring. It was so beautiful. He had only wanted to look at It. Then, like an itch that must be scratched, he had to have It.
But then the others had become alarmed and he knew they would take It away from him. He couldn’t let them do that. It was his now. Frodo had had It long enough. It was his turn to hold on to It.
Frodo never let anyone see It long enough to get a good look at It. That alone had piqued Pippin’s curiosity. The young hobbit had taken to sneaking peeks at night while Frodo slept. As Frodo turned restlessly, the Ring would often slip out of his shirt, and Pippin would be mesmerized as a glint of moonlight reflected off It while he drifted to sleep himself. Once he tried to reach into Frodo’s shirt for It so that It would catch the light. But Frodo had awoken too easily and Pippin had to be content with what glimpses he could get.
Yet soon those glimpses were not enough. It was so beautiful, so perfect, his heart soared to see It. And soon his fingers itched to hold it. How was it that Frodo had never mentioned how happy It made one by merely looking upon It? He had never told them how precious It was.
Now it was his turn to hold It, his turn to wear It. He had known that as soon as he put It on, the same thing would happen that happened to Frodo – he had become invisible! It astounded him and thrilled him. But then the others were searching for him, and though they couldn’t see him, he decided to put as much distance between him and them as he could.
It was eerie being invisible, and not only because he couldn’t see his own feet. Everything looked gray and far away. There were also the horrid whispers calling to him. But he still needed get farther from his companions, in case they had a mind to take It from him. So he ran.
The Eye was there then. He felt it, though he couldn’t see it. It was looking for him. It wanted him. It wanted the Ring. Well, he wouldn’t give It up so easily!
He looked around and realized he had run haphazardly and almost in circles, and wasn’t far at all from where he’d started. He wondered what direction would be best, and then his feet chose a direction for him. They headed east.
As Aragorn and Legolas crossed the Anduin where Pippin had taken a boat to the eastern shore, Boromir, Gimli, and the hobbits rode the River south for some way, then made their way north again through the forest, aiming to hem Pippin in by coming at him from both sides. In their silence, Boromir could feel the tension among the hobbits. Did they lose hope, he wondered, that they would arrive in time to save Pippin? He had not, and to show them his hope, he hastened his pace.
Further north, Aragorn and Legolas were continuing on Pippin’s trail, though they began to lose the light of the sun. After many hours that felt like days, Legolas stopped suddenly, eyes widening. “An army of Orcs approaches.” Doubling their speed, they continued their silent chase until they neared the Orc army and stealth became critical. The thunder of Orc steps grew louder and Aragorn looked at Legolas. “The army is large,” he whispered. Legolas only nodded, eyes narrowed intently. He turned slightly as he continued on and Aragorn followed closely.
They climbed a small rise, and rose slowly above the summit to avoid exposing themselves. Their position showed them the valley below and the black line creeping over the far end – the Orcs were close. They edged themselves further under the brush; they would have to wait until the army passed.
As they waited somewhat north of the Orcs, and just as Boromir and the others approached from the south, Pippin wandered into the dale, where a triangle of spectators had formed to corner him.
Pippin looked up at the thunderous clopping he had heard in the distance. It was not so distant now. His eyes widened as he became aware of Orcs heading his way. He could feel their darkness approach him, and it terrified his limbs into numbness. He understood then that all he had to do was stay still and he would be safe until they had moved on. ‘Don’t move, you fool of a Took! Don’t ruin this now!’ But as the army drew near, Pippin’s terror grew. He tried so hard to keep himself still, he didn’t notice that he was in fact inching backwards. After one too many steps taken blindly, Pippin’s foot struck a root that had freed itself from the earth. He fell onto his back with a loud thud and an eruption of leaves.
True only to Itself and to Its Maker, the Ring now made Its own decision. Amid the scuttling, It used this moment to betray Pippin and fall from his hand, leaving the hobbit visible to all. Pippin knew it immediately. It wasn’t the hundreds of Orc eyes suddenly fixed on him. It wasn’t the eyes of the two who had followed him, silent and hidden, waiting to see where fate took this moment. It was the silence. A terrible, deafening silence. And the lifting of a weight he hadn’t known he carried.
“What sort of wizardry is this! Ain’t that a halfling? That’s just what we be looking for, ain’t it? What do ya know, one drops in front of me as if I was in good graces with the Great Eye.” The Orc roared a cruel laugh and lunged for Pippin, who scrambled with his small arms and legs to get away from the terrifying creature. Behind his large form, more Orcs gathered to witness the spectacle.
Pippin found his feet and launched himself for a run, but he found himself flying through the air instead. “Not so fast, little one! You have an appointment with my Master!” The creature cackled again as he hauled Pippin up and threw him over his shoulder as if he were a sack of potatoes.
“Cap’n! Look! Norgry found somethin’! Somethin’ shiny!”
The captain turned quickly and stomped over, reaching for the object in question. “No! It’s mine!” Norgry demanded.
“If you found it, it belongs to the Master. Now give!” And he swiped it from the Orc without further argument. “All right, boys! About face! We’re quitting early today!”
From atop the ridge, the Ranger and the elf looked on in horror. Legolas grabbed Aragorn’s arm to keep the man from jumping into the fray. “We cannot let them take Pippin!” Aragorn hissed.
“And we cannot take on a thousand Orcs, no matter our skill.” As the Orcs’ footsteps faded into the distance, they heard more rustling and saw the rest of the Company quickly making their way to them.
Despite the length of his legs, Merry caught up with the two first. “Strider! Legolas! Where’s Pippin? What happened? I couldn’t see!”
Boromir trailed behind the hobbit, fear churning his stomach. “Aragorn, tell me I did not see what my eyes tell me has happened!” Aragorn’s silence was his answer.
“Well, we’ve got to go after them!” Sam cried. “We can’t leave Pippin in the hands of nasty Orcs. He’s just – he’s too little! He’s–” Sam’s hope gave out then, and he sagged silently on Frodo’s shoulder.
“But what happened? I couldn’t see!” Merry insisted.
Legolas looked at Boromir, then Gimli, and then the hobbits. “The Ring betrayed Pippin, as it does all those who try to claim It. It fell from Pippin’s hand just as the Orcs approached. He had no chance to hide or run,” he said quietly.
“But we can’t–” Sam tried again.
“Sam,” Aragorn said sternly yet gently. “Trust me when I tell you that, moments ago, I spoke the very words that you do now. But Legolas’s answer still holds: Not even all of us, skilled as we are, can take on a thousand Orcs. To do so would be suicide, and would surely be the death of Pippin, as well.”
“So, what do we do now?” Merry’s small voice shook with misery, yet revealed the hope he still held to save his cousin.
Frodo finally spoke. “And what of the Ring?”
In a moment of heavy silence, the enormity of the circumstances crashed down upon them. Boromir looked at Aragorn expectantly, as elf and dwarf shared a look of their own. The four Big Folk looked to the hobbits then and found hope there to counter their despair. Aragorn sighed. “Nine of us left Rivendell, with our goal Mordor. Then,” he continued with another heavy sigh, “we were eight. Now seven, as the Ring and Pippin are taken to Mordor. I say we continue our path. We will not abandon Pippin. Nay, we cannot. There is a means to save Pippin. We simply must find it. If fortune truly favors us, we will find a way to regain the Ring as well.”
“You do not sound convinced of that, my friend,” Gimli said. “Has our quest failed?”
When Aragorn hesitated in answering, Legolas jumped in. “As long as we continue and do not lose hope, our quest continues, Master Dwarf.”
“Forgive me, Master Elf,” Boromir said, with a cynical chuckle, “but the Ring is in the hands of Orcs, headed directly for Mordor. I do not see any room for hope.”
“If you see no hope, Son of Gondor, then indeed you will find none,” Legolas responded.
“You truly believe we can regain the Ring? And free Pippin? Truly?” Boromir advanced a step towards the elf in challenge. He would have Legolas give him something to hang his hope on.
After a telling pause, Legolas answered quietly, “There are many forms of freedom. I do not say which we can provide for Pippin, but to leave him to the Orcs only assures his future torment.”
“And what form of freedom would you find acceptable for the Ring? How do you propose we fulfill our Quest now?” he asked bitterly.
“The only way we can,” said Aragorn, stepping forward decisively. “We follow Pippin and the Ring to Mordor. Our goal remains. Now, we walk straight into the Fires of Orodruin, and see what doom awaits us.”
Aragorn breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, the persistent whispers and the spiraling panic were abating. Since Gandalf’s fall in Moria, his despair and doubt had plagued him. The Company had rested during their time in the Golden Wood, but as they had left, the shadow of his despair had returned and grown into a companion during the long ride down the Anduin. He saw the same weariness of soul reflected in the others and knew that the Quest was not continuing as before. Without the wizard… could he lead this Company? At times, he felt sure he had the strength, and then unbidden to his mind would come whispers of doubt. Perhaps he was not as fit for this duty as he had cared to think.
He had begun to discern during that ride that he could not lead his companions on this journey without Gandalf. Turning back was not a choice open to them. But to head straight to Mordor… perhaps it was too dangerous. Perhaps it was as Boromir had warned, and they would be handing the Ring to the Enemy. If they first went to Minas Tirith, they could regroup, consider their options, gather resources. Boromir had already made it clear he felt this was the wiser choice. Gimli and Legolas had announced they would accept the decision of the Company as a whole. The other hobbits had turned to Frodo for his decision, but he had hesitated to make one and Aragorn saw that Frodo needed someone to make this decision for him.
So he turned them toward Minas Tirith. For strength and support.
In the days following their narrow brush with the Orcs, he had found a chance to examine their next steps. A wealth of options existed now that he was free to make the decisions for the Company. Must they follow Elrond’s plan? Or Gandalf’s, for that matter? He was lost to them. The guidance of the Quest was now Aragorn’s responsibility. He would follow his own counsel.
‘We must appear to play into his hands, in order to deceive him,’ Aragorn explained to Frodo, who had accepted his plan uneasily. ‘Only thus shall we defeat him.’ He assured the Ringbearer that he would not wear the Ring, only let Sauron know that It was within his grasp. Sauron would panic and they would attack Sauron when he acted without thought. After their defeat of the Dark Lord, they would bury the Ring deep within the vaults of Minas Tirith, where none but the King would know if Its location.
What concerned him was that in going to Minas Tirith, with the eye of the Enemy searching for the Ring, they would be drawing the forces of Mordor to Gondor, if they hadn’t fallen upon her already. They would need strength, strength beyond imagining, if they were to best the forces of Sauron and thus keep Gondor and the Ring safe.
A shiver of anger went through him as he thought of the Dark Lord. He would vanquish that Evil, by whatever means he had at hand. Sauron must be defeated – he must not obtain the Ring. It was too precious a thing to fall into such vile hands.
Aragorn was not unaware that he followed dangerously close to his ancestor’s footsteps. But he was not Isildur. This time history would tell a different story. And now that the constant whispers he had struggled to ignore were receding, he could set aside his worries that he was succumbing to the Ring. When he entered Minas Tirith with the Ring, it would be only to deceive and defeat Sauron and safeguard the Ring.
The Orcs, Uruk-hai, Easterlings, and other beings in the service of Sauron rained down on Minas Tirith. Aragorn, son of Arathorn, heir of Isildur, waged his war, calling for aid far and wide, gathering what forces he could. But Théoden King remained under the spell of the White Wizard and never ordered his men to battle. Saruman’s Uruk-hai pillaged the entire Mark, leaving Rohan unable to answer Gondor’s call. The Paths of the Dead remained untrodden; the Men of the Mountains did not fulfill their oaths. Pelargir was razed; the forces of southern Gondor were not rallied to the fight.
The Witch King led the Dark Forces into battle, encountering only a Man to bar his way into Minas Tirith.
“No, Mr. Frodo,” Sam said before he knew it. He felt the darkness of the Tower and the valley beyond press upon him. “Now that I know how heavy this burden is, I think you need to regain your strength before taking It back. Now let’s get you some clothes and get you out of here–”
“No, Sam, you can’t. It’s mine!” Frodo cringed as the words tumbled out of his mouth.
“I know It is, Mr. Frodo,” Sam said forcefully, now understanding Frodo’s struggle. “And It’s a terrible weight that never should have been put upon you. I know now; I can feel It hanging on my neck like, well, like the weight of the world, if you don’t think that’s making too big a thing out of It.” Sam sighed before continuing. “I just want to give you a moment of peace, Mr. Frodo. You need more rest than I can give you. But if I can give you a respite, won’t you let me?”
A hint of hope crept into Frodo’s voice. “Sam, I know you mean well, but you can’t do this for me. Only I can do this. I will only find peace when It’s destroyed.”
“Just for a little while, Mr. Frodo, and you’ll feel better, you’ll see. Now let’s get out of here, before those Orcs return and we really find ourselves in a pickle.”
The spark of hope flickered out of Frodo’s eyes. “Oh, no, Sam,” he whispered, shutting his eyes as he shivered. “No. You can’t…”
“Yes, I can, Mr. Frodo. I will carry It for you, and after we destroy It, you can finally have your peace you’ve been wanting.”
Frodo looked at Sam hesitantly. “You still want to destroy It?”
“Of course, Mr. Frodo. If it’s the only way to take the burden from you, then that’s what we must do. I’ll carry It to Mount Doom for you or until It gets too heavy for me to carry. At least then, you’d have regained some of your strength.”
Wariness replaced hope as Frodo relented. “All right, Sam, let’s go then.”
They escaped the tower and began their trek again, the weight of the metal circle on the chain growing heavier with each of Sam’s steps. They encountered Orcs who thought to return them to the line of marchers. After slipping away unseen, they painstakingly made their way across the desolate plain. Finally, they reached the Mountain of fire. Sam heard the voice of the Ring louder now. It murmured of land rich and fertile, of clear, cold water, of rest. He spied Frodo watching him and saw, too, the weariness etched into the creases between his brows. Frodo’s desire for what he held lingered in his eyes. Sam carried the Ring for Frodo, yet he had not taken Its weight from his master’s shoulders. And so he continued, though he was already beyond his strength.
In time, they encountered Gollum again. But now Sam was too weary to fight and Frodo had only begun to regain his strength. Gollum attacked Frodo first but then turned on Sam. Sam held him off for a time, but even Frodo could not pry Gollum away. They were both too weak. The creature who had once been Sméagol put his hands on the Ring and claimed It for his own, running off into the barren distance of Barad-dûr.
The two hobbits watched as Gollum scampered away with their possession, with their duty, with their hope. They had no strength to chase. They would not find him. Not before Sauron did.
“Now what?” Sam asked wearily.
They leaned against each other in exhaustion and despair and waited for the world to end.
“I’m glad that you’re with me, Sam. Here, at the end of all things.”
Boromir strode with a sure step and high head into the Tower Hall of the Citadel. The cavernous room was as he remembered it: stark with its black pillars, white marble, and gold paint, shafts of light shining between the columns. His boots echoed quietly. “Greetings, Father.”
“Boromir! My son! You have been sorely missed.” Dismissing his advisor, the Steward rose from his Chair and walked quickly to embrace his son. His fur-lined cloak was rough on Boromir’s face.
“I missed you among the heraldry.”
“I apologize, but I was called upon to resolve an urgent matter with my councilor. I must say I prefer this quieter greeting where a father can embrace his son as he wishes.” Leaning back, he said, “You look well. What news do you bring?”
“War follows my footsteps, but I escaped the Anduin to bring a promise of victory for Minas Tirith.”
“War?” Denethor nodded. “I know of the stirrings in the East. How long until they are at our doorstep?”
“A matter of weeks, I judge.” His father’s fingers clutched his arms firmly.
“There is time, then, to send a messenger to Rohan. Their spears will be welcome.”
“The Orcs will not be long in arriving, but Rohan will be long in answering. Hordes of fell creatures attack their fields even now. We may soon hear their call for aid.”
“So Gondor will face her darkest hour alone,” Denethor said grimly.
Boromir’s pride overflowed into his voice and his smile. “You need not fret over Gondor’s solitary stand. With such a gift as I have received, victory is assured, Father. You must trust me.”
“None can promise victory in war,” Denethor answered sternly, finally releasing him. “Death and destruction, valor and sacrifice, these we can promise. Victory? I am sure I have taught you better than to give away such promises so easily.”
Boromir looked at his father with narrowed eyes. He looked older, more tired, than when he had last seen him. “Shall I return this precious gift I bring to you?”
Denethor’s answer was not swift. As his father studied him, Boromir watched as knowledge and memory merged and his father’s eyes widened with new understanding. “Such a promise is a mighty gift.”
“Indeed, Father, it is.”
Boromir greeted his brother as he walked through the courtyard, ignoring the dead tree to his left. “Faramir, I have returned!” He surrounded his brother in a rough but heartfelt embrace.
“Well met, brother. How were your travels?”
“Long and wearisome, but I learned much that was remarkable. And received gifts more precious.” Boromir smiled broadly as he led them through the Tunnel out of the Seventh Circle. The unusually strong smell of the stables reached him even at the entrance and he sped up to reach open air more quickly. “This is the moment Gondor has long looked for. All our lives we have been trained and schooled for this moment, Faramir. And now we will step into our glory. For the mystery of the riddle is no mystery at all. I have long known the Stewards need not await a lost heir to arise and claim the throne of Gondor. The Stewards of Minas Tirith have always had the power, the wisdom, and the nobility to sit upon that throne. It is time for us to arise and claim what we have earned.”
Faramir did not respond to their old argument of Stewards and Thrones. “Master Elrond read our riddle to say this?”
Boromir looked calculatingly at Faramir. The sharp clicking of their boots echoed on the stone walls and seemed to drown out even his thoughts. He knew his brother was content with Stewardship of Gondor. But why must Faramir seek the approval of Elrond on this matter? “What concern have we for an Elf of a distant land who knows nothing of our trials and our triumphs? I have received much counsel on this matter and a gift that reveals all clearly. We need only to show our Enemy what we already know. You will see. Or do you not trust me, Faramir?”
After seeming to weigh warring thoughts, Faramir nodded slowly. “I do trust you, Boromir. You know that.”
Boromir smiled. He knew his brother’s loyalty to him would override any doubts he had in the end. “You shall see, Faramir. And soon. For Mordor marches to war on us as we speak. We must gather all our strength to face our fiercest Enemy.”
“Yes. It will not be long ere they are on our doorstep.”
“Mordor? Have we the strength to stand against such a foe? Shall we call on Rohan for aid? Or Rangers from the North?”
“We do not need Rohan or Rangers, Faramir, and they shall soon have their own worries,” he said impatiently. His clenched fist shook in the air. “I tell you now, we have the strength, the power, and now the means to prevail. It will be a battle to be made into song.”
“Indeed. Perhaps you should tell me more of your journey and your plans for using our means to defend Minas Tirith against Mordor.” Faramir hesitated before adding, “And mayhap you can tell me more of this gift of which you speak.”
Boromir’s news of war had spurred the City into action and Faramir spent many hours assessing Minas Tirith’s readiness for battle. As Faramir returned to the Citadel, his thoughts returned to Boromir, and once more he tried to push away the rising doubts and ignore the feeling that something was different about him. Faramir had not been surprised over the excitement in his brother’s voice as he declared the approach of war. He had always anticipated such a moment with enthusiasm and an eye on future glory, while Faramir longed for it to pass quickly and as uneventfully as possible.
Remembering his brother’s face, he knew that beyond the challenging look lay something that he did not recognize. Even in Boromir’s confidence and pride, always such a part of him, there was a difference. His surety was well beyond his usual. Faramir could not say what had changed, but neither could he rid himself of the disturbing notion that this was not the same man who had left Gondor months ago. He set aside these thoughts once more to focus on current concerns. In time, he would find the meaning behind the shiver that ran down his spine.
As Boromir crossed through the Hall of the White Tower, something caught his eye. He glanced at the Chair in which his Father had sat as long as he could remember, then looked past it. Steep steps led up to a long-empty Throne.
Boromir turned slowly to face the Throne. Its silence was louder than his steps as they echoed against the marble. Without a word, the chair reminded all who passed for whom it waited and that the Stewards were always to be found wanting. But no longer.
The line of Stewards would come into its own, now that he possessed the weapon to overthrow Sauron. He strode to the stairs that led to the seat of Gondor’s King, and then he continued, walking up steps no foot had trod in many centuries. It created the odd sensation that he was rising above the floor, floating on some level to which mere humans could not reach. In too few steps, he found himself before the Throne. Did he dare? What was to stop him now? It was his right, he knew. Without questioning himself any longer, he turned and dropped his body onto the marble chair. Hard and cold, it seemed to be molded to his frame. As he looked upon the Hall, so small and distant from his perch, he was gripped with a sudden possessiveness. His. It was time.
At the sound of footsteps, he jerked, his fingers clenching around the armrests as his father’s eyes fell upon him. For a moment there was silence.
“Boromir,” Denethor started slowly. “I see you have been considering a change of rank.”
Boromir hesitated for a moment, trying to determine the best reaction. Then he laughed loudly. “Father, do not jest so. I merely wanted to see how the Hall might have looked to the Kings of old.” He looked down, appearing contrite. “I was… I was… only curious, Father. Forgive me.” He quickly descended the steps and walked out the side door.
“Curious,” he heard his father repeat behind him. “Indeed.”
It did not occur to him that he had not risen for his father until he was long gone.
Denethor took the long way to the Conference Chambers where he was to meet his councilor. He needed a bit of time to think.
Boromir had sat upon the Throne.
Not a soul – not even the greatest of Stewards, not even Denethor himself in his moments of despair over the future of Gondor – had ever taken the seat of the King. And yet his son had sat upon the Throne as if it were a seat at the dinner board. ‘Curious? Boromir, you have been curious about many things. This is a presumption even you would not make. It is unlike you. Or perhaps it is not – any longer.’
He had watched his son carefully since his return. The authority and confidence exuding from him was palpable even on the first day. A progression of subtle changes had confirmed his initial suspicions. Denethor was a learned man, familiar with lore as well as the myths that had fueled their concern over the riddle for which his son had gone in search of answers. Boromir had returned with more than answers, Denethor was sure of that. His son had said as much, though never more in words than the reference to his gift on that first day. And now he had sat upon the Throne of Gondor. His intentions were not as veiled from his father as he might think.
If his conclusions were correct, he ought to demand that Boromir turn over his find at once. Such a weapon as he carried should be used by only the strongest of wills. Even so, as Mordor marched to Minas Tirith, his son pledged victory, a foolish declaration from any other. Yet this was no ordinary war that approached, and Boromir’s was no ordinary offering. He could be patient. In the aftermath of battle, he would question his son. Now, he would take what gifts were given to him.
“Faramir, we must make a strong stand now,” Boromir said, raising his voice above the wind that seemed bent on drowning him out. “The Enemy does not expect such a show of force at such distances from our Gates. Fewer of their army will be prepared. Some could be turned back and improve the advantage for us when the battle reaches the City.”
“It is a sound strategy, Boromir. I am simply questioning whether we have enough men to take such a measure.”
“Well, perhaps you ought not to question me!” In the sudden muting of all the sounds of the city around him, Boromir calmed himself as quickly as his outburst had come upon him. He was well aware of the watchful glances his younger brother had given him of late and had no patience for his suspicions. Faramir was not a simple man, but one used to careful study and shrewd analysis of a problem. Once Faramir deciphered the riddle of Boromir’s gift, he would not be of the same mind regarding Its use. When that time came, Boromir had to be prepared to take whatever action necessary to ensure that Faramir was not a danger to his plans – or his possession. Until then, he would try to arouse as little suspicion and doubt as possible. “I apologize. My weariness got the better of me. I am merely trying to build a defense that will best protect our City and our people. We fight a battle from the West and the East. It will be a trying day when the armies of Mordor reach our lands.” The sounds of people and horses milling around them came back to him, bringing him back to their place at the Gate. “Lose not your hope, brother. Gondor will vanquish her Enemy.”
“Forgive me, Boromir, for all my questions. But I need to give my men more than vague assurances. While your men trust you –”
“You do not?”
“I do not say that.” Faramir wished to assure his brother that he did indeed trust him, but he feared Boromir would see the lie in it. Over the past weeks, Faramir continued to be confounded by the cryptic words his brother had offered upon his return. Yet he heard more in Boromir’s words than perhaps Faramir was meant to know. Boromir might believe he had a weapon of sufficient strength to defeat Mordor, but many years of study granted Faramir enough knowledge to see the darker hues such a gift often held and he feared his brother had fallen prey to a more sinister intention. Boromir would give his life for his City and for Gondor. In the end, they all might do so. But Faramir would not have such sacrifices made in vain. Though his heart wavered, he forced his voice and eye to remain steady. “I simply need a sound reasoning to counter my men’s questions. They wish to know the means by which you plan to overwhelm the approaching army, because to all of us, it is clear we are a poor match. We have not enough men, Boromir.”
“And so you question my judgment, even as you admit you have not all the information. Yes, it is true, I have not revealed all to you. In due time, you will know all.”
“And until then, you wish me to send men to the far reaches of Gondor, because from what you say, you alone will be strong enough to defend her.” Faramir paused, giving Boromir a steely look. “No weapon is strong enough to enable one man to defend a city.”
Boromir hesitated but a moment before answering quietly, “We have discussed this already. Even Father has agreed to the strategy.”
“Yes, I know this. I am asking now of those who remain. How will they defend the entire City?”
“As I said, brother,” Boromir said between his teeth, “leave that to me.” After a moment, he seemed to come to a decision. “I want you to take the men back to Osgiliath.”
“Osgiliath? To defend what? There is nothing left of the city.”
“It is an important strategic post. We must defend it, regardless of the cost.”
“How many will you sacrifice, Boromir, for your – strategy?”
Boromir gave him a hard look. “Do you doubt your ability to accomplish this?”
Faramir returned his expression, allowing the silence to lengthen, then closed his eyes in grief. “No, brother. I will do it.”
As he walked away, Faramir knew then it was time. Unable to match Boromir’s seemingly blind faith in his plan for victory, Faramir had struggled to keep his trust in his brother. Increasingly, he was left only with his waning patience and rising doubts.
And so, in whispers in the dark over the last few weeks, he had pieced together a plan, always with the hope that it was only the excessive caution of which his father had often accused him. Oh, for his caution to be too great today! Prudence had forced him to gather a small group of men whom he trusted utterly and who would answer to his command above all others. Tonight the soldiers would receive the awaited signal to set out on their seditious mission. After reporting to their assigned post, they would continue on, for the sake of their City and for Gondor, to seek what aid they could find in lands beyond.
Faramir knew he should accompany these brave men and lead them in their search. But he could not abandon his brother, his father, his City. Theirs would be the more difficult task, as they left behind all hope, for those who remained would likely be lost. He would remain at Osgiliath and defend her to the end.
Boromir and the few men still surviving the onslaught clashed swords at the gate to the Seventh Circle. Throughout the day and night, the Orcs had breached each Gate. While the forces of Gondor had given their all in defending their City, for every Orc they had cut down, another had taken its place. And now they stood at the Gate to the Citadel. In all its great history, Minas Tirith had never been breached. Never had foul Orcs stood on the threshold of the Tower.
But finally, Gondor’s strength and numbers diminished. The Steward himself had fallen with many men at the Fifth Gate. Many more followed as the Orcs reached the remaining gates. They did not have the strength to overcome them, because the men Boromir had sent to defend the outer posts had not returned. Including Faramir.
As his men fell around him, Boromir knew it was time to do what he had looked forward to with anticipation and trepidation. He slipped on the Ring. And vanished from sight.
Boromir took his advantage and ran to the doors of the Citadel. He knew why the Orcs had come and in such overwhelming force. But he would not allow the Dark Lord to obtain his gift. He could not. All of Middle-earth depended on his strength now. He alone stood between the Enemy and Gondor. He dared any Orc to attempt passage.
Orcs stilled their battle a moment as their enemy escaped them. Without an enemy to attack, they turned to the Tower that was now within their grasp. As one they ran to the doors, only to be struck down on its steps.
Now that he wore the Ring, Boromir’s power far exceeded that of the Orcs. He swung his sword and it sliced through two heads in succession. His return swing took down two more. The eyes of the Orcs widened with fear as they saw their fellow soldiers fall to an invisible foe. They wavered.
Then one large creature looked around and said, “You know where he is – follow the dead ones!” After a moment’s hesitation, they realized the truth and surrounded Boromir.
The Orcs continued to drop. And the Orcs continued to come.
Boromir’s strength did not wane. His heart soared, knowing he would have victory. Minas Tirith would be his.
The Ring, however, had other plans.
Suddenly, the Captain of Gondor appeared before his enemies. As the Orcs stood still in shock once more, Boromir looked about wildly. He knew immediately that the Ring had left him. He spied It soon on a marble tile in the foyer behind him. His heart clutched. If he ran back for It, the entrance to the Citadel would be left unguarded. But if he left It where It lay, It would surely fall into the Enemy’s hands. He turned back to the horde of Orcs still staring at him.
“What is he?”
“Is he an Elf? Is he a Wizard?”
“He ain’t an Elf! He ain’t got them pointy ears!”
“He can’t be no Wizard. They’re always old.”
“He’s not so old, if he was a Man.”
“He’s just a Man, then!” The rest came to fast agreement that he was indeed just a Man.
Boromir fought them desperately, slowly coming to understand the situation into which he had put himself. He had sworn to protect Minas Tirith and Gondor. He had promised his father victory. He had asked his brother to trust him. And now, it was all for naught. All his family, his people, fallen. And his fall was next.
There was one promise he did not break: He had sworn that the Enemy would claim the White Tower of Minas Tirith over his dead body. This promise he kept.
The light sprang up again, and there on the brink of the chasm, at the very Crack of Doom, stood Frodo, black against the glare, tense, erect, but still as if he had been turned to stone.
“Master!” cried Sam.
Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and the walls.
“I have come,” he said. “But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!” and suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam’s sight. Sam gasped, but he had no chance to cry out, for at that moment many things happened.
Something struck Sam violently in the back, his legs were knocked from under him and he was flung aside, striking his head against the stony floor, as a dark shape sprang over him. He lay still and for a moment all went black.
And far away, as Frodo put on the ring and claimed it for his own, even in Sammath Naur the very heart of his realm, the Power in Barad-dûr was shaken, and the Tower trembled from its foundations to its proud and bitter crown. The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung.
From all his policies and webs of fear and treachery, from all his stratagems and wars his mind shook free; and throughout his realm a tremor ran, his slaves quailed, and his armies halted, and his captains suddenly steerless, bereft of will, wavered and despaired. For they were forgotten. The whole mind and purpose of the Power that wielded them was now bent with overwhelming force upon the Mountain. At his summons, wheeling with a rending cry, in a last desperate race there flew, faster than the winds, the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths, and with a storm of wings they hurtled southwards to Mount Doom.
– RotK, Mount Doom
Upon hearing Its warning, Frodo turned from the fiery pit. He saw Sam lying on the ground and Gollum stalking him, or where the creature judged him to be. Frodo watched him for a moment, standing very still, and when the creature came within reach, Frodo grabbed him by the throat. “And what do you think you’re doing, Gollum?”
The hobbit thanked the Ring silently for alerting him for a second time to Gollum’s presence. Frodo had heard Its adulation for months, but recently he had begun to listen. During their rocky ascent of the Mountain, the Ring had praised his strength. It had hinted that through his suffering he had earned the right to claim It. And while he contemplated those words, the Ring had warned him of danger just as Gollum had attacked them, and so Frodo had held onto the Ring. Now, as the Ring lauded him for claiming his due, It again warned of Gollum’s approach, and Frodo had turned in time to stop Gollum’s final attempt at claiming his Precious.
“You think to get the Ring for yourself, finally? You think you can take It from me?” He threw Gollum down hard onto the rock. A part of Frodo was pleased with the new power he heard in his voice. “Don’t fool yourself, Gollum. The Ring is mine, and mine It shall remain.” He bent close to Gollum’s face. “Now, if you swear allegiance to me, and truly do not plan any treachery, perhaps, just perhaps, I will allow you a moment to gaze upon It on occasion. What say you, Gollum?”
Gollum stared back at him, or rather the direction from which his voice came. Frodo saw the fury lighting Gollum’s eyes as he lunged blindly at him, latching on to the hobbit’s arm by chance. The Ring made Frodo far stronger now, and he flung Gollum onto the rock, who quickly made ready for another lunge.
“Enough, Gollum. You have failed! It is mine now!”
“No!” He whined, muttering, “The Precious….”
“Yes, Gollum. If you continue, you will never see the Precious again.”
Gollum became utterly still, and Frodo saw the fight leave him as his body drooped. Eventually, he nodded. “We swears. We will be true to Master. ”
“I will know if you lie, Gollum. Remember that.” Gollum nodded mutely and repressed a shudder. Frodo’s tracks in the dust moved silently past Gollum.
Sam awoke to Frodo’s proddings, which he thankfully ended quickly. “Sam, you must get up now. We cannot stay here.”
“Mr. Frodo! What’s happened? Ow!” He rubbed his head. “Where is It? Did you throw that dreadful Ring into the fire, Mr. Frodo?”
Frodo looked at Sam for a moment, then said, “I have It, Sam. And we’re leaving.” As if to emphasize the need, they heard a Nazgûl’s screech not far away.
“Leaving? But if you still have It – we’re not done.” He frowned. His stomach dropped as he began to understand. “After coming all this way, Mr. Frodo, won’t you finish what we’ve come to do? Or have we come all this way for naught?”
“Because we have come all this way, Sam. I did not suffer this torment for naught.” He looked more kindly on Sam. “Oh, Sam, you wouldn’t leave me now, would you?”
Sam looked at Frodo then, saw the gleam in his eye, the determination in his jaw, and the smile that went no further than his lips. He knew then that very little of his master remained. This was a new Master. But he was his Master all the same. A deep grief came over him. Things would never be the same. “No, of course not, Mr. Frodo. You know I never could.”
“Good, Sam. You’ll see. It’ll be for the better.”
Sam forced himself to return Frodo’s smile then and rose with Frodo’s help. “Let’s get out of here then. But where will we go?”
“Don’t worry about that, Sam. I’ll take care of it.” Glancing back, he added more sternly, “Come, Gollum. We’re leaving.” Sam could not resist throwing a glare in the creature’s direction.
As they stepped out to begin the slow journey from the Crack of Doom, they could see Nazgûl gathering. There was little time. They sped up, but soon Frodo stopped. A few more steps and he halted in his tracks, looked over the waste of Gorgoroth, and seemed to make a decision. “Wait, Sam,” he said quietly. Sam turned to him with a question in his eyes. “I’m afraid I was wrong. We don’t have to leave. In fact, we cannot.”
“What–” Sam started.
“Just let me fix this. All right?” He turned from Sam then to face the high tower of Barad-dûr and slipped on the Ring.
Sam cried out, “Mr. Frodo! Where did you go?”
“I’m right here, Sam. There is something I must do.” Then, in a voice Sam barely recognized, one filled with power and will, he called out, “Sauron. Do you know who I am?”
A chill went down Sam’s back. Taking a step away, he looked to the Tower across the wasteland, then back to where he’d last seen Frodo.
“I wear the Ring,” Frodo continued. “I bore your precious Ring for a tormented year. I possessed It far longer. Now, I wear It. And I shall keep It. But I shall keep It here in Mordor, if you call off your Nazgûl. The Ring shall remain in Mordor. I shall remove myself to Cirith Ungol, but any Orcs there answer to me.”
After some moments of silence, Sam heard Frodo say, “Your soldiers fight a battle with Men outside the Black Gates. Call them off. No–” He spoke as if to himself for a moment. “There is no need. They already run scattered and mindless, but… yes. Hear me. There are some beyond the Gate I would see. Open the Gates and have a soldier summon them to the Tower of Cirith Ungol. A man, an elf, and a dwarf. Oh, and a hobbit.” At Sam’s small gasp, Frodo said to him, “It’s Pippin, Sam. He’s here… Which man? The man you know by many names, but you are better acquainted with his sword. He carries Andúril, forged from the shards of the broken blade of Narsil. You know this weapon, I gather? Yes, Aragorn, heir of Isildur. He, the dwarf, the elf, and the hobbit are to be brought to me. Unharmed.” He turned to Sam then, and spoke in the voice Sam was accustomed to hearing from his mouth. “Sam – oh,” and he took off the Ring. Sam’s face eased in relief to see his master and friend again. “Sam, we are going back to the tower, where you found me, remember? I think we can go that far.”
“Go that far? I was thinking it’s not far enough. Begging your pardon, but why would we want to stay anywhere near this forsaken place for a moment longer?” Frodo looked at him for a moment, his face suddenly filled with pity and gratitude, and Sam longed for days that he knew were past. “It’s the Ring, isn’t it? It doesn’t want you to leave. It wants to stay here.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps I would not have the strength to hold onto the Ring if I left Mordor. I do know I must stay here to keep It. And keep It I shall. But don’t fret, Sam. It will be all right. You’ll see.”
“Yes, Mr. Frodo. I’m sure it will.” As he made to follow his new Master down the rocky slope they had just spent their last strength to climb, Sam’s heart wept, for all they had lost, for Frodo, for the Shire, even for himself. Nothing would be right again.
The Nazgûl screech receded into the distance. The oppressive heat and stench of Sammath Naur faded. The blaze of the Fire dimmed to a pale glow. And as they left behind the horrors of Mount Doom, Sam left behind the tattered remnants of his hope. He had no need for it any longer.
Gimli sat heavily on a craggy rock with a deep sigh and wondered about the rest of the Fellowship. Were they alive? Were the hobbits still captives or had the others been successful in freeing them? What had become of Frodo?
He missed them. Even the blasted elf! Gimli, son of Gloín, not only wished for the company of an elf, but Thranduil’s son. He could not deny it, however. He especially longed for Legolas’s song, which never failed to soothe him. He wished for a small bit of Aragorn’s steadfastness, too. Even past hope, the man waged his battle relentlessly. He was in need of some of that persistence now.
And the hobbits. How he missed their unfailing optimism, their cheer, their laughter. For them, as long as they survived and were together, there was reason to rejoice. And they found joy in the simplest of pleasures. A plate of food, a mug of ale, and a pipe of the Shire’s finest, all full of course, and they were content. But most of all, he missed what lay beneath it all – their perseverance.
He remembered now his last sight of Frodo as the hobbit relinquished the Ring and all hope. Gimli might have none of what pushed a hobbit onward – mug, pipe, or companionship – but he had that memory and it was enough.
Gimli struggled to refrain from pacing as he waited with the others for Frodo’s return. The hobbit’s choice would decide their direction from this point.
And as quickly as that, their direction was chosen for them. Gimli had heard the elvish word enough that he sprang to action immediately. Frodo was soon running back to camp, holding up his faintly glimmering sword. Orcs indeed, and they were near.
Aragorn looked up to see Frodo and his shining sword and nodded. “Stay close. The Orcs that Sting announces should still be on the east side of the Anduin. They may look to make a crossing soon, perhaps here at this very spot. The first Orcs I witness upon Amon Hen will be a sore sight indeed.”
“Does no danger approach from this side of the River?” Frodo asked.
“A weight of darkness nears us from both east and west, yet its source is not clear,” Legolas answered. “I hear countless footfalls, but mostly from the east. I can only hope that Aragorn is right and Sauron’s beasts have not yet crossed the Anduin.”
Gimli grumbled softly in frustration. He heard and saw nothing as of yet, and knew he had to rely on the sharper eyes and ears of the elf, as did the others. A dread washed over him and he found himself wondering whom would they lose this time. Then he felt a soft shudder in the ground below his feet. Echoes of footfalls. Many footfalls. An army approached.
As Gimli opened his mouth to give warning, Legolas whipped his head around. “They come at us from the west!” he cried and raced up the hill, Gimli close behind him.
Aragorn’s eyes widened for a moment as it became clear that without quick thought and action, they would be cornered. “Hobbits, stay close together!” he ordered.
Boromir followed him up the hill. “Aragorn! We will not be enough –”
“Come!” he said to all of them, ignoring Boromir’s protest. “Stay close! Remember our duty to the Ringbearer.”
The hobbits needed no further instruction. Frodo’s three small companions surrounded him. Around them, the Big Folk created another ring of protection.
And the Orcs swarmed down upon them.
There was little time for Legolas’s bow, and soon the two men, the dwarf, and the elf were in close combat. As the pile of dead Orcs grew, the thunder of approaching footsteps told them the creatures they fought were only a first guard. They could not hope to strike down an entire army of Orcs.
Gimli could see the hobbits in a tight knot in the center, but even now, Orcs and the larger uruk-hai were finding holes in their defenses. He stole a quick glance at Frodo. Wide-eyed, the hobbit clung to Sting and steeled himself as the uruk-hai came closer by the moment. The dwarf would not lose hope for Frodo’s sake.
Harder and faster he swung his axe as a large beast rolled over the carcass of a former companion and fell within reach of Merry. Boromir took a step toward the hobbit, but another Orc came between them. Slicing off its head, the man took another step towards the hobbit and the uruk-hai who now had a hand on him.
Gimli heard Pippin cry out and his heart seized as he saw him also in the hands of the foul beasts. The two men immediately moved to strike down the Orcs, but more Orcs and uruk-hai cut them off once again. Aragorn freed himself from one by parting its arm from the rest of its body while Boromir dropped and rolled over an Orc that had latched onto his throat. Gimli added his axe to the fray and ended the Orc’s efforts. Finding himself free, Boromir took after the two beasts as they ran from the battle with the hobbits slung over their shoulders. Gimli thought the man’s efforts in vain as two more Orcs attacked Boromir from each side as he ran, but with two swipes of his sword he dispatched them and continued.
Aragorn seemed hard-pressed to leave the Ringbearer’s side, and Gimli understood as he grasped how they were being divided. Gimli watched as Boromir followed the two captive hobbits while Aragorn remained to protect Sam and Frodo. Another glance between blows revealed a large uruk-hai coming over the rise behind them, holding up a large crossbow.
“Boromir! Down, Boromir!” Aragorn cried out, finally abandoning the hobbits to try to save the man’s life, but instead he could only strike down the Orcs that barred his way. When Gimli next looked up, Boromir was rolling down the hill, long black arrows protruding from his chest. Aragorn chased after him in vain.
Gimli managed to keep one eye on Frodo and Sam as they watched Merry and Pippin disappear into the forest and another eye on Aragorn as he spoke with Boromir for the last time. Offering a promise with a nod to the hobbits, Aragorn ran up the hill in pursuit of their cousins.
Bringing his attention back to the beasts in front of him, Gimli saw Sam take on an Orc, stabbing it hard enough to incite its fury. The gardener’s wrath was nearly a match for the creature’s but Gimli did not have to wait to see who would win the contest, as Legolas sliced off its head. “Thank you, Mister Legolas, that one didn’t seem to want to give up!” Sam cried.
“No need to thank me, Samwise. Keep your eyes on those Orcs and your master. We must not be overrun.” Gimli was reassured to hear Legolas as calm as ever.
“Begging your pardon–” Sam paused to take a stab at another Orc “–but do you think there’s much chance of that? There seem to be more–” another pause to duck the swing of a blade “–coming every moment, as if another were being born as soon as they died, or whatever it is they do.”
“There’s always a chance, always a hope.” Legolas looked at Sam as he stabbed an Orc approaching from the side. “As long as you keep it.” As he turned to attack three Orcs furiously, Gimli felt the breathing room Legolas’s efforts gave them. Gimli was about to warn him when Legolas turned to attack an Orc approaching from behind. For once, Gimli was thankful that Legolas had eyes behind his head.
“Master Elf,” Gimli cried out now, continuing his assault without looking up, “if you have any strategies or suggestions for making an attack on such a force, elvish or otherwise, they would be greatly appreciated at this point.”
Legolas stole a glance at Gimli, who knew that although he fought with all his strength at the moment, it would not be long before he grew weary. As Legolas sliced off another head, he nodded in acknowledgement of the truth between Gimli’s words: With the number of Orcs that continued to come at them, and as Aragorn not returned, they would soon fail if they did not find an exit from this battle.
“Sam!” Gimli heard the elf cry. The hobbit had slipped and a nearby Orc had quickly taken hold of him. In a moment, Legolas had thrown himself onto the large uruk-hai. Gimli watched Legolas roll away with the uruk-hai so many times larger than him. The dwarf did not take time to wonder if an uruk-hai were stronger than an elf. He stole a quick look around. They had all been scattered. As his axe continued to swing, he turned to the Ringbearer, now left with only Gimli as guard, as Sam struggled with another Orc. Part of the plan or no, their strength was divided. The might of the Fellowship was to be found as one. Now, the Quest itself was endangered as each was forced into his own battle.
Gimli faced Frodo across the clearing, seeing the realization reflected in the hobbit’s eyes. If they had not yet failed, they soon would. Gimli would not accept that. They must continue. Clearly, the Orcs had come for the hobbits, as another was trying to cart off Sam at the moment. Spying another Orc coming for him, Frodo turned back to Gimli, a new determination in his face.
Gimli reached out to Frodo, trying to catch him before the Orc laid its hands upon him. Their only hope now, Gimli knew, was escape. “Run, Frodo! Run, with what speed your legs can give you!” But Orcs were swift creatures and this one lifted up Frodo moments before Gimli reached him.
The dwarf saw Frodo hang limply over the uruk-hai’s shoulder, defeat in his face. Then, Frodo’s eyes lit strangely as they landed upon Gimli. If Gimli had not known better – and had not been in the midst of dozens of Orcs – he would have thought it was hope he saw in the hobbit, like a childhood story suddenly brought to mind.
Frodo looked down at Gimli from the height of the uruk-hai’s shoulder. He reached out to Gimli’s already-outstretched arms and opened his hand. “Run, Gimli!” he cried. “Run with what speed your legs can give you! You must do this, for me! For all of us!”
Gimli ducked as another Orc made to jump on him. It underestimated how small a ducking dwarf might be and rolled over him completely. In that moment, Gimli was able to look into his hand. He froze as an icy chill stole down his spine. Frodo had dropped into his hand the heaviest of burdens. He had given him the Ring.
“Frodo! No, Frodo!” Gimli cried, though he did not know whether he did so in grief at his capture or in protest of his gift. Jamming his elbow into the face of an Orc who still had fight left in him and refused to follow the others’ retreat, he began to give chase to the uruk-hai. He recalled then the hobbit’s words, and knew, as Frodo faded from sight over the ridge, that he was right.
His heart sank to his stomach as he became aware that Frodo had given up all hope of accomplishing his Quest, the duty assigned to him. He likely had given up hope of living through this at all. And so now, he, Gimli, son of Gloín, carried the Ring. He was now the Ringbearer. The last duty or honor the dwarf might wish for was to carry this wretched thing all the way to Mordor.
His heart breaking, he turned his back on his companions and fled into the forest, knowing that he must survive now, even at the cost of all others.
And so he ran.
The dwarf heaved a heavy sigh. This was his duty now and he would not fail them. The greatest difficulty was that he was without a guide. The only companionship, if it could be called such, was the stalking creature he had spied on occasion. He knew not its intent, but if his axe itched for more work than hunting squirrel or rabbit, he might have to approach it. If he felt the need, it was likely it could be easily dispatched.
He had discovered he did have a navigator quite by accident. After fleeing the Orcs and the Company, he had headed south at first, but soon saw he was traveling east as well. Gimli knew that somewhere in that direction lay Mordor; but it was more than this knowledge that led him. Some cold nights later as he lay awake on the unyielding ground, he felt a tug toward that dreaded mountain. The Ring was leading him to Mordor. It drew him hardest when he heeded It most. Usually, It was simply a heavy weight on his neck. But when he granted It his full regard, It showed him the direction It wished him to take.
Without a guide, this was his only compass. So he took to granting the Ring his full awareness from time to time to gain a sense of the right path. Once sure of it, he would put the cursed trinket away in some pocket and try to forget Its maddening susurrations. He must focus on his duty.
Now, Gimli slowly rose from his seat, after taking some moments to get a sense of direction again. He could almost see Mordor now. Soon he would not need to gaze into that piece of metal again, beautiful though it was. He was glad for that, for It grew heavier and the whispers grew louder each time he let the Ring overwhelm him. He only wished to silence the constant murmurs in the dark hours of the night.
The air was changing as he traveled southeast. More humid, he could smell the fetid waters of the marsh he was approaching. He could only hope that he could find a way through. If he failed, he would have to find another way. But he would not give up. Frodo had passed this duty to him. For Frodo, he would complete it. Or die trying.
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