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Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Lindelea
First published at Marigold's Challenge 3 quite some time ago.
Title: Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
‘I wish I had taken Elrond’s advice,’ muttered Pippin to Sam. ‘I am no good after all. There is not enough of the breed of Bandobras the Bullroarer in me: these howls freeze my blood. I don’t ever remember feeling so wretched.’
‘My heart’s right down in my toes, Mr. Pippin,’ said Sam. ‘But we aren’t etten yet, and there are some stout folk here with us. Whatever may be in store for old Gandalf, I’ll wager it isn’t in a wolf’s belly.’
Merry stood by in silence, staring into the twilight. He wished he could muster an encouraging word for his young cousin, but truth be told he felt miserable: a drag on the Company, worse than useless. His knuckles whitened on the hilt of his sword. What could he do against something as fearsome as a wolf?
Frodo caught his eye, but there was no comfort there. Merry looked away, bitterly aware that his presence here, and Pippin’s, drew protection away from Frodo, for if the Men had to look to their safety, they couldn’t very well be looking after the Ring-bearer, now, could they?
They heard the Men muttering nearby. ‘Where then?’ Boromir said, his words coming more clearly to the hobbits as he raised his head to survey their surroundings. ‘I would fain climb to the top of this little knoll than cower trapped against its side, with foes perhaps jumping down upon our heads.’
‘A goodly notion,’ Aragorn said. ‘From the top we can command a view of our surroundings; we could hardly be taken by surprise.’ A wailing howl sounded nearer in the gathering darkness, and he drew his sword and held it ready.
‘Where the warg howls, there also the orc prowls,’ Merry whispered, repeating the words Aragorn had said bare moments before. ‘Frodo, what does Sting show?’
Frodo pulled Sting from its sheath and was relieved to see just the dull gleam of steel and nothing more. ‘No orcs,’ he said softly.
‘Not yet, anyhow,’ Sam muttered under his breath. He saw Pippin, shivering miserably, and forced heartiness into his tone. ‘Not far now, Mr. Pippin,’ he said kindly. ‘Just up to the top of the hill, and then you can roll up in your blankets and have a bit of a breather.’
Legolas ran lightly up the slope and disappeared; a moment later they saw a glimmer at the top as he waved them on.
‘The way is clear,’ Gandalf said, and with sword in one hand and staff in the other he began to toil up the hill. Gimli climbed after him, axe at the ready.
Without a word Merry and Pippin moved to either side of their cousin and the three began the wearisome climb, followed by Sam leading Bill, who scrambled up the rocky slope as if he were more goat than pony. The Men brought up the rear, watching to the sides and behind them as they went.
Reaching the top, they crossed a short periphery of rocky grass to a knot of old and twisted trees encircled by a broken ring of stones the size of boulders. ‘We will have some cover, at least, from orc arrows,’ Aragorn said.
‘For the moment I’m more worried about the wolves,’ Boromir said. ‘We must have a fire; it will be more our friend than our betrayer, to my way of thinking.’ He made haste to gather sticks and quickly laid them ready for firing in the middle of the circle.
A great chorus of howls broke out from the base of the hill where lately they’d sheltered. Pippin put his hands over his ears and crouched, wishing only for a place to hide himself away.
Merry put his free hand on his young cousin’s shoulder, saying quietly, ‘Steady, Pip,’ though he himself felt like throwing down pack and sword and running... but where would he run to? There was no escape.
A movement caught his eye and he saw Sam, who had tied Bill to one of the twisted trees and was now picking up sticks by the armload, carrying them to Boromir and dumping them in an ever-growing pile. Merry gave Pip a clout on the shoulder. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Might as well be useful as not.’ They joined the rest of the Company in gathering as much wood as was needed to last them through the night, and soon they were sitting with the others round a cheery fire, just as if it were a walking party in the old days, before they’d learnt the benefits of darkness and silence to keep them from discovery. With wolves on their trail, of course, it didn’t matter if they hid themselves in a cleft of a rock or stood atop a boulder and shouted greetings; the beasts would find them by their scent. They could only hope that these wolves, like those in Bilbo’s tale, feared flames.
In spite of their situation the hobbits dozed, exhausted by the labours of the last few days and feeling, in the glow of the firelight, warm for the first time since they’d begun the ascent of the snowy mountain. Boromir, too, sat quietly, head bowed in sleep, while Gimli the dwarf snored openly on the other side of the fire. Legolas perched in the branches of one of the ancient trees, his keen elf-eyes piercing the surrounding darkness. Gandalf sat staring into the fire, and Aragorn stood nearby, keeping watch and adding wood as needed to keep the fire burning brightly.
The howling of the wolves was now all round them, sometimes nearer and sometimes further off. Poor Bill the pony could not doze as his master did, but trembled and sweated where he stood. When a howl sounded especially close he’d throw up his head and snort, rolling his eyes, but Sam had tied him securely to keep him from being panicked into fatal flight.
Legolas called softly and slid to the ground; Aragorn stiffened as many shining eyes appeared over the brow of the hill, reflecting the firelight as they crept ever closer. Some advanced almost to the ring of stones, and one great dark wolf-shape halted at a gap in the circle, gazing at them in threatening silence before throwing back his head to loose a shuddering howl, a commander of troops ordering the charge. Answering snarls broke out all around the hilltop.
The hobbits woke abruptly and scrambled to their feet, grabbing for their weapons. Gandalf stood up and strode boldly towards the wolf-chieftain, brandishing his staff. ‘Listen, Hound of Sauron! Gandalf is here!’ he cried. ‘Fly, if you value your foul skin!’ The hobbits shivered and drew closer together, for the wolf seemed to be looking past the wizard... and straight at them. He licked his slavering chops, and then his teeth gleamed white in the firelight as he grinned evilly at the hobbits, a ravenous glint in his eye.
Gandalf eyed the wolf, raising his staff higher, adding, ‘I will shrivel you from tail to snout, if you come within this ring.’
The wolf snarled defiance and disdain and sprang past Gandalf, towards the huddled hobbits with a great leap. Desperately Merry threw himself in front of Frodo, colliding with Sam, both thrusting their swords towards the slashing teeth, but at that moment there was a sharp twang. Legolas had loosed his bow. The wolf gave a terrible yell and thudded to the ground at the hobbits’ feet with the elvish arrow in its throat.
Pippin cried out, ‘The eyes! They’re gone!’ and indeed, the ring of watching eyes no longer reflected the flames of their watch fire. The hunting packs had fled when their chieftain fell, and Gandalf and Aragorn found no sign when they strode to the brow of the hill. Boromir, standing beside Frodo, lowered his sword and cautiously moved out of the ring of stones, to pace the perimeter of the hill, looking outwards. The night was silent save the sighing of the wind.
‘Gone,’ Aragorn echoed the youngest hobbit. ‘Might as well settle back to sleep while you may,’ he said. ‘The night’s half done, and we’ll be leaving with the first light.’
If we may, Merry said to himself. It seemed folly to leave the protection of the hilltop, meagre as it was, but then they couldn’t very well stay here until they’d burned all the twisted trees, for what would they do when the fuel was gone? Still, he didn’t relish being caught in the open by a horde of hunting wolves. I’d have done Frodo more good had I stayed in Rivendell, he thought, and not for the first time. It was long before sleep crept over him again.
It seemed as if he had slept but a few moments when a storm of howls broke out fierce and wild from every side.
‘Fling fuel on the fire!’ Gandalf was crying as the hobbits scrambled to their feet. ‘Draw your blades, and stand back to back!’
They hurried to comply, hastily throwing armloads of wood onto the fire and then pressing back against each other, a small determined compass with a sword at each point. Many grey shapes sprang over the ring of stones in the leaping light of the renewed fire, and more and more followed. Aragorn thrust his sword through the throat of one great leader while Boromir hewed the head off another with a sweep of his sword. Beside them Gimli stood with his stout legs apart, swinging his dwarf-axe from side to side, while the bow of Legolas sang a lethal song. Bill the pony screamed his terror and lashed out with a strong kick of his hind feet, catching an attacking wolf under the chin and sending him rolling away.
Still the wolves came on with deadly grins. Merry felt hot breath on his face even as he struck and a furry body rolled at his feet. Frodo cried out, and Merry saw to his horror that Sting was stuck in the breast of a great wolf: while Frodo strove to free the blade another wolf made a rushing advance. Without thinking Merry struck, a quick slashing stroke, and another, and the wolf turned aside with a yelp. While his attention was diverted to the defence of his older cousin, another wolf leapt at him from the side. He turned belatedly to meet this attack, but Pippin’s sword was there first, coming down across the muzzle in a painful blow.
Gandalf seemed suddenly to grow, rising up in the wavering firelight, a monolith of stone and smoke and fury. He lifted a blazing branch and strode to meet the wolves, which gave back before him. He tossed the flaming brand high into the air where it flared like lightning in sudden white radiance that dazzled the eye. Close upon the heel of the lightning flash came the thunder of the wizard’s voice, shouting words that rang strange and terrible.
With a crackling roar the tree above him burst into blinding flame, spreading its fiery blossoms to the surrounding trees until the entire hilltop bloomed with blazing brilliance, reflection glaring from the swords of the defenders. The last arrow of Legolas kindled as it flew, and plunged burning into the heart of a great wolf-chieftain. The rest of the wolves fled the inferno.
The hobbits stood tense, still back-to-back, but no more wolves came. Indeed, the enemy was routed and did not return as the fire slowly died to falling ash and sparks. Letting his sword droop at last, Merry took a deep breath of bitter smoke in the dawning light. Truly he had not expected to be breathing at all when this dawn arrived.
‘What did I tell you, Mr. Pippin?’ said Sam, sheathing his sword. ‘Wolves won’t get him. That was an eye-opener, and no mistake! Nearly singed the hair off my head!’
Merry felt a light touch on his arm. ‘Thank you, cousin.’ It was Frodo.
‘Whyever for?’ he said, almost too weary to feel astonishment.
‘I thought I was done for,’ Frodo said quietly. ‘He was leaping for me, and I could not pull Sting free in time... Had you not been there, he’d have torn out my throat.’
Had he not been there... Merry thought, but what he said was, ‘It was nothing.’
‘Nothing,’ Frodo echoed, with a ghost of a laugh. He wiped Sting and sheathed the weapon, then grasped Merry’s arm. ‘Not nothing; I beg to differ,’ he said. In a lower voice, he added, ‘I’m glad Lord Elrond didn’t tie you up in a sack and send you home.’
‘So am I,’ Merry answered, and found to his surprise that he meant every word.
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