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Sorry for the long delay in updating. Can only blame a stubborn case of bronchitis that didn't start to come around until after the second round of antibiotics. Hoping for better days to come.
Chapter 36. At the Enemy's attack, we make our stand
The hour grows late; all too soon the light of day will fade away and darkness will claim the land... and perhaps the Master. It must not be!
We struggle on. The hobbits are very tired, but they plod along grimly. Surely we will reach the Ford soon. Before dark, the Big Man said,an hour or two ago, when my Sam asked, prompted by his growing fear for our Master. If we can but keep the pace we've set... And yes, the hobbits have kept to the pace, no matter what the cost has been.
The Road ahead goes suddenly under the dark shadow of tall pine-trees. I do not like the look of it. I balk, and my Sam stumbles over his feet at the sudden jerk of the rope. 'Come along, Bill,' he says through his teeth, his voice hoarse and rasping.
A sharp slap on my rump forces me to jump forward, into shadow, between steep moist walls of red stone. The trees make a sort of tunnel overhead. It is so very dark. I tremble and jump at the echoes of our footfalls. Some trick of the cutting makes it sound as if many are following us. I hesitate to put down each foot in turn, but the others are hurrying forward, even the white one, and my Sam pulls me after him with surprising strength.
My laid-back ears prick forward for ahead of us is light, as if a gateway stands before us, a promise of release from this dark and frightening path. Yes, the Road runs under the open sky once more, there ahead, and suddenly I hesitate no longer. I plunge forward, nearly pulling my Samwise off his feet; but he is as eager as I to reach the light, and the river that beckons, shining at the end of a long, flat mile. I could gallop the distance, weary as I am, for something tells me that safety lies on the other side of the Ford, where mountains rise into the fading sky.
I swivel my ears back again, for the echoes continue though we’ve left the cutting. The wind is rising in the pines, rushing through the branches as a gale.
The shining one walking ahead of me stops, letting the white one and Master go on without him. He turns to look behind us, to listen; his eyes widen and then he springs forward to catch the horse. ‘Fly! Fly!’ he shouts. ‘The enemy is upon us!’
The white one leaps forward, but I am glad to see the Master does not fall. We run down the slope, the hobbits and I, while the Big Man and shining one stand still to let us pass, then follow us as rear-guard.
It is as if we have forgotten our weariness and painful muscles. We pelt towards the Ford at the hobbits’ top speed, following the white one’s lead, our eyes fixed upon the Master huddled in the saddle. We are only halfway to the river when there is a sound of horses galloping. Listening behind, I hear the sound of a great steed, and then another, and another, and two more, coming out of the cutting and halting.
I turn my head back to see the dark group, ominous as shadows, and my heart quails within me. I stop, frozen to the spot, frozen by fear that rises to choke me. My eyes dim, and I hear my Sam’s sobbing breaths at my side, and his fear rolls over me as a tide. I wish to break free, to run…! But I cannot seem to move.
The shining one stands between us and the shadowy terrors. He shouts. Ride forward! Ride!
The spell that has ensnared me is broken and I turn toward the river again, only to see that the white one gallops no longer, but walks. Master sits erect in the saddle, his hand firm on the reins... but then he drops the reins, grasps his sword and draws it. The blade flashes red in the westering light of the Sun.
’Ride on! Ride on!’ cries the shining one, and then loud and clear he calls out other words, and he speaks to the white one now, and not to the Master.
The white one hears and answers, springing forward to speed toward the river as if he flies upon the wings of the wind. I hear the hoofbeats rising behind me, and a horrifying cry that is answered from the trees and rocks away on the left. Four more Riders come galloping!
Two ride directly for the white one and the Master, and the others gallop towards the Ford to cut off flight, to cut off hope, and still the white one gallops, bold and strong, sustained by the voice of his Rider. The bells of his harness jangle wild and free on the wind of his passing.
The voice of the shining one is still in my ears, lending strength to my faltering spirit, and I am able to stumble out of the Roadway, pulling my Sam after me. The young cousins fall away to the other side, and a moment later the terrible Riders sweep between us in their pursuit of the Master.
My Sam rises to his knees, staring ahead, his breast heaving with the effort of running, or horror, or both. His hands are clenched tight, my rope fallen and forgotten. I could flee, if I wished, but it is not myself They are after...
Frodo! one of the young cousins gasps out. It seems as if They must have him... It hardly seems possible, but the white one bursts forward as they reach him, incredibly running faster than before, and passing under the very nose of the leader he plunges into the stream.
’Quickly!’ the shining one says, hauling my Sam to his feet while the Big Man pulls youngest and not-merry to theirs. And then we are running again, running for all the hobbits are worth. I keep my nose to my Sam's shoulder, and so I follow my Sam without the help of the rope, nay, in spite of its hindrance, I should say, as it trails on the ground under my feet. We follow the shining one and Ranger, whose long legs carry them further and further ahead, and yet we follow, even when they slip from our sight behind some stunted trees. I have but a glimpse of the Master on the far shore, turned to face his pursuers, sword still in his hand, and the foremost horse rearing at the water’s edge, before his Rider forces him to plunge into the water, to follow the Master.
I see no hope for him.
Will They turn and rend us when They have finished him?
Reaching the trees, we see a small hollow beyond; the Man kneels, blowing, and suddenly smoke rises. He has kindled fire! The shining one brings sticks and thrusts the ends into the snapping flames. ‘Torches!’ he says to the hobbits, and then, ‘Take hold, and draw them out when they are well alight!’
He snatches my rope from the ground, murmuring reassurances--Steady, Greatheart. It will be well with you, if only you stand.
As if his words have enspelled me, I am rooted to the spot. Despite his reassurances, he takes a few precious seconds to knot my rope around the sturdy trunk of one of the small trees, before turning back to the hobbits, the Man, and the fire which is now well alight.
There is a great and frightening noise, a rushing and clashing, smashing and rolling, mingled with terrible screams of horses in deadly peril.
I have no time to take fright, to test my rope, to flee, for in that moment the shining one shouts, ‘Now!’ and runs with the Man towards the Ford. The hobbits follow at once, brandishing their flaming sticks. Grim-not-merry whirls his over his head to feed the flame, and the other hobbits follow suit, howling as they run, shouting in concert with the Big Man... but the Shining One... the Shining One...
Words fail me. I rear and plunge in unreasoning fear, yet drawn to follow if only the rope did not hold me fast. My burdens do not shift, somehow—the Elf lord's knots are tight and sure.
The Shining One stands between the trees that tether me and the Ford where the river runs white and wild; stands tall and terrible, hands raised to the heavens, speaking unbearable words. He does not shout, and yet his voice rings above the roaring and clashing and shouts and screams, shrieks and piercing cries that fill my ears, my own mingling among them.
But hearing his voice, I remember his words. All will be well with me if only I stand. So he has promised, and spoken in tongue of horse and pony, and I must believe him. I must.
A/N: Some text taken from “Flight to the Ford” and “Many Meetings” from Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and woven into the narrative.
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