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(Element: "The Flight to the Ford")
EUCATASTROPHE: THE RETURN, PART SIX
Frodo opened his eyes to a rosy dawn sky and the cheerful sound of birdsong. He moved very carefully, so as not to disturb Pippin, who lay on his left, and grinned at Merry, who had been keeping watch. He moved away behind a nearby shrub, to see to his morning needs, and then walked over to stand by his cousin.
“Good morning, Merry,” he said quietly, so as to not disturb Pippin’s sleep.
Merry looked over at the slumbering Pippin and shook his head. “Silly Took! He would have taken my watch as well as yours, if I had not awakened myself.”
Frodo busied himself at the fire, pouring water from a waterskin into the kettle to brew tea. They had been on the road now for five days since leaving The Forsaken Inn. The Rangers had reluctantly allowed the hobbits to journey on alone, for they needed to convey the prisoners back to Bree, accompanied by the innkeeper’s younger brother, a journeyman blacksmith, to help them guard their catch.
Mellor had tried to persuade the hobbits to await their return, but Frodo had flatly refused, and the three cousins had set off on their own along the Road. Frodo had planned this journey out in his mind, and he had no wish to make any delays such as that--he had to get Merry back in time for the wedding, after all.
It had been pleasant so far, the Spring weather holding fair, with only one brief shower the afternoon of the second day out. They had skirted the southern edge of the Midgewater Marshes, noting how different they appeared now than they had in the autumn.
Frodo took out some of their supplies, and a small skillet, and soon the scent of sausage and onions, along with that of tea, brought Pippin to wakefulness.
“Good heavens!” he said, sitting up, “breakfast already! Frodo, I do think you may be getting very nearly as efficient as Sam!”
Frodo chuckled. “That will *never* happen, I’m afraid. But I do my best.”
They finished eating, and packed up their small campsite, and prepared to get on the Road once more. Frodo noticed his cousins kept giving him surreptitious looks of concern. He thought he knew what was bothering them, but decided that it was best to get the subject out into the open. “All right, Merry, Pippin! Out with it! Why are you watching me as though you expect me to fly away any second?”
He checked his impatience at the startled and guilty look the two of them exchanged, and waited them out. Finally, not quite meeting Frodo’s eyes, Merry spoke: “It’s just that today--our route will take us in sight of--Weathertop.” He looked a bit pale and uncertain as he said it.
For the first time, it dawned on Frodo that they would be having dreadful memories of that awful night as well. He thought for a moment, casting back in his mind to their return from the Quest, trying to see if the memory still haunted him.
It was there, no doubt--how could *anyone* forget an event like that? But as he pushed against it, like a child worrying a loose tooth, he realized that it *was* merely and only memory--unpleasant to be sure, but no more real or vivid than any other memory. It did not seem as though he were fated to relive it, in all its power, as he had done in the past.
He noticed that both of them were still staring at him, waiting for him to say something. “I shall be just fine, cousins,” he said briskly. He hoped he was right--after all, the sight of it might unnerve him, but he did not think it would.
They rode briskly that morning, not giving themselves much time for talk or singing, and stopping only briefly for a noon meal. It was early afternoon when they entered the foothills below Amon Sûl, and they could espy the tip of it in the far distance.
Frodo looked to the north of the Road. When he had returned from the Quest, he had deliberately averted his gaze. Today, he looked at it defiantly, feeling as though he were daring it to intimidate him once more. It was, after all was said and done, only a place. A place where many other things had happened than his wounding. And he was here, now, and alive and free, while the one who had harmed him was gone forever, never having known freedom again. He wondered, for the first time, why Angmar had accepted a ring of Power, and if he had any idea of what a trap he had walked into when he placed it on his hand. It was sad, really, thinking of what he had come to. But in the end, the Ringwraith had been nothing more than an emptied vessel, filled with the malice of his Dark Master, and set free himself only when Merry and the Lady Éowyn had slain him. He glanced over at Merry, riding on his right, and was surprised to see that Merry had turned his own face away.
“Merry,” he said.
Merry looked at him, startled. It was the first any of them had spoken since they had taken to the road after luncheon.
“Merry, I don’t know if I could ever thank you enough for what you did, putting an end to him.”
Merry swallowed, and bit his lip. “I couldn’t have done anything else, Frodo. I couldn’t let him strike Éowyn--I *had* to do *something*.”
Frodo smiled. “Of course you did! My brave Merry!”
Merry turned red to the tips of his ears, but his eyes sparkled with gratification.
Pippin laughed. “Well, we’ve all outlasted the old shade now, haven’t we?” He leaned forward, the better to see Merry on the other side of Frodo. “Maybe this time, you will finally get the chance to ask Lord Glorfindel about that prophecy!” Then he clucked up his pony into a canter, making Merry and Frodo have to catch up.
A week later, they were approaching the Last Bridge over the Hoarwell. It was early afternoon, and Frodo looked about him with interest. He’d paid very little attention to his surroundings when he had passed through on the way home, huddling in on himself, and wishing that he had never left Rivendell. And of course, on his first journey here, he had been in no shape to really notice much of anything.
The woods here were sparse, and just over the bridge were the edges of the Trollshaws, where the country grew more difficult. It had been somewhere across that bridge that Aragorn had led them once more away from the Road, and into the trackless and stony hills. But here, to the west of the bridge was a small grassy area beneath a rather stunted spruce--a perfect spot for a campsite. After all, they could go no further without a guide, if they had any hope of reaching Rivendell. Gandalf had promised to make the arrangements, and Frodo wondered whom the Wizard would have found to do so.
They set up camp, and then Pippin walked onto the bridge and looked into the water. He stood for a few moments, and then grinned. He turned and looked back at Frodo and Merry. “Would anyone care for trout for supper?”
They fetched lines and hooks from their gear, but there were no fallen limbs long enough to make poles, and none of them would cut a living branch for the purpose. So they sat upon the edge of the bridge parapet, and dangled the lines in by hand. Frodo smiled, as he realized this was the first time he’d been fishing in at least four years. His cousins had done a bit of fishing while on the Quest, but Frodo had been too burdened to feel like joining them.
“Sam wouldn’t like this,” said Merry as he leaned forward and jiggled his hook. They had used a bit of salt pork from their supplies as bait. “Nor would Freddy.”
“What, leaning out over a rushing river like this?” asked Pippin. “Whyever not?”
All of them chuckled over that. The three of them had no fear of falling in, and if they did, they were all good swimmers. They had a bit of luck--Pippin caught a nice sized fish, and Frodo caught two rather smaller ones. Merry had a perfectly huge trout take his line, but it got away before he could set his hook. He was not amused at losing it, and kept trying to catch it again, even after Pippin and Frodo gave up to go and prepare their meal.
It was mid-morning the next day, and Merry and Pippin were trying their luck in the river once more. Frodo had stolen a few moments to write in his journal, when suddenly he thought he heard the sound of bells. Putting his book down, he stood up and gazed across the bridge. Merry and Pippin jumped up, pulling in their lines. Frodo strode to the bridge, and they waited there.
“Well met, Lord Glorfindel!” Frodo said, inclining his head slightly.
The Elf dismounted, and knelt before the hobbits, so that he could look them in the eye. “It is good to see you, my friends. I was pleased to take this chance to escort you back to the Last Homely House once again.”
Merry was reaching up to touch the nose of the beautiful white horse. “Hullo, Asfaloth! And how are you?”
The horse whickered and tossed his head, as though he were laughing. Glorfindel stood, and replied “He says he is doing quite well, Meriadoc.”
The four walked back across the bridge, and the Elf helped the hobbits to break camp. Soon they were packed up and ready to go. Strider, Stybba and Sable seemed eager to impress the Elven horse, and Glorfindel kept them riding at a trot for quite a while.
They had gone about four leagues or so, when Pippin pulled up abruptly, and gazed up into the hills to the north. The others stopped as well, and looked back at him.
“What is it, Pippin?” Frodo asked, puzzled.
“I was just wondering if anyone wanted to go look at Bilbo’s trolls again? It’s only about seven miles that way.” He gave Frodo one of those looks of his.
Frodo hardened his heart. “I don’t think so, Pippin. That’s seven miles out of the way.” He’d seen the trolls on the way back--it was one memory he did have of that time. And they did not need to be making any detours. “We have a schedule to keep.”
“We do?” Pippin asked, surprise in his voice.
“*I* certainly do!” exclaimed Merry. “I *do* have a wedding to get back to!”
Frodo shook his head, he hated disappointing Pippin. “Maybe--just maybe--on the way back…”
Pippin sighed. “Never mind. We shall probably be in even more of a rush on our return journey. I did rather want to see what sorts of birds were nesting in old Bill, Bert and Tom.”
Glorfindel had waited patiently while the debate was going on. Now he trotted ahead, and the hobbits rode to catch up with him. “We shall travel another league, I think,” he said, “ere we make camp.”
They actually made about five more miles, before deciding to stop. The hobbits could have kept going, but the ponies were tired. They soon had a campsite set up, and Pippin began to put together a meal--fried salt pork and griddlecakes.
Frodo arched a brow, as he bit into one of the flat cakes, on which he had smeared some of Rose’s strawberry preserves--carefully packed for them in a stone crock. “Your cooking’s improved, Pip,” he said. “These are as good as Sam’s!”
Pippin grinned. “Well, I should hope so. It’s his recipe. He taught me a thing or two while you were gone. I spent a few days at Bag End with him and Rose, on my way home from the Tooklands not long after you left.”
Glorfindel had eaten two of the cakes, though he had declined any of the salt pork. Frodo caught his eye, and realized the Elf was amused. For some reason other races found hobbit appetites entertaining. Only Dwarves came anywhere near to hobbits when it came to eating, and they were quite a distant second. “Aren’t you hungry, Lord Glorfindel?” he asked wickedly. He was quite aware that the Elf had probably already sated his appetite.
Pippin glanced over. “Do have another! I can easily make more.” He thrust the plate of steaming cakes over to the Elf.
Glorfindel started to shake his head, but Merry, having caught the mischievous twinkle in Frodo’s eye, said “What is the matter? Don’t you like my cousin’s cooking?”
Reluctantly, the Elf took a cake from the plate. “They truly are delicious,” he said truthfully, taking a bite. Pippin of course, was oblivious to his cousins’ byplay, for he was concentrating on his own meal.
“I do think these are successful,” Pippin said smugly, and having finished his second, he rolled up a third and took a bite.
Frodo and Merry relented their teasing of the Elf, and took the last two cakes on the platter for themselves.
This night, they all three could sleep, with Glorfindel to stand watch. Frodo lay awake for a while, between his cousins, staring up at the stars. Now they were at the part of the original journey that he could not remember very well at all--he knew he had been placed on Asfaloth--perhaps he’d be able to remember more, as they rode along on the morrow. Finally, as the Moon made his way across the night, Frodo finally drifted off.
The next day, they rode along pleasantly. Frodo glanced about him, trying to remember any of the places they passed. But the clear greens of Spring looked far different than the faded colors of Winterfilth. It was not until they came to a small stream, that he felt a sense of recognition.
“Didn’t we stop here?” he asked. “On the way to Rivendell the first time?”
“Collapsed, more like,” said Merry, remembering how exhausted they had all been.
“Indeed,” said Glorfindel, “this is a spot where we took our rest for a brief time. I am surprised that any of you recollect it, you were so weary, and Frodo, you were so ill.”
Indeed, he had been more than ill, he had been fading. And yet it had not felt like *he* was fading, but more that the world about him had faded. Certainly the sense of pain and sharp cold was as sharp as ever, but the world around him had faded into a grey mist, and all seemed drear and hopeless. To his clouded eyes, all he could see of his companions was a faint light, except for Glorfindel, who was a bright and incandescent blaze that hurt to gaze upon. All he had to anchor him to the world it seemed were the hands of Sam and his cousins, who were constantly touching his legs and knees as he rode along on Asfaloth, a warm and welcome acknowledgement of their love and support. Once in a while one of them would touch his hands. With his right hand, he could return their touch, but his left hand and arm were numb, and he had only been aware of a sense of pressure.
The only thing that was not fading was the constant nattering of the Ring. Most of the time, he had managed to keep Its whispers down to an irritating buzz, rather like a ringing in his ears, and seldom paid attention any longer to what It said, as long as It did not direct Its malice at his companions. But since he had been stabbed, Its voice had been louder and more insistent, almost gloating: What’s the use of resisting? Soon there will be nothing to keep you in the waking world. You will walk among my Master’s Servants as one of them, the least, the lowliest of slaves. You will be naked before his Eye, and do all his bidding. And I will have it all anyway--and you will see my Master cover the world in darkness, and you will watch him take all those you have kept from me and set them to torment. You should not have resisted. You’ve only made your doom and theirs worse…
And on and on It continued, and it was all he could do to hold his own will together and deny It any satisfaction. No and No and No and No. He *would* not abandon Sam or Merry or Pippin to the Ring. And if he could, he would keep it from Strider and the Elf as well. No. All of his thought as they plodded along had coalesced into that one word of denial.
Frodo shook his head, to clear it of the memories. At the time he had been filled with despair that he would ever win free. But he had won, after all. He glanced over and saw his cousins looking at him in concern. He gave them a smile. “I’m fine!” And the smile reached his eyes, and reassured them.
They had ridden somewhat less than four leagues when Glorfindel had them stop to camp for the night. Merry prepared supper and once more the Elf took the watch. It was the same place they had camped on their original journey, where the road began to slope downhill towards the Bruinen.
The cousins lay awake for a while. “Are you sure that you are all right, Frodo?” whispered Merry, a line of worry appearing on his forehead.
Frodo smiled once more, and turned his head to kiss Merry’s brow. “Worrywart,” he chided.
Pippin, on his other side chuckled. “Are you just now finding that out, after all this time, Frodo?”
Frodo sat up on an elbow. “Peregrin Took, I have known this worrywart since before you were even a glint in Cousin Paladin’s eye.”
“ ‘M *not* a worrywart,” muttered Merry crossly.
At this Frodo caught Pippin’s eye, and both of them spluttered with laughter.
“Oh, go to sleep!” said Merry, turning his back to them.
The next day found them riding through the pine-covered slope down to the river, the very place where the Nazgûl had begun the pursuit.
Frodo pulled up briefly, and surveyed the ground ahead. The others stopped as well. “I do not remember any of this,” he said.
But he did remember the chase, the Ring calling out to his pursuers, and the fear and terror behind him, and the only thing he *could* feel, of Asfaloth’s heaving sides beneath his legs, racing faster and faster.
He looked over at the horse, and smiled. “I don’t think I’ve ever thanked you properly for saving my life, Asfaloth!”
The horse tossed his head, and then shook it. Glorfindel inclined his own head. “He thought it an honor, Frodo Baggins. And it is something he is quite pleased with.”
They splashed across the Ford, which remained blessedly calm. That was one memory he *did* have, the river roaring down, like a stampede of white horses, and he remembered that last moment before all went dark: the Ring, laughing in anticipated triumph, bringing him to that last furious defiance: he *would* not allow it to win!
As they all reached the further shore, Frodo turned Strider, and gazed back across. Against all the odds, he had succeeded in getting the Ring to Rivendell. He laughed. He had won, in the end, after all.
(This is the last of the parts which have been posted at the Challenge site, so it really will be next month until another update.)
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