Chapter 22: Two Souls
“What do you call a psychic hobbit that has escaped from a dungeon?” Pippin yelled over the gap between the boats, and I could hear his grin even though I couldn’t quite see it.
We’d been floating down the River Anduin in the elven boats for three days straight, though it felt much longer. For all the drama and regal goodbye, the trip since we’d left Lothlórien had been, and there’s no nice way to say it, kind of dull — and had gone some way to showing me why film directors chose to use time-skip montages. Honestly, the whole thing was starting to feel like some bizarre parody of a road trip; one in which we had been spending an average of four hours at a time floating down the river, only stopping to eat or sleep on the banks.
Naturally, this meant the hobbits and I were bored out of our mined within the first few hours, and in the absence of a decent book or an iPod, this of course meant we had to resort to other means of keeping ourselves sane. During the first few days we’d told stories, each of us taking turns to pass the time, though I somehow ended up telling more than the others. Then it had somehow escalated to raunchy pub songs, provided mostly by Merry, Pippin and even Gimli — who’d clearly had enough practice with drunken singing to become rather good at it even when sober. Eventually Sam and Frodo had pitched in with some less vulgar ballads, which in turn had pulled the rest of us into the fray.
We’d been cruising comfortably downstream for about three hours on the fourth day, by which time the conversation had deteriorated thus:
There was a beat of ‘um’ing and ‘ur’ing as everyone thought about Pippin’s riddle for a moment. Then, finally, Frodo caved first and called back from the boat several feet ahead.
“We give up! Tell us!”
Pippin’s grin widened.
“A small medium at large,” he answered cheerily. Laughter erupted from all directions over the sounds of the water and the creaking of the boats. We were quite spread out, but still close enough together for me to see wide smiles on Frodo’s, Sam’s and Merry’s faces, and the amused quirk of Aragorn’s lip.
“Point to Pippin!” I announced, having been tasked with keeping track of who was winning the ‘how-many-bad-jokes-can-I-come-up-with-that-no-one-has-heard-before’ game. “My turn now! What do you get when you cross Middle Earth with the Silvan elves?”
There was a collective spattering of thoughtful sounds, but no guesses. I grinned slyly, then answered.
“About half way.”
Aragorn actually laughed a deep rolling chuckle at that, though there were only puzzled sounds from Merry, Pippin and Gimli who all seemed to have not quite understood the punchline. Legolas had got it, though.
“That was low, Eleanor,” he chided from where he was steering the boat behind me, but I could hear his laughing smile without turning around.
“You have a better one, your highness?” I asked primly over one shoulder.
He paused for a moment, thinking, then said:
“What do you call a beautiful woman on the arm of a dwarf?”
No one knew, and I could practically feel Legolas’s self-satisfied smile against the back my neck.
Gimli made a sputtering sound and spun to glare at the elf. His outrage was rather spoiled by a cry of panic as the boat suddenly lurched, and the hobbits crowed with giggles.
“Now that was low!” I snickered as Legolas tried to steady the boat, still chuckling.
“Anyone want to challenge that one?” Merry asked with theatrical seriousness. There was a seconds paused before Sam — who had been working mostly on conquering his fear of boats rather than jokes this whole time — raised his voice from a little way ahead of us.
“I think I might have one. Heard it a while back in the Green Dragon. Though it might be a bit inappropriate…” he trailed off, going a bit red and glancing between po-faced Aragorn, a still grumbling Gimli, and serenely smug-looking Legolas.
“There’s no way it can’t be worse than that one Merry had about the Troll and a lace apron, Sam,” Frodo reassured him with a kind smile. “Tell us.”
Sam hesitated for a moment, then finally relented with a nervously reluctant smile of his own and spoke up in his distinctive Somerset — excuse me, Shire — accent.
“An elf, a human, and a dwarf walk into a tavern. The elf orders a wine, the human orders a beer, and the dwarf orders an ale. The barkeep sets their drinks down before them, and each one notices a fly in his drink. The elf frowns, turns up his nose, and pushes the glass away. The human frowns, flicks the fly out of his beer, and starts drinking. The dwarf frowns, carefully picks the fly out of his ale, and yells, ‘SPIT THAT OUT, YE WEE BASTARD!’*”
Legolas threw his head back and laughed behind me in the boat along with the hobbits, and I tried to ignore the pleasant shiver the sound sent up my spine. Gimli, on the other had tried for a gruff snort, but even he couldn’t quite keep an amused twinkle from his eyes.
“Keep that laugh going, wee masters. I’d love to see any of you try and out-drink a dwarf,” he shot a look past me at Legolas. The elf only smiled pleasantly at him, before directing his attention to Aragorn. The man hadn’t said a word (save for the rare chuckle and even rarer laugh) in the several hours since we’d started the silly game.
“I believe it’s your turn now, my friend.”
Aragorn frowned and narrowed his eyes back at the blond elf.
“I think not.”
“Come on, Aragorn,” I chided, unable to hide my glee at the idea. “Everyone’s contributed at least one. There has to be at least one good joke rattling around in that stoic head.”
Aragorn paused in his paddling and sent me a gimlet look across the water. I smiled cheerily back at him, assured in the fact that not even he could hit me upside the head with the oar from that distance. He rolled his eyes and refocused on the river ahead, and I thought for a moment he wasn’t going to join in. He surprised us all by speaking up in a perfectly serious tone a few seconds later:
“How can you tell when an elven archer has run out of arrows?”
Silence. I wasn’t really sure if it was because no one had any guesses, or they were too surprised that Aragorn actually knew a joke. Pippin cleared his throat, and peered at him nervously.
Aragorn gave an uncharacteristically sly smile and glanced very pointedly over at Legolas.
“He switches to the stick up his backside as a reserve weapon.**”
Gimli let out such a sudden, booming belly laugh that I almost fell sideways out of the boat. Merry and Pippin also burst into unexpectedly loud guffaws, while Frodo, Sam and I exploded into spluttering giggles which only got worse the harder we tried to stop. I could all but feel Legolas glaring at the back of my head as I coughed and rubbed at my mouth, trying to force down my grin.
Aragorn just smiled and looked pleased with himself.
A less pleased noise came from the boat just behind us, and Gimli and I both turned to see Boromir looking rather put out. He was focused intently on steering the boat, the look on his face so sour and severe, you’d have thought he’d been made to eat something that had passed through a rodent’s digestive tract. He’d been so quiet for the past few hours I was ashamed to say I’d almost forgotten he was there.
“The joviality not to your tastes, laddie?” Gimli asked, his tone gruffly jibing. Boromir’s expression didn’t so much as twitch towards something warmer. He didn’t quite scowl, but there was something lurking in his eyes that seemed intent on keeping his attention on less pleasant thoughts.
“I only presume to think it would be wise for us to keep our voices down, assuming we wish to continue travelling this river in secrecy,” he said stonily.
Actually, he had a good point there.
Fun and as good a way of passing time as the games and songs had been, they weren’t exactly subtle, and we were supposed to be travelling in secret, theoretically.
The joy gone, our convoy fell eerily silent after that, a silence that lingered even after we’d landed the boats on the bank beneath some low trees and set up camp for the night. For the past few days we’d been camping on the river banks I’d been called upon several times to tell more of my “unusual and entertaining” stories around the fire during supper. I had been just a little bit gleeful at the chance to unleash more Disney, Brothers Grimm, and occasionally Shakespeare on them all again — especially after privately letting slip to the intrigued hobbits that many of them were tales from my home world.
That night however, no one was in the mood to tales, or idle chatter to pass the time. We all ate in near silence, and as darkness started to fall, we split off to ready for the last night we’d spend sleeping on the riverside. I went about my usual habit of making everyone a small cup of tea to help with restless sleep before turning in myself — partly as the routine was familiar and comforting, but it also provided me with an excuse to keep a lingering eye on something. Or rather, someone.
Boromir hadn’t stopped looking and sounding exhausted and distracted during the journey down the river, but at camp he looked ten times worse. He’d collapsed onto his sleeping mat and closed his eyes at almost the first opportunity, but I could tell by the set of his shoulders that he wasn’t asleep. He had looked forward to finally moving on from the Lothlórien, though he was probably the only one of us who held that particular opinion. Something about the elven wood, or perhaps its occupants, had continued to unsettle him greatly, and he had become progressively more agitated and short-tempered as his sleep became more troubled. More than once I’d found myself having to shake him awake from a frantic nightmare before he could rouse anyone else in the camp. He tried every time to brush it off as if it was nothing — but the dark circles forming under his eyes, and the chalky pallor of his face whenever he woke told another story.
He’d asked me to say nothing about it to the others, so I hadn’t, but only because I had the sneaking suspicion it wasn’t simply the nightmares that were interfering with his sleep anymore.
You only needed to see the way he eyed Frodo, who had taken to keeping the Ring around his neck at all times, out of his peripherals whenever he was near to guess, and I wasn’t the only one who’d noticed. Aragorn had seen it too, long before I had I think, but I only knew that because I recognised the coiled, spring-like posture and too-neutral stare he adopted whenever he saw Boromir get too close. It was the same posture he’d worn when I’d seen him training with Elladan in Rivendell — right before he’d been about to unleash a lightning fast counter blow that would all but knock the wind out of the elf warrior.
We’d seen the looks on each other’s faces one night and, understanding what it meant, we’d both silently agreed to keep an eye on them both during the remainder of the trip, just in case.
“Have some food, Mr Frodo.”
On the other side of the dying fire, past where Merry, Pippin and Gimli were already snoring, Frodo stared out over the murky water. Sam was offering a small roll to him, but the dark haired hobbit was shaking his head, face paler than usual in the gloomy moonlight.
“No, thank you, Sam.”
“You haven’t eaten anything all day. You’re not sleeping neither. Don’t think I haven’t noticed,” Sam insisted, coming to sit down beside him. He rested a hand on his friend’s shoulder, and I could hear the concern in his voice from across the camp. “Mr Frodo—”
“I’m alright, Sam. Really,” Frodo lied, shaking his head. He looked exhausted, even from my view by the fire, and Sam clearly thought likewise because he was having none of it.
“But you’re not,” he said quietly, honest worry creeping into his voice. “I’m here to help. I promised Gandalf that I would…”
Frodo turned to look at his friend, and there was a deep sadness in his bright blue eyes, one that I knew had been slowly growing since we’d lost our wizard guide, back in the overrun halls of Moria. He tried to smile at Sam, but it just ended up looking brittle and forced.
“You can’t help with this, Sam. Not this time,” he turned back to the water, his expression slipping back into the blank stare it had been before. “You should try and get some rest.”
Sam opened his mouth to say something more, but seemed to lose his nerve before getting a word out. He sighed heavily, his shoulders slumping, and he looked ruefully down at the remains of the food he’d set aside for him during supper.
I couldn’t help but feel an ache of sympathy for Sam in that moment. I knew full well by now from speaking with all of the hobbits that he was the one who had missed the Shire the most all this time. Yet, he was the one of our company who always seemed to go out of his way to make sure everyone was alright first — and in all the time we’d been travelling, I’d never heard him whine or complain once.
I tipped the last of my now-cold tea into the bushes and stood up.
“I’ll take the first watch. You guys should try and get some sleep,” I announced quietly, stepping over Merry towards them. Sam looked up at me in surprise, but Frodo only turned his head slightly in my direction.
“Miss Eleanor, you really don’t have to—,” Sam went to protest, but I waved away the argument.
“It’s fine, I’m not tired,” I lied, eyeing the growing dark circles under both their eyes — Frodo’s most of all. I stooped and picked up both their empty travelling mugs and gave them a small smile that probably gave away my weariness even more than my words had. “Both of you, get some rest, I’ll tell Aragorn.”
Sam gave a halfhearted noise of protest, but I turned away to finish clearing away the other mugs before he could turn it into an argument.
Legolas had finished his tea and had already sunken into the trance-like state that was the elves’ equivalent of sleep, leaned back against a stone. His eyes weren’t quite shut, but his whole body was relaxed, and he was staring out over the water with the far-off look of someone in a deep day-dream. None of us in the company had been resting well since we’d left Lothlórien, but Legolas in particular hadn’t seemed to be “sleeping” as often as he did normally, and it was starting to worry me a bit.
I took the empty mug from his side, stepping around him carefully as I could, hoping I hadn’t disturbed him. Once I’d gathered the last of them, I slipped quietly away to rinse them in the river before going to look for where Aragorn had taken up the first watch. I found him quicker than I’d anticipated, rounding an outcrop of rocks by the riverside only to find not one, but both human men of the company.
I’d thought Boromir had already fallen asleep by now — God knew he’d looked knackered enough to sleep for a week earlier that day, and I hadn’t notice him rise and leave his bedroll. Instead he was standing beside Aragorn, speaking to him with a bizarre look on his face. He looked desperate, almost pleading.
“…will have to abandon the boats at some point. The river cannot carry us in secret forever,” he said, trying and failing to keep his voice down. He was clearly having a hard time keeping his emotions in check, either through tiredness, or frustration, or both. Aragorn wasn’t. He was staring out over the water with the same tense expression I’d seen him give the man earlier.
I really should have turned around and gone back to the campfire, waited until they were finished speaking, but something made me hesitate just a fraction too long. I went to take a step back, go back the way I came, but my foot knocked against a loose stone, and the sudden noise made Aragorn immediately scan around for its source.
Still holding the empty mugs, I tried to duck — though honestly it was more of a fall — out of sight behind the outcrop of rocks, almost slipping on some wet leaves as I did. I pressed my back flat to the damp stone, hoping he hadn’t been quick enough to see me lurking there. I couldn’t see either of them from my masterful hiding spot, but I was still close enough to hear their hushed voices. Aragorn had fallen worryingly silent, and I could imagine him looking suspiciously around at the surrounding trees while Boromir continued to talk in a low, urgent voice.
“The western bank would be less treacherous, and swifter on foot,” he argued, and for a long moment (in which I realised I’d been holding my breath) he was met with nothing but irritable silence from the ranger.
“If it were our intention to trek to your city, perhaps, but that is not our destination and you know it,” Aragorn answered flatly, in the tone of someone who’d been repeating the same phrase over and over. Boromir made a less than happy noise, and I could all but feel the frustration leaking into his voice like a static charge in the air.
“The Ring would be safe within Minas Tirith! We could strike out for Mordor from a place of strength. You wish it destroyed, but it is folly to send such a weapon within reach of the enemy!”
There was a potent silence, and I very nearly dropped one of the mugs in an effort to keep them from clinking together in my shivering hands.
“I know there is weakness in the hearts of Men, there is frailty; but there is also strength and honour. Have you so little faith in your own people?” Boromir said softly, pain seeping into his voice.
“There is no strength in Gondor that can avail us,” Aragorn answered quietly.
Boromir reacted to the response about as well as a cat would to being dropped into a bath of cold water.
“You were quick enough to trust the elves!” he spat. “You would so easily condemn your own people to a fate you could save them from?!”
I could feel Aragorn’s glare just as clearly as if I was seeing it.
“I would not presume to believe I could wield such a weapon, let alone remain unaffected by its influence.”
I still couldn’t see him, but I could hear the expression on Boromir’s face twist into something nasty. His reply came out biting and harsh, teetering on the edge of outright fury.
“You are afraid!” he snarled venomously. “All your life, you have hidden in the shadows. Scared of who you are, of what you are—”
“Of what I would become?” Aragorn interrupted, his voice abruptly quieter and colder than I’d ever heard it before.
Boromir broke off, shocked. He clearly had not been anticipating that response any more than I had. I risked a peek around the rocks to see the two men glaring darkly at each other. For just a moment, I saw Aragorn’s neutral mask fell away, and I caught a look in his steely grey eyes I hadn’t ever seen before: doubt, and weariness.
He turned away dismissively from Boromir and went to walk away, leaving the other man just standing there alone on the riverbank in anger and confusion.
Then suddenly he stopped mid-stride, turning his head very slightly, and added in a quiet voice made all the more terrible by its complete lack of any emotion:
“I would not take the Ring within a hundred leagues of your city.”
I didn’t sleep that night, not so much as a blink. And because I didn’t sleep, neither did Tink.
‘Someone put thistles in your knickers, boss?’ she’d asked me irritably after I’d been tossing and turning on my sleeping matt for over two hours.
I’d tried to reassure her that it was fine, but she wasn’t buying it. My blatant fib might have gone down better if I wasn’t such a terrible liar to begin with, but it didn’t help that I now knew Tink was endowed with the ability to see, feel and sense everything I did. She knew I was becoming more worried as each day passed — about the whole journey, my lost memories, and especially what I’d heard between Boromir and Aragorn.
But there was something else too…
Something had been playing at the back of my mind for days now; the unsettlingly familiar sensation that there was something important I’d missed or overlooked. Ever since we’d left Lothlórien, it had been slowly growing in the back of my mind, but every time I stopped and tried to grasp for it, it slipped away.
I’d experienced it only once before; by the lake outside Moria, when Tink had surprised me with the most unsettling spoiler intervention ever by means of literally choking the air from my lungs. She’d sworn she’d never do anything like that again, and I believed her. However, that didn’t mean she was incapable of hiding things from me. Even knowing that, though, when I’d asked her about it, I instinctively knew she was being honest when she said she had no answers for me.
Still, there had been something about her reaction that had done absolutely nothing to settle my nerves.
She’d sounded worried. Not scared, sarcastic, or conspiratorially cryptic like usual — but honestly and deeply worried.
‘I don’t know, boss, really,’ she’d whispered quietly in my head as I lay awake, watching the moonlight and stars reflect off the river. ‘I can’t say what it is yet but… I feel it too. Something’s coming, and I feel like we need to be ready when it does.’
That mysterious weirdness combined with the barrage of my own worried, mental ramblings had been more than enough to keep me up almost all night. I’d nodded off from pure exhaustion just an hour before the sun came up and Sam shook me awake, and by the time we’d been in the boats for an hour I was struggling to keep my eyes open. I just sat there behind Gimli, slipping in and out of semi-consciousness as we floated downstream, trusting that my two boating companions would wake me up if I suddenly pitched overboard.
I lost track of how long I’d been slumped there with my eyes fallen shut when I felt a warm, familiar hand clasped my shoulder.
“Eleanor,” Legolas’ quiet tenor broke my sleepy haze. I jerked fully awake, and turned to see he’d leaned close enough for his breath to warm my cheek.
“Look,” he said quietly, pointing up past my shoulder at the cliff face, “We’re passing the Argonath.”
Blinking the sleep from my tired eyes, I followed his gaze up, and up—
Two statues, well over a hundred feet high and carved from the pale stone of the cliffside itself, stood like enormous stone guards either side of the river before us. Each one carried an axe their right hand, their left hands outstretched as if imperiously warning something equally huge and far-off away. You couldn’t see the faces of the two sentinels beneath their carved helms, but I knew from my studies that the monuments had been made to resemble Isildur and Anárion — the two original kings of Arnor and Gondor.
They also marked the northernmost border of Gondor.
Staring up at them both as we passed slowly beneath their shadow, I found myself feeling an inexplicable mix of awe and sadness that these monuments were all that remained of the great kingdom, this far from Minas Tirith. We drifted with the current between the two stone giants, and I peered curiously across the water to see Aragorn staring up at them too, with both wonder and masked sorrow, just as I had.
“The sentinels of Númenor,” I heard him say in a whisper, only just loud enough for me to hear. “Long have I desired to look upon the kings of old. My kin.”
The words sent a little shiver up my spine. Frodo glanced back at him too, and the ranger gave him a mild smile and a dismissive shake of the head, as if it wasn’t all that important.
Though it had felt and sounded important to me.
Past the enormous stone bouncers, the river filtered out into a lake the size of three football pitches combined. Aragorn led our convoy of boats towards the western-most bank, but didn’t steer the boat up against the shore until we’d come within earshot of the crashing Ruaros Falls. The sound of the huge waterfall wasn’t all that loud from where we landed, but would be sufficient to mask the sounds of hobbit chatter and Gimli’s snoring — and I knew immediately he’d chosen it for just that purpose.
I just hadn’t been brave enough to ask what exactly it was he was working so hard to keep our presence hidden from.
“We cross the lake at nightfall, hide the boats and continue on foot. We approach Mordor from the North,” Aragorn told us after we’d landed and made a start at setting up camp.
“Oh, yes?” Gimli chided from where he’d comfortably settled on some stones, smoke already rising from his pipe. “It’s just a simple matter of finding our way through Emyn Muil? An impassable labyrinth of razor-sharp rocks! And after that, it gets even better! Festering, stinking marshlands as far as the eye can see.”
He emphasised the point with a shake of his pipe, and Pippin, who was perched next to him nibbling on a leftover bread roll, looked truly alarmed.
Aragorn gave the dwarf a regally unimpressed look as he brought the last of the food packs ashore and dropped them beside Boromir’s shield.
“That is our road. I suggest you take some rest and recover your strength, master dwarf,” he said blandly.
Gimli huffed in outrage, but the would-be-haughty effect was somewhat spoiled by the little puffs of smoke that came out of his nose with each grunt. I was too tired and too hungry to give more than a quiet chuckle, more interested in getting dinner on the go than thinking about the swamps we were eventually going to have to wade through to get to Mordor.
I glanced around to see Merry and a strangely blank-faced Boromir had finishing bringing the last of the packs in from the boats, while poor Sam had all but collapsed into an exhausted nap against some boulders. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the camp, Legolas had been stood staring into the tree line in the same spot since we’d arrived — a hard expression in his eyes as if he was trying to see something hiding amongst the branches and shadows. He’d been stood there like a tall, blond statue for at least ten minutes, and he only moved to turn his head slightly as Aragorn approached, looking grim but calm.
“We should leave now,” I heard Legolas whisper quiet enough so that I knew he hadn’t really intended for anyone but Aragorn to hear.
“No,” Aragorn replied just as quietly. “Orcs patrol the eastern shore. We must wait for cover of darkness.”
Legolas pulled a face and turned back to face the trees, his shoulders and back tense again.
“It is not the eastern shore that worries me. A shadow of threat has been growing in my mind. Something is… wrong, something here among us. I can feel it.”
Well, if there hadn’t been a shiver dancing a jig up and down my spine before, there certainly was one now.
“There’s no way we’re going to get a fire started with any of this damp driftwood,” Merry’s exasperated tone cut through my anxious haze, and I looked back to see him examining a piece of driftwood with an accusatory glare. Jumping on the opportunity to distract myself from the growing unease in my gut, I got quickly to my feet.
“I’ll get some. There’s bound to be some kindling lying around under those trees,” I offered, turning to move off towards them without pausing for a reply.
“I’ll come with you,” Legolas said before I’d taken two steps. I stopped gave him a narrowed look over my shoulder.
“It’s fifty meters that way, Legolas. I really doubt I’ll need a bodyguard,” I said, pointing in the direction of the trees.
Gimli made a show of clearing his throat through little puffs of pipe smoke.
“Maybe not, lass,” he grunted diplomatically, gesturing at the surrounding woods, “But maybe an extra pair of arms to carry all that firewood you plan on finding?”
Aragorn didn’t speak, but gave a nod and a grunt of agreement. I looked flatly between each of them in turn, Man, Dwarf and Elf — each of their expressions serious and unrelenting. I sighed, and threw up my hands in defeat.
“Fine. By all means, come along and make sure I don’t slip on a wet leaf and break my neck,” I relented tiredly.
‘You mean exactly like you almost did last night?’ Tink asked innocently. I ignored her, turning and walking away towards the tree line without waiting. Legolas’ legs were longer than mine, and it didn’t take him long to fall into quiet step beside me.
As we left the camp and moved quietly into the trees I heard Pippin ask curiously, as if he’d only just noticed: “Where’s Frodo?”
Legolas and I both moved in comfortable but persistent silence through the trees until, finally, we reached a patch of wood where the winter-struck trees had started dropping their weaker branches. I immediately started scavenging as much dry kindling at I could find, while Legolas went about gathering larger pieces that would burn longer once we got the fire going.
“You really think we shouldn’t wait until night to cross the lake?” I asked, breaking the silence. The lingering quietness between us combined with my own sleep-deprived thoughts had started to grate on my nerves. Legolas stopped where he had been hefting an unnecessarily large looking branch and snapping it into smaller pieces. He looked at me with mild surprise.
“I hadn’t realised you were near enough to have overheard.”
I gave a tired shrug, crouching to pick up a couple more dried twigs and add them to my bundle.
“My hearing is getting better. It’s getting easier to block out other voices and noises,” I told him honestly. I saw Legolas’ eyebrows raise in surprise, though there was a pleased twinkle in his eyes.
“You’ve been practicing?” he asked in interest, and I nodded without looking up at him.
“You were the one providing the tips, I just took the advice and put it to use,” I replied with feigned indifference, but despite my weariness, I couldn’t help but feel pleased he’d noticed.
Even after over two years of being an elf, I still struggled to block out the riot of sounds, sights and smells that were a constant bombardment on me, but after I started training regularly every day it had gotten even worse. My sleeping and concentration had started suffering the more I tried to take in during my lessons. When Legolas had found out — though he’d found it a little peculiar — he’d taken it upon himself to give me some tips on how he’d been taught to keep focused during chaotic close-range fights, blocking out sensory distractions and stray thoughts that could hinder your focus. At the time I’d acted as if his advice hadn’t done much to help, however when I’d tried putting it into practice on my own, sure enough, it had let me sleep much better. Not only that, but it had also helped me to sharpen a sense to almost twice its usual capacity when I stopped and concentrated on just one at a time.
That help and advice had been a Godsend most nights — not that I’d ever admit that to him. Friend or not, the man was still far too smug for his own good most of the time, and he didn’t need anymore hot air to add to that ego of his from me.
I stood and turned back to him, my bundle of twigs cradled in one arm.
“You didn’t answer my question though,” I pressed, trying to change the subject.
The pleased look slid off Legolas’ face like water. He finished breaking up the desiccated branch and gathering the pieces before answering somewhat reluctantly.
“It is just a feeling. Something has unsettled me for the past few days. I feel it would be wiser to move on quickly.”
I studied the look on his face with furrowed brows.
“What kind of feeling?”
He shook his head, lost in thought.
“It feels sometimes as if we’re being watched,” he said calmly, though the words themselves were chilling. My own anxiety stirred back to life as I remembered the dread in Tink’s voice the night before.
“You heard what Aragorn and Lord Celeborn said, we are still being tracked by those orcs,” I offered, more for my own comfort than as a plausible argument. Legolas gave me a look, but spared me the trauma of taking away my safety blanket called ‘denial’.
“Perhaps, but it sometimes feels more as if there is something already here, among us. Every time I look away, I feel as if someone is watching, but never anyone I can see. It is unnerving,” he trailed off, and the words themselves more than his unsettling tone made my insides squirm. Unconsciously I found myself clutching my bundle of sticks a little closer, and taking absurd comfort in the fact that I knew I had both my hunting knife and dagger pouch strapped to my hips — along with two smaller blades hidden up my left sleeve and in my right boot.
Paranoid? Probably, but I’d still take a good set of knives and an elven bodyguard over a therapist any day.
I had to resist the urge to kick leaves at him just to get that look off his face. Thankfully, I didn’t have to, because he shook his head firmly and forced a weak smile back into place.
“Ignore me, perhaps it is only the weariness of saying farewell to Lothlórien after so long.”
“Maybe,” I said half-heartedly, chewing my lip and eyeing him in concern. I took a long twig from my bundle and used it to poke his forehead as I passed. “Still, I think you’ve been awake a bit too long. I’ve barely seen you rest more than a few hours in four days. You really should give that brain of yours a proper break before it burns itself out.”
He chuckled warmly, batting the stick away with real smile this time.
“Says the one who was awake until dawn last night,” he said, hoisting the wood he’d gathered under one arm. “How are you faring?”
I stopped, the question catching me off guard a little bit. I was used to Legolas and myself having friendly banter during training time by now, but it was still a little weird to hear him asking so sincerely after my well being. He’d been doing it a lot more recently.
My default response was to say I was fine, even though I knew I wasn’t, but I stopped and forced myself to answer him honestly. He’d extended the same courtesy to me after all. “I’m alright, I think. As long as I don’t stop and think about things too much.”
He paused for a moment, mulling over my answer. I didn’t dare look at him.
“You do not regret your decision to remain with us?”
“No,” I said without hesitating, stooping to snatch another few twigs off the ground. “I was sad to leave Lórien, and everyone there, but I couldn’t just stay behind because it was safer. There’s too much riding on this journey now to back out because I’m scared.” A little twinge of deep-set longing slid through me at the thought of not just Lothlórien and the safety we’d left behind, but also Rivendell, the Shire, Mirkwood, Minas Tirith. I thought about all the places and people we’d each willingly chosen to leave behind to come on this journey, and the places we were each longing to return to when all was said and done.
For the briefest moment, the image of an old, thatched house in middle of the English countryside at night flashed through my mind — warm and inviting, with lights shining through the windows, smoke rising from the chimney, and the sounds of happy chatter coming from the open kitchen window. My eyes stung and bit, and I blinked the threatening tears away fast, clearing my throat and going back to scavenging twigs off the forest floor.
“Besides, who would patch up all your bumps and bruises if I didn’t tag along?”
I didn’t look back at him to check, but if Legolas had noticed my micro-moment of emotion, he made no comment on it — though I could feel his curiosity. I still hadn’t told him about those names on my knife, and he hadn’t asked — not since that time back in the training grounds when we’d made that bargain.
“Aragorn does have a serviceable knowledge of herbs and bandages,” Legolas said after a moment, though he didn’t sound entirely convinced by his own words.
“He does,” I agreed, standing up now that my eyes and throat had returned to normal. I turned back to him and quirked my lip. “But we are also talking of the same man who once tried to remove a splinter from his foot with an arrowhead, a numbing poultice, and a bottle of whiskey.”
Legolas’ face broke into a wide smile that was one part relieved to two parts sly amusement.
“You know of that?”
I nodded, sharing the smile.
“Master Elrond told me,” I said, my mood lightening at the memory. He returned my knowing look and we both chuckled.
“I think Aragorn would prefer it if neither of us knew that particular tale.”
I grinned widely in agreement, finishing gathering the decent sized bundle of kindling into my arms and straightening.
“I realise I’ve never asked, how long have you known him?” I asked, eyeing him with interest. Legolas considered for a moment.
“Since he was barely an adult, sixteen in the years of Men.”
I stopped dead and tried hard to imagine what Aragorn must have been like as a teenager, and couldn’t. Legolas must have noticed the expression on my face because he chuckled and went on.
“He was much less serious then. He smiled and laughed more,” he said, then eyed me with a fiendish little smirk and added: “Much like you, actually.”
I honestly laughed at the idea, giving him a short poke in the chest.
“Don’t ever let him hear you say that. His head might implode at the comparison.”
We both grinned like morons, simply taking a moment to enjoy the laughs and smiles that came so easily now whenever we spoke. It wasn’t until I finally stopped my giggling that I realised how close we suddenly were, or that my companion’s expression had changed again, warmed. It was a strikingly similar expression to the one he’d worn just before we’d left Lothlórien days before — only this time he didn’t look away from me.
Unsure of why, I took an instinctive step back, clearing my suddenly parched throat.
“I, um — I think we’ve got enough wood now. We should probably head back.”
‘Before the others start getting ideas about why we’re taking so long,’ I almost added, but snapped my mouth shut over the words before they could escape. Quickly turning away to hide the faint colour I could feel rising up my neck to my ears, I started to move back the way we’d come.
“Eleanor,” Legolas said quietly.
His warm hand appeared suddenly on my shoulder, so gentle it was barely there, but more than enough to make me stop where I stood.
It was difficult to recall sometimes that those same hands had been strong enough to accidentally leave a band of bruises on my upper arm just two months ago — but not any more. Now it seemed like he was constantly afraid I’d crumple like tissue paper whenever he touched or came near me. An odd sentiment, seeing as he’d primarily been the one teaching me specifically how to not get crumpled for the past few weeks, and I didn’t really know wether to be insulted, confused, or worried by it — or all three.
I turned my head to look up at him, hoping I didn’t look as nervous as I suddenly felt.
His expression was carefully neutral, but there was something I saw playing in his eyes that looked almost like frustration mixed with hesitant warmth. He paused, seeming to search his head for the right words. He swallowed and his gaze softened very slightly.
“May I… ask you something, please?”
He was standing awfully close now. I could feel the warmth coming off him against the back of my arm and shoulder.
My mouth went dry.
But I never got to find out what his questions was.
At that exact moment, a furious shout and a scream tore through the wood, shattering the calm stillness that had surrounded us only seconds before. The noise had come from somewhere through the trees up the hill, and Legolas’ head whipped around so fast it was a wonder he didn’t give himself a neck sprain.
I recognised the voice instantly.
“That was Boromir!”
The both of us moved at exactly the same time, dropping our armfuls of firewood to the forest floor with a crash and flying off into the trees like a couple of deer.
A second shout, higher in pitch and frantic, which I recognised as Frodo’s split the air and Legolas and I redoubled our speed, hurtling through the trees in the direction of Boromir’s continued shouting and cursing. There was a thump and sudden silence, and I spotted a flash of auburn hair barely ten feet up ahead.
I made it into the clearing first, bursting through the trees with Legolas only half a step behind me.
Boromir looked, at first glance, as if he’d just slipped and fallen into the leave-strewn dirt. He’d clambered to his knees, and there were leaves and dirt in his hair, but the second saw his face I knew what was wrong. He wore an expression that mixed confusion, shock, and horror all in one terrible mix.
My mind, for once, put the pieces together instantly, and a whipped my head around, searching for the Ringbearer.
“Where’s Frodo?” I rasped, only just realising how hard I’d just pushed myself to move so fast so without warning. Boromir didn’t react, as if I wasn’t even there. He just shook his head, staring at the spot I knew Frodo must have been moments ago and shaking his head. Legolas strode past me and gave the mortal man a firm shake by the shoulder.
“Boromir, where is Frodo?!” Legolas demanded, and something hard in his voice snapped the other man out of it. He turned to gape at us both with stunned bafflement. He looked lost.
“Disappeared. Just vanished, right in front of me—,” he managed, though he sounded as if he wasn’t fully sure of what was coming out of his mouth. Then he stared down at his hands, dirt covered and scratched as if he’d just been struggling with something, or someone.
“Eru have mercy, what have I done?” he breathed, and Legolas looked momentarily as if he wanted to shake him out of it. Without thinking, I immediately came over and put a hand on the elf’s shoulder, hoping it was enough keep him from something impulsive — like slapping the other man until he spat out a coherent answer.
“Which way did he go?” I asked Boromir, calm but sharp, attempting to mimic the tone Master Elrond had used when giving me instructions. It must have worked somehow, because Boromir answered almost immediately, though he still had the shellshocked sound of someone who’d just woken from a horrific nightmare.
“I have no idea. One minute he was there, and then…”
Legolas got to his feet again and scanned the tree line with sharp eyes, searching for any sign of where the hobbit might have fled.
“He must have run to find somewhere to hide,” I said, anxiety slipping into my voice at the idea of him wandering alone through the woods without anyone as backup or protection.
“We need to find him, and quickly,” Legolas agreed, looking with a narrow gaze down at Boromir who seemed to finally be coming back to himself, but was still unable or unwilling to speak. I couldn’t be completely sure, but judging by the way Legolas was glaring untrustingly at the man, he had worked out what Boromir had just tried to do as well.
I forced down the urge to go to him, try and snap him out of the shock, but I made myself turn away. Instead, I looked in the direction I guessed Frodo would most likely have fled in — uphill, following a small path through the trees relatively clear of leaves and twigs that could have given him away.
“He can’t have gone that far, and we can’t leave him out there. We’ll cover more ground if we both split up,” I said, pointing in up the slope towards the tree line in two different directions, then looking pointedly back to him and Boromir.
Legolas went to protest, but then closed his mouth over the words, understanding what I was implying. He nodded shortly, looking back to Boromir and visibly grinding his teeth. Finding Frodo and the Ring was more important than either of us, and one of us needed to stay and stop Boromir in case he tried it again. He knew it as well as I did.
I tried hard to ignore the sinking feeling I got looking at the frustrated expression in Legolas’ eyes, and the twisting one I got at the look still haunting Boromir’s.
“If I can’t find him in five minutes, I’ll go straight back to camp and get Aragorn or Gimli, I promise.”
Legolas looked hard at me, two parts extreme disapproval to one part real worry.
“And if something finds you in that time?” he asked quietly, not looking away. I gave him my best effort of a reassuring smile.
“I’ll do an impression of a terrified screaming girl and run like hell,” I replied with feigned confidence, and took off back into the trees before either of them could try and stop me.
I ran uphill through the trees without stopping, only slowing down every few meters to call Frodo’s name into the woods, spinning in a circle and scanning the trees for any hint of movement.
I knew he had to still be wearing the Ring. It was the only explanation there was for how he had — as Boromir said — vanished into thin air right in front of him. I was also willing to bet Frodo wouldn’t be in a hurry to come out of his hiding spot any time soon, not after seeing Boromir, one of his protectors, snap so suddenly under the Ring’s influence.
I hadn’t dared let myself stop and really think about that until now.
The Ring had taken Boromir.
My insides writhed in guilt and worry for him — that I hadn’t remembered it was going to happen sooner, or that I hadn’t reacted to the signs of what I knew, subconsciously, was happening to him. Up until now, I had almost forgotten about the Ring. We all had, its presence a constant, though subdued, reminder of the journey ahead while we’d been lingering in Lothlórien — but the moment we’d left, it had been as if all that pressure had come rushing back tenfold, slamming down on Frodo and Boromir the hardest of all.
I’d seen what was starting to happen. I’d seen the subtle changes in them both, and the way Boromir had looked at Frodo and the Ring, but—
I ground my teeth.
Regardless of Boromir behaviour change in the past month which had caused the growing rift between us, he was still my friend — both him and Frodo were. I wasn’t sure what exactly I could have done or said to help if I’d been brave or attentive enough, but it still should have been more than nothing.
Moments later I burst through the trees at the top of the hill and found myself in a clear patch of grassy hilltop, with a weatherbeaten stone ruin sitting right in the middle, basking in the early afternoon sunlight. It rose up like a podium over the dried grass and budding wildflowers, what looked like an ancient stone throne perched atop — as if it had been built there specifically so its occupant could look out over the Argonath and lake.
“Frodo!” I called, ignoring the impressive sight and spinning in a circle, looking everywhere for any, tiny sign of the hobbit. I couldn’t hear or see anything moving in the surrounding trees or bushes, not even birds.
“Frodo!” I yelled again, a little louder this time despite my uneasy feeling, and still turning. “It’s Eleanor! Please, come out! You’re safe!”
Frodo appeared literally out of nowhere.
One moment there had been absolutely nothing in my peripherals at all, save for some dried grass and bushes. The next, the dark haired hobbit all but fell into view a few feet away, gasping for breath and wide-eyed as if he’d just run a mile. I almost jumped, but caught myself, pretending I hadn’t just seen him spontaneously appear out of thin air.
“There you are!” I exhaled in relief, but the relief was short-lived, vanishing the second I saw the expression on his pale face.
He looked — there was no other word for it — terrified.
I took an instinctive step toward him, trying to see if he’d been injured in the struggle with Boromir.
“Frodo, are you alright? What’s wrong?”
He shook his head, mirroring my movement and taking a shaky step back, holding a hand up to point right at me. He was trembling.
“What are you?” he demanded, his voice high and thready with real fear. I stopped, stunned by the question and the reaction all at once. My mouth fell open in confusion, and for a second I couldn’t get a word out.
“What?” I asked, flummoxed. He just continued to shake his head at me, eyes wide as if he was seeing a ghost. I moved towards him. “What do you mea—?”
“Stay back!” he yelled, scrambling back from me over the stones. I had no idea what the hell was happening, but I instinctively went to go to him, looking for any sign of him being hit on the head.
“Frodo, what the—?”
He was suddenly reaching for Sting, a look of complete, wild-eyed terror in his face that left me with no doubt he would use the blade on me if I took another step. I blanched.
I threw up both my hands in alarm and backed off, stunned. Frodo stumbled backwards away from me until his back hit the ancient stone of the monument, his elvish short-sword still pointed directly at my chest from six feet away. I didn’t try to move forwards this time, instead remaining rooted to the spot with my hands still raised. I might have felt silly standing there like that, if it weren’t for the fact that apparently I’d managed to scare the blood from my friend’s face without any explanation as to how, or why.
“Frodo, it’s me,” I said as softly as I could, the petrified look still on the hobbit’s face stinging as if someone had just slapped me. “I’m not going to hurt you, I swear. Can you at least tell me what’s wrong?”
He didn’t move to flee from me again, though he did put a second, steadying hand onto Sting, not taking his wide, blue eyes off me. He was still shaking badly, but when he managed to speak, his voice was steady, if very quiet.
“When I first saw you, back in Rivendell when you healed me, there was only one of you. You were pale blue and ghostly when you helped heal me,” he said almost silently, still staring at me like a terrified animal which had realised that it had just fallen into a trap with no escape. He started shaking his head, back flat against the stone wall behind him. “But now — now there’s two of you.”
Were I not standing literally with a blade aimed at my chest, I might have assumed this was a prank and laughed. However, the truly terrified gleam still lingering in Frodo’s eye said, plain as a road maker, that this was nothing close to a joke. I stumbled over my response, still too stunned and tired to really think clearly.
“What? You’re not making any sense. How can there be two of me?” I blurted, confusion and a rising feeling of unease that I couldn’t pin down making me jittery. We needed to get out of the open and back to camp. I very nearly went to move towards him, but stopped when he flinched away from me. It was only then that I saw his left hand clenched tightly around something glinting gold.
My insides went cold.
“The Ring,” I breathed, my throat suddenly tightening as I understood what must have happened. “You saw something when you had it on, just now, didn’t you?”
Very slowly, he nodded, still clutching a brandished Sting as if it were a lifeline.
“I saw you, but you were ghostly, and shining a faint blue, like you were made all of a pale star,” he told me slowly, carefully, as if he was afraid I’d take a lunge at him. I just stared at him. He must have been talking about my fëa(1). The Ring must have allowed him to see it clearly when he put it on.
Frodo took a steadying breath and went on.
“But there was someone else, something else too. Burning bright gold like flames, walking right where you did, stepping where you stepped. Like you were two people in the same place.”
His head was shaking again, his pupils shrunken and his face pale as marble.
“You called and searched for me, but you couldn’t see me. Then it — she looked right at me,” he breathed almost soundlessly. “You couldn’t see where I was. You still called for me; but she looked right at me.”
My insides had turned to water, and I couldn’t speak. I just continued to stare at him with my lips ajar as he very reluctantly lowered Sting. He didn’t look ready to take a swing at me, but his eyes were still wide, and his grip on the elvish blade was white-knuckled.
“What was that?” he whispered.
I couldn’t answer him. I wasn’t even sure I could remember how my own voice worked. My heart was suddenly beating way too fast.
“I — I don’t…”
I didn’t have so much as a breath to try and work out what in nine circles of hell was going on before there was a rustling in the trees behind me. I’d barely had enough time to spin and draw my hunting knife out of its sheath before Aragorn came hurtling through the trees and almost ran me over.
His eyes widened in relief as he saw us both there, intact and fully visible, if a little pale and resembling extras in a slasher movie.
“Eleanor, Frodo, what are you—?” he started breathlessly, but he broke off the second he saw the expression still on Frodo’s face, and an unsheathed Sting at his side. “Frodo?”
“It has taken Boromir,” Frodo told him almost silently, and despite his earlier terror at the man, I heard real, honest sadness in those words. I didn’t move as Aragorn took a step past me towards the hobbit.
“Where is the Ring?”
“Stay away, both of you!”
Aragorn looked as if someone had just slapped him. He froze for a single, shocked moment as Frodo scrambled back around the wall and further from us both. I just continued to stand there like one of the nearby stone statues, stunned, staring after him and unable to move. Aragorn sent me a confused glance, but kept his attention on trying to calm the still panicked Frodo.
“Frodo,” he said calmly, moving forwards but still keeping his distance, both hands up. “I swore to protect you. We both did.”
Frodo’s gaze stayed on Aragorn, then shifted to me. I’d be lying if I didn’t feel a pang of hurt at the poorly masked mistrust in his eyes when he looked at me.
“Can you protect me from yourselves?” he asked in a small, but eerily calm voice. Aragorn gave me a puzzled sideways glance, but nodded solemnly. Frodo didn’t take a step towards us, but he held out his clenched hand in Aragorn’s direction, palm up, and uncurled his fingers.
The Ring — the innocent-looking, little gold band that had started this whole thing rested in the centre of his hand, extended out like a gift towards the mortal man.
“Would you destroy it?”
My eyes widened.
‘What the hell is he doing?!’ I cried within my head, unable to get the words out of my mouth. I took an instinctive step backwards, away from the demon wedding band, my eyes going straight from the Ring to where Aragorn had also become a living statue. Every muscle in his body was suddenly rigid, and I was fairly sure he had stopped breathing, steel grey eyes fixed on the Ring in Frodo’s hand.
It was only for a moment, but something flicked deep in Aragorn’s eyes for a split second — something disturbingly similar to what I’d been seeing in Boromir’s for weeks.
He took another couple of steps closer, reaching out with an ungloved hand as if to take it. The feeling of terrified dread wriggling through me tripled as I watched helplessly — knowing exactly what was happening, and that there was nothing I could do to stop it. I could all but feel the Ring’s presence now, as a chilling pressure against all my senses simultaneously, as if it was pushing me back and keeping me rooted all at once.
But apparently Aragorn knew what was happening just as much as I did, and knew what needed to be done.
Taking one last step and closing the distance between him and Frodo, he dipped onto one knee. Very deliberately he curled his fingers around the hobbit’s hand with both of his, closing Frodo’s fingers back tightly around the Ring until it was out of both our sight. The strange, cold pressure on my head instantly subsided.
“I would have gone with you to the end. Into the very fires of Mordor,” Aragorn said so quietly, I barely heard him, pressing Frodo’s fist back against the hobbit’s chest and leaving it there. Frodo looked as if he was torn between relief and crushing sadness.
“I know,” he tried to smile gratefully at the ranger, then looked to me. The unease hadn’t left his eyes, but mercifully, he didn’t look terrified anymore — just uncertain, and just a little bit mournful.
“Please, look after the others. Especially Sam. He will not understand.”
I realised what he meant and finally managed to take a step forward, throat tightening as we looked at each other.
“Frodo, I—” but my eyes widened as they landed on Sting, still gripped in his right hand. It was glowing a brilliant pale blue.
The uneasy stirring in the pit of my stomach lurched into a panicked storm, and my heart bounced off the roof of my mouth. Aragorn saw it too, and had stood and unsheathed his sword before I’d even finished drawing breath to speak a warning.
“Go Frodo, run,” he ordered, frighteningly calm despite all three of us knowing what it meant. Neither Frodo or I moved, both of us frozen there in the clearing with wide eyes and faces drained of blood.
“Run!” Aragorn bellowed again, an order this time, not a request.
Frodo obeyed. He turned and bolted back down the hill, his small legs carrying him shockingly fast into the trees.
From either fear for him or some other base motive I didn’t dare think about, I had the sudden urge to run with him — or possibly after him. I felt my body turn as if to break into a sprint, but my blood froze and my feet locked in place as the unholy sound of what had been tracking us these past few day, what had made Frodo’s blade start glowing, met our ears in the form of dozens and dozens of bone chilling howls echoing through the trees.
The howls of monsters walking in daylight.
(most of these jokes have been picked up all over the place online and adapted):
* This little gem of a joke is one I’ve seen several times on tumblr. No idea who originally came up with it, but it was just too good to leave out. Let me know if you recognise it. :)
** I cannot claim complete credit for this one, sadly. I adapted it from one I heard a long time ago, and according to one of my commenters it’s from Mass Effect (courtesy of Garrus and Joker). Cheers anon for finding this for me!
(1) fëa — “soul” (Quenya)