I'm so sorry... things got so far away from me of late, with my schooling and everything...
I'm gonna go hide now... bye!
Rain poured down around them, and everyone, even Pippin, was silent and subdued. Not for the first time since Weathertop, Arabelle walked beside Erik, behind Bill. Since their argument the other day, she had done her best to be gentle and kind with her father, and had stayed very close to him the entire time.
Currently, Erik's arm was wrapped around her shoulders, and, though she had her own cloak to keep out the rain, Erik had insisted on sharing his with her, and Arabelle was glad. Not because she remained any dryer, but because it meant that they were alright. And even though the rain had her spirits down, there was a part of her that was untouched by the drenching and demoralizing cold. That part was beyond elated that she'd not hurt her relationship with her papa, and was content to stick herself to his side.
Erik, for his part, was still stunned by how close everything had come to disaster. He had known since Weathertop that it had been close, but just how close had escaped him. It stung like a knife wound, somewhere deep inside him. How could he have missed her slipping away from the fighting?
He'd panicked when he realized she was no longer in his sight. Then he'd caught a glimpse of her, just going over the edge of the dell, a Nazgul on her heels. Horror had turned to protective rage, and he'd come down on the rider with a fury. He just hadn't had the strength to keep up that fury. It had cost him dearly, but it was worth it. He was still weak, and if it came to fighting again any time soon, he was sure he'd suffer for it, but it had been worth it.
And yet, to know that even his best efforts had not saved her completely... Once again, Erik was reminded of how old he was - how slow. A dark little voice, one that had been mostly silent for sixteen years, spoke up now in the back of his mind.
The viscount would have been quick enough...
The realization was still enough to give him pause, even though he'd seen it coming. How many times had he wondered, in private, how a certain situation might have gone were Raoul in his place? Certainly, they would have all been over sooner, and likely to better ends. The viscount would have been able to catch up to Charles before he'd fallen in the lake. The viscount would have been able to save Arabelle from the Nazgul without nearly dying himself. It was a tough realization, one that brought back much of the old emotions of the Phantom, and Erik found his free hand clenching in bitterness.
But Christine had chosen, and somehow, for the last sixteen years, she had managed to be happy with Erik. Old, crotchety, feeble Erik. He would forever be amazed and grateful, but he had long ago ceased to question. Dwelling on it would make what time he had fly too quickly.
And God knew there was precious little of it left.
Beside him, Arabelle sighed. Her expression had turned pensive, as though she were seeing something besides the road beneath their feet.
"What is it, 'belle?" he asked her, rubbing his hand against her shoulder. Arabelle sighed again, and leaned into his side. She did not speak, and Erik did not press her. He followed her gaze forward, and saw Frodo shivering on Bill's back.
He understood her concern. She was not the only one to have talked with Strider. That very night after he'd discovered Arabelle's injured arm, he'd spoken with their Ranger guide, about everything. Even Strider didn't expect Frodo to make it, so was it any wonder that his perceptive, keen-eyed daughter would feel the same? Rather than offer empty assurances - because he was not sure that Frodo would be all right - he simply pressed his lips to her temple, squeezing her shoulder affectionately.
There was little he could do to assuage her fears, beside use his voice on her, but he could never do that knowingly. He knew she was susceptible, and the last thing he wanted to do was take away her free will and spirit.
The rain was dampening the latter enough, already.
Ahead of them, Strider's sharp eyes pierced the mist that was forming. The day was cold and wet, and soon, they would need to find a place to make camp for the night.
The driest place to be found was a large old tree that had upended in some long-ago storm. It was hollow, and its roots created a nice overhang so that the ground in front of it was dry. If there was any dry wood to be found, they could have a fire.
"We will stop here," Strider called back. Not waiting for an answer, he pulled Frodo from Bill's back, and carefully set him within the hollow tree, leaving him to the hands of the other hobbits. "I will scout the area."
"Strider," Arabelle warned, filled with a sudden dread. "Be careful..."
The Ranger smiled.
"Never fear, Arabelle. I will return soon. Watch over the little ones."
It took the better part of two hours for the small group to get a fire going, and even then, it was a small flame, and provided little warmth. Arabelle held Frodo in her lap; the wood beneath them was frigid, and the poor hobbit was already shivering. Everyone was soaked through, but there was no time or place to change their clothes; everything was cool, if not damp, and would only get damp sitting on the cold wood.
A chill breeze blew through their little hollow, and Pippin, sitting close on Arabelle's left, huddled closer, his teeth chattering. Smiling sympathetically, she wrapped an arm around him, and pressed him close. If it hadn't been so soggy, she'd have offered all the hobbits her cloak. As it was, another layer of thick, wet fabric would do more harm than good. Still, she motioned for Sam and Merry to come to her. She could not share her cloak with her little friends, but she could share comfort, and body heat.
Wrapped up in seeing to the hobbits, Arabelle did not notice her father's frown. He was concerned. Two hours had passed, and the third was approaching, with no sign of Strider. If something had happened to him, they would have no warning. They would be lost, without a guide.
And worse, if the Wraiths had found him, they would never know, not until it was far, far too late.
The snap of a twig rang loudly in Erik's ears. It was silent in the log. All four hobbits had fallen asleep waiting for Strider's return, and only he and Arabelle remained awake.
Arabelle had heard it, too. Blindly reaching back, he motioned for her to be silent, and moved toward the outside. Stuck under the hobbits, Arabelle could not go with him.
Outside, the rain had long since ceased, but the mist remained. It was a thick fog, now, and Erik could not see more than a couple of feet. He knelt and took a log from the fire, wrapped the burning end in a torch-rag.
He stood guard out in front of the tree, sword in one hand, torch in the other. He was still not at his best. If he had to fight now, fight hard, he would fall. He'd managed to hide it well, even from his astute daughter, but he was still weak. A week and a half was hardly enough time to fully recover, but let the others think that it was; if they lost focus for worrying about him, or if Strider used supplies that Frodo needed on him, instead, they would be lost. There were more important things to worry about now than his frail old self.
A flicker of movement in the mist caught his attention, and Erik turned, ready to face the threat. A huge shape, vaguely human in origin, moved steadily toward him. Erik shifted his grip on the sword, tightening his hand around the leather handle. He would likely fall, but he would protect the others. At the very least, he could buy them the time they needed to escape. To what end, if Strider was not there to lead them, he did not know, but at least these foul riders would not kill his daughter.
"Papa!" Arabelle gasped, her eyes catching the figure in the fog.
"Go!" Erik hissed, not turning from his approaching opponent. "Get them out of here!"
"Hold, Erik; there is no need."
It was Strider. As he came into the small circle of firelight, his shadow diminished in height and became recognizable as their guide. His face was grim as he knelt by the small blaze.
"Something has frightened away most of the animals," he whispered, mindful of the sleeping hobbits. "I cannot be sure, but I fear..."
"They're closing in," Erik finished, his heart sinking. Arabelle bit her lip.
"I cannot be certain," he repeated. "It may only be that there are wolves in the area. A more natural, but just as dangerous, threat."
"Wouldn't we have heard them, Strider?" Arabelle murmured, looking frightened. Erik sat beside her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
"Not always," the Ranger replied, glancing askance at the two of them before turning his attention to the smoldering coals of the fire. "We must keep this lit, but small. The wild beasts - and, indeed, our enemies - have no love of fire." He produced a few leaves from some hidden pocket, crushed them, and threw them into the fire. Arabelle recognized the smell of Athelas immediately. She breathed deeply, letting the scent calm and relax her. Her thoughts slowed, and she smiled slightly.
Glancing at the hobbits huddled against her right side, and Frodo in her arms, that smile grew slightly. Though he was still pale and sweaty, Frodo's skin was clearer; it had lost the fearful duskiness, and the frown had left his face. Arabelle knew it was only temporary, related entirely to the Athelas, but it was still heartening. She began to wonder if maybe he would make it, after all.
Indeed, she could almost see it; rather than go straight home, Erik would learn what was needed to send them home from Lord Elrond, and they would return to the Shire with the hobbits for a while. She and Jill would explore that green, wonderful paradise with Frodo and the others, and Frodo would laugh and smile again.
It was with these images of her hobbit friends safe and happy, everyone sitting around Bag End, laughing about their crazy adventures, that she drifted into sleep.
"Arabelle..." Her father's voice was soft and kind as it pulled her from her dreams. Blinking, Arabelle smiled up into Erik's face, but panicked for an instant when she saw only the mask. The golden eyes in the eye-holes, and the gentle hand brushing a stray curl behind her ear, calmed her, and her papa's thin mouth curved into a small, understanding smile.
"Why must you wear it...?" she sighed, still only partially awake. She rubbed at her eyes, and returned to regarding him.
Erik frowned. For sixteen years, she had never questioned it. After the time when he'd first worn it in front of her, and she'd run from him - after he'd explained it all to her - she'd accepted that he would always have it. Old insecurities rose again, and he turned away.
"It isn't you, Papa," Arabelle murmured, taking his masked face in her hands and turning it back to look at her. "It's false. Do you think our friends care, Papa? The hobbits do not, and when has Strider ever not looked you in the eye because of your face?"
Erik scanned her face, and saw in it a hidden, unvoiced concern. The talk about his face not mattering was a front. Of course, it was the truth, but it was to hide even deeper reasons. She was worried about him; Erik was sure she knew it hindered his breathing. Letting out a breath, he reached up behind his head and undid the ties of his mask. The warm smile that greeted his real face as he removed the white leather made his heart soar. He smiled, and kissed her forehead.
"Come, dearest; it is time to go again."
Arabelle nodded, and sat up, surprised that the hobbits were not huddled on top of her. They were just out at the opening of the tree, getting ready. Strider was situating Frodo on Bill, and Sam was organizing things in his pack.
Smiling, Arabelle grabbed her bag and crouched out. Pippin was the first to notice her, and smiled up warmly as she approached. Nearby, Frodo seemed to come to himself a bit, and glanced over at the two, smiling a moment before his face filled with concern.
"Did something happen last night...?" he asked faintly, blue eyes burning into Arabelle's. The girl shook her head, and offered an encouraging smile.
"No, Frodo," she replied gently. "Just a case of mistaken identity when Strider returned. Did we wake you?"
The tiny hobbit shook his head, shivering. Arabelle did not miss the trembling, and knelt to dig in her pack for a blanket. It was a cool day, and she was sure some extra warmth would be appreciated. With light, careful hands, she wrapped the wool blanket around Frodo's narrow shoulders, noticing again how similar in size he was to her brother. The comparison made her miss Charles all the more.
Be safe, little brother, she thought, glancing at the treetops to the east. I'm on my way.
Yesterday's rainclouds threatened to open up again after midday. The promise of rain had made the woods silent. A stiff, brisk wind blew through the woods, and the day was chill.
But though the clouds remained low and dark, rain did not fall. They were making slow, but steady, progress down a narrow path through dense trees - trees that grew so close to the road they had to walk single file. Somewhere along the way, Merry and Pippin had gotten ahead, and Strider was in the process of stopping the company to go and look for them when the two came barreling back up the path, wild-eyed and terrified.
Strider caught them both as they flew into the group, shouting and hollering over each other so that no one could understand.
"One at a time!" Strider snapped to get their attention. Once the two were looking at him - and silent - he said again, in a much gentler voice, "One at a time. What happened?"
There was only a heartbeat of silence that followed, but it felt like an eternity. Seeing the terror in Merry's and Pippin's eyes, Arabelle felt her own dread. What was so horrible that the two youngest hobbits - so cheerful and perky - would look so wildly frightened?
She did not miss her father reaching for his sword, and slowly, her hand came to rest on the tawny leather hilt of her own blade.
"Trolls!" Pippin gasped. "There are trolls, down in a clearing, not far! We got a sight of them through the trees!"
"They're huge!" Merry agreed.
A little bit of Arabelle's fear ebbed, if not much. It was not the danger, she'd feared, but -
"Then we ought to get away," Erik muttered, taking Bill's reins and stepping back, reaching out and tugging on Arabelle's hand. "Find another way around..."
Strider shook his head, and offered an odd look to Erik and Arabelle before returning to Merry and Pippin.
"We will come and look at them," the Ranger said, and there was something in his tone that made Arabelle wonder if he didn't know something that the two young hobbits didn't.
Strider led them down the path, and when they came to the place Merry and Pippin indicated as where they'd seen the trolls, he had them all duck into the underbrush. Arabelle and Sam helped Frodo down from Bill, and flanked him as they waited.
Through the trees, the trolls could indeed be seen. Beside her, Arabelle heard Frodo hiss - more in surprise and fear than in pain.
Merry had been right. The trolls were enormous; one was stooped down low, his hands hiding his face, and the other two were standing to their full height, looking at the first troll. One looked horrified.
Without warning, Strider stood and strode forward. He raised a stick Arabelle hadn't seen him pick up.
"Get up, old stone!" he commanded, bringing his stick down on the troll's side. The wood splintered, and a collective gasp rose from the group.
A sound Arabelle hadn't heard in well over a week startled her, but when she realized what it was, she smiled.
Frodo was laughing.
"We're forgetting our family history!" he grinned. "These must be the trolls from Bilbo's story. The ones Gandalf turned to stone!"
Arabelle blinked. Of everything Bilbo had told her and her family, that story had not come up.
"Turned trolls to stone...?" she murmured, confused. Sam looked up at her.
"Aye. Trolls turn to stone in the sunlight."
Arabelle nodded, smiling. What did it matter if she didn't quite understand; the trolls were no longer any threat.
For a few hours, they stopped and stayed beneath the trolls. Whatever strength had possessed Frodo earlier was fading, and he slumped wearily between Sam and Arabelle, until someone - they couldn't remember who afterward - lamented the length of time it had been since they'd heard any songs. Frodo muttered something about Weathertop, and suddenly, Sam was halfway through a song, and Arabelle had no idea where the time in between had gone.
"...Thy nuncle was dead as a lump o lead,
Afore I found his shinbone.
He can spare a share for a poor old troll,
For he don't need his shinbone.
Said Tom: I don't see why the likes o thee
Without axin leave should go makin' free
With the shank or the shin o my father's kin;
So hand the old bone over!
Though dead he be, it belongs to he;
So hand the old bone over!
For a couple o pins, says Troll, and grins,
'I'll eat thee too, and gnaw thy shins.
A bit o fresh meal will go down sweet!
I'll try my teeth on thee now.
Hee now! See now!
I'm tired o gnawing old bones and skins;
I've a mind to dine on thee now. '
But just as he thought his dinner was caught,
He found his hands had hold of naught.
Before he could mind, Tom slipped behind
And gave him the boot to larn him.
Warn him! Darn him!
A bump o the boot on the seat, Tom thought,
Would be the way to larn him.
But harder than stone is the flesh and bone
Of a troll that sits in the hills alone.
As well set your boot to the mountain's root,
For the seat of a troll don't feel it.
Peel it! Heal it!
Old Troll laughed, when he heard Tom groan,
And he knew his toes could feel it.
Tom's leg is game, since home he came,
And his bootless foot is lasting lame;
But Troll don't care, and he's still there
With the bone he boned from its owner.
Troll's old seat is still the same,
And the bone he boned from its owner!"
Everyone laughed, and even with his fading strength, Frodo managed a weak smile. He shivered suddenly, and Arabelle briskly rubbed his arm, pressing him closer against her side. The cheerful mood that had settled over them while they ate was all but gone, now.
"I think it would be unwise to continue this afternoon," Arabelle whispered, not looking up. Frodo had slipped into sleep almost immediately after Sam's song, and the girl tugged him gently into her lap so that he was off the cold ground.
"We must, Arabelle," Strider sighed, shaking his head. "We have no choice."
"He won't even be able to stay in the saddle," she argued, and next to her, Pippin nodded.
"We do not have the time to debate this," the Ranger grumbled, frowning. "We must continue. Frodo does not have the time."
"Nor does he have the strength to sit astride a horse!" Arabelle retorted, protectively pressing Frodo closer against her. "The more strain on him, the faster the poison will work!"
Sam's voice broke the argument. His tone was high and urgent, and his eyes held fear. The company froze, and listened. In the distance, they could hear the sound of horse hooves. Arabelle went pale.
"They've found us..." she murmured, rising and backing away from the sound. In her arms, Frodo stirred just a bit.
"Take cover!" Strider hissed. "Quickly!"
The group scrambled toward the brush on either side of the trolls' clearing, scattering. With Frodo clutched against her chest, Arabelle huddled behind the stooping troll.
There had been so little warning - no time to run. They were trapped, now, and if more than one of the Nazgul had come, they would be found out. The hoof beats grew louder, and slowed. The unknown rider stopped between the trolls, and a soft thump indicated that whoever was there had dismounted.
Arabelle's heart pounded, and she clutched Frodo tightly. Slowly, she chanced a glance out from her hiding place.
Strider, Merry, and Pippin were crouched within some bushes across the clearing (their guide motioned for her to be silent). Her father and Samwise she could not see.
But she could see the rider. Robed in black like the others, this one had a white horse. And when the rider drew back their hood, Arabelle saw pale, slender arms, and a fall of ink-black hair. But to Arabelle, that meant nothing, and she quickly ducked back around as the rider turned in her direction.
Twisting her head so that she could see Strider, but still be hidden, Arabelle saw the Ranger's face change. He stood, and moved out of hiding.
The figure turned, and Arabelle saw their face clearly. It was a woman; tall - taller than Christine (almost as tall as Strider) - and fair. Her skin was snowy white, and even at a distance, Arabelle could see that her eyes were a piercing blue.
"Come out, all of you," Strider called suddenly. "We are safe."
Arabelle didn't move, at first. She saw Merry and Pippin move, and at the top of the third troll, she saw a flicker of movement as her father slid down. Erik reached up, and then Arabelle saw Sam fall into view. Taking a steadying breath, she stood up herself, and moved forward.
And another chapter done.
Guys, I swear; I didn't mean for it to take ten months... Jeeze, I can't believe time got away from me so much. And this chapter just didn't want to come out all at once, dangit, or it would have been up much sooner. Again, I really am sorry.