Chapter III: Fog On The Barrow-Downs
See here for playthrough report.
It was dark, and white stars were shining, when Frodo and his companions came at last to the Greenway-crossing and drew near the village. It had been agreed that Gildor and the other elves would wait outside the village for the hobbits and dwarves and so the seven halflings went on ahead. It would raise too much attention and suspicion for the elves to enter the village as well, but dwarves were still seen in Bree on their way between the Blue Mountains and Erebor. Haladon went on ahead to scout out the settlement, but the company had heard nothing from him and could wait no longer. The hobbits came to the West-gate and found it shut, but at the door of the lodge beyond it, there was a man sitting. He jumped up and fetched a lantern and looked over the gate at them in surprise.
“What do you want, and where do you come from?” he asked gruffly.
“We are making for the inn here,” answered Frodo. “We are journeying east and cannot go further tonight.”
“Hobbits! Seven hobbits! And what’s more, out of the Shire by their talk,” said the gatekeeper, softly as if speaking to himself. He stared at them darkly for a moment, and then slowly opened the gate and let them pass through.
“We don’t often see Shire-folk travelling on the Road at night,” he went on, as they halted a moment by his door. “You’ll pardon my wondering what business takes you away east of Bree! What may your names be, might I ask?”
“Our names and our business are our own, and this does not seem a good place to discuss them,” said Frodo, not liking the look of the man or the tone of his voice.
“Your business is your own, no doubt,” said the man; “but it’s my business to ask questions after nightfall.”
“We are hobbits from Buckland, and we have a fancy to travel and to stay at the inn here,” put in Merry. “I am Mr. Brandybuck. Is that enough for you? The Bree-folk used to be fair-spoken to travellers, or so I had heard.”
“All right, all right!” said the man. “I meant no offence. But you’ll find maybe that more folk than old Harry at the gate will be asking you questions. There’s queer folk about. If you go on to The Pony, you’ll find you’re oat the only guests.”
He wished them good night, and they said no more; but Frodo could see in the lantern-light that the man was still eyeing them curiously. He was glad to hear the gate clang to behind them, as they rode forward. He wondered why the man was so suspicious, and whether any one had been asking for news of a party of hobbits. Could it have been Gandalf? He might have arrived, while they were delayed in the Forest and the Downs. But there was something in the look and the voice of the gatekeeper that made him uneasy.
The man stared after the hobbits for a moment, and then he went back to his house. As soon as his back was turned, a dark figure climbed quickly in over the gate and melted into the shadows of the village street.
The hobbits rode on up a gentle slope, passing a few detached houses, and drew up outside the inn. The houses looked large and strange to them. Sam stared up at the inn with its three storeys and many windows, and felt his heart sink. He had imagined himself meeting giants taller than trees, and other creatures even more terrifying, some time or other in the course of his journey; but at the moment he was finding his first sight of Men and their tall houses quite enough, indeed too much for the dark end of a tiring day. He pictured black horses standing all saddled in the shadows of the inn-yard, and Black Riders peering out of dark upper windows.
“We surely aren’t going to stay here for the night, are we, sir?” he exclaimed. “If there are hobbit-folk in these pans, why don’t we look for some that would be willing to take us in? It would be more homelike.”
“What’s wrong with the inn?” said Frodo. “Haladon recommended it. I expect it’s homelike enough inside.”
Even from the outside the inn looked a pleasant house to familiar eyes. It had a front on the Road, and two wings running back on land partly cut out of the lower slopes of the hill, so that at the rear the second-floor windows were level with the ground. There was a wide arch leading to a courtyard between the two wings, and on the left under the arch there was a large doorway reached by a few broad steps. The door was open and light streamed out of it. Above the arch there was a lamp, and beneath it swung a large signboard: a fat white pony reared up on its hind legs. Over the door was painted in white letters: The Prancing Pony by Barliman Butterbur. Many of the lower windows showed lights behind thick curtains.
As they hesitated outside in the gloom, someone began singing a merry song inside, and many cheerful voices joined loudly in the chorus. They listened to this encouraging sound for a moment and Merry whistled along, for the tune was well known and easy to follow. The song ended and there was a burst of laughter and clapping. The hobbits were just about to cross the threshold when a low whistle reached them from across the street. Turning, the hobbits saw a tall figure, hooded and cloaked standing in the alleyway opposite. They recognised it was Haladon and hurried over to join with him.
“Well met my friends,” said Haladon warmly, “though you should not have come here tonight. I fear this place is filled with spies of the Enemy and that your movements are already being watched. I was on my way to deal with their ringleader, a certain Bill Ferny, and would be glad of your company.”
“Then we shall gladly go with you,” said Frodo, “I was hoping for a night of peace and rest, but I am beginning to think this will not happen this evening.”
Drawing their cloaks around them, the hobbits followed Haladon through the alleys between the tall houses until they came to a dark ill-kept house behind a thick hedge: the last house in the village. In one of the windows Frodo caught a glimpse of a scornful face with heavy black brows; but it vanished at once. Haladon put his shoulder to the door and the hobbits crowded in behind him. The house was darker on the inside than the night outside, but sat in the corner they were able to make out the man from the window, illuminated by the glow of a short black pipe.
“Evening Featherfoot”, he said, “Up late, I see. Found some friends at last? And how are we, my little friends? I’d be careful with this one if I were you. He may not have your best interests at heart.” He raised an eyebrow as Haladon uncoiled a rope he had by side. “Do you honestly believe that binding me shall do you any good? I have friends in this town, you know, who I am due to meet. They will come looking for me, and then for you.”
The ranger said nothing and the ill-tempered man did not resist as Haladon bound his legs and arms to the chair and stuffed a rag in his mouth. The group turned and left the dingy house, filing down the path to the gate leading to the street beyond. At the end of the path there was a lump of clothes and hair, and they realised Fatty was not with them in Bill Ferny’s house. Sam rushed up to the fallen hobbit and shook his shoulder. To their relief Fatty stirred and seemed to wake almost immediately. “I thought I had fallen into deep water,” he mumbled as his eyes slowly opened, before suddenly sitting up and clutching Sam’s cloak. “The Black Riders. They are here. I have seen the Black Riders!”
Frodo knelt beside him. “Hush now Fredegar, hush. You are safe with us. Now what do you mean, you’ve seen the Black Riders?”
“I was following you into the gate when I felt a cold shiver run down my spine so I turned to see. A black shape seemed form in the shadows and approach the house. I did not move away, because I began to tremble all over. Then I felt terrified, and I did turn back, and was just going to bolt into the house, when something came behind me and I… I fell over.” Fatty was nearly in tears as he finished his story, choking back sobs.
“I have seen this before,” said Haladon. “The Black Breath. The Riders must have left their horses outside, and passed back through the South-gate in secret. They will be meeting their spies here, trying to discover information of you Frodo. Something may happen in the night, before we leave Bree.”
“What will happen?” said Pippin. “Will they attack us here?”
“No, I think not,” said Haladon. “They are not all here yet. And in any case that is not their way. In dark and loneliness they are strongest; they will not openly attack where there are lights and many people, not until they are desperate, not while all the long leagues of Eriador still lie before us. But their power is in terror, and already some in Bree are in their clutch. They will drive these wretches to some evil work: Ferny, and some others too. Though now I fear it is being watched, we must return to The Prancing Pony. I have arranged to meet one of my kin there and we shall need her aid to continue our journey east, but I’m afraid we cannot stay here long this night.”
Supporting Fatty between Pippin and Sam, the company made their way back to the inn. They passed under the arch, and climbed up the steps. Frodo went forward and nearly bumped into a short fat man with a bald head and a red face. He had a white apron on, and was bustling out of one door and in through another, carrying a tray laden with full mugs.
“Can we-” began Frodo.
“Half a minute, if you please!” shouted the man over his shoulder, and vanished into a babel of voices and a cloud of smoke. In a moment he was out again, wiping his hands on his apron.
“Good evening, little master!” he said, bending down. “What may you be wanting?”
“Food for eight, preferably in a private room if that can be managed. Are you Mr. Butterbur?”
“That’s right! Barliman is my name. Barliman Butterbur at your service! You’re from the Shire, eh?” he said. “Well I’m run off my feet; but I’ll see what I can do for you. We don’t often get a party out of the Shire nowadays, and I should be sorry not to make you welcome. But there is such a crowd already in the house tonight as there hasn’t been for long enough. It never rains but it pours, we say in Bree.
“Hi! Nob!’ he shouted. ‘Where are you, you woolly-footed slow-coach? Nob!”
“Coming, sir! Coming!” A cheery-looking hobbit bobbed out of a door, and seeing the travellers, stopped short and stared at them with great interest.
“Where’s Bob?” asked the landlord. “You don’t know? Well find him! Double sharp! I haven’t got six legs, nor six eyes neither!” Nob trotted off with a grin and a wink.
“Well, now, what was I going to say?” said Mr. Butterbur, tapping his forehead. “One thing drives out another, so to speak. I’m that busy tonight, my head is going round. There’s a party that came up the Greenway from down South last night – and that was strange enough to begin with. Then there’s a travelling company of dwarves going West come in this evening, and another pair going East. And now there’s you. If you weren’t hobbits, I doubt if we could house you. But we’ve got a room or two in the north wing that were made special for hobbits, when this place was built, if you don’t mind that is sir,” he asked of Haladon. “On the ground floor as they usually prefer; round windows and all as they like it. I hope you’ll be comfortable. This way now!”
He led them a short way down a passage, and opened a door. “Here is a nice little parlour!” he said. “I hope it will suit. Excuse me now. I’m that busy. No time for talking. I must be trotting. It’s hard work for two legs, but I don’t get thinner. I’ll look in again later. If you want anything, ring the hand-bell, and Nob will come. If he don’t come, ring and shout!”
Off he went at last, and left them feeling rather breathless. He seemed capable of an endless stream of talk, however busy he might be. They found themselves in a small and cosy room. There was a bit of bright fire burning on the hearth, and in front of it were some low and comfortable chairs. There was a round table, already spread with a white cloth, and on it was a large hand-bell. But Nob, the hobbit servant, came bustling in long before they thought of ringing. He brought candles and a tray full of plates.
The group washed their faces and were in the middle of good deep mugs of beer when Mr. Butterbur and Nob came in again. In a twinkling the table was laid. There was hot soup, cold meats, a blackberry tart, new loaves, slabs of butter, and half a ripe cheese: good plain food, as good as the Shire could show, and homelike enough to dispel the last of Sam’s misgivings (already much relieved by the excellence of the beer).
The landlord hovered round for a moment, and then prepared to leave them. “I don’t know whether you would care to join the company, when you have supped,” he said, standing at the door. “The company would be very pleased to welcome you, if you had a mind. We don’t get Outsiders – travelers from the Shire, I should say, begging your pardon – often; and we like to hear a bit of news, or any story or song you may have in mind. But as you please! Ring the bell, if you lack anything!”
By the end of their supper, even Haladon was feeling refreshed and encouraged from his long vigilance. “It would do us no harm to go to the common room for a spell, indeed it would look more suspicious to those looking out for anything unusual for such a large group of hobbits to eschew the chance for conversation and sociability. No, I think that to assuage the suspicions of any Bree-landers it would be best you join the company. You can retire in about an hour or so, claiming the need to depart early. I shall wait here for you, my friend will meet me here.” He spoke partly out of truth, but also to ease the tension he could clearly see in the hobbits, deprived of a chance to relax ever since Frodo first left Bag End.
Needing no further encouragement, the hobbits finished the last morsels on their plates and took their leave of the ranger, leaving him sat by the hearth on a low stool, wrapped in his thoughts and pipe smoke.
The company was in the big common-room of the inn. The gathering was large and mixed, as Frodo discovered, when his eyes got used to the light. This came chiefly from a blazing log-fire, for the three lamps hanging from the beams were dim, and half veiled in smoke. Barliman Butterbur was standing near the fire, talking to a couple of dwarves and one or two strange-looking men. On the benches were various folk: men of Bree, a collection of local hobbits (sitting chattering together), a few more dwarves, and other vague figures difficult to make out away in the shadows and comers.
As soon as the Shire-hobbits entered, there was a chorus of welcome from the Bree-landers. The strangers, especially those that had come up the Greenway, stared at them curiously. The landlord introduced the newcomers to the Bree-folk, so quickly that, though they caught many names, they were seldom sure who the names belonged to. The Men of Bree seemed all to have rather botanical (and to the Shire-folk rather odd) names, like Rushlight, Goatleaf, Heathertoes, Appledore, Thistlewool and Ferny (not to mention Butterbur). Some of the hobbits had similar names. The Mugworts, for instance, seemed numerous. But most of them had natural names, such as Banks, Brockhouse, Longholes, Sandheaver, and Tunnelly, many of which were used in the Shire.
The Men and Dwarves were mostly talking of distant events and telling flews of a kind that was becoming only too familiar. There was trouble away in the South, and it seemed that the Men who had come up the Greenway were on the move, looking for lands where they could find some peace. The Bree-folk were sympathetic, but plainly not very ready to take a large number of strangers into their little land. One of the travellers, a squint-eyed ill-favoured fellow, was foretelling that more and more people would be coming north in the near future. “If room isn’t found for them, they’ll find it for themselves. They’ve a right to live, same as other folk,” he said loudly. The local inhabitants did not look pleased at the prospect.
The hobbits did not pay much attention to all this, and it did not at the moment seem to concern hobbits. Big Folk could hardly beg for lodgings in hobbit-holes. They were more interested in Sam and Pippin, who were now feeling quite at home, and were chatting gaily about events in the Shire. Pippin roused a good deal of laughter with an account of the collapse of the roof of the Town Hole in Michel Delving: Will Whitfoot, the Mayor, and the fattest hobbit in the Westfarthing, had been buried in chalk, and came out like a floured dumpling. Bilbo looked up as the door outside opened, revealed Bofur and Dori accompanying a wind-swept man who looked so tired and dirty as though he had seen a bed in many months. The old hobbit called over the dwarves and asked Dori to introduce him to their companion.
“We got tired of waiting outside, though it wasn’t fit you get all the warmth and ale to yourselves. Met this one trying to get past the gatekeeper, who was being a bit meddlesome and not letting this upstanding fellow through. This is Eothain, a scout out of Rohan. Says he has been sent here to bring news of the outside world back to his folk, but I’ll let him tell his own story after he wets his throat.” Dori waved over Nob, whose tray was filled with mugs of beer, and promptly lightened his load.
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen Gimli about, have you Dori? He was supposed to meet us here. But I suppose there’s nothing we can do about it. Now then my friend,” said Bilbo, turning to the stranger, “first thing’s first and that’s an introduction. My name is Bilbo and this lad here,” the old hobbit gestured for Frodo to join the conversation, “this lad is my nephew Frodo. And I am ashamed to confess that I have never made my way to your lands though even in the Shire we have heard of the legendary horsemanship of the Rohirrim. Tell me, what brings you so far north in such dark times?”
The newcomer took a moment to finish his drink before responding. “You must forgive me master hobbit, I have heard of your folk though I did not believe the stories had any merit to them. I am named Eothain, and I am sent of my lord Eomer, Third Marshal of the Mark. Not a week past, a terror passed through our land as one we had not felt in generations. Horses saddled for years suddenly went mad and bolted from their stalls, entire families woke during the night weeping from fright and the very moon itself hid her face on the cloudless night. I have followed the trail of this nightmare for five days and nights, sleeping on my horse as needed, trying to learn of it that we may be prepared should it ever decide to return. I came to this town seeking a night And now my dwarven friend tells that our causes may be aligned. How is this so? If you know anything about this shadow then I ask you share it.”
Frodo studied the rider for a moment. “I think it is time to retire to our room. Will you join us for some supper, Eothain of Rohan?” The scout accepted and one by one the hobbits excused themselves from the common-room, begging an early start in the morning, though some more reluctantly than others. Frodo was the last to leave, accompanied by Bofur, and as he stood from his table, Frodo saw there was one swarthy Bree-lander who stood looking at them with a knowing and half-mocking expression that made him feel very uncomfortable. Presently he slipped out of the door, followed by the squint-eyed southerner: the two had been whispering together a good deal during the evening.
“Come on laddie, or else there’ll be no food left,” urged Bofur, who had seen nothing amiss. Reluctantly, Frodo turned and followed the dwarf out of the common-room. When they returned to their now very crowded room, Bofur saw he need not have worried for Nob seemed to have been constantly arriving with more plates of hot food. Once he saw Frodo in the door, Sam thanked Nob and paid him out of the company’s purse, bolting the door behind him. Haladon was seated exactly where the hobbits had left him, but sitting opposite him before the hearth was a stranger to the hobbits. A masked woman with her hood drawn up sat on the edge of her chair, one hand on the arm-rest as though ready to stand at a moment’s notice.
“This is Elgarain,” said Haladon, “she knows of our journey and of our pursuers. She says that two Black Riders entered Bree this morning and another two are patrolling the Road east of here. The whereabouts of the other five are unknown for now.”
Frodo put his hands to his ears, desperate to block out a piercing shriek that was becoming all too familiar to him. “They are here, they’ve come!” he cried.
“Quickly, everyone with me! We must leave this place, and we must do so now,” Bofur rallied the dazed and terrified company. “Eothain, we cannot ask you to join us, but know that we are being hunted by the shadow of which you speak.”
“Then my way lies with you. My horse is in the stables and has not yet been unsaddled. Let us depart,” the Rohirrim threw his cloak about his shoulders and led the way out the door. In the corridor they could hear cries from the common-room and Nob was crouched on the floor weeping.
Sam grabbed his shoulder as he passed the hobbit, “Get out of here, do you here. Go home, bar the door and pray for the morning.” Nob nodded as the group filed past him, Haladon and Elgarain taking the rearguard.
As they fetched Eothain’s horse and Bill from the stables, the hobbits tried to close their ears to the screams and sobs from the common-room, especially as one by one they fell silent. Passing through the arch, Elgarain took a lantern from they went and hurled it at the door they had closed behind them. The hobbits did not look back as Eothain led them to the East-gate of the town, but they heard a warning bell sound as the cry of ‘Fire!’ was taken up. As they reached the gate, Haladon exchanged a few hurried whispers with his kin and embraced her before Elgarain turned back into the town, drawing a short sword as she went.
Pippin paused as they left, “But isn’t she…”
Haladon pushed the hobbit forwards, “Elgarain knows the value of our mission, and is willing to lay down her life for it. We shall honour her memory in the Hall of Annuminas once we are in happier times. But now we must run.”
As they left the town behind, they noticed a group of men following them. “Pay then no heed,” said Haladon, “we cannot stop to deal with them at this time and they cannot hinder us now. I fear our position is already known to the Enemy and they are too few to assault us. As for Gildor and the elves, we cannot wait for them. Gildor knows the path I am taking you on, he shall catch up with us before too long.” Continuing onwards, they kept on along the Road for some miles as it began to run swiftly downwards into wooded country. To their left they could see some of the houses and hobbit-holes of Staddle on the gentler eastern slopes of Bree-hill; down in a deep hollow away north of the Road there were wisps of rising smoke that showed where Combe lay; Archet was hidden in the trees beyond.
After the Road had run down some way, and had left Bree-hill standing tall and brown behind, they came on a narrow track that led off towards the North. “This is where we leave the open and take to cover,” said Haladon.
His plan, as far as they could understand it without knowing the country, was to go towards Archet at first, but to bear right and pass it on the east, and then to steer as straight as he could over the wild lands to Weathertop Hill. In that way they would, if all went well, cut off a great loop of the Road, which further on bent southwards to avoid the Midgewater Marshes. But, of course, they would have to pass through the marshes themselves, and Haladon’s description of them was not encouraging.
However, in the meanwhile, walking was not unpleasant. Indeed, if it had not been for the disturbing events of the night, they would have enjoyed this pan of the journey better than any up to that time. The moon was shining clear and the woods in the valley were still leafy and full of colour, and seemed peaceful and wholesome. Haladon guided them confidently among the many crossing paths, although left to themselves they would soon have been at a loss. He was taking a wandering course with many turns and doublings, to put off any pursuit. At length he was able to declare that their pursuers has indeed been put off their trail, and as the moon reached its zenith he allowed them to make camp and rest.
As the company unloaded their packs, Haladon volunteered to take the first watch. Overcome with exhaustion and relief, everyone else gladly accepted and prompt fell asleep. The ranger drew his cloak in around him to protect himself from the cold, their camp had been so hastily struck they had not even lit a fire to ward off the chill. He waited until the sky had begun to turn grey in the east and woke Bofur to take over.
Whether because of Haladon’s skill or for some other reason, they saw no sign and heard no sound of any other living thing all that day: neither two-footed, except birds; nor four-footed, except one fox and a few squirrels. The next day they began to steer a steady course eastwards; and still all was quiet and peaceful. On the third day out from Bree they came out of the Chetwood. The land had been falling steadily, ever since they turned aside from the Road, and they now entered a wide flat expanse of country, much more difficult to manage. They were far beyond the borders of the Bree-land, out in the pathless wilderness, and drawing near to the Midgewater Marshes.
Tom Cotton paused to survey the land around them, he had never been out of the Shire before but he was not sorry for it. “This place is not good at all. No hills for holes, and the ground is bad for crops. The more I see of the world, the more I am glad of having my home in the Shire.” Frodo turned to respond, but saw beyond him several figures coming out of the Chetwood where they had just been. Keeping his eyes on the approaching group, Frodo alerted Haladon who quickly identified the newcomers.
“Worry not, my friend. Did I not say Gildor would find us soon enough? See how swiftly he and his kin cover the ground between us,” the ranger laughed.
It seemed as only a few short moments before the elves closed the distance between them, but their faces were not filled with relief at having done so. “We must hurry,” warned Gildor as he clasped Haladon’s arm. “The fire in Bree has riled up a hornet’s nest against you. Bill Ferny has persuaded the town that you are thieves who set the fire so cover your tracks. He leads a band of men against you and are less than a day behind.”
“Not more running,” said Fatty, “I’m not sure my feet can take it.”
Merry chortled, “And if we’re not careful, soon we’ll need to think of a different name for you.”
“We will not need to run yet,” Haladon reassured the hobbits, “we will be able to lose them in the Midgewater, and then make for Weathertop after that. Elgarion told me the rangers of this region keeping a watch from there, we shall seek their aid.”
The ground now became damp, and in places boggy and here and there they came upon pools, and wide stretches of reeds and rushes filled with the warbling of little hidden birds. They had to pick their way carefully to keep both dry-footed and on their proper course. At first they made fan-progress, but as they went on, their passage became slower and more dangerous. The marshes were bewildering and treacherous, and there was no permanent trail even for Rangers to find through their shifting quagmires. The flies began to torment them, and the air was full of clouds of tiny midges that crept up their sleeves and breeches and into their hair.
“I am being eaten alive!” cried Pippin. “Midgewater! There are more midges than water!”
“What do they live on when they can’t get hobbit?” asked Sam, scratching his neck.
They spent a miserable day in this lonely and unpleasant country. Their camping-place was damp, cold, and uncomfortable; and the biting insects would not let them sleep. The next day, the fourth since Bree, was little better, and the night almost as comfortless. They had not gone far on the fifth day when they left the last straggling pools and reed-beds of the marshes behind them. The land before them began steadily to rise again. Away in the distance eastward they could now see a line of hills. The highest of them was at the right of the line and a little separated from the others. It had a conical top, slightly flattened at the summit.
“That is Weathertop,” said Haladon. “The Old Road, which we have left far away on our right, runs to the south of it and passes not far from its foot. We might reach it by noon tomorrow, if we go straight towards it, but it will not be safe for for us to wait there long. If the Riders fail to find us in the wilderness, they are likely to make for Weathertop themselves. It commands a wide view all round.”
“What do you advise us to do?” asked Frodo.
“I think,” answered Haladon slowly, as if he was not quite sure, “I think the best thing is to go as straight eastward from here as we can, to make for the line of hills, not for Weathertop itself. There we can strike a path I know that runs at their feet; it will bring us to Weathertop from the north and less openly. Then we shall whether the hill is held by friend, foe or none at all.”
All that day they plodded along, until the cold and early evening came down. The land became drier and more barren; but mists and vapours lay behind them on the marshes. A few melancholy birds were piping and wailing, until the round red sun sank slowly into the western shadows; then an empty silence fell. The hobbits thought of the soft light of sunset glancing through the cheerful windows of Bag End far away.
At the day’s end they came to a stream that wandered down from the hills to lose itself in the stagnant marshland, and they went up along its banks while the light lasted. It was already night when at last they halted and made their camp under some stunted alder-trees in a dell by the shores of the stream. Ahead there loomed now against the dusky sky the bleak and treeless backs of the hills. That night they set a watch, but they were not able not sleep at all. The moon was waxing, and in the early night-hours a cold grey light lay on the land.
Sam and Merry got up and walked away from the fire. Frodo and Bilbo remained seated in silence. Haladon was watching the moonlight on the hill intently. All seemed quiet and still, but Frodo felt a cold dread creeping over his heart. He huddled closer to the fire. At that moment Sam came running back from the edge of the dell.
“I don’t know what it is,” he said, “but I suddenly felt afraid. I durstn’t go outside this dell for any money; I felt that something was creeping up the slope.”
“Did you see anything?” asked Gildor, springing to his feet.
“No, sir. I saw nothing, but I didn’t stop to look.”
“I saw something,” said Merry; “or I thought I did – away westwards where the moonlight was falling on the flats beyond the shadow of the hill-tops, I thought there were two or three black shapes. They seemed to be moving this way.”
“Keep close to the fire, with your faces outward!” cried Haladon. “Get some of the longer sticks ready in your hands!”
For a breathless time the company sat there, silent and alert, with their backs turned to the wood-fire, each gazing into the shadows that encircled them. Nothing happened. There was no sound or movement in the night. Frodo stirred, feeling that he must break the silence: he longed to shout out aloud.
“Hush!” whispered Dori. “What’s that?” gasped Fatty at the same moment.
Over the lip of the little dell, on the side away from the hill, they felt, rather than saw, a shadow rise, one shadow or more than one. They strained their eyes, and the shadows seemed to grow. Soon there could be no doubt:
Two tall black figures were standing there on the slope, looking down on them. So black were they that they seemed like black holes in the deep shade behind them. Frodo thought that he heard a faint hiss as of venomous breath and felt a thin piercing chill. Then the shapes slowly advanced.
Terror overcame Pippin and Bilbo, and they threw themselves flat on the ground. Sam shrank to Frodo’s side. Frodo was hardly less terrified than his companions; he was quaking as if he was bitter cold, but his terror was swallowed up in a sudden temptation to put on the Ring. The desire to do this laid hold of him, and he could think of nothing else. He did not forget the Barrow; but something seemed to be compelling him to disregard all warnings, and he longed to yield. Not with the hope of escape, or of doing anything, either good or bad: he simply felt that he must take the Ring and put it on his finger. He could not speak. He felt Sam looking at him, as if he knew that his master was in some great trouble, but he could not turn towards him. He shut his eyes and struggled for a while; but resistance became unbearable, and at last he slowly drew out the chain, and slipped the Ring on the forefinger of his left hand.
Immediately, though everything else remained as before, dim and dark, the shapes became terribly clear. He was able to see beneath their black wrappings. There were two tall figures: one standing on the lip of the dell, one advancing. In their white faces burned keen and merciless eyes; under their mantles were long grey robes; upon their grey hairs were helms of silver; in their haggard hands were swords of steel. Their eyes fell on him and pierced him, as they rushed towards him. Desperate, he drew his own sword, and it seemed to him that it flickered red, as if it was a firebrand. One advancing was taller than the other: his hair was long and gleaming and on his helm was a crown. In one hand he held a long sword, and in the other a knife; both the knife and the hand that held it glowed with a pale light. He sprang forward and bore down on Frodo.
At that moment Frodo threw himself forward on the ground, and he heard himself crying aloud: “O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!” At the same time he struck at the feet of his enemy. A shrill cry rang out in the night; and he felt a pain like a dart of poisoned ice pierce his left shoulder. Even as he swooned he caught, as through a swirling mist, a glimpse of Haladon leaping out of the darkness with a flaming brand of wood in his hand. With a last effort Frodo, dropping his sword, slipped the Ring from his finger and closed his right hand tight upon it.