See here for the play report upon which this narrative is based.
“What on earth did you mean by it Frodo, leaving off your departure so late? Didn’t Gandalf warn you of the dangers of delaying? But I suppose that’s Gandalf for you, never showing up when you need him. If I had a penny for every time… but there I go again. In any case, we need to get you out of here. Yesterday I saw one of these Black Riders searching for you on my way over here, only from a distance mind, and let me tell you they chilled me to the bone.”
“But how are we to escape them? If they truly are serving…him…, what hope do we have?” replied Frodo.
“Well my lad, you must trust yourself. You are a Baggins, after all. Though Gandalf was right, you shall have to leave that name behind you. With any luck, they might be confused by the two of us Baggins here, but we shall see. The first thing we must do is get you to Crickhollow. Buckland will prove safer than Bag End I fear. Do you have The Ring?” asked Bilbo.
“I have it here in my pocket. And Gandalf advised I should use the name ‘Underhill’ on The Road, and I see no reason to ignore that advice”
“Very good lad. Let us be off then, we have many miles to go before we can safely rest tonight. This is a thing, isn’t it? I always wanted to take you with me on an adventure, now I seem to be caught up in your own. Well now, The Road has gone ever on, and we must follow it, if we can.” Bilbo said, laying his hand on Frodo’s shoulder. “Ever on and on.”
Bilbo, Sam and Pippin busied themselves in packing the last items they needed for the journey, disappearing off into various side-rooms and corridors for bits and pieces missed before, and of course into the pantry for more supplies, just in case. Frodo stepped out into the garden to take one last look over Hobbiton. He stepped a short way down Hill Road, breathing in the crisp night air.
“It’s going to be a fine night,” Frodo said aloud, “I can’t bear any more hanging about. Bilbo is right, I am going to start on my way.” He turned to go back, and then he stopped for he heard voices, just round the corner by the end of Bagshot Row. One voice was certainly the old Gaffer’s; the other was strange, and somehow unpleasant. He could not make out what it said, but he heard the Gaffer’s answers, which were rather shrill. The old man seemed put out. “No, Mr Baggins has moved to Bucklebury. No, I can’t give no message. Good night to you.”
Footsteps started coming up the Hill, and Frodo wondered why that seemed to be filling him with a great terror. Quickening his pace to a brisk trot, he turned back towards Bag End and swiftly hid himself inside. Calling softly, Frodo gathered together his companions in the hallway and told them of what he had heard. “Well my lad,” said Bilbo, “we must be off with more haste than we had thought.”
Frodo responded, “And we must avoid the roads and known tracks if at all we can. Sam, bring us a map or two of the Shire. We’ll need as much guidance as we can if we are to travel in the pathless countryside as I fear we must. Pippin, load Sam’s pony with as much extra food as he can bear. We don’t know how long this will add to our journey and I don’t fancy walking to Buckland on an empty stomach. I fear it may be some days before we can find some friendly hearth to rest by.”
Pippin and Sam each set off on their respective tasks, eager to be off as soon as possible. Bilbo turned to Frodo and, in a low voice, said to him, “Don’t you worry my lad, we hobbits are resilient folk. We’ll see you to Buckland, and beyond if we are able. And we may find aid unlooked for on the journey ahead. Gandalf had many friends in these parts who have no love of darker things. They may not seem as valuable as Gandalf, but ‘all that is gold does not glitter,” and with a wink the old hobbit turned and went about his own preparations.
Before much time had passed, everyone was assembled back in the hallway, standing before the green door leading to the outer world. Sam had discovered one of Bilbo’s old swords hidden away in the library, and had now strapped it firmly to his side. Weighing heavily in his pack were one or two books found there also, filled with various healing remedies and potions. Pippin turned to Frodo, “Bill’s all saddled up, we should have enough food to get us the way to Rivendell and back again. We stand ready for your command, our noble leader!” he said with a grin. Frodo nodded, laid his hand on the door and stepped out into the night.
Merry shook his head. “That’s the third one, Fatty. The third Big Folk to have thundered past on his horse along the lane. What do you think they mean by it?”
Fredegar Bolger came over to the window, “Do you know Merry, I have no idea. But it’s long after dark now, and no good comes of being out and about this long after dark. It isn’t decent.”
“Well in any case, we need to be getting on. These boxes aren’t going to unpack themselves. Hullo, what’s this?” Out from a crate at his feet, Merry had pulled a leather scabbard housing a pale leaf-shaped blade. “Another one of Bilbo’s treasures, I shouldn’t wonder. Is that troll I’m smelling off of it?”
“Whatever it is”, answered Fatty, “it’s so foul I might be put off my dinner.”
Merry raised an eyebrow at him. “Well maybe not so foul as that,” Fatty corrected.
They both started as the door thumped three times. Throwing each other nervous glances, they edged towards it. Merry drew the ancient blade as he reached for the handle. “Meriadoc Brandybuck, put that down! Can’t you see this is no time for your foolish antics?!” Standing before the pair of surprised hobbits was a young lass with an older hobbit in her arms. Putting down the dagger, Merry and Fatty picked up Farmer Cotton and ushered Rosie inside.
“We were walking back to Newbury,” she explained, “to my aunt’s hole where we’re visiting, when some ruffian on a big black horse rode up to us. Asked us about Mr Baggins, so he did. Of course we didn’t like the feel of it, so my da told him he didn’t know where Mr Bilbo was, which we don’t. Only this ruffian didn’t seen too pleased at that and as he rode passed us he knocked my poor da down! Your’s was the nearest lights we could see so we came here, but my da’s taken the fall worse than he ought.”
“I’m fine lass, stop your fretting,” grumbled Farmer Cotton when she took a breath. “Only landed on my shoulder is all.”
“Well whatever the case,” said Fatty, “you’ll be staying here tonight. I told you it wasn’t decent Merry, didn’t I. Not decent at all.”
Frodo shut and locked the round door, and bent down to put the key under the doormat. Raising the mat, he noticed something glimmering between the paving stones. “Someone left this here, it could not have fallen here by accident,” he said, raising a beryl to eye level.
“It is an elf-stone,” said Bilbo. “We have an ally out there in the night. Why they did not make themselves known however, I cannot say.”
“Did you hear that?” whispered Sam to Pippin, “There’s a real live elf out there! I wonder if we’ll get to meet him.”
The four hobbits shouldered their packs and took up their sticks, and walked round to the west side of Bag End. ‘Good-bye!’ said Frodo, looking at the dark blank windows. He then turned and, following Bilbo, hurried after Pippin down the garden-path. They led Bill through a gap in the hedge at the bottom and took to the fields passing into the darkness.
At the bottom of the Hill on its western side they came to the gate opening on to a narrow lane. There they halted and took stock of their route. Resolving to stay off the road and on the fields, Frodo picked up his stick again. “Well, we all like walking in the dark,” he said, “so let’s put some miles behind us before bed.”
For a while they went on their way without a word between them. In their dark cloaks they were all but invisible, even Bill with his dark coat was hard to pick out in the twilight. Since they were all hobbits and were trying to be silent, they made no noise, save for an occasional nicker from Bill. Even the wild things hardly noticed their passing. As they went on into the night, a piercing scream stabbed through the night air, sending a shiver down the hobbits’ spines and setting their teeth on edge.
“That came from the east,” said Sam.
Frodo raised his head, “It matters not, for our way lies east and we cannot avoid that.” Pulling their cloaks tighter around them, led by Pippin they quicken their pace and hurried onwards.
“What do you mean, you’re going out there? Didn’t you hear Miss Cotton, those Big Folk mean nothing but ill towards us!”
Merry looked up from the crate he was rummaging in. “And that, Fredegar Bolger is exactly why I must. Frodo is out there, Pippin and Sam too! They don’t know the paths to and from Buckland as well as I, and if they have any sense, which cousin Frodo does, then they shall be avoiding the roads and sticking to the countryside. I’ll cross over at the Ferry and contact Farmer Maggot. He and his sons will help us keep an eye out for those three. Ah here we are. Put this on Mr Cotton, we don’t want you getting hurt again.” Merry had produced an old mail shirt out of an even older sack Frodo had asked him to fetch from the Mathom House in Michel Delving, and handed it to the farmer.
“I told you, I wasn’t hurt. I just landed funny is all,” the hobbit mumbled as he pulled the mail over his head. “Stop fussing lass, I’m fine.”
Rosie put her hands on her hips. “Now Da, if you’d stop wincing every time you moved your arm, maybe we’d believe you!”
“Shh, both of you. Look!” hushed Fatty, for out the glass panes they were able to see a large dark shape moving low on the ground toward the garden gate.
“He must have followed you. Right, that settles it. Mr Cotton, Rosie, come with me. We’ll go out the back. Fatty, distract him,” whispered Merry as he strode toward the back door, strapping his blade to his belt.
“Distract him? What on earth for?”
“We’re going to jump him and ask what he means, sneaking in the dead of night about like this, and riding down poor Mr Cotton.”
“‘Poor Mr Cotton’? I told you…” Farmer Cotton began, before Rosie shot him a look, quickly quietening the older hobbit.
“Right then, let’s go!” and with that, Merry led them off into the gloom.
Fatty looked at the open back door for a moment, contemplating for a brief moment whether they really needed him. Drawing a breath, he opened the front door, held his lantern high and cried out, “Who disturbs our peace at this hour? Speak!”
The dark figure crouched low to the ground and paused at this unexpected appearance. Fatty heard a hiss come from it, and then in a voice that sounded guttural and silken together asked of him,”Baggins?”
“No I am not! And there’s nobody here by that name neither, be off with you!”
As the words came out of his mouth, Fatty saw there in the shadows beyond the garden wall a second figure, this time on a steed as black as pitch. Even as he recognised the rider, it turned and rode north, leaving its companion facing Fatty. Drawing itself upright, the voice asked, “Where then is Baggins?”
Before Fatty could muster an answer, Merry and Farmer Cotton charged out of the darkness toward it, Merry brandishing his newfound blade. A voice called out from behind them, “Stop! Stop now!” as the figure reached inside their dark robes and revealed a sword easily the height of a hobbit. The two stopped just at it swung at them, the pitted blade missing them by a hair’s breadth. A hooded man stepped toward Fatty, grabbed the lantern and threw it at the dark figure’s feet, smashing it and spilling the oil inside. Within seconds, they were ablaze as dry robes caught flame, sending a column of fire whipping into the night sky. With a shriek that cut to the hobbits’ bones the figure collapsed, leaving behind nothing but a pile of smouldering cloth.
Shaking their heads, trying to clear their minds, the hobbits turned to the cloaked man. “Thank you my friend, you are well met tonight of all nights. I guess that it is no coincidence you are here. What is your name?” asked Merry.
The man nodded his appreciation, “My name is Haladon, a Ranger of the lands east and south of here, and I have pursued these Nazgul from Sarn Ford. Who is this Baggins they seek?”
Fatty and Merry exchanged a glance at each other. “Do they mean Frodo? Or maybe Mr Bilbo?”
“Perhaps I can help there then. We had word from Elrond of Rivendell to protect the halfing of the Shire known as Frodo, who would be travelling under the name Underhill. My task is to guide him safely to Rivendell at all costs.”
Merry extended his hand to the Ranger, “Then your path lies with us, we intend to keep Frodo’s company to Rivendell as best we can. But he is not arrived here yet, we were just on our way to Bucklebury Ferry to set a watch for him there. You would be welcome to join us if you wish.”
Haladon took the hobbit’s hand and shook it, “I shall gladly go with you. Against these foes, any aid shall be most welcome.”
As he was speaking, a pony came trotting up the road from Brandy Hall bearing a cloaked hobbit on its back. “It that you Merry? I ought to have guessed you might have something to do with this? What was the meaning of that dreadful shriek? All of Brandy Hall is in an uproar over it, for we could all hear it. Even those deaf with age could perceive it. What have you brought on us?” Before Merry could answer, Haladon called back, “There are invaders from the south! Be quick, away! Sound the Horn of Buckland!”
After a while of marching, the four hobbits plunged into a deeply cloven track between tall trees. It was very dark. At first they talked but as the night wore on then they marched on in silence. At last, as they began to climb a steep slope, Bilbo stopped and yawned.
“I must confess, I am so sleepy,” he said, “that soon I shall fall down. It is nearly midnight.”
“I thought you liked walking in the dark,” said Frodo, “But there is no great hurry, Merry is expecting us some time the day after tomorrow; but that leaves us nearly two days more. We’ll halt at the first likely spot. See the Star of Eärendil, the Evening Star, it shines in the West behind us. Our course has been true.”
“The wind’s in the West also,” said Sam. “If we get to the other side of this hill, we shall find a spot that is sheltered and snug enough, sir.” Sam knew the land well within twenty miles of Hobbiton, but that was the limit of his geography.
Just over the top of the hill they came on the patch of fir-wood. Leaving the road they went into the deep resin-scented darkness of the trees. Soon they had a merry crackle of flame at the foot of a large fir-tree and they sat round it for a while, drawing on pipes and pulling their cloaks tight in around them until they began to nod. Then, each in an angle of the great tree’s roots, they curled up in their cloaks and blankets, and were soon fast asleep. They set a watch, but all were so tired they slept without guard. A few creatures came and looked at them when the fire had died away. A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.
“Hobbits!” he thought. “Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Four of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this!”
Merry led Haladon north to the eastern pier of Bucklebury Ferry, along with Farmer Cotton and Rosie. Ahead went the scout from Brandy Hall, raising the alarm of the invasion of the Big Folk. They had not gone far when he heard a sudden clear horn-cry go up ringing into the sky and up went the Horn-cry of Buckland, shaking the air. The Brandybucks were blowing the horns that had not been sounded for a hundred years, not since the white wolves came in the Fell Winter, when the Brandywine was frozen over.
“Awake! Awake! Fear, Fire, Foes! Awake!
Fire, Foes! Awake!”
As they went, the companions heard behind them a hubbub of voices and a great din and slamming of doors. In front of them lights sprang out in the night; dogs barked; feet came running.
Before they had gone far, the group halted. Silhouetted on the road ahead of them, a Black Rider hovered over the prone figure of the Brandybuck scout, crouched by his fallen form. Enraged by the sight of his fallen kinsmen, Merry drew his blade, let out a cry and charged the dark one, followed closely by Haladon and Farmer Cotton. Whether taken of guard by the sudden assault or by the Horn-crys echoing in the air about them, the shadowy figure hissed at the oncoming attack and withdrew into the darkness about the road. Let the little people blow! Sauron would deal with them later.
“We must press on,” said Haladon as they caught their breath. “The horns of your people will not deter them long and we must reach the Ferry as soon as able. But here, see these hoof-tracks. They are too big for the ponies used by your kin, but too light for the Black Rider’s iron-shod horses. There is someone else here, but whether for our side or their’s I cannot say. It does not change our purpose however. Let us fly on to the Ferry.”
“We are not far,” replied Farmer Cotton looking to Merry for confirmation. “The Ferry should be only a half hour or so away.”
Merry nodded, “We’ll be there before dawn. What awaits us there though, who can say.”
The day’s march promised to be warm and tiring work. After some miles, however, the road ceased to roll up and down: it climbed to the top of a steep bank in a weary zig-zagging sort of way, and then prepared to go down for the last time. In front of them they saw the lower lands dotted with small clumps of trees that melted away in the distance to a brown woodland haze. Pippin let out a cry, and bent to pick up what seemed to be another small beryl. “Look here, is this not another of those Elf-stones you were telling us of Bilbo?”
The old hobbit took it in his hand and held it to the light. “It seems so. It would appear our mysterious ally is watching over us even now. But I doubt they will make themselves known until they are ready to do so, not if they have not done so already. Come now, we still have many miles to cover before dusk.”
The sun was beginning to get low and the light of afternoon was fading on the land as they went down the hill. So far they had not met a soul on the road. This way was not much used. They had been jogging along again for an hour or more when Sam stopped a moment as if listening. They were now on level ground, with the twilight about them, and the road after much winding lay straight ahead through grass-land sprinkled with tall trees, outliers of the approaching woods.
“I can hear a pony or a horse coming along the road behind,” said Sam.
They stopped suddenly and stood as silent as tree-shadows, listening. There was a sound of hoofs in the lane, some way behind, but coming slow and clear down the wind. Quickly and quietly they slipped off the path, and ran into the deeper shade under the oak-trees.
The hoofs drew nearer. They had no time to find any hiding-place better than the general darkness under the trees; Sam drew Bill further into the forest and Bilbo and Pippin crouched behind a large tree-bole, while Frodo crept back a few yards towards the lane. It showed grey and pale, a line of fading light through the wood. Above it the stars were thick in the dim sky, but there was no moon.
The sound of hoofs stopped. As Frodo watched he saw something dark pass across the lighter space between two trees, and then halt. It looked like the black shade of a horse led by a smaller black shadow. The black shadow stood close to the point where they had left the path, and it swayed from side to side. Frodo thought he heard the sound of snuffling. The shadow bent to the ground, and then began to crawl towards him.
At that moment there came a sound like mingled song and laughter. Clear voices rose and fell in the starlit air. The black shadow straightened up and retreated. It climbed on to the shadowy horse and seemed to vanish across the lane into the darkness on the other side. Frodo breathed again.
“Elves!” exclaimed Sam in a hoarse whisper. “Elves, sir!” He would have burst out of the trees and dashed off towards the voices, if they had not pulled him back.
“Listen! They are coming this way,” said Frodo. “We have only to wait.” The singing drew nearer. One clear voice rose now above the others. It was singing in the fair elven-tongue, of which Bilbo knew some, Frodo knew only a little, and the others knew nothing. Yet the sound blending with the melody seemed to shape itself in their thought into words which they only partly understood.
Too soon the song ended. “These are High Elves! They spoke the name of Elbereth!” said Bilbo. “Few of that fairest folk are ever seen in the Shire. Not many now remain in Middle-earth, east of the Sea.”
The hobbits sat in shadow by the wayside. Before long the Elves came down the lane towards the valley. They approached slowly, and the hobbits could see the starlight glimmering on their hair and in their eyes. As the last Elf passed he turned and looked towards the hobbits and smiled. “Hail and well met, Frodo Baggins. Hail also Bilbo, though we had not expected you in this corner of the world. It seems you have flown the roost at Rivendell, but perhaps it is good that you are here.”
“Well met indeed, my friend. This happening is indeed a most welcome surprise. Though I must ask, how is it you know my name, and my uncle Bilbo? Who are you and who is your lord?” replied Frodo.
“I am Gildor,” answered the Elf. “Gildor Inglorion of the House of Finrod. We are Exiles, but we dwell still in peace in Rivendell, along with others of our kin. We are travelling from Emyn Beraid, where we have seen Elbereth, and are returning to Imladris. As for your name, though I knew of you before, through tales told by your own uncle Biblo in that fair house. Cirdan the Shipwright gave us word of your plight, and your purpose, and now that the Valar have blessed us with this happy meeting, we shall aid you however we can in your journey to Rivendell.”
“Tell us,” asked Pippin, “was it you who has left these stones for us to find on our path?” As he spoke he opened his hand to Gildor, displaying the discovered beryls.
“They are not of our leaving, nor are they of the style of our people,” the elf replied. “I have not seen these patterns in many decades, but I believe they belong to our cousins of Lothlorien.”
“Lothlorien? Dark indeed must be the danger if the Galadhrim have ventured beyond their borders!” exclaimed Bilbo.
“All too dark and terrible, my friend. And darker yet before the journey’s end. But let us speak of happier things. Walk with us, and we shall sing the songs of Elbereth and Eärendil together.”
As the evening wore on, the sun played in the currents of the Brandywine. Looking up from the dancing light, Rosie Cotton turned to Merry. “How long do you reckon before they all might get here? Tonight, maybe tomorrow morning?”
They had spent the day on the western bank of the Brandywine, keeping a watch for Frodo and his company. As they waited, Haladon told them all he dared of the Black Riders and their Dark Lord whom they served. When twilight found them, they were sat on a broad wooden landing-stage and a large flat ferry-boat was moored beside it. The white bollards near the water’s edge glimmered in the light of two lamps on high posts. The hobbit shook his head, “I honestly cannot say. It depends on whether or not they’ve run into one of those Black Riders.”
The old farmer nodded, “We don’t know how long we might be here. We ought to send someone back to Crickhollow, to check how Fatty is holding up. He’s been alone for a day now, something might have happened to him.”
Merry nodded. “You’re probably right Mr Cotton. You and Rosie go back, I’ll stay here with Haladon. We’ve heard nothing all day, but even so, we can’t afford to go off individually, especially not now evening is drawing in. And neither of you have had anything proper to eat since lunch. And when you arrive in Crickhollow, it had probably be best you stay there. If they arrive here tonight, they’ll be needing hot food and baths at the house. Best it had be ready and waiting for them.”
Dissuading their protests at leaving him behind with the strange new ally, Merry was firm and insisted that he would be perfectly safe. All of Buckland was still on high-alert after all, and the man could hardly dispose of him by such a public site, now could he? Persuaded, the two Cottons allowed merry to take then back across the Brandywine and waved him off as he returned to Haladon’s side.
By the time Merry returned to the western jetty, the stars were awakening in the sky. As he disembarked, he found the ranger deep in conversation with a stranger, taller than the man yet not nearly as broad. Merry walked closer and the two stopped their conversation and turned to face him.
The ranger wore a smile that looked oddly out of place on him, as if he were not used to them. “Good news my friend, good news at last. Luthiel here has been sent on ahead from your friends by Gildor, an elf out of Rivendell. She brings word that her lord came upon four hobbits in the woods of the Green Hill country, including your Frodo, and are on their way to us as we speak. She thinks they may not yet be a half-day behind her.”
“Well that is good news indeed. Though, four hobbits did she say? There was Frodo, Pippin and Sam due to leave Hobbiton, I wonder who may have joined them. And for them to have met up with a company of elves! Poor Sam must be positively giddy. Thank you my lady,” said Merry, bowing at the waist. “Your help and friendship is all the dearer in this dark hour for it being unlooked for.”
Luthien blinked, as though trying to work out whether the halfing was mocking her or not, but upon seeing the solemnity of his thanks, she smiled at him. “I am no lady, young Meriadoc, merely a handmaiden of my lord. Yet I am grateful for your kind words, civility is all too rare in these times, even among such folk as ought to know better.”
She cut her words short as a crow settled in the trees above them cawing noisily. Merry felt a chill creep into the air and his breath felt stole away. “Keep your backs to the water”, whispered Haladon, “and be ready.”
The elf-maid unsheathed a long pale blade that glimmered in the starlight. Merry took out his blade and the ranger his. The three of them backed up the jetty as out of the darkness of the night stepped forward a large hooded figure towards them and in his haggard hands was a sword of steel.
“Nazgul,” spat Luthiel, “A tiro nin, Fanuilos!“
Without warning the figure lunged at them, the strike barely turned aside by Merry’s blade. Moving faster than the hobbit could keep up, blows rained down on his two beleaguered allies who were only just able to keep them from landing. The Ringwraith reached out with his mailed fist and struck Merry, causing him to fall backwards onto the hard wood below. The hobbit rolled off the side of the pier and fell into the Brandywine. Haladon cried out, but could not afford to let up his defense to rescue the hobbit else he and Luthiel fall also. But Merry knew these waters, that they were not deep around the jetty. Waiting until the Black Rider had driven the man and elf further down the pier, Merry hauled himself out of the water and found himself at the wraith’s back. Remembering how Haladon had dealt with the Nazgul at Crickhollow, he ran back to the lanterns marking the waters’ edge. Taking one, he dashed back along the pier and heaved to down at the wraith’s feet. As he threw it, the Ringwraith turned and swung his sword as the oncoming lantern, causing it to splash harmlessly into the water.
A hissing came from the hood of the wraith, almost as though it were laughing at him. Fueled by anger, terror and desperation all together, Merry shouted “The Shire!” and charged the Black Rider. The ranger and elf-maid saw their chance and each swung at their opponent, who turned back and swatted their strikes aside as flies. In that moment of distraction, Merry reached the Ringwraith and thrust his dagger into its side, shearing through his black mantle and piercing through its flesh. Drawing away from the blade the Ringwraith let out a shriek, but as it flinched away it stepped too far back and their balance was lost. Toppling over, the Nazgul let out a chilling cry as it sank beneath the waters.
The three companions waited and watched the river as they caught their breath, poised for any sign of the wraith’s reappearance. When none was forthcoming, Luthiel was the first to break the silence, “This is the Baranduin, is it not?”
Merry looked at her confused, but Haladon nodded, “It is known as the Brandywine in these parts, but that is its ancient name, yes.”
“I have heard rumours of this river, that is carries in it some form of power as old as the Sunderings. I had always dismissed them as the fanciful talk of those too idle, but maybe there is some truth in the matter. Maybe the waters of the Baranduin are indeed enchanted against the Dark One?”
“So what will happen to it?” asked Merry.
“Who can say? I doubt it is banished, even for a short while. Maybe the wraith will return to their captain to be clothed and armed once again. Maybe the wound you deal it will cause it to flee back to the Land of Shadow. Tell me, what manner of blade have you there?” the elf-maid said, half-murmuring to herself.
The hobbit looked at his dagger. “I do not know, I found it in a crate belonging to Frodo. I think it may have belonged to his uncle Bilbo, from one of his great adventures.”
“I think that blade may be of Westernesse, from a time long ago where counters to such evils were more ready to find and easier to wield,” mused Haladon. “Its enchantments will serve you well against such foes, but they are not all-powerful. Fortune or fate has given you this blade, Meriadoc Brandybuck. Use it well.”
Looking down at his blade with a wonder in his eyes, Merry nodded solemnly, “I shall.”
The company now marched on again in silence, and passed like shadows and faint lights: for elves (even more than hobbits) could walk when they wished without sound or footfall. Pippin soon began to feel sleepy, and staggered once or twice; but each time a tall elf at his side put out his arm and saved him from a fall. Sam walked along at Frodo’s side, as if in a dream, with an expression on his face half of fear and half of astonished joy.
The woods on either side became denser; the trees were now younger and thicker; and as the lane went lower, running down into a fold of the hills, there were many deep brakes of hazel on the rising slopes at either hand.
The hobbits jolted out of their drowsiness with a start. A long-drawn wail came down the wind. It rose and fell, and ended on a high piercing note. Even as they sat and stood, as if suddenly frozen, it was answered by another cry, fainter and further off, but no less chilling to the blood. There was then a silence, broken only by the sound of the wind in the leaves.
Gildor bent down to the ground and put his ear to the road. There he stayed, motionless for a moment, then sprung up to his feet. “We must make haste,” called Gildor to the party. “The road is not safe any longer. I could hear several sets of hoof-beats, riding as a gale along the road toward us. Come, we must cut through the Mairsh and make haste to the ferry across the Baranduin!”
“Across the Mairsh?” Pippin broke into a jog alongside Gildor. “We’ll surely get turned around in there, especially in the dark.”
“The stars shall be our map. We have in our number several from Lindon, on the sea. None are more skilled at reading the heavens than they. Fear not, young Peregrin. We shall not fail for becoming losing our way.”
The company left the road, sending a runner ahead to the Ferry to warn whomever may be there of the pursing Nazgul. They scrambled down a steep green bank and plunged into the woods below. A crow called out, disturbed by the sudden movement below its perch. Startled by the sudden noise, Sam turned to check on Bill. “Look up, Mr Frodo. Behind us!” he called out in a whisper.
They all looked, and on the edge high above them they saw against the sky a horse standing. Beside it stooped a black figure. As one, the company turned and continued their flight into the woods.
As Luthiel kept watch, Haladon and Merry stole a few moments of sleep. The remaining lantern was burning low, but so clear was the night sky that the Ferry was lit by starlight and the moon. Luthiel’s ear’s pricked as a wisp of sound found her. She silently woke her companions and the three stood ready by the beginning of the jetty, blades drawn in their hands.
The deep nicker of a horse crept toward them, and the thudding of its slow hooves followed. Out of the gloom of the road, a Rider emerged, sniffing the air as it approached.
The three allies stood frozen to the ground, unsure of why this wraith had not attacked them yet. Bending down over its horse, the Ringwraith leant towards them. “Have you seen Baggins?” it rasped at them. “I have a message for him.”
They remained still, utterly bewildered at this turn of events. Before they could answer, a light appeared on the road south of them and a deep voice called out, “Ho there! Is this the Ferry?” As the words reached them, the wraith pulled round his horse and broke into a gallop up the road away from the approaching light.
“Confound it all,” the voice said. “It was a civil enough question. No need to turn tail and run.” Following the voice stepped a short, broad figure, clad in mail and carrying a lantern in one hand and a spear over his shoulder. Spotting the three on the jetty with their blades drawn, the silver-haired dwarf paused, then mumbling to himself he set down his lantern and lowered his spear toward them. “Right now, what’s all this then?” he growled at them. “I shall go first, shall I, as to put you at ease. My name is Dori, at your service. I am looking for a certain Mr Baggins. Have you seen him?”
Before long the wood came to a sudden end. Wide grass-lands stretched before them. They now saw that their course had been kept true by the skill of the elves. Away over the flats they could glimpse the low hill of Bucklebury across the River. Creeping cautiously out from the edge of the trees, they set off across the open as quickly as they could.
At first the hobbits felt afraid, away from the shelter of the wood. Frodo half expected to see the small distant figure of a horseman behind them on the ridge dark against the sky; but there was no sign of one. Out from the trees, the moon was now shining brightly on them. Their fear left them, though the hobbits still felt uneasy. But the land became steadily more tame and well-ordered. Soon the group came into well-tended fields and meadows: there were hedges and gates and dikes for drainage. Frodo nearly slide into one, so unprepared was he for them, but an elf held onto his arm and kept him from tumbling. Everything seemed quiet and peaceful, just an ordinary corner of the Shire. Their spirits rose with every step. The line of the River grew nearer; and the Black Riders began to seem like phantoms of the woods now left far behind.
They passed along the edge of a large potato-field, and came to a stout gate. Beyond it a rutted lane ran between low well-laid hedges towards a distant clump of trees. “This lane should take us to the road by the Ferry. We are almost there,” Pippin informed the group.
As they made their way up the lane, the sky ahead of them to the east was tinged with deep blues and greys and in the trees behind them, birds began to sing out to each other, welcoming the new dawn. Before long, the lane led them out into the road and the group quickened their pace.
“Hullo there! Who is it on the road at this hour?” came a voice from behind them. “You’re not from around these parts, are you?” Following the voice was a hobbit in a yellow jacket, carrying a stout staff and a feather in his cap.
Sam moved from behind the elves, “Good morning Cock-robin! How are you up and about so early?”
“Samwise Gamgee, outside of Hobbiton? And I thought these days couldn’t get any stranger!” exclaimed Robin Smallburrow as he shook Sam’s outstretched hand. “And who’s all thing you are travelling with? I know Mr Baggins and young Pippin there, but…bless me! Is that Mr Bilbo? Where did you jump up from? We all thought you’d gone and died again, only for real this time! And what about all these elves? It’s been a good while since I’ve seen any of your folk passing through, not that I mind see, you elves are very decent folk indeed, always shutting gates behind you properly and never making any disturbance.”
“Robin!” cut in Sam, “We haven’t all day to stand about, we needs to be on to Bucklebury Ferry. Care to walk with us?”
“Bucklebury Ferry, eh? Well don’t mind if I do. In the meanwhile, you can tell me what it is you are all about. I knows Mr Baggins, Mr Frodo that is, is on his way to Crickhollow but as for you Mr Baggins, Mr Bilbo that is, I should very much like to hear your tale as where you’ve been hiding all these years, and why you’re only off to Buckland now. Don’t you know the Horn-cry was sounded the night before last? All the East-Farthing’s in an uproar with them hooded folk on horses, we’ve had to draft in the Bounders!”
“The Horn-cry?” interrupted Bilbo. “That hasn’t been sounded since that dreadful winter in 2911! I still shiver when I think of it. I don’t suppose you’ve seen any of these Riders, have you?”
“Well it has been sounded again, and I has a suspicion you and your strange company may have something to do with it Mr Baggins. Mr Frodo, that is. And there was one I seen, just to the south of here riding across someone’s turnip field, churning up the ground with their great big hooves. I yelled at him to get off, but whether or not he heard me is another thing. He just went on his way, back toward the Mairsh where you’ve all come from,” said the Shirriff. “I ain’t book-smart, so to speak, but I ain’t daft either. There’s something going on here, best you tell me what is as we head on up to the Ferry.”
By the time the identity of the newly-arrived dwarf had been ascertained, that is was indeed the Dori of the late Thorin Oakenshield’s Company, and the weapons were stowed and all the necessary introductions, apologies and offering of services were made, the sky was lightened and the Brandywine was glinting in the oncoming dawn. It transpired that Bilbo had set off from Rivendell to meet Frodo on his journey and was the mysterious fourth hobbit mentioned by Luthien. He had not travelled alone however, having taken not only Dori but Bofur and Gloin’s son Gimli with him, Gloin feeling too old to keep pace sent his son in his stead to watch over the elderly hobbit. Gimli had been left in Bree, to keep a watch on the road there and send word of any developments. Bilbo had left Bofur and Dori at Bamfurlong with Farmer Maggot to serve the same purpose for the Eastfarthing. Dori had come to the Ferry to make sure it was still free as a point of crossing for Bilbo’s return with Frodo.
“But that doesn’t explain why the Black Rider did not attack when the other one showed no hesitation,” Merry wondered aloud.
“The only explanation I can imagine,” Haladon mused, “is that the one who attacked us is the Rider we encountered in Crickhollow and on the road to the Ferry, and that this most recent wraith was one alien to us and did not perceive us as a threat.”
“That would make sense,” agreed Luthien, “but I cannot imagine it will be long before they return and we cannot count on their ignorance to save us a second time.”
The four began to make ready the Ferry to cross the Brandywine, for when Frodo and his companions arrived they would need to depart as quickly as possible. As Merry was loosening one of the ropes securing the Ferry to the pier, a slender figure burst out of the trees opposite them across the road, sprinting toward them.
“Behind me! Nazgul!” she screamed, and behind her came a black horseman out of the trees, holding a sword of cold steel by his side.
“Dori gave out a sigh and grumbling to himself in Khazdul, took up his spear, planting his feet in the lane leading to the jetty.
“Behind me lass, now!” he yelled, lowering his spear against the oncoming charge. The newcomer leapt past him and joined Haladon and Luthien with their swords drawn, waiting for the Nazgul’s assault. Merry drew his own dagger and ran to them as the stranger pulled out a long knife and crouched down, ready to leap up and strike should the wraith get past the dwarf’s spear.
Her readiness was not needed. The black horse thundered toward the dwarfish obstacle, rearing up as Dori thrust his spear at it. Having stalled the Nazgul Dori began to edge back to the others, conscious of the height advantage the wraith had over him. The wraith managed to get his horse back under control and wheeled it round, preparing for another attack. On the jetty, the five allies braced themselves for the onslaught to come.
Suddenly as the Rider drew nearer a terrific baying and barking broke out, and a loud voice was heard shouting: “Grip! Fang! Wolf! Come on, lads!” Three huge dogs came pelting up the road, and dashed towards the Nazgul, barking fiercely. They took no notice of the folk on the jetty; but two wolvish-looking dogs stood between them and the horse, and snarled at it as it reared up in fright. The largest and most ferocious of the three charged the horse, bristling and growling it sank its teeth into the black hindquarters of the steed. Overcome with panic, the horse bellowed in protest and bolted forwards towards the jetty, ploughing through the other two hounds in an effort to escape its reward attacker.
Seeing the opponent caught off guard with the commotion, Dori stepped forwards and thrust his spear into the oncoming mount, the barbed point embedding itself deep within the horse’s chest. With a shriek of pain, the horse tumbled to the ground, crushing the robed Nazgul beneath it. Unhooking a small axe from his belt, the dwarf crouched down and finished off the screaming beast with a single stroke to it head. The Black Rider lay still where it had fallen underneath it, its hooded face turned toward the road, sword laying on the earth beside it.
“Here, Grip! Fang! Heel!” the voice returned. “Heel, Wolf!” The dogs left off sniffing the fallen corpse and ran back to their master, a hobbit who strode toward the jetty with quick, purposeful steps. “There you are Dori! Your brother and I had thought you’d become lost, so we had. What’s this mess you’ve gotten yourself mixed up in?”
“I told you,” protested a dwarf coming behind him, “we are not related. Not even cousins. I thought you hobbits were meant to be good with your family trees, or is that particular passion restricted only to Bilbo?”
“Bofur!” thundered Dori, marching forward to meet his friend. “Where have you been? We’ve had a right good time of it here, even had a chance for a wee scrap. That’s typical you’ve only come when the fighting’s over and done.”
The dwarves clasped each other’s forearms and began conversing in their native Khazdul. The dogs master surveyed the scene, shaking his head at the two elves now whispering to each other in soft voices. Sauntering over to Merry, the hobbit greeted him, “Good morning to you Mr Brandybuck. I don’t suppose you’ve any idea what is going on here? The whole Eastfarthing seems to be turned on its head today, and it looks like its catching on to the rest of the Shire as well. I don’t suppose this has anything to do with Mr Bilbo’s return has it? Trust him to cause more of a disturbance coming back than he did leaving. Loves a bit of controversy, he does.”
“Good morning Mr Maggot,” returned Merry. “How are you keeping? I’m afraid we may have something to do with all this hullabaloo, yes, but it’s a case of the less you know the better. Though I dare say we’d have been in a tight spot if it weren’t for your fine hounds there. Are they still as fast as the last time I visited?”
“If by visited, you mean when you flinched a quarter of my best mushrooms, aye they are,” returned the farmer with a raised eyebrow. “And their bite is still as sharp, as you’ve seen. Tell me at least, have either Bilbo or young Mr Baggins been this way? I’ve been saddled with those two dwarves back there for the past two days waiting for the old fellow’s return. And let me tell you this, they can fairly eat. Why, I reckon they’ll have put away more food than three hobbits would in a week. If they’re with me for much longer, I won’t have enough to do me my suppers until next harvest!”
“Well I’m sorry to hear that Mr Maggot, rest assured as soon as Mr Bilbo and Frodo find their way here we’ll all be on our way.”
Lying under the horse the Nazgul remained still, but if any of them had been watching closely they might have noticed a slight turn of the head on the mention of Baggins, and that there were not one, but two halfings bearing that name.
Gildor stopped in his tracks, causing Pippin to nearly walk straight into his back. “Do you mind?” began the irate hobbit. Gildor put a finger to his lips. The sun was beginning to lick the eastern horizon, and the crisp air around them was pregnant with quietness.
“Listen, can you hear that? Findol, your ears are the sharpest, can you make that out?”
The group paused as one of the elves walked to the rear of the group and closed his eyes. “I hear two, two horses. Iron shod hooves. They are riding north on this road, about ten or twelve miles away. And they are riding hard. They will be on us before the sun is up. We must run, and we must do so now. How far until your Ferry, young hobbits?”
Before Frodo could give an answer, the group were moving as fast as they were able. “Not far. It is in that copse of trees ahead. About a mile or so Robin?”
“About that, can’t say I’ve ever run it before though,” puffed the shirriff. “Are you sure that these are your Black Riders following us?”
As though in answer to his question, the piercing scream the hobbits knew too well by now ripped apart the morning stillness, stabbing up from the south. Robin’s eyes grew wide, “What in the Shire was that?”
“One of your Black Riders, Master Shirriff” said Gildor, his long strides easily keeping him level with the hobbits. “Let us hope that this is all you shall encounter of them.”
“Believe me, that was more than enough.”
Their hearts all filled with dread and despair, bleaching the blood from their faces as they ran onward. For rising in greeting to the wraith’s call, a reply was loosed from the trees ahead, louder and clearer than the former, and a second followed from the west. Skirting the tree-line to their left they saw a black horseman galloping to the road entering the woods, trying to cut off their escape.
“Faster,” cried Gildor of the House of Finrod. “Run, as your lives depend upon it!”
The hobbits ran as fast as they were able, but their shorter legs forced the elves to steady their speed to allow them to keep pace.
“Your pardon, Master Baggins,” begged Findol as he scooped up a surprised Bilbo, who was beginning to lag, and placed him as gently as he was able on Bill, who seemed to be quite unconcerned with the extra weight and trotted on after Sam.
“Granted, though it might have been done with more care. I am getting on a bit, you know,” said the old hobbit as he bounced on the pony’s back.
As they drew closer to the wood Frodo could see they were not going to make it, that the Black Rider would reach the entrance to the trees before they would. They would have to confront this wraith head on. Gildor seemed to reckon similar as he pulled out a long, thin blade. The wraith was now so close they could see the mouth of his horse foaming with the exertion and fury of its pace. The steed sprang over the last wall before its final stretch to the road, bellowing with the effort, and as it landed a dark shaft embedded itself in the horse’s chest. Its front legs collapsed, sending its body and screaming rider over its head and sprawling on the dew-laden grass.
Drawing parallel to the fallen creature, Gildor cryed aloud, “See there, that shaft is of elvish craft! Perhaps we may yet meet your mysterious Galadhrim yet then, Master Took!” Without pausing, they swept into the trees and disappeared from the Nazgul’s sight.
Merry jumped as the wail cut through the trees above them. “They are getting closer,” said Haladon. “And more desperate, I fear. Frodo must be getting close, we ought to be ready.”
A wet thud reached Merry’s ears, and as he turned the Ringwraith’s sword cut again into the soft side of the horse. “He’s cutting himself free!” Merry got out before a deafening scream burst from its pitch hood. Clasping his ears with pain, the hobbit sank to his knees and closed his eyes, waiting for the assault to end.
No sooner than it had done, a third cry came from the south, much closer and clearer than the first. Merry staggered to his feet, reeling from the sensory attack. Haladon ran past him, sword drawn toward the Nazgul, who had almost cut through the horse’s side. The scream had proven too much for Farmer Maggot’s hounds, who had fled into the undergrowth with their master following behind calling for them. Luthiel was still kneeling on the ground with the other elven messenger, their quick ears fared worse than Haladon’s, or even Merry’s own under the attack. The dwarves turned to face the road, Bofur wielding a large axe as tall as himself while Dori held his smaller axe in his hand. “There’s folk coming up the road, a good number of them by the sounds of it.”
As Bofur relayed his warning, a small company of elves and hobbits rounded the corner in the road, running at a quick pace towards them. “Bofur,” called an old hobbit from the back of a pony, “put that axe away, we need to be off!”
“Where have you been Bilbo?” Dori returned as the troop approached. “We were beginning to think the worst.”
“Speak for yourself,” grumbled Bofur. “This halfing’s been in tighter spots that this, and always come off the better for it.”
“We’ve no time to argue,” Bilbo interjected. “There’s a number of Black Riders on our tail, about three or four of them, and gaining fast. We need to be on that ferry!”
“Best come quick then, master hobbit,” called Haladon. “We’ve one here who isn’t best pleased at being trapped, and he won’t be there for long!” The Nazgul was struggling to rise from under his horse as the ranger’s sword did its best to delay him.
“Hullo Merry, I see you’ve been busy.” Frodo looked over the scene before him as he jogged up to his cousin. “Is that one of my uncle’s swords?”
“I’ll explain later, let’s get you on the ferry.” Merry turned and led the new arrivals past the ranger and his struggling quarry. As they crowded onto the Ferry, the Nazgul finally cut away the forward section of his horse and pulled himself to his booted feet, blood dripping off his dark robes.
“There’s not enough room on the ferry,” cried Pippin. “There’s too many of us!”
Gildor turned from the others and joined Haladon as side by side they faced off the risen Ringwraith. “Go now Master Baggins,” he called softly over his shoulder. “I shall join you later if I am able. Our paths have not crossed for the last time, and I hope to sing with you again in the halls of Imladris. Findol, see them safely to Crickhollow, and further if you are able.”
Findol bowed his head, and with a flash of his hunting knife severed the moorings of the Ferry. The elves left on the jetty dove into the river and struck out across the Baranduin with long graceful strokes. Bofur and Dori took up two of the long poles on the Ferry and started to punt the Ferry toward the opposite pier.
As the Ferry drew away from the bank, mist began to conceal the elf and ranger facing down the Nazgul. Frodo watched as three horses thundered round the corner into view, each carrying a Black Rider wielding a long wicked sword. Just before he lost sight of them completely, the hobbit could make out the snap of a bowstring and a dark shape tumbled to the road. Gildor and Haladon cried aloud in Quenya and the ancient Adûnaic tongue of Numenor, and charged the wraiths.
The company could only listen as they crossed the Brandywine, as steel crashed on steel, horses bellowed and curses cried. These sounds gradually faded as the mist swallowed them whole until, as they were disembarking onto the eastern shore they heard a lone, long wail reaching over the water before it too was taken by the mist.