West of the Moon
A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive
The road from Weathertop to Rivendell is tortuous and full of torment, but help comes to The Ring-bearer from sources unexpected.
Sounds are the only things that reach me these days: the stumbling, weary footsteps of Merry and Pippin, the clatter of pans in Sam's pack, Aragorn's voice, giving my friends short, tense orders. I do not know how far we have gone this day, nor the lay of the trail we are passing when Aragorn calls for a halt. I am sure that, left to my own devices, I will not be able to tell if I have become lost.
I know I am leaning against Merry, my head resting on his shoulder. I hear him gasp as my fingers drive frantically into his arm when Aragorn changes the bandage on my shoulder. Aragorn's hands are gentle, but still the pain flares blindingly as he removes the dressing and begins to wash my wound. Merry's arms tighten around me as I twist and writhe, his left hand clamped firmly on my brow, his breath warm against my temple; he dabs at the droplets of blood on my lips and I can feel his cheek damp from his silent tears. Pippin clutches my hand against his body to keep me from flailing and lashing at Strider. Sam kneels before me, his unsteady hands brushing against my face when he buttons my shirt and pulls my coat closer around me, muttering in a shaking voice about how, given enough time, he would have my clothes properly washed, dried and brushed so I would not have to keep on wearing my blood-caked coat. Maybe I would find his eyes full of anxious fear too, if only mine could pierce through the murk that shutters all else. But even the fire, banked now to avoid detection, was powerless against the shroud of shadows.
Pippin hovers into my range of vision, a blurred, colorless face. Holding a steaming mug in one hand, he pauses uncertainly.
My voice sounds harsh and distant when I speak. "Is that for me, Pip?" Smiling is difficult with a face aching from so much wincing against the constant waves of pain; with lips torn where my teeth buried themselves to keep myself from screaming. I hope Pippin will not mistake the smile for a grimace. To my relief, I hear a smile in his voice as he hands me the mug.
"Yes," he says. "Strider said you are to drink as much of this tea as you can to warm you up."
My hands tremble so badly that some of the tea spills down my front. Merry reaches out from behind me, quietly wrapping his hand around mine, steadying the mug against my lips as I drink.
"Thank you, Pip." It feels easier to smile now as the warmth of the hot brew spreads from my stomach and keeps the cold from freezing my whole body. "That was nice, although I hope the next time I drink something you make, I will not have to risk stewing my tongue in it."
Merry's chuckles shoot icy shafts of pain through my shoulder and it is all I can do to stay still and not ruin the fragile bubble of lightheartedness that hangs in the air around us. But I know my strength is failing and I am nearly at the end of my endurance. The pain fills and dominates my perception, looming in my thought, consuming me. Keeping it to myself, sparing my friends the added sorrow of seeing me enthralled by that excruciating pain, drains me even more. Very soon I will no longer have the strength to stay upright on the pony. Very soon I will no longer be able to hold back the wails that stay locked up in my throat. Very soon the pain will claim me and I will be no more.
"Stewed tongue," quips Sam, in a voice that speaks of the easing of his worry. "If I may make so bold, that's disgusting, sir."
I do my best to laugh with them, but the effort only ends in more pain, blinding light followed by darker shades of emptiness. It tears a ragged gasp from my throat, and Merry's body, which has for a moment relaxed, becoming more a cushion than a confining wall, resumes its rigid, desperate tension. This time the pain leaves me spent and I know that tears of frustration will soon follow. I let my cousins stroke my face--their fingers are trembling, and nearly as cold as mine--and when I feel the warmth of Sam's hand seize mine hesitantly, I grip it tight, drawing as much comfort as I can from the realness of their presence, from their touch. But how much longer can I keep the shadow world at bay before I succumb to it, never leaving its shapeless, colorless realm and ignorant of this other world of warmth and solidity that is fast becoming distant and alien to me?
The disquieting thoughts keep me awake long after my cousins fall into exhausted slumber, my mind frantically seeking to flee the fear that weighs heavier in the stillness and idle of the night. It is then that I first hear the song of the nightingale.
The nightingale follows us, flitting from branch to branch, singing loud and strong. I know it is uncanny. We are moving---my cousins, Sam and Aragorn on foot, and I on the pony, we are passing tree after tree, bush after bush, one boulder after another. But the nightingale stays with us. I can hear its voice, steady and strident, among the leafless branches.
Toward the end of the long, wearing day, when Merry can no longer find anything to say, when even Pippin stops complaining about being tired, when all I can hear of Sam is his exhausted murmur as he guides the pony through the trickier terrains, I turn away from them with shame and guilt. I close my eyes and try to listen to other sounds around me. The nightingale is always there, sometimes far above me, sometimes a little to my right, in front of or behind me, sometimes coming from the left, so close it is practically singing in my ears. I cling to the familiar notes of its song, the way someone who is drowning--tossed around by a raging stream--hangs on to a rope that promises him a way to safety and life. It becomes a desperate little game. The nightingale will leave me for a while, its song receding and fading, then I will strain my hearing to catch its voice again, and it will return, trilling joyfully, almost humorously, as though laughing at my silliness. Then off it goes again, twittering and chuckling, with something like a challenge in its voice that says: "Come find me!" And I will obey. It is either the song, or the pain.
It is only when a light rain starts to fall that Aragorn decides it is time to camp for the night. My friends and I huddle under our cloaks beneath the dubious shelter of a rock jutting out of the cliff face.
"I can't take another bite, Sam, I'm sorry," I whisper as Sam offers me another chunk of stale bread that night. He begins to argue, but I shake my head and manage another hoarse, "No, Sam. Thank you."
He sighs and sets to wrap the bread, darkly muttering, "If only Strider'll let us have a bit of fire, I can make you some soup to warm you up proper. And I reckon a roast potato settles the stomach better than this mouldy bread."
"He's only being cautious, Sam," I say, sitting back. "Besides, I'm not that hungry. And how are you going to get a fire started in so damp a place? But do something for me, will you? Crumble a bit of the bread, and maybe add a little of that dried meat I didn't finish earlier and scatter them under the thicket there. It's for the nightingale."
Sam looks up from the bread he is wrapping. "The nightingale, sir?"
"Yes," I reply. "Haven't you been listening? It's been following us, singing even in daytime. I don't know what kind of food it finds around here this time of year, but I'm sure it will appreciate a bit of help."
Sam makes a blurred motion that looks as though he is scratching his head. "No, sir," he begins hesitantly, "I don't remember hearing any nightingale these past two days. And I don't want to, truth to tell. There's naught for birds to eat around here, and the frost will be coming soon."
He pauses, pulling another blanket around me. "Maybe it's an old bird, sir," he continues thoughtfully after a while. "Too tired to fly south with the others and glad for some company. But it won't last long, I reckon. The cold will kill it, the poor thing, if it doesn't starve to death soon."
The cold stabs deeper, more painfully, in my shoulder and arm, as I listen to Sam. He is right, of course. The bird will perish soon. Alone, friendless, in this cold and barren land. The thought chills me even more and I struggle to keep myself from weeping in despair.
"I'll go and set some food aside for the poor fellow then," Sam says as he rises to his feet. "You go on and sleep now, Mr. Frodo. Strider says the road will be rougher up ahead. We will need all our strength to make it."
I hunch deeper into my cloak, laying my tired head on upthrust knees, and feeling absurdly thankful for the will I had drawn up and left with my solicitor. I nurse little hope that I will survive tomorrow, much less cross the Loudwater alive. I hope Sam will not be too distraught. I hope Merry and Pippin will see my death as a release. It will certainly be a blessing to be delivered from this punishing pain. I hope my death will mean that the Black Riders will stop pursuing my friends. My only regret is not being able to see Bilbo one last time. But one cannot hope for too much luck.
The nightingale makes occasional forlorn chirps amid the sound of relentless drip.
Beren, wayworn and bowed by his long and savage wanderings, saw Lýthien singing and dancing in the forest of Neldoreth on a summer evening when the moon was rising. She vanished from his sight then and through autumn and winter he sought for her, calling her Tinýviel, Nightingale, in his heart...
My feet scrabble on the loose ground, and I hear the patter of shifting gravel fading away below me. My hand fumbles for something to latch on to: cold rocks or some hardy, wiry bush. My cousins pant and grunt beside me as they scale the steep hill; Sam's patient voice steadily coaxes a whinnying, nervous Bill to move forward and upward. The nightingale hovers high up and far in front of me, tireless and taunting.
Against his hope, Beren saw her again, when in the next spring she returned to release the woods from the stillness of winter. He called to her "Tinýviel! Tinýviel!" and his voice echoed among the trees. She laid her hand in his and for a brief summer they shared a joy unsurpassed by anything either the First or the Second Born had ever been blessed with.
"Here, cousin, hold on to me. Not much further now." Oh, Pip. You've never sounded this weary, this anxious, this unwavering.
Their fate was tied to the elven jewels, the Silmarili, set in the Dark Lord, Morgoth's crown. Sent on the hopeless journey to reclaim them, Beren was captured and left to languish in one of the foul pits of Sauron, the trusted minion of Morgoth. But Lýthien came and with her voice she tore down the walls of the fortress of Sauron. Then she sought for Beren and, finding him ravaged by grief in the dark and reeking prison, thought him dead and fell into despair. But Beren stirred from anguish and took her in his arms, and they saw each other again in gladness and joy...
"If he still growls when you ask if he's all right, Pip, I'd say there's some mettle left in our Cousin Frodo, even after all this climbing. Come on, Cousin, or has your age finally caught up with you?" You say those words lightly, Merry, with cocky impertinence and familiar mischief. But then you lean in, the warmth of your hand alights on my back and your whisper has a strange note of fragility, of a nearly childlike alarm. "Pip's right, Frodo. We've still a long way to go. I'm sure Strider doesn't mind if we take some rest for a while. You look ghastly. Maybe you do need to sit down a bit. "
And is that relief I sense in your sigh when I wave you aside, then growl "After you, Merry dear" and put my foot forward? You sound tired yourself, Merry, and I have lost count the times I hear your stifled oath as you slip and stumble on the treacherous ground. But I'll walk, Merry, I'll walk if it means getting you and Pip and Sam closer to Rivendell, to safety, and to rest. I'll walk.
Together, Beren and Lýthien challenged Morgoth in his throne, in the deepest of his domain of horror: she lulled him to slumber with her voice, he pried the jewel, the Silmaril, from the Dark Lord's heavy crown. Then they fled, in fear and much hurt. Erchamion--One-handed--Beren remained till the end of his days, when death sundered him from his beloved. But Lýthien, daughter of an elf lord and a deathless maia, knelt by the feet of Mandos and her song moved the Valar to give her the choice of eternal joy in the hallowed home of the Valar, without Beren, or a second life, fraught with uncertainties and peril save a second death, with him. She chose Beren, forsaking her fate and kin, to stay with him, so that even in the realm after death, they would be together...
"Here you are, Mr. Frodo. Drink your fill now." There are tears in your voice, Sam, why? What do you see in me that I can't? But don't cry now, my dear. I have found that there is a point beyond which the cold holds no more power and I can actually feel myself floating from the pain, drifting helpless and insensate into the heart of the void.
On! the nightingale commands. On!
Eärendil the Mariner, bearing the Silmaril that Beren had won and Lýthien had worn, sailed to Valinor with the plea of the Two Kindred, calling upon the Valar to grant them mercy and pity, to succour them in their plight and sorrow. The prayer was granted and a force mighty and wrathful came hastening to Middle-earth, scouring it of the filth and terror of Morgoth. Peace reigned and a passage was granted for the Elves to return to the Blessed Realm and Eärendil, with the Silmaril on his brow, sailed the night sky in his resplendent ship, the brightest star at sunset and dawn...
Aragorn's voice, singing the Lay of Lýthien and Beren, weaves in and out of my frayed, scattered consciousness. I desperately try to hold on to the images: Eärendil, Beren, Lýthien. Tinýviel. The dusk-singer. The nightingale. I am lost and spent, and not even thinking of the tale, of the music and the words and the visions of glory and courage can help ease the agony and take my mind from this toil across the jagged slope.
Merry's arm around me, Pippin's fingers clasping mine, Sam's steadying hand on my back, I take another step. For Merry. Another step. For Pippin now. Yet another. For Sam. But where am I going? Only mist, only shadows around me and the sun is veiled. I'm so tired. So tired.
I throw myself on the ground, shivering. Dimly I hear the high-pitched notes of the nightingale's song but all I feel now is a distant compassion, a muted sympathy.
The poor bird. It has held out for so long. But winter will soon be here, and in the cold it will die.
My cousins and Sam speak to Aragorn, but I cannot hear what they say. Ahead of us on the road there is the sound of hooves pattering, faintly, as if from afar, as if in a dream. My friends should have started to run. But where can one hide in a sea of mist?
"Let me help you, Mr. Frodo," Sam's voice comes from somewhere below me. I can vaguely distinguish the ragged contour of bushes, thickets where Aragorn has led the pony to hide from the approaching enemy. I slide off the pony with Sam's help and stand leaning against a tree, blinking owlishly to keep in sight the indistinct shapes of my cousins, Sam and Aragorn peering cautiously into the road. I want to scream, tell my companions to flee, but I can find neither the voice nor the strength to open my mouth to speak.
The nightingale no longer sings, I suddenly realize with a vague sense of loss. And maybe I shall follow it soon. What strength do I have left to defy the Black Riders should they come for me and demand the Ring? My hand shakes as it reaches for and closes around the Ring in my pocket. The mist swirls darker, colder around me, and the hazy shapes of my friends are blotted by shadows and I can only stare futilely at the darkness that surrounds me.
Then, faintly but swiftly becoming clearer and stronger, there comes the merry sound of little bells tinkling, chiming, and singing.
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