The Adventures
Frodo Gardner

Volume II
Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 6, Part 36
(December 10, 1451)

The last stretch of road descended sharply, switching back and forth between mossy old pukel-men in a forest so dense that it seemed like twilight all day long, as a faint mist of snowflakes swirled about. Billie-Lass went slow and skittish down the frost-slick path, for most of the time the slope beside them tumbled so neck-breakingly steep that brambles clung to it for dear life and the trunks of fallen trees choked the ravines below. Sometimes the ground would drop unexpectedly to one side of them into out-and-out cliffs that opened up mountain vistas of breathtaking, deadly beauty. Nor did Frodo begrudge his pony's caution or try to urge her to more speed, not though he knew that at this pace he wouldn't make Minas Tirith till long past dark. Indeed, he felt half-sick with fear whenever horsemen crowded past him, impatient with his delays.
All the same, he could hardly wait till he got the stone walls of Minas Tirith wrapped safely around him (Sometimes he got glimpses of the white citadel towering ahead, revealed between forests parted by ravine.) And not just for the promise of at least a day or two spent somewhere other than a saddle. The eyes of fellow-travelers had grown more unfriendly with every mile.
Something had seemed strange--wrong--about the last several inns. Everything in them had looked too sharp, too harsh. It finally dawned on him--they'd lacked that softening haze of smoke that he had come to associate with public houses. The focused light accentuated the irritability of every face that greeted him, the lines around the eyes that stared, the teeth bared slightly in the scowls. Pipeweed had gone beyond dear; it had become unavailable altogether.
Frodo breathed deep the piney air, wondering why anyone would want to fill their lungs with anything else. The trees stood straighter on this side of the mountain, tall and proud like kings in bluegreen robes, trimmed in fringes and ruffs of snow. The shadows cooled and lengthened all around him; no, he definitely wouldn't reach shelter by daylight. His stomach grumbled something about dinner, so he dug out a hard-cured sausage from his pack and a handful of dried apple slices to go with it. The terrain had flattened a bit for a space here; it looked like he might actually find room to dismount and enjoy his supper on his feet, giving both himself and Billie-Lass a break. Surely the Woses wouldn't begrudge a traveler so small a departure from the access-road through their land. He hadn't ridden far off the road when the mare found some frostbitten berries to nibble. Frodo laughed in the saddle and sighed. "Have I ever told you, Billie-Lass, that you're the fattest pony in the Shire? If I have to loosen your girth any more, I shall run out of leather!"
Before Frodo could climb down, though, he saw a horseman riding towards him on the road. He recognized the blonde man as the same one who had threatened him before. Smoke-hunger burned in the taut blue eyes, and grim lines framed the mouth. Yet the man's voice sounded almost compassionate, except for a faint quiver in it, when he said, "Are you sure you will not share, little master? There is yet time to make peace with your fellow creatures and be welcomed as a friend--nobody means you harm." And as he spoke other riders emerged from the forest all around in that level place, where they'd been waiting for Frodo (but the way stood steep before and after and for quite some space around.) As though making conversation, the man smiled and said, "You see? I do take you seriously, my halfling friend, for I will not face so redoubtable a warrior without company."
Frodo looked slowly all around him, swallowed, and said, "This is crazy. What makes you think there could possibly be enough for all of you even if I did h..."
"Then you do carry pipeweed!"
"No! No! I meant to say that even if I had..."
"Liar!" And the man made no more pretense of fellowship. "Whether you have any or no we shall discover soon enough--aye, and whether you hold aught else that we might fancy!" All of the men started to close in on him at once. "You deserve nothing less for your selfishness and greed." The man drew his sword with a shrill of metal on metal...
Billie-Lass reared in panic at the sound, nearly unseating Frodo. Then, eyes rolling, the pony hurtled between the legs of two much taller horses, biting and kicking to make room; the injured steeds reared in turn and gave their masters too much grief to stop Billie-Lass from streaking right past into the woods, careening around trunks and diving under boughs that would stop a full-sized horse, while Frodo clung to her neck and hissed "Good girl! You show 'em!" He heard arrows thunk into trunks behind them as the mare raced headlong towards a cliff in blind terror...
"No, Billie! Noooo!" But before he could jerk the reins away she leaped--and Frodo stopped breathing. But soon she stumbled nearly to her knees at the foot of what turned out to be a really high bank, scrambled up again and galloped on, his bedroll flying off behind her as he gasped the icy air.
Now they cut past a wide bend in the road, into bolt-holes in the woods that only a pony could shoot through, over logs that Frodo never dreamed that she could leap, while the men strove to master their mounts so they could race around and make up the difference. Frodo had no idea that his frantic little mare could scurry across so steep a pitch, but when she hit the trail again she went all out and sped like a chased cat down the twists and turns, hooves skittering on the ice, foam flying from the bit, hoofbeats and heartbeats pounding. Frodo gripped the reins till they hurt his hands to try and steer her stampede the best he could as road/trees/vertiginous drops all spun before his eyes and the snow stung with velocity. An arrow hit with bruising force below his shoulderblade, but it snapped upon the mithril and he held on tight. "Good girl--you can do it! Keep your feet, lass, keep your feet!"
But she whinnied like a scream and jolted beneath him, and they tumbled to the ground; Frodo barely kicked free the stirrups and jumped aside in time to keep her fall from pinning his leg. He stumbled behind a pukel-man and watched the pony thrash in the middle of the road, blood spattering from an arrow in her hindquarter, neighing and neighing till Frodo thought he'd go mad with the piteous sound. Frantically he cast about his mind for anything he could do to ease her suffering, but all he could manage was to cower behind the stone and witness all as the sneering man rode up and plunged a sword into her neck.
Shock froze Frodo where he crouched; nothing had ever looked so red against the snow. "He didn't have to do that," the thought echoed in his head, again and again, while the man told his fellows to fan out and search the slopes for the halfling. "He could have healed her--he could have taken her prisoner and sold her." Then a fury welled up inside him--"They killed Billie-Lass!" His hand trembled when it fumbled for Sting's hilt, but when he pulled the blade from its sheathe he had never held it so steady in his life. He waited for one of the searching men to near, hoping to stab at least one by surprise before the others converged on him. "Let's see how many men it costs to take one hobbit down," he muttered to himself.
Something odd troubled him. What took them so long? Why didn't they head straight for the pukel-man to search for him--the obvious thing for him to hide behind?
Then he heard horns, horns rising up the slope, and the jingle of harnesses shrilling with the gallop of many hooves, as a booming voice cried, "Hold! Lay down your weapons and Gondor shall spare you! Persist and you shall die!"

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