Speak No Words
by Cara J. Loup

For how long he stood motionless, Frodo did not know. On the edge of a hard silence stirred the faintest crackling noise, and he strained to hear. A change had taken the woodlands, swift as a frost in the winter dusk, when all the dampness in the air is struck to grey sheets of ice. When the mist that slides out from the hedges by the wayside will freeze on stone and grass, trunk and bough.

But this – this – had struck more swiftly, had seized and numbed even the memory of the moments before.

Sounds echo strangely in such a hollow land under the trees. The faint crackle and hiss returned now, and Frodo's mind was bent hard towards it. His shoulders barely rose to his breath. It was only a puff of air though, tugging at dry twigs and burrowing into the dead leaves that covered the ground. It felt warm against his skin, surprisingly warm against the commanding silence that had locked every limb. No new call followed the last one.

"What do you think that was?" Pippin's question came from a place at his back, and his voice carried a tremor. "If it was a bird, it was one that I never heard in the Shire before."

"It was not bird or beast..."

Frodo did not turn. His eyes took a slow path outward – away from the direction of those cries, if they had come from any known direction at all – across roots fretted with lichen and drifts of leaves fallen in seasons long gone by. Time had leached their colour and left only a withered brown.

"It was a call, or a signal – there were words in that cry, though I could not catch them. But no hobbit has such a voice."

Yet even before the first splitting note sounded, high above their heads, he had leapt to his feet, snapped from thoughtless rest and strung towards sudden knowledge –

I must be more watchful, at all times.

The air no longer throbbed in his ears. Gone, too, was the rain's constant muttering; instead the breeze rustled with stealthy movement almost everywhere. Still he had no wish or will to move, and leave the shelter that these trees gave.

"Mr. Frodo?" Uncertainty dampened Sam's tone, but although he said no more, his meaning was as plain as if he'd asked aloud, Shouldn't we be going?

"Yes," Frodo answered, "yes, we ought to be on our way" – too aware how short-tempered his reply sounded. Yet before it was broken, the quiet had seemed to hold something out to him – unless it was his own curiosity rousing, turning towards the spring of that call and the breach that it tore into the drowsy patter of rain on the leaf-mould.

Flee them! Gildor had warned him. Speak no words to them.

Fear them.

But he did not need to be told. He would not need to speak either. No hobbit has such a voice.

Frodo breathed in slowly, and while the damp air swelled his chest he held himself completely still. This fear that he felt – if fear it was – reached and crawled out of him as if to peer over a brink of some sort. Like a spider's finest thread, it stretched... and he had no desire to move while it stirred.

If I stayed here, they would find me. Frodo glanced down at his hands that he'd tucked behind his belt, and for a moment they seemed like strange, lost things glimpsed from a distance.

A quick little shiver rode down his spine, but he was just as abruptly glad of it. His skin pricked with the fine scratches that pressing through bramble thickets had left on his hands, ankles and calves – each a small reminder of the pathless miles they had put behind themselves, wrapped in the peaceful, buzzing heat of mid-day. The going had been difficult then, but the country all about was filled with a thousand small noises, while the scents of bruised rose-hip and cowbane were drawn forth by the sun...

Frodo pulled his hands free and looked back at last. But the strong boles of oaks closed the view, and in the distance their shadows cast a web of cool umber and green across the sloping ground, as if to bar pursuit. In the branches just above their heads, a sharp tapping sounded as a nuthatch set its beak to the wood.

"Well, then–!" Pippin stamped his feet as he shouldered his pack again.

Frodo glanced from him to Sam, who had somehow readied himself without a sound and stood, his pack trussed up. A look of determination was in both their faces, yet a stillness lay below that Frodo could read with painful ease. How could they not think of the Riders? They wouldn't speak the thought though, as if an unflinching silence could take them back to the safety of the moments before.

And Frodo remembered, with harsh and sudden clarity, how they'd rested between an elm's generous roots. Though its crown was still full and held off the drizzle, spots of pale gold showed amidst the green, as if some leaves answered to the first autumn chills more eagerly than the others. Pippin had chuckled and hummed and Sam's voice had joined his within a breath, to send a song floating up into the branches.

With a quick turn to the side, Frodo stooped for his own pack, but he could not evade the stab of grief. You wouldn't be here, if not for me.

His throat closed on the words he wouldn't voice. "Since we must walk into the open again," he said as lightly as he could manage, without meeting their eyes, "we had best do so in daylight. I think the forest will soon come to an end – let us see where we are."

Soon indeed – and sooner now than he wished – the spaces between the trees broadened. They walked abreast, across sweeps of wild wood-grass tangling with fallen branches, while the ground dipped gently towards the low-lying flats of the Marish. A wedge of bright and airy country showed ahead, kept and withheld among a line of ash trees.

Frodo's steps slowed as they approached the end of the trees, slowed him down unerringly until he finally halted – as if called sharply to pause and consider his choices. Sam and Pippin stopped beside him, near the very fringe of the wood, where an untamed mass of spindle and blackthorn ran out into tall grasses. Frodo peered out from the forest-eaves. His chest burned as though he had run hard, and reluctance dragged at his breaths. He had to come out of hiding now...

Unless I – Frodo held his breath as the thought rushed through him, borne on blood and heat, ending in a tingle at his fingertips. He could feel it now, a faint pressure near his hip, where the Ring rested in his pocket. He could hide himself and walk unnoticed, he merely had to will it so.

"Those must be fields for the winter crop–" Sam said into the quiet, pointing eastward, "–less than two miles off, if I don't miss my guess."

"There are quite a few farms in the Marish," Pippin answered, "you'll be surprised. We haven't reached the wilds just yet!"

"I wasn't thinking as we had, Mr. Pippin," Sam replied in an easy tone, as though he had merely been set right about the distance to the nearest inn.

Without a cause he could have named, Frodo suddenly wanted to tell him – to warn him – that other unknown things pressed in on these long-known bounds, and the brightness before them could slip like a passing gleam on the Water's edge.

Foolishness, he told himself. We are still in the Shire. He swallowed as if to retrieve a taste, sweetly familiar like that of a walnut's core, but his mouth stayed dry. Beside him, Sam was scanning the country with thoughtful eyes, perhaps searching out every scrap of cover that it promised. Out here, at the untilled western end, nettles and thistles had grown wild amid the grasses and stood nearly as high as their heads, while at the heart of the Marish ancient hedges lined many paths that ran along the fields.

"We must go on," Frodo said, a rasp in his voice that still seemed to strain at the silence. "But we have come too far south..."

"Just as I suspected." Pippin shrugged lightly. "At least Buck Hill is within sight – do you see, Sam, the broad hump just peeping out behind the line of trees by the river? The ferry landing lies straight across."

And once they reached the causeway, they would be clearly visible to all eyes that might watch this route of escape, three small figures cast black as lead by the late afternoon light.

"How far do you reckon it is, Mr. Frodo?" Sam asked in a lowered voice. "A walk of two hours perhaps?"

"Or more, since we cannot cross these fields in a straight line." Frodo shifted his pack and pushed his weight into the first step.

They went one after the other in a watchful line, pressing through the clustering thistles until they struck a narrow footpath, half lost among tall weeds that had shot up in the last spurt of summer. Stands of giant hogweed spread their starry leaves in wide fans, and they seemed to be wandering through another forest that whispered with small noises. Somewhere not too far off, water gurgled against soft clay.

While Pippin took the lead, Frodo kept his eyes on the path that struck through the undergrowth in a muddy track. At the back of his neck rose damp warmth like a pressing hand, and between his shoulder blades, underneath his packet and shirt, sweat gathered to a slow runnel. Every time that he set down his foot, the sodden ground seemed to cling as if to urge him toward something he'd forgotten.

After a while, the path widened, and the thistles with their rugged flower-heads gave way to dogwood and hedge mustard. Daylight silvered the ground with faint dapples and flashed on small puddles of rainwater.

Frodo stopped to wipe his neck, but that very moment caught him with desire – the sudden need to look back – as sharp and taut as fear. Almost before he knew it, he turned round.

Miles behind them, the ridge they had left this morning stood empty. For long moments, Frodo looked on without blinking – as if that could reveal the shapes of horse and rider, carved from unyielding shadow against time – but there was nothing.

Impossible now, even to imagine that one of them had reached that place.

Impossible to imagine them, who could not be known.

Their piercing cries were cast to the air as if distance mattered not at all. These calls flew across wood, hill and river as though everything had been flattened to blackness.

Strong as relief, a shudder gripped Frodo. There had been yearning in their cries, and it spilled from their voices like blood, unstoppable. Like an echo welling inside himself. Keep it secret.

A distant wind moved the clouds, and sunlight fell into his eyes out of the west, sunlight as rich and loose as the last sparks of the elven drink still flowing in his veins.

When solid forms steadied again, the sun dashed scattered rays across the height, and for a blink it seemed as if all the trees were bare, their laced boughs spread out in a weir before the sky.

"Fare thee well," murmured a voice out of the gently stirring airs, almost below hearing. Sam's voice, Frodo realized with a start – and although the words weren't meant for him, Sam's tone touched him with familiar, unexpected comfort.

Frodo glanced across, and as soon as Sam noticed his attention, a blush crept into his cheeks. His smile, though, was slow to fade and retreated only to the corners of his eyes, tracing memories as wide as wonder. Frodo guessed at once where his mind had leapt – his heart, he thought, for that was high and bright in Sam's gaze, even when he turned it aside.

We will see them again, Frodo almost said. The notion rose and faltered like a crest of leaves rippling in a fleeting wind, but right then he felt strangely certain that Gildor's company, far away as they must be, had not abandoned this angle of land.

"You can stand there as long as you like, Frodo, but I'm going to scout ahead a bit," Pippin announced. He had moved several paces up the path and tucked his cloak back as if bracing for a run. "Someone has to make sure that we don't get lost again!"

"I doubt as we will, with that Buckland hill plain afore us." Sam shrugged agreeably, his low-voiced reply meant for Frodo's hearing rather than Pippin's. Pippin had not waited for an answer either and strode off with a confident spring in his step.

Frodo moved his toes against the wet clay. Almost up to his ankles, his feet were spattered with mud that prickled on the skin as it dried.

Beside him, Sam made a noise in his throat as if to prod a thought out of hiding. When Frodo looked at him, his chin rose, but he chose his words haltingly. "'Tis not our own Shire, he said... Gildor that is, sir." A half-formed look of astonishment washed over Sam's face. "And it makes leaving easier, somehow."

"Does it?" Frodo asked, just as softly. The question turned inside him almost like a knife's edge, from fear to loneliness, paring one from the other. He breathed in cautiously.

Speak no secrets! Gildor's voice rang out of his memories, like a whisper caught in a well, and it carried a hint of gentle mockery.

You do not know the danger, he might say to Sam.

Neither do you, sir, Sam would surely answer with courteous, unyielding honesty – and perhaps they would have this conversation in a day or a week or a month, miles outside the Shire bounds.

With a slight touch to Sam's arm, Frodo motioned him along, glad that Sam was used to his silences, to their place and measure, and content to wait them out.

The path they were following dipped towards a muddy spot where deep furrows showed that a heavy cart had laboured to pull free, not long ago. But from there the track climbed onto drier ground and twisted in a northward curve. A short distance ahead, several ducks rose in a flurry, flapping noisily from tall reeds. With their clamour travelled a hint of wind-blown laughter, although Pippin was out of sight for the moment.

Frodo listened to the trailing sounds that skimmed the edges of a far-flung quiet. It was true – what Gildor had said, what Sam remembered – that their own Shire reached wider and deeper than they could have known. Charred to shadow for those Riders, maybe, or unfolding under starlight that ran through the glade above Woodhall as sure and unrestrained as the water-veins coursing through the earth.

As they walked round the bend, the path rose once more, and a sudden jolt of air rushed to the bottom of Frodo's chest. Wind streamed the clouds to rags across a coarse blue sky. Close to the ground, the breeze swirled thistledown and small violet petals about.

Before them spread the fields and orchards of the Marish, a patchwork stitched together by unseen paths. Silver stubble dotted the fields where barley and rye had grown, and in the distance swerved a pair of kites, whose dark brown feathering gleamed briefly in the sun before they disappeared into the land's softly shaded folds.

Frodo stopped once more, taking the air with a raw kind of pleasure. "We are so small in this world," he said aloud. "But we're still – still in the Shire."

The ground felt warm and patient beneath his feet, and it sent a chuckle up his throat that very instant. Sam looked at him with obvious startlement.

"Don't mind me, Sam, I was only talking to myself."

"Oh, but I'm glad to mind, if you understand me," Sam returned, and a quick smile curled his mouth. "'Twas awful quiet in that wood." Despite the note of humour, his eyes were very dark – but not with fear, perhaps not even with concern. Perhaps all that he saw in them, Frodo thought suddenly, was deepened will. What he knew for certain was that Sam watched him with a purpose he could never have shown in Hobbiton.

"Have you been here often, Mr. Frodo?" Sam asked with a nod to the well-tended lands ahead of them.

"When I still lived in Buckland, we sometimes used the ferry to steal out of our guardians' sight," Frodo answered. "Since we were always warned against going near the Old Forest, a visit to the Marish was our best chance of discovering fresh excitements..." He paused to scratch the caked mud off his left foot with the heel of his right.

Memories seemed to hover near like the scents that rise with dusk, thready as the stirring of the first crickets at the promise of nightfall.

"Taking the ferry seems near enough of an excitement," Sam said doubtfully.

"Oh, but it was worth it!"

"What was?" Pippin joined their conversation as he came strolling back along the path.

"Well – everything, I suppose." Frodo did not bother to explain and let the memories draw up like willow-leaves trundling one by one down the Water. He thought of the small treasures gathered on those long-ago forays across the Brandywine: mushrooms, eyestones, pigeon's eggs, or the tail-feather of a pheasant. All those finds of chance, sheltered in the haze while daybreak turned the rye-fields to floating gold sheets, and the purl of water in the ditches, hidden under tangled knotgrass, ran in every direction.

They cannot find us here. It was a wish more than a reasonable expectation, he knew – the kind that Gandalf would call foolish and dangerous. Still, Frodo felt inexplicably lightened, and for the moment the Riders seemed distant as a rumour. They could not know this.

"There is no-one about in the next few fields," Pippin reported, "unless you count ducks, rabbits – and wrens, silly creatures!"

"Silly is not what you call them when they're served for supper with currants and beans," Frodo pointed out.

"Supper!" Pippin sighed. "Did you have to mention it now, Frodo? Our supper is still miles away, and who knows what bog, ditch and difficulty lies between us and–"

"And the miles won't grow shorter for all your complaints," Frodo stopped him. "But I trust that Merry will have everything prepared, once we arrive in Crickhollow, including a hearty meal."

"By now he must wonder why in the world we're taking so long," Pippin retorted, his eyes shifting across to Sam. A brief glance passed between them, too quick for Frodo to guess what remained unspoken.

"Anyway," Pippin continued, "I have a fair idea where we are. There's a place where this lane forks, less than a furlong ahead, and we ought to take the left-hand path."

"Off we go then!" Frodo tightened the straps of his pack and strode on ahead of Pippin and Sam.

On their right sprawled an old hedge, torn and tattered by straying cattle. But Frodo pictured the startling blue of sloes, ripening in handfuls amid the blackthorn like stealthy glances into the sky. He could almost taste the throat-tightening flavour of sloe-and-apple jam.

It doesn't make leaving easier, not for me.
Speak no secrets

Yet again he felt like laughing – and if he had not held it in, surely he would have laughed until tears made their tracks down his face and the wind brushed them off.

* * *

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