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41
No Going Back

Written for the A_L_E_C prompt: Dead Things. And so many thanks to RiverOtter for the beta!


~~~

No Going Back


“Good,” the creature crooned to itself as it peered out of its hiding place, checking to see that it remained unseen. “Very good, precious. The White Face--it’s gone, gone now. It won’t see us, show us to enemies. Good. And the Yellow Face won’t come for a long time yet. Now, my precious, it’s time to look, yes, look. Find the thief! Find the Baggins, the filthy little thief--find it, and get the Precious back. Oh, we needs the Precious. Gollum! Gollum! It’s cold--oh, so cold! So cold without the Precious, it is. We needs the Precious, oh, yes, we does!” And continuing on in this vein, the creature resumed its path, picking its way down the rocky road from the mountains.

“He went this way--we knows he did! The tricksy one--he went thiss way. Had to--this is the only way that runs from the door, it is! Gollum! No, no other way to go, not the thieving Baggins! Had to go this way. Good thing the orcses aren’t so many. Yesss, very good thing, for they don’t always guard it, the back door--not like then, then when the thief took it and wouldn’t tell us what it had in its pocketses! Yes, good thing there aren’t so many orcses now, precious. We could get out, follow him--follow the Baggins. Maybe we’ll find him, wring his nassty little neck, get the Precious back! Oh, but we wants the Precious back--we needs it, doesn’t we, precious? Yesss, we needs it....”

It found a fox’s den as the sky began to grey, and stole two kits from it to fill its belly, then sought a shadowy place to den itself so as to hide from the Yellow Face it so dreaded. Clouds covered the sky as evening approached, and with no fear of being seen by the moon it traveled all through the night, pausing only for a time by a stream where it was able to catch three fish unawares. Downward and downward it traveled, ever heading for the valley of the great river, feeling a subtle excitement growing in its vitals as it came closer and closer, slipping through forests and darting through open fields and glades only in the darkest hours of the night.

How it found its way no one could perhaps say. Certainly there was little in the land surrounding the river that could possibly be the same as it had been nearly five hundred years ago when it had climbed up the foothills of the mountains and followed a stream to the wormhole through which it had crawled into the eternal darkness that lies beneath the roots of the pillars of the sky. When at last the wretched thing came out onto the flats of the Gladden Fields there was nothing to recognize save for a feeling of rightness to the place; perhaps it was the angle of the light from which it hid under the roots of a fallen tree or an elemental tang of peat in the air or a particular sound to the river itself that somehow told the creature that this place was nevertheless familiar, that it had once been thought of as home.

The last of the waning moon had followed the sun over the shoulder of the mountains that loomed to the west when it quitted the hollow left by the fallen giant at last. It found little enough about which to complain as it traveled, walking more upright than had become its wont since its Precious had come to it, back in the days when he’d been able to tolerate light; and for once it went without its interminable drone of comment to itself. When the valley opened westward it turned that way automatically, again doing so because it was the right distance from the other place. At the proper distance from the turn, the sound of the river properly muffled by the ridges, it found itself searching the wall of earth and stone along which it traveled, at last finding a hidden opening behind a mat of vines, again with a feeling of rightness to it.

It broke its own silence, whispering to itself, “Here--yesss, yes, here it is. Is it waiting--waiting for me?” With a growing excitement it pushed its way determinedly past the clinging stems, not caring for the moment if broken vines, torn leaves, and scattered blossoms might betray this hidden place and his current presence within it.

What had he thought to find within? The laughter of his long-dead kin? The welcome of his grandmother’s voice responding to his belated homecoming with a chiding for tardiness but assurance he might yet find something to fill his belly lying wrapped on shelves in the second larder? The call of Déagol to come show him what he’d found that day? The thought of peering through cracks in the doorways into the lasses’ chambers as they prepared to bathe, or being able to listen unseen to the quiet confidences shared by his aunts and uncles? Ah, but it found none of such things, for all was dark--dark and dank and filled with the scent of rotting wood and stone. No tables stood in the expanse of the chamber into which he emerged; no chairs or padded benches. Where there had been screened windows there was now fallen earth. Where there had been several passages only one remained. He was loth to follow it, he realized, for that was the way to the rooms in which the most precious of his clan’s possessions lay, and where they had laid--the bones.

He had been with one of his uncles the day they’d found the bones, cutting peat for the fires in the spongy lands about the edge of the lake that lay south of their hole. There had at one time been a great tree there, back when the river had run this side of the flats, or so his uncle, who had been learned in the lore of the river, had told him. The tree had grown right on the banks of the river itself, and the rushing water had eaten away at the soil that had surrounded the roots of the thing. The stark trunk of the tree, encased in mud a good length above the roots, had stood there still in the days of his childhood until his uncles had cut it down for firewood, not that its remains had made good fires. But there was little in the way of harvestable wood in the lands surrounding their hole by Sméagol’s time, not unless one was willing to travel two to three days’ journey north or south. So their clan relied mostly on what fallen trees the river brought them and the peat, waiting patiently for the day the saplings they’d planted themselves were tall enough to supply them with what they needed. Wildfires had taken the trees that had once sheltered their home lands--wildfires followed by boring beetles that had killed those of the great trees of this land that had survived the flames.

And after they’d cut what peat they needed, his uncle had shown him how to dig down to the ancient root structure to prove to him that indeed a tree had once grown here--until as they were clearing away the dirt from one side of a moldering root the spade had brought up not a stone as they’d expected, but a skull!

It had been a huge skull, far, far larger than those of his own people; and his uncle, excited, had kept digging and kept Sméagol at it far longer than the young one had wished to do so. Others had come to see what it was that kept them away, and his uncle had insisted they help him, too. The body of the giant must have fetched up against the tree roots, then been encased in mud during the very flood that had drowned the tree and changed the course of the river, as happened from time to time.

How had the giant come to be in the water? he had asked.

Who was to say for certain? his uncle had responded.

It had been Sméagol himself who’d found the hand, one fingerbone still circled by a great ring figured with a sparkling star and a crescent moon circled by seven more stars, a ring that had remained intact when the rest was reduced to greyed and yellowed sticks of ancient bones. He’d wished to keep the ring, but his uncle had said no, it should lie with the rest of the giant, for who knew what evil might cling to the belongings of one who’d died so?

They’d found the point of a great arrow lying in the midst of the collapsed chest, and an older cousin had found a golden chain hung with an empty locket between the arrow point and where the skull had come away. A sword they’d found, too, in the moldering ruins of its sheath, as well as a long knife, its blade notched and the tip of it missing.

In the end they’d brought it all home to his grandmother’s hole, and she’d examined the ruins of the giant, which they’d laid out on a great table in one of the rooms that lay toward the river, one used no longer as it tended to grow damp during the spring thaws. Carefully she and his uncle had laid the bones each in its place, both ruing where a spade had broken the length of one of them. Sméagol had watched, had watched and helped as he was allowed, fascinated to see how it was that death had managed to reduce what had been a huge great figure to this--mere bones and a few oddments, scraps of fabric and rather more leather, including an odd leather bag that had been found near the hip-bone; the remains of a belt and the sword and sheath and knife, the ring, and nothing more.

In the end, once each fragment of bone was laid in its place so they could see how great a one this had been, he’d proven at least three times the height of their own folk, or so his uncle had insisted. His grandmother, feeling some honor should be given to this one who had apparently died in the river long, long ago, had anointed each and every bone with oil; had arrayed the necklace as it should have been in life, the locket centered on the ruined chest over the arrow point, which had been brought as well, the ring around the fingerbone. Then she’d carefully opened the bag to see what it contained, and all had been awed to see its contents spilled out into her hand. It was a great white jewel of remarkable clarity set in a silvery housing, that attached to what appeared to be a great ribbon of carefully crafted silvery links that proved as supple as fabric. She’d appeared troubled by this, and had finally returned it to its bag. “This is something not meant for the likes of us,” she’d said. “There is power here--great power, but of a sort intended for the great ones who are honored by the stars, not for hole dwellers. It would be dangerous for our folk.

“It is best to let this one lie with honor, this one the river took so long ago. If we do not do so, his spirit might well walk amongst us and breathe illness into our children. But if we treat his remains with honor, it is likely he will grant us good fortune.”

So his grandmother, who was ever considered a wise one, had set the leather bag again by his hip and laid over all a length of cloth, and led her folk all out of the room, leaving the giant’s bones to lie in peace. She’d had the uncles bring in stones and wall in the doorway, making a tomb of the abandoned room. And in time all appeared to have forgotten the great figure--all save Sméagol, who spent hours wondering where the giant had come from, and how it was he’d died apparently of an arrow and ended within the river’s embrace.


He shivered as he peered down the hallway. No one lived here now--that was plain enough. Where had they gone, he wondered? What had become of them?

“There’s no one here, is there, precious?” he asked himself. “No--no one here--all gone--perhaps gone long, long ago.” He again found his attention drawn to the passageway, and at last, reluctantly, approached it. “Come, precious--gollum, gollum. Come and let us see--perhaps the stones have fallen, too--perhaps! Then we will see--oh, yes, we will see. That other ring, the one with the moon and stars--perhaps it is still there, waiting for us, perhaps!”

The wall appeared indeed to have been dismantled, but then the stones had been stacked again, rather haphazardly, partially blocking the entrance. It took time to shift enough of them to finally creep past them, back into the room--at which he stopped.

There were skulls there--small ones, skulls suitable to have come from his own people. They lay in a line across the floor, pale in the shards of light that fell on them from a partially dug-away ceiling. He took a breath that hissed between his clenched teeth. “These aren’t from the giant--oh, no, they’re not, are they, precious?” he said, shocked by this evidence of someone else’s violence. “No--not from the giant! Put here on purpose, they was--gollum! Gollum! But, why? Why leave them here, the heads?”

The table had been tipped over on its side, although it was barely recognizable. On the floor by it lay a pile of gritty matter that he recognized from the floor of the cavern where he’d lived for so long as having come from old bones fallen to dust--the bones of the giant warrior had long since lost their shape, save for the smallest of fragments. Nothing could be seen of the sword, knife, or ring--or that odd bag.

No--the sword was there, lying on the stone pavement of the floor, its blade stained and pitted, no longer bright. Almost he touched it, then pulled his hand away, repulsed. “No--no! They used it, they did, didn’t they, precious? They used it--on these! Gollum!” He backed out of the room and halfway down the passageway, finally turning and running out into the night. As the coming sun began to lighten the eastern sky he found a hiding place for the day and huddled there, shivering.

*******


Gandalf leaned over Gollum. He’d put the fear of fire into the miserable creature; it ought to actually give him a decent answer this time. “The ring that the Baggins stole from you--where did you get it?”

“From the grandmother--lots of things--beautiful things--she had. Lots of beautiful things. Leave us alone!”

The bushy grey eyebrows rose. This was most unlikely. “Your grandmother had lots of beautiful things?”

But Gollum was looking away again, once again refusing to answer. “Not its business,” he muttered. “Not its grandmother!”

“And did you ever go back to your grandmother’s hole?”

Gollum glared up at the grey one who was questioning him. “Not its business!” he repeated, his voice more distinct and defiant. “Not its business if Sméagol went back there.” His voice suddenly dropped in timbre, and the wizard had to lean closer to hear. “Not its business if it’s empty now. Gollum! Gollum!” There was a strange hollowness to his tone, and the wizard realized it was honest grief. “All gone now,” he crooned softly, almost under his breath. “No one left any more, is there, precious? All gone.”

Gandalf leaned yet closer, compassion replacing the suspicion he’d felt earlier. He wished he dared touch the creature, but sensed that such a gesture would lose him what little trust or authority he’d been able to build. “All gone now? What is there now, then?”

But Gollum just shook his head, looking away. “Nothing there now,” he murmured. “Nothing there now--just dead things....”



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